Nehemiah 8 is the Old Testament lectionary reading for tomorrow, Sunday 23 January 2022. This chapter marks a turning point in the history of Israel. It’s “a new beginning” for the nation of Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, whom God renamed Israel.
Nehemiah 8 speaks of Jews. Those who identify as Jews today have no Temple in Jerusalem. They sing “Next year in Jerusalem” every year, during the festivals of Passover and Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It’s observed ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the new year. This was the only day on which the High Priest could enter the Holy Place in the Temple.
Nehemiah 8 marks a new beginning because the people, after living as exiles in Babylon for 70 years, had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple. They were again a people with a Temple.
The gathering of men, women and children in Jerusalem narrated in Nehemiah 8 was on Rosh Hashanah, the new year.
The initiative for the gathering came from the people. This is clear from verse 1, which says they “told Ezra the scribe.”
The people asked Ezra to read and explain the law to them. In the English Standard Version, the phrase, “the people” occurs 12 times in the first ten verses. No other passage in the Bible represents the people so centrally.
Another striking thing is that Ezra wasn’t the only one who “read” (preached). He was assisted by 13 laypeople. Probably to avoid having to read hard-to-pronounce names, the reading omits verse 4, which reads
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that 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.
In the writing style of the day, those who “stood beside Ezra” designates those who shared the work with him. They were not Levites, members of the tribe whom God assigned to work in his Temple. We are sure they were laypeople because Levites are always identified in Ezra-Nehemiah.
The reading of the Word was in a public square and the audience included men, women, and children. They didn’t gather in the Temple because there was gender segregation there and, its grounds weren’t big enough.
The people regarded the book as the commands of God which they must understand and obey. They understood God had expelled their ancestors from Jerusalem 70 years earlier as punishment for their refusal to obey His commands. They wanted to avoid the mistakes of the past.
They honoured the Word by standing up when it was read.
The readers didn’t just read. They “gave the sense,” which means they explained it. They preached the texts they read. The texts were principally in Hebrew, but the people understood only Aramaic. Therefore, it was necessary to translate the words both of the text and of the preachers.
In our services, it’s not the preacher who reads the scriptures, but a designated reader. Why? Because our practice demonstrates our belief that all people are called to be Bible readers.
Another remarkable thing is that the public reading and preaching of the scripture took six hours. The people alternated between standing for the readings and sitting, on the ground, for the preaching.
It is striking that a week ago the Muslim itinerant preacher Zakir Naik spoke for about two hours in a mosque in Kangar, Perlis, at a meeting which began at 8:00 pm. His audience was seated on the ground. No one seemed inattentive (how unlike us in BLC!), though he spoke in English to an audience who rarely use English. There was no translation!
Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest had to tell the people “not to mourn or weep” (verse 9). They had to do so because some people knew the reconstructed Temple was a pale shadow of the original Temple.
This second Temple wasn’t as ornate as the first Temple, and it wasn’t “filled with the glory of the Lord,” like the first Temple had been (see 2 Chronicles 5:14). But it was still a time for joyfulness because they were a nation again and their scriptures would be the basis of their unity.
Nehemiah 8 urges us to think about what unites us and how we express our unity. It urges us to think about how we regard the Bible and the role lay people play in churches. It urges us to learn the word and to obey it.