Nehemiah 8:1-12 – Word and Worship

Ezra Reads the Law to the People by Bernadette Lopez

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.

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (NIV)

God’s Holy Word is central to worship. Since the Bible is God’s self-revelation, it makes sense to gather in worship which is saturated with Scripture. The proclamation of God’s Word is important because it is a means of knowing God and teaches us how to live.

The ancient Israelites were taken into captivity from their home in Jerusalem to Babylon. Nehemiah became the king’s cupbearer (a servant who fills wine cups for royalty). Years later, Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and determined to do something about it. The walls were broken down and the people were without leadership. Because of his relationship to the king and God’s sovereign working on the king’s heart, Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. 

Ezra was a scribe (a copier of the Scriptures), a priest, and a teacher of the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament). Together, Ezra and Nehemiah were like God’s dynamic duo, renewing the worship of God. It was a time of revival, in which the Israelites found new life around God’s Word.

Renewal, revival, and reformation happen when God’s revelation is carefully and faithfully read, listened to, and acted upon. Life change occurs through Holy Scripture, as we come to understand and apply it to all our circumstances and relationships.

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem first, fourteen years before Nehemiah. At that time, morality was low, and the spiritual condition of the people was unhealthy. Yet, as Ezra prayerfully taught them God’s Word, over time they began to respond.

The rebuilding of the wall under Nehemiah’s leadership was a direct result of the spiritual foundation Ezra had built through the Word of God. After the wall was finished, it was time to hear the entire Book of the Law read aloud. 

Imagine and picture your entire community gathering early in the morning in a park or large space, staying till noon doing nothing but listening to Scripture being read, with various local pastors taking their turn reading and making the meaning clear. All the while the people are responding in worship, tears, and celebration…. If this seems far-fetched for today, it also seemed that way to most people in Nehemiah’s day.

Holy Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people. We may not explain every Bible verse the same way; and the riffraff might attempt to magnify differences and minimize a common confession of faith around Scripture. However, a universal desire to honor, apply, and obey God’s Word draws us closer together rather than separates us.

A first century Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva, once noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dripping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. Below was a massive boulder. The rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Rabbi Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” He realized that if the water had flowed over the rock all at once, the rock would have been unchanged. It was the slow steady impact of each droplet, year after year, that completely reformed the stone.

We oftentimes want quick answers to our questions without taking the time to prayerfully listen and reflect on the Word of God. Yet, God tends to reveal truth over days, months, and years, as we read and discuss Scripture. Through the slow drip of study, prayer, and reflection, day after day, year after year, God shapes and spiritually forms us.

The people in today’s story were responsive, both vocally and physically. They shouted “Amen!” (literally, “yes, may it be so!”)  and raised their hands. Word and worship always go together. 

The people were submissive, bowing in worship (literally, “to prostrate oneself”). True worship listens attentively to God’s Word and surrenders to the Lord. It is an act of humility, pledging to act upon what is heard.

The people were teachable, attentively listening to the Levite priests explain Scripture. Sometimes the Bible is not apparently relevant. We need others to help us, and the patience to stick with it, even when we are not sure about what it is saying. Interpreting Scripture (hermeneutics) typically happens in community, not isolation, which is why small groups of people interacting on the Bible’s message is significant.

The people mourned and wept. Hearing the Word illumined their failures and disobedience. When we look intently into Scripture, we see divine faithfulness and human disloyalty; God’s compassion and our selfishness; the Lord’s holiness and people’s fickle nature.

Awareness of truth causes grief and distress over personal sin and the sin of the world. Yet, there is mercy and forgiveness. Grace washes away guilt and shame and brings restoration. God’s Word both slays us and gives us new life.

In ancient Israel, every Jewish boy had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age twelve. The goal was to have Torah internalized and known so that it influenced every situation and every relationship of their lives.

Ezra and Nehemiah were only reinstituting what their ancestors had done:

Moses said, “Gather the people together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living among you—so they can listen well, so they may learn to live in holy awe before God, your God, and diligently keep everything in this Revelation. And do this so that their children, who do not yet know all this, will also listen and learn to live in holy awe before God.” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13, MSG)

Joshua said, “Never stop reading The Book of the Law. Day and night, you must think about what it says.” (Joshua 1:8, CEV) 

David said, “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11, NLT)

The practice of personal and public worship through God’s Holy Word continued with the New Testament writers:

Paul said, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

“God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one are impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.” (Hebrews 4:12-13, MSG)

Jesus, quoting the Law, said, “It is not just bread that keeps people alive. Their lives depend on what God says.” (Matthew 4:4, ERV, Deuteronomy 8:3)

We need God’s Word because we need God. It is a delight and a duty to learn the Scriptures so that we can know God and know God’s will.

God Almighty, your statutes are wonderful; therefore, I obey them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. Turn to me and have mercy, as you always do to those who love your name. Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. Amen. (Psalm 119:129-135)

Psalm 119:105-112 – Light for the Journey

Your Word is a Light

Your word is a lamp to guide my feet 
    and a light for my path. 
I’ve promised it once, and I’ll promise it again: 
    I will obey your righteous regulations. 
I have suffered much, O Lord; 
    restore my life again as you promised. 
Lord, accept my offering of praise, 
    and teach me your regulations. 
My life constantly hangs in the balance, 
    but I will not stop obeying your instructions. 
The wicked have set their traps for me, 
    but I will not turn from your commandments. 
Your laws are my treasure; 
    they are my heart’s delight. 
I am determined to keep your decrees 
    to the very end. (NLT) 

Two qualities which stand out to me in these verses are the psalmist’s attitude and affection. This is a person who is determined to hold onto God’s Word because it is his heart’s delight. Yes, our attitudes and our affections are meant to be like a hand in a glove. It is our attitudes which help us to push through the pain to realize better days. And it is our affections which drive us forward, allowing us to experience joy in the present moment as we await our hope of ultimate deliverance. 

Commitments are fluid, always moving – which means they need to be continually rehearsed and refreshed. We are constantly either fulfilling our promises or reneging on them. There is really no such thing as a one-time vow. Commitments must have reinforcement from our attitudes and our affections. Otherwise, they languish on the trash heap of good intentions. This is one reason why the psalms are designed for constant use. 

It is important to have spiritually healthy habits ensconced in our lives well before any suffering and hard times roll in. If we have been nourished and supported by a daily sustenance of God’s Word, then we have both a breadth and a depth of robust theology to draw upon when the going gets rough. In addition, the sheer force of habit brings us back again and again to the treasure chest of divine instruction which informs our decisions and illuminates the treacherous road ahead. 

All the psalms are designed to reframe our own difficult situations. Even and especially when a person’s life hangs in the balance, we have the opportunity of viewing such hard and awkward circumstances through the window of the psalmist. Although circumstances change and we never quite know what to expect, God’s Word remains as our ballast and our rock. Divine love and morality are unchanging. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Spirit is always with us, through each wave of hardship. 

Life is a continual journey, an exploration into the unknown of the future. The path is shadowy and unclear. We are unsure of what is just around the bend. Yet, God’s Word is like a never-ending flashlight helping us navigate forward. Maybe Jesus had this psalm in mind when he said:  

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, NRSV) 

In the Christian tradition, the Word is embodied in Jesus Christ so that he is both example and fulfillment of all God’s promises. Within today’s psalm, a sequence of four metaphors runs through these verses: my feet (light for my feet to walk in the way of God); my mouth (deliberate verbal commitment to God’s words); my hands (doing God’s will despite the circumstances); and my heart (desiring God’s decrees and commands).

With Jesus as Word and Light we have a constant companion walking alongside us for the journey; we have an intercessor who takes our wordy or malformed prayers and presents them before our heavenly Father; we use our hands by observing the Master who washed the feet of others; and, our hearts find their rest in the One who loved us and gave himself for us. 

In sum, our attitudes and affections are transformed into sustainable faith for the long journey; our hope is made sure through the promises of God; and, our love finds a resting place in the person of Jesus. Faith, hope, and love are the shoes which enable us to walk the long hard road uphill, as well as absorbing the shock as we run with abandon downhill – into the loving arms of God. 

soap

Let us come to Holy Scripture and liberally digest its life-giving message. I encourage you to find what works best for you in developing helpful spiritual habits. In reading the Bible, I often take the following approach using the acronym S.O.A.P…. 

Scripture 

  • Open your Bible and slowly, meditatively, read the portion of Scripture in your reading plan for today.
  • Write the reference of what you read in a journal along with the date.
  • As you read, ask God’s Spirit to highlight the verse(s) that speak to your life and write it in your journal.

Observation 

  • Make observations about what you just read and write them in your journal.
  • Think about: What is going on? What is the context?  Who are the people being spoken to? What is the background or setting for this verse?
  • Paraphrase and write this scripture down in your journal, in your own words.
  • What do you think God is saying to you in this scripture?

Application 

  • Personalize what you have read by asking yourself how it relates to your life right now.
  • Ask yourself how you can apply what you just read to your own life and write it in your journal.
  • Ask yourself how your life will be different or changed as a result of God speaking to you in this Scripture.

Prayer 

  • Write out a prayer to God in your journal.
  • Your prayer should relate to the verse that you highlighted. It could be asking for help, thanking God, etc. Write down what your heart desires to say to God in response to his Word.

May the words of your mouth, the meditations of your heart, the work of your hands, and the movement of your feet be to the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Hebrews 3:1-6 – Fix Your Thoughts on Jesus

Christ of Mercy
Byzantine Christ of Mercy, circa 1100

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. (NIV)

It is hard to be patient. Perseverance is difficult. If the Christian life were all bunny rabbits and rainbows, there would be no need for the strengthening of faith and the development of endurance – it would all be fun and easy. However, we know life is often hard and demanding. It requires effort and faith is the muscle that gets us through adversity. If unused, faith atrophies. Faith needs strenuous exercise to grow, and must be tested in adverse circumstances to mature.

The author of Hebrews wrote his letter to Jewish Christians because they were losing their grip of faith. The hard circumstances of the believers were leading them to entertain the notion of returning to their old ways of life, apart from Christ. They needed to refocus and set their thoughts on Jesus in the present moment.

When in the middle of situations, we neither asked for nor want, it can be tempting to view the past as “the good old days.” Yet, if you stop to think about it, you really know better. Because of your present struggle, the mind conveniently filters out all the crud from the past to make the bygone days look romantically better than they really were.

“Better” is what the book of Hebrews is all about.

The author persistently insists that Jesus is better than anything from the Hebrew Christians’ past. Moses is one of the most revered figures in Old Testament history. The writer of Hebrews acknowledges this basic respect for Moses, and goes beyond the glittery Mosaic-era reminiscing to remind the people that whereas Moses was faithful within God’s house, it is Jesus who is the Master over the house. Reality check, believers: Jesus is better than Moses.

What is more, followers of Jesus are the house. Jesus Christ is Lord – not Moses, or anybody else. Jesus cares for and protects his house. It might be tempting to believe that a previous house we had in another city or town was better. That was then, this is now. Today we live in God’s house. Therefore, we must hold on and not let go of the confidence we have in Jesus and the privilege we have living in God’s house.

When life is tough, daydreaming about a rosy past is easy. For sure, we can find all kinds of things we miss from previous days elsewhere. I have moved dozens of times in my life, and each place I have lived has a unique and special place in my life. Yet, trolling our personal histories, much like time-wasting gallivants on the internet, does nothing for the development of faith and perseverance.

Faith needs strengthening so that it is sustainable through the entire Christian life.

Just as a bodybuilder needs disciplined routines of exercise, so the Christian requires spiritual disciplines for a faith conditioning program which focuses the mind on Jesus. There are many spiritual practices, all which are wonderfully useful. Three of the most basic of those disciplines are: Scripture reading and spiritual reflection; personal and corporate prayer, and worship/fellowship. They are the Christian’s barbells.

  • Since God has revealed himself through Holy Scripture, we have the gracious privilege of reading the Bible to encounter the living Lord. I look at this not so much as reading but as taking a posture of listening to God. So, I read slowly and carefully, being alert to the Spirit’s voice.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

  • Since God desires conversation with us, prayer opens us to a divine dialogue with the Lord. The Russian Orthodox monk, Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) describes it this way: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.” With this kind of description, prayer is sustained much less by duty and much more by a desire to connect with God.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV)

  • Since God exists in the fellowship of three persons, our fellowship with one another spiritually forms us for the sake of blessing the world. As we share in the life of our Triune God in worship, we gain ability to live in healthy community and learn from each other. By opening our lives to both God and others, we discover newfound faith and learn to strengthen one another.

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. (Hebrews 3:12-14, NIV)

In the present moment, right now, today, Jesus has a hold of you. Fix your thoughts on him. Today, Jesus wants to walk with you through your trouble – not transport you to the past. Now is the time to follow Jesus into all the situations that are in front of us. You are not alone. You can do this. We are all in this together.

Lord Jesus, you are sovereign over my past, present, and future.  Today has its situations and problems.  Help me walk into and through them with your gracious protection so that perseverance is developed within me and my faith in you is strengthened for tomorrow.  Amen.