Nehemiah 8:5, 8
“Ezra opened the book [of the law] in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. . . . They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”
Every church has traditions. They are unavoidable. They span from the type of music used in worship, to the clothes the preacher wears, to the time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Every church has traditions.
This realization should cause us some concern. For when we read the Gospels we know that Jesus issues some severe admonitions about the dangers of tradition. He warns that our traditions can become subtle or not-so-subtle ways to disobey the commandments of God.
It is refreshing, therefore, when we read the Word of God and behold faithful traditions which have been established by the people of God in the past–traditions which do not violate but rather uphold the commandments of God. Such are the traditions in our text today from Nehemiah. There are three.
First, Ezra read from the book of the law. The law or Word of God, we are told repeatedly, is our wisdom, understanding, and life. It is this Word that conveys to us the truth of God and that is used by the Spirit of God to enliven us spiritually. Therefore, what better way to testify to this life transforming power of God’s Word than to read the Scriptures publicly in our worship?
Second, notice that in reading the Law, Ezra read it is such a way that the word was “translated to give the sense.” Have you ever wondered why we don’t read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek during our Sunday worship? Have you ever wondered why the Reformers objected to the Roman Church’s practice of reading the word of God exclusively in Latin? Here is your answer. When the law is read aloud, it is to be read in a manner which the people of God can understand. We must not erect traditions of language which preclude the people of God from accessing His Word. And so, our tradition is that we read the Word of God in English translation.
Third, notice that when Ezra opened the book of the law, the people of Israel stood up. Standing communicates respect, attentiveness, eagerness, and determination. It is, after all, at the most intense moments of an athletic competition that the spectators stand on their feet, on their tiptoes, straining to see the action. And when we stand for the reading of the Word we are communicating that here is one of the most central moments of worship. God is speaking to us—not through the frail mouth of the preacher, not through the symbolism of the sacrament, but through the living words of the text directly.
The tradition of reading the Word of God week in and week out, therefore, upholds the centrality of God’s Word in our worship and lives. The Word of God is that which gives us focus, meaning, and direction. Apart from it we are no more than a rudderless ship. So Paul commands Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (ESV, 1 Tim 4:13).
What then is to be our response to the reading? First, we are told in Nehemiah 8:3 that “all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” And this is our first obligation. We should be straining our ears to hear the words of the living God. Our ears should be attentive; all our being should be focused on God’s revelation of Himself.
Second, we should determine to give heed to that which we hear. We are told in the 12th verse of this same chapter that “all the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” Having read the law’s regulations on the Feast of Booths, the people immediately set out to obey it. The people understood the law and gave heed to it.
This reminds us that we often fail to give heed God’s Word as we ought. Our attention is often distracted when it is read. Our own opinions often intrude. Our heart often refuses to obey when we have heard. So let us draw near to God and ask Him to cleanse us of our faults.