Joy in the Law
The book of Nehemiah continues the account of Israel’s history begun in Chronicles, telling the story of the rebuilding of the city and the religious reformation of the people after their return from captivity in Babylon. The story is told in part in the voice of Nehemiah, a much favored Jew who had become cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes, and who, when he had heard of the desolation of the city of his fathers, its gates destroyed by fire, had been permitted by the king to visit Jerusalem in order restore it. The text has its difficulties. Ezra, the priest-scribe who effected religious reform, and the royal emissary Nehemiah may not have been contemporaries. The return from Babylon had been accomplished haphazardly, over more than a century. It is difficult to identify precisely the book from which Ezra read, which may have been Deuteronomy or Leviticus or some other part of the Pentateuch. What we have is surely the best information available to an author who may have written a century after the event described in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, and who was himself the beneficiary of the reform he describes, a reform that gave Judah the Sabbath-observing, law-loving, ethnically- exclusionary character that would mark its existence as long as the city would endure. Nehemiah effected this renewal by first rebuilding the city walls and clearing away the rubbish, appointed singers and Levites for the temple. He then reawakened the sense of their identity and history by assembling the nobles and officials and enrolling them according to genealogy. Then came the great event described in the First Reading for this day. The people, men and women and those of understanding years, assembled in the square before the water gate, asked Ezra the priest to read from the law. Then Ezra blessed them, they bowed their heads and worshipped the lord with their faces to the ground. After Ezra had finished reading from the law, Levites explained its meaning to those assembled “so that the people understood the reading.” In the light of the majesty of the law, faced with the knowledge of their sins, the people mourned and wept. But Ezra commanded them not to weep and mourn, for this day is Holy to the Lord. Eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks. Send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared. Do not be grieved. And all the people went their way rejoicing because they had understood the words that were declare to them. It is a principle of human nature hat the greatest joy comes from attaining the good for which we are designed and destined and not only by doing good things but by rejoicing in the doing of them. Aristotle, who lived before grace came, understood that to be virtuous meant not only doing good, but doing good as a good man would do it, not grudgingly, but as a habit of the heart. That God has given a law is a cause for rejoicing. If we do not always fulfill it, there is for the humble always mercy. Rebels may repent, but to deny that the law exists is death to the soul. This denial is the cause of the confusion and despair that marks a people who have not asked that the prophet read the law to them and who have denied that such exists. It is feckless to inhabit a world that denies the existence of any ennobling law without attending to the causes. It is as though the prophet appearing in the squares of our society is not a priest but a professor, or a man of letters, perhaps a politician. He will tell us that no such law exists and that even if it existed it could not be known, and, that once argued, he may take a psychological turn and insist that the most fundamental desire of human nature is not that desire for God and goodness which Augustine documents but a series of esurient itches and base longings. Like Ezra, he will advise rich foods and sweet drinks, feasting and merriment, but for different reasons. Like Hazel Motes in the Flannery O’Connor story Wise Blood, his massage will be “Rejoice, Christ (if he existed) is not risen;” be kind and enjoy, do not look beyond the horizon of moderate satisfaction and vulgar meaning. The sources of this call into lower things in modern times are not unknown: Hume, Rousseau, and Freud. David Hume (1711–1776) taught that in principle nothing that lies outside the bounds of things empirical and logical can be considered knowable at all. It was Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712–1778) who brought the news that law and tradition enslave whereas libidinous naturalism frees. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)—and he has many disciples—encouraged the belief that the most significant aspects of human nature are the most obvious and the higher sensibilities illusions. The first proclaimed that knowledge of anything above the world of touch and sight is impossible and that the only certainties are to be found in relations between words. The second encouraged the discovery of significance in self-fulfillment. The third focused attention on the belly. That these ideas are damaging, and damaging because untrue, does not always count against them, for they are in a sense the law for modern man. Leaving these precincts of dissolution is not easy but doing so means the survival of souls and of all that is truly human. It is true that the law condemns, but first it is to be loved. Yet the law cannot be loved in itself and it is not stable in itself because, pace Kant, it is the voice not of my will only but of that Great Other who begins to speak to us in the cradle, a voice that will either be educated into silence or followed into the good life and into the Presence of its Author.
Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, Interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe And the Levites who were instructing the people Said to all the people: Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad and do not weep— For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further, “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks. Do not be saddened this day.