Facedown or face to the ground? That is the question. Well, not really. It is a question. But in the overall scheme of things, not that important a question. Nevertheless, one I am chewing on this morning. And not because what they did needs to be determined exactly, but why they did it should be internalized deeply.
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
(Nehemiah 8:5-6 ESV)
I never cease to be stirred by the scene pictured in Nehemiah 8 as the word is brought by Ezra and sought by the people. In my mind’s eye I see Ezra, the teacher priest, ready, willing, and able to bring God to men and women through His revelation. They’ve built a platform, not to elevate Ezra but to elevate the word and maximize the opportunity for as many to hear as wanted to hear. And many wanted to hear, “both men and women and all who could understand” gathered with “attentive ears” in order to hear what their communicating God had communicated (8:2, 3).
And, according to the ESV and the NKJV, all the people stood, they lifted their hands, and they bowed their heads and worshiped. Hands reaching to the heavens to receive, faces pointing to the earth to receive humbly. Their bodies visibly expressing their desire for things from above even as they defer in reverential acknowledgment that they are but creatures below.
But read other translations and you realize that the ESV translation is based on only one word in the original, the word “to bow.” Others translate “bow” as they kneeled, or bowed down, and thus literally put their faces on the ground in worship (CSB, NIV). They stood up, they lifted up, and then they bowed down. So, my question. Were they facedown or face to the ground? Doesn’t really matter, does it? Less about their bodies posture than the posture of their heart, isn’t it? I’m thinkin’ . . .
Sure, we’re not coming off of 70 years of exile as they were. Nor have we just completed a fifty-two day, wall-rebuilding marathon in the face of opposition as they did. But when the word of God is declared — either as we read it or hear it preached — isn’t it still the same God who is communicating? The great God of heaven and earth? The blessed LORD who graciously calls His people to Himself that He might make Himself known? The Almighty Creator who has condescended to communicate with those He has created in His image? Yes it is. Would it be unreasonable, then, to think our heart posture should be the same? I want to suggest, no it wouldn’t.
Why would we not stand to receive, lift our hands to take hold, and put our faces to the ground (either figuratively or literally) in wonder and awe, whenever we encounter the word of God? Not physically necessarily (though that might not be a bad exercise from time to time), but at least internally. Hearts wide open in wonder and worship, with desire and deference. Ready to receive the word.
Always available, by His grace. Promised to be effectual, for His glory.