Stephen Caswell © 2000
Ÿ A thorough knowledge of the Bible is better than a college education.- Theodore Roosevelt
Ÿ All things desirable to men are contained in the Bible. -- Abraham Lincoln
Ÿ As in paradise, God walks in the Holy Scriptures, seeking man. -- Saint Ambrose
Ÿ Be astounded that God should have written to us. -- Antony of Egypt
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. Last Sunday morning we saw how Nehemiah continued his work. This time restoring the people. 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: understanding the Word, rejoicing in the Word, and obeying the Word. The whole person is involved, the mind - understanding, the heart - rejoicing, and the will - obeying, must be captive to God’s truth.
I. They Understood God's Word II. They Rejoiced In God's Word
III. They Obeyed God's Word
Firstly We Must Understand God's Word
a. They Requested God's Word
Nehemiah 8:1-2 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.
This was on the first day of the seventh month, which was the Jewish equivalent of our New Year’s Day. The seventh month was a special time in the Jewish calendar because the Jews celebrated the Feast of Trumpets on the first day, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the fifteenth day to the twenty-first day. It was the perfect time for the nation to get right with the Lord and make a fresh new beginning. The people didn't ask for a sermon against the social injustice or one promoting welfare. They desired to hear God's Word. They asked Ezra the scribe to read God's Word and preach a sermon to them. 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.
b. They Reverenced God's Word
Nehemiah 8:3-6 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose;
.... And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
1. They Stood - 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. After he opened the Word, Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. The people affirmed his words by saying Amen, Amen, which means, So be it! Then they bowed their heads and worshipped God. They didn’t worship the Book; they worshipped 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 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. We will defend the Bible as the Word of God, but we don’t always treat it like the Word of God. Let's be careful to reverence God's Word!
2. They Stayed - The people remained standing while the Law was read and explained. It was a united congregation that honored the Scriptures and was willing to devote half of their day to hearing it read and taught. Ezra started his reading and teaching early in the morning and continued through midday, which means the congregation stood and listened for five or six hours. 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. They stood while the Book was read. Soren Kierkegaard said: When you read God's Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, God is talking to me, and about me.
We are commanded to give attention to the public reading of Scripture and yet in many churches, the only Scripture publicly read is the text of the sermon. Today, we talk about God but neglect His Word! The words of Amos 8:11 are true today. Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD: Today there is a great need to hear God's Word in the Churches. Our Church services should have readings from the Sacred Scriptures.
c. They Received God's Word
Neh 8:7-8 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
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. The Word was translated and expounded in such a way that the people were able to apply it to their own lives. The Hebrew language would have undergone some changes since the days when Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and the everyday conversational Hebrew of the people would be different in some ways from ancient Hebrew. The Levites assisted Ezra in teaching the Law, for this was one of their God-given ministries. They explained what God's Word meant. They ministered in a similar way that pastors and teachers do today. 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. Mid week Bible studies can be so helpful in learning God's Word. Not to forget the prayer and fellowship shared as well! The people gladly received God's Word as it was explained. No doubt the Lord was pleased.
Bible - Study of Commanded -- Helmut Thielicke
The Word of God is demanding. It demands a stretch of time in our day--even though it be a very modest one--in which it is our only companion. ... God will not put up with being fobbed off with prayers in telegram style and cut short like a troublesome visitor for whom we open the door just a crack to get rid of him as quickly as possible.
a. They Requested God's Word - Firstly Israel asked Ezra to read God's Word to them. They longed to hear it. They didn't have their own Bibles and sought to hear it from Ezra. Do you hunger and thirst to hear God's Word? Do you read it every day? Do you desire to hear it as often as you can? Or does Television keep you from hearing it on Sunday nights?
b. They Reverenced God's Word - Secondly Israel recognized the importance of God's Word. They stood while it was read out of respect for God who was speaking through His Word! Do you reverence God's Word? Are you thankful that you can have your own copies? Many believers aren't that fortunate! Do you treat God's Word with respect or use it as a place mat for coffee cups or a portable filing cabinet? Do you worship the God who wrote the Bible?
c. They Received God's Word - Thirdly Israel understood God's Word. They listened as it was read and explained. They received it in their hearts. Do you long to understand God's Word? Do you attend a Bible study to learn it? When reading it do you think God is speaking to me?
Secondly We Must Rejoice In God's Word
Nehemiah 8:9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.
a. They Experienced Grief & Remorse
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. This was a good response to God's Word. Their hearts were soft and responsive. They saw how they had sinned against the Lord and were sorry. We too need to have soft heart's to hear God's Word. But 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. However at this point Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites encouraged the people not to mourn. Why? Because God had seen their tears and forgiven them. Also the Feast of Trumpets was not a feast of sorrow, but of joy and expectation.
The time to feel sorrow was the Day of Atonement, nine days later.
Brokenness --James S. Hewett
A rabbi was asked a question by a pupil, referring to Deuteronomy 6:6-- And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart. Why is it said this way? the pupil asked. Why are we not told to place them in our heart? The rabbi answered that it is not within man's power to place the divine teachings directly in his heart. All that we can do is place them on the surface of the heart so that when the heart breaks they will drop in.
b. They Expressed Great Rejoicing
10-12 Then he said to them, Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved. And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.
The sequence is important: first conviction, then cleansing, and then celebration. The Word of God brings conviction and leads to repentance, but it also brings us joy; for the same Word that wounds also heals. Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by Your name Jeremiah 15:16. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart Psalm 19:8. Assisted by the Levites, Nehemiah and Ezra 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. The sinner has no reason for rejoicing and the forgiven child of God has no reason for mourning.
Israel rejoiced greatly because they had understood God's Word. Their response of repentance was appropriate. Yes, as God’s children we carry burdens and know what it is to weep; 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. It isn’t enough for us to read the Word or receive the Word as others expound it; we must also rejoice in the Word. 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 sit day by day, who will find God’s hidden treasures.
Psalm 119:162 I rejoice at Your word As one who finds great treasure. & Psalm 1:1-2 says: Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.
a. They Experienced Grief & Remorse - Firstly Israel responded with grief and mourning for their sin. Is your heart soft to God's Word? Do you allow the Bible to reprove you of sin? Do you grieve and weep for your sins? We all should! Only as we repent of our sin can God cleanse us and fill us with His joy. Days of laughter are preceded by nights of tears.
b. They Expressed Great Rejoicing - Do you rejoice in God’s Word? Do you know the joy of God's forgiveness? Or are you still mourning for confessed sin? If so, stop and accept the fact that Christ has forgiven you and start rejoicing! Do you desire God’s Word more than food, or sleep or wealth? If you delight in His Word, God will delight in you and share His best blessings with you.
Thirdly We Must Obey God's Word
Nehemiah 8:13-15 Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law. And they found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.
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 service will be a delight and not a drudgery. Matthew Henry wrote, Holy joy will be oil to the wheels of our obedience. To the believer without joy, the will of God is punishment; but to the believer happy in the Lord, the will of God is nourishment. Some of the leaders met together on the second day of the month to study God's Word further. They discovered His commands concerning the Feast of Tabernacles. So they proclaimed the good news of this special feast. They encouraged others to obey too! D. L. Moody: The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives.
Nehemiah 8:16 Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim.
The people obeyed the Lord's command and kept the feast. During the seven days of the feast, the Jews lived in booths made of branches and usually built on the flat roofs of their houses. This feast was a special time of reflection upon God's work for Israel.
1. Looking at God's Work
Nehemiah 8:17 So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness.
During the seven days of the feast, the Jews lived in booths made of branches and usually built on the flat roofs of their houses. It was a time for looking back and remembering the nation’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, when the people were homeless and lived in temporary shelters.
But the feast was also a time for looking around at the harvest blessings from the hand of God. The Lord had given them a good land, and they were never to forget the Giver as they enjoyed the gifts. This was a harvest festival. The Feast of Tabernacles was also an occasion for looking ahead to the glorious kingdom God promised His people Israel. Zechariah tells us that one day all the nations will keep this feast. The Lord's Supper causes us to look back and remember the death of Christ on the cross. We look at His current blessings and forgiveness. We also look forward to when Christ will celebrate it with us in the kingdom.
Nehemiah 8:17 does not teach that the nation had ignored the Feast of Tabernacles since the days of Joshua, because that was not so. The feast was celebrated during King Solomon’s day and also when the Babylonian exiles had returned to the land. It was not the fact of the celebration that was so special but the way they celebrated, for it appears that everybody participated enthusiastically. Because every family made a booth, some of the people had to move from the houses into the streets and squares of the city. Apparently in previous years, not all the Jews had made booths and lived in them for the week of the feast. They had given only token acknowledgment of the feast. Furthermore, the joyful attitude of the people was beyond anything the nation had ever seen. It was truly a week of joyful celebration that brought glory to the Lord. God desires total obedience from us too, not just a token of it.
2. Listening to God's Word
Nehemiah 8:18 Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.
Continued In God's Word
It was a week-long festival of joyful praise and thanksgiving, focusing on the goodness of the Lord. But the celebrating of the feast was not for enjoyment alone; it was also for enrichment and encouragement. Ezra continued the Bible conference during the entire week of the feast, day by day reading and explaining the Word of God. The people focused on God's goodness to them and learnt His Word. The combination of joyful fellowship, feasting, and hearing the Word must have strengthened the people greatly. Then the week concluded with a solemn assembly, after which the people returned to their regular daily schedules.
As we read through this chapter we find that verse 10 speaks of joy, then verse 12 says that they rejoiced greatly and finally in verse 17 that they had very great gladness. Let us read God's Word day by day. If we hear God's Word daily, rejoice in it and obey it then our joy will increase. Nehemiah 8:10 says, The joy of the Lord is your strength. The world’s joy is temporary and artificial; and when the joy is gone, people are left with even greater weakness and emptiness. But the joy that comes from the Lord is real and lasting enriching 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. Obedience to the Word brings abundant joy.
John 15:10-11 says: If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.
Israel rejoiced greatly in God's Word. But it was their obedience that mattered most. Because doers of the Word are blest, not forgetful hearers. Do you read God's Word day by day? Do you obey it completely? Or do you render token obedience? Do you worship God enthusiastically or out of duty? Do you delight to read God's Word and rejoice in it? We should! The Lord's Supper provides us an opportunity to reflect on God's goodness to us. It allows us to look back to the cross and forward to Christ's coming kingdom. Do you stop to thank the Lord for His goodness to you? Do you praise Him for His marvelous salvation?
Today we have seen three good responses from Israel to God's Word. They understood it with their minds, they rejoiced in their hearts and obeyed with their wills.
I. They Understood God's Word - mind
Israel requested to hear God's Word, they reverenced it and received it. Do you long to hear God's Word? Do you take every opportunity to hear it? Or does TV keep you away Sunday Nights? Do you reverence God's Word and receive it gladly? Do you study it to understand it? Do you ask others for help if you don't understand something?
II. They Rejoiced In God's Word - heart
Israel repented of their sin after hearing God's Word. They had soft hearts. Then they rejoiced in God's forgiveness. Do you allow God's Word to convict you? Do you weep over your sin? Or do you harden your heart? Are you rejoicing in God's forgiveness?
III. They Obeyed God's Word - will
Israel obeyed God's Word. They enthusiastically kept the feast unto the Lord. Do you respond to God's Word with obedience? Do you delight to worship God or do you do it out of duty? Will you read God's Word day by day? Will you obey it enthusiastically? If you do, God will pour out His joy upon you in full measure!
Num 6:24-26 The LORD bless you, and keep you: The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.