This chapter is about God’s Word. It is about the public reading and study of God’s Word. The people of Israel were coming together. They’d rebuilt the temple. They’d rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. And then they stopped. They unrolled the scrolls. And they read.
I found it interesting that they were at the Water Gate. Just as the Sheep Gate was central to chapter 3, the Water Gate is central to chapter 8.
We know water is an important symbol in life. It was an important symbol in the life of Israel, and it’s an important symbol in the life of every Christian. The prophet Ezekiel wrote about the fully restored temple. In a vision, he saw water flowing from the threshold of the temple. The water became a mighty river, and swarms of fish swam in it – and “everything will live where the river goes” (Ezekiel 47:9). It was a picture of eternal life flowing out of the very presence of God.
The promise of God always was to give life to his faithful people. And so the people assembled at the Water Gate to hear the reading of God’s Word. They wanted to hear about life. “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Psalm 119:25). God’s Word is life-giving.
According to the gospel of John, the Word is life. “In the beginning was the Word … In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:1-4). Of course, John was writing about Jesus – the Word of life and the bringer of living water.
We remember Jesus sitting beside that well in Samaria, having a back and forth with a woman who just couldn’t figure him out. And Jesus said, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
And when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Feast of Booths (which the Israelites were just re-learning about in Nehemiah 8), this happened: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water””‘ (John 7:37-38).
And so there’s a scriptural connection between water, life, the Word, and Jesus Christ.
The people of Israel were gathered together at the Water Gate to listen to God’s Word. And their teachers explained to them what they were hearing. There was interpretation. And the people wept when the heard it – because they knew they had broken it.
But it was the first day of the seventh month. And that was a day set aside for celebration. So they couldn’t weep – even though they wanted to. They had to celebrate. It was written into the very Law they were hearing!
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced that. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Have you ever read God’s Word and just felt like weeping? It can crack open our hard shells to see what’s inside. It can lay bare what’s really there – what we really would do if we had the opportunity – what sins are in our hearts. The “thoughts and intentions of the heart” can be a pretty ugly picture. They can drive a person to tears when compared to the glory of God revealed in Scripture.
But Nehemiah and Ezra and the scribes ran around among the people, telling them not to cry. They were told not to mourn or weep because of the missed opportunities, because of the way their sins (and the sins of their forefathers) had contributed to the decay of the people and to untold amounts of suffering. They were told not to weep!
It was supposed to be a day of rejoicing.
Those two – weeping and rejoicing – are interlinked. We need to do both. And I think rejoicing, maybe, ought to come first. The more we rejoice at the goodness of God, and the more we are thankful for all his generous gifts to us, the more we are able to appreciate just what it cost God to bring his greatest Gift to us.
Back at the Water Gate, the people were trying to figure all that out. “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
We understand now. As Christians, we’ve stood at the Water Gate, and we’ve received the Word that is life. And oh how we can rejoice. For us, it’s always the first day of the seventh month!
Spend some time today counting the blessings of God in your life. Spend some time today rejoicing in the Lord. Think about your salvation and about the preciousness of Jesus Christ. Do that first.
And then I think it’s OK to feel some sadness. If you recognize sin in your life, grieve. The apostle Paul wrote, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). We aren’t people who know worldly grief. Death is nothing to us. But we can grieve over our sins – and repent of them. It’s OK to do this.
But rejoice first.