As it is Written
Doing a Great Work for God
In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month:
And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.
Our text begins with the second day of the great spiritual awakening in the province of Judah. The completion of the walls and gates marked the end of the physical work, and now God was using Ezra and Nehemiah to lead in the spiritual work in the lives of God's people. In the first part of chapter 8, the emphasis was on the great desire in the hearts of the people to learn more about God and His commandments. In our text, the second half of the chapter, the focus turns now to that of doing what God commanded. Notice the phrases "they found written in the law" (vs. 14), "as it is written" (vs. 15), and "according unto the manner" (vs. 18) which each designate the foundation upon which the Jews now based their practice. Whenever you find this pattern of desiring, hearing, understanding, and doing you can guarantee that a great work is in progress!
Our text opens with the Jewish leaders gathering together to study the word of God with Ezra, the Levites, and the priests. Oh how important it is for God's people to be led by those who study His word. This group must have been reading the passage we now know as Leviticus 23:33 - 44 for it is the only part of the Law that mentions making booths out of tree branches. They found written the commandment to observe the Feast of Tabernacles in the 15th day of the 7th month. Since it just happened to be the 2nd day of the 7th month, the people made ready to follow exactly what God had commanded. The Feast of Tabernacles was the third of the great annual festivals ordained by God. The feast took place at the end of the harvest season lasting 7 days with the first and 8th day (the day after) being Sabbath days. The most interesting aspect of this feast was that the Israelites were to make booths (temporary dwellings) in which to live during the entire 7 days. This was to remind them that God made the Israelites dwell in booths on their way from Egypt to Canaan. In addition, every 7th year at the Feast of Tabernacles, the words of the law were to be read before all of the Israelites: "that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the LORD your God, and observe to do all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 31:10-12).
Perhaps the most striking statement in our text was that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been observed like these Jews had done since the days of Joshua. There were probably other occasions during that time when the feast was held for we have at least one time recorded in 1 Kings 8:2. The difference was that the Jews in our text held the feast "as it is written"! For over 900 years Israel had failed to observe the Feast of Tabernacles the way God had commanded, but these Jews both dwelt in booths and listened to the reading of the law for 7 days just like God had said to do. In addition, they did it with gladness!
What a contrast between the testimony of the Jews after Joshua when "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25) and these Jews who did that which God said to do. They set a great pattern and example for all those involved in doing a great work for God. Every day of our Christian work and walk we are faced with the choice to do things our way or God's way. Those who are involved in a great work for God will make His word the authority and final rule for all faith and practice! In this lesson we will look at four great reasons for following the example that has been set before us in our text - "as it is written".
These Jews observed the Feast of Tabernacles just as God had said to because they knew His way was the Right way.
Why do we need the written word of God?
It is not in our nature to do right and had we been left to our self we would continuously do that which is sinful in the sight of God. Abel did not bring a blood sacrifice before God because he felt like that would be the right thing. Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel did this by faith. God had instructed him to do this and he believed God, "by which he obtained witness that he was righteous". Cain was the one who acted on his own will or as the Bible calls it - presumptuously (see Numbers 14:44, Deuteronomy 17:12, 2 Peter 2:10). The law is necessary because we are law-breakers by nature and we must be taught what is right and wrong (Romans 3:19-20).
Solomon said twice in Proverbs that "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death" (14:12, 16:25). In contrast, God's ways are perfect, pure, and righteous (Psalm 19:7-9). David said, "I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right" (Psalm 119:128). Moses asked, "what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law" (Deuteronomy 4:8). If you want to walk in sin, just do what seems natural to your flesh and you will most likely succeed. However, if you want to do that which is righteous, live your life according to "as it is written". You can never do wrong by doing what God has said!
Another reason for why Nehemiah and the wall builders did exactly what God commanded was because they knew it was the truth. The Israelites after the death of Joshua each did what they thought was right. If the Jews in our text had followed this example, Nehemiah would have had one way to hold the feast, Ezra another way, and each of the chief men yet another way. How could they have known which was the true way to observe the Feast of Tabernacles? They needed a standard to follow - the word of God. Pilate foolishly asked Jesus, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). If only he had understood that the truth was standing right there before him. If only Christians would realize that they have the truth in those 66 books that make up the Scripture. We have all that God has revealed about how to dress, how to live, what to do, what not to do, how to act, how to serve, etc. We have the standard for all faith and practice. Our testimony ought to be "God said it, that settles it!"
Imagine how difficult it might have been to construct a tent out of tree branches and then live in it for an entire week with your family. Wouldn't there have been a better way to enjoy a week long feast? Christians often question God's way because they think there is a better way, yet our text points out that "there was very great gladness" when these Jews kept the feast because God's way is the best way.
How many examples in the Old Testament do we need to show us that man's ways always ends in disaster while God's ways always leads to success (Joshua 1:8, 1 Kings 2:3)? Contrast the lives of the Jews living after Joshua with those in Nehemiah's day. Doing that which was right in their own eyes resulted in the repetition of increasing judgement through famine, war, and oppression. Nehemiah, on the other hand, saw the walls rebuilt, revival, and great joy. Consider the difference between the Kingdom of Israel (the North) and the Kingdom of Judah (the South). The Kingdom of Israel lived in continual disobedience to God and therefore experienced nine different dynasties where eight of the nineteen kings either committed suicide or were assassinated. In Judah, the line of David was preserved and almost every king lived to see their son sit on the throne.
God has very plainly set the choice before us as He did for Israel in Deuteronomy 30:11-20 where He said, "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live". If you want trouble, shame, sorrow, heartache, hunger, anguish, and death, then just do what seems best to your carnal flesh. If instead you desire joy, peace, prosperity, success, satisfaction, and life then follow after God's way.
It is possible for us to willfully and knowingly choose to disobey God. Even David, the man after God's own heart, prayed in Psalm 19:13, "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins". However, if you have the Holy Spirit dwelling within you, you will not enjoy disobeying God. The Holy Spirit will bear witness against you the entire duration of your disobedience (Romans 9:1). If you are a child of God and you choose to disobey, you will be chastened and "no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous" (Hebrews 12:11). Was Lot at peace in Sodom (2 Peter 2:8).
Finally, the Jews in our text chose to completely follow God's command because they knew it was the only way. There are not multiple ways that are right, true, and best - there is either God's way or the wrong way. In John 6:66, the Bible says that many of the disciples left Jesus and walked no more with Him. He asked the twelve, "Will ye also go away?" Peter spoke up saying where else can we go, "thou hast the words of eternal life". Many fools think there is more than one way to get to heaven, but Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Others believe that somehow they will slip through as an exception. How surprised will they be when the King says, "Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment?" and casts them into hell (Matthew 22:1-14). There is only one way to obtain eternal life - by grace through faith.
It is interesting that God distinguished the way these Jews observed the Feast of
Tabernacles from the past 900 years of partial obedience. The Jews of the past had kind of
kept God's commandments, but partial obedience is still disobedience. King Saul learned
this lesson when he failed to completely wipe out the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1 - 23). It
didn't matter that Saul had partially obeyed for Samuel's response to Saul was
"Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from
being king". We cannot pick and choose what we will and will not obey. All of God's
way is the only way!