COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 8:4 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. 8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:4-8)
The commitment of the people to hearing the Word of the Lord is noteworthy. Working for and with the Lord and hearing His Word are coupled together. It is often fashionable for Christian people to make an attempt to work for the Lord without ever submitting to the hearing of His Word. No such tendency will be found in Nehemiah’s builders. In building the wall of Jerusalem, they have engaged in the work of the Lord. It is fitting, therefore, that they now submit to the hearing of His Word. The reading will not come from just anyone, but from Ezra the scribe, who has an understanding of what he reads. This reading will also be attended by exposition – an opening up of the Word, so that the understanding is fruitful. As Jesus Himself taught, when the Word is not understood, it does not stay with us, but the devil snatches it from us (Matthew 13:19).
EZRA STANDS UP TO READ TO THE PEOPLE
“ 8:4 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up.” Nehemiah records the manner in which the Law was read to the people. It was not a casual reading, but a formal one, in which certain disciplines were put into place. While formalities are certainly not an end of themselves, they do serve a vital purpose. When properly attended to, they have a way of soliciting the attention of the people, causing them to focus upon the matter at hand. Thus people enter certain activities with formality to rid themselves of disinterest, and marshal their energies for a single purpose. Even mundane activities are approached in this manner: i.e., a marriage ceremony, the swearing in of the President, the pledge of allegiance, and the singing of the national anthem. Slipshod involvements are never profitable.
A PULPIT OF WOOD. Other versions read “a platform of wood,” NKJV “a wooden podium,” NASB “a high wooden platform,” NIV and “a tower of wood.” BBE Thus Ezra read from an elevated position, above the people, so that they were required to look up. Jewish synagogues followed the same procedure of speaking from an elevated place, thus giving dignity to the hearing of the Word. The first buildings of early believers (the Pilgrims and the Puritans) in this country also had elevated pulpits from which the Word was read and expounded. This very text has had an effect upon the history of God’s people.
This was a platform of size, for six people stood on Ezra’s left hand, and seven on the right – fourteen people in all. It was especially made for this purpose – dedicated to a noble cause. Rather than Ezra choosing a natural speaking area, and standing among the people, thereby identifying the more with them, he read from a lofty position, so as to bring their attention higher and add a certain dignity to the reading of God’s Word. Today we are faced with a wave of casualness in the church. I do not know that it is a good sign. Somewhere in the procedures of God’s people, the idea must be encouraged that God’s word is “above the people,” and deserving of a certain dignity and respect.
THEY STOOD BESIDE HIM. The men standing on Ezra’s right and left hands were probably priests who were, at the time, active in the Temple service. Their presence approved and supported the reading of the Word, confirming it was from the Lord and required the attention of the people. Four of these men (Anaiah, Maaseiah, Hashum, and Meshullam) are also mentioned in the tenth chapter as chiefs of the people. Hilkiah and Zechariah are mentioned in the 12th chapter as being of the chief priests. Pedaiah and Malchia are named as priests in the 13th chapter. Mattithiah, Shema, Urijah, Mishael, and Hashbadana are mentioned only here. Here, these men were not standing to expound the Law, which would be done by the Levites (verse 7). It appears they were there primarily to support Ezra, by their presence confirming the truth of what was being read.
HE OPENED THE BOOK. Elevated high above the people, Ezra opened the book of the Lord in their sight. While it might be argued that the sight of God’s book has no sanctifying effects, that postulate is certainly not supported by this text. You may recall that Jesus, in His first public exposition, also “opened he book” in the presence of the people (Luke 4:16-17). Now, with the eyes of the people upon him, Ezra opens the Word of God – the book that had been neglected for many years, and with which the people were no longer acquainted. This was an epochal moment, and all of the people sensed it.
ALL THE PEOPLE STOOD UP. At the moment Ezra opened the book, “all the people stood up.” There was a sense of honor and respect in the assembly, composed of men, women, and children with the ability to understand. The focus of that entire assembly was on Ezra, who had opened the book in which the mind of the Lord had been revealed.
There is certainly something to be said about the dignity of reading the Word of God. Moses read the book of the covenant “in the audience of the people” (Ex 24:7). Joshua “read” all the words of the book of the Law to the people (Josh 8:34). Josiah read “all the words of the book of the covenant” in the ears of “all the people” (2 Kgs 23:2). The average assembly of professing Christians could do with an increased measure of this kind of sensitivity. Wandering minds, disinterest, and the likes, are like robbers that pillage and take from the people of God. If you want to derive lasting benefit from the Word, you must learn to marshal and focus all of your energies as the people in this text.
EZRA BLESSES THE LORD AND THE PEOPLE RESPOND
“ 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” As we read this text, one senses the sanctity of the moment. There is unusual sensitivity in both Ezra and the people. They are, in a sense, approaching the God of heaven – exposing their hearts and minds to His Word.
EZRA BLESSED THE LORD. Lifting up his voice before this vast gathering of earnest inquirers, Ezra first speaks to the Lord. He blesses God – “the great God!” This was a common practice among the discerning. When Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, found Rebekah, a wife for Isaac, he “blessed the Lord” (Gen 24:48). When Hezekiah commanded that provisions be brought for the priests and Levites, “that they might be encouraged in the law of the Lord,” the people responded generously. When the king saw their offerings he also “blessed the Lord” (2 Chron 31:8).
When David gathered a collection for the building of the Temple, the people likewise responded generously, rejoicing, and offering willingly with of “a perfect heart.” Upon witnessing this marvelous and willing generosity, David “blessed the Lord before the congregation.” The words with which he blessed the Lord are recorded in First Chronicles 29:10-19. They provide a classic example of what is involved in blessing the Lord. They include an acknowledgment of the greatness of God (11-12), thanksgiving (13), the acknowledgment of humility and unworthiness (14-15), that the people have only given what God has allowed them to have (16), that God tries the heart (17), and that the work to which they contributed was ordained by God (19).
Thus, when Ezra blessed the Lord before the people, he no doubt brought the attention of the gathering to the Lord Himself and His guidance in the great work they had completed in fifty-two days. Before he reads, he will place the Lord before them.
ALL THE PEOPLE ANSWERED. There was a marvelous response from the people. The response was to the blessing of God – the acknowledgment of His greatness and direction. They shouted out the two-fold “Amen, Amen!” Under the Law, when a husband suspected his wife was defiled, the priest was ordered to institute a rather elaborate procedure through which God would reveal the true condition of the wife. As that procedure was being instituted, the woman was to say “Amen, amen,” giving her full consent to what was being done.
By saying “Amen, amen,” the people were consenting to the truth of what Ezra said about the Lord, and declaring they confessed the same. This was a form of unity – a means through which the people were being brought into one accord and thus prepared for the hearing of the Lord. Their assembly was not a silent one, like so many of our day.
The people also lifted up their hands, while saying “Amen, amen.” This also was a common practice among God’s people. David asked the Lord to consider his prayers “as incense” before Him, and the “lifting up” of his hands as the “evening sacrifice” (Psa 141:2). David’s prayers were frequently said to have been accompanied with the lifting of his hands (Psa 28:2; 63:3; 134:2; 141:2).
Jeremiah challenged a chastened people, “Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens” (Lam 3:41). It was as though they were presenting their hearts to the Lord, raising them up with their hands to the great God of heaven. Paul urged men everywhere to pray, “lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Tim 2 :8). Such language, therefore, should be familiar to the people of God. There is something liberating about being able to bring our bodies to express honor and respect for the God of heaven.
THEY BOWED THEIR HEADS AND WORSHIPED. This is not something done perfunctorily, or out of mere habit. The moment was exhilarating, and what the people were about to hear read was essential to their lives. They responded exactly as the Israelites did when Moses and Aaron told them God was going to deliver them: “they bowed their heads and worshiped” (Ex 4:31). When Hezekiah sanctified the house of the Lord and its procedures, the people also “bowed their heads and worshiped”(2 Chron 29:30). Thus they bowed their heads in humility, like Jacob, acknowledging their unworthiness of “the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth” that had been shown to them (Gen 32:10).
Their bodily movement was in strict accord with their hearts – “they worshiped.” That is, they gave God the reverence that is to be had “of all them that are about Him” (Psa 89:7). Worship and reverence include fear, perception, honor, and willingness. It is the acknowledgment that enough of God has been seen to provoke adoration and esteem.
READING IS COUPLED WITH UNDERSTANDING
“ 7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. 8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” Here are an additional thirteen men – called “the Levites” – who stand with Ezra. Of them, only the name Maaseiah is repeated. If this is another man with the same name, we now have twenty-six men standing with Ezra, or at least twenty-five. The phrase “and the Levites” is not meant to say the Levites were in addition to this group. Rather, it identifies who these men were. They are named, then said to be Levites as well. Other versions read, “The Levites – ”(names), NIV and “the Levites.” NRSV Another version seems to give the sense of the text by reading, “and the Levites (the men who are named) made the law clear to the people.” BBE
THEY CAUSED THE PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND THE LAW. Other versions read, “helped the people to understand,” NKJV “explained,” NASB and “instructed.” NIV What was read – the Law – was therefore expounded, explained, or opened up. The Levites “made the Law clear to the people,” BBE for that is the only way it would be profitable to them. The word “expounded” is the New Covenant word for causing the people to understand. Jesus “expounded all things to His disciples,” opening up what He had said to the multitudes (Mark 4:34). He also “expounded” the Scriptures that spoke of Himself to the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:27). Peter “expounded” to Cornelius point by point how the Lord had dealt with him (Acts 11:4). Acquila and Priscilla “expounded” to Apollos “the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26). While a prisoner of Rome, and in his own hired house, Paul “expounded and testified the Kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23).
This has been the consistent manner of those ordained of God – to clarify the Word of God. Much of the church of our day is subjected to the exposition of the human personality and various human experiences. In such an environment psychologists, motivators, historians, and the likes, obtain a high value. However, in Nehemiah’s day, it was those who had an understanding of the Word of God that were vaulted into prominence.
THEY READ DISTINCTLY. The eighth verse shows HOW the Levites and Ezra caused the people to understand the reading. First, they read the book distinctly, or “clearly.” BBE Some versions read “translated,” NJB,TNK suggesting the book was in Hebrew, while the people spoke in Aramaic. There is, however, no support for this view. Rather, the idea here is that the book was read so it could be clearly heard. As with Peter, the voice was “lifted up” (Acts 2:14), for there is no point to speaking if the words spoken are not clearly heard.
THEY GAVE THE SENSE. Other versions read “gave the meaning,” NIV “instructed them distinctly in the knowledge of the Lord,” Septuagint and “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read.” NLT Ezra and the Levites, therefore, did not simply read the book of the Law, leaving it to every hearer to decipher its meaning. If it is true that Scripture is the result of God’s Spirit moving upon holy men to write, then the Word of God has a specific meaning. It is not a jumble of words to be taken by every individual as they please. If this was not the case, our text would make no sense at all.
In our day, there has been an inordinate emphasis on making applications of Scripture – causing it, as men suppose, to be “relevant” to every day life. Thus some ignore great sections of Scripture because they see no “application” or meaning of it to every day life. However, this kind of thinking is flawed to the core, and is greatly destructive. Those who imagine God inspired Scripture as a mere guideline for daily living could not possibly be more wrong. The details of human requirements contained in the book of the Law mostly pertained to procedures related to the service of God. While there were some details about daily life, they were small in number to those things relating to individual and collective identity with the God of heaven. These are the things the Levites clarified for the people. Their expositions doubtless made the people more God-conscious, and aware of how their approach to Him was to be facilitated.
THEY CAUSED THEM TO UNDERSTAND THE READING. This, then, is HOW Ezra and the priests caused the people to understand. First, they read what God had said clearly, so that the words themselves could be comprehended. Then they expounded what they read, giving its meaning, and showing the people the interrelationships of that Word. Thus, the people were profited by their exposure to the Word of God. It would be good if the churches of our day, with much greater light, were more devoted to such an approach.