Complete the Beginning

Introduction and context – Step by faithful step, Nehemiah had given physical integrity to the city of David and had achieved maximum involvement of the people after years of neglect and inertia.  The walls, nothing but rubble when he came, were restored, the gates now reset, and the enemies foiled at every attempt to distract or destroy him. Chapter three described the courageous and energetic response of the people to Nehemiah’s leadership and strategy. Every part of the wall and the gates became the responsibility of a particular family, clan, or group. Chapter four records how they overcame the chiding of the enemies when they “joined the wall together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” (4:6). A plot to attack the city and the fear generated by the knowledge of it gave way to Nehemiah’s strategy for constant protection and readiness to fight that arose from his trust in the purpose of God (“And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” 4:9). Both the sword and the trowel were always in their possession and ready for use; they never ceased their labor and they never dropped their guard (4:15-23). Chapter five gives a narrative of Nehemiah’s wisdom and conviction as the governor of the city (a brief summary of twelve years) in instituting reforms and putting an end to abuses. Chapter 6 records the completion of the walls, with the exception of setting the gates, followed by further plots against Nehemiah, which included a revelation of the collusion of some in the city with the enemy. These trials demonstrated Nehemiah’s continuing wisdom, refusal to be distracted from the important task before him, and his constant awareness that God would sustain him and vindicate Nehemiah’s single-minded faithfulness to God’s call. But even with so much accomplished, one still must persevere to the end and make provision for the preservation of the city. When the restoration was complete, that was just the beginning of what was envisioned.

I. Nehemiah did not leave final and vital details undone. 7:1

A. In chapter 6, verse one, Nehemiah recorded that he had “not set the doors in the gates.” Prevailing through the difficulties of the attempts to stop him from completing this task, now the doors are set.

B. In addition to the doors, Nehemiah appointed gatekeepers that the gates would be opened and shut at the right times and the peculiar function of each for the efficient operation of the city would be maintained. Each gate had a particular purpose and the gatekeeper made sure, for the city’s safety and efficiency, that each was used appropriately. A summary of the work on the gates is given in chapter 3, telescoping the work from beginning to end (e.g. “they laid its beams, and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars” verse 3). There were ten gates mentioned in verses 1, 3, 6, 13 (2), 15, 26, 28, 29, 31, 32 some of them in two contexts. The Sheep Gate, for example, was the entrance through which the sacrificial lambs would be brought for the temple sacrifice. The fish gate was for the fishermen to bring in their catch for market. The dung gate was the place through which refuse was carried out of the city to the valley of Hinnom. The Horse Gate was the gate through which soldiers would ride their horses out to battle. The inspection, or muster gate, marked the location where David had inspected his troops.

C. For the purpose of worship in the temple, singers and Levites were appointed. Though Nehemiah labored and thought about the safety of the city from a practical physical standpoint, he knew that the safety, faithfulness, and future usefulness of the city depended on the centrality of its worship of Jehovah. The importance of this is seen in the vigor with which the prophets denounced the corruption of worship that gradually set in (Malachi 1:10-14).

II. Verse 2 – He was careful to appoint people who had the most vital qualification. Some have surmised that Nehemiah was preparing to return to Susa in accord with his promise to the king to return. This return would be brief, but constant vigilance is the price of liberty.

A. He looked to men whom he knew well and who had responsible positions to be special aids to him in governing the city.

One of these was his brother, Hanani, who initially had made the difficult journey from Jerusalem to Susa to inform Nehemiah of the condition of Jerusalem. (1:2)

The other was Hananiah, the governor of the castle. He was the one that had handled all the issues that arose in the responsibility Nehemiah had taken in governing the city. The “castle” probably is the house Nehemiah had built for himself with the material provided by the king of Persia through Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest (2:8).

Hanani already was known by Nehemiah as loyal, brave, and competent as his brother. Hananiah had shown strength throughout this process and seemingly shared Nehemiah’s covenantal outlook on the project for he “was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.”

This was the most important conviction that Nehemiah could find in one to whom responsibility would be given. This was a God-centered project focused on the place that Israel must have in God’s eternal plan for the glory of his name and the redemption of his people. (Malachi 3:1-4)

III. verses 3a and 4 – Given their precarious situation, the policy of securing the city had to be developed with care.

A.  The gates were to be opened and closed at designated times of the day and were never to be left unguarded while they were open.

Not until the sun was hot could the gates be opened. If a hostile force had gathered undetected in the early morning, there would be time to find them out or else weary them with the heat of the day to minimize any chance of a successful surprise attack.

No lapse in attention to these open spaces could be permitted. The guard could not be relaxed until the gates were closed and barred.

B. The inhabitants were to guard their own safety. Some, presumably whose strength, alertness and preparation would qualify them, were to be set as guards of the gates or at other strategic places in the city. Others would be guards in front of their own homes. No place of vulnerability or of real personal importance could be left without protection. Verse 3b – Those that had the most at stake must be made responsible for the ongoing preservation.

IV. verses 5-7 (cf. 61-65) – Jerusalem must be established with full awareness of its place in God’s covenant purposes for the world.

A. Having led him, to this point, step by step in his labors to give continuity to the Israelite nation through rebuilding the wall, God now led Nehemiah to ascertain the purity of the people for the future role by investigating their genealogy.

B. He consulted the records that had been kept at the time of the exile. Those taken into exile were listed by families as well as those returning in the different waves of restoration. The number of persons returning was close to 50,000.

C. In this process of ascertaining legitimate continuity of lineal descent, some wanted to be accounted among the Israelites who had no evidence in the record that their claim could be verified (verses 61-65.) They could not prove that they belonged to Israel. Also some who claimed to be of the priesthood were excluded, for they had no evidence. They could not handle the holy things of the priesthood until their claim could be verified in some other way, perhaps by the granting of supernatural insight.

V. Observations on the quest for a protected pure Israel

A. Nehemiah knew that God had given promises, not only to Israel, but to all nations to bring a blessing through the physical seed of Abraham. The lineal descent, and the evidence for it, must be maintained carefully, in order that THE Seed of Abraham would indeed be the fulfillment of all the prophecies and spread his blessings to all the nations.

B. As carefully as Nehemiah protected the purity of the lineal descent of those that would continue as the covenant nation of Israel, thus careful should we be of the protection of our spiritual lives and the covenant community of the church. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” 1 Peter 5: 8, 9.

C. In grace God himself will protect his own people “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to bge revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:5).

D. We should recognize that the matter of being called the people of God must be accompanied by evidence. Whereas, in national Israel this was accomplished through verification of genealogical records, in spiritual Israel under the New Covenant inclusion is verified by evidence of the new birth. The spiritual genealogy would read something like this:

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29)

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. . . . No one who is born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God” (1 John 3:6, 9, 10).

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4: 7).

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him. . . . Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.”  (1 John 4: 15; 5:1).

“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” (1 John 5:4).

“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. (1 John 5: 18).

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, to them he gave the right to be children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13).

D. On the other hand, those that prove not to be of this community of the new-born do not fail because of the lack of sufficient verification of their pure ethnicity, but from their not having the distinctive marks of spiritual life in Christ.

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19)

“They [the apostles] said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers following their own ungodly passions.’ It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” Jude 18, 19.

“Take care brothers lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12, 13).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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