EZRA/NEHEMIAH, Part 14

Revive Us Again!

Nehemiah 8

For people who don’t find history interesting, Nehemiah chapters 8—11 are a refreshing change of pace. The first 7 chapters of Nehemiah’s book are two parts history with one part of intrigue. Very often, the following 4 chapters are referred to “revival chapters,” because they contain all the elements of a genuine spiritual revival. Students of revivals throughout Church history will readily recognize the four elements:

  • A renewed and sincere interest in the Word of God and a return to expositional preaching;
  • A conviction of sin under the ministry of the Word of God;
  • Fasting, prayer, confession of sin, and heightened awareness of God’s justice and mercy;
  • A commitment to learn and follow the will of God.

When these four things are present in a church, then we might say that church is in a state of revival. Add verse 10 into the mix, and we not only have a revival, but a truly satisfied congregation:

…the joy of the LORD is your strength.

The setting of chapter 8 is found in the last verse of chapter 7:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…

Let’s look at what happened when the people of Judah had finally settled in their towns. It all began with the Preacher.

1. The Preacher, 8:1

They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel.

We haven’t heard from Ezra in a long time; it had been years since the end of his book and the beginning of Nehemiah’s. But Ezra hadn’t been idle during those years. While he may not have been directly involved in Nehemiah’s reconstruction efforts, he was very much involved in his own reconstruction efforts. Scholars generally agree that Ezra had already been teaching the Scriptures to the people of Judah; he was “reconstructing” the Law of God in their hearts. This was important because the generation now living in Jerusalem had no exposure to the Temple, the festivals, or most of the aspects of the religious life of their parents and grandparents; they had to be taught, and Ezra did just that.

It was not accident or coincidence that the people asked Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. Their hearts were ready for more of God and ripe for a move of God.

2. The Place of Meeting, 8:3, 4

It’s hard enough for a modern preacher find a congregation that can pay attention to the Word of God for a mere one hour Sunday morning, but here, Ezra read the Word of the Lord all day, and the people listened!

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. (verse 4a)

So we have recorded for us the first time a pulpit was used in the ministry of God’s Word. It wasn’t the Baptists that invented it, it was the people of Ezra’s day. It was a special elevated platform (the Hebrew means “tower”) built specifically for this purpose, about 300 feet from the Temple grounds.

To most people, a 40 minute sermon seems like an eternity, but the people who had gathered to hear Ezra had been in captivity all their lives; they heard stories about the old days when God moved during the ministry of His Word; they had a taste of His Word and they were hungry for more.

3. The Listeners, 8:2—3; 5—6

A. They were many but not all, verse 2

the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.

Notice who was there to hear the Word: those who could understand it. This tells us a couple of things. First, from the perspectives of Ezra and Nehemiah, some preparations must have been made. Ezra had prepared their hearts for more through his ministry. Perhaps they made arrangements for babies and children to be looked after so as to keep distractions down to a minimum. But also, not every citizen was there; some didn’t show up for “whatever” reason. Maybe they had better things to do that morning, like wash their cars or plant their gardens. The point is, a true revival of faith is brought about when faithful followers of Christ have an interest and show up.

Second, the people that cared enough to show up that day already had an understanding of Scriptures. They didn’t need to be taught more; they didn’t need to be convinced to listen to Ezra. They understood what God wanted of them because they understood the Scriptures.

These things help us understand the nature of a true revival. It starts, not with an evangelist and praise band; it begins with individual believers who are already sold out to God; who are already in His Word and devoted to studying it. To those, revival comes.

B. They listened, verse 3

And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

This verse is quite remarkable for two reasons. First, the people, who already had an understanding of Scriptures because they knew them, listened “attentively” as Ezra read it. They knew it, they could probably recite it, yet they still listened “attentively.” They paid strict attention as they heard the Word being read. This is really astonishing. Very often, we Christians, who are so familiar with the Bible, have the bad habit of skipping over the verses or stories we think we know so well. They were more interested in the book than the preacher; they sought the message, not the man.

The other reason this verse is so remarkable is the fact that the those who gathered to hear the Word read, stayed and listened “from daybreak till noon .” Imagine that! For some 5 hours or longer, the faithful stood and listened as Ezra read the Scriptures. Talk about devotion and reverence. They were really interested; they had been held in exile for 70 years, finally they’re out and they can’t get enough of the Word of God!

C. They were reverent, verse 5

and as he opened it, the people all stood up.

They didn’t have padded pews to sit on. They stood up as Ezra read the Word for 5 hours. They stood up; a sign of reverence and obedience. These people, as a show of their high regard for the Scriptures and of their devotion to its admonitions, “stood up.” No wonder revival came to these people; they were ready for it every way.

D. They responded, verse 6

They people responded in two stunning ways:

…and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!”

When the crowd shouted, “Amen! Amen!,” they were basically shouting to Ezra, “We’re with you! We’re with you!” And the fact that they repeated it twice shows how intense the feeling was behind their affirmation.

Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Their second response was to “bow down.” This phrase occurs only a handful of times in the Old Testament and it’s an undignified posture. These people got down on all fours, with their foreheads on the ground in humble, reverential worship of God.

From the posture, they “worshiped” God. They responded to the demands of the Word by assuming a humbling position and offering God the adoration of their hearts. They yielded completely to the Scriptures with all their being.

4. The preacher

A. He blessed the Lord, verse 6

Ezra praised the LORD

Literally, Ezra the preacher began by “blessing the Lord.” He recognized God as “the great God,” far greater than himself or his ideas. The message of God was great; Ezra was merely a messenger. To “bless” the Lord means to make God smile. When we bless the Lord, we make God happy.

B. He stuck to the Book and spoke clearly, verse 8

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

It seems as though several preachers read and interpreted the Scriptures that day in addition to Ezra. Some scholars think Ezra was the “head reader” and the Levites were assigned by him to paraphrase the Hebrew into the language of the exiles. Some of those born in exile may not have had a good understanding of the Hebrew language, so Ezra made sure that he did whatever was necessary to make the plain meaning of the Word clear, and the people understood.

Ezra and the Levites made the Law of God clear, they did not teach their own ideas. They simply enabled the people to grasp what was being read: the Book of the Law. They did no engage in silly histrionics in trying to make it more interesting. How different from today’s church, where all manner worldly methods are employed in “preaching the Word.”

As R.L. Stevenson correctly observed: “The Bible should be read as freshly as a book, not dreamingly as the Bible.”

Ezra and the Levites were not song-and-dance men, they were not entertainers. Their job was to make the people understand the Word of God. For the preacher, it is not enough simply to read a verse or two and tell humorous stories. It’s not enough for the people in the pews to simply hear the Word. They must use their reasoning minds to understand it; to grasp intelligently the mind of God.

We have to admire Ezra as much as we admire Nehemiah, for he was faithfully adhering to the prophet Jeremiah’s admonition:

Let the prophets who have dreams tell their dreams, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:28)

5. The effect of the Word

A. They wept, verse 9

For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

This was the first response of the people to the Word of God. They were filled with sorrow because of a consciousness that the Law of God had been broken. The powerful exposition of God’s Word will always bring about a deep conviction of sin. Notice, it wasn’t a hymn or worship chorus that brought about the tears, it was the preaching (exposition) of the Word of God. This is what brings about revival in a person’s heart. Revival is not an emotional gimmick, but a conviction of the heart caused by an honest exposition of God’s Word, not a manipulation of it.

This kind of sorrow is not a kind of self-centered remorse, but a genuine sadness of knowing how far from God’s ideal you have fallen and how much you have offended Him. But this kind or sorrow is not meant to last long:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

B. They rejoiced, verse 12

Then 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.

When the Ezra and Nehemiah saw the people weeping, they said something that may sound odd at first, but was actually very wise:

This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” (verse 9)

This revival among the people was NOT about the people; it was about God. The day during which the Word was read was a holy day to God; it was set apart for HIM, not THEM. Had the people continued in their weeping and mourning, the day would have degenerated into a wishy-washy self-centered celebration of emotionalism, and that is not what a revival is for. The religious leaders forced the people to get a grip on their emotions and to remember Whose day this was.

Then they told the people what they should be doing:

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (verse 10)

Repentance was to be followed by celebration. God’s Word, at first, may cause sadness and conviction and it may cause a heart to melt or break, but that’s not the end it! The end-goal of godly conviction must always be rejoicing and celebration in the Lord. Or, another way to look at it: mourning because of sin must always precede the joy of salvation.

C. They ministered to those in their midst in need, verse 10

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.

The beautiful words at the end of verse 10 have formed the basis of many sermons: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Now you know the context. Repentance, followed by joy leads to service, which leads to the ability to tap into God’s strength. This is how believers look after each other. Those who have share with those who don’t have, in the strength of the Lord. True revival will lead to needs within the community of faith being met.

The Word of the Lord, read and taught faithfully, will bring about a revival in the hearts of those who hear it IF they are seeking more of the Lord. The Word of the Lord will convict of sin, which will lead to repentance, ending in joy. This idea of “joy” was one reason why John wrote his first letter:

We write this to make our joy (or your) complete. (1 John 1:4)

God does not want any believer to be miserable, He doesn’t want you to have a little bit of fun. God wants His people to have a whole lot of fun around His word and in service to Him. Studying the Word of God and listening to its exposition ought to bring an abundance of joy into your life. If it doesn’t, there is a problem in your life that you need to face up to. Something is seriously wrong with a Christian who has no interest in God’s Word; no interest in reading it, studying it, hearing it preached, and no interest in Christian fellowship. Those are the things that must precede any revival.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
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