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1. And all the people gathered themselves together as one man [the unanimity rather than the number is emphatic here] into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra [who appears in this book for the first time, having probably been at the court for twelve years] the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel.
2. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding [men, women, and children who had reached years of discretion], upon the first day of the seventh month. [As the seventh was the most important month, in a religious sense, so the first day, the Feast of Trumpets, was the most important new moon ( Lev 23:24 ).]
3. And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning [from daylight] until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
4. And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood [ lit. a tower of wood. Fourteen persons, however, were on what is afterwards called a platform, or stair, by his side], which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
5. 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:
6. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place.
8. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense [expounded obscurer passages (see note, post, p. 246)], and caused them to understand the reading.
Preaching and Hearing
The month was the most important month in all the year, viewed from a religious standpoint; and the day was the most important day in that supreme ecclesiastical month. The time, therefore, was favourable. There is help in circumstances.
Here is a splendid popular demand "all the people gathered themselves together as one man, ... and they spake unto Ezra the scribe, to bring the book of the law of Moses." That demand will be one day repeated. There is no book so much neglected now as "the book of the law" whether it come in the form of Mosaic statute, or evangelical injunction. It is hurried over, read perfunctorily; most of it is read at times, taking all the year round: but the people have not yet risen in all their magnitude, in all the pomp of their simplicity, in all the eagerness of their hunger, and demanded to have the Bible read. So practically there is no Bible: it is read in patches and portions; the great circle of it is not measured, the full weight of it is not felt; its dignity is broken up into fragments and sections. We may call it poetry and drama, and acute interpretation of human nature, but the time will come when the people will say, Is there nothing written upon the subject of oppression, unrighteousness, illtreatment, injustice, slavery? Has no man ever spoken about this? Has God sent no message from heaven about it? If he has, where is it? Read it! There is a kind of inspiration in hunger. When men speak out of felt necessity, they speak loudly; they do not muffle their tone so as not to be heard, but they speak poignantly, emphatically, pathetically, most audibly, and what is wanting in mere vocal strength is made up in repetition. The rock is hot shattered by a stroke, but by repercussion. Blessed will that day be when the people spring to their feet in the consciousness that somewhere there must be law a right word, a healing message, syllables that should be strokes of anger upon all evil, tones that must be music to all broken hearts. The Bible can wait. It is an awful book to read all through. It is very beautiful in pieces; there are in the Bible portions of Writing which are like little green valleys through which blue streams are running, and we dwell in those valleys, and say, How sweet is God's word! But great suffering, sorrowing, dying humanity cannot find a way into such green valleys; there are beasts to be fought, there are hills to be climbed, there are hot days to be endured and heavy burdens to be carried, and the Bible makes provision for all. This a book for the open public quarter; this is a book for the ancient church. A book that can wait until the people need it, will be read when they feel that someone has yet to speak the right word. One day men will get tired even of journals, and parliaments, and sectarian churches, and partial institutions, and nostrums of every kind; and then they will cry out for the living God.
Here is a properly constituted congregation "the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding," including servants and children which no church yet includes. Only the open air can hold such an audience. It was a large assemblage, " The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore, beside their manservants and their maidservants." It is difficult to count them as "men and women." Many dreamers have done so; some fools have made that mistake. The Bible includes us all. When we get together the Bible looks upon us and says, If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not yearn after it, and go after it, and fetch it back again? Go and do the same thing! What we want is family worship; so every one in the house should be there. "Men and women," "manservants," "maidservants," all who could catch the meaning. That is most extraordinary! On great occasions, not little theatrical occasions where there is much trumpeting and a long menu and bad serving, but on great occasions, heroic, superb, morally sublime, we hear nothing about philosophers, poets, well-educated persons, fellows of colleges, but "men and women." We cannot get the "men and women" to church. They will come one day. Now we get official persons, scribes, pharisees, semi-philosophers, budding geniuses, embryonic agnostics, speculators, gifted men, persons largely certificated. Put thy shoes from off thy feet! When thou comest into God's house, leave outside as much as possible all decoration and transient distinction, and ambition and pride, and sense of conquest and sense of dignity, and come into God's house to hear God's book, broken-heartedly, penitently, in a docile spirit, saying, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth; Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? Tell me thy will; make my heart understand it, and make me obedient to all its claims. We should then have profitable hearing, because we should then get down to the broad human line. The preacher cannot get at the man because of the fashions: he is befeathered and decorated and wrapped round with coloured bandages, or he is internally preoccupied with prejudices, ignorance, self-will, vanity. Somehow we cannot get at the naked needy heart It would be convenient to blame circumstances, but it would be not only convenient, it would be unjust. "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." That is the promise; these are the simple conditions. If we fill our ears with the cotton-wool of prejudice and self-will, we should hear nothing but noise. Circumcise your hearts, circumcise your ears; want to hear the truth, and you will catch its solemn tone.
Here is a thorough Bible reading, "And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday." Who will do that now? The church is draughty let us get out of it as soon as we can! It is often draughty in the open air too. "From the morning until midday." How hungry they were! How plentifully they regaled themselves on heaven's bread! Blessed now above all the sons of men is the man who can preach briefly. His renown is from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same. Who could bear to hear one of Paul's epistles read right through at any service? This can only occur as a thorough exercise in Bible-reading when the people are prepared for it. There is no book like the Bible; again and again we have said, it has everything in it. The last novel that touches the truth of human life is in the Bible. But this cannot be realised except by long, continuous, patient, exhaustive reading. Sometimes when starting upon a walk we feel as if we should make it a short one, tor we are weary and disinclined to exercise; but the sun shines brightly and the air is fresh, and we purpose to advance at least to yonder corner, and then we feel a little better and proceed still further; then the blood begins freely to circulate, and we get all our powers into action, and resolutely say, We must make a long walk of this; this day is to be eaten up as food is eaten by a hungry man; this is a vision of light, and must be gazed upon; this is a great gift from heaven. Hour after hour passes, and every field is Eden and every prospect tinged with heaven. It is so with God's book: we begin at the right place, and read on, and we want to see what occurs after that, and then, and what next. There have been men who have been so fascinated that they have read the book almost at one sitting; then they knew whether the book was of heaven or of earth. We want thorough Bible-reading, systematic study of the Scriptures. But men cannot endure it. There have been congregations that have been lessened because the minister persisted in reading God's book. But on some we must "have compassion, making a difference." That little word occurs in the scorching judgment-letter of Jude.
Here is a properly supported ministry. In Nehemiah 8:4 , we find that Ezra is not alone. Ezra stood upon a pulpit that is, upon a tower of wood: but there were men on the right hand and men on the left hand, and they stood there in significant attitude, saying, We are with this man; his is the one voice, ours is the unanimous sympathy. Thus should it be with every congregation. The single reader should feel that he is speaking for a multitude. One pleading voice should realise that it is uttering the need of humanity or speaking the Gospel of Christ. Men should assist at every service. There should at least be a God bless you! when the minister is most commonplace, for then he may have gone a long way down to heal some heart whose education is backward. If we pine pedantically for dazzling and overwhelming originality, we have ceased to be men, and have become but mere figures, ill-regulated and ill-furnished dramatists at best. Every sermon cannot be for every man. There are portions of Scripture which we do not need every day. But when any portion of Scripture is read or expounded there should be wise people in the congregation who should say, Though we do not at this moment personally need this testimony, there are some who do need it: Lord, open their eyes, and their understanding, and their hearts, that thy message may not be in vain.
Here is a significant act, "And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people." There is no sublimer act in the education of the world! Not a word does Ezra say. The Church has a Bible written for it. It might be convenient if we could publish a Bible as we publish a newspaper. But here again providence has denied us that idle convenience. Law cannot be new; law cannot be a child of time. Law comes up from eternity, and is always new because it is always old. It is after all a grand thing, ideally and symbolically, that there are towers of wood, pulpits of stone, or platforms of significant width, on which a man may stand, and there open the book in the sight of all the people. We are so familiar with the scene that we do not look at it. But there may be moments when we scrutinise the deeper meanings of things, and in those moments many an act which has become a commonplace will be a reality most vivid and blessed. So it is with the opening of the Bible, that ought to be one of the greatest things in the world. It is nothing. But it shall regain its place. The clasping of the hands that we were used to in childhood shall come to be an attitude of adoration valued by the angels. Do not let us allow all these things to fall into desuetude as if we had advanced beyond their necessity. All these deep human experiences and aspirations are not the creatures of circumstances: they bear upon them divine attestation.
Here is united worship:
"And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen" ( Neh 8:6 ).
That was responsive worship. Some churches have responsive worship now, and I like it; it seems to me to be right, ideally and sympathetically. If there is anything wrong it must be an unresponsive people, a dumb host. Yet true responsiveness can hardly be planned; it is really not a piece of mechanism; it should be spontaneous, enthusiastic, impressive. If a man is told to say Amen, there is nothing in his saying it, necessarily; there is only in it what he may put into it: but if a man here and there should say Amen, in the midst of a prayer or a discourse, it should not be looked upon as an eccentricity. The eccentric thing, viewed upon a large plane, is monotony. Tell it not among the angels that there are people who can sit in thousands and hear the most burning and tender words of the Lord's book, and never answer even with a sigh. We have driven enthusiasm out of the Church. We are never weary of declaring that fact, for it is one of the saddest facts in human history.
Here is the right object of reading "to understand the law."
"So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading " ( Neh 8:8 ).
There the expositor came in, or the preacher, or the rhetorician that ever-condemned and ever-dreaded person, the rhetorician. That man must have committed murder somewhere; he is so universally disliked. And the voice of the people is said in Latin at least to be the voice of God. What did they do "So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense," either vocally or expositionally; for a tone may be a comment, a pause may be an annotation "and caused them to understand the reading." He preaches well who expounds well; who grapples with his text, and unfolds its secret; who makes the text the sermon, who makes the sermon an amplified text, a vivid, impressive paraphrase. That kind of preaching is not popular. An anecdote will beat it out of the field any day. Let us keep to the law, the written book: what scope for learning! what room for genius! what an opportunity for all the gamut of human emotion and attainment! Some day the pulpit will be natural; then it will make the theatre ashamed of itself, and make all persons who love music hasten to it and press to it, and draw all souls that love reality within its magic touch; then in church men shall laugh and cry, and applaud and stand up, and shout and praise the Lord, and fall into silence more eloquent than speech. To-day the pulpit is a prison.
Behold the happy end of the whole service "The people wept when they heard the words of the law." That is the right issue of true reading. Weep in hearing a law: is there not a contradiction of terms there? When men hear law do they not stand upright and stiffen themselves, and become resentful or critical or self-defensive? That depends upon how the law is read. The ten commandments might be so read as to make people feel the tears welling into their eyes. We are bad readers. We should make the law sound like gospel. Nehemiah would not have this altogether, so the people were told thus:
"Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord 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" ( Neh 8:10-12 ).
Great religious services should end in great festivals.
Almighty God, thou hast sent thy prophets unto us to teach us the Eternal Word: we bless thee for their fearlessness, their unselfishness, their unworldiness: may we hear their voice and answer it, not as the voice of man, but as the voice of God. There is music in their tone even when it is a tone of judgment. Yet by them hast thou published gospels to the world, great offers of love, great declarations of mercy; thou hast taught thy prophets to write thy tears, thy heart, thine all-encompassing and ever-enduring mercy. So in this Old Testament we find the New, in the prophecy we find the Gospel, in the ancient time we find the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Thy Book is full of Calvary, the whole revelation is instinct with the spirit of the cross. For this purpose we search the Scriptures that we may find the Lord's only begotten and well-beloved Son, and put our trust in him who is the Wisdom of God, and the Power and the Righteousness of God, and who is the world's eternal Saviour. Thou bringest us through all the years one by one; the little day comes in its cloud and vanishes, and the long summer day withdraws its radiant smile, and the year rises and flourishes, and dies and vanishes: this is the way of time; this is the sign of the Lord's movement. Thou art withdrawing time that thou mayest introduce eternity; thou art teaching us through the little the measure and the value of the great. Oh that men were wise, that they understood these things, that they would consider their latter end; that they would know that God is not taking them from their days but preparing for them their immortality. Regard the pilgrim who when he lays his staff down does not know whether he will live to take it up again, so near is he the other land: the little child, all wonder and surprise and beauty, all ignorance and all trust; feed the little life and nourish it, and if father and mother could forsake it by some miracle of baseness do thou take it up into thine own arms, for it is thine, not theirs; the sick, the ailing, the ill at ease, the weary, the helpless, those who have to encounter the black mysteries of life; not the enigmas of philosophy, but the tragedies of intolerable experience: wanderers that have no home, to whom society would hardly give a foothold, outcasts to whom the day is as the night, and the night as the day, and who are ill and base and villainous because of pressure they cannot resist, who have no chance of being their better selves, and who think that to pray would be to blaspheme. Good Lord, such is thy little world, such is our work in it: to this end have we brought a world built for music, and fashioned for order and knowledge and progress. Great Saviour of the world, teach us from thy cross; thou canst do this, thou wilt do it; that hope may return to our night-world and set some star of shining in its darkness. Bless all thy ministering servants at home and abroad: call them up into the mountain once more, and ordain them again; fill their souls with heavenly music; bring their hearts into sympathy with the passion of the cross; anoint them with the unction from on high, and make them strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And as for merchantmen, enable them to do their business as men would partake of sacrament; may life be holy to them, and righteousness be the light of their day. And as for the housewife whose business lies within the little four walls, the wondrous school, the wondrous sphere of discipline and trial, and sorrow and joy, the Lord's blessing will not be withheld, the Lord's blessing will be doubled even to overflowing. Hear us for all churches, all sections of the Church, the whole redeemed Church throughout the world, the great missionary Church. Hear us for those in trouble and peril on the sea. Hear us for all mankind, O thou whose cross is high as heaven, and whose outstretched arms touch the utmost range and bound of life and time. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany