Reading, Translating, and Explaining God’s Word

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Image of Ezra reading God's Word to God's people

In today’s Bible reading* we read about Ezra and the Levites reading, translating, and explaining God’s Word for the people.

“They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read.”
Nehemiah 8:8 (CSB)

It’s been seventy years since God’s people were exiled. Seventy years since God’s Word has been read for the people. In seventy years, many of those exiled have died.

Now, for the first time for most of the people, God’s Word is read to God’s people. Most of these people didn’t speak Hebrew and they needed God’s Word translated for them. With this being the first time the people have heard God’s Word, they needed to understand what it said. So Ezra and the Levites read God’s Word, translated it into the language of the people, and explained it to them so they could understand it.

Most of you reading this devotional have read the Bible for many years. For hundreds of years, we have had God’s Word translated into English by knowledgeable scholars who know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek very well. We are so blessed to have God’s Word available to us.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the early Sixteenth Century, William Tyndale translated sections of God’s Word into English. Before he could publish his completed Bible, Tyndale was executed for daring to translate God’s Word into the language of common people. Myles Coverdale, one of Tyndale’s associates took Tyndale’s translated sections and published them as a single volume in 1535. Tyndale’s translation was a primary influence in the Reformation in England.

Tyndale was deeply convinced that everyone be able to read God’s Word. He said his reason for translating the Bible was that he wanted a ploughboy to know God’s Word better than the clergy of his day. [1]

Tyndale’s translation became the basis for several English translations, including the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Matthew Bible, the Bishop’s Bible. Some have argued that ninety percent of Tyndale’s Bible is the basis of the King James translation, published in 1611.

The translators of the King James Version realized that English would change, just as it had since Tyndale translated God’s Word into English. They wrote in their preface to the reader, “Indeed without translation into the vulgar [common] tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) [John 4:11] without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, ‘Read this, I pray thee,’ he was fain to make this answer, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’ [Isa 29:11]

Toward the end of their Preface, they wrote, “But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar [common person].” You’ll notice that I had to update the word vulgar, because its meaning has changed since 1611.

Application

Ezra and the Levites knew that the people needed to know God’s Word in their own language, so they read it, translated it, and explained it to the people. That’s what preachers try to do in their sermons. At least those who believe the Bible is God’s Word.

God’s Word never changes.

However, the English language has changed a lot in the past five hundred years. And many good translations have tried to keep up with those changes. Many prefer the King James Version (revised several times since 1611) because of its “beauty” or because it’s the translation they’ve always known. Some complain that the modern translations don’t sound like the Bible. Of course they don’t! Modern plays don’t sound like William Shakespeare, either.

I’m convinced that it’s a question of how God speaks.

When God spoke to the Hebrew people, He spoke to them in their common language, Hebrew. When He spoke to His people in the Exile, He spoke to them in Aramaic. And after Alexander the Great conquered the land of Palestine, God spoke to His people in Koine (“common”) Greek. Note: Koine Greek was not ancient “Attic” Greek spoken by Socrates and Plato; no one spoke Attic Greek in the First Century. Koine was used by everyday people. It was the common language of common people.

If God spoke to people in their common language, should we not strive to have a translation that presents God’s Word in our common language also?

God’s Word needs to be translated into the common language of people. Otherwise, God’s people won’t be able to understand it. It’s unfortunate that many new Christians are given a four-hundred-year-old translation by well-meaning family members when they are saved (or graduate from high school). The result is God’s Word gets in the way of them hearing God’s Word. The result is that the new Christian doesn’t read the Bible because they can’t understand it. Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s people must be able to understand God’s Word.

This is why I use the Christian Standard Bible and the English Standard Version for most of my personal reading and ministry. The CSB was published in 2017 and the ESV was published in 2001. The ESV tends to be more “literal” and the CSB tends to be more readable. Both are excellent English translations and I highly recommend that everyone use one — or both! — of these excellent modern translations. In fact, I have begun to give away CSBs to new members of our church, and others who need a Bible in their common language.


Notes:
[1] Coggan, Donald (1968). The English Bible. Essex: Longmans, Green & Co, p. 18.

* Chapters covered in today’s reading:
Nehemiah 8
Nehemiah 9
Nehemiah 10


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