God’s people in God’s land under God’s rule and blessing
Nehemiah 7 & 8
How did you get on with studying Nehemiah 7 and 8? Did you enjoy it? I mean, chapter 8’s pretty exciting stuff – but chapter 7? We all have favourite bits of the bible, but I doubt that Nehemiah 7 would make it into anyone’s Top 10. When you were doing your homework, perhaps you were tempted to just skip over the list of names and numbers.
If we’re honest, there are parts of the bible that we prefer to avoid in our quiet times. They’re hard to understand or, frankly, boring. A friend from church recently said to me that she likes sermons that are on the New Testament because they’re practical and easy to apply to her life, whereas the Old Testament is, “interesting in an historical kind of a way, but the people lived very different lives then, so it’s not very relevant.”
Well, God tells us in Romans 15:14 that, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Whatever was written. That includes lists of names and numbers! If we’re to be rightly instructed and encouraged by these chapters – and indeed by any part of the bible – we need to keep the big picture in mind.
Since before the beginning of time, God has been about establishing his kingdom – a people specially set apart to belong to him, living in a special place, under his authority and therefore enjoying life as it was supposed to be lived. God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing. This is the covenant He makes with Abraham. He promises to make his descendents more numerous than the stars in the sky, to give them the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession, and to be their God.
All of the rest of the bible, including Nehemiah, is about the outworking of this promise: God’s people in God’s land under God’s rule and blessing.
1. God gathers his people in his place
Let’s read chapter 7:1-4:
7 Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed,2 I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many. 3 And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.” 4 The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.
God had kept his covenant with Abraham: He’d given him many, many descendents and had brought them into the land He’d promised to them. But they hadn’t kept their side of the covenant and so, eventually, judgement had come. The nation split into two. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed. The Southern Kingdom, little Judah, was then decimated by the Babylonians. Pretty much everyone who was left alive was either captured and taken to Babylon, or they fled. Jerusalem was left desolate.
But God had promised to restore the land, and chapter 7:1 shows a partial fulfilment of that promise: the walls around Jerusalem have been rebuilt and the doors set in place. Verse 4 tells us that the city is wide and large. Gate-keepers, singers and Levites have been appointed, and Nehemiah carefully chooses a couple of men to govern the city. He tells them to appoint guards and gives instructions to ensure the security of city, as we shouldn’t forget that their enemies are still active. With everything organised, secure and functional, Nehemiah’s town planning job is finished, right? Well, not quite. The houses that had been destroyed and left derelict by successive conquests have yet to be rebuilt. Why? Well, there are precious few people who want to live there.
So God puts it on Nehemiah’s heart to find out how many people there actually are, how many had returned from the exile back to the Promised Land. Look at verse 6:
6 These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. 7 They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah.
The number of the men of the people of Israel: 8 the sons of Parosh, 2,172. 9 The sons of Shephatiah, 372. 10 The sons of Arah, 652.11 The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,818. 12 The sons of Elam, 1,254. 13 The sons of Zattu, 845. 14 The sons of Zaccai, 760.
And so the list continues.
God had judged Israel and thousands of people had been killed. But He had made an everlasting covenant to gather together a people for himself. Even as He had judged them, He’d promised that, although most of the nation would be destroyed, a remnant would be preserved. They would return to the land. He’d bless them and make them strong once again. He would remove their shame.
This is what Nehemiah chapter 7 is about. Every one of the 2,172 sons of Parosh, the 372 sons of Shephatiah, the 652 sons of Arah, they and their families were testimony to God’s faithfulness, of his mercy, and the unstoppable nature of his plan. They weren’t just names and numbers to the Lord. He knew them since before the creation of the world. He’d not deserted them, but had called them out of captivity and resettled them onto the land. He knew their families, He determined the exact time and place where each would live, He gave them different roles, and it was out of his provision for them that they were able to finance the work. He was their God.
So how might this instruct and encourage us, for whom it was written? We’ll see in the next few weeks that this was only a partial fulfilment of God’s promise – the best was yet to come. This was written to encourage us that God keeps his promises. We can trust that He knows his people and will preserve them according to his word. Do you sometimes grow weary in your Christian walk? Do the unbiblical values of the world around you feel oppressive? Does the unbelief of non-Christian family members and friends wear you down? Does your own sin tempt you to despair that God could ever care for you? Look to the Lord. He who promised is faithful. He knows his people; He will preserve them and bring them home.
So God’s people are back in God’s place. Now they need to know how to live under his rule, because it’s when God’s people live rightly under God’s authority that they can enjoy his blessing. God had already told them, and so now they turned to listen.
2. God speaks and his people listen
8 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the meaning, so that the people understood the reading.
Look at the people’s attitude to the reading of God’s word:
v1 – They were united, gathering together as one man. They were eager, asking Ezra to read the Law to them.
v2 – Everyone’s there. Bible reading and study wasn’t just for the keen folk or those without more pressing things to do. If you were part of God’s people, you were there.
v3 – They were prepared. Most of them weren’t living in Jerusalem at the time and the service started early in the morning, so a fair bit of effort and forward planning would have been necessary to get themselves there on time.
Ezra read from early in the morning until the middle of the day, but there was no dozing off, no mental drift. They were attentive, respectful, appropriately participative, reverent, humble, worshipful, orderly. These were the words that the LORD had commanded Israel. The Lord, who is great and awesome, was speaking to them so they gave him their full attention.
And it wasn’t enough for them to simply hear the words. They needed to understand, and so certain men went around explaining it to them. Verse 8 says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the meaning, so that the people understood.”
How important is it for you to understand the bible? How many of us this week have dragged ourselves to our (maybe) daily devotional time, skimmed the passage for the day and then carried on with the rest of life, feeling good about having managed to tick that box? Or, given that the homework for Ladies Bible Study takes more than a couple of minutes, have you ever done it somewhat begrudgingly, wishing the questions were easier and that there were fewer of them? I know I have! If we’re honest, many of us will admit that we can go days without opening up the bible, let alone really engaging our hearts and minds with what we read there.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should all be reading the bible for an hour every day. My point is that reading the word of God is an awesome privilege that we too easily take for granted. These words were written for our encouragement and instruction, that we might have all things pertaining to life and godliness, that we may be competent, equipped for every good work.
We find time in the day for a hundred different trifles, and squeeze in a cursory glance at the word of God. We content ourselves with remembering the Top 10 Must-Learn Memory Verses, that we can dole them out like magic words at appropriate occasions. Left to ourselves, we stick to the Psalms and New Testament (apart from Revelation, that is!) because they’re mostly easy to understand. If the application’s not immediately obvious, we shrug our shoulders and move on.
Ladies, why do we do this to ourselves? We need to know and understand the bible, all of which is breathed out by God. We cannot gain a heart of wisdom if we do not learn the fear of the Lord. We won’t be able to fight the temptation of sin if we don’t weald the sword of the Spirit, if we’ve not fixed our hearts and minds on the glory of Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. His word is and must be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Let us repent of our inattentiveness and laziness, and ask God to help us. Ask your sisters here to help you.
God speaks to his people. Let us listen. And let us respond rightly.
3. God’s people respond with repentance, joy and obedience
As they heard God speaking to them through his word, and they understood its meaning, how did the people respond? Look with me at v9:
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
They wept because they were convicted of their sin. As they read through the Law, what would they have learned? That God is the Creator, who’d made humans to be his image-bearers. He’d covenanted with their forefather Abraham to have a special, particularly relationship with his descendents. He had been ever faithful to them, delivering them from slavery in Egypt with power and through the Passover sacrifice, and bringing them into the Promised Land.
When one reads the Law of God, one sees that He is utterly pure and just, with uncompromising standards. He is a consuming fire who must punish all wickedness and rebellion. Exodus 34 says that He is, “a God who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”1
How had God’s image-bearers responded to this glorious God’s merciful, loving, just, and gracious rule? Rebellion. Disobedience, ingratitude, disrespect, doubt, laziness, arrogance, adultery. In a word: sin. As the returned exiles heard and understood God’s commandments, they learned of his character and recognized their utter failure to obey him, and they were cut to the heart. They knew they deserved God’s judgement, and they wept and grieved.
Friends, what about you? Do you acknowledge just how far short of the mark you’ve come to meeting God’s standards? Have you ever, even for one moment, loved the LORD your God with all your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your might? If you think back over the things you’ve thought and said and done over the past week – or those things you’ve failed to think and say and do – have you even lived up to your own standards? Do you recognize the grievousness of your rebellion and sin? We all deserve God’s wrath, for our grand high treason against the great and awesome God.
But having confessed their sin and turned from it, God’s people should not wallow in grief. Read with me from chapter 8 verse 10:
Then [Ezra] said to them, “Go on your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went on their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Ezra tells them to rejoice because the joy of the LORD is their strength. They couldn’t hope to find joy by trusting in their own strength and abilities to obey God, and neither can we. Their joy was in the LORD, who both forgives iniquity and transgression and sin, and who by no means clears the guilty. How could He do both?
The people in Nehemiah 8 looked forward in faith to what has now been revealed to us. God was able to pass over their sins and forgive them because He was going to send someone to bear their sins and assuage God’s his wrath on their behalf.2 They looked forward, and now we look back, to the coming of the great Rescuer.
Colossians 1: 21,22 says, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”
Christ the Righteous offered himself up in the place of all who would turn from sin and trust in him. Have you done so? If not, do it today! Feeling bad about your failures is of no use by itself; worldly sorrow leads to death.3 If you’re grieved by your sin, repent and know salvation without regret.
And if you have repented and turned to Christ, rejoice! Know that your debt has been paid, full pardon has been given, Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness has been credited to your account, fellowship with God has been restored, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on you, guaranteeing your inheritance when God unites all things under Christ. What greater reason could there be to rejoice?
Understanding God’s word, recognizing one’s sin and repenting of it should lead God’s people not only to rejoice, but to joyfully obey. Repentance is not only a turning away from sin, it’s a turning to obedience, as we see in verses 13-18. The people realized that they weren’t living as Scripture commanded them. They were keeping part of the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), but not actually the part about living in booths. So they did it.
Now, their obedience wouldn’t have been light or easy. A week of camping out! This tabernacle thing just wasn’t what their culture did – no one had done it for hundreds of years. Wasn’t it out-dated? Maybe God would be satisfied with their partial obedience and realise that the rest didn’t really fit with their modern lives. No. Read verse 17 with me:
17 And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.
However inconvenient or unfashionable, God’s people were determined to immediately obey God’s word. And they did it joyfully, because they knew the blessing of living in obedience to their gracious God.
Sisters, is this your attitude? Do you joyfully conform your life to the pattern of God’s word? The Israelites lived in tabernacles to remember how God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. If you’re trusting in Christ, you can joyfully obey all that God calls you to do, remembering that the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us4, that we might be delivered from slavery to sin in the domain of darkness, and be brought into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.
May this be the prayer of our hearts:
Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.
Unite my heart to fear your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love towards me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Psalm 86:11-13)
Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things, and give me life in your ways. (Psalm 119: 36,37)
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