Nehemiah 8
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The public reading and exposition of the law of Moses in the presence of all the people as soon as possible after their settlement in their cities and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

I. THE PEOPLE WANT, and must have, THE SCRIPTURES BOTH FAMILIARISED BY REPETITION AND EXPOUNDED, that they may "have the sense, and understand the reading."

1. As individuals. The law of God the true foundation on which the life must be built up. In that law is not only the will of God, but his mercy. The Scriptures make wise to salvation. The law was the root out of which the gospel came.

2. As a commonwealth. The Bible the true law of nations and communities.

3. As families. The men, women, and children were there together. God has provided his word for our household life. Those who neglect its reading in the house neglect the best support of parental authority, the truest bond of love, and the fountain of consolation and joy. The only real education is that which acknowledges the Scriptures as its basis. All popular reformation and advancement has been achieved with the written word as the instrument.

II. GREAT GATHERINGS ARE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GREAT IMPRESSIONS, AND LARGE RESULTS MAY BE OBTAINED BY THEM. Street preaching may effect more than any other on some occasions. The great reformers of Israel were too much in earnest to pay much heed to sanctities of place. They wanted a large enough assembly to be a true representation of the people. The reading and preaching of God's word can never be dispensed with.

III. MINISTERS MUST BE MEN WHO CAN HELP THE PEOPLE TO HEAR ATTENTIVELY AND UNDERSTAND THE WORD OF GOD. They have no right to occupy Ezra's place unless they have Ezra's qualification, and they should be both literally and figuratively "above all the people." There were many with the chief reader who doubtless read and expounded in their turns. What is wanted is not that official dignity should be saved at any price, but that the people should hear and understand. We want more good readers and preachers.

IV. When we call the people together in the spirit of faith, "blessing the Lord, the great God," and putting truth before them in his name, THERE WILL BE A READY AND HEARTY RESPONSE. The people said, Amen, Amen; lifted up their hands, bowed their heads, worshipped with their faces to the ground. We should expect such response. - R.

One of the most affecting scenes depicted in Holy Writ here invites our thought Our imagination delights to dwell upon it. The sacred and beloved city of God is now secure, its walls are rebuilt, its gates replaced and shut; its inhabitants are no longer struggling with hope and fear, - a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, - but rejoicing in their strength and peace; internal discords are now arranged, and brethren are dwelling together in unity. With one accord they now come - all the multitude of them, men, women, and children, as many as "could hear with understanding" (ver. 2) - to one large square (ver. 1). In the midst of this square is erected a broad and high platform, a pulpit, on which several men may stand. Room is made through the crowd for Ezra (who now again appears on the scene) and a few accompanying ministers; they ascend the pulpit. As Ezra opens the book of the law of the Lord, with spontaneous reverence the whole company rises to its feet. As the great Scribe, before he begins to read, utters a few words of thanksgiving, "blessing the Lord, the great God," all the people answer, "Amen, Amen," bowing their head, and lifting their hands in reverent joy (ver. 6); and as Ezra reads and explains, speaking in their own language the ancient law which God gave to Moses, and as their Country's early history is unrolled before their eyes, and old and hallowed memories are vividly recalled, the strong men as well as the women and the children yield to their emotion, and tears stream down their faces. "All the people wept when they heard the word of the law" (ver. 9).


1. The popular appreciation of the word of God. "All the people... spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law" (ver. 1). So far was Ezra from being obliged to urge the people, to gather together and listen to the law, that they themselves called for its production, and demanded that it should be read to them. They hungered for the bread of life; they craved to hear the word of the living God. And when their wish was granted they showed themselves in real earnest, for they remained six hours eagerly listening as the law was read and expounded. Ezra "read therein from morning until midday... and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law" (ver. 3).

2. The ministerial function in regard to it. "Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood... and beside him stood Mattithiah and Shema," etc. (ver. 4); "also Jeshua and Bani," etc. (ver. 7); and '"they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading" (ver. 8). Here were two valuable things:

(1) the distinct reading of the word of God;

(2) the explanation of any obscure words or sentences, or, as we have it, "giving the sense," or "causing the people to understand the law."


1. That we now should show a still greater popular appreciation of the word of God. For we must consider how much more we have than they had, or than David had when he exclaimed how he 6, loved the law," and when he preferred it to bodily gratification and worldly treasure (Psalm 19.). We have not only more in quantity, but much of that which ought to be to us more deeply interesting. We have, beside the "law of Moses which the Lord had commanded to Israel" (ver. 1),

(1) the history of the Jews in the land of promise;

(2) the Psalms of David;

(3) the wisdom of Solomon;

(4) the inspired utterances of many prophets;

(5) the letters of apostles; and above all,

(6) the very word of Jesus Christ himself, and the story of his redeeming love, with

(7) the revelation of the golden city of God.

How should we hunger and thirst for this bread, for these waters of life; how should we be "very attentive to hear him

2. That there is as much need now as ever of the ministerial function. For though indeed we have the word of God written in our own tongue, in our own home, and under our own eyes, there remains, and will remain, the important function of

(1) expounding the sacred word. There are words and sentences, chapters and books, hard to be understood;" there are now more things than there were then to harmonise; there is the connection between the two Testaments to explain; and there are heights which only some can climb, depths to which only a few can dig, treasures which only "the ready scribe" can reach, and these it is well to bring forth that all may be enriched. Moreover, the ministers of Christ, like Ezra and his companions on this eventful day (ver. 6), have the high and noble function of

(2) leading the people in prayer and in thanksgiving; reverently addressing God, carrying the hearts of all with them, bearing on the wings of their earnest words the thoughts and feelings of the people heavenwards to the very throne of God, so that "all the people shall answer, Amen, Amen," and "worship the Lord" in spirit and in truth (ver. 6). There is no higher or greater service man can render man than that of helping him to come into close and living fellowship with the Father, the Saviour, the Sanctifier of his spirit.

III. ONE ABIDING FACT. The fitness of the sacred Scriptures for every child of man. Men, women, and children, "all that can hear with understanding," gather still to hear the word of God. There is not, nor will there ever be, a book inspired of man that can interest and instruct, comfort and guide, our race like this book "given by the inspiration of God." Childhood will never read with such devouring eagerness such stories elsewhere as those of Joseph and Moses and Daniel, and of the babe that was cradled in the manger at Bethlehem. Youth will never learn elsewhere to remember its Creator as it learns here in the stories of Samuel and Josiah, and of him who "grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man;" here prime will learn, as nowhere else, that man cannot "live on bread alone," or grow rich only by making money and building fortunes; here sorrow will ever find its sweetest solace, its best and holiest balm, and sickness its one untiring Companion; and here death itself loses its darkness and its sting, as these pages speak to it of him who is "the Resurrection and the Life." - C.

I. THE WORD OF GOD AND POPULAR DESIRE. "And they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel."

1. The desire of the people for the word of God.

(1) Natural. It was interesting as their national history.

(2) Wise. The word of God is of the highest value to the human soul.

(3) Prophetic. The word of God shall one day be the delight of a sanctified humanity.

2. The attitude of the people toward the word of God.

(1) Attentive.

(2) Intelligent.

(3) Persevering.

(4) Reverent.

(5) Prayerful.

II. THE WORD OF GOD AND SPIRITUAL EMOTION. "This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law" (ver. 9). There is much in the word of God to awaken human emotion; its record of sin must inspire grief; its tidings of Divine mercy should beget joy. The emotions awakened by the word of God must be -

1. Enlightened.

2. Appropriate (ver. 11).

3. Benevolent (ver. 10).


1. Church ordinances should be remembered.

2. Church ordinances should be Scriptural.

3. Church ordinances should be joyous.

4. Church ordinances should not be exclusive. - E.


1. The righteousness of God in his law, while it condemns man, and makes the people to weep when they see their sin in its light, is yet declared not for condemnation, but for reconciliation.

2. The true ministers of God will proclaim mercy, not judgment, as the substance of their message. "This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep." There is a time to weep, but there is a time to turn tears to praise.

3. The joy of the Lord which is our strength will be expressed in no mere selfish forgetfulness of him and of our neighbour, but in cheerfulness and beneficence; our own portions will be the sweeter when we send help to those for whom nothing is prepared.

II. THE CONVERSION AND REFORMATION OF A PEOPLE MUST BE EFFECTED THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD. They "understood the words which were declared unto them." A ministry which leaves the people either without the word or without understanding the word is no ministry of God. - R.

The scene through which the redeemed and now secured nation was passing was fruitful of excitement. Everything conspired to affect the minds and stir the souls of the people. Large multitudes are soon wrought into intense feeling, and all that the assembled Israelites were then seeing, hearing, and doing, - this, taken with all they. recalled of old scenes and past glories, and these experiences and recollections mingled with reviving hopes of future freedom, - all together moved and swayed their souls with powerful emotion; and "all the people wept" (ver. 9). It was an interesting instance of religious emotion, and what followed teaches us -

I. THAT RELIGIOUS EMOTION MUST BE MANFULLY CONTROLLED (ver. 9). Nehemiah and Ezra, and "the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep" (ver. 9). "So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved" (ver. 11). Emotion needs control and correction when -

1. It is in danger of being carried to excess. Under some circumstances, such as these of the text, when a very large number of people were all agitated by the same feelings, and each communicated something of his own enthusiasm to his neighbour, it is in serious danger of running into mere physical excitement. Such nervous excitement is perilous, for -

(1) It deludes the hearts of men with the idea that they are intensely religious when they are the subjects of a bodily rather than a spiritual affection.

(2) It often carries its subjects to religious and even bodily excesses, which are both guilty and harmful. All religious emotion is, on this ground, to be carefully controlled. It has its place and its use in the Church of Christ, in the spreading of the kingdom; but it is a thing to be watched and guarded in the interests of morality and religion. It needs correction when -

2. It takes a wrong direction. Weeping was ill-timed on this occasion. It was a "day holy unto the Lord" (ver. 9); they were "not to mourn nor weep." It was unbecoming the occasion. At such a time the air should not be burdened with sighs and groans; it should be resonant with shouts and songs. Often our religious emotion is misplaced, ill-timed: we lament when God would have us "sing with joy," or we make ourselves merry when we have reason to humble ourselves in the dust.

II. THAT JOY SHOULD BE THE PREVAILING NOTE IN OUR RELIGIOUS EMOTION (ver. 10). "This day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (ver. 10). It was not in accordance with the law and the will of God that sorrow should be associated with a holy day. The high priest, with "holiness to the Lord" on his mitre, was not allowed to mourn as others might, or when others did (Leviticus 10:6; Leviticus 21:10). Sin and sorrow, holiness and joy, these are the right companions. "With the voice of joy and praise" we should "keep holyday" (Psalm 42:4). With rejoicing hearts, full of the joy of thankfulness and hope, we should sit down to the table of the Lord. "Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). Joy, one of the "fruits of the Spirit," is commended to us with a fulness and frequency in the word of God which may well make us ask ourselves whether we are not negligent in this matter. Joy in Christ Jesus is a grace

(1) which we are repeatedly summoned to show;

(2) which makes us resemble him as he is, crowned with glory and joy;

(3) desirable for its own sake, as obviously, intrinsically better than either sorrow or apathy;

(4) which is a sign and source of spiritual strength. The joy of the Lord is our strength (ver. 10). It is so, for it is both the sign and the source of it.

1. It is the utterance of our spiritual nature; not when it is weak through sin, but when made whole through the power of Christ, and when the "power of Christ" most rests upon us.

2. It is an incentive and encouragement to ourselves to proceed in the path of heavenly wisdom. The Christian man of downcast spirit and dreary views must be under a constant temptation to leave the path; but he who finds not only rest and peace in Christ, but also "joys in God, and delights himself m the service of his Saviour, has the strongest inducement to walk on in the way of life.

3. It is the means of usefulness to others. They who are "in Christ" would be "strong in the Lord," and they would be strong in him that they may be strong for him, extending his kingdom, and winning souls to his side. But how become thus strong for him? By the simple, natural exhibition of a joyous spirit in all spheres and relationships; by constraining the wife, the husband, the children, the servants, the fellow-workmen, etc., to feel that the knowledge of God as a heavenly Father reconciled in Christ Jesus, - the trust, the love, the hope which are in him, - that this does gladden the spirit and brighten the life as nothing else can. By so doing we shall be strong for Christ. The joy of the Lord will prove to be our strength.


1. A right channel it finds in "eating and drinking fat and sweet things," so that this be characterised by

(1) moderation, self-restraint, and

(2) thankfulness the recognition of the hand of the great Giver of all good. But,

2. A better channel in "sending portions to them for whom nothing is prepared" (ver. 10). Better far to feel that we are loading another's table with sweet things where they are seldom found than to be helping ourselves to the most delicious morsels from our own; no source of happiness at once so sure and so pure as in being like the bountiful Father, and opening the hand to satisfy the wants of those who are in need. - C.

I. A NOTABLE INSTANCE OF NEGLECT. The commandment was plainly written, but "since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun the children of Israel had not done so. How much they lost? - gladness, fellowship, help to their remembrance of Divine mercy, food of faith. We should follow the directions of God's book without question. Much yet to break forth from the written pages.

II. An illustration of the DEPENDENCE OF GOD'S PEOPLE ON ONE ANOTHER. The council of fathers, priests, Levites, and Ezra the scribe gathered together to understand the words of the law." All cannot pursue the same inquiries. The progress of the Church is greatly advanced by the consecration of some to the study of the Scriptures. All councils and conferences should be held with a practical end in view, to understand in order to reformation of life and manners. Much of the deliberation of learned men has failed of God's blessing because it has been merely speculative or controversial. We can scarcely doubt that Ezra was the leading spirit. One eminent man of God can wonderfully animate and direct his Church in great crises. The true leader will never despise counsel, but be only primus inter pares.

III. A TYPICAL REPRESENTATION OF THE BELIEVING LIFE OF GOD'S PEOPLE. The festival in the green booths fetched from the mount.

1. Grateful memory and pilgrim expectation.

2. Free fellowship and happy intercourse, with Jerusalem as the centre. Church life ought to be real root of all other life. We go from our own cities to Jerusalem, and return with the sanctity of the feast, to be distributed over all the common ways and facts of an every-day existence.

3. Consecrated seasons, festival times, needed in all service of God. For the heart must be lifted up that the hands may be kept busy. Function of praise in the life. They of the captivity do well to recognise one another in their freedom. God invites us to turn nature into joy. Consecrate the very trees to him. Rejoice under the open heaven in his loving-kindness. Connect his holy mount with the simple tent that covers our head. He waits not for splendid ritual or temple, but delights in the homely praise of those who spread the beauty of his name over all the earth. - R.

On the second day, the day after the great and affecting assembly of all the citizens, came together a representative company, "the chief of the fathers of all the people" (ver. 13), beside the priests and Levites, to "understand" or consider the law, that they might encourage all the children of Israel to a regular and faithful observance of it. This gathering led at once to -

I. AN ACT OF REVIVED AND REJOICING OBEDIENCE. For "they found written in the law ... that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month" (ver. 14). They came upon the commandment recorded in Leviticus 23., enjoining the observance of the feast of tabernacles or booths. This must have fallen partially, if not wholly, into disuse, though we know from Ezra 3:4 that this feast was celebrated as late as the time of Zerubbabel. Now, however, under the impulse of Nehemiah's and Ezra's faithful ministry, and in the glow of a religious revival, they returned to a complete and hearty observance of the ancient festival. The law required that the sacred feasts should be "proclaimed" (Leviticus 23:4). Giving a broad sense to the term, they took pains to proclaim it with all particularity. "In all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount," etc. (ver. 15). And there was a general and hearty response. "The people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths" (ver. 16); "all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under them" (ver. 17). Moses commanded that once in seven years the law should be read" before all Israel in their hearing" (Deuteronomy 31:11). Whether this was the seventh year or not, the injunction of Moses was obeyed. They were in the mood to do all - more rather than less - that was enjoined, and "day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he (Ezra) read in the book of the law of God" (ver. 18). There had been no such celebration of the feast since the days of Jeshua (ver. 17), "and there was very great gladness." Now we learn from this that -

1. It is possible for a nation (or a Church) with the Bible in its keeping to allow plain duties to fall into disregard.

2. That this negligence is due to a blameworthy inattention to the word of God. The Bible is too much on the shelf, too little in the hand.

3. That a return to obedience, especially to a hearty and general (unanimous) obedience, is attended with great gladness of heart.

(1) Devout study,

(2) earnest obedience,

(3) reverent joy - these are successive steps in a true revival.

II. A COMMEMORATIVE SERVICE. The feast of tabernacles was essentially commemorative. "That your generation may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out," etc. (Leviticus 23:43). It was well indeed that the children of the captivity should have their attention called to past days of exile. It would do them good, as it did their fathers, to look back and think what God had done unto them and for them. How he had humbled them, and how he had redeemed them. Thus they would think of two things -

(1) past sorrows, not to be renewed, from which God had graciously delivered them; and

(2) past sins, never to be repeated, which God had mercifully forgiven them. One thought would lead to thankfulness, and the other to consecration; both to sacred joy. The recalling by our minds of past evils out of which God has led us, and past errors and wrongdoings which he has blotted out, will confirm our hearts in their gratitude and devotion.

III. AN OPPORTUNITY OF INSTRUCTION IN SACRED THINGS. Whether the Jews felt bound to observe Deuteronomy 31:10, or whether the reading of the law from day to day was optional on their part (the latter is the more probable), we have them associating instruction with ceremonial observance. We should turn all occasions into opportunities of "inquiring the way of the Lord more perfectly," of becoming "filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding... increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1:9, 10). - C.

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