On October 10 of last year, I began reading through the Bible. I read The Message, an English version translated by Eugene Peterson. He said his intent was to translate the Bible into “American English.” Read The Message and you will realize how quickly language shifts. What he calls “American English” is very much 20th century “American.” A few phrases and idioms are out of vogue. Even so it is a delightful translation and I read all the way through by the end of the year.
Not everyone would want to do that. Not everyone has the freedom. That’s a lot of scripture in a short time, but not as short a period when author Margaret Feinberg read through the entire Bible during the 40 days of Lent last year.
Why would she or I or anyone try to digest the entirety of scripture this way? In such large chunks, it is hard to narrow in and meditate on specific ideas in the Bible. What is the benefit of this approach to reading?
It helped me condition my thinking according to the world of the Bible. I felt the story. The journey through 1st and 2nd Kings alone is exhausting and painful. Over and over the kings of Judah and Israel worship false gods, ignore the prophets of the one true God, exploit the people, and find themselves at the mercy of foreign monarchs who abuse without restraint. By the end of 2nd Kings, the reader is depressed.
But then, exile comes as the last King, Zedekiah, is blinded and led off to slavery in Babylon. And then, we see God’s people in Babylon and Persia and we realize God is there too. Even as the layers of disobedience pile up, God never leaves. Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel show God’s faithfulness and grace as second chances are given over and over. Reading through it all gives the reader the arc of the story, a sense of God as God moves with humanity through the eras of history.
Another book I read in 2013 is The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel. Wangerin is extremely creative in his telling of the stories of scripture. Max Lucado too is an author who brings passion to his depictions of the Bible narratives.
I am recommending as a pathway into the Bible that we read it as a great story. Ignore chapter and verse and simply get into the story. A translation like The Message may facilitate this. So too might a novelization like the writings of Wangerin or Lucado, to name just two of many outstanding writers who reflect on scripture. This year I am going to go through the Contemporary English Version. Like The Message it is in language patterns similar to our every day speech. I won’t cram it in in less than 3 months like in 2013. I’ll read a chunk, leave it, then go back to it. For me, the exercise is a way to live in the story world.
This approach to the Bible as story helped me tremendously in reading Nehemiah. Nehemiah is situated in the time of exile. Israel has fallen to Babylon. Then Babylon falls to Persia and the Israelite slaves go from one master to another. Yet all is not lost.
We see in the Bible the Jewish people cling fiercely to their role as God’s chosen even when they appear utterly defeated. Other ancients assumed when they were defeated that the gods of their conquerors were superior to their own gods. Not Israel. No matter what happened, Israel claimed the uniqueness and superiority of Yahweh as the only God.
In the book of Genesis, Israelite Joseph, son of Jacob is a slave who rises from death row to become governor. He runs the empire and through his divinely inspired wisdom the Egyptians survive the famine. Similarly, Daniel rises in Persia to great authority, a slave ruling over the nation. Nehemiah, also in Persia, becomes the cupbearer to the King.
This slave from Jerusalem is so important that the Persian emperor a man with enormous responsibilities pays attention to Nehemiah’s emotions. Nehemiah receives reports that Jerusalem, the city of David, lies in ruins. He is overcome with depression and the king takes note of his sadness. The king grants Nehemiah permission to leave his service as cupbearer, travel to Jerusalem, and rebuild the city.
By the time we arrive at the book of Nehemiah, chapters 8 and 9, the priest, Ezra, has come from Persia, to join the rebuilding effort. Israel will not be the people of God without worship and not just any offering to the Lord, but proper worship. This is crucial to know in the story world of Bible. Worship matters. The identity of the great “I AM,” Yahweh, the God of Abraham, demands that worship be at the core of who Israel is.
With this sense of story, we realize what is happening when we open Nehemiah 8 and see Ezra addressing the nation as they gather. They are starting over. After slavery, after the destruction of the temple and the city, they once again gather, turn their hearts to God, and worship. We would not get all the undertones of the story by just opening up Nehemiah and beginning our reading at chapter 8, verse 1.
British preacher Peter Mead says, “I often ponder the fact that the Bible men and women whom I most aspire to be like are not those with a ready quiver full of pithy proof-texts, but those who know the God of the Bible because they are washed in the Bible as a whole, book by book.”[i] Are we so washed in the Bible so that we get a sense of what God is doing both in the Bible story we are reading and in our lives as we read? Or do we just whip a verse or there with no connection to all God is doing in history. Dangling Bible verses quoted out of context do a disservice to God. When we quote without a sense of story, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are being Biblical when in fact we’re just self-righteously drawing to our own abilities to memorize. Quoting is fine and is good, but only when it is connected to story – God’s and ours.
In Nehemiah 8, worship stands as the highpoint marking the moment the nation re-forms as God’s people. In the center of the worship is the Torah, the law, the word. Torah is the content of the first five books of the Old Testament. It is what God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai as God called his people out of Egypt in the Exodus. Before they could go to the Promised Land, they had to understand God. The Torah is creation, 10 commandments, the story of deliverance, and the review in Deuteronomy, the entire law revisited to prepare the nation to enter the land.
Nehemiah 8:3 reports that the people, men, women, and children, stood at the Water Gate in Jerusalem while the priest Ezra read. I thought about having us all stand throughout the sermon this morning. They stood there from early morning to midday, maybe as long as 4 hours without sitting. They stood and listened as Ezra read and explained the Torah.
It had been so long since the people of Israel lived in the land and live in the word that many had even forgotten the language. They needed priests to translate Ezra’s teaching from Hebrew into Aramaic (8:7-8). But they patiently endured the lengthy session because they could not think of anything that mattered as much as being in the word. Their return to God would be founded upon the word. The Torah was how God communicated and on it they would stand.
Walter Brueggemann comments that “remapping and reconstruction becomes the ongoing work of Judaism. It is clear,” he writes, “the work of Judaism is always postexilic [after fall in sin and restoration by grace] and is always on the horizon of Yahweh’s gathering, healing, forgiving, loving propensity.”[ii] In our lives as followers of Jesus, we remember that he is the Jewish Messiah and that in Him, as we read in Romans; we are grafted into the people of God. But this is only so because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Our story cannot be told without the cross and the resurrection. Israel had to begin with Torah and continuously return to Torah. We have to begin with the Gospel and continuously return to it. This ongoing work of reconstruction is ours as we commit ourselves to repentance (turning from our sins), receiving forgiveness, and giving it. As the New Testament puts it, the Gospel is new wine and we are new creations.
In Nehemiah 8, when the law was being read during that four-hour stretch, people began weeping. They were overcome by their own guilt. However, the governor, Nehemiah, and the priest, Ezra, stopped the lamentations. The people felt their sin, the weight of it, the filth of it, but Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to introduce a new emotion – joy. We weep in sin because we are cut off from God. We grieve our sins because sin rips us away from the good that God created us to be. We become something less than fully human. At the cross, Jesus took it all on himself. In Him, in the waters of baptism, the sins are washed away. Isaiah 61:3 – He gives beauty for Ashes, gladness instead of mourning.
Nehemiah 8:10: “This is a special day for the Lord your God. So don’t be sad and don’t cry. Enjoy your good food and wine and share some with those who don’t have anything. … This is a special day for the Lord, and he will make you happy and strong. This is a sacred day, so don’t worry or mourn” (8:10b-12).
A few weeks ago, we talked about the sin cycle that is so prevalent in the book of Judges. The people worship other gods and fall away from the Lord. The Lord gets angry. The people fall into domination at the hands of cruel invaders. The people cry out and the Lord responds by sending a hero, a judge. Through the judges, the Lord brings salvation. After the salvation, the people live in peace, joy, and faithfulness. This is bliss until they forget and in disobedience, they abandon the Lord and it starts all over.
Nehemiah lies within the story of this cycle of sin, fall, and deliverance. Chapter 8, verse 1, the deliverance has come. Ezra stands and reads the word because the story is important and nothing can happen between God and the people until they locate themselves within it. They hear and they realize their place and they weep.
And then, as Ezra and Nehemiah insist, not weeping, but rejoicing. God has given the word, which speaks who He is and it – the word – is able to hold us up and make us new.
To be human is to live with our own failures. Dreams die.
It does not mean we die with them. It may feel that way. But no. We can’t wallow in sorrow because a story is beneath us and around us and the God of that story lifts us. Fallen, we rise because he raises us. When we start again, after the fall-out and deep pain has infected our souls, we stand on the Gospel. We stand on the truth that God spoke to the world through Israel, and then again through His son our Savior Jesus. The Bible draws us to Jesus and Jesus lifts us to our feet. Failure is not the end of our story. We belong to Jesus, risen one. Because of Him, the sin cycle is broken and in all circumstances, we have joy.
[i] Peter Mead (2014), Sermon Central website - http://www.sermoncentral.com/pastors-preaching-articles/peter-mead-why-bible-reading-is-down-at-your-church-1801.asp?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=scnewsletter&utm_content=SC+Update+20140130
[ii] Brueggemann (1997) Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p.444.