The key event of the Ezra-Nehemiah story is found in Nehemiah 8 where it describes reading the Law to the assembled community. The priest, Ezra, read
from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.8:3
The readings of “the law” came from the Pentateuch, but we can only guess which passages Ezra might have chosen to read to the people. As Ezra read for these long hours, the text says the priests and the Levites
helped the people to understand the law . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.8:7-8
We Living in The Story readers know something about this, don’t we? All us seekers need guidance as we try to make sense, as we ask our ongoing question: What does this mean? Imagine how these questions must have overwhelmed this people as they listened to the words of their Scripture, maybe for the very first time, “for all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe . . . said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”8:9-10
Opposition, even violent conflict, has characterized the experience of the Jewish people throughout many centuries. Crusades and pogroms, Kristallnacht and Holocaust, private and public terrors—the history of the Jews continues to be woven with too many dark threads.
Rebuilding a life takes a lifetime of work. As I wrote this in 2020, sisters and brothers across the globe were faced with the deep challenges of rebuilding: one hurricane after another devastated parts of several coasts; raging fires destroyed forests, homes, and businesses throughout the west; earthquakes shook the foundations of Mexico; wars and violence in Syria, Central America, across the Middle East and Africa continued to drive people from their homelands, exiled refugees living lives of chaotic uncertainty; rampant pandemic raged with untold death.
Nehemiah and Ezra worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews in the midst of hardship and persecution. Even with so many challenges, Ezra and Nehemiah remind us not to wait until everything is perfect and normal. In the midst of imperfect circumstances, people of faith and hope can still find joy and “peace that passes understanding” (Phil 4:7).
Pleasant circumstances may bring us a measure of happiness that can last for a while, but it is the joy of the Lord that gives us strength to endure.