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.