By Edward Dennett
BEFORE entering upon this interesting chapter, it may be profitable to point out the place it occupies. Chapter 6 gives the completion of the wall; chapter 7 the provision and means for the security of the city, and the reckoning of the people by genealogy; and in chapter 8 we have the establishment of the authority of the word of God. This order is most instructive. The walls might be built, and the people duly gathered and ordered; but nothing could keep them in the place into which they had been brought but obedience to the Word; for obedience gives the Lord His place as also the people their place — the Lord the place of pre-eminence, the people that of subjection. Obedience is, therefore, the way of holiness; exclusive as it is of everything inconsistent with the Lord's supreme claims. This furnishes a practical lesson of great moment for the Church. The testimony of God gathers souls to Christ on the ground of the one body; but as soon as they are gathered, then it is the responsibility of teachers and pastors to assert the Lord's supremacy in the authority of the written Word, to feed the flock of God with suited nourishment, to build them up on their most holy faith, and thus to fortify them against the arts and devices of the enemy.
We have seen that Nehemiah reproduces in chapter 7, Ezra 2; and the first verse of this chapter is in exact correspondence with Ezra 3: 1. There we read, "And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem;" here it is, "And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate;" and in verse 2 we find that this gathering was also "upon the first day of the seventh month." It is the date that explains, in both cases, the assembly. The first day of the seventh month was the feast of the blowing of trumpets (Lev. 23: 24; Numbers 29: 1), a figure of the restoration of Israel in the last days, and one that would therefore appeal mightily, where there was any understanding of its import, to the hearts of all true Israelites. Whether in this case the trumpets were blown is not recorded; and the very fact that it is not, is significant. "They spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded." When all is in confusion, through neglect of the word of God, the first thing to be done is not the restoration of feasts, but of the authority of the Scriptures over the conscience. Instead, therefore, of the blowing of the trumpets,1 there was a solemn assembly for the reading of the law — the very memory of which seems to have faded away from the people. And it is exceedingly beautiful to notice, that Ezra, of whom there is no previous mention in this book, is he to whom they have recourse in the present need. He was "a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of His statutes to Israel;" and one who delighted in, and fed upon, the Word he communicated to others. But in the time of almost general backsliding, confusion, and ruin, the teacher of the law was not wanted; and thus it was that Ezra had fallen out of notice, if not into obscurity. Now, however, that there was in some sort a revival, producing a desire after the word of their God, Ezra was remembered, and his services were required. Happy the servant who, thinking nothing of himself, can retire when he is not needed, and come forth when once again desired, willing to be anything or nothing, known or unknown, if he can but serve the Lord's beloved people!
In verses 2 and 3 we have the account of the assembly for the purpose of hearing the Word. The congregation was composed of "men and women, and all that could hear with understanding;" that is, we judge, all the children who were old enough to comprehend what was read. There was, therefore, no division into classes, no teaching apart of men, women, or children, but all were together as forming the congregation of the Lord. Thus gathered, Ezra read out of the book of the law "from the morning until midday" — probably not less than six hours and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law." In ordinary times, it would be impossible to detain the people, then as now, so long with the simple reading of the Scriptures; but when there is a true work of the Spirit of God, after a season of widespread declension, the saints always turn afresh, and with avidity, to the Bible, and are never weary of reading, or listening to, the truths which have been used to arouse their souls. Love for the word of God, with an intense desire to search for its hidden treasures, is always a characteristic of a genuine revival. It is this fact which explains the eagerness of the people in this chapter, on the first day of the seventh month, to hear the reading of the book of the law.
The second and third verses give the general statement, and then in verses 4-8 we have the details of this remarkable assembly. In the first place, Ezra, we are told, "stood upon a pulpit" (or tower) "of wood, which they had made for the purpose;" the object being, as in modern days, that he might be seen and heard by all the congregation. Six stood beside him on his right hand, and seven on his left hand, and the Spirit of God has caused their names to be recorded, for it was a memorable day, and the privilege vouchsafed to them of standing by Ezra was great. In the next place, "Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up." This was no mere form, for the book Ezra opened was the voice of the living God to the people, and they acknowledged it as such by reverently standing. The words it contained had been first spoken by the Lord at Sinai, "out of the midst of the fire," and Israel had trembled before the holy One who spake them, and "intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more;" and all this could not fall to be recalled by those who now stood before Ezra. They therefore stood up, as in the presence of their God; "and Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God;" i.e., he gave thanks, or in praying gave thanks to Jehovah. We find this use of the word bless in the New Testament, especially in connection with the Paschal feast and the Lord's Supper. Thus in Matthew, for example, it is said that "Jesus took bread, and blessed" (Matt. 26: 26), whereas in Luke we read that "He took bread, and gave thanks." (Luke 22: 19.) It is thus clear that "bless," when used in this way, has the significance of thanksgiving. (See also 1 Cor. 14: 16.) It is the more necessary to point this out, and to insist upon it, from the fact that a mass of sacerdotal assumptions is founded upon the perversion of the word "to bless," in the endeavour to prove that the bread and the cup in the Lord's Supper must first receive a priestly blessing, or be consecrated. It is maintained, for example, that when Paul says, "The cup of blessing which we bless," means the cup which we priests bless. The light of Scripture instantly reveals the unholy character of such priestly trifling with the simple teaching of the word of God, whereby saints are shut out from their privileges, and deprived of the place of nearness and blessing into which they have been brought on the ground of redemption. (See John 20: 17; Heb. 10: 19-22, etc.)
At the conclusion of Ezra's prayer, or thanksgiving, "all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground." (v. 6.) It is a striking scene, for the Lord was working on the hearts of His people with power, and hence it was that their very attitude expressed their hallowed reverence.2 They stood while Ezra prayed, and then, together with their responses of "Amen, Amen," with uplifted hands, they worshipped with their faces to the ground.
All this was preparatory to the work of the day — which was the reading of the law, of which the next two verses give the account. "Also Jeshua, and Bani . . . . and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly" (or with an interpretation), "and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading." (vv. 7, 8.) It must be remembered that the people had dwelt long in Babylon, and that many of them, under the influence of their surroundings, had adopted Babylonish habits and ways, and even the Babylonish tongue. The sacred language, the language too of their fathers, had thus fallen into disuse and had in many cases been forgotten. Then there was another source of confusion. Some of the Jews "had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people." (Neh. 13: 23, 24.) It became necessary therefore to cause the people to understand the law, to read it distinctly or with an interpretation, to give the sense, and to cause them to understand the reading. All this is most instructive, and in two ways — First, we learn that assimilation to the world leads to forgetfulness and ignorance of the word of God; and secondly, that the true function of the teacher is to give the sense of the Scriptures, to explain what they mean, and to cause their hearers to understand their import. There will be also the application of the Word to the state and needs of the people, but even in this, as in the case before us, it will be as guided of the Holy Spirit to the suited portions.
The word of God was "quick and powerful" in the hearts of the people, it was sharper than any two-edged sword, and pierced even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and discerned the thoughts and intents of their hearts; for they "wept when they heard the words of the law." But "Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep." (v. 9.) The feast of trumpets was indeed to be "a holy convocation;" and because of its typical significance, sorrow was unsuited to its character. Hence we read, "Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery. Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day. For this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob." (Psalm 81: 1-4.) They were therefore to be joyful on this day in communion with the mind of their God; but joy cannot be contained; it of necessity overflows, and hence they were to communicate it to others. "Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (v. 10.) This order is instructive — communion with the heart of God, and then communion with their brethren. The first thing was to have their own hearts filled with the joy of the Lord, then for that joy to well out in blessing to the poor and needy, and thus they would find that the joy of the Lord was their strength.
"So the Levites," we are told, "stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved." The time would soon come for the expression of their sorrow (Neh. 9); but now they were to rejoice according to the thoughts of the heart of God for their future blessing. Truly they had need of self-judgment and contrition; but the point is, that this holy day was not suited for these things, and the Lord would have them rise above their own state and condition, and for the moment find their joy in His joy, and in His joy would be their strength. There are many saints who will understand this: when gathered, for example, around the Lord at His table to commemorate His death, there might be many things calling for sorrow and humiliation as to our condition; but it would be losing sight altogether of the mind of the Lord to confess our sins at such a season. It is the Lord's death we there remember and announce, not ourselves or our failures; and it is only as we have His objects before our souls in our being gathered that we enter into and have communion with His own heart. So was it on this first day of the seventh month; and this will explain the action of Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites in restraining the expression of the people's grief.
The people responded to the exhortations of their leaders, and "went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them" (v. 12); and in this way they celebrated the feast according to the mind of God, if without the trumpets. They were not in a right condition for testimony; and thus the first thing was to get themselves right by the application of the Word.
The following day there was another gathering, composed of "the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites;" these came "unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law." (v. 13.) It is beautiful to notice this increasing desire for the knowledge of the word of God — a sure sign that God was working in their hearts, inasmuch as obedience to it is a necessary expression of the divine life. When thus assembled, they "found written in the law which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month: and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written." (vv. 14, 15.) Then we are told that "the people went forth," etc. But it will be seen from Leviticus 23 that the day appointed for this feast of tabernacles was the fifteenth day of the seventh month, so that a thirteen days' interval must be placed between verses 15 and 16, as it was on the second day of the month that they found the precept as to the feast. (vv. 13, 14.) This interval would be occupied with the proclamation of the coming observance of the festival (v. 15), to give the people "in all their cities" the time required to gather themselves together at Jerusalem. When assembled, they proceed to keep the feast, as enjoined in the law; they fetched the branches from the mount, "and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim" (v. 16); and in the next verse we read, that "since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun, unto that day, had not the children of Israel done so;" that is, not that they had not kept the feast of tabernacles, for they had done this on their return from captivity (Ezra 3), but that they had not complied with the injunction to dwell in booths during the days of the feast. It was the first time since Joshua that they had made themselves, in this manner, booths of pine, myrtle, and palm branches. This is another proof of the energetic action of the Spirit of God at this moment, leading the people to exact obedience to the word of their God. It is thereon added, "And there was very great gladness." Joy indeed was also the significance of this feast — millennial joy; for, after the directions concerning the booths, it is written, "And ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days and during this period they were to dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 23: 40-43.)
If the reader will consult Leviticus 23, he will see that the feast of tabernacles completes the cycle of feasts, and therefore sets forth the end and result of all the ways of God with His earthly people, which will be to set them in His grace, now that they have forfeited all under responsibility, in virtue of the work of Christ, in perfect blessing in their own land, "after the harvest and the vintage." Joy throughout the perfect period (seven days) will be therefore the appropriate expression of their sense of Jehovah's goodness and grace. But while "gladness" was to characterize the festival, they were to remember the past — their deliverance from Egypt, and their pilgrim wanderings in the desert — and thus that redemption through the blood of the passover lamb (for that was the foundation of all God's subsequent actings on behalf of His people), and the relationship to God into which they were consequently brought (I am Jehovah your God), was the source of all the blessing and joy on which they had entered. In the case before us, the gladness was but transient, for, in truth, the festival as yet was only prophetic; but, as prophetic, it might have taught them the unchangeable verity of God as to all His promises on their behalf; and wherever it did so, it would enable them to rejoice in anticipation of this joyful time of blessing which was secured to them by the infallible word of their God.3
The whole time of the feast seems to have been devoted — "from the first day unto the last day" — to reading "in the book of the law of God." That was the present felt need; "and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly according unto the manner." (See Leviticus 23: 36.) In the early days of Ezra, restoration of the sacrifices marked the observance of this feast; but here the re-establishment of the authority of the law. Both observances were defective, though according to God as far as they went, for in Ezra there were no booths, and in Nehemiah, as it would seem, no sacrifices. This teaches us one of God's ways in all revivals. One forgotten truth is restored and pressed with power upon the hearts and consciences of His people, a truth necessary for their restoration and preservation in the special circumstances of the moment. Thus the efficacy of the sacrifices was brought into prominence in Ezra 3; here the authority of the word of God. The same thing has been seen again and again in the history of the Church. In the remarkable work of the Spirit of God through Luther and others, the truth of justification by faith alone occupied the foremost place; and in another movement, almost within our own days, it was the presence of the Holy Ghost on earth, and the second advent of Christ. God has wrought in such ways, in every age, for His own glory, and for the welfare of His people. But such is the feebleness and folly of the hearts of His people, that they have often turned His mercy towards them into an occasion for self-exaltation. As if unable to retain the truth in its completeness, and missing His mind in the recovery of certain truths, they have often formed themselves into sects for their preservation. There have been but few Epaphrases in the Church who could labour fervently in prayers for the saints that they might stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. (See Col. 4: 12.)
The seven days of the feast having been completed, there was "a solemn assembly according to the manner."4 It was on this day "the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this," says John, "spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet [given]; because that Jesus was not yet glorified." (John 7: 39.) The time had not come for Jesus to show Himself to the world, as He will do when the feast of tabernacles is fulfilled, but meanwhile, having taken His place on high, He would quench the thirst of every thirsty soul that came to Him, and moreover cause, through the indwelling Spirit, to flow forth from such rivers of living water for the refreshment of those round about them. Another has said, "Observe here that Israel drank water in the wilderness before they could keep the feast of tabernacles. But they only drank. There was no well in them. The water flowed from the rock." The Lord thus would teach the Jews that their feast of tabernacles (see v. 2) was but an empty rite as long as their Messiah had not come, or rather so long as He was rejected. (John 1: 11)5
1 We quote the words of another. "It was really the trumpet of God, although the people were unconscious of it, that gathered them to the new moon, which shone again in grace, whatever might be the clouds that veiled its feeble light."
2 In a state of spiritual barrenness and declension the people of God, it may often be noticed, assume positions of bodily ease during praise or prayer; but the moment there is the display of the Spirit's power all this is changed, and those who are most under His influence will immediately adopt the posture (either kneeling or standing) which most exhibits what is suited to the presence of God.
3 It has been often remarked, that while the passover has had its antitype in the cross, and Pentecost in the descent of the Holy Ghost, the feast of tabernacles has had no fulfilment. The reason of this is, as stated above, that it sets forth the end of God's ways with Israel; and this has not yet been reached. Moreover, Christ is now hidden; when the fulfilment of the feast of tabernacles arrives, He will show Himself to the world. (See John 7)
4 For the details of the observance of this day, as indeed for the whole feast, see Numbers 29: 2-39.
5 It is a remarkable thing that neither in Ezra nor in Nehemiah, though in both cases they kept the feast of trumpets and the feast of tabernacles, is there any mention of the observance of the day of atonement which fell to be kept on the tenth day of the seventh month; i.e., between the two feasts above named.