Ezra’s Expository Example

A Biblical Example of Expository Preaching (Nehemiah 8)

I define expository preaching as:

The careful and faithful preparation, proclamation, explanation and application of God’s written Word so as to teach the mind, touch the heart and target the will.

The three identified core elements of true expository preaching are clearly evident here.

1. Proclamation

  • Proclamation is more than just the preaching of God’s Word, it begins with the actual reading aloud of God’s Word. 
  • Ezra takes the Scriptures that he had – the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament, all written by Moses, and stands on a specially constructed high platform or tower, built partly for practical purposes so that he could be seen by this vast crowd (v5).  
  • Would we be reading too much into it to also see a physical symbol of the submissiveness of the people of God to the authority of the Word of God? 
  • After a time of prayer during which the people raise their hands heavenward in the common posture of prayer, and then prostrate themselves, indicating their humility before God, the Scriptures are read aloud and the people listen attentively and with an evident sense of awe and reverence.    A literal reading of v3 would be “The ears of all the people were toward the Torah.”[1]
  • We cannot be clear from Scripture just how the various religious leaders interacted with Ezra in the reading and preaching.  There were some who were standing on the platform with Ezra, listed in v4, and others, described as Levites, named in v 7.   Did they share in the public reading, all taking turns?  After all, this public reading of Scripture went on from the first light of day until noon (v3), some 6 hours at least. 
  • Probably Ezra, possibly assisted by those sharing the platform with him, read the actual words of the Law and the Levites mingled with the crowd, maybe dividing them up into smaller groups, and made sure they heard what was being read and explained it to them.

2. Explanation

  • After the proclamation comes the explanation.  
  • Part of the job of the Levites was to read from the Book of the Law so as to help ‘making it clear and giving the meaning’.  That would have meant more than just explanation.  Many of these people were now Aramaic speakers and would have needed the original Hebrew translated for them. 
  • But it is certain that the Levites were doing far more than simply acting as translators.  They were engaging in one of the most vital parts of exposition – exegesis – unpacking the actual words of the text so that the listeners were left in no doubt as to the meaning of the words of Scripture.
  • There is a lovely example in the New Testament of what exegesis is.   In John 1:18 we are told that “No-One has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (i.e.  Christ) who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”   The phrase ‘made him known’ is a translation of a Greek word from which we get exegesis and it can mean ‘to declare’, ‘to make known’ or even ‘to draw out from’.   Jesus exegeted God – he made known to us what would otherwise have been unknown.  Jesus took the truth that is in God and all that is in God’s heart, hidden from our sight and understanding and revealed it to us by, in his case, becoming the very embodiment of it.  The task of the preacher is to do no less than that – to take the Word of God and draw out from it the meaning as it is found in the heart of its author – God himself.
  • John Stott uses a delightful turn of phrase when he says,

The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed [2]

Ezra and his Levitical colleagues not only read the word of God but they also explained it.  

3. Application

  • Little is actually said by way of how the preachers on this unique occasion actually applied the Scriptures they were teaching.  
  • No doubt, part of the ‘making it clear and giving the meaning’ was helping the people understand the relevance of these ancient texts for their present day lives and situations. 
  • Dennis Lane puts it like this,

There was more to this than making the people understand the actual words that were being read.  They needed to understand the sense, that is, they needed to know what that particular part of the Word of God had to say to them in their day and in their circumstances. Only then could the people take the Word away with them and put it into practice.[3]

  • Perhaps the evident spiritual state of the people on this momentous day – given their appetite for God’s Word (v1), their attentiveness to God’s Word (v3), and their attitude towards God (v5-6), made them more intuitively sensitive and responsive to what God said to them through the Word.  Certainly the reaction and response was striking and dramatic – weeping (v9) and a desire for further detailed instruction and obedience (v13).   We mustn’t forget either that this great feast of exposition went on, in one form or another for seven whole days (v18).

In my definition of preaching I said that there has to be proclamation, explanation and application that teaches the mind, touches the heart and targets the will.   There could hardly be a clearer example of this than Nehemiah 8.  This was not some cold, turgid, dry as dust reading of an ancient manuscript that left the listeners unmoved and cold.   Here is preaching that clearly teaches the mind as it gives teaching and instruction.  Here is preaching that powerfully touches the heart, stirring and affecting deep emotions.  Here is preaching that targets the life, eliciting a desire to be absolutely clear in knowing what God desires and then is keen to set about being obedient.   Spirit empowered, biblically faithful preaching will always affect men and women intellectually, emotionally and volitionally.

Let’s follow the wonderful example of Ezra and his priest preachers and apply this passage to ourselves as modern day preachers of God’s Word.   It seems to me there are at least three clear and urgent lessons for us to learn.

1. Stick to the Word  

  • Ezra and his colleagues didn’t bring personal words of encouragement or advice as to how the returnees should adapt to life back in Jerusalem or how they should make the best of the difficult circumstances they found themselves in.  They didn’t comment on the political or social issues of the day.  They restricted themselves to what God had already said in his Word, knowing that whenever that word was preached and taught it was as relevant to the contemporary listeners as to the original ones.  
  • The godly 19th century Anglican, Charles Simeon, wrote

My endeavour is to bring out of Scripture what is there and not to thrust in what might be there.  I have a great jealousy on this head never to speak more or less than I believe the mind of the Spirit is in the passage that I am expounding.[4]

  • Donald Coggan, a more recent Anglican leader expressed much the same truth in a different way

The Christian preacher has a boundary set for him.  When he enters the pulpit, he is not an entirely free man.  There is a very real sense in which it may be said of him that the Almighty has set him bounds that he shall not pass.  He is not at liberty to invent or choose his message: it has been committed to him, and it is for him to declare, expound and commend it to his hearers….It is a great thing to come under the magnificent tyranny of the Gospel! [5]

Let’s make sure we preach God’s Word and only God’s Word

2. Unpack the Word  

  • This is where, for many of us, lies the hardest discipline and is perhaps the most time consuming part of our preparation.   We can never be too rigorous in our study and exegesis of the detailed text of Scripture to ensure that what we do preach is, without any doubt and to the very best of our ability, the actual Word of God and what God intended that Word to say to his people down through the centuries.  
  • Let’s ensure that we only preach God’s Word and ensure it is what God says in that particular part of his Word.

3. Apply the Word 

  • As well as unpacking the mysteries of God’s Word and making known what God is saying in Scripture, we need to leave our listeners absolutely clear as to how this impacts them and what they must do by way of response. 
  • Our listeners should always leave having heard us preach God’s Word being absolutely clear about two things, firstly that God has spoken to them and secondly they know clearly what is require of them as a result.
  • On a personal note, I was encouraged some years ago now to read a report in a national Scottish newspaper by a journalist who was doing some research into growing Churches in Scotland.  She happened to be in Church when I was preaching in Edinburgh one Sunday and, judging from her report, clearly grasped the central thrust of the message and was left in doubt as to what was being pressed home.   If only our regenerate hearers were always that careful in their listening.   If only we preachers were always clear in our application.

[1] J Carl Laney     Commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah     Moody, 2001 p102

[2] John Stott     I Believe in Preaching     Hodder and Stoughton, 2014 p126

[3] Dennis Lane     Preach the Word     Evangelical Press, 1979 p24

[4] William Carus     Memoirs of the Life of the Rev Charles Simeon     Forgotten Books, 2018 p703

[5] Qtd by John Stott     I Believe in Preaching     Hodder and Stoughton, 2014 pp126-127

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