Fairview Baptist Church
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Bailey Sadler Class



Study Theme:  Building A Life of Service

What This Lesson Is About:

Week of:

Lesson Title:

This week’s study focus is on the need of all believers to be reminded of the power of God’s Word and His Spirit to change us and to equip us for any and all tasks He may ask of us.



July 22

Pray  (Neh. 1:1-11)


July 29

Plan  (Neh. 2:1-8,17-18)


August 05

Persist  (Neh. 4:1-3,6-9,14-18)


August 12

Protect  (Neh. 5:1-13)


August 19

Prioritize  (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8)


August 26

Praise  (Neh. 8:9-12; 12:27-31a)






God’s Word must be central to our lives to truly serve Him.


Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8





Stay Focused on the Task Until God’s Work is Complete (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16)

God’s Word Deserves Our Attention (Neh. 8:1-3)

God’s Word Is to Be Both Read and Studied (Neh. 8:5-8)


Though Nehemiah had planned to go to Jerusalem briefly to fix the problems with security, he later was appointed by Artaxerxes to be “governor in the land of Judah” for the next twelve years (Neh. 5:14). This was a heavy burden because those who preceded him had burdened and oppressed the people with excessive taxation, and their cabinets were corrupt as well (v. 15). These men were rulers of the people who lined their own pockets at the expense of their own people.

Nehemiah had determined in his heart to rule with the principles of God as his guide. (5:15). He dedicated himself to rebuilding the wall. Instead of his subordinates taking advantage of the people, they joined them in the work of rebuilding the wall. Such servant leadership on the part of Nehemiah and his cabinet was unparalleled in the world of Persia and in the rival countries that surrounded Jerusalem. That type of servant leadership certainly foreshadowed the leadership of Jesus, who took the form of a servant and became obedient to death on a cross (Phil. 2:7-8).

An example of Nehemiah’s servant leadership occurs in Nehemiah 5:17-18. Though he had 150 officials in his cabinet and was authorized to have one ox, six sheep, and some fowl present at his table every ten days, he did not demand the allotment of a governor. He lived simply and sacrificed his rights for his people’s good. Though he had a right to an abundance of wine, he relinquished his rights so that it did not excessively burden the people he served. He denied his rights for the good of the people, and he asked God to remember his sacrifice for the people (Neh. 5:19). He certainly was a man who knew how to prioritize.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.


 Every good paper has a thesis sentence. Without that sentence to tie the paper together, the writer can ramble and needlessly chase rabbits. A good thesis sentence tells the reader what the writer is trying to accomplish and how he will get there. A thesis sentence prioritizes everything in the paper. All that follows should further the thesis and accomplish the purpose of the paper.

A church should develop a good mission statement. Like the thesis statement in a paper, the mission statement of a church prioritizes everything that the church does. When a church is trying to decide which of the many ministries it will embrace and include in its structure, the mission statement should become the means of prioritizing those decisions. Without a mission statement, a church can attempt to do more than God has called it to do.

However, that mission statement is not some random, catchy statement. Hopefully it is derived through a careful study of God’s Word.

As people look for things to center their lives upon today, the world has no shortage of resources. Books and movies abound to teach abilities and skills on any topic imaginable. However, prioritizing life on the latest movie or book is replete with dangers. Those resources often have not consulted God’s wisdom in His Word. They have come from a worldly viewpoint and can easily lead one astray. Only when the Christian turns to the Word of God can he stay focused on the purpose for which God has given him life. For those who seek to serve God, our mission statement is found within the pages of God’s Word, and our lives must be centered upon Him.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.









Stay Focused on the Task Until God’s Work is Complete (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16)

1 When Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall and that no gap was left in it—though at that time I had not installed the doors in the city gates—2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me a message: “Come, let’s meet together in the villages of the Ono Valley.” They were planning to harm me. 3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing important work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?

15 The wall was completed in fifty-two days, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul. 16 When all our enemies heard this, all the surrounding nations were intimidated and lost their confidence, for they realized that this task had been accomplished by our God.

  1.   What are your earliest recollections about the Bible?

  2.   Do you think the Bible must be central to our lives for a believer to truly serve Him. If so, why?

  3.   How would you summarize the setting for this week’s study? (See “The Setting” on pg. 1.)

  4.   Are you often distracted when reading and/or studying God’s Word? If so, why?

  5.   What kinds of distractions do we often encounter when when reading and/or studying God’s Word?

  6.   Based on these verses, what is the status of the building project?

  7.   How did Sanballat and Geshem attempt to trap Nehemiah and take his attention away from the work (v. 2)? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 5, “Sanballat and Gesham sent . . . “ )

  8.   How did Nehemiah respond? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 5, “Nehemiah noted that . . . “ & “Nehemiah did not . . . “ )

  9.   How would you describe Sanballat’s efforts to stop the rebuilding efforts? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 5, “Though his enemies . . . “ )

10.   What took place between the end of verse 3 and the beginning of verse 15?

11.   Who was Shemaiah and what was his claim to fame? (See “Shemaiah” in “Digging Deeper.”)

12.   What happened when Nehemiah stayed focused on God for completing the task? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 5, “In verse 15, . . . “ )

13.   What does verse 15 tell us about our need to stay focused on God when doing His work? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 5, “The result . . . “ )

14.   How can we remain focused when a God-given task seems overwhelming?

15.   How important is God’s Word in your life?


Lasting Lessons in Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16:

1. We face many distractions when trying to accomplish the will of God.

2. We must stay focused on the task that God has called us to accomplish.

3. When God grants success to our work for Him, even the enemies of the gospel take notice.



God’s Word Deserves Our Attention (Neh. 8:1-3)

1 all the people gathered together at the square in front of the Water Gate. They asked the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses that the Lord had given Israel. 2 On the first day of the seventh month, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding. 3 While he was facing the square in front of the Water Gate, he read out of it from daybreak until noon before the men, the women, and those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the book of the law.

  1.   What was the occasion for the assembly described in these verses? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 5, “Most celebrations . . . “ )

  2.   Who was Ezra and what was his role in the celebration of the completion of the wall? (See “Ezra” in “Digging Deeper.”)

  3.   What was he asked to read? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6, “Nehemiah commissioned . . . “ )

  4.   What was the focus of the reading?

  5.   Do you think the history of the Bible is important to us today? If so, why?

  6.   What was the makeup of the audience? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6, “Gathered in the crowd . . . “ )

  7.   What do you think indicates the assembly was dedicated to the purpose of the reading of the Law (vv. 2-3)?

  8.   Why do you think Ezra read the Word of God in front of the “Water Gate?” (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6, “The Jewish people . . . “ )

  9.   Do you think we impose a time limit on reading and hearing God’s Word in our churches today? If so, why?

10.   What are some ways you can make sure the Word of God is a significant part of your life?

11.   What helps you listen attentively to the truth of Scripture?

12.   Do you think God’s Holy Spirit has a role in a believer’s ability to listen attentively to God’s Word? Why, or why not?



Lasting Lessons in Nehemiah 8:1-3:

1. We can only stay focused on God’s work if we are focused on God’s Word.

2. We should set aside time in our lives to read and listen to the Word of God.

3. Hearing alone is not the object of Bible reading; we must obey it.



God’s Word Is to Be Both Read and Studied (Neh. 8:5-8)

5 Ezra opened the book in full view of all the people, since he was elevated above everyone. As he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and with their hands uplifted all the people said, “Amen, Amen!” Then they knelt low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah, who were Levites, explained the law to the people as they stood in their places. 8 They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read.

  1.   How did the people respond when the book was opened, even before one word was read? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6, “The crowd stood . . . “ )

  2.   What do you think it means to “study” the Bible?

  3.   As the people stood up, what did Ezra do (v. 6)? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6,  “The people did not . . . “ )

  4.   How would you describe the reverence the Word of God received? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6, The people worshiped . . . “ )

  5.   In what ways do people in today’s churches show reverence to God’s Word?

  6.   What was the reason the law needed to be interpreted? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 6, “The Scripture not only . . . “ )

  7.   What were the two tasks of the Levites? (See Adv. Comm., pg. 7, “The Levites took . . . “ )

  8.   As the people gathered to hear the reading of the law, they had a desire to understand its truths; do you think that is a common occurrence among believers today? Why, or why not?

  9.   Do you think reading and understanding Scripture helps to keep our priorities straight in life? Why, or why not?

10.   What do you think is required for God’s Word to speak to a person?

11.   What do you think it means to worship God with our whole being?

12.   What do you think is needed for a believer to have a heartfelt desire to understand God’s Word and its truths?


Lasting Lessons in Nehemiah 8:5-8:

1. We should worship God with our whole being.

2. Proper response to the Word of God is genuine worship and obedience.

3. Everyone would be wise to listen to those who are expositing God’s Word.




  Family. Jobs. Friends. Social groups. Community benevolent projects. Even church. These are only a few things that make demands on us, our time, and resources. None is bad. To manage the multiple demands requires that we establish priorities. But look at the list again. What’s missing? Where is God? Where is time devoted to reading and studying His Word? Our relationship to the Lord and a commitment to His Word must be central to our lives if we truly desire to serve Him and to be faithful to the work He has called us to complete.

·   What distractions do you often have to deal with htat would hinder you from being focused on te spiritual work God has given to you?

·   What evidence exists that you have a great desire to read and study God’s Word?

·   What plan do you have in place for consistently reading and studying God’s Word?

  As you reflect on your answers to the above questions, ask God to fill you with a strong desire to not only read, but to study His Word so you will have a stronger relationship with Him as you strive to serve Him.

What are the implications of these truths for your life?  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!

REMEMBER, the safest place for a believer is in the center of God’s will.


Lesson Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the following sources:

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.



Focal Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:

King James Version (KJV) Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8

Nehemiah 6:1-3 (KJV)

1 Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates;) 2 That Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. 3 And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?

Nehemiah 6:15-16 (KJV)

15 So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days. 16 And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.

Nehemiah 8:1-3 (KJV)

1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.

Nehemiah 8:5-8 (KJV)

5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. 8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.


New King James Version (NKJV) Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8

Nehemiah 6:1-3 (NKJV)

1 Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2 that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, "Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono." But they thought to do me harm. 3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?"

Nehemiah 6:15-16 (NKJV)

15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.

Nehemiah 8:1-3 (NKJV)

1 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. 3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

Nehemiah 8:5-8 (NKJV)

5 And Ezra opened the book 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. 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!" while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. 8 So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.


New Living Translation (NLT) Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8

Nehemiah 6:1-3 (NKJV)

1 Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), 2 that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, "Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono." But they thought to do me harm. 3 So I sent messengers to them, saying, "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?"

Nehemiah 6:15-16 (NKJV)

15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.

Nehemiah 8:1-3 (NKJV)

1 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. 3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

Nehemiah 8:5-8 (NKJV)

5 And Ezra opened the book 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. 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!" while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. 8 So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.


(NOTE:  Commentary for the focal passage comes from three sources: “Advanced Bible Study Commentary,” “Bible Studies For Life Commentary,” and “The Bible Exposition Commentary - Be Determined (Nehemiah),” and is provided for your study.)


Lesson Outline — Prioritize” —Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8




Stay Focused on the Task Until God’s Work is Complete (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16)

God’s Word Deserves Our Attention (Neh. 8:1-3)

God’s Word Is to Be Both Read and Studied (Neh. 8:5-8)


Advanced Bible Study Commentary:  Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8

I. Stay Focused on the Task Until God’s Work is Complete (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16)

Though Nehemiah had defeated his external enemies in chapter 4, that did not mean that they had completely given up the battle against the Jews. Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of the enemies of the Jews had kept a close eye on the rebuilding of the wall in Jerusalem. Their dominance in the region was threatened by a strengthened Jerusalem. The report they received was that Nehemiah had rebuilt the wall and that no gap was left in it. This passage did not indicate that Nehemiah had done all the work, but it did acknowledge his role as the leader in gathering the people together for the rebuilding project. The wall had sat unfinished for 140 years, but things changed when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem.

The work of finishing the wall was at a crucial stage. Though the workers had not yet installed the doors in the city gates, the wall itself was almost complete. Of course a walled city with no gates is more defensible than a city without walls, but the work is not complete without a controlled point of entry. Imagine an airport terminal that is safely walled in but has no controlled security checkpoint. The window of opportunity for the opponents of the Jews was closing. The enemies had tried to discourage the workers, threatened to attack them, and basically sieged the city, but none of these were successful because of Nehemiah’s faith in God and his stellar leadership. They needed a new plan.

Sanballat and Gesham sent a message to Nehemiah to meet in the Ono Valley. This valley was located about seven miles from Joppa, on the westernmost border of the land that the Jewish people had resettled when they returned to Jerusalem. Perhaps they thought that Nehemiah would view this as neutral territory and would be lured into the valley with the prospect of peace. The request seemed like a perfectly legitimate request—that Nehemiah and the coalition against him meet in order to forge a pact of peace. However, Nehemiah saw through their deceit.

Nehemiah noted that they were planning to harm him. He recognized the invitation to meet as a trap. Nehemiah knew his enemies, and he saw through their phony attempts at peace. He understood his role in the work of God for the rebuilding of the wall, and he knew that making peace with his enemies and rebuilding the walls were two opposite outcomes that could not be resolved. How many Christians are derailed because they do not understand their enemy or his enticements?

Nehemiah did not argue with the reasoning of his enemies. Rather, he focused upon the work to which God had called him. He said, I am doing an important work. The word important is often translated as “great.” Though the world may have viewed his attempt at rebuilding a wall as a small work, he saw the project through the eyes of God. It was an important work and a great project. We should never minimize the work of God in our lives as if it is trivial or insignificant. Nehemiah refused to be distracted by lesser matters in his life, and he kept his hand to the plow (Luke 9:62).

Though his enemies sent him the same request four times, Nehemiah refused to compromise the mission (Neh. 6:4). Sanballat sent a fifth message filled with lies and rumors, accusing the Jews of wanting to rebel and place Nehemiah as their king. He threatened to turn them in to the king of Persia (vv. 5-7). Nehemiah saw their attempts at intimidation and reminded himself that God would strengthen him to finish the task (vv. 8-9). Sanballat then hired a Jew to come and entice Nehemiah to hide in the temple to avoid the attack of the enemy. In doing so, he would have sinned and lost integrity in the eyes of his people. He exposed the falsehoods in the plot and remained true to God’s calling in his life (vv. 10-14).

In verse 15, the result of Nehemiah’s persistence and integrity finally came to fruition. Nehemiah emphasized that the wall was completed in 52 days. The twenty-fifth day of Elul probably was October 2, 445 BC, though the date is disputed. In any case, what the Jews could not complete in 140 years was completed in 52 days when the people walked in obedience to God. Of course God had provided both the leader and the resources for this to be accomplished, and He had given them victory over various attacks of the enemy. Their scorn, threats, and attempts to kill Nehemiah had been thwarted as the people stayed focused on the task until God’s work was completed.

The result of the completion of the wall was that it devastated the enemies of the Jews. The surrounding nations all were intimidated by the work that the Jews had accomplished. Though they had tried to intimidate the Jews and make them afraid by their various tactics, the result was that the nations were the ones who were intimidated. They lost their confidence when they realized the task was accomplished by God. The rapid completion of the wall despite such outlandish odds caused the enemies of the Lord to acknowledge His work in the lives of His people. Nehemiah had maintained all along that the rebuilding of the wall was the work of God, and the workers had embraced that vision. Eventually, even his enemies would see the power of God at work.

II. God’s Word Deserves Our Attention (Neh. 8:1-3)

After the wall was completed, Nehemiah and the people had no time to stop and celebrate. An unwatched wall is not good protection. He appointed his brother in charge of security in Jerusalem (Neh. 7:2), and then he registered those who were within the walls of the city (vv. 8-69). The people had a heart to give to the treasury of the city (vv. 70-73), and the time had finally come to celebrate the work of God. But how would they celebrate?

Most celebrations involve singing, shouting, and joyful expressions such as dance. This was not the way that Nehemiah and the people began to celebrate the completion of the wall. His first action occurred in the seventh month. The month of Tishri was an important time for the Jewish calendar, including such events as the Jewish New Year, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Every seventh year the priests were to read the law to the people at the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 31:10-12). With this in mind, Nehemiah celebrated the completion of the wall by gathering all the people together at the square in front of the Water Gate.

Nehemiah commissioned Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses to read to the people. Ezra was a priest and a scribe who was descended from Aaron through Phinehas and Zadok (Ezra 7:1-5; 1 Chron. 6:4-14). He returned to Israel from Persia with the intention of studying the law and teaching it to the Jews (Ezra 7:10). He was the likely person to initiate the reading of the law of Moses to the people.1 Scholars differ on the content of the law of Moses. Some indicate that it was the entire Pentateuch, while others think that it was only the priestly code or Deuteronomic laws because of the impossibility of reading the whole Pentateuch in one morning.2 However, the passage does not say that he read the whole law of Moses but that he read from it.

Gathered in the crowd was an assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding. This could have included children (Ezra 10:1) and people who were foreigners that had a heart to hear the Scriptures (Neh. 10:28). The inclusiveness of the people to give attention to God’s Word would help the nation stay focused on obedience to God.

The Jewish people had erected a “high wooden platform” for the purpose of allowing the Scripture to be read to the people (Neh. 8:4). It took place while Ezra was facing the square in front of the Water Gate. The Water Gate was on the east side of the city near the Gihon Spring. This would have been one of the central points of life for the people of Jerusalem as they traveled every day to get water. Some have wondered why this was not done in the temple, but the sheer size of the crowd probably demanded a bigger location than the temple. The Word of God belongs in the temple, but it also belongs upon the byways of life. It is equally at home in both settings, which must be the case if it is to be the central focus of our lives.

Ezra read from daybreak until noon. For about six hours the people stood and listened to the Word of God. As Ezra poured through the scroll, the people were soaked in God’s Word. What a way to celebrate the end of 52 days of labor on the wall! The people listened attentively to the reading. They wanted to hear what the Word of God said, and they wanted to obey it.

Nehemiah celebrated the rebuilding of the wall with a dedication to the Word of God. If his people were to continue in their security, they needed to remain loyal to God’s Word. The wall could not protect them from the enemies within them. Therefore the people stood and listened to the Word of God.

III. God’s Word Is to Be Both Read and Studied (Neh. 8:5-8)

The text indicates that Ezra opened the book. Since the current form of books did not occur until the Christian era, the picture is rather of the priest unrolling the scroll. As he opened the scroll, he did so in full view of all the people. The formal unrolling of the scroll had a part in the synagogue, and it was part of the reverence that the people displayed toward the Word of God. Literally, the text says he opened the scroll in the eyes of all the people. This was possible only because it was elevated above everyone. The practice of elevated pulpits in the church probably arose from texts such as this. However, this was not necessarily prescriptive but descriptive of what happened.3 The Bible is authoritative whether it is read from one’s knees or from the highest elevation of a platform. It did indicate the reverence for the Word of God that they wanted all the people to be able to see it and hear it as it was read.

The crowd stood up as Ezra opened the scroll. This was the traditional approach to the Word of God being read. It happened again in Nehemiah 9:3. Standing is certainly a way to show reverence for the Word of God, but it is not automatic. The attitude of the heart, not the external action, determines whether a person reverences God’s Word. If a person reads the Word but does not study and obey it, has that person honored the Bible? In Nehemiah’s case, the people wanted to show the reverence that was in their hearts.

The people did not worship the Bible but the God who had authored it. As Ezra read the Scriptures, he blessed the Lord, the great God. The word blessed is a general word for praise, and it was derived from the root meaning of kneeling in submission and obedience. Fittingly, this passage used two of the names most used for God, Yahweh and Elohim. Ezra and the people understood that they had a fuller picture of God by the revelation of Scripture, and they paused to worship.

The people worshiped with their whole being. They stood up, lifted their hands, shouted Amen, Amen, and knelt low with their faces to the ground. Again, this is not prescriptive but descriptive. Every worship encounter does not include bowing low on one’s face, but some will. Every encounter with God does not result in uplifted hands, but some do. The acts of worship were appropriate to the moment. As people sensed the presence of God in the Word of God, they responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit. They visually submitted themselves to the truth shared in God’s Word.

The Scripture not only needed to be read, but it also needed some explanation. This task was given to thirteen Levites who explained the law to the people. Years of captivity in Babylon and Persia had dulled the Jews’ ability to understand Hebrew.4 Although God’s Word was authoritative and effective for people’s lives, they had to understand it for it to be effective. This took study and interpretation. If you have ever been to a country where its people speak another language, you understand how important the work of the Levites was to the understanding of the text. The role of teaching Israel the “holy things of the Lord” belonged to the Levites (2 Chron. 35:3). Without them the people may have heard the Scriptures but lacked the understanding they needed.

The Levites took turns to read out of the book of the law of God. It would be a daunting and monotonous task for one person to read from the same book for six hours. The Levites provided variety, but they provided much more than that. First they were translating the law. This could indicate that they broke it down paragraph by paragraph, but it could also mean that they translated it into Aramaic. Actually, both of these functions would have been required for those in the audience to understand. A second task of the Levites was giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read. The Jewish Talmud references Nehemiah 8:8 as the source of the Targums, which were the Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew texts.5 These became a necessity as the Hebrew language became more difficult for the average Jew. The emphasis of the Levites was that the people might hear and understand the Word of God.

As the people gathered to hear the reading of the law, they responded with reverence, worship, and a desire to understand its truths. This demonstrated their eagerness to hear the Word of God and obey it. This was the foundation that would provide security for the Jewish people, both from their external enemies and their internal enemies. Today, people still need to hear the Word read and listen to exposition of the Word. This makes for a healthier community of faith.

1 Kevin Burris, “Ezra,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England (Nashville: B&H, 2015) [myWSB.com].

2 Edwin Yamauchi, “Ezra,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) [myWSB.com].

3 James M. Hamilton Jr., Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 156.

4 Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, vol.  10 in The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1993), 225.

5 Carl R. Anderson, in CSB Study Bible (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 731, n. 8:8.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

Bible Studies For Life Commentary: Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8  

I. Stay Focused on the Task Until God’s Work is Complete (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16)

Verse 1. As the work on the wall continued to progress, the pressure from the external forces continued to increase. Leaders of foreign powers may have felt threatened as they were unable to hinder the Jews’ work or shake the unflappable Nehemiah. The stakes kept rising as they saw their plans falling through.

The main sections of the wall had been completed. There were no gaps or bare spaces, making it more secure. The only thing left to do was to install the doors at each of the gates. Essentially, Jerusalem was once again a walled city—decades after the Babylonians destroyed the city.

Nehemiah was not taking credit for the work on the wall; but from the perspective of the enemies he was the key, the strategic force behind the Jewish work. He was about to become the primary target of the opposition.

Verse 2. Sanballat and his companions tried a different strategy to accomplish their goals: distraction based in deception. They planned to draw Nehemiah away from the city for a meeting. While it might have been tempting to believe this was some kind of peace settlement or compromise, Nehemiah was not fooled. He knew their ultimate goal was to stop the work before it was too late. Sanballat knew that if they could get Nehemiah away from Jerusalem, the people would lose their motivation to work.

Nehemiah understood the enemies’ motives were deceitful and violent. Instead of planning for peace, they were scheming to do him harm—probably even to kill him. With Nehemiah out of the way, the Jews’ enemies could again step into the leadership void and take control of the situation.

Verse 3. Nehemiah’s response was concise and simple. The work was too important to waste time on pointless meetings. He saw no reason to put the work on hold just to negotiate with the enemy. Since the wall was so close to completion, Nehemiah would not put that at risk.

People commonly alluded to going down from Jerusalem. Because it was built on a mountain, any departure from the city would put travelers on an immediate downhill slope. But the word here also carries symbolic significance. Leaving the work would have been a move in the wrong direction for Nehemiah. He was not going to let that happen.

Nehemiah’s initial refusal did not deter Sanballat from trying to move his plan forward. He made the same offer four times (v. 4). Each time, Nehemiah declined. When that didn’t work, Sanballat made up a report about an ensuing rebellion and urged Nehemiah to meet (vv. 59). Finally, the foreign leaders turned to intimidation (vv. 1014). In each instance, Nehemiah refused to be distracted. He kept his focus on doing God’s work until the job was done.

Verse 15. The job was completed in record time—the entire wall repaired and rebuilt in fifty-two days. In less than two months, Nehemiah had brought the people together, fought off distractions inside and outside the city, and given residents hope that things were getting better.

The enemy had tried desperately to defeat God’s people and God’s work. But God’s leader had maintained focus and helped the people do the same. As a result, the work was finished on the 25th of Elul, the sixth month of the Jewish year (parts of August–September; possibly October). Because Nehemiah first spoke with the king in the first month (2:1), that means he secured permission, left Persia, arrived in Jerusalem, organized the people, and completed the wall in six months.

Verse 16. While the Jews celebrated their incredible accomplishment, the reaction from the city’s enemies is just as noteworthy. Nehemiah wrote with a certain degree of irony when he said their opponents were intimidated and lost their confidence. The ones who had so arrogantly used intimidation as a way to stop the work now had the tables turned on them.

Even these enemies recognized the rebuilding of the wall stretched beyond human explanation. Like the residents of Jerusalem, they saw God’s hand at work—His hand of provision and of protection. They had not stopped the work and had not thwarted God’s plan.

When God’s people maintain their focus and complete God’s work, even their enemies take notice. The problem is, believers so rarely attempt “God-sized” tasks. As a result, they miss seeing Him work in ways only He can, and they miss the opportunity to be witnesses to those around them.

II. God’s Word Deserves Our Attention (Neh. 8:1-3)

Verse 1. The repair of the city’s walls brought a new influx of Israelites into the city. Once the physical restoration had taken place, Nehemiah was eager to begin the spiritual restoration of the people. Nehemiah had emphasized the importance of community when he had settled the dispute between the nobles and the workers in 5:113. As the story shifts to the spiritual revival, the community again is emphasized. Nehemiah used the term “people” repeatedly in 8:1-12. In the majority of those uses, the phrase includes “all the people.” Again, the law affected each individual, but it also served as the template for community standards as well.

Nehemiah’s first action was to call a sacred assembly for the entire community. At this assembly, Ezra the scribe would present the law of Moses to the people. It is not clear how many people would have remembered the law and how many might have been hearing it for the very first time. Either way, Nehemiah wanted to ensure the people understood the foundation for their expected social fabric.

That God had given the law to Israel serves as a reminder that it was not just an optional document filled with nice ideas. It was God’s words to the people. As He had spoken in Moses’ day, obeying the law would produce blessings, while ignoring it would produce curses. Previous generations had experienced the curses of disobedience. Nehemiah was determined to take advantage of this opportunity.

Verse 2. Ezra brought the law to the people at their request. Having seen God do great things in their city and their lives, the people’s hearts were ready for a spiritual revival. They wanted to renew their covenant with the Lord.

Likewise, the audience was not a select demographic from the city’s upper crust. The people showed up from every age group, gender, and social class. Just as the physical wall had been established to ensure safety, the cultural walls that had separated Jew from Jew were being torn down. Exposure to God’s truth tends to work that way within the body of Christ. When we see God for who He really is, we tend to see each other through His eyes as well. That produces a unity in the body that cannot be explained or ignored. Even children were included in the assembly. The only requirement to attend was an ability to hear God’s Word and understand its implication for individuals and the community.

Verse 3. A place for reading was established around the Water Gate. Verse 4 states that a large wooden platform was erected so Ezra could be seen by the crowd. It also notes that he “shared the stage” so to speak with several others. Some have suggested that these men were priests or Levites; but, more likely, they were influential men in the city who represented the leadership of the community.

For several hours, Ezra brought the law to the people. This was not a light reading of the Scripture. It was thorough and lasted from daybreak until noon. He may not have read the entire five books of law because it would have taken much longer than the time described. He likely read important portions that would have had the greatest significance to the people at the time.

For their part, the people responded appropriately. Nehemiah said they listened attentively. The implication was that they were following the advice of James centuries later: They listened in order that they could be doers of the Word and not just hearers (Jas. 1:22).

We can learn much from the attitude and example of the people in regard to God’s Word. First, they longed to be exposed to the Word. They understood the transformational power of God’s Word and wanted to make that a part of their lives. Second, we should be modeling their close attention and look for ways to apply it to our lives. The Creator of the universe has put His thoughts on paper for our guidance and direction. It deserves our deepest attention.

Finally, modern believers should examine the impact of God’s Word on their personal lives and their communities. As noted, the Jews in Nehemiah’s time saw the law as more than just a list of rules. It represented a formula for success in living—for individuals and for the entire body. It maintains the same power for our lives if we are willing to read it, understand it, and apply it.

III. God’s Word Is to Be Both Read and Studied (Neh. 8:5-8)

Verse 5. Standing on the platform, Ezra read from the book, and the people could hear what was being read. It is amazing to think of the entire assembly standing out of respect for God’s Word. This is especially true when we consider they stood for approximately six hours. It is possible they stood as a sign of reverence, seeing the opening of God’s Word as an invitation for God’s presence in their midst.

While we think of a “book,” Ezra would have been reading from a scroll. But the physical form is not so important as the act of opening the Word and sharing it with the crowd. Again, the people’s response indicates that they understood the significance of these events and were prepared to have their hearts touched by God’s message through His Word. Their attitude points out the importance of preparing one’s heart for receiving God’s Word before hearing it.

Verse 6. When God’s Word is handled appropriately, He is honored and praised. This was true of Ezra and the people at the Water Gate. The public reading started to take the form of a public worship service as Ezra blessed the Lord. He acknowledged the greatness of God. Essentially, he was offering an invitation for God to move and make Himself known through their time together.

The people responded with a dual “Amen.” The term itself carries the idea of “let it be done” or “so be it.” It affirms the truth of the statement that precedes it. While we are most familiar with it as the conclusion to our prayers, the Jews used it to affirm any God-given truth. The repetition of the “Amen” is a device that indicates importance or significance. The people were standing with Ezra in his blessing and were affirming the awesome nature of God in a powerful way. Their response also shows that they were not worshiping the Law, but the God who stood behind the Law.

From a standing position that honored the sacred nature of God’s Word and His presence, the people shifted into a position of humility. Coming face-to-face with the reality of God through His Word, they worshiped by bowing down with their faces to the ground. The passage indicates that the people were fully invested in the worship. For them, it was a physical experience as well as a spiritual experience.

Verse 7. The men named in verse 7 were. Levites. They went throughout the crowd explaining the Law to the people. The need for levitical assistance could have been the result of numerous issues. For example, the Law was written in Hebrew; however, a whole generation of Jews had been born and raised outside of Israel. There was no guarantee the people were familiar with Hebrew and would have needed help with translation and interpretation.

Also, we cannot assume the people were familiar with the contents of the Law. While they may have known about its history and importance at some level, years of exile outside Judah for some and years under the oppression of foreign powers for others could have created gaps in their basic knowledge and understanding of God’s Law. Regardless of the reasons behind the need, the Levites were bridging the gap for the people. The important thing was to make sure everyone heard and understood. The Levites’ ministry made that possible.

Verse 8. Part of the Levites’ work included translating or interpreting the Word for the people. As noted, there could have been significant language barriers that interfered with the connection between hearing and understanding. Another possibility is that the Levites were breaking down the Law into sections,so they would have interpreted the text paragraph by paragraph. It is probably better to simply understand their work as giving an Aramaic translation to a Hebrew text. Some scholars have surmised that these translations provided the foundation for the Targums—Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew text—that Aramaic-speaking Jews later used to understand the Law. These verses emphasize that Ezra and the Levites were committed to making the Law clear for the people. As a new day dawned in Jerusalem, the people needed a solid grasp on what God had to say and what He expected from them.

The point we’re pulling from this passage relates to our own commitment to God’s Word. God’s Word must be central to our lives. While reading the Bible is a great habit to develop and offers numerous benefits, the example of the Levites makes it clear that more is possible—and desirable. Our respect for God’s Word should drive us to dig deep, to study it in addition to reading it. As we do, we will come to know God much better and serve Him more effectively.

SOURCE: Bible Studies For Life Commentary; Leader Guide; Senior Adults; One LifeWay Plaza; Nashville, TN 37234-0175

The Bible Exposition Commentary - Be Determined: Nehemiah 6:1-3,15-16; 8:1-3,5-8

I. Stay Focused on the Task Until God’s Work is Complete (Neh. 6:1-3,15-16)

We Have Heard the Enemy, and He Is a Liar

Nehemiah 6:1-4,15-16:

Under Nehemiah's gifted leadership, the people completed the rebuilding of the walls. Now all that remained to do was the restoration of the gates and the strengthening of the community within the walls. Since Sanballat and his friends had failed miserably in their attempts to stop the people from working, they decided to concentrate their attacks on Nehemiah. If they could eliminate him, or even discredit him, they could mobilize their allies living in Jerusalem (Neh. 6:17-18) and take over the city.

The average person doesn't realize the tremendous pressures and testings that people experience day after day in places of leadership. Leaders are often blamed for things they didn't do and criticized for things they tried to do. They are misquoted and misunderstood and rarely given the opportunity to set the record straight. If they act quickly, they are reckless; if they bide their time, they are cowardly or unconcerned. Referring to the pressures of leadership, President Harry Truman wrote in Mr. Citizen, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!"

People in places of spiritual leadership not only have the pressures that all leaders face, but they must also battle an infernal enemy who is a master deceiver and a murderer. Satan comes either as a serpent who deceives or a lion who devours (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Peter 5:8), and Christian leaders must be alert and spiritually equipped to oppose him. It behooves God's people to pray earnestly, not only for those in civil authority (1 Tim. 2:1-3), but also for those in places of spiritual authority. If Satan can defeat a Christian leader, he can cripple a whole ministry and discredit the cause of Christ.

The enemy's main purpose was to generate fear in the heart of Nehemiah and his workers (Neh. 6:9, 13-14, 19), knowing that fear destroys faith and paralyzes life. Adolph Hitler wrote, "Mental confusion, contradiction of feeling, indecisiveness, panic; these are our weapons." Both Jesus (Luke 13:31-35) and Paul (Acts 21:10-14) had to face the specter of fear, and both overcame it by faith.

Nehemiah didn't listen to the enemy's lies. He and the people completed the wall and hung the gates in only fifty-two days, much to the chagrin of their adversaries (Neh. 6:15-16). Satan used four strategies in attacking Nehemiah, strategies that he still uses against spiritual leaders today.

Compromise: "We will help you work". (Neh. 6:1-4)

Up to this point in the building program, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem (Gashmu, v. 6) opposed everything that the Jews did; but now they offered to cooperate and help the Jews build the wall. They offered to meet Nehemiah in a village halfway between Jerusalem and Samaria, a quiet place where they could make plans on how to work together. "We're willing to meet you halfway," was their approach. "Now, don't be an unfriendly neighbor!"

Of course, the enemy's strategy was, "If you can't whip 'em, join 'em—and then take over!" Once the enemy gets a foothold in a ministry, he starts to weaken the work from within; and ultimately, the work will fail. While cooperation in the Lord's work is a noble thing, leaders must take care that they cooperate with the right people at the right time for the right purpose; otherwise they may end up cooperating with the enemy. Satan is a master deceiver and has his servants ready to join hands with God's people so he can weaken their hands in the work (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Loving compromise and cooperation can be good and useful things if there are no moral or spiritual issues involved. Happy compromise can invigorate a marriage or strengthen a ministry (Phil. 2:1-4), but this is compromise among people who love each other and have the same purposes in mind. When you invite the devil to join your team, expect him to change the rules and the goals; and expect to be defeated.

Nehemiah rejected their offer because of three convictions. First, he knew that they were lying and wanted to kill him (Neh. 6:2). Nehemiah had the kind of spiritual discernment that leaders must possess if they are going to detect the enemy's strategy and defeat it. Second, he was convinced of the greatness of the work God had given him to do (v. 3). If Nehemiah allowed himself to be distracted and detoured from the work God had called him to do, where would his people go for leadership? A leaderless project is an aimless project and eventually falls apart. Leaders must be good examples and stay on the job.

During over forty years of ministry, as I have watched Christian leaders come and go, I have tried to take Paul's admonition to heart: "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12, nkjv). I have noticed that when leaders become well-known, they often face the temptation to neglect their God-given work, join the "evangelical jet set," and start speaking all over the country or the world. Before long, the work at home starts to suffer, and often the leader's marriage and family suffer with it; and the enemy gets a foothold. Unless some radical changes are made in priorities, the result is tragic for both God's people and God's work.

This is not to say that Christian leaders must never leave home to minister elsewhere, for they are a gift to the whole church and not just to one work (Eph. 4:11-12). But when "the wider ministry" is more exciting than the work at home, leaders must beware; for the enemy is at work. Dr. Oswald J. Smith used to say, "The light that shines the farthest will shine the brightest at home."

Behind these two convictions was a third conviction: The Jews had nothing in common with Sanballat and his crowd, so there could be no basis for cooperation. Nehemiah had made that clear at the very outset of the project when he said to Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, "But as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it" (Neh. 2:20, niv). God's people are different from the people of the world and must maintain their separated position (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). If Nehemiah had cooperated with Sanballat and his allies, how could he have led the nation to separate itself from the foreigners in the land? (Neh. 9:2; 10:28; 13:3) He would have been inconsistent.

Nehemiah had both discernment and determination: He refused to be influenced by their repeated offers (6:4; see 4:12). If their offer was wrong the first time, it would be wrong the fourth time or the fiftieth time; and there was no reason for him to reconsider. Decisions based only on opinions might be reconsidered, but decisions based on convictions must stand unless those convictions are changed. Otherwise, decision becomes indecision; and the leader who ought to be a guidepost becomes a weather vane.

Intrigue: "We will not give up". (Neh. 6:15-19)

The completion of the walls "in troublous times" (Dan. 9:25) was an embarrassment to the enemy, but they did not give up.

Satan is not a quitter but stays on the field even after it looks as if he has lost the battle. Many a careless Christian has won the war but afterward lost the victory. Satan is always looking for "an opportune time" (Luke 4:13, niv) to attack the victors and turn them into victims. We need to heed the counsel of that saintly Scottish minister Andrew A. Bonar, who said, "Let us be as watchful after the victory as before the battle."

If you can't see Satan working, it's probably because he has gone underground. Actually, we are safer when we can see him at work than when his agents are concealed. Open opposition is good for God's work and God's workers because it keeps us alert and trusting the Lord. "Watch and pray!" was certainly one of Nehemiah's chief admonitions to his people (Neh. 4:9).

It seems incredible that any Jew would secretly cooperate with the enemy, let alone Jews who were nobles from the royal tribe of Judah! If any tribe had a stake in the future of "the city of David," it was the tribe of Judah; for God promised that a Savior and King would come from their tribe (Gen. 49:10; 2 Sam. 7). When these nobles cooperated with Tobiah, they were resisting the Lord, disobeying the Word, and jeopardizing their own future.

Why would they do such a treacherous thing? For one thing, Tobiah wrote them letters and influenced their thinking. Instead of seeking the truth, the nobles believed the enemy's lies and became traitors to their own people. Because they believed he was right, some of the men of Judah even took an oath of loyalty to Tobiah! In his letters, Tobiah no doubt flattered them and made promises to them; and they foolishly believed him. The nobles secretly shared the letters with others, and thus the conspiracy grew.

Don't believe everything you read or hear about Christian leaders. Consider the source and firmly refuse to accept as truth anything that can't be documented. Especially be wary of what the news media say about evangelical leaders; most media people are not too sympathetic with the Gospel. Looking for exciting stories, some reporters will magnify the insignificant into the sensational, while others will lift statements completely out of context. Sad to say, even the religious press is sometimes guilty of this kind of misrepresentation, including some militant publications that have forgotten how to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). There are times when you wonder if perhaps we have reached the sad place that Jeremiah wrote about: "Beware of your friends; do not trust your brothers. For every brother is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer" (Jer. 9:4, niv).

How could these Jews turn their backs on their own heritage, their own brothers and sisters, and their own God? The bonds of human connection were stronger than the bonds of spiritual affection. Because Tobiah was tied to the tribe of Judah through marriage, the nobles of Judah gave the loyalty to him that they should have given to God (Neh. 6:18). The men of Judah forgot that they were "married" to Jehovah God and owed Him their love and loyalty.

But before we criticize these Jewish nobles, let's examine our own lives. Are we totally yielded to the Lord and fully obedient to Him? Do we ever permit human relationships to influence our decisions so much that we deliberately disobey the Word of God? In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, I have seen more than one professed Christian leave a church fellowship because of something that was done to a relative in the church.

Commodore Josiah Tatnall is an almost forgotten name in American naval history. During the anti-European uprisings in China in 1859, Tatnall came to the aid of a British squadron in the Pei-Ho River and was criticized for it. In his dispatch to the U.S. Secretary of Navy, his defense was simply, "Blood is thicker than water."

That familiar statement was recorded by John Ray in his English Proverbs published in 1670; so it's been around for a long time. The meaning is obvious: Humanly speaking, you have greater obligation to a relative than you do to a stranger. But Jesus said, "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me' is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10:37, nkjv). The "blood bond" that unites us to Christ is the strongest bond of all, and our loyalty to Him must come first.

The nobles of Judah weren't satisfied just to get their information and directions from Tobiah, but they felt it necessary to tell Tobiah everything Nehemiah said! No doubt they were hoping to win Tobiah's favor and thus earn a greater reward when Tobiah and his friends took over Jerusalem. In every sense, they were traitors to the nation and to the Lord. Meshullam was one of the workers on the wall (Neh. 3:4, 30), and yet his family was undermining the very work he was doing.

But these traitors went even further: They repeatedly told Nehemiah what a fine man Tobiah really was! "They that forsake the law praise the wicked; but such as keep the law contend with them" (Prov. 28:4). Had the nobles of Judah been studying and meditating on the Word of God, they would have had discernment and not been walking "in the counsel of the ungodly" (Ps. 1:1). They were blinded by lies and flattery and completely out of touch with reality. There was no light in them (Isa. 8:20).

But is the situation much different in churches today? It alarms me the way professed Christians, who claim to be "Bible taught," give their endorsement and support to people who are nothing but religious hucksters. You would think that the recent media scandals would wake people up, but such is not the case. "A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way," wrote Jeremiah; and then he asked, "But what will you do in the end?" Jer. 5:30-31, niv) Indeed, we are facing a day of reckoning. Then what?

Tobiah kept sending letters to his informers, and they in turn kept telling people to change their allegiance before Jerusalem was taken by the Gentiles. Nehemiah ignored the letters and threats and kept on working until the job was completed. After all, his work was "wrought of our God" (Neh. 6:16); and when God begins a work, He completes it (Phil. 1:6).

The story began with "So I prayed" (Neh. 2:4). Then we read, "So I came to Jerusalem" (v. 11). "So they strengthened their hands for this good work" is the next link in the chain (v. 18), followed by, "So built we the wall" (4:6) and, "So we labored" (v. 21).

Now we reach the end of this part of the story: "So the wall was finished" (6:15). But this marks a new beginning, for now Nehemiah must protect what he has accomplished. How he does this is the theme of the rest of the book.

II. God’s Word Deserves Our Attention (Neh. 8:1-4)

The People and the Book

Nehemiah 8:1-4

French author Victor Hugo said over a century ago, "England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare but the Bible made England." Supporting that view, historians tell us that Elizabethan England was indeed a country of one book, and that book was the Bible.

When they arrived in America, the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them that same reverence for the Word of God. "The Bible came with them," said American statesman Daniel Webster, "and it is not to be doubted that to the free and universal reading of the Bible is to be ascribed in that age that men were indebted for right views of civil liberties." President Woodrow Wilson said, "America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture."

Whether the Bible is "making" any nation today may be debated, but one thing is sure: The Scriptures helped to "make" the nation of Israel. They are a "people of the Book" as no other nation has been, and the church today would do well to follow ancient Israel's example. When God's people get away from loving, reading, and obeying the Word of God, they lose the blessing of God. If we want to be like fruitful trees, we must delight in God's Word (Ps. 1:2-3).

This explains why Nehemiah called for a "Bible conference" and invited Ezra the scribe to be the teacher. The walls were now finished and the gates were hung. The material needs of the city had been met; now it was time to focus on the spiritual needs of the people in the city. Chapters 8-13 of the book record that spiritual ministry: instructing the people (chap. 8), confessing sin (chap. 9), dedicating the walls (chaps 10-12), and cleansing the fellowship (chap. 13).

It is important to note that Ezra and Nehemiah put the Word of God first in the life of the city. What happened in Jerusalem from that point on was a by-product of the people's response to the Scriptures. "The primary task of the church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God," said Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. "The decadent periods and eras in the history of the church have always been those periods when preaching had declined" (Preaching and Preachers, pp. 19, 24). The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to cleanse and revive the hearts of the people of God.

If God is to work in and through His people, then they must respond positively to His Word; and this chapter describes three basic responses: understanding the Word (8:1-8), rejoicing in the Word (vv. 9-12), and obeying the Word (vv. 13-18). The whole person—mind (understanding), heart (rejoicing), and will (obeying)—must be captive to God's truth.

We must understand the Word of God (Neh. 8:1-8)

The Bible is not a "magic book" that changes people or circumstances because somebody reads it or recites it. God's Word must be understood before it can enter the heart and release its life-changing power. Note that six times in this chapter you can find "understanding" mentioned (vv. 2-3, 7-8, 12-13). Only those people old enough to understand the Scripture were permitted to be in the assembly (v. 3). In our Lord's "Parable of the Sower" (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23), the emphasis is on understanding the Word of God. Jesus compared understanding and receiving the Word to the planting of seed in the soil, where it takes root and bears fruit.

Ezra was the ideal man to conduct this outdoor Bible school. He was a priest and scribe who "had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel" (Ezra 7:10). He had come to Jerusalem about fourteen years before Nehemiah had arrived and had already sought to bring the people back to the ways of the Lord (Ezra 7-10).

That the leaders chose the Water Gate for the site of the assembly is interesting. In the Bible, water for washing is a picture of the Word of God (John 15:3; Eph. 5:26), while water for drinking is a picture of the Spirit of God (John 7:37-39). When we apply the water of the Word to our lives, then the Spirit can work and bring the help we need. It is refreshing to the soul when you receive the Word and allow the Spirit to teach you.

Notice the various ministries that Ezra performed for the people during that special conference.

He brought the Book (Neh. 8:1-4). This was on the first day of the seventh month, which was the Jewish equivalent of our New Year's Day. The seventh month was a special time in the Jewish calendar because the Jews celebrated the Feast of Trumpets on the first day, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the fifteenth day to the twenty-first day (Lev. 23:23-44). It was the perfect time for the nation to get right with the Lord and make a fresh new beginning.

The Book that Ezra brought was "the Book of the Law." This was probably the entire scroll of the Torah, the five Books of Moses, the very foundation of the Jewish religion and civil law. It isn't likely that Ezra read and explained all five Books of Moses in that short a time. Perhaps he concentrated on explaining Deuteronomy and referred to the other books as he had need.

Ezra stood on a wooden platform ("pulpit") above the people so they could see and hear him better. He faced the public square where the people stood, and the wall and gate behind him may have served as a sounding board to help project his voice to the vast assembly. In verse 4, he named thirteen men who stood with him, perhaps leaders representing the tribes. Thirteen more men are named in verse 7 along with the Levites; perhaps they were teaching priests.

III. God’s Word Is to Be Both Read and Studied (Neh. 8:5-8)

He opened the Book (Neh. 8:5-6). When Ezra lifted the scroll and unrolled it to the passage he would read, the people who were seated in the square honored the Word of God by standing up. They knew they would not be hearing a mere man speak his own ideas; they would be hearing the very Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). The people remained standing while the Law was read and explained (Neh. 8:7). Ezra started his reading and teaching early in the morning and continued through midday (v. 3), which means the congregation stood and listened for five or six hours; and this continued for a week (v. 18). No doubt from time to time, he gave the people opportunities to rest; but the people were there to hear God speak and were willing to stand and listen.

After he opened the Word, "Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God" (v. 6). In many churches, there is a blessing after the reading of the Scripture; but there is certainly nothing wrong with praising the Lord for His Word before we read and hear it. The people affirmed his words by saying "Amen, Amen" (see 5:13), which means "So be it!" It was a united congregation (8:1) that honored the Scriptures and was willing to devote half of their day to hearing it read and taught. They didn't worship the Book; they worshiped the Lord who spoke to them from the Book.

Our churches today have a desperate need in their public services to show more respect for the Word of God. We are commanded to "give attention to the public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13, nasb); and yet in many churches, the only Scripture publicly read is the text of the sermon. "Independent churches" criticize "liturgical churches" for being bound to tradition, but the so-called "liturgical churches" at least devote themselves to a systematic public reading of the Word of God. (The word "liturgy" simply means "a form of public worship." Every church has a liturgy, either a good one or a bad one.) We wonder how the Holy Spirit feels when He sees Bibles put on the church floor, or used as portable filing cabinets for miscellaneous papers, or even left behind in church where they are stacked up and finally given to the local city mission. We will defend the Bible as the Word of God, but we don't always treat it like the Word of God.

We are also in too big a hurry to have the meeting end. In some parts of the world, especially in Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Communist bloc, believers would stand for hours in crowded churches to hear Bible teaching. In the average Western evangelical church, the shorter the sermon, the better we like it.

He read and explained the Book (Neh. 8:7-8). The common people didn't own copies of the Scriptures, so they were thrilled to hear the Word of God. The word distinctly in verse 8 means that the Law was explained to the people in a language they could understand. The Word was translated and expounded in such a way that the people were able to apply it to their own lives. The Hebrew language would have undergone some, changes since the days when Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and the everyday conversational Hebrew of the people would be different in some ways from ancient Hebrew. We need new translations of the Bible, not because the Bible changes, but because our language changes.

Suppose you had to use John Wycliffe's Version of the Bible, the oldest version in English. How much of this passage would you understand if you did not already know it from another version?

alle ye that traueilen & teen chargid come to me & I schal fulfille you. take ye my yok on you & lerne ye of me for I am mylde and meke in herte: and ye schulen finde rest to youre soulis/ for my yok is softe & my charge liyt.

Wycliffe's translation goes back about 600 years (1382); but between Moses' writing of the Law and Ezra's reading of the Law, a thousand years had elapsed!

The Levites assisted Ezra in teaching the Law (v. 7), for this was one of their God-given ministries (Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7). They probably mingled with the people and, when there was a break in the reading, answered questions and told them how to apply the Law to their own lives. Here we have a balance between the public proclamation of the Word in the large assembly and the personal application in the smaller groups. Both are important.

SOURCE: The Bible Exposition Commentary - Be Determined (Nehemiah), by Warren W. Wiersbe; © 2003 by Warren W. Wiersbe. Database © 2012 WORDsearch Corp.



Shemaiah: Son of Delaiah and a false prophet hired by Tobiah and Sanballat to frighten Nehemiah and hinder him from rebuilding the Jerusalem wall (Nehemiah 6:10-13).

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.


A reformer of Jewish religious worship who worked during Israel’s return from exile, Ezra’s genealogy (Ezra 7:1-5; compare 1 Chronicles 6:3-15) places him in the family line of Aaron-Zadok. He is called “priest” (Ezra 10:10, 16; Nehemiah 8:2), “scribe” (Ezra 7:6; Nehemiah 12:36), and “priest and scribe” (Ezra 7:11-12; Nehemiah 8:9; 12:26). In the Old Testament the scribe was not a mere copyist, as in Christ’s time, but a great student of God’s laws and commandments (Ezra 7:11-12; Jeremiah 8:8). The Persian king Artaxerxes described Ezra as “priest” and “scribe” (Ezra 7:6-11). It was Ezra who began the traditional view of the scribe as a religious leader, a “bookman”; this view lasted until 200 BC. Scribes were qualified to teach and preach the Scriptures as well as interpret them, but by the first century AD, the scribe’s function was more limited.

As “Secretary of State for Jewish Affairs” in the Persian Empire, Ezra visited Jerusalem about 458 BC, and on his return reported his findings. Little was done, however, until Nehemiah went to Jerusalem in 445. Once the city walls had been rebuilt, Ezra started a religious reformation in which the ancient Torah (the Law) was made the rule for Jewish life. He also demanded that Jews who had married foreigners must divorce them to keep the Jewish purity that the Torah required. Ezra set an example of piety and dedication for his people by his prayer and fasting. He set the pattern for life in post-exile Jewish culture, making God’s Word and worship central parts of life. The date and place of his death are unknown.

SOURCE: Tyndale Bible Dictionary’ copyright © 2000 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

The book of the law of Moses (8:1)—The Pentateuch. This is what we commonly know as the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.



EZRA Scribe and Priest

By Robert C. Dunston

Robert C. Dunston is professor and chair of the religion and philosophy department, Cumberland College, Williamsburg, KY.


LTHOUGH EZRA appears in only a small section of the Bible (Ezra 7—10; Neh. 8—12), he played a major role among postexilic Jews and came to occupy a significant place in Judaism.  The name Ezra constitutes a shortened form or the name “Azariah,” meaning “the Lord has helped.”  Though Ezra’s faith, leadership, and teaching, God helped His people maintain their distinctive faith during a challenging time.

Ezra’s Background

Ezra descended from Aaron, Israel’s first high priest (Ezra 7:1-5), through the line of Zadok, the high priest who served both David (2 Sam. 8:17) and Solomon (1 Kings 2:35).  Although a priest, Ezra served as a scribe.  Scribes were court officials who held varying levels of authority.  Artaxerxes I of Persia appointed Ezra as a scribe and charged him with governing Judah according to God’s law (Ezra 7:14,25).  Ezra’s knowledge of and ability to teach God’s law added a dimension to the term “scribe” that became dominant in later Judaism.  A Jewish scribe possessed knowledge of God’s law and the ability to interpret and apply the law in any situation.  Ezra was described as “skilled” (v. 6), a term originally referring to a scribe’s ability to write quickly and accurately but later used to refer to a scribe’s wisdom and experience.  While probably not the first in the long line of Jewish scholars who copied, studied, interpreted, and taught the law, Ezra certainly was one of the greatest Jewish scribes.1

Ezra’s Times

The Persian King Artaxerxes I sent Ezra to Jerusalem.  Artabanus, who likely served as captain of the royal guard, has assassinated Artaxerxes’ father, Xerxes I, in August 465 BC and then accused Xerxes’ eldest Darius of the murder.  Artaxerxes killed Darius, seized the throne, and enjoyed a long rule (464-424 BC ).  In 460 BC Egypt, aided by Athens, rebelled against Artaxerxes.  Artaxerxes regained control of Egypt in 454 BC, but he was forced to submit to a humiliating treaty with the Greeks in 448 BC.2

Conditions in Judah remained difficult.  Judah had never recovered from the decimation of its economy and population resulting from the Babylonian conquest.  Although some Jews had returned from Babylonian exile and joined the descendants of those who had never left Judah, the population in Jerusalem and Judah remained small (Neh. 11:1-2). 

Jerusalem’s wall was in disrepair with gaping holes.  Although worship continued in the rebuilt temple, the people were dispirited; faithfulness to God seemed a low priority.  For most, making a living proved difficult.  The people needed hope and direction.

With unrest in Egypt, Artaxerxes needed to keep adjoining provinces, such as Judah, satisfied, loyal, and peaceful.  Sending Ezra to Jerusalem to support worship and to ensure the Jews followed their law worked to Artaxerxes’ advantage.3  In addition, the Jews needed someone to renew their faith and spirit.  God worked through Ezra to extend Artaxerxes’ role and to call God’s people to faithful obedience.

Ezra’s Mission

On the first day of the fifth month of Artaxerxes’ seventh year as king (458 BC ), Ezra arrived in Jerusalem after a journey of approximately months (Ezra 7:8-9; 8:31).  Artaxerxes had sent a letter with Ezra empowering him to engage in four tasks.  First, Artaxerxes authorized Ezra to lead a group of any Jews, including priests and Levites, who wished to move to Jerusalem (7:13).  Artaxerxes’ offer and Ezra’s leadership resulted in approximately 5,000 people, individuals and families, accompanying Ezra to Jerusalem (8:1-20).  Second, Artaxerxes instructed Ezra to evaluate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of his God (7:14).  After arriving in Jerusalem Ezra spent much of his time teaching the law and calling the Jews to faithful obedience (9:1—10:17; Neh. 8:1—10:39).  Third, Artaxerxes entrusted Ezra with silver and gold to be used to support the temple, worship, and other projects as Ezra saw fit.  Further, he authorized Ezra to draw from the royal treasury for temple maintenance and worship (Ezra 7:15-20).  Ezra discharged this responsibility admirable (8:24-30,33-34).  Fourth, Artaxerxes empowered Ezra to appoint magistrates and judges and gave him full authority to teach and enforce Jewish law (7:25-26).  Although the Bible never specifically states Ezra appointed these officials, he likely did since he faithfully executed his other duties.4

Ezra faced his first challenge shortly after arriving in Jerusalem.  He discovered some of the Jews, including priests, Levites, and other leaders, had married non-Jewish women and allowed their sons to marry outside the faith.  Ezra realized the same behavior combined with other disobedient acts toward God had led to Judah’s defeat and exile.  His public grief and prayer caused the people to investigate the problem, determine the culprits, and force them to separate themselves from their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 9:1—10:17).

In 444 BC, after Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem as governor and the city’s walls had been rebuilt, Ezra read God’s law to an assembly of men, women, and children old enough to understand (Neh. 8:1-18).  The reading occurred on the first day of the seventh month, the Feast of Trumpets.  As Ezra read passages from the Pentateuch, 13 Levites standing among the people explained the law.  The people, convicted by God’s law, wept, but Ezra instructed them instead to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets as they had intended.  The next day as Ezra continued reading the law, the people discovered Moses had instructed Israel to live in booths during the Feast of Tabernacles, a 7-day feast that began on the 15th day of the 7th month.  The people quickly built booths.  During each of the 7 days of the Feast of Tabernacles, Ezra read from the law.

After the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jews held a national day of confession (Neh. 9:1—10:39).  After reading from the law, the Levites led in prayer praising God’s grace and faithfulness and confessing the nation’s sin.  The people then renewed their covenant with God by specifically promising to forbid marriages outside their faith, to honor the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath Year, to support the temple, and to give their tithes.

Later Ezra assisted Nehemiah in dedicating Jerusalem’s restored wall (12:27-43).  The two great leaders led the people in celebrating God’s blessing in providing them with protection, dignity, and new life.

Ezra’s Leadership

Ezra provided the Jews of his day and the faithful of our day with a wonderful example of leadership.  Ezra’s leadership demonstrated itself through six personal characteristics.  First, Ezra recognized God’s gracious activity in history.  He knew God had worked in Israel’s history (Neh. 9:1-35) and continued to work through Artaxerxes’ sending him to Jerusalem to teach God’s law (Ezra 7:27-28).  Second, Ezra was a man of prayer, leading the Jews traveling to Jerusalem in praying for safe travel (8:21-23).  Third, Ezra entrusted others with responsibility.  When Artaxerxes gave Ezra silver and gold to deliver to the Jerusalem temple, Ezra enlisted twelve priests to ensure the treasures arrived safely (vv. 24-30).  Fourth, Ezra encouraged celebrative worship, thanking God for safe travel on arriving in Jerusalem (8:35-36) and leading the people in the Feast of Trumpets and Feast of Tabernacles (Neh. 8:1-18).  Fifth, Ezra took sin seriously, publicly grieving over his people’s sin and leading them to repent (Ezra 9:1-15).  Sixth, Ezra revered God’s Word.  For Ezra, reading from the Scripture was a sacred experience (Neh. 8:5-6) that needed to lead to living in sacred obedience (10:30-39).

In a time of confusion, discouragement, and disobedience, Ezra helped the Jewish people find hope and life in obedience to God.  His faithful leadership, incisive teaching, and deep commitment continued to provide an example and a call to obedience today. Bi

1.  Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988), 136-37; Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther in The New American Commentary, vol. 10 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 127-28; North, “Ezra” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Freedman, ed. in chief, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 726; Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19 (Waco: Word Books Pub., 1985), 92.

2.  Breneman, 23; Coleman, ‘Artaxerxes” in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (MDB), Mills, gen. ed. (Macon: Mercer Univ. Press, 1990), 65.

3.  Breneman, 24; Coleman, 65.

4.  Smith, “Ezra” in MDB, 285; Williamson, xlvi.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 41, No. 3; Spring 2015.

Postexilic Hebrew Worship Practices

By G.B. Howell, Jr.

G.B. Howell, Jr., is editor in chief, Leadership Adult Publishing, LifeWay Christian Resources, Nashville, Tennessee.


ITH CONVICTION AND PASSION Ezra faced the people and read from the Torah. In doing so, Ezra was setting into motion changes that would affect for centuries the way the Jews and even the early church worshiped. What had brought the people of God to this point? How did worship change and what did it look like for those serving Yahweh after the Babylonian exile?

Worship Before the Exile

For centuries Hebrew worship had centered on Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Daily sacrifices marked the sacred activities. Annual celebrations focused on national feasts and festivals: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Trumpets, Weeks (or Harvest or Pentecost), tabernacles (or Booths), and the Day of Atonement.1 The priesthood developed into a hierarchy with three grades: Levites, or temple servers, priests, descendants of Zadok; and the high priest, who annually entered the holy of holies.

Throughout its history, worship became for the people of God an increasingly nationalistic ritual. Judah eventually was no longer merely a civil state, but instead was a religious community centered on the national altar in Jerusalem. Individual responsibility was minimal. The annual sacrifices became calls for forgiveness for the national sins, rather than a call for personal repentance. With the centralization or even community-based sacrifice was practically silent.

Yet worship was celebrated with fanfare and faithfulness for those at the temple in Jerusalem. “The maintenance of this sanctuary with its priests became the first and the principle duty of the community.”2 These traditions came to an abrupt halt, however, when Babylon seized Jerusalem and took its citizenry into captivity in 586 BC.

Worship During the Exile

Two unexpected events occurred during the Hebrew exile that set the stage for postexilic worship changes. First, God appeared in His glory in a foreign land. Hebrew understanding before the exile was that Yahweh would reveal Himself only in Jerusalem. With Jerusalem being a distant memory, the Book of Psalms expressed the exiles’ sense of spiritual alienation, “By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. . . . How can we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land?” (137:1,4, NASB). God, however, did the unexpected. He showed up in Babylon. The glory of God appeared in the land of the Chaldeans. “In the thirteenth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, while I was among the exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God. . . . [This] was like that of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day. This was the appearance of the form of the Lord’s glory. When I saw it, I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking” (Ezek. 1:1,28b, HCSB).

Second, the exiles found they could practice some aspects of Jewish worship without all of the temple traditions. “As no sacrificial feasts could be held in the foreign land. . . [the worshiping community] had to renounce more and more every material and sacramental support, and greater attention had to be given to the spiritual and the intangible.”3 For a people whose identity had been inseparably tied to a land and a national temple, the loss of both could have stifled all expressions of Hebrew worship. Instead, during the captivity, the exiles began to stress with renewed vigor certain aspects of their religious traditions: keeping the Sabbath and practicing circumcision. These traditions allowed the people of Israel to maintain their individuality, to nurture a sense of community, and to express both to the Babylonians and to Yahweh their allegiance to God. Additionally, the exiles began to place a renewed emphasis on the Scriptures. This renewed emphasis proved to be a foreshadowing of worship changes implemented during the postexilic period.

Worship After the Exile

In 539 BC, Babylon fell to the Persians. Persia’s King Cyrus issued a decree in 538 BC that captives should return to their homelands. Part of his motivation was to allow the exiles to worship in their own temples back home. Cyrus’s edict stated:

“I returned to (these) sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their former inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, . . . unharmed, in their (former) chapels, the places which make them happy.”4

Rebuilding work on the temple in Jerusalem began immediately upon the Jew’s return. The task proved to be daunting, however, and upon completion of the temple foundation, work ceased. The foundation for an uncompleted temple stood for some 18 years. Haggai and Zerubbabel came on the scene, however, and persuaded the people to continue work. About 516 BC, the temple was complete. The temple provided the Jews with a national worship center and an internationally recognized status.5

With flair and enthusiasm Israel dedicated its new temple. Afterwards, the Israelites celebrated Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ezra 6:15-22). Seemingly, Hebrew worship would return to the practices, tenor, and traditions of preexilic days. Expectations, however, did not match reality.

Worship in the new temple lacked fervor. The limited resources of the returning exiles meant the new temple lacked the splendor of Solomon’s temple. Disappointment and disillusioinment crippled morale. “Although the temple was rebuilt and worship, priestly sacrifices, and pilgrimages were reestablished at [the temple], the enthusiasm was never to be of the same intensity.”6 Worshipers merely went through the motions.

When Ezra came from Babylon, he exhibited a profound devotion to God. Some years after his return to Jerusalem, he gathered with the people near the Water Gate in Jerusalem. The assembly was during the seventh month (Neh. 7:73b). “The seventh month was important in the Jewish calendar. The first day was the Feast of Trumpets, later celebrated as the New Year. On the tenth day the Day of Atonement was celebrated, and on the fifteenth the Feast of Tabernacles began.”7

Nehemiah recorded Ezra standing at a pulpit (Hebrew, migdal or tower) and reading from “early morning until midday” (8:3,4, NASB). Ezra’s actions that day served as a catalyst to bring reform to Hebrew worship.

Postexilic worship was characterized by two dramatic changes. First, worship placed a new emphasis onhte Torah. This emphasis on the law became the most important distinguishing characteristic of postexilic Hebrew worship.

The result of the new emphasis on the Scriptures was far-reaching. Rather than depending on priests to offer sacrifices, worshipers wanted scribes and teachers (“rabbis”) to instruct them in the law. The new leader of worship was not the one who could lead with burnt offerings but the one who could define and interpret the law and its applications in an understandable manner. “To fill this need there arose a class of scribes who devoted themselves to the study of the law and passed their learning on to their disciples.”8

The second major shift in Hebrew worship was not in the method but in the location. Worship was difficult, if not impossible, for Jews living far from Jerusalem. The need for the law to be read and taught in individual communities became increasingly evident. In all likelihood, this was one of the factors that led to the rise and growing popularity of the synagogue in postexilic Judaism.

History is unclear about when and why synagogical worship began. Most scholars do conclude though that the synagogue was a by-product of the exile. Many Jews elected to remain in Persia, even after the proclamation of the Cyrus edict. Such a response whould indicate they had found a way to have their religious needs met, even in a foreign land. They evidently had grown comfortable offering worship to God away from the Jerusalem temple.

Synagogues became a common part of Hebrew worship for the Jews who did return to their homeland. The synagogue offered a meaningful worship experience to the masses. Worship in the synagogue contained no elaborate ritual or sacrificial systems. Worship for the first time focused on reading and meditating on Scripture rather than sacrifice. Synagogical worship consisted of three primary parts; “reading of the Scriptures, in which God spoke to man; prayer and praise, in which man spoke to God; and an address, in which man spoke to his fellow man.”9 Each of these divisions consisted, though, of multiple actions.

Several specific actions from synagogical worship were present in Ezra’s actions on the day he read from the Torah. Whether Ezra learned these practices during the exile and imported them to Jerusalem or whether the Jews adopted Ezra’s practices as the norm for synagogue worship is unclear. The synagogical worship elements that Ezra and the people demonstrated that day were:


request for a reading from the Torah;

opening of the Torah-scroll;

standing by the people;

blessing of the community;

response of the community;



reading of the Torah;

oral Targum [interpretation] with exhortation;


The merging of a new emphasis on Scriptures and the introduction of local houses of worship became the hallmarks of postexilic worship. For Jews scattered throughout the region, emphasis on the Torah replaced the necessity of pilgrimages to and rituals at the Jerusalem temple. And local rabbis became the worship leaders for most families, rather than temple priests.

So by the close of the Old Testament era, Jews had two alternatives for worship. One focused on the temple with the presented feast for the senses. The production included elaborate rituals, ceremonies, and sacrificial offerings. The second worship alternative centered on the more simple and convenient local experience of prayer, praise, and preaching.

Worship in the synagogue proved to be amazingly effective and popular. The synagogue became by the time of Christ, the most important religious institution for the Jews’ everyday life. Further, synagogical worship, with its emphasis on Scriptures, was probably the greatest influencing factor in the development of Christian worship in the infant New Testament church. Ezra could have never imagined, when he stood at the pulpit that day, the impact his actions would have on worship—for centuries yet to come.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Bi

1.  H.H. Freeman, “Festivals of Israel” in  The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship, R.E. Webber, ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 185-193.

2.  I.T. Jones, A Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship  (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), 28.

3.  H-J. Kraus, Worship in Israel: A Cultic History of the Old Testament, G, Buswell, trans. (Richmond: J.Knox Press, 1966), 229-230.

4.  Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, J.B. Pritchard, ed., 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), 316.

5.  J. Bright, A History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster j. Knox Press, 2000), 378.

6.  R.P. Martin, “Worship” in The International Stand. Bible Encyclopedia, G.W. Bromily, gen. ed., vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1988), 1122.

7.  M. Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther in The New Amer. Comm., E.R. Clendenen, ed, vol. 10 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publ., 1993), 223.

8.  Bright, 437.

9.  E.F. Scott, The Nature of the Early Church (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 72.

10. H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah in Word Biblical Comm., vol. 16 (Waco: Word Books, Publ. 1985), 281.

SOURCE:  Biblical Illustrator; Lifeway Christian Resources Of The Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234, Summer 2018.

Gates and Gatekeepers

By Scott Hummel

Scott Hummel is executive vice president and provost and professor of religion at William Carey University, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


hortly after returning from Persia, Nehemiah secretly inspected the ruined walls and burned gates of Jerusalem under the cover of night. With the walls and gates in such deplorable conditions, Jerusalem was humiliated and vulnerable to further attack. Nehemiah immediately knew his urgent task was to repair the walls and gates in a short period of time, even in the face of opposition (Neh. 2:11-20).

In order to repair the wall and reconstruct the gates, Nehemiah divided the wall into sections, from one gate to another, and delegated each section to a particular group. For example, Eliashib the high priest was responsible for the Sheep Gate and its section of the wall, while the sons of Hassenaah were responsible for the Fish Gate and its section of the wall (3:1-32). The high priest consecrated the 10 gates and each group “laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars” (v. 3).1

The names of some fo the gates indicated their location (East Gate), the market associated with them (Sheep Gate), their function (Dung Gate), or proximity to an architectural feature (Fountain Gate). The temple gates were also named, the most famous being the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:2).

Because the gate was the most vulnerable part of the wall, the gate had to be well fortified and designed to restrict access. The doors were made of wood and iron nails (1 Chron. 22:3; Neh. 2:8). To reduce the chance of fire, some doors were plated with bronze (Ps. 107:16).2 Double doors were necessary because the gate had to be wide enough to allow a chariot through. When the doors were closed they were “barred” from the inside with a wooden, bronze, or iron-plated bar (1 Kings 4:13; Neh. 3:13). “Wooden posts braced the doors, and the doors pivoted in stone sockets”3 (Judg. 16:2-3).

While some gates only had two chambers, one on each side of the entrance, the classical Israelite gate was either four or six chambered. For example, the “Solomonic” gates at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer were all six-chambered gates (1 Kings 9:15).4 Benches lined the inside of each chamber, which formed a small room where the guards could lodge. Each pair of chambers had their own doors, which attackers had to breach successively.5 Towers and watchmen stood on the roof of the gate (2 Sam. 18:24).6 All this made the gate complex a veritable fortress.

For greater security, many of the large sities built an outer gate complex. This could trap invaders between the outer and inner gates. By forcing a sharp right turn it created indirect access tot the gate, forced the invaders to expose their right side which was not protected by their shields, and made it more difficult to set up battering rams and siege towers against the gates (Ezek. 21:22).7

The gates were only as secure as the gatekeepers were courageous and trustworthy (1 Chron. 9:22).8 They served as watchmen and reported news and potential danger (2 Sam. 18:24). They guarded the nearby storehouses, opened and shut the gates each day, kept the city gates shut duing the Sabbath, and defended the gates during assault (Neh. 7:3; 12:25; 13:19).

The temple gatekeepers not only protected the temple, they “ministered” in the gates and assisted with the sacrifices (2 Chron. 31:2; Ezek. 44:11; Neh. 13:22). They protected the temple treasures and accounted for the temple utensils (1 Chron. 9:17-28). During his reforms, Josiah called upon the gatekeepers to rid the temple of idols (2 Kings 23:4).

As far back as the time of the tabernacle, the gatekeepers were a special class of Levites (1 Chron. 9:19). As such, they enjoyed the Levitical privileges such as receiving support from the tithes imposed on Israelites (Neh. 10:39; 12:47; 13:5) and exemption from taxes (Ezra 7:24). The priests and Levites, including the gatekeepers, performed their responsibilities between the ages of 30 and 50 (Num. 4:3). Even in exile away from Jerusalem and the temple, they maintained their identity as gatekeepers from one generation to the next.

The gatekeepers were organized into a hierarchical structure with a chief gate keeper (1 Chron. 9:17) and a captain in charge of each gate (2 Kings 7:17). The divisions of gatekeepers were assigned to specific gates, sometimes by royal appointment (1 Chron. 26:12-19; 2 Chronc. 35:15). The number of gatekeepers is recorded as high as 4,000, but during the time of Nehemiah only 172 served (1 Chron. 23:3; Neh. 11:19). In times of emergency, non-Levitical gatekeepers could be assigned to guard the city gates, as Nehemiah did when threatened by the Samaritans, Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites (7:3).

City gates served contrasting purposes, restricting access for military purposes while providing access for commerce and communication. Since everyone entered through the gates, the courtyards and squares adjacent to them were centers for public life and markets.

Parties settled disputes and trials in the city gates (Deut. 21:19; 22:15). For example, Boaz legally redeemed Ruth in the city gate (Ruth 4:1-11). Citizens brought their disputes before the city elders or even the king who administered justice from his throne, which was in the city gate (2 Sam. 15:2; 1 Kings 22:10).9 Immediately following a verdict, punishment was carried out publicly at the gates (Deut. 17:5; Jer. 20:2). At the city gates the prophets demanded “justice’at the gate’” (Amos 5:15; Zech. 8:16).10

Religious assemblies gathered at the gates and in the courtyards of the gates. When the people gathered to hear Ezra read the law, they gathered in the square before the Water Gate (Neh. 8:3). Later, in observance of the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths), the people made and lived in their booths “each on his roof . . . in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim” (v. 16).

After rebuilding the walls and gates, Nehemiah made another trip around the city. This time he went not in secret with a few men, but in a great procession of celebration along the wall by each gate (12:27-43) because “this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).                                                                                                                                         Bi

1.  All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

2.  P.J. King & L.E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster J. Knox, 2001), 234.

3.  Ibid., 236.

4.  A.J. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 287; King & Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 236.

5.  Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament,286, King & Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 236.

6.  R. De Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life & Institutions, trans. J.McHugh (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 234. E.Stern, Archaeology if the Land of the Bible: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods (732-332 BCE), vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 466-67.

7.  De Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life & Institutions, 234; King & Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 234.

8.  G.A. Lee, “Gatekeeper” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, gen. ed. G.W. Bromiley, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 409.

9.  King & Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 234, describes the stone base where the king’s throne sat outside the northern gate at Dan.

10. De. Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life & Institutions, 152.

SOURCE:  Biblical Illustrator; Lifeway Christian Resources Of The Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234, Winter 2014-15.

Synagogue Worship  Its Origins

By Kevin C. Peacock

Kevin C. Peacock is professor of Old Testament and Heberw at Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary, Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.


orshippers have little doubt on a Sabbath morning when they have reached the climax of a Jewish synagogue service—it is the reading and exposition of the Torah, the five books of Moses. After the prelimnary morning prayers and blessings, a worship leader opens a special cabinet (called the Ark), removes the Torah scroll, and marches it around the sanctuary while the congregation sings. Certain appointed ones read from the Hebrew scroll the assigned Torah portion for that day, then the rabbi brings a sermon from the Scripture passage, usually in the vernacular language of the congregation. The Haftorah reading, a related passage from the prophetic books that will help solidify the meaning from the Mosaic instruction, follows this.1 The scrolls are marched once more through the sanctuary and returned to the Ark.

Synagogue Origins

No one knows for certain the exact origins of the Jewish synagogue. The Greek term sunagoge generally referred to an assembly of God’s people for worship (Ex. 12:3 in the Septuagint), then later in tradition as any local gathering of Jews. Eventually “synagogue” referred to the building. Greek and Hebrew sources also used other synonyms for Jewish gathering places.2 The earliest mentions of such are Jewish proseuchoi (“places of prayer”) in Egypt in the third century BC. By the New Testament Era, the term “synagogue” was common; the buildings and congregations were numerous and well established.

Most scholars consider the concept of synagogue originating during the Babylonian exile even though we have no historical dates or evidence. The argument’s strength rests in the logic of the exiles needing some sort of non-sacrificial worship while living outside their homeland. Exiles in a strange land, apart from their Temple, probably felt the need to meet for mutual support, to read the Scriptures, and to maintain community. Scripture needed to be preserved, not only as a written document, but also as a living Word that God’s people heard and studied.3

Especially after the Temple’s destruction in AD 70, synagogues became the focal point for Jewish worship and activity. Wherever ten Jewish males could be gathered (a minyan), a synagogue could be formed. The building was a place for prayer, study, sacred meals, gathering and dispersing charitable funds, legal proceedings, a general assembly hall, a hostel for Jewish travelers, and a residence for synagogue officials.4 From its earliest stages, though, the synagogue’s prime purpose was for reading and studying the Torah. Josephus stated that Moses taught that “every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the Law and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it.”5

Synagogue Worship

Unlike worship in the Temple, synagogue worship included neither priestly rituals nor holy priesthood. The synagogue was led by a “rabbi,” a term that eventually referred to a specific official priestly or ordained office, but not in biblical times. In New Testament times any layman learned in Torah and Jewish Law who could teach could be called a “rabbi,” a term synonymous with “teacher” (John 1:38).

The earliest Jewish synagogue liturgy we have is from Roman times; before the Temple’s destruction in AD 70, the New Testament is one of our most valuable sources (Luke 4:15-21).6 Our earliest records give these important elements: reciting the Shema, prayer (including the Eighteen Benedictions), reading the Torah (with interpretation), reading from the Prophets, a sermon, and a priestly blessing.7

Ezra and the Levites

Some scholars have pointed to Nehemiah 8 for the foundations of synagogue worship. After the Babylonian exile the Israelite community had become watered down in their beliefs and had greatly assimilated into the surrounding paganism. Ezra attempted to reestablish Israelite identity through teaching and reinterpreting Israel’s story to this new generation as they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (Neh. 8:13-18). “The study of Torah now became the key to Jewish identity and survival. Now every Israelite could participate in redemption through his or her own observance and study of Torah . . . . The Exile and return forced a rereading of the ancient stories to emphasize individual responsibility and participation in God’s covenant with Israel.”8

Comparing Nehemiah 8 with synagogue worship shows some overlap but also a great deal of difference. Nehemiah 8 describes no Shema or prayer (except for Ezra’s blessing upon opening the scroll). Nehemiah records no prophetic reading nor priestly blessing. Certain worship practices became common in later Jewish worship,9 but the main commonalities with later synagogue worship and this event are the reading and interpretation of the Torah (vv. 7-8).10 Thus, Nehemiah 8 probably does not describe a primitive “synagogue worship service,” but several vital elements that laid a foundation.

First, the event describes a worship gathering outside of the Temple. Temple worship required a holy space, a holy priesthood, and holy priestly rituals. Nehemiah 8 required none of these. Ezra was a “priest,” but his function in this event stemmed more from his being “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:1-6, CSB). Ezra’s event was a special occasion, not a regular gathering. Later, Jewish tradition turned this into a weekly Sabbath gathering for prayers and Scripture reading, worship alongside the poriestly ministry in the Temple. After the Temple was destroyed and the priestly ministry ceased, synagogue worship survived and is still practiced today.11

Second, Ezra’s event describes a worship experience centered on reading the Torah. The people specifically asked Ezra to bring the Mosaic Law and read it to them (Neh. 8:1). He stood on a specially constructed platform and read while the people stood and listened for hours (vv. 3-4). In most synagogues the entire Torah is read orally in one- or three-year cycle.12

Third, this event describes the need for God’s Word to be explained. Exactly what the Levites did is not clear, depending on how one translates the Hebrew term meparash in verse 8. A common interpretation is that the Levites were “translating” the Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic, the spoken language of the new generation.13 Another interpretation states the Levites “explained” or “interpreted” passages that were difficult to understand.14 Another interpretation is based on the root meaning of meparash as “divide/separate,” in the sense of breaking the text into smaller parts. As such, the Levites read “distinctly” or “paragraph by paragraph” or “verse by verse,” enabling the sound to carry throughout the large assembly.15 The correct interpretation may be a combination of these. Regardless, the text’s meaning was not self-evident to all, thus Ezra and the Levites helped listeners understand the Law. In a synagogue a rabbi brings a weekly sermon based upon the Torah reading, explaining and applying the passage.

Fourth, Ezra’s event describes the need for well-studied teachers of God’s Word. Ezra was highly skilled in the Scriptures and was assigned to teach God’s Law (Ezra 7:6,25), and teaching the Law was a vital role for the Levites as well (Deut. 33:10; 2 Chron. 17:7-9; 35:3). The Levites roved through the crowd teaching, making the text clear to all (Neh. 8:7-8). The people’s hearts were pierced; they began to weep (vv. 9-10). Ezra and the Levites then taught the correct response to God’s Word—in this instance, joy (vv. 11-12). People need capable teachers to help them understand God’s Word correctly.

Jewish history has drawn a connection between Ezra’s ministry and the synagogue liturgy, and even though we do not have the empirical evidence, drawing the same connection is not difficult. Evidently Ezra was not seeking to begin a tradition, but centuries of Jewish practice have followed his example and have made it one. In later tradition, Jews called the gathering of leaders in Nehemiah 8—10 as an official body “The Great Synagogue/Assembly.” Building on Ezra’s example, the Great Synagogue met frequently as a ruling body and laid the foundations for the Jewish faith and practice in the Second Temple period.16 One Jewish scholar explained,

[It] can be assumed that the returned Exiles brought with them the rudiments of that  institution to which they had given birth during the exile . . . .  [T]he establishment of the synagogue implies the evolution of standard forms of service, and the Talmud ascribes the foundation of the earliest prayers . . . to Ezra and to his successors, the Men of the Great Synagogue.17                                          Bi

1.  J. Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (New York: W. Morrow, 1991), 653-54.

2.  Ibid.

3.  W. White, “Synagogue” in The Compleme Library of Christian Worship,  ed. R.E. Webber (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 1:131.

4.  L.I.Levine, ed., Ancient Synagogues Revealed (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1982), 3-4.

5.  Josephus, Against Apion 2.175. Josephus in Eight vols., trans. H.St.J. Thackeray, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926), 363. The New Testament affirms that worshipers read the Mosaic Law in synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:21).

6.  R.P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 24.

7.  H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, vol. 16 in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1985), 282.

8.  G.M. Freeman, “Israelite Society in Transition” in Etz Hayim: Torah & Commentary (New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), 1352.

9.  Such as unrolling the scroll and the people standing in respect (Neh. 8:5),

10. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah,  282.

11. White, “Synagogue,” 1:131-32.

12. L. Jacobs, “Torah, Reading Of” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 15:1248-53.

13. M. Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther,  vol. 10 in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 226.

14. D. Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah, vol. 12 in Tyndale Old Testament Comm. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979), 106.

15. D.J.A. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 184-85.

16. Wilhelm Bacher, “Synagogue, The Great” in JewishEncyclopedia.com.  jewis encyclpedia .com/articles/14162-synagogue-the-great.

17. L.I. Rabinowitz, “Synagogue” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 15:581.

SOURCE:  Biblical Illustrator; Lifeway Christian Resources Of The Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234, Summer 2018.




(07, 157)  What is the Answer To & Where in The Bible is This Week’s Trivia Question Found: What scribe bowed in front of the temple and confessed the sins of Israel while the people around him wept bitterly? Answer Next Week:  

Last Week’s Question: What sorcerer was blinded at Paul’s command? Answer: Elymas; Acts 13:8-11.