COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 9:18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner. 9:1 Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. 2 And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshiped the LORD their God.” (Nehemiah 8:18-9:3)
Following the completion of the project God had put upon Nehemiah’s heart, the people have had an acute consciousness of the Living God. They have wanted to hear His Word read And expounded by someone who knew it well. Their hearts have been touched, and they have wept because they have fallen short of what was required of them. When exhorted by Ezra and the Levites, they have recognized the God-ordained Feast of Booths – a feast of gladness, and have entered heartily into. They have built booths for everyone to observe the seven day feast, with no complaints, objections, or failures to obey.
When God is genuinely at work among His people, consistent patterns begin to show themselves. A hunger for the Word, the conviction of sin, a preference for experts in Scripture, and the ability to listen long and heartily obey, are always present. Where these qualities are not found, unbelief is dominant, and an ignorance of God prevails. I know of no exception to this observation in all of Scripture. It is also important to note that these comely qualities have surfaced after a long captivity, ruin, and malignment by enemies.
CONSISTENCY – FROM THE FIRST UNTIL THE LAST DAY
“ 8:18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner.”
Whenever the Scriptures speak of those whose hearts have been turned toward God, there is always a consistent manner found in them. They are keenly aware of the Lord, listen to Him, and obey Him. This is true whether speaking of individuals like Noah, Abraham, and David before Christ, or Cornelius, Paul, the Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia, and the Philippian jailor after Christ’s enthronement. It is also true of groups of people before Christ, like Israel when delivered from Egypt, the dedication of the Temple, or when Nehemiah’s wall was finished. In this day of salvation, the same was true on the day of Pentecost, in the city of Samaria, and at Corinth and Thessalonica. Distinterest, apathy, and contentment with spiritual ignorance are NEVER present among those in whom the God of heaven is at work, to will and to do of His own good pleasure (Phil 2:13).
FROM THE FIRST TO THE LAST. The Feast of Booths was seven days long (Lev 23:42). During that time, the people were to live in the booths they built. The various activities associated with this feast, coupled with a spiritual renewal that was taking place, continued day after day – every day. All of this took place during the Old Covenant, which had inferior promises, offered no eternal life, and did not allow for the remission of sins as we know it. In our day, with “rivers,” “fountains,” and “springs” of living water all about us, there are multitudes in the Christian world who have never experienced a week of focused attention upon the things of the Lord. Among many people, revivals of this sort are no longer experienced, and a new kind of passive religion has moved to the throne of the contemporary church. But this was not the case with those of Nehemah’s day. They had responded to Divine impulses, finished the work they were given to do, and were now acutely sensitive of God, the Word of God, and their own spiritual condition.
HE READ IN THE BOOK. Every day, from the first to the last, Ezra read in the book of the Law. There was a sort of God-consciousness that was being honed to a fine edge. Here is a technical point worth noting. God did not command the people to read the Word during the Feast of Booths, or Feast of Tabernacles. The Law specified abstinence from servile work, and an offering made by fire for seven days (Lev 23:34-35). It was to be kept in a place the Lord would name, beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month following the harvesting of their crops (Deut 16:13-14). The reading of the Word of God, however, was only specified for the Feast of Tabernacles that took place during the Sabbath year, “at the end of every seven years.” At that time, Moses commanded, “At the end of every seven years, in the solemnity of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the LORD your God, and observe to do all the words of this law” (Deut 31:10-12).
There is no indication the feast of our text was taking place on the Sabbath year. Those whose response to God must be driven by a commandment from God will not understand the response of these people. Their hearts moved them to have the Word read every day, from the first to the last. Ezra did not search the Scriptures to see if this procedure was authorized by God, but sensed the working of the Lord among them, and thus read to the people. You might parallel this to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, which some people do only if it is commanded – never enjoying frequent participation.
THEY KEPT THE FEAST SEVEN DAYS. The feast was specified as seven days in length, and thus they observed it, filling the time with productive reading of Scripture, attentive listening, and the joy of the Lord. It is one thing to observe the feast with a mind to fulfill its technical requirements. It is quite another to fill up the time with things that make for spiritual strength and joy. This was an Old Covenant example of all things being “done unto edifying” (1 Cor 14:26). Excellent attitudes and attention characterized the time.
A SOLEMN FEAST ON THE EIGHTH DAY. According to the Law concerning this Feast, “the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you” (Lev 23:36; Num 29:35). A “convocation” is a solemn assembly at which reading took place. That is one of the things that made it a holy, or sacred, occasion. “Solemn” means sacred or holy, for holy days are referred to as “solemn days” (Num 10:10). While gladness took place at this time, it was a holy gladness, characterized by perception and sobriety. The people were sensitive of God.
CONTRITION, SEPARATION, AND CONFESSION
“ 9:1 Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. 2 And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.”
The Feast of booths, or tabernacles, began on the fifteenth day of the month, continuing for seven days, or through the twenty-second day. Every one of those days, the people gathered together to hear the Word of God read. The eighth day, or twenty-third day of the seventh month, a solemn or holy assembly took place in strict accord with the Word of God. Now we enter into the day following that sacred gathering – day twenty-four. This will be the ninth consecutive day the people have assembled together.
THE TWENTY-FOURTH DAY. The people me two days after the close of the feast, and the day after their “solemn assembly.” This all took place in the seventh month of the Jewish year, which began with the month of Abib, when Israel came out of Egypt by God’s high hand (Ex 12:2; 13:4). That month coincides with our month of March, which puts the seventh month around our September, which was the time of harvest. Now, toward the close of that significant month, this God-conscious people gathered together once again.
The first day of the seventh month brought in the Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:24). On the tenth day of this month the Day of Atonement took place (Lev 16:29-34). The fifteenth day commenced the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles, or booths (Lev 23:34). The twenty-third day, or eighth following the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles, was a special Sabbath (Lev 23:39). This certainly was a full month for the Israelites – the month during which they were delivered from bondage. It was totally separated from all fleshly convenience and concessions, and the people seemed to be keenly aware of this.
ASSEMBLED WITH FASTING. During the Feast they had just celebrated, there was no place for fasting, mourning, and sadness. Instead, it was a time of feasting and gladness (8:9-11). However, there is a time when “sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better” (Eccl 7:3). These people have not forgotten the conviction they experienced when they heard the Law for the first time in a long time. While it was not appropriate for them to fast with sackcloth and earth upon them during the Feast, it was appropriate now.
“Fasting” involves abstinence from the normality of eating. David “humbled” his soul with fasting, thereby driving all forms of pride from his heart (Psa 35:13). He also said He “chastened” his soul “with fasting,” reducing his earthly life to servicehood, and bringing his body into subjection (1 Cor 9:27).
“Sackclothes” were coarse and loose fitting clothing with no attractiveness or beauty – a sign of deep humility. The first person said to put on “sackcloth” is Jacob, who did so when he mourned, what he thought was, the death of Joseph (Gen 27:34). The Psalmist equated the wearing of “sackcloth” with a deep sadness produced by a sense of personal sin (Psa 30:11).
“Earth upon them” was also an act of deep humility and regret. When Israel was soundly defeated by the city of Ai, Joshua and the elders of Israel “put dust upon their heads” (Josh 7:6). When a messenger ran to Eli to tell him his sons had been killed and the ark of God was taken, he came “with earth upon his head” (1 Sam 4:12). When a soldier reported to David the death of Saul and Jonathan, he came with “earth upon his head” (2 Sam 1:2). When Job’s friends saw him in such misery, disfigured with festering boils, they “sprinkled dust upon their heads”(Job 2:12).
These were acts of deep contrition and amazement that such depths of sin had been reached by the people. These actions tended to subdue pride and inconvenience the flesh.
THEY SEPARATED THEMSELVES. At this time, Israel stood before the Lord without the presence of anyone who was not a Jew. They stood before God without any affiliation with the world and its manners. Whether household members, neighbors, or associates in otherwise lawful activity, “strangers” had no place in this gathering. They were dealing with matters between them and God, and it was a private gathering. There are times when “strangers” are out of order among God’s people – as in the selection of Mathias (Acts 1:14ff) and seeking grace to face the opposition of enemies of the faith (Acts 4:23ff).
THE CONFESSION OF SIN. The confession began with their own sins, and extended to the sins of their predecessors. The 106th Psalm articulates such a confession. Daniel did the same thing (Dan 9:8-11). In all of these instances, the people recognized things had gotten off course, and confessed it to God. Such a confession is in order today.
HEARING, CONFESSING, AND WORSHIPING
“ 3 And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshiped the LORD their God.”
The first time they met, they read the Word of God for six hours – from sunrise to midday, or noon (8:3). Both the day and night were divided into four parts, making eight three hour segments. Thus we read of the “fourth watch of the night”(Matt 14:25). When Jesus died, darkness covered the earth during the third part of the day – the sixth to the ninth hour (Lk 23:44). Jesus referred to all four segments of the day when He said, “Are there not twelve hours in a day” (John 11:9). He also referred to “the second watch” and “the third watch”(Luke 12:38). Thus these people meet again for six hours, which now appears to be have been a standard length for their new and refreshing gathering.
Now, however, the time is spent differently. Not only do they read the Word for three hours, that reading is followed by a three-hour response. I cannot help but note how different this is when compared with the most significant Christian gatherings of our day. It seems inappropriate to me that superior responses should occur under an inferior covenant. I do not know how that circumstance will be explained on the day of judgment. While the nature of godly responses under Christ Jesus may differ, they are still characterized by alertness, the subduing of the flesh, and the acknowledgment of the truth.
THEY STOOD AND READ. Once again, in honor of the Word, the people and the readers stood. When Jesus read the Word in his hometown synagogue, He “stood up to read” (Lk 4:16). When Peter spoke of the replacement of Judas, he “stood up in the midst of the disciples”(Acts 1:15). On the day of Pentecost “Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice” (Acts 2:14). In all of these cases, as well as that of our text, the flesh was brought unto subjection, and all human energy was marshaled for the hearing of the Word.
Everyone “stood up in their place,” or “where they were.” NIV This same kind of language is also used in reference to their first gathering: “and the people stood in their place” (Neh 8:7). This was not a casual and undisciplined assembly, but a formal and serious one. The distractions associated with informality were not found in this congregation. Everyone was even acutely aware of what they were wearing.
THEY CONFESSED AND WORSHIPED. As we see in the 106th Psalm, “confession” involves both the acknowledgment of God’s mercy and man’s sin. Daniel followed the same procedure (Dan 9:4-5). Isaiah did the same (Isa 64:3-6).
In their confession of sin, they included “the iniquity” of their fathers. As briefly mentioned in the previous section, these people were keenly aware that their “fathers” had gone astray, sending the whole nation down the wrong path. With them this was not a mere excuse for their own transgression, but the acknowledgment they now saw their history with spiritual clarity. David reached back into their history and confessed,”Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of thy mercies; but provoked him at the sea, even at the Red sea” (Psa 106:7). Hezekiah said, “For our fathers have trespassed, and done that which was evil in the eyes of the LORD our God, and have forsaken him, and have turned away their faces from the habitation of the LORD, and turned their backs” (2 Chr 29:6). Jeremiah lamented, “Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities” (Lam 5:7). Daniel acknowledged, “Yea, all Israel have transgressed thy law, even by departing, that they might not obey thy voice” (Dan 9:11).
Perhaps they rehearsed the sin of Israel at the Red Sea (Ex 14:11-12), the waters of Meribah (Deut 32:51), and their unbelief when they came to the borders of Canaan (Num 14:1-2). Idolatry was found in their history, as well as immorality, desiring a king like other nations, and the killing of their own prophets. These people did not murmur about their predecessors, but acknowledged they saw the error of their way and were able to connect it with their own condition.
While care must be taken not to lapse into a sinfully morose spirit, it seems to me there is stillroom for this kind of confession before the Lord. When we see a movement, or a position, that represents a departure from the Lord, let us be quick to acknowledge it. Should we choose to do so, we such confession will surely be followed by worshiping the Lord in praise as well as in confession, for both activities involve worship. We worship the Lord when we acknowledge His great mercy. We worship Him as well when we acknowledge our shortcomings, seeking forgiveness and cleansing from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). May there be a renewal of this sort of activity within the church of our day.