At the conclusion of their building project, all the Jews gathered themselves together as a congregation and requested that Ezra read to them from the book of the law of Moses. Nehemiah previously noted that the whole congregation together was 42,360 people (Nehemiah 7:66), so the crowd would have been similar in size to a packed baseball stadium, but they actually took up much less space because Nehemiah said all the people stood in the street, and Ezra spoke to them from a pulpit made of wood that was raised above them so that everyone could see him (Nehemiah 8:4-5).
In his opening prayer, Ezra blessed the LORD, which means he kneeled down before him in reverence (1288). In response, as a sign of their commitment and willingness to submit themselves to God, it says in Nehemiah 8:6 that, “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.” Ezra’s reading of the law went beyond merely speaking it out loud so that everyone could hear it. His intent was to make sure that everyone clearly understood it. It says in Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”
You could say the gathering of the Jews was more like a Bible Study than it was a recitation of the law. It was important for them to have a deeper understanding of God’s word because the people were expected to actually do what the law said they were supposed to. The Hebrew word translated distinctly, parash means to separate or disperse. In a figurative sense, the word can be used to specify something or to wound someone as with a harsh word or saying (6567). The Apostle Paul said in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”
One of the ways Ezra knew that the people truly understood what he was saying to them was “all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law” (Nehemiah 8:9). In other words, they were convicted of their sins and felt bad about all the things they had been doing wrong. Surprisingly, Ezra didn’t encourage the people to grieve or to be sorry for their sin, but told them they should celebrate because “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10), meaning, in their process of reaching spiritual maturity, it was more important for the people to convey the joy of God’s forgiveness than it was for them to express grief because they had sinned. “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” (Nehemiah 8:12).