Happily ever after? - sermon notes

Text: Nehemiah 11-12

It has been a long, long wait. 1500 years before, the Lord God had promised to Abraham that he would make his descendants into a great nation, and that through him all the peoples of the earth would be blessed.

Over the years, the fulfilment of this promise had sometimes seemed very near. Think of the Exodus, and the conquest of the promised land and the golden age when David was king. At other times, it seemed very remote indeed. And none more so than when, despite the repeated warnings of the prophets, the nation plummeted into a moral and spiritual tail-spin. It was all but obliterated from the map and its people carried away into long-term exile.

Over the past century some of the Jews have begun returning from exile back to the land God had promised them. But they were still pretty much in disarray. No more a proud, strong, nation, Judah was a tiny province within the mighty Persian empire. They were without effective leaderhip. Their identity as the people of God was blurred almost beyond recognition. And their holy city of Jerusalem was little more than a pile of rubble.

Nehemiah, you will recall, was himself an exiled Jew and a respected official in the court of the Persian emperor. We learned from ch 1 how he was given permission to return to Jerusalem to oversee the re-building of the city walls. Aided by Ezra, the godly scribe, he galvanised the people, and they set to work. Despite persistent opposition from their enemies, they got the job done in less than two months.

But, hang on, something is missing. Jerusalem is looking in great shape, but hardly anyone is living there.

A city without people is just a shell, a ghost town. The city of God needs to be a living, thriving, worshiping community. So, at the beginning of ch11, we find Nehemiah masterminding the re-population of the city. One person in ten is to move in from the surrounding countryside and take up residence within those newly-repaired walls. How ready would we be to uproot, let’s say from leafy suburbia to the inner city, in the interests of the kingdom of God? Wherever you go, wherever you live, the importance of simply being in the right place, the place where God wants you to be and where God can best use you for his kingdom, should never be under-estimated.

The rest of ch11 and the first half of ch12 is taken up with one of those long lists of names that we find from time to in the book of Nehemiah. Most of the names in this long list are otherwise completely unknown to us. But the list served a vital purpose at the time. It draws on over a century’s worth of family records to establish who is truly Jewish, and who is qualified to serve in the temple.

But this list of names was not only important then; it has meaning and significance for us today.

A senior church leader in the US has recently gone on record as saying that ‘personal salvation’ is a ‘heresy’. The grace of God, she is reported as saying, is given to the believing community, not to the individual member of that community. Well, I think she’s right in what she affirms, but wrong in what she denies.

Think about it.

On the one hand, these lists of names testify to the importance of those countless numbers of individual believers who have gone before us. ‘The story of Christian work and witness over the years is something far more enriching than a record of famous names and remarkable events. It is about millions of unremembered but committed believers, ordinary church members, forgotten ministers, evangelists, Bible Class leaders, Sunday School teachers, sick visitors, caterers, cleaners, door stewards and, most important of all, undaunted intercessors.’ And let us not imagine that we ourselves are forgotten. History may never record our names in the annals of the great and the good. But there is a book that contains the name of each one of the redeemed of God – the book of Life.

But, on the other hand, these lists of names also confirm the importance of community in the sight of God. Considering what was accomplished in the days of Nehemiah, none of these individuals could possibly have achieved it on their own. There was partnership, co-operation, the deployment of varied and complementary skills and abilities. There were priests, worship leaders, prayers, thanksgivers, musicians, singers, administrators, security guards, and so on. You can’t have a choir of one, or a band that consists of one solitoary double-bass. Each is dependent on the contribution of the others. What’s the point of a priest without people to represent before God? What’s the point of a leader without anyone to lead?

When I was youngster, we used to sing,

One man’s hands can’t tear a prison down
Two men’s hands can’t tear a prison down
But if two and two and fifty make a million
We’ll see that day come round.

Yes indeed: it is by the co-operative effort of differently-gifted individuals that God builds and his kingdom. The individual and the community are both precious in his sight.

And it is to the believing community that we now turn our attention with the 2nd half of chapter 12 before us (v27 onwards).

For there is just one, gloriously happy, job left for Nehemiah to do. See those city walls? Just 2 months before, they had been in ruins. Do you remember how Nehemiah had conducted a furtive night-time inspection of what was left of the walls (ch2)? But now there is to be a public dedication of the completed building work. Do you recall how Sanballat and Tobiah had tried in every way to undermine the project? Tobiah had mocked them by saying that if even a fox climbed onto the walls they would collapse, 4:3. But now the people are going to march round the city on top of those walls, making a thorough and unhihibited din. As v27 puts it, they were going to ‘celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.’

Please note that this is not an act of self-congratulation. It is, rather, an act of thanksgiving. The people might have been tempted to say, ‘With good leadership and hard work, we did this ourselves.’ And they might have congratulated one another with awards, prizes, speeches and honorary degrees. They had indeed been well led, and they had certainly worked hard, but the thanks and praise go to God.

Why? What had God done? No miracles are recorded in the book of Nehemiah. But God has been at work all along. All the way through the book there is this powerful sense that God is at work in and through the efforts of ordinary people who will dedicate their time, talents and treasure to the work of his kingdom. The contributions made by the people are not ignored, but God is given the glory. Even their enemies ‘realised that this work had been done with the help of our God,’ 6:16. In all our work for God’s kingdom, one plants and another sows, but it is God who gives the increase. And if someone asks you, “Where is God at work in the church today?” The answer is, wherever God’s truth is proclaimed, wherever God’s face is sought in prayer, wherever God’s character as loving, just and faithful is honoured, wherever the good news about Jesus is shared with a needy soul, wherever some act of kindness is done in Jesus’ name, wherever the Holy Spirit is depended upon for deeper holiness and greater fruitfulness, there God is at work, and there is cause for celebration and joy.

These people are celebrating, then, because as it says in v43 – ‘God had given them great joy.’ Singing and thanksgiving are key characteristics of the people who worship the one true and living God. We are happy people, and we worship a happy God. None of the religions or philosophies of this world sings and makes music as we do. It has been said that ‘the Stoic bears, the Epicurean seeks to enjoy, the Buddhist and Hindu stand apart disillusioned, the Muslim submits, but only the Christian exults.’

Our music makes (or should make) the singalongs of the pub, the chants of the football ground, and the anthems of the rock concert, seem like cheap imitations. And as for musical celebrations of unbelievers, let me tell you a little story. Susan Blackmore is a noted atheist. She recently got married to Adam Hart-Davis. They thought that people would like a bit of a sing at the wedding, so do you know what they chose? Christian hymns with God taken out. ‘Morning has broken’, and the one about ‘Bread of heaven’ but changed to, ‘bread of Devon’. Hilarious.

Well, this has been the climax of Nehemiah’s career, and of the book that bears his name. The nation has been refounded as the people of God after the desolation of the exile. The holy city of Jerusalem has been restored as an active, worshiping community, well-protected by those impressive walls. And v43 tell us that ‘the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.’

I suppose that if the book of Nehemiah were a fairy tale, it would have ended at chapter 12 with the words, ‘…and they all lived happily ever after.’ But did they? Did the people keep their promise not to neglect the house of God (Neh 10:39)? Did those two rogues, Tobiah and Sanballat, finally slink away and leave God’s people in peace? And what now do we make of God’s ancient promise to Abraham? God’s people may be restored in their ancient land, dedicated to his service in the Holy City. But can we really say that everything is now complete, that God’s promise has at last been fulfilled, that the long wait is finally over? Have we finally arrived at the time ‘when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea’? For answers to these questions, we must look at chapter 13 – which lowers the curtain not only on the book of Nehemiah, but also on the entire Old Testament record, historically speaking – and I look forward to finding out what next week’s preacher has to say.

In ch. 7, Nehemiah expressed concern that the newly-fortifed city of Jerusalem might be populated with sufficient people to ensure its security, economy and development.  There was, after all, little point in re-building the city and then for it to remain empty.

The picture here is of an ordered society.  This long list of names represents a people ‘conscious of their roots and of their structure as God’s company’ (Kidner).

Further details are supplied in 1 Chron 9.

1 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.

In order to repopulate Jerusalem, Nehemiah stipulated that 1 person in 10 should move in from the country.  These people realised that they must sacrifice personal wishes to the greater good of the community.  ‘For most of them, the change of location would be a highly traumatic experience, moving from a largely rural to an urban community.  It was a costly transition from the spacious, expansive countryside to a more confined and restricted pattern of life.  It meant leaving their homes, wider family, neighbours, work, friends and familiar locations and setting up a new life in a radically different environment.

There is no note of resistance or resentment.  The people selected to move to Jerusalem subjected themselves to God’s will.

There are those in every age who are called by God to uproot and move; to forsake the familiar and friendly for the alien and the threatening.  ‘We wonder what would happen in the average local church if 10 percent of the congregation were asked to relocate in order to strengthen and extend the work of the Lord!’ (Wiersbe)

The people cast lots – This seems a primitive way of determining God’s will, and, to be sure, as Christians we rely on the completed Scriptures and on the indwelling Holy Spirit to direct us.  However, ‘one can hardly fail to admire the faith, love, sacrifice and heroism of people who were prepared to uproot themselves from familiar surroundings in Judah and sever established friendships because, by this means, they were persuaded that it was the will of God for them to do so.  Their exemplary surrender and uncomplaining sacrificial response to God’s will is one of the neglected dimensions of Nehemiah’s story.’ (Brown)

The holy city– ‘To live in Jerusalem and be given the opportunity to serve God in such a holy place would be regarded by these newly enlisted citizens as an immense privilege.  That would serve to outwiegh their natural sense of disappointment about leaving the familiar and stepping out into the unknown.  To be associated with the holy was to be involved in a project specifically designed to glorify God; sharing in such an enterprise was an honour not to be missed.’ (Brown)

But, as Brown points out, to live in the holy city was not only an immense privilege; it was also a solemn responsibility.  ‘It is one thing to have a home in a holy city; it is quite another to make the home holy.  Living in a holy context did not automatically transmit holiness to the individual citizen.  Richard Baxter reminded his minister friends that “a holy calling will not save an unholy man”.’

2 The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

‘No wonder that the conduct of these volunteers drew forth the tribute of public admiration; for they sacrificed their personal safety and comfort for the interests of the community because Jerusalem was at that time a place against which the enemies of the Jews were directing a thousand plots. Therefore, residence in it at such a juncture was attended with expense and various annoyances from which a country life was entirely free.’ (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary)

‘When we choose places to live, is our first thought to please ourselves, or to be useful to God?’ (Packer)

‘Never underestimate the importance of simply being physically present in the place where God wants you. You may not be asked to perform some dramatic ministry, but simply being there is a ministry. The men, women, and children who helped to populate the city of Jerusalem were serving God, their nation, and future generations by their step of faith. Some of these citizens volunteered willingly while others had to be “drafted” (Neh. 11:1-2)…We wonder what would happen in the average local church if 10 percent of the congregation were asked to relocate in order to strengthen and extend the work of the Lord!’ (Wiersbe)

3 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,

Israelites, in this context, means ordinary citizens.  (Kidner)

‘In listing these names, Nehemiah was giving evidence of his sincere appreciation for each individual who assisted in the work. It also reminds us that our Father sees and records what His children do as they serve Him. Even if others don’t recognize or appreciate your ministry, you can be sure that God knows all about it.’ (Wiersbe)

4 while other people from both Judah and Benjamin lived in Jerusalem): From the descendants of Judah: Athaiah son of Uzziah, the son of Zechariah, the son of Amariah, the son of Shephatiah, the son of Mahalalel, a descendant of Perez;  5 and Maaseiah son of Baruch, the son of Col-Hozeh, the son of Hazaiah, the son of Adaiah, the son of Joiarib, the son of Zechariah, a descendant of Shelah.

Son of…son of…son of…son of…son of – Brown remarks that these are not simply lists of dedicated individuals.  ‘They refer throughout to the families into which these workers were born and where their faith in God was encouraged and nourished.  Their parentage is traced through six or seven generations with its clear acknowledgement of the crucial role of the family.  As loving and secure units of personal care and spiritual education, families were intended to play an enormous part in the life of God’s people.  These lists and similar genealogies in Scripture testify to the reality of Israel’s commitment to share God’s Word with children and working members of the “household”.’

Brown adds that ‘these lists in Nehemiah reflect a family structure which provided children with emotional security, material necessities, physical care, intellectual encouragement, moral values and spiritual teaching.  The Israelites’ commitment to the priority of family care is a rebuke to contemporary casualness about marriage.  It reminds modern believers that they have a responsibility to encourage, nurture and protect family values, and that, in tragic circumstances of family breakdown, local churches have a vital role to play in offering love, understanding, support, practical care and security.’

6 The descendants of Perez who lived in Jerusalem totalled 468 able men.

Able may well imply physical prowess, since a key task was to defend Jerusalem.

7 From the descendants of Benjamin: Sallu son of Meshullam, the son of Joed, the son of Pedaiah, the son of Kolaiah, the son of Maaseiah, the son of Ithiel, the son of Jeshaiah, 8 and his followers, Gabbai and Sallai—928 men.

9 Joel son of Zicri was their chief officer, and Judah son of Hassenuah was over the Second District of the city.

The language of this verse reminds us that this is not an amorphous mass of people, but rather a well-regulated society.

‘These local government officers had to ensure that the city’s streets and markets were kept clean, that proper sanitary arrangements were maintained and wise building regulations honoured – such important matters were not overlooked by the Mosaic law (Deut 23:12-14; 22:8).’ (Brown)

10 From the priests: Jedaiah; the son of Joiarib; Jakin; 11 Seraiah son of Hilkiah, the son of Meshullam, the son of Zadok, the son of Meraioth, the son of Ahitub, supervisor in the house of God, 12 and their associates, who carried on work for the temple— 822 men; Adaiah son of Jeroham, the son of Pelaliah, the son of Amzi, the son of Zechariah, the son of Pashhur, the son of Malkijah, 13 and his associates, who were heads of families—242 men; Amashsai son of Azarel, the son of Ahzai, the son of Meshillemoth, the son of Immer, 14 and his associates, who were able men—128 men. Their chief officer was Zabdiel son of Haggedolim.

Able men – a stronger expression than in v6.  Again, it probably refers to physical prowess.

15 From the Levites: Shemaiah son of Hasshub, the son of Azrikam, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Bunni; 16 Shabbethai and Jozabad, two of the heads of the Levites, who had charge of the outside work of the house of God; 17 Mattaniah son of Mica, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer; Bakbukiah, second among his associates; and Abda son of Shammua, the son of Galal, the son of Jeduthun.  18 The Levites in the holy city totalled 284.

In 15-24 we glimpse a hive of activity, filled out by 1 Chron 9:17-34, ‘where we see the posting of the gatekeepers, the checking in and out of utensils, the preparing of offering-cakes, and so on’ (Kidner).

Outside work hints at supplies and maintenance.  ‘The temple had to be kept in good repair and these men were entrusted with overall responsibility for the care of the frabric.  Churches and Christian organisations all over the world are grateful for the dedicated practical skills of men and women who care for their buildings, many of thme in an entirely voluntary capacity.  Their unobtrusive work is done for their Lord rather than their church.  The service of such devoted people is hardly likely to reach the pages of church history books, but their loving service is not forgotten in the place where the best records are kept.’ (Brown)

Thanksgiving and prayer – ‘In thanksgiving we acknowledge God’s generosity.  The praise element ought always to come first.  All to easily we crave for more without recalling what we have already received.  To neglect thanksgiving is to ignore one of the Christian’s distinctive characteristics; the godless do not do it.  In prayer we seek help.  Whenever we pray we are making the confession that we cannot live without God.  We are openly testifying to our reliance on him.  We are no longer depending on our own frail resources.’ (Brown)

The holy city – ‘a name to live up to’ (Kidner).

19 The gatekeepers: Akkub, Talmon and their associates, who kept watch at the gates—172 men.

Gatekeepers – Explained more fully in 1 Chron 9:17-27.  They were charged with the security of the Temple.  ‘Incidentally the famous line in Psalm 84:10, “I would rather be a doorkeeper…” does not refer to thse honoured officials but rather, it seems, to the worshipper on the very outskirts of the crowd, who has ventured no further than the threshold.’ (Kidner)

20 The rest of the Israelites, with the priests and Levites, were in all the towns of Judah, each on his ancestral property.

21 The temple servants lived on the hill of Ophel, and Ziha and Gishpa were in charge of them.

22 The chief officer of the Levites in Jerusalem was Uzzi son of Bani, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Mica. Uzzi was one of Asaph’s descendants, who were the singers responsible for the service of the house of God.

23 The singers were under the king’s orders, which regulated their daily activity.

Their daily activity probably refers to the service times for the choirs.

24 Pethahiah son of Meshezabel, one of the descendants of Zerah son of Judah, was the king’s agent in all affairs relating to the people.

25 As for the villages with their fields, some of the people of Judah lived in Kiriath Arba and its surrounding settlements, in Dibon and its settlements, in Jekabzeel and its villages, 26 in Jeshua, in Moladah, in Beth Pelet, 27 in Hazar Shual, in Beersheba and its settlements, 28 in Ziklag, in Meconah and its settlements, 29 in En Rimmon, in Zorah, in Jarmuth, 30 Zanoah, Adullam and their villages, in Lachish and its fields, and in Azekah and its settlements. So they were living all the way from Beersheba to the Valley of Hinnom.

‘As Kidner observes, this resettlement goes beyond the confines of the new post-exilic province of Judah to include places belonging to Judah in pre-exilic days (such as Hebron and Beersheba). But as citizens of one empire, these people are free to settle where they will if they keep the peace.  Though it is a small, mustard-seed sort of beginning, can we not see in these mundane verses a renewing (even in dark, hard times!) of the place-element (i.e. land) of the Abrahamic covenant? Hence, there is a hint of the fidelity of God in the geography of Judah here.’ (Dale Ralph Davis)

‘The list of settlements in 11:25–36 is more extensive than the actual province of Judah at the time. It seems to look wistfully back to former, more glorious days (cf. Jos. 15) and thereby to stimulate hopes for a greater future yet to come. The discrepancy between present reality and the broad sweep of the promises of God is a vital element in the faith of the people of God in any age, as Heb. 11:13–16 makes clear.’ (NBC)

31 The descendants of the Benjamites from Geba lived in Michmash, Aija, Bethel and its settlements, 32 in Anathoth, Nob and Ananiah, 33 in Hazor, Ramah and Gittaim, 34 in Hadid, Zeboim and Neballat, 35 in Lod and Ono, and in the Valley of the Craftsmen.

36 Some of the divisions of the Levites of Judah settled in Benjamin.