And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate 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… 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground… 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 And 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 wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
I met a woman who used to hang around at the unemployment office. She was looking for certain fellows who had been laid off at the sawmills in the timber collapse of the last century. They would ask if they could take the forms home and bring them back, but, at the time, that was not allowed. They had to fill them out at the office. She would watch this interchange and sit down by them. These men had asked to take it home because they would have their wife fill it out. They could not read or write. Grading lumber, operating a giant sawmill, or shepherding logs in a mill pond did not require literacy. Most had dropped out of school to claim jobs which paid better than their teachers. But now those jobs were gone. This woman would gently offer to help them fill out the forms. She respected these men but realized that they had suddenly been cast into a world in which they were ill-equipped to manage.
This passage from Nehemiah is important to the world in which you live. It was the Jewish people returning from Exile who started to pay close attention to what the Torah said. It appears from II Kings 22 that even the elites and religious leaders were not paying attention to it in the days before the Exile. Paying attention to the Torah, however, meant being literate, able to read and understand. Nehemiah organized the folks into a square and had it read aloud for them. Soon synagogues would be built, and Rabbis would be teaching. A Bar Mitzvah ceremony involves demonstrating that one can read the Torah.
Christianity has also been integral to your reading. Early Christians were among the first adopters and developers of a new technology call the codex. You would call it a book today. Luther made printing presses profitable in the sixteenth century and revolutionized reading, urging that the town councils of Germany establish schools to teach both boys and girls so they could read the Gospel too. Jesus has worked a great work in our world, bringing so many to be able to read. Today, we are living in an age of dissolution. Many societal norms and expectations are being cast aside and tragically being smart and educated is often disparaged. Christians will do well to remember that reading gives a human being an exposure to the Word of God and is thus a positive good. The people of Nehemiah’s time were urged in this passage to rejoice and go home to eat and drink in the joy of the Lord. They heard that in a book. Help a child learn to read. God’s kingdom comes that way too.