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.
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(8) Gave the sense.—They expounded obscurer passages, and in doing so naturally translated into the vernacular Aramaic dialect.

Caused them to understand the reading.—This simply explains the former: they expounded as they read.

Nehemiah 8:8. So they read in the book of the law — To wit, Ezra and his companions, successively. And gave the sense — The meaning of the Hebrew words, which they expounded in the common language — And caused them to understand the reading — Or that which they read, namely, the Holy Scriptures; the action being put for the object, as hearing for the thing heard, and fearing for the thing feared. So they gave them both a translation of the Hebrew words, into the Chaldee or Syriac, and an exposition of the things contained in them, and of the duty incumbent upon the people by virtue thereof; to declare which things was a great part of the priest’s work, Malachi 2:7.

8:1-8 Sacrifices were to be offered only at the door of the temple; but praying and preaching were, and are, services of religion, as acceptably performed in one place as in another. Masters of families should bring their families with them to the public worship of God. Women and children have souls to save, and are therefore to acquaint themselves with the word of God, and to attend on the means of grace. Little ones, as they come to reason, must be trained up in religion. Ministers when they go to the pulpit, should take their Bibles with them; Ezra did so. Thence they must fetch their knowledge; according to that rule they must speak, and must show that they do so. Reading the Scriptures in religious assemblies is an ordinance of God, whereby he is honoured, and his church edified. Those who hear the word, should understand it, else it is to them but an empty sound of words. It is therefore required of teachers that they explain the word, and give the sense of it. Reading is good, and preaching is good, but expounding makes reading the better understood, and preaching the more convincing. It has pleased God in almost every age of the church to raise up, not only those who have preached the gospel, but also those who have given their views of Divine truth in writing; and though many who have attempted to explain Scripture, have darkened counsel by words without knowledge, yet the labours of others are of excellent use. All that we hear must, however, be brought to the test of Scripture. They heard readily, and minded every word. The word of God demands attention. If through carelessness we let much slip in hearing, there is danger that through forgetfulness we shall let all slip after hearing.Gave the sense - Either by rendering the Hebrew into the Aramaic dialect, or perhaps simply by explaining obscure words or passages.

Caused them to understand - Either "they (the people) understood what was read;" or, "they (the Levites) expounded as they read."

7, 8. caused the people to understand the law … gave the sense—Commentators are divided in opinion as to the import of this statement. Some think that Ezra read the law in pure Hebrew, while the Levites, who assisted him, translated it sentence by sentence into Chaldee, the vernacular dialect which the exiles spoke in Babylon. Others maintain that the duty of these Levites consisted in explaining to the people, many of whom had become very ignorant, what Ezra had read. They read, to wit, Ezra and his companions successively or severally.

Gave the sense; i.e. the meaning of the Hebrew words, which they expounded in the common language.

Caused them to understand the reading, i.e. that which they read, to wit, the Holy Scripture; the action being put for the object, as vision is oft put for the thing seen, and hearing for the thing heard, and fear for the thing feared. So they gave them both a translation of the Hebrew words into the Chaldee, and an exposition of the things contained in them, and of the duty incumbent upon the people by virtue of them, the declaration whereof was a great part of the priest’s work, Malachi 2:7.

So they read in the book,.... Ezra and those with him; he first began to read and expound, and when weary they relieved him, and did the same:

in the law of God distinctly; which was the book they read in, and which they read plainly and intelligibly, so as to be heard and understood; this seems to respect the clear and distinct pronunciation of the words of it, and not the explanation or meaning of it, which is after expressed; some think the sense is, that they first read it in Hebrew, and then translated it into Chaldee, that the people might better understand it, being just come out of Babylon, where they had been used to the Chaldee language; but though this was a practice in later times, it does not seem to have obtained so early, or that there was a necessity of it:

and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading; not hereby how to read it, but chiefly to understand what was read, that they might clearly know their duty to God and men: the Talmudists (q) give the meaning of the text thus; "by the law of God" they understand the Scripture; by the phrase "distinctly", the Targum or translation of it into Chaldee; by "the sense", the verses or the accents; and by "the reading", the distinction of the accents: some think from hence came the practice of reading the law in the synagogues every sabbath day, Acts 13:15.

(q) T. Bab. Nedarim, fol. 37. 2. & Megillah, fol. 3. 1. & Hieros. Megillah, fol. 74. 4.

So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
8. So they read] R.V. And they read. The account does not make it clear, whether the Levites were reading at the same time as Ezra, groups being gathered round the different readers, or whether, as we should rather infer, there was one reader who at the first was Ezra himself, and afterward chosen Levites who in succession took his place and relieved him.

distinctly] R.V. marg. ‘Or, with an interpretation’. On the word see note on Ezra 4:18. The rendering of the R.V. marg. is sometimes based on the erroneous supposition that the Jews had returned from Babylon speaking Chaldee or Aramaic, and that in consequence the Hebrew of ‘the Law’ had to be ‘interpreted’ in the sense of ‘translated.’ This would have been necessary in much later times. But in the time of Nehemiah, if we may judge from the writings of Nehemiah and Malachi, the people’s dialect had not yet undergone the change, which may have begun very soon afterwards. The common misapprehension of our verse arises from the erroneous impression that Chaldee was the language of the ‘Chaldeans’ spoken in Babylon and there acquired by the Jews. But in Babylon and Babylonia the spoken language was ‘Assyrian,’ another branch of the Semitic family. The ‘Chaldee’ of the Bible is the Aramaic or North Semitic dialect. See Introduction, and cf. note on Nehemiah 13:24.

The word in the original occurs in Numbers 15:34, ‘it had not been declared (i.e. made clear) what should be done unto him.’ The rendering ‘distinctly’ means with clearness and precision, for which careful study was required. Some understand ‘with an interpretation’ in the sense of ‘with exposition;’ while the possibility of this explanation may be admitted, it is open to the objection that it anticipates the substance of the clause which immediately follows.

distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand] R.V. distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood. Marg. as A.V. and caused, &c. The R.V. gives the right idea of the verse, which consists of two clauses, the one describing the clearness of the public reading, the other the parenthetic comment introduced for the sake of explaining the text.

‘gave the sense:’ a phrase occurring only here in the O.T. The clause ‘so that they understood’ is subordinate to, denoting the result of, the previous words ‘gave the sense.’

‘so that they understood the reading,’ so that they understood what was being read. The word for ‘the reading’ ‘hammiq’ra’ here used of the public reading, became in later times a technical Rabbinic word for ‘Scripture.’

The ancient versions treat the words as an independent clause, ‘And the people understood the reading,’ (LXX. καὶ συνῆκεν ὁ λαὸς ἐν τῇ ἀναγνώσει. Vulg. ‘et intellexerunt cum legeretur,’) which gives a good sense, but misses the interdependence of the two sentences. It is a mistake to suppose that the R.V. rendering of the two clauses is tautological. The Levites ‘gave the sense,’ not mechanically, but so that the people grasped its meaning.

Verse 8. - They read in the book in the law of God distinctly. That is, so that every word could be distinctly heard. Compare Ezra 4:18, where a cognate word is translated "plainly." And gave the sense. Translated the Hebrew words into the popular Aramaic or Chaldee. And caused them to understand the reading. Literal]y, "in the reading." In the course of the reading they caused the people to understand by explaining the meaning of each passage. Nehemiah 8:8"And they (the Levites) read in (out of) the book of the law of God, explained and gave the sense; and they (the assembled auditors) were attentive to the reading." The Rabbis understand מפרשׁ equals the Chaldee מפרשׁ, of a rendering of the law into the vulgar tongue, i.e., a paraphrase in the Chaldee language for those who were not acquainted with the ancient Hebrew. But this cannot be shown to be the meaning of פרשׁ, this word being used in the Targums for the Hebrew נקב (קבב), e.g., Leviticus 24:16, and for בּאר, Deuteronomy 1:5. It is more correct to suppose a paraphrastic exposition and application of the law (Pfeiffer, dubia vex. p. 480), but not "a distinct recitation according to appointed rules" (Gusset. and Bertheau). שׂום is infin. abs. instead of the temp. finit.: and gave the sense, made the law comprehensible to the hearers. במּקרא ויּבינוּ, not with older interpreters, Luther ("so that what was read was understood"), and de Wette, "and they (the Levites) made what was read comprehensible," which would be a mere tautology, but with the lxx, Vulgate, and others, "and they (the hearers) attended to the reading," or, "obtained an understanding of what was read" (בּ הבין, like Nehemiah 8:12, Daniel 9:23; Daniel 10:11). Vitringa (de syn. vet. p. 420) already gives the correct meaning: de doctoribus narratur, quod legerint et dederint intellectum, de autitoribus, quod lectum intellexerint. The manner of proceeding with this reading is not quite clear. According to Nehemiah 8:5-8, the Levites alone seem to have read to the people out of the book of the law, and to have explained what they read to their auditors; while according to Nehemiah 8:3, Ezra read to the assembled people, and the ears of all were attentive to the book of the law, while we are told in Nehemiah 8:5 that Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people. If, however, we regard Nehemiah 8:4-8 as only a more detailed description of what is related Nehemiah 8:2, Nehemiah 8:3, it is obvious that both Ezra and the thirteen Levites mentioned in Nehemiah 8:7 read out of the law. Hence the occurrence may well have taken place as follows: Ezra first read a section of the law, and the Levites then expounded to the people the portion just read; the only point still doubtful being whether the thirteen (fourteen) Levites expounded in succession, or whether they all did this at the same time to different groups of people.
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