NEHEMIAH 8 – Familiarity Breeds Contempt
The phrase Familiarity breeds contempt, is often used in marriage counselling to warn newly-weds of the danger in allowing apathy into their marriage. But wherever there’s a glut of anything at all, it seems to lose its value. The West currently has, for example, a huge surplus of literature about the Creator God. Unlike any previous generation, the amount for books written about HIStory are almost limitless. It’s estimated that there are on average 3.6 copies of the Bible per household in America alone, and yet today’s generation are the least likely to be interested in reading it!
The scene being played out on the Creator God’s stage, in today’s chapter, is about the first public reading of God’s Word after the 70 years of exile. The detached care over past centuries, had resulted in an entire future generation in Israel, growing up devoid of any connection at all (or even any desire for a connection), with their Maker. The nation imploded in time, and the children of Israel were scattered to the four winds – dispersed through the Babylonian and Persian Empires. It was only after some had returned to Israel, and after religious activity had begun again at the Temple in Jerusalem, that they realised how devastating familiarity can be, when it’s given time and space to bred contempt.
But if this were a Shakespearean Play, you wouldn’t at all be blamed for wondering why it’s even necessary to bother with old literature – especially when you’re busy enough as it is. My guess is that, by miraculously saving Nehemiah’s book from a turbulent past (so that you can read it 25 centuries after his lifetime), it was kept for a reason. If so, I need to find out what my Maker is teaching me though it, and there’s several things that I’ve spotted with this first-time-reading of His Word:
Both young and old, male and female – anyone who could understand – were allowed free access to hear God’s Word for the first time. [v1-3] Today, a trend can be to keep ourselves, and our children, away from reading or listening to it – just by the choices that we make.
They turned out in a huge crowd for long hours to hear God’s Word, listening attentively. [v3] This level of desire to listen carefully for long hours, to what our Maker has to say, can be so ‘foreign’ to the thinking and behaviour of busy people in most fast-paced modern societies.
Before it was even read, the listeners had already given it respect in their hearts and actions and their first response was a double “Amen” – Yes, Yes; I agree; Let it be so. [v5-6] But before we read HIStory today, we’re likely to view God’s Word with skepticism first. We tend to only respect it once we’ve put it through an obstacle course of objections, before finally thinking it worthy of respect.
The listeners needed people, who were already familiar with it, to explain it to them. [v7-8] We can’t live in isolation of God’s family and yet still expect to have a balanced understanding of what God’s Word means. We’re okay with God, we just don’t like or trust His people!
The immediate reaction of the people, when they heard God’s Word for the first time, was one of deep grief and tears. [v9] They were so upset, at how far they were from God’s ways and His way of thinking, that they needed to be comforted by those who were explaining it to them! [v10&11] This is a common reaction for us today, when God’s Word ‘sinks in’ for the first time, and we come to a right understanding of good and evil.[a]
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart.” [Psalm 51:27]
So, today’s chapter gives us an example of what it means to “repent”.[b] It’s what our Maker looks for in us, as one of the first signs that we truly understand what the Creator God is like, who we are in Him, and the true measure of what ‘sin’ is, in light of being created in His likeness. This initial reaction of upset, should come with a desire for a 180◦ lifestyle change – beginning first in our thinking.[c]
But while our Maker wants to see remorse at a heart-felt level – often accompanied with tears – this isn’t where we’re meant to remain. Like any parent who can clearly see that their children are truly sorry for their disobedience, our Father God wants to wipe away our tears.[d] So the leaders of the people declared a Day of Celebration saying: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” [v10]
And here, yet again, we’re often wrong in our thinking today. We thought we knew everything there is to know about the Creator God and His people: that His Handbook is nothing but rules and regulations. But this is a form of familiarity bred contempt for Him and His Plan for us. In reality, our Maker is all about restoring what was broken in order to celebrate with Him. [v12] Just as any Father would want to enjoy with His children, this is the concluding scene to His epic play.[e]
It isn’t at all surprising then, that the very first feast in their calendar of the feasts (once the altar was built and after the dedication ceremony), was the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths [v13-18]. This was also recorded back in Ezra 3:4. Yet again, it’s no coincidence that work on the temple had begun in the seventh month. The timing of all this happened right at the time of this particular feast. A feast in memory of the journey out of slavery[f] and, in Nehemiah and Ezra’s day, marking their journey home from exile.
As part of an ancient prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled, this particular feast will become important for all Believers in the future. It will form a crucial element in the process of our transition into our Father God’s Kingdom.[g] And so, without writing off our Maker’s story under a misguided idea of familiarity, even this chapter shouldn’t be held with contempt. The events within it remain important for us today.
In every generation since the earliest days of this epic journey throughout HIStory, the Creator’s people are seen as His treasured possession.[h] He’s never become so familiar with humanity that He’s viewed us with contempt. On the contrary, their life experience seemed to be entirely centred around His Word and a cycle of celebrations. The problem has never been with Him. The problem has only ever been with our response to Him, and whether or not that response (within us and within our children), is one of continued careful concern or a sort of carefree casual contempt.
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[a] Genesis 2:9,17 and 3:5,22
[b] Matthew 3:2
[c] Romans 12:2
[d] Revelation 7:17 and 21:4
[e] Matthew 8:11
[f] Leviticus 23:33-44
[g] Zechariah 14:16-21
[h] Deuteronomy 26:18