The Word of God is the gold standard for Christians. It is our source of truth, stamp of authority, and our moral compass. Without it we flounder, we derail, we perish. Without it we are lost. It is everything for the believer. Yet it is also one of the most underutilised resources in our Christian walk.
How many believers even read it each day, treating it as the very best friend they can have to make it through the day? Sadly far too many Christians simply allow it to collect dust on a shelf. As has been said, the Bible is really a collection of love letters from God to his people – yet we so often treat it with indifference and contempt.
Worse yet, most Christian households are flooded with Bibles. There would be all sorts of copies of Scripture lying around, but how often they are diligently read, studied, meditated upon, and prayed over is a moot point. How our treatment of the Word differs from that of our forebears.
In my daily reading I have been struck by how the Word was responded to in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Of course these books deal with the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem after the people are released from Babylonian captivity.
In both books the reading of the Word of God features prominently. And of real interest is how the people responded as they heard the words read out loud. In Ezra 7 we read about the incredible letter of King Artaxerxes given to Ezra. It ends with these words:
“And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates – all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment” (Ezra 7:25-26).
A very important passage in all this is Ezra 7:10: “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Oh that we had leaders like this today. How many are absolutely devoted to God’s Word – to teach it and to obey it?
Then in ch. 9 we read about how many had allowed themselves to become polluted and unfaithful by mingling with and intermarrying pagan wives. Verses 3-4 say this: “When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.”
Now that is a real, heartfelt reaction to the Word of the Lord: repentance, contrition – and trembling at the commands of God. How often do we today tremble as we hear the Word of God? Scripture elsewhere speaks about trembling in the presence of His Word.
Isaiah 66:5 says this: “Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: ‘Your own people who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame’.”
Commenting on this passage, Raymond Ortlund writes, “Isaiah isn’t saying it was wrong for Solomon to build a temple. He isn’t saying it was wrong for the returning Jewish exiles to rebuild the temple. But there is a temptation inherent in every outward form of worship. The temptation is to think we can wall God in, control God, extract from God his blessing by honouring him in a certain way… What God blesses is not buildings and liturgies and styles; what God blesses is a trembling heart.”
In Nehemiah we find a similar response to the reading of God’s Word. In Neh. 7:73-8:4 we read this: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion.”
We pick up the story in 8:8-12: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.’ Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”
Although this was to be a time of celebration, the people had the right reaction initially – weeping as they heard the Word read out. Raymond Brown comments: “The people wept because what they heard in the reading of Scripture condemned their lifestyle. But they would not have had an awareness of their sinfulness unless they had first been confronted with the mirror of Scripture’s revelation of the majesty of God. The bright light of his holiness revealed their impurity, his faithfulness challenged their disloyalty, and his compassion their selfishness.”
But their mourning was to be turned to joy: “Yet, despite the seriousness of their sin, the people were urged to dry their tears. Scripture not only condemns sin; it proclaims the remedy.” Yes quite so. However that repentance and sorrow had to come first.
And that repentance did take place a few weeks later, as we read in Neh. 9:1-3: “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God.”
Do we react to the Word of God in the same way? Do we tremble at the Word? Does it cause us to weep? Does it sometimes at least cause us to ‘sit there appalled’? God is looking for those who take his Word seriously, reverentially, and obediently.
As Philip Graham Ryken wrote, “More than anything else, failing to take God seriously is the problem with the contemporary church. We trivialize the holiness of God, so we end up with a trivial view of sin. We trivialize the majesty of God, so we end up with trivial worship. We trivialize the truth of God, so we end up with a trivial grasp of his Word. We trivialize the judgment of God, so we end up with a trivial appreciation for the atonement of Jesus Christ.”
Or as David Wells remarked: “It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world. He has been replaced in many quarters by a God who is slick and slack, whose moral purposes turn out to be avuncular advice that we can disregard or negotiate as we see fit, whose Word is a plaything for those who wish merely to listen to themselves, whose Church is a mall in which the religious, their pockets filled with the coin of need, do their business. We seek happiness, not righteousness.”