COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 8:13 And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law. 14 And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month: 15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written. 16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.” (Nehemiah 8:13-17)
The Jews are in a state of recovery from the Babylonian captivity. The people sense this involves more than restoring appearance – building the walls, and re-inhabiting the city of Jerusalem. They also perceive the Word of God is central in their recovery, and thus have called for Ezra the scribe, together with the Levites, to help them understand what the Lord had declared. The first day they all met together, they heard Ezra bless the Lord, and responding with submitted hearts. When they heard the Word for the first time in a long time, they all wept, and had to be quieted by Ezra and the Levites. This was an occasion for gladness – a time to eat and drink the best, have a great festival, and send provisions to those who had nothing. Because the people understood the exhortation, they returned to their homes and did precisely that. Their joy and commitment now spill over into the second day. God is working among them, and thus their devotion continues.
THEY GATHERED TOGETHER AND FOUND SOMETHING
“ 8:13 And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law. 14 and they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month.” Once again, the multitude of people came together. The heads of all of the groups (“chief of the fathers” or “heads of all the families” NIV ), all of the people, and the Levites, came together on the second day of he feast.
THEY GATHERED UNTO EZRA. Here was the man they had called for in the beginning – an expert in the Law of God (8:1). Now they gather to him once again. Other versions read, “gathered around Ezra the scribe,” NIV “met with Ezra,” NLT and “came together unto Ezra the scribe.” ESV They did not gather around a motivator, or a planner, or an organizer, but around someone who could handle and expound the Word of God. Ezra had become the center of their attention because of his understanding of the Scriptures. This was so because the people were God-conscious. Their minds were occupied with the Lord Himself, and consequently they were intent upon hearing what He had declared.
Such a gathering is exceedingly rare in the church world of our day. We have lived to see an era of professed worship in which the reading and expounding of the Word of God has little or no place. Whole assemblies are now giving more time to what they call “praise and worship,” than to hearing the Word of the Lord opened to them. However, it is apparent that a genuine thirst for the Lord – a real awareness of the living God – is not often present, for there is little demand for the Word of God. Leaders of such assemblies can rarely be viewed as experts in the Word of the Living God.
GATHERING TO UNDERSTAND. This multitude of people, including their leaders, and those who served the Lord in unique ways, came to Ezra “to understand the words of the Law.” Other versions read, “that they might gain insight into the words of the Law,” NASB “to give attention to,” NIV “to gain wisdom,” DARBY and “to study.” NRSV They were not content to merely hear the words of the Law read to them, they wanted to comprehend them – to know what they meant. Already they had experienced the effects of understanding God’s word. It had brought about a day of great gladness (8:12). Thus they had found the truth of Hezekiah’s statement, “Good is the Word of the Lord” (2 Kgs 20:19). Because “the Word of the Lord is right”(Psa 33:4), there are only advantages that result from the understanding of it.
After fifty years of preaching the Word, and with the exception of the two congregations upon which I have bestowed most of my labor, I can testify how unusual it is to find a church that gathers together to understand the Word of God. Living in spiritually primitive times, the people of our text were far advanced in their attitudes to the average American Christian. Were they to return to our era, and enter into our churches, they would be highly disruptive, and would probably be asked to leave. Nevertheless, these people are examples of what occurs when individuals become acutely aware of the Lord.
THEY FOUND WHAT GOD COMMANDED. The extent of the reading and exposition of Scripture is seen in what the people “found.” As we will see, their finding required a very alert heart and mind, for the Word did not say a lot on this matter. The fact that this requirement was found confirms the intense interest and commitment of these people. The average church assembly in our country would never have found it – in fact, great bodies of professing Christians are still unaware of this segment of the Old Covenant.
THE FEAST OF BOOTHS. They found where God had required the people to “dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month.” This requirement was by no means a dominant theme in the Law. Moses recorded this law in Leviticus 23:34 under the heading of the seven-day “Feast of Tabernacles,” the third of three great feasts the Jews were to celebrate (the others being the Passover and Pentecost). The particular instructions mentioned in our text are found in Leviticus 23:40-43. Moses spoke once more of this feast in Deuteronomy 16:13-15, although the details of keeping it are not given there.
During this feast, the native-born Israelites were to live in “booths,” or temporary houses, for seven days. The Law specified the reason for this requirement: “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 23:43). It was, then, a feast of commemoration of the great deliverance from Egypt, and the protection of the people in the wilderness – something the Lord did not want these people to forget.
GO OUT TO THE MOUNTAIN AND FETCH BRANCHES
“ 15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” Nearly one hundred years earlier, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the people had kept this feast, as Ezra records (Ezra 3:4). The prophet Zechariah, who prophesied at that time, had told the people returning from the captivity to keep this Feast (Zech 14:16). However, now, almost a century later, it was no longer being kept. Through the reading and exposition of the Law, they saw the error of their way.
ANNOUNCE IT EVERYWHERE. Under the Law, all of the people in all of their places were to be reminded of the necessity of keeping the feasts (Lev 23:2,4). However, the announcement was not being made now because the Word had not been declared. People had become ignorant of Divine requirements, and were actually living in disobedience without even knowing it. Who can fail to see the relevance of this to our day, when a similar ignorance is widespread among professing Christians. The condition is even more intolerable in our day, for this is “the day of salvation” in which an inner witness has been given as well as an outer one (Rom 8:16).
GO TO THE MOUNTAIN. The general meaning of the text is that the people should to a high place where choice timber grew. In regards to Jerusalem, the mountain was the Mount of Olives. The point of the requirement was that choice and full branches were to be selected. They would be used to provide a shelter in which to live for seven days.
SPECIAL TREES. After getting to the high places, the people were not to select branches randomly. Discretion and deliberation must be used. After all, they were going to live for one week in the “booths” they built. It is further probable that the trees mentioned were scarce, requiring the people to look for them. The trees referenced in Leviticus included “the boughs of goodly (beautiful) trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick (leafy) trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev 23:40). In general, palm trees had strong and curved branches, allowing for versatility in building. Willows of the brook were very large and strong. Healthy olive trees were noted for having no knots or weak spots in them. Thus, branches were to be gathered that were beautiful, strong, adapted for building, leafy, and superior in constitution. As you can see, the selection of such trees required perception, deliberation, and diligence.
MAKE BOOTHS. “Booths” were temporary huts made of wooden branches. They were more substantial than a tent, but were not intended to be mobile. Jacob, when journeying to Succoth, built a house for himself, and “booths” for his cattle (Gen 33:17). For Israel, when journeying through the wilderness, they normally lived in tents, which were carried with them (Num 1:52; 9:17-18). However, during the feast of the tabernacles, they were not to be content with their normal dwellings. Something more substantial had to be built. Convenience had to be abandoned, and a search made for materials that were not in the wilderness or on the plain. To build these temporary abodes, they had to obtain materials from the high places – “the mountain.”
Application. There is also a spiritual principle to be seen here. When we are gathering spiritual materials for building of our own house “on a rock,” so to speak (Matt 7:24,25), selections should be made from “the mountain” – the high places of the Word. By that I mean the lofty truths of the Gospel, the New Covenant, and the declared benefits that have been provided in Christ Jesus. If we attempt to build our lives upon elementary things, we will advance no further than those things can take us. For example, if the thrust of our religion is family and social life, and the primary texts on which we feed our souls are, for example, are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, our lives will be very shallow, and we ourselves will be very vulnerable. Such texts are certainly not useless – they are the Word of the Lord. However, they are to life what tents were to the wandering Israelites. There comes a time when something more substantial must be sought – a stronger and more beautiful abode in which to dwell.
We must remember that just as the wilderness sun beat down upon the Israelites, requiring that they dwell in a substantial shelter, so spiritual life is lived out in the heat of trial. While there is a sense in which we are “pilgrims and strangers,” journeying through a strange land (1 Pet 2:11), there is also a sense in which we must become established. This establishment is to us what dwelling in booths was for Israel. It is a time when the recollection of deliverance and present protection become more prominent.
THEY DID IT, AND WERE GLAD
“ 16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. ”
EVERYONE DID IT. It was not enough simply to hear the Word. The people became “doers of the Word” as well. They did what we are also admonished to do, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). Without further prompting from Ezra and the Levites, “every one” “made themselves booths.” Such a response was not common among the Israelites. However, there was a spiritual environment among them now that contributed to this happening.
THEY WERE EVERYWHERE. Booths were built in all places, but only within the walls. None were built outside of the walls of Jerusalem. Those with houses having flat roofs built the booths there. Those with courts, or courtyards, associated with their dwellings built them there. Booths were built in the courts of the God’s house, as well as in the courts, or squares, of the massive streets by the Water Gate and the Gate of Ephraim, or the gate that led out to Ephraim. These booths were doubtless built for those who did not live in the city, or had come to the city from afar. Thus provision was made for all of the people to keep the feast. There was not the inconsideration of others that was found in the church at Corinth, when they celebrated an infinitely greater feast (1 Cor 11:20-22).
THEY MADE THEM AND LIVED IN THEM. Other versions read, “made booths and lived in them,” NASB “and dwelt in them,” RSV “lived in these shelters for seven days,” NLT and “put up shelters and lived in them.” NJB These were not shelters to visit during the day, allowing the people to conform to the normal conveniences of life. This they did in remembrance of their ancestors, who dwelt in booths in the wilderness (Lev 23:43-44).
I do not know of any ordinance under either the Old or New Covenant that allows for convenience and ease. While there is a tremendous emphasis on these things in our day, the Lord has never approached His service in such a manner. The deliverance of Israel from Egypt was attended by the first Passover and a phenomenal amount of activity. It was certainly anything but convenient. The same may be said of the journey through the wilderness and the eventual conquest of Canaan. The activities of the High Priest and the Levites similarly required profound commitment and unusual involvements. Over and above all of this, we have the activity of the Lord Jesus, required in order that He might deliver us from “this present evil world” (Gal 1:4). A religion of convenience is a curse. It is only adopted where the people attach no priority to their religion.
IT HAD BEEN A LONG TIME. “Jeshua the son of Nun” is Joshua, Moses’ successor (Josh 1:1). This is a form of his name that was used prominently in later times. The name “Joshua,” in the Greek form, is “Jesus” (Acts 7:45; Heb 4:8), which means “deliverer.” The historical account of the observance this feast in the days of Joshua is not recorded. It is understood that upon their entrance into Canaan, Israel celebrated this occasion with great joy.
The text does not mean that from Joshua to Nehemiah the Israelites had never again celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles and the building of booths. Ezra records the feast was celebrated under Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:4). Solomon also observed this feast of the seventh month (1 Kgs 8:2,65,66).
The idea is there was never a celebration of this kind and magnitude since the days of Joshua. The words “done so,” refer to the manner in which the feast was kept. Thus the NIV reads, “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this.” The same thing is said of a generation that kept the Passover in an unusual way “And there was no Passover like to that kept in Israel from the days of Samuel the prophet; neither did all the kings of Israel keep such a Passover as Josiah kept” (2 Chr 35:18).
The people were not content to merely remember the past, or fulfill a technicality. They also captured the spirit and essence of the feast. Today, many Christians glory in the history of their movement, yet have not restored the joy and gladness that characterized its beginning. Such conditions bring no glory to God.
THERE WAS VERY GREAT GLADNESS. This is the part that excelled previous feasts since Joshua. The people excelled in their gladness, and it all started with the Word.