Twenty years ago I took a course entitled “Oral Interpretation.” At the time, I did not know what “Oral Interpretation” was but, at the urging of a friend who was going to take the class, I signed up. Much to my delight, this class would prove to be invaluable to me in the future.
It was a two-semester class and the entire first semester would be devoted to the public reading of Scripture — a discipline to which too little attention is given these days. Unfortunately, the school where I took this helpful class no longer offers the course, nor do many other Bible colleges and seminaries. In fact, it is possible to graduate from any number of colleges and seminaries without a single course in speech or preaching, let alone “Oral Interpretation.”
I remember that the first few class sessions were devoted to impressing upon us the importance of properly reading the Scriptures in public. All of us believed that the Bible was God’s Word, but none of us spent much time in preparing to read God’s Word to the congregations we served.
We would spend hours in preparing sermons, even practicing them to the empty seats of a vacant classroom but give little attention to be Bible passage which would be read at the beginning of the message. We all know the importance of gaining audience attention at the very beginning of any oral presentation, but we often lose people at the outset when we read the Bible passage with little feeling or familiarity.
Since taking that course twenty years ago I have often noticed how various preachers read the Bible. Some good preachers who have good messages will stumble through the Scripture reading as if it is the first time they ever saw it. They will miss words in the written text and mispronounce others. They often read with little feeling and conviction.
Both the Old and New Testaments show the importance of the public reading of God’s Word. Joshua 8:34-35 says, “And afterward he read all the words of the Law…. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel.” And when Paul wrote to the young evangelist Timothy, he said, “Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). This latter passage seems to place the reading of Scripture on the same level as the preaching and teaching of Scripture!
To be sure, people then did not have beautifully-bound copies of the Bible to carry with them to church, but the very fact that people do follow along with us as we read is another reason to read the Bible effectively.
And even though some people regularly carry their Bibles to church, some of those same people never open their Bibles until the preacher announces his text. If this is the only time they ever hear or read God’s Word, should it not be read with feeling and familiarity?
Let me share with you a few simple rules which will enhance your ability to more effectively read Scripture in public.
There is no substitute for simply going over the Scripture reading several times out loud before it is read to the congregation. In fact, it would be preferable to do this before we actually begin working on the sermon as it will aid in preparation of the message to be delivered. Such repetition aids the preacher in being able to read in a clear and flowing manner, using the proper vocal inflection as necessary.
My late professor suggested that before we attempt to read a passage in public that we should read it out loud twenty-five times. This, of course, is very time consuming, but not without its benefits. One distinct advantage is that we become so familiar with the passage that we will actually begin to memorize it. If it is a shorter passage, it will be memorized.
Also, the familiarity that we have gained from going over a passage so many times will be invaluable in personal witnessing situations or future messages where we may call forth portions of that particular passage. To be able to quote passages from God’s Word shows our listeners that we have been with God and His Word.
When the preacher has to read every Bible passage, or leaf through his Bible (creating “dead air space”) searching for scriptures, it gives the impression that he is not well acquainted with God’s Word. Quoting the Bible gives power to preaching; reading the Bible over and over out loud aids in one’s ability to quote.
Observe Punctuation
If you are accustomed to reading from the King James Version, you might do better not to observe all of the punctuation markings, as some of them differ from modern usage. In most modern translations, however, the punctuation markings should be carefully observed. Just something as simple as a pause after a comma, period, or question mark can make a tremendous difference in how a passage is heard by the congregation.
With the proliferation of many newer translations it has become more and more difficult for the congregation to follow along in the Scripture reading. In the congregation I serve we have parallel pew Bibles which contain both the King James Version and the New International Version. For this reason, I try to confine my public reading of Scripture to either of these versions.
However, on any given Lord’s Day, there may be as many as five or ten different translations being used by members of the congregation. And while the utilization of many different translations should be extolled, such usage actually hinders Bible memorization.
Perhaps the preacher should select one translation as the primary one to be used in Scripture reading and stick with it. Over time, many members of the congregation will purchase a copy of that particular translation so they can better follow along with the preacher.
Read With Emotion
This does not mean that the reader of Scripture should try to change voices with every character or end up sounding artificial in his reading, but he should put some feeling into the reading of God’s Word. A good example of Bible reading with both feeling and dignity are cassette tapes of Alexander Scourby’s reading of the Bible which are available in most religious book stores.
The practice of reading a Bible passage over and over will actually help us get the feel of the passage. We will begin to transport ourselves into the setting of the passage itself. And only as we feel what the writer is saying can we interpret its meaning to our hearers.
One of the passages we had to memorize in the Oral Interpretation class was the Prodigal Son. Through vocal inflection we were able to portray the repentant attitude of the younger son who pleaded, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”
We could portray the joy of the father as he commanded his servants, “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat and be merry.” The anger of the elder son — “Lo, these many years I do serve thee” — could also be depicted through the voice.
Keeping these rules in mind will keep us from reading in a halting, monotonous fashion. It will make us feel better about our preaching — and our congregations will be more eager to hear God’s Word read.
If you have opportunity to take a class in “Oral Interpretation,” by all means do so. Most larger colleges and universities offer such courses in either their Speech or Theater departments. In fact, at our local state university they offer two such courses and the professor who teaches them uses Bible passages as part of the course material.
Whether or not we have had such a course is immaterial for the serious preacher of God’s Word because the inspired apostle has said, “Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture.”

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