More than a Celebration
Introduction – The Bible is not shy about the moral condition of people.
After the terrorist shooting in Paris, a friend of mind asked me what I would say to the congregation on Sunday. In the course of texting back and forth I reminded him that the Bible is not shy about the condition of humanity. Even in the midst of the greatest accomplishments there is almost always a reminder of the brokenness, evil or waywardness of people. There are no untainted heroes in the Bible. I was thinking of that because we have reached the end of the book of Nehemiah and while most of the book is about accomplishing a great task it does not end on a triumphant note. Once again it seems to undercut any confidence we might have in people.
Transition – The beginning of the end of Nehemiah starts with a final celebration of the completion of the wall.
Preparation: find the musicians
The wall is completed; the people have observed the Holy days and now there is one last celebration to dedicate it. And, just as if we were planning an event today, they need musicians. Unfortunately they are not living in Jerusalem ad need to be brought back.
27 At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. 28 The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem
The procession and dedication service
The final dedication of the wall began with an elaborate procession on top of the wall which were so thick that you could march several abreast on top. This is exactly what they did.
31 I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of [e] the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of[f] the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate…—with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the teacher of the Law led the procession. 37 At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the site of David’s palace to the Water Gate on the east. 38 The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people…
40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials … 43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.
It was a great time of worship and dedication bringing to a close all that they had done and giving thanks to God for his protection. It was at a time like this that Psalm 48 was inspired:
1 Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
in the city of our God, his holy mountain…
9 Within your temple, O God,
we meditate on your unfailing love.
10 Like your name, O God,
your praise reaches to the ends of the earth;
your right hand is filled with righteousness.
11 Mount Zion rejoices,
the villages of Judah are glad
because of your judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, go around her,
count her towers,
13 consider well her ramparts,
view her citadels,
that you may tell of them
to the next generation.
14 For this God is our God for ever and ever;
he will be our guide even to the end.
Application: worship events are important. They are times of dedication and spiritual renewal. We sing and worship through song because music is a gift of God meant to enhance worship and bring joy. Cornerstone has special worship nights throughout the year along with holiday observances like Christmas Eve to mark the seasons. These times of joy and reverence are part of what it means to be human.
Organization of worship – keep it going (v 44 and 47)
If the book of Nehemiah had ended at this point it would have been an entirely positive story that pointed to what people can accomplish when they work together and are led well. But it does not end here. This was a great moment and there seemed to be every reason to think such moments, such devotion and obedience would continue especially since Nehemiah tells us that they secured funding for continued worship.
44 At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes. From the fields around the towns they were to bring into the storerooms the portions required by the Law for the priests and the Levites, for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites…
Also, the people seemed to be responsive to the Law of God. In chapter 13 there is another public reading and Nehemiah notes how quickly the people wanted to obey
13 On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, 2 because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) (Deut. 23:3-5) 3 When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.
The reading is from Deuteronomy 23 about the Ammonites and Moabites. This is not the time to explain all the issues in this command but it is worth noting that just as the people are told to exclude Moabites they are also told not to despise or discriminate against an Edomite, or Egyptian. Also Ruth, one of David’s ancestors was a Moabitess. What is most important here was how responsive the people were. So in the beginning of the last chapter of Nehemiah the people had worshipped collectively, committed themselves to supporting the work of the temple and responded to the word of the Lord with obedience. Everything was set for the nation to grow and prosper under God’s blessing. But that is not how Nehemiah ends. Instead Nehemiah goes back to Babylon and resumes his life. After a few years he returns and find several problems:
Tobiah – corruption in the temple
Levites – not cared for
Sabbath – treading the winepress and selling instead of resting
Marriage – outside the faith and kids are confused
Nehemiah had to respond to each one of these situations
Nehemiah responds with force to each sinful situation.
Tobiah had opposed everything that Nehemiah attempted to do in Jerusalem. He was not a friend of the Jews or a follower of the Lord. Yet he was living in the temple so Nehemiah threw him out. Here is how the Bible describes the situation.
4 Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5 and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.
6 But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission 7 and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. 8 I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.
10 I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. 11 So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts.
12 All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms.=
Nehemiah dealt decisively and violently with Tobiah. He rebuked the people and made sure that they would bring the offerings necessary for the temple to continue functioning.
He dealt with the issue of Sabbath breaking the same way. He rebuked the leaders for allowing commerce on the Sabbath and they posted a guard at the gate to the city threatening to arrest anyone who broke the law of God.
15 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”
19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will arrest you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.
The threat of intermarriage to the next generation
Finally he dealt with a situation of intermarriage among the Jews. Notice how Nehemiah saw this as a threat to passing the faith to the next generation. He was not above using physical force to knock some sense into these people.
23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. 25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned?
All of these are valid issues and you have to admire Nehemiah’s single-minded focus in dealing with them. There is a warning here for us — not making worship a priority, not obeying God at work, living in compromise so that we are not passing the faith along to our children. Nehemiah was right to address these. But it raises the issue. Why did the people fall away so fast? Why did Nehemiah have to use such force just to get the people to obey the law when they had committed to obedience earlier?
At the end of Nehemiah God reveals that the people are still very vulnerable to sin. Nehemiah’s way of dealing with disobedience cannot be a long term solution. The people need leadership. More than that it reminds us that the people need a king who can change them on the inside. Law enforcement can only go so far. People need transformation and that is what Jesus has come to do.
It’s hard to stay faithful with outside coercion only
When Jesus came he did not force people to obey him. He invited them to follow him. He did not use the police to enforce the Sabbath, he showed people that it was a gift of God. He did not beat people for intermarriage. He died so that people both in and outside Israel could have a new heart and be part of his kingdom. In short Jesus is a king who changes us on the inside, if we will let him.
Look what Peter wrote about our identify as followers of Christ.
1 Peter 2
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ …
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Here the emphasis is not one what we must do but who God has made us to be. Here Peter tells us that Jesus is not building a physical wall he is building a kingdom made of “living stones.” He is a living God and we are living stones being transformed from the inside out. That is the only way to really secure a new Kingdom.