I miss the writings of
Dr. L. Nelson Bell, the medical doctor whose pen was
as effective as his scalpel. For 25 years he
was the chief surgeon at the Tsingkiangpu General
Hospital in China. After being ousted by the
Communists in China, he returned to private practice
as a surgeon in Asheville, N. C. Dr. Bell told
The operating room was
gleaming with the multiplied perfections of modern
equipment. Not only was everything spotless,
but the cool, conditioned air was constantly
subjected to the purifying light rays that reduced
even normal bacterial to a minimum.
Two surgeons, along with
residents under training, were standing motionless
in their pale green sterilized gowns and caps, their
faces partially covered by germ-inhibiting masks.
Both the chief surgeon
and his first assistant were men whose years of
arduous training and experience had earned for them
certification in their surgical specialty.
They were members of a number of learned societies.
The elder of the two had only recently been honored
by his associates by being made chief-of-staff of
the hospital, and just prior to that he had been the
president of a society of distinguished surgeons.
The patient, draped with
sterile sheets and towels, was breathing deeply as
the anesthetic began to take effect.
Then the anesthetist
looked up and nodded his head. The patient was
On the Mayo stands and
the tables adjacent to the operating table there was
a shining array of instruments, each designed for a
specific purpose "clamps, clips, retractors,
spreaders, scissors, sutures of various kinds"
everything needed to facilitate the operation.
The surgeon finished
draping the patient, already thoroughly prepared by
scrubbing and the application of antiseptic
solutions. Then, looking around, he took up an
instrument, but laid it down. Then he took up
another, but laid it down too. He went from
one to another, handling each of the various
It was a strange
pantomime. The surroundings were perfect, the
patient desperately needed surgery, but the entire
procedure consisted of meaningless motions.
The surgeon made no incision. He did not use
Naturally, some in the
room were disturbed, others were confused, and some
After an hour, the
patient was rolled from the operating to the
recovery room. There he was cared for until
fully recovered from the anesthetic. Then he
was taken to his room where relatives waited
anxiously to see him. Friends sent in flowers
and messages, evidences of their love and concern.
Before long it was
obvious that the patient was no better. The
same old symptoms recurred. There was still
pain and weakness. Why was the patient no
Hospital authorities were
asked to investigate. The surgical staff met
and discussed the case and also a number of similar
ones that had occurred in the same hospital.
Every step in the patients' history was gone over
again and again in an honest attempt to uncover the
cause of repeated failures to cure these patients.
One night during a
general staff meeting, the mystery was again under
discussion. The interns and residents were
encouraged to share in the discussion. One
young man, not considered as bright or promising as
some of the others, ventured to speak up:
"Mr. Chief-of-Staff, " he
said, "I have scrubbed in on a number of these
unsuccessful operations and there is one thing I
have repeatedly noticed; the surgeon does not use
the knife. There is no incision, no bleeding,
no going down to the source of the illness, nothing
is removed; when the patient leaves the operating
room, he is in exactly the same condition as when he
went in. "
"But, " the chief surgeon
said, "the knife is old; it is full of
imperfections; I do not trust the quality of its
steel; in fact, I feel that it is more an ornament
than an instrument "something suitable to keep on
the table, but not necessary or effective in the
complicated surgical conditions confronting us
The intern was subdued,
but as we left the room we thought we heard him
mutter under his breath: "Those poor patients!
They are still sick; they leave the hospital just
like they came in. Surely something is wrong.
Why don't they use the knife?" (L. Nelson Bell,
Convictions to Live By. Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1966, pp. 127-129).
In our day there is an
appalling lack of use of the knife, the "sword of
the Spirit. " We need to get into the Word, explain
and teach it with authority because it brings
"For the word of God is
living and active and sharper than any two-edged
sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul
and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to
judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And
there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all
things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him
with whom we have to do" (Hebrews 4:12-13, NASB
The apostle Paul
admonished, "Do not be conformed any longer to the
pattern of this world, but be transformed by the
renewing of your mind. " The instrument that
brings renewing is always the Word of God.
In Nehemiah chapter eight
we have the characteristics of genuine authentic
Let 's keep in mind that
the goal of Bible study is to maintain the meaning
of the Scripture and make personal application.
There are three things to keep in mind as we study
the Bible: Observation, Interpretation, and
WE NEED ACCURATE
OBSERVATION OF THE WORD (8:1-6)
All good Biblical
teaching begins with a hunger for the established
truths of God 's Word. All of the people spoke to
Ezra "as one man " asking him to bring the book of
the Law. This seems to be a spontaneous gathering of
the people. They had a hunger, a longing, and a
desire for the Scriptures. This is the first
appearance of Ezra in the book of Nehemiah.
The Law was the entire
Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
They stood listening from daybreak until noon. That
is how much they wanted to hear a word from God. I
pray that Holy Spirit will increase our appetite for
God 's Word and capacity for more of Him.
Ezra had arrived with a
group of exiles from Persia thirteen years earlier
to rebuild the Temple and teach the Law of God. This
is our first encounter with him in the book of
The key question in
observation is: What does it say? Here we need to
concentrate on the text itself. Read it carefully,
read repeatedly, read patiently, read prayerfully,
read purposefully, and read inquisitively. As you
read ask: who, what, where, when, why and how?
"The difference between
reading and studying is like the difference between
drifting in a boat and rowing towards a destination.
They read the
Scriptures silently and out loud (vv. 1-4).
"And all the people
gathered as one man at the square which was in front
of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to
bring the book of the Law of Moses which the Lord
had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought
the law before the assembly of men, women and all
who could listen with understanding, on the first
day of the seventh month. He read from it before the
square which was in front of the Water Gate from
early morning until midday, in the presence of men
and women, those who could understand; and all the
people were attentive to the book of the law. Ezra
the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had
made for the purpose. And beside him stood
Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and
Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael,
Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and
Meshullam on his left hand" (Nehemiah 8:1-4, NASB
It may sound elementary,
but pay attention to what you read. Ask
yourself who, what, when, where, why, and how.
The best students are conscious of the words they
One of my favorite
visiting professors in the seminary was Bernard
Ramm. He made the following statement in an article
in ETERNITY magazine.
"The good interpreter
never looks at a word without a question mark in his
mind. He may consult his Greek lexicon, or his
Webster's, or a commentary, or a concordance.
But he fusses around among his books till the word
upon which he has fixed his attention begins to glow
"An experienced doctor
has a wonderful sensitivity in his fingers. He
has spent a lifetime feeling lumps, swellings,
growths, tumors, and wens.
their textures, their shapes, and their
peculiarities. Where our fingers tell us two
things, a doctor 's fingers might tell him a dozen
things. Just as a doctor 's
fingers have a feel for lumps and growths, so a
Bible teacher must have a feel for words. He
must pass the fingers of his mind over
their shapes, textures, and peculiarities.
"This means sensitivity
to phrases, clauses, paragraphs, and idioms. A
good Bible teacher is restless; he takes nothing for
granted. He is the detective whose victim is
the meaning and the words in their various
combinations of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs
are the clues. Out of the various
configurations of the words he delves for the
meaning. He looks for the train of thought
(i.e., the sequence in meaning) and tries to follow
it throughout the passage. He works, digs,
meditates, ruminates, and studies until the meaning
of the biblical text shines through."
It is right at this point
where the poor teacher fails. He is content
with his efforts even though his thoughts are vague
and his impressions are indistinct. As soon as
he gets a good exhortation or practical application,
he's content and rests at that point. He does
not sit with a restless mind and dig and sweat until
he has achieved the meaning of the text.
Chuck Swindoll writes,
"When you study the Bible, always pay close
attention to words. Never miss the
significant ones. Pull out your dictionary;
trace the meaning of key words. Talk the words
through; think the words through.
Compare that word with another word and another
place in Scripture where a similar word is used so
that you will begin to see the meaning of the
expositor, John R. W. Stott refers to the importance
of concentrating on words "like a dog worrying over
a bone." It is not just casual attention, but
an intensive preoccupation with the words.
The focus of Nehemiah
8:1ff was upon the Word of God. It is not the
performance, the person, opinions, programs, etc.
G. Campbell Morgan 's
motto was: "Let the Bible tell its own eternal
The people had an
extraordinary reverence for the Word (v. 5-6).
"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. Then Ezra blessed the Lord the
great God. And all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!
" while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low
and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the
ground" (vv. 5-6).
happened: 1) Ezra opened the book. 2) As he opened
it, the people all stood up. 3) Ezra praised the
LORD, the great God. 4) All the people lifted their
hands and responded, "Amen! Amen! " 5) Then they
bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces
to the ground.
In some of the Churches
of Scotland they have a ceremony that is probably
based on this passage. It begins with an officer,
called the Beadle, who marches down the aisle with
an open Bible in his hand and the entire
congregation stands up. As he places the Bible on
the pulpit they respond, "Amen! Amen! "
It is important to
observe "The Book of the Law of Moses, which the
LORD had commanded for Israel " (v. 1). The Law was
not something that was still in the process of
evolving or being written. It was complete and
recognized as such by the people of God. They
recognized it as God 's Word, their complete divine
authority. It was recognized as God 's Word.
"Nothing proves more clearly how mistaken is the
view that in post-exilic times, the Torah book was
still being added to and revised. " It is clear,
"The founders of post-exilic Judaism were not the
composers, but merely the collectors of the Torah
literature. They did not alter anything of what they
'found written ' much less add to it " (The
Religion of Israel, p. 193).
It is not bibliolatry,
but acknowledgment that it is the very Word of God.
They respected the Book.
The people rose in respectful silence when Ezra
opened the scroll. The people listened attentively
to the Scriptures. They responded in a spontaneous,
unguarded expression of praise and profound
gratitude to God saying, "Amen! Amen! " Then they
fell on their faces and worshipped Him.
It is our only source of
Don 't play the Bible
against Jesus as if there is a conflict between Him
and the Scriptures. You will not find Jesus or the
apostle Paul in opposition to a full plenary
understanding the authority of the Scriptures. The
Bible is the Word of God in written form.
They gave it their
Please remember what it
is you are reading. It is God's book.
Not only do we need to
know what the Scripture says, but we also need to
know what it means. Until we know what the text says
we are not prepared to determine what it means or
how it applies.
Ezra prays preceding his
reading of the Law.
WE NEED ACCURATE
INTERPRETATION OF THE WORD (8:7-8).
If you miss God 's
meaning of the passage, then you no longer have God
How did the original
author intend the words to be understood? Each
passage of scripture has only one meaning but may
have several applications. What does this passage
mean? What is the significance of this? Why did God
include this? What is the purpose of this passage?
How does it fit in to other Scriptures?
Get an accurate
We can't make an accurate
interpretation of the Scripture until we know it
One expositor put it this
way: "I often read the passage aloud. I
read it repeatedly. I read it with emphasis
and feeling. I pause. I think. I
take some time to pray over that section. I
think it through as best I can until it becomes very
familiar in my mind. I read it over and over and
over again so that the focus of my concentration is
upon Scripture. I become so familiar with it I
can 'see' it in my mind without having to look at it
all the time" (Swindoll).
G. C. Morgan said he
never preached from a passage unless he had read it
at least 50 times.
Scriptures into terms people can understand.
happens in the following verses: " . . . the
Levites, explained the law to the people while the
people remained in their place. They read from the
book, from the law of God, translating (margin
"explaining) to give the sense so that they
understood the reading" (vv. 7-8).
Here is the Biblical
basis for expository preaching. They "explained the
law " making it clear. Remember the explanation did
not have the same authority as the Word of God
itself. However, we do have to understand it to obey
The Hebrew word for
"translating" means, "to make something distinct, to
separate it from something else so as to make it
flow together in a meaningful fashion. " It has the
idea to take it apart and throw light on it so it
will be clear and understandable. They separated the
sentences and words so that they fit into place in
an intelligible fashion. The truth was explained so
all who listened would understand it 's meaning and
be able to apply it to their personal lives.
We are "to give the sense
so that they understood the reading" or "insight, to
see into something." They shed light on it.
They gave the passage in-depth understanding.
Why did the scribes have
to do that? It was probably because while the
Jews had been in Babylonian captivity for seventy
years they had a Babylonian culture, mentality and
life-style. They were Jews by birth, but culturally
a mixture of Babylonian and Jews. They heard the
Hebrew Scriptures through a Babylonian mind-set.
They needed a clear explanation to understand it and
apply it to their lives. They needed an in-depth,
intelligible, clear presentation of the Word of God.
Moreover, we are not
through with the Word until we make practical
application of it to our personal lives.
WE NEED PRACTICAL
APPLICATIONS OF THE WORD (8:9-12).
What was the response of
those who heard the Word of God explained? You are
wasting your time if you read and study the
Scriptures but do not intend to obey it. Studying
the Word of God is not the goal, but the means of
becoming like Christ in character. If you do not
obey the Word of God, you will not grow into
The response of the
people to the preached word was revival.
"Then 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 were weeping
when they heard the words of the law" (v. 9).
Why were the people
crying (v. 9)? The Word was applied to their
lives. They heard the word and responded to it. The
depth of their conviction of sin brought weeping.
The day of deep conviction resulted in sadness of
heart as they discovered how serious had been their
failure in the light of God 's Word. The Word of God
reveals sin in our lives. Suddenly the people
realized how radically depraved they were. They saw
how their thoughts, attitudes and behaviors ran
contrary to God.
A spirit of conviction is
a very wonderful thing when a heart is broken in
recognition of its own complete failure. It is a
gift from God.
Apply the Word of
God to where you live.
Let it speak to your
hopes, ambitions, desires, frustrations, joys,
personal growth, your sins, and forgiveness.
Claim its promises for today. A good place to begin
is with the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:20-22.
The Word when
applied brings healing (vv. 9-11).
"Then 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 were weeping
when they heard the words of the law. Then he said
to them, 'Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet,
and send portions to him who has nothing prepared;
for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved,
for the joy of the Lord is your strength. ' So the
Levites calmed all the people, saying, 'Be still,
for the day is holy; do not be grieved '" (vv.
We don 't want to stop at
the place of weeping and mourning over our sins.
That is important, but with that mourning comes
rejoicing in a fresh sense of forgiveness. The Holy
Spirit will never comfort you until you mourn.
However, when you mourn over your sins, "the joy of
the LORD is your strength. "
If you minister the Word
of God and you see the grace of God working in
people 's lives, confessing sin, and repenting, move
them on to the joy of the Lord. Do not go on
manipulating guilt. The devil can use even that to
his own ends. Only by leaning on the Lord can we
overcome evil consistently. God is forgiving. Move
on to rejoicing in His grace and spiritual growth in
His Word. It is time to "go eat of the fat, drink of
the sweet and send portions to him who has nothing
prepared; for their day is holy to our Lord. Do not
be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength
" (v. 10). Have you experienced that joy? Have
you experienced that strength?
The joy and strength of
the Lord is independent of any and all
circumstances. No experience in life can ever touch
the believer except by permission of the Lord.
Whatever God permits to touch our lives, we may be
sure He will bestow the strength to see us through.
The true convictions of
the Holy Spirit is intended to bring us to the end
of our own strength that we might discover infinite
resources in Christ and rejoice in Him. It causes us
to give all glory to God. Such joy is based upon
forgiveness, and the only explanation for the
forgiveness of God is found in the substitutionary
atoning death of Jesus for our sins. It is the gift
of God 's grace. "There is therefore now no
condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus "
(Romans 8:1). All of our sins have been cast into
the depths of the sea, behind His back, as far as
the east is from the west, into the deep
forgetfulness of God.
"All the people went away
to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate
a great festival, because they understood the words
which had been made known to them " (v. 12).
The Word must be
The people returned the
second day to hear the Word of God explained so
"they might gain insight into the words of the law.
" The Hebrew word for "insight " means, "to be
prudent, " or wise. The person who gains insight
from the Word of God becomes wise and has foresight.
He gains discernment and keen awareness into life.
It takes time to gain insight. It takes a teachable
attitude and time to meditate on the Word of God.
Revival in Judah
"Then on the second day
the heads of fathers ' households of all the people,
the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra
the scribe that they might gain insight into the
words of the law. They found written in the law how
the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons
of Israel should live in booths during the feast of
the seventh month. So they proclaimed and circulated
a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem,
saying, 'Go out to the hills, and bring olive
branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches,
palm branches and branches of other leafy trees, to
make booths, as it is written. ' So the people went
out and brought them and made booths for themselves,
each on his roof, and in their courts and in the
courts of the house of God, and in the square at the
Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim.
The entire assembly of those who had returned from
the captivity made booths and lived in them. The
sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days
of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was
great rejoicing. He read from the book of the law of
God daily, from the first day to the last day. And
they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the
eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to
the ordinance" (vv. 13-18).
This is a description of
the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. It was one of
Israel 's three main feasts (Lev. 23:40). It
reminded the people of God 's care and provision
during the wilderness wanderings (Psa. 27:32-43).
When the people got into God 's Word they realized
they had forsaken vital truths. God told them to
live in booths made of branches for a week. It was a
reminder of God 's grace and mercy in delivering His
chosen people during their wilderness experience.
The entire assembly of Israel made booths and lived
in them (v. 17).
It was a reminder to God
's people that this is not our permanent home. Our
journey is that of a pilgrim. C. S. Lewis said, "Our
kind heavenly Father has provided many wonderful
inns for us along our journey, but He takes special
care to see that we never mistake any of them for
When people obey God 's
Word there is great rejoicing. Happiness is when God
's people obey Him. Happiness is the result of
righteousness, not circumstances.
Every genuine revival in
church history has been when God 's Word has been
proclaimed, and as a result, God ignites the fire of
His Word and revives His people to go and win the
lost. The major focus of any revival is the
proclamation of the Bible. God uses His Word to
reveal the ruin and despair of depravity of man and
the wonders of His grace to save.
ABIDING PRINCIPLES AND
1. Accept the authority
of the Scriptures over your life. You cannot have
great character unless it is firmly established upon
God 's Word. Learn to submit to its authority daily.
Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My
commandments " (John 14:15). The apostle John who
loved Jesus said, "And by this we know that we have
come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The
one who says, 'I have come to know Him, ' and does
not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth
is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him
the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we
know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides
in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as
He walked " (I John 2:3-6).
2. No life is
complete without an accurate understanding of God 's
Word. Our spiritual lives are dependent on the food
God gives through the Bible. Set a time to get into
the Scriptures each day.
3. There is no
spiritual growth without obedience to the revealed
Word of God. Hearing the truth is not enough; we
must obey the truth we learn. We must act on these
truths to truly learn them.
4. Obedience to the Word
of God brings rejoicing. J. Oswald Sanders well
said: "We are at this moment as close to God as we
really choose to be. True, there are times when we
would like to know a deeper intimacy, but when it
comes to the point, we are not prepared to pay the
price involved " (Enjoying Intimacy with God,
5. Do not neglect
the assembling together with a group of believers
who want to gain an accurate understanding of the
Scriptures and live in obedience to them.
6. The starting
point for any national revival is a return to the
Word of God. The exposition of God 's Word led to a
national revival in Nehemiah 's day. It is what we
The testimony of George
Washington (1732-1799) is refreshing. He wrote: "O
most glorious God . . . remember that I am but dust,
and remit my transgressions, negligences and
ignorances, and cover them all with the absolute
obedience of Thy dear Son, that those sacrifices (of
sin, praise and thanksgiving) which I have offered
may be accepted by Thee, in and for the sacrifice of
Jesus Christ offered upon the cross for me. . . .
Direct my thoughts, words and work; wash away my sin
in the immaculate blood of the Lamb; and purge my
heart by the Holy Spirit. "
7. What God has
promised to bless and what He has most used through
church history to bring His blessings is the strict
teaching and preaching of His Word. God uses His
Word to bring revival. He blesses the exposition of
His Word to save souls and revive His people.
8. We need a
renewed emphasis on Biblical preaching. "A revival
of true preaching has always heralded the great
movements in the history of the church, " says D. M.
Lloyd-Jones. When revival and reformation has come
to the church "they have always led to great and
notable periods of the greatest preaching that the
church has ever known. "
exposition of the Bible will bring sorrow over sin,
repentance and rejoicing. The people who obey will
never be the same again. The reason is when you
think like God thinks, you are thinking
realistically about yourself.
Bernard Ramm tells us
what should be the effect of excellent expository
Bible preaching and teaching: "I feel that I have
experienced a good session of Bible study: when I
felt the teacher took me right into the text and not
around it. When I felt we interacted with he
text itself and not with the party-line beliefs of
the teacher. When I felt that I had a better
understanding of the text than when I came into the
session. When I felt the time was basically
spent in meanings and not in a miscellany of
religious platitudes. When I felt challenged,
comforted, encouraged, and practically instructed."
We can only add, Amen!
this Series on the Nehemiah
8:1-18 Expository Bible Preaching
Series: Studies on