Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
These events take place about a century after the Jewish exiles were allowed to return from Babylonia to Jerusalem after a lengthy exile. Life has not been easy. The people have suffered from hostile neighbors and crop failures. While they succeeded in rebuilding the temple, their new temple compares poorly with Solomon’s Temple––the temple that the Babylonians destroyed when they sacked Jerusalem.
Nehemiah, acting as governor (5:14; 8:9), has overseen the the rebuilding of the walls around the city (6:15-19), providing protection to the city’s inhabitants from hostile neighbors (4:1-23). He has also shown remarkable leadership in dealing with some of the social ills of his community (5:1-18).
However, hardship has led to disillusionment and spiritual weariness. Now Ezra, priest and scribe (v. 9), comes to read the sacred scriptures to the assembled crowd. Ezra, who can trace his lineage to Aaron, the first high priest, has impeccable credentials (Ezra 7:1-5). More important, he is “a ready scribe in the law of Moses…(with) the hand of Yahweh his God on him” (Ezra 7:6).
NEHEMIAH 7:73b -8:1-3. BRING THE BOOK OF THE LAW OF MOSES
7:73b When the seventh month had come, the children of Israel were in their cities.
1All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which Yahweh had commanded to Israel. 2Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
“When the seventh month had come” (v. 7:73b). The Jerusalem wall was finished on the twenty-fifty day of Elul––the sixth month––just days before this assembly.
Jewish law calls for the people to observe a day of rest on the first day of the seventh month––the month of Tishri (Leviticus 23:23; Numbers 29:1). They are to make offerings to the Lord on this day (Leviticus 23:25; Numbers 29:2-6). It is the day that modern Jews observe as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and it is observed today in late September or early October.
“the children of Israel were in their cities” (v. 7:73c). The walls of the city are giving the people a sense of security that has heretofore been absent. The people are beginning to have a “settled” feeling.
“All the people gathered themselves together as one man” (v. 1a). They come together as one man––today we might say “with one mind.” There is a sense of unity here––no divisions––no squabbling.
We don’t know how they knew to gather at this place. The text doesn’t say that Ezra or Nehemiah called them together, but it seems likely that they did. To get a large assembly of people together requires some sort of notification. Otherwise, people wouldn’t be aware of the meeting and wouldn’t come.
“into the broad place that was before the water gate“ (v. 1b). They have a temple, but decide to meet instead at the square before the Water Gate––probably to afford access to all (v. 2a) rather than limiting participation to men.
While there is some question about the location of the Water Gate, it is probably located in the east wall, near the southeast corner of the city––where the Hinnom Valley (south of the city) meets the Kidron Valley (east of the city). Its name suggests that it offers access to the Gihon Spring on the east side of the city––a water source vital to the life of the city.
“and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which Yahweh had commanded to Israel“ (v. 1c). It wasn’t Nehemiah who told Ezra to bring the book of the law, but the people. They are spiritually hungry. They want to hear the word of the Lord.
“Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding“ (v. 2a). Nobody is excluded from this assembly. Men are here––and women––and “all who could hear with understanding,” presumably children who are able to understand, at least in part. A child wouldn’t need to understand everything to recognize that that this is an important assembly––a holy enterprise. Even adults usually understand the Bible and sermons only in part.
“on the first day of the seventh month“ (v. 2b). See above on verse 7:73b.
“He read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those who could understand“ (v. 3a). While Ezra surely read from the Pentateuch, he could not read the entire Pentateuch aloud in these few hours. We don’t know which portions he selected, but we do know that there was also interpretation of the reading (vv. 7-8).
“and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law“ (v. 3b). We who have trouble staying “tuned in” to a twenty minute sermon can hardly imagine how these people could be attentive to the reading of the Pentateuch for a period of several hours. These people, however, are accustomed to listening, because that is the only way that they can learn the scriptures. Prior to the invention of the printing press, people didn’t have personal copies of the scriptures. Most of them couldn’t read and write in any event. We can be sure that they felt the significance of this assembly.
Also, their spiritual hunger makes it easy to listen. They are wholehearted in their desire to hear God’s word––keen to revive their spiritual heritage.
NEHEMIAH 8:4a, 5-6, 8. THEY READ THE BOOK, THE LAW OF GOD
4a Ezra the scribe stood on a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose…
5Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: 6and Ezra blessed Yahweh, the great God. All the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” (Hebrew: ‘amen, ‘amen) with the lifting up of their hands. They bowed their heads, and worshiped Yahweh with their faces to the ground…
8They read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading.
“Ezra the scribe stood on a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose” (v. 4a). This must be a large platform, because Ezra is joined by thirteen men––six on his right side and seven on his left side (v. 4b). The platform is elevated so that everyone can see as well as hear (v. 5)
The lectionary has omitted verse 4 because of the list of thirteen names in verse 4b. It might be better to include verse 4a in the reading while omitting verse 4b.
“Ezra opened the book (seper) in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;)“(v. 5a). A seper can be any kind of written document––a letter, a scroll, or a legal document. In this case, Ezra is almost certainly dealing with a scroll––probably several scrolls.
“and when he opened it, all the people stood up“ (v. 5b). Ezra stood to read the scriptures. As a sign of reverence, the people stand to hear it. The sense we get is that they stand for the entire reading––several hours in duration.
“and Ezra blessed Yahweh, the great God. All the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ (Hebrew:‘amen, ‘amen) with the lifting up of their hands. They bowed their heads, and worshiped Yahweh with their faces to the ground“ (v. 6).
There are three marks of reverence in this verse:
• The first is Ezra’s blessing the Lord and the people’s response (“Amen, Amen”). “‘amen… is an affirmation of truth or of the purposes of God…. It is commonly uttered as a response of grateful praise to God” (Renn, 31).
• The second is the lifting up of hands, an acknowledgement of their spiritual need and dependence on the Lord.
• The third is the bowing of heads and worshiping God with faces to the ground, acknowledging their subservience to the Lord and their submission to his word and will.
Verse 7 is omitted from the lectionary reading, because it includes thirteen names of Levites who helped the people to understand the reading of the law. However, it tells us that these Levites “caused the people to understand the law: and the people stayed in their place”––suggesting that the Levites circulated in the crowd to help people who appeared unable to maintain their attention or to understand.
“They read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading“ (v. 8). Earlier, the text said that Ezra read the scriptures (v. 3), but verse 7 said that the thirteen Levites “caused the people to understand the law.” Now, this verse says that “they” (plural) “read in the book,” and reiterates that it was “they” (plural) who “gave the sense, so that they understood the reading.” This is clearly not a one-man show, but is instead a joint effort by Ezra and the other spiritual leaders of the community to help the community-at-large to understand the scriptures––to understand the Lord’s will––and to understand their own responsibilities in relationship to the Lord.
A part of the need for interpretation surely has to do with language difficulties. The scriptures were written in Hebrew, but by this time many of the people have adopted Aramaic (a related Semitic language) for everyday conversation.
But scriptures are often complex and rooted in a particular time, and therefore require explanation even when no language difficulties are involved. The people need to know what the scriptures meant in the time that they were written––and how they apply to their own lives, which they are living in a different time and place. This was the task of these Jewish leaders, and is the preacher’s homiletical task today as well.
NEHEMIAH 8:9-10. THIS DAY IS HOLY.
9Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people, said to all the people, “This day is holy to Yahweh your God. Don’t mourn, nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be grieved; for the joy of Yahweh is your strength.”
“Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people, said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to Yahweh your God. Don’t mourn, nor weep.’ For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law“ (v. 9). This is the first that we have heard of Nehemiah, the governor, in this chapter. He has been a great leader, but his specialty is civil rather than spiritual leadership. Ezra, the priest, is the key figure in this chapter.
The text doesn’t tell us why the people wept, but only that they did:
• They surely wept, in part, because the reading of the law revealed to them their deficiency in keeping the law––i.e., convicted them of their sins.
• This reading of the law probably included snippets of their history which were more glorious than their present circumstances. They wept for what they had lost––and, in their exile, they had lost everything. Their return from exile has been difficult, and they have regained only a small portion of that which they lost when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took them into captivity.
• But there are probably tears of joy as well––joy at hearing their scriptures once again––joy that they have a temple and a city with walls––joy at their sense of “getting it together” once again as a people.
Whatever their reasons for weeping, their leaders make it clear that sadness and mourning are inappropriate for this occasion. This is a holy day––a day when the Lord is present with them––a day when they can begin to rebuild their spiritual heritage. The proper response to such a day is joy, not sorrow.
“Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared’“ (v. 10a). As noted in the comments above on verse 7:73b, this is a day when the people are not to work, but are instead to make offerings to the Lord––burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings (Numbers 29:2-6; see also Leviticus 23:25). While portions of those offerings are to be burned as an offering to the Lord, and other portions are to be given to the Levites for their support, a significant portion of the offerings are to be consumed by the people making the sacrifices. This, then, is a feast day, not a fast day––a day of celebration and pleasant social amenities. It would take on some of the character of a modern church pot-luck dinner or barbecue––a time for relaxing and eating good food and enjoying good company.
So these people are to “eat the fat”––the best meat––like the marbled beef that people prize today. They are to “drink the sweet”––not the less desirable everyday wine that would ordinarily grace their tables.
And they must share their food with less fortunate neighbors who have nothing to eat or drink. Not only are they to be joyful themselves, but they are to do their best to see that everyone has cause for joy on this special day.
“for this day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be grieved; for the joy of Yahweh is your strength“ (v. 10b). These are the reasons to be joyful:
• First, “this day is holy to our Lord.” The sense we get here is that the day is not only to be counted as holy by the people, but it is also counted as holy by the Lord. It is the Lord who has ordained that the people rest rather than work on this day. It is the Lord who has ordained that they make their sacrifices and enjoy their eating good food and drinking good wine. It is the Lord who has established the procedures that dictate their actions on this holy day––eating, drinking, remembering, resting, and sharing––actions that lend themselves to joy, not sorrow.
• Second, “the joy of the Yahweh is your strength.” A despondent, dispairing person is a weak person––there is no strength in despair. But optimism and joy not only give the appearance of strength, but actually cause the wells of strength to bubble up within the optimistic, joyful person. Anna captures something of this reality in “The King and I” when she sings, “I whistle a happy tune // And every single time // The happiness in the tune // Convinces me that I’m not afraid.”
But these people have more than “whistling in the dark” to give them strength. The foundation upon which their joy is built is the Lord––the Lord’s love––the grace of God––their history with God that has demonstrated to them over and over again that the Lord can deliver them from apparently insurmountable threats––and the covenant with God that binds God and Israel together.
The Lord has called them to observe this holy day by resting, remembering their spiritual heritage, eating good food, drinking good wine, and enjoying each other’s company. It is a day to be joyful––and their experience of this day will give them strength.
The scope of the scripture reading is necessarily limited, because people today are not prepared to listen to the scripture being read by the hour, as they were in Ezra’s time.
However, the preacher should be aware that there is more to this holy day than our lectionary reading has covered. The people proceed to celebrate the Festival of Booths (8:13-18). They then make a lengthy confession, in which they remember the Lord’s faithfulness and the unfaithfulness of their ancestors (9:1-37). Their leaders (who are named in 10:1-26) then sign a covenant in which they promise “to walk in God’s law” (10:29; see also the remainder of chapter 10). In other words, they make this holy day even holier by their pledge of fidelity to the Lord.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan