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Text – Nehemiah 8
Nehemiah 8 is the main reason I started going through Nehemiah. This is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. A lot of times when I’m open-air preaching I get pseudo (name only) Christians saying, “Open-air preaching isn’t biblical!” Can you give me some examples of open-air preaching in the Bible? Noah, Jonah, Ezra, Paul, Peter, Stephen, and one more major example, Jesus. Open-air preaching is profoundly biblical, it is one of the major ways that Christianity has spread, great preachers of the past included Patrick, Boniface, John Knox, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon, to name only a few of many.
Sometimes open-air preaching is done evangelically, to take the gospel out to people who normally wouldn’t listen, other times, like with George Whitefield and John Flavel, it was because they had no church to preach in. Whitefield was disliked by the Anglican Church, and Flavel was a Puritan, outlawed by the Anglican Church from mentioning his Christian beliefs. We’ll see today that often an open-air meeting is to accommodate massive numbers of people.
This passage has also been used heavily to drive the liturgy of the church. What is liturgy? The way we do church. It’s the way we sing, read the Bible, pray, and the actions we take during these things. There are lots of different liturgies between different denominations, I think it would be very foolish for us to try to say one way is the only right way, the important thing is that our motives are pure in how we do church. We’ll see some great things in Nehemiah today, but there are lots of other ways described throughout the Bible. One of my favorite examples is when Hannah prays silently but her mouth is moving, and it’s so weird to the priest that he accuses her of being drunk. Was she wrong? No. Can you pray silently or outloud? Yes, whichever seems most appropriate for the situation.
Let’s do some review real quick, what major even has just been completed in Nehemiah? They have just finished the wall and set the gates. The city of Jerusalem is now well on its way to restoration, but the spiritual side of Jerusalem is still pretty wrecked. How many days did it take to rebuild the wall? 52, was that quick? Yes, everyone who saw it had to agree that it was accomplished because God was with them, even in the face of severe persecution. So, let’s now take a look at the restoration of the spiritual state of Judah.
Nehemiah 8:1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel.
Ezra wrote down the history of Jerusalem from the end of the Babylonian Exile to right before Nehemiah came to town. They call on him to read the Law, or more specifically the word here is Torah. What is the Torah/Law? It is the first 5 books of the Bible, the 5 books of Moses. What are they? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. There was a law, which the Jews had forsaken for at least 160 years, to read the Torah to all of the people every seven years. Some people believe that this was all five books, but most really good scholars believe this was just the book of Deuteronomy, which is really a great summation of the whole Torah, plus there is a verse that makes it sounds like just Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 31:10-13 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”
Ezra was called to read it, he was a scribe, it was his job to make copies of the Old Testament, this would make him especially well familiar with the Bible. Here is something you can consider doing that I have been doing for a while. I make a copy of one chapter of the Bible every week, it really slows me down and makes me think. It’s not the only way to make sure you pause to think on your Bible, but it is a great way.
Nehemiah 8:2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.
Here is an important point throughout church history until about the 1950's onward, that youth ministry was unheard of. If you were old enough to understand, you stood in the congregation and learned with the adults.
Nehemiah 8:3-4 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.
This is five or six hours of reading, and we see that they were attentive, they paid attention to the reading. This wasn't all reading, as we'll see in a bit, there was explanation of what the text meant and even translation for those who didn't have a strong grasp of Hebrew, as many in attendance grew up speaking Chaldi, or the language of the Babylonians.
Nehemiah 8:5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.
Speaking of liturgy, do you even wonder why the pastor stands on a stage? In recent years I think that many churches have utterly lost this concept and have turned the pulpit into nothing more than a stage for entertainment and self agrandizement. The reason for an elevated pulpit is for the main purpose that people can see and hear the one speaking. A secondary purpose is that it shows authority, and hopefully gives reverence to the message.
I find in open-air preaching that if I am standing even a few inches above my audience, that my voice carries farther, and people will stop and listen. I have preached from street level on occasion and have had much less visible evidence that people were listening than if I stand on a box or a wall.
Everyone could see Ezra opening the book, the Hebrew word here is cepher, it really ought not be translated "book", what Ezra opened here was a scroll.
When he opened it, all of the people stood in reverence. It was tradition to stand during the reading of scripture for much of the Dark Ages; during the Reformation, many traditions like this were outright done away with. There were a lot of other weird things people were doing that you can't find in the Bible, like reading the Bible in Latin to people who didn't speak Latin, or clothing to set the priests apart from the laity (called sacerdotalism), and all sorts of strange rules about things like communion, baptism, "crossing" yourself when you came before a crucifix, or bowing a certain number of times during the service. The Reformation did away with many of these things as Popish superstition.
Not all of it was unbiblical though, such as we see here the standing in reverence when the Law of God is opened. Here is where it can be wrong though, if the standing is just tradition or is mandated. It is better that you stay seated and give reverence to the hearing of the Word, than stand because everyone else does and ignore what is being said; not ignoring in hearing, but ignoring in believing and acting on.
Nehemiah 8:6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
Here is one place we get the idea of praying before the scripture is read. Praying is always good, but again, if you just do it to do it, you're doing it wrong. We don't have it recorded in the Bible, but Jewish tradition has recorded what Ezra's prayer could have been. In order to break with tradition of only praying at the beginning and end of a lesson, lets pray Ezra's prayer now,
Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the world, who hath chosen us out of all people, and hath given us his law; blessed art thou, O Lord, who hast given us the law; and all the people answer, Amen.
The Amen at the end literally means "Truth", and it is an affirmation of what has just been prayed. Yesterday at the Big Shanty Festival a very flamboyant person came up and asked to pray with us, it was awkward to say the least, at the end of his prayer, which was charismaniac goofiness, I was very reserved to give an "amen."
One thing which we don't often do is what they did, lifting their hands towards Heaven. I think one of the reasons we shy away from this is because it has been hijacked by the emotionalistic bents of christendom that want to "feel" something in worship, and their handraising is often almost cultish and very mystic (feelings based). But we have to remember that we don't reject biblical truth just because someone is doing it wrongly. Check out what Paul says,
1 Timothy 2:8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;
This is the method of Psalm 134, calling us to reach towards Heaven, moreso spiritually than physically, but also physically, when we are in need. We'll read a verse in the sermon on the mount in just a moment that will show us why, but before we do, can someone please read Psalm 134...the whole thing, if you're able:
Psalm 134:1-3 Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD! May the LORD bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!
So then, they read the Law, what do we do if someone doesn't understand what it means, or even what it says? That's verse 7-8,
Nehemiah 8:7-8 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
They explain what it means, I love that it says they "read clearly", and I'd encourage you to know what a passage says before you stand to read it. I hate it when a preacher stands up to preach and it sounds like he's reading the passage for the first time as he begins his sermon. If you're going to read the Bible to other people, I beg of you, practice being a good reader. Several commentaries also say that the Hebrew words used here give an indication that the Law was also translated into other languages so that people whose first language was not Hebrew would get a perfect grasp of what was being said.
The Law is good, it is wonderful, it is a textual representation of who God is: holy, perfect, undefiled; but the Law is directly against us, when we sin it stands as a witness against us. When the people heard how perfect God is in the Law, it caused them to mourn, as we'll see in the next passage,
Nehemiah 8:9-12 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved." And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
They are weeping over their sin, and it would have been rightly so, if it had not been during a festival (we'll see it in a minute), and all of the festivals pointed to the faithfulness of God towards a repentant people, which these people were.
Numbers 10:10 On the day of your gladness also, and at your appointed feasts and at the beginnings of your months, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I am the LORD your God.
So Nehemiah sends them off not to mourn, but to feast. These sacrifices pointed forward to Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice,
Hebrews 7:27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
This is why Nehemiah and the priests could tell the people not to mourn, but to celebrate, even though they saw that they were great sinners. This is why Jesus could make an extremely audacious claim in the Sermon on the Mount,
Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
The Hebrew people in Nehemiah 8 had no idea (or very little idea) how that was going to take place, but they trusted that God was faithful, and because they trusted in God, they did their best to keep his laws. Which is our next section.
Nehemiah 8:13 On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law.
Pause here really quick, in Nehemiah 8 we see both corporate worship and private study. A church is much blessed when it has godly leaders who study and believe and act on their Bibles.
In it they discovered a law that they were forsaking, and called people to honor it:
Nehemiah 8:14-18 And they found it written in the Law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, "Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written." So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.
Let me sum this up for your real quick since we are quickly running out of time. The Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths, was a one week celebration where the people would live in "tents" made of palm fronds and other leafy branches. It commemorated a time in the desert with Moses when God dwelt in the midst of the people, not in a temple, but in a tent, and they could see his glory, for he was with them. It was meant to be a reminder of God's faithfulness in calling his people out of slavery into the promised land. Unfortunately the Jews had done a very bad job of commemorating this event, after all, it took a long time and a lot of effort, and was quite uncomfortable. It would be like me saying, next week don't go sleep in your own beds, we're going to camp in the parking lot. It was celebrated on and off since Joshua, but here it tells us that it was celebrated with more joy and more correctly than it had been since his time.
Jerusalem must have looked pretty weird during this time, with homemade tents all over, on roofs, in front yards, in two of the major open places, on every street. But the people were celebrating that God was faithful, that he would once against dwell with them, that they would once against see his glory.
I wish we had time to read John 7 and really look at it, but I want to point out really quickly that Jesus went to the Feast of Tabernacles and revealed himself as the purpose of the feast, but look at the last verses of that passage (which is actually the last verse of chapter 7 and first verse of chapter 8),
John 7:53-8:1 They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
So here-in is our conclusion, that Jesus Christ is the reason that the people were not to mourn over their sin, that the Law pointed towards him, the Feast of Tabernacles pointed towards his faithfulness, that he would dwell with his people and make them right with God. In John 7 they missed him altogether, beloved, I pray that you will not miss this Godman who dwelt among us.
John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
So beloved, testify to him, show the glory of God through the man who died on a cross but yet lives, who is the one who can say to those who mourn, you shall be comforted. Do so in public, or in private, study his word, tell people about him. Give full reverence to his Word, but moreso to him, do nothing from vain tradition, but out of respect to the Righteous and Resurrected One. Lift your hands and your soul towards him in recognition of your great need for his salvation and his blessings, and in that, I pray that he may bless you, he who made heaven and earth.