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READING OF THE LAW OF MOSES;
THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
Nehemiah 7:73b: "And when the seventh month was come, the children of Israel were in their cities."
Our version (ASV) includes this line with Nehemiah 8, because it identifies the time of the great reading of the Law discussed herein. The seventh month was Tishri, corresponding to our September-October.
The Nehemiah 8; Nehemiah 9 and Nehemiah 10 are a unit, incorporated, we believe, by the author Nehemiah as an explanation of the great celebration that followed the completion of the wall.
Keil wrote that the mention of the seventh month (Tishri) here should be understood as a reference to the very next month after the completion of the wall in the sixth month (Elul), "There is nothing against the inference that the seventh month of the same year is intended." Short also agreed that the events of this chapter, "Came only a few days after the completion of the wall, which occurred on the 25th day of the month Elul (Nehemiah 6:15), the sixth month."
Throughout this whole century, from the times of James Moffatt until the present day, critical scholars have been advocating all kinds of rearrangements of the sacred text, some of them even attempting to place these chapters in the Book of Ezra.
All such speculations, rearrangements, and allegations of all kinds of confusion, interpolations and mistakes on the part of their mythical `chronicler' are, in the view of this writer, without any value. The Book of Nehemiah still stands in the sacred text, as it has stood for ages, a unit, composed of "The Words of Nehemiah," and of course, including things that Nehemiah himself incorporated into his narrative. Williamson gives us the name of a current great scholar, "Y. Kaufmann, whose work, History of the Religion of Israel, Volume IV, carries a defense of the unity of these three chapters, and also maintains at the same time that they are in their correct historical setting." It only remains to be said that there is absolutely no agreement whatever among the critics on any other viable alternative.
GATHERING OF A GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO HEAR THE LAW READ
"And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which Jehovah had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the book of the law before the assembly, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Uriah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullum. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people (For he was above all the people); and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed Jehovah, the great God; and all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with the lifting up of their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped Jehovah with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethaih, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozebad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading."
"They spake unto Ezra the scribe" (Nehemiah 8:1). Where was Ezra during the rebuilding of the wall? We do not know. He might have been recalled to Persia years earlier, or he might have been temporarily absent from Jerusalem. "The most probable explanation is that he had been recalled to Persia in 456 B.C., and that now, eleven years later in 444 B.C., he was allowed to return to Jerusalem." It is not unreasonable at all to suppose that Nehemiah had sent for him to come and celebrate the dedication of the completed wall.
Some scholars have expressed amazement that the people requested Ezra to read to them from the Law of Moses; but Ezra was a popular leader, and the will of the people in that matter became manifest. "It was quite natural for the people to request Ezra to resume his work of exposition of the law of Moses, to which he had accustomed them on his former visit."
We appreciate Bowman's admission that the author of Nehemiah, "Regarded it as the whole Pentateuch," which it most certainly was. We regard Nehemiah as the author; and his clear statement here that the law of Moses is that which was read is conclusive.
The dedication of the wall is not related until Nehemiah 12; and, as Keil stated it, "All of the facts related in Nehemiah 8-11 might easily have occurred in the interval between the completion of the wall and its dedication." This understanding overwhelmingly supports the unity of the Book of Nehemiah, the focus of which, first and last, is centered in the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem.
"From early morning until midday" (Nehemiah 8:3). "Early morning, daylight. He began as soon as it was daylight, and continued on, he and his assistants (Nehemiah 8:8), till noon." Many details of this great gathering are not revealed. The general assembly - was it of people from the surrounding area, or merely all the people in the city? If the surrounding people were included, did they travel in darkness before daylight; and did they open the gates before the sun was hot? The absence of any detailed answers to such questions suggests caution in the acceptance of such quotations as that we just cited.
"And Ezra stood upon a pulpit of wood" (Nehemiah 8:4). Here we find the word pulpit used in the sense of a podium, or platform; because thirteen men are named as the persons standing side by side with Ezra. It is amazing to this writer that scholars have trouble accepting the number of those men as thirteen. `It must have been fourteen, seven on each side, because the Jews thought the number seven was a perfect number? `Maybe, it was twelve men, six on each side, the twelve being symbolical of the twelve tribes of Israel? In that case, perhaps one of the names was dropped out by mistake. Such comments are ludicrous. What a shame that God did not employ some of those critics to revise the Bible! As a matter of fact, there were six of them on Ezra's right hand, and seven on his left. Cook identified them as, "The chief priests of the course at that time performing the Temple service."
"Ezra opened the book ... and when he opened it, all the people stood up" (Nehemiah 8:5). Frequently, even today, Christians stand when the word of God is read. However, there is no record that such a custom was observed from the times of Moses and afterward. Furthermore, these words may not be tortured to mean that all of the people stood during the entire morning. "The people listened to Ezra and his fellow priests as they read from various scrolls of the Pentateuch, no doubt including Leviticus 23:23-25 regarding the Feast of Trumpets, and the portions describing the Feast of Tabernacles; but much moral instruction from various parts of the Pentateuch must also have been read."
"The Levites caused the people to understand the law, and the people stood in their place" (Nehemiah 8:7). It is not known exactly what is meant by the Levites causing the people to understand the law. Hamrick thought that they did so, "By translating the words out of the Hebrew into the Aramaic vernacular of the people." Cook believed that they might also have merely explained, "Obscure words or passages."
Of particular interest is the word stood, which we have underlined in Nehemiah 8:5, above. It is italicized in the ASV, indicating that the word is not in the Hebrew text but has been added by the translators. The RSV reads, `the people remaining in their place.'
Regarding this chapter, Oesterley has a very excellent comment. While admitting that the text fails to give us any complete account of all the details of what happened, he wrote, "The really important point is clear enough, viz., that by Ezra's inspiration and under his guidance the Law (of Moses) was now for the first time put before the Jews in such a way as to convince them that it was the most important thing in the world that their lives should be conducted wholly in accordance with its precepts." That being indeed true for ancient Israel, how much more is it important for Christians so to honor, trust and obey the word of inspiration in the New Testament!
THE WEEPING OF THE PEOPLE TURNED INTO JOY
"And Nehemiah who was the governor, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto Jehovah your God; mourn not nor weep. For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. And all the people went their way, to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them."
"Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest the scribe" (Nehemiah 8:9). In the light of this verse, we find it impossible to accept the declaration that, "Nehemiah's name in Nehemiah 8:9 is most certainly intrusive; and, apart from the strong evidence that Nehemiah and Ezra were not contemporaries, there are reasons to believe his name is not original in this context." How could it be that Ezra and Nehemiah were not contemporary, since both of them were officials in the reign of Artaxerxes? That alone means that they were contemporaries, unless one of them died; and where is there any statement about that?
"For all the people wept when they heard the words of the Law" (Nehemiah 8:9). Who is he who, upon careful meditation upon all that the Law of God requires, can restrain emotions of grief and mournful feelings of sinful shortcomings and failures? Only those who close their eyes and stop their ears against what God says can refrain from similar grief. God's Law does not, however, leave the human heart depressed in sorrow. Ezra (and his helpers the Levites) quickly moved to turn the people's weeping into joy.
"Send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared" (Nehemiah 8:10). Cook pointed out that this custom of sending portions on festive occasions grew out of the words in Deuteronomy 16:11,14. The poor, the sojourner, the servant, the neglected, and the dispossessed are not to be forgotten by God-fearing people.
"And all the people went their way ... to make great mirth" (Nehemiah 8:12). The reason for this great joy is stated in the words, "Because they had understood the words that were declared unto them." What a glimpse of the New Covenant there is in this! The great and eternal principle of holy religion is this, as Jesus stated it, "That my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11). From one end to the other, the New Testament is a shout of joy. The angelic chorus sang it the night the Christ was born; and an angel of God declared to the shepherds; "Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy that shall be to all people" (Luke 2:10).
REGARDING THE SECOND DAY OF THE SEVENTH MONTH
"And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers' houses of all the people, the priests, and the Levites unto Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the law. And they found written in the law, how that Jehovah had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim it in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth into the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees to make booths, as it is written. So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of them that had come again out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the ordinance."
The prominent thing in this paragraph is the thirst of the people to hear the word of God. "Once let the sweetness of the Divine Word be tasted, and there springs up in the heart instantly a desire for more, like that feeling of the Psalmist who wrote, `Oh how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day' (Psalms 119:97)." Not only did the people come to hear Ezra read the law on that following day, but also on every day throughout the Feast of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:18).
Leviticus 23:42 had commanded the children of Israel to dwell in booths during this celebration. However, some scholars seem to be perturbed over the fact that some of the instructions mentioned here "are not found in any existing Scripture," but that is no problem whatever. The words, "As it is written," and the statement that all was done, "According to the ordinance" (Nehemiah 8:18) leave no room to doubt that at that time such instructions were available. The fact that imperfections in the text, or even the loss of portions of God's Word in that period, might indeed have left us ignorant of some things should neither surprise nor distress us. We can trust what Nehemiah wrote here.
"Since the days of Jeshua (Joshua) the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so" (Nehemiah 8:17). This statement may be an interrogative; and if so, it is a declaration that the children of Israel had observed the Feast of Tabernacles (also called the Feast of Booths) from the days of Joshua till the occasion in this chapter, the Scriptural citings of celebrations in the days of both Solomon and Zerubbabel being proof enough of the truth of the sentence read as an interrogative; but, the critics find it much more delightful to read it as a dogmatic declaration to be cited at once as `a contradiction,' `an error,' `an oversight' or some other euphemism for a falsehood. Oesterley, for example, noted that, "These words are not in accordance with other passages of Scripture; for this feast had been observed by Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:8,8:13) and by Zerubabel (Ezra 3:4). It is an `oversight' of the chronicler's."
Even if the sentence is accurately understood as declarative, the meaning then would be as stated by Rawlinson: "This cannot mean that there had been no celebration of this feast since the days of Joshua, nor even that there had been no occasion of it marked by their dwelling in booths, but only that there had not been so joyous and general a celebration of it. A similar statement is made of Josiah's celebration of the Passover."
A number of other very able scholars are in full agreement with Rawlinson. "It is not the intention of the writer to state that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been kept since the days of Joshua until this occasion, but that there had been no such celebration as this since the times of Joshua." Likewise, Keil wrote that, "The text only states that since the days of Joshua, the whole community had not so celebrated it."
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29