Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law. And they found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner. Nehemiah 8:13-18 (NKJV)
As they studied God’s Word the realized that they hadn’t been keeping a festival that God had commanded them to keep. According to Leviticus 23 the Festival of Shelters was to be kept during the seventh month. The Day of Atonement was to be celebrated on the tenth day and the Feast of Tabernacles on the fifteenth day of the month. By making this discovery on the second day of the month, the timing was perfect, for this gave the people just enough time to prepare for the festival.
During the festival of shelters they were supposed to live in temporary shelters during the seven days of the festival. These shelters were to be made of branches from the trees and plants. Living in these shelters would remind the people of their journey from being slaves in Egypt to being conquerors of the Promised Land. It was to remind them of the greatness and faithfulness of their God. As they lived in these shelters they would be reminded of the journey their ancestors had taken and how God had delivered them from slavery to a land they could call their own.
It seems rather fitting that they would celebrate this festival at this time. Once again they were a people who had been slaves and foreigners in another land. Once again their God had cared for them and brought them back into a land they could call their own. Living in these shelters, looking at the newly rebuilt walls and seeing all the work that was to be done in the city would remind them of the greatness and faithfulness of their God.
They obeyed God’s Word and built their temporary shelters and lived in them. They kept the feast for seven days just as they were supposed to and on the eighth day they held the sacred assembly they were supposed to hold. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that they were filled with very great gladness as they did this. They didn’t consider obedience God’s Word to be a burden but a source of joy.
One of the things that should stand out to us about this section is that this festival wasn’t practical and it wasn’t convenient. They totally put the work of rebuilding the city on hold so they could go out of the city and bring in the materials needed to build these shelters. They then moved out of their houses, if they had houses, and lived in these temporary shelters for seven days. Even though it wasn’t convenient and even though it wasn’t practical, they were filled with faith and obeyed God’s Word with great gladness.
Several years ago I listened to part of a sermon by a guy where he went through his Bible and tore pages out, wadded them up and threw them in front of the pulpit. He did this to demonstrate what we do when we pick and choose what parts of the Bible we are going to obey. He would read where the Bible says we are to forgive others, give generously, share the Gospel, help the needy or crucify the flesh and say, “But we don’t want to do this.” So he would rip it out, wad it up and throw it away. Now personally I could never bring myself to do that to a Bible but the ripping, wadding and pile of pages must have been a startling image. His point was profound. The parts of the Bible we are just absolutely not going to obey we might as well tear out, wad up and throw away.
Sadly, in many cases the only real difference between those who are theologically conservative and those who are theologically liberal is honesty. Those who are theologically liberal will plainly admit that all of the Bible is not necessarily inspired and authoritative for our lives. Therefore they feel no need to obey those things they decide are outdated and uncomfortable. On the other hand those who are theologically conservative affirm that all the Bible is inspired and authoritative for our lives. Yet very often they will pick out parts of the Bible they don’t want to obey and will simply ignore it. In the end they are doing the same thing the liberals do but without the honesty.