The Law of Our Lord

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This verse comes toward the end of a very powerful scene. Nehemiah, who is the governor of Judah, has called all the people together to listen to the law of Moses read out loud to them. Ezra, the scribe, brings forth the scrolls that bear the laws of Moses which the Lord had commanded of Israel. This was done on the first day of the seventh month, before the Water Gate in Jerusalem, to a large crowd of people including men, women and children who were old enough to understand what was about to be read to them. From first light, to midday, Nehemiah read out loud to them and they listened intently. Ezra and the Levites (priests), along with Nehemiah interpreted the words for them so that they could understand them clearly.

As the people listened and learned they began to weep. They saw their guilt, their failings, in relation to the Law of God as given to Moses. But, seeing this, Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites who were teaching the people, said to them: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep! .. Go enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

There is a solemn and wondrous truth being expressed here, one that is often misunderstood. It was misunderstood by the people hearing the Law of God read to them as they were gathered together in their great numbers before the Water Gate of the city of Jerusalem that day. That is why they needed the good teaching of Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites to bring them to a clearer, deeper, richer understanding of the Law’s meaning for them. It is still much misunderstood today. What is it that is misunderstood? It is this: the Law of the Lord is not to be heard as a condemnation of our failures to live up to what seems impossible. Rather, we are to hear that it is this Law that is the very source of our truest liberation and, therefore, our deepest joy. We are to understand that the Law of God is the truest way to find that which we seek more than anything else—happiness. The truth is that our most profound happiness comes from being in union with the Lord who is the ground of Being from whom all that is good, true and beautiful takes its being. He is the Source and the Goal of our happiness here on earth, and forever.

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The reason why all the people in this scene were moved to raise their hands and shout “Amen, amen” and to fall on their knees and bow before the Lord, their faces to the ground in a gesture of true humility, was that they had suddenly recognized the “common sense” of the Law. It is a matter of common sense that our happiness would be the natural end result of recognizing that: God is One; that idolatry of any kind, or blasphemy, denies that Oneness; that the Sabbath is set aside to honor the majesty and the glory and the generosity of God in all things; that in honoring our parents and elders by listening to their wisdoms and imitating their ways; that in respecting life at every stage from conception to natural death, and protecting the innate dignity of others by honoring and respecting the integrity of their personhood, not stealing from them, or bearing false testimony against them, or coveting their rightful possessions. What the people heard and understood that day; what we need to hear and understand today, is that Law is not a limitation on our freedom, but rather, the perfect guide for living a freer, more just, more honest, more real and, therefore, a more happy life.

The Fall in the Garden of Eden came about because of pride and disobedience. “You are free to eat from any tree in the Garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) Because of pride and disobedience, humanity is fallen. But, we also know now, because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, that humanity is also redeemed by and through the suffering, sacrifice and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. Because we are sinners, we need the Law of God to guide us back to that original happiness of Eden. The way back, then, is through humility and obedience to the One who is all good, all love, and all mercy. That is the common sense that was recognized so long ago by the people gathered together to listen to the Law being read to them out loud before the Water Gate. It is the common sense that we are being called back to even today. And it is the reason for why we should be joyful and why we can celebrate. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) This is how we pass on the joy to the next generation. Live it and teach it. God has called us to this as Christians. Let us rejoice and be glad.

Lord, continue to teach us your ways. Help us to turn away from pride and disobedience. Give us the grace of humility. Strengthen our courage to obediently do your will, for we know and believe that this is the one and only road to the happiness you have intended for us from the beginning. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.