Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Dec 23 2019 - Nehemiah 8 – The reading of the law

The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt and the city was now secure. But Nehemiah was not concerned only with repairing the physical structures of the city of God, he wanted also to strengthen and repair the spiritual life of the people of God. So Ezra the scribe was called upon to conduct a day of Bible study. He had come to Jerusalem 13 years earlier (see Ezra 7:8-10). He was a Bible scholar with a good knowledge of the law and had been working for some years prior to Nehemiah's arrival to re-establish a people who would live by God's word. 

A platform (v. 4) had been constructed so that everyone could see and hear those who were to speak. Ezra climbed up onto the platform along with thirteen helpers, fourteen men in all. As he opened the Book of the Law of Moses the people all stood up (v. 5). Ezra praised the Lord and the people responded, lifting their hands and crying, 'Amen! Amen!' (v. 6). In other words, they joined in Ezra's praise of the Lord. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. There was an expectant and humble spirit among the people: a readiness to hear what 'the Lord, the great God' would say to them.

Ezra read the law of God from daybreak until mid-day. Or rather, it is more likely that Ezra and his team took it in turns to read sections from the book of the law – each of the fourteen reading from time to time. And as each section was read the people listened attentively: the phrase at the end of verse three says literally that 'their ears were to the book of the law.' They were intent on hearing what God had to say to them, determined not to miss one word.

Then, after each section had been read, another team was at work among the people (vv. 7-8), to help them understand what they had heard. The second group of thirteen Levites moved among the crowds ensuring that they understood the implications of what they were hearing – what it meant for their daily lives. The whole stress of this part of the chapter is on understanding (see vv. 2, 3, 7, 8). It seems that the people listened together to the word being read and then, perhaps in small groups, considered its meaning, calling on the help of those who were knowledgeable in the law. In this way they all heard and understood the word.

And as they listened and talked together, the people understood that had failed to obey God's word, failed to live as they should have done, and they began to weep. But Nehemiah, Ezra and his helpers wanted this to be day of celebration and called on the people to rejoice:

Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (v. 10)

It was to be a day of general celebration. All were to share together in the celebrations and no one was to be left out through lack of resources. And that's just what happened (v. 12). Nehemiah wanted the people to focus on what their God had done for them, not primarily on what they had failed to do for God. And in focussing on the goodness of God they were to discover that the joy of the Lord would be their strength. Rejoicing over what their God had done for them was to be the dynamic of their renewed community life: it was to be their strength, the power that enabled them now to live for him – to put away past failures. Part of that joy in what God had done for them involved their renewed celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles – remembering God's provision and care for his rebellious people in the wilderness and celebrating God's continual care for them now. This must have proved a powerful witness to other peoples living around them.

Lord God, you have filled our hearts with joy because of your saving goodness towards us in the Lord Jesus. Give us an appetite to read and understand your word that we might learn more of your love and goodness towards us. Strengthen us by your Spirit and may our lives of joyful thanksgiving act as a powerful witness to those around us who do not yet know you.

Peter Misselbrook