Saturday, February 16, 2008

Should the congregation stand when Scripture is read?

During the public reading of Scripture, should the congregation stand?

Scripture gives no instruction on this matter. One will search the Word in vain for a command from the Lord regarding how the Bible is to be read. Scripture almost always focuses on the issue of the heart, rather than the form one uses. In other words, sitting or standing isn't nearly as important as the receptivity of one's heart to what is being read.

With that said, the Bible does offer us some evidence. While it doesn't proscribe a method for reading scripture, it does describe what some of God's people did in Bible times when reading the Word. Nehemiah chapters 8 and 9 give us our most direct evidence. Nehemiah 8:1-5a states:

"All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up." (NIV)

In this passage we notice first and foremost the condition of the people's heart. "They listened attentively" as Scripture was being read. We also see something of the form they used. Both the minister (in this case, Ezra) and the other religious leaders stood on a high platform when reading the Word. The people, seemingly in unison, stood when Ezra opened the scroll. This unprompted standing is best explained if we see this as the accepted custom when God's law was being read. Nehemiah 9:3 makes mention that they would stand for long periods of time, even up to 1/4 of the day. Obviously, they took the reading of the Word seriously. Of course, this was the assembly of the nation, so one could hardly expect them to have the ability to provide seating to such a huge crowd of people.

On the other hand, we also see the reader and crowd sitting during Scripture reading in Jeremiah 36:8-14. In that passage Baruch is summoned to read to group of political officials. Verses 14-15 state that they told Baruch to "bring the scroll from which you have read to the people and come." So Baruch son of Neriah went to them with the scroll in his hand. 15 They said to him, "Sit down, please, and read it to us."

In the end does it matter? As with most things in life, God judges the heart (by the way, that doesn't lower the standard, it raises the standard). Each congregation should determine the practice that best promotes a spirit of worship. Often this would include standing (I do wonder why we are so willing to stand for a contemporary worship song but get annoyed when asked to stand for Scripture reading...could that be revealing a heart issue?). Perhaps it would include sitting comfortably to help aid concentration. Either way, God doesn't really speak to this issue.

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6 comments:

  1. I am from a church where you have the option of whether or not you want to stand during music. I don't think there is anything wrong with standing during bible reading especially if you pastor asks, but it isn't the only way to hear and read scripture. Pastor Josh do you stand when you read at home? Would you be offended if someone didn't stand during reading. Or if someone else was doing the reading and didn't ask others to stand?

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  2. As my post indicated, there is scriptural support both for standing and sitting during the public reading of scripture. One must not be dogmatic either way, nor should one be offended if a church options for a preference different than one's own.

    Perhaps you misunderstood my post(?).

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  3. In the Jeremiah 36 passage after just a few verses we see the princes standing beside the king (Jer 36:21) However, just one verse later we see the king sitting. (Jer 36:22) Then we see the king cut up the scroll that was read and throw it into the fire. (Jer 36:23) So we cannot use Jeremiah 36 as a proof text for posture since sitting would seem to emulate the posture of an unrighteous, rebellious king and we see both postures in the same context.

    Second, we should understand that the scroll read by Ezra was the Torah stored next to the Ark of Covenants. In Judaism and Christianity it could be easily argued that Ezra was reading something considered more holy. I prefer not to take this argument as it is both week and confusing. But this is none-the-less an important fact to be considered.

    Third, consider the passage concerning standing in the presence of a gray haired man. (Lev 19:32) This passage both defends the standing in honor of the aged and perhaps excuses the aged from this custom. Already other Scriptures have excused the sick and injured from gathering in the first place.

    Even a surface study of long standing Jewish custom shows that in public services readings were always heard standing. While instruction was done from a seated posture. We can see Yeshua following this custom in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1) and also teaching in the synagogue. (Luke 4:20) It's an evident prevailing custom that our teachers today do not follow! (Matt 13:2, 15:29, Mark 9:35, Luke 5:3, 5:29, John 8:2)

    Perhaps the scroll of Jeremiah was not considered worthy of honor - certainly the king didn't honor it. Or perhaps the kings scribes first wished to be instructed in a private session wherefore the custom of standing was not invoked since the presentation was instructional rather than of proclaimative.

    It should also be noted that the idea of prolonged standing has only been objected to in the last two centuries. Jewish worship has always demanded long durations of standing in prayer - Yeshua even alludes to this. (Mark 11:25)

    Jewish sages note that when Rambam died honor for Torah was lost - meaning they no longer stood. The custom of standing in honor has largely been lost our society. But likewise has the consideration for the teacher in allowing him a chair. If we allowed teachers to sit perhaps we would have more gray haired men instructing as is evidently intended throughout Scripture.

    Our preference for dramatic sermons - based less on Scripture and more on fancy - further alludes to our lack of honor and respect for Scripture. While I cannot say that it was the death of Rambam that brought this about I must agree that we have grown self-occupied and complacent towards Scripture. If standing helps us to stop doodling and listen to Scripture so as to take it to heart and live it then it sounds like a good idea to me!

    ...Rods ;-)

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  4. No need for a long, drawn out comment. I believe in standing for the reading of God's word, no music, no sound when God's word goes forth.

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  5. So if a pastor reads 5 scriptures, the congregation should stand up all 5 times. Otherwise they are giving more respect to the first scripture more than the other four!! They are not giving reverence for Gods scriptures because they didn't stand for the other four.. So do the presence of God not show up or move in the church and/or the life of the believer because they didn't stand!!! Don't make sense. I truly believe that people have really allowed tradition to take over their

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  6. Josh, excellent presentation of whether to stand or not during the reading of God's Word in church.
    One of the aspects not highlighted enough in my humble opinion is the need for reverence of God and His Word. We stand when the National Anthem is played, but not when the King of kings Word is recited in church. I fully agree with you that we should not be legalistic about standing and certainly not with those in the congregation who have a hard time standing or are unable to do so, but it is worth reflecting on more I believe of our values and treasures, which should be derived from God and His word.
    Maurice Harting (mauriceharting@yahoo.ca)

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