In my mind, one of the most moving parts of the Bible is all about reading the scriptures.
Tucked away in the Old Testament, there in Nehemiah 8, is the story of Ezra reading the ‘book of the Law of God’ (8:8) to Israel. While God’s people had been released from captivity and returned to the Promised Land they remained dispirited about the condition of their cities and land. In particular was the poor condition of Jerusalem, whose walls remained in rubble and disrepair. In the midst of this comes Nehemiah who takes on the leadership to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and in doing so begins to bring hope to the nation.
And here in chapter 8 is where the people of the Lord hear the word of the Lord for the first time in a long time. In v2-6 we are told that,
“On the first day of the seventh month, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding. While he was facing the square in front of the Water Gate, he read out of it from daybreak until noon before the men, the women, and those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the book of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a high wooden platform made for this purpose…Ezra opened the book in full view of all the people, since he was elevated above everyone. As he opened it, all the people stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and with their hands uplifted all the people said, “Amen, Amen!” Then they knelt low and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
I’m not sure what stands out to you, but there are a few things I notice in reading this.
First, those who came to listen to the reading of the scriptures were ‘men, women, and all who could listen with understanding’ (v2).
Men and women coming to hear the Law of God being read is probably not something we think too much about, that seems reasonable and natural in our minds. But that comment about those who could listen with understanding is an interesting one. Are these children? I imagine it does. Those who could understand the reading would be there to listen but those who were too young to do so weren’t. Yet, not all adults have the faculties to listen with understanding either. And so it may also mean that there were adults who were unable to comprehend the scriptures missing from the gathering as well.
Second, this was a long reading of scripture (v3).
From daybreak till noon is surely a 5-6 hour reading of the Law of God. I’m not sure I’d be able to get away with that length of Bible reading in our service this week, or any week for that matter. So this was a long period of time to listen and a long period of time to speak the scriptures. Although, to be fair, if you’ve ever read the Bible from Genesis to Deuteronomy then you’ll understand the hours it takes to do that.
Third, there was attentiveness to the reading of scripture (v3).
I’ve spent many a morning trying to read the scriptures and my mind has been distracted and inattentive after about 25 seconds. I’m sure we’ve all experienced reading something and then about a page or two in we realise we’ve got no idea what we’ve read and have to go back and re-read. Or, when the reading of the Bible is happening in church we drift off to other thoughts or get captured by one aspect and chase a rabbit trail in our minds. Well, it seems that those who were in this particular hearing of the scriptures were attentive to it. Given this was a 5-6 hours reading, this is no mean feat.
Fourth, the placement of Ezra, the reader of the Law (v4).
Due to its importance and the significance of the reading of the Law Ezra is placed front and centre. While we must recognise he is the mouthpiece for the words of God he is positioned high above the gathering and in full view of everyone. I find this instructive in how we might consider the public reading of the scriptures in our churches and congregations and gatherings. Making the reader, and of course the book, central to the group in order for people to see and hear is important.
Fifth, the visibility of the Law of God (v5).
It is common practice in some churches for public readers of scripture to read words off their phones or other devices. I appreciate the ease of this technology, the adaptability in terms of versions, and the ability to write notes when sitting as a congregation member listening. However, call me a Luddite but the physical Bible being read to the congregation matters. I may well have said that the best Bible to read is the one in front of you a few weeks back, but the best Bible to read in the public assembly of a church is a physical one. It means something. It helps the listeners hear. It gives a visual representation of God speaking to us.
Sixth, the physicality of the people (v5).
Notice how the people rise for the hearing of the Law. There is a reverence to hearing God’s words read. There is active participation in the reading event through the moving of bodies in order to hear. In some churches today this is still the case, although I haven’t seen this occurring in a long long time. I wonder whether this is worth instituting again to highlight the importance and participation of the hearers?
Seventh, the reading of the scriptures leads to worship of God (v6).
Ezra’s blessing of the Law is affirmed by the assembly. Not only that but the response to the reading of the scriptures is the worship of God. And for me this highlights two things, (1) the reading of the scriptures is to bring about a response of worship in those who hear it, and (2) hearing the scriptures being read is equal to hearing God. Through the scriptures God speaks to his people and this drives them toward worship. It is not the worship of his Law for the Law’s sake. It is not what might be called bibliolatry, idolising the Bible. It is recognising that the words of scripture are God’s Word.
This is a moving portion of scripture for me as it reminds me of the power, reverence, and significance of the Bible, God’s Word. It leaves me wanting to hear it more, read it more, and see this occur more in the lives of churches and congregations. How great would the witness to God be if we held up and honoured the Bible like those here in Nehemiah 8!? How great to have people attentive, participating, and worshipping the revelation of God through his scriptures!?
Well, it seems I’ve begun the year and a return to writing regularly by focussing on Bible reading. There could be worse topics to write about, couldn’t there? In any case, if you like to catch up on some of the posts that focus on reading the Bible then feel free to browse along: