Why did Nehemiah use the High Pulpit?

I’ve just been reading Nehemiah Eight, a chapter which records a historic moment in the story of Israel.  The exiles have completed the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, a mood of celebration sweeps through the people, and they gather as one to form a great concourse in a square near the heart of Jerusalem.  They have one clear intention: they want to hear the reading of the Book of the Law.  But the details that cluster round that central fact are fascinating.

Waiting to be asked

First, they enlist the services of Ezra, the qualified scribe.  He didn’t volunteer or put himself forward.  He waited to be asked, and this follows a pattern set by other great leaders of Israel.  Neither Moses nor Jeremiah nor Amos would ever have volunteered to be prophets.  If we wait for people to put themselves forward, there is no guarantee that it is the most gifted or the most suitable who will volunteer.  In all our churches, and at all levels, there are gifted people who would never come forward.  Whether it be an Ezra or a Sunday Schoolteacher, it is up to the leadership to identify them and make sure their gifts are fully deployed.  The lament that many are ‘not involved’ or ‘not committed’ often overlooks this basic feature of the Christian life.  They’ve not been asked.  Had Calvin not been ‘asked’ he would never have gone to Geneva.

Special platform

Secondly, the people made proper arrangements for the reading of the Law: they built a special platform for the purpose, with the result that when he spoke he was ‘in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people’.  It is an impressive scene: a huge concourse of people, every eye on the pulpit, and at its heart not some great wonder or portent, but a scroll; and not some brilliant communicator, but a reader.  What mattered was that the people should be able to see and hear.

Traditional Presbyterian churches have always been dominated by a high, central pulpit, above the people.  We now seem to be succumbing to the idea that such pulpits were only monuments to ministerial arrogance, pontificating ‘ten feet above contradiction’; and in the name of humility preachers are now preaching from ‘down below’.  But the humility is misplaced.  The old-style pulpit was a sign of the primacy of the word and of its central place in the life of the congregation.  The new arrangement suggests that this is no longer the case.  It even suggests a loss of confidence in preaching as the God-ordained means of planting and building-up churches.

The truth is, as the account in Nehemiah makes clear, that the reason for the high pulpit was simply a matter of common sense (‘Christian prudence’).  If people are to listen attentively they must be able to see as well as hear.  Body language is, after all, a key part of communication (the ‘speech-act’); and, besides, if people are hard of hearing it is important that they be able to see the face and read the lips.  This all presupposes, of course, that the Word matters and that hearing matters.

Giving the meaning

Thirdly, Nehemiah’s account stresses not only hearing, but understanding.  This was the whole purpose of the gathering.  They came because they wanted to understand, and at the end of the day they celebrated ‘with great joy, because they now understood the words that were declared to them.’ (verse 12)  This is why the event was not merely a reading of the Law, but was accompanied by explanation.  Ezra had the assistance of Levites who moved among the people, helping them to understand the law; or, as it’s put in verse 8, ‘they gave the meaning, so that the people understood the reading.’  They were, in effect, expositors.  Hearing was not enough.  There had to be understanding.

Great rejoicing

Finally, it was through this exposition of the word that the people were led into the ‘joy of the Lord’.  The first impression, Nehemiah recalls, was quite different: ‘all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.’  He instantly rebuked this: ‘do not mourn or weep’.  It was a holy day, and grief was not appropriate.  There is a fundamental principle here: holiness and gloom do not belong together.  Instead, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’  This is one of the master principles of the Christian life.  Without joy, we are weak and useless.  With joy, we are strong.  When the joy goes, everything goes.

Surely one of the church’s most urgent needs today is to recover this joy.  Without it there will be no evangelism, no mission and no church planting, no matter how much we speak of  missiology, organisation, training and planning.  Evangelism is an organic thing, arising out of the very nature of the Christian.  It is the spontaneous overflow of the joy of the Lord.  Without this joy, our witness is forced and slavish.  We do no more than go through the motions.

But how Nehemiah’s people attain this joy?  We’ve seen the answer already.  It was a joy produced by the word: they made ‘great rejoicing, because they understood the words that were declared to them’.

Could it be, then, that the reason the joy of the Lord is in such short supply is either that Christians are simply not hearing the word, or that though they hear it they’re not understanding it?  And is that because the modern successors of Ezra and the Levites no longer see it as their job to open up the scriptures; or, at least, not their main job?

What are ministers for?

All which set me to thinking about the crisis in the Presbyterian ministry.  At bottom, it is a crisis of identity.  What are we for?  Time was when the answer was clear enough.  Our task was to preach the word.  It was not our only responsibility.  We also had responsibility along with the elders (the rest of the pastoral team) for the oversight and care of the flock.

But preaching was our distinctive task: the one for which we were specially gifted, for which we had been specifically trained, and to which we had been specifically set apart: and which we could never perform properly unless, as Dr Johnson said, we gave it the full bent of our minds.

This means that the fundamental ‘natural’ gift of all ministers must be that they are ‘apt to teach’.  They must have basic communication and didactic skills.  But a minister’s teaching is never merely about educating.  It’s about spiritual edification.  What he delivers, therefore, is not lectures or talks or lessons, but homilies: expositions of the word of God specifically constructed to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation.  The ability to make this connection between the text and the spiritual needs of his hearers is the supreme ‘spiritual gift’ of the preacher.

It follows from this that insofar as the preacher’s sermons are faithful expositions of scripture directed to a specific congregation, they are themselves, as Luther and Calvin insisted, the ‘word of God’.  This is why preaching deserves a high platform built for the purpose: not because the preacher is God, but because his sermon is the word of God.  Every Lord’s day, we have to bring before the people a message which we can humbly preface with the words, ‘Hear the word of the Lord.’  And afterwards the congregation should be able to say, ‘That was the word of the Lord!’

Reformed academies

This is why from the days of John Calvin onwards Reformed ‘academies’ arose all over Europe (including the Scottish universities) with the primary aim of  educating men who would be modern Ezras, able to expound the scriptures and bring out their meaning.  This was also the concern that underlay Andrew Melville’s reformation of Scottish university education in the 16th century.  It was a reformation driven largely by the need for an educated ministry; and Melville saw that such an education could not be rushed.  Like preaching itself, the education and training need a full, undivided commitment.  Nor should the studies be confined to Divinity.  Indeed, Melville would have deemed it inconceivable that men could study Divinity properly unless they first of all had a grounding in Greek, Logic and Moral Philosophy (the same applied, incidentally, to lawyers); and it was equally inconceivable that men could preach the Old Testament without some basic knowledge of Hebrew.

Of course, this was an ideal, and sometimes that’s all it was.  But the gleam in the eyes of Calvin and Melville was that Reformed ministers should be well rounded ‘Renaissance men’, well versed in the Humanities as well as in Divinity.  That should still be our ideal.

Biblical languages

The emphasis on the biblical languages implied no disparagement of translations.  Indeed, the Reformed tradition has always (unlike Roman Catholicism) seen translation into the ‘vulgar tongue’ (everyday speech) as a pressing obligation.  The reason for this was simple.  The Bible belonged not only to the clergy but to the laity, who were commanded to study it for themselves.  To do that, they had to have the scriptures in their own everyday speech, just as the Jews of Jesus’ day had the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

But the ministers had to be different.  They had to have a working knowledge of the original languages, otherwise there would be no one to do the translation.  Nor would there be anyone to judge whether any particular translation was accurate or not (why, for example, do modern translations consistently avoid the word, ‘expiation’?)

Above all, without a working knowledge of the biblical languages there could be no thorough, probing exposition, which often hinges (as you can see repeatedly in the sermons of C H Spurgeon), on particular tenses of the verb, cases of the noun,  specific prepositions, or the presence or absence of the definite article.  Anyone preaching on John 1:1 or John 1:14 will instantly face such challenges (or riches): perhaps that’s why such texts are so seldom preached on.

This doesn’t mean that a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew (or even a formal training in Divinity) is an essential, divinely-ordained prerequisite for ordination to the ministry, let alone for entry to heaven (even though Dr Arnold of Rugby did once say that the best preparation for death was a knowledge of Greek grammar.  But it’s always worth remembering that a mere knowledge of Greek doesn’t make us any better educated than Pilate’s maid).

The church should always be willing to ordain people whose age, experience and other gifts compensate for the lack of academic qualifications, and I would be more flexible in this respect than most.  But these should be exceptions.  The church cannot afford to lose contact with its own scriptures; and whether we like it or not these scriptures are written not in English (or even Gaelic), but in Hebrew and Greek.  These are the languages in which God chose to speak, and in no other do we have his ipsissima verba.

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend to devolve the detailed study of scripture to Home Bible Studies led by people who have nothing to work with but an English translation.  Is this just another symptom of a growing disregard for the ministry of the word?  The great Reformation principle of the Priesthood of All Believers has shrunk to, ‘What do ministers know more than others?’

Whatever else happens in a church, including such essential activities as mission and social concern, grows out of, and is fuelled by, this ministry of the word: which is why Paul’s parting advice to young Timothy was, ‘Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2).