Unfortunately, the behavior of the returned exiles quickly resembled their forefathers, whose sin prompted the exile (2 Kings 17, 25). The people again had an operational temple, but lacked the character required by the law of Moses. The final installment of the Ezra-Nehemiah sequence records the most significant reform since the days of King Josiah (2 Chronicles 34). Here the people heard the law and committed themselves to obeying it.
In Nehemiah 8-12, the author described the returned exiles’ efforts at reform, which began when Ezra read to them the word of the Lord. When Ezra began to read, the people—young and old, women and children—stood and with raised hands shouted, “Amen, Amen!” (Neh 8:6). As Ezra read, several Levites stood amongst the people and explained the law to the people. The people wept over their sin and the consequences that their ancestors had to endure as a result. Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites instructed the people to stop weeping and celebrate the holy occasion (Neh 8:9-12). God had shown His grace in bringing the people back to His land. Their strength would be found in faithful rejoicing for the Lord’s kindness upon them.
The people went on to celebrate the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles (Neh 8:13-18). According to Lev 23:33-44, this was to be an annual commemoration of how the Lord sustained Israel in their 40-year wandering. The people had understood that the Sabbath rest of the land had been fulfilled (2 Chron 36:21); theirs was a day of rejoicing—followed by confession of sin (Neh 9:1-37). Several of the leaders recounted God’s acts from creation to their return from captivity. Their final words show that weeping was not only for their sin, it was also for independence. They said, “Here we are today, slaves in the land You gave our ancestors so that they could enjoy its fruit and its goodness. Here we are—slaves in it!” (Neh 9:36).
Having heard the law of Moses read to them and confessed their sins, the people vowed to follow the Lord’s ways (Neh 9:38-10:39). The people vowed that they would not intermarry with foreigners (Neh 10:30) or participate in commerce on the Sabbath (Neh 10:31). Rather, they would contribute to the work of the temple (Neh 10:32-34), bring the first of all their produce to the Lord (Neh 10:35-37a), and give a tenth of their income for the support of the Levites and the house of God (Neh 10:37b-39). They were focused on one goal: “We will not neglect the house of our God” (Neh 10:39). Having committed themselves to the Lord, the people resettled Jerusalem. They constituted temple practices (Neh 11:1-12:26) and dedicated the wall around the city (Neh 12:27-43). Two processions convened at the temple and, “on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy. The women and children also celebrated, and Jerusalem’s rejoicing was heard far away” (Neh 10:43). Despite these remarkable steps, after Nehemiah returned to his post in the court of King Artaxerxes, Israel’s spiritual zeal declined in Judah and Jerusalem. Nehemiah asked the king for a second leave of absence and worked to reform the people yet again (Nehemiah 13).
The celebration of the Festival of Booths in Nehemiah 8 provides a window for understanding the storyline of Scripture. Though prior to Nehemiah’s day the Festival of Booths had not been celebrated for generations (Neh 8:17), it would gain increased prominence up to the time of Jesus. During one of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths, John recorded in John 7:37-39 that on the last day of the feast, Jesus called out to any who were yet hungering and thirsting for spiritual substance to come to Him. He promised them streams of living water that would flow from within them. That living water was the Spirit—whom He would give to His people after He was glorified.