“ And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood which they made for the purpose… And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…..So they (Ezra and other scribes) read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and caused them to understand the reading.”
The pulpit gets only one biblical reference in the King James’s version. Our modern translation (New Revised Standard Version) has none. Ezra stands on a wooden platform.
However, this text from the Old Testament tells us very explicitly that when the Israelites returned from exile to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, their religious leader, Ezra, read the Torah to them and interpreted it to the people from a pulpit.
In the early years of the Christian Church, the reading and the exposition of the word of God took place during worship in the houses and early churches. These tasks took place from the same position on a raised platform. As buildings enlarged, the platform had steps at each end, and was known by the Latin word Ambo.
In Jesus’s time, and today, in synagogues reading the Torah still takes place on a table followed by the exposition (sermon). The rabbi will be seated after the reading. Jesus would preach often sitting down – in the synagogue (Luke 4:20) or in a boat (Matthew 13.3).
So where does the imposing piece of church furniture, found in every modern church, come from?
The reading of the bible and preaching now take place separately in most churches. The pulpit, most simply, is there to enable the preacher to see the congregation, and for the congregation to see and hear the preacher.
In mediaeval times, it was not uncommon for pulpits to have canopies over them to amplify the words of the speaker.
In many traditions, the pulpit is situated on the left side of the church. The central view down the church is to the table where the sacraments are administered i.e. the altar. The congregation passes the pulpit on their journey to the culmination of their worship at the table.
Since the Reformation, however, the reading of bibles in native tongues hugely raised the significance of God’s word to the faithful. In Presbyterian traditions, therefore, it became the norm to site the pulpit in a raised position at the end of the church. The preaching of the Word became the central focus of services of worship. The pulpit was the dominant item of the furniture.
In Episcopalian, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the pulpit is associated with symbolic items pointing us to the importance and magnitude of preaching the gospel.
Firstly, in our own church and many others, there will be a figure of Christ – whether as King or crucified overseeing the pulpit – and, most importantly, the preacher. This focusses on the place where the Gospel is preached, a constant reminder of holy work that goes on there.
Secondly, in the Easter season, the paschal candle may be placed close to and below the altar with the obvious symbolism of the light of the risen Christ illuminating preaching.
In this article, there is no place to discuss the wonderfully fascinating and infinitely varied exercise of preaching. I end with a vivid image of the preacher entering the pulpit by Barbara Taylor Brown:
Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tightrope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins…..both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves …… If they reach the other side without falling, it is a skill but also it is grace – a benevolent God’s decision to let these daredevil mortals tread the high places where ordinary mortals have the good sense not to go.”