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Date: Aug. 25, 2013

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Nehemiah 11:1-12:47

Key Verse: Nehemiah 12:43

“And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.”

We are approaching the end of our study of the book of Nehemiah. We’ve got one more passage left after today’s passage, and then it is over. What a ride it has been, right? The past two weeks Mike and Bob gave little synopses about what happened prior to their respective passages. Guess what? I am going to do it one more time. The book of Nehemiah is set about 2,400 years ago, in the time when the Persians were the dominant power in the region. An Israelite named Nehemiah, who was in service to the Persian king, learned of the condition of the wall of Jerusalem while his people were still in exile throughout the Persian Empire. The wall was knocked down 141 years prior, and efforts to change that were met with great scorn. The other peoples of the region did not want to see Jerusalem restored because they feared what would happen. A strong Jerusalem would mean that God would be returning to the region, and the peoples in the region didn’t like what God represented. A returning God would mean that the people would have to acknowledge that they were merely human. Nehemiah received permission from the king to go to Judah and rebuild the wall in Jerusalem. Nehemiah was made governor and he saw to the rebuilding of the wall in 52 days, even in the face of tremendous opposition. It was God and God alone who rebuilt the wall. Once the wall was built and done, they held a worship service/Bible study, and it was found that they neglected many things that God asked. They were cut to the heart and confessed their sin, and made a binding agreement to follow God. That oath was sealed by all the leaders of the people and concluded with the words, “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (10:39) With all that had been going on, what was the result? What happened in light of all the great things God had done? There was an impact that would be felt throughout the region. What God’s enemies feared so much was coming to pass, God’s presence was returning to the region.

If you remember back in chapter 7, Nehemiah records, “Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.” (7:4) What happens in these passages is the culmination of what we first started hearing about in chapter 7. The wall was rebuilt, but there were few people living in the city. It must have felt a little like Detroit, with so few people for such a large city. A number of years ago, when I first came to Chicago, if you went into the Loop after 5 o’clock, it would be deserted. All the stores would be closed, businesses would be empty, the lights would be off, and only a handful of people would be walking down the street. It looked barren and strange to me. Here were all the large buildings, but no people working or living in them. It was a very strange and disconcerting sight. Downtown is not like that anymore, there are a lot more people that live there and things seem more vibrant. Back then, though, you wouldn’t want to be in the Loop after everything closed. It seemed sad and pathetic. After the wall was rebuilt, Jerusalem was in nearly the same state. There weren’t a lot of people living there, and honestly, why would there be? For most of the Israelites, their primary means of living was in agriculture. They had land with sheep and cattle, and vineyards and crops. It’s really hard to tend to those while living in the city. We don’t really have a lot of farmers in Chicago and there weren’t really any in Jerusalem either.

Since Jerusalem was the seat of Jewish power, something needed to be done about the barrenness. The first verse of our passage says, “Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.” (11:1) The leaders of the people recognized that they needed to settle in the capital. It was where the decisions were made and the place people would go to file complaints. It was the place of policy and, most importantly, it was where God’s temple resided. The leaders of the people needed to stay in Jerusalem because the people needed for them to be there. The rest of the people recognized that more people needed to stay in Jerusalem, but honestly, not many really wanted to stay. Some did volunteer as verse 2 says, but most of the people who settled in Jerusalem were chosen by lot. One out of ten people were chosen to live in the city, while the remaining nine stayed in their own towns. Remember, the people’s livelihood was in land to cultivate. Most of the people didn’t want to live in Jerusalem because they wouldn’t know how to live. There was no room for crops or cattle. You would have a small house and not much more. People had to choose to stay in Jerusalem because of something greater than themselves: God’s work in the holy city.

Just as it wasn’t easy for the people to live in Jerusalem, it’s not necessarily easy for the people who support this ministry to live close to the mission field. We are just over two miles from downtown Chicago, in an area with rising property values. Land is expensive and there is not much of it. There is a great temptation to not want to live around here. It would be so much better for family life to live in a suburb where land is not as tight and good schools are not as competitive. It is much calmer and cheaper to live away from the city center, but because of God, there are people who choose to live close. I’m not trying to raise up the people who live in the area or put down those who don’t, but I am saying, who would want to live in this area? There are so many better places to live, but like those who chose or were chosen to live in Jerusalem, there is need for people to live near this campus to tend to God’s flock.

When you look at the list of people who chose or were chosen to live in Jerusalem, there are some interesting notes. First, you might notice that there are only a few tribes listed in the residents. There were twelve tribes of Israel, but only two are mentioned in this passage, along with the Levites. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin had people staying in the city. It was quite possible that the people from Judah and Benjamin were the only ones to return by this time, but it is also possible that since Jerusalem was in the land allotted to Judah, the people living there would be from that tribe. The tribe of Judah is important because that is where King David’s line resided, which would ultimately lead to Jesus. Historically, the tribe of Judah was larger than the tribe of Benjamin, but in this passage, we see that there were around twice as many Benjamites as Judaites that stayed in Jerusalem, 928 men from Benjamin and 468 men from Judah.

Besides the people from Judah and Benjamin, the priests, Levites, and gatekeepers also settled in the city. There were 1,192 priests that settled in Jerusalem. Since God’s temple was in Jerusalem, it’s not surprising that there were a large number of priests that called the city home. Their primary place of work was in the temple and they needed to be close to work to avoid a long commute. However, what is more interesting is that although there were 1,192 priests, there were only 284 Levites that lived there. I find this a little strange. The Levites were a whole tribe of Israel and the priests were kind of a subgroup of Levites. The Bible always refers to the priests and Levites separately, but the priests were descended from Aaron, who was a descendant of Levi. The priests were called to minister to God’s word and carry out the sacrifices of atonement and thanksgiving. The Levites were the ones in charge of the articles of God: the sacred items that would be used in the various rituals and rites. Because of this charge, the Levites didn’t have a material inheritance in the Promised Land. God was their inheritance. Since they didn’t have an inheritance, the Levites really didn’t have their own property. In light of this, the Levites were provided for out of the temple offerings. Typically, there are more Levites than priests, but here there are around four times as many priests as Levites. One thought is that during the exile, the Levites experienced what it meant to own their own property and they didn’t want to go back to the lifestyle of service. They didn’t want to rely on the offerings of others in order to survive. Perhaps because of this, not many of the Levites wanted to return to Jerusalem. Would you willingly have your property taken from you in order to serve in the house of God? Some probably would, but others not.

The remaining people settled in their ancestral towns. They moved out of the city into the villages of Judah and Benjamin. There are a lot of names here, and I want you to take a look at them. You might be wondering why did we have to go through a passage that is like two-thirds names. Maybe we should have skipped over this entire section, but God put these names in this passage and take a look at them. I have no idea who any of these people are, but God knows. God had them put them in his book for a reason and the reason is that all of his people have names and for every Abraham or Moses there are thousands of others who love him and serve him. I highly doubt that anyone here is the next Moses, but we have plenty Jedaiahs, Shemaiahs, Akkubs and Uzzis. We have plenty of people who love God and each of them is so important to him. I mentioned earlier that the God’s presence was returning to the region. Jerusalem, the holy city, was being occupied again and his temple was restored. This is all a precursor to God’s presence truly returning in Jesus. The reoccupation of Jerusalem helps prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. Jesus needed to go to Jerusalem, but he wouldn’t have been able to go there, if there were no city. Each of these people was integral to preparing the city for his coming. There were no minor parts. God had impacted each of these people and they had an impact on God’s history.

Chapter 12 begins with another list of names. The names are a list of the heads of the priestly families that returned with the first group of people 93 years prior to this passage under Zerubbabel. There are 22 names for 22 families. In David’s time, there were 24 priestly families, but Nehemiah only records 22. In Nehemiah’s time, the heads of these families are listed in verses 12 through 21. These were the men who were in charge of all the priests. They were the leaders in all spiritual matters. Again, God’s influence on them can be seen in these priests and Levites mentioned here. They were God’s priests and servants, who impacted the people with their service to God.

This is most apparent in the dedication of the wall, recorded in the last part of chapter 12. After the wall was complete and everything had been set in place. The Israelites sought to dedicate the wall to God. The people built the wall in 52 days with God’s blessing, but now was the time to offer that wall to God so he can use it to protect his people within the holy city. That is what dedicating is: setting something aside for a specific use. We do it all the time. Our phones are dedicated to keep us in communication with others via the phone, text, email, and social media. Our computers are dedicated to bring us information, allow us to create, and provide us with entertainment through Netflix and games. Our cars are dedicated to keep us mobile so we can shop and get to work. These are general forms of dedication, but there is a more specific form, as well. Sometimes we set aside something for very specific purposes. We have machines that are waffle makers. All they can really do is make waffles. They are not good for anything else. Although a waffle bar might sound like a good idea, I am not referring to that. The specific dedication that I am referring to is to willingly set aside something for a specific use. When the President signs a bill into law, he signs with a pen, but that pen is not used for anything else. It was set-aside for the set purpose of signing that one bill into law. It had a set purpose. When the Israelites dedicated the wall, they were saying that they were giving the wall to God to use for the protection of the city. It would be a barrier against bandits and brigands.

At the dedication, there was a lot of music. The Bible says, “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.” (12:27) It was a time of great celebration with songs of thanksgiving to God. They were thanking God for the swift and successful reconstruction. No longer were the Israelites in shame from their broken down wall. They had renewed proof of God’s great love. It was a beautiful and joyous time. They broke out the bands and began rocking out to thank God for everything that he has done. They had their hands in the air and were jumping and dancing and singing their praises to God. It was better than any concert you could think of.

The priests and Levites purified themselves, and then they purified the people, the gates and the wall. Then Nehemiah had the leaders of Judah go up on the wall with two large choirs to give thanks, that would each go around a portion of the wall and meet in the middle. A couple of Friday’s ago, we had a prayer walk around this campus to pray for the students, faculty and staff of each building to come to know Jesus. It was great and we even had a cat that joined us for half the time, but imagine something like that but with singing. Wouldn’t you just love to go singing praises to God all around campus? But that is just what the Israelites were doing! Moreover, this was the wall that Israel’s enemies said, “even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (4:3) But, now, that wall was supporting two large choirs. It was amazing.

These choirs walked around the top of the wall and met by the portion of the wall that was closest to the temple. There, they came down from the wall and entered the temple area, where the real celebration would begin. “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.” (12:43) This is the key point of today’s message. It says that the people were rejoicing because God had given them great joy. When I first read this sentence, it seemed like it was one of those Captain Obvious things. They were rejoicing because they had great joy. What other reason would anybody rejoice? But when you look closer you notice that it says that God had given them great joy. They were rejoicing because of what God have given them. God impacted their lives so much that they were fill with great joy. They were joyful beyond belief, so much so, that the sound of rejoicing could be heard far away. When I used to live in Bridgeport and walk from the Red Line station or campus down 33rd Street, there were times where I would hear the people in the White Sox stadium. You could hear the roar of their excitement when the White Sox would get a hit or strike out an opposing team’s player. Based on how they are doing this year, you might not hear a lot of that, but the fact is I was walking a quarter of a mile away and it sounded like I was right in the stadium. It was so crisp and clear. I imagine the sound around Jerusalem was similar but even louder.

We have some parallels here. Many times we have the doors to the Godbox open during the worship service, usually because it is too hot to leave the doors closed. But leaving the doors open allows the sound of our worship to spread outside these walls. We’ve had people come to our worship service because they can hear the music being played. We’ve had people walk by and hear pieces of messages. The people of Jerusalem were having an impact on the region through their rejoicing. People everywhere could hear the joy coming from the city. We, too, can have an impact here with our joyful noise. We can change things. The world is a dark and uncaring place, but we can change that. We can bring joy, true joy, to the hearts of the people on this campus, in Chicago, and the all over the world.

Quite honestly, though, sometimes I am very skeptical of that. I usually stand in the back when we sing praise and I notice that we are usually lifeless in our singing. I’ve heard it from our music team, too. You guys don’t look like a joyful bunch. You seem timid and quiet, needlessly reserved. Where is your passion? Where is your joy? Are you afraid? We Christians have more to be joyful about than anybody else. Jesus the Sod of God died so that we could have life. Our sins and our mistakes have been forgiven. Our wounds have been cleansed, and what once bound us and controlled us no longer has any power over us. By his wounds we are healed and by his words we are free. There is no more condemnation, no more guilt, no more uncertainty. We are with God because of Christ’s blood. There is no more that we have to do. Our chains are gone because of what Jesus has done. And even more than that Jesus didn’t stay dead. Jesus is alive and he continues to show us the way to God, the way to heaven, the way to paradise. Plus, he gives us an opportunity to share that with others. That should really impact you and your life. That should really impact me and my life. This knowledge isn’t like a hailstone hitting the ground, it’s the moon coming out of orbit and striking the earth. It should affect our entire lives in every way.

What Jesus has done should really hit us in our heart and destroy us. And, that is for the better, too. In Christ, we are made new and we don’t have to live our lives of death anymore. It is something to be really thankful about, but many times we are afraid and quiet about our faith. We don’t sing it at the top of our lungs. We don’t give our whole selves to Jesus. The moon hit us and we treat it like a cotton ball. Sometimes we wonder why we don’t make an impact on this campus. We get a trickling of students that come and go. I’ve heard of massive movements occurring elsewhere, but we get a trickle. God wants to work everywhere, but he can’t work where there is no impact. If we want to leave a mark, then we have to let God leave a mark on us. To impact the surrounding peoples, you need to be impacted yourself. When you are impacted, God works through you, and he does things that defy all logic.

With Jerusalem’s restoration, it prepared the way for the coming of Christ. The people’s joy and celebration extended all the way down to Jesus, and that influence has gone worldwide. Jesus is not a cotton ball or a hailstone. The moon has arrived, and it is ready to give you a makeover that you will not believe. You don’t have to be afraid or timid. Let your joy flow out. Jesus is better than the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup or the Bulls winning the championship or the Bears winning the Super Bowl or even the White Sox or Cubs winning the World Series. Dance, sing, cut loose, let all the people around here know the joy that comes from Jesus. We are not bound by anything anymore, we are free in Jesus.

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