The Congregation in Worship – Nehemiah 8:5-6

This evening, we are dealing with a couple things which have always confused me. We have all heard good Baptist people refer to the Sunday morning service as a “Worship Service,” but I’ve often wondered where the worship is. My preference is to think of the 11 o’clock hour as a “preaching service” – a gospel service. The only worship that might take place in the average Baptist Sunday morning service is through 15 minutes of hymns and the 3 minutes of prayer scattered throughout the hour. I’m not proud of the fact, but Baptists are, generally speaking, not very worshipful.

Having said that, Nehemiah 8 describes an evangelistic meeting of sorts, where there is a hint of worship. Depending on the hearts of us modern Baptists, perhaps we can join these worshipers. And that leads to my second question of the evening – do you see Ezra “blessing the Lord”? “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God.” What is it to bless the Lord? Maybe you have no problem with the word, but it has confused me, because I know the meaning of the Hebrew word.

A great throng of people gathered in the street before the water gate, begging to hear the Word of God. A pulpit had been built so that Ezra and his helpers could be seen and heard by the crowd. The man of God then read the scriptures for about 6 hours. I think we have a summary of the morning in verses 2-4, and verse 5 actually describes how the day began. It appears to me that before he started reading, Ezra lead the crowd in a moment of worshipful thought. “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 worshiped 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.”

We see the people doing three things – two which are common to us, and one which is not. They stood up, so they were standing when Ezra uttered those prayerful words – “bless the Lord.” Then the people answered with words which are not unusual and not unappreciated here – they said “amen.” But they also raised their hands toward heaven while their faces were towards the ground. Why is it that Baptists often think of this as charismatic behavior, or something showy and fleshly? If we ask people to stand for prayer or for the reading of the word of God, and we point to this scripture for authority, shouldn’t we also be more accepting of hand raising? Perhaps that is another question, which we’ll leave for a different day.

What is it to bless the Lord?

Here’s another question: What does it mean when we ask someone to bless the food before we eat? Do we have Biblical definitions in our minds in these cases, or have we come up with our own meanings?

The word “bless,” which is used in this verse, is quite common – it is found 330 times in 289 verses. When I am studying a word like this my first resource is Strong’s Dictionary. James Strong defines “barak” (baw-rak’) with as – “To bless, to kneel; to be blessed; to be adored; To praise, to salute.” He says, out of 330 uses, the word is translated “bless” 302 (91%), “salute” 5, “kneel” 4 and a variety of other ways 19 times– including “praise” only twice (.6%). In these definitions and uses comes my confusion.

Many times “bless” is used to describe God’s graciousness towards people and even things, and of course it is always positive. Gen. 1:28 – “And God blessed (the people He had created), and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Gen. 9:1 – “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” We notice in these verses that the idea behind the blessing is “increase.” With God’s blessing comes growth, advantage, increase and furtherance.

There are verses which clearly teach us that God’s act of blessing is the opposite to His cursing. In Num. 22:6 – Balaam was told, “Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people… for I (know) that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.” Gen. 12:2 – “And I will make of thee (Abraham) a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. In this verse we also see that God’s blessings can be earthly and physical – or they can be spiritual. Abraham, “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” refers to the eventual coming of the Saviour. All the families of the earth shall be “increased, glorified, saved – blessed” through the son of Abraham. Neh. 11:2 reminds us that men can bless and be a blessing to other men. “And the people blessed all the men, that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.”

The Bible also refers to the fact that the wicked can bless themselves. But in reality this is only a figure of speech, because the unsaved man is essentially pretending to act like God. In Deuteronomy 29 when God is exhorting Israel to holiness, He points out that many will not listen. Then in verse 19 – “And it come to pass, when (the wicked) heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst: The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man…” How can the sinner “bless” himself – Especially in this sort of context? Is he praying to himself? He certainly can’t protect himself from judgment except in his dreams. He really can‘t increase himself in wealth or health without the Lord’s blessing. Maybe he is using the word in that rare sense of “praise” – the man is praising himself in his sinfulness.

Alright then – what do you mean when you “ask the blessing” before your meal? Are you asking God to multiply it, so there might be some dessert or another meal in the morning? No. When you “ask the blessing over the food,” are you worshiping the food? Of course not. Aren’t you thanking God or praising God for that meal? While that is a good thing to do, it’s not hardly the meaning of the Biblical word “bless.” In God’s Word, “to bless” is never expressly said to be “thanking God.”

Now, let’s return to Ezra’s statement – “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God.” This is a common sort of Biblical statement. It is related to: “Blessed be the Lord.” Another great verse using this word is in Nehemiah 9 – Verse 5 – “Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” And here is where I become confused, even while admitting that it is a Biblical statement.

When Abraham returned from his military victory over the kings from the east, he met Melchizedek. Melchizedek, the pre-incarnate Son of God came out and in Gen. 14:19 – “He blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.” Melchizedek blessed both Abraham and God the Father. If Abraham was to be increased, can we say the same about the Lord? Or, if God was to be praised, was the same true of God’s servant Abraham?

The Psalms are replete with statements like: “I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.” “The LORD liveth; and blessed be my rock; and let the God of my salvation be exalted.” “My foot standeth in an even place: in the congregations will I bless the LORD.” “Blessed be the LORD, because he hath heard the voice of my supplications.” Even though the word “barak” (baw-rak’) is only twice translated “praise,” is this the Psalmist’s meaning? And by the way, it is not just David – these statements are found from Moses to the prophets. Abraham’s servant said, “Blessed be the LORD God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth.” Ezek. 3:12 – “Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of the LORD from his place.”

What does the word “bless” mean when applied to the Lord? Should we insert the idea of praise even though that is not really the proper definition? “My foot standeth in an even place: in the congregations will I (praise) the LORD.” “(Praise be to) the LORD, because he hath heard the voice of my supplications.” Or should we apply the idea of increase to the infinite God who cannot be increased? Can our words of praise add anything to the majesty and glory of the glorious God? Perhaps not, but the Lord can perhaps recognize our hearts, and He may bless us for our thoughts about blessing Him. “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 worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” Was Ezra saying, “May the infinite God grow in glory, honor and praise”? That might have been the man’s intention, even though theologically it doesn’t make much sense.

Moving on, let’s very briefly let’s consider the people’s response to Ezra’s praise of God.

“And all the people answered, Amen, Amen.” The Hebrew word is “aw-mane’” which is closer to the Canadian pronunciation than to yours. The word is translated “truly” twice and “so be it” once – the rest of the time it is merely transliterated, as we have it here “amen, amen.” The word is used in Deuteronomy 27 far more than any other chapter of the Bible. There we read verses like: “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.” In I Kings 1:36 we see the word used in reply to a statement David makes, so in that case it would be much like its use in a church service.

Did you notice that our camp speaker often closed his prayers saying, “Amen and Amen?” How unusual. Those people from North Carolina are strange, aren’t they? But actually, about a quarter of the Biblical references use this word doubled, just as it is here. Apparently it is for emphasis and as an expression of sincerity.

In most cases when we finish our prayers – publicly or even privately – we conclude with the word “amen.” That is in essence what we have in this text. And I assume we are expressing our agreement with what had been said, “Yes, truly Lord, so be it.” But is that our meaning when we shout it out during a message? I suppose so in a certain sense.

There isn’t much more to be said about the word, but I will quote John Gill’s comments on this verse. I wish I could verify what he says. I wish I could know whether or not we should care about what Gill says. I wish that I had a book or two which deals with this subject and word, but I don’t. But Gill’s comment on this verse says, “And all the people answered, Amen, Amen: repeating the word, to declare their hearty assent to what Ezra had expressed. The Jews have many rules concerning pronouncing the ‘Amen.’ It must not be too quick, curt, and short, nor with too high a voice. Do you think when Israel heard Moses say, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them….” Or when he said, “Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image…” Or after a dozen statements like “Curse be he that lieth with his father’s wife….” All the people shouted enthusiastically, “Amen!” Wasn’t it indeed more as Gill suggested, “It must not be too quick, curt, and short, nor with too high a voice.”

Truthfully, I love to hear your “amens.” But I am thankful that they don’t follow every sentence. I know I’m getting under your skin a little when I don’t hear them. Keep them coming. Thankfully, without Biblical evidence to the contrary we are not required to follow the Jewish rules for “Amen.” They are a part of a Biblical, and even a Baptist, worship service.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” And all God’s people said…….?