The Reading of the Word
The Jerusalem wall was finished. With the placement of the gates, the Israelites, under the leadership of Nehemiah, had thus completed the main task. When the wall was completed, the surrounding nations were in awe and recognized that this “was done by . . . God” (Neh. 6:16, NKJV). The enemies realized that the God of Israel was real because, despite the incredible opposition and hatred the Israelites experienced, they still had completed the work they had set out to do.
Following the completion of the wall, Nehemiah appointed a governor of Jerusalem (his brother Hanani) and a leader of the citadel (Hananiah). Both men were chosen based on integrity, trustworthiness, and reverence for God (Neh. 7:2), rather than on genealogy. The wall was completed during the month of Elul (sixth month, Neh. 6:15).
What was to be the next order of business? The following chapters of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8–10) describe an important series of events in the month of Tishri, the seventh month (Neh. 8:2). In these texts we can see examples of how the children of Israel were determined to obey the Word of God and how they rejoiced in it.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, November 9.
When the Jews finally completed the building of the wall and moved into Jerusalem, they all gathered in Jerusalem’s open square in the seventh month. The seventh month, the month of Tishri, was perhaps the most important month for the Israelites, as it was dedicated to the Feast of Trumpets (preparation for God’s judgment, first day of the month), the Day of Atonement (judgment day, 10th day of the month), and the Feast of Tabernacles (remembering God’s deliverance from Egypt and His provision through the journey in the wilderness, 15th day of the month). The gathering took place on the first day of the month, on which the Feast of Trumpets was celebrated. The leaders called together the men and women of the nation for this special assembly in order, through the reading of the Law, to provide an opportunity for them to learn about their God and history.
The people invited Ezra to bring the book of the Law of Moses before them and to read it. They even constructed a platform, a pulpit, for the occasion. It was not something that the leaders forced on the congregation. On the contrary, “they,” the people, told Ezra to bring the Book. Most likely Ezra read to the people from the books of Moses, which included the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
In Deuteronomy 31:9–13, Moses told the Israelites that during the Feast of Tabernacles they were to gather and read together the Law of God, and it mentions the various groups that should gather: men, women, children, and foreigners living within their gates.
Ezra “brought the Law” before the assembly to read. What did he read to them? Only the Ten Commandments over and over for half a day? The reference to the book of the Law is to be understood as the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, known as the Hebrew Torah. The term “law,” therefore, covers only a part of what was included in the reading; it would be better to translate it as “instructions.” They are God’s instructions enabling us to know the path on which we should walk in order not to miss the goal. When Ezra read, the people heard about their history as the people of God, beginning with Creation through the time of Joshua. Through stories, songs, poems, blessings, and laws, they were reminded of their struggles in following God and of God’s faithfulness to them. The Torah includes “law,” but it is more than that; it incorporates the history of the people of God and especially reveals God’s leading. Consequently, it gave the community its roots and identity.
That the people desired to hear the Word of God most likely was the result of Ezra’s reading and teaching the Word since his arrival in Jerusalem some 13 years before. He was dedicated to God’s work and determined to make a difference. The Word of God became real to the people as they kept hearing it from Ezra. As a result, they made a conscious decision to hear and to listen, because they were interested in hearing from God. Thus, on this occasion, they approached the Torah with reverence and a desire to learn.
Saturating ourselves in the Word creates a deeper yearning for God in our lives.
There were two groups of 13 men who stood with Ezra during the reading. The first group of 13 (Neh. 8:4) helped to read the Word of God, and the second group of 13 (Neh. 8:7) helped with the understanding of the passages. We do not have any information about how this arrangement worked in the open square; however, the men who helped with the reading possibly held the Torah (Hebrew scrolls were heavy and needed to be unrolled by others), as well as read from it successively, alternating between the readers. Because they were reading from morning until midday, they had figured out a way to reach everyone in the square.
The phrases “they gave the sense” and “helped the people to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8, NKJV) can refer either to interpretation or translation of the passages. Both are just as likely in this instance. The people had returned from Babylon, where they had lived for many years, and the primary language there was Aramaic. Therefore, hearing the Hebrew reading may not have been easy to understand for many, especially the younger generations. At the same time, readers of the Bible can benefit from explanation or commentary. Preaching and explanation make the text come alive and press hearers to apply the information personally.
As Protestants, we understand that individual believers must know the Word of God for themselves and that we must not blindly accept anyone else’s word on biblical truth, regardless of their authority. At the same time, who hasn’t been blessed by having someone help explain the meaning of texts? We need, each one of us, to know what we believe for ourselves, but this doesn’t mean that, at times, we can’t be enlightened by the teachings of others.
When Ezra opens up the Word of God, the Hebrew Torah, the people stand up. Before Ezra reads, he blesses God. After he reads, the people respond with “Amen, Amen!” (Neh. 8:5, 6, NKJV) in unison as they lift their hands toward heaven. They then bow their heads down and worship with their faces to the ground.
“So, in later years, when the law of God was read in Jerusalem to the captives returned from Babylon, and the people wept because of their transgressions, the gracious words were spoken: ‘Mourn not. . . . Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ Nehemiah 8:9, 10.”—Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 281.
As the people were listening to the words of God, they were struck by their own sinfulness and began to weep. When God reveals Himself to us, and we begin to grasp that God is full of love, goodness, mercy, and faithfulness, our own inadequacies and failure to be what we should be come to the forefront. Seeing God’s holiness through His Word causes us to see our terribleness in a new light. This realization caused the people of Israel to weep and mourn, but they were not to sorrow, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). In other words, despite their failures, they could trust in the power of God.
This also was a special day, a holy day, the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), on which short blasts of the trumpets signaled the importance of “heart” preparation for the judgment of the Lord (Day of Atonement, celebrated on the 10th day of the month of Tishri). The blowing of the trumpets signaled a call to stand before God and repent. Because the day was designed to remind the people to turn to God, the weeping and mourning is understandable. But the leaders reminded them that once they had repented, God had heard them, and therefore it was time to rejoice in God’s forgiveness.
The “joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10) serves as a reminder that it is God’s will that we rejoice and enjoy life. Most of all, it is not just any kind of joy, but the joy that comes because we know God and the reality of His love. Delighting in God, in His goodness, and rejoicing because of everything God has provided for us is something that we should strive to be doing every day. Moreover, delighting in God gives us the strength to face the day and to handle what comes our way.
The next day, the leaders of the people come to Ezra in order to learn more from God’s book. This initiative demonstrated by the leaders showed their desire to lead the community toward God. They understood that leading the people the right way would not happen if they themselves did not seek God and seek knowledge from Him.
Notice that in Nehemiah 8:15 the texts refer to the fact that what they were doing was according to what is “written.” We see here another example of how seriously they now wanted to obey the Word of God, ideally because after decades in captivity they had learned their lesson about disobedience. Also, in the texts in Leviticus they were to celebrate the feast and to “rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Lev. 23:40, NKJV). In other words, as they remembered God’s acts of mercy and grace and salvation, the people were to rejoice in what the Lord had done for them.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “Instructed in the Law of God,” pp. 661–668, in Prophets and Kings.
“Now they must manifest faith in His promises. God had accepted their repentance; they were now to rejoice in the assurance of sins forgiven and their restoration to divine favor. . . .
“Every true turning to the Lord brings abiding joy into the life. When a sinner yields to the influence of the Holy Spirit, he sees his own guilt and defilement in contrast with the holiness of the great Searcher of hearts. He sees himself condemned as a transgressor. But he is not, because of this, to give way to despair; for his pardon has already been secured. He may rejoice in the sense of sins forgiven, in the love of a pardoning heavenly Father. It is God’s glory to encircle sinful, repentant human beings in the arms of His love, to bind up their wounds, to cleanse them from sin, and to clothe them with the garments of salvation.” —Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 668.