Are you tired of wearing a mask and reminders to get vaccinated? Do you wish things were the way they used to be? I know I do. We are chafing under the restrictions laid upon us. Imagine if these restrictions lasted 70 years! That is what happened to the Israelites when they were carried off into captivity in Babylonia. Remember the Psalm where they cry, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. . . . Our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-3, 4).
After 70 years the politics changed, and the Israelites were allowed to return home. The book of Nehemiah tells the story of his return to Jerusalem. Nehemiah returned to Judah to rebuild its walls and gates. The book gives a detailed account of the repairs the Israelites made, including the names of the people who repaired walls, the priests, and crafts people such as goldsmiths. People from enemy tribes still in the area harassed them and slowed their work, but Nehemiah persisted.
At last, “when the seventh month came—the people of Israel being settled in their towns—all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 6, 8-12).
When the people, who had not heard the law in 70 years, learned what God had commanded, they were full of grief, understanding how they had failed to keep the law. When Nehemiah saw that all the people mourned, he told them not to be distressed but to rejoice. It became a time of revival. So the people went out and celebrated with “great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (verse 12).
Ezra did not merely seek to teach the people to be “good people.” He wanted to teach them to be a people of God. It is the same today. The Law reveals God’s character and shows us how we should live. God’s Word teaches us how to follow the example of Jesus. I am thankful that we have easy access to the Bible, and we have ministers and teachers and Bible studies to help us understand more about God’s will. Like the Israelites, we can delight in God’s Word, for the joy of the Lord is our strength.
God is here! As we your people
Meet to offer praise and prayer,
May we find in fuller measure
What it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us,
All our varied skills and arts
Wait the coming of the Spirit
Into open minds and hearts.
Lord of all, of church and kingdom,
In an age of change and doubt,
Keep us faithful to the Gospel;
Help us work your purpose out.
Here, in this day’s dedication,