After fifty-two days of work, in the late summer of 445 BC, Jerusalem’s wall was completed under the supervision of Nehemiah, the Persian-appointed governor of the territory of Judah (Neh. 6:15). The Jews finally had some physical security. Yet, physical security counts for little without the spiritual security that comes with trusting in the Lord alone and demonstrating that trust by following His commandments. The residents of Jerusalem at that time recognized that truth. So, they gathered at the Water Gate—the gate in the city wall that was used to visit the main spring that supplied Jerusalem with water—to hear the law of God.
Given the occasion, it was fitting that Ezra, the priest-scribe sent to make sure that the Jews were following their law and practicing their religion properly, led the assembly (8:1; see Ezra 7). Notably, the assembly included “men and women and all who could understand what they heard” (Neh. 8:2). Adults and children able to comprehend the law were present, and rightly so, for the Word of God is not meant only for a select few but is for everyone in the covenant community (Deut. 6:4–9; 2 Tim. 3:14–15).
Ezra stood on a platform to read from the law “from early morning to midday” (Neh. 8:3). Thirteen men stood beside him, likely priests who took turns with him in reading from the law (v. 4). Several other Levites moved about the crowd, making sure the people understood what was read and explaining the law when necessary (vv. 5–8). Then, as now, the Lord used gifted teachers to make sure that people understood the Scriptures.
While the people heard the law, they mourned, recognizing that they had fallen short of the Lord’s requirements (v. 9). Sorrow for sin is never wholly inappropriate, but on this occasion mourning was not fitting. It was a day of celebration, of thanking God that He had protected the community and strengthened them to bring the wall project to completion. Thus, Nehemiah called on the people to celebrate, and so they did (vv. 10–12). As it was the seventh month, it was also time to keep the Feast of Booths, the most festive of all the major biblical feasts (Deut. 16:13–15). So, the Jews observed the feast, rejoicing before the Lord their God (Neh. 8:13–18). To be sure, sin was still a reality in the community, but the Lord had redeemed them and brought them back to their land, giving them a new wall for the city. It was time to celebrate.