Gathering and Response
Nehemiah 8 – 9 outlines a significant series of events in the life of the post-exilic Jewish community soon after their return from exile in Babylon as they seek to resettle in Jerusalem and reconstruct its walls. However, neither rebuilding the wall nor relocating in Jerusalem could guarantee the religious rebirth of God's people after the exile. The exile had been a punishment for their disobedience and lack of respect for Gods law. So, the people are called to gather to show their obedience to God and his Law. When the people had assembled before the Water Gate in Jerusalem, 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' (Neh. 8:1). The choice of Ezra is significant; as a scribe, he had devoted himself to the study, practice and teaching of God's Law. So, Ezra standing on a high wooden platform, read the Law of Moses aloud from sunrise till noon, and all the people listened intently (8:2–4).
The people stood up and to listen. Thus, acknowledging that God was speaking to them through it. As Ezra read, the Levites instructed them, 'giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read' (Neh. 8:7–8). It required explanation because most of the exiles spoke Aramaic and did understand the Hebrew in which the Law was written. The care is taken to help them understand God's word reminds us of the importance of translating Scripture into people's everyday language throughout the world. It also parallels to some degree the task of expounding the Scriptures in our churches today.
At some point in this process 'Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, 'Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground' (Neh. 8:6). The Hebrew word 'amen' means 'solid' or 'firm' and testifies that the listeners agree with what they have heard. Even though the people wept as they listened to the words of the Law, Nehemiah encouraged them not to grieve, but rather to celebrate with food and drink, 'for the joy of the LORD is your strength' (8:9–12). Those accountable for reading God's word and explaining what God had revealed recognised the need to lead the people in responding appropriately to God, there and then. We must bear in mind that reading the Law and understanding it are two different things, so required explanation to help people understand what the Law meant.
On the second day, when they gathered again to listen to the words of the Law, they encountered the command to observe the Festival of Tabernacles in that month, which they then celebrated with great joy (Neh. 8:13–17; cf. Lev. 23:33–42). Every day during the week of the festival, Ezra read from the Book of the Law (Neh. 8:18). The reference to the days of Joshua (Neh. 8:17) implies the community as a historical and theological parallel to the return from Egypt. As a result, the people responded in praise and humble submission to God and decided to obey God in their community life beyond that initial gathering.
Without a clear understanding of God's word, we cannot hope to obey God like the returnees from exile. Thus, it is critical to ask ourselves: How do we as the people of God respond to the reading and preaching of God's word within the context of our faith communities? Do we take God's word seriously? Does it touch our hearts and bring about change in our lives? Does it result in our offering praise to God and a renewed commitment to live lives of obedience to God and his word?