I mentioned last week that the book of Nehemiah can be divided into two main parts: chapters 1 to 6 were about the wall; whereas chapters 8 to 13 are about the people; chapters 1 to 6 were about building up the wall of Jerusalem; whereas chapters 8 to 13 are about building up the people of Jerusalem. Chapter 7 — which we studied last week — was a transition chapter, dealing with both the wall and the people. And so, we read last week how, after the repairs to the wall were completed, Levites were posted at the gates of the city to keep out anything unclean which might defile God’s holy city. And then, Nehemiah set about filling God’s holy city with people. And we saw that he wanted to fill the city, not with just anyone, but with God’s holy people. And so, he found an old list — an old record — of the family names of all those Israelites who returned from the exile almost one hundred years previously whenever King Cyrus decreed that they could return home. This was a list of God’s holy people: all those who belonged to the Lord and who were part of his chosen people.
And so, having found that old list, Nehemiah knew who God’s holy people were. And in the second half of the book, he sets about building up those people. And so, in today’s chapter — chapter 8 — we read how the people gathered to hear God’s law. And in chapter 9, we’ll read how the confessed their sins before the Lord. And in chapter 10, we’ll read how they promised to follow the law of the Lord and to obey all his commands. In chapters 11 and 12 we’ll read the names of those who agreed to live in Jerusalem; and then we’ll read how they dedicated the wall of the city. And the book ends in chapter 13 with a list of Nehemiah’s final reforms, because he wanted to ensure that God’s holy people would live holy lives in God’s holy city.
That’s what the second half of this book is about: ensuring that God’s holy people will live holy lives in God’s holy city. And it begins here in chapter 8, where we read how the people gathered together to hear God’s law. Verses 1 to 4 are a kind of summary of what happened when they gathered together. And then, in verses 5 to 12, we’re given more details about what happened. And then, in verses 13 to 18, we read how their studies in God’s law led them to keep the Feast of Booths. And so, let’s turn to this chapter now.
Verses 1 to 4
And you’ll see from the last verse of chapter 7 that this took place in the seventh month. The seventh month was perhaps the most important month in the Jewish calendar. I say that because, while the Lord commanded the Israelites to keep various religious feasts during the year, three of them took place in the seventh month. You can read about them in Numbers 23. Every seventh month of the year, they were to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets and the great Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. And the first of those three festivals — the Feast of Trumpets — was held on the first day of the month.
On that day, trumpets were to be sounded to tell the people that they were to rest from their work and gather for a sacred assembly. Well, according to verse 2, it was the first day of the month. So, it was the day for the Feast of Trumpets. And, just as God had commanded, all the people gathered together for a sacred assembly. And this sacred assembly took place in the square before the Water Gate in Jerusalem. And the people told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. This is the Ezra we read about in the book of Ezra, who returned to Jerusalem from the exile in the days of Artaxerxes. And do you remember what we read about him in Ezra 7? It said about Ezra that he devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. He devoted himself to teaching God’s law. Well, here he is now, in Nehemiah 8, teaching the people who have gathered in the city. Ezra is described as a scribe, which means he was an expert in the law. And he’s also described as a priest, which means he served the Lord in the temple.
According to verse 2, the assembly was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. In other words, those children who were old enough to understand what was happening, were there, along with their parents. And Ezra read God’s law to the people from daybreak until noon. That’s around 6 hours. We may think that’s a long time. We may think that’s far too long a time. But look at the end of verse 3:
And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. They didn’t get restless.
They didn’t get bored. They didn’t look at their watches. They listened attentively to God’s law as Ezra read it to them.
When it says he read the Book of the Law, it probably means he read from the first five books of the Bible. And so, he may have read to them about the creation; and about the patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; and about their slavery in Egypt; and how the Lord delivered them in the days of Moses; and how the Lord gave them his commandments to keep; and how he brought them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. All of those things are contained in the Book of the Law.
And look: Ezra stood on a kind of pulpit: a high wooden platform which had been built for this occasion. It seems, therefore, that preparations had been made for this day. It’s perhaps possible — though we can’t be certain about it — but it’s perhaps possible that Nehemiah had planned to hold this assembly on this day. And so, he might have been eager to get the wall finished in time for the first day of the seventh month, when the people were commanded to rest from their work and to gather for a sacred assembly. And now that they’ve gathered for a sacred assembly, what better thing to do than to listen to the reading of God’s word. And as Ezra read from God’s word, these thirteen men, who were presumably leaders among the people, stood with him to help him.
Verses 5 to 12
And so, that’s a summary of what happened that day. Verses 5 to 12 give us some more detail. According to verse 5, when Ezra opened the book of the Law, all the people stood up. It was a sign of reverence, because this was no ordinary book; this was the word of the Lord their God. And God was speaking to them through the pages of this book. And so, they stood up when God was addressing them.
And then, before reading from the book, Ezra praised the Lord, their great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded by saying:
By saying Amen, they were expressing their agreement with Ezra’s words of praise.
And the people then bowed down reverently and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. That was as a sign of their humility before him. They weren’t coming before the Lord casually or carelessly, but with reverence and humility, because the Lord their God is a great God. In fact, according to the book of Revelation, the angels and the saints in heaven worship the Lord in the same way, falling down before him out of reverence and humility.
And then we read in verse 7 how some of the Levites — and their names are listed; and, of course, the Levites were men who had been set apart by the Lord from the ordinary people to serve him in the temple — the Levites instructed the people in the Law. We’re told that the Levites read from the Book of the Law, making it clear and giving the meaning, so that the people understood what was being read. And so, it seems that — as Ezra read from the Book of the Law — the Levites explained it to the people so that everyone was able to understand God’s word. It’s possible that they may also have had to translate it; scholars think they might not have known the Hebrew language. And so, perhaps the Levites translated it, before explaining it. So, Ezra read God’s word; and the Levites expounded it and made it clear to the people.
And how did the people respond to what they heard? Look at the end of verse 9 where it tells us that all the people wept as they listened to the words of the Law. Presumably they were weeping tears of sorrow and penitence, because God’s word is a two-edged sword which cuts our heart and convicts us of our sin and guilt and shame. God’s law uncovers our guilt and shows us how far we have fallen short from doing God’s will. And presumably, as Ezra read from the Book of the Law, and as the Levites explained it to them, the people realised all over again that the reason they had gone into exile was because of their sinful rebellion and unbelief; and if it were not for the Lord’s grace and mercy, they would have been cut off forever and forever shut out of his presence. And so, they began to weep when they heard God’s word. Not only did they listen attentively, but what they heard moved them.
But it’s interesting — isn’t it? — that Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites told the people not to weep. Do you see that at the beginning of verse 9? This was a sacred day, a holy day set aside for worship. And so, it was a day to rejoice before the Lord. ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks’, Nehemiah said in verse 10. Share with those who have nothing. Do not grieve, because ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’. Some commentators take the phrase ‘the joy of the Lord’ to refer to the joy we receive from knowing the good news of God’s grace towards sinners. And knowing this strengthens and comforts the believer.
Others take the phrase ‘the joy of the Lord’ to refer to the joy which the Lord has in saving his people. He was glad to move Cyrus’s heart to release his people. He was glad to move the hearts of the people to return to the Promised Land. He was glad to move Ezra and Nehemiah to lead the people to rebuild the temple and the wall. He was glad to do these things for his people; and he took joy in saving them. And knowing this about the Lord our God — knowing that he delights to save us — strengthens and comforts the believer and enables the believer to face any situation, because we know that the Lord loves us and delights in saving us and showing us his great power.
And then we read that the people went away to eat and to drink; and to share what they had with others; and to celebrate with great joy. And why did they celebrate with great joy? Well, look at the end of verse 12, because it’s so important. The reason they celebrated was not because the wall had been repaired; it was not because the city had been rebuilt. No, the reason they celebrated was because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. They celebrated with great joy because someone had been able to explain to them the word of the Lord their God.
Do you know what we do on Sundays? We gather together on God’s holy day as God’s holy people. And when we gather like this, on the Lord’s Day, there are men and women here, just as there were on that day. There are children here too, just as there were on that day, children who are old enough to understand what’s going on. And whenever we gather, God’s word is opened, just as it was opened on that day. And while we’re not required to stand or to fall down, as the Israelites did, nevertheless we’re to come with reverent and humble hearts to hear and to receive God’s word. And God’s word is a word that convicts us of our sin and guilt, because there’s not one of us who has not sinned. And God’s word is a word that brings joy, because it speaks to us of God’s grace and mercy and of what he has done by his Son to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in his presence. And, of course, what we want is for everyone who gathers here to hear and to receive God’s word with faith and humility and to be moved by it: moved to repent and confess their sins; moved to rejoice and to celebrate the Lord’s kindness.
I wonder, before you come to church on Sundays to worship the Lord, do you prepare yourself and your heart to hear God’s word? Do you ask the Lord to help you to listen attentively to his word as it’s read and explained? Do you ask him to help you to receive his word with faith and humility? Do you ask him to use his word to move you, so that you’ll weep over your sins and rejoice over God’s grace?
Our meeting here on Sunday is very similar to what happened on that day. We too have a kind of platform, a pulpit. And we have God’s word, which is opened. And we have someone who has been set aside to teach you God’s word. We have everything we need. So, will you prepare yourself to come each Sunday to hear and to receive God’s word? Will you ask the Lord to use the reading and preaching of his word to move you to repent of your sins and to rejoice in his kindness? Will you do that? We don’t need anything else, because we have God’s word by which he speaks to us and ministers to us and which he uses to change us. We have everything we need. We have everything God needs. And so, will you ask the Lord to speak through the reading and preaching of his word to move you to repent of your sins and to rejoice in his kindness to you in Christ Jesus?
Verses 13 to 18
Let’s move on, because in verse 13 we read that on the second day of the month, the leaders of the people, along with the priests and Levites, gathered round Ezra to give attention to the words of the Law. These leaders were so eager to hear God’s word, that they came back the next day, because here was this scribe — this expert in the law — who could open up the Scriptures for them.
And what did they find when they opened the Scriptures? Well, they found written in God’s word instructions from God on how to worship him. And in particular, these people discovered that they were keep the Feast of Booths later than month; and they should spread the news throughout their towns and in Jerusalem that everyone should collect branches from trees to make booths or shelters to live in during the feast. Well, the Lord’s instructions for celebrating the Feast of Booths are found in Leviticus 23 and in Numbers 29 and in Deuteronomy 16. And now that these leaders had discovered these instructions, they wanted to do all that the Lord commanded; and to worship him according to his word.
The people went out and got the branches and came back with them and built shelters for themselves on the roofs of their homes and in the squares of the city. The whole company — we read in verse 17 — the whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them for the duration of the feast, which was eight days long. And we read at the end of verse 17 that from the days of Joshua, son of Nun, until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated the feast like this. In other words, they celebrated the feast with more joy and enthusiasm than ever before. And day after day, from the first day of the feast until the last day, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. So, they hungered and thirsted for God’s word; and they were ready to hear it again and again and again. And they celebrated the feast all week long; and then, on the eighth and final day, they held another assembly.
If you were to read Leviticus 23, you’d discover that the reason God instructed his people to celebrate this annual feast and to live in temporary shelters for the duration of the feast was to commemorate the time when God delivered his people from their slavery in Egypt and brought them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And while they were in the wilderness, on the way to the Promised Land, they had to live in tents. And so, God instructed his people to live in booths for a week each year to re-enact their time in the wilderness and to remember God’s kindness to them in bringing them out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
And now, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites celebrated the Feast of Booths with a renewed intensity, because just as God had once delivered his people from captivity in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land, so God had delivered them from captivity in Babylon and had brought them back to the Promised Land once again. These people knew what it was like to live in a far off country, far away from the Promised Land. They knew what it was like to be exiles, living under the authority of a pagan king, surrounded by idolatry and wickedness. They knew what it was like to live in captivity and exile. But they had also experienced the Lord’s salvation, because he had saved them from their captivity and exile; and he had brought them out of that pagan country; and he brought them through the wilderness; and he had brought them back to the holy city, to live in the presence of the Lord. And so, having experienced for themselves the Lord’s salvation, they celebrated before the Lord with great joy.
And if you trust in Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world, then you too can say that God has saved you, because he has delivered you from out of an unbelieving world which is destined to perish. He has saved you by his Son who gave himself for your sins to rescue you from this present evil age with all its idolatry and wickedness. And he has promised to bring you to the true Promised Land which is to come: the new heaven and earth, where all of God’s believing people will dwell in his presence forever and forever. By his Son, God has rescued you; and he has promised to bring you into the new heaven and earth and into the new and heavenly Jerusalem.
And when you gather each Lord’s Day with the Lord’s people, God’s word is opened and it speaks to you of God’s salvation and how God the Son laid down his life to set you free from your sin and misery and to give you everlasting life. And it speaks to you of your eternal destiny in the new heavens and earth. And it teaches you that right now, you’re a pilgrim: that this world is not your true home, because through faith you’re a citizen of heaven above. And so, you’re reminded to get rid of every sin that might cause you to stumble; and to press on and to keep going, waiting for the day, longing for the day, when you will enter your eternal home. And you’re reminded that you may look to the Lord to help you on your way.
And when, at last, you reach the eternal city, you’ll gather with all the saints in glory; and together you’ll fall down before the throne of God and before the Lamb, to worship the Lord your God for saving you. What a day that will be, when, at last, you reach your final destination. And in anticipation of that day, we gather like this on the Lord’s Day to remember what he has already done to save us; and to remember what he promises to do for us in the future; and to give thanks to him for our salvation.