Nehemiah 8:1-18

Nehemiah 8:1-18

SERIES: Godly Leadership

Spiritual Renewal Begins with You!

Introduction:  For the past two months as we have been walking through the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. In the process, we have witnessed not only the Israelites returning to Judah after over 40 years in exile.  But we’ve also seen the temple rebuilt and worship restored.  In the last four weeks we’ve seen the walls around Jerusalem rebuilt in 52 days.  In Chapter 7, which I didn’t read, Nehemiah seems to bring a fitting end to the story.  He hangs the gates on the wall, appoints new leadership and then calls for a census to ensure that everyone is back home. 

The people once again had their land, they had their place of worship, they had their security and now, they had their national identity.  Why doesn’t the story end?  The story doesn’t end because something is still missing from God’s people.

Our lives, both individually and corporately, can parallel what we have seen Israel experience.  We can run off a string of victories just like they have and still sense something is missing.  The longstanding flashpoints in your marriage have found some healing.  You received a promotion and a raise, while others around you are being laid off.  You started dating someone who promises to be the one.  You just moved into a new home.  But even though you attribute these things to God working in your life, something is still missing.

I experienced this in May when I turned in my last 20-page seminary paper.  The goal of finishing seminary in three years was achieved.  But within a day or two, I noticed something missing.         

What was missing from the people of Israel?  They still needed to be restored back to God, individually and as a nation.  Though everything was in order, what they were still missing the most important thing—spiritual renewal.  Having achieved a number of goals might bring happiness for a time, but it would not be enough to give them abiding joy, joy that is unaffected by external circumstances, joy that is the result of being restored back to God.

This passage teaches us that God desires for his people to experience spiritual renewal.  More than that, God wants you and me to experience spiritual renewal.

We can experience spiritual renewal when we follow three steps towards God’s Word. 

Spiritual renewal begins when we have a proper attitude toward God’s Word.  (8:1-8)

If we wish to experience spiritual renewal, the first step we must follow is to develop a proper attitude toward God’s Word.  The people of Israel had an attitude that was ripe for renewal.  Look with me at verse 1 of chapter 8:

“When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate.  They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel.”

We see here that the Israelites were internally motivated to hear the Book of the Law.  Ezra didn’t call the people together; rather the people called Ezra.  They had gotten up before dawn, made the kids presentable, got into their mini-vans and headed off to Jerusalem.  When they got there, they joined with the whole congregation and said “Hey Ezra bring the scrolls.  We want to hear what God says!”  Spiritual renewal was beginning because they had an internal hunger for a word from the Lord.  Spiritual renewal in our lives will not happen unless we have this same internal motivation.

The Israelites’ internal motivation was only one facet of the proper attitude they had toward God’s Word.  In verses 2 and 3 we see the following:

         “So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.  He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men and women and others who could understand.  All the people listened attentively.”

Did you catch this?  Ezra was preaching for six hours and the people were still listening attentively. Since I’m rookie, Mike asked me how long my sermon was going to be today.  I told him I had found biblical precedent for something longer than thirty minutes!  The Israelites were so internally motivated that time did not seem to be a factor.  Their attention never wavered.  They had not yet been conditioned by television to expect a commercial every 9 minutes.  They focused their complete attention because they knew that they were listening to more than an old history book.  They were listening to the Living God reveal himself.

The Israelites’ attitude shows that they were not only internally motivated and attentive, but they were also teachable.  In verses 5 and 6, we see a synopsis of what happened that day.

         “Ezra opened the book.  All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people stood up.  Ezra praised the LORD the great God; and all the people lifted up their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’  Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.”

Their attitude towards God’s Word is shown in their actions, as Ezra opened the book they began praising God.  When he opened the book all the people rose to their feet and raised their hands. When a Hebrew stood like this, with arms raised and palms turned heavenward, it was his way of saying “Lord, I’ve come empty handed.  Everything I have comes from you.”   The refrain AMEN! means “So be it,” so they were saying, “So be your law to us.  If it is comfort than we will receive it as comfort.  Conviction, so be it, we will receive it as conviction.”  Then they humbled themselves by prostrating themselves on the ground with their faces down.  These were people who were ready to receive God’s Word.

Their attitude set the stage for what would result in their lives. We read in verse 7:

         “The Levites—Jeshua, Ban-e, Sher-a-via, Ya-min, Ak-kove, Shava-ti, Hodiah, Ma-ah-say-ya, Ke-lit-A, Az-ar-iah, Yoz-a-vad, Hanan, and Pela-yah—instructed the people in the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”

The Levites were the first small group Bible Study leaders.  As they spread out among the crowd, they met with groups of people, formally translated and interpreted the Book of the Law, and answered the questions the people had.  Many of you have come from liturgical church backgrounds and can still remember the freshness of coming to this church and hearing the Word of God explained clearly week in and week out.  No more confusion over what God wants because here it was in black in white.    That is how the Israelites felt.  

As significant as the Levites ministry was, the attitude of the people was the key to their understanding.  The best Bible expositors in the world can’t explain a thing unless the people who are listening have a proper attitude toward God’s Word.  In our evangelical culture, we tend to make stars out of the Chuck Swindolls and the John MacArthurs, but they are impotent unless the hearer is self-motivated, attentive, and teachable.

Spiritual renewal began because God’s people had a proper attitude to His Word.  The same will hold true for us.  These first 8 verses could be subtitled, “How to Listen to a Sermon,” or “How to Attend a Bible Study,” or even “How to have Personal Devotions.”  If you have difficulty understanding the Bible, it might be because your attitude needs some adjustment.  Compare your excitement level and your attentiveness for the Bible with the other things you like to read.  Has your Bible Reading Plan become a task?   Do you come to church on Sunday ready to yell out, “Mike, bring the scrolls, tell us what God has to say!”

If we, as individuals or as a corporate body, are in need of Spiritual Renewal, it will begin when we once again desire to hear a word from God, are attentive to it, and our hearts are open to be taught. 

Spiritual renewal grows when we respond appropriately to God’s Word.  (8:9-12)

A proper attitude is only the first step toward spiritual renewal.  The second step is to respond appropriately to God’s Word.  Up to this point, we have seen that the people of Israel have received an intellectual understanding of God’s word.

Renewal grows when we respond appropriately to what we learn from God’s Word.  And this response should avoid the extremes of excessive emotionalism and extreme stoicism. 

We read in verse 9 that:

“Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all. ‘This day is sacred to the LORD your God.  Do not mourn or weep.’  For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.”

Hearing the Law brought such conviction that the men, women and children began to weep.  The reading and interpretation hit a responsive chord in their hearts.     They did not receive the teaching of God’s Word as some academic exercise; rather their hearts were responsive to feel the guilt of their sins against God and to feel remorse for being away from God for so long.

I was speaking with a friend before our Bible study on Wednesday about our similar college experiences.  As we got to talking, he shared with me the sorrow he still felt for wasting so many years ignoring Christ and ignoring God’s Word.  I suspect this same kind of remorse was part of the Israelites’ response to the reading of the Law as well.  They were broken before God and painfully aware of the wasted years in captivity, when they could have been enjoying God’s fellowship.

Guilt and remorse have their place.  It is not always wrong to have guilt.  Guilt and remorse can serve as great motivation.  In fact, God often uses guilt to bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  If you are experiencing guilt this morning, it may be a sign to you that you are searching for a relationship with Jesus Christ.  But it is also possible to become to absorbed in our own failures and shortcomings, to a point that it becomes unhealthy.  Perhaps a corrective is needed, like a reminder that God has transferred us from one kingdom—the kingdom of darkness into another kingdom—the kingdom of Christ, the Son he loves. 

Ezra, Nehemiah and the Levites apply just such a corrective.  Nehemiah stood and said, “Wait a minute. This is a holy day, not a day to cry but to celebrate.”  In verse 10 the multitudes are told, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to the Lord.  Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  Verse 11 adds, “The Levites calmed the people saying, ‘Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.’”

The people are reminded three times that the day is holy and that they were not to grieve.  The people had gathered on a feast day in Israel.  Feast days were to be marked by celebration and rejoicing.  So instead of grieving, the Lord’s joy was to be their strength.  

In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, what was the Father’s response?  Get the best robe and put it on him.  A ring for his finger.  Kill the fatted calf.  Let us celebrate for my son was dead but now he is alive!  The leaders were telling the people that the Lord wasn’t grieved; rather he was overjoyed that his people were back.  And the Lord’s joy was to overflow to his people until it became their strength.

So we read in verse 12, “then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”  The guilt and remorse is now turned to joy because they understand God’s Law in their hearts.   They experience joy because they understand the security of their relationship with God, a security that couldn’t be provided by a wall.  

In our lives also, spiritual renewal grows when we responded appropriately to God’s Word.  If our hearts are closed to being touched by either remorse or joy, personal and corporate renewal will wither.  God’s Word needs to be more than charts, outlines and calculating the date of Jesus’ return.  How is your responsiveness to God’s Word?  Are you a stoic?  If so, unkink your emotional hose a little.  Are you racked with guilt?  Apply a corrective—you have been transferred from one kingdom into another.  Transfers are only one way.

Spiritual renewal climaxes when we live our lives in accordance with God’s Word.  (8:13-18) 

Spiritual Renewal begins with a proper attitude toward God’s Word.  It continues with an appropriate response to it.  The third step to renewal comes when we submit ourselves to live in accordance with God’s Word.  Understanding should always give rise to obedience, and obedience is the high point of renewal.

We see this by watching what happened the next day.  Look with me at verse 13.

“On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law.  They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their own towns and in Jerusalem:  ‘Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees and from myrtles, palms and shade trees to make booths” – as it is written.”

The heads of families and the spiritual leaders gathered around Ezra for more in-depth Bible study.  The word translated “give attention to” means to study for discernment.  These family leaders knew that they were responsible for impressing the commands of God upon the hearts of their children.  They had come to Ezra so he could show them how this fleshed out in the real world. 

They probably thought they got more than they bargained for.  Imagine the scene of all these family leaders meeting on Tuesday morning at IHOP dressed in their camel hair jackets and Persian ties.  Now God is telling these grown, intelligent men to go out in the woods, fetch some sticks, and build a shack in their front yard.  Then they are to round up the wife and kids and live in this lean-to for the next week.  If that was me, my first response might be: “Hey Ezra, that’s not what my version says!”  But out of obedience that is exactly what they did.  If God said build a booth, these men were going to build a booth.  In verse 17 it says, “The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them.  From the days of Joshua, son of Nun until this day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this….”

The feast of booths was an object lesson that God had given Israel so they would remember God’s faithfulness during the exodus from Egypt.  Their celebration was all the greater now because they could celebrate not only that exodus but the one they just came through as well.

The end of verse 17 says it all: “their joy was very great.”  The people’s joy was a direct result of their obedience to God’s Word.  Spiritual renewal was reaching a climax.  All the stuff that could have made them happy—a renewed identity, a new temple, a restored wall—wasn’t anything in comparison to the joy that comes from obedience to God.

George Gallup has said that “Religion is growing in importance among Americans, but morality is losing ground.”  I translate that to mean that religion is up, but obedience to God’s Word is down.   Upon personal reflection last May I saw that this was my problem.  I had been attentive and motivated for the Word, even emotionally responsive.  But I squelched renewal because I was not following through in obedience.   Religion was up but obedience to God’s word was down.

Spiritual renewal for an individual or for a church will begin and grow if we follow the first two steps.  But renewal will not reach its height until our lives are brought into conformity with God’s Word.  When we do so, verse 17 says it all, “Our joy will be very great.”

Conclusion:  When spiritual vitality is missing in my life, I know it. I suspect that you do also.  Where are you this morning.  Have you gotten used to not seeing God do things in your life?  Have you decided to accept a lack of spiritual vitality as normal?  Are you just going through the motions when you come to church or read your Bible?  Are all your ducks in a row, but your life lacks abiding joy?

We often put the burden of spiritual renewal solely on God’s shoulders.  We’ve seen this morning that we can experience spiritual renewal by following the steps Israel followed in regard to God’s Word.  So spiritual renewal can begin with you!  Renewal is not necessarily reading your Bible more, just differently. 

Prayer:  Father, there are many books in the world but only yours gives life.  Only yours can restore our spiritual vitality.  Only yours reveals your character and your love.  May your Word renew us, personally and corporately, as in the days of Israel.  We pray this for your glory.  Amen.   

DATE: July 26, 1992



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