Neh 8:8, They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading…
Neh 8:17 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.
As we read through the last part of Nehemiah we notice certain things. Ezra read the Word of God to the people and explained it. This had a profound effect on the people so that they repented of having not obeyed the Lord as they should have and made efforts to change their ways.
It is vs. 17 especially that I want to think about for a moment. The point here is not that they hadn’t kept the Feast of Booths at all from the time of Joshua until now. At least a couple of times we read of them keeping it during this time. I think in this context the point is that they were keeping it outwardly yet not keeping it as the Lord demanded of them which was from the heart. When the commands to keep feasts and other observances were given the Lord tells the people over and over again that they are to rejoice as they keep the laws and feasts. When he gives the law concerning this Feast of Booths the Lord specifically says you are to rejoice the entire time while you do this, Lev 23:40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
In other words this wasn’t just some religious rite they were to keep to show that they would merely obey the Lord. Such a view of religion suggests that the Lord just likes to watch us scurry around doing things. What he was after was for them to remember that he was the One who redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and it was to make them glad. We see another example of this in Isa_58:13 "If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly.” The Lord was never content for Israel or anyone to obey him merely because he tells us to. He want us to understand who he is and what he has done for us and why his commands are given and delight in him and be thankful for mercy and grace; to worship and serve him because it is our desire to do so.
For generations the Jews had mostly observed the Law because that is what was expected of them but they had lost the meaning of the Law. It taught them of God and especially how he was going to save them. So when Ezra had the Word read to the people and had the Levites give the meaning or the sense to the people revival broke out because now they began to realize what all these “activities” really meant. Now there was great rejoicing in the Lord, something that had been missing for the most part during Israel’s history which was why they were in this situation to begin with.
Going through the motions without understanding why can many times describe us. We have lost the joy of the Lord because we have forgotten the pit he lifted us out of; we have ceased to live in light of the gospel and have become religious. And in so doing we cease to honor the Lord as we should and we cease to be a pleasing aroma to him. If we don’t know why we go to church and sing and pray and study and just think that God wants us to so we do them to please him; we actually have ceased pleasing him. Go through the Psalms and read how many times David speaks of delighting in the Law. And if they could delight in the Old Covenant, how much more should we be able to rejoice in the finished work of Jesus Christ?
I think this will solve or at least help us in the problem areas of life as well. When we act and live without a good sense of why, without a good understanding, whether it be in our marriages, raising our children and our relationships it can become a drudgery and unfulfilling because we have forgotten why all these things are important. When we forget to serve the Lord in everything, a marriage can stop being a delight and become daily routine, drudgery and unfulfilling. Only as the gospel permeates every aspect of our being can we honor the Lord as we should.
So to connect this in Nehemiah chapter 8: it wasn’t until they had heard the Word and had a firm grasp of its meaning that they were able to serve the Lord with accuracy and gladness and actually please him. Service and the understanding of God’s Word cannot be separated. Worship and service isn’t just singing a lot of praise songs, lifting up our hands or whatever. It arises from understanding Truth. From such understanding comes a firm sense of why we are doing what we do and with meaning comes purpose and with these comes joy.
Why do so many battle depression and meaninglessness? Because they are told from the cradle that there is no purpose to life beyond pleasure. Meaning begins with the Truth of God’s Word. Without Truth there can be no faith and without faith we cannot please God.