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"So They Read in the Book of the Law of the Lord Distinctly, and Gave the Sense, and Caused them to Understand the Reading"

(Nehemiah 8:8)


Jules Cseszkó

Introduction: In Nehemiah 8:1-8, we read of the instruction from God's law leading to the spiritual revival of God's people (see v. 9, like what happened with King Josiah in 2 Kings 22:8-13); and for our edification, shows an inspiring example of integrity to the original text and serves as a memorial, a benchmark for us today for the preaching and expounding of the precious gospel that God has given into our hands. It is a work of the highest calling, needing the noblest kind of godly integrity in preaching God's word faithfully and accurately (which Ezra [Ezra 7:7, 10], Nehemiah and the Levites possessed) - the kind of purity which is sorely needed today (II Timothy 2:15; 4:1, 2). We must never forget that the work of gospel preaching is a sacred privilege to perform for God (Rom. 10:14, 15), and it serves the purpose of being an divinely powerful vehicle for bringing God's message to the lost and His people in an untainted form - this is the spiritual food of the church (John 6:63; 21:15-17; I Peter 2:2; I Timothy 4:6). These principles have both application to reaching the lost (Acts 5:42), and found (Acts 2:42; 20:7).

I. Ezra's Example: Preach God's Word only - do it by the Book!

Ezra read only from the Law of God (note: a written record was used - not the oral tradition handed down, compare Matthew 15:2), and God used that to bring His people to repentance! This is the true work of a gospel preacher - to be a vessel through which God's word passes. Taking people back to the Word, which is the divine standard, returns them to true religion - Jesus taught this (Matthew 5: 27-48), his apostles and all restoration preachers!

v. 1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that [was] before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.

v. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.

v. 3 And he read therein before the street that [was] before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people [were attentive] unto the book of the law.

v. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, [and] Meshullam.

v. 5 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:

v. 6 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.

[Emphasis mine - G.A.C.]

So what exactly is "preaching"? About 14 different Greek words translate as "preach" in the King James Version (for example, the Greek word, "euangelizoh" [where we derive the word "evangelise"], means, "to preach the good news", Acts 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40). The most descriptive one being "kehrussoh" [khruvssw], which means "to publicly proclaim (as a herald)", is used 60 times in the New Testament in verb form. Here is some historical information as to what this word would have signified to first century Christians, and gives us insight into the distinctive role of such a person (here, the word is in its noun form):

kh'rux ["kehrux"]; herald, preacher. The herald was someone who had important news to bring. He often announced an athletic event or religious festival, or functioned as a political messenger, the bringer of some news or command from the king's court. He was to have a strong voice and proclaim his message with vigour without lingering to discuss it. The herald's most important qualification was that he faithfully represent or report the word of the one by whom he had been sent. He was not to be "original" but his message was to be that of another" .

(Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, page 619).

We see this word in its noun form 3 times in the New Testament, applied to God's proclaimers (I Tim. 2:7; II Tim. 1:11; II Peter 2:5). These were heralds of God's Word; when we are proclaiming God's word, we also preach! It gives new insight to the meaning of Mark 16:15; Rom. 10:14, 15; I Cor. 1: 23; 9: 27.

So, the task of a preacher is as a public proclaimer or a herald - he tells other people what God says, not what he thinks about it. The similar function could be compared to a television news reader: just as we would be shocked to hear a news reader add his private opinions (whether political or otherwise) to what we needed to hear (going beyond the requirements of his job!) so to is the sober responsibility of those who publicly proclaim God's word (James 3:1). He is not to speculate, nor to use assumptive reasoning or give our opinions on what we feel people should know for their spiritual welfare. Effective preaching is not measured in eloquence nor entertainment value, but faithfulness to convey the Divine Author's original intentions (Deut. 4:2; 18:20; Prov. 30:5, 6; Matt. 28:20; II John 9; Rev. 22:18, 19). What should a preacher preach? "Preach the word" (II Timothy 4:2) - all of the word (Matt. 28:20; Acts 5:20; 20:20, 27) and nothing else (I Timothy 1:3).

If this what the task is, if we are to preach, we surely need to know and understand this book of books (II Timothy 3:16, 17). We have to know what's in the book, before we can help others to know and apply it. In Paul's last letter to his dear friend Timothy, he speaks something that has long rung in our ears: 2 Timothy 2:15 says, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." What is meant by "rightly dividing"? It is translated from the Greek word, ojrqotomou'nta (verb - accusative, singular, masculine, present tense, active voice participle) from ojrqotomevw - in this its only usage in the Greek New Testament (only other usages are in the Septuagint [Greek Old Testament], Proverbs 3:6; 11:5), Joseph Henry Thayer (on page 453 of his famous Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) defined it as meaning,

"1. to cut straight, to cut straight ways; to proceed on straight paths, hold a straight course, equiv. to doing right; 2. to make straight and smooth, to handle aright, to teach the truth directly and correctly ".

He then compares this word with "kainotomeoh", meaning "to cut something new" as in "to make something new, introduce new things, make innovations or changes" (word not found in the N.T.). In Rienecker and Roger's Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, page 643) we read:

"to cut along a straight line, to cut a straight road. The metaphor could be that of plowing a straight furrow or of a road maker driving his road straight or of a mason squaring and cutting a stone to fit in its proper place or the cutting of a sacrifice or food for household use."

So the preacher must guide the word of truth along a straight path, without being turned aside - it must be taught correctly. God has already marked out a "pattern" (in the Greek, "tupos"[tuvpo"] Romans 6:17; Philippians 3:17; cf., "hupotupohsis"[uJpotuvpwsi~]"], meaning "model", II Timothy 1:13) - we ought to cut straight along it, not try to make our own pattern (how sinfully presumptuous to think ours could be better!). Note that Paul isn't just talking about the right attitude here, but the right action (without perversion or distortion) - to achieve this, we need to study correctly (inferring that there is a right and wrong way to study, II Peter 3:16)!

So, the purpose of gospel preaching is to point to what the Bible says, and restrict ourselves to proclaiming what God, our Lord and Master says, not adding personal influence via private opinion - we are not to be the focus of attention, but God's holy message is!

Timothy was advised in the way of maintaining the undefiled dispensation of the Word in the following 3 aspects - I Timothy 4:13 says:

"Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine."

1. "reading" The Greek noun [ajnagnwsi"] here refers to the public reading of Scripture - as the New Testament wasn't available in the accessible form as it is today (Colossians 4:16; I Thessalonians 5:27), so people had to rely on listening to somebody reading it for a crowd. The idea of this meant that if the Scriptures were read publicly as often as possible, then people would hear the Word more often, and people could be influenced by its power (compare with what happened in Nehemiah 8, verses 1-3, 5, 7, note emphasis on the above reading by the emboldened phrases). Similarly, it is the responsibility of the public proclaimer to read the Scripture, for there is power in the quoting of the Word itself (Heb. 4:12)! A preacher then should never make a point without making it from the Scriptures, and always reading direct from the Scripture, or at least cite the Scripture reference quoted verbatim, that people may know for themselves where to find it!

2. "exhortation" is translated from the Greek word "paraklehsis" (paravklhsi") meaning "a calling alongside"; in this context, this strong term represents a stirring of emotion via a persuasive discourse, a powerful address that comforts and calls to action (Acts 13:15; Rom. 12:8; I Thessalonians 2:3).

3. "doctrine" from the Greek "didaskalia"(didavskalia) meaning "teaching, instruction"; the imparting of divine spiritual knowledge (Rom. 12:7; I Tim. 1:10; 4:1, 6, 13, 16). This also included (compare Acts 18:4 with v. 11) a process of "reasoning from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2; also 18:4, 19; 19:8, 9). Timothy had a miraculously inspired ability to do this (v. 14), yet he was still told to rightly divide the word of truth (II Tim. 2:15)!

Thus proclaiming, reading, exhorting, imparting knowledge was and is all part of the preacher's work.

II. Ezra and the Levites' Example - Effectively Expounding on God's Word.

As the Law was being read, these men took the time and trouble to explain it in a way they could understand, and spoke in a way that showed their need to respond.

vs. 7, 8 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people [stood] in their place.

"So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused [them] to understand the reading."

Let's look at the two main Hebrew words here that helps us to understand the Scripture:

1. The verb "distinctly" (identically translated in the American Standard Version [A.S.V. Column note: Or, with an interpretation]; in the N.I.V. as "making it clear"; New American Standard Bible renders it as "translating" [N.A.S.B. Column note: Or, "explaining"]) comes from the Hebrew verb, "pahrash", used 5 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, Dr. William Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon [as a base meaning "to separate, distinguish", in the other places, Lev. 24:12; Num. 15:34; Proverbs 23:32; Ezek. 34:12), here meaning, "to be distinctly said". Compare this word's exact Aramaic equivalent in Ezra 4:18, "mepharash". According to F.F. Bruce this word (in his book, The Books and the Parchments, page 53),

"was actually employed as a technical term in the diplomatic service of the Persian Empire to denote the procedure when an official read an Aramaic document straight off in the vernacular language of the particular province concerned"

2. The noun "sense" (identically translated in the American Standard Version [A.S.V. Column note: Or, and caused them to understand]; N.I.V. - "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and "giving the meaning" [footnote, translating it]) is from the Hebrew masculine noun, "sehkel". Used 16 times in the Old Testament (I Sam. 25:3; I Chron.. 22:12; 26:14; II Chron. 2:12; 30:22 Ezra 8:18; Neh. 8:8; Job 17:4; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 3:4; 12:8; 13:15; 16:22; 19:11; 23:9; Dan. 8:25), it refers to the following meaning in Gesenius' Hebrew Lexicon (on page 790a):

1) "prudence, insight, understanding" (I Chronicles 22:12, Only the LORD give thee "wisdom"; I Chronicles 26:14, a "wise" counsellor...) 1a) "good understanding" (Proverbs 13:15; Psalm 111:10; II Chronicles 30:22, "good knowledge". Or [as in this context], to give understanding (of anything)"

So just as they read in the book in the law of God and explained the meaning, and gave the sense, the understanding, the insight, and caused them to understand the reading, so too is this the job of a preacher today! It is answering that all important question that Philip the evangelist asked the eunuch in Acts 8:30, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" The preacher must not just tell us what the Scripture says, he must tell us what it means - give us depth of insight! Expounding is laying open the meaning of these divine words for all to see.

What did that involve for Ezra and his preaching brethren to do, in his situation? To do this, understand that when formerly Hebrew was the common spoken language as well as the religious language, after the captivity, Aramaic became the commonly spoken language (Neh. 13:24), and Hebrew became restricted to religious usage. So when the Hebrew was read aloud, an oral explanation was given to those whom Hebrew was no longer familiar. They spoke to the common people in terms they could understand, so the people could apply the Scriptures to themselves.

As preachers in an era far removed in time and culture from the Biblical era, we also must go through a similar process, which includes several actions:

o Explaining /clarifying any difficulties in understanding the text (Acts 8:30-35). This includes for us, difficulties in translation (as in here), and difficulties in understanding cultural background of Biblical times (e.g., Luke 9:62)

o Making it simple enough for all to understand (Mark 4:33; 12:37; John 3:12; 16:12).

o Bringing out the richness of meaning in the text (I Cor. 9:9, 10; Ephesians 4:7-11; 5:31, 32).

o Encourage application, so that people can apply the Bible to their lives (Prov. 15:31-33; Luke 8:15; Heb. 8:10; Jas. 1:21-27).

III. Nehemiah and Ezra's Example - Co-operated in engendering spiritual growth.

v. 9 And Nehemiah, which [is] the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day [is] holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.

v. 10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for [this] day [is] holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.

v. 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day [is] holy; neither be ye grieved.

v. 12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.

Here we see Ezra, the scribe (8:1) priest (8:2), and a spiritual leader, working together with Nehemiah, a spiritual and political leader (12:26), to encourage the faith of God's people. It is necessary to understand that Nehemiah and Ezra weren't just involved in rebuilding physical structures, but rebuilding the spiritual lives of the people of God. So it is with preachers today. It is a gospel truth that God uses people for his work of encouraging His people (II Cor. 1:3, 4; 7:5; I Thess. 3:2), rather than just leaving the weak to themselves to be encouraged by His word. It's then up to those feeding the flock of God to engender an atmosphere or environment that is conducive to growth into a closer walk with God. Take for example, in this situation: these people were grieved by realising how much they neglected the Law ("torah"), but rather than being rebuked on top of something they already knew was their error, were encouraged to enjoy the feast because they were told that God was in control, and they could be strengthened by His joy. Understanding of God's word was to give them strength from the joy of walking in a relationship with Him, not simply grief from knowing their shortcomings, because their knowledge of the truth would make them free (John 8:31, 32). Preaching in the New Testament reflected this attitude of strengthening and encouraging, building people up to obey and draw near to God (Acts 14:22; I Thess. 2:7, 11). It was an inspiration to hear our Lord (Matthew 7:28, 29), and we must perceive His preaching as a perfect balance of rebuking the hard hearted (Matthew 23:13-36; Mark 16:14) and binding up the wounds of the broken hearted (Matthew 12:20). This does not permit a permissive attitude towards sin (Jas. 4:9), nor the withholding of a needed rebuke (II Tim. 4:2), rather, a positive resolution after mourning over sin, to joyful celebration after reconciliation with God (Psalm 51:8, 10, 12-14; Matthew 5:4, cf. Luke 6:21).

Ezra had the spiritual focus to restrict his message to God's word, and avoiding any artificial means of obtaining a response, thus allowing people to make application as to how to respond to the message. It isn't the preacher's job to persuade people with clever words (I Cor. 1:17; 2:4), nor to pressurise, manipulate by emotion, nor dictate, brow beat (I Cor. 13:1), but to speak with wisdom and grace. If God doesn't make us obey, neither should we try to force others to obey. Preaching is not a form of control over people, but an urging of people to obey God. This is done in displaying a godly manner that reflects the nature of God. It is therefore needed that our tone of preaching is adjusted by God - we should preach as strong as God's word speaks, and as mild as God's word speaks.

What then is the role of the listener?

The desired result of gospel preaching isn't meant to entertain people, but for people to:

o listen (with the right kind of spiritual ears, Matthew 11:15; 13:9, 43; Luke 14:35),

o believe (heed, take note of it and personally apply it, Heb. 4:2)

o and obey the message (act appropriately to please God the Author, Jas. 1:22-25).

Seeing changed lives is the greatest earthly joy and reward for the preacher (I Thess. 2:13; III John 4).

o receive encouragement (Acts 14:22) not by the delivery, but the content of the message. It shouldn't matter who the message comes by; if it's the truth, that alone should help and encourage us. If we think of preaching this way, we'll be able to listen with the right heart, and appreciate what each of us has to share - all of us have a place in encouraging one another with God's word.

And to those of us who don't mount rostrums, lecterns, pulpits, etc. (v. 4), we still have the opportunity (indeed the responsibility) to preach the word to people on a personal level (Acts 8:4; Romans 10:14-17; Hebrews 5:12).

Conclusion: The Purpose of Gospel Preaching is to ...

1. Point people to what the Bible says, and restrict ourselves to proclaiming what God (our Lord and Master) says, not adding private opinion - we are not to be the focus of attention, but God's holy message is!

2. To effectively explain / expound on what God says through accurate understanding, and encouraging application (how to respond to the message).

3. Strengthening, encouraging, building people up in faith to trust and obey God.

As preachers, we have the privilege to relay to others the message from God Himself - what a joy! To be a part of that God-ordained spiritual process of being a vessel of God's dispensation of His word should be the greatest motivating factor to preaching, even if no-one else listens (e.g., Noah and Jeremiah, II Timothy 2:3, 4). However, let's not forget that every privilege carries its own responsibility (James 3:1)!


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