The background of the text is that Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians (in 587 B.C.) and the survivors of that war were led into exile in Babylon. After 80 years the Persians conquered the Babylonians and Cyrus, the king of Persia, permitted the Jews to return to the Promised Land. Sadly, only a small number chose to return and rebuild the ruined land and city. Among them was Nehemiah, a royal official and Jew, who led the small band back and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
He, along with Ezra the priest, also led a spiritual renewal that was spurred on not only by the purification of exile, but also by the rediscovery of certain “lost” or forgotten sacred books. On one occasion the people gathered to hear the proclamation of one of the lost books. That is where we pick up the text today.
I. HUNGER for the Word of God – The text says, And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.
Note that the people are hungry for the Word of God. They have gathered and now make the unified request (“as one man”) that the Book of the Law be brought and proclaimed to them.
The “book” that is likely referred to here is the Book of Deuteronomy. It would seem that the book had either been “lost” or at least severely neglected in the time prior to the Babylonian exile of Israel. In Deuteronomy was contained not only a development of the Law, but also a list of blessings for following it and grave warnings for not doing so. After the painful experience of exile, the people gathered are aware that they could have avoided the terrible events of the Babylonian conquest and captivity of Israel, had they only heard and heeded Deuteronomy.
Chastised and sober, they are now hungry for this Word from God. As the Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word (Psalm 119:67).
Are you hungry for the Word of God? More so than for money? More than for bodily food? Scripture says,
- The ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb (Psalm 19:9).
- Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3).
- I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).
- I rejoice at thy word like one who finds great spoil (Ps 119:162).
Are we hungry for the Word like this? It seems we won’t miss a meal for our bodies but we’ll go days without the Word. Our bodies gain weight; obesity is rampant in our culture. But too easily we allow our souls to languish, enduring famine from the Word of God and the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Are you hungry for His Word? An old song says, More about Jesus in his word, holding communion with my Lord, hearing his voice in every line, making each faithful saying mine. More, more about Jesus, more of his saving fullness see more of his love who died for me.
II. HEARING of the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose.
Notice two things here:
ASSEMBLY – There is a communal dimension to the celebration of God’s Word here. It’s not just a private celebration or reading. And while there is in today’s more literate culture the possibility of reading the Scriptures alone, we cannot neglect to gather with the Church and be taught the Word of God by others, especially the clergy, who are trained and anointed unto this task. Scripture says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:24). Too many think that all they need is the Bible. But notice that the proclamation of the Word is communal here. We’ll develop this theme more fully later on.
AMOUNT of time – The text says that the proclamation and explanation of this Word took place from “morning until midday”! This is obviously no “say it in seven minutes sermon.” This is an extended time spent studying, praying, and hearing the word of God. Many today consider a Mass that runs longer than 45 minutes to be counterproductive. Funny how we get thrilled when a three-hour football game goes into overtime, but we complain when a sermon runs a little longer than usual. We find so much time for other things and so little time for the Word of God. We have no problem sitting riveted to the television, but get impatient at Mass, hoping that the reflection will be over sooner rather than later. Yes, we can find time for everything else. You can blame the preacher (and we may deserve it), but there’s usually more to the picture. Notice what comes next:
III. HONOR for the Word of God – The text says, And 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. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
A remarkable honor is given to the Word here through active listening. While it is true that many today, especially in the more traditional Catholic fashion, see silent and passive listening as the proper, pious, and respectful demeanor during the readings and sermon, this is not the cultural setting described in this text. Neither is this quiet demeanor the norm in the Church today. It is not a question of which is right or wrong, but rather of whether the Word of God is being honored.
Note that the listeners on this morning (some 2,500 years ago) stand and say “Amen, Amen.” They lift up their hands and even prostrate themselves while the Word is read. They are engaged in active listening, giving the Word their undivided attention and interacting with its sounds as it resonates within them. This is a listening that is attentive, reflective, and responsive; a hearing with thoughtful attention.
There are different cultural expression of attentiveness, but you can tell a lot by looking at peoples’ faces. Even in cultures that exhibit prayerful silence, the people still get excited at football games and even jump to their feet. So excitement and exuberant joy are not unknown even in cultures in which religious reserve is the norm. Thus one would hope to rule out, even among the more reserved, that such reservation is merely a sign of boredom. We want to be sure that we are not simply dealing with sour-faced saints, bored believers, distracted disciples, or cold Christians. Thus, while reverence is expressed by many with prayerful and attentive silence, we want to be sure it is not simply the face of the “frozen chosen.”
And for those who are more demonstrative, we also want to be sure that it is not merely formulaic recitations of “Amen,” or a sort of egocentric, theatrical acting. Neither should one simply seek to exalt the preacher or the people in the pew just in to get everyone “pumped up.” Where it exists, the “Amen corner” should be sincere.
The key point is to honor the Word of God, whether by reverent silence or exuberant response. But in no way should the Word of God leave one bored and unmoved.
IV. HELP unto the Word of God – The text says, The Levites also, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
So, the Word is not alone; it is explained and interpreted. We need the Church in order to properly understand the Word of God, to have it authentically interpreted. And while devotional reading is to be encouraged, the Word of God is not meant to be read apart from the Church. As the Protestant experiment has shown, an attempt to have the Scriptures without the Church and the Magisterium from whence the Holy Spirit uttered them, is to usher in disastrous and never-ending division. This truth is expressed well in the story about the Ethiopian official: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30).
And thus the authoritative preachers of God’s Word, the bishops, priests, and deacons, have the task to read, analyze, organize, illustrate, and apply the Word of God in the liturgical setting.
Beyond authoritative teaching, there is also the pastoral assistance provided by others in the task of proclaiming the Word of God. In my own community there are some excellent lectors who read the Word with such power and inflection that I hear it as I have never heard it before. Further, I have a wonderful choir that often sings songs and passages rooted in Scripture so that I come to know it as never before. It’s really pressed to my heart. The congregation, too, by its vivid response to the proclaimed Word and the preached Word, also brings forth insight and makes the Word of God an experienced reality.
V. HEARTFELT reaction to the Word of God – The text says, And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”
Notice that they are so moved by what is proclaimed that they weep. Their weeping is due to the fact that they realize what their past stubbornness has gotten them: disaster, decline, and exile. Had they but heard and heeded God’s Law, this terrible period of Israel’s history could have been avoided.
The desired outcome of preaching it is to bring forth a response. The Word of God is not only meant to inform; its purpose is to transform. It might make you mad, sad, or glad, but if you are listening to the authentic Word of God, you cannot remained unmoved. Scripture says,
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12).
VI. HEEDING of the Word of God – The text that extends beyond what the lectionary appoints to today goes on to say, On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.
Thus, among the things they discovered, was that Israel had not been celebrating an important feast day: the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). This feast, while a harvest festival, was also a celebration that acknowledged the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It’s pretty symbolic that they had stopped celebrating it. And thus the leaders, having studied the Word of God, reestablished the feast and commanded the people to observe it carefully. In this is illustrated a heeding of the Word of God.
Notice all the respect we’ve seen for the word of God: they hungered for it, heard it, honored it, helped in its proclamation, and had a heartfelt reaction to it. But here’s where the real honor is given: now, they HEED it. There’s a lot of “lip service” paid to the Word of God, a lot of praise. Some even shout “Amen” when in Church. But the real acid test is whether or not we heed the Word. An old spiritual says, Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out. Another says, Some seek God don’t seek him right, they fool all day and pray at night.
We are warned of the danger of failing to heed:
- And every one that hears these sayings of mine, and does them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Mat 7:26).
- And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47).
- An hour is coming, has indeed come, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live (John 5:25).
There is wonder in the Word of God, but only if we heed it.