INTRODUCTION TO NEHEMIAH 8
Reading—celebration—commitment—Ezra and Nehemiah worked in tandem like a four wheel drive truck with a positive lock rear-end—but each had a different style. Nehemiah was an activist and Ezra was a student, Nehemiah was outspoken, Ezra was more withdrawn. Together they were an unbeatable team.
EXPOSITION OF NEHEMIAH 8
1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel.
Many of these people did not know how to read and there were few copies of the Scriptures available. The copy that Ezra had was written in Hebrew and needed to be translated into Aramic. They crowded into the town square and requested Ezra to read the book of the law to them.
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.
Ezra stood in front of the water gate facing the town square and read from early morning till noon. Everyone keep quiet while Ezra read—they were all ears.
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.
Ezra brings the Law of Moses out into the town square and standing on a wooden podium he read and translated and explained the law to a mixed assembly of men and women and all who could understand the law.
In 1963 Emmett McLoughlin, a former Catholic Priest, visited my home in Dayton Ohio. He is the author of Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church, Peoples Padre, American Culture and Catholic Schools, An inquiry into the Association of Abraham Lincoln etc, in our discussion of Daniel and the Revelation he said that he had never read the Bible. He was thoroughly trained in the Breviary and catechism—had a degree in theology—but the book that Ezra was reading from was not familiar to him.
Martin Luther an ordained priest and rector of a University had never seen or read the Bible—when he found a copy of it and read it he was changed forever. When you read a copy of the Bible you too will be changed forever. It is a life giving—life changing book.
Of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “He built up his entire reading upon his early study of the Bible. He mastered only one or two other books. But mastered it so that he became a man of the book, who knew that book and instinctively put into practice what he had been taught therein.”
When I read the Gettysburg Address I knew that Lincoln was a reader of the Bible. He used the phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people” this phrase occurs in the preface of John Wycliffe’s introduction to his translation of the Bible in 1382.
It is illegal to read the Bible in public schools but the law requires states to provide a copy in all prisons for every convict! Don’t worry, Kids, if you can’t read the Bible in school, you’ll be able to when you get in prison.
John Greenleaf Whittier at the age of 7 knew whole chapters of the Bible so well that his father in his pride of his son, invited visitors to begin chapters in the middle and let the boy finish them. In 285 of his poems you will find 816 direct or indirect references to the scriptural passages he loved so much.
John Quincy Adams said “The first and almost the only book deserving of universal attention is the Bible.”
Woodrow Wilson said “A man has deprived himself of the best there is in the world who has deprived himself of knowledge of the Bible.”
After 55 years in the pulpit it is my opinion that very few preachers have really read the book with any insight and understanding. My God send us an Ezra who not only can read but explain the meaning.
4 Ezra the scribe 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.
As Ezra stood on the platform built for this occasion he was flanked with 7 men on his left and 6 on his right.
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.
The book was a scroll rolled up on 2 spindles and stored in a wooden box it required two competent men to carefully unroll the scroll as Ezra read from it. This scroll was made from papyrus which was a type of reed that grew in Egypt. It grew to a height of 10 to 15 feet tall and some of the Dead Sea scrolls are on papyrus. The inner part of the plant was cut into strips 12 to 15 inches long. The strips were then laid on a board in one direction and then a second layer was placed over them in the opposite direction. A damp cloth was placed over the strips and pounded with a wooden mallet for an hour or more. They were then placed under heavy weights to dry thus bonding the two layers together. The resulting creamy white sheets were attached together with a paste made of flower and water. After writing on the single sheets they were pasted end to end and rolled up into a scroll and stored in an elongated box.
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.
Praise and worship was the central part of their gatherings. They did homage to the God of the universe of whom they esteemed worthy of veneration. Our churches are too well—mannered and refined to spend a portion of our worship service praising God. Ezra lifted his hands and bowed low with his face to the ground. Paul wrote to Timothy about lifting up our hands. 1 Tim. 2:8 “lifting up holy hands…”
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.
It would appear that these men were scattered throughout the assembly and explained the text.
8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.
The book of the Law was in Hebrew and needed to be translated into Aramaic which the people had spoken while in Babylon. As they elaborated, paraphrased, and explained the text the people were enlightened as to the full meaning of the law.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred 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.
Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites see that the people are weeping—God’s word had convicted them of their sins and the sins of their fathers—under such conviction as this a revival is about to break out.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Nehemiah sees this as a time to celebrate. So, he urges them to go home—invite people over for a meal— do not be grieved over hearing the law, rather, be joyful for therein is your strength.
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.”
The Levites join in urging the people not to be grieved and telling them that this day was a holy day.
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.
The assembly was broken up and the people go home to celebrate and send portions to the poor to eat. The text informs us that when the people heard the law read and explained they understood it.
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 scribe to give attention to the words of the Law.
The following day family heads, Priests and Levites all gathered to Ezra for a deeper understanding of the law.
14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month
They had been reading Lev. 23:40-43 about how the children of Israel lived in booths during the 40 years of camping in the wilderness. They further discovered that God required them to re—enact this kind of living for one week during the 7th. month.
15 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 booths”-as it is written.
All the clan leaders and Levites return to their homes and post on the town bulletin board instructions on bringing palm fronds, olive branches, myrtle branches and other leafy trees to build the booths that they were to live in during the week long celebration. From willow trees which bend easily for the oval look they would cut long poles about one to one and a half inches in diameter and bend them in a arch, continuing in both directions—crossing and intersecting each other at given points. This made the frame work with an opening for the entry. Now the palm fronds were woven in a thatched pattern beginning at the bottom and capping the top. This portable structure served the Israelites for 40 years during the wilderness wandering. As they travelled across the waste land of the wilderness with Moses they would find an abundant supply of Palm fronds and could easily re-roof the structure. The American Indian lived in a similar type of dwelling. This should not be confused with the Indians who live in a tepee.
16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths 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.
The size of the booth was determined by the number in the family. This structure (which was light and portable) was placed on the flat roof section of their house or in their court yards or down by the water gate at the town plaza.
17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths 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.
As they dig deep into the law they realize that they must keep this practice each year as so specified. The Feast of Tabernacles was practiced by Solomon at the dedication of the Temple.
2 Ch.7:8-10 “So Solomon observed the festival at that time for seven days, and all Israel with him—a vast assembly, people from Lebo Hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. On the eighth day they held an assembly, for they had celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days and the festival for seven days more. On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people to their homes, joyful and glad in heart for the good things the LORD had done for David and Solomon and for his people Israel.” Ezra 3:4 “Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.”
What this verse apparently means is that since Joshua till now the celebration had not been with such joy.
2 Ch.30:26 “ There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the days of Solomon son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem.”
2 Ch.35:18 “The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah, with the priests, the Levites and all Judah and Israel who were there with the people of Jerusalem.”
It is apparent from the above text that these exiles who for the first time in their lives are experiencing the joy of building booths and living in them. It had made a deep impression on them.
18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
Seven more days of reading the Law of Moses on the eight day they convene a solemn assembly. A solemn assembly was not a joyful, hand clapping, foot stomping assembly but a serious gathering where an awe inspiring message would be given and everyone would be reverent and devout.