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II. THE RESTORATION OF THE JEWS CHS. 8-13
One writer viewed chapters 8-13 (really Neh 7:73-13:37) as the third part of the tripartite structure of Ezra-Nehemiah. Ezra 1:1-4 deals with "potentiality," the decree to the community to build God’s house. Ezra 1:5 -Nehemiah 7:72 records the process of "actualization." The community builds God’s house in response to the decree. Nehemiah 7:73 to Nehemiah 13:31 documents "success." The community celebrates the completion of God’s house according to the Torah. [Note: T. Eskenazi, In an Age of Prose, pp. 37-39.]
A. The Renewal of the Mosaic Covenant chs. 8-10
"The reading of Scripture (Nehemiah 8) and the act of prayer (Nehemiah 9) followed by community commitment (Nehemiah 10) is a model for worshiping communities." [Note: Breneman, p. 222.]
This was another instance in Israel’s history of a covenant renewal accompanying a spiritual awakening (cf. Exodus 34; Joshua 24; 2 Kings 18; 2 Kings 22-23; Ezra 10:12-14; et al.).
1. The gathering of the people ch. 8
The fact that Nehemiah did not move back to Susa when he finished the wall and secured the city shows that his concern was not primarily those projects. The larger goal of reestablishing the Jews in the land to which God had told them to return following the exile was his primary objective (cf. Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 50:8; Jeremiah 51:6). He wanted to see God’s plan fulfilled. He put God’s interests before his own.
The Mosaic Law specified that once every seven years the people of Israel were to assemble and listen to the reading of the Law. This was to take place during the Feast of Booths (also called Tabernacles, Deuteronomy 31:10-13). This occasion provided an opportunity for the people to renew their commitment to Yahweh and His Law. Such covenant renewal ceremonies had taken place earlier in Israel’s history (e.g., Joshua 8:30-35; Joshua 24:1-27; et al.) and were common in the ancient Near East. Nehemiah 8 records another of these that took place in the year 444 B.C.
The reading of the law 8:1-8
This ceremony reflects the form of Israelite worship that had developed in exile. Almost the same elements that characterized the synagogue services begun then appear here. The people assembled, there was a request for the reading of the Torah, someone opened the scroll, and the people stood. Then someone (Ezra) offered praise, the people responded, and they received instruction (a sermon). Finally the Law was read, an oral explanation and exhortation followed, and the people departed for a fellowship meal. [Note: Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, pp. 281-82.]
The "first day of the seventh month" (Nehemiah 8:2) was the day on which the Israelites were to observe the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24). The priests blew trumpets to assemble the people, to announce God’s working among them, and to signal preparation for the Day of Atonement, which followed on the tenth of the month (Leviticus 23:27).
This time the people gathered at an appropriate place near the Water Gate (Nehemiah 8:1). This gate was on the east side of the City of David, and it was near the Gihon Spring.
Nehemiah did not mention Ezra earlier in this book. However, now we learn that he was still active in Jerusalem as a contemporary and fellow leader of the restoration community along with Nehemiah. As the most important scribe in Israel at this time, as well as a priest, he led the people by reading the covenant to them (Nehemiah 8:3).
Scholars have suggested that "the book of the Law of Moses" (Nehemiah 8:1) refers to the legal material in the Pentateuch, or the "priestly code" (i.e., Leviticus), or the Deuteronomic laws, or the entire Pentateuch (i.e., the Torah). There is no way to solve this mystery now. We do know, however, that the book was a scroll, since codices (books as we know them) did not become popular until the early Christian centuries.
Even though Ezra apparently read for several hours, the people remained attentive. This attitude, along with their standing on their feet because they respected the Law, shows the commitment of these obedient Jews to Yahweh and His Word (Nehemiah 8:3; Nehemiah 8:5). Evidently a wooden podium accommodated Israel’s leaders who stood on a raised platform with Ezra (Nehemiah 8:4). Lifting up the hands toward heaven, normally with palms upward, was a common way in which the Jews expressed their desire to receive a blessing from God (cf. 1 Kings 8:22). Bowing with faces to the ground, a posture Muslims still observe, reflected their sense of humility before God (cf. Genesis 18:8). This is how slaves bowed before their masters in the ancient world (Nehemiah 8:6; cf. Genesis 27:29; Genesis 37:10; Genesis 49:8 et al.).
Not only did the leaders read the Word of God, they also translated it from the Hebrew language into Aramaic, the common language of the Persian Empire. Some of the Jews present did not know Hebrew (Nehemiah 13:24), having grown up in Babylon and elsewhere, away from Jews who maintained fluency in the Hebrew language. The written translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, with comments added, was the Targum (lit. translation). The Apostle Paul referred to himself as a Hebrew (Philippians 3:5). He meant that he was a Jew who could read the Hebrew Bible in the original Hebrew language, not just in Aramaic.
Ezra and his associates not only translated the Law, they also explained what it meant and how it applied to the people. This is true Bible exposition.
The response of the people 8:9-12
Conviction of their departure from God’s will fell on the people as they heard the Law read. Their initial reaction was to mourn and weep (Nehemiah 8:9). However, the Law specified that the Feast of Trumpets was to be a joyous occasion, so Nehemiah urged them to rejoice in the Lord (Nehemiah 8:10). This joy, as they thought about Yahweh, would strengthen and sustain them as a tonic. Eating the fat (Nehemiah 8:9) means eating the best parts. The exposition of Scripture taught the Israelites God’s will, convicted them of their short-comings, corrected their conduct, and fitted them for righteous living (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16).
The Feast of Tabernacles 8:13-18
Note that the spiritually revived people had an insatiable appetite to learn more about God’s Word. This is a normal outcome of true revival.
Perhaps part of what Ezra and his associates read to the people, or at least to the leaders, included Leviticus 23 (Nehemiah 8:13). In Leviticus 23, God called on the Jews to observe the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths) on the fifteenth through the twenty-first days of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:34-36). This was a happy celebration that looked back to the Israelites’ years of wandering in the wilderness when they lived in booths that they made out of branches. The Contemporary English Version translators called this feast the Feast of Shelters. It also looked forward to the Israelites’ entrance into, and permanent residence in, the Promised Land. Consequently, it would have had special significance for the returned exiles who now again had entered into the Promised Land after being absent from it for years. They had come through a kind of wilderness experience themselves. They even had to travel through a literal wilderness to get back to their land.
Nehemiah did not record whether the people also observed the Day of Atonement that fell on the tenth of the same month. Probably they did, since they were restoring the other Israelite institutions. Perhaps he passed over mentioning it because the Day of Atonement was a sad day in the Jewish year. It was the only fast among Israel’s festivals wherein the people afflicted themselves in repentance for their sins. Nehemiah seems to have wanted in this chapter, and in the whole book, to emphasize the positive aspects of the restoration, namely, God’s faithfulness and the people’s joy.
The restoration community had observed the Feast of Tabernacles previously (Ezra 3:4). However, the present celebration was the most festive and well-attended one since Joshua had brought the Israelites into the Promised Land (Nehemiah 8:17). This reflects growing joy and spiritual strength among the Jews who returned from exile.
"Let it be stressed, however, that it is joy in God. What we witness here is not the tacking on of vacuous festivity to an act of worship which is itself kept drab. The rejoicing is worship. What must be cultivated is a rejoicing together in the goodness of God." [Note: McConville, p. 120.]
The Law also prescribed the solemn assembly on the twenty-second of the month (Leviticus 23:36). Probably this was the day when the people would have normally renewed their commitment to God formally. It was customary in the ancient Near East for citizens to regularly make such a commitment to their lord (suzerain) in such a fashion.
"Today, even more, not just the pastors and ’experts’ but all believers should ’do theology,’ reflecting together on the application of biblical, ethical principles to every area of life. To do theology or theologize is to apply biblical principles to every aspect of life." [Note: Breneman, p. 229.]
"The sequence in chapter 8 is striking: intellectual response to the Word (Nehemiah 8:1-8), emotional response to the Word (Nehemiah 8:9-12), and volitional response to the Word (Nehemiah 8:13-18)." [Note: Getz, p. 690.]
"The Word of God had a tremendous impact on the Restoration community. It pointed the people to their sin (Nehemiah 8:9), led them to worship (Nehemiah 8:12; Nehemiah 8:14), and gave them great joy (Nehemiah 8:17)." [Note: Laney, p. 104.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
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