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Commentary: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

If you were asked to draw a self-portrait, what would you draw? Would it be a picture of you with your family, standing before your house? Would it be an action shot—Richard as runner, Helen as hiker, Charles as champion of the poor? Would you be seated in your study, leaning out from your pulpit, or washing dishes at the soup kitchen—what would you draw?
In the book of Nehemiah (little traveled territory for the lectionary preacher), God's people are struggling with a self-portrait following the exile. How shall Israel paint itself in the future? What picture of God's people can the writer summon up which will not fade over time, wash out over the centuries, or end up stuck in the back of a family album only brought out at Christmas?
In chapter eight, the writer of Nehemiah begins an extended description of God's people at worship. [For an extended description of this "Covenant Renewal Ceremony," see Mark Throntveit's commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah in the Westminster/John Knox Interpretation series.] Obviously, this is the self-portrait the book of Nehemiah wants us to remember and strive for. Through both the general description and the details, a picture of God's people emerges—striking a pose significant not only to the author, but (through its inclusion in our canon) to our God as well.
The Reading of the Law
In a basic way, the most powerful point of this portrait is the most general. What is the central event at the heart of this picture? It is the reading of the law.
Elsewhere in scripture, God's people gather for various events. At the exodus, during the conquest, and throughout the ups and downs of the monarchy, God's people gathered behind the king to go to war. This was a picture of God's people in action, establishing themselves dramatically as a nation among the nations. In the wilderness, at the tent of meeting, and later in Jerusalem at the First Temple, God's people had gathered before the priest for sacrifice. This too was a picture of God's people in action, striving to show themselves holy as God was holy through the dramas of the priestly cult.
Here, in our passage, there is no king raising the sword for battle, or priest raising the knife in sacrifice. Instead, all the people assemble together, demand the scribe/priest, Ezra, to bring the book of the law of Moses, and stand to hear its words. A new picture of God's people is emerging; one that will soon be cut off from both the palace and the temple. It is a picture of God's people at worship—most essentially through the reading and the hearing of God's word.
The Need for Understanding
From the very beginning, one of the roles of the priesthood has been that of teaching: "You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moses" (Lv 10:10-11). However, before the exile, and even much later during Jesus' day, this task ran the risk of being neglected—due to both the higher profile and higher profits of other areas of the priestly life (see Mk 11:15ff). In Nehemiah 8, for both the priest/scribe, Ezra, and the assisting Levites, this pedagogical function moves to the fore.
Note the number of times the phrase "with understanding" occurs in this passage. Note how much of the movement of the story hinges on whether the proper response to this word is weeping or rejoicing (again, see Throntveit). Note, finally, the reason for the people's rejoicing cited in the concluding verse of this section (not in the lectionary reading!): "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" (v. 12). At the heart of this portrait of God's people at worship is the reading and proper hearing of God's word.
The Immediate Response
Part of the power of this portrait lies in the people's unanimity from beginning to end (when is the last time you saw this in the church?!). Not only do all the people gather, demand, and stand, but once they have heard, they all respond—first, with weeping ("For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law," v. 9); then, with tangible rejoicing (see v. 12 above). Here we have the full range of possible human responses—weeping with those who weep, and rejoicing with those who rejoice (Rom 12:15).
It is a miracle when God speaks and worlds are formed and dead bodies raised. It is an even greater (and perhaps more significant) miracle when God's word is read and heard and all the people respond—not lukewarmly, not superficially, but with actions and words that denote the most basic emotions human beings can generate. [Note the reappearance of words like "together" and "all" from a narrative in a similar location in the New Testament story: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-45)."] Little wonder that God chose this picture of God's people as one to be remembered and cherished.
This Scripture Has Been Fulfilled In Your Hearing
One of the basic affirmations of scripture is the belief that the word of the Lord never returns void, but accomplishes that for which it was purposed (Is 55:11). But how rarely we experience this! Clustered about this passage at the end of January are other passages which celebrate the perfection of God's law ("the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart," Ps 19:8); the gifts of those who serve the church as apostles, prophets, and teachers (1 Cor 12:28); and the beginning of Christ's ministry in a gathering of God's people for worship in the synagogue in Nazareth (note how Jesus' actions mimic Ezra's—he went, stood up, read from the scroll, then "began to say," Lk 4:21). Would it be enough this Sunday simply to hold up this picture of God's people in action (perhaps contrasting the response in Ezra's Jerusalem with that in Jesus' Nazareth)? Surely there are worse ways to capture the soul of this strange community than as a people created, sustained, and transformed by the reading, proper hearing, and proper responding to God's word.
Richard Boyce
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