Brad Hodges - Nehemiah 8
Turn in your Bibles to Nehemiah chapter 8 and listen closely to the reading of God’s word. [Read 8:1-12]
Let’s pray. Father, we know that you are here with us because you have promised that you would be. We ask that your Spirit would speak to us now through your word. Give us all ears to hear what you have to say. In Jesus name, amen.
We’ve come to chapter eight in our study of Ezra/Nehemiah, after taking a break with Ian last week. Chapter eight is a bit of a turning point in the book, so let’s take a minute to recap the story so far. You remember that around the year 600 B.C., Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians. The temple was destroyed and Israel was taken from the land and carried into exile in Babylon. This all happened because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. But God preserved them there, and after 70 years, as he promised he would, he stirred up the heart of Cyrus the king to send them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. That’s where the story in Ezra picks up. First they rebuilt the alter, and then after some fits and starts, with some heavy opposition, they finished rebuilding the temple as well. It wasn’t what it used to be, but God had kept his promise to bring them back to the land. Some time later, Ezra was sent to Jerusalem to teach the people and to straighten out some things that had gone wrong. In particular, a mess had been made by a number of Israelites who had unlawfully married pagan women from the surrounding countries. But Ezra called them out and the people repented of their sin. Ezra, which is part one of the story, ends on a somber note of confession and repentance. In part two, Nehemiah gets word that the city wall is broken down and the people in Jerusalem are in “great trouble and shame.” So Nehemiah, who is a member of the king’s court, goes to Jerusalem with the king’s permission. He assesses the situation and very skillfully manages another impressive building project. Nehemiah and the people rebuild the city wall in just 52 days, again under heavy opposition. In chapter six we see that the wall is completed. In chapter seven, which we’re skipping over, Nehemiah does a roll call for all of the people, and he gives the list, again, of the families who originally came back from Babylon.
That brings us to chapter eight. This section of Nehemiah actually starts with the second half of verse 73 in chapter 7. The chapter break isn’t correct. Remember that the chapter breaks were added 1000 years after the New Testament was written, so while they are usually helpful, they aren’t always perfect. Don’t let that throw you. It’s important in this case because the timing of this episode matters a lot. Let’s look at it.
And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns. And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate.
At this point the wall had only been finished for about a week. The mortar hadn’t even fully cured, and the people are gathering for a worship service. Why did they gather? Well, the first thing to say is that they gathered because that’s what God’s people do. God’s people have always been a gathering people. God tells his people to gather, he tells them when to gather, and what to do when they gather. For Israel, the beginning of the seventh month was one of those prescribed times for gathering.
The seventh month was important for several reasons, but most importantly, it was the time that God gave Israel for marking the Day of Atonement, which, you remember, was the one day in the year when the High Priest could go into the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice as a sin offering for the people of Israel. If he went in on any other day, or in any manner other than exactly how God told him to, then God would kill him. So this was serious business. It was a holy time. But it was also a time of celebration - serious celebration, you might say. That will be a theme for us this morning. There were three parts to this celebration, which lasted essentially the entire month. The three parts were the Feast of Trumpets on the first day of the month, then the Day of Atonement on the 10th day, then followed by the Feast of Booths starting on the 15th day. Leviticus 23 describes the celebration that God commanded. We’ll get to the Feast of Booths later on, but this is what it says about the Feast of Trumpets.
23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation.’” Leviticus 23:23-24
So when the people gathered together on the first day of the seventh month, this is what they were doing. The day was to be a Sabbath to them, a day of rest, and a memorial proclaimed with blasts of trumpets. There’s no mention of trumpets in our passage. They may have been there, or maybe not. They’re in a process of restoring the old ways of worship. Perhaps they hadn’t gotten to the trumpets yet. But they knew that they were supposed to gather on this day to worship.
Remember that the story of Ezra and Nehemiah is one of returning and rebuilding. There are two big building projects in the story. In Ezra it was the temple, and in Nehemiah the wall. But here in chapter 8, and for the rest of the book, we start to see that it isn’t temples or walls that God is primarily interested in. It’s worship. We’ve heard throughout this series that what God is rebuilding in this story is his people. And what distinguishes the people of God isn’t temples or walls. It’s the worship of Yahweh, and the presence of Yahweh when his people gather together. It’s what happens inside the walls that makes God’s people unique. That’s what needed to be restored - the worship of Yahweh. The wall had meaning, but not without worship. This worship service is not a celebration of the wall being complete. No, it’s more that the wall is done, so now we can focus on doing what we were always meant to do, which is worship.
So the people gathered, and God said in the law that when they came together it was to be a “holy convocation.” A convocation is just another word for a gathering. This gathering was holy because God himself had set it apart. That’s what “holy” means - set apart, different, special. God appointed certain times for his people to come together, and those times were unique. They were not like every other day. These annual feasts were not the only days that were set apart. Every Sabbath, in fact, the people were to gather together in a holy convocation. In that same chapter of Leviticus God said, “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.”
When God’s people come together in the time and manner which God appoints, something profound and wonderful is happening. It’s a holy thing. That’s our connection point to this story in Nehemiah. The New Testament word - the Greek word - that expresses this idea of a “holy convocation” is the word “ekklesia,” which is the word for church. “Ekklesia” means “a called-out assembly,” or we could say, “a holy assembly.” I want you to see that at its root, what we do here every Sunday morning is fundamentally the same thing that we’re reading about in Nehemiah 8, or in Leviticus 23. When we come together on the Lord’s day to worship, it is a holy convocation. We should feel a primal connection to what’s happening here. Some specifics are different, for sure. But the fundamentals are the same. God meets with his people, his bride. He has done it from the beginning, and he still does today. He speaks to them, shares a meal with them, and ministers to them. Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” You might say, “Well, of course. God is omnipresent, he’s everywhere.” Right, so Jesus must be saying that when his people gather together in his name, he is with them in a unique way. It’s true that God is always with you. But it’s also true that God is here in a way that’s different. When you walk in here on Sunday morning, there should be a buzz in the air. You should be a little on edge. Something special is happening. God is meeting with his people. He’s here. Let that thought roll around in your mind as you go to bed on Saturday night and as you get ready on Sunday morning. I’m going to walk into that room with my people, and God will be there with us.
So the people of God gathered together as a holy convocation. What did they do?
And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand.
The central element of this worship service was a reading of the law. Remember, when you hear “law of Moses,” just think of the Pentateuch, the first five books of our Bible. We don’t know which part Ezra read. It may have been just a part, like the book of Deuteronomy, or maybe he just started from the beginning. We don’t know. It says that “they told Ezra” to bring the book of the law. So this wasn’t something that Ezra compelled the people to do. There was a general agreement among everyone that this was the right thing. Everyone understood that in this situation, we should have a reading of the law. And everyone was there - men, women, and children - all “those who could understand.” There were certain services in Israel in which only the men participated, but on occasions like this, everyone was there.
Why did they think that a reading of the law was the thing to do? Again, the program here is a restoration of the old way of worshiping God. Not because the old way is always the best way. It may be, or it may not be. But if the old way was obedient to God’s command, and the new way isn’t, then yes, the old way is best. That was the case here. The instruction to have a public reading of the law comes from Deuteronomy 31.
10 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God …” Deuteronomy 31.10-13
That’s such a rich text. There’s a lot we could say about it. The point right now is that everyone understood that this was the right time to have a reading of the law. So that’s what they did. And the purpose, as it always had been, was so that everyone - men, women, children, sojourners, everyone - would hear what God had to say, so that they would learn to fear the Lord and to obey his law. It’s important that you not think of this merely a ceremony. It is a ceremony of sorts, but in this ceremony God is speaking directly to his people, his bride, “This is what I want you to do.” In fact, this is the ordinary way that God speaks to his people. Throughout all of history, Old Testament and New, the way that God has ordinarily spoken to his people has been through the public reading of his Word. In our day, in his kindness, God has given us all personal copies of his word so that we can read it ourselves at home. That’s amazing. I’m thankful for that. It’s possible for us to know the word of God better than any ordinary Israelite ever could. We should devote ourselves to doing just that. But without taking away from the private study of the word, I want to encourage you to carve out a category for the public reading of the word, here on the Lord’s day, as a special thing. When God comes together with his bride, both parties speak, just like when you sit down to a meal with your wife or your husband. On Sunday morning, we express our affection and admiration for God in our worship, and he speaks to us through his word. The public reading of Scripture is not something that we do to demonstrate how much we revere his word. That would turn it into something that we say. I encourage you to see the reading of the scriptures, not as something that we’re saying, but as something that God is saying directly, out loud, to us, his people. If that sounds a little bit mystical, a little strange, then I would say, “Yes, it is.” It’s incredibly strange and wonderful.
And I would remind you that we’re charismatics. We believe in that sort of thing. If you believe that God speaks to us through prophecy in a mediated, imperfect kind of way (which we do), and that gets you excited (which it should) and you think, “Wow, that might be God, speaking to me,” then how much more excited should we be when God speaks perfectly, unmistakably, to us through scripture. Don’t make the mistake of creating a false distinction in your mind between things that are liturgical or structured on the one hand and things that are charismatic or Spirit-filled on the other. We want both, at the same time. Because both are a gift from God. And the Spirit of God is there in both, if we have ears to hear. We believe that the word of God, just like it did in the beginning at creation, goes out into the world, it vibrates the air, and it causes things to happen. That is no less true when his words are being spoken from behind a podium.
Let’s look now at how Israel responded to the public reading.
3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
What I want us to see here is just how Israel honored the reading of the word. They honored it as if God himself were speaking to them. And of course that’s the point. He was. They honored the reading of the word with their minds, their bodies, and their words.
First, with their minds. It says that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” They honored the word simply by paying careful attention to it. On this occasion they paid careful attention from “early morning until midday.” If you’re counting, that’s about five hours of paying careful attention to the reading of the word. We may go a little long this morning, but not compared to this. I assume that it was hard for them to focus for that long just as it would be for us. But it says that they paid careful attention to the words that were read.
There have been plenty of people who have lamented the short attention spans of our digitized minds. But there’s truth to it, and maybe we can say that the most important reason why a short attention span - an easily distracted mind - is a problem, is that it hinders our ability to hear when God speaks. Scripture is pretty clear that God doesn’t tend to speak in sound bites. He gave us this really long book. But God apparently thinks that some things are worth taking a long time to say. Think of Moses who waited for 40 days on Mount Sinai to hear from God, or Jesus who prayed all night long in the garden while his disciples slept. God may choose to drop a word on you like a flash. But more often we have to pay attention, sometimes for a long time. “Wait on the Lord,” the Psalms tell us. We should try to cultivate the kind of mind that can pay careful attention to the word. We don’t want to miss what God has to say.
They also honored the word with their bodies. Look at all of the physical things that they did. They built a platform, they stood, they lifted their hands, and they bowed their heads. The platform, I’m sure, made it easier for the word to be heard and seen. There may have also been some symbolic significance. The text makes a point of saying that Ezra, as he read the word, “was above all the people.” Notice how the physicality of it all is highlighted. “Their ears were attentive.” He “opened the book in the sight of all the people.” They all stood, which means the same thing now that it did then. It was a sign of honor, like when everyone stands when the President enters a room. It’s also a sign that they were an active participant in what was happening. They were not passively observing a ceremony. They were actively receiving their instruction from the Lord. And they lifted their hands and bowed their heads. That’s a posture of worship that only makes sense if God himself is speaking in the words that are being read by Ezra. They weren’t worshiping the book. They were worshiping the God who speaks, and who was speaking to them in that moment through the words that were being read.
Lastly, they honored it with their words. It says, “All the people answered, ‘Amen, amen,’ lifting up their hands.” Our word, “Amen,” is from the Hebrew. It means, “truly” or “it is so.” It’s a way of saying, “I agree with what was just said.” It’s like a verbal signature at the bottom of the page. It’s right to honor the word by vocalizing our agreement. If you’re in a conversation with someone and they respond to you with a silent stare, what do you assume? You assume that they either didn’t understand or they don’t agree with you. Now, of course, God knows our thoughts. But it’s still appropriate for us to speak when we’re spoken to. We have developed, sort of organically, our own habit here of responding with the words, “Thanks be to God” when the scripture is read. Our elders didn’t direct us to do that. It just sort of happened. And it feels right. Again, when God meets with us, both parties speak. He speaks truth to us with authority, and we joyfully, humbly respond with our gratitude and agreement. We use the words, “Thanks be to God.” That’s an old tradition in lots of churches, and it’s great. This is not the kind of thing where we have a law to follow. But maybe it would be meaningful if we actually just said “Amen,” like they did. This is just something for us to think about. “Amen” is a really wonderful word. It rolls off the tongue pretty easily in our church culture, and there’s a good reason for that. It has a history. “Amen” is the actual Hebrew word, just carried straight over into English. When we say, “Amen.” we’re saying the same word, making the same sounds, that the Israelites said to voice their agreement when God spoke to them in the wilderness. That’s kind of beautiful. We can go even further. Pretty much every language just carries the word straight over. What’s the German word for “amen?” It’s “amen.” How about the Albanian word? “Amen.” What about Hindi? “Amen.” You get the point. When God speaks, all his people say with literally one word, one voice, “Amen.” So next time an elder says “and all God’s people said,” and you reply “Amen,” let your mind go rushing back through the centuries, through all times and places in the history of the church, all the way back to Israel in the wilderness, and feel your kinship with all of them. As long as there has been a people of God, when God speaks, his people say, “Amen.” I find that exciting. That’s something to think about, but the main point is that it’s completely right and appropriate for us to respond with our words when God speaks to us through his word. Speak when you’re spoken to.
Some applications - how should we honor the word? The first answer is the most obvious one. Pay careful attention to the Bible. Read it. Hear it. Devote lots of time to it - a disproportionate amount of time. Devote more time and energy to knowing this than you do to knowing anything else. It is your first and final authority in life. Also, develop habits that help you to pay closer attention to the word. Consider using a physical Bible rather than using your phone or a computer. There’s nothing wrong with having a Bible app on your phone. I have one and I use it all the time to search for things, but if your Bible is just an app, among four dozen other apps on your phone, it will be a real uphill battle to give it the honor that it deserves. And if your goal is to pay close attention to the word, then be aware that smart phones are the most distracting devices ever invented by man. I strongly encourage you to use a physical Bible for your regular reading. Also, train yourself to be able to pay attention to the word for longer periods of time. You can’t do this every day, but set aside the occasional Sunday afternoon where you just sit and read or listen to the Bible for an hour or two. You may find that God will speak something to you that you haven’t heard before.
And let’s honor the word with our bodies, both the public reading and at home. We don’t have rules to follow here, but give some thought to how you can honor the word with your body, as well as your mind. Remember that what we do with our bodies matters, in ways that we don’t always even understand. The spiritual world and the physical world are not separate and disconnected. Body and soul are very much connected, and will be for all eternity. Treat your physical Bible with honor, and you may find that it helps you to regard the content of his word more highly. And during the public reading, maybe we don’t necessarily have to stand up like they did, although lots of churches do that - it may be a good idea. Just remember that we are not a collection of disembodied brains. Let’s think together about ways that we can honor the word. At the very least, try to cultivate a kind of edge-of-your-seat anticipation toward the spoken word of God. God is speaking to us. Pay close attention.
Let’s keep going. Hearing is not enough. There is no point in hearing unless we understand.
7 [...] the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
I hinted a minute ago that there is something kind of mystical and mysterious about the spoken word of God here in this setting. I think that’s true. But its not something magical that benefits you just by virtue of being in the room. The point of hearing the word is to understand. Six times in this chapter he speaks of the need for the people to understand what was being read. It was clear that understanding was the point of this whole gathering from the passage that we read in Deuteronomy. God told Israel to assemble the people and read the word so “that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.” The point of hearing is to learn, to understand, so that you can obey. You can’t obey a command that you don’t understand. It’s one thing to obey a command without understanding why. Every parent has a category for that. But you can’t obey if you don’t understand what you’re being told to do.
That might seem obvious, but it hasn’t always been. There is actually a long history of debate in the church about this. The Catholics are having a debate about it right now. You probably know, the Catholic church for centuries practiced a Latin mass, where the whole service was conducted in Latin, and no one could understand the words that were being said. The Catholics are sort of split today on the Latin mass. There’s a movement to bring it back. The idea is that the grace of God comes to you simply by participating in the service, whether you understand the words or not. I get the appeal of that kind of thing, but it’s just not true. It isn’t what the Bible teaches. They missed the point of what’s happening when we meet with God. The thing that is really magical and mysterious is that when God speaks, we could actually understand. How incredible is that? How unbelievable that the infinite, perfect, transcendent God could speak, and we small, stilted, sinful people could possibly understand. How can that be? The God who is so far above us that he is a category unto himself - he is completely unlike us. How is it possible that we could ever communicate with him? How could we possibly understand what he has to say? That’s the mystery. Good grief, you don’t need to say it in Latin to make it impressive. Philosophers have pondered this for centuries: how can it be possible for finite creatures to understand anything about the infinite God? But nevertheless, amazingly enough, when God speaks to his people, he intends for us to understand, and it is possible for us to understand.
But we do need help. Verse seven says that the Levites “helped the people to understand the law.” They “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” I don’t know exactly what that looked like at this gathering. It says “while the people remained their places.” So maybe they read a bit and then gathered into smaller discussion groups with the Levites, or maybe the Levites took turns speaking to the whole assembly. We aren’t given those details, so it must not matter. The point is that they helped the people to understand what had been read.
One way that we apply this is in our method of preaching. In our church (as in many other churches) our elders practice expositional preaching, which just means that we work our way through books of the Bible and the elders give us the sense of the text. They help us to understand what it says. Ezra was described as one who was “skilled in the law.” He was skilled at understanding and communicating what the law said. Our elders are men who are skilled in the word. The word is clear enough to be understood by anyone, but not simple in the sense that it doesn’t require any work or skill. Second Chronicles tells us that this was the Levites’ job. They traveled about from city to city and taught the people, helping them to understand the law. Israel was commanded to support the Levites so that they didn’t have to give up this ministry to go work the farm. The implication is that understanding and teaching the word is a full time job. Paul says twice not to “muzzle the ox when it treads out the grain.” First Timothy says that the elders who labor in preaching and teaching are “worthy of double honor.” The point is that we should pay our pastors who do the regular preaching so that they can devote themselves full time to the job of studying and explaining the word. It takes hard work, like an ox treading out the grain.
Just like all of us having our own Bibles, we have resources today to help us understand the word that are beyond what Christians have ever had before. Take advantage of those. But again, I encourage you to carve out a special place in your mind for this setting, where our elders, who know us and love us, open the word and explain it to us. Give it priority. If you come to a text in your reading that you don’t understand, let your first move be to go back through your notes or search the sermon archives to see if our elders have ever preached on the topic. That doesn’t have to be the only place you go. We want to be good Bereans who weigh what is said and search the scriptures ourselves. But our elders have been given the task, and an authority, by God himself, to explain his words to us. God speaks to us through his word, and our elders come along and say, “Ok, this is what God meant when he said that.” That’s an unbelievably audacious thing to do. But that’s what God has told them to do, and he has given them the authority to do it. Occasionally our elders will delegate a sermon, like today. We can benefit from that. But I’m not an elder. It’s our elders who have the sobering responsibility every week to explain God’s word to his people. Let’s take that seriously, and let’s all be those who devote ourselves to understanding what God is saying to us. Again, God is speaking to us. Pay attention.
So the people gathered together and heard the word and understood it. But then something happened that wasn’t quite right.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and 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 or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
This is sobering and wonderful. God in his word tells us what to do, what to think, and also how to feel. That’s a hard word, but we need to hear it.
When the people heard and understood the words of the law, they wept. Why did they weep? It’s no mystery. Israel was exiled from the promised land because of their unfaithfulness to God. They were confronted with their unfaithfulness when they heard the law and they had what seems like an appropriate reaction. They wept. They wept over their sin. There’s no reason to think that their weeping was somehow insincere or unrighteous in itself. And yet, something about it wasn’t appropriate. Ezra and Nehemiah told them, “Stop it.” “Stop crying.” “Be quiet.” What’s going on here?
First, what it doesn’t mean. It obviously doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to grieve over sin, or that it’s wrong to grieve corporately before God. In Ezra 10, Ezra mourned before God because of Israel’s guilt, and it says that a great assembly joined with him. And again, if you look ahead to chapter nine, right after the Feast of Booths, we see Israel fasting in sackcloth, with earth on their heads, grieving and confessing their sin before God. We’re told in the New Testament as well to grieve over our sin. James tells us “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep.” So it is right and good to grieve because of your sin. So why did Ezra and Nehemiah tell them to stop?
The important thing to remember is that God had designated this day as a day of feasting. The Feast of Trumpets was to be a time of holy celebration. This was the time for eating the fat and drinking sweet wine, not for weeping. That’s something that God has the authority to do. The time will come for mourning and confession. We’ll see that next week. The Feast of Trumpets was a day for remembering and celebrating God’s favor toward Israel. Ezra and Nehemiah are saying to Israel, “God has told us what today is about. Bring your emotions into line with the truth about what’s happening here.”
The church today doesn’t have that kind of command from God applied to specific days on the calendar. But that doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from this. I want us to think for a minute about the Christian duty of joy.
The world today tells us that our feelings are sacrosanct. “You can’t judge my feelings.” But scripture is clear that joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and at the same time it is a Christian duty. God has the right (and it is a glorious thing) to tell us to stop grieving and to rejoice. There’s an objective truth about our situation. God says, “Bring your feelings into line with the truth.” Here’s a legitimate use for your Bible app. Go and search for the word “rejoice” and see how many times God’s people are commanded to rejoice in the Bible. It’s a lot. Here are a couple. From Psalm 33, “Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright.” From Philippians 3, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.” And again in chapter four, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
Grief over sin is absolutely necessary, and when you grieve over your sin, let it be like David. “My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning.” But grief over sin is never a place to land and stay. It is not the destination. After David wept, 2 Samuel says that “Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped.”
Numbers can sometimes be misleading, but consider this. There are maybe six or seven “penitential psalms” like Psalm 38 that I just quoted. But there are something like seventy Psalms that call us to be glad and rejoice. Consider also, we’ve said that God prescribed certain times in Israel for fasting and repentance, and others for feasting and rejoicing. The Day of Atonement is actually the only day on the Jewish calendar that is set aside for fasting and self affliction. On the other hand, there were six feasts that God commanded, most of them lasting many days. Six feasts weeks, one fast day. Those were the proportions. The Day of Atonement, where sin was dealt with, was centrally important. There’s no feasting without it. But the Day of Atonement was there to clear the air for happier times. This is not a prosperity message where God promises that you’ll have six happy days for every sad day in your life. I’m sure there were fat years and lean years at those feast tables in Israel. This is a point about God’s heart toward us, and about what kind of heart actually brings God glory. It’s striking, they told the people, “Be quiet, for this day is holy. Do not be grieved.” Apparently it is not more holy to be sad than it is to rejoice. Some of us need this word. What does the catechism say is the chief end of man. “To glorify God and to … be brokenhearted before him forever”? No, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
At the end of verse 10, they told the people, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” What an amazing thing to say. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” This Hebrew word for “strength” is usually translated “stronghold.” That’s the idea. Your joy from the Lord is your stronghold, your fortress. Notice that the need for a stronghold implies a battle. The claim is not that there’s nothing to weep about. The claim is that in the midst of battle, the joy of the Lord is your stronghold. Peter tells us that even in the midst of trial, we rejoice with “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” The Psalmist says, “You prepare a table before me (a feast before me) in the presence of my enemies.”
It’s important that we always remember what kind of story it is that we’re living in. What’s the narrative arc of this gospel story that God is telling and that we are a part of? It’s a story about darkness giving way to light. Death giving way to resurrected life. Sorrow and repentance clear the air for happy fellowship with God. To stay in your grief means that you have not understood the full truth about your situation. The heart of the Christian is the heart of a thankful feaster. It’s the heart of one who knows that he is invited to the King’s table, adopted into his family, and given his blessing. That’s the truth of the situation. God would have us work to bring our feelings into line with the truth.
In verse 10 we see that God’s generosity toward us overflows with joy and feasting, which then overflows in generosity toward others, specifically those who don’t have the means to feast. He told them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready.” Then in verse 12 they did just that. This was apparently a part of what it meant to feast in Israel. In the book of Esther, after the Jews were delivered from their enemy’s plot to destroy them, Mordecai instituted a feast to honor “the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” It makes me think about my grandparents, whose Thanksgiving table always had a place set for a down and out college student, or an out of town guest. Many of you are examples to me of that kind of thing. May it be true of all of us.
What does this mean for our worship here? Our worship should reflect the full emotional range of the Psalms. We must not neglect to lament over our sin and brokenness. But then we must not linger there too long. Taken on the whole, our worship should be characterized by joy. Reverent joy. That’s the picture that we have here in Nehemiah. In verse six, “All the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Lifted hands, and bowed heads. That’s the heart posture of the Christian when he comes before God. A posture of joyful reverence.
Now, we all know that the reality of the situation is that we come here collectively on Sunday morning in 400 different places emotionally. We don’t all walk in on Sunday with a smile on our face and a heart full of joy. Some of us are weighed down by guilt, often weeping as your mind is filled with a constant and acute awareness of sin or suffering. There’s a word for you here. What’s more common, I suspect, is that we come here feeling not much at all. We’re not weeping, but we’re not rejoicing. We’re just here. There’s a word for us as well.
The destination is the same for all of us. So how do we get there? I’m not going to patronize you by implying that a few words are going to solve your lifelong emotional struggles. The point is that joy is a gift as well as a duty, and as such we can approach it the same way we do so many other things in the Christian life. We cry out to God, and we do “the stuff,” trusting that God will work through it. We start by acknowledging that our emotions need to be sanctified and trained, just as our minds and our bodies do. That’s step one. Then we call out to God, as David did. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Joy is a gift that only God can give. But the gift of joy doesn’t usually just get beamed straight into your heart. The gift usually comes to us in the form of something you can hear, or see and touch. There are lots different means of grace that God has given us to train our hearts to rejoice. That would be a good homegroup discussion topic. Share some battle tactics that you have found helpful in the fight for joy. The obvious one that we encounter here in our corporate worship is music. We don’t choose our worship music in order to give each of us a chance to express what we come here feeling, but rather to help us feel what we ought to feel in God’s presence. The reason that we sing some sad songs but mostly happy songs is not because some of us are sad and others are happy, and we need a song for everyone. It is because God says that it is right and good to mourn over our sin and the brokeness of the world, at the proper time, and that it is right and good for us to remember what God has done and to leave our mourning behind. That’s why we sing songs like “Arise, my soul, arise. Shake off your guilty fears,” and why we sing it to a rousing, happy tune. We need help to get our hearts to the place where God calls us to be. That’s not manipulative. It’s a gift - a means of grace.
There are so many others. We’ll come back to this idea in a minute. Let’s look at the last section of the chapter.
13 On the second day the heads of fathers' houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law.
So after the reading of law on the first day, the heads of houses came together with Ezra on the second day for a Bible study. By the way, this is a good reminder, fathers, that the word of God is for everyone in your family to hear, and as shepherd of your family it’s your responsibility to study the Bible and to know it well enough to explain it to your family, or to at least lead the way in helping them to understand. You know that things are going well when you hear things like, “Daddy, I read this strange verse in the Bible this morning. What does it mean?” And if you don’t know what it means, then “Let me ask one of the pastors and get back to you” is a perfectly respectable answer. Let’s all work toward more of that. Verse 14,
14 And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, 15 and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 18 And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.
As they were studying they discovered something. They came to the part in the law where the Feast of Booths is described in Leviticus 23, where it says this:
You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 23:42-43
Remember that there were three parts to this celebration. The third part, after the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement, was the Feast of Booths. It was one of those feast weeks that I mentioned. It was to be a time of resting and feasting and rejoicing, lasting for seven days, starting on the 15th day of the month. In addition to the feasting, God said in the law that they were to build these booths, which are just little structures covered in branches, and live in them for the seven days of the feast. The purpose was to serve as a physical reminder to them of God’s kindness in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and protecting them in the wilderness.
This wasn’t the first time that Israel had kept the Feast of Booths since they returned from Babylon. Ezra tells us that they had kept the feast part of the celebration. But apparently they had neglected this part, where all of them were to camp out in these booths as a reminder of what God had done for them a thousand years earlier. This is interesting. It sounds a bit similar to the story of when Josiah was king, and the high priest was rummaging through the temple library one day and found a copy of law. He came out and said, “Hey guys, look what I found.” Then they read it, and they all tore their clothes and wept when they realized how unfaithful they had been. But this isn’t quite like that. Ezra was a scribe, skilled in the law. They couldn’t have been unaware that this command existed. Apparently it had just been neglected. They had kept the feast, but had neglected the part where they were supposed to live in booths. And for whatever reason, this time when they read it they were pricked. “We should be doing this,” they said. So they did. It had been a thousand years since Israel had done this thing. How strange it must have felt to some of them. “What do you mean? We’re going to build a tree fort and camp out for a week?” “Yep, that’s what we’re going to do, because that’s what it says.” And verse 17 says that there was great rejoicing because of it.
What’s the connection for us? One obvious application is that we need to be ready to do what the Bible commands us, even if it seems strange. We should be those who do the hard work to figure out what the Bible is saying, and then we simply submit to it. Even if it’s weird. Once we know what God is saying, all there is left to do it to obey. Let’s be open to new convictions even about well known texts, as well. I’ve had this experience, as I know that some of you have, of being sure about some issue or text for years, and then being confronted with a new way of thinking about it. Sometimes it’s a tweak, sometimes it requires an about-face. Let’s hold to our convictions, but let’s approach the Bible with humility and be willing to change our positions if God reveals something new.
Here’s another connection point that I’d like us to end on, thinking some more about the means that God has given us to help tune our hearts to sing his praise. Think for a minute about why God asked them to do this strange thing. What was the point of camping out in booths for a week every year? The point was to help them remember God’s kindness. You see, when God commands us to rejoice, he doesn’t just say, “Suck it up, stop crying.” He says, “Remember what I have done.” And then he goes further, and he says, “Here, here a gift to help you remember.” He doesn’t simply command us to be joyful, although he has that authority. He reminds us of what’s true, and he points us to Christ. What physical reminder has God given us to point us to Christ and remind us of his kindness to us? There are many, but the central one for us here is another feast that God commanded, the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a mysterious thing, but one thing we can say for certain is that it’s a regular reminder to us that Christ’s body was broken and his blood was shed on our behalf. Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” How kind of him to remind us. And how beautiful that the reminder that God chose would be a feast - a memorial feast that we share with King Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is not given to us to be a reminder of our sin. It’s a reminder of Christ, and of God’s great gift to us in Christ. We talk about “celebrating the Lord’s Supper.” Let’s treat it as a celebration. The Lord’s Supper is a feast, a time to rejoice as we remember the good things that God has done.
And here’s the kicker. Their feast pointed to Christ as well. It all points to Christ. Jesus said that you search the scriptures (meaning “the law”) looking for eternal life, but it is they that bear witness about me. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God, was there on that platform in Jerusalem, speaking to his people, bearing witness about himself through the reading of his word. He is here on this platform every Sunday, speaking to his people, through the reading and proclamation of his Word. He was there with the Israelites in their feast, reminding them of his kindness to them in the wilderness. He is here with us in our feast, reminding us of his kindness to us at the cross.
We come together every Lord’s day and do the things that we do, just as God’s people have from the beginning, ultimately because it’s what God has told us to do. But what a happy command it is. It’s our joy to obey, because in these things God meets with us. God invites us (commands us, even) to leave our guilty weeping and our cold apathy behind us and to come and enter into the joy of his presence. So all you fearful or brokenhearted, come. All you stoic and unfeeling, come. All you, God’s people, come and hear his word, understand, remember, and rejoice.
Stand with me. Let’s pray.
Father, we bless you. Thank you for the gift of your presence, here among your gathered people. We long to be with you. Thank you for the gift of your word. Thank you for speaking to us, and thank you for the gift of understanding. It is a remarkable gift. Thank your for reminding us of your kindness. How quickly we forget. Help us to remember. Thank you for turning our weeping into rejoicing. Father, give us joy-filled hearts. Hearts filled with gratitude for your many gifts. You are a generous father. Amen.
[Benediction - 1 Timothy 6:11-16]
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