Summary: We sing and quote that "The joy of the LORD is your strength," but learning to live it in challenging service to our King is a daily "workout" for our faith (that brings "unexpected joy").
How many of us have ever said, “As soon as I get this accomplished, I’ll focus on helping out at the church?” How many of us have ever said, “As soon as I have my degree in hand, I’ll start seriously serving the Lord” or “As soon as our church finds a building (or a pastor), I’ll really get involved?” Or maybe, some have said, “When God answers my prayer, I’ll really serve Him to the fullest” or “As soon as I get over this cold/influenza, I’ll be ready to serve God.” But for all too many of us, that day never comes.
Today, God has directed me to a relatively obscure Old Testament passage. If the Jewish historian named Josephus is correct, this incident takes place before the temple is rebuilt and occurs in the vicinity where that temple is to be rebuilt. All we really know is that the events recounted in our text occur sometime after Nehemiah and Ezra have brought some of the exiles back to Jerusalem and before the temple is rebuilt. It takes place near the Water Gate, not to be confused with the modern US apartment complex of 20th century infamy, an area that is not actually identifiable with any certainty within the confines of ancient Jerusalem. It may have been the outer gate with access to the well of Gihon (as some scholars believe) or it may have been a gate in the temple itself (as others thought). However, since “water” has great symbolic value as representative of God’s cleansing power, God’s life-giving energy, and the presence of God through the Holy Spirit (looking back with New Testament lenses), the event we are considering has tremendous spiritual significance.
A people who have been defeated and have lost everything, return to discover what is left of their homeland in the hands of foreigners and much of the familiar in ruins. With great effort, they begin rebuilding the walls of the city to withstand new incursions and endure the opposition of foreigners and traitors who have their own agendas in play as they try to foil God’s purposes. The people realize that they need some encouragement and help, so they make an appeal. They don’t appeal to the government to help them. They don’t call for Nehemiah himself as the secular leader leading the rebuilding project. They don’t appeal specifically to a particular pulpit celebrity, but they gather together as a group and practically demand that Ezra bring out the book.
Bring out the Book! This is really amazing as we consider how much entertainment and pop psychology passes for preaching today. These people needed something to encourage them and they needed a plan upon which they could rebuild their lives and their futures. So, what did they ask for? They asked, in verse 1 to “bring out the Book.” Let’s pray and then, let’s “bring out the Book” ourselves.
Prayer: Dear God Who Speaks, as our Father You have spoken to us as Creator and Ultimate Authority. You have spoken eloquently as Jesus, our elder Brother because You adopted us and thereby told us how much You love us. As Jesus, You have spoken to us about Unconditional Love and challenged us to demonstrate Personal Responsibility. As Holy Spirit, You have entered our lives and changed them irrevocably for the better. Please speak to us again in this written Word. In the Name You gave us, the Name of Jesus, we pray, AMEN.
And now, because I went to the Book in its Hebrew form and God blessed me in translating it, I want to share my translation with you:
1) And all the people gathered as one man upon the plaza in front (lit. “to the face of”) of the Water Gate, and they kept saying to Ezra the Scribe to bring the Book of the Instruction of Moses which Yahweh had commanded to Israel. 2) And Ezra, the Priest, brought the Instruction (as a result) before (lit. “to the faces of “) the assembly, among man, woman and all with discernment to hear on the first day of the seventh month. 3) And he proclaimed it before the plaza which was before the Water Gate from light [“dawn”] till the division of the day [“noon”] in front of the men and women and those who could understand, and the ears of all the people were focused on [lit. “toward”] the Book of Instruction.
Now, some of you are wondering why I translated the word for “Law” as “Instruction.” It’s because the Hebrew word “Torah” means more than a “law” in the sense of a legal code or piece of binding legislation. The Jews understand “Torah” as meaning a guide to life or instruction for living. A Jewish scholar whom I fervently respect (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner) calls the Torah “The Way of all Being” (Five Cities of Refuge, p. 163) and the Jewish playwright (David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross) calls it a “good teacher” in the same book (p. 19). The Torah isn’t primarily something that “restricts” us, but God’s verbal instructions to direct us to our best and THE best.