Year C – Third Sunday After Epiphany – Nehemiah 8

Neh 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10 NRSV – “all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 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 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Summary – Nehemiah served the Lord by working to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and Ezra was the scholarly priest that led in the reformation of Israel at this time. He led in reading God’s Word to the people. Here selections of Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were read for the better part of a day. There may have been as many as 50,000 people listening. Because of changes in language that those in exile had used (Aramaic) compared to the ancient Hebrew texts, it was necessary to read “with interpretation” and give the “sense” of what the words meant. They needed a running translation to understand. Then the leaders of this assembly urged the people to rejoice and not mourn and to share their celebratory food.

Insight – Have you ever been in a context where you were surrounded by those speaking a language you did not know?  It can be unsettling. We have a need to understand what we hear. In our text we see not only the reading of the Word, but the translation of that Word into understandable language. This practice of translating the Bible into understandable language was championed by many of our Reformation era heroes, such as the pre-Reformation, John Wycliffe who first translated the Bible into Middle English (d. 1384) and Martin Luther who provided a German translation. We should especially remember William Tyndale (1492–1536) who was martyred for his work in translating the Bible in English. His words to “give the sense” of the original Greek New Testament are still heard in our English Bibles. Tyndale came up with words like atonement, scapegoat, and passover, and key phrases like “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” and “my brother’s keeper.” The people in Ezra’s day were moved as they understood Scripture and so should we, as we remember that the Word of God has come to us in our language through the sacrifices of men like William Tyndale. Tyndale was actually strangled to death, but his voice still speaks.

Catechism – How did Ezra read the Word? He gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

Discussion – Are there words in the church service that you do not understand? What are they?

Prayer – Lord, give your people grace to hear and keep your word that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale, we may not only profess your gospel but also be ready to suffer and die for it, to the honor of your name. Amen.