Return to God’s Word

| Nehemiah 8:1-8

The Point:  God’s Word is the fuel for a consistent lifestyle.

Ezra Reads the Law:  Nehemiah 8:1-8.

[1]  And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. [2]  So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. [3]  And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. [4]  And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. [5]  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. [6]  And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. [7]  Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. [8]  They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.  [ESV]

“Nehemiah’s ambition was not simply to reconstruct the city’s defenses but to revitalize a spiritual community. He soon discovered that reforming a community is a more exacting task than restoring its walls. As soon as the building work came to an end, an unusual event took place which was to prove dramatically influential in the spiritual life of God’s people. A few days after the work on the walls was completed, there was a public holiday known as the Feast of Trumpets [Lev. 23:23-25]. So, only a few days after the completion of the rebuilding project, hundreds of men, women and children gathered in Jerusalem for a new year celebration in which God’s written Word played a central part. An outdoor public meeting was devoted entirely to hearing the reading and interpretation of Scripture. The distinctive characteristics of this meeting for biblical exposition are strikingly relevant in our current world. Western materialistic culture has become increasingly indifferent to the Bible. Even within the church the number of regular churchgoers who read the Bible on a daily basis is declining year by year. Committed Christians who neglect the privilege and discipline of daily Bible reading are severing their links with vital spiritual resources. God speaks uniquely to us through His Word, and if we close our ears to this daily conversation we cannot hope to develop into mature believers. Those who attended this Jerusalem Bible study meeting led by Ezra and Nehemiah have important things to say to us. They were wholehearted Bible students.

(1)  The people were single-minded.  Although these people were from different homes within Jerusalem’s walls and beyond, they were driven by a common desire to hear the Word of God uniquely recorded in Scripture. They assembled as one man in that large public square. However, diverse their individual likes and dislikes, this common desire to listen to the message of Scripture took precedence over everything else. In our own day, we may not explain every biblical verse in exactly the same way, but a common desire to honor, apply and obey God’s Word will draw us closer together rather than separate us sharply from one another. It is part of the devil’s strategy to magnify our differences and minimize those immense Spirit-inspired doctrines which honor God, exalt Christ, and enrich our witness. A passion to study these central themes of Scripture ought to draw God’s people closer to one another. An insatiable appetite for the faithful and relevant interpretation of Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people.

(2)  The people were enthusiastic.  The most remarkable feature about the demand for Scripture at this outdoor meeting was that it appears to have been initiated by the people rather than their leaders. They told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel [1]. They craved for God’s Word as hungry people long for food. This passionate quest for biblical truth is something more than mere human desire; it is a gift from God. Throughout biblical and Christian history, one of the characteristics of genuine revival has been the sovereign initiative of God in giving men and women a longing for spiritual things. It is not artificially promoted by religious leaders but initiated by God Himself. The people yearn for God’s truth and cannot have enough of it. As the psalmist said, it is sweeter than honey to their taste, a lamp for their feet, the joy of their hearts, and infinitely more valuable than gold; they long for it as a person short of oxygen gasps for breath [Psalm 119:103,105,111,127,131]. It was that kind of craving which drove this vast crowd of people into the square by Jerusalem’s Water Gate to hear the public reading of Scripture.

(3)  The people were attentive.  Once they came together, nothing was going to distract them from the immense blessing they could receive from God’s Word. Every eye was fixed on the wooden platform which had been specially constructed in the city square [4]. From there, Ezra and his colleagues were both visible and audible, and the eager listeners hung on every word: And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law [3]. This Jerusalem congregation clearly expected God to speak directly through the Word He had given to Moses centuries before. There was a vitality and urgency about their listening. Our daily reading of Scripture will only be of minimal worth if it becomes a mere habit, undertaken hurriedly, mechanically, or half-heartedly. If we are to derive help from it, this life-imparting exercise takes time. Throughout history, Christian devotional writers have frequently emphasized the importance of meditation as one means of quietly, patiently and sensitively imbibing the message of a Scripture passage. We need to allow time for it to penetrate the mind, stir the heart and direct the will. Similarly, merely listening to the public exposition of Scripture may not achieve what it might if we do not give our deepest attention to what we have heard. Christian preaching must be eagerly received and constantly applied.

(4)  The people were responsive.  From the beginning of their meeting, this eager congregation recognized that they were not listening to the words of Ezra but to the voice of God. What Moses had reverently and reliably written centuries before was God’s unique Word to them so, when Ezra opened the book [5], the people, convinced of its authority, rose to their feet. It was an outward expression of their immense reverence for the message of Scripture, a practice still maintained in synagogues and by some churches when the congregation rises for the reading of a biblical passage. Moreover, they made a vocal as well as a physical response. Ezra gave thanks to God for the book in his hand, and, as he blessed the Lord, the great God, the congregation lifting up their hands and answered, Amen, Amen [6] to the words of the preacher. They made their own affirmation of commitment and loyalty audible by saying, ‘Yes, may it be so’. Ezra could lead them in worship, but his words would remain as a solitary expression of his personal devotion unless the people identified themselves with what he was saying on their behalf. In this meeting, the people made no distinction between the exposition of Scripture and the offering of worship. Exposition and adoration belonged together, each flowing naturally into the other. At Ezra’s meeting, their reading from the book led directly to the opening of their hearts and mouths in praise and penitence. Lively, relevant, biblical exposition ought to promote genuine adoration, just as inspired singing can create a longing for more of the truth we have been exalting. Neither must be allowed to become an end in itself.

(5)  The people were submissive.  The Jerusalem worshippers not only rose to their feet but fell to their knees. They bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground [6]. Recognizing that by His Word the living God was present among them, they had no greater desire than to fall before Him humbly, gratefully and adoringly. Seeking His face meant covering their own. It was the kneeling posture of a suppliant in desperate need of help, an indebted beggar gratefully acknowledging an undeserved gift, a servant who waits obediently in the presence of a beloved master. The people honored the uniqueness of the Book; it was natural to stand, and then to kneel before the God who was communicating with them directly through His Word. We do not worship the Book, but we adore the God of the Book who addresses us uniquely through it. Calvin made the point that we “owe to the Scripture the same reverence as we owe to God since it has its only source in Him.” Moreover, we need to come to the Bible submissively, not solely because the Lord is its unique source but because He is its only effective interpreter. Those who recognize this book’s origin constantly acknowledge their dependence on the Holy Spirit who communicated it in the first place.

(6)  The people were teachable.  These people knew that the word of God given to Moses was not only applicable to the people to whom it was originally given. God’s Word is always contemporary and relevant. Every part of it has something appropriately meaningful for every generation. We may not always have the patience or discernment to identify that message, but that does not mean that it is not there. At this Jerusalem outdoor meeting the Levites were the appointed interpreters of God’s unique Word. They gathered the congregation into smaller groups, reading from the book clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading [8]. Their work may indicate either that they were linguistic translators, or that they were biblical interpreters. The Old Testament Scriptures were written in Hebrew and the Levites may have translated Scripture into the everyday language of Aramaic, certainly a later feature of synagogue worship. Doubtless, as the people gathered in smaller groups, the Levites also served as biblical interpreters, making the reading clear by explaining how the passage related to the issues of their own day. This aspect of the Levites’ ministry was done so effectively that, within a short time, people’s consciences were smitten and they could not help shedding tears. The relevant application of Scripture is of paramount importance. It is not a book which simply describes life in the world of antiquity; it is a message for today, vibrant with meaningful up-to-date applications in today’s society. Perhaps the application of Scripture is the hardest aspect of both personal Bible study and Christian preaching but, in both cases, personal reader and public preacher must struggle hard to bridge the gap between what we have read and what we must do”  [Brown, pp. 127-133]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Describe how Ezra and the other leaders handled the Book of the Law. What did the leaders do in addition to reading the book?

2.         How did the people respond to the reading of the book? Why did the people stand, lift their hands, and then bow down in worship to God when they heard God’s Word read and explained? Why don’t believers today respond in the same way to the reading and teaching of God’s Word?

3.         What six things does Brown say we can learn from these people? Attempt to put these into practice when you hear God’s Word read and taught.

References:

Nehemiah, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, F. Charles Fensham, Eerdmans.