The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Nehemiah 8

Neh 8:1

Neh 8-10: A model for the development of a community of believers: (a) the reading of Scripture (Neh 8); (b) the act of prayer (Neh 9), and (c) a community-wide commitment (Neh 10).

Other instances in Israel's history of a spiritual awakening, followed by a renewal of covenant (cf Exo 34; Josh 24; 2Ki 18; 22; 23; Ezra 10:12-14).

Neh 8: The fact that Nehemiah did not move back to Susa when he finished the wall and secured the city shows that his concern was not primarily those projects. The larger goal of reestablishing the Jews in the land to which God had told them to return following the exile was his primary objective (cf Isa 48:20; Jer 50:8; 51:6). He wanted to see God's will done. He put God's interests before his own.

The Mosaic Law specified that once every seven years the people of Israel were to assemble and listen to the reading of the Law. This was to take place during the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 31:10-13). This occasion provided an opportunity for the people to renew their commitment to Yahweh and His Law. Such covenant renewal ceremonies had taken place earlier in Israel's history (eg, Josh 8:30-35; 24:1-27; etc).

Vv 1-8: "This ceremony reflects the form of Israelite worship that had developed in exile. Almost the same elements that characterized the synagogue services begun then appear here. The people assembled, there was a request for the reading of the Torah, someone opened the scroll, and the people stood. Then someone (Ezra) offered praise, the people responded, and they received instruction (a sermon). Finally the law was read, an oral explanation and exhortation followed, and the people departed for a fellowship meal" (Williamson).

AS ONE MAN: Typ the Christ-man in unity (1Co 12).

THE WATER GATE: This gate was on the east side of the city of David, and it was near the Gihon Spring.

EZRA: Called "the scribe" here, and "the priest" in v 2. Nehemiah had not mentioned Ezra earlier in this book. However, now we learn that he was still active in Jerusalem as a contemporary and fellow leader of the restoration community along with Nehemiah, although he must have been quite elderly by this time. As the most important scribe in Israel at this time, as well as a priest, he led the people by reading the covenant to them (v 3). (Notice that Eliashib the High Priest -- Neh 3:1 -- is not mentioned; it seems as though Ezra has taken his place.)

THE BOOK OF THE LAW: Scholars have suggested that this term refers to the legal material in the Pentateuch, or the "priestly code" (ie, Leviticus), or the Deuteronomic laws, or the entire Pentateuch (also called the Torah). Which of these is meant here is uncertain.

Neh 8:2

THE FIRST DAY OF THE SEVENTH MONTH: The day on which the Israelites were to observe the Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:24). The priests blew trumpets to assemble the people, to announce God's working among them, and to signal preparation for the Day of Atonement, which followed on the tenth of the month (Lev 23:27).

Neh 8:3

FROM DAYBREAK TILL NOON: At least 3 or 4 hours, indicating real interest in the study of God's Word (cp v 8).

AND OTHERS WHO COULD UNDERSTAND: The assembly (v 2) or congregation or "ecclesia" consists only of those who can "understand"! There is no such thing as "ignorant" belief or obedience.


Neh 8:5

THE PEOPLE ALL STOOD UP: Great reverence for the Word of God: cp Job 29:8; 1Ki 8:14.

Neh 8:6

ALL THE PEOPLE LIFTED THEIR HANDS: The lifting up of the hands accompanied the offering of incense and the evening sacrifice, and denoted prayer (Psa 134:2; 141:2; Lam 3:41; cp 1Ti 2:8; Rev 5:8; 8:3,4).

THEN THEY BOWED DOWN: Sym humility before a master (Gen 24:26; Exo 4:31; 12:27; 2Ch 20:18; 29:30); the posture of slaves when greeting their lord. God is exalted when man is abased.

Neh 8:7

An active ecclesial ministry -- making use of all who can help. Not relying on a few. Community involvement.

Neh 8:8

THEY READ FROM THE BOOK OF THE LAW OF GOD, MAKING IT CLEAR AND GIVING THE MEANING SO THAT THE PEOPLE COULD UNDERSTAND WHAT WAS BEING SAID: Reading is exposition and exhortation: "Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1Ti 4:15,16). The exposition of Scripture taught the Israelites God's will, convicted them of their shortcomings, corrected their conduct, and fitted them for righteous living (2Ti 3:16).

"Therein is the perfection of reading. It is probably true that Ezra interjected comments here and there to emphasize or make clear the meaning of the word, but we can be sure that much of the object was attained simply by good reading by men who believed what they read. The effect was something that Jerusalem had not seen for many a long day -- the whole congregation wept before the Lord and were comforted by the priests. The word of God was alive that day" (YSL).

MAKING IT CLEAR: Or, as NIV, "translating it". "Not only did the leaders read the Word of God, they also translated it from the Hebrew language into Aramaic, the common language of the Persian Empire. Some of the Jews present did not know Hebrew (Neh 13:24), having grown up in Babylon and elsewhere -- away from Jews who maintained fluency in the Hebrew language.

"The written translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, with comments added, was the Targum (lit, 'translation'). The Apostle Paul referred to himself as a Hebrew (Phi 3:5). He meant that he was a Jew who could read the Jewish Bible in the original Hebrew language, not just in Aramaic" (Const).

Neh 8:9

THIS DAY IS SACRED TO THE LORD YOUR GOD: It was the first day of the seventh month (Neh 8:2) -- the day of the blowing of trumpets (Lev 23:24).

FOR ALL THE PEOPLE HAD BEEN WEEPING AS THEY LISTENED TO THE WORDS OF THE LAW: a deep conviction of sinfulness (cp Luk 18:9-14).

Neh 8:10

CHOICE FOOD AND SWEET DRINKS: The KJV has "eat the fat", but since the Law forbade eating fat, Nehemiah probably meant simply that the people should eat rich food and drink sweet beverages, which would be appropriate at such a joyous feast.

SEND SOME TO THOSE WHO HAVE NOTHING PREPARED: Those who wept because they had not kept the law (v 9) now rejoiced because they understood it! The Law specified that the Feast of Trumpets was to be a joyous occasion. They are encouraged to share, in liberality: cp Acts 4:37 with Acts 5:14; see Mal 3:10. "Freely you have received, freely give" (Mat 10:8).

THE JOY OF THE LORD IS YOUR STRENGTH: "Perhaps what we should pray for most is to be taught how to enjoy God, for this is the foundation of all constructive life, and by nature we are so woefully lacking in even the realization of its existence. By nature we are coarse and ignorant and animal and worldly, and we naturally seek our 'joy' in coarse and ignorant and animal and worldly things. To give the name 'joy' to such is a desecration of the word. Joy must be the root of all action, not its goal. Joy must come first, flooding in upon us by the realization of the beauty and glory and love of God. The contemplation of beauty is a joyful thing. The personal, active, communing contemplation of the highest, fullest, love-radiating beauty is the most intense joy possible... Let us use that strength to the utmost" (GVG).

Neh 8:12

WITH GREAT JOY: "When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, 'The LORD has done great things for them.' The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy" (Psa 126:1-3).

Neh 8:13

The power of God's word, once established on the heart's fleshly tablets, can move mortal men to do what under ordinary circumstances would have been unthinkable.

Neh 8:14

THE ISRAELITES WERE TO LIVE IN BOOTHS: "Since Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians and the passage of time -- so that the temple and the walls of the city were destroyed -- it may be assumed that the houses were also damaged. However the people were willing to suffer the privations of living in booths because of the requirements of the law. Maybe they might have reasoned that they were suffering enough having to rebuild their houses, and so observing the feast of tabernacles would not matter that year. But no, they still kept the feast. How do we feel when life is not going as smooth as we would like it? Do things of the gospel take second place? When time is short do we miss the readings, for example?" (PF).

Neh 8:15

The Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23) was a time of separation, rejoicing in the remembrance of deliverance, and rededication. This was a happy celebration that looked back to the Israelites' years of wandering in the wilderness when they lived in booths that they made out of branches. It also looked forward to their entrance into and permanent residence in the Promised Land. Consequently it would have had special significance for the returned exiles who now again had entered into the Promised Land after being absent from it for years. They had come through a kind of wilderness experience themselves. They even had to travel through a literal wilderness to get back to their land.

Nehemiah did not record whether the people also observed the Day of Atonement that fell on the tenth of the same month. Probably they did since they were restoring the other Israelite institutions. Perhaps he passed over mentioning it because the Day of Atonement was a sad day in the Jewish year. It was the only fast of Israel's festivals wherein the people afflicted themselves in repentance for their sins (this seems to be reflected, generally, in v 9). Nehemiah seems to have wanted -- in this chapter, and in the whole book -- to emphasize the positive aspects of the restoration, namely God's faithfulness and the people's joy.

WILD OLIVE: The KJV has "pine branches", which is certainly incorrect.

Neh 8:16

BOOTHS ON THEIR OWN ROOFS: Such roofs in the ANE were flat, and often used for sleeping and resting; the roofs were a center of social life (cp Deu 22:8; 2Sa 11:2; Jer 19:13; 32:29).

Neh 8:18

ON THE EIGHT DAY, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE REGULATION, THERE WAS AN ASSEMBLY: No regular work would be permitted (Num 29:35-39). Full attention would be required for the occasion.

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