Commentary on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
I challenge you: If you do not choose to preach on Nehemiah 8, then let this passage inspire you to preach on the Torah.
If your congregation asks you to proclaim the word of God (and I presume they have, or you would not be on this site), consider doing it in a public place,1 for a gathered group of women, men, and children, with a crowd of folks, lay and ordained, on hand to help you. Stand in the square and proclaim and interpret these books of Scripture — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — for six hours straight, and when six hours are up, begin to celebrate. But I’m getting ahead of myself because I hope you will preach on this stunning passage.
Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture as such, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted. So what happens?
People bless God. People give voice to their certainty, their faith, and their trust. People let the actions of their bodies match the words in their ears and on their lips, lifting their hands to God in petition because they recognize that God alone grants life (cf. Nehemiah 9:6). People fall to the ground in profound humility, knowing that God alone can lift them up and help them to stand.
When they hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people weep because they hear their sins spoken out loud and they know they are not innocent, but guilty. People weep because they fear death and the justice of a God who by no means clears the guilty (cf. 2 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 34; Exodus 34:7). People weep because they do not know how to bridge the gulf that separates sinful humanity from the faithful God who made them.
But as surely as the Torah reveals to us our sins, it also reveals to us the source of our hope: the God who keeps promises (cf. Nehemiah 9:8). It reveals to us the God who bridged the gulf by making a covenant with Abraham (cf. Nehemiah 9:8); who promised to Jacob “I am with you and I will protect you everywhere you go” (Genesis 28:15); who heard the cry of the people enslaved in Egypt and delivered them from oppression (cf. Nehemiah 9:9-11,27-28,36-37); who forgives sins (Exodus 34:7; Nehemiah 9:19); who vindicates God’s people when their strength is gone (Deuteronomy 32:36).
Believing in this testimony, every person who leads and teaches this people – governor, priest, scribe, and Levite – tells them not to weep (8:9). Do not mourn, they say, because this day when you have let God’s law fill your ears is a holy day. The day when God’s people gather together to hear the teaching of Moses can only be a day of drawing near to God in deepest joy: it is the joy of the Lord, the strength of the people (8:10).
The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs. This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for “the joy of the Lord” can mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart; it can also mean the people’s joy in God and a joy that comes only from God.
Like the people’s embodied expressions of humility, petition, and sorrow, this superabundant joy takes a concrete embodied form in an act of feasting that refuses to stay put. The people are told first to go — the energizing joy of the proclamation of the God-given law and teaching and testimony of Moses radiates outward and moves the people with its vital spirit. Then the people are told to eat — not just any food, but rich, fat foods — and to drink – not just any drink but sweet, sweet drink. The fat and the sweetness spill out their gratuitous abundance further still, as the people are told to send helpings to anyone who has nothing prepared or no means to prepare it (Nehemiah 8:10). The feast of God’s efficacious, strengthening, joy-filled word exceeds all limit, reason, and expectation; it fills every need and defies all lack of planning.2
Nehemiah 8 shows us what it looks like when the people gather to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted and let that proclamation shape and energize their life in community. The biblical text does nothing in and of itself and nothing by itself. When Ezra lifts up the scroll and opens it for all the people to see they stand in reverence before this sacred text that mediates God’s efficacious word. But it is not the scroll they revere. They revere and bless the God whose saving actions and presence the words of the scroll disclose. God gave the law to Moses so that Moses could record those words for every new generation. While the lectionary omits the lists of names in verses 4 and 7, those names are important reminders to us of the dynamic and interactive process of transmission, proclamation, interpretation, and understanding that involved many people in many roles. The passage also highlights the inviting, attentive, receptive, and responsive disposition of “all the people,” a phrase repeated eight times in this passage. It is the people, after all, who first ask Ezra to bring the scroll to them and read from it (8:1).
If your people should ask you to bring them the word of God, bring it. Bless God. Let others help you break it down so that all can understand. And when God’s law accuses and convicts, remind the people that the day they choose to listen to God’s word is a holy day of rejoicing. Your strength is the joy of the Lord.
1For further inspiration, see Stanley P. Saunders and Charles L. Campbell, The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
2On the efficacy of Scripture I am indebted to conversations with Michael Coors. See his Scriptura Efficax: Die biblisch-dogmatische Grundlegung des theologischen Systems bei Johann Andreas Quenstedt (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009).