“Restoring the Soul”
October 18, 2009
The right pursuit of God’s word brings health to the soul.
I. Rightly Pursuing God’s Word (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
II. Healthy Responses to God’s Word (Nehemiah 8:9-18)
Since we began Nehemiah, we’ve been concerned with rebuilding Jerusalem. In chapter one Nehemiah learned that the people who had returned from the exile were in great trouble and shame, that the wall of Jerusalem was broken down, and its gates destroyed by fire. It was ruin and a mess, with rubble so thick you could hardly move. Nehemiah, by God’s grace, has been able to get resources and motivate people and face down opposition so that the walls have been rebuilt and the gates put in place in only fifty two days.
Then Nehemiah has turned his attention from the city to the citizens. He’s finding that spiritually the people of Jerusalem are just as broken, ruined and filled with rubble as the city had been. The rest of the book is concerned with the health of the soul, restoring and reviving the hearts of the people. And I believe that as we sit here today, that’s the kind of rebuilding we need.
Let’s take a little quiz and each individually examine the health of our souls. On a scale of one to ten, I want us to rate our own internal state. One would be ‘my walls are totally broken down and my soul is full of ruins’ and ten would be ‘by God’s grace these walls are solid, the city is full of life.’ So on a scale of one to ten, where is your soul in terms of peace and hope? Do you have a lot of peace and hope, or only a little? On that same scale, where is your soul in terms of truly celebrating God – really enjoying his works and his ways? How’s the health of your soul as measured by joy? Do you have an undercurrent of joy, a fullness of joy, or is that well dry?
On the flip side, how are you doing at recognizing, grieving over and repenting of sin? How healthy is your response to sin? And how about obedience? First, do you desire to do what God wants? On a scale of one to ten, how strong is that desire? And second, do you do what God wants? How effective is your soul at taking command of your attitudes, behavior and actions?
If you’re anything like me, your score is far from a perfect ten. I think we all fall short of soul health. But we can be encouraged, because our chapter this week offers great hope for people whose souls need a little rebuilding, for people whose souls need godly health. Nehemiah 8 teaches that the right pursuit of God’s word brings health to the soul. We’re going to divide the chapter into two parts, the right relationship to God’s word – the pursuit of it, and healthy responses to God’s word, the use of it. Now for reasons that will become clear, I’m going to ask you to stand to read this Scripture.
I. Rightly Pursuing God’s Word (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
Nehemiah 8:1-9, but I’m actually starting with the last phrase from the previous chapter: When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, 1all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. 2So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. 5Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
7The Levites--Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah--instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.
In Nehemiah 7 we studied the list of those who came back from exile. That return was accomplished by the first day of the seventh month, 535 B.C. Now, about ninety years later, another kind of redemption has been accomplished in rebuilding the walls; that too was completed by the first day of the seventh month, Tishri. That’s why the last phrase in chapter 7 repeats the date. We’ve returned to Nehemiah’s time and we are witnessing an assembly of all the people, which is what God had put in Nehemiah’s heart.
So everyone gathers in the square before the Water Gate on the east side of the temple precinct. Once gathered, the people ask Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. So all of a sudden here’s Ezra; we haven’t seen him yet in this book. He’s the one who led the most recent return from exile: not the first one ninety years before, but a second one, about thirteen years earlier. He’s a priest, from the high priestly line, but he’s known as a scribe because, Ezra 7:6 says “he was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given.”
Many liberal scholars have accused Ezra and his fellows of editing most of the five books of Moses, and of writing the book of Deuteronomy wholesale. But the people of Israel are wiser than the wisdom of our age. They know that this book is from the pen of Moses and from the mind and heart of God.
We’re already seeing the first element in the right pursuit of God’s word: seeking it. These people didn’t ask Nehemiah to give a speech, or Ezra a theological talk. They didn’t seek some reward for their wall building. What they did do was seek the Word. Simply put you can’t rightly pursue God’s word without pursuing it. Just as Ezra was asked to bring out the Book, so we must give the Book a place in our lives, a place in our days, not a place on the shelf, but a place where we open it regularly, in our laps or on our desks or on our computers or via our ipods. We need to seek the input of God’s word.
So on the first day of Tishri these people gather, men, women and, we assume from the text, children old enough to understand what was going on. They gather and listen to the word of God read aloud for six hours. And during this time they listened attentively. That, of course, is the second way of pursuing God’s word. We not only open it, we actually listen to it. In these days of the internet and the ipod you can take that literally, listening to Scripture as you sit at home, as you walk or run for exercise, as you drive to work and as you settle down for the night.
But this listening is not just letting words flow past your ears, or even past your eyes. The idea is to listen attentively – to actually focus your heart and mind on the words of Scripture. Maybe that means taking notes, maybe reading slowly, maybe blocking out other distractions. Certainly it means praying for insight, and asking God to speak to you and to your situation and needs.
Let me give an example. Some of you have been on so many airline flights that when the flight attendant does the little speech about the oxygen masks, life preservers and emergency exits, you don’t even hear it. But if you’re on flight 1549 and your engines get taken out shortly after take-off, you’re going to listen to the repeat of those instructions as you glide toward the Hudson river with all of your attention, because knowing what to do and where to go may save your life. That’s why we should listen to the Word of God attentively – because these are life saving words.
Verses 4 to 8 give more details. Ezra stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. On either side stood thirteen other priests. These probably took turns reading, as it would be difficult for one man to read for six hours without amplification to such a large crowd, even with breaks.
As he began, the people all stood up. They stood to receive the Word of God with respect, just as we’re doing today. They also received it with praise. Verse 6: “Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” By honoring the word of God and by praising and worshiping God, they show they’re pursuing from the heart not just the head. The Word is gift from God for our minds, but even more for our hearts and souls; we are to engage with it heart, mind and emotions.
The next element of pursuit is introduced in verse 7 with this list of Levites who are teaching and interpreting the Word of God. You might picture it this way: Ezra and the priests are reading from the platform; Jeshua and the other Levites are in the crowd, and when a section has been read, they go around to the various groups and ask ‘did you understand what was being said?’
Some have claimed that they were translating, from Hebrew to Aramaic, and there may have been some of that, but it’s likely that most of what they were doing was explaining the meaning in a way the people could grasp, just as a preacher’s role today is to say again what God has said so that it can be grasped and applied by a contemporary audience.
So how do we pursue the Word of God? By seeking it out, by listening attentively, by engaging with it heart and mind, by taking hold of good teaching. I think for us that means not only having it interpreted for us, but learning to study it for ourselves, using the rich resources we have available, with the goal of a full-orbed understanding. Verse 8: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” The next to the last element in the pursuit of the Bible is understanding what it means and what it implies for us.
But of course it can’t end there, and it doesn’t: this pursuit of the Word of God is intended to make a difference to the health of our souls and our lives: we haven’t pursued it until we have applied it, and it’s the application that brings health to our souls. That’s what we see in verses 9 to 18.
II. Healthy Responses to God’s Word (Nehemiah 8:9-18)
Stand again as we read the Word of God. Nehemiah 8:9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."
11The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." 12Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.
13On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. 14They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month 15and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"--as it is written.
16So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. 18Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
Nehemiah reappears. He’s been in the background, but he’s intensely interested in this assembly. He and the others notice that the people are beginning to respond to the Word, specifically in weeping. Now there is nothing wrong with weeping or grieving or mourning in response to what God says. Nehemiah and these others aren’t saying this response is wrong; in fact I’m sure it was a response they were looking for. But they seem to have a timing in mind: they want the responses of joy and celebration to come first, and then, in chapter 9, the response of confession and repentance.
Notice what they say “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” What day is this? The first of Tishri, which in Scripture is the feast of trumpets, the joyful feast that begins the fall festal season. Trumpets is a celebration, a day for blowing the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet. It’s also the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and thus the beginning of the sabbatical year every seven years and the beginning of the year of Jubilee every fifty. So on this joyful day, Nehemiah wanted the assembly to begin by recognizing God and his blessings. Though the weeping was not inappropriate, they turned the people’s attention to celebration.
But before we go there, let me repeat that recognizing sin, often with grieving and mourning, is an essential response to the pursuit of God’s word. God’s Holy Spirit uses God’s word to convict both unbelievers and believers of sin.
If you are not yet a believer, the serious pursuit of God’s word will soon lead you to recognize that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You’ll see it in nearly every Scriptural character, and almost all Scriptural accounts. Mankind, each person, is enslaved to sin and deserves judgment, separation from a sinless, perfect and holy Creator. But Scripture also enthusiastically points us to the love of God, displayed in Jesus. He came to live a sinless life and die a cruel death for our sins. In rising from the dead he conquered sin and death and by faith in him we now receive forgiveness and eternal life. That’s the good news that you’ll find by pursuing Scripture. Paul says God’s Word is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
But the Holy Spirit also convicts believers – as we examine our lives in the light of God’s word and through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, we see, over and over, those places where we fallen short of being like Jesus, fallen short of the fruit of the Spirit, fallen short of obedience, and indulged characteristic sin. And like these people in Nehemiah, this chosen remnant, we need to learn to weep God’s tears over our own immaturity in Christ. I’ve been listening to a downhere album which prays this perfectly: Lord, won’t you break my heart with the things that break your heart.
As we rightly pursue God’s word, the first response is conviction of sin, and repentance from it. But since Nehemiah himself puts that off until the next chapters, where we will see it beautifully modeled, I’m going to stop there for now and move on to other responses.
The one Nehemiah calls for is joyful community. Verse 10 “Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."” Notice the community: “y’all go;” enjoy these things in families and clans. But also remember the poor; not everyone will have the means to celebrate. So share, send portions, care for one another.
And don’t grieve because this is a day of celebration and because ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ The flip side of grieving is that in relationship with God we find joy, in celebration of God we find strength that is not our own. These people have been listening not only to God’s laws, but to the story of God’s redemption from Egypt, and his promises, and with conviction of sin they are also beginning to understand that all this good news is true.
That’s where the joy of the Lord comes from; the Biblical conviction that the God of the universe redeems and rescues me, not because of my worth, but because of his loving grace. And only this joy, the joy of the redeemed, can give us the strength we need to live well in a fallen world. This is what the people are beginning to understand in ‘the words that had been made known to them.’ They saw their sin, but they were also learning the greatness and mercy of God – and that’s where the great joy and celebration were born.
What brings health to our souls? Grieving over our sin is healthy for our souls, but not alone; it is only healthy when we also lay hold of the joy of the Lord, the joy of the redeemed, the joy of our salvation, the joy of understanding the good news of Scripture. This rejoicing in a great God who greatly saves is our health, when there is no health in us. Joy in a God who redeems and makes promises is the wholesome response to God’s word.
We see more the next day. Ezra reads from the platform again and as he does they come across one or more descriptions of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths, Sukkot in Hebrew. Leviticus 23 teaches that “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord's Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. 35The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. 36For seven days present offerings made to the Lord by fire, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present an offering made to the Lord by fire.”
Leviticus goes on to explain that “On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” and “42Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths 43so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.'" So it was a feast of remembrance and celebration.
And the people of Nehemiah’s day remembered and celebrated. They heard these words as aimed at them, they applied these commands to themselves, and since it was the seventh month they went out and did what it said: gathered the fronds, lived on the rooftops and in the city squares.
This too makes for a healthy soul: obedience. Doing what God says is good for what ails you. Stopping what God says to stop is good too. It may not feel good to give up some cherished sin or attitude; you may want to hang on to it. But ultimately all sin is harmful: it’s death to un-believers and deadness to believers. Just as in the physical realm continuing to smoke, drink, do drugs or even overeat will ultimately make you miserable, so too will continuing in any sin. Turning to God in obedience will ultimately result in soul health.
So as we pursue the word we find health in weeping over our sin, we find health in rejoicing over our God, and we find health in obeying, doing what he says.
That’s what the people of Nehemiah’s day did. Verse 17: “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. 18Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God.” The verse implies that this is the first time the feast had been celebrated since Joshua. Yet we know that’s not true: we see it celebrated in Ezra, and in both first and second Chronicles. It was actually one of the most popular feasts in the later Old Testament.
No, the thing that hasn’t been done since Joshua’s day is the public reading of the law. After the conquest of the land Joshua gathered all of Israel on the slopes of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim and read to them the words of the law. We have no record of this being done after that, up until this moment in Nehemiah.
Yet this too is commanded. Deuteronomy 31 “At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, 11when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. 12Assemble the people--men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns--so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. 13Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land.”
This is what Nehemiah and Ezra were doing that hadn’t been done since the days of Joshua –they were celebrating what is now called Simchat Torah, the rejoicing in the Law. So the last bit of response here that leads to soul health is not only obedience to the word, but rejoicing in the Word.
As the Psalmist says “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; 8the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. . . 10More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. 11Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”
Nehemiah shows us that we pursue God’s word through seeking, through listening, through engaging, heart and soul, through studying, through understanding. We respond to God’s word through grieving over the sin it reveals, rejoicing in the God it reveals, obeying the commands it reveals and celebrating the gift that it is. These things are good for our souls. They are perfect tens on on soul quiz: the right pursuit of God’s word brings health to the soul.