Today: [Nehemiah Eight] Nehemiah Celebrates the Feast of Tabernacles. In this chapter the people come together at the water gate to hear the reading of the word of God. Water in the bible not only represents the Spirit but also the word of God itself. In reading the word the people are very sober and in the second day the elders lead them in a celebration of the feast of Tabernacles that speaks many things to us of the habitation of God’s presence in our own lives.
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[Neh 8:1-18 KJV] 1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that [was] before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the street that [was] before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people [were attentive] unto the book of the law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, [and] Meshullam. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with [their] faces to the ground.
In the previous chapter Nehemiah conducted a census of the remaining returnees in order to encourage them to move in and build houses in the city of Jerusalem. The walls of the city covered a far greater area than the number of the people living in the city and Nehemiah wanted to build again the derelict neighborhoods and cause Jerusalem to shine again in it’s former greatness. In addition much gold and silver was gathered for the temple and all the vessels and garments necessary for the appointed priests and Levites to conduct and lead in the ceremonial life of the nation.
Having made these preparations Nehemiah gathers the people to the water gate to hear the reading of the word of God. This was not topical preaching as is commonly done today but an expositional reading such as this study constitutes. They gathered all the men and women who could understand and read out the law for hours – pausing to give the sense and explanation so the people could grasp what was read and incorporate this into their lives.
The reading of the word of God is much depreciated in Christian culture. Only in liturgical churches do we read the bible for it’s own sake in our popular gatherings. We make time for every other activity besides reading and only public prayer and intercession is more neglected than expositional reading before our congregations. When Ezra read the words he was standing upon a pulpit of wood. Here again we see Ezra connected with the iconic accoutrements of Christian culture. Ezra’s influence upon Christianity cannot be underestimated. He established the synagogue system that Christianity in the 2nd century patterned itself after and even in his life we see the first mention of the use of a wooden pulpit which is so universally used today.
7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people [stood] in their place. 8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused [them] to understand the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, which [is] the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day [is] holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for [this] day [is] holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength. 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day [is] holy; neither be ye grieved. 12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
As the people listened to the reading of the word and the explanatory teachings of the priests and Levites they became very mournful because they saw the disparity between their lifestyles and what Moses law prescribed. I don’t know that our religious culture today is quite so sensitive. When we see a contradiction in the scriptures we tend to explain it away or point the finger at others rather than question our own lives and our own moral choices. When the people wept bitterly the leaders do not pour salt in their wounds but they comforted them and encouraged them. The people felt weakened in themselves by what they read and the Levites and teachers encouraged their hearts with the declaration that God would be their strength.
When we read the word of God and see how far short we live from the standard of the word of God we tend to diminish the standard and explain away what the scriptures might be construed to require of us. Is this because we are inherently evil or is it because we have a theology that looks to the strength of man rather than the grace of God to see obedience become a reality in our lives. You might read the verses and mourn that you own life is so far below the sanctity and holiness called for – but take heart! It isn’t in your strength that obedience and holiness are established. As Nehemiah and Ezra encouraged the people – the Lord is your strength and He is capable and willing by grace through faith to produce whatever character and lifestyle changes are necessary to fulfill His righteous standard. There is no need to explain away or cheapen the gospel with compromise and dead theology – trust in God and lean into Him when you fall short and see the transformation He produces in your life in joyfull holiness dependent upon the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and not the efforts of human flesh.
13 And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law. 14 And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month: 15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as [it is] written. 16 So the people went forth, and brought [them], and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. 18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day [was] a solemn assembly, according unto the manner.
After the first day of reading before the people – the elders and scribes gather a second day to inquire further into the books of the law. Leaders have a heavier weight of responsibility before God as James said:
[Jas 3:1 KJV] 1 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
When the leaders read they saw reference to a feast that had not been celebrated since the time of Moses’ successor Joshua. The feast of Tabernacles had been deferred to in many generations from Joshua to Nehemiah but apparently never fully and completely celebrated. So the leaders call the people together and give them instructions to build the ceremonial booths that they might camp out in them in celebration of what it represents.
These booths were made of olive, pine, myrtle and palm:
Olive of course represents the anointing. The anointing is a covering and a shelter over our lives and is the first wood laid to the booths the people stayed in. You can build a perfectly good booth but if the anointing is not present it is a vain protection and an illegitimate religious vanity and not the celebration of the feast of God it is intended to be.
Pine speaks of God making all things new. Pines are evergreen and not deciduous. They are full of sap and life and maintain their color no matter what the season. They speak of constancy and eternal life and endurance in the midst of fair season and foul. God wants us to take up residence under His constancy and be protected in our faith to know that there are no ebbs nor flows in His love for us – as evidenced in metaphor by the pine tree.
Myrtle was an aromatic tree used for innocence and for medicinal purposes. It speaks to us of worship. Our worship forms and creates a habitation not only for us but for God Himself. God inhabits the praises of His people and when we worship Him that worship becomes a culvert from storm and turbulence in life’s difficulties.
Finally Palm. The prophet Deborah judged Israel under a Palm tree. The Palm tree represents the prophetic office. Everyone should know who their prophet is. The prophet in his ministry creates a canopy of favor and prosperity as the scripture says “believe the prophets so shall you prosper.”
So the people celebrated the feast of Tabernacles and joined themselves together not only in the word of building the wall and restoring the temple but in worshipping God in a feast of celebration of God’s faithfulness to them in the restored province of Judea.
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