After 52 days the walls of the city of Jerusalem were completed. The city was safe from enemy attack and the people can now turn their full attention on the Lord. Nehemiah tells us that all the people gathered as one person in the square by the water gate. Normally women and children were not invited to assemblies but this was a BIG deal. The people asked Ezra to get out the book of the law which the Lord had given Israel to obey. From daybreak until noon Ezra stood on a platform above the people and read the book of the law. When Ezra opened the book the people stood up. And they stood for those six hours as the law was read and explained. This was not just a ritual reading of the law. The priests and Levites were also explaining what the law meant and how it applied to their lives. Most of the people spoke Aramaic instead of Hebrew so the law may have had to have been translated as well. This reading and explaining went on for several days. Scholars are divided as to whether the book of the law here meant just Deuteronomy or if it was the first five books of the Old Testament. Either way, standing for six hours a day listening to Leviticus and Numbers would have been a stretch. The list of names in 8:4 were most likely the names of community leaders, some of whom may have been in charge of the scrolls and rolling them as Ezra read.
It is important to note that everything done here in Ezra and Nehemiah was done with great praise and thanksgiving for the Lord and what He had done. As Ezra read the book of the law the people began to weep because they realized all that had happened to them was a result of their own sins. They had sinned, been disobedient, and walked in ways that were not of the Lord. They were being convicted and the Lord was moving in their hearts. Weeping is an appropriate response to sin and conviction, but Ezra and Nehemiah encouraged the people to rejoice at what God had done. This was a New Year’s festival and as such it was a time of joy. Weeping would have destroyed the celebration. The people were encouraged to feast with rich foods and sweet drinks. And they were encouraged to share with those who had less. Rich food here was probably a reference to eating meat, which was normally eaten only on special occasions. Sweet drinks was a reference to unfermented juice in contrast to the vinegar of the common laborer.
As Ezra read the law the people discovered that during the festival in the seventh month God’s people were to live in booths for the duration of the feast. This festival of the shelters or booths commemorated that the people of Israel had lived in tents during their wilderness journey. So the people went out and collected various kinds of branches to make their shelters and they lived in them for through the festival. Olive trees were widespread in Mediterranean countries and they had been growing in Canaan well before the conquest. It takes an olive tree roughly 30 years to mature and that is easier when there is peace within a country. We read the people had not celebrated the feast of booths in this manner since the days of Joshua. Just like believers today, it was easy to get busy or distracted and not follow the Lord as closely as He would like. For seven days Ezra read from the book of the law and on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly. They had celebrated all the Lord had done for them and they had been taught the meaning of the law and now it was time to make a commitment to God’s laws, commandments, statutes, and covenants. This assembly was a time of confession, for themselves as individuals and for the nation as whole.
Ezra prayed. The prayer was a confession of sins. It was praises for God for what He had done and continued to do in and among His people. And it prompted the people to confess their own unfaithfulness. They called on God to be compassionate and forgive their sins. The Levites prayer praised God for His glorious reputation, His sole divinity, his creation of the universe, his providential
care for life in earth, and His worship by angels. Putting all the focus on God brought Israel’s present circumstances into proper perspective. They recalled God’s actions and interaction with Abram, giving him a new name, making a covenant with him, and fulfilling the promises of land and descendants. That showed God’s faithfulness and gave the people confidence for their own situations. They reminded themselves that God had paid attention to His people’s misery under foreign dominance…not unlike their situation. In Exodus God demonstrated His character with plagues, parting the Red Sea and defeating the arrogant Egyptian army. The prayer reminded the people of God’s miraculous delivery in the wilderness, His personal appearance at Mount Sinai, the making of the covenant with His people, and his provision of water, manna, and quail.
The kicker was, God had done all of these amazing things for His people and in return they gave Him their pride, stubbornness, disobedience, and idol worship. As a result, God turned His people over to others for discipline and to regain their attention. The people would turn to the Lord but it was always short lived. God subdued whole nations for His people. They took advantage of His goodness. They ate and drank and were satisfied. They enjoyed good things because of God’s blessings. This leads to complacency and spiritual danger…then and now. We get lured into a false sense of security and lose focus on the things that are important. In many ways the pattern we see in God’s people here is not much different than that in the Book of Judges. Lastly, the people recognized God’s justice in punishing them for their sin. They lamented the time they lived in Babylon. At the end of the prayer the people renewed their dedication to God and His Word. They signed their names to indicate their commitment and they took a solemn oath to live by the Lord’s covenant. This became a sealed document with legal standing.
As we move into chapter 10 you will notice that the community had committed itself broadly to all the instructions in the law of Moses but now there were specific issues to be addressed. These issues were related to maintaining the purity of the temple. There would be no more trading on the sabbath with the neighbors. This was necessary for covenant faithfulness…remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. They pledged to observe the every seven year rest for the land. Money given to the temple and priests and Levites would guarantee animals for sacrifice daily and maintain the temple complex. They needed LOTS of wood because the fire on the altar burned constantly. In an earlier time the Gibeonites provided the wood. Now everyone was responsible. Provision for the priests and Levites came as a result of the first fruits people gave and the Levites went from town to town to collect the tithes.
Here is one more thing to think about. In the fall of 445 B.C. Nehemiah and the people finished rebuilding the wall of the city of Jerusalem. A handful, of days later the people came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of trumpets. They built booths at this time and Ezra read from the book of the law. The people mourned and wept because they realized all of them had been disobedient and they were convicted of their sins. They confessed their sins, studied God’s word to learn what He required and obeyed what they had learned. The Book of the Law of Moses transformed their lives and behavior. These events provide a dramatic reminder that God’s Word is central to the lives of His people. God’s Word provides the essential guide to life or death, (Genesis 2:16-17). His promises prove true (Genesis 17:15-21). God’s word was written in stone (Exodus 34:1). It was to be taught to children (Deuteronomy 6:7). And it was to be worn on the hands and forehead, and written on the doorpost (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).
Deuteronomy 6:6-7, “These commands…repeat them again and again to your children.”
Deuteronomy 6:7, “Talk about them when you are at home and on the road.”
Joshua 1:8, “Study this book of instruction continually, meditate on it day and night.”
Psalm 19:7, “The instructions of the Lord are perfect, reviving the soul.”
Psalm 119:15, “I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways.”
Psalm 119:105, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
Isaiah 55:11, “My Word…always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to.”
Matthew 5:17-19, “Not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.”
Nehemiah 9:8, “You are always true to your Word.”
God’s Word is perfect. It has the power to restore, make wise, and give joy. It comforts and convicts. In His Word we find hope, and evidence of His faithfulness, love, mercy and grace. God’s Word is where we meet Him. May we never forget.
In His Grip