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. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.
The Story: After moving stones and timbers to repair the walls and gates of Jerusalem, the workers went into the hills to clip tree branches in order to make lean-tos for themselves and their families. The structures were everywhere—on roofs, in courtyards, in the Temple courtyard, in the squares. Remarkably, this was the first time the Feast of Booths was celebrated since the days of Jeshua about 1,000 years earlier. Once the people of Israel conquered the land, they settled into houses and quickly forgot their wanderings and God’s deliverance. Something vital to the life of Israel was lost. In Nehemiah’s day, that was recovered. Just as their celebration began with the reading of God’s Law (8:3), the reading and probably the preaching (8:8) continued each day. The people heard again, or perhaps for the first time, the story of Moses and Pharaoh, of Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea, of idolatry and wandering, of the Tabernacle and worship. And through it all “there was very great rejoicing,” as there should have been.
The Structure: Jesus, as an obedient Jew, attended the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem and used the themes of the feast to reveal Himself. Each day in the Temple, a priest poured out libations of water to God as a reminder of His provision of water in the desert (Exodus 15:25; 17:5-7; Numbers 20:6-11). And Jesus said on the eighth day of the feast, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37b). He is the One who quenches our thirst in our desert wanderings in this world. The feast included a lamp lighting ceremony to commemorate the Pillar of Fire that guided the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert (Exodus 13:21-22). And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He is the One who enlightens our darkness of sin and ignorance, showing us His glory in the Gospel. He is our feast, the cause of “very great rejoicing.”
Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). How well do you follow that command? How can you grow in joy?
On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.”
The Story: Having built the walls and gates of the city of Jerusalem, there is a certain irony in the people’s discovery that it was the time of year to celebrate the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. This was the yearly reminder that for forty years their ancestors wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Just as those ancestors lived in tents and other temporary shelters, so God commanded that during the Feast of Booths, “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:42-43). It was, in fact, a giant community campout designed to draw future generations into God’s deliverance in the Exodus. God specified the sacrifices in Numbers 29:12-40, indicating plenty to eat, and Deuteronomy adds what may be one of the sweetest commands in all of Scripture: “You shall rejoice in your feast” (Deuteronomy 16:14).
The Structure: There’s an old bluegrass Gospel song that begins, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through. My treasure is laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” The refrain declares, “And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.” But sitting in the middle of the prosperity we enjoy in the West, that becomes harder and harder to believe and live. We settle in, collect our possessions around us, and become very much at home in this world. We know our lives on Earth are short and temporary, but so often we live as though we’ll be here forever. God knew we’d have that tendency. That’s one reason the people of Israel celebrated the Feast of Booths. Living in temporary shelters for a week away from houses, fields, work, and possessions, they reflected on not only living, but also dying, in the desert. It reminded them, as it should remind us, that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” who look “forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Such are the ones about whom Scripture says, “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:8-16).
How attached are you to this world and the things of this world? What can you do to begin to untangle yourself?
Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
The Story: While we can’t be sure whether “he” in this text is Ezra or Nehemiah, the command was clear: The people were to feast with joy. Any meat the people ate at the feast came from animals sacrificed in the Temple. Thus eating the fat might refer to the fat of the offerings, but that seems unlikely since the fat of the offerings was the best portion and was reserved to be burned as God’s portion (Leviticus 3:9-10; 4:8-10; 7:3-4). It is more likely that the people were to eat special rich foods to go with their sweet wine. The word “fat” used as we would when we talk about “the fat of the land.” The days were to be pervaded with joy and no one was to be left out. The poor or perhaps those who were simply unprepared were to be given a share in the plenty. This was an occasion for joy and that joy would be their strength in the sense of a fortress surrounding them (Ps 27:1; 37:39; Jeremiah 16:19). The noisy wailing that accompanied grief in the ancient world—grief over death or grief over sin—was banished.
The Structure: A friend spent a week on private retreat at the monastery of a peculiarly austere order of monks. Days were mostly silent, and the food, while tasty and nourishing, was very plain. After several days of enjoying the quiet and simplicity of the place, he awoke to a very different monastery. It was a feast day and he was amazed at the joyful conversations, the noisy laughter, and the dazzling array of food and drink provided for the occasion. The next day, it was back to silence and austerity. “I never understood feasting before,” he told me before adding, “I had a marvelous time with the monks rejoicing in God.” Between our ability to purchase a dazzling array of food and drink any time we feel like indulging and our lack of appreciation for what it means to be an adopted and deeply loved children of God, we tend not to feast well. If every day is a feast, no days are feasts. If we feel tolerated by God rather than loved, we won’t have much to rejoice about. But if we grow in temperance—the virtue of moderation and voluntary self-restraint—and in childlike love for our Heavenly Father, we will, among other things, learn how to feast.
While it’s summertime, make a note on your calendar to reread Nehemiah 8 and apply it the next time you celebrate a birthday, anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter.
And 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 wept as they heard the words of the Law.
The Story: The people heard the Scriptures and wept. God’s Word showed them at least three things. First, it showed the holiness and goodness of God. He is utterly pure and all He does is good. Second, it showed them how far they fell short in obeying God. That is, it showed them their sin. Finally, it showed them God’s grace, His kindness, because even though God is utterly holy and even though they were disobedient and rebellious toward him and His Law, God brought them back from captivity, settled them in their land, gave them a wall around the city, and made them a people again. Did they deserve to be treated that way? No. They deserved God’s judgment and they knew it. That’s why they wept and mourned. But Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites encouraged them to stop. This was a feast day, not a day for mourning—particularly the kind of mourning that comes from the fear of God’s judgment. God was showering His grace and His blessings. About the contrite, God said, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). And when God revives us, it naturally brings joy.
The Structure: I confess that I become emotionally conflicted when I receive communion. Should I weep at the body of Christ broken and His blood shed for me? Or do I shout for joy that my sins are forgiven, I’m God’s child, and my Father invites me to dine with Him and His family? This text seems to imply that shouting for joy has to be part of our response. After all, in Christ, God rescues us from the judgment and death we deserve. Instead He gives us the justification and life that Jesus deserved. If there has ever been a people who should throw a grand party, it’s Christians. So while our worship services appropriately include opportunities for the confession of sins, our contrition is traditionally the first order of business. After confessing and being assured of God’s forgiveness, the joyful worship of God can begin. And it’s no mistake that we talk about “celebrating” the Lord’s Supper. The power of sin and death is broken and “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9b).
Is there a good balance in your life between contrition for sin and celebration for salvation? How do you best keep that balance?
Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
The Story: As the people were gathered in the square near the Water Gate, they were, in a sense, part of what we might call a revival meeting. Ezra the priest was not a solo reader and preacher. With him were a group of Levites who also read and preached. The Levites were the clan of Israel who received no land, but whose job it was to assist the priests in the Temple and to help the people understand what God had said. That is, they were the preachers of the day. During the Babylonian captivity, the Jews, realizing that their exile was a direct result of disobedience to God’s Law, developed a newfound devotion to the Scriptures. Away from the Temple, they were unable to offer sacrifices, and they responded with growing devotion to God’s Word. The synagogue system and the Law-centered Pharisee party we read about in the New Testament are rooted in the exile and in the intense study of and love for the Law. To their credit, Ezra and the Levites knew that God’s Word was for everyone—all men, women, and children—and they took the time and effort necessary to see to it that everyone understood the Scriptures.
The Structure: Preaching, from the modern point of view, is at best retro and at worst simply antiquated. We have books. We have commentaries. We have videos. We have highly polished preachers on TV and the Internet. We have personal and small group study guides. We even have Worldview Bible. Perhaps, think some, we no longer need local churches with their local preachers. Rest assured, however, we will always need “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21). We will always need those who are not only recognized authorities on the Bible and theology, but who are present with a particular people in a particular place. Beyond academic knowledge, preachers understand their congregations. They hear the joys, pains, fears, and hopes of individuals and families. They understand their neighborhood and the unique culture of the area in which they live and minister. As a result, a good preacher can not only explain the meaning of the Scriptures, but can apply it in ways that are most appropriate to the unique circumstances of their congregation and the individuals in it.
Spend some time today praying for your pastor/preacher. Ask God to provide encouragement, refreshment, greater insights into the Scripture, your city, and your congregation, and greater effectiveness in making Christ known.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
The Story: The “book” was the scroll of the Torah, not a book (codex) as we think of it, since books had yet to be invented. As Ezra, standing on a high platform (v. 4), unrolled the scroll, the people stood to honor God’s Word and to give it their full attention. Ezra began with blessings, that is, with praise to the Lord God. In doing so he set the context for reading. The Scripture is not a magical book filled with mystical incantations, which, if repeated, bring some sort of blessing. It is not a book that purports to answer all the questions we can ask about life and God. It is God’s revelation to His people. Thus, the point of reading and hearing the Bible is not the Bible itself. The point is to know and to come into a relationship with the One True God. Thus, the context for Bible reading—personal or corporate—is worship. And so as he prepared to read, Ezra praised and the people worshiped not just in their hearts and minds, not just with their voices, but with their bodies. The word translated “worship” here and throughout the Old Testament means “bow down,” and that’s exactly what the people did.
The Structure: The primary context for reading and understanding the Bible is in the community of God’s people as they worship. For much of history, there was no choice. Before the invention of the printing press in A.D. 1440, the only way to copy a book was by hand. That made copies not only of the Scripture, but of any book, expensive and rare. In large measure as a result of this, few people could read, because there was nothing available to read. If someone wanted to hear Scripture, he or she had to go to where there was a copy and someone who could read it. Even in ancient Jerusalem that was a difficult combination to find, as the story of discovering the Law during Josiah’s reign demonstrates (2 Chronicles 34:14-33). It’s only in modern times that we have the luxury to disconnect the Bible—and all the rest of the spiritual life—from community and worship. What we used to call “Lone Ranger Christians” relying on “me, my Bible, and Jesus” are far too common today. And that approach to Christianity remains contrary to the Scriptures and contrary to a Christian worldview.
How connected to the community of Christians is your spiritual life, understanding of the Bible, and Christian worldview? Are there ways in which you can make that connection more real and more explicit?