Men of the Word
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
Our subject during this study has been “A Culture in Crisis.” The crisis continues, as you know. GM is actively considering bankruptcy; global climate change is accelerating; the Muslim advance in Western Europe continues; the war with Radical Islam is going better in Iraq but worse in Afghanistan; political changes in Israel and Palestine have escalated tensions in the Holy Land.
What in the world is going on? What does God want us to do? I am convinced that the only answer is Awakening, and that God is marching in just this way in these very days. What does he ask of us?
Nehemiah came to the leadership of his nation in a time of similar crisis. Their capital city was in ruins, their people defenseless against their enemies. The king had refused to allow the city to be rebuilt, and Nehemiah was the only man who could change his mind and lead the effort. His wisdom, courage, and compassion led the Jewish people to reconstruct their city and resurrect their nation.
Now they have a physical nation again, but not a spiritual one. In this session we will learn the secret of renewal, spiritual movement, Awakening in our time. It starts with you, and the book you brought to Bible study today.
Value the word (Neh. 7:53-8:2)
Our text begins: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns (Nehemiah 7:53). “The seventh month” was our September-October. It was the New Year’s Day on the Jewish civil calendar, and the first month of the seventh year of the religious clendar.
This was the most sacred month of the Jewish year. The Feast of Trumpets was celebrated on the first day, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the 15th to the 21st days, followed by a national assembly on the 22nd day.
Now, “all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel” (v. 1). “All the people assembled as one man,” as it was the seventh month. From Neh. 7 we know that this crowd numbered as many as 50,000 people. “People” occurs 13 times in this chapter, showing the collective experience and transformation of the nation upon hearing and understanding the word of God.
They gathered “in the square before the Water Gate.” This was on the east wall of the city. “Square” translates rehob, “court.” It was a large area situated between the eastern gate of the temple and the city wall, where the Water Gate had been constructed.
Through this gate, water was brought into the city; there was a large area in front of it.
“They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” Ezra was a scribe and a priest, descended from Eleazar, Aaron’s third son. He had returned to Jerusalem from Persia in 458 B.C., 14 years before Nehemiah, also with the blessing of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7). His primary purpose was to rebuild the nation spiritually, as Nehemiah would rebuild it physically. He did this by teaching the law of God to the people of God.
Ezra 7:10 gives us the passion of his life: “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
Now the people told him “to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” He had been teaching them God’s word for 14 years; during the two-month interlude while the walls were rebuilt, this ministry apparently was stopped. Now the people asked that Ezra begin teaching them again.
This reading of the complete Law every seven years was prescribed by Moses: “Moses commanded them: At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess'” (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).
This was the Pentateuch, or the Torah. At this time the Law was a massive scroll, stored by the priests for safety and brought out only for public reading. Such reading was the ministry of the priest: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 2:7). Would that it were so today.
With this result: “So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand” (v. 2). “Men and women and all who were able to understand” includes children and youth as well.
This is an event similar to the Jewish synagogue service: the people assembled; the Torah was requested and opened; the people stood; praise was given to God; the people responded; the sermon instructed them; the Law was read and applied; and the people departed.
This movement would lead to the greatest awakening the Jewish people had experienced in generations. And it all started when they valued the word of God.
Many years ago, a shipwreck off the Japanese islands resulted in a small New Testament being washed ashore. A man walking on the beach found the tiny volume, and judged its paper just the right dimensions and weight for cigarettes. As he tore a page from the book to roll a cigarette, he would read what was printed on it. And so he came to trust in Christ, and to start a church in his village. Years later, when missionaries first visited his island, they found a thriving community of faith awaiting their arrival.
God’s word changes human hearts.
My good friend and fellow partner in the ministry, Abraham Sarker, came to the United States as a Muslim, seeking to convert college students to Islam. Before leaving for the States, he had a vision of himself in hell and then heard the words, “Read the Bible.”
He came to his assigned college campus and asked the librarian for a Bible. She didn’t know where one was, but sent him to the Baptist Student Ministries building down the street. There he was handed a copy of the New Testament translated into his native Bengali language by William Carey. Reading the Scriptures and talking with Christians on that campus, he came to faith in Christ. He eventually came to Dallas Baptist University, where he received two degrees and now serves on the board of trustees.
His father disowned him back home in Bangladesh, and put out a warrant for his arrest should he ever return. Several years ago, Abraham and his wife Aimee went back anyway, and Abraham led his father to Christ. Now his entire family has come to saving faith. I have been to Bangladesh with Abraham and have witnessed the more than 200 Muslims who have come to Christ through his ministry there. His organization, Gospel For Muslims, is one of the most effective in the world.
God’s word changes human hearts. Do you value the word of God?
Read the word
The text continues: “He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law” (v. 3). “He read it” is literally, “He read in it,” suggesting that he picked sections to read.
Ezra did this “from daybreak till noon,” from 6 a.m. to noon, six hours of continuous reading. This was not enough time for the entire Torah to be read; most likely, Ezra read from the Book of Deuteronomy, as it summarizes the law and history of the Jewish nation, and selected other sections as they supplemented it.
Two weeks later, as the people gathered to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, Ezra read the Law to them for an entire week: “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly” (v. 18). Here he likely read the rest of the Torah to the nation.
Now “all the people listened attentively.” There is no Hebrew word for “attentive”—the text literally says, “the ears of all the people were to the book.”
How did he do this? Verse 4: “Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.”
He “stood on a high wooden platform.” Jewish rabbis typically sat to teach, while the people stood to listen. Thus Jesus “went up on a mountainside and sat down” to preach the Sermon on the Mount. But here, so many had gathered that Ezra’s voice could not reach them all if he sat while they stood. So a special platform was built for this one occasion. It was able to hold 14 people, as verses 4 and 7 indicate.
This may be the origin of the “pulpit” (as the KJV translates the word “platform”). However, it says that he “stood upon a pulpit of wood”—most preachers would be reluctant to follow this example.
Now “Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up” (v. 5). It was customary for them to stand to hear the rabbi’s teaching. Here they stood in the mere presence and reading of God’s word, as though they were standing in the very presence of God himself.
Such should always be our attitude: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Here may have originated the liturgical practice of standing whenever the Bible is read. We have done this is some of the churches I pastured as well.
He began: “Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (v. 6). “Amen! Amen!” means “It is true” or “let it be.” Repetition was the Jewish way of emphasizing a statement (cf. Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).
Then they “bowed down” in Oriental submission, “with their faces to the ground.” Muslims do this today.
When do you read the word of God? John Stott, the great British pastor and expositor, once remarked that he needs an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year in shabbath with the Father. What do you need? What’s your strategy for this week? This year?
Interpret the word
It is not enough to value and read the word—we must interpret its meaning for our lives. Verse 7: “The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.” After Ezra read from the Law, they applied it to the lives of the people, either taking turns before the multitude or teaching in smaller groups within the large crowd.
How? “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (v. 8). “Making it clear” translates pares, “to break up.” They translated and interpreted the word of God for the people of God.
This is still vital today. How do we interpret God’s word for ourselves?
Ask introductory questions: who, what, when, where, why?
Discover the meaning of the words: grammar, syntax
Learn the historical context of the text: geography, culture, economics, events
Discern the intended theological truths of the text
Apply this intended meaning to your life today.
Use good resources. Keep a journal and make an appointment to meet God in his word every day.
Apply the word
We can value, read, and interpret the Bible, but if we do not apply it to our lives, it has not completed its intended work. Here’s how the Bible was applied at this time in Israel’s history:
The people were convicted of their sins (v. 9-12). Dwight L. Moody: “Either this book will separate you from your sins, or your sins will separate you from this book.”
They gathered to learn more from God’s word (v. 13). These were the heads of the clans and tribes of Israel; they were responsible for the spiritual instruction of their families. Here Ezra taught the word to the leaders and influencers as well as to the crowds.
They applied God’s word to their time and situation (vs. 14-18) “The Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month” refers to the Feast of Tabernacles prescribed in Leviticus 23:37-43. During these seven days, the people lived in booths made of branches, usually built on the flat roofs of their houses.
They remembered their 40 years of wilderness wanderings, remembered the harvest blessings of God, and thanked him for his provision for their families and nation. So they went out to gather branches for this very purpose (vs. 15-16), and held the most joyous celebration of the feast since the time of Joshua.
All during this time, “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly” (v. 18).
Now Ezra finished reading the Torah, as the people celebrated. They did even more than the Scriptures required.
Does this model speak to your life? Your family? Make an appointment with God, starting today. And the Awakening will come to your spirit and life.