It may sound paradoxical to find joy in obeying, but that is the encouragement we find in God’s Word time and time again.
“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim . . . of human existence.”Aristotle
That’s partially true. However, the Bible clarifies that lasting happiness is the result of living according to God’s will (1 Jn 1:3-4). That doesn’t mean we can be free of all suffering as long as we’re obedient to God’s will. But it does mean that we can learn to rejoice in the midst of our suffering because we know that God is using it for His glory and our good (Rom 8:28). In other words, joy in obeying does not remove pain.
We will not enjoy all of the benefits of God’s promises when we are not living according to his revealed will. If that is true, then the reverse would also be true. The best way to enjoy all of the benefits of God’s promises is to live according to his revealed will.
Read Neh 8:13-18.
› This morning we will consider two encouragements regarding God’s Law from this passage.
Study God’s Law With Purpose (13-15)
According to Neh 8:2, Ezra read the Law to the Israelites on the first day of the seventh month (September). On the next day, the patriarchs gathered together with the priests and Levites to study the Law (13). The priests were a subset of qualified men within the Levitical tribe, but who were “the heads of fathers’ houses”? This could have been every husband and father, but it probably refers to the heads of larger units of tribes or clans. The point of their presence is to study the Law with the spiritual leaders in order to disseminate the information to the rest of the members of their families.
It does not tell us where they gathered but the text says they “came together to Ezra” which seems to indicate they found him in his study. As priest and scribe, Ezra probably had a regular station within the temple precincts where he could read and write. I doubt it would have been very large, and he likely did not have many visitors, certainly not any large groups. So this would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience reflecting the ongoing spiritual revival that is taking place within the Israelite community.
The Joy of Studying God’s Law Together
So they join him there with a desire to participate in the study of God’s Law. They did not have their own copies to follow along or to study from home. Ezra read from the scroll and explained it while these men listened intently and interjected with questions or points of application. They delighted in God’s Law. Psalm 119:35 “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.” It’s clear that wasn’t always the case for them. The Law does not appear to have been a delight for them just a few months prior! But something remarkable occurred in their hearts and minds as Ezra read to them the previous day. After hearing the law read and taught the entire morning, they were moved to further study the next day!
A pastor friend mentioned how a small group of men would join him at his office or coffee shop to study the passage he was preaching that week. He used the time to teach them his own methods of preparation and their interaction would often give him additional insight to consider. So it was a mutually beneficial time of research and discussion over God’s Word. They sharpened one another with their questions. An Ezra Cohort of this kind is a great application of this passage.
Ezra Showed Where They Failed
We have to assume that Ezra already knew about this feast and was aware that the Israelites were not celebrating it (14-15). He was an expert, “skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). Did he intentionally take them to the passage he knew they needed to hear? He, along with the other men, just concluded the previous day by comforting people. They had experienced a deep conviction for their sin, but they needed to know the joy of forgiveness and celebration! It’s possible this was the very text that convicted so many the day before.
They learned about the Feast of Booths that God had instructed Israel to celebrate on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Lev 23:34). This would give them two weeks to prepare for it. They immediately proclaimed it to all their towns, that they should go out to the hills and collect some branches that could serve as roofs and walls for their family’s shelter.
God gave them this feast as a reminder of His faithfulness to the wilderness generation. They learned about the following requirements:
• Make booths (Lev. 23:42-43)
• Rejoice (Deut. 16:13-15)
• Every 7 years read the Law (Deut. 31:10-13)
• Solemn assembly on 8th day (Num. 29:35)
It was meant to connect them to their rich family heritage. It would show them how remarkable it was for the Lord to preserve them for forty years in the wilderness.
As long as they were neglecting The Feast of Booths they were missing out on the privileges God promised they would enjoy through it. They were forfeiting joy in obeying by neglecting to fully obey.
Men Should Study the Bible Together
I thought about generically encouraging all of you to a more systematic method of studying God’s Word, but this verse highlights the importance of a particular group studying the Bible together. It specifically calls the heads of households to be involved in Bible study. So that’s who I want to address. If you’re a woman or child, this instruction impacts you to a significant degree even though it does not target you directly.
Men, we want to strongly encourage you to join us on Tuesday night’s if you are available. Yes, we will have activities for everyone, but your presence is critical to the health of our church. As the spiritual leaders of your homes, you need to sharpen one another. The goal is that you will take what you learn and teach it to your wives and children. Your example throughout the week impacts your wives and children far more than a few hours on Sunday mornings.
The Testimonies that Would Result
Imagine the testimonies these families would give regarding the impact this had upon their homes. As they studied God’s Word they would have caught glimpses of the Messiah. They would have begun to gain traces of insight into God’s plan of redemption. They might have begun to understand that this Feast of Booths ultimately pointed them to a day when God would not only preserve them in their suffering, but when he would Himself tabernacle among them through His Son—Jesus Christ—The Word made flesh (John 1:14)!
Their hearts would have burned within them as they understood more and more about the covenant faithfulness of their God (Luke 24:32). They would have been eager to share what they were learning with others so that the whole family might rejoice in God’s provision.
When fathers begin to lead their homes with the compassion and sacrificial love of their Savior, the whole church benefits. When all of the families within a church are filled with grateful obedience, communities are reformed. And through it all, God is glorified because we recognize all that He has accomplished by His Spirit!
› The purpose for which you study God’s Law is to understand what obedience looks like…
Obey God’s Law With Joy (16-18)
Upon hearing the proclamation, all the people got to work on their booths (16). Men, women, and children all contributed to this gathering and building phase. It was a project the whole family could accomplish together. They spent the next few weeks making their booths in various locations. Some used their own roof or courtyard while those who traveled into the city staked out spots in the square at the Water Gate or the Gate of Ephraim (not mentioned in Neh 3, but likely part of the preexilic wall that opened toward Ephraim). Some families even used the temple courtyard as a space to erect their booth. There weren’t too many places where you wouldn’t find people building one of these shelters.
The Joy of Obeying in Families
You could imagine all of the parenting opportunities this brought. Dads taught their sons how to break off the branches. Moms helped their daughters carry them in bundles. Everyone learning how to bind the branches together to support a sturdy structure. Those who were DIY-challenged, like me, would have learned the best methods from their neighbors. This celebration would not only strengthen the family, it would have knit the lives of the community together in ways they had yet to experience. As they all learned the joy of obeying God’s law together, they would have also grown closer to one another.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. If you were there you would try to find any justification for sleeping in your own home. You might help with the booth, but you would not want to live in it. There is no way this temporary shelter is going to be as convenient or safe as your home. However, in v.17 we learn that they didn’t just make the booths, they also lived in them for the week.
What might be even more insane is that “there was very great rejoicing.” There is no suggestion that the mothers are off on the side, arms crossed refusing to have any fun. They also experienced the joy of obeying. The whole assembly was happy to obey the Law. It is interesting that this is the only festival that commands rejoicing (Lev 23:40). Maybe God knew some would be prone to grumble about the requirements.
Instead of grumbling “there was very great rejoicing.” That’s not to suggest that they were all enthusiastic about being inconvenienced, but they rejoiced in what the Feast of Booths was accomplishing. Maybe they noticed their spouses were more engaged than typical and the kids were a little less interested in their phones and video games. Ultimately, I believe, they were rejoicing because they were living their lives for the glory of God. They naturally received joy by seeking to honor the Lord.
When did Israel stop celebrating the Feast of Booths?
Why is Nehemiah suggesting that the Israelites had not celebrated the festival since the days of Joshua (Neh 8:17)? When the first group of exiles returned about one hundred years earlier, after the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1), they had celebrated the Feast of Booths (Ezra 3:4). There are two basic interpretations of Neh 8:17, either of which are possible from the Hebrew:
1. The Israelites neglected to camp out. As previously mentioned, this would be an easy command to compromise. This reading is implied by the punctuation of the ESV.
2. The Israelites followed the rules of the festival, but the last time they experienced this much joy was in the days of Joshua. This applies the rejoicing to the previous clause.
Although the consensus favors the first option, the greatness of their rejoicing was no less remarkable. It means that they were rejoicing in doing something previous generations conveniently ignored. Previous generations had been trying to skate by on a technicality, but this generations greatly rejoiced in obeying—especially where it was inconvenient.
The Centrality of the Law of God
Once again, Nehemiah reminds us that Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God every day of the feast (18). They have enjoyed the whole week with insightful preaching, enriching fellowship, and excellent grilled filet of lamb paired with glasses of sweet wine. The day after the week of celebration (22nd day of the month), the assembly returned for one more celebration. After taking one day off, they enter into a time of repentance, which we will consider next week.
The Theological Hesitation
It is not difficult to become so caught up in the finer points of doctrine that we fail to uphold the very plain and obvious commandments. We spend hours each day reading and debating bible trivia, or the latest political buzz, while failing to spend any quality time with our spouse and children. We dawdle the minutes away on trivial and fleeting matters while neglecting the weightier matters that have eternal value.
I say this so confidently, because I understand my own tendencies to fail in these very things. But even when we try to do the right thing, oftentimes we’re grumbling in our hearts. We just don’t want to do what we know we’re supposed to do! We might even feel incapable of doing it (Rom 7:18-19)!
Yes, as Paul says in Rom 7:18, nothing good dwells in our flesh. When we want to do what’s right, evil lies close at hand (Rom 7:21). However, he also experienced delight in the law of God, in his inner being (Rom 7:22). So there was a war between his mind and his flesh (Rom 7:25).
Joy in Obeying is the Application
But the fact remains: We will not enjoy all of the benefits of God’s promises when we are not living according to his revealed will.
I would imagine that obeying with joy is a challenge for all of us depending upon the command. All of us are guilty of grumbling from time to time. Maybe it’s a theological concern. We know that those who love Jesus will keep his commandments (John 14:15). In fact, doing his will is evidence of God’s grace in our lives (Eph 2:10; Jas 2:14-26). We think if we emphasize James 1:22 “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” then we must immediately follow it up with something about our inability to do it.
This is good counsel for those who are trying to save themselves by their good works. Legalism will not save anyone. But those who are saved, will desire to please the God who saved them. A true and living faith is always accompanied by good works.
The Joy of Obeying is Theological
WCF 11.2 “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”
Thus, when a passage of Scripture brings immediate conviction, it is appropriate to respond with the marvelous joy of obedience! In fact, it is a sin to respond with anything less (Jam 4:17). We should acknowledge it is the Spirit of Christ who enables us to respond in obedience, but that does not permit us to grow negligent in our duties (WCF 16.3).
The Culmination of the Feast of Booths
In Revelation 7:9, John envisioned a great multitude of saints, from every nation, clothed in white and waving palm branches before the throne of God. I mentioned earlier that the Feast of Booths pointed to Christ tabernacling among us, but the culmination of the Feast of Booths is all of God’s people rejoicing in their glorious redemption before His throne for all eternity! The palm branches signify the victory that Christ has purchased and preserved for them. The vision depicts what the festival anticipates. It is joy that has been made available to every nation through the death of Jesus!
When we study God’s Law with the purpose of glorifying him, we will strive to obey it with joy!