Does Nehemiah 8:8 when Ezra read from the law and explained the meaning provide us with a biblical model for preaching? I think not. Read on to find out why.
Summary of Nehemiah 8
In Nehemiah 8, the people of Israel gather in Jerusalem to hear Ezra read from the book of the Law of Moses. They did this on the first day of the seventh month, and Ezra read the law from morning until midday (8:2-3). Verse 8 is often referenced as giving instruction on how to preach. The verse says that first the law was read, and then someone gave the sense of the reading to help the people understood what was read.
Though this is often used as a great example of how to preach, what Ezra did in this text is not at all similar to modern preaching.
Why Nehemiah 8:8 is Not a Model Sermon
First of all, the reason for the reading and explaining of the law was because most of the Israelites had never heard it before (Neh 8:14). They were biblically illiterate. Second, this time of teaching was not a weekly event, but was a daily event, which lasted for three or four hours every morning, for seven days in a row (Neh 8:3, 18). For one week the people gathered in the morning to hear the Law read and explained, and then in the afternoon, they would eat, drink, and celebrate (8:10-12).
Aside from all of this, it is highly debatable about what form the teaching took. According to Nehemiah 8:7, numerous priests were involved. Most assume that these priests took turns teaching from the Law, but it is also possible that they had something like a panel discussion. Either way does not look like our modern practice of one person who does all the talking.
Reading the Law
The procedure of this event, according to 8:8, began by reading the Law of Moses. Does this mean that over the course of the week, they read through all five books of the Pentateuch, or does it mean just Leviticus? Did they read through it chapter by chapter, or did they approach it topically? We just don’t know.
How much did they read at one time? Who read it? Did they take turns? There is much about this reading that is uncertain, and so once again, we cannot equate it with the practice of reading a verse or two (or ten) before a sermon on Sunday morning.
Giving the Sense
Beyond the reading of the text, Nehemiah 8:8 says that they also gave the sense of the text. What does this mean? Most equate this with the modern form of preaching, where the pastor explains what the text means and then provides some illustrations and application.
While this is possible, it is not likely. The Law was written in Hebrew, and since all of this generation of Israelites had never been in Israel before, but had recently returned from Babylon, the vast majority probably did not speak Hebrew. So to “give the sense” means that after the Law was read in Hebrew, the priests translated it into the spoken language of the Israelites. It is possible that some additional explanation was provided by one or more of the priests, but the text just does say.
If We Followed Nehemiah 8:8
So if a church wanted to follow the pattern of Nehemiah 8, the first thing they would need to do is have the pastor stop preaching every week. Instead, the church should host an annual “Preach and Party” where for seven days the morning is reserved for studying a book of the Bible, and the afternoon for eating, drinking, and having fun together.
The form of the preaching would be to gather several pastors up front, and begin with one of them reading from the Bible in Greek or Hebrew. Then what was read must be translated into English, and possibly, if desired, the text can be explained.
After the week was over, people would go home with the expectation that they put into practice the things they had learned that week.
Have you ever seen this sort of preaching done in churches today? While you might occasionally see pastors refer to the Greek or Hebrew, the passage is almost never read completely in Greek or Hebrew, and then translated and explained, and even in the rare church that does do it this way, it is never performed by a panel of preachers, and never for just seven days in a row and then not at all the rest of the year, and never followed by a daily feast and party.
Frankly, this approach might benefit a lot of people and churches today. The people might learn more, the pastors would only preach in conjunction with other pastors, and only for one week out of the year, and every day would conclude with a big party. Many churches might really thrive from such a practice. I would love to see it happen.
But whatever we get from Nehemiah 8, we do not find a pattern for the modern practice of preaching where one person gets up once a week for thirty to forty minutes, and gives a sermon.