Charles Simeon Commentary - Nehemiah 8:5 - 8:6

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Charles Simeon Commentary - Nehemiah 8:5 - 8:6

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Neh_8:5-6. 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: 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.

THOUGH in the time of our Lord it was the custom to read the law of God in the synagogues, it does not appear to have been any regular part of the priest’s office to preach unto the people. On some occasions however we find persons sent through the land of Israel to make known the law; and here we behold Ezra, on a pulpit of wood, elevated above the people, and surrounded by an immense congregation, who had come together on purpose to hear the word of God expounded to them. Since the introduction of Christianity, the preaching of the Gospel to men has been the particular office assigned to men who are set apart for that purpose: and though we must chiefly look to the Apostles as our examples, and to the effects of their ministrations as the pattern of what we may expect to see amongst our auditors, yet may we profitably look back to the time of Ezra to learn from him and his ministry,

I.       In what manner the word of God should be dispensed

The mode adopted by Ezra, namely, the expounding of Scripture [Note: ver. 8.], we conceive to be peculiarly worthy of imitation. It is indeed but little practised at the present day, though at the time of the Reformation it generally obtained: and it has very great advantages above the plan which has superseded it.

1.       It leads the people into a better acquaintance with the Scriptures—

[The Scriptures, except as a book for children, are but little read: persons are discouraged from perusing them by an idea that they are unintelligible to common capacities. But a very little explanation would render them, for the most part, easy to be understood by all. And what a vast advantage would this be! The people studying the word of God at home would be abundantly better qualified to understand it when read in public; and the explanations given to them in public, would enable them to study it to better purpose at home: whereas the present plan of taking only a small passage for a motto, or merely as a ground-work for some general observations, leads to an extreme neglect of the Holy Scriptures, and to a consequent ignorance of them among all classes of the community.]

2.       It brings every part of the sacred records into view—

[There are some who bring forward the doctrinal part of Scripture exclusively, and leave the practical part entirely out of sight: there are others who insist only on the practical parts, and leave out the doctrinal. There are some also to whom many of the doctrines contained in the sacred volume are perfectly hateful; and who never in all their lives so much as mentioned the doctrines of predestination and election, but to explain them away, and to abuse the persons who maintained them. But by expounding whole books of Scripture, every doctrine must be noticed in its turn, and the connexion between them and our practice must be pointed out. True it is, that this mode of preaching would not altogether exclude false doctrine: but it would render the establishment of errors more difficult, because the hearers would be able to judge, in some good measure, how far the true and legitimate sense of Scripture was given, and how far it was perverted. The benefit of this therefore cannot be too highly appreciated.]

3.       It brings home truth to the conscience with more authority—

[The word of man, though true, has little weight, in comparison of the word of God: “that is quick and powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword.” It is inconceivable what an advantage a preacher has, when he can say, “Thus saith the Lord:” then every doctrine demands the obedience of faith, and every precept the obedience of righteousness. When told that the word which is delivered to them will judge them in the last day, the people will not dare to trifle with it, as they will with the declarations of fallible men. Were this matter more attentively considered, we have no doubt but that more frequent appeals would be made to Scripture in our public harangues; and that the obsolete method of expounding Scripture would have at least some measure of that attention which it deserves [Note: This part of the subject, as addressed to Ministers, is deserving of much fuller notice, than it could receive as addressed to a common congregation.].]

But, in considering the word of God as explained to the people of Jerusalem, we are more particularly led to notice,

II.      In what manner it should be heard

Truly admirable was the conduct of the people on this occasion. Observe,

1.       Their reverential awe—

[When Ezra opened the book of God, all the people, in token of their reverence, stood up: and when he blessed God for giving them so rich a treasure, they “all with uplifted hands cried, Amen, Amen;” yea, “they bowed their heads also, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” This was a deportment which became sinners in the presence of their God: they did not look to the creature, but to God, whose voice they heard, and whose authority they acknowledged, in every word that was spoken. What a contrast does this form with the manner in which the word of God is heard amongst us! How rarely do we find persons duly impressed with a sense of their obligation to God for giving them a revelation of his will! How rarely do men at this day look through the preacher unto God, and hear God speaking to them by the voice of his servants! Even religious people are far from attending the ministration of the word in the spirit and temper that they ought: curiosity, fondness for novelties, and attachment to some particular preacher, too often supply the place of those better feelings by which men ought to be actuated in their attendance on the preached Gospel. To “stand in awe of God’s word,” and “to tremble at it,” are far more suitable emotions, than those which we usually see around us. The Lord grant, that our duty in this respect may be more justly estimated, and more generally performed!]

2.       Their devout affections—

[“When the people heard the words of the law, they all wept,” as feeling that they had sinned greatly against it [Note: ver. 9.]. And, when they were reminded, that, as the design of the present feast was to bring to their view the tender mercies of their God, and to encourage them to expect all manner of blessings at his hands, they ought rather to rejoice [Note: ver. 10, 11.], they did rejoice, insomuch that “there was very great gladness” amongst them [Note: ver. 17.]: and they rejoiced especially on this account, that “they had understood the words that had been declared unto them [Note: ver. 12.].” Now it is in this way that we should hear the word delivered to us. When it shews us our sins, we should weep, as it were in dust and ashes: and when it sets forth the exceeding great and precious promises of the Gospel, we should rejoice, yea, “rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified.” We should have our hearts rightly attuned, so that we should never want a string to vibrate to every touch of God’s blessed word. But may it not be said to the generality in the present day, “We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented?” Yes; the Gospel has little more power over the affections of men than if it were “a cunningly devised fable.” But we entreat you to consider, that, if the law, when expounded, was so powerful, much more should the Gospel be, since “it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”]

3.       Their unreserved obedience—

[No sooner was it discovered that an ordinance, appointed by Moses, had been neglected, than they hastened to observe it according to the strict letter of the law, and actually did observe it with greater fidelity than it ever had been observed even from the days of Joshua to that present hour [Note: ver. 13–18.]. This shewed, that the impression made on their affections was deep and spiritual. And it is in this way that we also must improve the ministration of the word. If we attend to the Gospel as we ought to do, we shall find out many things which we have neglected, and many that we have done amiss: yea, many things which are not generally noticed even among the godly, will occur to our minds, and shew us the defectiveness, not of our obedience only, but of the obedience of the best of men. Let us have our minds then open to conviction, and attentive to every commandment of our God. Nor let us be satisfied with paying only a customary attention to his revealed will, but let us aspire after higher degrees of purity, and a more perfect conformity to the divine image. This will serve as the best test of our sincerity, and it will shew, that neither have you heard in vain, nor we dispensed his word in vain.]