Last night I was watching the latest episode of the popular NBC show 'This Is Us'. Week after week the writers manage to tap into some of the rawest human experiences and emotions. They have brilliantly woven a multi-generational story about love, laughter and loss that hits close to home for just about everyone who tunes in. As I sat there, with tears rolling down my cheeks, I shook my head, a bit incredulous. They got me again. That show always makes me cry.
Then, this morning, I read an interesting passage in Nehemiah:
'And all the people gathered as one man into the square...And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard...and he read from it...And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law...and Nehemiah, who was the governor, and 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 or weep.' For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.' (taken from Nehemiah 8:1-9)
Reading this made me stop and ask the question, 'What was it that caused these people to weep?' 'What touched them all so deeply that the response was communal tears?'
The context of this passage is important. Leading up to this particular event, the nation of Israel had experienced a long and difficult history. After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, the Jews had been driven from their land. For the next several decades they lived in exile in Babylon until an edict of Cyrus the Great had granted them permission to return. This public reading of the Book of the Law takes place following the return of some 50,000 Jews to the land around 538 BC.
Now, for the first time in many years, God had given these people an opportunity to start over. They responded by gathering together to make a solemn covenant with God to uphold His law from that day and moving forward. The public reading of the Book of the Law was to remind them of who God was and what He required from His people. Interestingly, the Book of the Law did not contain a long list of rules but an account of the people's historic relationship with God. The weeping occurred as they listened attentively to the story of their history as a people. In chapter nine of Nehemiah that story is laid out in great detail, beginning with creation and the call of Abram, and it goes on to recount the miraculous exodus from Egypt, the time of the judges and finally, the rise and fall of the kings. Throughout this telling the people are reminded over and over again of the numerous times that their fathers rejected God and went their own way. The weeping came from a knowledge of sin and its devastating affect on their lives. But following every mention of their failure there were also reminders of how God's enduring patience, mercy and love for them had continued to manifest itself in their ongoing preservation. So their weeping also came from an understanding that, in spite of everything they had done, forgiveness and second-chances were possible only because of who God is.
At the conclusion of the public reading, Nehemiah says, 'Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine...for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.' It is important to note here that the joy of the Lord is the joy of the Lord. It is His joy at their repentance, His joy at their desire to obey, His joy at their understanding of Him. His joy was to be their strength. And the people did respond in joy...'because they had understood the words that were declared to them.'
Now when I watch shows like 'This Is Us' and I am moved to tears by the fictional story of a family who, in spite of pain and loss, have remained strong, united by their bond of love, I have to ask the question, when was the last time that the reading of the Word of God caused me to weep? The story that He has written is far more beautiful than any story we could write on our own...and we already know the ending!