Forum Class September 5, 2004
Notes from Ray Stedman , http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/nehemiah/
THE WAYS GOD WORKS
I was told in seminary never to begin a message with an apology, but I want to start this study in Nehemiah 11 and part of Chapter 12 with a confession: When I first began to work on this chapter, I was simply appalled! I found it to be nothing but an unending series of hard-to-pronounce names. I kept saying to myself, "What can I do with this section?" But I am committed to two unchangeable things: One is Paul's word to Timothy, "All Scripture (all of it) is given by inspiration of God and is profitable," (2 Timothy 3:16a). Second, I am committed to the principle that, as an expositor, I am responsible to declare the whole counsel of God. So we are not going to skip these chapters. There are some wonderful discoveries to be made in them.
I have found in the past that whenever there is an apparently dry, uninteresting list of names in Scripture, God always includes certain clues which, if you follow them up, make the section glow with light. These genealogies and lists of names look about as interesting as a telephone directory, but if you look at the clues -- and they are always there -- you will find some things of great interest. The more I worked on this the more I found! I now conclude that this is one of the most fascinating and profitable sections in Nehemiah. I hope you will agree with me when we complete this study.
Chapter 11 is the account of Nehemiah's actions in repopulating Jerusalem. Although the city wall has been rebuilt at this point, Nehemiah discovered that he had a problem. He had a fine, well-defended city -- but without people! His solution was to draft families to move there, for a capital must be inhabited, since it is the heart of the nation. We discover this clue in the opening verses.
Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem. These are the provincial leaders who settled in Jerusalem (now some Israelites, priests, Levites, temple servants and descendants of Solomon's servants lived in the towns of Judah, each on his own property in the various towns, while other people from both Judah and Benjamin lived in Jerusalem): (Nehemiah 11:1-4a)
The great principle to remember in reading the Old Testament is that what happens to Israel on a physical level pictures what is happening to us on the spiritual level. Read with that principle in mind, it becomes a wonderful book of instruction. God, too, is a Builder. The New Testament tells us that he is building a city and one which has inhabitants. It is called The New Jerusalem. It is not like the old one, made of bricks and mortar, but a new city built of spiritual stones -- "living stones," according to the New Testament (1 Pet 2:5). It is intended to be inhabited by redeemed people. If you draw that parallel you will begin to see some of the teaching of this passage in Nehemiah.
I would summarize this introductory account under the heading: a voluntary draft. The grammarians among you will immediately recognize this term as an oxymoron. That is not a specialized type of idiot! It is rather a term which contains within it contradictory elements. For instance, if you referred to a person as a "sad optimist," that would be an oxymoron. One that is very common today is, "fresh frozen food." If it is fresh, it is not frozen, and if it is frozen, it is not fresh! Anybody who has tried fish in a restaurant knows that. It cannot be both. That is an oxymoron, an apparent contradiction.
After the first service I was handed a note by some who evidently were stimulated by what I said. They offered certain other oxymorons. "Military intelligence" was one, and "congressional ethics" was another. I will leave it to you to decide whether those qualify or not!
I hope you get the picture here. Nehemiah wants to move people into the city because Jerusalem is the center of the nation. You cannot have a capital city that is uninhabited (unless it is Carson City, Nevada). As the governor, he simply issued an edict: "One out of every ten people living in the suburbs must move to Jerusalem." He went through the towns and numbered the people, counting them off by tens, and then they threw a dice (actually the word is die), with ten numbers on it and whatever number came up the man with that number was expected to move his family into Jerusalem.
But there is something very interesting here. If you read this carefully, it is apparent that when a man was chosen to move into Jerusalem he was permitted to decline if he wanted to. That is because God wanted volunteers for this. So a man could be chosen, but could decide against moving. Then the lot would be cast again and another name chosen. Sooner or later someone would be found who consented freely to go. According to the account, those who chose to go were commended by the people. They honored them because they volunteered to do what God called them to do.
The application for us is obvious. The same principle applies in the church today. According to the New Testament, we are all called into the ministry -- all of us! The ministry belongs to the saints! The minute you become a Christian you are moved into God's new Jerusalem. You are asked to take up labor there, to do work according to the spiritual gift God has given you. But you must also volunteer to do it. God does not force his people to do what they are asked to do. He gave us all spiritual gifts, but he does not force us to use them. Yet if you want to be respected or honored and commended at last by the Lord himself and by all his people, then the wise thing is to volunteer to perform the realm of ministry he has opened up for you.
I stress this because in our bulletin today you will find there is a need for volunteers in our pre-school ministry. There are gaps to be filled. There is a need for help. The call has gone out now for several Sundays, but not enough people have volunteered. Those who have already done so, of course, are honored and commended by the people (and by God) for taking part in this ministry. Are you one of those who should volunteer today?
Beginning with the latter part of Verse 4, our text contains two lists of names, some from Judah and some from Benjamin, the two tribes that made up the Southern Kingdom of Judah. These tribes had families that were needed in Jerusalem and there is a mingling of them. We are told that 468 "brave men" from Judah volunteered to live in the city, and 928 men from Benjamin. There are some interesting aspects to this.
Notice the list of names of the descendants of Judah focus upon one man whose name is Perez. It concludes with the statement, "The descendants of Perez who lived in Jerusalem totaled 468 brave men." When you come across a statement like that in the Bible, take a concordance and look up the name that is emphasized because God is saying something important about that person.
Perez was one of the sons of Judah, who was in turn the son of Jacob, one of the twelve patriarchs who fathered the twelve tribes. The story of his birth, in Genesis 38, is a rather lengthy, sordid account which relates how Judah conceived this son with his own daughter-in-law. Thus it was an illegitimate birth. At his birth it was found that the mother was about to bear twins, and his brother started to emerge first. The midwife tied a scarlet string around his finger to indicate he would be the oldest of the twins, but then the baby pulled his arm back and the other twin came out. Because he broke out in that fashion he was named Perez, which means "breaking out." But following this rather shadowed beginning he went on to become one of the great heroes of Judah. His descendants are traced in almost every generation since. Even here in Nehemiah, some 400 years after Judah lived, Perez is regarded as one of the heroes of the nation. His descendants are called "the brave men of Perez."
Then, with regard to the people of Benjamin, notice that they provided twice as many men from this small tribe as those from larger tribe of Judah. The sordid history of Benjamin is given us in the book of Judges. The last few chapters of that book tell a sorry tale of people who fell into sexual sin and began to practice homosexuality. It was a terrible disgrace and stain on the life of Israel. But two important men came from this tribe:
One is called Saul, the first king of Israel. He is a great disappointment for though he began well he ends his forty years of reign in bitter, acrimonious, angry rebellion against God. He finally takes his own life on a battlefield. There is another Saul, however, in the New Testament, who also came from the tribe of Benjamin. This is Saul of Tarsus, who is better known to us, of course, as the Apostle Paul.
What is all this teaching us? I think it illustrates what the New Testament often tells us, that God is no respecter of persons. He does not care how you started out in life. You do not wreck your chances for success in his eyes by beginning at a very low level. God can cleanse people and use them in mighty and wonderful ways. He chooses, we are told, the obscure, the once tainted, the rejects of life. He loves to pick up those kinds of people and do wonderful things with them.
I do not want to embarrass someone who is present this morning, but I want to tell you that one of the most respected men of this congregation is Mike Tracy, the head of our maintenance work here at the church. Mike had a rather shabby beginning. He has shared it with some of us at various times. Yet despite the three strikes against him when he started out, God has changed this man. He is honored, respected and listened to. He has a great ministry among us by the grace of God, because that is the way God delights to work. This is what this whole chapter is about -- the revelation of how God works among his people.
Verses 10-24 is a rather lengthy section with many names. It is a picture of God's provision for ministry within the city of Jerusalem. If you have a capital city filled with people, then you need a ministry within it to maintain the spiritual strength of those people. This is what we read here.
First, there is a company of priests selected, a total of 1192 of them, who fall into three groups: We are told that 822 of them "carried on work for the temple," (Nehemiah 11:12b). These were the normally officiating priests. They offered sacrifices, presented offerings, and performed the ritual that Moses had prescribed. They were the ones who ministered to the spiritual life of the people.
Then there was another group of 242 who were set aside as "heads of families," (Nehemiah 11:13b). This means they had a ministry of counseling families, of working out problems and dealing with difficulties in the families of the priests. They did not neglect their own families while they were ministering to other people but these men were especially set aside to minister to the priestly families. Then we have listed a third group of 128 men who are called, surprisingly, "brave warriors," (Nehemiah 11:14b). Certain priests were also warriors. They fought in the battles that Israel engaged in from time to time in defense of the city.
When we carry this over to the parallel of the church today, we find that God has also provided a "ministry within the ministry," a group of men and women who are gifted in helping people to understand the meaning of the great sacrifice of Jesus. They teach the doctrines of redemption and forgiveness of sin and help people to understand how to become and what it is to be, a new creature in Christ. Then there are others among us who are especially gifted in helping families understand the difficulties they are passing through and what answers there may be. Finally, there are some who especially serve as warriors -- prayer warriors -- and in guarding the flock from the invasion of wrong doctrines, or wrong practices that infiltrate the church from outside. So God still works the same way among us today. The whole congregation are priests, but there are some set aside to the spiritual strengthening of the others.
The second division constitutes the Levites. There were 284 of them in the holy city, we are told. They too fall into two groups: The first division, we read, are those "who had charge of the outside work of the house of God," (Nehemiah 11:16b).
Thank God for the men and women who are in charge of the outside work in the ministry of the church today! I am talking about deacons, as the New Testament calls them. These are men and women who are responsible to carry out various details, to take care of buildings and minister to the poor and the needy. Those who do this work correspond to the work of the Levites in the Old Testament.
The second group among the Levites, the musicians, are very interesting. If you will look carefully, you will see familiar names among them. One name is Asaph, who is called "the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer." Another is called Jeduthun. These two names appear frequently in the Psalms. Many of the psalms are dedicated "to the Chief Musician," who is either Asaph, or, in some cases, Jeduthun. These two men, who lived in David's day, were chosen to set up the ministry of music within the congregation of Israel.
Let me read to you a couple of verses about them, taken from First Chronicles. In the 16th chapter (Verse 41) we are told that "Heman and Jeduthun were designated by name to give thanks to the LORD, 'for his love endures forever.'" That is the central theme of all thanksgiving. All the great hymns and praise choruses are really hymns of praise to God for his love that endures forever. That is the Amazing Grace that we just sang about a little while ago. One of my favorite hymns which I never tire of hearing takes up that theme:
O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
That is the great ministry of music. Music in the church is not entertainment. It is a means by which we are strengthened, fed, and helped. At the Congress on Biblical Exposition in the Second Baptist Church in Houston last year, I sat in the congregation during several meetings with tears running down my face as the musicians of that great church blessed me, and strengthened me, by a marvelous ministry of choirs and solos. That is what music is for. God ordained it for that purpose. When I get to heaven I am going to ask the Lord to put the Southern Baptists in charge of the music! They did a wonderful job for us there in Houston!
Another verse, from First Chronicles 25, is interesting. There we are told that "David ... set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals." (1 Chronicles 25:1a). "And Jeduthun prophesied, using the harp in thanking and praising the Lord," (1 Chronicles 25:3). Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the King [David]," (1 Chronicles 25:6). Then get this: "They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets." That makes 76 trombones look like pikers!
Can you imagine 120 priests blowing trumpets? What a tremendous gathering they must have had! You would not have wanted to miss church in those days. These are the men who set up the ministry of music within the nation of Israel.
Now obviously, we follow in their steps. We have choirs, orchestras, pianists and organists and soloists. It is not merely entertainment. It is powerful, satisfying, teaching ministry. We ought to honor those who are involved in it.
Then the third group mentioned here in Verse 19 are "the gatekeepers" (Nehemiah 11:19), 172 of them. They correspond, of course, to the ministry of ushers who watch the doors. That is exactly what the word means. They are watchers who look out for people and serve them as they come to church. They help them find their seats and get their bulletins and understand what is going on. They open the windows when it gets too hot and close them again when it is cold. This is a ministry that God himself, through the king and the priests, had set up there in Israel.
There are still other ministries mentioned in Verses 20-24. I will not take time to read this, but it speaks of "temple servants" (Nehemiah 11:21), of "chief officers" (Nehemiah 11:22), of "singers" again "under the king's orders," (Nehemiah 11:23-24). It speaks of one who was "the king's agent in all affairs relating to the people," (Nehemiah 11:24) -- trouble-shooters, in other words.
At our last elders' meeting we discussed asking for people to be available at each service as problem solvers, trouble-shooters, "agents of God in relating to the affairs of people." This is exactly in line with what ancient Israel enjoyed.
Verses 25-36 list the names of many cities of Judah and Benjamin. Again, I will not take time to read it. You may be interested that Kiriath Arba, which is mentioned there, is an ancient name for Hebron. These cities were widely scattered around Jerusalem. Beersheba, which is mentioned, was probably 50 to 60 miles from the capital city. From the coast to the Jordan valley these cities were scattered, both in Judah and in Benjamin. The Benjamite cities were north and west of Jerusalem, and the Judean cities were south and west. But all are mentioned as towns to which the capital could look for support in times of trouble.
It is easy to see how this applies to the body of Christ scattered around the world today, yet related as one body. I was pleased this morning when Ron Ritchie led in prayer and offered prayers for the pastor of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, the pastor of the South Hills Community Church, the pastor of the Central Peninsula Church and other churches around us. We are not in competition with other churches. We are deriving support from them and they from us.
Chapter 12 is another list of names even more intimidating. But we are not left without some of these helpful clues. It starts right out with the word:
These were the priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and with Jeshua. (Nehemiah 12:1a)
This takes us back to the heroes of the past. Zerubbabel led the first return from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 B.C., almost 100 years earlier than Nehemiah's day. Nehemiah is looking back at these men who led that procession. Zerubbabel was a priest and Jeshua was a Levite. They led a company of Israelites back to the city of Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Verse 7 says that they were the "leaders of the priests and their associates in the days of Jeshua."
Verses 8-10 tell us a little more about Jeshua. By the way, that name is a variant form of Yeshua, which, if you are acquainted with the ministry of Jews for Jesus you will recognize as the Hebrew form of the name Jesus. Here you have a Jesus in the Old Testament as well. Yeshua, we are told in Verse 10, was "the father of Joiakim." The account traces his line down to the priest Jaddua.
Let me throw in a note of historic interest here: This mention of a "priest named Jaddua" has been the source of a great deal of criticism of the book of Nehemiah. The critics say that this dates the book further in history to the time of Alexander the Great, in about 323 B.C., which would be 100 years or so after Nehemiah lived. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that when Alexander the Great led his Greek armies down through the Middle East against the land of Egypt he came up to Jerusalem. He was about to attack and sack the city when he was met by a company of priests led by the high priest, whose name was Jaddua. This man opened the book of Daniel and showed to Alexander the 8th chapter, in which it was predicted that a he-goat with a great central horn (who is clearly identified as the leader of the Grecian nation) would come against the Holy Land, and that he would conquer most of the world of that day.
When Alexander the Great saw this prediction of his own life and conquests, he was taken aback and so impressed that he spared Jerusalem and went on down to conquer Egypt and establish the city of Alexandria there. So the critics say, "This mention of Jaddua means you cannot trust the dating of Nehemiah. This is not history. This is mere legend. It is not trustworthy." But, unfortunately for that theory, the scholars have now found that there were a number of priests named Jaddua. This is certainly easy to believe because we find in this very account men passing their name on to their sons, just as fathers do today. There were several priests named Jaddua, and several governors of Samaria named Sanballat, another source of the critics' charge. So this theory is clearly unfounded.
The passage teaches us that we must not forget past heroes, the men of fame and of glory whom God has used in former days. I have been reading again the writings of some of my early spiritual heroes. For example, I am reading the book on Nehemiah by my dear patron saint, Dr. H. A. Ironside, with whom I was privileged to travel for a whole summer before coming here to Peninsula Bible Church. Last month I was saddened by the death of Dr. J. Vernon McGee. This man had a worldwide radio ministry. I was his youth director for two summers and learned much from him on how to expound and bring out points of interest in the Scriptures. Recently I have been reading some of the ministry of Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Seminary. It blessed my heart again to see what he stood for and how faithful he was to the truth. Men like Hudson Taylor and D. L. Moody were early heroes of mine also.
I would urge you, on the basis of a passage like this, to read biography! It will bless you. It will challenge you and strengthen you to see how God has used men and women of the past to stand against the temptations and the pressures of the world and accomplish much for his glory.
Verses 22-26 give the chronological time when the records that we have just looked at were recorded. It does not sound very interesting, but we are told that the first group "the family heads of the Levites ... were recorded in the reign of Darius the Persian." That meant that there was a time when they were kept as temple records but they were not actually recorded permanently until the days of Darius the Second. This would put that record somewhere between 423 and 404 B.C., somewhat later than Nehemiah. Evidently some later hand added this so that we might know when it was written.
Then there is another mention in Verse 23 of "the book of the annals," i.e., the annals of the kings of Judah. One of them is especially mentioned in the reference to "David, the man of God." What a remarkable influence David had! F. B. Meyer says, "How long the influence of David has lingered over the world, like the afterglow of a sunset." Yet David had a terrible record of evil in his life. He fell into adultery and was involved in the murder of his best friend, one of his generals. Because his heart was set on God, however, and he took advantage of God's provision for forgiveness, David is known to history as "the man after God's own heart." If you want to learn how to live as a Christian, you would do well to study his life.
The last record is of the gatekeepers who served "in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah." That brings us to the end of the passage we chosen for today. Why is all this information given to us? I think it is clear that it marks the deeds of God as part of the record of history. That is one of the great advantages of Christianity over all the other religions of the world. Most of them are religious philosophies, or simply the musings of men meditating upon various aspects of life. Many of them are a record of visions and dreams of dubious origin. But when you come to the record of the Bible, it is based upon facts. It is not legend. It is not myth. It is not fiction. It is not a record of philosophies or of the inventions of men. It is made up of historic facts. God grounds these great events in the history of the world itself.
A young Christian man told me just last week about being confronted at work by another young man concerning his faith in Christ. This man said to him, "The Bible is nothing but a collection of myths. Men wrote the Bible. There isn't any God. Men invented him because they wanted something to rationalize their dreams and visions. There is nothing supernatural about the Bible." The first young man answered him wisely. He said, "That is not true. You are saying that because you want to have an excuse for your own rebellion. But the truth is that these are facts. These are recorded in history. These great events took place and can be tested and proven by the records of other accounts."
That is why frequently, as here in this passage, we are reminded of that our faith rests upon incontrovertible evidence. This is particularly significant as we approach Easter, the resurrection day of our Lord Jesus.
These then are the great lessons for us today. I hope you have gained something of profit and wonderful encouragement that comes to us from even the "clean" pages of the Bible. You would not normally expect very much in these sections, but when you begin to explore, they open up much that is valuable to us.
THE SOUND OF REJOICING
The city of Berlin will be forever famous for its infamous Wall. I recall walking up and down in front of that wall and seeing the shrines that are dedicated to people who have been killed trying to escape from the Eastern Zone. The Berlin Wall has gained fame as a wall that divides, but the city of Jerusalem is also famous for its walls. In Nehemiah's time, it was a wall that united the people together.
The latter part of Chapter 12, to which we turn this morning, tells the story of the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem. It describes a wonderful event which evidently was postponed for awhile until the city had been repopulated. Last week we looked at the section that described how Nehemiah filled the city again with people. Now it is completed. The wall is built. The gates are hung. It is a well defended, beautiful city, filled with people. The time has come for celebration and the dedication of the wall.
In this section we have an account of a great procession around the top of the wall. There are choirs and musicians, and, of course, officials and politicians. You cannot get away from them. Because this is clearly a religious gathering they also take an offering. You cannot do anything religious without an offering! So the two divisions of this chapter are the great procession and the great offering. The opening verses, beginning at Verse 27, give the elements that make up true celebration.
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. The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem -- from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall. I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. (Nehemiah 12:27-31a)
Here are the choirs, the instrumentalists and the singers, all gathered to celebrate the great achievement of building this wall. They were not only celebrating but they were dedicating. There are many occasions in the life of a people for both celebrating and dedicating. Recall the words of Abraham Lincoln at the battlefield of Gettysburg when he dedicated that site:
We are now engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come here to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place to those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so.
It is proper to dedicate. And it is proper also to celebrate when God has brought us to a place of achievement. The Holy Spirit has been careful to include in this account the three aspects that make up true celebration. I hope you caught them as I read the verses to you. The first one is in Verse 27, "The Levites were ... brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully." One of the primary elements of true celebration is the expression of joy. A general attitude of joy ought to characterize all Christians.
It is amazing to me how many Christians never appear to be joyful. They are always gloomy and grim. As I have often said, they look like they have been soaked in embalming fluid! I am reminded of what a little girl said upon seeing a mule for the first time: "I don't know what you are but you must be a Christian because you look just like grandpa!" There are a lot of long-faced Christians around.
The German philosopher Nietzsche said, "If the Christians expect me to believe in their Redeemer they have got to look a lot more redeemed!" There are times of sorrow and sadness, of course, but Christians ought frequently to exude a sense of joy because they have something to be joyful about.
Joy is not the same as happiness. These people were happy, but they were also joyful. Happiness is liking the present moment because it pleases us. We are enjoying the moment and therefore we feel happy. But joy is much deeper and more long-range. Joy appreciates the past, the present, and the future, not because the circumstances are pleasing, but because the heart is right with God. That is what fills us with joy.
There is a sense of acceptance and of being valued by God himself. Happiness therefore is basically for the moment, but joy is intended to endure for all time. Happiness depends upon happenings, but joy depends upon justification, on being acceptable in God's eyes and being co-laborers with him. Happiness comes from without, but joy comes from within. Circumstances cannot change joy. Happiness fades quickly, but joy lasts forever.
These people were happy because the wall was finished. They had achieved their objective. But they were joyful because God had helped them to finish it. They were co-laborers with him. His hand was involved in their labor. Aware of God's love and acceptance, they therefore were joyful and wanted to celebrate joyfully.
There is another clue hidden in this paragraph that tells us what celebration should be based on. Verse 30, "When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall." Purification is necessary to celebrate. You cannot do it with a hypocritical heart. You cannot celebrate with your life in ruin. It becomes a festival of empty words. There is a need for purification. Remember how the psalmist puts it in the wonderful 24th Psalm:
Who may ascend the hill of the LORD?
Who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to an idol,
or swear by what is false.
He will receive blessing from the LORD,
and vindication from God his Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face O God of Jacob. (Psalm 24:3-6)
Many people seem to be afraid of this word, purity. They think it describes a goody-goody two-shoes, self-righteous kind of person. But purification in the Christian life stems from the same philosophy that motivates us when we wash dishes. You do not set your table with dirty dishes, do you? If you do, don't invite me to dinner! No, we wash dishes frequently because they ought to be clean. We do not want to serve our guests with dirty dishes. And God does not do his work with dirty vessels!
We need a periodic cleansing of our lives and hearts. This is what is manifested here. The priests and the Levites had to purify themselves, and they purified the walls, the gates and the people because they were participating in something related to God.
How do we purify ourselves? In the New Testament, it is a simple process. It is not by ritual but by confessing our faults, and believing that God has forgiven them. It is that simple. Confess your failings, your sins, your mistakes. Admit them. Do not hide them. Do not blame somebody else for them. Do not gloss them over. Confess them. Not only to God, but to any who may be involved in them. Then believe that God cleanses you, that he forgives you, that he has restored you to his favor. This is what fills the heart with joy. Remember how simply John puts that in his first letter: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity," (1 Jn 1:9). This word is true. So if we daily find occasions to admit our weaknesses, our faults, our ugliness, our short tempers, and our unhappy words, we can immediately receive from God the gift of forgiveness, and rise purified, to be an instrument of his working.
There is still a third element in this that is found in Verse 31:
I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. (Nehemiah 12:31)
Thankfulness is always part of true celebration. These people were thankful. You can well imagine what they were thankful for. They must have been grateful indeed for the godly leadership of Nehemiah. They were thankful for God's moving of the king of Persia's heart that permitted this whole project to come into being. They were grateful for angelic protection that watched over them as the wall was being rebuilt. They were grateful for the wisdom of God that allowed them to overcome their enemies, for the spirit of unity and cooperation that prevailed, for strength to labor, and for the supply of food and shelter. I think primarily they were thankful for the will to work, which enabled the project to be carried through to completion. This raises the question: Are we properly thankful?
Do we give thanks every day to God for the blessings we are enjoying at the moment? We are so trained by the media to grumble and complain, to insist on something we do not have, to focus on that instead of on all we do have. One of the first signs of a growing, maturing spirit in young Christians is that they begin to give thanks to God for what he has poured into their life; for the opportunities that are before them; and for the present blessings and liberties that they do enjoy. So there are the elements that make up celebration: joyfulness, purity, and thanksgiving.
Then we learn, as this account goes on, that Nehemiah divided his choirs to march around the city.
One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them along with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah, as well as some priests with trumpets, and also Zechariah son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zaccur, the son of Asaph, and his associates -- Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani -- with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the scribe led the procession. 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 house of David to the Water Gate on the east. (Nehemiah 12:31b-37)
This segment began on the western side of the wall, went down around the southern end of the city, and up onto the eastern side where they approached near the temple.
The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I [Nehemiah] followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people -- past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate [the Old Gate], the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard [which is called earlier the Inspection Gate or the Judgment Gate] they stopped. (Nehemiah 12:38-39)
These two choirs marched in different directions around the wall, circumventing the city, and joined together again on the eastern side before the Temple. It must have been a wonderful sight, with colorful banners flying, instruments playing and choirs singing.
Probably it was inspired by the story of Joshua and the taking of Jericho. Joshua was told of the Lord to have the people march around the city of Jericho once a day. Then on the seventh day they were to go around seven times and the trumpets were to be blown. When they did so, the wall of the city collapsed and they were able to take it. I do not know whether that is what inspired this procession about the wall or not. It might also have been Nehemiah's memory of that moonlit ride he himself attempted around the city when he first arrived. He mounted his donkey but found it impossible to go clear around because the valley was strewn with rubble and ruin. That was when he saw the awesome task that lay before him. Perhaps as he remembers that he is determined to celebrate now by marching these choirs around the top of the rebuilt wall.
By the way, in the Old Testament this action of walking around an object or a piece of land is a way of claiming a certain thing for God. Abraham was told to walk around the land of promise and God would give it to him.
This raises the question, have you ever by faith walked around a situation and claimed it for God? Have you prayed your way all around every aspect of it, surrounded it in God's name, and asked him to give it to you? This is the action today that would correspond to this event in Nehemiah. We next read that the choirs joined together and entered the temple for the great service of thanksgiving.
The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, as well as the priests -- Eliakim, Maaseiah, Mijamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets -- and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah [that's Hebrew for Glenn Pickett!]. 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. (Nehemiah 12:41-43)
What a great occasion! All the members of the various families, men, women and children, rejoicing together at what God had accomplished in their midst. The sacrifices which they offered were thank offerings prescribed by the Law as an expression of thanksgiving. There is a correspondence to this in the life of believers today. It is spelled out in these words from the book of Hebrews,
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13:15-16)
Praise and sharing. This is the way to express our thanksgiving, joy and celebration today: praising God for what he has done and sharing with generous support and help to others around us...The final account in the chapter is the great offering which was taken at the service in the temple.
At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, first fruits 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. They performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did also the singers and gatekeepers, according to the commands of David and his son Solomon. For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the singers and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron. (Nehemiah 12:44-47)
Notice three things that are especially pointed out about these offerings. Here are more of these clues that God implants in a paragraph which, if pursued, will throw light on the whole paragraph. Here is one. We are told that these offerings and contributions were given with pleasure: "Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites." The Scriptures carefully inform us that offerings mean nothing if they are not given cheerfully. If you are not pleased as your motive for giving, God does not want your gift. He does not care how big or small it is. If all you are after is to make an impression on others by the size of your gift, God is not interested in that. Jesus told of a widow who put in two tiny pieces of money into the treasury, saying that she had given more than all that the rich people has cast in that day. God would pick up that insignificant amount and use it more mightily than he would the larger gifts of the wealthy. What God looks for always is a note of pleasure, of delight, of cheerfully returning funds to him out of a thankful heart.
My dear friend and patron Dr. H. A. Ironside used to tell the story of an old Scotsman who inadvertently dropped a gold sovereign in the collection bag at a church service. In Scotland, when they take up the offering the ushers use a long pole with a bag on the end of it which they pass among the pews. This old Scotsman put in a gold sovereign by mistake when he meant to put in only a shilling. As soon as he realized his mistake he tried to retrieve his sovereign. But the usher pulled the bag back and said, "Nah, once in, always in!" The old man said, "Ah weel, I'll get credit for it in glory." The usher replied, "Nah, you'll get credit for the shilling!" That is all the old man intended to give. So we are to give as God has given, freely and gladly.
There is a second clue here that states that these offerings were given, "according to the command of David and his son Solomon." David and Solomon lived 500 years before Nehemiah, so here is something that had been passed along through the centuries and had become a tradition by the time Nehemiah led this celebration. But it was a good tradition. It included, as we are told here, the requirement for the singers and the gatekeepers also to perform the service of purification. The ushers (gatekeepers), the instrumentalists, the musicians and the soloists all were to be purified before they performed. They were to be sure that they were not pleasing themselves or performing to get attention. They needed to be cleansed from selfish ambition and self-aggrandizement. People in the public eye can easily be tempted to act from a wrong motive. This speaks of the need for each one who ministers today to purify his or her motives before performing.
What a great tradition that is! I have been grateful through the years for the preponderance of musicians and soloists that have ministered in this church out of a sense of love and for the glory of God. This service of purification, which was a traditional thing, looked back to the fears of David and Solomon that someone would misuse the service they were called to minister in for their own glory.
Then there is still a third point made, in the closing sentence of this paragraph. It says, "They also set aside the portion for the other Levites." They were careful to take care of others who were not able to be there, or who were busy performing and therefore did not have opportunity to share in the offerings. Whatever the reason, they recognized that they deserved a part of the offering as well.
This is a beautiful picture of the oneness of the nation Israel. God was constantly seeking to teach these people that they belonged to each other. They were not individualists, doing their own thing, but they were workers together with God. I do not know any truth that is more important in the body of Christ than to recognize that God uses people different than we are. They have different gifts and yet he uses them. We need to appreciate them for that. We must recognize that our way of serving God is not the only way but that we belong to and need one another. We need more emphasis today on how important other Christians are to us.
Some time ago I clipped out this modern parable called, The Carpenter's Tools:
Brother Hammer, because he was too noisy, was asked by the other tools to leave the shop. But he said, "If I am to leave this carpenter's shop, Brother Drill must go too. He is so insignificant that he makes very little impression." Brother Drill arose and said, "All right, but Brother Screw must also go. You have to turn him around again and again to get him anywhere." Brother Screw responded, "If you wish, I will go, but Brother Plane must leave also. All his work is on the surface; there is no depth to it." Brother Plane replied, "Well, Brother Rule will have to withdraw if I do, for he is always measuring folks as though he were the only one who is right." Brother Rule complained against Brother Sandpaper, saying, "I just don't care; he is rougher than he ought to be. He is always rubbing people the wrong way."
In the midst of the discussion, the Carpenter of Nazareth walked in to perform his day's work. He put on his apron and went to the bench to make a pulpit from which to preach the gospel to the poor. He employed the screw, the drill, the sandpaper, the saw, the hammer, the plane and all the other tools.
After the days' work was over and the pulpit was finished, Brother Saw arose and said, "Brethren, I perceive that all of us are laborers together with God."
And so we are! We ought to take special care to recognize that mutual cooperation and mutual support of one another is part of the service of celebration. So let us celebrate with joy, in purity, and with thanksgiving unto God!
LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD MEN
If you like stories with happy endings you will not like Chapter 13 of Nehemiah. You will probably feel that the prophet should have quit with the great celebration, recorded in Chapter 12, of the dedication of the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem. This closing chapter is really the story of a backward slide on the part of these people while Nehemiah was gone for awhile. "When the cat's away, the mice will play," goes the old proverb. But the trouble actually began on the very day of the dedication of the wall, while Nehemiah was still present.
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, 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.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent. (Nehemiah 13:1-3)
In Chapter 10, the Israelites, after a very solemn time of rededication of their lives, took a vow that they would not intermarry with the members of these other races. They bound themselves with a curse and an oath to obey the commands of the Law of God. And yet here, some ten years later, that covenant has already been broken. Many Ammonites and Moabites are found in the congregation of Israel. They got there because Israelite men married the daughters of Ammonite and Moabite families, something which God had strictly forbidden in the Law of Moses.
You may be disturbed by this apparent case of racial discrimination, or at least bigotry, on the part of Israel. Why should they exclude from their assembly the Ammonites and Moabites, the inhabitants of two countries located on the eastern side of the Dead Sea (the area which we call Jordan today)? Some of you are probably asking, "What is wrong with Ammonites and Moabites?" We live in a day when no one can stand to be excluded from anything. Women want to join men's clubs. Mexicans want to enter the United States without any restrictions whatsoever. Homosexuals are demanding marriage rights. People resent private beaches, private parks -- private anything! If this happened today you can be sure there would be demonstrations in front of the walls of Jerusalem. You would see people bearing placards saying, "Ammonites and Moabites demand equal rights!" This is the spirit of the times in which we live.
But as always in the Scriptures, there was a good reason for what God was doing here, although it may sound a bit strange to us. When the Israelites left Egypt they came to the edge of the Promised Land, into the country of the Ammonites and the Moabites. But these people did not offer them the normal desert hospitality of food and water. Instead, they hired the prophet Balaam to curse them. Balaam is forever famous because he was rebuked by his donkey. When he was trying to ride to the hilltop to curse the people, as he was hired to do, the donkey saw an angel of the Lord standing in the pathway. The beast refused to go past the angel although the prophet beat him three different times. Finally, God gave the donkey a voice and he rebuked his master: "Why are you beating me?" Then the Lord opened the prophet's eyes and he, too, saw the angel. It is a humiliating thing to be rebuked by a donkey! This is a great lesson to us. There are oftentimes hidden reasons why God is acting the way he does. We need to be very careful that we do not violate those reasons and insist on our own way against all obstacles.
It was actually nine centuries before Nehemiah that Israel was mistreated by the Ammonites and the Moabites. Some of you must be saying, "How long does God stay mad anyhow? Nine hundred years is a very long time." This is why many critics of these Old Testament stories misrepresent the God of Israel as being vindictive and easily angered. They accuse him of overreacting to situations like this, of cursing people for no good reason and then allowing them to remain under that curse century after century. This offends their sense of justice. Perhaps some of you feel the same way. But the attempt of the Ammonites and the Moabites to curse Israel reveals something about their hearts. What we often forget about God is that he is reading the hearts of men and women. He sees what is going on in our inner lives. We cannot conceal our motives and our attitudes from him. Therefore we often misjudge what God is doing because we think he is being unfair. But he is reacting to something that is much deeper. We will discover that when we check the reasons why he allowed this long-enduring curse.
In Chapter 9 of the book of Ezra, there is an account of a similar situation that arose thirty years before Nehemiah's day. Ezra had led a group back from Babylon to Jerusalem and he, too, discovered that the people were intermarrying with these neighboring tribes, contrary to the Law of Moses. Here is what the account says in Ezra 9:
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me [Ezra] and said, "The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness." (Ezra 9:1-2)
That was a cause of great distress to Ezra. If you read the whole account, you will see that he was actually appalled into silence over this terrible violation. In the midst of his prayer that follows he adds these words,
"But now, O our God, what can we say after this? For we have disregarded the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: 'The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not further their welfare or prosperity at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.'" (Ezra 9:10-12)
We see from this that there was good reason why God forbade this social intercourse with the Ammonites and the Moabites. Their practices were terribly degrading. If they were allowed to intermarry with Israelites they would interject into the life of Israel some of these detestable customs.
But there is even more to it than this. What we must never forget in reading these Old Testament stories is that God is using a kind of visual aid to teach his people, both in Israel and in the church today, some very vital lessons. These stories are indicating something going on within -- and not only among the Israelites but in the church as well. The Apostle Paul tells us that "all these things happened to Israel as examples for us upon whom the ends of the ages have come," (1 Cor 10:11).
What do these stories reveal is happening with us? If you trace the Ammonites and the Moabites back to their beginnings, you will discover that they are relatives of Israel. Ammon and Moab, the founders of these countries, were the sons of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. During the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the fire and brimstone was raining down upon these wicked cities, angels led Lot and his family up onto the mountainside. Lot's wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, but Lot and his two daughters hid in a cave in the mountain while the cities burned before them. It is a rather sordid tale of how these girls, evidently feeling they were the last two women left on earth, contrived to trick their father into laying with them sexually. They both conceived and bore sons. One was named Ammon and the other Moab, and they went on to found tribes and countries of the same name. So Ammon and Moab are relatives, yet they are eternal enemies of Israel.
Do you have relatives like that whom you would love to get rid of but you cannot because they are related to you? They are troublesome, obnoxious and hard to live with, and yet there is nothing you can do about them because they are relatives. That is the way Ammon and Moab were with respect to Israel. They were constantly harassing Israel, trying to undermine them. They were forever trying to corrupt them, pollute them and destroy them. But Israel was forbidden to wipe them out because they were related to them.
The New Testament tells us that we have an enemy like that. It is called "the flesh," the old, Adamic nature that we inherited when we were born because we are children of Adam. The flesh is that inner commitment to self-centeredness that afflicts us all. I looked in the mirror this morning and I saw my greatest problem! It is I. This is true of all of us. There is something about us that wants to be king, wants to be lord, wants to be served, wants to be ministered to, wants to regulate everything, wants to run the world with ourselves at the center of things.
The New Testament calls this "the flesh." We would love to get rid of it sometimes because it tricks us and traps us, corrupts us and injures us. We deplore it at times and see how miserable it can make us. It leads us into hurtful actions that we repent of later. Sometimes you would like to get inside and rip that thing out and get rid of it forever. But you cannot because it is related to you. Yet we are called to live above it, in victory, while we struggle with it. We are called to overcome it, and to walk with God nevertheless. That is the struggle of the Christian life. All this is beautifully represented here in these stories. In Verses 4-9 we get the detail of how this came about.
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 [this is Tobiah the Ammonite, one of the enemies who consistently opposed the rebuilding of the wall and gave Nehemiah much trouble and opposition], 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 oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests. 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 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. I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah's household goods out of the room. 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. (Nehemiah 13:4-9)
This involved political intrigue sounds very much like what goes on in Washington, DC. The high priest had allowed his grandson to marry into this Ammonite family. We learn later in this chapter that he had married the daughter of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, who was an ally of Tobiah the Ammonite. Both of these were vitriolic, bitter enemies of Nehemiah. This cozy alliance led to an invitation to Tobiah to actually move into the temple itself. To make room for him the high priest took over the storeroom that was set apart for the grain, oil and incense used by the Levites in their purification and ritual ceremonies. So there were two wrongs involved. An Ammonite and his family were actually living in the temple of God, contrary to the Law of Moses; and second, in order to permit that they had deliberately defrauded the Levites of their rights of storage.
When Nehemiah returned he went into prompt and passionate action. He threw the baggage out, fumigated the room, and returned the oil, grain and incense to their proper place. Many people feel that he overreacted. Today we do not get upset by the presence of evil and think it strange that a man should act like Nehemiah did. We have lost to a great degree our ability to express outrage and public indignation over things that are wrong. Read the letters to the papers, where the public has an opportunity to speak out, and you will see how infrequently outrage over evil is expressed. Nehemiah apparently loses his temper, behaves disgracefully and throws the people out with great violence.
We must remember, however, that this is similar to the incident in the New Testament when Jesus came into the temple and found it filled with money-changers making extravagant income off the sale of the sacrifices and offerings required in the temple. It was a sordid scene of commercializing the worship of Israel. Jesus reacted in a way similar to Nehemiah's response here. He made a whip and went slashing and flashing around the Temple, upsetting tables and driving the moneychangers out -- much to the distress of many pacifists ever since! It indicates that there is a time for drastic action. There is a time for strong stands against evil which others have indifferently accepted.
The story reveals clearly the way evil works. It invades us quietly. Before we are aware of it we have compromised ourselves and gone along with standards widely accepted around. We find the people of God have often been corrupted and polluted by this kind of thing. There are many instances of it today. When it comes down to individuals this is a picture of our struggle with our flesh. What this story depicts is the times when we must take a strong stand against evil in ourselves. We must be prepared to be drastic and take often painful action to clear up the things that are wrong in our own affairs. This is certainly true today when people have gone along with the world's attitudes toward divorce, or pornography, or the use of drugs or alcohol. Many Christians shrug their shoulders and allow evil to take root in their own lives. This story pictures the way these false forces can invade our lives and take up rooms in the very temple of our spirit, polluting and destroying us in the process. Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: "If your right hand offends you, cut it off. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out," (Matt 5:29-30). Take action. Do not allow these evil things to remain. Even if it takes painful effort to do so, end it! If you have allowed your heart to be involved with something that is evil and it is painful to give it up -- you must give it up. That is what Jesus is saying. Bear the pain and stand firm. That is also what this great story teaches us. Nehemiah went still further, as Verses 10-12 record:
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. 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. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms. (Nehemiah 13:10-12)
This neglect of the Temple is a result of the practice of intermarrying with Ammonites and Moabites. When Tobiah moved into the temple and they had to throw out the grain and oil and incense that the Levites needed, it meant that the Levites had no supplies to work with. Since they could not perform their ministry, they could not even be adequately supported, so they went to work in the fields to earn a living for themselves. As a result, the services of the temple were sorely neglected. The prophet Malachi inveighs against this same thing. He calls the people to face the fact that the temple was being neglected. The center of their life as a nation was not being maintained.
It is similar to an individual who allows his Bible reading and his prayer time to disappear from his life. Soon he begins to live like the world around. False forces start to creep in and take over. What it calls for is drastic, deliberate action to change the whole picture. This is what Nehemiah did. He rebuked the officials, we are told. Insistent on obeying the Scriptures, he calls them to account. Then he calls on the people to bring in the tithes and the oil and the incense again and to refill the temple storage areas, allowing the Levites to go back to work. Thus God's order was restored in the nation. There is still a third step here:
I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because these men were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their brothers. (Nehemiah 13:13)
And, in a characteristic prayer, Nehemiah adds:
Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services. (Nehemiah 13:14)
Notice how representative this group is that he chooses. There is a priest, a scribe, a Levite, and a layman. All four represent various aspects of the life of Israel and share one great quality. He tells us: "these men were considered trustworthy." They were faithful men. I have discovered that today faithfulness is a quality not highly esteemed, although we often pay lip service to it. It is disheartening to me at times to see how few people take seriously the responsibility to carry through faithfully what they have undertaken.
Faithfulness is the quality that God admires. Paul says in First Corinthians that those who minister in the church are "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, and it is required of a steward that he be found faithful," (1 Corinthians 4:1). That is the primary thing God looks for: the ability to hang in with an assignment until you are through; the willingness to fulfill responsibility year after year after year and not need to be praised or thanked or publicly encouraged in order to do so; to work unto the Lord; to show up on time and to not leave until the work is done. I find that quality is often missing in people today, especially in men leaders.
Our former associate, David Roper, is coming out soon with a wonderful book written just for men. When it is published I hope every man in this congregation will get a copy of it. It is rich, and it has a great title, Men Made of Mud. Here is what David says in his opening words:
Most of my friends here in Idaho consider themselves real men. They're outdoors men and sportsmen. They hunt and fish. They hang their snowmobiles upside down under the snow cornices on West Mountain. They hie themselves across the desert in 4x4's at what I consider terminal velocities. I have one friend who pulled a grizzly off his wife with his bare hands. I saw another ride a log straight down a canyon wall. He almost broke the sound barrier on the way down and did break two ribs at the bottom, but to hear him tell it, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Yet for all our macho I think we're mostly uneasy about our manhood: no one seems to know for sure what it means. We have to be told: "Real men don't eat quiche; they never bunt; they don't have 'meaningful dialogs' and rarely do they think about the meaning of life." Real men love John Wayne, Monday Night Football, chain saws, and Coors. Pete Rose is a real man and, according to Time Magazine, so is Maggie Thatcher!
I am afraid he rang the bell on that one. He has described what a great many men think of manhood. But not Nehemiah. He does not look for someone who is macho or has a great personality. He looks for someone who is faithful. God honors that. Those who serve God acceptably in this life he will reward with the words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," (Matthew 25:21).
I have learned through the years to look for four qualities in leaders, whether they be men or women. Let me share them with you: I look first for a searching mind: a person who is mentally alert, who has curiosity about life, who wants to learn all the time, who never gives up learning. Such a person is always reading, always listening, always thinking about what he or she hears and trying to reason out what is behind it. A searching mind has an innate curiosity. It is aware of its lack of knowledge and keeps hoping to remedy the problem by learning more all the time. That is the first thing I look for.
Then, second, I look for a humble heart: someone whose ego is not on the line all the time, who must be praised and honored and encouraged in order to get them to do anything at all; who gets disgruntled and turned off if they do not get recognized. I look for someone who understands that service is a privilege; that power is not conferred upon you by an office but by serving people; that becoming a servant to others is the means of awakening a sense of gratitude on their part that makes them willing to follow what you suggest. People who learn how to lead that way are always tremendously useful in God's work and in God's kingdom. Jesus himself taught us that. "He who would be greatest among you" (Luke 22:26), he said, "let him become the servant of all," (Mark 10:44). So a humble heart is a very necessary qualification.
Third, I look for an evident gift: God's people are gifted people. There is not one of the members of the body of Christ who has not been equipped by the Holy Spirit with a special ability to do something. When they know what it is, they always enjoy doing it. It is their delight. It is not a burden any more than wings are a burden to a bird. It is a delight to them. I look for people who have the gift for what we are asking them to do because they will stay with it and enjoy it to the end.
And then, fourth, undergirding all the others and making them possible, is a faithful spirit: someone who will not quit; someone who sees his work as a ministry of service to the Lord himself; who has undertaken it out of gratitude in his own life and heart and no matter how tough it gets and how rough it gets, will not quit. That is what Nehemiah found.
Isn't it marvelous as we go through this account to recognize how beautifully each of these qualities is seen in Nehemiah himself? What a great administrative gift he had! How he could organize things, put people to work and help them understand what they had to do! And yet, how faithful he was in this. Of all the people who observed the terrible ruin of Jerusalem, who knew about its walls broken down and its gates burned, it took a man far off in the kingdom of Persia to come and do something about it. At great personal cost, and at much expenditure of labor and of commitment, he came and undertook the project and carried it through. He never quit. And when the enemies gathered against him, that did not slow him down. He stayed with it, encouraging others and pressing on until the job was accomplished. That is the lesson of this book.
God looks for these kind of people to change the age in which they live. That is what we are called to do today. We are all involved in it, not just the obvious, visible leaders. Someone in the couples class this morning commented on the fact that the work of the ministry is going on all the time around here by people in their shops, homes and offices. That is where the ministry is being carried on. What is required are faithful men and women who are willing to carry this through to the end.
Let us remember that when we read this prayer of Nehemiah in Verse 14. (He repeats it twice more in this chapter). Some people think it sounds self-serving, that he is concerned that God is going to forget him and not reward him adequately. But that is the wrong way to read this prayer. What he is doing is recognizing his own frailty and his own tendency to self-deception. He is saying, in effect, "Lord, I have done all this but you may see it differently than I. You may see something in me that would cause you to blot this all out of your book. If you feel that way, show it to me." That is what he is asking.
It is really the same prayer that David prayed at the end of Psalm 139. Everybody loves Psalm 139. It is a great psalm about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made; how well God knows us; our downsitting and our uprising; that if we take the wings of the morning and travel to the uttermost parts of the earth, still God is there; how he watches over us; how he guards us and keeps us and knows our thoughts, etc. Then it ends with this wonderful prayer, "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts and see if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting," (Psa 139:23-24). That is a wonderfully honest prayer. It is saying, "Lord, I do not know myself very well. I deceive myself easily. I think I am doing fine, but you may see a lot of things that are terribly wrong with what I am doing. So Lord, search me and know me and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me to the point where I can see that, too." That is what he is asking.
And that is what Nehemiah is praying here. "Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services." It is a great prayer for all of us as we come to the conclusion of this service. God has placed us in a critical moment of human history. The voices of all the great leaders of the past are silent, as far as this generation is concerned.
Who is going to reach the drug addicts? Who is going to reach the yuppies who are trying to climb the ladder of success, seeking to satisfy themselves by material gain and possessions? Who is going to reach the hundreds of thousands of spiritually bankrupt people all around us? They do not come to church. Who is going to talk to them? God has called us to a ministry to reach out to them. And we need God's help in doing so.
Therefore this is a call for faithful leadership that will stay with the task and see that it gets done, whether it be within the confines of a church ministry itself, or whether it be touching the world around us. This is what God calls us to.
PREVENTING BURNOUT AND PRESERVING POWER
As we come to the closing study in this great book of Nehemiah it has been a refreshing thing for me to see how God greatly used this remarkable man, cup bearer to the King of Persia, to restore the worship of Jehovah to the nation of Judah.
The title of this message, Preventing Burnout and Preserving Power, tells the whole story of Nehemiah's final acts. It is the account of his reform after his second return from Babylon to Jerusalem. It is the story, as we will see, of the reinstatement of Sabbath observances and his refusal to permit the intermarriage of Jews with pagan peoples. You might well be asking, "What does that all have to do with burnout and power?" I am glad you asked that! I will attempt to answer it as this passage unfolds.
Let us begin in Chapter 13 with Verse 15, the restoring of the Sabbath regulations. Nehemiah says:
In those days I saw men 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. Men 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. I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, "What is this wicked thing you are doing-desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn't your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath." (Nehemiah 13:15-18)
Even today in Israel you cannot get a hot meal in a Jewish hotel from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. The elevators will not be operating. You must use the stairs to get to your room. The shops are closed. Buses quit running, all because it is the Sabbath. This causes a great deal of inconvenience to tourists. Even many Jews do not like it. But the orthodox Jewish groups are powerful enough that they can require the whole country to observe the Sabbath Day whether they like it or not.
Even in Nehemiah's day we can see that this was a burdensome requirement to the people. No work was to be done and no business to be carried out, making trade very inconvenient. On his return from Babylon, Nehemiah found that in the twelve years he was away people had begun again to ignore the Sabbath day requirements. The streets were full of traffic. The stores were wide open.
His reaction is one of shock, not so much at what was happening, because this had happened before, but at the ease with which the people seemed to forget the lessons of the past. He reminds them that this violation is a serious thing. "What are you doing?" he cries. "Don't you know that God takes the Sabbath seriously? All the hurt, calamity and disaster which we have been going through has been caused, according to the Scripture, by the failure of our forefathers to observe the Sabbath regulations."
Then, using his full authority as the governor, Nehemiah immediately orders some changes.
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. Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. But I warned them and said, "Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will lay hands on you." From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. (Nehemiah 13:19-22a)
It is clear that Nehemiah was deeply concerned by this disregard of the Law. He saw it not merely as an ignoring of certain traditional ritual, but as something that God took very seriously. He is intent on trying to correct the difficulties that had caused so much of the problem of Israel in the past. So he orders the gates to be closed at sunset on Friday. Those who camped outside the walls, waiting for the regulations to be ended to come in and begin their selling, he orders driven away from the city. He does not want them even hanging around outside. He requires the Levites to cleanse themselves and to guard the gates so that no one violates the Sabbath.
Then in a closing prayer in Verse 22 Nehemiah humbly prays that God will guide him and bless him in this zealous concern and expression.
Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love. (Nehemiah 13:22b)
What does this all mean for us? Should we also keep the Sabbath by refraining from work and travel? A lot of people today still think so: Seventh Day Adventists, most of whom are godly, warm-hearted Christian believers, think that it is wrong to celebrate Sunday as the Lord's day. They claim that Saturday is the Sabbath day and that we ought to be holding church services on that day, refraining from work, and following the limitations that the Law required.
In the highly honored film Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell, the young Scottish athlete, refused to run a race on the Sabbath day because he had been brought up in the Presbyterian church to regard Sunday as the Sabbath. I think he was mistaken in that, but his actions are a wonderful picture of the teaching of the New Testament that "whatsoever is not of faith is sin," (Rom 14:23). He would have violated his conscience had he not observed what he had been taught was right.
But as we have already seen throughout this book, these regulations imposed upon Israel, and these limitations, especially regarding the Sabbath, were what the New Testament calls "shadows," pictures of something even more important that God wants observed. God teaches that truth by means of these regulations, these pictures and shadows, but what he really wants is the truth they are portraying. And that truth, of course, is what the New Testament wants Christians to observe. You observe the Sabbath when you fulfill what the Sabbath portrays. What is that?
At the heart of the Sabbath is the word "rest." The Sabbath is intended for man, that he may learn to rest. Here is where the problem of burnout enters. We are a restless people today. One of the major problems in Silicon Valley is stress and burnout. People cannot handle life any more because of the tremendous pressures they are under.
I heard recently of a man who ran up to an airline office and said, "Give me a ticket." They said, "Where to?" He replied, "Anywhere. I've got business everywhere!" That is the kind of pressure that some have to live under these days.
The Sabbath, to put it in modern terms, is God's stress management program! It is how to prevent burnout -- how to recover from too much pressure and catch up with yourself. It is how to gather yourself together, and become able to handle the work you must do, without falling apart or being emotionally damaged. The first thing God emphasized in giving the Sabbath, of course, was that human bodies need rest. You cannot keep working day after day without exacting a tremendous toll on your body. Our bodies, even as believers, are not redeemed. They grow weary.
I spent this past week at Dallas Theological Seminary and spoke sixteen times in four days. One day I spoke six times, ending up with a large home Bible study in Fort Worth. I have to tell you I am feeling a bit of stress today. My body is weary. I am looking forward to tomorrow (which is the Sabbath for me), when I can enjoy a little rest and recovery.
According to the Word of God the body must have one day in seven to rest. The mind and the emotions require it, too. We are under so much tension today from so many demands upon us that our emotions sometimes get out of joint. We find ourselves growing irascible, testy and short-tempered. We are unable to keep control at times. These are symptoms of approaching burnout. The spirit within, the very center of our being, requires time to meditate, to contemplate and relate to life. We need time to see the big picture and pull back for a bit from things around. God has provided for this in the Sabbath.
There are two reasons given in the Scripture for the inauguration of the Sabbath. Most of us know the first one, which is found in Exodus 20, Verse 11. There we are told that because God finished creation in six days, and at the end of the six days rested on the seventh day he, therefore, asked his people to rest after six days of labor.
You have to ask yourself, why did God rest? God is not a man. He does not get weary. The answer is, he rested because he was through! He did what he intended to do. He accomplished his objective. What he is teaching by that is that man, too, must recognize a limit to his work. There is a time to say you are through. There is a need to let go, to stop, to allow the body, mind, and spirit to recognize its limitations, and be content with them.
The second reason the Sabbath was given is often ignored. It is found in Deuteronomy Chapter 5, Verse 15. God said to Israel, "Remember you were slaves in Egypt. The Lord brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God commands you to observe the Sabbath day," (Deut 5:15).
That is a different reason from that of creation. They were to rest in order to reflect on God's ability to work beyond the labors they had already completed. Israel did not deliver itself from Egypt. It could not. When they came to the Red Sea they panicked. They did not know how they were going to get through the waters. The Egyptian army was coming on like forty acres of horseradish behind them, and the Israelites were afraid. But God opened the waters before them. They were delivered with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, they were to think of that when they observed the Sabbath day, the day of rest.
So there are two aspects of the Sabbath -- creation and redemption. There are two forms of rest. There is a rest of cessation; a ceasing from our own works. As the much-loved old hymn has it,
Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and Thou alone.
I cannot contribute to my own redemption. My good works do not save me, nor can they. That is the "rest" of the new creation. It is to cease from your own works and trust God in the work that he has done for you. But then there is the rest of rejoicing in the mighty delivering power of God. That deliverance is a process. It goes on beyond the rest of salvation to the rest of accomplishment. It is learning how to keep calm and poised, to not become overwrought by anxiety or pressure but to keep steady because you are looking to God to work in what you are doing. That is a rest of faith in the mighty hand of God.
Jesus spoke of both of these in one wonderful sentence found in Matthew 11. "Come to me," he says, "all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," (Matthew 11:28). Just come, he says, that is all. "Come to me. Trust me. Rest upon what I have already done, and I will give you a rest." This is the rest of regeneration. We enter become a new creation. Then he said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me," (Matthew 11:29a) [that is a process] "...and you will find rest for your souls," (Matt 11:29c). So there is a rest that is given and a rest that is found, as we walk on with the Lord.
Both of these are what God is concerned with in the Sabbath. This is what it seeks to picture. If we are doing these we are fulfilling the Sabbath as God intended the it to be fulfilled. Stop your own work. Stop trying to save yourself. Trust his work for you. And then obey him. Follow him, learn of him, accompany him throughout your life. You will discover God working through you, doing mighty, delivering things which you could not do. That is the rest of accomplishment. Watch God at work!
We hear much about these rests these days. We sing about them in our hymns. We talk about them in churches. But it seems to me that the second aspect of rest is very little observed. I find many people looking for emotional help from a psychiatrist or a counselor. They are seeking human beings who will support and understand them. But they are ignoring what the New Testament offers. We have a High Priest, the book of Hebrews says, in order that we may "come boldly unto the throne of grace, ... to find grace to help in time of need," (Hebrews 4:16). Very few people seem to rely upon that provision of strength and grace from on high to carry them through the pressures and the burdens of life.
Do you see now why I call the Sabbath God's stress management program? Burnout is overstress. We need to stop and rest, and learn what God can do beyond what we have done. I have learned in my own life to detect certain signs of stress. When I begin to get under the pile and feel anxious and pressured, I develop an itch in various places on my body. I have learned to recognize that immediately as a sign of stress. It cannot be cured with medicine, so I have trained myself to stop and take what I call "a mini-Sabbath." Let me suggest something to you. If you feel pressured at any time, try to get a half hour alone. That is about all you need:
Start with taking ten deep breaths to relax your physical body. Ask God to speak to you during this special time. Begin to review your life for the past few weeks: How much you have been driven? -- the pressure of problems, and so on. Then ask God to help you put order and priority into your life. Take time to evaluate where you are spiritually. Make some new commitments. Write down those items that you feel are really important. Ask yourself, "If I only had a month to live, how would I spend my time?" Put your focus on God at work in your life. That is observing the Sabbath. That is God's stress management program.
The final problem that Nehemiah faces was the tendency so common in Israel to ignore the prohibitions against intermarriage with pagan peoples. When he returned to Jerusalem, he found the people again disobeying the Law.
Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 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. (Nehemiah 13:23-24)
It was true then as it is today that when the fathers disobey, it is the children who suffer. These children were forgetting how to communicate in the language of Judah. Pagan tribes in the Old Testament portray the world and its ways of operation. The parallel in the church is very plain. When Christians begin to adopt the world's values and the world's ways, we invariably turn our children away from the things that make for stability and strength.
In Texas last week, a pastor who has been closely associated with us here told me about what had happened to him recently. The church where he was the pastor had elders who insisted on running the church like a business. They ignored what the New Testament says about the way elders are to function among the flock of God. They decided that they, as successful businessmen, knew more about that than the New Testament did. They introduced secular programming and ways of making decisions. They elected a chairman who would have the ultimate say. The buck would stop with him. They asked the pastor not to teach expositorily from the Scripture because it would take too long and there was much of the Bible they were not interested in hearing. He objected to that, and so, finally, he was replaced by a man who would do what they said. The result in the church, this pastor told me with tears running down his face, was that the young people were forsaking the church and turning to drugs and sexual promiscuity, no longer understanding the spiritual language of the people of God. That is why Nehemiah is understandably upset by this. He takes drastic action.
I rebuked them and called curses down on them. [Literally, "I pronounced them cursed."] I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. [I have been studying this as the way to handle a congregation that does not behave itself!] 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 of for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?" One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. (Nehemiah 13:25-28)
This is, as I suggested last week, an Old Testament equivalent of Jesus cleansing the temple. I want to make clear that neither our Lord's action in the temple nor these actions by Nehemiah are a literal model of how Christians are to behave.
Last week after the message, a very pleasant and respectful young lady approached me and suggested that this church was not doing its share in resisting the terrible plague of abortion because we did not join with the group called "Operation Rescue." This is a group which publicly demonstrates in front of abortion clinics. They are willing to use their own bodies to oppose abortion. She suggested that Nehemiah is a good example of how to act when you are upset by something that is wrong. I tried to point out to her, as I hope I can make clear to you, that we must never forget that these actions in the Old Testament are shadows. They are not something we are to repeat literally ourselves.
According to the New Testament, we are to move beyond the external teaching mechanism of the shadows to the meaning of what these shadows portray. It is the fulfillment of the shadow that is our model to follow. There is much difficulty in the world today because people have tried to carry these Old Testament restrictions over into today.
The struggle that is going on in South Africa over apartheid is a case in point. The Dutch people tried to take literally the requirements of the Old Testament to separate the races and to not allow their children to intermarry. That is the philosophy back of apartheid. The painful result is very visible in South African society today.
How are we to behave then? Here, Nehemiah portrays a commendable zeal in acting. He drives these people away because he was so offended by the fact that the grandson of the high priest had married the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite, the worshiper of the god Horon, who had opposed him when he first came to Israel to rebuild the wall. What are we to do today in fulfillment of this shadow?
This is a picture of the foolishness of trying to mix the world's ways and God's ways. That is what is portrayed by intermarrying with foreign women. When a church tries to run itself, not according to the teaching of the New Testament but by business processes and by the philosophies of the world around, seeking honor and prestige and perhaps installing a hierarchy in its leadership, etc., it is doing exactly what this warns us against. God's work is to be done in God's way, and to borrow from the world is to introduce confusion into the camp. There is an explanation of Nehemiah's concern and of his prayer in these closing verses.
Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times and for the first fruits. (Nehemiah 13:29-31a)
And he closes his book with these words:
Remember me with favor, O my God. (Nehemiah 13:31b)
The key here, of course, is these words, "because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood." The priestly office was to be a picture of the ministry of Jesus. He is the great High Priest who has come to meet man in his lostness and weakness and to restore him. The church is called to the same work and the same ministry, as the Body of Christ.
Jesus himself defined the work of the church for us in that wonderful scene in the synagogue of Nazareth, recorded in Luke 4, where he quoted from Isaiah these words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to give liberty to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed, and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord," (Luke 4:18-19). That is the work of the church: to preach to people the good news of the gospel, to minister to people's hurts, to lift the burden of guilt in their lives, to teach them how to be free from sinful habits, how to oppose the powers of darkness and the occult world, to understand that God is in control of life, and to give hope to the hopeless. That is the work of the church, and that is always what suffers when the church begins to operate in the ways of the world.
I want to close by reading a brief quotation from John R. W. Stott who puts this very well. He says of the church,
Our motive must be concern for the glory of God, not the glory of the Church or our own personal glory. Our message must be the good news of God, as given by Christ and His apostles, not the traditions of men or our own opinions. Our manpower must be the whole Church of God, and every member of it, not a privileged few who want to retain certain ministry as their own prerogative. Our dynamic must be the Spirit of God, not the power of human personality, or organization or eloquence. Without these priorities we shall be silent when we ought to be vocal.
So Nehemiah ends his book on a very practical note. This is the way Christians change the world. This is the way we affect the times in which we live. We are not here to be a tightly knit, quiet community, operating for our own benefit. We are here to change the world!
Audio Sermons on Nehemiah by James M. Boice
Ray Stedman messages: Copyright: ©
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