Beyond the Lectionary Text: Nehemiah 8:1-12
by Mary Stegink
It must have been a long, hot, tense six months. The book of Nehemiah tells the story of the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah secures permission to return to his home land in order to rebuild the walls. But not everyone is pleased by this. Neighboring rulers – Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab in particular – do not like the idea at all. They attempt to lure Nehemiah away from the city for some negotiating. Nehemiah, sensing a trap, declines the invitation and continues building. For the people in the town, for the builders, this must have created a great deal of anxiety. You can imagine them going about their business wondering – would today be the day the neighboring army would come thundering up the hill, lay waste to their land, and carry them off once again? But, miraculously, the walls go up and are completed. And the people breathe a collective sigh of relief. The walls are up, the gates and doors are in place and secure. Whew! Now, most of us might think this would be a cause for celebration – but the people of Jerusalem decide to go in a different direction: they ask Ezra to get up and read the “Book of the Law of Moses.”
The beginning of the Seventh Month was the beginning of the civil New Year (NIV Study Bible Note). A new year, a new beginning seems like a good time to remember the past. And so preparations are made, a platform is built, dignitaries are assembled, and Ezra gets up, (clears his throat), opens the book and begins to read. He goes on to read for six hours. And while he read, some of the Levites moved around the crowd – making sure everyone understood what was being read.
The importance of the location: the people assembled in the square before the Water Gate. This was a public spot. Usually the reading of the Law was confined to the Temple and only the men could hear it. This location gave everyone – men, women, and children – the opportunity to hear the Word of the LORD. Nehemiah tells us that “all who could understand” came to hear. The Handbook on Ezra and Nehemiah (Noses and Thomas) suggests that the presence of children was exceptional. On this, the first day of the Seventh Month – the Word of the LORD was for all who wanted to hear it. Think about it: men, women, and children; old, young, and those in between; rich, poor, learned, and lacking – they all got to come and bask in the Word of the LORD! And, furthermore, the platform was built so call could see and hear. Not knowing what the acoustics were, this must have been a way to get as many people as close as possible so they could hear. And if they could hear, but weren’t sure how to interpret – well – men moved about the crowd to help if there were any questions. Can you imagine – a priest in his priestly robes squatting down to answer the question of a seven-year boy? Can you imagine – a priest in his priestly robes – leaning in, grabbing the hand of an elderly woman who can’t quite hear everything, and patiently explaining to her what is being read? The location allowed everyone to participate – the walls of gender, education, and age were broken down – and, at least for this moment, they were all blessed by the Word of the LORD.
What Happens Next: Ezra unrolls the scroll (I wonder how long it was?) and the people stand up – and remain standing for the entire reading. Six hours – they stood up for six hours! This standing was a mark of respect. This standing kept their focus on Ezra and the reading. Nehemiah tells us that the people listened attentively. No squirming in their seats, no wiggling and jiggling. They stood in quiet respect and listened to the Word of the LORD. It boggles the mind! (Especially as a parent. . . can you imagine keeping your children still and standing for six hours?). And yet, it seems that the people were so hungry for and eager to hear the Word – they were willing to do anything.
So, What Did They Do? As Ezra and his helpers were reading, the people begin to cry. Yes, cry. They are so overwhelmed, they begin to weep. Now, historians and commentators have don’t really know why they were crying. But let’s think about that for a moment. You haven’t heard the Word of the LORD in a very long time and you’ve overcome with emotion at hearing it again. You have never heard the Word of the LORD before in your young life – and you are amazed and awed. Maybe you’re remembering the exile and now it’s over and you’re just so glad to be back in a place where you can open the Word of the LORD without fear. Maybe you’re carrying a whole load of guilt on your shoulders – you haven’t been walking in the ways of the LORD as you should – and now you’re reminded of what that looks like – and you’re overwhelmed by your own guilt even as you hear the words of how much the LORD loves you. Maybe you’re still worried about Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab – and you hardly dare hope that your land is safe and you will be able to live in peace. Whatever the reason – and let’s face it – human emotion hasn’t changed that much over the centuries – the people are overcome and begin to weep.
So Ezra and Nehemiah and get up and do the logical thing: They get up and say, “People, stop weeping! Go have a party!” Maybe we would add, “This is the day that the Lord has made, we will REJOICE and be glad in it!” Nehemiah gets even more specific: he tells them “enjoy choice food and sweet drinks” and, not wanting to forget those who could not come, “and send some to those who have nothing prepared!” Nehemiah’s antidote to grieving is to celebrate and reminds each one present (words I often heard from my mother), “do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The joy of the LORD trumps the anxiety of the day (take that, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab!). The joy of the LORD trumps the feelings of guilt. The joy of the LORD is for young, old, and those in between. The joy of the LORD is for men, women, and children. And, realizing this, the people dry their eyes, blow their noses and head home to celebrate with their choice meats and sweet drinks – and they didn’t forget to include those who couldn’t make it.
The reading of God’s WORD is a holy and sacred undertaking. We are so used to reading it and so used to hearing it, I’m afraid we forget this. This reading is a reminder of the power the Word has to change lives. When is the last time your congregation stood to hear the Word? What would happen if you asked them to?
The Joy of the Lord is my Strength. This are also words not to be taken lightly – or said tritely. Life is full of grief and difficulty. Having the Joy of the Lord in your heart doesn’t always diminish this. Having the Joy of the Lord as your strength gets you through these difficult times – it’s so much deeper than pasting a smile on your face when things have you down. We were never promised that walking with the Lord would be easy – but, of course, we are promised and promised again that our life will be better – because of this very conviction – the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Sometimes you just have to party! At a recent Classis meeting (a regional meeting of the Christian Reformed Church) we officially disbanded a congregation. Obviously, this was difficult, hard, and incredibly sad to do. No one wants to see a sister church go down. And we were sad, tears were shed – but then the pastor got up and spoke. He talked about their final service and subsequent meal together – and guess what? It was a party! Rather than drown in their collective sorrow they decided to remember with joy and gladness how God had used and blessed their church. They remembered conversion stories – people who came to meet Jesus while they worshiped with them. And, as hard as this must have been, they looked forward to the ways God was going to use them in their new church homes, how they would be a blessing to others even as they said good-bye to something they loved very much. And they could do this because, truly, the joy of the LORD is their strength. My own little congregation is facing some pretty steep challenges. Anxiety is high. I think it’s time for a party of our own – because God is still God and his Word is sweet and true – and because the Joy of the Lord is our strength too!
Rev. Mary Stegink is the pastor of Ridgewood Christian Reformed Church, Ridgewood, NJ.