Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for the Bible stories that revolve around the varied feasts instituted in the Law. I get really excited every time I read about Hezekiah’s Passover, or Josiah’s big revival ending with the Passover feast. When I was reading through Nehemiah, the Holy Spirit lit up yet another one of these awesome feasts of faith as Nehemiah and Jerusalem celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. Just like the Passover of Hezekiah’s day, it’s an uplifting story and a great message about how we should walk in our faith.
So Nehemiah had been able to restore the city of Jerusalem with the hard work of everyone in the city. Everyone was excited because now they had pretty much rebuilt everything that Babylon had destroyed (since the book of Ezra chronicled the rebuilding of the Temple). However, there was a problem that is unheard of for us today- the people weren’t familiar with the Word at all. You have to remember, most of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were sent into exile, so the religious texts did not get any priority storage. Therefore, most of the exiles and their children (likely most of Jerusalem’s citizens were now from the 2nd or 3rd generation after the exile) didn’t have weekly Bible readings and memorization classes or whatever Jews were doing with the Law of Moses before everything came crashing down. Now, though, as everything was starting to calm down, the super-Bible-scholar Ezra had his chance to spread the Law of God. We read,
The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns.
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, 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 (Nehemiah 7:73-8:3).
Before we go on, I wanted to stop and make a note. I’ve heard a whole bunch of pastors say that the “Book of the Law” being referred to here is the book of Deuteronomy. But consider this; it took Ezra from dawn until noon to read the Book of the Law- that’s around six hours today and I suspect that it was around six hours a long time ago too. So, either Ezra read really slowly or what he read was more than Deuteronomy. I always assumed that the first five books of the Bible were all counted into the “Book of the Law” since they were written by Moses. However, if that was the case, then Ezra would have had to have been reading pretty fast. So guessing for time and a little bit of pomp in the reading to slow it down, I think we might be able to estimate that Ezra was probably reading Exodus through Numbers (and maybe Deuteronomy if he had time). Anyway, what exactly he was reading isn’t really designed to be a stumbling block, so we’ll keep going.
As Ezra read, the people were convicted to the core (keep in mind, these folks were accustomed to living in pagan Babylon and probably had all been sinning and didn’t even know it). And as they felt the Holy Spirit convict them for their past sins, they did what one might expect: they cried. Scripture continues,
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 8:8-9)
Now, I don’t know how much of the Law you’ve read, but it can be a pretty damning book. Basically everything that the world says is fun is probably a sin and you’ve likely been sinning rampantly since you were like…five. So here are all these people who had been trying to restore the Holy City suddenly finding out that their lives have been steeped in rebellion and sin against God. Needless to say they felt bad. But I love this; Nehemiah tells that them though they are being told by the Word and the Spirit how bad they’ve been, that this is a happy and special day. Jesus explains why in Luke 15:10, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” According to Jesus, when one sinner repents, there is a party in heaven- can you imagine if a whole city is suddenly set right with God? The word “joyous” doesn’t even do the event justice, so Nehemiah says that it is a sacred day.
Now this is where it gets really exciting. The Bible tells us,
On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths”- as it is written (Nehemiah 8:13-15).
So basically what happened was that after they had heard Ezra reading the day before, the family heads of Jerusalem all gathered together and said, “Hey, this is the seventh month, didn’t we hear something about the seventh month yesterday?” Sure enough, they did. The Law commands,
So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day is also a day of rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 23:39-43).
I love this, because although the day before everyone had been crying for being such miserable failures in terms of spiritual things, the very next day they were willing to start fresh. “Hey, God wants us to do this thing this month even though we haven’t done it for maybe almost a hundred years [considering the Israelites were rebelling against God before the exile] and actually a lot of us don’t qualify for because most of us were born in Babylon. LET’S TRY IT!” And they did,
So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim (Nehemiah 8:16).
This is a great spirit for a believer to have. They read the Word, and they wanted to follow the Word as best they could. We’re told in James 1:22, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” The people of Israel didn’t just cry over their sins, they made a very conscious effort to follow what was written in the Book of the Law, not just relating to sin, but how to live as well.
That’s not to say that there weren’t problems. Consider this, most of the Israelites, though Jew by blood hadn’t been born in Israel; so technically the regulations for the Feast of Tabernacles didn’t apply to them. So I suspect some folks had to be convinced to live in tents and booths instead of their newly built homes for a week or so. Another issue is that of logistics, since the Temple was back in working order, the Israelites were required to resume sacrifices in order to atone for their sins. The whole city was in tears because they had realized that they had much to atone for with the Lord. This means a lot of sacrifices. And the Feast of Tabernacles had sacrifice requirements of its own as well,
These are the Lord’s appointed feasts, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies for brining offerings made to the Lord by fire- the burnt offerings and grain offerings required for each day. These offerings are in addition to those for the Lord’s Sabbaths and in addition to your gifts and whatever you have vowed and all the freewill offerings you give to the Lord (Leviticus 23:37-38).
Now maybe in Solomon’s day when Israel was ridiculously wealthy and had millions of animals ready to be burned this wouldn’t have been a problem, but the people of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s time were returning exiles who had spent most of their resources just getting to the city and rebuilding it. For a little background, here’s some info that Nehemiah wrote down in terms of how much the people had,
The whole company numbered 42,360, besides their 7,337 menservants and maidservants; and they also had 245 men and women singers. There were 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels and 6,720 donkeys (Nehemiah 7:66-69).
There weren’t even enough ride-able animals in Jerusalem to accommodate half the people there. One can only assume that the percentage of sheep, goats, and cows was just as low. How in the world would they be able to cover sacrifices for around 50,000 people? For the first Feast of Tabernacles in the rebuilt Jerusalem, the word “sacrifice” was extremely appropriate. It would basically cost whatever they had left to perform.
So what were the results of the slapped-together, under-prepared, under-supplied Feast of Tabernacles? We read,
The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great (Nehemiah 8:17).
It was awesome! The Bible compares it to the feasts of Joshua, after Israel had first conquered Canaan. But perhaps even more important: the joy of the people who were now in-line with the Spirit of God was very great. But there’s more, the success of the event spurred them on to greater interest in the Word of God and following the Lord’s ways. Scripture says,
Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly (Nehemiah 8:18).
Through one act of experimental obedience by the family heads, the entire city experienced a celebration in the Lord not seen since before the first Temple was even built.
So what is the Holy Spirit getting at? Don’t just hear or read what the Bible says, but actually give it a try. I’m not saying that your town should hold the Feast of Tabernacles (Though how cool would that be? -Sans sacrifice of course; because Christ’s death on a cross already took care of that part). But the Word of God is filled with things for Christians to try out and do. Check this out,
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:12-14).
Have you ever tried this? I haven’t yet (as I haven’t thrown any dinner parties or luncheons at all), but I’ve heard people who have say that the feeling of joy coming out of such an event is amazing. You don’t have to dig things out of the Law to be obedient either, between Jesus, Paul, and John alone there’s plenty of things to try out every day as you experiment with God’s commands and see if he’s really able to support you through them and bring you joy through obedience. The Jews risked everything they had left to throw a Law-required feast that hadn’t been actually performed in a very long time, and they loved it. Think of the effect that obedience to the Word of God can have on your life!
Rock on God!