Returning to the Word of God
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Often, tragedy is not a stranger. Many people have experienced significant tragedy in their lives, circumstances that empowered tremendous loss, and sometimes the losses are so great that those who go through the experience turn from every good thing in life and lose it all. We might be reminded of the story of the Old Testament Job who lost everything. However, through it all, Job did not lose his trust and faith in God. True tragedy is found in a situation similar to that experienced by Job, but in addition to the circumstantial losses is found a loss of faith and trust in the LORD.
The road back from such a tragedy can be long and difficult with many necessary steps along the way. The destruction of Israel and Judah by Assyria and Babylon, respectively, that finally included the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and exile of the Judeans to Babylon illustrates such a tragedy. While the Judeans were in exile, those who remained behind lost all they had, and also left the worship of God, intermarried with the pagan communities in which they now found themselves immersed, and lost their faith, their identity, and even their language as they set aside their Hebrew roots. After seventy years of exile, at least three generations without an identity, there were very few people left who even spoke Hebrew. Meanwhile, those who were taken to Babylon also experienced immersion in a pagan culture and many suffered the same loss of identity. However, a faithful remnant remained, and two of these were Ezra and Nehemiah who led the Judeans back to Jerusalem and worked to restore them as the Children of God.
The book of Nehemiah chronicles much of the restoration that took place, and each of the steps taken are instructive as they identify a godly way back from that place where some fall when they succumb to the dark power of tragedy. Consider for a moment the steps that worked to restore Jerusalem:
1. Walls of protection were built around the city. This protected the wounded nation from further tragedy so that they could begin the healing process without further destruction. The power of the tragedy remained, but they were protected from it. When one finds themselves in the throes of tragedy, one cannot be restored until the sufferer is protected from the source of tragedy so that it can not create greater damage.
2. The people were united in a purpose that would serve to define who they are. Tragedy is often followed with disillusionment, a loss of a sense of one’s identity and purpose. Freed from the threat of the source of tragedy, the next step in recovery is to regain one’s sense of value, identity, and purpose.
3. The respect of the Judean nobles and officials was restored. When one succumbs to tragedy, often the network of priorities in one’s life is turned up-side down. Like the restoration of the network of authorities in Jerusalem, one needs to have the priorities in their lives restored to their rightful order.
4. The enemies of Judah were disarmed. Once the city walls were rebuilt, the people found their identity, and the infrastructure of their relationships was regained, they had the resources to stand up to Sanballat and disable his plans. Coming back from tragedy involves a system of healing that removes the destructive power of the original tragedy.
Though the community of Israel has come a long way in their restoration, one of the most important steps in this process has yet to take place. This is a necessary step that they are now prepared for, but would not have been possible until this point.
Nehemiah 8:1. And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.
If one were unfamiliar with the book of Nehemiah, opened the Bible, and started reading here, one might think that they are in the wrong place. Ezra came to Jerusalem fourteen years before Nehemiah with the desire to rebuild the Temple and restore the reading of the Law. Ezra is referred to as a scribe, and is probably one in the truest sense of the word, a scribe by spiritual gift rather than a scribe by civil appointment. Ezra had an intense and genuine love for the Word of God, represented in Jewish tradition by the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible in pre-exilic Israel. His continual study of the Word strengthened his faith, and brought him into a relationship with the LORD that touched every part of his life. He became familiar enough with the words of Scripture, and led by the Holy Spirit and His wisdom, he knew how to apply them to life. Desiring that others would experience the same benefits from the study of the Law, Ezra became a natural teacher of the Word of God and it is to this end that he dedicated himself.
Though Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries, it is not until the eighth chapter of Nehemiah’s journal that Ezra is mentioned. Ezra was certainly a part of the community restoration up to this point, but the narrative was focused on the first steps of that restoration that involved other personalities as the principals in the process. God has prepared Ezra and the people for this moment when the most important step of restoration would take place.
The timing of this event is important, and is identified at the end of chapter seven.
Nehemiah 7:73. So the priests, and the Levites, and the porters, and the singers, and some of the people, and the Nethinims, and all Israel, dwelt in their cities; and when the seventh month came, the children of Israel were in their cities.
This introduction to the eighth chapter provides the context for the event. The beginning of the seventh month is the date for the Feast of the Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths. Having come this far in their restoration, note that the people are now securely settled in their cities, and the first opportunity for a Hebrew festival has arrived. The people have come into the city to take part in this festival, but it has been so long since it has been practiced, they called upon Ezra to lead them. How does one lead a nation into such a celebration? Where would Ezra start his reading of the Word?
Twice, while doing some volunteer missionary work in Belarus during the Christmas season, I was asked by Belarusian groups to tell the Christmas story. I did not start with “There were shepherds watching over their flocks…” I started with “In the beginning.” The context of the gospel story in the birth of Jesus Christ is founded in the Old Testament, and to present the birth of Christ, it was necessary to illustrate why God came to earth. In like manner, Ezra did not simply instruct the people in how to exercise the Festival of Booths. He started with the reading and teaching of the Hebrew Bible.
Nehemiah 8:2-3. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
The event that is taking place is unheard of in contemporary Israelite history. The “proper” place to teach the Scriptures is in the Temple, and particularly, in the Court of the Gentiles where both Jewish and Gentile men are allowed to enter. Traditionally, access to education was restricted to males. The Temple denies access to the general population, so Ezra taught the people in the plaza inside the Water Gate. By doing so, anyone who had the capacity to understand was given an opportunity to learn God’s plan for them. Coming out of three generations of exile, it was extremely important that the community return to God, and immersing them in an understanding of Scripture is a necessary means to do so. Because of this unique opportunity, the people responded attentively to Ezra’s teaching.
Nehemiah 8:4. And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
The reading before the people was not a spontaneous event. The people were entering the city to take part in a festival, one that had not been observed in a very long time. According to the Mosaic Law, the Feast of the Tabernacles commences with the reading of the Law. Because of the large population, a wooden stage was set up so that the people could see Ezra and better hear his words. Furthermore, there were selected thirteen respected men who would join him on the dais. There is no record of exactly who these men were, but given the context of the situation, they would have been some of the more prominent religious leaders, possibly priests, scribes, and Levites. Had this been a political array, Nehemiah would have likely been included.
Nehemiah 8:5-6. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: 6And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
Nehemiah provides us with a narrative that makes it easy to visualize the sequence of events. As Ezra opened the Torah, the people all stood. The people were filled with a reverence for the Law and demonstrated their sincere anticipation for what was about to take place. Before the reading of the Word, Ezra spoke words of praise of the LORD. His words of praise, possibly voiced as a public prayer were received by the people as they shouted “Amen,” and took on a posture of prayer.
Through the years of human experience, it would seem that among all of its wars and battles a universal expression of surrender has evolved: the raising of one’s hands. Of course, the meaning of the raising of one’s hands in a military surrender is to show the victor that one is not holding any weapons. Faced with an armed and overpowering presence, the surrender is unconditional, and the one with the raised hands is giving full authority over himself to the victor. One cannot fully worship God until one is totally surrendered to Him and His authority. The raised hands represents complete surrender.
Another common expression of surrender is to bow before the victor with the face to the ground and the back of the neck exposed. This is a gesture that gives the victor the option to kill without opposition. The bowed head represents complete submission.
After years of rebellion against God, it was appropriate for Israel to both surrender and submit to the LORD. This would be necessary for them to gain any value from the reading of the Word. The physical posture that a person takes for worship is usually of little importance since worship is an attitude of the heart, not of the hands. However, there are times when there is meaning in the posture, and this is one of those times. There are many scriptural illustrations of worship by the lifting of both the hands and the heads. Yet in this event they turned their faces down towards the ground in a gesture that suggests their acknowledgment of their sin and their sincere desire for repentance. They did not feel worthy to look up as Ezra was proclaiming praises to the LORD.
This gesture by the nation of Israel would serve to mark its new beginning. The nature of Israel as a nation would change in this moment from a fragmented community that had turned from the LORD, and from their Hebrew roots, and were now united in sincere worship.
Nehemiah 8:7-8. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. 8So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
Much like the Apostle, Peter’s experience at the first Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ, Ezra found himself preaching the Word of God to a mixed community. Though there were many who could understand his Hebrew words, there were many who could not. At the center of many different people groups, the community around Jerusalem included people who spoke many different languages, though most would have been dialects of Aramaic, the most common language of the Gentiles. However, unlike the Pentecost experience when each heard Paul’s message in their own language, Ezra’s teaching was translated by a remnant of the Jews that included a small group of men who were also learned in the Word, including but not limited to Levites.
Teaching through translators, it is likely that Ezra selected a short passage from the Torah that he read aloud, and then presented a verbal exposition to provide context and explanation. Then, he would pause and allow the translators to share his words in the language of the hearers. This would allow the translators to apply the text to the specific people group who they were teaching. After a period of explanation, attention of the group would return to the dais where Ezra would continue with another short passage. This event, starting at sunrise, continued for about six hours until midday when Nehemiah joined Ezra on the dais.
Nehemiah 8:9. And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
There is nothing in this world that can impact the heart of man like the work of the Holy Spirit that takes place when one comes to hear, understand, and submit to the Word of God. Through the Scriptures, God illuminates the true, ungodly, state of natural man, a people that always chooses rebellion against God. Just as satan mislead Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to rebel against God, he continues to do so today by giving people moral choices, and apart from the Holy Spirit, man always chooses to reject a love for the LORD, exchanging it for a love for this world which is under the spell of the powerless prince of darkness.
When the people of Jerusalem came to understand how they had turned away from the God who loves them and has a plan for them, they wept. These would have included the nobles and officials who had abused the people for their personal gain. It included many who had exchanged the worship of God for the worship of the mythical gods of the pagans. It included those who had disobeyed the LORD through intermarriage with Gentiles to the point that the lines definitions of what was Hebrew and what was pagan had been blurred. The people had great reason for remorse, and they showed their broken hearts in their weeping.
There is no less need for repentance today than there was in ancient Israel. The number of people in this world who have truly surrendered in faith and trust to the One Living God is a tiny fraction of this world that currently numbers about seven billion people. Like the Israelites, most of the world is completely ignorant of their lost state. Many live lives of opulence gained through abusive and criminal means. Many have put their trust and belief into pagan, mythical, and erroneous beliefs that serve to put an almost impenetrable wall between themselves and the Truth. Even many people who testify to being Christian have immersed themselves in the world so deeply that they do not perceive their fallen state, blurring the lines between a life of faith and a life that is committed to the dark and fallen world. It is these who do have reason to weep when they realize how far they have fallen away from the LORD who created them, loves them, and has a purpose to bless them.
The response of people to a true understanding of God’s Word is still the same today, as many people who hear the gospel realize the character of their sinful state and respond in repentance of their behavior and faith in the LORD. Turning to the LORD in faith and repentance does lead one to mourn, but it also leads one to joy when the reward of faith is realized: unconditional forgiveness and an eternity in relationship with the LORD. There is no more need for mourning following true repentance in faith. It is time for celebration.
Referred to by the Persian name for governor, Nehemiah joined Ezra on the dais, and brought them the good news of the reason why they have no need for any more mourning. The Feast of the Tabernacles is just that, a feast that celebrates the salvation of God.
Nehemiah 8:10-12. Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength. 11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. 12And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
Though the feast became to celebrate the harvest, the primary purpose of the Feast of the Booths is to remember the salvation of the LORD. One cannot separate the theology of Israel from the events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. Egypt served as an incubator for the nation of Israel. The nation started with the sons of Israel, their families and possessions, and over about fourteen generations grew into a very large community. The Israelites did not find attraction in the Egyptian cult that worshipped the Pharaoh. Their identity was maintained as they grew to the point that their presence was a threat to the Pharaoh who placed them under grievous bondage in order to control them. God worked in miraculous ways to bring the nation out of Egypt, out of bondage to freedom, a freedom that included the opportunity for a daily relationship with Him as God demonstrated His presence through the Pillar of Cloud and Fire, the Shekinah Glory that led them away from Egypt.
The Feast of the Booths is intended to remind the nation of those events. It is a time to be set aside, dedicated to the hearing of the Word of God. It is a time to remember the salvation that God has offered to those who trust in Him, and it is a time of celebration for the freedom from bondage that God has provided. Nehemiah and Ezra taught the people, proclaiming that this is to be a holy time, to be focused on the blessings that they have experienced at the hand of God.
An important part of the celebration is the feast. The word rendered, “fat” is rather idiomatic and refers to that which is the best. The people are to prepare the very best foods to enjoy during the celebration, and share this with others. Much of social interaction takes place around food, and this tradition remains today. We often make food the centerpiece of our social events including the celebrations of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. On these occasions we often prepare the very best dinners and share them together as families, given a special opportunity to fellowship. This is very similar to the purpose of the feast in the Feast of the Tabernacles.
Nehemiah 8:13. And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law.
The second day of the feast began much like the first with the community gathered together to hear the word of God as taught by Ezra and translated by Levites for those who did not understand the Hebrew language. However, it appears that this time the crowd was smaller. Rather than calling out the entire community, this group included all of the “fathers” of the people, implying that the women and children were allowed to stay in their homes. On this day Ezra would further instruct the Jerusalem Judeans on the meaning of the Feast of Booths and how it is to be celebrated. The celebration is very much a family celebration. By using this approach to teaching, Ezra moved from teaching the city on the first day to teaching the individual families on the second. Ezra called out the fathers of the families, instructing them on their place of spiritual responsibility. The family is the fundamental unit of society, and if the nation is to turn back to the LORD from generations of apostasy, it must take place in the families.
The same is true today. Fathers have abdicated their responsibilities to their families. Currently in the United States fully half of its children are reared in families that lack their biological father. The LORD’s intention for fathers is that they would be the spiritual leaders of their family, protecting them against the dangers of this evil world, nurturing them in the Word of God, and leading them in faith. This is the intent of Ezra’s teaching on the second morning of the Feast of the Tabernacles.
Nehemiah 8:14-15. And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month: 15And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written. 16So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.
Following the instructions from the Mosaic Law, the people sought to follow it completely and carefully. Each family group was to gather sufficient materials to make a shelter that is, though small, large enough for their family to sleep in. Since the second day started out with Scripture study, the activity would start in the afternoon of the second day with the intent that the family would abide in the structure for the remainder of the seven-day festival. The purpose of this was to remember the state of the nation of Israel as they traveled in the wilderness immediately following the Exodus from Egypt. They would remember the salvation of the LORD, the simple means by which the people lived on their wilderness journey, and appreciate the blessings that the LORD has brought to them.
Nehemiah 8:17. And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
This statement may come as a surprise to Bible students. As important as the Feast of the tabernacles is to Jewish tradition, it was not fully observed following the death of Joshua until now, largely absent from Jewish experience all of the way through the period of the Judges and Kings, a period of almost 800 years. When Joshua died much of his faith died with him. The period that followed his death was one with little or no faith leadership and for many of those 800 years the Torah was worshipped as an object, but its contents were rarely opened. There are a few instances where one of the Jewish leaders might discover the Torah in the Temple or Tabernacle, read it, and attempt to bring the people back to God, but those instances were few and far between, and never occurred in the northern nation of Israel after the nation split following Solomon’s reign. There are a few inferences to the celebration in the interim period, but the grammar of this statement indicates that those celebrations lacked the true meaning and purpose of the event that was realized when it was reestablished by Ezra.
The Feast of the Tabernacles continued to be celebrated after it was reintroduced by Ezra and Nehemiah, and is still remembered today and sometimes practiced in a small, abbreviated manner.
Nehemiah 8:18. Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner.
Each day of the celebration started with the reading from the book of the Law of Moses, up to and including the eighth when the teaching was extended and the celebration came to a close. This last day of the celebration was exercised in solemn worship, promoting their understanding of the unsearchable majesty and power of God in an effort to demonstrate true humility and worship.
This study began with a focus on the tragedy experienced by Israel, and served as a vicarious example of our own tragic experience. We witnessed how the nation went through several necessary steps to climb out of the depths of loss that it had experienced, a journey that led them to the Feast of the Tabernacle where the most important part of that journey was experienced: the return to the Word of God. They had eight days with as many as six hours each day that were devoted to learning the contents of the Holy Scriptures. By returning to the Word, they found that identity, meaning, and direction in their lives that they, both personally and corporately, so desperately needed.
This model can serve us well as we seek to climb out of the pits of loss. Returning to the Word of God serves to bring us closer to the One who loves us, defines us, and has a plan for us. It gives us encouragement and provides meaning to our live experience, and even empowers the loss to serve to makes us stronger, more faithful, more patient, and better equipped to share God’s love with others who have faced or are facing difficult experiences.
The Feast of the Tabernacles was celebrated each year, giving the community a wonderful opportunity to come under the teaching of the Word of God. Unfortunately, as the years went by, fewer and fewer people took part, and their dedication to learning continually diminished. By the time the LORD came to us in the life of a newborn baby, the faith of the people had been largely displaced by tradition. Celebrations of the traditional events continued, but lacked the power and purpose for which they were intended.
It is quite easy for us to fall into the same malaise today. Let us take every opportunity to engage ourselves in the study of the Holy Scriptures and allow the Holy Spirit to work through its words to encourage us, to convict us, and to lead us into a deeper relationship with the LORD God who created us, loves us, and has a plan for us that is found in His Word.