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  • Writer's pictureElijah Blalock

Reflections on Nehemiah 8

Updated: Mar 4

Bible unfolding

Nehemiah tells a magnificent story. Israel had been in exile for decades. It appeared as though they were cut off from God's promises; there was no land, no temple, and no king. But God in his providence allowed them to return and even to rebuild the temple. However, the process of rebuilding the city was slow, and many enemies of Israel sought to stop it. Nehemiah gets word that the walls of Jerusalem are still lying in ruins, and the city is defenseless. In grief, Nehemiah prayed to God, and God moved the heart of the king of Persia to send him to Jerusalem to build the walls. The city walls were rebuilt in record time: just 52 days! God had made Jerusalem dwell in safety again.

In chapter 8, something incredible happens. It says, "All the people gathered together at the square in front of the Water Gate. They asked the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses that the Lord had given Israel." (Nehemiah 8:1). Now that they were secure, what did the people want? They wanted to hear the Word of God! Ezra the scribe took the book of the law and stood on a high platform and read to the people from sun up to sun down as the people knelt and worshipped the Lord. 13 men spread out among the people to translate and explain what was read.

As the Law was read, the people wept. Why did they weep? The text doesn't tell us, but it is not hard to imagine. They heard of God's mighty works — how he had called Abraham from a faraway land, gave him a son, rescued his descendants from Egypt, and brought them to the land they stood on. They heard the blessings of obedience and the curses of disobedience — curses they had suffered. On account of their ancestors' disobedience, they suffered a national trauma. Thousands were killed, and more were exiled, and they had to confront the fact that they deserved it. Their sin and disobedience led them into exile. And yet, there they were secure in the Promised Land again because God remains faithful and compassionate! And so they wept!

But Nehemiah and Ezra told the people to stop weeping. They were reading during the Festival of Shelters, which God's Law commanded them to celebrate with joy! So they gathered tree branches and made shelters to celebrate the festival in, and they celebrated with great joy as Ezra continued to read the Law each day.

I recently heard a sermon by H. B. Charles on this passage, and I've been thinking about it since. This text is loaded with spiritual truths. Here are some reflections.

We Are a People of the Book

Notice that the people asked Ezra to bring out the book (8:1). They wanted to hear the Word! God's people have always been a people of the book. God's people were formed on a promise and constituted by his commands. Without His Word, we would not exist. The Bible is for all of God's people (8:2). 13 men spread out among the people to translate and explain the law to the people listening (8:7-8). It is the business of the church not merely to preserve and read the Scriptures, but to explain them. We must study the Bible and teach it to people so they can understand it.

As the people heard and understood God's Law, they wept — perhaps under conviction because they had not known God's Law. But Ezra and Nehemiah recognized that the day was holy. So they commanded to stop weeping and to celebrate, "because the joy of the Lord is your strength." (8:10) A great celebration broke out because the people "understood the words that were explained to them." Is your heart filled with joy when you understand the Bible? I am afraid that many people go to church and hear the Bible and perhaps even read it privately, but they do little to gain an understanding of it. They are not interested in the laborious task of studying to gain an understanding — and it is often laborious! Studying is often difficult. But if we truly believe these written Words to be from God Himself, what better thing could we labor at? Perhaps we are unacquainted with the joy that accompanies understanding. When we understand what God says, we are filled with His joy, and His joy is our strength.

But we are not merely students of an ancient text. As they read the Scriptures, they saw that they were supposed to be celebrating the Festival of Shelters (8:14). When they saw this, they spread throughout Jerusalem and gave the command to celebrate the festival as God commanded, and the people obeyed (8:15-16). As they obeyed God and celebrated his festival, their joy grew (8:17). When we teach the Scriptures, we do not teach it something that is merely interesting or to offer good advice. The Bible is God's Word. God made us, and he has every right to make demands of us. What the Bible says is not merely a good idea; it is a command. It is a shame that so many people go to church expecting the preacher to give an encouraging and inspiring word, but they will not tolerate commands or reproof. A faithful preacher of the Word must make demands of God's people. Anyone who proclaims the Scriptures has been entrusted with a message from God; they are his ambassadors. While they must never make up their own demands or speak out of self-interest, they must command what God commands, not in their own authority, but in his. We are not a people of the book, and therefore not God's people, if we merely hear the Word but don't obey it.

But notice as well that more joy followed obedience. The Scriptures brought about weeping, then joy, then obedience, and then more joy. What a beautiful summary of the whole Christian life! When we first understand God's Word, we come under conviction. We see our sins and the destruction they bring just as Israel did, and we may even weep. But at the same time, we also see God's promises, and we recognize that by the very fact that he is speaking to us that he has not abandoned us! He has graciously delivered us! And when we see God's salvation in Christ revealed through the Bible, we are filled with joy! Being filled with this joy, we want to respond in gratitude, and so we gladly obey the commands of God. And as we do this, we find that his commands are not burdens, but rather bring us even more joy. Christians ought to love to hear the Word of God proclaimed, even as it challenges them.

Notice that it was not the wall that sparked revival, but the reading of Scripture. What will make our churches effective? It is not new buildings, better worship, slick preaching, new programs, fun children's ministries, or anything like that. It is the Word of God. The Word of God defies reason and explanation. Reading and explaining an ancient book should not produce anything noteworthy. But God uses His Word to build His church. It works because He makes it work. Without him, nothing works, even if we try to tell ourselves that it does. In the sermon I heard, H. B. Charles made a great point that it is shameful that some churches have time for skits, dramas, and concerts, but not to read the Scriptures. If we want God's will to be done among us, we must be like Israel and say, "Bring us the book!" How often have I tried to build the church by my own power! May we be more devoted and confident in the power of God and His Word to build His church.

We Thirst for the Things of God

We should also note the time and the place of this event. It happened during the Festival of Shelters. According to Leviticus 23:33-44, the Israelites were to build tents or shelters and live in them for a week as they celebrated the festival. This was to remind them that they lived in tents when God brought them out of Egypt on the way to the promised land. They lived in tents in the wilderness, but God provided food and water for them throughout the journey.

Ironically, Ezra read the Scriptures during this festival by the Water Gate. The Water Gate got its name because it was near the Gihon Spring. When Jerusalem was under siege generations earlier, King Hezekiah built an underground tunnel channeling water from the Spring to a pool inside the city walls to provide water (2 Chronicles 32:30). Through Hezekiah's Tunnel, God miraculously provided water again.

After God had empowered Nehemiah to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, the Festival of Shelters and the Water Gate both testified to God's past faithfulness to meet the material needs of His people. And yet, as they dwelled securely, the people wanted something more. They wanted to hear God's Word.

Remembering Israel's time in the wilderness is instructive. They had been delivered, but they had not yet arrived at what was promised. God continued to provide for them in the wilderness, but they were still pilgrims waiting to arrive at the Promised Land. In the same way, we have been delivered, but we have not yet arrived. We are pilgrims and sojourners on the earth. While we wait to reach our promised rest, God continues to provide for us here. However, those provisions are not the point. The water and the wall pointed to a different and more important need. We need God. We thirst for the Lord.

We were not made to be satisfied by earthly things. This does not mean that earthly things are bad (after all, God made them and provides them), but these are just shadows of the greatest thing. They are meant to point us to something greater. To make our faith all about receiving better things in this life would be like Nehemiah ending in chapter 7. It would be as if, after God had helped the Jews construct a wall, the Jews each went about his or her own business without any concern for God. Such a response would be shameful! How often is it that when we dwell securely we don't even think about God? But that's not what the Jews did here. After their earthly needs were met, they recognized that they still were spiritually needy, and so they looked to the Scriptures. In the same way, we will only find ultimate satisfaction in the Scriptures.

We Need Christ to Send the Spirit

During the Festival of Shelters, Jesus said these words: "On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” He said this about the Spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were going to receive the Spirit, for the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified." (John 7:37-39)

Previously in this chapter, we see Jesus debating the Jews in the temple regarding the Sabbath. These Jews were well educated and pored over the Scripture, and yet they found no life in them. Why? Because they read it in opposition to Christ apart from the Holy Spirit. It is possible to have the Scriptures and for them to do nothing but kill (2 Cor. 3:6). The Scriptures point to Christ. When we believe in Christ as the scriptures say, he sends the Holy Spirit, who is a stream of living water in our hearts. Nehemiah 8 is about the spiritual thirst of people being satisfied through the Scriptures. John 7 tells us that this thirst can only be satisfied by the Holy Spirit, who only comes through the Christ of the Scriptures.

Let us consider Nehemiah 8 again. We are told that 13 men interpreted the Scriptures for the people, the first of whom was named Jeshua. Some of you may recognize that Jeshua is an alternative spelling of Jesus. Of course, this is not the same Jesus that we read about in the gospels, but isn't this an interesting bit of foreshadowing? Jeshua and his 12 friends make the meaning of the Scriptures clear. We cannot merely read the Scriptures. We need to have a spiritual understanding of the Scriptures, and that only comes through Jesus. This understanding was handed down to us by the Apostles who were filled with the Spirit sent by Christ — the same Spirit which now fills all believers.

How can we read Scripture rightly? First, Scripture reading certainly involves the intellect, but it is never merely an intellectual exercise. We need the Spirit's help. And so, we should always read prayerfully, asking God to enlighten our hearts to understand his Word. Second, we should read as Christ and his apostles did. They read everything in light of Jesus, and we should too. The Scriptures without Christ cannot bring life. Throughout the New Testament, the Spirit pointed people to Christ, and he does the same today. To read Scripture with the Spirit means to read in a Christ-centered way, just like the apostles did. Finally, we should be like the citizens in Nehemiah 8 and be willing to learn and be instructed by others. While reading the Bible in private is a wonderful practice, God did not intend us to only read the Bible alone. He intended us to read it alongside other Christians in a church under the guidance of our pastors. No one is above learning from other Christians. The Spirit most often gives us understanding through other believers. Stay in church and study alongside other believers.

Finally, we must remember the aim of reading the Bible. The aim is not to get something but to get someone. We were made for God. Nothing short of God will do. While we should be eager to discern and obey the commands of Scripture, the point of that is not to earn something or build a better and more successful life. The aim is deeper fellowship with Christ. As we trust and believe in Christ, He sends us His Spirit who satisfies the deepest desires of our hearts. As Jesus said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!"

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