Rejoicing at what the Lord Says - Nehemiah 8:12

Hearing, Believing, and Changing

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 that the LORD had commanded Israel. … 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 as 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 anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” … And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. – Nehemiah 8:1, 9-10, 12 ESV

Nehemiah was a prophet who lived in the time that the Babylonian exile ended. At the time that the exiles were returning to Jerusalem, he had been in the court of the king in Babylon. But, when he heard that Jerusalem was destroyed and walls in ruins, he gave up his high position and went back to help rebuild the city. Part of what Nehemiah did for the people was to teach them about the Law of Moses. Over the seventy years of captivity and exile, the habits and traditions around keeping the law had fallen away.

In Nehemiah chapter 8, we see the effect that the renewing of the laws and traditions had on the people. Ezra the scribe was asked to read the Law of Moses to the people. As they heard it being read, clearly and so they could understand it, the people started weeping. Nehemiah and the Levites reminded them that this is a time of joy, not weeping. They said, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” (v. 9). In verse 12, it explains a little more what the people were going through, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions [to the poor] and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”

I love this story! Everything is here that shows us what we need to do to make changes happen and stick in our lives is here. These parts are

  • Knowledge and Understanding
  • Connection
  • Supporting leadership
  • Willingness to obey

The first part has two elements to it: knowledge and understanding. The people weren’t being rebellious or defiant; they simply didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Nehemiah doesn’t try to correct behavior first thing. He knows that they have to know the truth of God and be taught it. It might seem like splitting hairs to say that knowledge and understanding are different, but the nuance of them is captured in the part that says, “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.” (v.8 NIV). They didn’t just put the words out there and tell the people to start a Bible study if they didn’t understand it. They explained it in such a way that they understood what they heard. They now had the knowledge of the law and the understanding of it as well.

The second piece of this is connection. Religion is an abstract concept. It is an idea that we can’t always define quickly and easily. These abstract concepts include things like: there’s a powerful being who is intelligent and loving, but invisible and intangible, and ideas like love, mercy and justice. Even if the intangible is acknowledged, it can be difficult to apply this knowledge to our lives, or, said another way, to care about it. To take all these things and believe that they are real and important enough to be willing to change our lives for is a huge step of faith.

This step of faith can only happen when something connects us with the truth that’s in the knowledge we’ve gained. Knowledge alone isn’t enough, in most cases, to change a person or commit their steps to a path that will cost them personally with no earthly gain in site. That kind of belief is found only in the presence of the Lord. Only when we accept the words of understanding and allow them to connect us to His Spirit. This is why the people wept, because they were so overwhelmed with the Spirit that they felt the connection to Him deeply and personally.

The next piece of this story is the supportive leadership shown by Nehemiah and the Levites. All of Israel is gathered here and is crying. I imagine that some of the Levites were a bit overwhelmed by the people’s response. Thousands of people crying would be intimidating! Fortunately, Nehemiah knew what was happening and knew how to support the people as the Spirit was working in them.

He offered them a day to celebrate the goodness of God while they absorbed the love and knowledge they’d gained. He sent them home, telling them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (v. 10). The first time you feel the moving of the Spirt, you might not know how to handle it. Nehemiah is given them the opportunity to enjoy the moment and to have a good meal (eat the fat) and make sure the poor in the group can enjoy a good meal as well.

The final part of this is the willingness to obey. In the next section of chapter 8 and 9, Nehemiah and the other leaders and priests start implementing what they’ve been reading in the Law, right away, no wasted time! The people celebrate and rejoice in this and join in wholeheartedly.

When we’ve been brought into a new understanding of God’s truth, we need to be willing to step into obedience as well, without hesitation and with wholehearted devotion. This is the only way we can see the true change in us: hear it, understand it, celebrate it (leaders support it), and do it.

The Truth about Truth - Ecclesiastes 12:11

The Truth about Truth

The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. – Ecclesiastes 12:10-11 ESV

Ecclesiastes 12:11 talks about truth being a goad. Merriam-Webster defines a goad as, “provoke or annoy (someone) so as to stimulate some action or reaction.” Using that definition, Ecclesiastes is saying that knowing the truth bothers us until we respond to it. If God is truth and truth sets us free both of which seem like good things, then why does the Preacher say here that it’s an annoying goad, which sounds like a bad thing? What does knowing this change about listening to the Spirit?

In order to understand the goading better, let’s start by going back a few verses in chapter 12 to see more about what the Preacher is talking about. In verse 9, Ecclesiastes says, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care.” (Ecclesiastes 12:9 ESV) The Preacher didn’t just shout out an opinion, he studied carefully to find truth. In verse 10, it says the proverbs that the Preacher collected are given by one Shepherd, meaning God. The wise man, the Preacher, searched out diligently the wise and good ideas and then taught them and shared them, because he knew that all wisdom really comes from God.

This is important to know because it can be easy to dismiss wisdom or truth as something that’s simply someone else’s opinion. God is the giver of all wisdom and all truth, no matter who we think it’s from and no matter who tries to take the credit for it. Truth can come directly to us from God (John 14:26), or it can come through the wise teaching of men who are seeking the Lord.

This doesn’t mean that we listen to anyone who claims to know something we don’t know. Just because someone speaks confidently, doesn’t mean that they have the Spirit of the Lord leading them, no matter what they claim. So, how do we know the difference?

Sometimes, it can be very difficult if not impossible just by listening to someone’s words to determine if the Lord is leading them or not. Most of us know that we need to know the scriptures and compare what their saying to that. A teacher being led by God won’t contradict the truth of Himself that He’s already taught us. However, there’s an icky truth about false teachings that Apostle Paul warns us about in 1 Timothy 4:3, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” (ESV).

He’s warning us here that the reason that false teachings are appealing to us is because they are telling us what we already want to hear. We are seeking validation for ourselves or our emotions or maybe our life choices. Whatever the thing is, we want to be able to fulfill our passions guilt free, so we listen to people to are not sharing truth in order to feel good about it.

This is why the Preacher back in Ecclesiastes called truth a goad. It doesn’t only tell us what we want to hear, it tells us what’s going to make us like the Shepherd (Romans 8:29). Seeking comfort is a big deal to anyone who is human, so choosing to listen to a voice that tells you uncomfortable truths is not our first response. These goads are what keep us from settling in to a life of selfish pursuit of passions. The Spirit prompts us to move and not give in to apathy, prods us to keep us from settling for less than who God made us to be (hint: servant of all), and it reminds us that we are sinners who must always rely on grace.

The worst thing about uncomfortable truths isn’t just that they can be unpleasant. The worst thing about them is what makes them unpleasant. When God uses truth to change us, He starts by showing us who we really are. We’d like to think that He’s showing us difficult or challenging truths and the uncomfortable part is how hard we’re going to have to work to get there. That’s not it, though. God shows us who we are in the light of who He is. The uncomfortable part is that it’s dark, dark sin that separates us and nothing we can do will bridge the gap. Even after years of walking with Him, we must still be willing to acknowledge both current sins and our selfish temperament.

The next important thing about a goad, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is that it stimulates some action or response. A goad isn’t a goad if nothing changes after it’s been applies. Sometimes we have emotional moments where we feel like we’re never going to be the same. Or we have intellectual moments where we think we understand God on a whole new level now. In either case, it’s only a truth about God when we come away having been changed. There’s nothing wrong with either emotional moments or intellectual moments. In fact, sometimes we need to pile up several different moments over a long course of time in order to build up the momentum we need to change. However, if encounter after encounter happens and we always revert back, then we’re not really facing the real prod. We’re getting close enough to feel excited, but not close enough to see the truth about what needs to be different.

These aren’t pretty truths, but they are the wisdom of God who wants to spend eternity with us. He is reminding us of uncomfortable things so we can end up wrapped in His bliss for eternity. Let truth goad you. Let yourself be prodded by the Holy Spirit so that you can be more and more like Christ.