When I saw today’s word, I immediately knew exactly what my subject would be. In order to provide context for my ideas, I began an Internet search that led me not only to Wikipedia and Britannica, but also to sites as far-ranging as the Jewish Virtual Library and The Bible Journey. In scurrying to discover “just the facts, ma’am,” I confess that I was not nearly so meticulous about documenting my sources as I encourage my students to be. Thus, I begin with two caveats: I cannot tell you precisely where I got the individual details in the timeline that follows, nor do I even vouch for the accuracy of its specifics. However, as I have written often (most recently just eight days ago), fact and truth are distinguished by the valuational element of the latter. If I have erred factually, I apologize. I do believe utterly, however, that the Truth I have discovered in today’s word is valuable indeed—beyond facts or even words.
First, I will provide the brief timeline that occupied me for so long this morning:
- 10th century BC: Solomon completes the Temple (the First Temple) in Jerusalem
- 597 BC: Beginning of the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah and the Babylonian Exile
- 587 BC: Solomon’s Temple is destroyed during the Siege of Jerusalem by Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar II
- 538 BC: The Edict of Cyrus allows Jews to return to Jerusalem, beginning several waves of migration
- 516 BC: Completion of the Second Temple
- 70-year gap!
- 445 BC: Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem with a fourth group of exiles
- 444 BC: Under the direction of Nehemiah, the walls of Jerusalem–necessary for defense of the city and for the very identity of its inhabitants–are rebuilt in 52 days.
Here is where I would like to take up the story. After 70 years in captivity and another 90 years of tentative return to their homeland, approximately 50,000 people have gathered to hear their priest and scribe Ezra read to them the books of the Law containing the covenant through which God made them his Chosen People. We read in Nehemiah 8:1-18 (KJV):
And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.
And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; . . .
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people); and when he opened it, all the people stood up:
And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. . . .
So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
And Nehemiah . . . and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.
And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even 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 in the feast of the seventh month:
And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.
So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.
And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner.
I have quoted nearly all of this passage precisely because reading even these 18 slightly abridged verses probably seems long to the web-surfing generation of which we are all members, no matter our age.
Think about the contrast. The people we just finished reading about were standing shoulder to shoulder for seven days listening to the reading and the exposition of the law. They raised their hands in worship. The bowed with their faces to the ground. They wept because they were privileged to hear the words of the Lord, and they had “great mirth” because they were able to understand those words.
The occasion of this reading was Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles. Many centuries later in AD 32, Jesus responded to the pleas of his followers and, despite his knowledge of plots against his life, went to Jerusalem for precisely the same holiday, the Feast of the Tabernacles. And in John 7:37-38 we read:
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
If you have made it this far with me, I beg you to come just a little bit further. I told you at the beginning that I knew immediately upon seeing today’s Advent Word, quench, I knew I had to write about the occasion when Ezra read the law to the people. It is a piece of Biblical history that moves me to tears as I imagine the devotion and the sorrow and the joy of those thousands of people listening to the reading of God’s word, for which they had been thirsting so very, very long.
I confess that it was only my web-surfing that reminded me of the festival when the reading occurred. But truly miraculous was my other discovery–that it was precisely this same festival when Jesus identified himself as the source of living water.
In response to this miraculous conjunction, my prayer on this 20th day of Advent 2023 is that each of us will look to that same source for the quenching of all our thirsts, the satisfaction of all our hungers, the fulfillment of all our needs.