BEFORE THE WATERGATE
T. Pierce Brown
There are many who are interested in political events that happened before and after “Watergate.” Yet, there are some special spiritual events that took place before the water gate that are far more significant. There are some eternal principles with everlasting consequences that Nehemiah revealed that should concern us.
In Nehemiah 8:1-3 we read the following words: “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which Jehovah had commanded toIsrael. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the broad place that was before the water gate from early morning untilmidday, in the presence of the men and women, and of those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.”
Notice some very important principles suggested there before the water gate. First, they came together as one man. That is, they had unity of purpose. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Paul says in Ephesians 4:3, “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It is very important for us to have unity, but it is just as important for us to understand the only basis on which it can be properly maintained. It must be the “unity of the Spirit.” We are to make sure that what we teach and practice is authorized and approved by the Spirit of God. Without that, no unity is worth anything.
In connection with that, notice the second significant thing in the events around the water gate. “They spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses.” They had not imbibed the popular idea of today that since God is a God of love, there is no law that is of any significance except to love. God’s nature has not changed from the Old Testament to the New. They were saved by grace through faith, just as we are. The specific way they accepted that grace and showed their faith was different, but the principles upon which God acted have never changed and will never change. God has always been just, merciful, loving, requiring obedient faith in all ages. As there was a devout concern for the law of God then, so there should be devout concern for it now.
Third, the message was given to both men and women and all that could hear with understanding. God has never been pleased with persons who merely go through the motions of some activity without an understanding of the things God revealed about it. Those who teach that one does not have to understand anything about baptism, or the Lord’s supper, or various other things God commanded are approaching very close to a sacramental idea of ritualistic religion that God never sanctioned. When Paul revealed how a person was free from sin, he said, “But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). There is no way one can be obedient from the heart by simply going through the ritual without understanding anything about it.
Related to that thought, verse 8 is very important with enough points for another article or sermon. “They read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” Both young and old need to be impressed with the need of reading the scriptures distinctly. It disturbs me to hear a person who has been chosen to read a scripture, who not only mumbles so he cannot be understood beyond the first seat, but who has not learned how to pronounce the words in the text. There is a time for a young men’s training class, but when young men come before the assembly to read or speak, they should have done their practice before that time.
In years past, one great distinctions between gospel preachers and denominational preachers was that gospel preachers could read a passage, give the sense, and help a person to understand the meaning. Other preachers seldom did. While attending an outstanding denominational seminary (which I did because I had a chance to preach the gospel to those in the class at least four times), we were to speak on a text and give an exegesis of the text. When we all got through speaking, the professor told the class that I was the only one who did the assignment. The rest took a text, then took off like a wild goose with whatever comments came to mind, without any reference to what the text said or meant.
The only reason I mention this now is that I hear an increasing number of those who purport to be gospel preachers who do the same kind of thing. Jesus “opened up the scriptures” (Luke 24:32) until their hearts burned within them. We need to do the same thing today.
Let us summarize some great lessons we may find as we go back to the water gate. First, the word of God is the thing to which we must attend. Quoting Shakespeare, telling funny stories, philosophizing about various things may have some limited value, but a great sermon in God’s sight will be concerned with expounding the word of God. Second, the word of God is not to be simply quoted at length to make an impression of the broad grasp of scriptures the preacher has. It is to be expounded upon so that it may be understood. Third, it is to be done with prayerful reverence. Fourth, it will, if heard in that fashion, lead to godly sorrow (Neh. 8:9), and to much joy and gladness (v. 12).
Whatever lessons you may get from the “Watergate” that filled the newspapers in Nixon’s era, get some greater ones from before the water gate in Nehemiah’s time. As always, not only learn the principles behind the lesson, but also put those principles into practice as you obey the law of the Lord. Always keep in mind that although “the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation unto all men” (Titus2:11), that grace must be accepted on God’s terms by obedient faith and respect for his commandments.
Fourth, he read therein from early morning untilmidday. When I was a boy, two-week gospel meetings were not uncommon. After I began to preach, many ten-day meetings were held. They began to drop to seven, five, four and three day meetings. Recently I believe I have heard of one-day gospel meetings. It is doubtful if any of those who want to move in that direction would appreciate anyone reading from early morning untilmidday. We are aware that the length of time one spends in reading, praying, etc. is not an adequate gauge of his spirituality. We are also aware that a person who can sit in a driving snowstorm for three hours to watch a football game, but is impatient with a person who expounds on the scriptures for more than 20 minutes is not the kind of Christian with whom God can do very much.