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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 8

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Nehemiah 8:0


Ezra Reads the LawReading the Book of the LawEzra Reads the Law to the PeopleJudaism is Born. Ezra Reads the Law, The Feast of Shelters
Nehemiah 7:72-3
Nehemiah 7:73-8Nehemiah 7:73-8
Nehemiah 8:1-3
Nehemiah 8:4Nehemiah 8:4-8
Nehemiah 8:5-6a
Nehemiah 8:6b
Nehemiah 8:7-8
Nehemiah 8:9-12Nehemiah 8:9-12Nehemiah 8:9-10Nehemiah 8:9
Nehemiah 8:10-12
Nehemiah 8:11-12
The Feast of TabernaclesCelebration of the Festival of BoothsThe Festival of Shelters
Nehemiah 8:13-18Nehemiah 8:13-18Nehemiah 8:13-15Nehemiah 8:13-17
Nehemiah 8:16-18
Nehemiah 8:18

READING CYCLE THREE (from “A Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired but it is the key to following the original author's intent which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


This entire passage seems to form a literary unit, which deals with a recommitment to Yahweh as the faithful Covenant God (cf. Nehemiah 9:17), and a reaffirmation of the stipulations of the covenant (which Israel had broken repeatedly, cf. chapter 9), particularly dealing with the Feasts of the Seventh Month, and the continual maintenance of the temple (cf. Malachi).

A. There is much discussion about the date and historical accuracy of the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. It is obvious that these are both post-exilic leaders; Ezra being a priest/scribe, and Nehemiah being an administrator and high Persian governmental official. They are named together in Nehemiah 8:9.

B. There has been much debate over why the Day of Atonement, mentioned in Leviticus 16:0, that should have occurred on the 10th day of Tishri (seventh month, cf. Numbers 28:0), is not mentioned in this section, when the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:0) is so prominent. This occurred on the 15th of Tishri. Chapter 9 does describe a fast day that seems to have been a special occurrence not related to the annual Day of Atonement.

Verses 1-8

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 8:1-8 1And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. 2Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. 5Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. 8They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.

Nehemiah 8:1 “all the people gathered as one man” This is a Hebrew idiom of unity (cf. Ezra 3:1). Both Ezra 2:0 and 3 parallel Nehemiah 7:0 and 8. This was purposeful to link these two leaders together.

“at the square” It is highly unusual that this convocation should occur at the city square, and not at the temple. Possibly this meeting occurred at the city gate, which was the place of justice and social life in ancient Jewish communities. This was the place where justice and wisdom were to be regularly proclaimed (cf. Proverbs 1:20, Proverbs 1:21; Proverbs 8:1ff).

“the Water Gate” This seems to be on the east side of the new city wall, just south of Ophel (cf. Nehemiah 3:0;26), close to the major water source of the city of Jerusalem, the Gihon Spring (where Solomon was anointed, 1 Kings 1:33, 1 Kings 1:38, 1 Kings 1:45).

“Ezra the scribe” At this point in the book of Nehemiah the priest/scribe Ezra appears. See Introduction to Ezra, Authorship, for more information.

“the book of the Law of Moses” I reject modern JEDP source criticism. I hold to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (i.e., Genesis-Deuteronomy), even though it may have been edited by someone like Ezra or Jeremiah. See Special Topic: Moses' Authorship of the Pentateuch at Ezra 6:18. How much of the book of the law (cf. 2 Chronicles 34:15) was read on this occasion is uncertain. The word “book” (BDB 706) would refer to a scroll.

“which the LORD had given to Israel” The basic meaning of this VERB (BDB 845, Peel PERFECT) is “charge,” “command.” The covenant people (i.e., Israel from Jacob) were required to keep the covenant. There were privileges and responsibilities (cf. Nehemiah 10:29). For the possible meanings of “Israel” see note at Nehemiah 2:10.

Nehemiah 8:2 “the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding” It was unusual to include women and children in these convocations. This shows the seriousness of the occasion.

The phrase “who could listen with understanding” reflects the Jewish concept of sin and responsibility. They do not focus on Genesis 3:0, as the church does, to explain human rebellion and an evil world. Jews prefer to assert that spiritual responsibility is related to age and knowledge (at 13 years of age the boy's rite is called Bar Mitzvah and at 12 the girls is called Bath Mitzvah). Only after a period of study and personal commitment is a Jewish male of thirteen responsible to obey the Law.

The VERB (BDB 1033) means “to hear so as to do” (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:1, Deuteronomy 4:6, Deuteronomy 4:9, Deuteronomy 4:13, Deuteronomy 4:14; Deuteronomy 5:1; Deuteronomy 6:4; Deuteronomy 9:1; Deuteronomy 20:3; Deuteronomy 27:9-10). Knowledge brings responsibility (cf. Luke 12:48). A person by this name appears in Nehemiah 8:4, “Shema.”

“on the first day of the seventh month” The seventh month was a very important month to the Hebrews (cf. Leviticus 23:0). It was not only a time of new year, but a time of fasting and repentance (the 10th), as well as a time of feasting and thanking God for the harvest (the 15th).

Nehemiah 8:3 “He read from it, before the square. . .from early morning until midday” Apparently Ezra read for something like 6 hours in Hebrew (cf. Nehemiah 8:7).

“In the presence of men and women, those who could understand” If this meeting had occurred in the temple, only men could have attended. By it being at the square, the entire Jewish population could come.

“all the people were attentive to the book of the law” There is no VERB, literally “the ears of all the people to the book of Law.” This idiom shows the level of commitment and anticipation on the part of the people.

Nehemiah 8:4 These people listed were apparently priests or Levites (Masseiah in both Nehemiah 8:4 & 7). Many of the names appear only here, but others appear in other chapters of Ezra/Nehemiah. One is never certain if it is the same person or just the same name. An example is “Meshullam.” There are over twenty-one people (Young's Analytical Concordance, p. 656). Some appear in Ezra - Nehemiah:

1. Ezra 8:16

2. Ezra 10:15

3. Ezra 10:29

4. Nehemiah 3:4, Nehemiah 3:30; Nehemiah 6:18

5. Nehemiah 3:6

6. Nehemiah 8:4

7. Nehemiah 10:7

8. Nehemiah 10:20

9. Nehemiah 11:7

10. Nehemiah 12:13, Nehemiah 12:33

11. Nehemiah 12:16

12. Nehemiah 12:25

Uriah and Meshullam seem to be the ones who helped build two sections of the wall (cf. Nehemiah 3:4, Nehemiah 3:30). Meshullam was later oath-bound to Tobiah (cf. Nehemiah 6:18).

It is probable that Ezra could not read loudly for five or six hours, so these other men took turns reading with him. This would accentuate the Word of God and not just one leader. This format is followed in the synagogues where several read from the Scriptures.

I wonder if the origin of a raised, wooden pulpit came from this specially prepared, wooden platform (lit. “tower,” BDB 153) for reading the word of God.

Nehemiah 8:5 “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people. . .and when he opened it, all the people stood up” This was a sign of respect at the reading of God's word. God's word is a recurrent theme in Ezra-Nehemiah. Did they stand for the entire six hours?

This translation implies that the Law was written in codex form, but this was a later development. The word “book” (BDB 706) can mean scroll; if so “opened” (BDB 834 I) may imply scrolled to the beginning.

The Jewish (and later Christian) tradition of standing when the word of God is read comes from this verse.

Nehemiah 8:6 “Amen, amen.” This Hebrew word comes from the root “to be firm.” It is related etymologically to the Hebrew word emunah, which is found in Habakkuk 2:4 and is translated in English “faith.” Here the crowd affirms the truth that the Lord is a great God (cf. Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 4:14; Nehemiah 9:32). See Special Topic: AMEN.

“the LORD the great God” As there was a transition from the centrality of the priesthood to the leadership of the prophet in early Israeli life, now another transition as the influence of the word of God (scroll of Moses) transcends the temple ritual as the focus of worship. Yes, they still performed the temple rituals, but the study of the Word, as seen in the further development of the synagogue, becomes the focus of daily life. The Word of God is a recurrent emphasis in Nehemiah. YHWH does not manifest Himself in the awesome physical ways that He did during the Exodus or dedication of Solomon's temple, but His power, promises, and presence are fully revealed in His word (by faith).

“while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” The normal posture for Jewish prayer was the hands and the open eyes uplifted to heaven (as if in conversation with God). At certain times of intensity, there are Old Testament examples of Jewish people kneeling in prayer (cf. 1 Kings 8:54; Psalms 95:6; Isaiah 45:23; Daniel 6:10). Here they bowed to the ground (cf. Exodus 34:8; Joshua 5:14; 2 Chronicles 20:18; Job 1:20). This prostration before the Lord shows an intense degree of emotion and worship (cf. Exodus 4:31; Exodus 12:27). It is very similar to the posture and form of modern Muslim prayers.

Nehemiah 8:7 This list of names seems to include priests and Levites; both functioned as teachers (cf. Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 17:10-11; Deuteronomy 33:10). However, because of Nehemiah 8:9 some see this as referring to Levites only (cf. NRSV, TEV, NJB, NET Bible). The Septuagint, I Esdras 9:48, and Vulgate do not have “and” before “the Levites.” C. D. Ginsburg also thinks the “and” should be dropped (notes in his Hebrew Bible). Levites were also teachers of the Law (esp. in later Judaism, cf. 2 Chronicles 35:3). Here as Ezra (and the others of Nehemiah 8:4) read the Hebrew text they moved among the crowd and translated it (cf. Nehemiah 8:7) into Aramaic, which was the language used in the Persian Empire.

“explained the law to the people” The VERB (BDB 106, KB 122, Hiphil PARTICIPLE PLURAL) means “to discern.” The Hiphil was often used of teaching the Law (cf. 2 Chronicles 25:8; 2 Chronicles 35:3; Nehemiah 8:7, Nehemiah 8:9, Nehemiah 8:12). It is often used of the wise in Proverbs (cf. Proverbs 8:9; Proverbs 17:10, Proverbs 17:24; Proverbs 28:2, Proverbs 28:7, Proverbs 28:11). The implication is that they understood and then obeyed (cf. Nehemiah 8:12; 2 Chronicles 26:5), which is parallel to shema (cf. Nehemiah 8:2).

“to the people while the people remained in their place” This may relate either to (1) the people grouping themselves, and each group having an assigned teacher or (2) that they remained standing in family groups throughout the reading of the Law.

Nehemiah 8:8

NASB, NJB“translating” NKJV“distinctly” NRSV“with interpretation” TEV“oral translation”

The Hebrew VERB “translating” (BDB 831 I, KB 976, Pual PARTICIPLE) is uncertain. The Aramaic counterpart (Pael PASSIVE PARTICIPLE) is found in Ezra 4:18, where the NASB marginal note has “plainly read.” In this passage it could mean:

1. The Levites translate from Hebrew to Aramaic (Talmud sees this as this beginning of the Targums, (cf. Megillah 3a; TEV). This is the only place which implies that the returning Jews could not speak Hebrew and it is based on a disputed VERB. If they could not read Hebrew why are all the Scriptural books of the period written in Hebrew (cf. Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 251-252).

2. The Levites explained the Scripture to the hearers (also a function of the Targums)

3. The Levites spoke very distinctly (Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, p. 486).

4. The Levites divided the reading into its literary units and then explained the meaning of that unit.

5. The hearers listened very carefully (cf. Nehemiah 8:3).

There seem to be two groups of people mentioned in this early part of chapter 8. A group that stood with Ezra, and possibly helped him read the Law, and another group that went among the crowd translating into Aramaic and explaining the reading's meaning.

Verses 9-12

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 8:9-12 9Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.

Nehemiah 8:9 “The governor” This is a Persian loan word (BDB 1077, cf. Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65, Nehemiah 7:70; Nehemiah 8:9; Nehemiah 10:1). The Hebrew equivalent is Pechah (BDB 808, cf. Ezra 5:3, Ezra 5:6, Ezra 5:14; Ezra 6:6, Ezra 6:7, Ezra 6:13; Ezra 8:36; Nehemiah 2:7, Nehemiah 2:9; Nehemiah 3:7; Nehemiah 5:14, Nehemiah 5:15, Nehemiah 5:18; Nehemiah 12:26). All of Israel's leaders (the last VERB of Nehemiah 8:12 is PLURAL “their”) participated in these events (Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the official in charge of proper worship, and the Levite instructors).

“for all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Lord” This seems to mean godly sorrow over their apathy and non-performance concerning the word of God. This is the same attitude required for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16:0. A similar time of fasting and repentance is found in chapter 9. It is surprising that the Day of Atonement is not mentioned as these people tried to reinstate and be obedient to the writings of Moses.

Nehemiah 8:10 “eat of the fat” This term (BDB 1032) is used only here in the OT. It means the best pieces of meat. This is not the term for “fat” (BDB 804) which was offered only to God on the altar of sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 1:8, Leviticus 1:12; Leviticus 3:3-4; Leviticus 4:8-10).

“Go, eat. . .drink. . .send” These are all Qal PLURAL IMPERATIVES.

“drink of the sweet” The term “sweet” (BDB 609), used of wine, is found only here in the OT. See Special Topic: Biblical Attitudes Toward Alcohol (Fermentation) and Alcoholism (Addiction) at Ezra 7:17.

“send portions to him who has nothing prepared” The term “portion” (BDB 584) refers to the part of a sacrifice given back to an offerer (and his family, cf. 1 Samuel 1:4-5; Esther 9:19, Esther 9:22). This was a common act in times of rejoicing (cf. Esther 9:22). God cares for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, so too, must His people, who are to reflect His character (e.g., Exodus 23:11; Deuteronomy 15:4, Deuteronomy 15:7, Deuteronomy 15:11; Deuteronomy 26:11-13; Proverbs 14:31; Proverbs 19:17; Proverbs 22:9).

“this day is holy to our Lord” In context this means given to or dedicated to God (adon). It was a covenant renewal ceremony, something like Joshua 8:30-35. See Special Topic: HOLY.

“do not be grieved” The VERB (BDB 780 I, KB 864, Niphal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense) means “grieved” or “pained.” The people were stunned at their disobedience and the disobedience of their ancestors (cf. Nehemiah 9:0). However, the occasion was one of renewal and new beginnings; they must rejoice with the God of the Covenant.

Deity is denoted by Adon in the phrase “holy to the Lord,” but in this phrase He is called YHWH, the covenant, the redeemer title for God.

“the joy of the LORD is your strength” Both “joy” (BDB 292) and “strength” (BDB 738, as a stronghold, cf. 2 Samuel 22:23; Proverbs 10:29) describe God Himself in 1 Chronicles 16:27. The believers' joy and strength are in YHWH, not in themselves. Understanding of God's word unlocks the confusion of sin.

Nehemiah 8:11-12 This shows the festival nature of Israel's religious feasts. Knowing God issues in joy, not sadness! All days with Him are festivals of joy! Only the Day of Atonement was a fasting occasion. The Levites communicated to the people the wishes of the leadership (cf. Nehemiah 8:11).

Nehemiah 8:12 “the words which had been made known to them” The NIDOTTE, vol. 2, p. 414, makes the interesting comment that this VERB (BDB 393, KB 390, Hiphil PERFECT) is used for those who pass on God's word:

1. Moses, Exodus 18:20

2. Samuel, 1 Samuel 10:8

3. Priests, Ezekiel 44:23

4. Levites, Nehemiah 8:12

It also notes the missionary aspect of this VERB. God's people are to live and speak God's word so that “the nations” may also know YHWH (e.g., 1 Kings 8:43, 1 Kings 8:60; 2 Kings 19:19; Isaiah 12:4-5; Isaiah 19:21; Ezekiel 38:16).

Verses 13-18

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 8:13-18 13Then on the second day the heads of fathers' households of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law. 14They found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. 15So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of other leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” 16So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing. 18He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance.

Nehemiah 8:13 “on the second day, the heads of the fathers' households of all the people” The first day of Tishri was a general assembly, but the second day was a special day of training for the elders and leaders of the people that they might instruct their own tribal groups and clans in the Law of Moses.

Nehemiah 8:14 “They found written in the Law how the LORD. . .the feast of the seventh month” The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths is discussed in Exodus 23:16; Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:39-44; Numbers 29:12-40; Deuteronomy 16:13-15.

Nehemiah 8:15 A helpful book on identifying flowers, crops, and trees in Palestine is Fauna and Flora of the Bible in the “Help for Translators” series from the United Bible Societies (ISBN 0-8267-0021-7).

“go” This VERB (BDB 422, KB 425) is a Qal IMPERATIVE.

“bring” This VERB (BDB 97, KB 112) is a Hiphil IMPERATIVE.

Nehemiah 8:17 The Feast of Booths had been celebrated (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:8; 2 Chronicles 8:13; Ezra 3:4; Hosea 12:9), but possibly the booths had not been a regular or required aspect of the feast.

Nehemiah 8:18 “he read from the Book of the Law daily. . .on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance” This shows that the Feast of the Tabernacle was an eight day feast, with the eighth day having special significance (cf. Numbers 29:35). This seems to relate to Jesus' words in John 7:37.

The Syriac has “they read” instead of “he read.”

The Discussion Questions for this chapter are included with those in Nehemiah 9:0.

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/nehemiah-8.html. 2021.
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