We have 3 main scenes in chapters 8 through 10. The 1st scene begins in 8:1 and ends in 8:12. The 2nd scene spans from 8:13 to the end of the chapter. And the 3rd and longest scene covers all of chapters 9 and 10.
Now, what’s the 1st scene about? The people ask Ezra to come and explain God’s word to them. What happens from there? Let’s read 8:2-3.
And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
There’s a word I want to point out. It’s found once in each of these verses. It’s the word “understand(ing).” These people gathered together and wanted to understand God’s word… Later Ezra stands at an elevated podium to read aloud to the people. And when he opens the word – he doesn’t read it yet, he simply opens it – the people rise out of reverence. Ezra blesses God and all the people respond in approval and bow to the ground to worship the Lord.
Next, a number of Levites assist Ezra in teaching the people individually. They were explaining God’s word to the people. And let’s read verse 8 to see what exactly they were doing. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. The Levites were helping the people to what? Understand the reading. The Levites gave the sense of what they were reading. It wasn’t enough for them to mindlessly, liturgically chant God’s word. They explained it. They read it distinctly. They translated or interpreted the word. They were exegeting and expositing God’s word… I was reading a preaching magazine at the library the other day. And my eye caught an article about expository preaching. The author points to the apparent anemia in the worship of the evangelical church. He then asserts that the reason for this anemia is because of a dearth of expository preaching – the kind of reading of God’s word and explaining it that we see in Nehemiah here. The author even references this portion of Nehemiah as a model for our teaching and preaching! And I think the author is right. What in the world are we doing gathering together every Sunday if it’s not to read and understand God’s word? There’s more to our gatherings, of course. But preaching is and ought to be central. God’s word needs to have a preeminent place in our lives both corporately and individually.
Now something interesting happens next. All the leaders, including Ezra and Nehemiah, suddenly feel that they need to tell the people to not be grieved. Why? Because the day was holy. It was the Feast of Trumpets, after all. But why were the people grieved? You understand how that could be the case, I’m sure. God’s word is sharper than a two-edged sword and it cuts us sometimes. And these Jews were cut when they read the Law. And this is a good response on their part. Only, not today. You wouldn’t know it, but today was a day on which God wanted the Jews to be happy, not grieved. So the leaders already helped the people understand God’s word. This in turn made the people weep. So the leaders then needed to explain the word a little bit more – “according to God’s word you shouldn’t be sad today. Today’s a day for celebration.” The joy of the Lord was to be their strength.
And how does this scene end? The people go away to celebrate with all their heart. Why could they celebrate? Because – look at the last phrase of verse 12 – …they had understood the words that were declared unto them. A partial understanding of God’s word is better than no understanding at all. But better yet is a full understanding. And that’s what the Jews received on this 1st day of the 7th month – their New Year’s Day.
So we’re talking about God-Honoring New Year’s Resolutions. How about this as a suggestion based on what we’ve seen so far? This year, with God’s help, I resolve to understand God’s word better and to live based on that understanding. What would it take for you to do this? I’ll give a few suggesstions. Come to church. And when you do, listen to what’s being taught. Take notes. At home, read the Bible daily. Read some books on how to accurately read and interpret the Bible. I’d strongly and heartily recommend the book “How to Read the Bible as Literature” by Leland Ryken. This man is an English professor at an evangelical institution. His book has been very helpful to me in interpreting the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. I think it would be helpful for you, too.
So that’s the 1st of 3 scenes. The 2nd scene starts in verse 13 and runs through the end of chapter 8. What happens here? Let’s read verses 13 and 14 to find out. And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law. 14 And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month. Again we see people gathering to a man who knows God’s word and can teach it to them. These people again desire to understand God’s word. But who are these people? The people in the last scene were whom? Verse 1 says “all the people.” So everyone was there for that scene. But now the group narrows a bit. Here in this second scene we have only the leaders gathering to Ezra to understand the Law. And what do these leaders find in the Law? They discover that the Jews as a nation should celebrate the Feast of Booths every year in the 7th month. Why, that’s the month they were currently in! And this text say that it was the 2nd day. I assume that’s the 2nd day of the 7th month. But the Feast was to be held on the 15th day of the 7th month. They only have 13 days to prepare! They better hurry. And they do! They proclaim throughout the region that everyone should go and cut down branches to make booths to live in. The people obey this order. And then they live in those booths for 8 days, just like the ordinance prescribed.
Now let’s read verse 17. And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. Can you believe what you’re hearing? The sons of Israel really hadn’t celebrated the Feast of Booths as they ought to have from the days of Joshua! Yes, in 2nd Chronicles 8, Solomon is shown offering sacrifices during the Feast of Booths. But it doesn’t say he built temporary structures like the ordinance required. We see a similar situation in Ezra 3. The people who returned with Zerubbabel are said to have offered sacrifices for the Feast of Booths. But it doesn’t say they lived in booths. So Israel hadn’t practiced this Feast in a completely orthodox way for hundreds of years before the time of Nehemiah the governor. Fascinating! And then this scene ends by telling us what we already have been led to believe – that the Jews kept this ordinance exacty as prescribed in the Law.
Now again, we’re talking about making God-honoring New Year’s resolutions. What do we learn from this 2nd scene in our text? Might a God-honoring resolution look somethng like this? I resolve not only to understand and live-out God’s word. But I resolve – with God’s help – to do this even in the most inconvenient or seemingly-insignificant parts of the word. The Feast of Booths had been overlooked for hundreds of years. Why? The Jews apparently thought it was insignificant. “I mean, what’s the big deal? We’re offering sacrifices! Why waste a bunch of tree limbs and live outside on the dirt with a leaky roof over my head?!” This may be one reason the Jews had avoided practicing this Feast for this long. Or maybe they thought it was inconvenient… Some of us like camping. Others really don’t. I don’t mind a few days in the woods. But 8 days, like this Feast required? And, as I’ve hinted at before, these Jews wouldn’t have been in a nice sealed water-proof tent. They’re just throwing a bunch of sticks together to make booths. And they have to live in those booths for 8 whole days… Now, what is there in your life that you know to be God’s will from his word, but it isn’t convenient? In fact it’s extremely inconvenient to you. Or maybe you think it’s pretty insignificant. “I mean, most other Christians I know don’t bother with it. Why should God want me to do so?” Would you resolve with God’s help to do what his word commands, no matter how inconvenient or insignficant it seems? You will – just like the Israelites did – you’ll experience “very great gladness” if you do.
So that’s the 2nd of 3 scenes. And at this point that’s the good news. The bad news? We’re only half way through the text! So let’s move along to the 3rd and final scene of our text today.