into the street] R.V. into the broad place. The open space in front of ‘the water-gate’ is probably the same as that mentioned in Ezr_10:9, ‘and all the people sat in the broad place before the house of God.’ Cf. Neh_3:26, ‘the Nethinim dwelt in Ophel, unto the place over against the water-gate toward the east.’ It is generally supposed that this broad place lay between the S.E. precincts of the Temple and the Eastern wall.
the water gate] Cf. Neh_3:26, Neh_12:37.
they spake unto Ezra the scribe] ‘They spake;’ the impersonal plural implies that the whole community expressed the wish through their representative leaders.
Ezra the scribe] Ezra’s name occurs here for the first time in our book of Nehemiah. It naturally calls for remark (1) that Ezra’s name was not mentioned by Nehemiah among his supporters in the work of rebuilding the walls, (2) that Nehemiah’s description of the condition of the people, the oppression of the poor by the rich (ch. 4) and the intermarriage with the heathen (Neh_6:18; Neh_10:30; Neh_13:23-28) seems to conflict with the idea of the authority which Ezra obtained over the people, Ezra 9, Ezra 10. Two explanations have been put forward,
(a) It is suggested that Ezra, after accomplishing the reforms described in Ezra 9, Ezra 10, returned to Babylon; that after an absence of 12 years, he revisited Jerusalem in time to witness the completion of the city walls by Nehemiah, and was requested by the people to renew his former practice of expounding the Law in public.
(b) It is suggested that Ezra had never after his arrival in Jerusalem left the city for any prolonged period; but that after his protest against mixed marriages, he had failed to carry his religious reformation any further. The enemies of the Jews and their unpatriotic allies in Jerusalem had frustrated his attempts. The arrival of Nehemiah changed the aspect of affairs. The religious policy of Ezra was once more in the ascendant. The popular enthusiasm excited by the completion of the walls gave the wished for opportunity of publishing the Law to the people. The omission of Ezra’s name in Nehemiah 1-7 is still a difficulty. But Nehemiah’s memoirs, so far as they are excerpted, record only the events and people concerned with the rebuilding of the walls. If Ezra had been present while the work was in progress, we might naturally have expected to find his name among the repairers of the breaches in chap. 3. Perhaps Ezra, being devoted to the study and teaching of the Law, was not reckoned among those most influential for practical purposes. Being also of the high-priest’s kindred, he was very probably included among the repairers of the breach identified with the name of Eliashib (Neh_3:1).
to bring the book of the law, &c.] There is nothing in these words to lead us to suppose that Ezra had before been in the habit of reading the Law to the people. The verse does not record an annual custom but an exceptional step, cf. Neh_8:18. The people saw that their national integrity was safeguarded by city walls; their jealousy for their distinctiveness as ‘a peculiar people’ was rekindled. Their request to Ezra marked their adoption of his policy, that of keeping the people of Israel separate from the nations upon the basis of their religious life. His policy was that the religious life of the people should be regulated by the Law as contained in certain recognised writings, and should not be dependent upon the tradition of the Priests. The demand for the production of ‘the book of the law’ is of twofold interest; (1) it testifies to a general knowledge of the existence of a book the contents of which, so far as they are known, agreed substantially with our Pentateuch; (2) the voice of popular acknowledgment set the seal of ‘Canonicity’ upon the first portion of the Jewish Scriptures
Ezra the priest] cf. Ezr_7:1; Ezr_7:11.
the law] i.e. the book of the law. Cf. 2Co_3:14 ‘the old covenant’ for ‘the book of the old covenant.’ The word ‘Torah’ is here used in the sense, which afterwards became universal, of the written ‘Law.’
all that could hear with understanding] lit. ‘every one of intelligence to hear and understand,’ i.e. all except quite children, cf. Neh_10:28 ‘all …, their wives and their sons and their daughters, every one that had knowledge and understanding.’ The Vulgate ‘sapientium’ gives a wrong idea.
upon the first day of the seventh month] In the Priestly Laws the first day of the month Tisri was ‘the Feast of Trumpets’ (see Lev_23:23-25; Num_29:1-6), a day of ‘holy convocation,’ cf. Neh_8:9; see Ezr_3:1.
Were the people assembled to celebrate this festival, or were the people summoned on the first day of the month, because the new-moon days were always regarded as sacred in Palestine? Considering that the people were even uninstructed how to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles according to the Law (Neh_8:13-15), it is not likely that they would have been acquainted with the ‘feast of trumpets’ before the time of the reading of the Law. It is therefore most probable that the special holiness of the day lay in its being the new-moon day of the month in which occurred not only the change of year according to the autumn era but also the most popular of the Israelite festivals, ‘the feast of tabernacles.’ The observance of the new-moon seems to have been universal among Oriental nations in ancient times. Among the Israelites, it was at all times strictly maintained, cf. 1Sa_20:5; 2Ki_4:23; Isa_1:13; Isa_66:23; Eze_26:1; Eze_46:1; Hos_2:11; Amo_8:5; Hag_1:1; Jdt_8:6; Col_2:16.
before the street] R.V. before the broad place. The ‘broad place’ was before the water-gate; Ezra read before the broad place. In each case the preposition seems to mean on the W. side, i.e. in front of looking eastward. The Vulgate ‘in plateâ.’ The LXX. omits the reference to the locality in this verse.
from the morning] R.V. from early morning. Marg. Heb. from the light. The process of reading ‘from morn till midday’ is explained in the following verses (4–8). It was not consecutive reading for seven hours. Ezra had others standing by to relieve him: the reading was also interrupted by exposition.
before] R.V. in the presence of. A different preposition from that used earlier in the verse.
attentive unto the book of the law] Vulgate ‘erectæ ad librum.’
a pulpit of wood] R.V. marg. Heb. tower. Literally ‘upon a tower of wood.’ LXX. ἐπὶ βήματος ξυλίνου, 1 Esdr. ἐπὶ τοῦ ξυλίνου βήματος. Vulg. ‘super gradum ligneum:’ cf. ‘the stairs’ on which the Levites stood in Neh_9:4. The mention of the erection of a platform or tribune which the Jews had erected ‘for the purpose’ shows that the incident was one of exceptional character. This is the first mention of a pulpit or lectern.
for the purpose] Literally ‘for the word,’ which not being understood was omitted by the LXX. The Vulg. ‘quem fecerat ad loquen-dum’ follows a different vocalization, l’dhabbκr for laddβbhβr.
Urijah] R.V. Uriah: possibly the same as is mentioned in Neh_3:4. ‘Hilkiah,’ possibly mentioned also Neh_12:7. ‘Pedaiah’ possibly mentioned Neh_3:25. ‘Meshullam’ possibly mentioned Neh_10:7.
Malchiah … Hashbadana] R.V. Malchijah … Hashbaddanah.
There is a discrepancy respecting the numbers and position of the individuals here mentioned. The Hebrew text and the LXX. mention six names on the right hand, seven on the left: the parallel passage in 1 Esdras gives seven on the right hand, inserting an Azariah between Anaiah and Uriah, but six only on the left, omitting the last name Meshullam. If we retain both Azariah and Meshullam we should have seven on either side; if we reject them both, we should have six on either side. It seems probable that the names are those of Levites. There would be especial appropriateness in the number twelve, symbolizing the union of Israel in obedience to the Law. The conjecture of Rawlinson that they ‘were probably the chief priests of the course which was at the time performing the Temple service’ is improbable. (1) They were clearly men who could leave the Temple precincts for six or seven hours consecutively. (2) On such an impressive occasion Ezra, if he were attended by priests, would probably have selected either those who represented the principal houses or those who especially supported his religious attitude. (3) Ezra’s supporters in this great religious movement seem to have been Laymen and Levites, not Priests. The popularizing of the knowledge of ‘the Law’ struck a blow at a priestly monopoly. The thirteen names are in one respect of especial interest. They seem to be the names of individuals and not as in Neh_8:7 and ch. Neh_9:4, Neh_10:9 the names of houses or clans, which happened to be represented. The reader should take notice that the high-priest’s name is not mentioned on this occasion. If as some critics have supposed, Ezra himself had composed the Priestly Laws, and was now promulgating them for the first time, the high-priest, whose position owed so much of its dignity in later days to those laws, would surely have been mentioned as countenancing Ezra’s action. If however, as seems more probable, Ezra was for the first time publishing to the people laws which had hitherto been kept in the priests’ hands, we have a possible explanation for the absence of the high-priest and his party, who would regard his action as subversive of their authority.
opened] i.e. unrolled, cf. Luk_4:17.
above all the people] i.e. raised above them in his pulpit.
all the people stood up] We need not conclude from these words that they stood during the whole time that the reading went on. Rather ‘they rose to their feet,’ signifying by this gesture their reverence for ‘the law’ that was to be read. After Ezra’s blessing and the response (Neh_8:6), they probably resumed their seats. ‘Standing’ was sometimes the posture of prayer denoting humility, cf. 1Sa_1:26; 1Ki_8:22; Luk_18:11; Luk_18:13. In later times it was the attitude adopted during the reading of ‘the Law’ in the service of the Synagogue.
the great God] cf. Neh_9:32; Ezr_5:8. In Nehemiah’s own writing it occurs Neh_1:5.
Amen, Amen] The people’s response: see note on Neh_5:13; cf. 1Ch_16:36.
with lifting up their hands] See note on Ezr_9:5. Cf. Psa_134:2, ‘Lift up your hands to the sanctuary (Marg. Or, in holiness) and bless ye the Lord.’ 2Ma_14:34.
worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground] The phrase ‘with the face to the earth,’ occurs very generally of reverence without the idea of worship; cf. Gen_19:1; Gen_42:6; Gen_48:12; 1Sa_20:41; 1Sa_24:8; 1Ch_21:21. But it is also used of worship before God, as in Num_22:31; 2Ch_7:3; 2Ch_20:18; and compare the expression ‘let us worship and bow down,’ Psa_95:6; Job_1:20. After this united act of worship they resumed their attitude of attention (Neh_8:3).
Also Jeshua &c.] Of the 13 names here mentioned we find four, i.e. Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Hodiah, mentioned among the Levites in chap. Neh_9:5, and seven, i.e. Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Kelita, Hanan, Pelaiah, among the Levites in chap. Neh_10:9-14. Perhaps these seven were representative of Levitical houses, whose names they bore; if so, the remaining six mentioned here, whose names do not occur again, possibly represented branches of some other Levitical families mentioned under different collective names in chaps. 10 and 12. The LXX. here only gives the first three names.
Hodijah] R.V. Hodiah.
and the Levites] So the LXX. But 1 Esdr. οἱ Λευῖαι, Vulg. ‘Levitζ,’ omitting the copula which gives the better rendering. The ‘copula’ if the text is correct, must define the list of names just given in the sense of ‘even.’ The writer adds that they were Levites. The rendering ‘And the Levites’ in the sense of ‘And all the rest of the Levites’ would give a scene of confusion. For the use of the copula = ‘even,’ cf. Neh_8:13. But very possibly the words have been interpolated.
caused the people … the law] i.e. they expounded what Ezra read. We must suppose that only short passages were read at a time.
stood in their place] Literally, ‘And the people were upon their standing.’ LXX. καὶ ὁ λαὸς ἐν τῇ στάσει αὐτοῦ. Cf. 2Ch_30:16, ‘And they stood in their place,’ 2Ch_35:10. It will be noticed that in this passage the Levites share with the priests the duty of instructing the people out of the Law; and we are led to infer that this was customary from the Chronicler’s statements in 2Ch_15:3; 2Ch_17:8-9; 2Ch_35:3. In the Levitical law we only find the priests entrusted with this duty (Lev_10:10-11).
So they read] R.V. And they read. The account does not make it clear, whether the Levites were reading at the same time as Ezra, groups being gathered round the different readers, or whether, as we should rather infer, there was one reader who at the first was Ezra himself, and afterward chosen Levites who in succession took his place and relieved him.
distinctly] R.V. marg. ‘Or, with an interpretation’. On the word see note on Ezr_4:18. The rendering of the R.V. marg. is sometimes based on the erroneous supposition that the Jews had returned from Babylon speaking Chaldee or Aramaic, and that in consequence the Hebrew of ‘the Law’ had to be ‘interpreted’ in the sense of ‘translated.’ This would have been necessary in much later times. But in the time of Nehemiah, if we may judge from the writings of Nehemiah and Malachi, the people’s dialect had not yet undergone the change, which may have begun very soon afterwards. The common misapprehension of our verse arises from the erroneous impression that Chaldee was the language of the ‘Chaldeans’ spoken in Babylon and there acquired by the Jews. But in Babylon and Babylonia the spoken language was ‘Assyrian,’ another branch of the Semitic family. The ‘Chaldee’ of the Bible is the Aramaic or North Semitic dialect. See Introduction, and cf. note on Neh_13:24.
The word in the original occurs in Num_15:34, ‘it had not been declared (i.e. made clear) what should be done unto him.’ The rendering ‘distinctly’ means with clearness and precision, for which careful study was required. Some understand ‘with an interpretation’ in the sense of ‘with exposition;’ while the possibility of this explanation may be admitted, it is open to the objection that it anticipates the substance of the clause which immediately follows.
distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand] R.V. distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood. Marg. as A.V. and caused, &c. The R.V. gives the right idea of the verse, which consists of two clauses, the one describing the clearness of the public reading, the other the parenthetic comment introduced for the sake of explaining the text.
‘gave the sense:’ a phrase occurring only here in the O.T. The clause ‘so that they understood’ is subordinate to, denoting the result of, the previous words ‘gave the sense.’
‘so that they understood the reading,’ so that they understood what was being read. The word for ‘the reading’ ‘hammiq’ra’ here used of the public reading, became in later times a technical Rabbinic word for ‘Scripture.’
The ancient versions treat the words as an independent clause, ‘And the people understood the reading,’ (LXX. καὶ συνῆκεν ὁ λαὸς ἐν τῇ ἀναγνώσει. Vulg. ‘et intellexerunt cum legeretur,’) which gives a good sense, but misses the interdependence of the two sentences. It is a mistake to suppose that the R.V. rendering of the two clauses is tautological. The Levites ‘gave the sense,’ not mechanically, but so that the people grasped its meaning.
Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha] R.V. N. which was &c. On the title here used see note on Ezr_2:63. Nehemiah in his own ‘Memoirs’ speaks of himself as ‘Pekhah’ (cf. Neh_5:14-15; Neh_5:18); and in consequence some (e.g. Smend) suggest that the title applied here and in Neh_10:2 to Nehemiah, is a gloss. Others also (see note on Neh_8:1) who refer the events described in this chapter to the year 457, consider Nehemiah’s name to be an interpolation. But the occurrence of the title is only evidence that we are no longer dealing with the writings of Nehemiah, who would have styled himself ‘Pekhah.’ The LXX. omits the title: the Vulg. gives Athersatha. The supposition that Nehemiah purposely eschews the honorific title ‘Tirshatha,’ and prefers a more lowly term ‘pekhah’ is based on an imaginary distinction between the words.
This day is holy] Both as a new-moon day and as the day on which the Law was read. See note on Neh_8:2. It may be doubted whether Ezra could here be referring to ‘the Holy Convocation’ prescribed for the 1st of Tisri in Lev_23:24. There is no mention in this context either of the Feast of Trumpets on the 1st, or of the Day of Atonement on the 9th of Tisri.
mourn not, nor weep] The people had broken out into demonstrations of grief. As they listened to the words of the Law, they perceived in how many ways they had violated it. Compare the effect of hearing ‘the words of the book of the law’ upon Josiah, 2Ki_22:11. It is clear the people generally were ignorant of the requirements of the Law. May we not infer that the priests had kept to themselves the contents of the collections of laws?
Then he said] Who issued the command, we are not told. Clearly either Nehemiah or Ezra. Some think Nehemiah because as governor he would be the person to issue authoritative directions. But more probably Ezra is intended; for (1) Ezra’s name is most conspicuous throughout this whole episode; cf. Neh_8:5-6; (2) the language used is that of the teacher of the Law rather than that of the practical governor.
eat the fat, and drink the sweet] A proverbial expression, meaning that the occasion was not one of fasting and grief. LXX. φάγετε λιπάσματα καὶ πίετε γλυκάσματα. Vulg. ‘comedite pinguia et bibite mulsum.’
send portions &c.] Doubtless with the thought of remembering the poor and needy more especially, as according to the law of Deu_16:14, where the Feast of Tabernacles is described, ‘And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless and the widow that are within thy gates.’ But the allusion seems primarily to be to the custom of interchanging ‘portions’ on festal occasions, e.g. Est_9:19, ‘a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions to one another,’ Est_9:22, ‘days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another and gifts to the poor.’ Nabal’s churlishness was the violation of an almost sacred rule, 1 Samuel 25, cf. R. Smith, Relig. of Semites. For this custom of open-handed distribution on the occasion of great sacrificial feasts, cf. 1Sa_9:13; 2Sa_6:19; Eze_39:17-20.
neither be ye sorry] R.V. grieved. LXX. μὴ διαπέσητε. Vulg. ‘no-lite contristari’. The R.V. gives the same rendering as in Neh_8:11.
for the joy of the Lord is your strength] R.V. marg. ‘Or, stronghold’. This joy of the Lord is not the joy of the Lord over Israel; but Israel’s joy in her Lord. Israel’s joy at her great festivals is based on her confidence that the Lord ever protects her. Gladness in Him is in proportion to the faith in the protection which He gives. The English version is that of the Vulgate, ‘gaudium etenim Domini est fortitudo nostra.’ The LXX. ὅτι ἐστὶ κύριος ἰσχὺς ἡμῶν omitted to render the somewhat unusual word for ‘joy,’ which elsewhere occurs in 1Ch_16:27, Ezr_6:16. The rendering ‘stronghold’ in the R.V. marg. gives the more common meaning, cf. Psa_37:39, ‘He is their stronghold in the time of trouble.’ He that rejoices in Jehovah has a strong fortress from which he can repel all adversaries.
Hold your peace] This expression has been compared with the Latin ‘Favete linguis.’ It was ill-omened to make use of words or signs of lamentation on a holy day, cf. Hab_2:20, ‘The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him;’ Zep_1:7, ‘Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord God: … for the Lord hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath sanctified his guests;’ Zec_2:13.
send portions] Cf. Neh_8:10.
because they had understood the words that were declared unto them] Literally, ‘the words which they had declared unto them.’ The LXX. ἐγνώρισεν, Vulg. ‘docuerat’ make it probable that there was a reading ‘Which he had declared unto them.’ What are ‘the words’ here referred to? Some think that we should understand by them the command of Ezra and the Levites that the people should be joyful (Neh_8:9-11). But this gives a very limited application, and we should then have expected some other verb like ‘obeyed’ or ‘gave heed to’ rather than ‘understood.’ It will be noticed that the word ‘understood’ is the same as that used in Neh_8:8. This supplies the probable interpretation. The people sorrowed (Neh_8:9) because they had not kept the Law: they now rejoiced because they were able to understand it.