Reader: “They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses,”
Response: “which the Lord had given for Israel to obey.”
Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-10
In October, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given for Israel to obey.
So on October 8 Ezra the priest brought the Book of the Law before the assembly, which included the men and women and all the children old enough to understand. He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.
Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform that had been made for the occasion. To his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. To his left stood Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam. Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet. Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—then instructed the people in the Law while everyone remained in their places. They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
An epiphany could be described as the moment “The light just went on!” or “Wow, I’ve never seen this before” or “Now I get it!” In a way, that is what is happening to the Israelites in this setting. They had rebelled and drifted from the Law of Moses (the Pentateuch) and as a result, were crushed and hauled off into exile. Now, around 50,000 Israelites had just come back from their many years living in exile in Babylon. Their own Scriptures had been neglected; they were biblically illiterate! It is into this setting that we read today’s passage of Nehemiah. They had gathered to hear the long-neglected word of God.
You might be surprised to read that this event occurred in October, the 8th 445 BC to be exact! Really? Very exact ancient Persian calendars coincide exactly with the Hebrew lunar calendars to the place where we can actually know the exact date of this event! We also know that it was Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets, marking the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Why make a point of the exact date? Sometimes we might read these biblical accounts as ancient stories and not as actual history. Visualize this event. Put yourself standing among the people.
The area inside the Water Gate was a large square packed with people, men, women, and young children old enough to understand. It was somewhat unusual for women and children to be at such a gathering but their purpose for being there was unified, they had come to listen to God’s word. Hearing the Law of Moses was vitally important since it had been neglected for so long. Some people were hearing it for the very first time.
A high wooden platform had been built for this specific occasion. One reason was for the people to be able to both see and hear as Ezra read as well as to see the scroll. It was important that the thousands of people be able to see him. In addition, six men stood to one side and seven to the other, apparently leaders in the community. When the people saw Ezra, the priest, enter and unroll the scroll, everyone stood. This act could well be the reason many churches today have the congregation stand for the reading of Scripture out of respect for God’s word. These Israelites stood for five to six hours as Ezra read all morning. At the conclusion he praised the Lord and the people, raising their hands and shouted, “Amen!” Then they bowed with their faces to the ground in worship. Did you notice how physically active their worship was―standing, kneeling, raising hands, and responding in unison? These gestures were not passive worship!
Since the Law was in Hebrew and the people spoke Aramaic, the language of Babylon (!), a group of Levites translated and helped the people understand what was being read. As the “lights went on” and people began to understand the Scriptures, they began to weep in remorse and sadness for all their failure as the truth became more and more clear. Sometimes the truth can hurt. But their leaders encouraged the people in their repentance not to be downcast as the “joy of the Lord was their strength.”
There is something so attractive to me about this passage. The Scripture was presented in a dramatic way and treated differently than any other reading. Do we take that kind of care in reading Scripture in our worship? Do we think “this is God speaking to us” as it is read? Are children with their parents in worship hearing God’s word in an intergenerational setting? Is the Bible being explained by knowledgeable people? Do we repent when confronted with God’s truth? Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was a feast day and people shared food, there was a strengthening of the community that day. But what strikes me the most in this whole event is the power of God’s word to convict and transform willing hearts. In reading this passage, I trust little “lights have gone on” in you on several fronts.
Music: “This Little Light of Mine” Soweto Gospel Choir
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VdBowMtGqA Voices of Hope Children’s Choir
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-cwM54SiPk African Children’s Choir
Lord Jesus, how remarkable is it that you have written to us in our own language? It’s hard to comprehend that the Creator of the vast universe and all that exists speaks to his creation with words, ideas, and thoughts that they can understand. Lord God, you give us guidance, direction, love, wisdom, correction and so much more. Forgive us for treating your Scriptures so lightly and so casually. All too often we listen to them like self-help words in a magazine article and not as God speaking to us. Quicken our hearts and minds as your word is read that we might listen with anticipation, expectation, and a hungering eagerness to hear the voice of your Spirit. These things we pray in the matchless name of our Savior Jesus our Lord. Amen. ―Daniel Sharp