Week 6 – Nehemiah 8:1-12
In our text for this week the wall around Jerusalem has been finished and Nehemiah and the other leaders of the community call an assembly of the people. Interestingly, this isn’t just a ribbon cutting on the wall but, in a sense, on the rebuilt community itself. That’s why Ezra reads from the law, and why later in chapter 9 the people sign a covenant renewal—like we saw in week three, the wall was only incidental to God’s real work of rebuilding his people. Also, verse 2 mentions the specific day for a reason: this is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the High Holy Days (Lev. 23:23). And how did this rebuilt people respond on this joyous occasion? They wept.
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What brought them to tears most immediately, according to the passage, was the reading of the law itself. Most likely Ezra was reading out of Deuteronomy, which is set at the end of Israel’s wilderness wanderings right when they were about to cross over into the promised land (Deut. 1:8). In Deuteronomy, Moses both recounts some of Israel’s history and reiterates both God’s law and the penalty for disobeying his law. Just four chapters in we come across what must’ve been painful for the resettlers to hear, “If you act corruptly…so as to provoke [the LORD your God] to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish…and the Lord will scatter you among the peoples.”(Deut. 4:25-27)
There, plain before them, was the reason for all their work, the reason for a broken down wall and an exiled people: Israel had abandoned their God and his covenant. If the folks listening to Ezra had thought themselves better than their forebears perhaps they would’ve jeered like the exiles did in Ezekiel’s time, merely blaming the problem of the city on their parents generation (Eze. 18:1-4). But instead I think we see humility here from responsive hearts who know they’re equally capable, even equally guilty, of such disobedience. And, having gone through the effort of rebuilding the wall, perhaps they’re wondering how long they’ll make it until God will kick them out too.
But in such a grief-filled moment we see excellent leadership from Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites—they stop in the middle of everything and quite literally command folks to celebrate. And they did this not because they were trying to save their own party but in full spirit of how the law called the people to respond. Continuing in Deuteronomy 4 we read, “When you are in tribulation…you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice. For the LORD your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you of forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.” Though they had abandoned their God and his covenant, God would never do the same to them, and this was a cause for celebration.
Deuteronomy continues the reassurance, reminding the Israelites that they are a chosen people not because of their might (7:7), or their righteousness (9:5), but because of God’s benevolent affection. “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.”(10:14-15) So Ezra and Nehemiah sent the people away to rejoice in the Lord’s love for them. Certainly there would be a time for weeping over sin; they’ll do exactly that in chapter 9. But first they must celebrate that God has set his heart on them, and that when they come to him in repentance God will meet them with abundant forgiveness and joy everlasting.
And that is an excellent way for us to celebrate Commitment Sunday. We worship and give and do ministry and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ not because of what we’ve done but because of what God has done! We’re generous not to earn God’s affection but because we know we’re recipients of undeserved riches through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:7). And we’re elated to see the work of the gospel go forth in our cities and communities because we want others to experience the same sort of welcome in Christ that we ourselves have found in him. Prayerfully, in our groups this week, we can look back on Commitment Sunday not as a high-water mark of our faithfulness but of God’s, whose steadfast love and faithfulness will never, ever depart from us.
Questions for Discussion
Note: if folks still want to turn in a commitment card they can bring it next Sunday, or they can fill it out online here.
• Would someone read Nehemiah 8:1-12 for us?
• Why do you think the people wept at hearing the law read?
• Why do you think the leaders told the people to celebrate instead?
• How does this “celebration instead of weeping” help us understand what God was doing among the Israelites?
• How do we see celebration tied to generosity in this passage? Why do you think those two things often occur together?
• What are some ways the Lord has grown or challenged you through our Abound series?
• The Abound Initiative is a two-year endeavor, so this series has just been the start. What do you hope God does in and through our church family over those two years?