COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 8:1And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.” (Nehemiah 8:1-3)
The wall has been built, and the city had been secured. The gates were not opened until the sun had risen high enough to remove all shadows in which enemies could lurk. They were closed when the sun went down. Nehemiah had found the city was large, but the inhabitants were few. He therefore set about to repopulate the city with appropriate inhabitants. In order to do this, he consulted the registry that recorded those who returned when Zerrubbabel was commissioned rebuild the temple. He now gathers the people together in order to make the proper assessments (7:5). Our text begins where verse five left off. From verses 6-73 of the seventh chapter, the register of those returning from the captivity is given. Now we will see what Nehemiah actually did when he gathered the people together. Once again, we will see how the man of God thinks, and where he has placed his priorities. We will also behold the working of the Lord upon the people.
THEY GATHERED TOGETHER AT THE WATER GATE
“ 8:1a And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate . . . ” This text reads almost identically to that of Ezra 3:1. It is not, however, referring to the same time. Ezra’s reference referred to the building and sanctifying of the altar – the restoring of the altar of burnt offerings and sacrificial worship. (Ezra 3:2-3). Zerubbabel was also at Ezra’s gathering (Ezra 3:2), but not at this one. Ezra is with Nehemiah, proving he was his contemporary, even though, at an earlier time, he also ministered in a different way. We see from this that Ezra had remained consistent in his faith and understanding of the Law of God. Nehemiah relied upon that fact, and brought him into this sacred moment of renewal.
THEY GATHERED THEMSELVES TOGETHER. The commitment of the people is seen in the fact of their gathering together – “they gathered themselves.” They were not forced to come in, but “gathered themselves together” as the people did in Ezra’s day (Ezra 3:1). This time they came out of a love for the Lord, and not as the restless Israelites did at the foot of Mount Sinai where they requested Aaron to make them gods (Ex 32:1). Rather, here they “gathered themselves together” as the sons of Levi, who rallied to the side of Moses (Ex 32:26).
THEY GATHERED AS ONE MAN. The unity of the people is seen in the manner in which they came together – “as one man.” The same terminology is used to describe the gathering during Ezra’s restoration of sacred procedures (Ezra 3:1). This same language is used of the gathering of the Israelites against the men of Gibeah (Judges 20:1,8,11).
The expression “as one man” equates to “with one accord,” or with “one mind.” This is how the brethren were when, through Peter’s direction, an Apostle was chosen to fill the office vacated by Judas (Acts 1:14). It is the spirit that was present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). The same attitude continued as the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:46). When opposition threatened the early church, they prayed “with one accord,” or “as one man” (Acts 4:24). The whole city of Samaria responded in faith to Philips’s preaching “with one accord,” or “as one man” (Acts 8:6). When Barnabas and Saul were sent out, the brethren did it “with one accord,” or “as one man” (Acts 15:25).
A Lesson to be Learned. There is certainly a lesson to be learned in this record. There are advantages to being “as one man” that cannot be achieved in any other way. The Apostle admonished the commendable Philippian brethren, “be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil 2:2). “Likeminded,” “one accord,” and “one mind” – these are not common among those professing the name of Christ. The Christian community is more noted for its division than of being “as one man .” In fact, it is exceedingly difficult to find any body of believers that gather and conduct themselves “as one man.” Certain congregations have tailored their assemblies to accommodate different mind-sets, offering different kinds of services to those with different preferences. It all may seem innocent, but it is not. When the people are not of “one accord,” or “as one man,” a place has been made for the devil, and he will not miss it. The Spirit admonishes us to “avoid” those who “cause divisions” (Rom 16:17). Believers are exhorted not to allow “divisions” among themselves (1 Cor 1:10). We are categorically told that “divisions” are the evidence of carnality (1 Cor 3:3).
I am going to wax bold and affirm the failure of the modern church to make much headway in the work of the Lord is directly traceable to this circumstance – “divisions.” Christ is “not divided” (1 Cor 1:13). Consequently, where divisions are prevalent He is absent. It is only when brethren are “gathered together” in His name that He promises He will be present in their midst (Matt 18:20). The implications of this are staggering!
THEY GATHERED BEFORE THE WATER GATE. The “street” before the water gate was an “open square.” NKJV One version refers to it as “the broad place.” YLT This was a large and commodious place repaired by the Temple servants (Nethinims – 3:26). The area appears to have been between the Eastern Gate and the Temple – close to the house of God, as well as the refreshing supply of water. This apparently was one of the larger areas, allowing the people to be together in one place, as well as of one accord.
Here we have a type of the place of profitable gathering – by the “water gate,” where the flow of Divine truth is more abundant. The “dung gate” was not a proper place of gathering, nor was “the valley gate.” The people of God do well to gather together in a place where the water of life is flowing – where spiritual sustenance is readily available, and refreshment is easily obtained. Where we gather is important.
EZRA THE SCRIBE AND THE BOOK OF THE LAW
“ 1b . . . and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.” This was a grand occasion! The wall had been built in record time, the city was secure, and it was time for it to be inhabited. What would the people call for? What matter would occupy their minds, and what would this united multitude consider to be of most importance? Remember, this people was “as one man.”
THEY CALLED FOR EZRA. “They” – the people – call for Ezra. He is obviously a very old man, having instituted the Temple procedure at least twenty-five years earlier. Yet, he was held in the highest regard for he was “THE scribe” (Neh 8:1,4,13; 12:36). Elsewhere he is described as “a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses” NIV (Ezra 7:6), “a man learned in matters concerning the commands and decrees of the Lord for Israel” NIV (Ezra 7:11), and “a teacher of the Law of the God of heaven” NIV (Ezra 7:12). His area of expertise was the Law of God – the Scriptures. He knew that the Scriptures said – “well versed.” He knew what God required of His people – “matters concerning the commands and decrees.” As a “scribe” he had probably copied the Scriptures, and wrote concerning them as well. He could take the Scriptures and expound them, or “show them forth,” which is a meaning of the word “scribe.”
This is the kind of man the people desired to hear. For some time, they had not been keeping the Law. Their religion had been going downhill, so to speak. But now they had a heart for God’s Word, and so they called for a man who knew that Word and could handle and expound it. I do not know how much demand there had been for Ezra from his return to institute the proper sacrificial order. But he was certainly in demand now.
O, that such men were held in high regard in our day! Rarely, indeed, can such a man be found – and rarer still is the request for such a person to be prominent, and to address a group of assembled people who are “as one man.” There are multitudes of believers, both young and old, who have never seen or heard an expert in the Word of God – an individual who can, of himself, “handle aright” the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). But when a body of people are rejoicing in a God-ordained work, and are gathered together “as one man,” and “in one accord,” such a person obtains unusual value, and will be highly regarded. I will go so far as to say that where such men are not sought and held in high regard, nothing significant for God is being done, or can be done.
BRING THE BOOK! Notice the precision of the requirement. THE book – a particular book. The book of THE LAW OF MOSES – written by the man through whom the Law was given. Which LORD had commanded – revealing the mind of the Lord Himself. Which the Lord had COMMANDED – A Divine appointment. Which the Lord commanded ISRAEL – The message that was particularly to these people.
What a marvelous requirement! “Bring the book!” Bring the Scriptures! Bring the Word of the Lord! Show us what the Lord has said. Declare to us what God requires of us! About a quarter of a century earlier, Ezra had begun teaching the people from “the book” (Ezra 7:10,25). Now the people ask him to resume that noble work, for it had been a while since value had been attached to “the book of the Law of Moses.”
EVERYONE WITH UNDERSTANDING. Ezra did, in fact, bring “the law before the congregation,” where they were assembled in the square before the water gate. The assembly was not comprised of leaders only, but of men and woman, and “all the children old enough to understand,” NLT or “all those old enough to understand.” NJB The latter group consisted of those who could get something out of the reading, even though they may not have comprehended it all. Everyone came together to hear one man who had an understanding of the Word of God: men, women, and the younger who could profit from the words. Isaiah said such children were “children weaned from their milk, to those just taken from the breast” (Isa 28:9).
When God instructed Israel, they were required to “gather the people together, men, and women, and children” (Deut 31:11-12). On another occasion, when Hezekiah was threatened by Sennacherib, “all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children” (2 Chr 20:13). When Jehosaphat sent teachers throughout the land to instruct “the people” out of “the book of the Law of God,” the fear of the Lord fell upon the nations around them, so they “made no war against Jehosaphat”(2 Chron 17:9-10).
It is a tragic circumstance that such gatherings are so rare in our day – gatherings that are called out of a preference and hunger to know the Word of the Lord.
EZRA READS AND THE PEOPLE ARE ATTENTIVE
“ 3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.”
HE READ. Other versions read, “he read from it,” NKJV “he read it aloud.” NIV and “he read it plainly.” DOUAY Ezra read so that all could hear – and there was a sizeable number of people present. His voice was not subdued, but had to be lifted up, like Peter’s voice on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). Joshua “read all the words of the Law, the blessings and cursings” to the people (Josh 8:34). At a young age, Josiah read in the ears of all the people “all the words of the book of the covenant” (2 Kgs 23:2). Like those who went before him, Ezra and the people knew little progress would be made as long as the people were ignorant of the Word of the Lord.
Even though our day is marked by a remarkable ignorance of the Word of God, there are few people demanding to hear it. Men like Ezra, who are expert in Scripture, are not in demand. The modern church is calling more for entertainers, motivators, and organizational experts, that for those who have an understanding of, and can effectively communicate, the Word of the Living God. This is a tragic circumstance!
FROM MORNING UNTIL MIDDAY. Other versions read, “from early morning until midday,” NASB “daybreak till noon,” NIV “sun-rise to the middle of the day,” Septuagint “from dawn till noon,” NJB and “from the first light until midday.” TNK This was no brief gathering. It was at least six hours long. Later in this book another reading occurs that also took a “fourth part of the day” (9:3). It appears from what follows that various expositions of the text were also given during this time as competent teachers “caused the people to understand the Law” while “the people stood in their place” (vs 7-8).
I can hardly conceive of such a gathering taking place in the United States. There has been such a dulling of the appetite for God’s Word, that rarely people even come together to consider it – much less hear it read and expounded for six hours – not to mention beginning such a reading at 6:00 AM!
The greater the spiritual need, and the more extensive the level of Scriptural ignorance, the longer the gathering should be – at least that is how it was in our text. Not only was this true in our text, but the people were on a street, not sitting in comfortable pews or reclining in lawn chairs. They were not in quest of comfort, but of a knowledge that was relatively new to them. Paul taught “from morning till evening” while held a prisoner in Rome (Acts 28:23). He continued speaking “until midnight” in Troaz (Acts 20:7), raised Eutychus from the dead, and continued “till break of day” (Acts 20:11).
THE EARS OF THE PEOPLE WERE ATTENTIVE. ALL of the people were attentive during this six-hour session. One version reads, “and all the people listened attentively.” NIV Another reads, “all the people paid close attention.” NLT It is one thing to stand for six hours while others are speaking. It is quite another to be attentive during that time, taking every word in with eagerness and while paying close attention.
Those who speak of the limited attention spans of people need to expound this text to us. They need to explain why these people, surrounded by unfavorable circumstances and hounded by enemies, could listen for such a lengthy period, and those of our time find such difficulty in doing so. What has happened to create such a condition? Why do such small appetites for the Word of God seem so dominate. The advocates of short attention spans and brief gatherings need to explain this condition, telling us why such inferiority is in the church. If it is true that God was in the circumstance of our text, then current conditions are strong indications He is not in them.
There is no virtue in length itself, and that is not the point of this text. The point is, however, that when people become conscious of the mighty God, and are aware of their need for a fuller knowledge and understanding of His Word, they have no interest whatsoever in brevity. Great spiritual awakenings, whether those recorded in Scripture, or in history, were never noted for infrequent or brief gatherings. Those who begin to grasp the Word of the Lord want the time of exposure extended, not truncated. Thus the two on the road to Emmaus asked Jesus to continue with them (Lk 24:29). Lydia also constrained Paul and Silas to abide in her house (Acts 16:15).
Perhaps if the ears of men were more attentive to God and His Word, God would be more attentive to their supplications (Psa 130:2). It is good for us to seek for the Lord to bring again an environment in which men are eager to hear His Word in a sustained manner.