13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make temporary shelters”—as it is written.
16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
(Nehemiah 8:13-18 NIV)
Nehemiah brought law and order to Jerusalem, making the city safe again. The next order of business was to re-establish God’s calendar of events among the Jewish people.
Ezra reappears and reads God’s Word to everyone – men, women, and children who can understand (probably early teens and above). Nehemiah, Ezra, the priests, and the Levites all remind the people that this is a time of experiencing God’s care and goodness, not a time of weeping and repentance. God’s character is first and foremost expressed as love, both as His love for His people as well as His love through His people for others.
As we begin today’s text, we see that yesterday was “Day One” of the gathering of all God’s people in Jerusalem. Today, the next day is “Day Two” – and just the heads of families are present to meet with Ezra, Nehemiah, the priests, and the Levites. If we compare the two days by order-of-magnitude numbers, Day One was likely around 100,000 people, while Day Two was around 100 people.
When Ezra read God’s Word, they found the Festival of Booths (Leviticus 23:39-43). This festival was to be celebrated each year starting on the 15th of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. This was fall harvest time, and a reminder of God’s provision for His people. The Festival of Booths was a reminder of how God God called His people to live in temporary shelters after He brought them out of the land of Egypt and how He provided for their every need.
These “booths” were not tents, but in fact were tree branches that were cut and assembled into a shelter from the sun and the rain. God established this festival to last one week. For an agrarian (agriculture-based) society, this was their “Thanksgiving” celebration, a time to worship and rejoice in what God had provided for another year.
Verse 15 tells us that word was sent out to every Jewish family in the nation that the Festival of Booths was to be celebrated nationwide that year. Since it was only the second day of the month, that gave the people time to prepare before the celebration started on the 15th.
Verse 16 tells us that everyone started setting up their “booths”, their temporary shelters. Some people set their booths up in front of their houses; others set up their booths on their roofs (they had flat roofs), while others inside Jerusalem assembled their booths near one of the city gates.
Wherever the booths went up, there was much anticipation and joy, followed by a great celebration when the festival started. Nehemiah records that such joy had not been experienced in this week-long festival since the days of Joshua, when the people arrived in the Promised Land.
We all have some celebrations that stand out more than others, don’t we?
Maybe it’s a graduation, or an anniversary, or a milestone birthday.
Maybe it’s a marriage celebration, a family reunion, a Christmas or Thanksgiving get-together with family or friends, where everyone is under the same roof for a few days.
Whatever the occasion for the celebration, may the joy of the Lord be present in your gathering.
Truly, “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (v. 10).