We are starting the second half of the book of Nehemiah today. The theme of the book is “Building God’s people for God’s work.” Neh. 1-7 was about doing God’s work. We gleaned principles as we learned about the people of God, under the leadership of God through Nehemiah and the enabling power of God, built the wall around the city of God, Jerusalem. In this we learned about how God prepares us for the work (Neh. 1-2), how He prospers us in the work (Neh. 3) and then the problems in the work (Neh. 4-7).
Now in Neh. 8-13, we will be learning about building God’s people. Did you know God wants to build us? He wants to build us individually, but also as a community. It is all over the New Testament. Col. 2:6 says that once you receive Christ, we must be built up in him. In Eph. 4:11-12, it says that the pastor’s job is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry,” for “the building up the body of Christ.” Peter says to drink the milk of God’s Word so that we may “grow up” (1 Pet. 2:2). So when you come to the cross and receive the Lord, it is only the beginning. God wants to build us up, so that we may build some things for God. We are blessed to be a blessing!
So the first half of the book was about construction, but the second half will be about instruction. The first half was about reconstructing the city’s main defense, but the second half will be revitalizing a city’s spiritual community. Reforming a community back to God is a lot more important than restoring its walls. This brings up a very important point. It is pointless to have a building, a program, a committee, or any structure, if there is little to no life on in the inside. Who cares if we have changed our name if living hope is not really a living hope of all of us? Who cares if we have a servant team or a great youth ministry or a wonderful worship band or a nice building, if the people inside are dead?
This is what Nehemiah realized. The city is now well defended and well governed. We saw in Neh. 7 that Nehemiah helped the people become well organized. But the real question is: Are the people well pleasing to the Lord? We already know some of the spiritual leadership was corrupt (remember Shemaiah and other prophets working for the enemy in Neh 6:10ff) and some of the rich people were also getting paid off from Tobiah (Neh. 6:17-19). Nehemiah has been running around putting band-aids everywhere when the heart has stopped beating in the body. So how can the people of God really be a called-out covenant community again?
The answer is revival. There have been times in history when God shows up and shakes up an entire community and even a nation. I think of the Protestant Reformation in 1500s, led by Martin Luther, where the Bible was translated for the people to understand for the first time and where the old, dead, works-based religiosity of the Roman Catholics gave way to vibrant, living, grace-filled, Bible-based faith. 300 years later, two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, led the “first great awakening” in England. There are others I can name, but those are times people would call revival.
We have no control over that kind of a movement of God. In addition, sometimes when people think of revival, they may think of long lines of people waiting for a turn at a microphone to confess sin, or a bunch of people falling over or laughing and barking or other circus acts of emotional extravaganza. Here is what I mean by revival: a renewed interest and passion for God and the things of God after a period of indifference and apathy. You came to the Lord and were following Him, but for whatever reason, you drifted off, wandered and now you get back on the track again and get fired up for God again (Ps 80:18; Ps. 85:6). This is revival. It is Jesus Christ experienced and enjoyed. Revival is not for the unbeliever, because you can’t revive someone who is dead (Eph. 2:1). Revival is for the believer, though often when God revives His people, He brings life to the unbelievers as well. God wants this from us all the time. He can’t use a dirty vessel. He can’t use someone who is not usable. Revival brings us to the place where we can be clean and usable vessels fit for the Master’s use (2 Tim. 2:21). Today we are going to look at national revival for the Jews, but apply the principles for our own lives. Where does revival start? Revival starts with me! Let’s look at some of the ingredients for revival. What does revival look like? We are going to do this differently than we have in the past. We’re going to study this section and afterwards draw the applications for us.
If we go back to Neh. 7:73, we see that the wall was finished in the sixth month and everyone went back to living their lives. We are now in the seventh month. The seventh month was a very important month in the Jewish calendar. The first day was the Feast of Trumpets, later celebrated as the New Year. Actual trumpets were blown, alerting people to gather together. Other festivals were also celebrated that month like the Day of Atonement.
What a great time to build God’s people! A perfect time for revival! See God’s providence behind this. The wall was done. Everyone is thinking about a new year and also preparing for the Day of Atonement. The “people” dominate these verses. The word “people” occurs thirteen times in 8:1–12. So they gathered around the Water Gate. This gate was on the east side of the city of David. The water gate was the gate used to bring water into the city. An aqueduct brought some water into the city but not all of it. The remainder was carried in through the water gate. Apparently, nearby there was a large square for people to gather. Can you imagine this? About 50,000 people gathering together, in the Middle Eastern Sun, with no seats and no sound system?
Here we see the first mention of Ezra. This is the same Ezra whom the previous book of the Bible is named. If you remember, there were three separate trips back from exile. Ezra, came with the second group, 14 years before Nehemiah, primarily to teach God’s people His Word. He is called a scribe here and a priest in Neh. 8:2. In the book of Ezra, he is also called a teacher (Ez. 7:6). Scribes were trained in reading various languages as well as copying literature and interpreting what it means to the people. Many scribes were also priests and/or community leaders, as Ezra was.
They were guardians of culture and tradition. When he first arrived, the spiritual condition of the people was deplorable. People had intermarried with the neighboring countries and started worshipping other gods (Ez. 9:1-4; 10:2, 10). Through his ministry, people started obeying God’s Word again. The Temple was also rebuilt. Look at how his ministry was described: He “had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). I pray that could be said of all of us! That’s a true minister right there.
The question that arises here is what happened to Ezra for the last seven chapters of Nehemiah? As a result, there is a lot of Bible gymnastics from the Bible scholars, with each one with their own take on where Neh. 8-10 should be placed. Some say after Ezra 7, some say after Neh. 12, etc. I did not find any real solid case for any of them to be honest, so for our purposes, we will keep it as we have it. We don’t know where Ezra was. He probably had great conversations and input with Nehemiah, but was not recorded.
At any rate, look at Neh. 8:2. Ezra is now at the forefront. I love how Nehemiah moves aside here. Nehemiah will no longer be a major character, for a while anyway. He will be referred to in the third person. There is such great teamwork here. Nehemiah is an expert in leadership, organization, delegation of leadership, etc. But he moves aside to let Ezra, the pastor, so to speak, to take care of the preaching. What great humility!
Don’t miss this: “they told Ezra.” Who told Ezra to start reading? THE PEOPLE! “Bring out the book Ezra! Give us the Word!” Wow. The people wanted it. Usually pastors and leaders are begging people to attend Bible Study and church, here the people are demanding it! So Ezra brings with him a huge scroll, which was the “book of the Law of Moses.” These are the first five books of the Old Testament. The phrase “all who could understand” means children old enough to understand.
Ezra reads from it for six-seven hours according to Neh. 8:3. And you thought I preached a long time! He probably did not read the entire Pentateuch (it would take much longer than six hours to read!), but probably large chunks of it, giving people and himself rest from time to time. So Ezra stands on a huge platform (it reminds me of the President’s State of the Union address) and addressed the crowd. Remember, we are talking about 50,000 people here! Apparently, he is not alone according to Neh. 8:4, as some thirteen men join him, who were probably all priests, Levites or lay leaders. See, ministry is not just for the pastor. The ministry belongs to everybody.
Notice everyone standing in Neh. 8:5. It was a sign of respect to the authority of God’s Word. Ezra then praises God in Neh. 8:6. “God you are great! You have been so good to us!” And everyone, imagine 50,000 voices saying, “AMEN!” which means “so be it!” Lord, we see the Scriptures as your Word. What you say about is true. What you say about yourself is true. We agree with it all! This shows us that they were not worshipping the book, but the God who wrote it. They lifted up their hands, showing a sense of need and bowing their heads (wow, imagine 50,000 people doing this) demonstrating their submission and humility to God.
Then we have a summary of what was going on with the other leaders during this time in Neh. 8:7-8. They were having small group! Small group leaders were interacting with them, explaining Scripture to them and answering their questions. Notice the words “making it clear” or “translating it.” The Hebrew here means “to make something distinct, to separate it from something else so as to make it flow together in a meaningful fashion.” They helped people understand the text. A lot of these people were from Persia and perhaps did not know much of the Hebrew language and probably Biblically illiterate as well. This was definitely a tough task!
That is the text. What are the principles/lessons God has for us here? What are the necessary ingredients for revival? We will discuss one of them today and more next time, Lord willing. Here is the point for us today:
I. Revival begins with a growing appetite toward God’s Word
We saw in Neh. 8:1. These people are hungry for the Word of God. They stood for several hours to hear it! And that was just the first day! This would go on for an entire week! Obviously there is no printing press. There was no internet or million different translations. Ezra, read it to us! Give us the Word of God!
The story is told of an Indian man writing his friend overseas about the revival that was going on. He knew limited English, but he wrote to him saying, “We are having a re-Bible here!” What a perfect slip of the pen. A revival always happens when we are “re-Bibled!”
How do you get a growing appetite for God’s Word?
a) Pick it up and read it!
This sounds silly to even say it. But it needs to be said. The Bible is no good lying around in your car or sitting on your desk. It might look good on your coffee table, but that too is pointless. It is not just a portable filing cabinet for your miscellaneous papers. By the way, the Bible is not a magical book. My grandma used to put it over her head whenever she had a headache. Then she would put it under her pillow before she slept, saying it would ward off the demons. It doesn’t work like that.
You need to read it. God could have found other ways to share His truth. He could have created a picture book right? He could have had dvds invented long before. But He didn’t. Sure, you can buy Bible on cd or dvd or look at a Bible picture book, but in the end, you have to read it.
I like to do it as one of the first things in my morning. If I ever tell myself that I was going to do it later, 99% of the time, I never get around to it. So I do it in the morning. I like it guide my day. But whatever time you like to do it, you need to do it consistently. Pastor James MacDonald asks this question: “Let me ask you: How many times this week have you touched a newspaper? How many times have you held a magazine? How many times did you aim the remote control (I can never find the stinking thing!)? How often did you touch the keys of your computer? [How often are you on facebook instead of your face in His book?] But in comparison, how many times did you pick up the book that God wrote? We make all kinds of time for the words of men, and yet we’re too busy to read the Word of God.”
Take a moment and read this:
The Diary of a Bible
• January 15. Been resting for a week. A few nights after the first of the year, my owner opened me, but no more. Another New Year’s resolution gone wrong.
• February 3. Owner picked me up and rushed off to Sunday school.
• February 23. Cleaning day. Dusted and put back in my place.
• April 2. Busy day. Owner had to present the lesson at a church society meeting. Quickly looked up a lot of references.
• May 5. Grandma’s in town. Back in her lap. A very comfortable place.
• May 9. She let a tear fall on John 14.
• May 10. Grandma’s gone. Back in my old place again.
• May 20. Baby born. They wrote his name on one of my pages.
• July 1. Packed in a suitcase. Off for a vacation.
• July 20. Still in the suitcase. Almost everything else taken out.
• July 25. Home again. Quite a journey, though I don’t see why I went.
• August 16. Dusted again and put in a prominent place. The minister is to be here for dinner.
• August 20. Owner wrote Grandma’s death in the Family Record. He left his extra pair of glasses between my pages.
• December 31. Owner just found his glasses. Wonder if he will make any resolutions about me for the new year?
What story would your Bible tell? Some people tell me, “I can’t seem to get around reading the Bible.” I want to say, “You can’t?” or “You won’t?” You have to get in God’s Word. It is not that you have to have a fabulous devotional time each day. It is not that you do it perfectly, but increasingly. It is like your mother’s cooking growing up. You don’t remember every single meal you had, but you knew you grew from it. Do not complain about not hearing from God when you are not in His Word. Don’t say you need prayer to be a better husband or wife or to serve better when you are not in His Word. The more you neglect it, the more your heart becomes hard. The more your heart becomes hard, the harder it becomes to hear God’s voice in your life (Heb. 3:7-12). The more you don’t hear God’s voice in your life, the more easily you will stray away and fall away from God. Your attitude toward God’s Word will reveal your attitude toward God.
Secondly, the way to grow your appetite toward God’s Word is to:
b) Interact with it
Notice Neh. 8:3. The people were “attentive.” Literally, this means, “The ears of all the people were to the Book of the Law.” There is a vitality about their listening. Notice also in Neh. 8:6. The people are engaging with the reading by responding in worship to the God of the Bible. Notice also how many times the word “understand” or “understood” is mentioned here. In fact, it is found six times in this chapter (Neh. 8:2-3, 7-8, 12-13). They are very proactive. There is no passivity here. They wanted to hear the Word and make sure they understand it. They are engaging with the Word of God. This is why I love going to black churches. They interact so much with the Word. Granted, sometimes it is overboard, but it shows people wanting to hear a word from God for them.
Let me share with your from my heart here. First of all, as long as I am pastor here at Living Hope, you can be sure you are going to hear from the Bible every Sunday. I will rather die than not do that. Ever. Unfortunately a lot of churches are now spending more time showing skits and youtube videos every Sunday with some added music and coffee. Sure, there will be a verse on the bulletin for some good measure. Yeah, not here.
Since preaching from the Bible and giving our number one authority to the Bible is a strong conviction of mine, I want it to be ours too as a church. It is vital that we engage with the Word. It is pointless for us on a Sunday, if we are up late on Saturday night, come rushing into church, don’t have a Bible, sit here blankly, say hi to some people, eat some rice and go home. I am not sure if we see how sacred our time is here? How many of us pray before you come to church? How many of us are praying as you are hearing the Word? I guess some of you are since your eyes are closed!
You may notice I never or rarely put the verses up on powerpoint. The reason is I want us to learn how to use a Bible. I doubt you are putting up powerpoint when you are doing your devotions. My favorite sound of all time is the turning of pages in the Bible at church. I know some of you use your phones to read it, which is fine, as long as you are not texting or checking your facebook. But engage with the Word. Mark up your Bibles. Take notes. Don’t just be about filling in the blanks. Write prayers down. Write questions down. Come to Sunday School so that you can ask those questions, dig deeper and pray through things with others.
I took my first preaching class in seminary. It was a huge eye opening experience. Not only did I realize I did everything wrong in the book up to that point and I’m still learning how to do this, but I struggled a lot with being so critical of other people’s sermons. We spent an entire semester critiquing each others sermons, so whenever I went to church or chapel or heard a message on tv or the radio, I was critiquing. Finally, someone who was struggling with this same problem asked in class how the professor handles hearing sermons, knowing all these principles and the preachers not following them. He replied, “It is your responsibility when you hear a message to get something out of it.” I never forgot that and use that to this day!
I pass that on to you Living Hope. I may be preaching things you already know. I may be preaching things you can probably preach better. But it is our responsibility to engage with the Word and get something out of our Sundays. God will judge me according to James 3:1 with how faithful I was to accurately preach the text. But we are all accountable with what we do with the Word of God. This is what Jesus’ parable of the Soil was all about. It saddens me when people do not bring their Bible. Why am I adamant about this? Because our church will only be as strong as how high the people view Scripture. If you want revival to take place, grow in interacting with the Word.
God always wants to engage with us through His Word. Martin Luther once said, “The Bible is alive; it speaks to me. It has feet; it runs after me. It has hands; it lays hold of me!” God always wants to engage with us. This is why God says His Word is a lamp when we are lost and groping in the darkness (Ps. 119:105). This is why God’s Word is like fire, Jeremiah 5:14 because it consumes us. It burns up useless things in our hearts. Have you ever listened to a sermon and thought, wow, the preacher seems to be talking about me! This is because the Bible is a sword (Heb 4:12) cutting into our hearts to our thoughts and intentions. Ps. 19:7 says the law of the Lord revives the soul. There are other images like hammer, breaking our hard hearts (Jer. 23:29). It is like milk that nourishes us when we are starving (1 Pet. 2:2) and a mirror that shows us how dirty we are (James 1:23-25). God wants to do all of that with us through His Word!
One of my favorite songs of Keith Green, a drug addict turned gospel writer/prophet in the 1970s and early 80s (before dying in a plane crash), is called, “My eyes are dry” and the words are:
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to you and dead to me
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you, your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood
That is a prayer for revival. I am often singing it. I want revival for all of us, but do you know where it starts? It’s starts with me and it starts in His book. Even this past week I found my heart was so cold and my affections so small. I went to His book again. I read Hosea 11. This was me! The more the Lord calls me, the more I go away. I forgot how patient He is. I forgot His love. But He says, “How can I give you up?”(Hos. 11:8). He filled my heart again with His love. He softened me as I lay broken before Him. My steps to repentance were so slow, but like the father of the prodigal son, I have found that faster are the Lord’s steps to forgive us. Would you turn your heart to Him again? He calls you. Do not delay. Run back to Him and you will find Him, as you get back to His Word.
Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible, Ne 8:1 (Galaxie Software, 2003; 2003).
J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, Based on the Thru the Bible radio program., electronic ed., 2:514 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1981).
Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : Old Testament, electronic ed., Ne 8:1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
James MacDonald, God Wrote a Book, 95 (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002).
Author unknown, but as quoted in James MacDonald, God Wrote a Book.
“Bible Relevancy,” http://www.thegracetabernacle.org/quotes/Bible-Relevancy.htm accessed September 11, 2009.
http://www.lyricsfreak.com/k/keith green/my eyes are dry_20077346.html accessed September 11,2009.