Men of the Word

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.