While much of the action within the book of Nehemiah has centered upon Nehemiah up to this point, we won't be seeing very much of him over the next few chapters. Despite Nehemiah's prominence thus far within the book that bears his name, another well-known Biblical character will emerge to become the focus of attention here in Nehemiah chapter eight. That person is Ezra.
The opening verses of Nehemiah chapter eight begin by saying...
"Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month" (Nehemiah 8:1-2).
One source provides us with the following background information regarding Ezra: "Ezra was a skilled scribe and teacher with extensive training in the Books of the Law... (Ezra) apparently did a lot of work on the Hebrew Bible of that time, modernizing the language, correcting irregularities in the text, and updating and standardizing expressions in certain passages." (1)
Another commentator provides us with some additional information regarding Ezra's role during this period...
"This is the first mention of Ezra in the book of Nehemiah. He had come to Jerusalem thirteen years previously, with about three thousand returning Jews (1754 males), holding a commission from Artaxerxes to appoint magistrates in Judæa. He had forced the Jews to separate from their heathen wives, and had then probably returned to Persia, as we find the Jews had relapsed into their former condition. As we do not meet with his name in Nehemiah till now, it is probable he followed Nehemiah to Judea to assist him in another movement of reform." (2)
Although Nehemiah will go on to assume a far less visible position over the next few chapters, we will continue to see how the beneficial effect of his effort to restore Jerusalem's wall will extend beyond his direct involvement. In a similar manner, these chapters serve to remind us that the positive impact associated with our work may go on to outlast our initial efforts as we seek to honor God with our lives.
For his part, Ezra will help facilitate a genuine spiritual resurgence among the people of Jerusalem and as we'll see, this spiritual revival began with a desire to hear the Word of God.
(1) "Ezra" Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, edited by Ronald F. Youngblood
(2) Lange, John Peter, Nehemiah 8:1-18 Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical http://biblehub.com/commentaries/lange/nehemiah/8.htm
"On the first day of the seventh month, the people came together in the open area in front of the Water Gate. Then they asked Ezra, who was a teacher of the Law of Moses, to read to them from this Law that the LORD had given his people. Ezra the priest came with the Law and stood before the crowd of men, women, and the children who were old enough to understand" (Nehemiah 8:1-2 CEV).
In the words of one commentator, Nehemiah chapter eight "...highlights the fact that after reconstruction there is a great need for reinstruction." (1) The responsibility for the spiritual reinstruction found here in Nehemiah chapter eight fell to a man named Ezra.
This passage refers to Ezra as both a scribe and a priest. A "scribe" was a person who studied the Scriptures and served as a copyist, editor, and teacher of the Old Testament law. The scribes were dedicated to carrying out these responsibilities with an absolute minimum of error and devised an intricate system for copying the various Old Testament manuscripts by hand.
For instance, a scribe might count the lines and individual letters within each section of copied text to help ensure that nothing was added or deleted. A later scribal tradition required the need to wash and utilize a new pen whenever it came time to copy the name of God into a new manuscript. The scribes were recognized for their diligence in attending to these duties and because of this, we can say that Ezra was someone who was dedicated to the integrity of God’s Word.
One source provides us with some additional information regarding the role and responsibility associated with a scribe of this period...
"Scribes would have been trained in reading of the
various languages in use at the time, in the production of texts (whether
copying, receiving dictation or composing), in the knowledge of traditional
literature (canonical and noncanonical), in the range of international
literature (particularly wisdom literature) and in the interpretation of
Scribes in Israel were, therefore, experts in the Law of Moses. One of their primary duties was to study the Scriptures. They became paramount in Jewish life in the postexilic period." (2)
In his capacity as a priest, Ezra was also someone who served as an
intermediary in representing the
people of Israel before God and God before the people as well.
So in light of these scribal and priestly responsibilities, we can say that Ezra was someone who was serious about God and His Word- and that’s why he was ready when the residents of that area approached him with a request to communicate the Scriptures.
(1) Steadman, Ray The Shining Light http://www.raystedman.org/old-testament/nehemiah/the-shining-light
(2) The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament Nehemiah 8:1-18 Copyright © 2000 by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas
"all the people gathered together at the square in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses that the LORD had given Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding" (Nehemiah 8:1-2 HCSB).
The opening verses of Nehemiah chapter eight tell us that "…all the people gathered together… and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses." So this passage marks an important change in focus from the physical reconstruction of Jerusalem's wall to the spiritual restoration of it's inhabitants- and when the people were ready to hear God’s Word, Ezra was ready as well.
So what does Ezra's example mean to 21st century readers of this passage? Well, this portion of Scripture reminds us that we never know when an opportunity to communicate Biblical truth may present itself- and a person who prayerfully and regularly reads the Scriptures is someone who will be ready to take advantage of such opportunities just as Ezra did here in Nehemiah chapter eight.
You see, the people recognized Ezra as someone who possessed the ability to communicate the truth of God's Word. In a similar manner, every Christian should also seek to be known as the kind of person that friends, family members, co-workers, and others can turn to for Biblical answers to spiritual questions. If we fail to take advantage of such opportunities through a lack of familiarity with the Scriptures, there is always a possibility that someone with a false alternative may do so.
A person who is knowledgeable in the Scriptures is someone who is best equipped to provide relevant, meaningful, and Biblically accurate responses to the challenges and difficulties of life. For instance, if it appears as if God is orchestrating the events and circumstances of someone's life to draw that person's attention to their need for Him, we can follow Ezra's good example by being ready to communicate God's Word to that person (see 2 Timothy 4:2).
To borrow some terminology from Nehemiah chapter eight, this would include "...men and women and all who were able to understand" (NIV). A person who is capable of understanding is someone who is ready to hear the Scriptures and the goal today is the same as it was in the days of Ezra- to listen, understand, remember, and apply God’s Word in our daily lives.
"all the people gathered together in the plaza which was in front of the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly which included men and women and all those able to understand what they heard. (This happened on the first day of the seventh month) (Nehemiah 8:1-2 NET).
Its interesting to note that this meeting occurred within the plaza or square that was located near Jerusalem's Water Gate. While we might normally expect such a gathering to take place within the temple, the fact that this assembly occurred within a public area is something that carries great significance.
First, we should note that the members of the general public initiated this request for access to the Scriptures: "...they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel" (ESV). Nehemiah had been instrumental in establishing the foundation for such a response and now those efforts were coming to fruition as evidenced by this public call for a reading of God's Word.
In response to this request, Ezra "...brought the Book of the Law before the assembly" (NLT). In doing so, Ezra fulfilled the role of a good spiritual leader as identified in Ephesians 4:11-12: "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ."
Next, the gate of an Old Testament city functioned as a public forum, a place where people could gather to talk and discuss the news of the day. While the gender-segregated culture of that time did not permit women to enter the Temple court area, a location near a city gate provided an opportunity for everyone -men, women, and "...children old enough to understand" (CJB)- to hear and receive from the Word of God.
Finally, the fact that this gathering took place in the vicinity of the Water Gate carries some spiritual significance as well. Since the Scriptures sometimes utilize water as a symbol of spiritual renewal (see Isaiah 41:17-20), this location was well-suited to serve as a place of spiritual revival. It also brings to mind Jesus' words from John 7:37-38: "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water."
"Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law" (Nehemiah 8:3).
Although we're told that Ezra read from the Scriptures "...from morning until midday", this may be somewhat misleading for modern-day readers of this passage.
You see, a closer look at the original language of this verse tells us that Ezra began reading the Scriptures at daybreak. (1) This means that Ezra actually began reading at the first light of dawn- and a great assembly came out to hear this message from God's Word. These listeners could have elected to stay in bed but they chose instead to sacrifice that time in order to hear the Word of God.
This passage provides us with an opportunity to examine another type of early morning assembly of God's people- the Sunday morning church service. Although the word "church" is sometimes used to describe the Christian community throughout the world, it's most often used in the New Testament to describe a local congregation that meets within a particular area.
When it comes to church attendance, its important to keep in mind that the concept of "church" was established by Jesus Himself. For example, Jesus used the term "my church" in Matthew 16:18, and Colossians 1:18 refers to Jesus as the head of the church. A little later in the Bible, the book of 1 Timothy refers to the church as "God's church" in chapter three, verse five (3:5) and even as "God's household" in chapter three, verse fifteen (3:15).
The church represents an assembly of Christians who are gathered together for worship (2) and this helps explain why most churches hold their main services between daybreak and midday on Sunday mornings. The idea is to honor God by setting aside the first part of the first day of the week to worship Him and learn from the Scriptures. This arrangement has been followed by God's people for centuries and is also hinted at in Biblical verses such as Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2.
So much like the assembly who gathered at dawn to hear the Word of God here in Nehemiah 8:3, it may be beneficial to adopt a similar attitude with regard to church attendance. Instead of viewing church attendance as an early morning inconvenience, we should see it for what it is- a way to demonstrate honor, respect, and appreciation for God by putting Him first on the first day of the week.
(1) or OT:216, "to become light, become lighted up (of daybreak), give light, cause light to shine." Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) ekklesia G1577 Thayer’s Greek Definitions
"So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam" (Nehemiah 8:4).
Since we were earlier told that Ezra began reading from the Word of God at daybreak and continued until midday, we can say that this represented approximately six hours of reading from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and/or Numbers. This serves to indicate the deep commitment of those who had gathered together to hear this reading from the Scriptures.
This passage also represents the first Biblical usage of a pulpit (ASV), stage (ERV), or stand (TLB) in the context of ministering God's Word. The purpose behind the use of this elevated platform here in Nehemiah 8:4 appears to be two-fold. First, this stage area enabled Ezra to be more easily heard and seen as he read the Scriptures. In other words, this platform served to facilitate the ministry of God's Word.
In a similar manner, the use of a pulpit or stage in a modern-day
worship service should serve a similar purpose. Ideally, the use of a podium, platform, or stage area should make it
easier for God's people to worship Him and learn from His Word.
This general principle can also be expanded to include other aspects of a modern day church assembly such as lighting, temperature, and/or sound. A primary question to ask in these areas is this: will this make it easier for a congregation to worship God and/or facilitate the ministry of His Word?
Next, this platform had to be substantial enough to support the thirteen other
individuals who were there with Ezra as he ministered the Word of God. These men
may have assisted Ezra
as he read from the Scriptures or they may have been local leaders with an
expressed desire to stand with Ezra in support of
the public proclamation of God's Word.
One source goes on to offer the following observation regarding these thirteen men...
"That these men were laymen is suggested by several factors. (1) They are not identified as priests or Levites as the men in Neh_8:7 are. (2) Their names do not appear in any of the lists of priests or Levites elsewhere in the book. (3) This was, as noted in Neh_8:1, a popular meeting rather than a religious one, and the leaders therefore were probably from among the people." (1)
(1) Ruben Ratzlaff and Paul T. Butler, Nehemiah 8:1-8, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther College Press Bible Study Textbook Series © 1979, College Press
"And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, 'Amen, Amen!' while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground" (Nehemiah 8:5-6)
The individually paged form of book that we are familiar with today did not enter into general use until the second century A.D. Because of this, the "book" referenced here in Nehemiah 8:5 would probably be more readily identified today as a "scroll."
A scroll represented a common form of written communication in the Old Testament era. Scrolls were created by first sewing or gluing sheets of paper-like material together. A manuscript was then created by writing upon those sheets with a sharp reed dipped into an ink-like substance, often consisting of water mixed with some powdered charcoal.
Once the manuscript had dried, these sheets were then rolled around a wooden stick. To access the scroll, a reader would simply unroll one end and roll the other end up as he or she went along. A lengthy literary work (such as sixty-six chapter book of Isaiah, for example) would produce a scroll with a length of approximately twenty feet (6.3m). Because of this, Ezra probably brought a number of these scrolls to the podium as he read the Word of God to this assembly.
This passage then goes on to tell us, "As (Ezra) opened the Book of the Law, all the people stood up" (ERV). In other words, the multitudes who had gathered together rose to their feet in an apparently spontaneous demonstration of respect for the Word of God. Ezra then followed with an expression of thanks (GW), praise (CEV), or blessing (NET) unto the Lord. In doing so, Ezra set a good example for modern-day readers of this passage by approaching God with an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation.
Those who had gathered together then responded with their support for Ezra's expression of praise by saying "Amen." While some might associate the use of this word with a term that signifies the completion of a prayer, the word "amen" actually means, "verily, truly,,, (or) 'so be it.'" (1)
So the people who had joined together for this reading from the Scriptures voiced their agreement with Ezra's expression of praise for the Lord with a heartfelt declaration of approval and agreement.
(1) amen H543 Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions
"Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people replied 'Amen! Amen!' as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground" (Nehemiah 8:6 NET).
In addition to demonstrating their support with the words, "Amen! Amen!" we're told that those who were in attendance during this reading of God's Word lifted their hands in response as "...Ezra gave praise to the Lord, the great God" (BBE). So what is the significance behind the act of lifting one's hands in this manner?
To answer that question, we can begin by observing that people often raise their hands for a number of different reasons. For instance, someone might raise his or her hand in a gesture of acknowledgment. In a similar manner, a person may also lift his or her hands in acknowledgment of God and recognition of what He has done on our behalf.
People may also raise their hands as an expression of peace. To illustrate this idea, we might consider a typical scene in an old "cops and robbers" movie. Such movies inevitably contain a scene where the police surround a gangster's hideout. Once the police are in position, an officer of the law will announce to those inside, "We’ve got you surrounded- come out with your hands up."
You see, the act of raising one's hands in this manner is universally recognized as a gesture of surrender. In doing so, the person who raises his or her hands demonstrates a desire to end hostilities and effectively says, "I surrender, I give up, I am no longer going to put up a fight." The person who raises his or hands to God in this manner communicates much the same thing in a spiritual sense.
Finally, people often raise their hands in a gesture of friendship, peace, acceptance, or camaraderie. This idea is easily seen and illustrated through the various forms of handshaking, an act where two or more people extend their hands to one another in an act of solidarity or goodwill. So the act of lifting one's hands to God today may signify peace and unity with Him through what Christ has done for us.
These concepts are effectively summarized within the New Testament epistle of 1 Timothy where we're told...
"In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy" (1 Timothy 2:8 NLT).
"Ezra praised the great LORD God, and the people shouted, 'Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed with their faces to the ground and worshiped the LORD" (Nehemiah 8:6 CEV).
The modern day word "worship" is derived from an Old English word, "worth-ship," a word that described the "condition of being worthy." (1) So in addition to its other definitions, the concept of "worship" also carries the idea of ascribing or attributing worth to someone or something.
When viewed in this context, the idea of "worship" isn't something that merely applies to religious people. You see, everyone possesses something that fulfills the "condition of being worthy" -and whatever occupies the highest position of worth in someone's life is that which serves as the ultimate object of his or her worship.
When someone chooses to dismiss the existence of a Creator God, he or she must exchange that Creator with something else as the object of highest worth in life. That "something" need not consist of a spiritual concept or belief. It might be a person, a thing, an idea, or even ourselves. In reality, we attribute the highest worth to anything we love, respect, or fear the most.
The Scriptures refer to this as "idolatry" and once something becomes more important than God in someone's life, that something (whatever it is) effectively becomes his or her idol. For instance, a person for whom money is the most important thing in life is just as idolatrous as the individual who worshiped the statue of a man-made "god" in the Old Testament era.
It's interesting to note that one definition of the word worship as used in the Scriptures is "to kiss the hand," much as one might do in the presence of royalty today. (2) A similar attitude of reverence and honor should also identify anyone who claims to worship God for "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24 NIV).
This also implies an obligation to live in a manner that demonstrates respect for God in our thoughts, words, and actions. So "worship" is more than just singing songs that honor God- it means honoring the one true God with the position of highest worth in every area of life. As we're told in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians...
"According to some people, there are a great many gods, both in heaven and on earth. But we know that there is only one God, the Father, who created all things and made us to be his own; and one Lord Jesus Christ, who made everything and gives us life" (1 Corinthians 8:5-6 TLB).
(1) "worship." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 26 May. 2015. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/worship>.
(2) proskuneo G4352 Thayer’s Greek Definitions
"Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading" (Nehemiah 8:7-8).
When viewed from a 21st century vantage point. we might say that the individuals mentioned here in Nehemiah 8:7-8 handled the "Frequently Asked Questions" that arose from Ezra's reading of the Scriptures. They did so by explaining (NET), translating (HCSB) or giving the sense (ESV) of what had been read.
The King James Version (KJV) of this passage tells us that these men, "read in the book in the law of God distinctly..." This implies that there may have been a slight language barrier between the Books of the Law and those who had gathered to hear them read. Since its likely that the Hebrew language had changed considerably since the original books of the Law had been written, these men helped others grasp the meaning of what had been authored many so centuries earlier.
When we're told that these men gave the "sense" of what had been read, the original language uses a word that means to discern, understand, consider, or "give heed to." (1) So these men were not simply discussing what was read but how that reading might be applied. In short, these leaders took on the responsibility of communicating the Scriptures in a way that others could understand, remember, and apply within their daily lives.
We can benefit from this passage by seeking to follow this good example today. For instance, a good church fellowship is one that also helps its members understand, remember, and apply God’s Word in daily life. Therefore, it would be wise to seek out a church with leaders who are committed to making a similar effort in helping others to understand the Scriptures and put them into practice.
Remember that humor can often be an excellent vehicle to communicate a message. A dynamic speaker can turn a seemingly dull and lifeless portion of literature into something interesting and engaging. A great orator can command the attention of an audience through the power of his or her voice. But if those skills are not being utilized to help a church congregation understand and apply God’s Word, then such speakers aren't "...making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (NIV).
(1) biyn H995 Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions
"The Levites--Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin,
Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and
people in the Law while the people were standing there.
They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read" (Nehemiah 8:7-8 NIV).
In considering the efforts of those who sought to help these listeners to understand the Scriptures within this passage, its important to make a clear distinction between those who seek to explain the Word of God and those who maintain that we cannot grasp the true meaning of the Scriptures without their assistance.
For instance, some organizations claim that others cannot understand the Scriptures without the use of certain study materials. Others profess to offer Scriptural enlightenment by way of a special revelation. A charismatic spiritual leader may seek to establish a following by claiming to serve as the personal conduit of Biblical truth.
With the aid of 21st century technology, a person or organization that seeks a position of spiritual leadership now has greater means to do so than ever before. Because of this, it is important to recognize the difference between those (like the leaders mentioned here in Nehemiah 8:8) who labor to serve as accurate Biblical expositors and those who claim to be the sole source of correct Biblical interpretation.
Its also important to be alert and aware of Scriptures such as these...
"...the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you" (John 14:26).
"...when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth..." (John 16:13).
"The anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you don’t need anyone to teach you. Instead, His anointing teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie; just as He has taught you, remain in Him" (1 John 2:27 HCSB).
While the role of a teacher is recognized within the Scriptures as a legitimate spiritual office (see Ephesians 4:11), there is a considerable difference between those who are called to teach God's Word and those who maintain that others cannot understand the Scriptures without the benefit of their teachings or study materials.
Since the Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for illuminating the truth of God's Word, no human teacher should ever seek to usurp that role or responsibility.
While Ezra read the Scriptures to those who had assembled to hear God's Word, a number of spiritual leaders fanned out among the crowd to answer any questions. Their effectiveness in communicating the meaning of what Ezra had read is demonstrated for us in Nehemiah 8:9...
"And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, 'This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.' For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law."
So the truth of the Scriptures began to provoke a deep emotional response within this audience: "...all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law" (HCSB). This was not a reaction provoked by a skilled orator, a gifted actor, or the prose of an accomplished novelist. This was the impact of the Word of God upon the innermost beings of those who received it.
The New Testament book of 2nd Timothy provides us with some additional insight into this response by detailing an important benefit associated with reading and/or listening to the Scriptures...
"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
In considering this passage, one commentator offers another important observation...
"The people, when they heard the words of God's Law, many of them for the first time, became brokenhearted when they realized they had transgressed His statutes and that their nation was in the condition it was in because of their rebellion and disobedience. They experienced deep personal conviction as well, realizing that their hearts and lives had been far from God." (1)
So unlike those who attempt to shield themselves against the message of the Scriptures, the assembly that gathered to hear Ezra communicate the Word of God were open to the penetrating Biblical truths they heard- and their response foreshadowed the words of Hebrews 4:12-13...
"For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Caldwell, Bob The Joy of Repentance Verse-by-Verse Study Notes http://www.calvarychapelboise.org/resources/study-materials/devotional/2015/02/07/joy-repentanceXIII
"Then he said to them, 'Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength'" (Nehemiah 8:10).
The people who gathered to hear Ezra read the Scriptures benefited from the efforts of those who worked to help them understand God's Word. In a similar manner, 21st century readers can also benefit from seeking out the underlying meaning of ancient Biblical texts such as the one found here in Nehemiah 8:10.
For instance, the encouragement to "eat the fat" in this passage may seem confusing (and certainly unappealing) to many modern-day readers at first glance. A person with some knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures might also recognize that the fat of a sacrificial animal was reserved as an offering to God (Exodus 29:13) and forbidden for the people of Israel to eat (Leviticus 3:17 and 7:25). So what is the meaning behind this message?
Well, a closer look at this verse indicates that these leaders used the term "fat" as a figure of speech to describe a well-prepared meal. (1) This expression served to represent the choicest piece of meat and was unrelated to anything that might be offered to God as a sacrifice (2) or the actual fat of an animal.
A similar reference can be found in the encouragement to "drink the sweet." In the words of one commentator, this referred to "any sweet drink, of the vine, or other fruit or honeyed juices, especially unfermented." (3) Taken together, these phrases reflect the encouragement to enjoy a good meal in recognition of the fact that this day was "holy to our Lord."
The phrase "holy to our Lord" communicates the idea of a day that was entirely separate or set apart from anything that might be common, routine, or ordinary. Various translations attempt to express this idea by rendering this word as special (CEV), consecrated (CJB), or sacred (NLT). Since that day had been dedicated to the ministry of God's Word, it was inappropriate to respond with an attitude of sadness or regret.
The time would come when it would be appropriate to express regret over the conditions that had been brought about by the people's failure to follow God's statutes. But this particular day was set aside for celebration since the Scriptures had now been made available to those who wished to have access to them.
(1) H4924 mashman Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions
(2) Dr. Bob Utley, Nehemiah 8 (8:10) www.freebiblecommentary.org Copyright © 2013 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/old_testament_studies/VOL08OT/VOL08BOT_08.html
(3) Bible Study Textbook Series Ezra, Nehemiah And Esther
Copyright 1979 College Press pg. 193-194 http://www.collegepress.com/cp/pdf/12%20Ezra,%20Nehemiah,%20Esther.pdf
"Nehemiah said, 'Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.' The Levites calmed all the people, saying, 'Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve'" (Nehemiah 8:10-11 NIV).
Just as an image creates a reflection in a mirror, this deeply emotional response reflects the fact that those who heard the Scriptures recognized that they had departed from the teachings of God's Word and the effect of that choice upon the nation.
This response brings to mind a passage found within the New Testament book of James...
"Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-- he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:23-25 NIV).
Like those who heard Ezra read the Scriptures, a person who hears the Word of God can be compared to someone who observes his or her image in a mirror. For instance, the reflection of a careless individual makes little impression on that person for he or she moves on and quickly forgets the image displayed there. However, a conscientious person will look into a mirror and act (if necessary) upon what is reflected within it.
The difference between an ordinary mirror and the Scriptures is that an ordinary mirror will capture and reflect our external reality while the Scriptures reflect our internal reality. Because of this, we can benefit from looking into the Word of God just as intently as we might look into a regular mirror.
Whenever we look into a mirror, we serve to confirm the reality of our appearance. The same can be said for the Word of God as well. As we read the Scriptures and prayerfully seek to apply them in our daily lives, we serve to confirm that we are reflecting the image of Christ (no matter how our circumstances may outwardly appear) or whether we are reflecting something else.
As we'll see, the people who had gathered together here in Nehemiah chapter eight
will also act upon another important principle from the book of James: "Do
not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says"
(James 1:22 NIV).
"Now on the second day the heads of the fathers' houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law" (Nehemiah 8:13).
"Leaders have a special need to understand and walk in God’s Word. Their ignorance or disobedience affects far more than themselves - it affects everyone they have and influence..." (1)
Following the assembly that took place on the previous day, a number of individual leaders gathered together to meet with Ezra for some additional study. This decision would have important ramifications for these family and spiritual leaders held a great degree of influence within the Jewish community of that time.
While the human capacity to influence others has already been discussed earlier within this study, it is a subject that bears repeating. You see, much like the individual leaders mentioned within this verse, almost everyone possesses a degree of influence with others. For example, our circle of influence may include classmates, co-workers, teammates, family members, or online acquaintances, just to name a few.
Virtually everyone has one or more relationships that afford a degree of
influence with others. This effectively means that everyone is a leader to some
extent for everyone serves to influence others in word and/or deed.
In every relationship, we are acting to influence others while others are acting to influence us. So even though some may feel uncomfortable with the idea of serving in a position of leadership, the reality is that everyone is a person of influence to a greater or lesser degree.
Because of this, we should never underestimate the potential impact of a God-honoring lifestyle. While it may not outwardly appear as if we are having much of an impact for God as we attend to the affairs of daily life, we may not be aware of what God might be doing behind the scenes with our example as we seek to make God-honoring choices in the everyday decisions of life.
One effective way to to serve as a positive role model in this regard is to follow the good example set by the leaders mentioned here in Nehemiah 8:13- they gathered together to study, consider, and give attention to the words of the Law. In other words, these leaders not only sought to obtain a better understanding of God's Word, they were also prepared to act upon what they found there as well.
(1) Guzik, Dave Nehemiah 8 - The Spirit of God, Working through the Word of
God, Brings Revival http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/1608.htm
"On the second day of the seventh month, the leaders of all the family groups came together with the priests and the Levites, so Ezra could teach them the Law" (Nehemiah 8:12 CEV).
Ezra's earlier reading from the Scriptures sparked a desire within the leadership of the Jerusalem community to gain a deeper understanding of God's Word. Their example serves to remind us of the importance of establishing the right priorities- and setting the right priorities in life begins with a good understanding of God and His Word.
You see, these leaders were willing to invest the time to study and learn from the Scriptures. In a similar manner, every Christian should also seek to be a person who knows enough about the Bible to effectively communicate it's message to others. A person who desires to serve as a positive spiritual influence doesn't necessarily need to be known as a teacher but he or she will be able to teach if they know what God's Word says and means.
As the Old Testament book of Proverbs reminds us, "...the Lord grants wisdom! His every word is a treasure of knowledge and understanding. He grants good sense to the godly—his saints. He is their shield, protecting them and guarding their pathway. He shows how to distinguish right from wrong, how to find the right decision every time" (Proverbs 2:6-9 TLB).
In this instance, here is what these leaders discovered in their examination of the Scriptures...
"And they found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, 'Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written'" (Nehemiah 8:14-15).
In considering this passage, one commentary provides us with the following observation: "The portion studied evidently included Lev 23:33-43, because the result was a proclamation to observe the Feast of Tabernacles beginning the fifteenth day of that seventh month." (1)
This should call our attention to the fact that a person who reads the Scriptures has an ongoing opportunity to discover new applications of Biblical truth or recover teachings that may have been overlooked or forgotten. We'll see what this assembly of leaders did with this information next.
(1) Asbury Bible Commentary, B. Ezra Reads the Law (8:1–18) https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Ezra-Reads-Law
"And they found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, "Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written" (Nehemiah 8:14-15).
It appears that Ezra and those who participated in this examination of the Scriptures came upon the following passage found in Leviticus 23:39-43...
‘Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when
you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord
for seven days; on the first day there shall be a sabbath-rest, and on the
eighth day a sabbath-rest.
And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year.
It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the
seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days.
All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’”
This festival (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles) commemorated Israel's journey through the Sinai wilderness prior to their arrival in the land that God had promised to provide for them. One source provides us with some additional information regarding this observance...
"During this time, the people were to live in booths
made of fresh branches of fruit and palm trees. The booths would be set up in
courts, streets, public squares, and housetops. No secular work was to be done
during this festival.
This feast was observed in memory of the their ancestors’ living in booths—that is, tents—after the Exodus (see Lev. 23:40). The booth was not a symbol of misery, but of protection, preservation, and shelter." (1)
So the Feast of Tabernacles provided an opportunity for families to join together in constructing and dwelling within booth-like temporary shelters. Even small children could participate in these activities and thus receive the benefit of an object lesson in God's faithfulness as He sustained the nation of Israel throughout their wilderness period.
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1997). The Nelson
Study Bible: New King James Version (Ne 8:14). Nashville: T. Nelson
"Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim.
So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness" (Nehemiah 8:16-17).
In addition to commemorating the period spent traveling throughout the wilderness of Sinai, the Feast of Tabernacles "...also looked forward to the Israelites' entrance into, and permanent residence in, the Promised Land. Consequently, it would have had special significance for the returned exiles who now again had entered into the Promised Land after being absent from it for years." (1)
We also should take note of the cause and effect that is identified for us within this passage: "The whole community that had returned from exile made booths and lived in them... And there was tremendous joy" (Nehemiah 8:16 HCSB). The decision to act upon the Word of God can be identified as the "cause" within this passage. The result (or effect) associated with that cause can be found in the joy experienced by the members of this community.
In this context, "joy" expresses the idea of gladness or pleasure. (2) While a feeling of happiness may often accompany joy, joy is not necessarily synonymous with the idea of happiness. You see, people are generally happy when good things happen and sad when bad things occur. But unlike the transient feeling of happiness that often accompanies a favorable situation or event, joy is not dependent upon external circumstances.
Joy flows from a lifestyle that honors God and acts upon His Word, just as we see demonstrated within these verses. As one prominent commentator from another generation once observed, "The better we understand God's word, the more comfort we find in it; the darkness of trouble arises from the darkness of ignorance." (3)
As Jesus Himself also went on to tell us...
"If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:10-11).
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". " http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/view.cgi?bk=ne&ch=8". 2012.
(2) H8057 simchah Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions
(3) Matthew Henry, Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible Nehemiah 8:9 http://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/nehemiah/8.htm
"Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner" (Nehemiah 8:17).
Although this verse tells us that this celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles "...was something that the people of Israel hadn’t done since the days of Joshua..." (CEB), it seems unlikely that this festival had not been celebrated at all since the days of Joshua.
You see, if this verse is understood to mean that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been observed from the time of Joshua up to the rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall, then it would indicate that every one of Israel's great spiritual leaders during that interim period (including such prominent individuals as King David, King Solomon, and the prophet Samuel) had neglected to obey an important portion of God's Word.
In addition, other Biblical verses such as
1 Kings 8:2 and Ezra 3:4 indicate that the people of Israel had indeed observed the Feast
of Tabernacles prior to the rebuilding of Jerusalem's wall.
Because of this, we can say that this passage should not be understood to mean that this festival had not been celebrated at all since the time of Joshua; it tells us that the Feast had not been celebrated with the same measure of enthusiasm since the people of Israel had first entered the land with Joshua so many centuries earlier.
One commentator goes on to provide us with a further explanation...
"The Nehemiah passage means there had been nothing like this celebration since Joshua’s day. It does not mean no one had ever celebrated this feast since Joshua’s day. Nehemiah’s celebration was unique in many ways. First, it was commemorated by “the whole congregation” (Neh. 8:17). Second, it was celebrated with “great gladness” (v. 17).
Third, it was celebrated with a Biblethon, that is, with continual Bible reading for one week. Fourth, they celebrated it exactly as Moses had commanded, with a restored priesthood and temple (8:18; cf. 12:1ff). Nothing like this had occurred since Joshua’s day." (1)
So this chapter began with the reading of God's Word and concludes with a decision to act upon what had been found written there- a pattern that we would do well to emulate. As one commentator observes, "The sequence in Neh_8:1-18 is striking: intellectual response to the Word (Neh_8:1-8), emotional response to the Word (Neh_8:9-12), and volitional response to the Word (Neh_8:13-18)." (2)
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties (p. 218). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books
(2) Nehemiah 8:10-18 The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the
Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty Based on the New International Version
by John F. Walvoord Roy B. Zuck Cook Communications Ministries