We’re going back to our study of Nehemiah today. Before we read our Scripture I want to remind you that even though Ezra and Nehemiah are two books in our English Bibles, they were one scroll in the Hebrew Bible for many years. That’s important for us to know because what we have been studying in Ezra and Nehemiah is really one story, the story of God’s deliverance of the Jews from Babylon and His guiding hand leading them back to Jerusalem to accomplish His work. What was the work the Lord had for them to do? That’s a great question!
Let me give you a flyover of what we’ve seen unfold so far. In the opening of Ezra we read about how Zerubbabel led about 42,000 Jews back to Jerusalem from Babylon. God’s people went to work to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed almost 70 years earlier. The people started strong, but opposition from their surrounding neighbors brought the rebuilding project to halt for fifteen years. God used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to inspire God’s people to get back to work and finish the work they had started. We read in Ezra 6 that they finished the rebuilding of the temple in about March of 516 B.C.
In the very next chapter, Ezra 7, we learn that God moved upon a man named Ezra, who was in Babylon, to make the long journey to Jerusalem. Why would God move Ezra to do such a thing? That’s another great question. Turn with me to Ezra 7:8-10 and let’s read together.
8 Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. 9 He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. 10 For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. (Ezra 7:8-10 NIV)
Did you notice that last verse? “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Ezra was both a priest and a scribe. God was preparing Ezra, while he was back in Babylon, to teach God’s people God’s Word in Jerusalem one day. The temple was now rebuilt, but what good is a beautiful church if the Word of God is not being taught? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves today. What good is it to have the most beautiful church in town filled with the most artistic and ornate stained glass windows, fitted with the most dazzling technology, and restaurants and coffee bars for your convenience–if the Word of God is not being taught? Ezra came to Jerusalem so that the Word of God might be taught to the people of God.
After Ezra came to Jerusalem, God prepared another man in Babylon, Nehemiah, to make the journey as well. Nehemiah didn’t come to teach the Word of God, he came to sure up Jerusalem’s defenses and to reorganize the city. Even though Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, God used him as a city planner. Nehemiah faced opposition from those outside of the community who didn’t want the wall rebuilt, but he was persistent and God gave Nehemiah success. The wall was rebuilt in only 52 days! It was nothing short of a miracle! God’s Sovereign hand was guiding Nehemiah and the workers on the wall all along the way.
If you’ve been with me during this study you will notice that we’ve jumped from Nehemiah 6 to Nehemiah 8 in our study for this morning. There’s a reason for that. Nehemiah 7 is filled with a long list of names. If you tried to read the list then you might have noticed that some of the almost unpronounceable names seem really familiar. That’s because they are. The same list is found in Ezra 2. It’s the list of the exiles who made their way back from Babylon to Jerusalem. We’ve already taken a look at the list while we were studying Ezra 2 so this morning we’re going to jump to the last verse of Nehemiah 7 and roll on into Nehemiah 8. Let’s read together.
7 73 The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the musicians and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns. When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, 8 1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. 2 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. 3 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. 4 Ezra the teacher of the Law 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. 5 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. 6 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. 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. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.” 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (Nehemiah 7:73-8:12 NIV)
This is remarkable! It is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, something has happened in the hearts of the people of God. I need to remind us that Nehemiah didn’t just run into trouble with those outside of the walls of Jerusalem, he also had to deal with problems within the community of his own people. In Nehemiah 5, we learned that wealthy Jews were taking advantage of poor Jews by charging them interest and taking their homes, fields, and even their children as collateral. They were doing what God had told them never to do. The social fabric of the community was tattered and torn. When Nehemiah confronted those who were guilty, they repented and promised they would never do it again.
The second remarkable aspect of Nehemiah 8 is that it was the people who asked Ezra to bring out the book of the Law of Moses. Ezra didn’t guilt them into going to Sunday school. He didn’t command them to assemble at the Water Gate for worship. The people “told” Ezra to read them God’s Word. Let me tell you, that is every preacher’s dream!
We read in verse 2 that this scene happened “on the first day of the seventh month…” The seventh month was the most important month on the Jewish calendar. The first day was the Feast of Trumpets which was later celebrated as the Jewish New Year. The tenth day of the seventh month was the Day of Atonement. The fifteenth day was the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles. There is no doubt that the Jews saw the rebuilding of the temple and the wall as a new beginning! What better way to mark a new beginning than to come together as a community and listen to the Torah, the Word of God. I want you to take a look at verse 3 with me.
3 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. (Nehemiah 8:3 NIV)
I have to confess. One of the reasons I wanted us to take another look at verse 3 is so you would notice how long Ezra read from God’s Word–it was “from daybreak till noon.” And you thought my sermons were long! Did you notice who was present? There were men, women, and others who could understand. The kids who were old enough to understand God’s Word were with the men and women. And then last of all, even though Ezra’s sermon was long we read that the “people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.” Let me tell you, great things can happen in our lives and in the life of our community when the Word of God is listened to attentively. Ezra took his place on the wooden platform, something like a pulpit I would imagine, and he had 13 Levites at his right and his left. Then we read in verses 5-6.
5 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. 6 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. (Nehemiah 8:5-6 NIV)
The opening sentence of verse 5 tells us, “Ezra opened the book.” In actuality it was a scroll and not a book. When Ezra opened the scroll the people all stood up in honor of the Word of God. Ezra praised the Lord and all of the people lifted their hands and said, “Amen! Amen!” When I read that this past week I thought about many of you who grew up like me not going to church or not attending a church where people lifted their hands. I don’t know about you, but the first time I was in a worship service and I saw someone lift their hands I thought it was strange. I had no idea what was going on and nobody took the time to explain it to me. Maybe this morning, while we were singing or praying, you saw someone lift their hands and wondered what was going on? I want to take a moment to give you some insight from God’s Word.
People lifting their hands to God is found throughout the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. The lifting of our hands is a sign of surrender, submission to God. It is also a posture of crying out to God in prayer. Still another reason for people to lift their hands is to praise God for who He is and how He has blessed us. Let me give you just a few examples. In 1 Kings 8:22-24, when Solomon led the prayer at the dedication of the temple for the worship of God, we read,
22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said: “LORD, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below– you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. 24 You have kept your promise to your servant David my father; with your mouth you have promised and with your hand you have fulfilled it– as it is today. (1 Kings 8:22-24 NIV)
Oftentimes in the Bible we will find people raising their hands to God in prayer. One of my favorite examples is found in Psalm 28:1-2 where David writes,
1 To you, LORD, I call; you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit. 2 Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place. (Psalm 28:1-2 NIV)
I want you to stop and think with me for a moment. Any of you with children know that when your little ones need you, want you, they reach out for you, they lift up their hands and cry, “Momma!” Who taught those babies to reach out their hands? They don’t need to do that to get your attention, but it is innate within them isn’t it? And so it is with us, until we allow our awareness of others to come into play. And it’s not just in desperate times that the Bible counsels us to lift up our hands to God. In Psalm 134:1-2 we are told,
1 Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. 2 Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD. (Psalm 134:1-2 NIV)
We are commanded to “lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD.” Why would we praise the Lord? Where do I even begin? He has given you and me life hasn’t He? He watched over you during the night didn’t He? He has provided for you every day of your life hasn’t He? If I had 10,000 tongues that would not be enough to praise Him for all of the good things He has done for me! But let’s take the spotlight off of you and me for a moment and turn it back on those who gathered at the Water Gate to hear Ezra read God’s Word. Oh, the stories they could tell! Everyone of them had been born in Babylon and yet God freed them, led them, guided them, and reestablished them in the homeland of their ancestors, in the Holy City of Jerusalem. There was a lot going on in their hearts and minds that day as they listened to Ezra read from the Word of God! No wonder they lifted their hands and shouted, “Amen! Amen!” Let’s turn to verses 7-8 and let me show you something else that was taking place that day as Ezra read from God’s Word.
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. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:7-8 NIV)
Some Bible teachers say that these Levites were translating the Hebrew text that Ezra read from Hebrew into Aramaic, the native tongue of those who came from Babylon and a dialect of Hebrew. That may very well be the case, but they were also “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” I can’t tell you how important it is for this same process to take place today. The Bible was written in a different culture at a different time than the days we are living in my friend. We need help in understanding God’s Word. That is why we have Bible teachers here at Britton Christian Church.
And what was the effect of the reading of the Word of God on the people who had gathered to listen to Ezra read from Scripture? We read in verse 9 that the people were weeping as they listened to God’s Word being read. What is that all about? Well, simply put, God’s Word convicts us of our sin, it shows us the error of our ways, and invites us to turn to God. Paul wrote to Timothy and said,
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)
There is no doubt in my mind that God’s Word cut the people to the heart. They had to have thought back to their time in Babylon. Why were they there anyway? It was because of the sins of their ancestors. God had promised, He had warned, He had pleaded, but the people wouldn’t listen so they were carried away into exile for 70 years into a foreign land. They were not only convicted of the sins of their fathers and mothers, but they were convicted of their own sin…and so they wept. Why do we not weep over our sins? Are our sins less than those who have gone before us? Or is it that we do not take our sin as seriously as we should? Have we become comfortable with our sin? Jared Mulvihill has written,
We are far too hospitable with our sin. When was the last time we looked our sin in the mirror and came away broken? When was the last time we felt the gravity of our sin as betrayal against a holy God? Rarely do we weep. Our hearts are callously numb. Though justified by the blood of Christ, we are still infiltrated with sin (Romans 8:13), and most of the time we appear okay with it. We need help. (Jared Mulvihill, We Should Be Weeping.)
Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites told the people not to weep because “This day is holy to the Lord.” It was to be a day of rejoicing for God’s people. Instead of weeping at this time, Nehemiah gave them direction about what they were to do in verse 10. Read it with me.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)
Like the Prodigal Son who had returned and the father gave the order to kill the fattened calf and prepare for the party, Nehemiah told the people to eat the choicest food, drink the sweetest wine, and make sure you give some to the people who don’t have anything. Nehemiah said, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” Have you heard that phrase before? Did you know it came from Nehemiah? I want to show you something really interesting, something that can transform your life, found in this phrase.
See the word, “strength?” It is the Hebrew word, “??????” (ma`owz) and it means, “a place or means of safety, protection, refuge, or stronghold.” The NIV, ESV, NASB and KJV all translate this Hebrew word as “strength,” but let me ask you, “Does ‘the joy of the Lord is your refuge” sound different than “the joy of the Lord is your strength?” It sure does to me. God’s Word points out our sin. Our sin is not imagery, it is real. Satan would like nothing more than to use our sin to crush us, to absolutely destroy us, but God is our refuge, He is our place of safety and protection. How so? Pastor Spurgeon wrote,
A source of joy is found by the Christian, who is living near to God, in a deep sense of reconciliation to God, of acceptance with God, and yet, beyond that, of adoption and close relationship to God. Does it not make a man glad to know that though once his sins had provoked the Lord they are all blotted out, not one of them remaineth; though once he was estranged from God, and far off from him by wicked works, yet he is made nigh by the blood of Christ. The Lord is no longer an angry judge pursuing us with a drawn sword, but a loving Father into whose bosom we pour our sorrows, and find ease for every pang of heart. Oh, to know, beloved, that God actually loves us! Is not this a marvel? (Spurgeon, The Joy of the Lord; The Strength of His People. Dec 31, 1871)
Pastor Spurgeon was right! It is a marvel that God would love us so. “The joy of the Lord is our refuge.” Was Nehemiah thinking about our joy in the Lord or the Lord rejoicing over us? Take a look at Zephaniah 3:17 and let’s read the words God spoke to His people as they were getting ready to go into exile.
17 The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17 NIV)
As Ezra read from the Torah the people were reminded of the terms of the covenant God had established, they were reminded that they had broken covenant with God, but overshadowing all of that was the reminder that the Lord rejoices over His people and this was to be their refuge in the midst of their sorrow and brokenness.
The same holds true for you and me today. God is a covenant keeping God. We’ve broken covenant, we’ve sinned, we strayed so far from God time and time again, but our God seeks us out, He calls us from the far country, and leads us back to Himself. He’s calling out to you this morning. Won’t you lift up your hands and rejoice in the love of our God for you my friend? Invite Jesus to take the throne of your heart and lead you through life as your King and Lord.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
July 5, 2020