There are many throughout history who have set examples for us in their Bible study. Eusebius said that he heard of one, whose eyes were burned out under the Diocletian persecution, repeat from memory the Scriptures in a large assembly. Beza could repeat all Paul’s epistles in Greek at age 80. Augustine said that after his conversion, he ceased to relish Cicero, his favorite author, and that the Scriptures were his pure delight.
Unfortunately, we live in an age where Bible study is almost a thing of the past. Of the 93% of Americans who say they own a Bible, half have never read it. Only 18% of those who claim to be Christians say they read the Bible daily.
We need to be people of the book, people who know Scripture. But, in order to be people of the book, we need to know how to study the Bible. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra read the Law before the people, and we see a prime example of how to study the Bible. Let’s think about what the people’s reaction to Ezra’s reading can teach us about Bible study.
THEY HAD A PROPER ATTITUDE TOWARD SCRIPTURE
“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. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood” (Nehemiah 8:1-5).
The Jews were eager to hear Scripture, or they gathered and told Ezra to bring the Book of the Law of Moses. This episode occurred on the Feast of Booths, when, according to Deut. 31:10-11, the Law was to be read and the covenant renewed. Thus, the people asked Ezra to do what God had commanded.
The people, however, could have ignored God’s instructions and not wanted Ezra to have brought the Word of God out to be read. These people, however, valued what God had inspired, and they wanted to know what he had said. What an important lesson for us: to value what God has inspired and to want to know what he said.
Notice also that all the people were there: Children and everyone else who could understand attended this assembly. No one stayed home because they said, “What they’re doing isn’t that important; I don’t need to go.” The church in this modern age suffers a severe problem with people not being eager to hear Scripture. Many do not attend Bible study on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, although Scripture is proclaimed. Many do not return on Sunday evenings although Scripture is proclaimed. How can children of Cod not be eager to hear Scripture? How can we miss an assembly where Scripture will be proclaimed?
The people stood and listened to the Law read for around six hours. Today, if the preacher goes over by five minutes, people begin to get upset, but these people stood and listened to the reading of Scripture for six hours. Would we value Scripture enough to listen to Scripture for six straight hours?
These Jews were eager to hear the word of God, but far too often we are not that eager to hear Scripture. We often view sermons as “boring,” fodder for sleep or daydreaming rather than an opportunity to be instructed in the ways of God. Let us be eager to hear Scripture!
The people actually paid attention to what Ezra read – they were not sleeping, they were not daydreaming, they were not reading something else. We need to be attentive when the Word of God is proclaimed in our hearing. We don’t need to daydream, we don’t need to read the bulletin, we don’t need to be getting up to get a drink of water. What Scripture says has a great impact on our lives:
Scripture has the power to aid us in overcoming temptation: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11).
Scripture has the power to convict us of sin: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Scripture will judge us at the last day: “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (Jn 12:48).
When Ezra opened the book, all the people stood. Standing is a sign of reverence-when the national anthem is played, we stand to show respect. Likewise, these people stood during the reading of Scripture to show respect to the Law of God.
We need to show respect during the proclamation of Scripture. We need to be very careful about causing disturbances while Scripture is being proclaimed-we need not get up to get a drink of water, talk with our neighbor, read the bulletin, or any such thing. There are going to be times that we have to excuse ourselves from the assembly, but we need to be very careful not to make it a habit.
THEY HEARD A PROPER PREACHING OF SCRIPTURE
“Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8).
Several men, apparently priests, helped the people understand the Law. Rabbinic tradition says that these priests helped the people understand the Law by translating it from Hebrew to the Aramaic the people would have spoken. That may very well be the case-Ezra may have read the Law in Hebrew and these priests may have translated it. At any rate, the people did not grasp Scripture in some way, and these priests helped the people to understand.
There are parts of Scripture that are very difficult to understand. Peter says of Paul’s Epistles, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). Romans Revelation, and other books are quite difficult to understand fully. Many times, I scratch my head over a text, for I have no clue what it fully means.
Proper preaching. however, helps people understand the Scriptures. Just as these men helped the Jews of their day better understand the Law, preachers today need to help people understand the Word of God. A preacher’s main responsibility is to be certain that those who hear him understand the Bible.
These priests also read distinctly from the book in the Law of God. The priests did not tell a bunch of good stories and then try to find a part of the Law that might apply, they didn’t preach a lot of psychology-they read from the book. Solid preaching today is based upon the Word of God. Paul tells Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Scripture needs to be the basis of what is proclaimed. Although there is a place for stories, psychology, philosophy and the like, the Bible, rather than these extras, needs to be proclaimed.
THEY HAD A PROPER RESPONSE TO SCRIPTURE
“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.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ 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.
“On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.’ So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule” (Nehemiah 8:9-18).
The people wept when they heard the words of the law. The people understood they were not what God expected, and as a result, they wept. People who sinned against God often wept when they realized what they did. Josiah wept when the Book of God was read in his hearing and he realized he had sinned (2 Ki. 22:19). Peter wept when he denied the Lord (Mk. 14:72). The people’s weeping no doubt demonstrated remorse that they were not what God expected them to be.
When was the last time we wept when we realized we were not what God expected us to be? Do we have deep remorse over our sinfulness, or have we become so numb that we no longer flinch when we hear Scripture proclaimed? Let us have tender hearts that break when we discover we are not what God expects of us!
The people obeyed what they heard from the Law. When the people found written in the Law that they were to dwell in booths during the Feast of Booths the people did so. These people wanted to do what the Lord wanted, and they sought to obey the Lord.
We need to seek to obey the Lord, seek to obey what we read in Scripture. “This day the LORD your God commands you to do these statutes and rules. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 26:16). “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21).
What we read in Scripture needs to be obeyed.
During the Civil War, General Lee sent word to Stonewall Jackson that the next time he rode in the direction of headquarters the Commander-in-Chief would be glad to see him on a matter of no great importance. General Jackson received the message and immediately prepared to leave the next morning. Rising very early, he rode the eight miles to Lee’s headquarters against a storm of wind and snow, and arrived just as Lee was finishing breakfast. Much surprised, Lee inquired as to why Jackson had come through such a storm. General Jackson replied: “But you said that you wished to see me. General Lee’s slightest wish is a supreme command to me.” Is God’s slightest wish a command to us? Are we obeying what God desires?
The people of Ezra’s day set a powerful example for us about how to treat Scripture-the right attitude, the right preaching, and the right response. How will you respond to the preaching of Scripture? Will you respond by obedience or will you respond with defiance?