Chapter 21 is our last chapter in The Story that covers the Old Testament, and the message that sticks with us from this chapter is a message for all of us today.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen that the Israelites are returning to Jerusalem in groups. The first group of 50,000 return under Zerubabel and begin rebuilding the temple. The next group return under Ezra, the priest, and they finish out the building of the temple. The final group we read of in Chapter 21 (the book of Nehemiah in your bible) returns under the leadership of Nehemiah and his mission is to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem that was still in ruins.
The people gather together and listen to the words of God for the first time in 140 years. The men, women and most of the children gathered to listen to Ezra read. They gathered into smaller groups and the Levites led them through the readings. It was a holy day. They read the word and they understood it for themselves. Here is what happened:
All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe 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 the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. 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. The Levites…instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred 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 sacred 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 sacred 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 8:1-12)
They discovered that there was a festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, recorded in the writings of Moses. They weren’t just hearers of the word, but they were going to be doers as well. They cut branches and built temporary shelters to commemorate this feast. God’s word calls us to align our lives with God’s will.
As a church, we believe that the bible is God’s Word and has the right to command my belief and action. We don’t just read to read, but our reading produces in us a change, an action, a movement.
Just as the people of Jerusalem listened to the Word read by Ezra, we have “listened” as we have read together. They recognized something in the reading something to which they needed to align themselves. What about us? What have we read? There may not be a feast or a ritual, but we need to be aware that God is calling us to align our lives to his story. We do this as we hear and do.
As we close the Old Testament, we do so with an anticipation of something bigger on the horizon. Everything we have read points toward an ultimate Redeemer. God has continued to put the responsibility in the hands of his people, but is about to change that and take the responsibility completely upon himself. The conditions are about to be removed. God is going to rescue them. Then need a redeemer. They need someone to bridge the chasm between them and God that sin has carved so deep that they could never cross. Help is on the way.