Nehemiah 8:9 (CEV)
The people started crying
when God’s Law was read to them.
Then Nehemiah the governor,
Ezra the priest and teacher,
and the Levites who had been teaching the people
“This is a special day for the Lord your God.
So don’t be sad and don’t cry!”
Separation of church and state: good or bad?
- It’s the American way
- Keep the government out of my church
- More “church” in the state might be a good thing
We’ve been raised with the “wall of separation” between church and state, between religion and government. But it didn’t start in America. In fact, it is closely tied to Cyrus the Great, the same ruler who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. He allowed freedom of religion throughout the Persian Empire.
We hold tightly onto our freedom of religion. Sometimes it seems like it is a Baptist battle cry.
Let’s look back to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, written in 1802 in response to their concerns about the dominance of the Congregational Church in Connecticut:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
We are studying the book of Nehemiah. In truth, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are two sides of the same story (in the Jewish sacred writings, they are combined into a single book). The book of Nehemiah, as you know, is about rebuilding the wall. The book of Ezra is about rebuilding the temple.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah were called by God and permitted by their Persian rulers to go to Jerusalem along with returning exiles and restore the city—Ezra as priest, Nehemiah as governor. In addition to their involvement in an historical event, both men are foreshadows of Christ—Priest and King.
Let’s start with the history: the two books together cover about 100 years, roughly from 540 to 440 BC. The book of Ezra comes first, but the timeline for rebuilding the temple overlaps with the timeline for rebuilding the wall. In Nehemiah chapter 8, the two books overlap. The two stories become one.
Ezra 1:1 to 2:70 First return of the exiles
Ezra 3:1 to 6:22 Restoration of the worship of Jehovah
Ezra 7:1-10:44 Second return under Ezra
Nehemiah 1:1 to 7:73 Restoration of the city walls
Nehemiah 8:1 to 13:31 Reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah
The book of Ezra actually begins with Zerubbabel and 42,000 exiles. They laid the foundation of the temple and dedicated it with great celebration. The people rediscovered the joy of worship. They were on a roll. And they rolled right into resistance. Progress stalled.
And that is a recurring pattern of the two books. Through God’s orchestration of circumstances, there is spiritual progress. That progress meets with resistance. In faith and perseverance, the resistance is overcome, to God’s glory.
Ezra arrived in Jerusalem to pick up where Zerubbabel left off. A few years later, Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the walls.
Read commentaries on the two books, and you’ll find lists of questions about apparent discrepancies. But carry in mind that the books are named for their main characters, not their authors. Imagine two books on American history—one written from the perspective of church leaders, the other from the perspective of the government leaders. Suppose that both books were even written by the same author, but based on the memoirs and collected papers of the respective leaders. How different would those two books be?
In Ezra and Nehemiah, God gives us two sides of the same story. “The theme of this composite book is a record of the reconstruction of the Hebrew theocracy upon the physical and spiritual foundations of the past” (Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament).
The two stories meet in Nehemiah 8.
Nehemiah 8:1-3 (NIV)
Then all the people gathered together as one man at the open square 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. So 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. Then he read from it, in front of the open square which was in front of the Water Gate, from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and women, those who could understand; and all the people listened carefully to the Book of the Law.
Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and restored the gates. The people gathered in that safe space and listened as Ezra read the Word of God.
The physical space became a sacred space. When we rebuild the boundaries and restore the gates through our prayer, we create a sacred space for the Spirit of God to transform lives.
Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above them; 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; and they knelt down and worshiped the Lord with their faces toward the ground.
These people had been in exile, uprooted from their spiritual tradition. This was before the printing press, before the internet. The Word of God was duplicated by hand. Copies were rare. These people had lost their connection to God’s teaching.
Gathered there in front of the Water Gate they heard the Book of the Law, many of them for the first time ever in their lives. It brought them to their knees.
Imagine the people in your town gathered en masse on the town square, attentively listening to God’s Word. Can you see it?
Can you pray into that vision?
Lord God, I pray that the people of my community would be drawn to your Word, that they would read and hear it with sincere hearts, that they would be driven to their knees by its love and grace, that their lives would be transformed by its salvation message.
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
When the governor and the priest were acting in one accord, the results were amazing.
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 Ezra said to them, “Go your way, eat the rich festival food, drink the sweet drink, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be worried, for the joy of the Lord is your strength and your stronghold.”
Look at the range of emotions in this passage: weeping, worry, joy and strength. “Holy to the Lord” isn’t for the faint of heart.
We sometimes take the power of God’s Word for granted.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Jefferson was right. We cannot legislate people into a relationship with Christ.
We can pray, and God can use our prayers to create a sacred space in their lives that longs for the power of God’s Word.
Ezra the Priest and Nehemiah the Governor are foreshadows of Christ our great High Priest and our King of kings.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings–and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.
The name Ezra comes from the Hebrew word azar, meaning to help or support. The name Nehemiah means “comforted by Jehovah.” Christ is our Ezra and our Nehemiah, our help and our comfort. We are his chosen and faithful followers.