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
- 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.