Nehemiah: The Reading of the Law and Revival
The Jews who were living in their homeland during the 440s BC (93 years after the Babylonian Captivity had ended) had a great heart for God. Perhaps all the opposition, affliction, and reproach they had suffered from enemies in their area of the world (Neh. 1:3; 2:19; 4:1–11; 6:1–14) caused them to recognize their utter dependence on Him. Their heart for God was demonstrated by a request they made to Ezra and by their response to the fulfillment of that request.
The Request of the People
After the Jews had completed the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah (Neh. 6:15), they came together as one man to one location and requested Ezra, the scribe, to bring out the law of Moses, which God had given to Israel (Neh. 8:1). They desired to hear what God had to say. This request indicated that they had a genuine hunger for the Word of God, for it was the people who took the initiative to have the Scriptures read to them. The spiritual leaders did not have to track them down and confront them with God’s Word.
Not only did the people request to hear the Scriptures, but they also made provision for its public reading. They built a “pulpit of wood” for Ezra to stand upon while reading the law (Neh. 8:4). The word translated pulpit actually refers to tower.1 This structure probably was a high platform from which Ezra could be seen and heard by all the people during the public reading (see Neh. 8:5). This provision by the people demonstrated their serious intent to hear the Word of God.
Ezra fulfilled the request of the people on the first day of Israel’s seventh month by bringing the law before everyone old enough to understand (Neh. 8:2). It is interesting to note that this spiritual event took place at the beginning of a month that had great spiritual significance for Israel. During that month the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles were to be observed (Lev. 23:23–44).
Before Ezra began to read the law he blessed the Lord. In response, the people offered up their hearty agreement with this blessing, bowed their heads, and worshipped God with their faces toward the ground (Neh. 8:6). Thus, they came to the reading of the Scriptures with an attitude of humble worship toward the God of those sacred writings.
When Ezra opened the Scriptures to read, all the people stood up (Neh. 8:5), showing their profound respect for the Word of God.
When taken together, Ezra 8:3, 7, and 8 indicate that more than the careful reading of the Word of God transpired on that significant day. Gifted teachers were present to explain the meaning of the biblical text that was read. Apparently after each section of the law was read, it was explained before the reading of the next section.2 This process continued from the morning (lit., from the light) until midday.3 Inspite of this length of time,4 all the people were attentive to the reading and exposition of the law (Neh. 8:3), demonstrating their intense interest in the content of God’s Word.
The Response of the People
The reading and exposition of the law had incredible effects upon the people. First, they all wept when they heard the words of the Scriptures (Neh. 8:9), revealing their sensitivity to the Word of God.
Nehemiah, Ezra, and the gifted teachers told the people that instead of mourning or weeping, they should rejoice and celebrate because this day was holy to the Lord their God (Neh. 8:9–11). The term holy refers to that which is divided or set apart from the common or ordinary. Thus, the second response of the people to this exhortation was joy and celebration because they had understood God’s Word (Neh. 8:12). Through this exhortation and response the people learned that setting aside time from common ordinary activities to hear the Word of God read and explained should not be regarded as a grievous chore. Instead, it should be considered a cause for joy and celebration because it provides the privileged opportunity of hearing and understanding what the sovereign King of the universe has said.
On the second day of the seventh month, leaders of the people met with Ezra to study the law in more depth (Neh. 8:13).5 When they read that God had commanded the Israelites to live in booths during the Feast of Tabernacles, they instructed the people to make the prescribed kind of booths (Neh. 8:14–15), and the people carried out this activity with enthusiasm (Neh. 8:16–18).
The statement “since the days of Joshua, the son of Nun, unto that day had not the children of Israel done so” (v. 17) does not mean that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been observed by the Jews since the time that they, under Joshua’s leadership, had taken possession of Canaan.6 Solomon and his subjects kept that feast after the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (1 Ki. 8:65; 2 Chr. 7:8–9), and the original Jews who returned from the Babylonian Captivity kept the feast in the first year of their return (Ezra 3:4).7 The statement in verse 17 means that not since the days of Joshua had the whole congregation living in Israel actually lived in booths during the feast. Apparently on many occasions there were Jews who observed the feast without living in booths.8
The fact that all the people carried out this activity with great gladness reveals that it prompted total, enthusiastic obedience to God’s Word, which was the third effect that the reading and exposition of the Scriptures had on them.
During all seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles, Ezra read the Scriptures (Neh. 8:18).
On the 24th day of the seventh month, shortly after the Feast of Tabernacles, the people gathered together with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes, signs of repentance that separated them from the Gentiles and their heathen customs (Neh. 9:1–2).9
The people stood up again for the reading of the law for a fourth part of the 24th day (Neh. 9:3)-about three hours.10 After the reading of the Scriptures, the people worshipped God and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors for another three hours (Neh. 9:2–3). Then the people were led in a great prayer of worship and confession (Neh. 9:4–37). This prayer traced the history of Israel and emphasized the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the nation. It declared that God was just and right in delivering their ancestors into the hands of such enemies as Assyria because those ancestors had rebelled against God and His law and had abused His prophets whom He sent to them to testify against their evil ways.
From what has been seen in Nehemiah 9 we can conclude that the fourth effect of God’s Word on the Jewish people in Israel during Nehemiah’s time was repentance, separation from defiling associations and practices, and confession.
After the prayer of worship and confession, the political and religious leaders and the people made a solemn covenant to obey God’s law explicitly (Neh. 9:38–10:39). They vowed several things. First, they would not marry their children to pagan people. Second, they would keep the sabbath, the holy days, and the sabbatical years, including the release of debtors from the payment of debts. Third, individually they would pay one-third of a shekel each year to support the Temple ministry. Fourth, they would supply wood for the offerings. Fifth, they would give the tithe, their first fruits, and their firstborn to God. This covenant demonstrated the fifth effect of the Scriptures on these Jews, their determined commitment to God’s ways and service.
Taken together, the five effects of the Scriptures on these people indicate that the reading and exposition of God’s Word prompted genuine revival of God’s people.
Matters of Concern
Among those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians today, certain trends have been developing that are matters of concern. Many who claim to be God’s people do not demonstrate a genuine hunger for God’s Word, such serious intent to hear the Scriptures read and expounded that they make provision for it, or intense interest in learning the content of the Word of God. Instead of coming to their pastors and asking for more reading and exposition of the Scriptures, they I seem to want to avoid that activity. Instead of the hearing and understanding of God’s Word causing joy and I celebration, many act as if setting aside time from common, ordinary activities in order to hear the Scriptures read and expounded is a grievous chore.
In addition, among those who claim to be born again, some say, “Biblical doctrine is not important, so don’t bother me with such teaching.” It appears that many want to be entertained when they come to church, instead of thinking about the content of God’s Word and its implication for their lives.
As a result of these attitudes, church services in which the Bible is read and preached suffer dwindling attendance, but those services offering other activities draw large crowds. Consequently, in order to maintain large attendance, some churches increasingly substitute other activities in place of Bible exposition. If these trends continue, there will be a dearth of God’s Word in the land, and even those who profess to be true believers will be biblically illiterate.
The lesson to be learned from Nehemiah 8 to 10 is that the careful reading and exposition of the Scriptures prompts such responses as sensitivity and total, enthusiastic obedience to God’s Word, genuine repentance, separation from defiling associations and practices, confession of sin, and determined commitment to God’s ways and service. In other words, apart from the careful reading and exposition of the Word of God, no true revival of God’s people is possible. Revival that is based on anything else is a sham.
- Elmer B. Smick, “Migdal,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. I (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980), 151.
- C. F. Keil, The Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), 229.
- Ibid., 233.
- Ibid., 234.
- Ibid., 236.