Nehemiah 8: Joy!
August 14, 2020
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
The reading of the Law is the central component of this book, and in particular the people’s remarkable response to that reading. There are several aspects to take notice of regarding how the teaching of the Bible was communicated.
First, it was read (8:3). To gather as God’s people and not actually read the Bible, but have it read as a passage as God’s Word aloud so that the people can hear it—read it as it is, simply read it—that reading of God’s Word is a crucial component to public worship. As the Bible is read, the people’s ears are attentive (8:3). In other words, they are actually listening. When the Bible is read, the people are not daydreaming; they are not channel surfing in their head thinking of TV shows or movies, or playing with their phones surreptitiously as they surf the net; they are listening. They are paying attention.
Then Ezra, who is reading the Law, is symbolically set on a wooden platform, above the people (8:4-5). This is so, in the days before amplification, his words can be heard as clearly as possible by as many people as possible. High pulpits with “sounding boards” were intended to provide maximum clarity and volume to the spoken word. Here Ezra is raised up so that he can be seen as well as heard; this raising of a pulpit is not only an auditory matter, it is also a symbolic matter. God’s Word is lifted up, it is central, it is put in the foremost place.
Third, the people respond with verbal worship (“Amen, Amen”) and physical expression of that worship (8:6). They raise their hands, they bow their heads and worship God with their faces to the ground. We do not read that they laid back in their chairs with their arms crossed and eyes scanning the ceiling. When people are excited, they physically express that excitement. At a rock concert, you clap and shout and raise your hands. They raise their hands, and they bow facedown, expressing not only exaltation (hand raising), but also obeisance and submission.
But not only is the Law read, raised up, listened to, and responded to, the Law is also taught and made clear. “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8). Every preacher, Bible study leader, and devotional teacher has a task not only to read the Bible, but to give the right interpretation of that Scripture. To do so requires study of the passage, prayer, personal trust in God, learning from others: to be a teacher, you must be a learner, foremost from God, and from him through other teachers, too.
Now, the people are responding in a way that is genuine, but not what was desired. They are weeping. As the Law is read, they realize how far short of it they have fallen. There will be a time for such repentance and confession (as the next chapter will show), but now that needs to give way to a prior command, more surprising, and often honored in the breach in church life: rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). As Ezra and Nehemiah put it, “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10). Some churches have very little, if any, Bible teaching. Other churches have lots of heavy theology, but very little, if any, joy. What God has brought together, we should not divide. The Word, the Bible, and exuberant joy go together. So they celebrate the great feast of “booths” and rejoice (8:13-18)!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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