Forum Class August 29, 2004
Notes from Ray C. Stedman , http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/nehemiah/
THE SHINING LIGHT
In our studies in the book of Nehemiah we have seen how Nehemiah accomplished in a very remarkable way the task assigned to him to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem. The point of this history, as we have already noted, is given in the Apostle Paul's word to the effect that these things happened to Israel as samples, or types, for us "upon whom the ends of the ages have come," (1 Cor. 10:11). These events picture the rebuilding of a life that has been damaged by sin or invaded by enemies.
Chapter 8 highlights the fact that after reconstruction there is a great need for reinstruction. We must learn to see life from God's perspective. We need to change the way we think about ourselves and about life. All of us have been greatly affected by the philosophy of the world, much more than we are aware. We have picked up from the media ideas and attitudes that we are hardly aware of as being wrong. We need to be reinstructed about those matters.
In Chapters 1-7 of this book we saw that certain words of the Apostle Peter described what corresponds in our lives to the building of the wall: "make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love..." (2 Peter 1:5-7). Adding these qualities deliberately as we live is the way to rebuild the walls and gates of a life.
The New Testament verse that corresponds to what we learn in Chapter 8 is Romans 12:2: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." The instrument of that renewing is always the Word of God. If you need to change things in your life (or you are praying for someone else who does), then change must come through the knowledge of the Word of God, through the understanding of truth that was unknown before. It is not surprising, therefore, that Chapter 8 opens with a manifestation of a great hunger for the Word among these people in Jerusalem.
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. [That would probably include teenage children, perhaps even children as young as 8 or 9 years of age.] He read it aloud from daybreak till noon [Let's hear no more criticism of long services!] as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3)
Notice that this seems to be a spontaneous gathering. These people come "as one man." No invitations were sent out. No public notice was given. People were hungry for answers to their problems, for guidelines from the word from God, and with one accord they gathered in this great square before the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the priest to bring the Law of the LORD and to read it to them. This would undoubtedly be the entire Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. This indicates the tremendous desire of these people for truth. They listened, while standing, from daybreak until noon! Certainly this long attention indicates how deeply they were aware of their ignorance about life and how much they needed answers from God. They were simply crying out for the word.
Notice that the date of this great assembly was the "first day of the seventh month" on the Hebrew calendar, which would be October 8th in 445 B.C. Notice also that Ezra the priest, the author of the book of Ezra, appears for the first time in the book of Nehemiah. Thirteen years earlier he had led a return from Persia to rebuild the temple and to teach the Law of God. Apparently he had been occupied in that task all through the time of rebuilding of the wall. But now when the people have finished their work, they are desperate to hear from the Word of God so they sent for Ezra to lead them in this.
Mark also that they gathered before the "Water Gate." You remember from Chapter 3 that this gate was the symbol of the Word of God -- the water of the Word. This is surely an appropriate place for this gathering to assemble. As I have already pointed out, the congregation included not only men and women but also children who were able to understand.
It seems to me that we have come to such a time as this again. The prophet Amos predicted that there would come a famine in the world for the Word of God. People would actually be starving for answers to the problems of life. Surely we have come to just such a time in our own century. I find everywhere a deep hunger among non-churched people to hear the Word of God. Wherever it is taught with any degree of understanding, they are immediately attracted to it.
In Singapore a few years ago I was invited to speak to a group of young Chinese professionals. Some 40 or 50 doctors, lawyers, engineers and others met in one of the high-rise apartments in the city. As I opened up the Bible to them I quickly discovered that they were absolutely fascinated with it. When I had to leave for another appointment, many of them crowded into the elevator with me, and others came on other elevators down to the lobby, asking questions all the way. I got in the car and as we were driving off they ran alongside, still shouting questions through the open windows. I have never forgotten that display of hunger for God's word among people who had not yet been taught the Scriptures.
As some of you know, I have been serving recently as the chairman of the Committee On Biblical Exposition, and we have put on two large congresses in the last three or four years. At a congress in Houston less than a year ago between 4,000 and 7,000 people gathered every night to hear the Word of God expounded by capable Bible teachers. Among them were perhaps two thousand pastors who came because they wanted to learn what could make their ministry a success. Many of them wrote us afterwards describing how that congress opened their eyes to the power and the attractiveness of the Scripture.
When the word is opened up, people begin to understand themselves. This is the great thing about Scripture. When you know God you begin to understand yourself, because you are made in the image of God. These people in Jerusalem were soon growing in self-knowledge as they began to hunger for the Word of God. The great tragedy of our day is how few churches seem to understand this power of Scripture. Across the country and around the world there are thousands of churches in which there is little life. The services are dull and dreary because the Word of God is not central. The next verses demonstrate the centrality of the word in this gathering.
Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Misael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. [You need a seminary education to pronounce these names!] Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:4-6)
Clearly this is an eyewitness account of this moving assembly. I have often wondered if this has set the pattern for worship in some of the churches of Scotland. They, too, have high pulpits, at times with 20 or 30 steps leading up to them. I have preached in some of these, and it is a remarkable thing to look out at a congregation spread out below you like that. They have a ceremony there that is unique. An officer in the Church of Scotland (he is called the Beadle) comes marching down the aisle with an open Bible in his hand and all the people stand up. As he places the Bible on the pulpit they say, "Amen! Amen!." They probably learned that from this account in Nehemiah. Then we learn how careful these people were to make clear what the meaning of Scripture is:
The Levites -- Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Masseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah [God never forgets a name!] -- instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:7-8)
What a marvelously clear statement of how a church service ought to be conducted! The primary business of Christians is to understand the Word of God so as to think God's thoughts after him -- to learn to think like God. Some of the scholars have suggested that the Levites were translating from the Hebrew language to Aramaic. But these languages are very similar. I do not think there would be much trouble in that respect. What they are doing, I believe, and some scholars feel is the case, is that they were breaking into small groups where people could ask questions and have them answered. They would listen to the reading of Ezra from the high pulpit and then they would gather in small groups and the Levites would spread out among the great congregation and give an explanation of the passage. Then people would ask questions about it and discuss it. It seemed an excellent way to instruct them so they clearly understood what the Word of God meant. It is not only important to know what the Scripture says, it is even more important to know what it means! In Verse 9 there follows a description of the impact of this upon those who heard.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9)
Why were they weeping? It was because the effect of the Word of God is to show us what is wrong with our lives, what is creating the ruin and the disaster around us. As they listened to the reading of the Scriptures they saw that the cause of their destitution and ruin lay in their own thoughts and attitudes. They saw the beauty of God and the ugliness of man. This is always the ministry of Scripture to the human heart. They saw that the evil in society came from the pride and arrogance of their own lives. God always lays the weakness and folly of the world at the church's door, for it is we who ought to be instructing the people. When the church does not understand itself then folly reigns in society. This is exactly what Jesus stated in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 7:
"What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly." (Mark 7:20-22)
All these things come from within. But until you hear the word you do not realize that. That is what made these people weep. They saw their own complicity with evil. I have been noticing recently that some of the secular commentators of our day are growing extremely frightened and disturbed about the conditions of life in America. For example, Richard Reeves, a New York columnist, wrote recently:
I can barely stomach the newspapers here in my hometown. In the tabloids, day after day, the first four or five pages are routinely filled with stories of parents beating or starving their children to death, of children plotting to kill their parents, of people being killed by random gunshots, of people chopping up other people, of cyanide being put in yogurt at the supermarkets. America, I think, is out of control in some very weird ways. I don't know how bad it really is or exactly why it is happening. There are obviously many, many reasons, beginning with the unrelenting pressure of living in an open and competitive society... I don't know the answer to any of this. I suspect that things will get worse before they get better.
Observe the mood of bewilderment there, the lack of understanding of why things are going wrong. Richard Estrada, who writes in the Dallas Morning News, describes something very similar, and then comments:
More than anything else, this ugly social breakdown threatens to desensitize us as a nation. Wild West shoot-outs that kill innocent bystanders have become commonplace. Drug dealers and gang members have taken to using children as murderers. Executions of entire families by drug dealers are not unknown. Sweeps of whole communities by police bent on stopping the killing are now routine in Los Angeles.
Numbed by it all, we as a people, shrug our shoulders. Something is disastrously amiss. This is not the America most of us grew up to revere...We are demeaned as a people by this retrogression. We are less and less civilized.
Those words are not written by Christian writers. Those are the thoughts of secular commentators who see the results of rejecting the wisdom of God but they do not know to explain it. They do not know the cause of the terrible evil they chronicle.
It is only when you open the Book of God that you learn the reason for these kinds of conditions. We learn from the Scriptures that as individuals, and as a nation, we have turned our backs on God's ways and wisdom. We have ignored his laws. We have missed the glory of his plan. We have messed up the beautiful world that he gave us. When we see the sad results and hear them poured into our ears continually by the media, it makes us weep, doesn't it? It makes us sorrow for all the fine young people who are being destroyed by these terrible practices.
Of all that is happening today, the most frightening thing is the lack of a sense of sin in society. People are doing terrible things -- murdering one another, raping one another, hurting each other right and left -- but they do not feel they are doing anything wrong. They have no sense of the wrongness of it. That is what the Word of God is given to correct. It awakens afresh an awareness of what is causing the wrong. But though weeping is necessary and important, it is not the final message God has for us. To show this Nehemiah and Ezra speak up and correct the people.
Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (Nehemiah 8:10-12)
What a powerful statement of the effect of the Word of God! When people understand it, it brings joy. "The joy of the LORD is your strength." What a great word for grieving people who see the evil in their lives and the lives of those around them, and mourn over what it has produced! The word that brings joy is that of forgiveness. God can forgive! He does and he will restore. That is what Jesus meant when he said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted," (Matt. 5:4). I don't think you will ever be comforted until you learn to mourn. When you see the hurt, pain, and despair which sin can produce and you grieve over it, then you are ready for the comfort of forgiveness. That hurt is what is reflected in the prayer requests in our bulletin this morning, listing all those painful things that people have asked us to pray about. If we mourn over them, then we shall be comforted. We shall realize, as this passage so beautifully states, "the joy of the LORD is your strength."
What does "the joy of the LORD" mean? It is the fact that God has found a solution to these problems of sin. He has found a way back to sensible, sober, wise, helpful, wholesome living. How? By learning to think like he thinks. Begin to see the world from his point of view. Listen no longer to the clamoring voices of the media. Do not take your philosophy of life from what people are saying or the advice others are giving. Listen to the Word of God.
That is the answer. It will heal your life. "You sent your word and healed them," writes the psalmist (Psalm 107:20). The ministry of the Word of God is to heal us and create in us a desire to share that healing with others.
Notice how Nehemiah urges the people to send portions of food to those who had nothing prepared. This is invariably the result in those who find their lives beginning to be healed by the Word of God. They start thinking of others who are hurting and want to share with them what they have learned. That way of health is dramatically demonstrated for us in the closing verses of this chapter. God had anticipated the need of these people. Centuries before, he had provided a most remarkable visual aid to remind them of the truth that would keep them from further destruction.
On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths" -- as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. (Nehemiah 8:13-17)
This is the Feast of Tabernacles, a reminder that they were called as a people out of Egypt. Their departure was sudden and precipitous. They were not even to sit down when they ate the Passover meal. They had to eat it standing, with their staffs in their hands, dressed in traveling clothes, ready to leave. They went out at a word of command, and left Egypt in one night. When they got into the desert, one day's journey out, and night fell, where were they to find shelter? Moses had been told by God that they were to collect boughs and limbs of trees, etc., and build booths for shelter. Then God ordained that they were to do this once every year. Even though later they had homes to dwell in, they were to build these booths and live in them for seven days. This was to teach them that they were always pilgrims and strangers on the earth. This world was not their home. All the great blessings of life would not necessarily be found in this present time but were waiting for them in glory. Therefore they did not need to be distressed if they did not have everything that those around them were trying to get in this life. This is how the old gospel hymn puts it:
This world is not my home.
I'm just a-passing through.
My treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me
from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home
in this world anymore.
That is the truth that will deliver us from the pressures of the times. We must hold things lightly. We must not think that houses, cars, money and material gain is all that important. Even if we lack these things, the great treasures of our life remain untouched. To strive constantly to gain what everyone else has is a mistake. God teaches us to hold these things lightly. We must never forget that we are in the world but not of it. We are never to settle down here for good. I love the way C. S. Lewis has put it: "Our kind heavenly Father has provided many wonderful inns for us along our journey, but he takes special care to see that we never mistake any of them for home." We are pilgrims and strangers, passing through this world. We are involved in it, deeply sometimes, but we are never to see ourselves as a part of it. What will enable us to remember that? Verse 18 gives us the answer:
Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly. (Nehemiah 8:18)
Every day they read the Scripture. Every day they saturated themselves in the thinking of God. That is what makes for realism: When you think like God thinks, you are thinking realistically. You are beginning to see yourself the way you really are. You are seeing your children, your home and your nation the way they really are. For the first time you are able to divest yourself of the illusions and delusions of a mistaken, confused world. You are beginning to work toward wholeness, healing, and strengthening of the things that abide.
A number of years ago I was asked to write something on What the Bible Means to Me. Here is a portion of what I wrote then:
The truth is not always easy for me to hear. Sometimes it pierces me and convicts me. Sometimes I wish I could evade it. And then I am reminded that it was sent to heal me. Often it encourages me and heartens me. Sometimes it restores me when nothing else can do so. It confronts me with paradoxes of revelation which intrigue me and challenge me. It exposes the secular illusions of the day and reveals the destructive ends to which they lead. It deals honestly with uncomfortable concepts and opposes the strongholds of tradition, correcting them with the authority of God.
I have learned to appreciate the Bible most because it brings me face to face with my God! That is the reason for Scripture. It is to reveal God to us. The relationship is so real and personal that it seems to be a face to face encounter. My heavenly Father becomes more real and close than any earthly father. I can all but see my Lord and Savior standing beside me and talking to me as I read his words in the gospels. Sometimes the words of Scripture become so vivid and luminous that I feel like kneeling or even falling on my face before the majesty of God. No other book has such power to transport me beyond earth to heavenly places.
If the churches of this land saw the Bible in that light, and listened attentively and eagerly to what it was saying, and learned how to conduct their lives according to the wisdom of this Word, do you think our world would be in the condition that it is today? I am sure your answer is "No." We desperately need the wisdom of the Word to instruct us how to live.
LET US BOW BEFORE OUR MAKER
The ninth chapter of the book of Nehemiah records the longest prayer in all the Bible. Perhaps you do not like long-winded prayers and are nervous about this one.
There is a great story about D. L. Moody who once asked a certain brother to pray at a service in the Chicago Church. The man began to pray and was still droning on after ten minutes had gone by. Finally, Mr. Moody stood up and said, "While our dear brother is finishing his prayer, let's turn to number 342 and sing it together!" This prayer in the book of Nehemiah is not that long, but it is a great model prayer which will teach us much for our own praying.
The first two verses record the occasion when this prayer was uttered. It follows the celebration of the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles, which was observed in Israel for the first time for many years, following the recovery of the city of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the walls, the resetting of the gates, and the restoring of order and some degree of prosperity to the city. That was a time of celebration but this occasion sounds a different note, as we see in the opening verses of Chapter 9:
On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. (Nehemiah 9:1-2)
This is clearly a time of sober self-judgment. It is a time when the people expressed their feelings of shame and grief by refraining from eating, by wearing burlap (sackcloth) and placing ashes on their heads to symbolize their inner sense of desolation. They confessed their sins and their father's sins as well. They were aware that the evil of one generation is often passed along to the next. Many today have forgotten that this principle still applies. The cause of this sudden change in the behavior of the Israelites is not given until the end of this prayer. Let us look ahead to Verses 36-37 which tell us what it was that caused them to mourn and fast, and to confess their sins. Addressing themselves to God they say:
But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36-37)
Here is a people that recognize clearly the connection between the evil in their own hearts and lives and the terrible conditions of slavery and bondage in which they exist.
As we have been noting throughout these studies, this is very similar to our own times. Today's secular prophets are deeply disturbed by what is going on in present-day American life. They seem to be saying the same things that these people are saying. For instance, listen to these words from Brux Austin, Editor-in-chief of the Texas Business magazine:
"We are truly the lost generation, huffing and puffing down the fast track to nowhere, always looking to the dollar sign for direction. That's the only standard we recognize. We have no built-in beliefs, no ethical boundaries. Cheat on your taxes, just don't get caught. Cheat on your wife, just don't get AIDS. Simply use a condom.
Then he goes on to look back at the previous generation, as these people in Nehemiah do.
"Where did I go wrong?" is the traditional wail of parents of kids-gone-wrong. The eighties version says, "We gave him everything -- clothes, a computer, a car, a college education." Everything but a conscience. We are products of a high-tech society; amoral automatons outfitted with calculating brains and sleek casings, just like the computers with which we are so compatible. But they forgot to give us souls.
He concludes by saying,
What good is lolling in your Jacuzzi in the beautiful backyard of your breathtaking home if you feel an aching emptiness in your innards -- a chronic pain that all the wine cooler in the world can't numb?
Those searching words are descriptive also of what we see taking place in this chapter of Nehemiah. It is of great relevance to us. Despite our high-tech industries, our vaunted freedom from moral restrictions, our Rolex watches, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, we are really slaves today in America. Slaves in the land of the free and the home of the brave! What irony!
In this prayer of the Levites in Nehemiah 9 we learn how to recover from that kind of a situation. What can we, the people of God (as they were the people of God) do to help change this condition? As we read in these opening verses, they gathered before God to pray: They fasted. They wept. They asked for mercy. They kept it all strictly within the family of Israel. They did not go outside it to involve foreigners. They did not blame others for their plight. They looked to themselves and "confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers." And they did one other thing, recorded in Verse 3:
They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day, and spent another fourth in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God. (Nehemiah 9:3)
Three hours of confession and then three hours of praise! Thus they presented their case to God. As we read on we will see that the Levites divided themselves into two groups. Some were standing on the stairs leading up to the Water Gate and others were on a platform on the opposite side of the square. These groups were calling back and forth to the people, one group confessing the sins of the people, the other praising God in language that fit the situation at the time.
Standing on the stairs were the Levites -- Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani and Kenani -- who called with loud voices to the Lord their God [these were the confessors]. And the Levites -- Jesuha, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah -- said: "Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting" [these were the praise leaders]. (Nehemiah 9:4-5a)
We have, then, a kind of antiphonal chorus: one group confessing sin, another group answering them, extolling the glory, compassion and mercy of God.
The rest of this chapter, from Verse 5 through Verse 37, gives us the actual words they employ. I want to read it through with you. We will let the text itself teach us how to confess sin before God and how to praise him for his mercy and grace. It begins with a great section of praise. Verses 5-15 are all praise to God. First, God is praised as the Creator and Maker of everything.
"Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you." (Nehemiah 9:5b-6)
That is a great place to start when you are praising God. Begin with the life he gave you. It seems strange to me that men who are dependent every moment on life given to them by God, allow themselves so easily to forget that fact.
We did not create ourselves. We did not fashion this intricate machinery that sustains our bodies. Did you ever think of all the processes that are happening in your body right now that are keeping you alive, over which you have no control? That pacemaker in your mind that keeps your heart beating, for instance. You do not control that. It would be awful if you had to, wouldn't it?
The diaphragm that keeps you breathing in and out. Wouldn't it be terrible if you had to lie awake all night and say, "Now dia, now phragm, now dia, now phragm, now dia, now phragm!" God sustains us moment by moment. We ought to be grateful for that. Let us never forget that our very breath comes from him.
Then the next section praises God as the Caller and Chooser of men. He is the One who gives undeserved blessings to those he chooses.
"You are the LORD God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites [These were the Canaanite tribes that inhabited the land of Palestine]. You have kept your promise because you are righteous." (Nehemiah 9:7-8)
God is the keeper of promises. He is the One who initiates the call of man to himself. The New Testament tells us that not one of us would ever seek God if he had not first sought us. It is he who awakens in us feelings and desires to draw near to him and to find out the truth of where we came from. These eternal questions that throb in the minds of men and women all over the world are planted there by the Spirit of God. It is he who calls, chooses and draws us to himself. Not one of us would be here today if it were not for that merciful, sovereign call of God. Jesus said, "No man can come unto me except my Father draw him." We are here today because the Spirit of God in wondrous grace has drawn us irresistibly to himself. Then they praised God as the Deliverer from sin and its enslavement.
"You saw the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent miraculous signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take." (Nehemiah 9:9-12)
This is a retelling of the history of this nation, beginning with the call of Abraham and their deliverance from Egypt. Some of us are inclined to be indifferent to history. We should remember the wise words of George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher: "He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it." Many have done that. We have forgotten the lessons God taught us and gone right back to do the same things over again, plunging ourselves once more into rebellion and slavery. Let us never forget that we have been wonderfully, even miraculously, delivered by the great hand of God.
Last Monday night I reminded my class about a young man who was subjected to the mockery of his friends when he became a Christian. "Do you believe in all those miracles of the New Testament?" they asked him. "Yes, I do," he replied. "Do you believe that one about Jesus changing water into wine?" they demanded. "Yes, I believe that," he said. "How could he do that?" they asked. The young man responded, "I don't know how, but I believe it, because at our house he changed beer into furniture!" When God changes the heart, all kinds of wonderful deliverances take place. So the Israelites praise God for his deliverance of their nation. Then they praise him as the great Provider of wisdom and the necessities of life.
"You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them." (Nehemiah 9:13-15)
Here is God's providential care of his own. He taught this people how to live in the midst of great wickedness. He knew he was sending them into a land inhabited by tribes who were morally degraded to a degree that is appalling to us today. They openly indulged in lewd practices. They offered their children to the god Molech by throwing them alive into a furnace of fire. It was among this people that these Israelites had to live. Yet God taught them how to avoid defilement and contamination from those things. He taught them how to be friends with these people, but not be destroyed by their immorality.
It is exactly the situation we are called to live in today. God has given us this wonderful book that teaches us the rules of life, health, salvation, deliverance and the inner strength that can resist the temptations that abound all around us. To neglect it is folly. God also supplied their needs. He gave them bread to eat when there was none. He gave them water from the rock in the middle of the desert. That is not only an account of meeting physical needs, but it describes the meeting of spiritual needs as well. The New Testament tells us these are pictures of Christ: He is the bread of life; he is the water of life. As the Israelites learned the meaning of these symbols they began to understand that there was coming One who would fully meet the need of the human heart. Thus they looked forward and saw the coming of the Messiah.
Now, the confessing group takes up the theme and, in the rest of the passage, we have an alternation between confession and praise. One groups cries out, confessing sin, and then the other answers with praise to God.
But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. (Nehemiah 9:16-17a)
This is the direction rebellion always takes. When you rebel against God you invariably want to go back to the evil that you once were involved in. That is what Israel did. They actually wanted to go back to Egypt, back to beatings and oppression by the heavy hand of Pharaoh, back to slaving all day, making bricks without straw. They forgot all the bondage because they longed for the sensual pleasures of Egypt. That is how rebellion deceives. But now there follows a wonderful word of praise. It covers the history of Israel in three divisions: First, the scenes around the Mount of Sinai:
But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, "This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt," or when they committed awful blasphemies. (Nehemiah 9:17b-18)
Where did the impression ever arise of God as a cruel, stern God, thundering judgments upon people, demanding that they toe the mark or else be punished severely and without mercy? God is always described in the Old Testament as a God of loving care. He is compassionate and patient. He waits while people go through their trials, hoping they will learn lessons along the way, that they might return to him so that he can bless them. Even as these people blasphemed God by creating this golden calf they called their god, he did not wipe them out but spared them, as this account says. Verse 19 moves on to the desert and the years of wandering:
Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen. (Nehemiah 9:19-21)
Have you recently looked back on your life and counted up the providential care of God in your experience? We tend to take God's blessings for granted and concentrate our attention on what we do not have. The media teaches us that we deserve far more than we are getting. They flash shiny cars before us and say, "You deserve this. You are the kind of person that ought to have this. You deserve to be the president of your company. You deserve to take annual cruises on the Caribbean. You deserve to have a BMW or a Jaguar -- maybe two of them. You deserve to live in a beautiful, well landscaped home."
But when you turn to the Scriptures you see the other side of it. There we are brought face-to-face with what has actually gone on in our lives and in our hearts. Hidden behind locked doors of silence are acts of cruelty, violence, anger, thoughtlessness, immorality, child abuse, sexual abuse, and other ugly, miserable, vicious practices. God has seen all that. When we face the full picture as it really is, we learn that we do not deserve anything but death. But that is not what we get! We do not get death. That is the point. God is patient and longsuffering with us. He withholds judgment. He lets us experience some judgment in order to get our attention, but he does not wipe us out. He is a compassionate, merciful, caring, loving God. That is what these people are reminding themselves of.
Then there follows another period of confession, gathered around their life in Canaan, their conquests and achievements by God's hand.
You gave them kingdoms and nations, allotting to them even the remotest frontiers. They took over the country of Sihon king of Heshbon and the country of Og king of Bashan. You made their sons as numerous as the stars in the sky, and you brought them into the land that you told their fathers to enter and possess. Their sons went in and took possession of the land. You subdued before them the Canaanites, who lived in the land; you handed the Canaanites over to them along with their kings and the peoples of the land, to deal with them as they pleased. They captured fortified cities and fertile land; they took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things, wells already dug, vineyards, olive groves and fruit trees in abundance. They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness. (Nehemiah 9:22-25)
It is an amazing story! These people had just come out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. They had no military training. They were not an aggressive people, and yet they confronted armies of well-trained pagans who were used to fighting, and swept them away. They took over great cities and won the land. This is describing the book of Joshua. When they were finished, they recognized that God had done this and they praised him for his marvelous goodness to them.
Have you ever thanked God for the victories you have achieved in your life; your promotions that you did not expect to get; your achievements at work or in your home? Have you stopped to revel in the goodness of God? That is the right thing to do. Recognize that God is with you. God's hand is in what you do. Give him glory for that. But the other group now comes in to give us the other side of the picture.
But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they put your law behind their backs. They killed your prophets, who had admonished them in order to turn them back to you; they committed awful blasphemies. (Nehemiah 9:26)
How does God deal with people who treat him like that? After he has blessed them abundantly and given them so much, what happens when they forget to give him glory and turn their backs on him? The other group tells us:
So you handed them over to their enemies, who oppressed them. But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies. (Nehemiah 9:27)
That is the book of Judges -- the story of Israel at last brought under the rule of strangers for 20, 30, 40 years at a time. Then, as the people would cry out to God, he would deliver them every time by sending a judge. But it is also clear from Judges and this account that their rebellion led to ugly things, among them murder and sexual perversion. Then the confessors come in again, in Verse 28:
But as soon as they were at rest, they again did what was evil in your sight. Then you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies so that they ruled over them. And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time. (Nehemiah 9:28)
What a marvelous picture of the patience of God! This is the way God works. He lets us taste the results of our evil. He gets our attention sometimes by letting sickness come or disaster strike. But it is only in order that we might hear what he is saying and be delivered. He warns us in order to keep us free.
One Sunday evening in the '70s we invited the president of the Gay People's Union of Stanford University to come here and speak to our young people on the subject: What the Bible says about Homosexuality. We extended to him the opportunity to defend the position that the Bible endorses homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle. We told him he could say whatever he liked and bring all the literature he wanted. If you were here that night you will remember that, although this man was the president of the Debating Club at Stanford, he struggled as he tried to present his case. He would read a passage and then say, "It really doesn't say that, does it?" and then he would turn to another passage. He went all through the Bible trying to prove his cause, but he floundered and could not get anything together.
We had made an agreement with him that when he finished one of our young pastors would speak to the same subject. I remember well how graciously Steve Zeisler opened the Scriptures and pointed out that when God forbids something it is not because he wants to limit us or narrow our lives. It is because he is protecting us from something that we cannot handle, something so devastating it will eat away at the vitals of our life and ruin us. We heard from the Word over and over again how homosexuality destroys human beings and turns them into something God never intended them to be. Eventually they would be locked into pain, hurt, misery, loneliness and death.
Out of that episode there came opportunity for us to reach out in compassion to those who were struggling with homosexual tendencies. We have seen a great number delivered and set free by the mercy and grace of God. That is what this passage describes -- the tough love of God who will not let ruin overtake us without adequate warning. We have the last dual presentation of confession and praise,
You warned them to return to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands. They sinned against your ordinances, by which a man will live if he obeys them. Stubbornly they turned their backs on you, became stiff-necked and refused to listen. (Nehemiah 9:29)
Again they are confessing the mistakes of a previous generation. They see clearly how much of their own agony and hurt has come from the mistakes their fathers made before them. But then the praise group comes in:
For many years you were patient with them. By your Spirit you admonished them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you handed them over to the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them, or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Nehemiah 9:30-31)
There covers the rest of the Old Testament: the story of Israel's subjugations, first by the Syrians, later by the Assyrians, and finally the Babylonians. God allowed these enemies to come in to make his people see what was happening; to wake them up to the damage being done.
The closing paragraph here, beginning with Verse 32, brings their history down to their own time. Here we find a change of pronouns. They have been talking about "they" and "them." Now we read about "we" and "our" as they begin to look at their own generation.
Now therefore, O our God, the great, mighty and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love, do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes -- the hardship that has come upon us, upon our kings and leaders, upon our priests and prophets, upon our fathers and all your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria until today. In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong. Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the warnings you gave them. Even while they were in their kingdom, enjoying your great goodness to them in the spacious and fertile land you gave them, they did not serve you or turn from their evil ways. (Nehemiah 9:32-35)
As we saw at the beginning, they acknowledge that they are slaves in their own land and because of their own sins. This is where we find ourselves in America today. Our cities are torn with violence, strife, and drug wars of such intensity that people hardly dare go outside their homes. We are slaves in our own land. The only recovery is to do as these people did -- confess our wrongdoing to God and praise him for his compassionate mercy.
These Levites teach us how to confess. Notice how specific they are. "We did wrong. You have acted faithfully but we did wrong. We did not pay attention to your laws. We did not hear your words, etc." Some Christians think they are confessing whey they say,
Lord, if I have injured any soul
If I have caused some foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own willful way,
Dear Lord, forgive.
But that is not confession. There is no "if" in true confession. You do not say, "If I did this..." You say, "Lord, I did it. I failed. I turned aside. I forgot your Word. I walked in my own willful way." Then God hears, forgives and restores. That is his gracious nature. That is what he wants to do.
This word needs little application. We are in the same place today. We see the same two themes at work -- the rebellion and indifference of men, and the gracious, loving patience of God until he is at last forced to take action. He is waiting to pardon us when the wrong of our lives is faced. I am not going to diminish the impact of this on individual hearts. I am going to give an opportunity now for each of us to sit in quietness before the Lord and confess directly to him the sins of our own life and to pray for forgiveness.
THE NEW RESOLVE
"All Scripture," says the Apostle Paul in his second letter to Timothy, "is inspired [breathed-out] by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16 RSV). All of Scripture, therefore, has practical application to our lives today. All of it, whether it be a list of names as dry as dust, or a beautiful display of poetry from one of the psalms or the prophets, it all has great value for us.
Perhaps we have felt this as we have been studying through the book of Nehemiah together. We have been tracing in this book the steps to recovery from spiritual ruin or damage:
The first seven chapters tell the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. This teaches us how to restore our defenses -- how to rebuild the walls and the gates of our lives -- to close the gaps where the enemy has been getting at us, either through some outward practice or an inward attitude that has been destructive and damaging in our relationships with others.
Then, beginning with Chapter 8 and on through the middle section of the book, we have been looking at the need for a change of outlook: How to renew our minds, to be reinstructed in the truth, to correct our thinking so we begin to think as God thinks. That involves a careful hearing of the Word of God. Remember the great scene of all Israel standing before the Water Gate and listening, hour after hour, to the reading of the Scripture. That is what changed that nation.
As we apply this to our own lives, it also involves, as it did for them, acknowledging our past error and failure and confessing to God and praising him for his wonderful goodness. That brings us to the natural outcome of this, which is commitment to a new lifestyle. We find this in Chapter 10, though it actually begins with the closing verse of Chapter 9:
In view of all this, [i.e., their confession and praise of God] we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it. (Nehemiah 9:38)
This is a wonderful display of the need which many people feel to put into verbal form the new directions they want to take in life. There follows here a list of the signers of this new covenant, or new agreement, that Israel is making. They fall into four groups, who are identified for us in a rather intimidating list of names. (I do not propose to read them all. I suggest that if you have a newborn son in your home, you may want to look through this list and pick out a name for him. Perhaps a name like Shebaniah or Hashabiah will make him distinguished among his peers!)
First of all Nehemiah himself, the governor, signs this, and with him a company of the priests whose names are given. Then a group of Levites, those who serve the temple, sign this agreement. Then there is a group of the leaders, the rulers or nobles of the land, who sign it. Finally, in Verses 28-29, we have the common people. I propose to look at this paragraph in detail.
The rest of the people priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord. (Nehemiah 10:28-29)
That is a list of what might be termed the company of the committed. These people see a need for preserving and perpetuating the changes in their lifestyles so as to keep in step with God; thus they sign this agreement to bind themselves to that end. This agreement represents a kind of universal urge found among humans to publicly and seriously pledge themselves to be loyal to a cause they feel is right. There are many instances of this recorded in history. For instance:
When the Pilgrims were about to land at Plymouth, they formed what they called the Mayflower Compact. They drew up rules for living in the new land and they all signed it as an agreement to live by these principles and laws.
Probably the most famous document in American history is the Declaration of Independence. Our forefathers signed that great statement setting forth the reasons why they felt God was leading them to establish a new nation upon this continent. Recall the closing words of that document:
For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
History records that most of those signers of the Declaration actually did have to give up their lives. Those who did not lost their fortunes. But all of them retained their sacred honor. Perhaps you have done something like that in your own life. There came a time when you realized you needed to make some changes in your behavior. Some of the greatest saints of the past did this. They drew up for themselves rules for their own conduct practices they felt would help them to walk with God and to grow in grace and favor before him.
I was reading the life of Abraham Lincoln not long ago, and was interested to read that in 1862, at the very height of the Civil War, Lincoln said to his cabinet:
"When the rebel army was at Frederick I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought most likely to be useful. I said nothing to anyone; but I made the promise to myself, and [hesitating a little,] and to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise."
That was the background of the great Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves for the first time in this country.
In the remainder of the chapter, beginning with Verse 30, we find the specific commitments that these Israelites made. I would like to summarize them for you first and then we will look at them a little closer. There are six of them:
First, they committed themselves to avoid the unequal yoke in their marriages. Second, they promised to observe anew the seventh day (the Sabbath), and the seventh year, (the Sabbatical). Third, they promised to provide money, grain and animals for the offerings of the temple. Fourth, they promised to bring the first fruits of their crops, their herds, their flocks, and their firstborn sons, to God. Fifth, they promised to pay ten per cent (the tithe,) of all their income, their crops and wealth to the temple. Sixth, they promised to attend faithfully the house of God. Now let us look in more detail at these commitments. First, their promise to avoid the unequal yoke.
We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons. (Nehemiah 10:30)
That may look discriminatory, but there is an excellent reason for that. The peoples among whom Israel was called to live were unusually degenerate. They practiced public lewdness. They worshiped sexual organs. Their immorality had spread diseases among their people. They killed their children by throwing them alive into furnaces of fire in worship to their god, Molech. To protect the Israelites from these dangerous practices God had told them not to intermarry with these peoples. Though intermarriage might look right and proper to us, it would introduce into Israel attitudes and concepts that would ultimately undermine their faith and destroy them and their nation. This is what actually happened. Though Solomon, David's own son, was said to be the wisest man who ever lived, he nevertheless contracted over a thousand marriages with foreign women, who brought their gods with them and eventually introduced pagan practices into the worship of Israel. By the time Solomon's son came to the throne, the nation was so divided they could no longer exist as one but were separated into two. So this was a very wise pledge to make.
What we are concerned about, of course, is the practical application of this to us. This command is actually repeated in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, not concerning racial distinctions, but religious. He says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers, for what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever, or what agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?" (2 Cor 6:14-16). Many Christians have ignored that to their own detriment by intermarrying with others of a different faith. They have thereby so undermined their own faith that evil in many ways has ultimately crept in and destroyed their marriages. Now there is no guarantee that if you marry a Christian you are going to have a happy marriage because there are other principles involved. But it is much more likely to happen because there are principles and practices taught to us in the Word that make for happiness in marriage. It is certain that if you disobey this command, however, you are opening the door to much heartache, struggle and misery. There are passages designed to help people who have already done that for God is very practical and merciful. He recognizes that for various reasons intermarriage may occur. There are guidelines to help handle those situations. But by and large this is practical wisdom that needs to be adhered to today. Marry those who share the same faith you have, because faith is the basis for all of life.
The second thing the Israelites promised is to observe the seventh day and the seventh year.
When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts. (Nehemiah 10:31)
This is a rather amazing commandment. God had said, "Six days shall you labor but on the seventh day you shall rest." The seventh day is Saturday, not Sunday. In the last century many Christians mistakenly carried the restrictions of the Sabbath over into Sunday. They even called Sunday the Sabbath. If you have seen the movie "Chariots of Fire" you know that that is a central factor in that story. But Sunday is not the Sabbath. Sunday is the Lord's Day. It is a day for rejoicing, witness, rest and celebration. It still preserves the idea of rest for the body. The Sabbath and the seventh year are both a picture of rest. What God is teaching us is that we need rest in the midst of our activity. It is still an easily demonstrated fact that if you do not rest periodically your body will begin to deteriorate. You cannot maintain health by constant activity. We need a repeated period of rest. So the seventh day is still a very wise thing to observe. But spiritually it is a picture for us of learning to rest in God at work. The Sabbath followed the pattern of creation. In six days God created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day he rested. He no longer created. He stopped working. There is a wonderful verse in Hebrews that says, "He that enters into rest has ceased from his own work even as God did from his" (Heb 4:10).
What this wonderful visual aid from the Old Testament is teaching is: We are to work. We are to make decisions. We are to act. We are to make choices. But we must not forget that our activity will never be enough to accomplish what we hope to achieve. It cannot do it by itself. God must be at work in it as well. He will back up our labor and use it in ways that we could never anticipate. That is what this verse describes. We do not have to worry about doing it all ourselves. We are to do what we can do and then expect God to use that. This is the repeated lesson of Scripture all the way through the Old and New Testament alike. God will take our simple effort and use it in ways we could never imagine. That is the story of the feeding of the five thousand. God took a boy's simple lunch of loaves and fishes and, as Jesus prayed over it and blessed it, multiplied it until it fed five thousand people. That is the picture of one who rests in the working of God. That is the teaching of the seventh day.
But the seventh year teaches us to rest in the supply of God. God promises to supply his people's needs. We see this in the 25th chapter of the book of Leviticus where the LORD says to Israel:
"Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. You may ask, 'What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?' I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in." (Lev. 25:18-22)
Again, that is God's way of teaching his people that we cannot do enough to supply all our needs, but he can and will. One of the great lessons taught to us again and again is that God will supply.
I remember as a boy reading the thrilling story of Hudson Taylor. That enterprising young missionary went out to China and threw aside traditional approaches to the native population and began to preach and teach. He learned great lessons about God's ability to supply. Eventually he came up with what has become a perpetual slogan of the China Inland Missionary, now called the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. It is: "God's work done in God's way will never lack God's supply."
Peninsula Bible Church has tried to operate on that basis through all its years, and we can say with great thanksgiving, it is true. God supplies our needs if we are careful to see that the work is done in his way.
I recall how excited I was a few years ago when we were planning the first Congress on Biblical Exposition. We needed a huge amount of money. It was in the early days of our planning when he had not developed any kind of a support list. We realized that unless we came up with at least $200,000 in cash within a week the work would fall apart and we could not go on. We would have to cancel our meeting and close out our effort. Several of us gathered at Mount Hermon and set this before the Lord. We said, "This is your work. If you want it to succeed, you must supply." At a meeting that night, although we never made any mention of money, to my great astonishment and thanksgiving, I was handed a check for $50,000! Others began to call in and by the end of the evening we had the promise of $200,000 in cash. This was God's supply. This is what he is teaching us: that we are not left to our own efforts. It is not up to us to do all the planning, programming and arranging and to supply everything. That is what the world believes. But our God is a God of supply. That is what the sabbatical year means.
The third thing they undertook was to provide the money, the grain and the animals for the sacrificial offerings.
"We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God: for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, New Moon festivals and appointed feasts; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God. We -- the priests, the Levites and the people -- have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution of wood to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the Law. (Nehemiah 10:32-34)
They recognized the need for offerings and sacrifices, and that they had to continue from year to year. The history of Israel clearly reveals that the primary character of this nation was an emphasis on shedding the blood of animals and offering up their crops and grain to God. By so doing they were never allowed to forget the cost of redemption. Blood shed means a death has occurred. God is teaching his people that their problem with sin within was of such a serious nature it cannot be solved by merely instructing the mind. Only death can cure it.
These bloody offerings prepared the way for the death of Jesus and even our remembrance of that death at the Lord's Table. We ought to meditate on this every day. We should never allow ourselves to forget the cost of our redemption. It took all that God had to open a door that we might return to him. As Peter put it, "We are not redeemed with corruptible things, such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot," (1 Pet 1:18-19).
The fourth thing, and very closely related to the foregoing, was the promise of these people to bring the first fruits of their crops, herds, flocks, and even their sons to God.
We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the LORD each year the first fruits of our crops and of every fruit tree. As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, of our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there. Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil. (Nehemiah 10:35-37a)
Why did they do this? Why was God so concerned about getting the first of everything dedicated to him? God tells us in his original command found in the book of Exodus.
After the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, you are to give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the LORD. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. [You have no right to have it unless you will redeem it.] Redeem every firstborn among your sons. In days to come, when your son asks you, "What does this mean?" say to him, "With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons. And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand. (Exodus 13:11-16)
What they are doing, of course, is recognizing the ownership and rights of God in their lives. A corresponding truth for us today is written across the front of this auditorium: "You are not your own; you are bought with a price," (1 Cor 6:19b-20a). God owns us. We do not own ourselves. I have made sure that in the refurbishing of this building these words will not be taken down because they form the central element of our Christian faith. The world says, "You are your own. If you are pregnant and you do not want the baby, you can kill it, because you have a right to do what you please with your own body." But the Bible says, "No, you are not your own. You do not have a right to do anything you like with the body God gave you."
This is true in other aspects of life as well. We are not our own. We have no right to determine what we are going to do with our lives, or even whom we are going to marry. We have certain choices granted to us, but not all choices. One of the important aspects of becoming a Christian is to recognize the rights of God, and to live our lives within the limits he establishes. That is what this great passage is teaching. It is the way by which Israel recognized frequently and continually that their lives were not their own. They too "were bought with a price." They belonged to God. He has the right to direct their affairs and make many choices for them. The fifth thing is the matter of the tithes, or the tenth part of their wealth.
And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms where the articles for the sanctuary are kept and where the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the singers stay. (Nehemiah 10:37b-39a)
It was about this time that the prophet Malachi was saying to the people, "Bring all the tithes into the storehouse and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD, that I will open the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing such as you are not able to contain," (Malachi 3:10). This promise to pay the 10% is the response of the people to that appeal. God ordained that the tithes would be used for the support of the temple and the ministry of the Levites and the priests, in order that there might be spiritual guidance among this people.
When you come to the New Testament the tithe is no longer laid upon believers as a requirement, despite the fact that many churches teach that we are to pay the tithe today. The New Testament teaches that Christians are to give a proportion of their wealth to the Lord to recognize that it all came from him. You are permitted to determine that proportion yourself, "according as God has prospered you" (1 Cor. 16:2). Chapter 16 of First Corinthians, and Chapters 8 and 9 of Second Corinthians, are devoted to this subject. There we are told to choose ourselves how much we can give to God. The motive is God's primary concern. We are to give as a response of gratitude for the blessings he has given us. God pays careful attention to the motive. Offerings do not mean a thing in his sight unless they are given with a cheerful spirit and from a thankful heart. They are to be used for the support of the ministry, but they are given as an expression of thanksgiving on our part.
God has ordained this as the way by which the ministry, the spiritual guidance of the church, would be supported. You give because God has first given to you. If you feel grateful for that; if your life has been changed; if you know that God has poured out blessing abundantly into your life; or stood by you in time of trial; or granted you unusual advantages; or opened doors of service and opportunity for you; or healed you when you were hurting and broken; then, of course, your heart becomes filled with gratitude, and out of that gratitude you are to give as freely as you can to the Lord. Some people can only give perhaps as little as 5%. I knew a man who gave 90% of his wealth to God all of his Christian life, and God used him greatly. But that is something we are freely to determine. The final promise is given in the last phrase of the chapter:
"We will not neglect the house of our God." (Nehemiah 10:39b)
This is the commitment of these people to faithfully attend the worship services of the temple. All through the history of Israel the temple, or the tabernacle before that, was called "the house of God." God signified his presence there by the Shekinah Glory that was located in the Holy of Holies.
Today, under the New Testament, no building is ever to be called "the house of God." This has been ignored by the churches throughout the centuries, and temples, cathedrals, tabernacles and church buildings have all been called "the house of God." If you look to the teaching of the New Testament, however, you will find that it is not a building but the people who are the house of God. When David Roper was here with us he led us into changing the sign out in front. Where it says "Peninsula Bible Church," he suggested we add the words "Meets Here." Thus it is not the building that is Peninsula Bible Church -- it is the people who gather here: They are "the house of God." It is wonderful to contemplate that. Where the people of God meet together, there you have the house of God. On Easter Sunday, when both our congregations meet together at the Shoreline Theater, while they are there, that secular auditorium becomes the dwelling place of God!
What this is teaching us is that we need the ministry of the saints to us all. The Apostle Paul prayed that the Ephesians may come to know "with all saints, what is the height and depth and length and breadth and to know the love of Christ which passes understanding," (Eph 3:18-19 KJV). You cannot do that without the ministry of other people. This is of God. Hebrews has a specific admonition to that end: "Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching," (Heb 10:25). The writer is referring to the return of Jesus. As we see it nearing, we need all the more to gather together be cause we need each other's support.
Last week I heard of two of our members here, men widely different in temperament, who are working together. Normally they would not get along very well. They might not even like each other. But they work together and both bear witness to the fact that having to work with someone you do not particularly have affinity with has been a blessing to them. They have learned how to appreciate someone different from themselves. They have learned how to be tolerant and patient with one another. Though it has been a struggle, and they have had their moments, they both agree that God has used this to teach them how to grow. So even those in "the house of God" who irritate us can be of benefit to us -- but especially, of course, those who delight us, encourage us and hold us up.
There, then, are the goals for successful living. That is what both Testaments teach us. Let me review them quickly for you:
Marry in the faith. Do not choose a mate who does not know the Lord. Learn to work and live out of rest. Learn that God will pick up what you do and use it far greater than you were able to do. Expect him to do so and rest on that fact. Do not strain or worry, and feel it all depends on you to produce success in a ministry. Frequently remind yourself of the cost of your redemption. Do not forget the precious blood of Jesus. We are all sinners by nature. We have not done anything that can make us acceptable to God, but we have acceptance because of the blood of Jesus. We are all sinners by nature. We have not done anything that can make us acceptable to God, but we have acceptance because of the blood of Jesus. Daily remember that you are not your own. We are responsible to the Lord to follow his guidelines, to obey his words, and to honor him. Support the ministry out of gratitude -- do so out of a sense of blessing and thanksgiving. And, finally, do not neglect meeting with others for mutual support, worship and prayer. That is the way to make a success of the Christian life. How wonderfully practical it is!
Granted that it takes discipline. You will not do this casually. You cannot just shove your hands in your pockets and sing a few hymns and this all happens to you. You must decide and stick with that decision. It is not wrong to do that. Some people say that is putting yourself under law. No, it is not. It is merely recognizing the goals and the principles God has given you. That is what a disciple is -- one who disciplines himself or herself.
But there is one other very important point here. We do not want to leave this without referring to it. Ultimately, these people failed to follow through with their commitment. Subsequent history reveals that all the old habits returned. All the old sins were revived among them. The nation once again lost the blessing of God upon it. Why? We discover the key in Verse 29. They said, "all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses." (Nehemiah 10:29). They were depending on their own efforts to obey. They bound themselves with a curse and an oath. They were saying, "We will do this or else." They were relying upon their own self-determination, their own will power. They were gritting their teeth and swearing to perform properly. There is no expression of any need of help from God or of any provision for failure and return.
That is what the New Testament adds. It is right to vow. It is right to write it down for your own benefit and remind yourself frequently of your goal. But we must always add the words that Paul uses of himself,
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
That is what makes the difference. Job went through some painful experiences of discipline until he learned this lesson. This is what he said: "Blessed is the man whom God corrects. So do not despise the discipline of the Almighty, for he wounds, but he also binds up! He injures but his hands also heal!" (Job 5:17-18).
Who is going to teach this generation how to live if we do not do it? That is why God calls his people to be obedient to the things that he teaches. When we do, health begins to spread over the land around us, in the community, in the family and in the home, as once again we change the circumstances of our lives in dependence on the strength of God.