Saturday, August 3, 2013

Great Rejoicing!

Scriptural Reading: Nehemiah 8:13-13-18
Devotional Reading: Exodus 23:12-17

We have been celebrating our annual Vacation Bible School. It has been great. We journeyed back in time to the Harlem Renaissance and were presented the written, spoken, and living Word. Friends from a visiting church in Kentucky came to kick off the celebration on Sunday. They went door-to-door with us notifying neighborhood kids to come to Vacation Bible School. On Monday evening they performed a puppet show full of high energy songs about Jesus. It was a beautiful performance and I had a blast. There were also informational tidbits about the Harlem Renaissance and Guinea in West Africa. On Tuesday evening everyone divided into their classes for the remainder of the week. We continued to have informational tidbits about the Harlem Renaissance shared with us as a blast from the past after the devotion period and prior to our convening into classes each day. It has been a blessed experience. I must admit that there are years in my life when I missed Vacation Bible School. I don’t know why now. The joy fills my soul to see the children learning as I did as a child. And it always excites me to be in a learning environment where God and His Son, Jesus are the subject. God commanded at Deut 6:6-9, “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (NKJV)

As we continue this quarter of study entitled “God’s People Worship” we are mindful of: (1) how Christian worship compares today both in its devoted and revered practices and its disrespectful practices and (2) what we can learn from God’s relationship with the worshipping ancient Israelites that will help us honor and worship Him today. We are in Unit III – “Worshipping in Jerusalem Again (Nehemiah)” of the three units of the quarter. This is the first lesson of a four-lesson study of worship in Jerusalem after remnants of Israel returned home from exile in Babylon. Nehemiah was the king’s cup bearer who became governor of Judah for the purpose of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

Pursuant to King Cyrus’ initial decree, Zerubbabel led the first group of exiles back to Jerusalem (Ez 1-2). When King Darius honored King Cyrus’ earlier decree, he added to it and issued another decree (Ez 6). The Temple was completely built in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius (Ez 6:15). Ezra led the second group of exiles along with generous freewill offerings back to Jerusalem pursuant to a letter and decree issued by King Artaxerxes (Ez 7:11-26). King Cyrus’ and Darius’ decrees only pertained to the release of the Jews and/or the building and maintenance of the Temple. Nehemiah was the third great leader in the Jewish restoration. He did not immediately return with the exiles, but he had a love for the home for his forefathers. His relative, Hanani, and others told him of the condition of the wall of Jerusalem. He mourned, wept, fasted, and prayed before God because he sought an answer. Nehemiah was grief-stricken for the condition of his people (Neh 1-2). But God gave him the answer as to the walls of the city and the wisdom to cure the problem. As the king’s cup bearer, King Artaxerxes sensed Nehemiah’s sorrow. This allowed Nehemiah to explain the reason and the king gave him what he requested; i.e. timber and letters for safe passage. The king also made him governor of Judah and sent soldiers to accompany him and assist him while he worked on the wall. After many obstructive attempts by the enemies, the wall was complete in fifty-five days (Neh 6:15). Nehemiah then turned over the charge of the city to two persons he trusted and instructed them on when and how to open the city gates for the security of the people of Jerusalem (Neh 7:1-3).

It is written at Neh 7:73b-8:3, 6, 9 “When the seventh month came, the children of Israel were in their cities. Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law…And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground…And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.” (NKJV) It was the first day of the seventh month (Tishri). Ezra was the learned scribe of the law of God. He read the Mosaic Law to the people who had gathered in the open street that was able to hold their number. The Temple may not have been large enough for the gathering as it was in the days during the courts of Solomon’s Temple. Those who gathered were those who could gather an understanding from the reading of the Law. The chief priests and Levites assisted Ezra in teaching the people. They analyzed the reading to allow the people to understand it. The people were highly receptive and praised God until they wept. However, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites advised them it was not a sorrowful occasion. Their sadness was turned into joy. The day was a holy day of convocation for celebrating the Feast of Trumpets unto God (Lev 23:23-25; Num 29:1-6). The Leviticus passage simply and briefly states that trumpets are to sound the first day of the seventh month and that it is a sacred holiday; verse 27 follows with the statement that the tenth day of the month is the Day of Atonement and verse 34 with the statement that the fifteenth day is the Feast of Booths.

On the second day of the seventh month Ezra conducted a Bible study with the leaders, priests, and the Levites. They discovered a Mosaic Law as described at Neh 8:13-15, “Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law. And they found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” (NKJV) The Bible study was conducted not as a consideration of the Law but for an understanding of the Law. While studying Ezra, the leaders, priests, and Levites discovered the ordinance commanded by God that the children of Israel keep in remembrance of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt throughout the generations by dwelling in booths for seven days and assembling on the eighth day of Sabbath rest (Lev 23:23-43; Deut 16:13-15). They had discovered God had commanded the Israelites to keep the Feast of Tabernacles a/k/a Feast of Booths. The Lord commanded what offerings would be presented on each of the eight days as burnt offerings, grain offerings, drink offerings, and peace offerings (Num 29:12-40). On the first and eighth day of the Feast God commanded there be no customary work because they were days of Sabbath rest. As it was the second of the month and the festival was not due to begin by Law until the fifteenth, they left their Bible study determined to spread the Word to the Israelites in Jerusalem and the nearby cities for the Festival of Booths activities.

The people prepared their makeshift housing with branches from trees found on the mountain (Mt Olive?) as described at verse 15 above or very similar thereto. The idea was to erect a booth with branches of leafy trees. “Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness” (Neh 8:16-17 NKJV) They quickly made provisions to keep the feast. This was a big event! Not too long ago the people had completely rebuilt the wall. Now they are building temporary housing wherever they may find in order to timely observe the Feast of Booths. The roofs of their actual homes are flat much of the time. Many have built their booths on top of their homes in Jerusalem or in their courtyards. Some have their built temporary housing on the street at Water Gate, while others may be found in booths on the street at the Gate of Ephraim. Still others built booths in the courts of the Temple. The whole assembly was determined to celebrate this joyous occasion. It was the first time it had been done by the entire assembly with such solemnity since the days of Joshua, son of Nun, (Moses’ assistant and Israel’s next commander-in-chief appointed by God upon Moses’ death) who had gone in a foreign land simply trusting God. Yet a partial observance of the Feast was kept when worship was initially restored in Jerusalem by the first exiles who returned from Babylonian captivity as led by Zerubbabel (Ez 3:4). Jeshua, son of Jozadak, was the high Levitical priest at that time. Neither Ezra the scribe nor Nehemiah was present during the first observance. When Ezra traveled to Jerusalem he had approximately 1500 males who made up the second expedition that were not present at the first observance either (Ez 8:1-14). The entire assembly experienced a holy joy. It caused them to remember the deliverance from bondage.

The Feast of Booths caused them to reflect upon the niceties of living in a home versus sitting in a booth and depending upon the Almighty Father. They were having a solemn revival unto the Lord. It was a happy occasion for everyone. “The series of offerings for this week constituted an extraordinary expense (71 bulls, 15 rams, 105 lambs, and 8 goats). A burnt offering was entirely consumed by fire; even the priests could not eat it. That expense, coupled with the requirement that the Israelites abandon the comfort of their homes for a week and live in flimsy huts, implies that a principal lesson behind this week was that all the good things of the Promised Land are gifts from God. They cannot be hoarded or taken for granted. At the same time, returning to a period of living as aliens in huts helped to recall the sense of national community experienced in the period of the Exodus.” (See Reference below and Num 29:12-40)

The people kept the Feast of Tabernacles to remember they did not come to be where they are without the help of the Lord. The Feast was not a get-away camping trip in a booth. It was about abstaining from work and rendering their hearts and talents unto the Lord. The weeklong celebration included the reading and teaching of God’s Word as declared at Neh 8:18, “Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.” (NKJV) The people came out of their booths to hear Ezra read and teach God’s Law. The Feast lasted from the fifteenth of the month of Tishri until the twenty-second.

In today’s society there are those who continue to observe the Feast of Tabernacles. Instead of booths they may live temporarily in motel rooms or RVs. However, Christians believe the promises of Jesus who did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. While He attended a Feast of Boost, He stated to the people on the last day, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39a NKJV)) After His death, burial, and resurrection we now have reason to believe, therefore, that our bodies are tents and that “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1b-4) Thank the Lord! We rejoice greatly!

Written by Deborah C Davis

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