Word-centred assemblies

© David Peterson (2010)

Nehemiah 8-9 describes an important series of events in the life of the Jewish community, immediately after the Babylonian exile. When the people had gathered before the Water Gate in Jerusalem, they told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out ‘the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel’ (8:1). So, standing on a high wooden platform, Ezra read it aloud from daybreak till noon, and all the people listened attentively (8:2-4).

The people stood up to listen, presumably as an acknowledgement that God was addressing them. As the reading continued, the Levites instructed them, ‘giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’ (8:7-8). At some stage in this process, ‘Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground’ (8:6). Although the people wept as they listened to the words of the Law, Nehemiah encouraged them not to grieve, but to celebrate with food and drink, ‘for the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (8:9-12).

On the second day, as they gathered to give attention again to the words of the Law, they discovered the instruction to keep the Festival of Tabernacles in that month, which they then celebrated with great joy (8:13-17; cf. Lv. 23:33-42). Every day for the week of the festival, Ezra continued to read from the Book of the Law of God (8:18).

There are clearly aspects of this passage that belong to the situation of Israel under the Old Covenant, so that a point for point application to Christian assembly is not appropriate. In principle, however, it could be argued that the public reading of Scripture, with an explanation and application of what is read, should be central to the gathering of God ‘s people in any context (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). This should be the basis and motivation for praise and worship, both within the gathering and in expressions of fellowship and service outside the formal structure of the congregational meeting.

Further insights can be gained from examining Nehemiah 9.  Later in the same month, as the Israelites gathered to hear the word of God read, ‘they stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors’ (9:3). Indeed, we are told that they spent a quarter of the day listening to the reading from the Book of the Law and another quarter in confession and in worshipping the Lord. There is a significance balance here between hearing the word and responding appropriately. Moreover, their response included both confession and worship. Although the last expression could simply mean silent adoration or submission (cf. Ex. 4:31; Neh. 8:6), the following context suggests that their worship involved standing and praising the Lord (9:5; cf. Gn. 24:26-7).

The Levites led the community in an extended praise of God as creator (9:6) and as redeemer (9:7-15; cf. Ps. 95:1-7). The amazing compassion and mercy of God was acknowledged, even as the sins of Israel were rehearsed (9:16-31). Praise turned to prayer, as God was asked to regard their immediate circumstances and to deliver them from the hardships they were experiencing (9:32-37). The final response of leaders and people was to bind themselves to a written agreement that they would keep the Law and be faithful to God (9:38 – 10:39).

By way of application, it could be noted that Christian assemblies often begin with praise or confession, but that Nehemiah 8-9 suggest the value of encouraging praise and confession after the reading and explanation of Scripture. Indeed, introductory praise and confession can be disconnected from the ministry of the word of God, and very little opportunity may be given at the end of a service for responding to the exposition of Scripture. It is also instructive to see how praise involves confession of God’s character, as expressed in his words and deeds, and that confession of God’s character can lead to a realistic confession of the sins of God’s people and to meaningful petition for help and deliverance.

The first challenge for pastors is to consider whether they give enough time to the reading and explanation of Scripture when the church gathers. The second challenge concerns the sort of response to the ministry of the word they encourage. Is this response considered important enough for it to be properly ordered and prepared? Are those who share in the leadership of corporate worship sufficiently well taught and do they receive the sort of feedback that will help them develop their ministry along biblical lines?

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