COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 8:9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, 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. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength. 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. 12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” KJV (Nehemiah 8:9-12)
Laboring on and completing the work of the Lord has made the people conscious of God and His Word. They have therefore called for Ezra the scribe, an expert in the Law, to read the book of the Law to them. It has been read formally before the men, women, and children who can understand. The Levites have expounded the Law, giving the sense of it so the people can understand. Ezra has blessed the Lord, and the people have all shouted “Amen, Amen.” All of the people have stood to hear the Word. All of them heard it opened up and made plain by the Levites. This is an environment in which the Lord can truly work. (1) His assignment has been fulfilled eagerly and swiftly. (2) The people have a heart for the Word of the Lord, and want to hear it all. (3) The leader has blessed the Lord, ascribing honor to Him. (4) The people have entered in, responding with their “Amen.” (5) The Law has been read loudly and distinctly. (6) The priests have carefully and thoroughly expounded it to the people, causing them to understand what they heard. It should not surprise us, therefore, that good things will come during this occasion.
THIS DAY IS HOLY – DO NOT WEEP!
“ 8:9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, 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. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.” The book of the Law has been read and expounded for six hours – but the gathering is not yet over. The people have responded favorably, yet require further direction. There is a state of heart and mind into which they can enter that has eluded them. Their leaders will not let them leave until the whole of blessing has dawned on them.
A UNITED EXHORTATION. The word “Tirshatha” is a Persian title, and means governor. This word is used because the Persian king, Artaxerxes, had made Nehemiah Governor of the land in his behalf (5:14). Ezra the scribe is the one who is expert in the text of the Law. The Levites are the ones who know the meaning and use of the Law, and “taught the people.” Now all three experts join together in an insightful exhortation to the people – government, theology, and exposition. Who is able to measure the power brought to bear upon the hearts and consciences of the people by such a marvelous unity!
THIS DAY IS HOLY. Another version says,”This day is sacred.” NIV The word “holy” means set apart. This was a day reserved for special activity – hearing the Word of the Lord read and expounded. Under the Law, the Sabbath was a “holy day” (Ex 35:2). It was a day when people were to break from their normal routines and devote themselves wholly to the Lord and His pleasure. Thus Isaiah wrote, “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honorable; and shalt honor Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it” (Isa 58:13-14). For those in Christ, this is now a manner of life, so that whatever we do, it is “in the name of the Lord” (Col 3:17). Yet, there are occasions for believers like the one before us, when the time is special.
Here was a day that was holy that had not previously been observed! However, the people had chosen to devote this time to the Lord according to His Word, and that is what made it “holy.” It is like “the first day of the week,” when saints “come together into one place”(Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 14:23). There are still activities that make a day “holy,”or “sacred.” Gathering together “to break bread,” or “eat the Lord’s supper,” is such an occasion (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20). It is a time when “all things” are to be done “unto edifying” (1 Cor 14:26). If the day of our text was “holy unto the Lord,” how much more are those times when those who are justified and enlightened come together “holy unto the Lord.”
Some within the Christian community say there is no such thing as having a special day – that every day is the same (Rom 14:5). While there is a sense in which this is true, there is also a sense in which it is not. Jesus not only rose from the dead on “the first day of the week” (Mk 16:9a), but also appeared to Mary Magdelene on that day (Mk 16:9b), and twice to His disciples as well (John 20:19,26). The day of Pentecost was also on the first day of the week, fifty days after the Passover Sabbath (Lev 23:16). Surely these four events lift the first day of the week above the normal! This day is marked by infinitely greater benefits than those realized on the day described in our text.
On one occasion, when at Miletus, Paul determined leave Asia, hastening “to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost” (Acts 20:18). I suggest that much of the profitlessness that is found in church gatherings is owing to a failure to consider the occasion “holy to the Lord.”
MOURN NOT! With strong exhortations, the leaders challenged the people, “do not mourn or weep!” NASB This event took place on “the first day of the seventh month” (8:2). This was the feast of trumpets, or “a memorial of blowing of trumpets,” and was to be noted for gladness (Lev 23:24; Num 10:10; 29:1). Later, Nehemiah refers to this day as “the day of your gladness” (10:10). The 81st Psalm is said to have been written for this occasion. This was not the time for weeping, but for rejoicing in the Lord.
ALL THE PEOPLE WEPT. The reading of the Law had so convicted the hearers that they broke out in tears. So many years had been wasted. Their obedience had been flawed. Their city had been neglected. The walls had laid in ruin for several decades after the captivity had ended. There had been abuses of one another. The reading of the Word had awakened all of these recollections, moving the people to repentance and tears. O, that such a response could be seen in our day! Yet, this still was an occasion for joy, for something fresh and new was beginning. Today, the remorseful past was not the point!
GO, EAT, DRINK, SEND PORTIONS, AND REJOICE
“ 10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” How insightful these leaders were! Some would have brought the weeping to an even higher level, saying it was time to weep and lament. But the servants of God knew the meaning of the feast of trumpets, discerned the joyfulness of the occasion, and saw that strength could be had.
EAT THE FAT AND DRINK THE SWEET. The idea is to eat rich and unusual food, and the choice and best drinks. They were to eat as partaking of a royal feast, not an ordinary meal. This was not a time for every-day food and drink. Bring out the best, the richest, the choicest of all food and drink, and enjoy them. It is as though they said, “Enjoy yourselves today! Eat and drink the best that you have. This is not a day to fast or to abstain, but to feast unto the Lord!” Under the Law, there were numerous occasions when the people were commanded to “rejoice before the Lord” (Lev 23:40; Deut 12:12,18; 16:11; 27:7). They were also commanded, “thou shalt rejoice, thou and thy household” (Deut 14:26). Also, they were told, “And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates” (Deut 16:14).
This was such an occasion, and the leaders recognized it. The feast of trumpets required it. The completion of the work of God called for it. The subduing of their enemies demanded it. The restoration of the reading of and commitment to the reading of the Law also mandated that this be a festive and thankful occasion.
Suffice it to say, there are still occasions when special joy is in order – times when the rich things of God can be indulged with joy, and our souls can delight themselves in fatness (Isa 55:2). Praise the Lord, these are more frequent under grace than they were under Law. Under the New Covenant, they are more the norm than the exception.
SEND PORTIONS TO THE NEEDY. There were still some among them who were poor, having nothing. But today, they must share in the bounty of the others! This kind of compassion was also commanded under the Law (Deut 16:11,14). God had been gracious and abundant to them in their impoverished state. Now they were exhorted to do the same among themselves.
DO NOT BE SORRY. Other versions read, “Do not sorrow,” NKJV and “do not be grieved.” NASB This was not the time to lament over the past. There had been a Divine turning of events, and it was intended to be an occasion for rejoicing.
There are still many souls who are given to lamentation because of a wasted and unprofitable past. However, such sadness can be swallowed up by the joy that grace and truth have now been found. The wake of the wave of truth has a way of washing away “mourning,” and replacing it with “the oil of joy” (Isa 61:3). When you begin to see the truth of God, it is the time to rejoice, not sorrow because you have not seen it before.
THE JOY OF THE LORD. Most versions read the same “the joy of the Lord IS your strength.” Some variant readings are, “the joy of the Lord is your strong place,” BBE “your stronghold,” NJB and “the source of your strength.” TNK The “joy of the Lord” is like an area, or location in which, safety and strength are realized. However, I do not believe that is the sense of this text. Rather, the joy of the Lord is depicted as something resident in the believer. Wherever it is found, inner strength, resolve, determination, and purpose are realized. The work of God becomes more doable, the blessings of God more accessible, and the good fight of faith less fatiguing.
Have you not found that it is difficult to sin when you are rejoicing in the Lord (Phil 4:4)? When we “joy in God” (Rom 5:11), sin loses its luster, temptation is less strong, and world is less appealing. There is a refreshment in “the joy of the Lord” that cannot be realized any other way. In Christ, this kind of joy is called “joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). It is also included in “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). It is, in this sense, “the joy given by the Holy Spirit” NIV (1 Thess 1:6). This joy is produced by the enlightenment and encouragement brought to us by he Spirit. From another perspective, this is “the God of all hope” filling us with “all joy and peace in believing” (Rom 15:13). Here the Lord clarifies both our redemption and inheritance to our hearts, thus producing great joy.
For believers, this is a “joy unspeakable and full of glory” that flows out of knowing the Christ we cannot see, yet in whom we are “believing” (1 Pet 1:8). What strength is realized by people who, like those of Nehemiah’s day, perceive what God has given to them.
THE WORD IS CONFIRMED AND UNDERSTOOD
“ 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. 12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.” What an eventful day this was! They had heard the words of the book of the Law. They had heard those words expounded, and opened to their understanding. A wave of conviction had swept over the vast throng of people, and penitential weeping was heard. Discerning leaders had perceived the Divine intent of the assembly, and had called the people up higher, to even more noble involvements.
THEY STILLED ALL THE PEOPLE. Other versions read “quieted all the people,” NKJV and “calmed all the people.” NASB The unusual sensitivity of the people is seen in these words. They responded whole-heartedly to the reading of the Word, the explanation of the Word, and to an exhortation as well. Their weeping did not dull their ears. Their emotion yielded to their hearts and minds – to spiritual rationality.
ALL THE PEOPLE WENT THEIR WAY. Again, behold the response of the people, and consider how commendable it was. A word from the Levites, and the demeanor of the people was changed. How rarely such a thing has happened in the history of the world! They held their peace, recognized the nature of the occasion, and ceased to be grieved and sorrowful. They did precisely what they were exhorted to do. They turned in their mournfulness and took upon themselves a festive spirit of godly rejoicing. They gave themselves to the finest of diet, and remembered the poor among them, sending them portions so they could also rejoice. A remarkable change indeed, and in a short time.
GREAT MIRTH. Other versions read “rejoice greatly,” NKJV “celebrate a great festival,” NASB “celebrate with great joy,” NIV and “enjoy themselves to the full.” NJB This is the first place in the book of Nehemiah where joy, rejoicing, or gladness is mentioned. Sorrow has been mentioned (2:2), as well as sadness (2:1-3). The people had struggled with fear (4:14; 6:9). Just before this, the people were weeping. Now, however, they make a quantum leap from weeping to “great mirth,” or “great joy.” They were like the convicted sinners on the day of Pentecost who went from being “pricked in their heart” to “gladly” receiving the “Word” (Acts 2:37,41). Sudden and climactic change, then, IS possible.
I do not cease to marvel at the versatility of the human spirit – particularly in the matter of going from weeping to rejoicing, and lamenting to praising. This is precisely the condition the prophets said would take place in the day of salvation, in which we are blessed to live. A “lame man” would “leap as an hart,” the “tongue of the dumb”would “sing,” in the wilderness “shall waters break out,” and “streams” would burst forth in “the desert” (Isa 35:6). There can be sudden change, even though a sustained period of sorrow exists!
If those of Nehemiah’s day could enjoy such a remarkable change, what of those who are in Christ Jesus? If those without remission, without a Mediator, and without a “better covenant,” could quickly move from weeping to mirth, what are the possibilities for those who are justified by faith, have peace with God, and are being “changed from glory to glory?” It seems to me that there are a lot of possibilities to be seen in this area of life. If a heart is cast down, a spirit heavy, or an eye wet with tears, it can all change suddenly and for the better!
BECAUSE THEY UNDERSTOOD. How is it that the people could go so quickly from weeping to eating, drinking, providing for their poorer brethren, and having great joy? It is “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.” NIV Understanding, then, has a powerful impact upon the soul. This is not mere scholastic understanding, like comprehending mathematical tables or the law of gravity. This understanding is personal, when the individual sees the association of the things of God with himself. It is what the Scriptures call “spiritual understanding,” when the things of God are discerned, making sense to the soul. It is one thing to do what you are told. It is quite another when you see the sense of doing what you are admonished to do.
This circumstance is why Paul prayed his readers would be able to understand what he wrote (Eph 1:18; Col 1:9; 2 Tim 2:7). Where spiritual ignorance exists, there is not sufficient motive to obey. Those who keep the people of God in a state of ignorance cause them to be confined to disobedience at the worst, and weeping at the best. However, when great men and women of God open the Word so that people of tender hearts can understand it, sudden and favorable change is imminent. Our text provides us an illustration of the power of God’s Word. It unveils to us the remarkable effects of receiving the truth, whether in the form of an affirmation, a commandment or an exhortation.