The Power of the Pulpit

July 1, 2012 / No. 3626

Dear radio friends,
Today we come to Nehemiah 8 in our series on the life of Nehemiah. We have seen that Nehemiah has worked diligently under God’s blessing and that the walls of Jerusalem are now built and things are put in order. In chapter 8 we are going to see the blessing of God.
Nehemiah, as we saw last week, set things in order within the city of Jerusalem, established clear priorities, and God, now, blesses these things.
Chapter 8 in the book of Nehemiah is really the high-water mark of spirituality in the book of Nehemiah. It is a great revival and a great awakening of God’s people. It is, in many ways, unique in the Old Testament, for there were few times of such spirituality, such God-awareness, such thirst for the Word of God. Not since the reformation during the time of king Josiah (the last God-fearing king of Judah), when a great Passover feast was celebrated, had such spirituality been evidenced among God’s people as the spirituality that we will see in Nehemiah 8. The next great spiritual revival for the church will really be the day of Pentecost that was 400 years ahead.
We read, “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate (a broad, spacious place); and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses.” This is the first time in the book of Nehemiah that the people take the initiative, that they do something voluntarily. That happened because God was working among them. By His Holy Spirit and through the Scriptures they come forth and they say, “We want the Scriptures to be opened to us. We want to gather together. We want fellowship around the Word of God.”
Nehemiah had labored. He had come into Jerusalem resolved to put things back in their place, to labor for the well-being of the people of God. He had labored faithfully, but it is God who now blesses, by stirring up the hearts of His people under all of these things.
But what is it that He worked in them? And, we should ask, through what does He do this work? What is the instrument that He uses? What He does is create a great spiritual awakening in their hearts and souls. What was the instrument? In today’s terms, what was the technique? What was behind it? What was the power of this spiritual awakening? We read that it was a pulpit of wood behind which a man stood and opened the Scriptures.
Let us pay attention to the narrative of chapter 8 for a few moments.
We read that the people gathered together on the first day of the new year, which was a very important day in which they celebrated their deliverance from captivity. They gathered themselves together, with no prompting. But the Spirit of God worked among them as they contemplated all that the Lord had done for them. The walls are up, things are in order, God has richly blessed and shown His power through much trial and many obstacles. Now they will gather to seek His blessing for the days that are to come.
We read that there were trumpets calling the people together. Scripture associates the trumpet with victory and being summoned to the final victory at Christ’s return. When Christ shall come, the trumpets shall sound. We read that they came together then on the first day of the seventh month (or what was for them the most important time). They came together as one man in the unity of the body of Christ. The work of God had united them. The determined leadership of Nehemiah had inspired them. The trials and the opposition from their enemies had forged them into one mind. They do not gather out of self-interest. They do not come to this service asking, “What is in this for me? Who is there for me? What will I, first of all, get out of this?” But they came in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of Christ, for the work had swallowed up petty self-interest and self-seeking.
That is always the case, you know. Our human nature is so self-seeking, so individualistic. But when Christ works in us, He works in us to see one great thing: the church, the gospel of Christ, the truth of Christ crucified. And then, when you see that, you set other things aside. You lay down things that are in comparison unimportant. You forget your own self-importance in the light of the work of the church of Jesus Christ.
Paul says in Philippians 1:27, “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
And they spake, we read, to Ezra the scribe to bring out the book. Ezra the scribe had been ministering among them for at least 13 years. Before Nehemiah came back he had faithfully brought the Word of God through much discouragement and was confronted by many sins and weaknesses among the people. After 13 years, he begins to see the fruit of his ministry. They say, “Ezra, bring out the Word of God. We have seen all that has happened now under the leadership of Nehemiah. We are gathered together at this occasion with one mind and one heart. Ezra, bring the Word.”
So we read in verse 4 that a pulpit of wood was made for the purpose. It was elevated on a platform with six fellow Levites on his right hand and seven on his left hand and Ezra standing behind the pulpit. He opens the book. And the people, we read, arise. They stand up, we read, (now note these words), from morning till mid-day. For 3-4 hours the people stand attentively. Children with parents. And from behind a pulpit they hear the Word of God.
Verses 7 and 8 furnish us with more details. There was evidently another group of Levites among the people, who caused the people to understand the law. That is, after Ezra had read, they went among them and said, “Do you understand that? Do you know what that means?” And there was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blessed and sanctified the Word in their hearts. The Spirit moved among them to tremble and to thrill under the living Word of God, till at last they all fell down in worship. I call that a reformation. I call that a spiritual awakening. I see there the power of the Holy Spirit through His Word to convict, to produce true worship of God, all through the power of the pulpit, all through the Word of God being opened by one sent from God.
Do you understand the significance? Do you understand the significance for us in our day of supposed liturgical renewal when we, supposedly, as the church, know better than the church in the past how to make real Christians? … when we read of “catch the fire,” and “contemporary vs. traditional worship”? Listen. This is God. God says, “This is the way that I will build spiritual faith—through the power of a pulpit, through a pulpit that expounds, preaches, declares, testifies of the Word of God in Jesus Christ.”
In I Corinthians 2 Paul says that when he came among them he did not use excellency of speech, but he preached Christ crucified. “Christ sent me to preach. The preaching of the cross is the power of God unto salvation.” “Preach the word,” says Paul to Timothy (II Tim. 4:2); for the Word of God “is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
There are two things that stand out here. First of all, the people’s attitude. That was crucial. There was not simply good, faithful preaching. The attitude was very important. And that is very important for us to hear. The people were thirsting and hungering for the Word of God. They said to Ezra, “Bring the book. You brought the book, didn’t you? You didn’t bring Time magazine to reflect on social trends, or the Wall Street Journal. You didn’t bring a book on the lives of the rich and famous to give us a homily, to lift us up out of the gloom, did you? No, you brought the book, didn’t you? The pure milk of the Word of God? That more sure and living, that abiding Word? That Word that is able to sink down into the soul and to tell us our inmost thoughts? You brought the book, the Word?” They hungered for the Word, from morning to mid-day. They had a great appetite. The Spirit had created in them a thirst for the Word of God.
Is that true of you? Do you look on Sunday morning to see to it that the pastor has his Bible? And do you see that as he preaches he has the Bible all marked up? He has his “text,” but then he brings out other Scriptures. He brings you to the Scriptures and he lays forth to you the truths of God for your soul. When you go to church, you are not looking for a basket of Easter eggs, are you? You are not looking for a choir, are you? You are not looking for some external dazzle, are you? You are looking centrally for the Word, are you not? That Word, which is above all other words the joy and the rejoicing of our hearts?
But to have that type of appreciation for the preaching of the Word of God, you will have to be in the Word of God for six days a week. If all that you read is repair manuals and J.C. Penny catalogs and sport pages, I doubt that you should have any strong desire to hear the Word of God on Sunday. Children, did you know that if you starve yourself long enough you lose hunger pains? You do not want to eat after a while, if you do not eat. You do not want to hear the Word of God preached, if you do not read it yourself.
They revered the Word and they heard that Word with reverence. There was a holy reverence that fell upon them. It was not the “made-up, forced” type of spiritual joy. It was not happy-clappy hour. It was not slap on the back. It was not turn and say “Howdy” to your neighbor time. But it was a reverence of the heart for the Word of God. Everyone was filled with thoughts of God, of the way of life, of the Word of the King, of the eternal truth. There was no whispering, no fooling around under the Word of God. But with their posture and their appearance, they said, “Truly God is in this place in His most holy Word.”
And the ears of all the people, we read, were attentive unto the book of the law. The need was so great. It brought such attention. There was an alertness. There was a hunger, a thirst, for the Word.
The second thing that stands out, next to the people’s attitude, is the style of the pulpit or the style of the preaching. It was, first of all, expository preaching. Ezra opened up the meaning of the Word of God in all sincerity and truth. It was not dull preaching. It was not mere fact preaching. It was not math class. But as that Word touched the soul of the pastor, and he was weary, he could no longer hold it in. So, we read, they read in the book of the law distinctly and gave the sense and caused them to understand the reading.
Preaching blessed of the Holy Spirit is always, “Thus saith the Lord. Jehovah has spoken. Will ye not hearken?” Preaching is always Acts 17:3, reasoning from the Scriptures: Is not this the Christ? The pastor must study the Word. He must seek to understand the Word. The duty of your pastor is to study the Word to prepare good, sound sermons from it. He must not come to you with new philosophies. He must not come with something for itching ears, something that he thinks is going to be palatable to man. He must not shun to declare the full counsel of the living Word of God. He may have many gifts of oratory, or he may lack gifts of oratory. But the question is this: Does he bring the Word? If he does, then you are blessed.
But the preaching was not only expository. It was direct. It was convicting. We read that Ezra caused the people to understand the law. He read it distinctly. He caused them to understand the reading. The Levites, further, were circulating, as we saw, among the people, seeking to make clear to the people what God was saying to them. This is what that means for you now and for me in our lives before God. The preaching was distinctive. It was not this way and then that way, but it was the truth. It was convicting. It was brought at the level of understanding, the understanding of the people. The preacher was not in a quandary as to what the Scriptures meant. He taught them what it meant. And he directed it to their understanding, not first to their feelings. Blessed by the Spirit, this Word of God convicted them in their souls.
And then, the preaching was God-glorifying. Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people said, “Amen,” we read in verse 6. The overarching thought, the dominant chord, the impression that was left is “God is great, holy and reverend in His name. Who would not fear Thee, O King of nations?” There was an impression of God and His majesty, God and His glory, God and His immensity. The impression of the service, the impression of the preaching, was not man, not even man in his need, not first, “How do we feel today, guys?” But the impression, that which was first, was: God. And then, seeing God, all the needs were met. Or those needs fell away as unimportant before His throne.
Now that is what happened. That is how revival was worked by the Holy Spirit among them —through a pulpit and one who stood behind a pulpit and preached.
The result of that preaching was a conviction of personal sin. That first—not only, but first. There was a conviction of sin. We read in verse 9, “For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.” There was a deep, profound conviction that could not be dodged, the arrow of the Holy Spirit that could not be blunted—a sorrow expressive. As they came under the evidences of God’s grace and faithfulness, they saw their own sin. In the light of God’s Word and God’s law, they came to an understanding of their own sin, an understanding that nothing else could ever give to them of their sin. The pulpit had proclaimed the majesty of God. The pulpit had been a window through which the glory of God shown into their heart. And the first result was that they cried out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” as did Isaiah in chapter 6 of Isaiah.
Now gauge the state of your heart. Does the Word of God function? Does it perform its first and important function? Does it show you yourself and your need and your sin? In Nehemiah’s day the people had been guilty of marrying heathen wives, against which they had been warned repeatedly. The claws of lust had sunk deeply into their souls. They were guilty of being disconnected from their brothers. They were filled with apathy and indifference toward the needs of one another. They were guilty of a hopelessness over God’s cause. Before Nehemiah had come, they could not get themselves to do anything. Now they are broken in heart.
Does the Word of God do that to you? Do you come to church and, under the Word of God, see yourself? Not other men and women, but yourself ? Do you say “I am that sinner. I am in need of the washing of Christ’s blood”?
The second effect of the preaching was consolation, or comfort in God. That also must and always will follow. Nehemiah led the way. He gave spiritual counsel among the people as they came under the conviction of sin. He did not say, “Well, you should not worry so much about your sin.” No, he brought the Word of God. He told them that God had convicted them of their sin, not so that they would be faced toward darkness and despair, but to point them, by faith, to Him, God’s Son, who was given for them that they might have life. Nehemiah said among the people, “Yes, you have looked into the mirror and you have seen a filthy thing within you. But now we must look on, by faith through grace, unto the cross of Jesus Christ.” The Word of God was brought to console them.
Nehemiah put it beautifully (v. 10): “Then he said unto them, …neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” There I see a glimpse into what made Nehemiah the man that he was. I see him counseling others along the line that he would counsel himself. The joy of the Lord is your strength. What made him so strong? The joy of his God. This is your strength, this is your safe place, this is your confidence—the joy of the Lord. It means the knowledge that the Lord takes joy in you, that ye are God’s joy and treasure, that the Lord takes pleasure in His people. That knowledge is our strength. Knowing God makes us joyful, yes. But knowing that God’s joy is His church—that the Lord takes pleasure in His people and will beautify the meek with salvation. When it is declared to us that the Lord has loved us with an everlasting love, oh, that is our strength—that the Lord takes joy in us in Jesus Christ.
Then the preaching enlivened hope. It brought a living hope. The people gathered the next day to hear more of the Word of God. They were given an abiding hope.
The Word of God must be preached in all of its truth. Then the people of God are changed. They are revived. They know their sin. They know the grace of God. They are comforted. They are given hope.
What do you want? What do you think life is? What does your life center in? Does it center in the church? Does it center in the Word of God, the sure Word? Long for that Word. Long that that Word might ever remain among us, that it might be heard by hungry and thirsty hearts, and that through the Word of God we might be brought to this strength: that the Lord takes joy in us in Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Father, we again thank Thee for the Word today. And we pray that Thou wilt keep us faithful to Thee. In Jesus’ name, Amen.