♪ [music] ♪ – [Nancy Guthrie] When
we left Nehemiah in the last session the great
work of the rebuilding of the wall was complete. But Nehemiah’s ambition
in returning Jerusalem, wasn’t simply to reconstruct the city’s defenses but to
rebuild the people of God for the glory of God. Nehemiah was at work to restore a
community of people whose hearts were given over to Yahweh living in the land,
loving and obeying and worshipping the Lord. Demonstrating and declaring
God’s goodness to the nations around them. Waiting expectantly for God’s
promised one, the Messiah to come. Nehemiah draws a picture for us of what
Jerusalem looked like at this point when he tells us in verse 4 of Chapter 7,
“The city was wide and large but the people within it were few and no houses
had been rebuilt.” Exiles who had returned over the previous 90 years had settled all
around Jerusalem but few had made their homes inside the burned-out abandoned
city. Now that the temple had been rebuilt and the walls were in place it was time
for God’s people to once again inhabit God’s great city. But who exactly
should live within those walls? Over the years all kinds of people had
come to live around Jerusalem many of whom had no interest in Israel’s God.
If Jerusalem was going to be a city that radiated the glory of God it would need to
be filled with people who were devoted to him. So Nehemiah records in Chapter 7
verse 5, “Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials
and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book
of the genealogy of those who came up at the first. And I found written in it
these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those
exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon,
had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah each
to his own town.” What follows are the kinds of verses we tend to skip through
when we’re reading through the Bible. It’s a list of names and numbers of the
various families who returned from exile when they were first free to do so about
90 years earlier. So why would Nehemiah bring out this old list of their ancestors
who were the first ones who came back to Jerusalem? Well, these were the
Israelites who had the most passion for restoration of Jerusalem.
They rushed back as soon as Cyrus opened the door for them to return home.
Nehemiah wasn’t interested in populating the city with those who had alternate
allegiances to other gods but with those who had a singular passion for the Lord’s
honour and the Lord’s people. In Chapter 8 we discover these people do
have a passion for the Lord. When we read in verse 1,
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Watergate.
And they told Ezra, the scribe, to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that
the Lord had commanded Israel.” They’re not gathered at the temple where
only certain people could enter but at the busiest intersection of the city.
And we can almost hear them begin to chant for Ezra to bring out the book.
They didn’t have their own copies of the scriptures to read like we do.
All they had was stories passed down. They were hungry to hear God’s written
word. So in verse 2 we read, “Ezra the priest brought the law before
the assembly both men and women and all who could understand what they heard on
the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square
before the Watergate from early morning until midday in the presence of the men
and the women and those who could understand.” Sometimes the Bible can
seem like such an ancient book to us. Interestingly, it was already an ancient
book to these people gathered at the Watergate in Jerusalem that day.
The Book of the Law, the Book of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers,
and Deuteronomy it was already a thousand years old and yet they were hungry for it.
They were confident it would speak to them and challenge them and satisfy them.
The end of verse 3 in Chapter 8 says, “And the ears of all the people were
attentive to the Book of the Law.” They weren’t merely going through the
motions of showing up while their thoughts were elsewhere which can we admit is the
case for us sometimes when we gather to hear the word read and taught?
They were taking in God’s word, thinking it through,
seeking to understand and apply it. So picture the scene,
Ezra standing on a wooden platform flanked by 13 Levites and surrounded by 50,000
men, women and children. And from dawn until about noon they
listened to Ezra read from the scrolls which were written in Hebrew.
Now the people coming back from exile spoke Aramaic so it had to be translated
but more than that it had to be explained. Ezra was surrounded by 13 Levites and the
text says that “the Levites helped the people to understand the law while the
people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of
God clearly and they gave the sense so that the people understood the reading.”
The Levites moved among the crowd helping them to understand the meaning and the
implications of what was being read. We can imagine that they helped the people
grasp the tragedy of the curse from Genesis 3 and the promise of a seed
of a woman who had come to crush the seed of the serpent. Perhaps they explained
God’s promise to make Abraham into a great nation and Abraham’s coming to the very
mountain on which they stood that day to offer his son Isaac.
They must have traced the history and implications of God’s deliverance of his
people from Egypt. Their wandering in the wilderness and entrance into and taking
possession of the promised land. The Levites helped those gathered to
understand the substitutionary sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus and the call to
love the Lord with all of their heart, soul, and might in Deuteronomy.
And how did the people gathered there that day respond? Verse 6 of Chapter 8 says,
“All the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands.
And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the
ground.” This wasn’t a token Amen. With their lips and with their whole
bodies they expressed submission to what they had heard. In verse 9 we read,
“And Nehemiah who was the governor and 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 or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the
words of the law.” You know some people hear the word of God read and explained
and feel nothing. There’s a hardness toward it, a lack of response to it but
not on this day. Not these people. As they took in all that God had done for
their people, all of the promises he had made to them, all that he commanded them
to do and be, all of the patience he had shown, it penetrated them
so deeply they were moved to tears. The word of God, the book of Hebrews tells
us, is “sharper than any two-edged sword piercing to the division of soul and of
spirit of joints and of marrow and discerning the thoughts and intentions of
the heart.” Clearly, the word of God cut deeply into the hearts of the people
gathered there that day exposing all of the ways they had fallen short of the
glory of God. They were able to see the incongruity of their lives in relation to
God’s law and they wept. But this wasn’t the time for weeping.
The day for mourning over their sin is going to come as we’ll see in the next
session in Chapter 9. But not on this day. Ezra and Nehemiah urged those who were
weeping to dry their tears saying, “‘This day is holy to the Lord your God.
Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the
words of the law. Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send
portions to anyone who has nothing ready for this day is holy to our Lord.
And do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
When we hear God’s word read and taught it does much more than reveal to us our sin,
it reveals our saviour. God’s good word, his Gospel to his people is that our sin
will not get the final word in our lives. His grace and mercy will get the final
word. The joy of the Lord is this word of grace towards sinners.
Knowing that it is his joy to extend grace to sinners is what gives us strength to
live for him and love him rather than run from him. On this day Ezra and Nehemiah
wanted the wonder of God saving purposes for his people. His patience
toward them. His presence with them, his provision for them to prompt
celebration, not tears. Verse 13 says that “on the second day the
heads of fathers’ houses of all the people with the priests and the Levites came
together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law.
And they found it written in the law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the
people of Israel should dwell in booths during the Feast of the seventh month.”
On the second day just the men returned to study the words of the law and as they
studied they discovered that God required something of his people that they and
their ancestors had not been doing for centuries. They discovered that on the
15th day of the seventh month they were to make booths out of branches
and live outdoors in them for a week. As they slept outside in their makeshift
shelters they would be reminded of God’s provision for their ancestors when they
wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after being released from their slavery.
They would be reminded that they too had been released from their exile
and brought back by God’s good hand. They would also be reminded that they were
still pilgrim people in the world dependent upon God’s provision and
presence even though they were now living in the land. A week spent living this way
would prompt them to be looking forward to the city that has foundations whose
designer and builder is God. We read in verse 16,
“So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves.”
They read in the law of God that they should do it and they just did it.
How many times have we read something in the Bible or been at church and had the
word taught clearly to us showing us something we ought to do and we think,
“Yeah. I ought to do that.” But then we sing the closing hymn and we
walk away and we put it out of our minds. But what happens here is completely
different. They read about the forgotten festival of Tabernacles and they
immediately went home and made booths for themselves and they lived in them for
10 days. Oh, that the joy of the Lord, his grace toward us, and Christ would provide
you and me with strength to respond to his word with just this kind of prompt
glad-hearted obedience. ♪ [music] ♪