The Word: Nehemiah 8:5-12; 9:1-3
Very interesting rules exist for the treatment of sacred texts of other religions. The Jewish Torah may never be placed upside down or on the ground, nor is anything to be laid on top of it. If it is being transported, it must be held, never placed on a car seat or in a trunk. If it is in a home, one must always be dressed and behaving respectfully when in the room where it is, consequently never a bedroom or a bathroom. When it is being carried from one place to another, those nearby must rise and remain standing until the Torah reaches its destination or is out of sight.
The Koran must never be taken into a bathroom nor laid on any floor. Writing anywhere in the Koran is strictly prohibited. Those who are copying it by hand must use “clear, elegant” handwriting, and those who are reciting from it must use “clear, beautiful” voices. Copies that have been defiled must be wrapped in cloth and buried in a hole, placed in water until the ink runs, or burned.
How do we show respect for our Bibles?
Is our familiarity with the Bible a positive or a negative?
Our relationship with our Bible is a matter of the heart. Today we see how the Israelites had neglected the Word of God and how reconnection with it prompted repentance.
Now that Jerusalem was secure, the city needed people to give it life. The walls were up and the gates were in place, but most of the houses were still in ruins. So, Nehemiah began urging families to move back into the city from surrounding towns (7:4-5; 11:1-2). He used the census list in chapter 7 (see Ezra 2) to guide him in knowing which families had ancestral claims to property in the city. The list of new residents in chapter 11 indicates that many of the people who decided to move to Jerusalem had jobs that were connected to the temple, such as priests and Levites. Nehemiah also instituted various social and religious reforms to help organize the city. These are discussed in chapter 13.
In chapters 8—10, we are introduced to one of the most important religious events in the book of Nehemiah. It is not surprising that Ezra becomes the central figure again, for as a scribe and priest and the leader of the last migration, he was the person who possessed the most religious authority. Because of this, a number of scholars have suggested these chapters indicate events that follow after Ezra 8 or 10. However, these events also make good sense where they are in the book of Nehemiah.
“On the first day of the seventh month” (8:2), just a few days after the wall was completed, the people asked Ezra to read to them from “the Book of the Law of Moses” (v. 1). This day was significant, because it marked the Jewish celebration of the new year. The people assembled in a large square before the Water Gate, one of the main gates on the eastern side of the city (v. 1). They put Ezra up on a high wooden platform so that all could see and hear him (v. 4). Thirteen community leaders stood with him to show their support. He opened the scroll and read to them from daybreak until noon, about five to six hours (v. 3). Ezra did not read the entire time for there were many pauses to allow the Levites in the crowd to interpret each passage correctly (vv. 7-8).
The exact identity of the Book of the Law of Moses is unknown. Most scholars think it was some portion of the Pentateuch, but the specific book and verses are not indicated.
A. The Book of the Law (Read Nehemiah 8:5-12)
The physical reaction of the people to Ezra’s reading was immediate and supportive of his desire to praise the Lord (Yahweh), the great God. “The people stood up, lifted their hands, and shouted ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” These actions show that the significance of this event was not lost on them. Reverence both for God and the law was called for.
Why would the Levites have to fan out through the crowd to instruct the people? This was needed for two reasons. First, the scroll Ezra was reading from was written in Hebrew. The language that most of the people spoke and understood was Aramaic. So, the Levites needed to translate the law before it could be understood. Second, while most Jews had a general knowledge of what was contained in the law, many were ignorant of the details. They needed interpreters to make it understandable and relevant.
What were the people encouraged to do? To have a party! “This is the first day of the seventh month; v.2. (Lev. 23:23-25) 23 The Lord said to Moses, 24 ‘Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of Sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. 25 Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.’”
They were to blow the trumpets and present a food offering to God. They were to give thanks for a good harvest and to rejoice over the completion of the wall. “Let the party begin”. The people were instructed to go home and prepare delicious meals of “choice food and sweet drinks,” both for their own families and any others that did not have the means to do so. This day was to be a community-wide celebration honoring God, their harvest, and the completion of the wall. The joy of the Lord was to be the theme for the day.
B. Confession (Read Nehemiah 9:1-3)
Ezra’s reading of the law excited the people about their heritage. They wanted to learn more about the covenant and God’s promises and instructions. So “the heads of all the families, along with the priests and Levites” (8:13) returned to Jerusalem to listen to more of the law being read to them by Ezra.
The ceremony described in these verses is not a part of any known Jewish celebration. It occurred on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month, two days after the Festival of Tabernacles ended (chap. 8). The people were in a somber mood—”fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads.” They had gathered in Jerusalem to confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors. This was a day of mourning to show God that they were truly sorry for disobeying Him. It very much resembled the rituals on the Day of Atonement, which had occurred two weeks earlier, on the 10th day of the seventh month. Their “separation from all foreigners” may be a reference to Ezra’s earlier exhortation to break up all intermarriages with foreigners (Ezra 9-10).
For about three hours, the people listened to passages in the law. They then spent another three hours confessing their sins and worshiping the Lord their God. No doubt, much of what was said that day is recorded in verses 5-38 and 10:28-39. The passage in chapter 9 is basically a short history of God’s gracious activities in the lives of the Israelites. Even though they and their ancestors disobeyed and “became arrogant and stiff-necked” (v. 16) on multiple occasions, God continually honored His commitment to the covenant and showed them love (v. 32). The passage ends with a petition for God to intervene once again and rescue them from their distress (vv. 32, 37). Chapter 10 contains a list of promises that the people made to God on this day. They included various ritual activities such as 1) the avoidance of intermarriage with foreigners, 2) observance of the Sabbath, and 3) faithfulness in tithing. In essence, this chapter is a reaffirmation of the covenant as Israel’s governing document.
A side note: In chapter 8 we have a six hour church service with the people standing up. Oh yeah, in the sun. Then in chapter nine they have a 3 hour church service in the sun with a 3 hour altar call. Pastor Scott, are you prepared to preach for 6 hours?
C. Connect to My Life and the World
The Israelites honored the Word by standing for its reading for hours. Here are some ideas about how we can prioritize Scripture in our personal lives and corporate worship.
—bringing your Bible to church and actively reading along
—commitment to a designated time and place at home to read the Bible
—scripture verses on 3x5 cards for display on desks, bathroom mirrors, car dashboards, etc.
—concentrated effort to memorize a verse
—choosing a family verse to repeat every evening at dinner
—joining a Bible study/Sunday School class/small group
In closing, let’s give honor to God’s Word by reading Psalm 150.
1 Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heaven!
2 Praise him for his mighty works; praise his unequaled greatness!
3 Praise him with a blast of the ram’s horn; praise him with the lyre and harp!
4 Praise him with the tambourine and dancing; praise him with strings and flutes!
5 Praise him with a clash of cymbals; praise him with loud clanging cymbals.
6 Let everything that breathes sing praises to the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Material for this lesson is found in: Faith Connections Leaders Guide Summer 20 (Jim Edlin lesson writer) Illustrated Bible Life Summer 20 (A. Wendell Bowes lesson writer) Reflecting God Summer 20 Holy Bible (various translations)