“A Discerner of the Thoughts and Intents of the Heart”

Introduction: The completion of the wall in the midst of opposition within and without elevated the awareness of the people that God had been with them (2:18, 20; 4:9, 15, 20; 6:16). Their work manifested God’s faithfulness to his prophesied act in returning the people to the land. The exile from which they returned came on them after generations of unfaithfulness to their covenant relationship with the Lord, preferring the path of their own will and pleasure. Now they wanted to hear the word of the Lord to know how they had displeased him and what their path now should be. Their joy had been ephemeral and corrupt; they wanted a joy lasting and pure.

I. The initiative of the people – As one man, the people gathered together.

A. They showed unity of spirit, seemingly all desiring the same thing. Not only was the gathering as one man, but their purpose seemed united.

B. This was a specified day of “solemn rest,” in which they were to have a “memorial with a blast of trumpets, and holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24).

C  They selected a location where all could be present and where the greatest opportunity for common observation would be possible – “into the square before the Water Gate.”

D. Their purpose unitedly was to hear the word of God. THEY told Ezra the scribe to “bring the book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. Their awareness of the providential moment was so high that they knew that they would hear in the Word of God instruction relevant to their purpose.  When we, by the gracious intervention of God, sense that our lives have everything to do with eternity and that we are needy and sinful creatures immediately dependent on God’s grace, we will want nothing more than to hear the word of God and know what it requires of us and what it promises from God.

II. The book that occupied their attention

A. Specifically, Ezra brought the five books of Moses. The historical narrative of chapter 9 in which the people confess their sin and worship the Lord largely focuses on those books.

B. Other  books, such as Joshua, Judges, and some of the Psalms, also seem to be informing their confessions and covenant. (9:27f) Chapter 12 indicates their knowledge of 1 Chronicles and the Psalms.

C. Note that the emphasis is on understanding. “Both men and women, all who could understand what they heard” were gathered by their own will to hear the word. The truth has a mysterious power, by the Spirit of God (9:20), to instruct and motivate in the way of holiness. If we receive spiritual life, it will come by the word: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18). If we make progress in holiness and conformity to the will of God as seen in the perfection of Christ it will be by hearing the word. “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25).

III. The method of delivery – This third verse give an overview of the event.

A. As all the people were gathered in the square, Ezra spoke from a place prepared for this purpose, facing the square. None was so qualified as Ezra for this solemn task as he was “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given” (Ezra 7:6).

B. He was on a wooden platform in order to be elevated so that he could be seen in the reading and heard more easily. We may use of the means at hand to enhance the opportunity for hearing. As long as the focus is to hear the word of God more clearly, the use of technology is to be employed. For light shows, or mere loudness of instrumentation, we should more seriously consider whether we have warrant for such uses of the massive possibilities of technology in worship today.

C. This event covered approximately six hours, from the break of day to midday. This would involve much energy from Ezra and called for a great amount of sustained attention from the people.

D. Other teachers and readers were present with Ezra. Thirteen people were arranged in some order and proximity to Ezra and others were mixed among the multitude that gathered. The one probably shared the responsibility of reading when Ezra needed rest. The others either were responsible for keeping pace with the reading and exposition among the outer reaches of the crowd, or they would read and give exposition of what Ezra had just read during interims in Ezra’s reading. In what ever way they were employed during this great day, they were fulfilling what Malachi would later say, “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should see instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:7).

IV. Impact of the Word – When God sets forth his word in power according to his purpose, it is efficient to accomplish all that he intends.

A. An immediate response to the opening of the book.

1. As they had gathered, the people must have been seated on the ground until Ezra and the other men were able to get in place. When Ezra opened the book, everyone stood. The anticipation of what they were going to hear was so great that they had to be in a position of greatest intensity—no temptation to lounge or lean on the elbows.

2. Ezra, who loved the revealed and written word of God and lived within its pages felt overwhelmed at the opportunity and gave praise to God. It is quite possible that he quoted one of the Psalms. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of his wondrous works. Glory in his name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!” (105:1-3)  or “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart” (119:1, 2).

3. The people responded with equal exuberance at the great grace that was upon them in this moment. Echoing Ezra’s praise with Amens, they lifted their hands to heaven and turned their faces down toward the earth. With hands we receive blessings from above in recognition of our absolute dependence on him, and with our faces we look toward the earth in recognition that we are but dust and bring no comeliness, no moral beauty, no merit into his presence, but only a humble submission to him who is the giver of all good and the one worthy of all praise.

B. As the reading was taking place, or perhaps intermittently, Levites were scattered among the people, helping the people understand the Law.

1. They read from the book. They either repeated what Ezra had just read in light of the upcoming exposition or they were working simultaneously. I tend to see this as an expository reading of Scripture. They summarized what Ezra had read and then clarified any difficult areas and gave an exposition.

2. They broke it into parts for clarity as a good expositor breaks down a text into its leading ideas so that he can show the coherence of the ideas and the continuity of thought within its proper context. Another possible meaning of this word is that they translated it. We know that many were by now using Aramaic as their language of communication and they might have been slower in grasping Hebrew.

3. The goal was understanding—“So that the people understood the reading.” Paul’s instruction to Timothy and Titus is in this tradition of clear exposition for the purpose of understanding. “Do our best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. . . .But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:14, 15). “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. . . .Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2, 1, 15).

4. There is at least a four-fold interaction at work in any effective confrontation with the word of God.

A recognition that the Bible is a book of revelation in which God has moved toward us in grace. (See 1 Corinthians 2:12)

Gifted teachers (“and he has given some to be . . . pastors and teachers” Ephesians 4:11) take this word and work to make it clear both in content and application to conduct (“profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness”).

The Spirit illuminates – This was recognized by those involved in this event in a later portion of it – 9:20 “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them,” and 30, “Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets.”

The people respond with words and actions commensurate with the importance and the meaning of the Word. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).On this occasion, according to verse 12, “they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

C.  Knowing that a day of mourning, repentance, and renewal of covenant was coming (chapter 9), both Nehemiah and Ezra encouraged the people to take this opportunity for a manifestation of joy, love, and unity.

1. Ezra and Nehemiah saw the effect of the reading and the exposition and knew that the sense of humiliation and mourning was genuine. That would be harnessed later, but for the present, the recovery of the word of God was so momentous and powerful, that it was a time for joy.

2. They instructed them, therefore, to engage in joyful activity and to those that had prepared food for the day they gave instruction to share with others.

3. This was in a sense an eschatological occasion. They went past the tears and grieving of this present world into a recognition that to be in the presence of the Lord is pure unadulterated joy. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (11). Peter gives a glimpse of that same vision, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8).

V. Conclusion –“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:11-13).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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