God’s People & God’s Word

Posted: April 13, 2011 in Uncategorized

Nehemiah 7-8, “God’s People & God’s Word”

Question: what do you do with a precious gift?  If someone gives you something of inestimable worth, how do you treat it?  Obviously, it might depend on what it is.  For a vase from the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, you might not ever touch it at all!  Yet – what if it’s something that’s meant to be handled?  If you’ve been entrusted with something that’s precious, yet meant to be used – you use it.  For instance, if you stood before the President of the United States tomorrow, and he handed you an important document addressed to you, what would you do with it?  You’d read it (obviously)!

In the Bible, we’ve been given words infinitely more valuable than a communiqué from the President – and yet Christians sometimes treat it more like a Ming vase than a book to be read.  They have their Bible (sometimes very nice expensive ones) and it gets set in a prominent place upon their shelf or night stand…and then proceeds to collect dust.  The most precious words ever penned upon paper become a worthless paperweight.  May it not be so among us!

What we’ll see in Nehemiah 7-8 are the people of God who have been brought back into the land hearing and appreciating the word of God.  In a sense, it’s a Bible study about a Bible study – but it shows the immense value of the word of God among God’s people.

For context, Ch 6 ended with the wall of Jerusalem being completed.  Nehemiah had dealt with much distraction from both inside the Jews (in the form of the rich oppressing the poor), and on the outside (in the form of lies & attacks from their enemies).  Yet Nehemiah persevered & rallied the people to rely upon their faith in God, knowing that God would see them through their challenges.  God did, and the wall was done in 52 days!  With the construction done, the attention turns from the wall of the city to the people of the city…

Nehemiah 7:1–7 (NKJV)

1Then it was, when the wall was built and I had hung the doors, when the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, 2that I gave the charge of Jerusalem to my brother Hanani, and Hananiah the leader of the citadel, for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.

  1. Now that the wall was built, Nehemiah’s job was done.  Knowing that he’d leave a vacuum in leadership that Sanballat or Tobiah would rush in to fill, Nehemiah appoints trustworthy men to govern the city.
  2. What were the qualifying factors?  Faithfulness & the fear of God.  True, one was Nehemiah’s brother, but the other had outstanding qualities of character.  Faithfulness = proven ability to persevere through trials.  Fear of God = proper reverence & worship of God, to Whom all worship is due.  Did Hananiah have other skills?  Sure – he wouldn’t have been the leader of the citadel otherwise…but the most important qualifications he had were found in his character.
    1. It’s no different among us within the church today.  Elders and deacons are primarily identified by their character.  Even the very first deacons were chosen among the Jerusalem church because they had a good reputation & were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3).  God can give ability – but to be used by Him we must 1st be submitted TO Him. …

 

3And I said to them, “Do not let the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot; and while they stand guard, let them shut and bar the doors; and appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, one at his watch station and another in front of his own house.”

  1. His final instructions: stand guard.  Beware of those coming into the city.  Just because the wall was built doesn’t mean that their enemies had gone away.  The gates needed to be guarded so that the people would be safe.
  2. Paul gives similar instructions to Timothy regarding the church: stand guard.  Keep grounded in the word of God & right doctrine in order to keep false teaching out of the church.  There will always be those who resist the truth & attempt to corrupt others (2 Tim 3:8); we need to stand firm on the revealed truth of God & be careful what we allow into our lives & churches.

 

4Now the city was large and spacious, but the people in it were few, and the houses were not rebuilt. 5Then my God put it into my heart to gather the nobles, the rulers, and the people, that they might be registered by genealogy. And I found a register of the genealogy of those who had come up in the first return, and found written in it:

  1. Praise God that the wall is done – but there’s still much work to do.  The city was in a state of disrepair.  Nehemiah’s next task is to organize the people…
  2. What did he find?  Basically the historical record of what was already recorded in Ezra 2 regarding the 1st wave of return under Zerubbabel.

 

6These are the people of the province who came back from the captivity, of those who had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, and who returned to Jerusalem and Judah, everyone to his city.

  1. Everyone that wanted to leave had permission to leave – this is just the list of those who left with Zerubbabel at the 1st opportunity.
  2. Had Nebuchadnezzar carried them off?  Yes.  Yet we cannot say that the captivity of the Jews was Nebuchadnezzar’s doing; this was the will & work of God.  God had brought them into the promised land; God took them out. 

 

–          Verses 7-63 list the various names & households of those who returned.  They mean little to nothing to us today, but they would have meant a great deal to those originally reading the book of Nehemiah.  They would have seen family names (grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc) & known the connection between the various people there.  Genealogy was extremely important as it established their present connections to the ancient promises given to Abraham, Moses, and David…and ultimately to the Messiah.

–          Demonstrates how God keeps His promises!

–          Does our genealogy matter?  Yes & no.  No – our physical genealogy doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Yes – our spiritual genealogy matters a great deal!  Those who have faith in God show that we are children of Abraham (Gal 3:9)…  Those who are born of the Holy Spirit through repentance & faith in Christ have been granted the spirit of adoption & given the right to become the children of God (Rom 8:15)…  What’s your spiritual genealogy?

Nehemiah 7:64–73 (NKJV)

64These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but it was not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled. 65And the governor said to them that they should not eat of the most holy things till a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim.

  1. Apparently several who came from the priestly bloodline (Levi – Aaron – Phinehas) did not have any records left to prove their legitimacy.  Posed a big obstacle to their service as priests!  They had to individually be brought before God via the Urim & Thummim.  Genealogy was vital for the priesthood.
  2. Likewise for today: every Christian is a priest…we’re part of a royal priesthood under Christ Jesus our High Priest. (1 Pt 2:9, Heb 9:11)  We cannot force our way into the priesthood – we cannot bribe our way into the priesthood – we must be born into it.  We must be born of the Holy Spirit. (John 3:3,5)

 

66Altogether the whole assembly was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, 67besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred and forty-five men and women singers.

  1. Zerubbabel’s wave of repatriated Jews was the largest out of any group that came from Babylon. 42,360 Jews + 7,337 servants + 245 singers.  At minimum, that’s 49,942 people.  Out of the vast numbers that were carted off to Babylon, 50K is a small percentage that actually wanted to return…how sad!

 

68Their horses were seven hundred and thirty-six, their mules two hundred and forty-five, 69their camels four hundred and thirty-five, and donkeys six thousand seven hundred and twenty. 70And some of the heads of the fathers’ houses gave to the work. The governor gave to the treasury one thousand gold drachmas, fifty basins, and five hundred and thirty priestly garments. 71Some of the heads of the fathers’ houses gave to the treasury of the work twenty thousand gold drachmas, and two thousand two hundred silver minas. 72And that which the rest of the people gave was twenty thousand gold drachmas, two thousand silver minas, and sixty-seven priestly garments. 73So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the Nethinim, and all Israel dwelt in their cities. When the seventh month came, the children of Israel were in their cities.

  1. Counted horses & mules (military animals & farm animals) & counted cash.
  2. Why?  Because these were the things that God had blessed them with.  Why wouldn’t they count these items in order to give glory to God?  We may not keep a written inventory of everything in our homes, but we ought to recognize that all we have are gifts entrusted to us by God.  Give God glory for every good gift! (Jas 1:17)

 

Nehemiah 8 (NKJV)

1Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded Israel. 2So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. 3Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

  1. Ezra gathered the people together to hear the reading of the Law.  How old was Ezra by this point?  We don’t know – but this was a minimum of 14 years after he himself had returned to Jersualem.  We can only imagine the joy it must have been for Ezra to see this day come!  Here was a priest of Judah who stepped out in faith to see more people brought back to the Promised Land of God, now standing among the people who were finally safe & secure in the homeland, preparing to instruct them in the word of God.  Awesome!
    1. Sometimes we may have to wait a while to see the fulfillment of promise.  Maybe months – maybe years…but we can be sure that God is true. Hold fast as you wait!
  2. What exactly did he do?  Read the book of the Law of Moses from morning till noon.  From breakfast till lunch, Ezra read the Old Testament – most likely the book of Deuteronomy, the re-telling & summarizing of the Law given in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. (And we think sermons today are long! J)  If it was just Deuteronomy, he likely read the entire book at that one sitting.  This was commanded to be done during the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 31:11 – “you shall read this law before all the people in their hearing,”), and the feast was just around the corner.
  3. God’s people need to hear the word.  Be careful not to neglect the importance of hearing (or reading) the pure word of God!  This is how we come to faith & this is how we grow in the faith.  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Rom 10:17)  We must get the word of God into our hearts!  Through it, we will be set apart (sanctified) by the truth of God for God’s purposes (John 17:17).  Because of it, we will guard ourselves from sin (Ps 119:11).  But it all starts with hearing/reading the words on the page!  Read the word!
    1. This is so important to remember in our own personal Bible study.  Praise God for commentaries & sermon notes & other tools – but they all come 2nd to the Scripture itself.  Be careful to 1st read the Bible just for the Bible.  You’ve got to see it with your own eyes – or listen to it without commentary…just the inspired word as God gave it.
    2. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the tools (we’ll see Ezra use them in a bit), but the priority is 1st upon the word of God itself.
  4. Be careful not to just hear it, but listen to it.  The people “were attentive.”  We don’t learn the Bible by osmosis; we’ve got to pay attention to what God is saying.  Do you ever find yourself “zoning out” in your Scripture time?  Go back & read it again (even if you don’t fully understand it).  It’s too important merely to blow it off.  Obviously, some passages are more important than others (the genealogical listings in Ch 7, for instance!), but when the Bible is teaching, we ought to be attentive to what God is telling us.

 

4So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

  1. God’s people need to respect the word.  A special pulpit was constructed & he was surrounded by leaders of some sort (we do not know if they were priests, Levites, or heads of families).  They did not treat the reading of the Scripture as something casual to be endured or ignored; this was something worth paying close attention to & showing respect towards.  The people stood the whole time…keep in mind this took hours!
    1. Does this mean we need to honor the physical book?  No.  We respect the words on the page not because of the page, but because of the Author.  When we respect the word, we’re demonstrating our respect towards God.
  2. God’s people need to respond to the word.  When Ezra read, he gave blessings to the Lord, the people agreed (AMEN) & worshipped.  It didn’t go in one ear & out the other; the word of God had an effect upon them because they received it & responded to it.
    1. Worship is always a proper response to the word of God.  (It’s not the only response, but it’s an appropriate response.)  Theology ought to lead to doxology – knowledge of God ought to lead to the worship of God.

 

7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. 8So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.

  1. God’s people need to understand the word.  The Levites took the time to ensure that the people understood what it was that the Law was teaching.  Some Bibles translate “understand” as “translating” – with the thought being that the Law was originally written in Hebrew, and the people now spoke Aramaic.  Yet even if that is the case (which is uncertain), the task of translation is still one of helping people understand through teaching.  The Levites took the time to ensure that the word was comprehended by the people. 
    1. This is where the Bible study helps, commentaries, and sermon notes come in!  Once we hear it & actively receive it, we need to be sure we fully understand it. … We have so many riches in this country along these lines!  Take advantage of them!  (Study Bibles, internet, radio, CD’s, etc…)
  2. This is the #1 reason we teach the Bible verse-by-verse (expositional teaching).  We want to ensure that the people of God not only hear the whole counsel of God, but that they understand the whole counsel of God.  The only way to truly accomplish this is by expositional verse-by-verse teaching.

 

9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.

  1. Question: why would the people be grieved?  Because the Law brings the knowledge of sin. Romans 7:7 “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” ” []  Remember what happened with King Josiah when the book of the Law was found (1 Kings 22) – he tore his clothes & threw himself upon the mercies of God.
    1. What happens when we understand the knowledge of sin?  It ought to lead us straight to the cross of Jesus Christ!  The law is our tutor to bring us to Christ (Gal 3:24)…  Run to the Savior, surrender yourself to His rule, and receive His forgiveness!
  2. God’s people need to rejoice in the word.  Instead of grieving, the people needed to rejoice.  It’s not that they didn’t need to be aware of their own sin (surely they did – and we see some of their behavior corrected in the next verses); it’s that they needed to be thankful for what they had heard, received, and understood.  They had experienced a holy day – one in which God was glorified through the reading & understanding of His Scripture.  It was a reason to rejoice.
  3. We’ve been given the WORD OF GOD!  What an incredible gift!  God’s word is:
    1. Inspired by God, equipping us for service (2 Tim 3:16-17)
    2. Living & active, sharper than any 2-edged sword (Heb 4:12)
    3. Perfect, converting the soul (Ps 19:7)
    4. And much more!  What we hold in our hands is not just any ordinary book; it is THE Book of books.  That’s not to say we worship it (heaven forbid!  Idolatry!); we worship the God who gave us the book…  Yet we need to understand the value of the gift we have been entrusted with.  Christians throughout the centuries have bled & died for us to be able to even read the Bible in our own language with our own eyes, and yet most American households have 4 copies of the Bible – none of which get read.  What you hold in your hand WILL change your life when God gives it life in the reading; so read it!  Rejoice in it!

 

13Now on the second day the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and Levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law. 14And they found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, 15and that they should announce and proclaim in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.”

  1. Obviously not all of the work was accomplished on one day.  The Book of the Law had been read, but there was not enough time to fully explain it.  The family heads had gathered to Ezra a 2nd day to continue hearing the teaching of the Scripture.
    1. Underscores the need for us to continually be in the word.  The Bible is not something that we read one time & never have to pick it up again – you can study the Bible for years on end & never fully plump the depths of even the simplest doctrine of God.
  2. Apparently, the section they taught on that day was the Feast of Tabernacles – the very feast that they ought to have been preparing for during that time. (15th day of 7th month – Lev 23:34 )  What was the Feast of Tabernacles all about?  God’s provision: Leviticus 23:42–43 “(42) You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, (43) that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” []  Especially appropriate at this time in Judah’s history!  God had kept the Jewish people safe during the years of the Babylonian captivity – God had provided for them an opportunity to be brought back into the land – God had provided for their safety as the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt.  They had many reasons to thank God for His gracious provision!
    1. That was the original purpose – is there a prophetic aspect to the Feast of Tabernacles?  Perhaps.  We know that the 1st 3 feasts of Israel have definite ties to Christ Jesus: Passover points to the cross – firstfruits points to the resurrection – 50 weeks points to Pentecost…  It seems that the final 3 feasts also might have prophetic ties.  Trumpets potentially points to the rapture – the day of Atonement perhaps looks at the Tribulation – that leaves the feast of Tabernacles to point toward the Millennial age as Christ Jesus provides for His people the perfect government & kingdom, and dwells among His people.

 

16Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. 17So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness.

  1. Once they read about the Feast of Tabernacles, the people set themselves to participating in the feast.  They prepared their booths, slept outside, and rejoiced in the remembrance and worship of God.
  2. God’s people need to apply the word.  They had heard the word & understood it & responded to it in worship.  Now they needed to respond to it in deed.  It’s one thing to claim we understand what God has told us to do; it’s another to actually obey it. [Parable of 2 Sons, Matt 21:28-31]  John 14:21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” []
  3. How long had it been since this feast was celebrated?  Not all that long – the feast was mentioned in Ezra 3:4 as being celebrated by the 1st wave of refugees under Zerubbabel.  Thus this is likely a reference to the manner of celebration.  How long had it been since the feast was celebrated properly?  Ages!  It had not been celebrated since the days of Joshua.  Keep in mind that that whole purpose of this feast was to remember God’s provision for them in the wilderness, that when the Israelites had houses and land of their own, they would never forget where they came from & how God is the source of all their provision.  Apparently once they received the land under the leadership of Joshua, they never once remembered this feast as the Lord intended for them to do so…the whole purpose of the feast was lost entirely.  Not during the days of the judges, nor the days of the kings…not even during the days of David or Solomon!  Solomon is mentioned to have had a feast during the 7th month, but it was the dedication of the temple; not the feast of Tabernacles.  The Jews had completely missed this one.
    1. Before we start pointing too many fingers, we need to look at how we’re guilty of the same.  Jesus told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mk 12:31) – how many of us truly do so?  Jesus told us to forgive one another as God the Father forgives us (Mt 6:14-15) – how many grudges do we like to nurse?  Oh, that we would obey the one we call “Lord & Master”!  As Samuel proclaimed to Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice & to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam 15:22) …
    2. So what do we do when we find ourselves in a place of disobedience?  The same thing we did when we first came to Christ: receive deeply of His grace.  Confess our sins, repent from them, and receive the forgiveness of the One who died for us and rose from the dead…  That said, then we are to lean upon the grace and power of God as we DO live in obedience to His word…

 

18Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.

  1. Ezra read from the Bible the whole time – continually teaching the people the Scriptures during the entire feast of Tabernacles.  Think of it as the 1st Bible conference since the Babylonian captivity…
  2. God’s people stay in the word.  It’s our daily bread…  It’s the primary way God equips us for His service & His glory.  It’s the primary way we learn of our Lord Jesus.  Where else could we go?  It alone has the words of eternal life!

 

Conclusion:

So as a child of God, how do you react to the word of God?  Nehemiah had first ordered the people, and then saw that they were instructed in the word by Ezra.  Their response ought to mirror our own.  God’s people need to:

  1. Hear the word: Ensure that we hear/read it as it was written.  Let God speak to you first and foremost without interruption.
  2. Respect the word: Treat it for what it is…the inspired word of God. 
  3. Respond to the word: Let it lead you to worship & praise of our glorious King!
  4. Understand the word: Take the time to ensure you understand it.  Take advantage of the vast resources we have available to us.
  5. Rejoice in the word: Rejoice in the gift!  Let us join with the psalmist in declaring, “How I love Your law!  It is my meditation all the day.” (Ps 119:97)
  6. Apply the word: Take it beyond your heads to your hands.  Hearing the word must eventually lead to obeying the word, or we’ve missed the point.

 

Praise God for every opportunity we have to do just that!  Praise God for the gift we have been given in the Bible – and the invitation we have received by God Himself to learn of Him through its pages.  Because of the Bible we learn of God’s awesome holiness – of His mighty power – and of the marvelous grace of Jesus Christ.  May we drink deeply of the pure milk of God that we would be nourished in the things of Jesus!

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