We had a Nehemiah event at our church several weeks ago. No, we didn’t rebuild any walls. We did something more enduring with far more impact. We read Scripture aloud for three hours. It was an amazing and moving event inspired by the recounting in Nehemiah 8 of the Scriptures being read for the first time in seventy years.

The passage says that “all the people gathered as one man.” The high priest, Ezra, standing on a raised platform, read to “all who could understand” from morning until midday—about six hours! The reaction of the people upon hearing the Word—most for the first time—was dramatic. The account says “all the people stood up” as the reading began, then all the people answered “Amen, Amen!” They then lifted their hands, bowed low, and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. It must have been a profound, holy sight.

Our gathering began late Sunday afternoon, not even seven hours after the Scriptures were last opened in our church, let alone seventy years. We started with a simple hymn accompanied by a lone guitar. Then the reading began. Two lecterns were placed on the platform several feet apart. Each reader read a chapter from the book of Matthew. Qualifications? Ability to read (or at least really good at memorizing!) Readers ranged from junior high age to really old (my generation). As one reader completed a chapter, the next was ready at the other lectern. No commentary. No interpretation. No one even snuck in a little exegesis!

We stopped halfway through—after Chapter 14—for a short dinner break on the patio. We were prepared to feed about 100 people but quickly ran out of food as almost twice that number showed up. While we had just read about Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, we apparently lacked sufficient faith to add even one tuna fish sandwich. No one complained.

As our Nehemiah moment continued, the ambient noise in the auditorium seemed to fade further and further away. I don’t know for sure whether people just stopped their usual fidgeting and fussing or if I simply stopped noticing as we were drawn more and more deeply into the Scripture. Probably a little of both. Nehemiah 8:3 says “all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” So were the people at Grace Church that evening.

Going in, I was a little nervous about sitting for three hours just listening to someone read, even Scripture. By the time we got to about Chapter 18 or so, I was so focused on the power of the spoken Word that I was mostly unaware of the time, and less concerned about how well someone read. I found myself growing disappointed that the reading would soon end. Three hours? It went by faster than some thirty-minute sermons I’ve heard (not from our pastor, of course).

Somehow, the public reading of Scripture—in this case an entire gospel—moved our people in ways that even a Spirit-inspired sermon seldom does. I don’t know how other people responded, but I was drawn into the Scripture unlike ever before. It was certainly a Hebrews 4 kind of experience—For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

A lot of this happened at Grace Church on that Sunday. We will definitely do it again, and we’ll make a lot more sandwiches.