Nehemiah 8 Worship
by Dr. Brad Black
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Have you ever wondered why our worship service is set up as it is? I have gotten that question a couple of times so I thought I would tackle that in this weekís blog. Most of what we do actually come from an Old Testament passage in Nehemiah chapter eight.
1And 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.
2And 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.
3And 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.
Look at the time this took place, from morning until midday. That is exactly when most churches have their big worship service. I would also like to point out that both men and women were allowed to listen. In the Jewish temple of that time, only men were allowed to hear the Word of God. It was the same in the early church, but now has been changed for the better. Another point I think we can make is that it was only the ones that could understand, which mean the younger children were not there causing a distraction, which most churches do now days.
4And 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.
This version of the Bible even says pulpit but some others will say wooden platform, which would be a better translation of the Hebrew word. The idea of pulpit is correct, the Israelites built a wooden platform for this occasion for Ezra and the other elders to be on so they could be seen and heard as they were reading and teaching the Bible. This verse is why most churches have a raised platform.
The platform was also a way of honoring Godís Word and Godís prophet. I use the word prophet here in its true meaning that comes from Hebrew, which is ďto tell forth Godís Word.Ē Therefore, every preacher who uses the Bible from the pulpit and explains it to the people is a prophet. Technically, I am a prophet because I am telling forth Godís Word here in this blog.
5And 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:
Our church still does this; they stand for the reading of Godís Word in reverence for the Word. I hate to say it, but many churches have lost this practice more for the idea of making the people comfortable. I really think that true believers, if they explained the reason for standing, would have no trouble standing for the reading of Godís Word.
6And 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
This may not be as easily seen from this verse, but this is what we do at the beginning of our services now days. First, Ezra blessed the LORD and the people answered Amen, Amen. This would be very similar to what we would call a responsive reading. I know this is something that is not practiced in some churches today. However, as you see, Ezra speaks and the people respond. They did not have hymnbooks or bulletins back then, so the peopleís response would have been very simple, for example, ďAmen, Amen.Ē
Then they bowed their heads. Just as we do today, they bowed their heads for prayer. This is hard to say if it was a prayer by Ezra or silent prayer by the people. I lean towards a corporate prayer lead by Ezra, maybe even as a part of the responsive reading.
Then they worshipped. When we say that in our churches today, we mean we sing hymns. The hymns were not invented until Martin Luther in the 1500ís, so this could not have been what they were talking doing. However, the Psalms was like the Hebrewsí hymnbook. They did not exactly sing them, but chanted them. Have you ever seen films from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where the men are holding a book and bobbing back and forth leaning forward or facing toward the ground? They are chanting, just as the children of Israel would have done in Ezraís time. I believe that this is what is being described in this verse.
We do not do this in our churches, but we sing modern hymns and spiritual songs for our worship. I believe it is the same idea as being described here in this verse.
7Also 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.
8So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
I love this; Ezra read the Bible and then they explained it by giving the sense. This is a good way of explaining expository preaching which is what I was taught in Seminary. To put it simply, you take a scripture and explain it in terms that the people would understand, or as the verse says, gave the sense that caused them to understand. You see, the idea is to get the people to understand the Word of God so they will then take it and make it part of their lives. Today, many preachers go with a feel good message that does not get the people to change their ways and be more Godly. What the Bible is teaching here is that if you give the Word of God to the people and explain it in such as way that they understand it, they should respond and change their ways to be what God wants them to be.
One more point here is to look at who is beside Ezra helping the people understand the law. It is the elders and the Levites. One of the jobs of the Pastor is to preach and teach the word, but it is also the job of the elders and the church hierarchy. This gets lost on a lot people in positions of prominence in the church that one of their jobs is to help explain the Bible, just as these men were doing here. The pastor cannot be everywhere at once so that is why it is so important that there are others in the church who can help teach the Bible.
9And 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.
You see, the people understood the word of God and they were crying because they understood that they had sinned and displeased God. This shows conviction, which is exactly what Godís Word and good preaching should do.
10Then 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.
11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.
12And 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.
I love this idea, and I think Sharon likes it even more than I do. The elders told them to quit their crying and told them to go out and celebrate that they were convicted of their sin and rejoice. They are to rejoice by eating. Moreover, not eating just anything, but eating meat, which would have only been eaten on special occasions. A normal noonday meal would have been a flat bread and some cheese and if lucky, some fresh or dried fruit with some water possibly mixed with wine for health reasons (to kill the bacteria) to drink. The elders instructed them to eat meat possibly goat, sheep, or beef, and sweet drink, possibly wine or fruit juice.
They were also to share with the ones who did not have any. Most churches will take out new families or new Christians; this is the same idea. I have worked in many Asian churches and all of them have a meal on the grounds every time there is a service. This is probably even closer to the idea of this passage.
When I was growing up, we would usually have a big meal after service, usually with our whole family and my grandparents. I have tried to keep this tradition with my children to have a big meal after church to discuss the service and Sunday school.
The big picture here is to celebrate Godís Word and the changes in our lives because of it. I hope this gives new meaning to your meal after church.
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