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ACCOUNT OF THE STATE OF RELIGION AMONG THE JEWS UNDER THE ADMINISTRATION OF NEHEMIAH.
RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION OF THE PEOPLE BY EZRA, AND CELEBRATION OF THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES (Nehemiah 8:1-18.). It can scarcely be imagined that Ezra had been present in Jerusalem during the exciting scenes which have been enacted in the first part of this Book, and had never come forward in such a way as to obtain notice from the historian. Nehemiah entertained no jealousy of him, and when the time came for the great ceremony of dedicating the wall, assigned him the second part in it (Nehemiah 12:36). We must therefore suppose either that accidental circumstances had caused his temporary absence from Jerusalem during the summer of b.c. 444, or that, having quitted the city soon after the proceedings narrated in the last chapter of the Book which bears his name, he now resumed his residence after having lived elsewhere for nearly thirteen years. If Nehemiah's work had been a continuous history composed throughout by himself, it would have been strange that this doubt should not have been cleared up, and that Ezra's name should have been introduced so suddenly and without explanation, as it is in Nehemiah 8:1. But the narrative in this place, as already observed (Introduction, § 2), is by another hand, and is a particular relation of certain events which the writer was probably set to describe, rather than a chapter on the general history of the Jewish people. It was not written with any knowledge of what exactly was to precede it, and so does not fit on very neatly to the previous section. We are left to conjecture Ezra's personal history between March, b.c. 456, and September, b.c. 444. Now the condition in which Nehemiah found Jerusalem—the oppression of the rich men (Nehemiah 4:1-23. ), the prevalence of mixed marriages (Nehemiah 6:18; Nehemiah 10:30; Nehemiah 13:23-30), the desecration of the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:31; Nehemiah 13:15-18), the negligence with respect to tithes and offerings (Nehemiah 10:33-39)—is almost incompatible with the supposition that Ezra's ministry had been continuous during these years, or only interrupted by brief absences, like that of Nehemiah in b.c. 433-432 (Nehemiah 13:6). It seems, therefore, to be most probable that he had been recalled to the court early in b.c. 456, and that he was only now in the summer of B.C. 444 allowed to return, perhaps at his own instance. If, at the beginning of the seventh month, Tisri, the most sacred of the year, Ezra had just come back to Jerusalem from a prolonged absence, it would be most natural that he should be asked to resume his work of instruction by reading and expounding the law of Moses to the people (Nehemiah 8:1). The people's marked "attention" (verse 3) would also be natural; and such a reading and expounding, after such an interval, would naturally have a great effect. It would stir penitence; it would wake thought; it would lead to greater exactness in observing the law. These are the results which seem to have followed. Ezra's reading was on the first day of the month (verse 2), the "feast of trumpets," as the day was called. It led to a great weeping—"all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law" (verse 9). As, however, the day was one of the chief festivals of the year, and therefore the display of grief was unfitting, Ezra checked it for the time, and recommended liberal alms-giving in the place of tears (verse 10). His advice was taken (verse 12); and an increased desire to hear the law having been produced by hearing it, the people met again on the second of Tisri, to be present at a second reading. Ezra thereupon directed their attention to the impending "feast of tabernacles," which had not now for some considerable time been celebrated with the proper solemnities, and read to them the portions of the law which bore upon it (verse 14). A much more exact and scrupulous observance of the legal regulations was the consequence—the dwelling in booths, which had been given up, was revived (verse 17); the feast was continued during the full eight days (verse 18); the solemn assemblies on the first day and the eighth were held (ibid.); and, above all, "day by day, from the first day unto the last day," Ezra took care to "read in the book of the law of God" before the people, thus bringing before them their practical duties in the most solemn and effective way, and stirring them up to holiness and repentance. The good effect of these proceedings on his part appears in the next two chapters.
The chapter should commence, as in the Septuagint, with the last two clauses of Nehemiah 7:1-73; and should run thus:—"And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in their cities, all the people gathered themselves together, as one man, into the court that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe," etc. The "court" (rehob) spoken of appears to have been situated between the eastern gate of the temple and the city wall, at the point where it was pierced by the "water gate." They spake unto Ezra. It is remarkable that the people ask for instruction. Though they do not keep the law, they have a yearning after it. They are not contented with their existing condition, but desire better things, and they have an instinctive feeling that to hear God's word will help them.
Ezra the priest brought the law. Ezra, God's true priest, at once responded to the call He did not say, "The law is difficult, hard to be understood, might mislead you, should be reserved for the learned;" but at once "brought it," and "read therein" before the congregation both of men and women, and of all that could hear with understanding, i.e. of all (youths and maidens) that were old enough to understand the words.
From the morning until midday. Or, "from daylight." He began as soon as it was light enough, and read on (he and his assistants—Nehemiah 8:7) till noon, that is, for six hours or more. The reading appears to have been varied by occasional exposition (Nehemiah 8:7, Nehemiah 8:8). The ears of all the people were attentive. Though there is no word in the Hebrew for "attentive," yet the meaning is quite correctly given: "the ears of all the people were to the book" Ñ fixed on that, and on nothing else.
Ezra … stood upon a pulpit of wood. Compare 2 Kings 11:14; 2 Kings 23:3, where, however, the term used is עמוד, "stand," and not מגדל, "tower." In either case an elevated platform seems to be meant. Mattithiah, and Shema. These persons are commonly supposed to have been priests, but there is nothing to prove it. They need not even have been Levites, since they were there not to teach, but only to do honour to Ezra.
All the people stood up. The Jews commonly sat to hear and stood up to pray; but in hearing they occasionally stood up, to do greater honour to the person or the occasion (see Judges 3:20). It is not to be supposed that they stood during the whole of the six hours that Ezra's reading lasted.
Ezra blessed the Lord. Ezra began by an ascription of praise to Jehovah, as the Levites, probably under his direction, begin in Nehemiah 9:5, and as David began his last address to the congregation (1 Chronicles 29:10). The great God. The epithet belongs to the writer rather than to Ezra himself, who in his own book never uses it. It recurs in this section (Nehemiah 9:32), and is also employed by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:5). Amen, Amen. The repetition marks intensity of feeling, as does the lifting up their hands. Compare 2 Kings 11:14; Luke 23:21; and for the lifting up of the hands, so natural in prayer, see Psalms 134:2; 1 Timothy 2:8, etc. Worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Compare 2 Chronicles 7:3; Ezra 10:2.
Joshua, Bani, Sherebiah, etc. Levitical families, not individual Levites (see Nehemiah 9:4, Nehemiah 9:5; Nehemiah 10:10-13; Nehemiah 12:8, etc.). And the Levites. i.e. "the rest of the Levites." Caused the people to understand the law. Expounding it, during pauses in the reading. The people stood in their place. Rather, "were in their place"—remained throughout the whole of the reading and exposition without quitting their places. It is not probable that they stood.
They read in the book in the law of God distinctly. That is, so that every word could be distinctly heard. Compare Ezra 4:18, where a cognate word is translated "plainly." And gave the sense. Translated the Hebrew words into the popular Aramaic or Chaldee. And caused them to understand the reading. Literal]y, "in the reading." In the course of the reading they caused the people to understand by explaining the meaning of each passage.
Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha. The term "Tirshatha" had previously been applied only to Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65), but it was applicable to any governor. The writer of the section, introducing Nehemiah here for the first time, naturally gives him a title of reverence. Nehemiah's modesty had made him content to describe himself by the general and comparatively weak term pechah. Said unto the people … Mourn not. A combined remonstrance is made against the open grief of the people by the civil and ecclesiastical rulers, and by the order of Levites. Mourning was unsuitable for a day of high festivity, the opening day of the civil year and of the sabbatical month, itself a sabbath or day of rest, and one to be kept by blowing of trumpets (Leviticus 23:24, Leviticus 23:25; Numbers 29:1-6).
Then he said. Either Ezra or Nehemiah, but probably the former, to whom it appertained to give religious directions. Eat the fat and drink the sweet. i.e. "Go and enjoy yourselves, eat and drink of the best—let there be no fasting, nor even abstinence, on such a day as this." But at the same time send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared. Make the poor partakers of your joy. "The stranger, the fatherless, and the widow" should have their part in the feast (Deuteronomy 16:14). And for yourselves, remember that the joy of the Lord, i.e. religious joy, constitutes your strength.
To make great mirth. Or "great rejoicing," not "mirth" in the sense which the word now commonly bears.
"And when the seventh month came," etc. To the well-being of a people the labours of the religious teacher are as necessary as those of the statesman. Nehemiah having provided for the safety of the Jews against their enemies, Ezra, the priest and scribe, steps forward to instruct them in the law of God. Of the manner in which he did this, and the reception his instructions met with, we have a specimen in this narrative.
I. The TIME of the meeting. "The first day of the seventh month" (verse 2), the commencement of the civil year, the feast of trumpets. It was also the anniversary of the restoration of the altar (Ezra 3:1-3), and as such would be regarded with special interest. And it was the first day of the month which abounded in religious solemnities.
II. The PLACE. The open space before the water gate (verse 1).
III. The CONGREGATION.
1. Of whom it consisted. "All the people"… "men and women, and all that could hear with understanding" (verses 1, 2). Parents brought those of their children who could understand.
2. Their unanimity. "As one man" (verse 1).
3. Their eagerness to learn. "They spake unto Ezra," etc.
IV. The READING AND EXPLANATION OF THE LAW. By Ezra and a number of Levites who assisted him (verse 7). Ezra probably read the Hebrew text, and the Levites translated where necessary, and expounded, each perhaps to a different group. These exercises were—
1. Commenced with worship (verse 6).
2. Conducted with great care. From an elevated platform (verse 4). The reading distinct, the exposition intelligible and painstaking (verse 8).
3. Long-continued (verse 3).
V. The BEHAVIOUR OF THE PEOPLE.
1. Reverent (verses 5, 6). "All the people stood up … bowed their heads," etc.
2. Attentive (verse 3).
3. Persistent. For some six hours they all kept their places (verse 7).
VI. The EFFECTS produced upon them.
1. Sorrow (verse 9). So Josiah rent his clothes when the law was read to him (2 Kings 22:11). The precepts of the law, so greatly in contrast with the conduct of the nation; its promises, of blessings once largely enjoyed, but forfeited by sin; its threatenings, the fulfilment of which the hearers so painfully experienced, would all tend to produce grief. "All the people wept," and the proper character of the festival seemed likely to be marred. But the instructions and exhortations of Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites prevailed to assuage their sorrow, and induce them to celebrate the festival in accordance with its design. Thus the sorrow was turned into—
2. Joy (verse 12). Which they indulged not simply because of the exhortations to joy addressed to them, but "because they had understood the words that were declared unto them," i.e. the words of the law. For such a statement would hardly be made of the addresses referred to in verses 9-11, since there was no difficulty in understanding these. The fact that such teaching of the law was once more enjoyed by them filled their hearts with thankfulness; and although much which they had heard excited their sorrow, there was much also to awaken gladness. The law itself, and the whole history of their fathers, showed that their God was gracious and forgiving; and the promises interspersed among the precepts and threatenings (such, for instance, as those referred to in Nehemiah 1:8, Nehemiah 1:9) would encourage their hopes.
1. The worth and power of the word of God, as the ever-enduring spring of new religious life. All true and solid reformation and revival arise from the earnest republication of its truths.
2. The necessity and value of enlightened and zealous teachers of the word. Such as aim to give the people a right understanding of it, and thus to quicken them to godliness and holiness. Without good teachers, the book, even when possessed, remains comparatively a dead letter.
3. The obligation and importance of public assemblies for instruction and worship. All ought to attend them, and bring such of their children as can "hear with understanding," in however small a measure.
4. The conditions of obtaining benefit at such meetings. Desire to learn, reverence, attention, surrender of the heart to the power of the truth.
5. The mingled and conflicting emotions awakened by Divine truth. Sorrow and joy. Place of each in the Christian life. Special suitableness and worth of religious joy. "The joy of the Lord is your strength."
"The ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law." Literally, and more expressive, "were unto the book of the law," as if their ears had been directed towards the book. A state of things very different from that which prevails in many congregations, especially during the reading of the Scriptures. It is worth considering how devout attention may be secured. Doubtless much depends on the reader or preacher. It is impossible to attend to some men. Those who officiated on the occasion referred to in the text are good models, as to the distinctness of their utterance and the pains they took to give the sense, etc. As to the hearers, they will acquire the habit of fixed and sustained attention by care in reference to the following particulars:—
I. PREVIOUS PREPARATION. Not waiting until within the walls of the sanctuary before seeking to be fitted for the service, but by definitely laying aside the world's business on Saturday night, and by religious exercises at home, and devout thought and feeling on the way to church, cultivating a state of mind and heart suitable for public worship. Yea, the whole life will be a preparation if spent earnestly in God's service.
II. SERIOUS INTENTION. The earnest desire and purpose to obtain spiritual good at the service.
III. CONSIDERATION OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD. Active faith in him as near, inviting to communion with himself, observing the state and conduct of each professing worshipper, speaking in the word and by the preacher, claiming a reverent regard to his declarations, ready to bless and save.
IV. SELF-CONTROL. Over the thoughts; swiftly banishing such as would divert from the sacred business in hand. Over the eyes, lest they conquer the ears.
V. Withal, PRAYER. The Divine assistance being invoked in momentary silent ejaculations, whenever the attention flags or wanders. In conclusion, let the habitually inattentive bear in mind that—
1. They are necessarily great losers. Attention is the first condition of gaining good from public teaching. The loss thus sustained is of the highest and most lasting blessings. It is likely to include the loss of their souls.
2. They are guilty of great sin.
"All the people wept when they heard the words of the law."
I. A NATURAL SORROW. "By the law is the knowledge of sin," and this knowledge cannot but awaken sorrow as to—
1. Guilt contracted. The law is seen to be
. The Sabbath day, as originally instituted, was far from being the gloomy season which some represent; and of the other seasons set apart for special religious observance, only one was a fast, all the rest were festivals for the commemoration of God's goodness, and the offering of praise to him. The three occasions on which all the males were required to appear at the temple were all festivals, and how the festivals were to be kept our text shows. It relates to the feast of trumpets—the new year's festival—as observed by the Jews after their re-settlement in Palestine (for the law, see Leviticus 23:23). On this occasion the people were more disposed to mourn than rejoice, for the law had been read and expounded to them, and they were reminded by it of the nation's sin and deserved punishment. But Nehemiah bids them not mourn, but rejoice, adding that the joy of the Lord would be as a stronghold to them. We may gather from his words hints on Christian joy and feasting.
I. THE JOY WHICH GOD'S PEOPLE SHOULD INDULGE. "The joy of the Lord." Holy, pious joy. It is joy—
1. In God—his existence and perfections; his relation to believers; his works and government (in creation, providence, and grace); his special interpositions for Israel, for mankind, especially in and by the Lord Jesus; his word and the understanding of it (verse 12); his operations in each heart and life.
2. From God. All joy which is his gift has his stamp of approval: innocent pleasures of sense, reason, social affection, as well as the higher spiritual joys. But these last are specially "the joy of the Lord," which is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
3. With God, as he rejoices in his works (Psalms 104:31), in the repentance of sinners (Luke 15:1-32.), and in the character and welfare of his people (Psalms 147:11; Isaiah 62:5; Isaiah 65:19; Zephaniah 3:17). We are capable of fellowship with him in his joy.
4. Directed to God. In gratitude and love, in praise and in cheerful service. Natural joys regulated by and culminating in religion, in thankfulness, etc; become thus "the joy of the Lord." Such joy, not sorrow, should be the predominant feeling of Christians, although sorrow has also its place. The consciousness of redemption, of pardon, peace with God, sonship, etc; should produce joy. Such joy, not sinful mirth, should Christians indulge.
II. WHY SUCH JOY SHOULD BE CHERISHED. "The joy of the Lord is your strength." Literally, your stronghold, fortress. For the Jews at this time, feeble as they were, the joy of the Lord would be safety against enemies. It would unite them, inspirit them, make them brave, stimulate them in God's service, which was their safety, as it would secure his protection and blessing. And in all times religious, holy joy is a defence against evil. It imparts "strength" in another sense—inward power to do and endure the will of God, and overcome temptation, and thus becomes a strong-hold—
1. Against discouragement and despondency in trying times.
2. Against sin. Making God's service a delight, it counterweighs the attractions of sinful pleasure. He who is happy in God is raised above them.
3. Against infidelity. For it gives an experimental proof of the reality and worth of religion which no mere argument can shake. And as it is with individuals, so with families, Churches, nations, the joy of the Lord is strength, gloomy religion weakness, sinful joy more so.
III. WHEN IT SHOULD BE INDULGED. On days "holy to the Lord," which every day should be. Then on days specially set apart for religious services—the Lord's day, Easter, Christmas. Our special commemoration of God's works should be with holy, not sinful, joy.
IV. HOW IT SHOULD BE EXPRESSED.
1. It may be expressed by feasting. So here, and in Jewish religious observances generally. Two things secured by such association of religion and feasting. It makes religion social, cheerful, and attractive, and it elevates and sanctifies feasting itself, consecrating it to God, and preserving its purity by associating it with thoughts of him. We should deem it singular to hear the ministers of religion say, "Eat the fat and drink the sweet, for this day is holy to the Lord." Yet primitive Christianity had this element, in dropping which we have lost much good, if also much evil. At Christmas time we in a measure associate feasting with religion. Let us endeavour so to unite them that our joy may be "the joy of the Lord." Let us blend with our festivities gratitude for Christ and Christianity. Let us invite Jesus to our feasts, and enjoy ourselves as in his presence. It is easier to mix religion with feasting at this time, because of the occasion, and the family character of the feast, the children uniting.
2. It should always overflow in charity. "Send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared" (see Deuteronomy 16:11, Deuteronomy 16:14). Special suitableness of this at Christmas time, not only on account of the time of year, when the poor have to bear peculiar hardships, but on account of the event celebrated. The incarnation sanctifies human nature, uniting it to the Divine; teaching us to reverence, respect, care for all; furnishing a new and sacred bond of unity and brotherhood. It sanctifies poverty, as Christ was born of a poor woman, in a very humble lodging. He chose to be a poor man, and esteems kindness to the poor as kindness to himself, and vice versa. It affords us all ground for utmost thankfulness, which we should express by charity. Even selfishness might prompt benevolence at this season, for it will give zest to our own feasting to be conscious that others are sharing it through our gifts. Even if we must curtail our own feast somewhat in order to give to others, we shall be thus repaid. Finally, all joy should, and may, be a joy of the Lord. That which cannot is unworthy a Christian, and will lead to ultimate sorrow.
Comfort for penitents.
"Neither be ye grieved." God's word grieves, yet soon says, "Be ye not grieved."
I. TO WHOM THIS MAY BE SAID.
1. To true penitents. Such as mourn over sin with a "godly sorrow," and seek mercy through the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ; whether sinners first awakened, or Christians conscious of recent sin.
2. To all such. Even the chief of sinners, the worst of backsliders.
II. ON WHAT GROUNDS IT MAY BE SAID.
1. The assurance of forgiveness. "Though your sins be as scarlet," etc. "He will abundantly pardon."
2. The certain results of forgiveness. Adoption into the family of God. The enjoyment of his favour. The constant aids of the Holy Spirit. Support in conflict and trouble. The cooperation of all things for good. Life everlasting. In a word, salvation now and for ever.
3. The many injunctions to rejoice.
4. The injurious influence of over-much and over-prolonged sorrow. On him who cherishes it. Christian graces thrive best in an atmosphere of confidence and joy. Much sorrow blights them. On others. Discouraging inquirers. Repelling unbelievers. Bringing discredit on religion.
III. BY WHOM IT SHOULD BE SAID. By ministers of the gospel, and by the Church in general. We should not be afraid to comfort mourning sinners. To others our exhortation should be, "Be ye grieved." "Be afflicted, and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness." (See more under Nehemiah 2:3; Nehemiah 8:10.)
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
The word of life.
The public reading and exposition of the law of Moses in the presence of all the people as soon as possible after their settlement in their cities and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
I. THE PEOPLE WANT, and must have, THE SCRIPTURES BOTH FAMILIARISED BY REPETITION AND EXPOUNDED, that they may "have the sense, and understand the reading."
1. As individuals. The law of God the true foundation on which the life must be built up. In that law is not only the will of God, but his mercy. The Scriptures make wise to salvation. The law was the root out of which the gospel came.
2. As a commonwealth. The Bible the true law of nations and communities.
3. As families. The men, women, and children were there together. God has provided his word for our household life. Those who neglect its reading in the house neglect the best support of parental authority, the truest bond of love, and the fountain of consolation and joy. The only real education is that which acknowledges the Scriptures as its basis. All popular reformation and advancement has been achieved with the written word as the instrument.
II. GREAT GATHERINGS ARE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GREAT IMPRESSIONS, AND LARGE RESULTS MAY BE OBTAINED BY THEM. Street preaching may effect more than any other on some occasions. The great reformers of Israel were too much in earnest to pay much heed to sanctities of place. They wanted a large enough assembly to be a true representation of the people. The reading and preaching of God's word can never be dispensed with.
III. MINISTERS MUST BE MEN WHO CAN HELP THE PEOPLE TO HEAR ATTENTIVELY AND UNDERSTAND THE WORD OF GOD. They have no right to occupy Ezra's place unless they have Ezra's qualification, and they should be both literally and figuratively "above all the people." There were many with the chief reader who doubtless read and expounded in their turns. What is wanted is not that official dignity should be saved at any price, but that the people should hear and understand. We want more good readers and preachers.
IV. When we call the people together in the spirit of faith, "blessing the Lord, the great God," and putting truth before them in his name, THERE WILL BE A READY AND HEARTY RESPONSE. The people said, Amen, Amen; lifted up their hands, bowed their heads, worshipped with their faces to the ground. We should expect such response.—R.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The word of God and the ministry of man.
One of the most affecting scenes depicted in Holy Writ here invites our thought Our imagination delights to dwell upon it. The sacred and beloved city of God is now secure, its walls are rebuilt, its gates replaced and shut; its inhabitants are no longer struggling with hope and fear,—a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other,—but rejoicing in their strength and peace; internal discords are now arranged, and brethren are dwelling together in unity. With one accord they now come—all the multitude of them, men, women, and children, as many as "could hear with understanding" (verse. 2)—to one large square (Nehemiah 8:1). In the midst of this square is erected a broad and high platform, a pulpit, on which several men may stand. Room is made through the crowd for Ezra (who now again appears on the scene) and a few accompanying ministers; they ascend the pulpit. As Ezra opens the book of the law of the Lord, with spontaneous reverence the whole company rises to its feet. As the great Scribe, before he begins to read, utters a few words of thanksgiving, "blessing the Lord, the great God," all the people answer, "Amen, Amen," bowing their head, and lifting their hands in reverent joy (verse 6); and as Ezra reads and explains, speaking in their own language the ancient law which God gave to Moses, and as their Country's early history is unrolled before their eyes, and old and hallowed memories are vividly recalled, the strong men as well as the women and the children yield to their emotion, and tears stream down their faces. "All the people wept when they heard the word of the law" (verse 9).
I. Two FEATURES OF THIS SCENE WE SHALL BE WISE TO DWELL UPON.
1. The popular appreciation of the word of God. "All the people … spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law" (verse 1). So far was Ezra from being obliged to urge the people, to gather together and listen to the law, that they themselves called for its production, and demanded that it should be read to them. They hungered for the bread of life; they craved to hear the word of the living God. And when their wish was granted they showed themselves in real earnest, for they remained six hours eagerly listening as the law was read and expounded. Ezra "read therein from morning until midday … and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law" (verse 3).
2. The ministerial function in regard to it. "Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood … and beside him stood Mattithiah and Shema," etc. (verse 4); "also Jeshua and Bani," etc. (verse 7); and '"they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (verse 8). Here were two valuable things:
(1) the distinct reading of the word of God;
(2) the explanation of any obscure words or sentences, or, as we have it, "giving the sense," or "causing the people to understand the law."
II. TWO INFERENCES THEREFROM WE MAY SAFELY DRAW. We may safely reason—
1. That we now should show a still greater popular appreciation of the word of God. For we must consider how much more we have than they had, or than David had when he exclaimed how Hebrews 6:0, loved the law," and when he preferred it to bodily gratification and worldly treasure (Psalms 19:1-14.). We have not only more in quantity, but much of that which ought to be to us more deeply interesting. We have, beside the "law of Moses which the Lord had commanded to Israel" (verse 1),
(1) the history of the Jews in the land of promise;
(2) the Psalms of David;
(3) the wisdom of Solomon;
(4) the inspired utterances of many prophets;
(5) the letters of apostles; and above all,
(6) the very word of Jesus Christ himself, and the story of his redeeming love, with
(7) the revelation of the golden city of God.
How should we hunger and thirst for this bread, for these waters of life; how should we be "very attentive to hear him"
2. That there is as much need now as ever of the ministerial function. For though indeed we have the word of God written in our own tongue, in our own home, and under our own eyes, there remains, and will remain, the important function of
(1) expounding the sacred word. There are words and sentences, chapters and books, "hard to be understood;" there are now more things than there were then to harmonise; there is the connection between the two Testaments to explain; and there are heights which only some can climb, depths to which only a few can dig, treasures which only "the ready scribe" can reach, and these it is well to bring forth that all may be enriched. Moreover, the ministers of Christ, like Ezra and his companions on this eventful day (verse 6), have the high and noble function of
(2) leading the people in prayer and in thanksgiving; reverently addressing God, carrying the hearts of all with them, bearing on the wings of their earnest words the thoughts and feelings of the people heavenwards to the very throne of God, so that "all the people shall answer, Amen, Amen," and "worship the Lord" in spirit and in truth (verse 6). There is no higher or greater service man can render man than that of helping him to come into close and living fellowship with the Father, the Saviour, the Sanctifier of his spirit.
III. ONE ABIDING FACT. The fitness of the sacred Scriptures for every child of man. Men, women, and children, "all that can hear with understanding," gather still to hear the word of God. There is not, nor will there ever be, a book inspired of man that can interest and instruct, comfort and guide, our race like this book "given by the inspiration of God." Childhood will never read with such devouring eagerness such stories elsewhere as those of Joseph and Moses and Daniel, and of the babe that was cradled in the manger at Bethlehem. Youth will never learn elsewhere to remember its Creator as it learns here in the stories of Samuel and Josiah, and of him who "grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man;" here prime will learn, as nowhere else, that man cannot "live on bread alone," or grow rich only by making money and building fortunes; here sorrow will ever find its sweetest solace, its best and holiest balm, and sickness its one untiring Companion; and here death itself loses its darkness and its sting, as these pages speak to it of him who is "the Resurrection and the Life."—C.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
The word of God in a threefold relationship.
I. THE WORD OF GOD AND POPULAR DESIRE. "And they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel."
1. The desire of the people for the word of God.
(1) Natural. It was interesting as their national history.
(2) Wise. The word of God is of the highest value to the human soul.
(3) Prophetic. The word of God shall one day be the delight of a sanctified humanity.
2. The attitude of the people toward the word of God.
II. THE WORD OF GOD AND SPIRITUAL EMOTION. "This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law" (verse 9). There is much in the word of God to awaken human emotion; its record of sin must inspire grief; its tidings of Divine mercy should beget joy. The emotions awakened by the word of God must be—
2. Appropriate (verse 11).
3. Benevolent (verse 10).
III. THE WORD OF GOD AND CHURCH ORDINANCE.
1. Church ordinances should be remembered.
2. Church ordinances should be Scriptural.
3. Church ordinances should be joyous.
4. Church ordinances should not be exclusive.—E.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
Penitence turned into praise.
I. ALL TRUE REJOICING MUST BE FOUNDED ON RECONCILIATION WITH GOD.
1. The righteousness of God in his law, while it condemns man, and makes the people to weep when they see their sin in its light, is yet declared not for condemnation, but for reconciliation.
2. The true ministers of God will proclaim mercy, not judgment, as the substance of their message. "This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep." There is a time to weep, but there is a time to turn tears to praise.
3. The joy of the Lord which is our strength will be expressed in no mere selfish forgetfulness of him and of our neighbour, but in cheerfulness and beneficence; our own portions will be the sweeter when we send help to those for whom nothing is prepared.
II. THE CONVERSION AND REFORMATION OF A PEOPLE MUST BE EFFECTED THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD. They "understood the words which were declared unto them." A ministry which leaves the people either without the word or without understanding the word is no ministry of God.—R.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The scene through which the redeemed and now secured nation was passing was fruitful of excitement. Everything conspired to affect the minds and stir the souls of the people. Large multitudes are soon wrought into intense feeling, and all that the assembled Israelites were then seeing, hearing, and doing,—this, taken with all they. recalled of old scenes and past glories, and these experiences and recollections mingled with reviving hopes of future freedom,—all together moved and swayed their souls with powerful emotion; and "all the people wept" (Nehemiah 8:9). It was an interesting instance of religious emotion, and what followed teaches us—
I. THAT RELIGIOUS EMOTION MUST BE MANFULLY CONTROLLED (Nehemiah 8:9). Nehemiah and Ezra, and "the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep" (verse 9). "So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved" (verse 11). Emotion needs control and correction when—
1. It is in danger of being carried to excess. Under some circumstances, such as these of the text, when a very large number of people were all agitated by the same feelings, and each communicated something of his own enthusiasm to his neighbour, it is in serious danger of running into mere physical excitement. Such nervous excitement is perilous, for—
(1) It deludes the hearts of men with the idea that they are intensely religious when they are the subjects of a bodily rather than a spiritual affection.
(2) It often carries its subjects to religious and even bodily excesses, which are both guilty and harmful. All religious emotion is, on this ground, to be carefully controlled. It has its place and its use in the Church of Christ, in the spreading of the kingdom; but it is a thing to be watched and guarded in the interests of morality and religion. It needs correction when—
2. It takes a wrong direction. Weeping was ill-timed on this occasion. It was a "day holy unto the Lord" (verse 9); they were "not to mourn nor weep." It was unbecoming the occasion. At such a time the air should not be burdened with sighs and groans; it should be resonant with shouts and songs. Often our religious emotion is misplaced, ill-timed: we lament when God would have us "sing with joy," or we make ourselves merry when we have reason to humble ourselves in the dust.
II. THAT JOY SHOULD BE THE PREVAILING NOTE IN OUR RELIGIOUS EMOTION (verse 10). "This day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (verse 10). It was not in accordance with the law and the will of God that sorrow should be associated with a holy day. The high priest, with "holiness to the Lord" on his mitre, was not allowed to mourn as others might, or when others did (Le Ezra 10:6; 21:10). Sin and sorrow, holiness and joy, these are the right companions. "With the voice of joy and praise" we should "keep holyday" (Psalms 42:4). With rejoicing hearts, full of the joy of thankfulness and hope, we should sit down to the table of the Lord. "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). Joy, one of the "fruits of the Spirit," is commended to us with a fulness and frequency in the word of God which may well make us ask ourselves whether we are not negligent in this matter. Joy in Christ Jesus is a grace
(1) which we are repeatedly summoned to show;
(2) which makes us resemble him as he is, crowned with glory and joy;
(3) desirable for its own sake, as obviously, intrinsically better than either sorrow or apathy;
(4) which is a sign and source of spiritual strength.
"The joy of the Lord is our strength" (verse 10). It is so, for it is both the sign and the source of it.
1. It is the utterance of our spiritual nature; not when it is weak through sin, but when made whole through the power of Christ, and when the "power of Christ" most rests upon us.
2. It is an incentive and encouragement to ourselves to proceed in the path of heavenly wisdom. The Christian man of downcast spirit and dreary views must be under a constant temptation to leave the path; but he who finds not only rest and peace in Christ, but also "joys in God, and delights himself m the service of his Saviour, has the strongest inducement to walk on in the way of life.
3. It is the means of usefulness to others. They who are "in Christ" would be "strong in the Lord," and they would be strong in him that they may be strong for him, extending his kingdom, and winning souls to his side. But how become thus strong for him? By the simple, natural exhibition of a joyous spirit in all spheres and relationships; by constraining the wife, the husband, the children, the servants, the fellow-workmen, etc; to feel that the knowledge of God as a heavenly Father reconciled in Christ Jesus,—the trust, the love, the hope which are in him,—that this does gladden the spirit and brighten the life as nothing else can. By so doing we shall be strong for Christ. The joy of the Lord will prove to be our strength.
III. THAT STRONG RELIGIOUS FEELING FINDS AN ADMIRABLE VENT IN PRACTICAL KINDNESS. "Go your way," etc. (verses 10, 12).
1. A right channel it finds in "eating and drinking fat and sweet things," so that this be characterised by
(1) moderation, self-restraint, and
(2) thankfulness the recognition of the hand of the great Giver of all good. But,
2. A better channel in "sending portions to them for whom nothing is prepared" (verse 10). Better far to feel that we are loading another's table with sweet things where they are seldom found than to be helping ourselves to the most delicious morsels from our own; no source of happiness at once so sure and so pure as in being like the bountiful Father, and opening the hand to satisfy the wants of those who are in need.—C.
And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers. At times it is true that "increase of appetite doth grow by what it feeds on." Once let the sweetness of the Divine word be tasted and appreciated, and there springs up in the heart instantly a desire for more—a wish to continue in the study—a feeling like that of the Psalmist when he said, "Lord, what love have I unto thy law: all the day long is my study in it" (Psalms 119:97). The Jews, taught by Ezra in the law of God on the first day of the month, return to him on the second, desirous of hearing more, hungering and thirsting after the word of life, of which they have felt the power and the excellency. To understand. Rather, "to consider," as in Psalms 41:1.
And they found written. The practice of "dwelling in booths," commanded in Leviticus 23:42, had fallen into disuse, probably during the captivity, and though the feast itself had been revived by Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:4), yet this feature of it, from which it derived its name, had remained in abeyance. In the feast of the seventh month. Though the "feast of trumpets" was also a feast of the seventh month, that of tabernacles was "the feast," being one of those which all Israelites not reasonably hindered were bound to attend (Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:16), and which was placed on a par with the Passover and Pentecost.
And that they should publish. See Leviticus 23:4. Saying, Go forth, etc. These words are not found in any existing Scripture, and some corruption of the present text may therefore be suspected. The Septuagint interposes, between "Jerusalem" and "Go forth," the words "And Esdras said," which would remove the difficulty; but it is difficult to understand how Ezra's name should have fallen out. Perhaps Houbigant is right in his suggestion of an emendation, by which the verse would run thus:—"And when they heard it, they proclaimed in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth," etc. Into the mountain. i.e. the neighbouring mountain, the Mount of Olives. Pine branches. Rather "oleaster branches." Branches of thick trees. The same expression is used in Leviticus 23:40, the meaning in each place being uncertain. Perhaps trees with thick, viscous leaves are intended. It is remark- able that two of the trees commanded in Leviticus are omitted, viz; the hadar and the "willow of the brook," while three not mentioned in Leviticus—the olive, oleaster, and myrtle—are added.
The flat roofs of Oriental houses, and the court round which they were commonly built, furnished convenient sites for the booths, and would be preferred by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The incomers from the country districts (Nehemiah 8:15) would have to occupy the open places or "squares" of the city, and the temple courts, which would accommodate large numbers. On the street of the water gate see the comment on Nehemiah 8:1. The street of the gate of Ephraim was probably a similar square, inside the great northern gateway.
Jeshua the son of Nun. "Jeshua" and "Joshua" are two modes of contracting the full name of Jehoshua, the latter prevalent in early, the former in later times. The Grecised form of Jeshua was "Jesus" (see Acts 7:45; Hebrews 4:8). When it is said that since the days of Jeshua had not the children of Israel done so, we must understand, not that there had been no celebration of the feast of tabernacles since that time—not even that there had been no celebration accompanied by "dwelling in booths," but only that there had been no such joyous and general celebration of the festival (comp. what is said in 2 Kings 23:22 and 2 Chronicles 35:18 of the passover kept in Josiah's eighteenth year). It is the very great gladness that is especially insisted upon.
Also day by day … . he read in the book of the law. Ezra must be intended in the form "he read," though there has been no mention of him since verse 13. The continuous and systematic reading seems to imply that the year was a Sabbatical one, and that the rehearsal commanded in Deuteronomy 31:10-13 now took place. The observance was perhaps a new thing to the newly-formed community, and is therefore recorded with so much emphasis. They kept the feast seven days. See Leviticus 23:34; Numbers 29:12-34; Deuteronomy 16:13. On the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according to the manner. Such a mode of solemnising the octave was commanded in Leviticus 23:36 and Numbers 29:35. By "according to the manner" seems to be meant "according to the regularly established custom"—one proof out of many that the feast had been constantly observed, though not perhaps with all the proper ceremonies (see the comment on Numbers 29:17).
An influential congregation.
Account of a smaller gathering than that recorded in the first part of the chapter, but likely from its character to be equally or more fruitful of good.
I. THE MEETING CONVENED (Nehemiah 8:13).
1. The congregation. Select; consisting of the principal heads of houses, priests, and Levites.
2. Their design. To study the law with a view to the better understanding of it.
3. Their teacher. The ablest doctor of the day.
II. THE DISCOVERY MADE (Nehemiah 8:14, Nehemiah 8:15). The law of the feast of tabernacles. Perhaps, although it had been kept on the first return from Babylon, it had been omitted in recent troublous times, or some important particulars had been neglected for want of instruction in the law. Now they come face to face with the original precepts.
III. THE OBEDIENCE RENDERED (Nehemiah 8:16-18). The chiefs doubtless proclaim the law to the people (Nehemiah 8:15), and these obey it. So the feast was kept—
1. By each and all.
2. With exactness. Such as had not been known since the days of Joshua.
3. With gladness.
4. With daily reading of the book of the law. It was thus a very pleasant and profitable week.
1. The value of well-instructed rulers and ministers of religion. Especially of such as are well instructed in Holy Scripture. An ignorant clergy is one of the greatest evils, and scarcely less a clergy learned in everything but the Bible, the teaching of whose truths is their main business. "They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." But it is an omen of good when pastors and teachers are diligent students of the word, availing themselves of the assistance of the ablest scholars of the time, and thus becoming "instructed unto the kingdom of heaven," "able to teach others also."
2. The careful student of God's word is rewarded by important discoveries. He will find truths, precepts, and promises which are new to him, or come with all the freshness and force of a new revelation, to correct his beliefs or his conduct, or to give him new comfort and joy. The Bible is an inexhaustible mine of eternal treasures. It will repay the constant study of a life.
3. A condition of external peace and settlement is eminently favourable to the study and general practice of God's law. These Jews could turn their serious attention to the instructions and ordinances of their law now that they were safe from the assaults of their enemies. We cannot be too thankful in this view for the quiet times we enjoy, nor too earnest in promoting to the utmost of our power the peace and mutual good will of all nations.
4. God is to be worshipped and his ordinances observed according to his own directions.
5. The celebration of Divine ordinances promotes, and should be with, gladness. The gladness of gratitude for Divine favours, the joy of a good conscience which obedience brings, the joy of mutual love and fellowship, the joy of hope, etc. Happy the people who thus unite in the service of God.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Keeping the feast.
"On the second day," the day after the great and affecting assembly of all the citizens, came together a representative company, "the chief of the fathers of all the people" (Nehemiah 8:13), beside the priests and Levites, to "understand" or consider the law, that they might encourage all the children of Israel to a regular and faithful observance of it. This gathering led at once to—
I. AN ACT OF REVIVED AND REJOICING OBEDIENCE. For "they found written in the law … that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month" (Nehemiah 8:14). They came upon the commandment recorded in Leviticus 23:1-44; enjoining the observance of the feast of tabernacles or booths. This must have fallen partially, if not wholly, into disuse, though we know from Ezra 3:4 that this feast was celebrated as late as the time of Zerubbabel. Now, however, under the impulse of Nehemiah's and Ezra's faithful ministry, and in the glow of a religious revival, they returned to a complete and hearty observance of the ancient festival. The law required that the sacred feasts should be "proclaimed" (Leviticus 23:4). Giving a broad sense to the term, they took pains to proclaim it with all particularity. "In all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount," etc. (verse 15). And there was a general and hearty response. "The people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths" (verse 16); "all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under them" (verse 17). Moses commanded that once in seven years the law should be read" before all Israel in their hearing" (Deuteronomy 31:11). Whether this was the seventh year or not, the injunction of Moses was obeyed. They were in the mood to do all—more rather than less—that was enjoined, and "day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he (Ezra) read in the book of the law of God" (verse 18). There had been no such celebration of the feast since the days of Jeshua (verse 17), "and there was very great gladness." Now we learn from this that—
1. It is possible for a nation (or a Church) with the Bible in its keeping to allow plain duties to fall into disregard.
2. That this negligence is due to a blameworthy inattention to the word of God. The Bible is too much on the shelf, too little in the hand.
3. That a return to obedience, especially to a hearty and general (unanimous) obedience, is attended with great gladness of heart.
(1) Devout study,
(2) earnest obedience,
(3) reverent joy—these are successive steps in a true revival.
II. A COMMEMORATIVE SERVICE. The feast of tabernacles was essentially commemorative. "That your generation may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out," etc. (Leviticus 23:43). It was well indeed that the children of the captivity should have their attention called to past days of exile. It would do them good, as it did their fathers, to look back and think what God had done unto them and for them. How he had humbled them, and how he had redeemed them. Thus they would think of two things—
(1) past sorrows, not to be renewed, from which God had graciously delivered them; and
(2) past sins, never to be repeated, which God had mercifully forgiven them. One thought would lead to thankfulness, and the other to consecration; both to sacred joy. The recalling by our minds of past evils out of which God has led us, and past errors and wrongdoings which he has blotted out, will confirm our hearts in their gratitude and devotion.
III. AN OPPORTUNITY OF INSTRUCTION IN SACRED THINGS. Whether the Jews felt bound to observe Deuteronomy 31:10, or whether the reading of the law from day to day was optional on their part (the latter is the more probable), we have them associating instruction with ceremonial observance. We should turn all occasions into opportunities of "inquiring the way of the Lord more perfectly," of becoming "filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding … increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1:9, Colossians 1:10).—C.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
Restoration of the feast of tabernacles in its plenitude.
I. A NOTABLE INSTANCE OF NEGLECT. The commandment was plainly written, but "since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun the children of Israel had not done so." How much they lost?—gladness, fellowship, help to their remembrance of Divine mercy, food of faith. We should follow the directions of God's book without question. Much yet to break forth from the written pages.
II. An illustration of the DEPENDENCE OF GOD'S PEOPLE ON ONE ANOTHER. The council of "fathers, priests, Levites, and Ezra the scribe gathered together to understand the words of the law." All cannot pursue the same inquiries. The progress of the Church is greatly advanced by the consecration of some to the study of the Scriptures. All councils and conferences should be held with a practical end in view, to understand in order to reformation of life and manners. Much of the deliberation of learned men has failed of God's blessing because it has been merely speculative or controversial. We can scarcely doubt that Ezra was the leading spirit. One eminent man of God can wonderfully animate and direct his Church in great crises. The true leader will never despise counsel, but be only primus inter pares.
III. A TYPICAL REPRESENTATION OF THE BELIEVING LIFE OF GOD'S PEOPLE. The festival in the green booths fetched from the mount.
1. Grateful memory and pilgrim expectation.
2. Free fellowship and happy intercourse, with Jerusalem as the centre. Church life ought to be real root of all other life. We go from our own cities to Jerusalem, and return with the sanctity of the feast, to be distributed over all the common ways and facts of an every-day existence.
3. Consecrated seasons, festival times, needed in all service of God. For the heart must be lifted up that the hands may be kept busy. Function of praise in the life. They of the captivity do well to recognise one another in their freedom. God invites us to turn nature into joy. Consecrate the very trees to him. Rejoice under the open heaven in his loving-kindness. Connect his holy mount with the simple tent that covers our head. He waits not for splendid ritual or temple, but delights in the homely praise of those who spread the beauty of his name over all the earth.—R.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany