Nehemiah 8 Ezra! Ezra! Read All About It!

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Questions: Why read the Law? With what attitude? To what end? How does understanding differ from knowledge* Why should we rejoice and not weep? “Read More” to pursue answers in Nehemiah.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Nehemiah 8:1-18

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.

I wonder if this was a separate gathering, or a continuation of the census Nehemiah set up in chapter 7.

And 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.

It is difficult for us in a literate (post-literate?) culture to imagine the awe such people would’ve had at the simple act of reading — compounded by the fact that these were both their national founding documents and their revelation from God!

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:

We stand like that all the time in the Lutheran church (which I visit when back in Illinois). Yet, I wonder: how long has it been since I felt such reverence and gratitude at God’s word? Have I forgotten how much of my identity I owe to those truths? Has the plethora of intellectual fodder and emotional stimulation available today dulled me to the magic of a simple Book?

And 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.

Fascinating. He starts by blessing God, and they respond with worship — apparently before he’s even read anything! Why?

Maybe because he’s not approaching this reading as an intellectual exercise, but as a spiritual sacrament. Hmm.

So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused [them] to understand the reading.

Cool! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between “knowledge” and “understanding.” A lot of the time we approach (or teach) the Law as if the most important thing was merely to “know” it. But I’ve come to suspect that a lot of such battles are merely a way to hide our shame — or project it onto others!

* To judge, you must know the Law
* To forgive, you must understand the Law

And in fact, that seems to have been a valid concern:

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.

Wow! Now this is spooky. Most pastors I know would be thrilled to have a congregation brought to tears by recognizing their own sinfulness before the Lord and His Law. Certainly there is a time and place for contrition; yet, oddly, this is not it:

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.

They keep hammering this point home:

So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day [is] holy; neither be ye grieved.

and finally it sinks in:

And 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.

Wow. Something powerful just happened here, and I don’t want to miss it.

* Knowledge of the Law brings shame
* Understanding of the Law brings joy

Who’d a thunk it? The exact same words can have two totally opposite impacts on their hearers, depending on their mindset — and the context in which leadership presents them. I wonder if that is one of the primary jobs of leaders — to present difficult truths in a way that produces joy, not shame. I wonder how many leaders understand that — or have received such from their mentors.

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.

Heh. I wonder if they would’ve come back had they been stuck in shame, rather than released in joy.

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:

Now this is cool. Having crossed over from mourning to gratitude, they had hearts that could receive this command as a blessing — “Wow, look at what we get to do!” — rather than feel guilt over having not done it in the past.

So 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. 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 .

Par-ty! Par-ty! And at the center of it all:

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.

Wow. What would it take to understand God’s Law so well that it excites us to party for a week?

Prayer

God, I must confess that even though I honor and revere your Law, I barely understand it. Too often for me — even now! — it is a cause for mourning, not for rejoicing. Father, help me to see the party hidden in the promises, the joy swaddled in wrappings of justice. Teach me to know you as the Kinsman-Redeemer who takes away my shame, the Strong Wall that restores my dignity and honor. Help me to believe that you desire my personal fulfillment and happiness even more than I do. That every command you give me is a present to be received with excitement, because it gives me greater good than I could ever grasp for myself. Make me to understand the Law. Grant me grace to understand You. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title is the traditional chant of newspaper sellers from the pre-television era, substituting “Ezra” for “Extra.” An “extra” was a special edition of a (typically) daily paper, often late afternoon, containing late-breaking news.

Editorial Note:

The long gap from mid-October was partly due to uncertainty about whether to continue in Nehemiah, or take a detour into the Psalms as suggested by my chronological Bible, or even jump to something else in line with various issues I was dealing with. Finally I decided that I do still need closure with Nehemiah, so let’s follow him to the end.

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