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Rebuilding a nation

Phil Reid walks us through the ideas embedded in Nehemiah 8.1–12

Phil Reid

Figure Image
photo: iStock

A nation lies in ruins. There is a need to rebuild – physically, morally, spiritually.

But where do we start? On what foundations should a nation be rebuilt?

When we look at countries suffering from civil war, like Somalia or South Sudan, our instinct is to relieve people’s physical suffering – sending food, building refugee camps, supplying water. This is right and good, but where do we go from there?

The Old Testament talks about a nation rebuilding itself after being destroyed. The nation is Judah, centred on Jerusalem where the LORD’s temple was.

Despite God sending prophets, and some good kings, the nation descended so far that God had had enough. He sent the brutal Babylonian army who devastated the land, taking wave after wave of the people away to exile, until, in 586 BC, Jerusalem and its temple were burned down. It was complete destruction and humiliation.

But, 70 years later, God moved the heart of Cyrus, the conqueror of Babylon. He decreed that the Jews should return and rebuild the temple. A small number went back to Jerusalem and did this, but they stopped there. Decades later, God raised up Nehemiah, a very capable and godly man, to lead the people to rebuild the city’s walls and gates. They faced many threats. But amazingly they finished the job in 52 days!

Spiritual rebuilding

Aside from the physical rebuilding after the exile, the nation needed rebuilding. After the excitement of reconstructing the temple, the people neglected their worship. The new temple stood forlorn in the otherwise-still-ruined city of Jerusalem, and the priests and Levites took off their robes and went back to their fields to work. The returnees married local non-Israelites, forgetting God’s law and becoming indistinguishable from the pagan nations around them.

The people needed a spiritual rebuilding project as ambitious and radical as the work Nehemiah had done.

God’s Word – heard & understood

God had been preparing, born during the exile, a priest called Ezra for this spiritual rebuilding project. He was going to teach God’s Word.

In Nehemiah 8 we see Ezra at work. The returnees from Babylon gathered in Jerusalem and asked Ezra to read them the Book of the Law of Moses. If you’ve been to a large Christian conference, you can imagine the challenges of getting such a large number of people together to hear God’s Word – in Ezra’s time, without amplification or the printed word. They built a high wooden platform for Ezra to stand on as he read, so people would be able to see and hear him, even when they were all standing up (v.5).

He read from the scrolls from daybreak till noon; six hours of Bible reading. But God’s Word wasn’t only read. In v.7-8 the Levites instructed the people. You can imagine the groups of people gathering around the 13 teachers. They read from the Book of the Law, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. In my Bible there’s a footnote, suggesting that ‘making it clear’ could mean ‘translating’, and I think it’s quite likely they did translate. After two generations in Babylon, speaking other languages such as Aramaic, and intermarriage with Gentiles, the people needed translators to help them understand the Law of Moses in Hebrew.

But as the Bible is understood it has a power to transform individuals, families and whole nations! Had the crowd listening to Ezra really heard God’s Word with humble, willing hearts? Let’s see what effect God’s Word had on them.

God’s Word – that brings pain

The huge crowd had stood for six hours, hearing God’s Word read to them. They worshipped God in prayer, lifting their hands and responding ‘Amen! Amen!’ as Ezra praised God, and then bowed down in worship (v.5–6). The team of Levites translated and expounded the Word to the people, and as they understood they had started to weep (v.9).

Weeping, pain, sadness. This is their response to God’s Word. This was supposed to be a festival, a time of joy – Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people not to mourn or weep. But their initial response was entirely right. If only their ancestors had wept at God’s Word, they wouldn’t have been in the sorry state they were in.

What had Ezra been reading? It was the Law of Moses – God’s commands for the way they should live. ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.’ All the law was based around the Ten Commandments: ‘You shall not make for yourself an image… you shall not bow to them or worship them for I am a jealous God…’; ‘You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God’; ‘Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy’.

They had failed in every one of these commands – dishonour of parents, murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, coveting. They were to love the LORD their God with all their hearts (Deuteronomy 6.5). But they had failed. We have failed.

God’s Word shows us our sin. Like a demolition ball, God’s law pulls down the false, shaky structures we have built without true foundations. It cuts to the heart. When the people understand God’s Word, they weep.

Still, Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people not to mourn or weep – ‘It’s a time to celebrate, not to mourn’ – and they give them reasons to celebrate.

God’s Word – that brings joy

Nehemiah says: ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared’ (v.10). They are to enjoy what God has given them and share it with others who have none. This is a festival – a time to celebrate and be generous.

He goes on: ‘This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ This could be translated ‘The joy that the LORD gives you is your protection.’ How could this be? They had a rightful sense of their sin. They deserved God’s judgment. Why would God’s joy protect them, so much that they were free to celebrate instead of to grieve?

The word translated strength here means a refuge, a fortress, a place of strength and protection – for example: ‘The Lord is the strength of his people, a fortress [same word] of salvation for his anointed one’ (Psalm 28.8)

When Jesus was baptised, his Father said ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased!’ The Father loves his Son Jesus and delights over him. If we trust in Jesus – in his perfect sacrifice in our place on the cross, then he will take away our sin and guilt, and in its place we get included in his wonderful relationship with his Father. He’ll shout and sing over us as his children. This is the joy of the LORD, a joy that comes through hearing and believing God’s Word.

The foundation of a nation

God’s Word doesn’t only give us the foundation for our lives as individuals, but also for entire nations.

In his fascinating book The Book That Made Your World, Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi reminds us of just how profound an effect the Bible has had on Western culture. From music and art to technology and science he shows how much we owe to the Biblical worldview in ways we often take for granted. For example the intrinsic value of an individual human life, stemming from Genesis 1.27, stands behind great advances in medicine, the abolition of slavery and the invention of labour-saving technology. In the economic field, a climate of honesty enables entrepreneurs to succeed and innovation to be rewarded.

Around the world today, many nations remain untouched by the Bible and the benefits it brings. Those translating or teaching the Bible in mission can feel irrelevant, or marginalised, when compared with those bringing more tangible forms of development. We so easily forget that God’s Word is the foundation, and that without the change in worldview it brings, our efforts in relief and development will not produce lasting fruit. How much we need to remember how precious God’s Word is.