By Rony Kozman, Ph. D.
Assistant professor of Biblical Studies, Samford University
Hear God’s Word
Nehemiah 8:1–3, 7–12
Put yourself in a position to hear God’s word. (1–3)
With the ascendance and permission of the Persian empire, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity to the land of Judah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. This return to the land of Judah should be understood within the framework of the covenant God made with Israel and that we read about in the Pentateuch.
Israel must be faithful to God and must obey the covenant. If Israel proves to be unfaithful and breaks the covenant, then the curses of the covenant will fall upon the people. They will be defeated by foreign nations and exiled from their land just as the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in the eighth century B.C., and as the Southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered and deported from its land by Babylon.
The return of the exiles to their homeland is God’s mercy and compassion in bringing the curses of the covenant to an end. With this return of the people to their land, there must also be a return of the people to heed God’s covenant (God’s word and instructions).
At the opening of Nehemiah, Nehemiah recalls God’s covenantal fidelity and confesses His people failed “to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that You commanded Your servant Moses.” And after the Book of Nehemiah recounts the return of the exiles to the land of Judah, the people ask Ezra, the scribe and priest, to bring out “the book of the law of Moses” and to read it aloud to them. They wanted God’s word unfolded to them, and they listened carefully to what it said.
Listen to God’s word with the goal of understanding (7–8)
The law of Moses was not simply read out loud to them. But one of the jobs of the priests was to interpret, explain and teach the law to the people. We are told “the Levites helped the people understand the law.”
There was both the public reading of God’s word as well as certain designated and qualified people (the Levites) who dealt with its “interpretation” and who “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Respond to what you hear with both repentance and celebration. (9–12)
We can learn from the example of the people of Israel. We should eagerly desire to intake God’s word, to have Scripture read to us, but also to pay careful attention to the teaching of qualified people who can explain it, interpret it and apply it to our lives.
This attention to Scripture should not be merely intellectual and cerebral, but as with the people of Israel, we should be attentive to God’s word so that we can conform our lives to it (9:9). In this case, the people of Israel grieve because they recognize they were not faithful to God’s instructions. But Ezra instructs them to rejoice because they had understood God’s word and the teaching of Ezra and the Levites.
We also can and should (and at different times) respond similarly. We can grieve that we have not done what God requires of us in Scripture, and we can also rejoice that we understand what God requires of us as we turn in repentance and as we remember and celebrate God’s mercy and forgiveness.