So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly because they understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:8-12)
From Weeping To Rejoicing
After seventy years of foreign rule, the nation of Israel slowly began to return to the land given to them through the promise of Abraham. The empire of Babylon had subjugated the people of God to bondage in accordance with the word of God. Following the decree of Cyrus, many of the Jews began the long journey back to Jerusalem. The first task they set their hearts to do was to rebuild the Temple so that worship could be restored and was completed in the month of Adar which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. Under the leadership of Nehemiah, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt along with the gates of the city. In the seventh month following the completion of the walls, the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate and asked for Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses and read God’s word before them. Ezra read from morning until midday and all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. In a remarkable show of respect for the Book of the Law, the people stood up when the scribe opened its pages. As Ezra blessed the people, they cried out, “Amen, Amen” while lifting up their hands and bowing their faces to the ground in worship to the Lord. Men stood before the people helping them understand the Law giving the sense of the message and lessons to be gleaned from the ancient pages. Nehemiah implored the people not to weep for all the people wept when they heard the reading of the Book and received the meaning of the text. He told them it was a holy day and one of rejoicing for the mercy and grace of the Lord was upon them. The message of God to the remnant was the joy of the Lord is the strength of His forgiveness, kindness and everlasting love for His people. Reading from the Book of the Law helped the hearts of the people turn from sadness and weeping to shouts of joy and praise. So all the people went their way to eat and drink and to share the spiritual fellowship of God’s mercy upon them all and their hearts were turned to rejoicing because they understood the words that were declared to them.
There is a powerful image of the remnant of Israel returning to its homeland and the impact of the Book of the Law upon their hearts. Israel had been punished by the wrath of God because they had disregarded the word of God spoken to them by the prophets. Idolatry had taken the hearts of the people to ignore the preaching of the word and in their rebellion suffered greatly at the hand of the Lord. A new generation arose that hungered for the mind of the Lord to be read and it’s understanding given to the people. What was lost became a sacred trust now. Their fathers and fathers before them had little interest in the word of God but this generation hungered for the words of the Law. When Ezra opened the book they stood up with divine respect for what the parchments meant to them. They were not in comfortable buildings with padded pews when the Law was read. The people gathered in the open square and stood there from morning until midday listening to the reading of the word. What made the difference in the hearts of the people was because the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. They had asked for Ezra to read the Book and they responded with respect for the testimony of God’s word being read as it was explained in their presence. It did not matter how long the reading took or exhaustive the explanation became because the hearts of the people were listening closely to the reading of the Book. Remarkably, the people wept when they heard the preaching. Their hearts were so consumed by the message of the word of God they could not hold back their sorrow. Nehemiah implored the people not to weep but to rejoice for the salvation of the Lord had brought His people back to the Promised Land and the worship was restored in the Temple.
The church of Christ finds itself in the bondage of apathy and unconcern in many places. Hearts are dulled at the reading of the word of God and worship services are being abbreviated more and more to suit the needs of a carnal world filling the minds of God’s people. What makes the story of Nehemiah so remarkable is the people asked Ezra to read the book and they were willing to stand from morning to midday in the open square in front of the Water Gate listening to the divine word explained. Teaching and preaching are frowned upon in the Lord’s church when it goes beyond the appointed noon hour as people shuffle and move around in discomfort. It is almost like a horse race beginning when the gates are open so that folk can rush out to their lives outside the building at the sound of the last song and prayer. There was a time when the people of God were very knowledgeable of the word of God but those days are long gone. Many sit in the pew without Bibles open listening inattentively to a message that seldom moves their hearts to any action or response. They fill the prescribed time and do things in accordance with the Biblical pattern of decency and order and walk out the door as dull as a butter knife. There is no emotional response to the word of God and seldom is found a voice of rejoicing at the good news of the gospel. Following the admonition of Nehemiah, the people went out and shared gifts with others as the Law prescribed. The New Testament church characteristically spent time with one another in the joy of Christ. Many among God’s people have no knowledge of those who sit on the other side of the building or the needs of the downtrodden because everyone lives in a secluded bubble of personal security. The gospel is something to be shared with the saints and those who need Christ. There are vital lessons to be learned from the remnant Jews who gathered in the open square in front of the Water Gate. Let the church rekindle the spirit of the assembly of God’s people long ago who wept at the understanding of the word and then went out to live with joy at the word of salvation.