The Expository Files

They Read in the Book…and Gave the Sense 

Nehemiah. 8:8

"So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading." (Neh.

The return to Jerusalem from 70 years of Babylonian captivity occurred in three stages: 1)- Zerubbabel returns to build the temple, 2)- after a gap of 57 years Ezra returns to reform the people and 3)- 12 years later Nehemiah returns to rebuild the walls of the city. It was immediately following the reconstruction of the city walls that events of Nehemiah chapter eight took place.

Nehemiah brought great energy and courage to the building of the walls. The success of this project led to a dramatic change in the attitude of the people of Judah. Their self-respect had been recovered by their victory over their enemies; their awareness of God's presence had been stirred. Gathering together to celebrate and praise God, Nehemiah put forward Ezra the scribe "to bring out the Book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel" (8:1). All the people gathered to hear Ezra read and interpret the words. (Note: The interpretation was necessary because by this time the language of the people was Aramaic not the classical Hebrew of the Old Testament documents. Ezra had to read in the original, translate, and explain.) (The Teacher's Commentary by Larry Richards, pp. 307-08.)

Matthew Henry suggests that the activities of Neh. 8:1-8 are "an account of a solemn religious assembly, and the good work that was done in that assembly, to the honor of God and the edification of the church." (Commentary on the Whole Bible, v. 2, p. 844.)

Hear what Henry has to say about verse eight.

What they read, they expounded, showed the intent and meaning of it, and what use was to be made of it; they gave the sense in other words, that they might cause the people to understand the reading. Note: 1)- It is requisite that those who hear the word should understand it, else it is to them but an empty sound of words, Mt. 24:15. 2)- It is therefore required of those that are teachers by office that they explain the word and give the sense of  it. Understandest thou what thou readest? and, Have you understood all these things? are good questions to be put to the hearers; but, How should we except someone guide us? is as proper a question for them to put to their teachers, Acts 8:30,31. Reading is good and preaching is good, but expounding brings the reading and the teaching together and thus makes the reading the more intelligible and the preaching more convincing. (Ibid, p. 845.)

Giving the sense is an awesome responsibility laid upon the shoulders of those that would teach and preach the word of God. The warning given by James in chapter three and verse one is a reminder that those of us that have chosen to teach are under a "stricter judgment."

With all of these thoughts in mind, coupled with Paul's admonition to young Timothy to "be diligent (study) to show yourself approved before God," how may a person read and study the Word so that they might convey their thoughts in a way that would "give the sense?" How can a person learn what the Bible teaches?

Check the Context

Real Estate agents say that there are only three important things to check out when looking for a piece of property: location, location and location! Something similar could be said as to the three most important aspects to successful Bible study: context, context, and context. If the passage you are reading is hard to understand, broaden you reading to the whole chapter. But, remember, the translators added the chapter divisions, so you may have to broaden your reading to include more than one chapter. You may have to read an entire book before you understand the meaning of any particular verse or passage. Here is where a topical Bible, Concordance, or chain reference Bible can come in handy. Use these tools to find similar or parallel
passages and compare and contrast their contexts.

Ask Questions

The Ethiopian Nobleman knew he needed help, so he asked Philip to explain the scriptures to him. We know that the first century church circulated the letters of Paul so that more people could be exposed to his knowledge. Today we can pose questions to one another in person, via email and written correspondence. Most preachers allow some forum for questions concerning their sermons, as do Bible class teachers.

Consult Reference Works and Workbooks

Sometimes an English or Bible dictionary can be of assistance (Note: concupiscence as used in Rom. 7:8) or perhaps a modern translation of the Bible (concupiscence = evil desire, NKJ). To help understand geography a Bible Atlas is very helpful. A Bible Encyclopedia is worthwhile for studying concepts, as is a topical Bible. To get the Jewish perspective on the first century world as it pertains to the Bible lands a study of the works of Josephus might be in order.

Some students have shown an inordinate fear of reference works, especially commentaries. The careful student can and should consult commentaries (by the way, this magazine is a commentary), but the key is to be wary. Commentaries are not God's word, they are someone attempting to "give the sense" of the Word. Using anyone else's Bible materials must be done with caution. This applies to brethren's writings as well as denominational commentators.

With that disclaimer, I must say that I gain much from listening to and reading the thoughts of others. Whether from a commentary, a Bible dictionary, a sermon outline, a magazine (such as The Expository Files), or from personal correspondence, Bible scholars (living and dead, brethren and denominationalists) have many insights that a single person would not be able to glean in their lifetime. An approach that I have found helpful when using a commentary is to first come to some understanding of the passage on my own, then consult a commentary (or the preacher). Treat the commentator as someone you are having a conversation with. The nice thing about disagreeing with the commentator is you can slam down his book and get back to the Bible at any moment. (Please do not try this with the preacher!) Getting out of a conversation with a live person will take more
courtesy, time, and tact.

Many of the same tactics must be used with a Bible workbook. Find out about the author, read the workbook thoroughly before presenting it to a class or student, and do not be afraid to abandon the workbook if it veers to far a field. It is important for the teacher to learn from the workbook, before presenting to the student. If the workbook is in harmony with the Bible, the teacher can absorb the points needed from the workbook and set it aside. No student I have ever known received much edification from being read to verbatim from a workbook, commentary, or even the teacher's own notes.

Use Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Colossians 3:16 sums this point up very nicely. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Doug Yopp has prepared a series of lessons that are worth your  attention ( In this series Doug has examined 54 well-known hymns and outlined a study for each one. If we are going to use hymns for their God-given purpose, then it is imperative that we know what the hymns we are singing mean and be able to convey that meaning to those that ask (e.g.: ebon pinion, Ebenezer, etc).

Familiarize Yourself with False Doctrines

The writings of Peter, Jude, John, and Paul, along with the words of Jesus have much to say about our attitudes towards false teachers and how to combat their apostasy. In your study it may be necessary to track down and study the works of a particular false teacher or publications that preach a false doctrine to be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you…(1 Pet. 3:15.)

It will be impossible to answer Calvinism without some understanding of "TULIP." It will be hard to answer Humanism without some familiarity with the Humanist Manifesto. For us to answer, "I do not know what the New Age Movement is but I'm against it!" is not teaching our neighbor who asks anything beyond the scope of our own ignorance. A more effective tactic would be to say, "let's examine the teaching together and hold it up beside God's measuring stick (the Bible) and see how it fares."


Each one of us has the responsibility to teach the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:2). We will need to read the word distinctly and give the sense so our students can understand what they hear. Many of our listeners today are in the same situation as the children of Israel in Nehemiah and Ezra's time; they hear the words, but do not get the sense of the meaning and therefore do not understand what they hear.

Paul asked his Roman readers these questions: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14) Might we presume to ask the following: and how shall they understand if the preacher or teacher doesn't give the sense?

One last admonition from the Apostle Paul to those that would be teachers and preachers of the word: "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee." (1 Tim. 4:16.)

By Carey Dillinger
From Expository Files 9.12; December 2002