By J.R. Miller
The work of Nehemiah had been well done. In spite of opposition and all hindrance the walls had been rebuilt and the city had come into a measure of prosperity. Then under the divine direction Nehemiah gathered together the nobles, the rulers, and the people, that their genealogical records might be made up. After this there was called a great assembly to listen to the reading of the Holy Scriptures. The people came eagerly. They wanted to hear what God would say to them. We should be eager to respond to the call which summons us to God's house to a Church service. It is the divine command that we should do this. Yet there are reasons for the requirement.
We need to hear continually the words of God, that we may not forget them. We need to look frequently into God's face to have a glimpse of His holiness as the ideal for our own living. We need to be reminded continually of our sins, then of our duties. Besides, we have sorrows, and we need the comfort which comes to us only through God's Word. We have a Scripture injunction which exhorts us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.
When the people had come together, Ezra the priest brought out the roll of parchment of the law and read the words to the people. Everybody was there that day. They came as one man. The men did not leave all the church-going to the women, as some men are disposed to do in our modern days. Nor were the children left at home while their parents went--they were there, too. The service that day seems to have been like a great Sunday-school. The law of Moses was the book used, and Ezra and the other teachers read it to the people and explained its meaning to them.
The Bible is the one book for all who want to know the essential things of life. There is no other book for the penitent sinner desiring to be saved, or for the sorrowing one seeking comfort. Other books have their message and may do very well when the joy is full--but in life's great crises--there is only one book that meets all needs. There is no other book for the death. "Bring me the book!" said Sir Walter Scott, when he was approaching the closing hour. "What book?" one asked. "There is but one book!" replied Sir Walter. There were thousands of books in his great library--but there was only one book for that hour. The Bible tells us how to live--and then shows us how to die.
The people were eager to hear the Word of God. Perhaps they had not heard it read for a long time, and now it was a joy to have it read to them again. There was silence in the great throng as the reading began and as it proceeded. "The ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law." The trouble with many people, old as well as young, is that they are not attentive when the Scriptures are read. Some ministers complain that the people do not listen to the sermons they preach to them. Some teachers find difficulty in getting the ears of their scholars when they seek to explain the lessons. If only we would remember, that it is God who is speaking to us when His Word is read--we would listen eagerly and attentively.
Ezra's sermon that day was very long--from dawn to noon; yet no one seems to have got tired. We read that in Wycliff's days, when portions of the Bible which he had translated into English and had written out with a pen were carried among the people, so eager were they to hear the Word of God in their own language that they would gather in groups round the fires and would listen ofttimes all night, drinking in the precious sentences. The Book is so common now, and we hear its words so frequently, that it has not the interest to our hearts it should have.
When Ezra unrolled the parchment--all the people stood up. Thus they showed their respect and reverence for the Holy Book from which the good priest was about to read. The words to which they were to listen, were God's Words, and they rose up to do God honor. Standing was a posture of respect. Men stood before a king. Angels stood before God's throne. It is not a superstitious regard for the Bible, that we should cherish. The mere honoring of the Book itself amounts to nothing. Some people wear a crucifix around their neck--and yet show none of the humility and worshipful spirit of Christ in their lives. Some people handle the Bible with seeming reverence--who have little of the Bible in their hearts, not following its teachings, nor heeding its counsels and warnings. True reverence for God's Word is not superstitious--but is sincere and earnest.
What Ezra and his assistants did that day is what all teachers of the Word of God should do for those who listen to them. "They read in the book of God distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading." The business of the preacher and the teacher, is to make the sense of God's Word so plain that those who hear, whether old or young, shall understand. People come together on Sunday to worship God, and part of this worship should always be to hear what God will say to them. The teaching should be simple, clear, definite, and plain.
The effect of the teaching that day was uplifting and inspiring. Nehemiah said to the people, "Go and celebrate with a feast of choice foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared." God loves to have us enjoy His blessings. We are to eat our food with thankfulness and with rejoicing. He wants us to get the very best we can from life--to eat the fat and drink the sweet. He would have us to be happy.
Then, He wants us also to share our blessings with others. When we have plenty, we should send a portion to those who have nothing. Our joy must not be selfish. Having a good time all alone--is not the ideal of Christian gladness. When we are prosperous, we should not forget those who are poor. When we are happy in our home of love, with unbroken circle, we should not forget the families about us that are in sorrow and bereavement. The good things which God gives us are not meant for ourselves alone--they are given to us to be shared. Only in the sharing do we get the best of them ourselves. People who eat the fat and drink the sweet in their own homes, at their own well-covered tables, and never think of the hungry and needy outside, are not the kind of children God wants His people to be.
The people were not to think about their sorrows that day, nor let their troubles cast a shadow over the brightness. "Neither be grieved; for the joy of Jehovah is your strength!" If we would be strong, we must have the joy of the Lord in our hearts. The sad heart tires in a little while. If we would be strong for service, for endurance, if we would always do our best, we must cultivate the joyful spirit. Some Christians are always worrying about something. If they do not have a real trouble they hunt up an imaginary one. They hang up on the walls of their hearts, pictures of all the unpleasant things that happen--but not the pictures of cheerful and happy things. No duty is urged in the Bible more earnestly and more repeatedly, than the duty of Christian joy. Of course, we must make sure that it is the joy of the Lord that we have. This world's joy is not enough to make anyone permanently happy.
The joy of Christ is from Christ Himself. It is joy that comes from heavenly sources. It does not depend on the happenings of the hour, for then it would come and go with the changes in our circumstances. The joy of the Lord is from a deep well that is not affected by any sort of weather. Nehemiah wanted the people that day to rejoice, because of what the Lord had done for them, and to put away all care and all anxiety.
The people caught the spirit of the great teacher and obeyed his exhortation. "So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God's words and understood them." That is a fine illustration of what always should be the effect of teaching or preaching God's Word. The people understood the words and let them into their hearts. Then straightway they went forth to do as they had been exhorted to do.
We will always find new things in the Bible if we will read it over and over. No matter how many times we have gone through it--when we go through it again, we shall come upon passages we have not seen before, or at least which have not fixed themselves in our minds at any former reading.
On the second day of this great Bible reading service, the Levites came upon the commandment appointing the Feast of Tabernacles. Evidently this command had been overlooked and this festival neglected. But it is delightful to find them entering at once upon the observance of the great Harvest Home. This was a feast of remembrance. They were to live in booths, recalling the years of their wandering in the wilderness. It is said that the Jews in these wonderful days made the branches of their booths thin so that they could see the blue sky and the stars through them. So should we build our houses, with roofs through which heaven's light will shine. Whatever hides God from us--cuts us off from blessing.