God’s Word of Joy
Nehemiah 8:1-18: The Book of Nehemiah was written to continue the history of the Israelites after their return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylonia (538 B.C.). The period 538 to 430 B.C. saw the formation of the Jewish religious community following the Babylonian exile. Emperor Artaxerxes of Persia permitted Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem (445 B.C.). Nehemiah served as governor of Judah, and he took charge of having the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt (see chapters 2 – 6). When all the people were settled, they gathered in Jerusalem to hear Ezra the priest give a public reading of the Law. The Levite priests explained the Law to the people. Then Nehemiah and Ezra, along with the priests, declared that day to be holy, and the people were told to celebrate, concluding with the Festival of Shelters.
Ezra Reads the Law to the People
1By the seventh month the people of Israel were all settled in their towns. On the first day of that month they all assembled in Jerusalem, in the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra, the priest and scholar of the Law which the Lord had given Israel through Moses, to get the book of the Law. 2So Ezra brought it to the place where the people had gathered—men, women, and the children who were old enough to understand. 3There in the square by the gate he read the Law to them from dawn until noon, and they all listened attentively.
4Ezra was standing on a wooden platform that had been built for the occasion. The following men stood at his right: Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and the following stood at his left: Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
5As Ezra stood there on the platform high above the people, they all kept their eyes fixed on him. As soon as he opened the book, they all stood up. 6Ezra said, “Praise the Lord, the great God!”
All the people raised their arms in the air and answered, “Amen! Amen!” They knelt in worship, with their faces to the ground.
7Then they rose and stood in their places, and the following Levites explained the Law to them: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah. 8They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.
9When the people heard what the Law required, they were so moved that they began to cry. So Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra, the priest and scholar of the Law, and the Levites who were explaining the Law told all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God, so you are not to mourn or cry. 10Now go home and have a feast. Share your food and wine with those who don’t have enough. Today is holy to our Lord, so don’t be sad. The joy that the Lord gives you will make you strong.”
11The Levites went around calming the people and telling them not to be sad on such a holy day. 12So all the people went home and ate and drank joyfully and shared what they had with others, because they understood what had been read to them.
The Festival of Shelters
13The next day the heads of the clans, together with the priests and the Levites, went to Ezra to study the teachings of the Law. 14 They discovered that the Law, which the Lord gave through Moses, ordered the people of Israel to live in temporary shelters during the Festival of Shelters. 15So they gave the following instructions and sent them all through Jerusalem and the other cities and towns: “Go out to the hills and get branches from pines, olives, myrtles, palms, and other trees to make shelters according to the instructions written in the Law.”
16So the people got branches and built shelters on the flat roofs of their houses, in their yards, in the Temple courtyard, and in the public squares by the Water Gate and by the Ephraim Gate. 17All the people who had come back from captivity built shelters and lived in them. This was the first time it had been done since the days of Joshua son of Nun, and everybody was excited and happy. 18From the first day of the festival to the last they read a part of God’s Law every day. They celebrated for seven days, and on the eighth day there was a closing ceremony, as required in the Law.
Today’s Key Verse: Nehemiah 8:10b
“Today is holy to our Lord, so don’t be sad. The joy that the LORD gives you will make you strong.”
Why did Ezra, Nehemiah, and the priests explain the Law to the people? What or who helps you to understand the Scriptures? Today’s reading concludes with a description of the Festival of Shelters which commemorates the wilderness wanderings following the exodus from Egypt. The shelters are constructed of myrtle, olive, and palm branches as symbols of God’s protection, and the people live in these shelters for seven days to remember the wandering of their ancestors in the desert and God’s care of them at that time. In what ways are events in the worship life of your community of faith commemorated?
Lord God, as I read your Word, give me eyes and ears to understand your teachings. With joy I feast today on your Word. In your holy name, I pray. Amen.
Esther 9:20—10:3: The Festival of Purim is celebrated.