Babylon deported God’s people, and held them captive for 70 years. Then the Persians took over and God’s people were ruled by yet another wicked nation. The Babylonian and Persian empires spread idol worship, avarice and debauchery wherever they went. These Empires influenced God’s people as God’s people lived among godless, idolatrous peoples.
God called Ezra and Nehemiah to a unique role in rebuilding the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. Ezra and Nehemiah were faced with leading a people that were influenced by the cultures of the Babylonians, the Persians and the peoples living around them. Their compromise with these cultures is seen in their intercultural marriages.
Let me be clear. Intercultural marriage is not the issue. The issue is the compromise with or the acceptance of a culture and/or worldview that is entirely hostile to the God of Israel and His word.
Racism of any kind has no room in the service of the God who made all peoples. However, the servant of the Most High God must remain “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) Love is our rule and the Word of God is our guide. The command to love your neighbor as yourself applies to all people, everywhere. However, this does not mean that we ever compromise the truth.
Compromise is exactly what was happening in Nehemiah’s day. The Law of God was being set aside in order to make allowance for marriages with people who did not respect, believe in or revere the God of Israel. Nehemiah 13:28 tells of a priest who married an unbeliever, which was expressly forbidden by the Word of God.
Compromise has happened throughout history, and God continually calls His people back to Himself. Many institutions that started out with a clear commitment to the Word of God have compromised the truth until they no longer acknowledge that we have a word from God. Even some so called “Churches” deny that we have a clear word from God.
In Nehemiah, we have an example of God bringing His people back to Himself. The means or way He does this is through the Word of God. Evidence is abundant and clear in support of the claim that the Bible is the Word of God. It is not my goal or purpose here to present such evidence. Rather, it is my intention today to observe the Word of God at work in peoples’ lives. This is more about learning from an example than about convincing. If you want to stay true to God and avoid compromising the truth, then Nehemiah 8 can be of great help.
In Nehemiah 8, we see four distinct steps that Ezra led the people through as they approached the Word of God.
The only way to avoid drifting away from the truth is a commitment to the Word of God. The only way to recapture the truth is to return to the Word of God. If we follow the four steps that Ezra led the people of God through, we will discover the truth.
The first step they took was to read the Word of God.
We find this in verses 1-3 of Nehemiah 8.
In October, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had given for Israel to obey.
So on October 8 Ezra the priest brought the Book of the Law before the assembly, which included the men and women and all the children old enough to understand. He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.[i]
Notice that all the people gathered with a unified purpose. Nehemiah does not say that this gathering was mandated. Next, it says that the people asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. It appears this was a voluntary seeking after God.
When your heart moves you toward the Word of God, do not ignore it. This prompting toward the Word may very well be the Holy Spirit drawing you toward God.
In addition, notice that the people gathered in the square just inside the Water Gate. Two things are significant about this. First, it was a space large enough to accommodate the large crowd. Second, it was a space with unrestricted access. Any person who wished to could attend and listen. If, for example, they had met in the temple, women, children and foreigners could not have attended. Access would have been restricted. God’s Word is for all people and anyone who wishes should have access to it.
The Word of God was read from early morning until noon, and all the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.
This was the first step in restoring the people and returning to the truth. The second step was a natural part of the first. They reflected on what was read.
Reflecting is the second step. In truth, reflecting is not separate from the reading. Reflecting is part of how we read. We find this in Nehemiah 8:5-6.
Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet.
Then Ezra praised the LORD, the great God, and all the people chanted, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
The people thought about what they were reading. This is the meaning of reflecting.
We see their careful thought in the fact that they stood when Ezra stood to read. They recognized that this was no ordinary book, but that it was God’s word to them.
The first question each person must answer in regard to the Bible is “What kind of a book is it?” Many different attitudes exist about the Bible. Some compare it to other ancient manuscripts and the sacred books of other religions. Some dismiss it because they were told by a knowledgeable source that it is a book full of inaccuracies, errors and contradictions. I wish that those who take these attitudes would investigate these claims. Many have set out to prove these claims and have ended up becoming Christians. Without research or trying to make anything like an exhaustive list, I will name four examples of people who became defenders of the Bible after having set out to disprove it. If you want more details, read their works. These examples are G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel. The simple truth of the matter is that the Bible is a unique book, and in all of human history, there has never been any other book like it.
If you read it as history or literature with the attitude that it is a collection of fairy tales, it is far less likely to transform your life. It is still dangerous. It is powerful and may yet convince you. This is why countries that want to be atheist or Islamic ban the Bible.
At some point, a person must recognize the Bible for what it is.
Having stood in recognition of the Word of God, the people joined Ezra in worshiping God.
Worship is a natural part of reflection. As one listens to or reads the Word of God, the realization of what He is saying leads naturally to worship. Did you know that the God who made the universe wants to be your friend? Did you know that He loved you enough to die for you? We discover these truths while reflecting on what God is saying in His Word.
Reading and reflecting are the starting point. The third step is researching. By researching, I mean seeking to understand what is being read.
We see the people researching in Nehemiah 8:7-8.
The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—then instructed the people in the Law while everyone remained in their places. They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.
The Levites were the trained, professional clergy of the nation of Israel. They had invested a lifetime in studying the Word of God, the language it was written in and the practicalities of teaching the Word of God. It was their job to translate the Word for those who did not understand, and to make clear the meaning of those passages that were hard to understand.
Professional clergy have often been the problem in drifting away from the truth. However, the priesthood and Levites of the Old Testament were established by God, as were the pastors, teachers and elders of the New Testament. There are Biblical standards set for leaders and teachers of God’s people for the safety of God’s people. One such standard is Isaiah 8:20. “Look to God's instructions and teachings! People who contradict his word are completely in the dark.” While it is the clergy’s job to make clear the Scriptures, it is each person’s responsibility to study God’s word for themselves to be sure of the truth of what is being taught.
2 Peter 3:16 says about Paul’s writings:
Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction.
This is why Paul says:
Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
So far, we have looked at three steps: read, reflect and research. These three flow naturally one after the other. In the same way, the fourth step flows naturally from these. We see this fourth step in the remainder of chapter 8, but we will focus mainly on verses 9 and 10.
The people reformed their ways. Hearing and understanding brought about a change in behavior.
Nehemiah 8:9-10 says:
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the LORD your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!”
Weeping is the first sign that the Word has reached the heart. Confession and repentance are a natural response to confronting our sinfulness in the Word of God.
The remainder of Nehemiah 8 tells how the people immediately put the Word of God in action by observing a national festival called the “Festival of Booths.” The book of Nehemiah then continues describing various other reforms that took place due to the reading of God’s Word.
James 1:22-25 says:
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.
The people of Nehemiah’s day wept when they understood the Word of God because they saw themselves clearly, like in a mirror. Many reject the truth of God’s Word because it makes them uncomfortable, but at what price? Remember 2 Peter 3:16, which said, “…this will result in their destruction.”
Since the Bible is God’s Word to us, its message is a matter of life and death. Reading, reflecting, researching and reforming according to the Word of God is not just for those who have time. Understanding and applying the Word of God to our lives is the most important issue of our lives.
The first and greatest commandment God has given is to love the Lord with all your heart. How can you do this if you will not listen to what He has to say?
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.