When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, 8 1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up.6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.
(Nehemiah 7:73b – 8:12 NIV)
After the Jews rebuilt the walls and gates of Jerusalem, Nehemiah re-established security in the city. The Lord then laid it on the heart of Nehemiah to take a census of the Jewish people, to identify family lineage from the twelve tribes of Israel.
Nehemiah begins today’s passage by re-establishing God’s ordinances among God’s people. Today we also see Ezra reappear as he reads God’s Word before all the people gathered together. Scholars tell us that the city wall and gates were completed about a week before – this was a time to thank the Lord for what He had done. Also, this timeframe corresponded to God’s command to read from His Word to the entire assembly of Jewish people (Deuteronomy 31:9-13) – men, women, and children that were old enough to understand.
Nehemiah built a special speaker’s platform for the occasion – they didn’t have a word for it yet, so they called it a “tower”. The platform consisted of a raised wooden deck so everyone in the crowd could see the speaker, a podium or stand for Ezra to roll out the scroll of Scripture, plus enough space for 13 men to stand. The men named were likely Jewish community leaders and family representatives. Their presence signified their allegiance to the Lord and their commitment to live by God’s Laws.
When Ezra unrolled the scrolls and began to read from God’s Word, the people all stood up, out of respect for God’s Word (v. 5). Upon hearing God’s Word, the people all responded in worship (v. 6).
The priests and Levites then taught the Jewish people in smaller groups what Ezra had just read. This teaching likely involved some translation (from the Hebrew) and some interpretation (explaining its meaning). Remember, it had been 140 years since the people had lived in an all-Jewish language and culture. It would be like us trying to read the King’s English (i.e., British English) from several centuries ago – they likely needed help understanding not only the words but the context and meaning as well.
The response to God’s Word was both joy and weeping – joy over the hearing of God’s Word, and weeping because of the conviction of sin. The leaders were quick to tell the people not to weep – there would be a time for weeping and repentance over sin. Right now, the focus is on joy (v. 9).
So why did the leaders focus on joy, and not capitalize on the people’s conviction of sin? I believe it was to remind the people that God’s nature is not that of a tyrant demanding obedience, but rather that of a loving, caring Father who desires to bless His children, to comfort them, and to have them experience joy in their relationship with Him and with each other.
Verse 10 captures the heart of the celebration – “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
An indivisible part of experiencing God’s goodness was to share a meal together. This was not to be a sorrowful meal of bread and water; this was to be a feast, full of savory flavor (choice foods with fat) and sweetness (sweet drinks, not just water).
Also, as a part of this celebration that commemorated God’s goodness, the people were to share with their neighbors who did not have anything prepared (who had nothing). God’s goodness and bounty were extended to all, not just the privileged. There could be no real joy in the land if other brothers and sisters were in need.
Verse 12 tells us that the people went to their homes and did as they were instructed, obeying God’s words and experiencing His joy.
May we take the time to experience God’s goodness and love, two essential character qualities that He extends to all, especially the undeserving like you and me.
May we share with those around us that have nothing so they also experience God’s goodness and love.
And may the joy of the Lord be our strength today.