The People and the Book
Utawala Baptist church
Scripture Reading Nehemiah 8: 1-5
French author Victor Hugo said over a century ago, “England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare but the Bible made England.” Supporting that view, historians tell us that Elizabethan England was indeed a country of one book, and that book was the Bible.
When they arrived in America, the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them that same reverence for the Word of God. “The Bible came with them,” said American statesman Daniel Webster,
President Woodrow Wilson said, “America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”
Whether the Bible is “making” any nation today may be debated.
But one thing is sure: The Scriptures helped to “make” the nation of Israel. They are a “people of the Book” as no other nation has been, and the church today would do well to follow ancient Israel’s example.
When God’s people get away from loving, reading, and obeying the Word of God, they lose the blessing of God.
If we want to be like fruitful trees, we must delight in God’s Word (Ps. 1:2–3).
This explains why Nehemiah called for a “Bible conference” and invited Ezra the scribe to be the teacher.
The walls were now finished and the gates were hung. The material needs of the city had been met; now it was time to focus on the spiritual needs of the people in the city.
Chapters 8–13 of the book record that spiritual ministry: instructing the people (chap. 8), confessing sin (chap. 9), dedicating the walls (chaps 10–12), and cleansing the fellowship (chap. 13).
It is important to note that Ezra and Nehemiah put the Word of God first in the life of the city.
What happened in Jerusalem from that point on was a by-product of the people’s response to the Scriptures. “The primary task of the church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God,” said Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
“The decadent periods and eras in the history of the church have always been those periods when preaching had declined” (Preaching and Preachers, pp. 19, 24).
The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to cleanse and revive the hearts of the people of God.
If God is to work in and through His people, then they must respond positively to His Word; and this chapter describes three basic responses:
1. understanding the Word (8:1–8),
2. rejoicing in the Word (vv. 9–12),
3. obeying the Word (vv. 13–18).
The whole person
must be captive to God’s truth.
1. We must understand the Word of God (Neh. 8:1–8)
The Bible is not a “magic book” that changes people or circumstances because somebody reads it or recites it.
God’s Word must be understood before it can enter the heart and release its life-changing power.
Note that six times in this chapter you can find “understanding” mentioned
(vv. 2–3, 7–8, 12–13).
Only those people old enough to understand the Scripture were permitted to be in the assembly (v. 3).
Ezra was the ideal man to conduct this outdoor Bible school.
He was a priest and scribe who “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
He had come to Jerusalem about fourteen years before Nehemiah had arrived and had already sought to bring the people back to the ways of the Lord.
Notice the various ministries that Ezra performed for the people during that special conference.
He brought the Book (Neh. 8:1–4).
The Book that Ezra brought was “the Book of the Law.” This was probably the entire scroll of the Torah, the five Books of Moses, the very foundation of the Jewish religion and civil law.
Ezra stood on a wooden platform (“pulpit”) above the people so they could see and hear him better. He faced the public square where the people stood
He OPENED the Book (Neh. 8:5–6). When Ezra lifted the scroll and unrolled it to the passage he would read, the people who were seated in the square honored the Word of God by standing up.
They knew they would not be hearing a mere man speak his own ideas; they would be hearing the very Word of God (1 Thes. 2:13).
The people remained standing while the Law was read and explained (Neh. 8:7).
Ezra started his reading and teaching early in the morning and continued through midday (v. 3), which means the congregation stood and listened for five or six hours; and this continued for a week (v. 18).
No doubt from time to time, he gave the people opportunities to rest; but the people were there to hear God speak and were willing to stand and listen.
After he opened the Word, “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God” (v. 6).
The people affirmed his words by saying “Amen, Amen” (see 5:13), which means “So be it!”
It was a united congregation (8:1) that honored the Scriptures and was willing to devote half of their day to hearing it read and taught.
They didn’t worship the Book; they worshiped the Lord who spoke to them from the Book.
Our churches today have a desperate need in their public services to show more respect for the Word of God.
We are commanded to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13).
We wonder how the Holy Spirit feels when He sees Bibles put on the church floor, or used as portable filing cabinets for miscellaneous papers, or even left behind in church where they are stacked up and finally given to the local city mission.
We will defend the Bible as the Word of God, but we don’t always treat it like the Word of God.
We are also in too big a hurry to have the meeting end. In some parts of the world, especially in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Communist bloc, believers would stand for hours in crowded churches to hear Bible teaching. In the average Western evangelical church, the shorter the sermon, the better we like it.
He read and explained the Book (Neh. 8:7–8).
The common people didn’t own copies of the Scriptures, so they were thrilled to hear the Word of God.
The word distinctly in verse 8 means that the Law was explained to the people in a language they could understand.
We need new translations of the Bible, not because the Bible changes, but because our language changes.
Between Moses’ writing of the Law and Ezra’s reading of the Law, a thousand years had elapsed!
The Levites assisted Ezra in teaching the Law (v. 7), for this was one of their God-given ministries (Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7). They probably mingled with the people and, when there was a break in the reading, answered questions and told them how to apply the Law to their own lives. Here we have a balance between the public proclamation of the Word in the large assembly and the personal application in the smaller groups. Both are important.
2. We must rejoice in the Word (Neh. 8:9–12)
As Ezra read and explained the Word, the assembly’s first response was one of conviction and grief.
They mourned over their sins, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin”
The law can’t save us; it can only convince us that we need to be saved and then point us to Jesus Christ the Savior (Gal. 3:24).
The sequence is important:
“The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps. 19:8).
Assisted by the Levites, Nehemiah convinced the people to stop mourning and start celebrating.
It is as wrong to mourn when God has forgiven us as it is to rejoice when sin has conquered us.
Yes, as God’s children we carry burdens and know what it is to weep (Neh. 2:1–2);
But we also experience power that transforms sorrow into joy.
The secret of Christian joy is to believe what God says in His Word and act upon it.
Faith that isn’t based on the Word is not faith at all; it is presumption or superstition.
Joy that isn’t the result of faith is not joy at all; it is only a “good feeling” that will soon disappear. Faith based on the Word will produce joy that will weather the storms of life.
It isn’t enough for us to read the Word or receive the Word as others teach it; we must also rejoice in the Word.
“I rejoice at Your word as one who finds great treasure” (Ps. 119:162,).
If we read and study the Word of God only from a sense of duty, then its treasures may never be revealed to us.
It is the believer who rejoices in the Word, who delights to read and study it day by day, who will find God’s hidden treasures.
“Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who finds great delight in his commands” (Ps. 112:1, NIV).
“But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (1:2, NKJV).
Do you delight in God’s Word?
If you delight in His Word, God will delight in you and share His best blessings with you.
3. We must obey the Word (Neh. 8:13–18)
Obligation and appreciation are certainly strong motives for serving the Lord, but celebration is even stronger.
When we obey the Lord and serve Him because we rejoice in Him, then our Christian walk and service will be a delight and not drudgery.
Matthew Henry wrote, “Holy joy will be oil to the wheels of our obedience.”
The Jews still had work to do in their city, and they needed the joy of the Lord to give them the strength to do it.
It is not enough to hear the Word of God; we must obey what it tells us to do (James 1:22–25).
The people not only had joy in hearing the Word, but they also had “great gladness” in obeying it (Neh. 8:17).
“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
The world’s joy is temporary and artificial;
But the joy that comes from the Lord is real and lasting and enriches our lives.
God doesn’t give us joy instead of sorrow, or joy in spite of sorrow, but joy in the midst of sorrow. It is not substitution but transformation.
Jesus illustrated this truth by the birth of a baby (John 16:20–22). The same baby that gives the mother pain also gives the mother joy! Her pain is not replaced by joy but transformed into joy.
The Feast of Tabernacles was a time for sending food and gifts to others, especially to those who were needy. The Jews had found joy in hearing the Word of God, but now they found joy in sharing the blessings of God.
The mind grows by taking in, but the heart grows by giving out; and it is important to maintain a balanced life.
Nehemiah 8:17 does not teach that the nation had ignored the Feast of Tabernacles since the days of Joshua
It was not the fact of the celebration that was so special but the way they celebrated.
Ezra continued the “Bible conference” during the entire week of the feast, day by day reading and explaining the Word of God.
The combination of joyful fellowship, feasting, and hearing the Word must have strengthened the people greatly.
Then the week concluded with a solemn assembly (Num. 29:35), after which the people returned to their regular daily schedules.
Did the blessings of the celebration last?
Yes, for a time; but then the people became careless again, and the leaders had to bring them back to the Word of God.
But the failure of the people is not an argument against special times of Bible study or celebration.
Someone asked evangelist Billy Sunday if revivals lasted, and he replied,
“No, neither does a bath; but it’s good to have one occasionally!”
From time to time in the history of the church, God’s Spirit has burdened people to pray, search the Scriptures, and confess their sins; and from these sincere spiritual exercises, He has seen fit to bring fresh life to His people.
It happened in Nehemiah’s day, and it can happen again today.
Can God begin with you?
“if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron. 7:14, ESV).