“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.” Nehemiah 8:9
Shortly after the completion of the wall came the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. There were three times in the year that were high and holy times for the people: Passover, Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur in Hebrew, came on the tenth day of the seventh month and was the holiest of all the holy days observed by the Jewish people.
Beginning with the first day of the seventh month trumpets would sound daily reminding the people that the Day of Atonement was coming and that they should clean their homes and search their hearts and confess all their sins before God, transferring them to the Temple, so that they could be part of those sins forever cleansed and banished into the wilderness.
On the first day of the month Nehemiah records that the people gathered before the Water Gate, the gate leading to the Gihon Spring, one of the closest gates to the Temple. They called on the priest Ezra to bring the book of the law and read from it to them. So Ezra read and the Levites helped to explain the law as it was read so that the people could understand the importance of what they were hearing.
Ezra read until midday and the people stood and listened. As they listened they wept.
Nehemiah doesn’t explain why the people were weeping. We do know that they weren’t tears of joy because, in our focus text, Nehemiah tells the people that this is a holy day and that they’re not to mourn on this day. So these are tears of mourning and grief that are being shed at the hearing of the law of God.
It becomes clear, the further we go in the book of Nehemiah, that the people had forgotten much of what God had commanded them through Moses during the exodus. And in their forgetfulness they had turned to practices that God had forbidden. Now as they hear the law of God being taught once again they see their continued disobedience and they grieve for their sinfulness.
The holy day is a day honoring God for his forgiveness so Nehemiah tries to turn the people to see that they should rejoice rather than weep.
I wonder, why we so seldom weep for our sinfulness? God’s still holy. His law is still Holy and we too are often disobedient. Oh that we would be more aware of our sinful condition so that we would more completely repent of our sinfulness and turn to God to be made clean.