Imagine if all the pieces to a fabulous mansion home were dumped in your yard absolutely free. Every last thing you would need was there in a big pile – blocks, stones, boards, appliances … everything, down to the last nail and screw. But, there were no directions or prints as to what the house even looked like, let alone how to construct it. Imagine not knowing if it was a Colonial, a French Revival, Mediterranean, or Gothic. And to top it off, you get fined for every month you don’t complete it, but you’ll be arrested if you just carried it all away and dumped it. The great blessing became a great curse.
That is perhaps how the Jews of Nehemiah’s time (400s BC) felt about the Law of Moses – the Covenant given to them 1,000 years earlier. It was a law and agreement between the people and God, promising blessing for obedience, and curses for disobedience. Most of the 1,000 years since Moses had proven the curses part, that much was for sure. But the problem for the people also was that there was little access to even know the very Law they were supposed to follow. It was not as if they all had a copy of it on the bookshelves at home.
The entirety of the Law itself had at one point in history gotten lost in the ruins of the Temple (in the time of Josiah). After that, the nation had been carried off into years of servitude in Assyria and Babylon. And though it was great to be one of the surviving remnant few who lived in Jerusalem and Judea, and who had recently been led by Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of the city, these people knew very little about the Word of God beyond verbal traditions and stories. Ezra had come to teach them and they were grateful for this; and as his teaching was put on hold for a couple of months of building, now, there was a great gathering of the people on a holy day to hear the reading of God’s Word.
Let me give you the portion of the sentence from verse 1 today that is actually stuck back in the previous chapter … When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, <now 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.
So the people were hungry to hear the Word. This occurred actually at this very time of the year. This is no small gathering of people – at least 30,000 to as many as 50,000.
The scene is not precisely explained, but Ezra is at the center of it on a large platform, surrounded by other leaders and Levites. Notice the great reverence of the people for the Word! Apparently what was happening here is that Ezra would read a section, and then the Levites would break the group into smaller groups and explain to the people what the meaning of the text was. This is interesting, because this process is essentially what we are doing during a sermon on a Sunday morning … or, like right now with this devotional!
Notice also the reaction of the people to all they are hearing and experiencing – they were weeping as they heard the words read to them! Why? Because, so many of them were coming to understand for the first time (or in a renewed way) how the nation had failed to obey God and all of the pain that it had brought upon them – down to that very day. But Ezra encourages them to not weep, but to rather rejoice. Unlike their ancestors, these people were ready to hear and to obey God’s Word. He told them to go and celebrate, for this was a great day. They did celebrate and began even to observe feasts that had been forgotten for years.
There are so many places to begin to apply this passage! Perhaps you are thinking of some as you have read along to this point. But I’ll just pick two things …
1. The riches of our resources – Here are people who knew so little and had no access to learn much more. But their hearts were quick to love God’s Word and to obey it. What does that say about us? We have multiple versions of the entire revelation of God; we have resources of written explanations that would take us to the moon if stacked together; we have at our internet fingertips a cache of resources upon God’s Word that add up like the sands of the sea. And this is true at TSF. Why should God be patient with any of us who are not serious students of his Word – who fail to plug into all we have and flippantly go through the Christian life undernourished and distantly connected to the Lord?
2. The grace of God and desire for blessing – We often think of the Law as a giant list of things that can’t be done or have to be religiously performed to appease God. And lots of folks also see the whole Bible and the message of Christ and the Church in the same way. But God wants relationship and worship and obedience so that he might bless us, not curse us! He’s in good shape; he does not need us … but he wants us to love him and serve him and live in fellowship – in order that he might shower upon us his grace. For that to happen, we must know and grow in his Word.
And so ends our second week of emphasis upon the Scriptures. I trust you see why the staff and elders included this so prominently in the vision statement. There is no success without it, and there is no gaining it without commitment and work. I’m sorry for your bad luck if you don’t see yourself as much of a student or learner. You’re going to have a difficult time with this Christian life, or be stuck in a mediocre lifestyle of just getting by. THAT is not our vision. I’d rather open the lid of “a can of attitude” that looks like these people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
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.