Nehemiah / Preaching / Nehemiah 8:1–8
In the 16th Century, Elizabethan England had such a reputation for revering the Bible that French author Victor Hugo said, “England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare but the Bible made England.”
Regarding the Pilgrims who arrived in North America in 1620, Daniel Webster said, “The Bible came with them, and it is not to be doubted that to the free and universal reading of the Bible is to be ascribed in that age that men were indebted for right views of civil liberties.”
Unfortunately, two nations that were largely shaped by the principles of Scripture have dramatically lost their reverence for it. A survey released in May 2021 found that only 11% of Americans read the Bible daily. 29% never read it and another 29% read it less than four times per year. In other words, the majority of Americans spend almost no time in Word of God. The statistics are much worse in England.
The people in Israel have been returning from exile in several waves for almost 100 years. They have been in the land—living in their own towns (Neh 7:73)—but they still do not have a clear grasp of God’s law. Wise spiritual guidance was lacking in exile (Ezra 9:1-4), and it is unclear how much was occuring at this time.
Ezra traveled to Jerusalem with the book of the law thirteen years before the event recorded in this passage. We know nothing of his whereabouts since then. Did it take him thirteen years for the opportunity to accomplish his mission? It seems more likely that Ezra had been there, conducting his scribal and priestly work, and even developing a reputation as a teacher of God’s law.
Now, after the completion of the wall (Neh 6:15), and the subsequent census (Neh 7:5f), the people have invited Ezra to lead them in a sort of covenant renewal ceremony that sparks a spiritual revival and a moral reformation. Their greatest need was what every generation of believers needs—an understanding of God’s revelation.
Read Nehemiah 8:1-8.
The Priority of Preaching (1-3)
1 Everyone gathered in one place. There was nothing special about the Water Gate, it was likely the best location to fit everyone. The Temple would have been too small for a crowd between 30,000 to 50,000 people (Neh 7:66-67). The location is not the important aspect here. What is important is that they prioritized gathering together.
Recall how divided this community had been just a few chapters ago. They had experienced class division in which the rich exploited the poor to the extent that they were enslaving one another (Neh 5). A proper reconciliation has occurred allowing them to move forward in unity.
Everyone gathered to hear Ezra read God’s word. They knew who to call when they wanted to hear the word read and explained. As a scribe, it was Ezra’s duty to study Scripture. He was an expert in the Law of Moses. Apparently, the people know this.
2 Everyone who could understand was encouraged to be there. This would have included “little ones” (Deut 31:12-13; Josh 8:35; 2 Chron 20:13). Ezra specifically mentioned “children” (Ezra 10:1). On at least one occasion under Joel, “even nursing infants” were expected to be there (Joel 2:16). Here, it would seem, that nursing infants were about the only ones absent.
It’s unfortunate so few churches give young children credit for being able to comprehend at least some portions of a sermon. They assume the only way they can really participate on Sundays is if they are separated from their parents for “age-appropriate” learning. And then they wonder, as they get older, why they never learned to appreciate the worship service. Much of the evangelical church has transformed into a perpetual youth group, because that is all my generation knows “church” to be.
You’ll notice that Ezra doesn’t dismiss the children for youth activities just before he begins reading and preaching God’s Word. He expected everyone to be there and for everyone to listen. If the children had questions, they would get the answers from their parents, as God always encouraged (Ex 12:26f; Deut 6:6ff).
This was an important time in the life of Israel. The first day of the seventh month was when they celebrated the Feast of Trumpets, followed by the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the fifteenth to the twenty-first (Lev 23:23-44). Their gathering of the whole assembly to hear “this law” was part of this festival season every seventh year (Deut 31:10-13).
3 Ezra faced the people as he read “from early morning until midday”–roughly five to six hours! If Ezra read all of the books commonly attributed to Moses, then he would have read Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Pentateuch). But this would have taken twelve to fifteen hours just to read all of those books out loud. And we know that some sort of explanation was also given (8). Ezra was probably only reading Deuteronomy or several portions of the Pentateuch.
The remarkable thing about this is that “all the people were attentive”! They remained engaged throughout Ezra’s five hour sermon. This is the same thing that Joshua had done when he renewed the covenant with the people after their defeat of Ai (Josh. 8:35). I’m certain Ezra and Joshua were in leagues of their own, but God’s Word always captivates those interested in glorifying it’s Author!
The people had a hunger for the Word of God that was evident by their request for Ezra to teach from it, as well as their commitment to remain attentive. They expected to hear from God and their response (which we will consider next week) confirms that they did.
God made you to glorify him and he gave his Word to show you how to do that. When you believe that the word of God is “the only rule of faith and obedience” (WLC 3), you prioritize it. That begins with showing up and paying attention whenever it is opened and explained.
› Wherever preaching is prioritized it is accompanied by a reverent posture.
The Posture of Preaching (4-6)
4 They had made a wooden platform for Ezra to stand upon and read from. The word is typically translated “tower” which emphasizes the height from which he stood over the people. This was not done in order to magnify Ezra or his position, but to honor the Book of the Law. When the pulpit is removed, replaced with an invisible stand, or frequently unused—the preacher is highlighted rather than Scripture. Ezra’s position from an elevated platform enabled everyone to see and hear what he was teaching.
Six men stood on Ezra’s right, and seven were on his left. The text does not tell us the role of these thirteen men. Some believe they belonged to the priesthood like the list mentioned in v.7. Others think they were simply laymen whom Ezra appointed to the task. They likely had some spiritual authority over the people.
5 All the people stood as Ezra read from the book of the law. We are not told how long they remained standing, but potentially they remained that way all morning. It was symbolic of their reverent hearts. This is not the only posture we find in the Bible. Mary listened to Jesus teach while sitting at his feet (Luke 10:38ff). Jeremiah’s scribe sat while reading Scripture to the people (Jer 36:15). Standing is not the only posture for reading or hearing the Word of God. But a posture of heart-felt reverence is always expected.
6 After the book was opened, Ezra gave a blessing to God, while the people gave their agreement. They lifted up their hands while they said “Amen, Amen,” then they bowed their heads in worship. Lifting up one’s hands was a common gesture for prayer in the ancient Near East.
Occasionally, someone will ask me why we don’t raise our hands in worship. For some of you, it seems weird that people do not appear to be more engaged. It’s an important question to consider.
I remember asking about that when I first began attending Sierra View PCA. I came from a church that actively discouraged people from raising their hands. You had to sit in the back if you wanted to do that. That seems extreme, when you have several examples of worshipful hand raising in Scripture. I can understand that it may be distracting. And some people might use this posture to draw attention to themselves. But, surely it is presumptuous to assume false motives.
On the other hand, I’ve been a part of some churches where the music leader tells the congregation when to raise their hands. Maybe that feels forced and unnatural. Yet, similar instruction occurs throughout Scripture (Ps 134:2; 28:2; 63:4; Lam 3:41; 1 Tim 2:8).
Some of us grew up in churches where that was common while others of us did not. Making a steadfast rule in either direction is probably going too far. In the end, the outward posture is nowhere near as important as the inward posture of the heart.
It is far more important that our hearts are in tune with what we are doing. Disengaged worship is simply not worship. We do not receive the spiritual benefits from simply reciting a formula. We cannot piece together the perfect balance of liturgical elements that will result in the same outcome for all who attend and participate. Fortunately, God works in different ways as each one of us matures at different rates.
Reverence for God’s Word and a spiritual longing to understand his will are characteristics of the people of God (1 Pt 2:2).
› Those who prioritize and reverence God’s Word are prepared to receive it.
The Purpose of Preaching (7-8)
7 Thirteen Levites helped Ezra explain the law to the people. It’s hard to imagine how this happened. Did they take turns reading and explaining the Law just like Ezra had done? Were they assigned various portions of the group? What we know for certain is that they helped “the people understand the Law.”
8 That point is hammered home again. The goal of reading and giving the sense of the Law was to provide the people with an understanding of God’s will. They needed to be able to read the Law “clearly”. This could refer to translating the text since many of the returning exiles had lost their ability to understand Hebrew, or it could mean they interpreted the meaning of the text. What is plain is they were not there to promote themselves or their superior knowledge. They were serving the spiritual needs of the people, which was primarily to understand God’s Word.
When I began teaching Sunday School and preaching occasionally, I was overly focused on myself. I wanted to sound a certain way. I wanted to combine the style of some preachers with the theological substance of others. I even tried inserting gestures into my notes at particular points to look like my favorite preachers.
Then I read Preaching Pure and Simple by Stuart Olyott. The purpose of preaching is to explain God’s Word. I’m not called to be someone else. I’m not here to entertain you or awe you with impeccable articulation. In fact, Paul was notable for being unskilled and inarticulate (1 Cor 1:17; 2:1; 2 Cor 10:10; 11:6).
When providing clarity is the goal, my tone and gestures become almost irrelevant. The only bad sermon is the one that leaves people confused.
Now that I’ve set the bar incredibly low for the preacher, maybe some of you suddenly feel called. Anyone could do it! You should know:
1. Ezra was skilled in the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6).
2. Ezra possessed a heart for studying the Law in order to obey it and teach it (Ezra 7:10).
3. James tells us that those “who teach will be judged with a greater strictness” (Jam 3:1). In fact, this is the reason he says that “not many of you” should pursue the vocation.
• Do you strive to understand God’s Word on Sunday mornings in corporate worship?
• Do you pay attention as your family engages God’s Word in family worship?
• Are you regularly reading, understanding, and applying God’s Word in your personal worship?
The quality of your spiritual maturity depends upon an eager expectation to understand God’s word.
Revivals always involve a reverence for Scripture. Reformation occurs in churches, communities, and nations where people prioritize the Bible. John Calvin understood this, which is why he preached over 2,000 expository sermons during his ministry in Geneva.
On Easter Sunday, 1538, city authorities banished Calvin for refusing to give the Lord’s Supper to important figures living in open sin. He spent three happy years preaching in Strasbourg, before the city fathers of Geneva asked him to return as their pastor. After an absence of nearly 3.5 years, Calvin entered the pulpit and picked up right where he left off.
Luke 24:44–47 ESV
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Their greatest need was what every generation of believers needs—an understanding of God’s revelation.