The scriptures referred to are Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10.
I don't know what age I was but I was having trouble with long division. And my mom taught me how to estimate the answer first. Using common sense I could figure out at least the range of numbers in which I could expect to find the answer and use that to narrow the possibilities and zero in on the right number. And of course, estimating is a useful first step in many tasks in life. I am grateful she taught me that.
Most people, when they are having trouble with something, are grateful for helpful tips or answers. And you can distinguish between a truly helpful and an inane suggestion, sometimes by immediately recognizing that it is right when you are shown it, but more often by putting it into practice and seeing how well it works.
A lot of non-religious people think faith is not useful in real life and actually makes it worse. If so, why does it survive? Why do 85% of the world's population hold some sort of religious belief? Why do 72% of the “nones,” the people who claim no religion, still believe in God? They must find it helpful. And a large body of scientific studies have found that religious people tend to live longer, have lower blood pressure, have stronger immune systems, are less prone to depression, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and even go to the dentist more often! Religious faith correlates with greater optimism and hope, self-esteem, sense of meaning and purpose in life, self-control, and social support. Faith in God is not a mistake; it works. Especially faith in a God who loves us.
So why are the people hearing Ezra read the law of Moses crying?
After the exodus from Egypt, the event that has most shaped Judaism is the exile to Babylon. The deportation of all but the poorest Jews to Babylon began in 597 BC. In 586 BC Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. When Babylon was in turn conquered by the Persians, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland after 70 years in exile. They started rebuilding the temple but didn't get very far. Around 458 BC Ezra the priest returns from Babylon and works on restoring the religion of the people, while Nehemiah returns around 444 BC to rebuild the city's walls. Our passage from Nehemiah tells us of how Ezra, in renewing the covenant with God, starts by reading the Torah. We are not sure if he reads all 5 books of Moses or maybe just Exodus, Leviticus and/or Deuteronomy. But it takes 5 or 6 hours. And as the people stood to listen to Ezra read, to this day Jews stand for the reading of the Torah, just as we stand at the reading of the Gospel. After the exile, Jews become people of the Book. As are Christians. We both derive out beliefs and behavior from the Bible.
The Levites “who taught the people” are said to have read “with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (vv. 8-9) One comment on my blog years ago was a criticism, not of how I interpreted the Bible, but that I interpreted it at all. It came with a link to the critic's blog, where I found not merely quotes from the Bible but his comments on them. I pointed out that his comments were also interpretations of the Bible. I never heard from him again.
Anyway, here we have Biblical validation of interpreting scripture. The real issue is how to interpret it properly. One sign of a cult is that they elevate obscure parts of scripture, or attach bizarre interpretations to them, and ignore the parts that contradict their interpretations. For instance, Fred Phelps and his family's Westboro Baptist Church took the 7 passages on homosexual acts and prioritized them as the worst and, he said, unforgivable sins. That's despite the literally hundreds more verses about idolatry or murder, as well as the more than 50 condemning slander and spreading rumors. That's despite the fact that all the commands to love one another in the New Testament alone outnumber all the references to homosexuality in the entire Bible. (John 13:34, 35 and 15:12, 17; Romans 13:8; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 1 Peter 3:8 and 4:8; 1 John 3:11, 23 and 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 5, etc) Phelps' website said God actually hates gays and had a counter keeping track of how many people were going to hell every second. (How he calculated this is a theological puzzle.) I wondered how he reconciled all this with Jesus' total lack of mentioning homosexuality and his commands to love everyone, including our enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48) Or the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and does not desire the death of anyone. (Ezekiel 18:23, 32) And then I read Banished, Lauren Drain's memoir of growing up in that church and then being expelled for asking those very questions. It turns out Phelps simply ignored any parts of the Bible that would cause him to rethink or revise his interpretation. He made himself, not God, the final authority.
Shakespeare said, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” It's easy. Translate it badly. Take it out of context. Disregard the history or culture behind it. Treat a verse either literally or metaphorically, whichever suits your purpose. Pretend you have no biases that you might be reading into it. And, of course, ignore the rest of scripture. So to properly interpret the Bible, you do the opposite.
First, it helps if you look at different translations of the passage you are examining. There are several good translations of the Bible and no perfect ones. Not even the King James, whose translation of 1 Timothy 6:10 says that the love of money is “the root of all evil” rather than the more correct “a root of all kinds of evils.” And modern translations have access to the literally thousands of ancient manuscripts discovered in the last 2 centuries, like the Dead Sea scrolls and Codex Sinaiticus, which give us a text that is closest to the original documents.
But as anyone who speaks more than one language knows, you can't always capture precisely all the nuances of an expression and translate them into another language. So I use multiple translations of the Bible which I access on my phone and check them against the Hebrew or Greek to make sure I know what the Bible is actually saying. I love the translators' notes in the NET Bible, which set out the various ways difficult passages can be translated and why they chose the one they did. Though even they don't get 1 Timothy 6:10 completely right. Again, no translation is perfect.
Next it really helps to know the context of the passage, which includes the history and culture of the time. When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God,” he is not just dumping on the rich. In fact the reaction of the disciples is an astonished “Then who is able to be saved?” (Mark 10:25-26) Why? Because in that culture it was thought that riches were a sign of God's favor. So if the rich can't make it, what will happen to the poor? Jesus replies, “With humans it is impossible but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) Jesus is teaching that no one has any special advantage with God; nobody can save themselves, no matter how powerful they are; we are all, rich or poor, dependent on God's grace. The proper response is to be humble and trust God's love and forgiveness.
It also helps to notice if a verse or passage is intended to be literal or not. Even people who say they take the Bible literally do not do so when it comes to part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that we should pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if it causes us to stumble. (Matthew 5:29-30) What he's doing is using hyperbole to emphasize that we must get rid of sinful habits and attitudes even if they seem to be a part of who we are. Nor do literalists think that a sign of the end of the world is when an actual beast with 7 heads, 10 horns and 10 crowns comes out of the sea. (Revelation 13:1) They get that the passage is using symbolism.
Yet people want to make metaphorical, or at least less real, verses obviously meant literally. Jesus literally meant to not resist the evildoer and to turn the other cheek and let them have your clothes and go with the soldier who forces you. (Matthew 5:39-41) Because he literally does these things. He goes willingly with those sent to arrest him. (John 18:7-8) He tells Peter to put down his sword when he tries to defend Jesus (Matthew 26:52) and heals the man whose ear is cut off. (Luke 22:50-51) The soldiers hit him and he does not retaliate. (John 18:22-23) He carries the cross given to him and goes with the soldiers to Golgotha. (John 19:16-17) They take his clothes and gamble for them. (Mark 15:24) Jesus literally does these things for us. So why do we think we are free instead to fight back when someone offends us or takes our parking space or plays their music too loud?
And in Christ's parable about the Last Judgment, are we not to take the moral literally--that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned and the resident alien is how we treat Jesus? (Matthew 25:40, 45) If not, then what was his point? As his brother James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,' but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16) That's about as helpful as sending “thoughts and prayers” to people suffering from a disaster. As John writes, “But whoever has the world's possessions and sees his brother or sister in need and closes up his heart against him, how can the love of God be in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or tongue but in action and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) We are to provide real, physical help to those in need.
We also must beware of our own biases. Some people say that God will punish this nation for things like, say, allowing abortion, something never mentioned in the Bible, and ignore that in Jeremiah God gives his criteria for such judgment: “'...their houses are filled with the gains of their fraud and deceit. That is how they have gotten so rich and powerful. That is how they have grown fat and sleek. There is no limit to the evil things they do. They do not plead the cause of the fatherless in such a way as to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. I will certainly punish them for doing such things!' says the Lord. “I will certainly bring retribution on such a nation as this!'” (Jeremiah 5:27-29) He is predicting the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the exile to Babylon.
God's Word comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And maybe that's why the people were crying as Ezra read them the Torah. They could see how they had fallen short of what God expected of his people. And indeed in the next chapter of Nehemiah the people confess their sins and those of their ancestors. They pray, “Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them.” (Nehemiah 9:34) They realize that they did not act with justice or mercy. They did not love God with all their heart and soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5) or love their neighbors as themselves. (Leviticus 19:18) They turned away from God. The Jews came to see the exile as God hiding his face from them and letting them suffer the consequences of not being a just and compassionate people.
But I wonder if some of them were crying because they were hearing for the first time proof of what a loving and merciful God they had. They were hearing how God was not only concerned for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the resident alien but had put provisions into the law of the land to protect and help them. (Exodus 22:21-24) They heard how every seven years debts were forgiven and debt slaves were to be set free. (Deuteronomy 15:1-18) Women heard that they weren't to be subjected to incest. (Leviticus 18:6-18) The people heard a vision of how the kingdom of God should work on earth. I wonder if some of the tears were tears of joy.
If not, maybe that's why Ezra sent them home to eat, drink and share with those who had none. Yes, they had sinned. But if they turned to God, they would find him there welcoming them back. Our God is a God who forgives us, who restores us, who transforms us. Every second we have on this earth is a second chance for us to turn to God. Because not only do we believe in God, God believes that we can do this—if we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, if we are united to his Spirit, if we are united to each other as the embodiment of Christ's love. So even when we fail, we confess our sins, we ask his forgiveness, we learn from our mistakes, and, filled with his Spirit, we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him again.
No matter how bad things look in the present, remember the whole story of the Bible. We know where it's heading. We've read the last chapter. In the end good will triumph; love will win. God's kingdom will come on earth. Crying and mourning will be no more. And he will wipe away every tear with those nail-pierced hands. (Revelation 21:1-4) So as Ezra says, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”