Reading the Bible in the Assembly

When the Psalms praise God’s laws, statutes, precepts and commands, they are also lifting up the importance of God’s s people assembling together around the word of God. It is in the assembly that the word was read, heard and interpreted. And while it’s a good thing that we can study the scriptures on our own, we should remember that God’s word was originally designed to be encountered in community and not treated as one’s private channel to the almighty.

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Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but who delight in the torah of the LORD and meditate on his torah day and night. (Psalms 1:1-2)

The longest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 119. It is composed of 176 verses, each one an acclamation of praise for God’s self-revelation (and neatly arranged in stanzas of 8 verses each beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet). The author variously refers to God’s law, words, precepts, decrees, statutes, commands, promises and so forth.

Similarly, Psalm 19:7-10 praises God’s law, statutes, decrees and ordinances.

The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.

How did the author of Psalm 1 encounter the torah so that he could meditate on it day and night? We 21st century Christians need to remember that when the psalmist commends meditation on the torah of God, he wasn’t talking about reading the Bible at home. Not until well after Mr. Gutenberg invented his printing press did individuals come to possess personal copies of God’s word.

When the written word came to have a significant role in the religious life of Israel (and later, the church), the people encountered that word as they heard it read in the assembly of God’s people. Someone would have the opportunity to read aloud, while the others would listen. This is the pattern we see in Luke 4:17-21.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. (Luke 4:16-17)

When Psalm 119:103 declares

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!

the author is most likely talking about his opportunity to read God’s word aloud in God’s gathered community. Except in the case of scribes who copied the sacred scrolls, the assembly was the only place that God’s people could hear or read God’s word.

The Christian church followed the pattern of the synagogue when it came to scripture reading. It was in the ekklesia (‘assembly’ but translated ‘church’) that Christians heard the scriptures (that is, the Old Testament) read aloud. In addition, they regularly listened to the writings that would come to comprise the New Testament. As they became a central element of corporate worship in the early church, the New Testament documents functioned like scripture. Over time, they came to be recognized as scripture.

When the Psalms praise God’s laws, statutes, precepts and commands, they are also lifting up the importance of God’s s people assembling together around the word of God. It is in the assembly that the word was read, heard and interpreted. And while it’s a good thing that we can study the scriptures on our own today, we should remember that God’s word was originally designed to be encountered in community and not treated as one’s private channel to the almighty.