I love Nehemiah chapter 8! It's so full of relevant teaching, both theological and practical.
For a start there's God's timing. His providence set this gathering of the people on the first day of the seventh month - the first month of the year for Israel, following an "agricultural" calender. So the gathering was effectively a New Year celebration, but one very different to what people today are used to. For their celebrations they called for God's law to be brought out; ours will bring out lots of alcohol, parties and fireworks, but, for most, definitely not the law of God!
Leviticus chapter 23 specified three festivals in the seventh month - the "Trumpets" on the first day; the "Atonement" on the 10th day; and "Tabernacles" from days 15-22. The sequence is significant. Trumpets was a "reminding" of the people of who their God was and what he had done for them; Atonement showed this to them in the sacrificial provision of God through which they received forgiveness; and Tabernacles was a time of rejoicing in the salvation benefits of that atonement. All in all the timing of God's providence was perfect for this crucial stage in the re-establishing of a godly community in Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership.
As we approach another New Year, we would do well to note certain aspects of their relationship with God's word for application to our preparation for a New Year.
Firstly, they greatly valued God's word. It's significant that they, the people, called for the law to be brought out, and also that they were united as a people in this. It was not Nehemiah's proposal. The people demanded it and they unified around this desire for this word! The fact that they deemed it relevant to their age and circumstances, although given in Moses' time, is a point which ought not to be lost on us in an age when the relevance of the Bible is commonly dismissed.
Such a deep and united demand for God's word is not self-created; it comes from God himself. It's one of the telling marks of the beginnings of spiritual awakenings. People demand God's word; they have a deep hunger for it; it's not enough for them that they have habits of using God's word in worship; they need more. In addition, when such a hunger for the word appears it will be accompanied by a greater urge to communicate the word to others. People who value God's word to this extent will be people who realise how vital it is to all human life and progress, and so will want others to benefit from it too. A deep appreciation of God's word is one of the prime motivators for evangelism!
I'm reminded of Robert Jermain Thomas, the missionary who distributed Bibles from a ship to the Korean people in 1866. The ship grounded on a sandbank and all on board were killed on the orders of the Korean government, fearful of foreign influence. Robert managed to swim to the shore where he was confronted by the man who would shortly kill him. One account of the event stated that on his knees, facing his executioner, Robert did not plead for his life; instead he pleaded with his executioner to accept the copy of the Bible which he held out to him. How he valued God's word! He was killed, but his handing out of God's word led to many lives there being blessed!
Secondly, they received God's word as it was read and explained to them. They were "all ears" (v.3). Their hunger made them listen keenly. This is how it always is. A spiritual appetite leads to an eager reception of God's word. Also, the word was not only read; it was also explained to them. The Levites went among the people giving the meaning of the word read by Ezra. It's not enough to have the word read; it must be explained. Preaching, the exposition of the word, is the primary means God uses in the educating, strengthening, guiding and sanctifying of his people, as made clear from such passages as Romans 10:14-17. It's the way by which our souls are "polished" and retain a shine for God. As long as a plough is in use it maintains its shiny appearance. The frequent plunging of it into the earth sees to that. But set it aside for a few weeks and a film of rust soon appears. So it is with our lives. Plunged into the word regularly, turning it's holy soil over in our minds, we will keep the shine on our lives.
They also showed the value they placed on God's word by their visible actions. They "stood" as Ezra was opening the book. It was God's word to them and they thought it only right that they paid due homage to it as his word. Then when Ezra praised God they cried out "Amen, Amen", lifting up their hands as they did do. A few dignified "Amens" and lifted up hands would surely be welcome in our gatherings under the word! We have become too afraid of showing emotion as we receive God's word. This reluctance is understandable; we do not want the hyper-emotional response that interjects noisily rather than listens carefully. But, preaching should produce emotional response, and we should not be afraid of showing our joy, or our sorrow, when the word of God affects us. On one occasion when the late Principal John Macleod of the Free Church College was preaching, a woman caught up in the power of the truth proclaimed exclaimed, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" He looked at her, paused, and then responded, "How blessed are they who know the joyful sound!" Passionate, powerful preaching meeting with an emotional response, for mutual stimulation! That's what preacher and hearer should aim for.
Thirdly, they did not detach "worship" from "preaching." There's no suggestion here that we should do "worship", consisting mostly of singing, and then, after we have done the "worship" part, we come to the "preaching" part of the service. This detachment is exacerbated in practice when we appoint "worship leader(s)" to take charge of the "worship" leaving the "preaching" to be led by the preacher, as if each of these belonged to its own "compartment." But, preaching, singing, prayer, and reading must all interflow as conjoined elements of one "worship." Indeed preaching must "lead" the worship, in the sense that the exposition of the word should move and inspire people to praise God! To achieve that our preaching must be inspiring, never insipid. Likewise, quality praise should stimulate a greater desire to hear the word explained and an enhanced urge on the preacher's part to preach! For that our singing must be vibrant and we must work at getting it so! It's as difficult to preach inspiringly after dull singing as it is to sing vibrantly after boring preaching! For both praise and preaching we need the God-created spirit which activated the people in Nehemiah's day, and for that we need to pray!
Fourthly, they learned that "the joy of the Lord" was their strength. Rejoicing was not their initial reaction to the reading and explaining of the law; it was in fact weeping. The law had exposed their sin. And Nehemiah's response is most interesting. He said "this day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. But go your way, eat the fat, drink sweet wine, and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." A day marked as "holy to the Lord" was not to be kept by mourning but by it's opposite emotion, joy! Within ten days of their gathering would be the Day of Atonement, on which God assured his people, "you shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins" (Leviticus 16:30).
When we think of "holy", do we have an image of something that does not allow for joy - a stiff, gloomy, legalistic, doleful thing, that closes out rejoicing? Do we regard mournfulness as our strength? If so we are being untrue to the Bible! Holiness and joy are the best of friends, not enemies! There is a place for mourning over sin as God's law exposes our sin to us; but that is not where our strength lies. It lies in the "joy of the Lord", the joy of knowing salvation. Our strength is not at Sinai but at Calvary, not in the day of the law but in Good Friday!
So, let's celebrate New Year as we would celebrate every Lord's Day each new week; with God's word basic to our celebrations; with a worship that values God's word, receives God's word preached, and responds in visible emotion, as we celebrate the fact that "the joy of the Lord is our strength."