I noticed something last Saturday for the first time while reading Nehemiah 8 for the Bible Reading Challenge. Nehemiah 8 is classic passage about preaching. Ezra “brought the Law before the assembly” (verse 2). “He read from it from early morning until midday,” “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (verse 3). Ezra “stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose” (verse 4). He “opened the book in the sight of all the people” (verse 5), he “blessed the LORD, the great God” (verse 6). “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that people understood the reading” (verse 8).
As a preacher I’ve gone to numerous preaching conferences where other preachers preach about preaching. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this paragraph of Nehemiah preached. Preachers who love the Book, who own the stewardship “to make the word of fully known” (Colossians 1:25), who do not “shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), point out the priority of reading the Word and explaining the Word.
What I cannot remember ever hearing are any comments about the next paragraph in Nehemiah 8, about the application that Nehemiah and Ezra expected of the people who had heard the Word. Those who “taught the people said to all the people”:
“This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions 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.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:9–12)
When God’s people hear God’s Word they are tempted to make holiness glum, to mourn and weep. They are tempted to act as if they must reject taste in order to prove they’re taking it seriously. But if we read and understand the Word, that is not to be the required response of those who understand the Word.
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Eat the fat and drink the sweet wine. Share portions and make great rejoicing. Though Nehemiah 8 obviously isn’t a reference to the Lord’s Table, it does provide a pattern for us: Word then wine, big portions, generously shared.