Reading the Scriptures in Worship

The ministry of lector (Scripture reader) in worship is a very important one. The reader’s role is to enable the first hearing of the Word of God, upon which the preacher will build.

It matters, then, that the readings are heard as clearly as possible. This is best achieved with practice beforehand, and a good sense for what the text is actually about. Practice will help to annunciate well – especially difficult Semitic names and places – and read at a hearable speed (which is generally slower than you might think!).

Yet a text can be well-read, in terms of annunciation and speed, and still be read wrongly or even misleadingly. Once you have the turn of phrase and speed for reading about right, you then need to read it as if you wrote it. This is a matter of allowing the emphasis to fall on the right words.

Consider, for example, the opening verses of much-loved Psalm 121

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

If the emphasis falls on ‘hills’ in the first verse, then the implication is that this is the place where the Lord is to found: I look to the hills, where the Lord is to be found.

The ‘high places’, however, were locations for pagan worship. It is quite likely that the emphasis in verse 1 should fall on “my help”, echoed in the ‘My help’ and then “the Lord” of verse 2: others may look to the hills, but I look to the Lord.

The difference is enormous.

When we write and read our own texts, we naturally place the emphasis in reading on the points we are trying to make, because we know to whom we are writing, and why. A letter to the electricity company emphasizes that I’ve already paid the account. A love letter announces that I love you and you alone. Reading such things aloud comes naturally.

For the most part, the Scriptures are polemical writings, constantly drawing contrasts and bringing corrections to understandings of words and actions in the same way as our own writings do, only we didn’t write them. A clear reading of the Scriptures in worship requires understanding what it against which, and for which, the texts are arguing: help comes not from the pagan high places, but from the Lord.

There are many resources to assist in understanding the polemic of a biblical passage. Bible commentaries with critical-historical information are very useful. For Revised Common lectionary readings, good background on the texts can be found on the web pages of Bill Loader and Howard Wallace; links to these pages are usually circulated to MtE members in the Sunday before the readings are heard.

Another valuable resource – usually a bit more extensive in its comment than the Loader and Wallace pages, is the Texts for Preaching series. These are available in hard copy or electronic form and are well worth the expense (about $100 for the 3-volume set).

If the text for a Sunday doesn’t come from the set reading, then try to find a general commentary on that book, or simply ask the preacher where he or she thinks the emphasis falls!