Rebuild: Nehemiah 8:13-18 – Very Great Gladness

Grace For The Journey

We are in the Book of Nehemiah.  We will be looking today at verses 13 through 18 of Nehemiah Chapter 8.  The year is 444 BC.  The city of Jerusalem lay in ruins for 140 years while God’s people were away in captivity under the discipline of God because of their unfaithfulness to Him.  But God has restored them to the city.  And the city has been completely rebuilt; the walls being the last major rebuilding project, was rebuilt in a record 52 days.  

Last Friday we saw how revival began to break out as the gathered people of God asked for the man of God to bring out the Word of God.  They said to Ezra, “Bring the Book!”   Ezra brought out the Scriptures and read to the people the Word of God.  It had been some time since they heard the Word preached.  Perhaps as many 50,000 people gathered in the open square!  And they gathered eagerly to hear the Word.  They listened attentively.  They were standing for 5 or 6 hours as the Word was explained. They gathered responded accordingly – The Word changed them; they turned to God in repentance.

We left off at verse 12 of Chapter 8, a verse that recounts the joy of the people in their understanding the Bible.  They had stood there for a six-hour Bible Conference, and after it was all over, verse 12 says, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.”  Verse 13 tells us about more study of the Word and how they learn about a long-neglected festival they should be observing, a holiday called, “The Feast of Booths.” 

This sounds like a strange feast, doesn’t it?  The Feast of Booths was one of the great pilgrim feasts, or festivals prescribed by God in the Law.  Leviticus 23 tells how this feast is to be observed.  God’s people were to build little booths all over Jerusalem and they were to celebrate and eat in these little booths.  It is sometimes referred to as the Feast of Tabernacles.  God’s people were commanded by God – through Moses – in Leviticus 23 to construct these temporary shelters, booths, tabernacles, huts, temporary homes, and they were to live in them all week.  They were largely made out of olive branches, palm branches, and other vegetation.  The people of God would live inside these temporary shelters for seven days to remind them of how God had provided for them during the Exodus wanderings.  For 40 years in the desert, living in temporary housing, God cared for His people, ultimately bringing them into the Promised Land.  For centuries God’s people have celebrated the Feast of Booths.

This feast continues today.  Our Jewish friends call it Sukkot (“Suh KOAT”).  The Feast of Sukkot.  The word “Sukkot” is the Hebrew word, plural form of “booth,” or “tabernacle.”  The modern Jews celebrate Sukkot in late September or early October, depending on where it falls on the Hebrew calendar each year.  It lasts a full week with lots of eating, dancing, and celebrating.  The faithful Jews will celebrate Sukkot wherever they are, all over the world, and of course in Jerusalem. This is a celebration, a party, a seven-day party!  There is an old rabbinical expression that says: “You’ve not seen joy until you’ve been to the Feast of Booths at Jerusalem.”

We looked at that popular verse last week, verse 10 that says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” a verse that does not refer to our joy, but to God’s joy, Yahweh’s joy.  It is the Lord’s joy in you that gives you strength.  God’s joy . . .

  • His delight in creating you.
  • His joy in forgiving sin.
  • His joy in bringing back a wayward people,
  • His joy in restoring them to Himself.
  • His joy in atoning for their sin through Jesus Christ.

It is God’s joy to do that for you.  When you know that God delights in you as His child, you are strengthened!  The knowledge of God’s joy in us strengthens us.  God’s joy leads to our joy.

There is a phrase I like in today’s passage.  As the people celebrate the Feast of Booths it says at the end of verse 17, “And there was very great gladness.”  I like that!  Very great gladness, or very great joy.  I want us to look this morning about what this means to you and me. 

Verse 13 states, “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.”   You might think God’s children had “gotten their fill” of the Word from the day before, with 5 to 6 hours of standing to hear the Bible taught, but they are back at it the next day! 

A genuinely converted man,

The authentic Christian,

Can never get enough

Of God’s Word!  Never!

Verse 13 teaches that the dads of the families gathered together the next day to study the Word.  It was their responsibility to teach God’s Word to their families.  In Deuteronomy 6:6-7 God declares, “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.”

Here is an important truth for parents today – Read the Bible to your children.  Open the Book and read.  You do not have to be a scholar.  Anyone can do this.  Just open the Book and read.  Read a Bible story to the kiddos at night when you are tucking them in.  You cannot read about David and Goliath, Jonah, and Daniel enough!  Tell them and show them how big God is and how they can trust in Him and live in Him through Jesus Christ.

Verse 14 says, “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.”  The way this verse reads, it appears as if the readers are just reading the words of the law and realize they are, in fact, in the seventh month.  So they’re like, “Look, we’ve read here in the law about the feast of booths, it’s supposed to occur during this month, let’s get to it!”  They read what they haven’t been doing and they respond to God’s Word, by doing what it says.

James 1:22 says we are to be not just hearers of the Word, but doers of the word – Doing what it says.  

The genuine believer has

A desire to know and

Obey the Word.

It is just that simple.  If you have no desire to obey the Bible, it is hard to defend that you are a Christian.  Got a desire to do what God says?  That is evidence of a new nature.  God has taken out your heart of stone and given you a heart of flesh – A spiritual heart that receives gladly the Words of Scripture because they come from the One who gave us that heart.  

They read that they are supposed to be building these booths and living in them for a week.  For seven days, living in “Temporary Housing.”   A shelter in the wilderness.  A booth in the desert.

What did these booths look like?  Verse 15 tells us, “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.’”  This was all to remind them of those trees in the desert and how God provided for them as they gathered those branches.  The intent of this instruction is to lead them to think every time they picked up a branch about those years of wandering and how God brought them through the difficulties.  As they spent that week inside the booths they would remember how they had lived in similar structures during those years in the desert.  

This is an exercise that is a bit like our modern Thanksgiving.  To be sure, families today gather together in more permanent dwellings, and we have big TVs on which we can watch football games as we sit in our “booths.”   But we are wise to reflect during that one day, let alone seven days, to thank God for His abundant provision and protection.

Verse 16 says, “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.”  What a reminder!  God’s people during this week of booths were continually reminded of God’s care.  Picture this in your mind!  For seven days everywhere an Israelite looked – on top of houses, in the courtyards and in the open square – there were little booths scattered everywhere . . .

Each one a compelling visual reminder

Of God’s provision and care. 

Living in those booths for seven days

Was also a reminder of their

Continual need for Him.

What better way to remind us of the frailty of our lives than by living inside a rustic tent of myrtle branches and palm trees, the wind passing through the leaves and onto our little makeshift beds, the drip of rain and tiny little creatures crawling all around.  Flimsy little tents reminding us of our flimsy little lives.  A tent is temporary and so is our life.  The Bible says in James 4:14, “What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”  A vapor, like the steam rising up from your morning coffee.  Now you see it, now you don’t.  Temporary existence.

We cannot help but think that the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day . . .

Were even more pointedly reminded

Of God’s provision and care as they

Reflected back not only upon God’s care

Centuries earlier during the Egyptian

Captivity of the Exodus years, but also

During the Babylonian captivity from which

They had been more recently delivered.

This more recent history was something of an “Second Exodus.”  God’s people exited Egypt during Moses and Joshua’s time and they exited Babylon during Ezra and Nehemiah’s time.  God delivering them from bondage.

Verse 17 says, “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.”  The Feast of Booths had been celebrated in more recent history (cf. 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chronicles 7:9; Ezra 3:4), but not like this.  Not with all the people celebrating, all the people actually camping out like this in booths scattered everywhere.  There was “very great gladness.” 

Then verse 18, tells us the people had even more hunger for the Word, “Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he (Ezra)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.” 

The Scriptures became

Central

To the people of God.

They heard from the Word each day of the seven days, day by day, from the first day until the last day.  God’s people can never get enough of God’s Word.

I shared with you earlier that I was struck by that phrase at the end of verse 17, “And there was very great gladness,” or very great joy.  It seems to me most people want that kind of joy.  The Bible teaches that every believer can have that kind of joy.  Let me suggest three things ways this kind of gladness comes about . . .

1. We Obey His Commands.

The phrase, “And there was very great gladness” occurs after the people of God obeyed the Word of God.  When God’s people do what is right, there is very great gladness, great joy.  Doing the right thing, obeying God’s Word, God’s commands, brings joy.  You can do the wrong thing and get an immediate happiness.  The Bible says there is “pleasure in sin for a season,” but it is a season that ends in emptiness and death. Joy – real joy – occurs when we do the right thing, the correct thing, the true thing. 

Know the truth,

Do the truth,

Receive the Truth,

And joy follows.

Joyful obedience to God’s Word results in very great gladness.  

When we talk about obedience . . .

It is so important that we not confuse

The joyful Gospel-motivated obedience

With the slavishly religious works-based obedience.

Obedience is not what we do to become

Accepted by God or “acceptable” to God. 

That is religion – Obey so you can be accepted by God.  We often say . . .

“Christianity is not a religion,

It Is a relationship,”

A relationship built

Upon the Gospel.

I want to share with you some statements that contrasts “religion” with “the Gospel.”  What is the difference between religion and the Gospel when it comes to obeying God’s commands?  These statements from Tim Keller reveals how easily we slip into self-dependence and self-reliance regarding our salvation.  My God use this to remind us of the free grace that bring salvation and probe our hearts to humble ourselves before Him.

  • RELIGION: I obey-therefore I am accepted.  THE GOSPEL: I am accepted through Christ-therefore I obey.
  • RELIGION: Motivation is based on fear and insecurity.  THE GOSPEL: Motivation is based on grateful love and joy.
  • RELIGION: I obey God in order to get things from God. THE GOSPEL: I obey God to get to God-to delight and honor Him.
  • RELIGION: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or myself, since I believe, like Job’s friends that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life.  THE GOSPEL: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I struggle but I know all my punishment fell on Jesus and that while He may allow this for my training, He will exercise His Fatherly love and grace within my trial.
  • RELIGION: When I am criticized, I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a ‘good person’. Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costs.  THE GOSPEL: When I am criticized, I struggle, but it is not critical for me to think of myself as a ‘good person.’ My identity is not built on my record or my performance but on God’s love for me in Christ. I can take criticism.
  • RELIGION: My prayer life consists largely of petition and it only heats up when I am in a time of need.  My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment.  THE GOSPEL: My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration.  My main purpose is fellowship bringing Him glory.
  • RELIGION: My self-view swings between two poles.  If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people.  If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel insecure and inadequate.  I am not confident. I feel like a failure.  THE GOSPEL: My self-view is not based on a view of myself as a moral achiever. In Christ I am “simul iustus et peccator”-simultaneously sinful and yet accepted in Christ.  I am so bad He had to die for me, and I am so loved He was glad to die for me.  This leads me to deeper and deeper humility and confidence at the same time.  Neither swaggering nor sniveling.
  • RELIGION: My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work.  Or how moral I am, and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral.  I disdain and feel superior to ‘the other.’  THE GOSPEL: My identity and self-worth are centered on the One who died for His enemies, who was excluded from the city for me.  I am saved by sheer grace.  So, I cannot look down on those who believe or practice something different from me.  Only by grace I am what I am.  I have no inner need to win arguments.
  • RELIGION: Since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufactures idols.  It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline, my social status, etc.  I absolutely have to have them so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I may say I believe about God.  THE GOSPEL: I have many good things in my life-family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc.  But none of these good things are ultimate things to me.  None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.

Secondly, we have very great gladness when . . .

2. We Remember His Care.

We sing the phrase, “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.”  This was the major purpose behind the Feast of Booths.  Booths were forcible reminders to God’s people of God’s care for them during the hard times.  God was faithful to them in the past so they knew this unchanging God would be faithful to them in the present, and faithful to them in the future.  He would never give up on them.  

God will never give up on us.  He is faithful!  God never leaves us.  Even if we turn from Him, He still comes after us like the Loving Father chasing after the Prodigal Son. 

Recalling His loving ways in the past reminds us of His loving ways in the present; “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”  Again, the joy of the Lord – God’s joy – is your strength.  God’s joy for you, His delight in loving you, is what strengthens you!  God’s joy in you is your stronghold.  God’s love for us, the love He delights to have in us, is a firm foundation, our stronghold.  The joy of the Lord is your strength.

God’s joy in you is possible only by union with Christ, by your being “in Christ,” in the perfection of His Son.  It is only when we have turned from sin and turned to Christ, dying to the old us and being raised with Christ that God looks at us differently.  He sees us clothed in the perfection of His Son Jesus.  It is like God put a special coat upon me, like the Father put on the Prodigal Son, a special jacket, if you like, that makes us acceptable to God.  Apart from Christ, God sees only my sin.  But if I am in Christ, the Bible tells me in Colossians 3:3 I am, “Hidden with Christ.”  God looks at me and sees me “in Christ,” accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6), my sins covered forever by the righteousness of Christ.  

The reason God can smile at me is because He always and forever sees me in the perfection of His Son.  He has clothed with a kind of “Members Only” jacket.  Not everyone can wear it, only those who have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior.  But when you do, He puts that robe of righteousness, the righteousness of Christ upon you, and it never comes off!  You may not be acceptable to others, but you are always accepted by God!  Always!

You are accepted not

Because of your performance,

But because of Christ’s perfection,

So you will always be

Perfectly acceptable to Him.

God joys in you because

Of the perfection of Christ.

Think about this: As a Christian, what could you do to decrease God’s joy in you?  Nothing!  By the same token, what could you do to increase God’s joy in you?  Nothing!   God joys in you perfectly because He joys in you through His perfect Son.  That is my stronghold!!

We have “Very great gladness” when we obey His commands, remember His care, and finally, we have very great gladness when . . .

3. We Delight in Christ.

God’s people in Nehemiah’s day experienced a kind of “Second Exodus,” having been delivered from their captivity in Babylon.  God’s people today – in Christ – also experience an “Exodus,” having been delivered from their sin.  Jesus celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7.  It is in Chapter 7 and verse 37 that John records that, “on the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink …’”  Real satisfaction comes only through Jesus Christ.  We were designed to be completely and utterly satisfied through the living waters of Jesus Christ.

The Feast of Tabernacles also reminded them of a very simple truth . . .  

The more you rely on an

Earthly thing to satisfy you,

The less satisfying it becomes.

The more you rely on

Jesus to satisfy you,

The more satisfying

He becomes.

Sin is largely misplaced joy.  It is a substitute for the “very great gladness” God wants us to have in Christ.  The more you rely on an earthly thing to satisfy you, the less satisfying it becomes.  Every addiction counselor knows that.  Addiction to alcohol and drugs begins with one small indulgence.  It is an earthly pleasure.  It does not last long and the next time you do not get quite as much satisfaction, so you need more.  One drink leads to another.  One drug to more of that drug.  The first pornographic image was relatively modest, but eventually led to an all-out hard-core pornographic addiction.  It has been said many times . . . :

Sin will take you farther than you want to go,

Keep you longer than you want to stay,

And cost you more than you want to pay.

We were designed to delight in Christ.  Purity flows from a heart that recognizes the joy of God’s salvation as a gift more satisfying than any competing pleasure the world can provide.

If you are not a Christian, turn from your sin and look to Jesus; repent, turn from your sin and receive Jesus Christ as the all-satisfying Savior who redeems you and saves you from the wrath to come.  Turn to Him today and be saved.

If you are a Christian, remember that “very great gladness” comes only when you obey His commands, remember His care, and delight in Christ.  

And as God’s people back in the day sojourned on to the fair land of Canaan, the Promised Land, so God’s people today sojourn on to a far greater Promised Land, an everlasting city, the splendor of the eternal city of heaven – and in the final state a new heaven and a new earth – an eternal feast of booths, not temporary, but permanent housing.

As we look to Christ we recall with the hymn-writer: “He took my sins and my sorrows and made them His very own. He bore the burden to Calvary, and suffered, and died alone” … “How marvelous, how wonderful, and our song shall ever be, How marvelous, o how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me.”  As we respond to God’s Word, may God give you grace to love Jesus more than anyone or anything – knowing that in the loving of Christ we will have “very great gladness!”

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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