God allowed the Jews, because of their sins, to be taken into captivity by the Babylonians. In 606 B.C. Babylon deported the citizens of Judah to begin the seventy years of captivity that had been foretold by Jeremiah and other prophets. Following the first deportation came two others, one in 596 B.C. and the last in 586 B.C. during which the entire city of Jerusalem was destroyed including the temple area. However, in 539 B.C. Cyrus, the Persian king, overthrew Babylon’s world rule. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus allowed a remnant of God’s people to return to their homeland (II Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1). The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe a great restoration movement that took place when the Jews returned to Palestine.
Just as there were three deportations from Judah into captivity, there were three exile returns to Judah from captivity. Zerubbabel and 50,000 Jews returned to Palestine in 536 B.C. (Ezra 2). He rebuilt the temple and tried to restore the temple worship in 516 B.C. In 458 B.C. Ezra led a second expeditionback and restored the temple service (Ezra 8:1-20). However, the city of Jerusalem itself remained in ruins. In 445 B.C., during the 20th year of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, led the third group of exiles back. Rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls was Nehemiah’s priority. At great expense he rebuilt the walls and did it in only fifty-two days in spite of incredible oppositions (Neh. 6:15). As daunting as it was, rebuilding the city was not going to be enough. The people had to rebuild their commitment and relationship to God. In Nehemiah 8 we have recorded for us their efforts to do exactly that.
Bring The Book
Within a week after completing the walls, these Jews, were about to do what had not been done in well over one hundred years, meet together under the protection of their ramparts.
Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. (Neh. 8:1)
The very first step on the road to restoration began with this single most important directive: “bring the Book.” After several years of spiritual deprivation, which led to their spiritual separation, the Jews demanded the only thing that could bring about restoration: God’s Book. Until people demand the Book, their spiritual state will not change. People who are religiously divided from each other and are spiritually separated from God must realize that unity, reconciliation, and forgiveness can only be accomplished on God’s terms. We, being unholy, would never know how to approach our holy God and be reconciled with Him if He had not revealed how to (1 Cor. 2:11-13). God has planned and provided everything necessary for man to be restored. Because He revealed His will to the “apostles and prophets” who wrote it down, we can know for certain what He expects and likes and what He does not (Eph. 3:3-5).
The scriptures are profitable, can make us complete, thoroughly equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and include all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Peter admonished, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). The apostle John warned against tampering with the message of God (Rev. 22:18-19). These scriptures are demanding that we bring the Book and the Book alone. The doctrines of men result in division, vain worship, and a false sense of security. Only the Book of God can bring true restoration.
Hear And Understand The Book
So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. (Neh. 8:2-3)
Ezra read the Law to the people because it was necessary for them to hear it. Hearing the word of God is absolutely essential for restoration. The Apostle Peter opened the very first gospel sermon with the demand, “hear my words” (Acts 2:14). Peter realized that in order for these men to be forgiven of their sins it was necessary for the gospel message to be communicated to them. The Apostle Paul asked,
“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?…So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:14, 17).
Further, the Jews in Ezra’s audience were eager to hear. “The ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (Neh. 8:3). They desired to hear what the book had to say and demonstrated their respect by standing in its presence (Neh. 8:5). They respected it not merely because it was ancient, but because it was authoritative. It was that which “the Lord had commanded Israel.” In order for the Bible to have the needed impact in our lives we must poses attitudes that reflect our belief in it as the authoritative Word of God. We must approach the scriptures with a readiness to hear and a willingness to accept its teachings. We must have the “if the Bible says it, that settles it” attitude. Note that Jesus warned in Mark 4:24, “take heed what you hear,” but in Luke 8:18 He admonished, “take heed how you hear.” An irreverent attitude towards the scriptures can hinder our reception and understanding of them.
That being said, comprehending what they heard was vital. God does not call for us to follow mindless superstition, vain repetition, or human tradition. Our faith is to rest upon intelligent interpretation and application.
“So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading…All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:8, 12).
When Philip approached the Ethiopian’s chariot and heard him reading the scriptures he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). When Jesus explained the parable of the sower He said, “he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:23). Obviously many people hear the word of God but react differently. The fruitful person is he who hears with an honest and good heart and understands (Luke 8:15). The soil in which the seed is sown must be receptive.
The Jews of Nehemiah 8 were receptive. “All the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law” (8:9). Why were they weeping? They had hearts that were tender and touchable. Were these tears of joy? Perhaps. But certainly these were tears of sorrow as the scriptures made them aware of their sins. One will not journey down the road of restoration until he sees his sin and becomes sorry about it. The prodigal son of Luke 15 had to “come to himself” before he would head home. In Neh. 8:9, the Jews were weeping tears of sorrow because as they began to hear and understand the word of God they realized just how far from God they had journeyed.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions the results of the first letter he sent to them:
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. (2 Cor. 7:8-10)
Paul rejoiced because their sorrow produced results. As difficult as it may be, sincere self-examination is needed in order to make the necessary changes or corrections in our lives. It is not that God wants us to be sorrowful, but that our sorrow might motivate us into action.
Obey The Book
The day after Ezra read from the Book, the heads of the families gathered to Ezra to receive further instruction from the law of God. It was then they discovered that in the seventh month the Law prescribed that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in observation of the Feast of Tabernacles (Duet. 16:16: Lev. 23:42). Nehemiah 8:15-17 reads:
And that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths…So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:15-17).
They did not merely learn what God wanted, but they did what God required. They read the Book and they obeyed it. “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:21-22). When we suppose that we are right with God when we have yet to obey God we are deceived. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Jesus taught the difference between the wise and foolish man is that the wise will act on what he hears and the foolish will not (Mt. 7:24-27). It will not matter how much we read, hear, or learn, if we do not apply and practice the truth our relationship with God will not be restored.
Continue To Follow The Book
“He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance” (Neh. 8:18).
Restoration was not an experiment but a commitment. Once restoration takes place, we must be committed to following the ways of God. Jesus told some Jews who believed on Him, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). The one who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it will be blessed in his deed (James 1:25). Restoration requires faithfulness unto death (Rev. 2:10). Your commitment of yesterday or yesteryear will do you no good if you are not faithful now. Regardless of what previous generations have done, it is the responsibility of each new generation to learn and practice the ways of God.
Nehemiah 8 records a wonderful time in the history of God’s people. During this remarkable period it was clearly demonstrated what can be done when people have determined minds. The simple principles set forth in this chapter can be emulated by anyone who truly desires restoration. If people make up their minds they want to restore New Testament Christianity nothing and no one can keep them from doing precisely that.
This article is by Evangelist, James Cating