Book of Nehemiah Chapter Eight Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Verse 1: "And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel." We haven't seen Ezra for some time, almost thirteen years actually. He is seen in the words of Ezra 7:6—"This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the Lord his God was upon him." He was a scribe, a Jew, a Hebrew priest and a teacher of God's Law. He became a favorite official of the Persian king and was sent by that king in about 457 BC, to lead 1,754 Jews back to Jerusalem. He likely was called back to the area of Babylon to continue his duties for the Persian king, and now, his duties completed for a time, he returned to Jerusalem to serve his people in concert with Governor Nehemiah.
Verse 2: "Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month." Entire nations are starved for the Word of God. Israel's Bible of the time consisted of the Books of Moses, the Psalms and Wisdom literature, along with the words of some of those we call the Prophets. This was the month of Tisri, and they as a people would now celebrate the Feast of Trumpets. It was also the anniversary of the restoration of the altar (Ezra 3:1-3). Those "with understanding" were all who were old enough to comprehend what was being revealed to them from the Torah, the five Books scribed by Moses. An aspect of "understanding" is faith, and much like their ancestor Abraham who "believed in the Lord" (Genesis 15:6), God will reveal Himself to those willing to trust, to BELIEVE as Abraham did.
Verse 3: "He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law." Ezra read from the Law for six hours. He commenced with "In the beginning..." continuing from that point through all the words set down by Moses. No one was bored, nobody dozed off—everyone listened with rapture as Ezra's voice, and as we will see—other voices—continued. In Verse 9 we find that many of them wept as the words were heard. Can you imagine how they felt after many years of not hearing the Word of God? In much of the world, God's Word is silent, absent, mocked by those in power and it has been declared illegal in many countries. If you live in a time and place where you can read the Bible, then study, devour it, pray for understanding and weep for joy at the privilege God has given to you.
Verses 4-5: "Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up." This was a special, holy occasion and a wooden podium had been built so the words could be heard by the many in attendance. It's interesting that "all the people stood up" at that moment. The Jews normally sat to hear and stood to pray, but sometimes stood to honor the person or the occasion as in Judges 3:20. They were honoring God and His Word, as we all should. In Verse 6, "Then Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, 'Amen, Amen!' while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." The word "Amen" includes the meaning, "it is the truth," which is a shout of faith.
Verses 7-8: "Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. 8 They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading." Nobody took a break for any purpose, they all "remained in their place," listening intently to the words that came from God. Take note that the Hebrew language of the scrolls Ezra and the Levites were reading, had passed out of common usage at the time. Some spoke a Persian dialect, as Ezra did when he conversed with the king, but most had lapsed into a form of Aramaic, still widely in use some centuries later at the time of Jesus. Hebrew continued to be a "dead" language for many centuries. Under the Maccabees in roughly 100 BC, the Jews achieved independence for a time, but Aramaic and increasingly Greek were two of the languages in use, followed by many more languages until 1948 AD, when Israel became a Hebrew-speaking nation once more.
Verse 9: "Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, 'This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.' For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law." The trumpets at the beginning of Tisri signified a time for FEASTING, which the religious and secular leaders well understood, and they quickly assured the people, "Do not mourn or weep," considered inappropriate behavior for that moment. Verses 10-11: "Then he said to them, 'Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.' 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, 'Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.'" As a Psalmist noted in centuries past, "This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24). TODAY is such a day, for God is with you and He loves you, as seen here in Verse 12: "All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them." God's Word is being made known to you—today is a day to rejoice.
Verses 13-14: "Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ households of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law. 14 They found written in the law how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month." The study in the Torah, also called the Penteteuch and the Law of Moses, now went into the second day, and it proceeded to Leviticus 23:42-43, where the Lord through Moses, commanded the people to "dwell in booths for seven days," as a remembrance of the booths made of sticks hastily built by their ancestors as God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. We are to remember that God through the Lord Jesus Christ has delivered us from the slavery of sin.
Verses 15-16: "So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, 'Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of other leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.' 16 So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim." Excitement and enthusiasm filled the people as they scattered to the hills and brought back armfuls and wagon loads of leafy branches to build booths and live in them as the Lord commanded. But there is a danger for us all here—in the excitement of the moment, we tend to make great promises, but then, as the cares of this world once more surround us, we can lapse into our old ways, as glimpsed in Verse 17: "The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing." This was the Joshua who became Israel's leader after the death of Moses in approximately 1400 BC. For a thousand years, the Jews had forgotten, neglected the command of God to remember their heritage. If they had remembered, they might have continued in faith, not lapsing into the pride that led to their fall. We must remember what the Lord has done for us.
Verse 18: "He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance." The "he" of this verse is undoubtedly Ezra, though his name is not given. The requirement for the "solemn assembly" on the eighth day of a festival is seen in places like Leviticus 23:36-37. A holy sacrifice was to be offered, and we are to remember our Lord Jesus Christ, sacrificed on our behalf as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).
Lord, how quickly we can forget the work You did for us on the cross. I confess my sin of worldliness and trust in You anew. I remember, Lord. Thank You for rescuing me from sin and death. In Jesus Name. Amen.