We are working through the book of Nehemiah this summer in our church about following God through a broken mess. This is a written variation of the sermon I preached on Chapters 7-8.
When we arrive in Chapter 7 of Nehemiah, we are at a turning point, a tipping point if you will. The wall has been completed in a record 52 days. The Israelites have overcome distractions and disagreements. Nehemiah and the people of God have overcome through providence and determination. In a sense, they have arrived. They have completed what they set out to do. Yet, as we look at the pages in our bibles there are seven more chapters.
These next few chapters are crucial. Because as I look at mankind two things happen when we reach this point, this sense of completion or arrival: 1) We coast, or 2) We keep grinding as if this is one step in a larger plan. In Nehemiah, the physical broken mess of the walls have been restored, but the spiritual broken mess of the people has barely been touched. Only through the perseverance of rebuilding the walls were the people of God ready to take steps of spiritual renewal.
I am currently in graduate school working on my Master’s Degree. In one of my recent classes I had a professor say something that has stuck with me. “You have to be broken, truly broken, before you will know what true grace is.” I believe that. I see that in my own life.
Some of you in this room resonate with that quote. You have been broken. And out of that brokenness you had no where else to turn, but to God and you felt real grace for the first time. Some of you have never felt that before and have no idea what feeling of brokenness I am talking about. My hope today is that you come face-to-face with the brokenness.
There is this tension of pride from success with the brokenness, as we arrive in Chapter 7 of Nehemiah’s narrative. Nehemiah being the man of prayer and determination looks at the people of God, the walls of Jerusalem, his plan, and then to God and says, “Okay, what’s next?”
We pick up the narrative in verse 4 (italics my comments).
“The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt. Then God put in into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy (basically, take a census). And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first (reference to the return of the first wave of exiles) and I found written in it: These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had just carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah…” (vv. 4-7a ESV).
He then precedes to read off the names and numbers of people who were are recorded. My hope is that you recognize a few of those initial names. Mordecai is Ester’s cousin and we read about him in the book of Ester. Nehemiah, who this book is named after. Zerubbabel who led the first group back from exile. Sometimes we wonder why all these numbers and names are important. But, these names and numbers here in Chapter 7 begin the first step in spiritual renewal for the Israelites. They had to identify who is really Jewish. They had to know who was really in the family of God. Going through these names I would encourage you to mark these sections out in your bible. This will help make the names and numbers less daunting when you read through them.
||Town or area
||Levites, singers, gatekeepers
||Solomon’s Servants (special roles)
||Could not prove Israelite decent
Nehemiah goes through all the names of the people and recorded their numbers. Go back to something I wrote earlier. They needed to know who is part of the family and who is not. Because in order to make Israel a holy nation again, they had to begin with separation from non-covenantal people to begin the spiritual and cultural renewal process.
The dynamic of Israel is so unique. It is unlike any other nation or country, ever in the history of the world. Their culture, their practices, and customs are religious because nationality and spirituality are tied together under the Covenant of Abraham and Law of Moses. If we look back at verse 5, God initiates this process of renewal. He put it on Nehemiah’s heart.
The big picture of Nehemiah is following God through a broken mess, so that you experience restoration, healing, renewal, and sanctification for his glory. This was the aim. It started way before we get to this chapter, but this is where this message first becomes crystal clear in Nehemiah. At the heart of this renewal for Israel, and in particular their capitol city of Jerusalem, is the spiritual and religious lifeblood that comes from a God who is all about reconciliation and sanctification of His people for His glory. Chapter 7:5-72 explains what is happening in the background of chapters 8, 9, and 10. The theme of knowing who’s in and who’s out returns in chapter 11.
If you were trying to follow that part of the narrative and are taking notes, the first step to getting on the path to spiritual renewal is know what makes your family part of God’s family. In simplified words, Step 1 is define the distinction.
A modern day picture, for some families they have specific characteristics that set them apart. For example, you may know that little Timmy got his ears from your side of the family because everyone on your side of the family has ears that stick out. In Harry Potter, everyone knows Ron is a Weasley because of his red hair and his hand-me-down stuff.
Now, we live under the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus. What separates the church our family from other organizations? What separates followers of Jesus from good moral people?
As followers of Jesus in God’s family we must be able to define what distinguishes our beliefs, values, customs, choices, actions from other people in this world, if we want a spiritual renewal in our families, churches, and our communities. My aunt says it best, “we are forgiven!” The fact that we are a forgiven people is what separates followers of Jesus and the church at its core from the world. We have experienced love so deep it forgives and gives, which is something we do not deserve. We got grace. This mark of grace becomes visible in Chapter 8 of Nehemiah.
Chapter 8 starts out like this:
“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 (which would be the first 5 books of our bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy and we find Lev. & Num. irrelevant) that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both man and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month (which would be around the start of October). 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 the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 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 (so 6 on his right and 7 on his left). And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blesses the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and they worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub,, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book from the Law of God clearly, and they gave sense, so that the people clearly understood the reading” (vv. 1-8 ESV).
This is an incredible picture of teaching the word of God. The Israelites have rebuilt the wall. They went back to their towns and villages. Then they came back together to hear from God, not as individuals, but as one man, for a unified purpose. They wanted to hear from God. They listened intently. They were attentive for six hours—from early morning to midday. There was a hunger for God’s Word. He had brought them out of exile. He had helped them begin restoring the city. They were seeing physical signs of God’s deliverance. They were coming to a realization that God does what he says he is going to do, but they now had to learn more about what he said.
The second step to spiritual renewal, if you are taking notes, is listen to the Word read and taught. The Word brings worship. Ezra opened the Law and the people stood because this was not only tradition, but also a physical act of submission to God. Then Ezra began to read: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord in one.” The reading would have started with this call to worship and then followed with the text that was being read. For example, Deuteronomy 16:13-14,
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, and your son and your daughter, your male servant, and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.”
The people said, “Yes! Yes!” They were listening to the word. They worshiped God, which means they danced, raised hands, clapped, and bowed down. We usually equate a response like this to music, a concert, or a sporting event. The Israelite did this in response to preaching. Ezra read. Ezra preached and the people cheered. As it says in verse 8, the Levites and priests then explained the Word to the people, why did that passage matter. They explained the meaning behind it, how it fit into the history of Israel, how to apply what was being read. Ezra read the words and rituals, that the Old Testament is full of, but it did not just stop with that. They explained what the rituals and words meant. They made the Law relevant in new and unexpected ways. The application to the Law, not just the knowledge of what it says. The Israelites, in this scene cheered, “We want more!”
This desire came because they listened to the Word. This next step, is implied yet also shown later, they responded to the Word. We cannot get to an accurate step 3 unless, we first listen to the Word read and taught. Step 3 is respond. In order for spiritual renewal to happen we must respond. For the Israelites, after hearing the Law it caused them to mourn. They worshiped and they mourned. Now, Nehemiah sees this response and hears their response, and this is what it says in verse nine:
“And Nehemiah, who was 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 (or eat the best meat) 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 in your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quite, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (vv. 9-12 ESV).
It is a preachers worst nightmare. The people hear the Law and its explained in new ways, but they just do not get it. Why did they not get it? The Law was working the way it supposed to work. The Law points out their sin and wickedness, but the story is not about them. It is about God. Nehemiah absolutely wants them to respond. God’s Word calls us to respond. However, the Israelites go sometimes where we go—straight to the guilt and shame. Guilt is a powerful emotion and force. However, grief and mourning from guilt leaves us empty and unsatisfied. Our response to God’s Word will be incorrect if the information we hear is not properly understood within the greater narrative. Because Nehemiah and Ezra are in the process of restoring a culture, a mindset, and a religious way of life, they needed to take the time to help the Israelites respond the way the Word elicited. They want the Israelites to experience something that is even more powerful and drives deeper into the heart than guilt or shame. That force is one of love and grace. The joy of the Lord is our strength because he has shown us grace. The joy of the Lord is our strength! The Israelites had disobeyed. They has tossed the book of the Law out the window, which had gotten them sent into exile. Yet, God heard them and brought them out of exile. He showed them grace and then they said we want more. Nehemiah wants them to respond to the grace they have been shown not with mourning but with joy. He wants them to throw a party and share it with everyone. Eat the best meat. Drink the best drinks and not only keep it for yourselves, but share it with everyone. Then the lightbulb came on after more explanation. It says, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (v. 12). They heard the Word, they responded to the Word, and the understood the word.
This sounds amazing—the people of God desiring God, hearing God, responding to God and then sharing that with everyone with joy! Taking that to our context today, under the New Covenant, I want to be part of a church like that. I think we all want a church like that—a church filled with life, love, joy, and unity around the one thing we cannot truly experience anywhere else, grace.A God glorifying family that absolutely celebrates and is joyful. A church that responds the way the Word of God instructs. That would look and feel incredible! That church would be a place where people want to be. Do the Israelites catch this vision of what spiritual renewal looks like?
The chapter goes on and in verse 13 we pick up the next day.
“On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the word of the Law. And they found it written in the Law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and Jerusalem, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.’ So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 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 great rejoicing. And day by day from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. They kept the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule” (vv. 13-18 ESV).
The last two steps get merged together. They get squishy. In order to take steps toward spiritual renewal, we must define what distinguishes us, listen to the Word read and taught, respond to the Word, allow for correction and then repeat. I want to return to the text just read, the Israelites responded and allowed their leaders to shepherd them in their response, just as Nehemiah did when they mourned. Once they responded and were corrected, they were then truly able to understand. We will never truly understand until we experience. It is just knowledge that we think we understand, until it is put into practice. The Israelites returned to the Word because they wanted to go through the process again. If we only know, but never do, it will not drive us back to the Word because we have no experience that tells us otherwise. The leaders were there not to condemn, but correct. The people had to trust that Nehemiah and the Levites knew what they were talking about.
The timing of this is perfect. The Israelites are learning about the feast of Booths, or Tabernacles, which is found in Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus, and Exodus. They heard it written in the Law of this feast. They then preceded to learn about why that feast was important, remember, all the section leaders, the Levites, were giving understanding. This feast is to remind them, to be a physical symbol, about the wandering in the wilderness, how God brought them out of Egypt, how they disobeyed, yet he was still with them. He still dwelt in the tabernacle, while they dwelt in booths. The tabernacle was the tent where God dwelt before the Temple in Jerusalem was built. If you look back in the text, they had not celebrated this feast properly since Joshua, they guy who succeeded Moses as leader. It had been awhile. Nevertheless, the Israelites were determined to follow the book of the Law. They had just come out of their own enslavement, their own exile. God had provided for them even though they had not kept his laws, just as he has for the Israelites when they we enslaved in Egypt. “You have to be broken, truly broken, before you will know what true grace is.” The Israelites experienced grace. They were experiencing joy in keeping rituals, and customs because they had experienced brokenness.
My guess is you need spiritual renewal somewhere in your life. In fact we all do. Today, if we were to draw connections to this text. We distinguished ourselves by gathering as a family this weekend, we heard the word, my hope, by the grace of God, that we understood the word, and that we will now go and respond to the word.
The appropriate response is this: if you have experienced Jesus’ grace, then share it joyfully and stop mourning about the suffering of following Jesus. If you have never accepted him, say yes to him, and if you need more understanding, then respond by asking. The worst thing you can do today is not do anything.
That is why we continually need to repeat, do it again, become like-new or made new again. We need reminders. When we read God’s Word when we respond to God’s Word, Old or New Testament, it sends us not simply to an action or to a moral code, but a person. His name is Jesus. He is the perfect form of grace. The Israelites needed reminded of God’s grace because God is a keeper of his promises. The biggest promise of all was that he was going to send someone, who would restore all things, redeem all things, heal all things. God initiated this process of spiritual renewal, just like He did with Nehemiah and the Israelites, by sending Himself from heaven to earth. Jesus went to the cross to pay the penalty for your sins and rose from the dead, so that you can experience forgiveness and grace that lasts into eternity. That is something we do not deserve.