It should be noted that Nehemiah is a part of the books in the Bible that are called the historical books of the Old Testament, which basically tells the story of how God made all and chose to make Himself known to a people who will become a holy nation, upon which a kingdom bearing His name will dwell among other nations in the world. Nehemiah is the last historical book which deals with the return of Israelite exiles to Jerusalem.
The story happens shortly after the return of the exiles into Jerusalem where after they have finished the initial rebuilding of their walls that all the people are now called upon to gather at the square in front of the Water Gate, to hear Ezra the scribe read the Book of the Law.
Perhaps one could imagine us in its place where we after a long week’s work or after finishing a venture for the Lord we are called to once again go back to what Matt Redman calls the heart of worship.
And it is with the heart of worship in mind that I would like us to note several insights on worship (particularly corporate worship) that I believe we can find in this not-so-exhaustive take on the narrative of Nehemiah 8-9.
Insights on Worship
The centrality of the ministry of the Word. Notice the first 5 verses in Chapter 8 how the reading of the Book of the Law of Moses was the centrepiece of the assembly, and how people are said to have intently listened to Ezra’s reading of the Book of the Law.
I believe that it is in this picture of how the Scriptures were treated in the Old Testament that we are given a picture of how corporate worship should be conducted to give such high esteem to the reading and preaching of the Word.
It is also in this passage that we find a very interesting insight on how the Word was preached notice how it was read aloud by the main speaker Ezra, who merely read the Law, which I think shows us that in preaching the Word one must only need to proclaim the Word as it is and let it speak for itself in the congregation (v.3).
However there is also the need to explain or expound on the significance of the Scripture’s meaning which was then addressed by the Levites who instructed the people in the Law so that the people would understand what was being read (v.7).
It is here that we are given a glimpse of the two-fold ministry of the Word – these are the prophetic and sacramental offices of teaching the Word.
By prophetic we speak of the preacher’s role of proclaiming God, or declaring His will or His revelation to the assembly and letting it be known to God’s people.
By sacramental means the articulation of God’s revelation into the lives of its audience which was conducted by the Levites.
The present proclamation of God’s past as a means of pointing towards a future hope. If we are to look at Nehemiah 9:6-37 which I will not expound on we will notice that this is the re-telling of Israel’s history and a re-telling of how the Israelites have ended up in a horrid state at that time.
If we are to look at it again from the perspective of worship we are given a glimpse of what we do when we worship as a congregation in the singing of hymns and spiritual songs we proclaim God’s work in the lives of His people in the past as attested to by the specific contexts of which those songs were written.
In hearing the Word we are given a glimpse of who our God is and how relates to us as according to the inspired record of His revelation in the Scriptures.
In doing Communion and in Baptism we are identifying ourselves with a past that has ushered in a future that now points towards our hope, our, destination as God’s children to become one with Him in spirit and as a part of His household.
Ben Myers notes:
“In Baptism we identify ourselves with Christ and seek to follow His command and His example of a life that is in loving identification with people. Here, through the power of the Spirit, an individual is plunged down into the depths, united with Jesus in his lowliness, before being raised up into the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian life begins with this dramatic enactment of participation in the life of Jesus.
In this simple meal of bread and wine, the community gives thanks to God and celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. This celebration is not only a memorial that looks back to the past – it is above all a participation in the life of Jesus, and thus a participation in the life of God’s kingdom which approaches from the future. It is through this meal that the community is concretely and physically gathered. As they eat from one loaf and drink from one cup, individual members of the community participate in Jesus himself, and so also in one another. Here, the whole dynamic life of the community is realised and expressed. Here, the community exists not merely as an assembled group of individuals, but as a single, coherent event of joyful fellowship.
Jesus himself had announced that God’s kingdom would be a great banquet, a meal of celebration at the end of history. And in each communion, the community anticipates this final banquet, this ultimate celebration that awaits all creation as its goal and destiny. In the meal of the community, then, the world receives an anticipatory glimpse of the true meaning and context of all reality – a glimpse of the kingdom of God! 1
This if we are to look at the context of Ezra’s reading of the Law Israel is called on to the life of proclaiming how God worked in Israel’s past to point towards a future fulfilment of God’s promises with his chosen people.
The human response to the proclamation of God’s Word in corporate worship is the renewing of our sacred oaths with God. Nehemiah 9:38 says that in view of what has been proclaimed, the people made a binding agreement, putting it in writing, where the agreement’s contents are later discussed in detail in the succeeding chapter.
Note here that at the end of the worship the Israelites are called to renew their covenant (or sacred oaths of loyalty to the Lord). It is important for us to understand this because as Christians we are also called into a covenant with the Lord at the time when we have decided to turn to Christ it is a commitment with God as our witness that we are called to renew always even as we live in a world that distracts us from this personal relationship with Christ that we have entered when we have put our faith in Him as our personal Lord and Saviour.
Worship is about enacting the bigger story –God’s story.
Robert Webber notes that:
Christianity has become increasingly privatistic. We stopped thinking about the story of God. The Christian convictions of Creation, Incarnation, death, Resurrection, and the return of Christ to establish a new heaven and new earth where Jesus is Lord over all creation as the story of the world was neglected. In place of the whole story we concentrated on this piece or that piece of the story. So the story of God as the interpretation of the world from its beginning to its ending simply fell into disuse.
Instead of focusing on God and God’s story, we followed the emphasis of the narcissistic culture and became interested in self. This concern for self was translated into the Christian faith, and into worship and preaching in particular.
For many, the issue became “How can God help me? How can God make my life better? How can I be filled with joy? How can I recover from a divorce? How can I get my life together and be productive?” There is nothing wrong with these questions. People have to deal with these issues. However, the primacy given to these questions in recent years is narcissistic and not really what God’s good news is really about.
The good news is that God the creator has a plan for his universe. That plan has been revealed in Jesus Christ, whose incarnation, death, resurrection, and coming again constitute not only God’s story, but in reality, the story of the world.
This story is much bigger than our individual lives. It is more than a narcissistic preoccupation with self. It is all about God, who in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit has won back the world for God.
When we worship, we re-enact and proclaim God’s story to the eternal praise of God.
True worship puts you into God’s story. It changes your life because it puts your day-by-day experience of life—the disappointments and the things that make you soar—into the perspective of God’s story. It reminds you of the true story of the meaning of the world and puts into perspective the place your life has in the grand story.2
As we have committed ourselves to be worship ministers it is my prayer that this devotion would show us of the bigger picture of the vocation that we have chosen, not so that we would be proud, not so that we would gain more knowledge of godly things, but simply because to remind us that it is God whom we are serving and that are service is a part of something way bigger than ourselves, our achievements and our problems therefore we ought to be quickened and always be reminded of the kind of lives that we ought to conduct ourselves knowing that we are given the privilege of becoming a part of a ministry that would go on until eternity.
1 Myers, Benjamin – Theology for beginners (17): Church
2 Webber, Robert – Together We Worship (Wheaton: IWS Resources, 2006). Introduction