Third Sunday after Epiphany: Neh. 8:1-12
Bible reading has always been a hard topic. It has always been a topic that tends to guilt and sorrow. This is because we know that we are sinners, and the perfect law of liberty is a mirror that shows us who we really are (Js. 1:22-25). This is also because we have a sense that we never do enough, that we never measure up. This is why the story of Nehemiah and Ezra reading the law to Israel is for all of God’s people, every generation.
The whole scene has a ring of solemnity to it. The leaders have gathered all the people together and asked Ezra to bring out the book of the law (Neh. 8:1). And there is a great deal of elaboration, setting the scene: all the men and women and any one else who could understand are assembled (Neh. 8:2). They have assembled on the first day of the seventh month, which turns out to be the day of the feast of Trumpets (Neh. 8:2, Lev. 23:24). Ezra reads the law facing the people, and the entire assembly apparently lasted for several hours of the morning (Neh. 8:3). All the people listen carefully, and there were thirteen men standing up with Ezra as he read, six on his right, seven on his left (Neh. 8:4). Ezra stood on a high wooden platform and opened the book for everyone to see (Neh. 8:5). And as he opened it, all the people stood up (Neh. 8:5). At some point before or after or perhaps even during the reading, Ezra proclaimed a blessing on the Lord God, and the people answered by saying, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands, and bowing down their faces in worship to the ground (Neh. 8:6). Another thirteen men who were Levites helped the people to understand the reading while they remained on the ground (Neh. 8:7). The reading was done so that they people could understand it, and this may mean that it was explained verse by verse or paragraph by paragraph, but the point is that it was read and explained so that the people understood what it meant (Neh. 8:8). The narrative underlines the formality, the liturgy, the solemnity. There is a sense in which this is absolutely true and right, but there is also a sense in which they (and we) can get this all wrong.
Why God Talks
It’s true that Scripture is God’s Word. And this does mean that it is holy and true and authoritative. We should honor it, love it, and treat it respectfully. But our first impulse when we think of the Bible, Bible reading, and Bible study should not be dread, guilt, sorrow, despair. Another way to get at this is to ask the question: Why does God talk? And even more specifically: Why does God talk to us? When the people heard the Scriptures read and understood them, they mourned and cried (Neh. 8:9). Sometimes we cry when we feel conviction: when we are convicted of sin, or when we’re convicted of unbelief, lack of faith in God’s care. But Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites tell the people not to cry (Neh. 8:10-11). This is not because conviction is wrong, but because something even bigger is going on. Conviction is good, but Nehemiah says that when you hear the Bible read and explained, it is not because God is out to correct you. It is not because God knows that you’ve missed the last two weeks of Bible reading. When God speaks to His people, the first and most fundamental reason is because He’s happy. And therefore, when He speaks the appropriate response of faith is joy. This is why Nehemiah scolds the people and tells them to wipe their eyes and be quiet and start feasting. It is a holy day. It is a day of God’s Word and God’s presence, but that is not a sad thing for God’s people. That’s a happy thing, a joyful thing. “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). In context, where did that joy come from? It’s certainly not the people. They don’t have joy. They are sad and sorrowful because they haven’t read the law in a very long time. But Nehemiah corrects them and insists that hearing God’s Word is the sound of His joy.
God’s Word is a Trumpet: It’s no accident that this episode takes place on the first day of the seventh month, the Feast of Trumpets. This feast was a memorial of the time when God spoke to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:13-19, 20:18). As in the days of Nehemiah, the people of Israel were afraid when God spoke, and Moses commanded them not to fear (Ex. 19:16, 20:18). One of the curiosities of this Nehemiah text is that if you keep reading, the people immediately begin to celebrate the Feast of Booths, but there is no mention of the Day of Atonement which was supposed to be the tenth day of the seventh month, right before Booths (Lev. 23:26-32). I’m not sure what that means, but at least in terms of the narrative, this day of Trumpets seems to stand in for it. Think of the Father in the parable who doesn’t even give the lost son an opportunity to confess his sins and just buries him in a giant bear hug and calls for the party to begin. That’s your Father when you open His Word, playing His trumpet with joy over you.
God’s Word is Food: When Ezekiel began his ministry, God commanded him to eat a scroll. And when he did it tasted like honey (Ez. 3:1-3). Likewise, David says that God’s word is sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb (Ps. 19:10, 119:103). Remember what Jesus told the devil when He was tempted to turn a stone into bread: Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Dt. 8:3, Mt. 4:4). God’s word is food. On the one hand, this is why we don’t eat because every meal is a feast: we eat because we’re hungry. And on the other, we often need to train our taste buds and plan to eat well.
God’s Word is Food to Be Shared: Joy is delight shared. In fact, something amazing and wonderful is a much lower ceiling of delight than when it is shared. This is why when we find something good, we instinctively want to tell someone, share it with someone. This is part of the amazing grace of God in Jesus, and His delight in us and all He has made. He made it, and He still thinks it’s loaded with goodness. And He sent His Son into the world, His Word made Flesh, to dwell among us to share His delight with us. Evangelism is really this aim, this mission, to share the goodness of God so that our joy will be complete (1 Jn. 1:1-4). This is why reading and discussing the Bible together is so crucial. This is what we do every Sunday in worship, but it’s part of what we were made for.
The point isn’t to feel bad about how spotty your Bible reading is. The point is to throw a party because our God speaks. And He speaks because He’s happy. And therefore, you need to go home and rejoice.