When God created man, He created five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. For the growing human embryo, the sense of hearing is the first to develop. Studies show that babies in the womb hear and know their mother’s voice. Hearing is also the last of the senses to go at death.
Hearing is beautifully represented in the animal world. Experts say fin whales can hear the bleeps of other fin whales from more than 500 miles away. Some scientists even claim their hearing range is thousands of miles.
Humpback whales are famous for singing songs that can last up to 30 minutes. They sing in rhyme, and the songs can be heard by other male whales. It’s passed along the water so that an entire ocean may have all the humpback whales singing the same exact song at the same time—a kind of great whale choir.
Physicists tell us that we are all a vibrating loop of energy. We are always giving off sound that human ears cannot hear.1
At some point we stop growing, but our ears never do.2 With that in mind, how well do you hear? Hearing is a tremendous gift from God, but hearing is not the same as receiving what is said.
In Nehemiah 8:9-18, the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding area gather to hear the Word of God. The people do far more than that, though, because they actually receive the Word. This text shows that how we receive the Word determines the extent of God’s work in our lives. It’s not enough to have a Bible in hand. It is not enough to come and sit in a church service and simply hear. The question is whether we receive the Word of God.
Paul says to the Thessalonians:
When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Because they received the Word, Paul says that it performed its work in them. The word there is energeitai or “energy,” also translated as “work.” Receiving God’s Word when you hear it does energeitai—a “work”—in your life.
Receiving the Word Brings the Work of Conviction
In Nehemiah 8:8, the Word is read. But it’s clear the people do more than hear. As they receive the Word, they begin to grieve, mourn, and weep. The Bible says the people understand the Word. The implication is that they don’t just hear the Word, but they understand the Word, which implies hearing with the intention of being obedient. They realize that everything that happened to them, including the Babylonian captivity, was because of their sin. The destruction of their nation was a result of their sin.
At this point in the text, they begin to weep. Those tears became the rain that broke the famine of the hearing of the Word of God. If you go back to Amos 8:11-12, the prophet told the people there was a day coming when there would be a famine of hearing the Word of God. In fact, Amos states that the people would stagger across the land in search of it but would be unable to find it. It wasn’t that they would not hear, but they would not understand when they heard it.
Have you ever been in a foreign country and tried to find someone who could speak English? You ask for directions, and the response comes in the native tongue. Although you could hear it, you couldn’t receive it because you couldn’t understand it. Israel had “Hebrew hearts” but Babylonian ears. God warned that they would yearn for His Word, but even when it came, they wouldn’t hear and understand it.
In this passage, a word is repeated seven times. It’s the word “understand.” We are told in Nehemiah 8:13 that the people came back the second day to gain insight into the words of the law. The word “insight” in the Hebrew means to be wise or prudent. They didn’t just want to hear the Word. They wanted to apply it, to live it out, and for the Word to be lived out through them.
Let me provide some help into this idea of insight. In Mark 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000 and then sends the disciples off across the Sea of Galilee while He goes to the mountain to pray. A storm blows up, Jesus approaches the boat by walking on the water, He gets into the boat, and the storm suddenly subsides.
Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened. (Mark 6:51-52)
The disciples gained virtually no insight. A lot of people want to give biblical input, but they have very little biblical insight. The Hebrews in Nehemiah’s day didn’t just want to hear the Word, they wanted to receive it, apply it, and live it out. In fact, they called for it (8:1) and it brought about conviction (8:9).
When was the last time you wept when the Word of God was read? I don’t watch church services on TV, but when I come across something in religious broadcasting it seems to be comedic. They’re whooping, laughing, jumping up and down, and shouting. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in a service marked by people crying. I hear people laughing, coughing, talking, or even walking out—but not crying. In our day, the lack of conviction is very easy to see because no one weeps in church anymore.
Many people cannot take the preaching of the Word of God. They can be entertained, but not challenged. This is due to sin in their lives. They want to hear but not receive it.
George Bernard Shaw, the great British playwright, owned a Bible. A few years before his death, he sold it to auctioneers who later sold it for 50 dollars after he died. Shaw had written in the flyleaf of the Bible the following words:
This book is a most undesirable possession….I must get rid of it. I really cannot bear it in my house!
The Word was too convicting to read or even have around, so he sold it. I’m afraid many Christians in our day look for the church of the least resistance to their sins.
Receiving the Word Brings a Genuine Celebration
It takes the combined efforts of Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites to quiet the people and call them to celebration. There is a time for weeping and a time for celebration—and this was a specific celebration. We’re told that the reading of the Word of God began on the first day of the seventh month, which happened to be the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast was a reenactment of the wilderness wanderings. The Hebrews would come to Jerusalem, build little lean-tos out of branches and palm fronds, and remember how God brought them out of the house of bondage and provided for them. It’s also a picture of God’s coming Messiah, who would one day tabernacle among them. It’s exactly what John is saying in John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us.” It was a great time of celebration and the favorite of all the feasts and celebrations of the Jews.
They had observed the Feast of Tabernacles in the past, during the days of Zerubbabel’s return (Ezra 3:4) after the Babylonian captivity. But they hadn’t built the booths and lived in them as God had instructed. For the first time since the days of Joshua, they did as they had been instructed. Throughout the previous years, they hadn’t done it the way God told them to do it. When they observed the feast as God had designed, there was an outbreak of celebration.
Obedience Brings About Joy
It might be hard to understand why building lean-tos would make a difference in their experience. Keep in mind it isn’t about the structure but rather about being obedient to what God said. Perhaps this is why there is so little joy among Christians in our day—there is so little obedience to the Lord in our lives.
The Christian Life Should Be Characterized by Joy
- The Ethiopian eunuch went on his way rejoicing in Acts 8:39.
- Believers were taking their meals together with gladness in Acts 2:46.
- “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
- In Galatians 5:22, one fruit of the Spirit is joy.
- In Acts 16:25, having been beaten and now in chains in prison, Paul and Silas sing hymns of praise.
All through the Word of God, we see that the people of God are to be characterized and their lives personified by joy.
Our Strength Comes from Our Joy in the Lord
In the middle of all this celebration we have a very familiar verse: “The joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Your joy doesn’t come from ideal circumstances, material prosperity, or social popularity. Your joy comes from the knowledge of who He is, what He’s done for you, what He says, and what He and only He can give.
In this passage, the people hunger for the Word of God and ask for it. They don’t want to just hear it, but they actually receive it, and it brings conviction. When they become obedient to it, they begin to celebrate and then experience joy.
Why don’t we experience this joy? We haven’t experienced this conviction. Why don’t we experience the conviction? We aren’t ready for confession.
In 1992, the Texas educational bureaucracy reviewed and approved a new set of history textbooks for the public school system. A group of parents concerned about the information their children were being taught began to review these textbooks. They found 231 errors. The textbooks reported that Napoleon actually won the battle of Waterloo, President Truman dropped the atomic bomb on Korea, and that General Douglas MacArthur led the anticommunist campaign in the 1950s instead of Senator Joe McCarthy.
When they took their complaints to Texas officials, they found even more errors. In fact, the errors totaled over 3,500 mistakes published by Prentice-Hall, Houghton Mifflin, Rinehart, and Winston. How did the publishers react? They reported that except for the errors, these were the finest textbooks they had ever seen.3 Excuses.
How well do you hear? If we want our understanding of the Word of God to be more than mere hearing and our confession to be more than excuses, we must not just hear the Word of God but also receive it…and let it do its mighty work in us!
- Sweet, L. I. 2004. Summoned to Lead. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 60.
- Ibid, 59.
- Davey, S. 2005. Nehemiah: Memoirs of an Ordinary Man. Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 149.
* Dr. Mac Brunson serves as Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. He earned his B.A. from Furman University and his M.Div. and D.Min. from Southwestern Seminary. Dr. Brunson serves on ICR’s Board of Trustees.