by Chris Ritter
The very first sermon I ever preached was from Nehemiah. I was seventeen. My pastor asked me to preach at my home congregation, comprised mostly of my extended family. It was intimidating. What I remember most about that first effort is that I took the entire Book of Nehemiah as my text. I said everything I planned to say and it only took about four minutes. I realized in the moment that people were probably expecting more, so I sort of re-stated what I just told them… and sat down. My dad was in the congregation that day. On the ride home, I mentioned that things went a lot faster than I intended. Dad then gave me the only piece of preaching advice he ever gave me: “Son, no one will ever complain about your sermon being too short.”
I can’t much remember what I said about Nehemiah all those years ago. But I suspect it was something like this: “Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the King of Persia and felt a burden for the city of his ancestors, Jerusalem. He asked for permission to travel to Jerusalem to oversee the reconstruction of the city wall. There were tremendous obstacles and opposition, but he rallied the people to work and they rebuilt the walls in 52 days… and they lived happily ever after.”
But Nehemiah really isn’t a “happily ever after” sort of book. Like the other books at the tail end of the Old Testament timeline (Esther and Ezra) there is no satisfying resolution to the problems faced by the Jews. There is progress, but there are also continuing problems. Once the wall was rebuilt, the city was still a desolate waste. The economy and living conditions were so bad that the people of Judea drew straws to see who was going to have to live there. Recover is never quick and easy. The people continued longing for a greater redemption. The end of the Old Testament really calls for the hope found in the New Testament.
But these books are also very relatable. There are no overt miracles like the parting of the Red Sea. There are no theophanies, divine appearances. No angel armies show up to save the day. God works behind the scenes through faithful people with a passion to see the cause of God moving forward. Nehemiah, Esther and Ezra stick out their necks and God blesses them. They leave things better than they found them.
More Than a Wall
At the end the day, Nehemiah’s work was about more than a wall. It was about restoring the identity and independence of God’s people. The wall was a visual and practical step toward this goal. But a wall is only worth what it protects. The physical revive of Jerusalem had to be matched with a spiritual revival. Jerusalem is not bricks and stones. It is people.
Nehemiah oversees one more building project. He has made a platform for Ezra. The best leaders know when to take the drivers’ seat and when to take the passenger seat. Nehemiah sensed it was time to showcase Ezra, the teacher of the Law. Ezra had been in Jerusalem for some thirteen years without much to show for it. But the rebuilding of the wall created unity and identity among God’s people. They were now ready to listen in a way they had not been ready to listen before.
Let’s take a look a Nehemiah 8:
1 all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.Nehemiah 8:1-10
2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
After days of intense building and struggle, the people came together for the express purpose of hearing the Word of God. This was not, as before, Ezra begging them to listen. The people initiated this. They were asking to hear and know God’s Law. All true revival involves a fresh, grassroots dedication to God’s Word. Many times over the centuries, the Scriptures have been “rediscovered.” Revival and “re-Bible” go hand in hand.
The people asked Ezra to bring out “the book of the Law.” We live in a time of complete access to God’s Word. How many Bibles do you have in your house? Your phone probably has a Bible App with hundreds of different translations. It is hard for us to imagine a time when there was only one copy kept locked away by a group of priests. Knowledge of God’s law had been second, third, and fourth-hand. For the first time, the people were going to hear the words of the covenant read aloud to them.
Reading with Reverence
The first thing that stands out is how they honored the Word. They stood up for six hours to hear the reading of the Law. We are not talking about page-turners like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John here. These were books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy with lists of names and laws. But they listened. These were the holy words of the nation’s covenant with God.
When Ezra paused to worship, the people bowed their faces to the ground. Their posture reflected what was happening in their hearts. It is not uncommon for me to ask people to stand for thee reading of God’s word. We don’t do this legalistically, but as a reflection of honor. I once knew a man who made it a rule of his life to always stand for the reading of scripture. Many pastors, however, preach topically and sprinkle scripture passaged all throughout their message. My friend ended up bobbing up and down during the sermon like a cork. In his attempt to show honor, he didn’t realize he was distracting people from listening to the Word.
What is happening in our hearts is the most important thing when we worship. But our bodies and hearts often work together. If you are scowling with your arms folded, you are less likely to receive a blessing. Coming out of COVID, people have told me that they have had a hard time getting back into church. My advice to these friends is simply to get your body in church. Your heart will follow.
By God’s grace, we will come to a place where we delight to hear God’s Word. In the center of your Bible you will find the longest chapter in scripture: Psalm 119. This extended acrostic poem praises God for his Law. Let’s take a look at what the Word of God can mean to us:
GOD’S WORD IS LIGHT.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
GOD’S WORD IS TO BE INTERNALIZED
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
GOD’S WORD PURIFIES
How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word.
GOD’S WORD IS ETERNAL
Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.
GOD’S WORD IS WORTHY OF MEDITATION
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
GOD’S WORD MAKES WISE
The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.
GOD’S WORD IS WONDERFUL
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
GOD’S WORD IS RIGHTEOUS
All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.
GOD’S WORD BRINGS PEACE
Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble.
GOD’S WORD IS VALUABLE
I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.
GOD’S WORD IS SWEET
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
GOD’S WORD IS AWESOME
My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws.
GOD”S WORD BRINGS HOPE
You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.
GOD’S WORD IS WORTH SINGING ABOUT
May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous.
Reading for Comprehension
A second thing we see in Nehemiah 8 is that a plan was in place to help people understand the Word. Levites positioned themselves in the crowd to assist the people in understanding the covenant. They offered help and answered questions. The scripture is meant to be read and studied in conversation with others. That is why we believe so strongly in small groups as well as corporate worship. Ezra knew that people would need some help and he organized the help they needed.
It worked. How do we know? They were impacted by the Word. The began to weep as they understood how they have been unfaithful to God’s covenant. I expect they were particularly struck by the warnings spoken through Moses that unfaithfulness would lead to exile. Boy, did that ever come true! They were cut to the heart. They realized the huge gap that existed between God’s expectations and their performance.
From Reading to Rejoicing
So many people are averse to reading the Bible because of guilt: “I already feel bad enough about myself. Why would I want to read the Bible and feel even worse?” But it is not God’s will that we live in guilt, shame, and regret. These are just the symptoms of a heart ready to turn back to God.
Nehemiah called the people out of sorrow and into joy. The purpose of the Word is to help us delight in God… to revel in our relationship with Him. Nehemiah commanded the people to dry the eyes and to celebrate. The Law dictates a series of festivals to be observed by the people. They were to be in a season of joy, not sorrow. He told the people to eat fattening food and drink sweet drinks. They were to share food with their neighbors and celebrate.
This the context of the most famous verse in Nehemiah: “The joy of the Lord in your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
Sour-faced religion is not sustainable or God-honoring. Christians should not look like they have been baptized in pickle juice. Joy is the fuel for faithfulness. Learning to delight in God is key to anyone who wants to persist in faith. Consider these verses:
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
We are told in Nehemiah 8 that that season called for the Festival of Booths, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. The people were commanded to build shelters and camp outdoors in them to remind themselves of the 40 years in the wilderness as God brought them out of slavery. (It was sort of like Juneteenth that just became a national holiday in the U.S.)
On one level, I imagine that ANOTHER building project was the last thing that these wall-builders wanted to tackle with their sore hands and backs. But they did it. They slept on the ground because God said so. And they were happy. Faithfulness is really nothing more or less than joyfully treasuring God and his ways. James reminds us that it is not the hearers of the Word that are blessed, but the doers.
All true revival in a fresh encounter with God’s Word so that we can return to him and live in simple, joyful obedience. The joy of the Lord is our strength.