The Standard August 13, 2020
King Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem in 589 B.C.E., eventually razing it to the ground and destroying the Temple, built by King Solomon, in 586 B.C.E. Many Jewish people were taken into captivity to Babylon while others were exiled to different countries. Approximately forty-seven years later Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, allowed the Judaeans to return home, which some did in waves. Many chose to remain in Babylon after the Jewish Diaspora, however.
Christians read about the rebuilding of the Temple and of Jerusalem in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah, but in the Hebrew tradition the two books make up just one. This book is called Ezra and includes Nehemiah in full, but as the latter part.
Nehemiah, cupbearer to Persian King Artaxerxes, gets word that Jerusalem, the land of his ancestors, lies in ruins. He faithfully prays for God’s intervention and guidance. Artaxerxes allows Nehemiah to go and even provides timber to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. The Jewish people who have returned work diligently to rebuild the city’s wall, having to be on guard constantly due to threats from opposing forces. Once the wall finally is rebuilt, they have a large gathering.
“When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel. 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, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.”
“Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen! Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
“Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and the teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy 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. Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.’ 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.” (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:1-3, 5-6, 9-12)
Those who hear the reading of the Law are cut to the heart because of their own unfaithfulness and sin. In their years of captivity or exile many had forgotten the Word of God and had not trusted God’s promises. Upon hearing the Scripture after such a long hiatus, they are struck with grief. Nehemiah tells them to focus on God’s provision and faithfulness as opposed to their own shortcomings and difficulties. In the midst of hardship, grief or remorse we also can remember God’s relentless love and unconditional forgiveness as spelled out in Scripture. “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8: 10b)