The Joy of the Word
The book of Nehemiah, coupled with the work of Ezra, combines to tell a story of courage and triumph in the face of tremendous challenges. Nehemiah was not a prophet. You may remember that he was a layman who responded to God’s call; God placed on his heart a desire to return from exile and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, as he was distressed at what he heard about the state of the city.
The King to whom he served as cupbearer noticed his sad demeanour and on hearing Nehemiah’s desire gave him his blessing to go and do whatever is necessary. So under Nehemiah’s direction the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. This restored physical security to the city’s inhabitants.
But Nehemiah did more than this; he also helped restore the moral fibre of the community by insisting that the division between rich and poor be diminished. In doing this he forbade the land-grabbing, freedom-robbing practices of the wealthy that put the poor into slavery and the community into disarray. So in rebuilding the city walls, Nehemiah helped to cement the bonds of community that made everyone responsible to, and for one another. Nehemiah, was therefore a man of action. He had the ideas, had the vision and took the chance offered him to make a difference and he took it with both hands and succeeded.
Ezra, on the other hand represented the establishment, as the official religious leader of his day. Recognised as a prophet, Ezra worked alongside Nehemiah and added another message to the reforming, rebuilding activities. He reminded the people of the responsibilities demanded by God’s commandments and…the joy and hope that God’s promises give to those who place their faith in Him.
When Nehemiah’s political and practical actions were teamed with Ezra’s prophetic words of love and concern, a spiritual and physical renewal came to the discouraged and disheartened people. They were a community profoundly moved by both its accomplishments and its shortcomings. The wall of the city has been successfully rebuilt, giving the people a reason to celebrate their newfound security and an opportunity to reflect on their future. Gathering at one of the newly fortified main entrances to the city, the Water Gate (see Nehemiah 3:26), the people prepare to combine their celebration with worship.
Ezra, in his role as scribe/priest, stood before the people, who “assembled as one man”, and they spontaneously requested Ezra to read the law to them. What did this reading achieve? Well, an immediate impact is that on hearing these words they saw God’s saving power. You see, this rebuilding is a fulfilment of the prophecies of Zechariah and Daniel concerning Jerusalem’s walls. Whether or not this was Ezra’s specific intention we don’t know, but the reading has a profound impact on those there, for they could now look towards a future brightened by hope…Jerusalem was being rebuilt! So the people “listen attentively to the Book of the Law of Moses”. They had been seated, because they rose to listen, as if their anticipation was great, as if they could sense something special was going to happen. God was on the move; their lives were going to be changed for the good.
Do we have that same anticipation every time we hear the Bible being read, or when we read it ourselves, whether alone or with others? It’s too easy for us to become dulled to the power of its words, as if we become immune to its teaching. This is a subtle way in which the enemy lies to us about the importance of God’s Word. Jesus teaches us to listen carefully to every word and verse and to ask the Holy Spirit to show us the answer to the question, “How does this apply to my life?”
The wonderful picture painted by the writer of Nehemiah is of a unified body worshiping God. Hands are lifted high in response to Ezra’s praise of the Lord as they agree with what they hear by saying “Amen! Amen!”, “so be it, so be it”. Again we can take this word “Amen” for granted, it too can lose its significance. We need to think before we use it, and ask ourselves, “Do I agree with what I have heard?” If the answer is yes, then we can move on in worship, maybe bowing down because we recognise that we are in the awesome presence of the Lord! Have you ever been so moved by the power of God’s presence that the only response was to bow down, or kneel, or even lay prostrate on the floor?
Because of their collective “Amen!” we see that there is great joy in the atmosphere. Their praise and worship has moved them to joy as this gathering turns in to a mass Bible study as “the Levites instructed the people in the Law”. I can picture a team of Levites moving around the crowd asking if they understand what they are hearing, and offering explanations. Maybe because of the exile some there only knew Aramaic and not Hebrew
Nevertheless. this tells us that care needs to be taken in reading and understanding the Word of God. Don’t rush what your hearing or reading, give it time to sink in and teach you. As a disciple of Jesus are you disciplined enough to let The Word teach you?
But then something happens to the atmosphere… as it is being explained to them the people seem to move from joy to despair. People began to “mourn and weep”. Mourning here means being upset for the sin they have committed and are living in. Their tears show us how far away they felt they were from obeying God and living their lives as He commands. They had been living in rebellion to God, which resulted in them being in exile. But that day they heard God’s plumb-line truth. How far away are you from living out God’s plumb line truth in your life? Do you know what this truth is? Do you need it explained to you? There is no shame if you do need it explained… I know I do!
So this was a special moment for the people of Jerusalem. They were hearing the word of God, which was being explained to them so they could understand it, and it challenged them immensely. But Nehemiah and Ezra refused to let the festivities of the day be dampened by the people’s newfound conscience. Instead they call the people to rejoice. The word of the Lord has come back to the people.
Although the people stand judged by it, both the civil and the religious leader in this story urge the community to savour the word of the Lord as sweet wine or fat meat. It’s too easy for us to think of the Old Testament as nothing but strict rules and confining laws. But here we have Nehemiah and Ezra reminding us of how rich and satisfying life can be when we live under the commands of God.
I believe that there is a great need to instruct people in the ways of God, hence our Gifts and Ministries sessions, as well as a need to be told to go and celebrate all that God has done for us, for He is a God who, through His abundant grace and mercy, fulfils His promises.
There is an old Jewish tradition that when a child takes their first lesson in scripture a drop of golden honey is dripped onto the first page of the Torah, reminding them of the essential sweetness of God’s words. Similarly, Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people that joy should be their proper response on this occasion. God wants us to live out of His joy, for when we do, we experience more of His power in our lives.
Whenever we hear the Word of God spoken, whenever we read the word of God, may the Word of God live not only in our ears, but in our heart, body, mind, soul and spirit so that we too know that “the joy of the Lord is your strength”!
4th Sunday of Epiphany, 27/01/19
Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-6, 8-10