Week of August 26, 2018
The Point: Serving God includes celebrating His great work.
This Day is Holy: Nehemiah 8:9-12.
 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.  Then he said to them, “Go 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.”  So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”  And all the people went 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. [ESV]
“Scripture exposes our sins. The first sign that God’s Word was reaching the hearts and informing the minds of these people was that they began to grieve about their failures. This unique book had touched their consciences, heightening their awareness of ways in which they had disobeyed, dishonored or ignored God. The people wept because what they heard in the reading of Scripture condemned their lifestyle. But they would not have had an awareness of their sinfulness unless they had first been confronted with the mirror of Scripture’s revelation of the majesty of God. The bright light of His holiness revealed their impurity, His faithfulness challenged their disloyalty, and His compassion their selfishness. Moreover, seeing themselves exposed in the mirror of God’s Word, the people became distressed concerning the universality and consequences of human sin. Everybody present was guilty. In one way or another they had all fallen short of the glory of God; that made the offense so tragically universal, deeply serious and inescapably personal. Sin was the root, and sins were the fruit of their transgression. They had broken their covenant promise of exclusive love and total loyalty, and Scripture’s somber repeated warnings must have descended upon them that morning like the relentless blows of a hammer. Yet, despite the seriousness of their sin, the people were urged to dry their tears. Scripture not only condemns sin; it proclaims the remedy. The Levites urged the congregation, do not mourn or weep . Within ten days this new year holiday would be followed by the Day of Atonement. On that annual public declaration of God’s mercy, all the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites’ would be fully, immediately and irrevocably pardoned, whatever their sins have been. On that day, the atoning sacrifice was offered, the scapegoat would carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place. The people were confronted with a visible sign as well as a verbal assurance: You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins [Lev. 16:30]. Each year, that Levitical scapegoat anticipated a greater atonement by far. The day came when, on that first Good Friday, God’s Son carried our sins to the cross in His sinless body. By that unique sacrifice, those who repent and believe are eternally forgiven. They too hear the reassuring word, do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . Theirs is the joy of prayer heard, God’s promise fulfilled, sins cleansed and strength renewed [1 John 1:7-9; Ps. 32:3; 51:1-7,10-12; Isa. 55:6-7].
Scripture widens our horizons. Scripture not only makes us aware of our own failures, it also opens our eyes to the needs of others. The people were not to indulge in groveling introspection when there was a world out there needing the assurance of forgiveness and love. It was day of rejoicing, a time to celebrate God’s mercy to them and his compassion for all. The holiday was to be marked by festival meals to which families and communities should invite their neighbors, and the best of food must be sent to those people who lacked the basic necessities of life. Readings from Deuteronomy would certainly have convinced them that God was concerned about the poor, widows, fatherless, orphan and alien, in fact anyone who has nothing ready  for this celebration meal [Deut. 14:28-29; 15:1-11; 24:10-22; 26:12].
Scripture guarantees our resources. Through the explanation of Scripture, this congregation was assured of specific help from God. The people had sent some of the best gifts of food to their deprived neighbors, but Nehemiah reminds them that they have received from God gifts which money could not buy: do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . His words focus on these immense resources for the believer: peace, joy, and strength. The people are urged, first, to quieten their distressed minds: the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet … . However great their sins, they could be completely forgiven and be at peace in their hearts. The people’s joy in life was not to be found in ideal circumstances, material prosperity or social popularity but in the Lord. Their joy is derived from the knowledge of who He is, what He does, what He says and what He gives. They constantly reflect on the joy of discerning the Lord’s nature (as compassionate, holy, just, merciful, righteous, generous), of observing the Lord’s deeds, of claiming the Lord’s promises, and of receiving the Lord’s resources, such as the forgiveness, peace, security and joy described or implied throughout this passage. That joy is the source of constantly renewed strength. The guarantee of such comprehensive resources fortifies their lives and provides the dynamic for daily living. That word strength was used by the Hebrew people to describe a fortress or well-protected stronghold. When they are in trouble, God’s people know of the place of their secure refuge: it is in the Lord Himself, His character, works, Word and gifts. Joy is a recurrent theme in this chapter [10,12,17]. This congregation discovered that joy was to be found in acknowledging God’s greatness , appreciating God’s Word [8-9,12] and helping God’s people [10-12].” [Brown, pp. 333-340].
Dedication of the Wall: Nehemiah 12:27-31.
 And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres.  And the sons of the singers gathered together from the district surrounding Jerusalem and from the villages of the Netophathites;  also from Beth-gilgal and from the region of Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built for themselves villages around Jerusalem.  And the priests and the Levites purified themselves, and they purified the people and the gates and the wall.  Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks. One went to the south on the wall to the Dung Gate. [ESV]
“Our Chief End [12:27-47]. The Israelite leaders reflected on God’s goodness in enabling them to complete the rebuilding of the walls in such a short space of time. They wanted to offer praise to God publicly for His guidance, help and protection, and to dedicate not only the restored walls but their reformed community to His glory. Nehemiah’s vivid narrative of this service of thanksgiving presents us with important biblical guidelines regarding the nature, centrality and purpose of worship. Worship is ‘worth-ship’. The word describes those acts of the mind, heart and will whereby we gratefully acknowledge the worth of our God. There can be no other human activity which is so lofty and spiritually determinative as that of adoring God. Worship is the total submission of all that we have and are to everything we know of God. A careful reading of the narrative in Nehemiah 12 directs us to ten aspects of this important theme of acceptable worship.
(1) Its purpose. The purpose of this act of worship was to celebrate what God had done, thank Him for such astonishing generosity, and dedicate the people and their work to His glory. Grateful celebration, thanksgiving and dedication are the three main themes, and they take us to the heart of what worship is really about. First, the Israelites magnify His name. Celebration is a primary aspect of worship. It begins with who God is, what God has said and done. We glory in those unique acts which took place before even we had the desire to think or say anything to Him. In worship we extol with all our powers the initiative of God as we recall all that He has done, said and is to His people. Secondly, the people acknowledge God’s gifts. Thanksgiving was another main aspect of their worship. They marveled at God’s astonishing and totally undeserved generosity to them and, with a sense of adoring wonder, give public expression to their immense gratitude. The congregation’s commitment to thanksgiving is deliberately repeated throughout the passage [27,31,40]. Our thanksgiving needs to be specific. It is not enough to express our gratitude formally in well-worn phrases. Thanksgiving must be itemized, so that we appreciate all the ways in which we are indebted to such a generous God. Thirdly, the Israelites offer themselves in dedication. It is not enough just to celebrate God’s achievement in history and experience, and to thank Him for such merciful intervention. Worship demands the surrender of ourselves, and the surrender to Him of all that He has given to us.
(2) Its nature. The secret of acceptable worship is not simply what we do but how we do it. The worship of these citizens was a radiantly joyous experience [27,43]. This opportunity to magnify God was a supremely happy occasion. Whenever these people came together for worship, their hearts overflowed with true joy [8:12,17]. Worship is meant to be the natural overflow of jubilant spirits. Cheerfulness and delight ought to find its richest expression in corporate worship.
(3) Its variety. There was nothing stereotyped and monochrome about this worship occasion in Jerusalem. Worship is meant to be a shared experience to which a variety of participants bring their particular gifts [27-29,35,36,41,42].
(4) Its priority. However skilled the instrumentalists and choristers, Scripture emphasizes a quality which takes priority over musical ability and the eager participation of gifted people in worship. The hearts of the worshippers are of greater importance than their voices. The Lord is not moved by lofty words and captivating tunes if He discerns unworthy and unacceptable things in our lives. Before the procession moved off, the priests and Levites purified themselves and they purified the people and the gates and the wall . These acts of purification were designed to direct the people’s attention to the necessity of a clean heart. God looks within, to the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds. He knows whether the words on our lips are matched by the quality of our lives.
(5) Its traditions. With an appreciative sense of history, this congregation acknowledged their indebtedness to the great traditions of worship in the past. They enjoyed a sense of continuity with those who had worshipped before them. This company of worshippers was pleased to continue the tradition of temple worship which had enriched the nation’s spiritual life for centuries . They were sensitive to the fact that, long before they were born, their forefathers had adored God, recalled His mercies and surrendered themselves to His work. The psalms they sang contributed an enriching dimension to their worship. They helped these Jerusalem worshippers to give expression to three things about their faith. First, these psalms confirmed the reality of their faith. They renew our confidence, reminding us in our frailty that our faith is shared by a vast multitude who have sung these great songs before us and have been sustained by them. Secondly, these psalms expressed the continuity of their faith. They rejoiced that the Lord had guided and guarded them across the centuries, and they testified to His unswerving faithfulness. God has called, equipped and used His sincere worshippers and willing servants in every generation. Thirdly, these psalms declared the solidarity of the Israelites’ faith. As they used these great psalms, they gave expression not simply to the faith of the past but to the great truths which unite God’s people in every generation. Our faith is not a solitary experience, and these great words from the past unite us with the redeemed people of God throughout the centuries.
(6) Its witness. The procession of both choirs around the walls was a public act of witness, which culminated in a service of thanksgiving in the temple. It was never intended to be an exclusive conclave restricted to religious officials. Everybody in the nation was meant to know that the people were honoring God’s name and exalting His goodness to them. The worshippers were clearly seen and heard as they made this joyous declaration of their indebtedness to God. As the two choirs processed and sang, accompanied by their instrumentalists, they walked in opposite directions on the top of the wall [31,38]. Everyone in the city could see what was happening, and for miles around people heard these songs of praise, because the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away . Every service of worship is an act of corporate testimony to God’s nature, word and acts. A person without a clear faith who comes into a service of Christian worship ought to be in no doubt about what and why we believe. The centrality of the Lord needs to be the distinctive element in our worship, yet it can be subtly marginalized in the contemporary world. All occasions for worship need to incorporate the essential elements of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, the assurance of forgiveness, the exposition of and submission to God’s Word, the offering of our gifts as well as ourselves, intercession for our world and specific individuals in need and commitment to future service. Everything we do is totally ineffective if it does not turn people’s gaze to the Lord of glory.
(7) Its vitality. This passage is memorable in its abundant use of superlatives. It describes the vitality of something that was really well done, with every participant determined to offer their best and make the occasion one which would always be recalled with joy. The Israelites were passionate and enthusiastic as they worshipped the Lord [27,31,43]. There is nothing half-hearted about their worship. It is the overflow of supremely grateful hearts from people who have personally experienced the lavish generosity of God and the incalculable and undeserved blessings which have been showered upon them. They have reveled in His great goodness [9:25,35], cast themselves upon His great mercies [9:19,31] and experienced His great compassion. It is little wonder that they wish to offer great sacrifices [12:43].
(8) Its unity. This act of worship was an occasion which united not only the citizens of Jerusalem but people from the surrounding countryside [27,28]. When it is conducted with sincerity, sensitivity and dignity, Christian worship can be a markedly unifying experience. People from all walks of life stand in equal need of the Lord’s mercy, and all are debtors to His astonishing grace. Many of the things which might otherwise divide them become less than important in their united aim and privilege of adoring praise, thanksgiving and commitment.
(9) Its quality. This narrative gives us a distinct impression of the quality of the Israelites’ worship. Everything was done well. There was nothing haphazard that day, and things were not hurriedly thrown together at the last moment. It had all been well thought out: the recruitment of the singers, the composition of the choirs, the combination of the instrumentalists, the route of the procession, even the training of the chorus . The Lord is worthy of our best, and it is sad that He does not always receive it.
(10) Its cost. The concluding verses [44-47] present us with another aspect of authentic worship: the offering of our money as well as our time and service for the Lord’s work. For all its attractiveness, splendor and excitement, the great service of dedication would inevitably draw to its close, and provision must be made for the continuing worship of God’s people. The priests and Levites, those living in Jerusalem and beyond, must be supported by the generous gifts which the Lord had described and commanded. In recording this narrative, our author is at pains to mention six characteristics of the people’s giving to the Lord’s work. It was organized, specific, grateful, obligatory, regular and universal.” [Brown, pp. 205-217].
Questions for Discussion:
- In Nehemiah 8:9-12, what three things did the reading of Scripture do for the people? Do you experience these three things when you hear Scripture faithfully preached or taught? Ezra told the people do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Of what did this joy consist? How were the people to experience this joy? What is the relationship between experiencing this joy and the day being holy to the Lord? How can you experience the joy of the Lord as your strength?
- List the ten aspects of acceptable worship that Brown finds in Nehemiah 12. What do you learn about worship from this list? Is there anything in this list that you can incorporate into your worship of the Lord?
Ezra, Nehemiah Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, B & H Publishing.
The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, F. Charles Fensham, Eerdmans.
Ezra & Nehemiah, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.