1 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.
2 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.
I have to admit that chapter 8 of the book of Nehemiah is one of my favorites. Nehemiah’s account of the priests and scribes reading the Word of God is so powerful and positive. Here they are, the remnant of Jerusalem that has returned from captivity, just having finished rebuilding the wall around a home city many of them had never seen before. They have done the Lord’s work for fifty-two days, building a wall that their enemies swore would never rise again. And now, having had their lineages and tribes recorded, they stand in the city square and wait to hear the written Word of God.
We should think about that moment. We should consider what they have been through. The Jews had offended God by turning from Him, nearly to a man becoming proud and idolatrous. Although warned by prophets to repent, they had gone right on sinning, and so their enemies descended upon them from the north and the east. They experienced wave after wave of warfare and famine, until finally they were marched from Jerusalem in chains and taken to Babylon. The city of David was razed, her walls destroyed, the temple looted and burned, and the homes of the people knocked down to provide bricks for the homes of their incoming enemies. In Babylon they were ridiculed and mocked, forced to sing their holy psalms for the amusement of their captors. (Psalms 137:3-4)
But in their shame and slavery, a remnant of the priesthood kept the Word of God alive in their hearts. A few prophets spoke among them of hope and a glorious revival. Gradually, over the course of seventy years – the time foretold by the prophets – the people’s hearts changed. Humbled and contrite, they began to return to the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. The Jews in captivity became a people broken and yearning for wholeness, a people seeking God’s face during a time when He had warned them He would not be found by them. And then along came Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, telling them they were to return home to Jerusalem to rebuild the city God had chosen for His house.
They made the long journey home under the watchful eyes of their governors and their nearby enemies. And for fifty-two days they labored day and night to rebuild a wall that had originally taken many years to build. They did all of this without one day of worship, without Sabbath or rest, without much more than the encouragement of Nehemiah and the promises of the prophets. Then the day came when they were finished, and the people who had worked as one now rested as one, waiting in the city square to hear God’s Word.
This was not a place for children, who had doubtless played among the stones and rubble while their parents and grandparents labored to rebuild. This waiting in the square was not for those incapable of hearing – the deaf or the disabled. Most especially, this gathering in the square was not for those unwilling to listen. No, this was a moment for every man and woman and “all who could hear with understanding” to hear the Word of God just as the Lord had spoken it to Moses. The Hebrew word used here for “understanding” is one that means to discern, to cut apart, to separate one thing from another.
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
This moment in the square before the Water Gate was a moment for people hungry for the Word of God. It was a time of silent anticipation, and a moment of inner preparation. The people came there because they WANTED to come there, they WANTED to hear what God had to say to them. These were people who had been inspired by the Spirit of God to rebuild that which could not be rebuilt.
15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days.
16 And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.
And now the rebuilders waited expectantly to hear the Word of the living God who had brought them home and rebuilt their city’s wall. They were ready to discern, to learn, to understand what their forefathers had ignored and disdained. They were ready.
When we approach the Word of God – His Holy Bible – are we so ready? When we come into church or enter a Bible study group or sit down to read on our own, are we ready to learn? Do we come with a heart open to the discernment we will receive? Do we come with a sense of awe and wonder and reverence… and love? Or do we come just for duty? Do we just show up? Or do we make it a goal for our day?
I invite all of us to consider the heart we bring to the Word of God. Let us come to His Bible with open and willing hearts. Let us come with joyful anticipation. Let us come with respect for our peers and for the Word we are about to hear. Let us come before God every day, ready to receive the only nourishment our souls should ever need: “every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) Will you join me in front of the Water Gate of Jerusalem?
Lord God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, we know You are the God of the living. We live because You have so willed, and we believe because You have so willed. Open our eyes and our ears to see and to hear. Open our hearts to receive Your instruction every day. We love You, O Lord, and we are ready. We are ready. Amen.