"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."
Thank God for granting us the grace to study the book of Nehemiah. The study of Nehemiah offers us a number of blessings, but most of all we would like to meet Nehemiah and learn of him, particularly his zeal for the Lord and his people. In reading the thirteen chapters of the book we find that the Lord used Nehemiah to accomplish two things: 1) repair work for Jerusalem's walls; and 2) restoration of the Sabbath rest. So let us think about the two important works the Lord fulfilled through Nehemiah.
Part I. Repair work for the walls of Jerusalem.
The Book of Nehemiah describes in great detail how Nehemiah fasted, prayed, and then eventually completed the repair work for the broken walls of Jerusalem. In punishment for the Israelites' rebellion, the Lord sent the Israelites into Babylon. At that time the Babylonians invaded the land and destroyed the walls of Jerusalem. Throughout the Babylonian captivity and some time afterward, the walls of Jerusalem remained broken. On hearing the condition of the walls, Nehemiah sat down and wept. He mourned and fasted. He prayed to the God of heaven and earth. He then secured the Lord's help to do the repair work. The works he fulfilled were legendary.
The questions that arise in our mind then include: "What is the significance of Jerusalem?"; "Why did Nehemiah work so hard to get the walls repaired?" We can find an answer to these questions in the book of Ezra 7:15: "Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem..." The expression "whose dwelling is in Jerusalem," provides us with the answer. Nehemiah worked to secure the fellowship with the Lord.
This then leads us to another question: "Did he choose to build the walls of Jerusalem because without doing so the Lord would be 'unwilling' to have fellowship with his children?" Obviously, the answer is no. The Lord is omnipresent. The Lord does not limit himself to any physical location for fellowship with his children.
Why then did Nehemiah work so hard on the walls of Jerusalem? Let us open the Bible and read chapter 4 of Nehemiah responsively. In this chapter verse 14b stands out for our attention: "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes." The expression, "fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives, and your homes," especially the word "homes" shows us the cause and therefore the reason why Nehemiah charged people to work on the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah worked to build a spiritual home for his people, the home where the great and awesome God is their Father!
It has been said, "There is no place like home." And a home is a home where there is a close fellowship with the Lord among those who love the Lord and put absolute trust in the Lord. We can see the same concept in many places of the Bible. When Jesus came he too exhorted his disciples to join with him to make a spiritual home together, for in John 14:23, Jesus said, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." What Nehemiah endeavored to do to repair Jerusalem's walls is no different than what Jesus prayed his disciples to do with him.
Nehemiah's efforts to repair the walls of Jerusalem are consistent with the efforts we, the New Testament believers ought to make to build up godly families in the Lord. We can find the same vision revealed throughout the Scriptures. In the book of Hebrews 12:22-24, for example, it is written: "But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." It is interesting to note that Hebrews 12:24 ends with the first martyr "Abel," for it reminds us of how family relationships got broken amongst the members of the first family. When Eve gave birth to Cain, the first son, how happy must she have been? But Cain turned out to be the first murderer. And he murdered his brother in cold blood. How tragic! What a horrible turn of events!
But did God give up on the dream to build a home, sweet home for his children? Oh, no. He did not give up. Throughout the redemptive history the Lord God established his servants who understood his longing to build a spiritual home for his children. Abraham, who built a house church through the marriage by faith between Isaac and Rebekah, is one. King David, who risked his life to capture Jerusalem the City of Zion out of the hands of the Jebushites, is another. Ezra, who ever so tearfully helped the returnees to repent and send away their unbelieving wives, is another. Nehemiah, who charged the exiles to fight to build the environment for God's family to worship the Lord safe and sound, is still another. And the apostles, such as the Apostle Peter, who exhorted the believers of his day to endure the persecutions, come to Jesus the living stone, so they could be built into a spiritual house is still another. The Risen Jesus then revealed to one of his beloved disciples, the Apostle John, the end picture of God's dream to build God's home for God's children. Let us open the Bible and read two verses in the book of Revelation:
(1) Revelation 3:12: "Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name." (2) Revelation 21:2: "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband."
Let us step back for a moment and see what Nehemiah fought for. First, Ezra describes Jerusalem as God's dwelling place. Then Nehemiah calls it a home for the returnees. Jesus calls it a home for the believers. The Apostle Peter calls it a "spiritual" house. The author of the book of Hebrews calls it the City of the Living God. The Apostle John calls it “a honey moon sweet” so to speak which is prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. Essentially then Jerusalem represents a congregation of people gathered in a location. It can be called by different names such as a home, a house, or a city. And if it is a city it is a place for the citizens.
Now let us think about the practical aspects of the work Nehemiah did. "[F]ight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes." Here the word "fight" screams out and draws our attention to the existence of enemies. In Nehemiah's case enemies included the people opposing him - Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod (4:7). Now let us think about the work itself: the construction of the “walls”. What is the significance of the walls? We can understand its significance when we think about its function. Functionally, the walls represent a prepared environment in which God’s children can worship God safely. No wonder that the enemies of God worked so hard to disrupt the work. Now let us think about the enemies and then the means with which to fight against them.
(1) Enemies: As seen in the book of Nehemiah, enemies can be divided into two categories: visible enemies and invisible enemies. Yet they are not two different animals, they are one. For, from a spiritual standpoint, visible enemies are none other than what the invisible enemies become manifested in a physical world. Ashdod, for example, is the reflection of the idolatry, for as the most important of the five cities of the Philistines - Ekron, Gaza, Ashkelon and Gath - Ashdod housed the Temple of the Philistines dedicated to the idol Dagon. Although identities remain the same, the manifestations of invisible enemies vary in each generation. For example, nowadays idol worship takes on the form of something else, such as materialism and secular humanism. Materialists or secular humanists advocate isms, philosophies, ideals and lifestyles that are inconsistent with and hostile to the worship of God who sent Jesus. But they all promote the same thing, that is, idolatry. For this reason, the Apostle Paul says in Colossians 3:5, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
(2) The means to fight against the enemies: In Nehemiah 4:20, Nehemiah says, “Our God will fight for us.” So the means is to have absolute faith in God, for this faith in God will drive out fear of enemies. It will keep our hearts to fight the battle bravely. We find the same exhortation in what the Apostle John says in his epistle to the seven churches of his day: “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars" (Rev 21:78). Interestingly, the first on the list here is the cowardly and then the unbelieving. These two categories of people have one thing in common: doubt. They doubt God, especially God's love and power. God is perfect in his love and power. But any hint of doubt can cause man to fall victim to idol worship. By the same token absolute faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior, can effectively purge the citizens of the city of God of all evils. Faith in the Lord then insulates its citizens from all the evils raging outside. So the means to fight the Lord's battle is faith in the Lord. Speaking of this truth, the Apostle Paul says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." During the fall semester we would like to study the book of Matthew. Through Matthew's gospel, we can learn faith in the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Through faith in the Lord, we can work to build the city of God in the hearts of many. By faith in the Lord, may the Lord bless us to engage ourselves in the Lord’s great battle for the great one to one Bible studies.
Part II. The restoration of the Sabbath rest.
The next point of reform Nehemiah worked on is the Sabbath rest. After completing and dedicating the walls to the Lord, Nehemiah worked to re-instate the Sabbath rest. Let us all read Nehemiah 13:13-22.
Nehemiah's emphasis on the Sabbath law raises a question: Why did Nehemiah conduct the reform on keeping the Sabbath law with such holy fear of the Lord? Remember what Nehemiah said about those who had violated the Sabbath law in Nehemiah 13:17-18, "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." His rebuke indicates that he became almost paranoid on seeing people violating the Lord’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy. What is the significance of the Sabbath law?
We can find the answer to this question in Deuteronomy 5:15, where the Lord God explains: "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." The reason is to help the Israelites celebrate the freedom from slavery in Egypt. Egypt is symbolic of the world where sin (of idol worship) is raging. Characteristically, slavery is the slavery to the world where people chase after created things, rather than seek and worship the Creator. Freedom is getting liberated from working for created things to serving fully the God of all creation.
The point of the Sabbath law then is to "fully" secure the worship of and fellowship with the Lord without any distractions. It is to help the believers celebrate the freedom of worship.
For believers in the New Testament era, each and every day constitutes the Sabbath Day. Jesus explained this concept when he said, "So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28). In Colossians 2:16-17, the Apostle Paul says that the Sabbath law enforced during the Old Testament period was merely a shadow of the reality of the things that were to come, and the reality is found in Jesus Christ. So Nehemiah who worked hard to reinstate the law of Sabbath inspires us to celebrate the freedom found in Jesus Christ, for as Galatians 5:1 says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
The fruit of the freedom in Jesus is "rest" from work. In Hebrews 4:1, the author of Hebrews expresses this concept saying, "Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it." Here "his" rest refers to God's rest, and man entering into God's rest denotes the state of the perfected redemption to come, where man (in a resurrected body) is going to enjoy full fellowship with the Lord God without any hindrance. The source of joy a redeemed man derives in God’s presence is the glory of the Lord, not food or drink, or from what is materialistic or humanistic, but purely of the Lord. When this happens, the release from the burdens will be so complete that even the word "work" and all the burdens associated with it will all be forgotten. Speaking of the inexpressibly glorious nature of redemption, the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, "[O]ur light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."
In conclusion, let us read Nehemiah 12:43 again. "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." Along with Ezra, Nehemiah led great reforms among the returnees. His reforms had two clear points: restoration of Jerusalem and restoration of the Sabbath. The point of Jerusalem [i.e., the dedication of its walls to the Lord] goes to the building of the fellowship with the Lord. The point of the Sabbath lies in the celebration of freedom. The two points of reform serve one purpose, but the first point serves the second point. And the point of the second point points to the ultimate bliss God desires to bless his children with. No wonder that when Nehemiah secured these two points of reforms people, especially women and children, were so glad that the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.
One word: the sound of rejoicing
When Nehemiah had rebuilt the wall [of Jerusalem], not a _____ was left in it.
The wall [of Jerusalem] was completed in ________ days.
After the completion of the wall, on the first day of the seventh month, ______ the priest brought the Law before the assembly and all the people listened _________ to the Book of the Law.
Nehemiah said, “This day is sacred to our God. Do not grieve, for the _____ of the Lord is your ______.”
After the Bible study the Israelites entered into a _______ agreement, putting it in writing, with their leaders affixing their ______ to it.
Refer to the agreement described in question 5. In that agreement the Israelites promised to the Lord saying, “We will not neglect the ____________.”
All Judah brought the ________ of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms.
Nehemiah beat “some of the men” and pulled out their hair because: __________________________
Nehemiah did other reforms such as strictly enforcing tithing (10:37,38; 12:44; 13:5,12), or rebuking, even beating and pulling out the hair of those who married unbelieving wives, so that their children forgot the mother tongue, i.e., the Hebrew language, yet speaking foreign languages such as that of Ashdod. But these reforms go to securing the integrity of worship of the Living God at the Lord's holy temple. So we do not need to treat them separately.