Ordinary people who serve an extraordinary God
We’ve been following the progress of the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem for 5 weeks. It didn’t take much longer than that for the actual building of the wall to take place. 52 days. We’ve talked about the opposition from the outside as well as the opposition from the inside that have taken place. Last week, Nehemiah was still dealing with intimidation and ploys to get him to stop working on the wall. In response to multiple requests from his enemies to meet and discuss, Nehemiah said this. “I am doing important work, so I cannot come down. I don’t want the work to stop just so I can come down and meet with you.”
Nehemiah was determined to take on this task from God and see it to completion without interruption. This week, we may discover one of the reasons that Nehemiah didn’t want to be delayed.
For context, as of the reading last week in Nehemiah 6 & 7, the wall was completed, the city secured. The list of the original exiles who had returned to the Jerusalem was read. This would have been the list of people that was compiled back in the book of Ezra when Zerubbabel led that first group back. Think of them as like founding members of the city, if you will. The reason this was done was so that the new inhabitants of the city would be “purebred” in a sense. Once the city was secured, they wanted to keep it as pure as they possibly could.
One of my favorite movies to watch is My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The daughter of this totally Greek family falls in love with a great guy. The problem is, he isn’t Greek. Her family simply can’t understand why she would even consider spending time with someone outside their “group” much less marry him. They worry about what the other family members (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) will think. They worry about future grandchildren and how they’ll be identified. Their main focus and concern is to preserve their ethnicity, traditions and beliefs. Basically, that’s what is happening in Jerusalem at this time as well.
So here it is. Wall completed in 52 days. They worked day and night because there was some urgency to get it completed. Perhaps they understood why or perhaps they were just following their leader, Nehemiah.
I was in Michael’s the other day standing in line to check out and there was a mother and I assume her daughter standing (6 feet, of course) away from me. There was a display of Halloween decorations and the mother made a comment that she couldn’t believe that they were already putting that stuff out. The daughter said, “Well, school has started back, so everybody is getting into the holiday spirit.” She’s not wrong. Does anyone know what happens on August 24th of this year? Starbucks will once again start selling their pumpkin spiced lattes. It may be 99 degrees on that day, but I can guarantee you that there will be lines wrapped around every Starbucks to get theirs. There’s something about some holidays that prompt us to focus our lives around them. Last year, with COVID concerns, a lot of normal traditions were not held and a lot of people experienced depression because of it. Thanksgiving wasn’t the same. Christmas wasn’t the same. We weren’t able to gather with our family and celebrate it like we normally would and I think for a lot of us, it caused us to not take the holidays for granted like perhaps we’ve always done.
As Christians, our two major holidays are Christmas and Easter. Despite the great influence of the world, we all do our best to really reflect on the significance of those days. Christmas symbolizes God’s unselfish gift to us with the birth of His Son even knowing what would later have to take place. Easter causes us to mourn the necessity of what Jesus had to do but also to rejoice in the fact that He did it willingly for us. These two holidays tend to stir up great emotions of thankfulness and humbleness within us because we really, really focus and contemplate what God has done.
Well, the Israelites had their specified times to reflect as well. And it just so happens that the completion of the wall occurs right before one of these major holidays. How many have heard of Rosh Hashanah?
Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish celebration that marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It is one of the most sacred dates in the Jewish Calendar. During the celebration, Jews gather to commemorate God’s creation of earth and wipe their slate clean by asking for forgiveness for their sins.
The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah which means “day of shouting or blasting”. We know it as the Feast of Trumpets. It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. The Day of Atonement (also known as Yom Kippur) follows ten days later and we know this as the one day each year that the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies to make an offering for the sins of Israel. The days between the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement are called the “Days of Awe”. And the intention of these days was to concentrate on their sins, their wrongdoings and to seriously introspection.
Five days after the Day of Atonement is the Festival of Booths. For a period of seven days, the Israelites presented offerings to the Lord. During this week long festival they lived in small huts made from palm branches. The Israelites did this as a reminder of the pilgrimage that the Israelites had taken prior to them arriving in Canaan. These festivals, these holidays were times of significant reflection as well as repentance for them.
Nehemiah 8: 1 “So all the Israelites met together in the seventh month of the year. They were united and in complete agreement. They all met together in the open place in front of the Water Gate.”
Just to set the stage for Nehemiah and the others- it’s the seventh month. This is time for Rosh Hashanah. This year, it begins on September 6, 2021 just to give you a perspective of time. Scripture tells us that they were “united and in complete agreement”. Another translation says it this way: “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate.” Before we move on, don’t miss that. They were all united and in complete agreement. I don’t mean to be sarcastic or flippant, but truthfully, when was the last time you were in large group of people who were in complete agreement? Seriously. Don’t discount God’s involvement there. When you have a large number of people who have the same opinion and feeling on something without anyone making alternate suggestions, something’s going on. I could throw out several different questions right now, in this small group and I just bet we’d be hard-pressed to be unified and in complete agreement, 100% on most things. But this group is. They’re united. They’re in agreement. And they’re not even in the temple! In fact, they’re not even close to the temple. They’ve gathered in front of the Water Gate as this would have been a common meeting place where all Jews were welcomed. Because of its holy significance, there were restrictions about the temple and who could be in it.
Nehemiah 8: 1b “All the people asked Ezra the teacher to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given to the Israelites. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the law before those who had met together. This was on the first day of the month.[a] It was the seventh month of the year. Men, women, and anyone old enough to listen and understand were at the meeting. 3 Ezra read in a loud voice from the Book of the Law from early morning until noon. He was facing the open place that was in front of the Water Gate. He read to all the men and women, and to everyone old enough to listen and understand. All the people listened carefully and paid attention to the Book of the Law. 4 Ezra stood on a high wooden stage. It had been built just for this special time.”
They asked for Bible Study! How many of you have ever attended one of the functions like the 4th of July picnic or something similar over in the parking area across the street from the church? Large group of people, standing or sitting around eating hot dogs, watermelon, fellowshipping with one another. Can you imagine being in a setting like that and asking Pastor Mel to get up and read from the Bible? Honestly, I think if someone asked for a 5 minute devotion, there would still be those that grumbled about it. I bet a lot of them wouldn’t even be paying attention. They’d be eyeing the watermelon table and inching their way back over for another slice. Do you know what one of the main differences between us and them? They didn’t have their own Word of God to read from anytime they chose.
In 2017, Lifeway conducted a survey and found that 87% of American households had at least 1 Bible. The average of Bibles that each household had was 3 Bibles. If we are at home and want to read the Bible, we have plenty to choose from. If we are away from home and want to read the Bible, and we have our phone or tablet with us, we still have plenty to choose from.
Think for a moment what it would be like not to have immediate access to the Word of God anytime you wanted it or needed it? Would you appreciate it more? I think about those people who will be standing in line on August 24th to get their pumpkin spiced latte because it’s not something that is always readily available to them. I read this sad but relatable joke. One day after church a preacher saw one of his members leaving the church and they had left their bible on the pew. He called out to them and told them that they had left their bible. They said that it was ok; they wouldn’t need it till next Sunday. Worship is an everyday thing and in order to worship, there must be a hunger for God’s word.
Don’t you just wish to have that appetite for God’s Word? The Israelites did. They asked to hear the Word of God.
So Ezra reads the Book of the Law which would have been the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy. This is known as the Written Torah or the Pentateuch (pen-ta-tuke). So, we’re talking about the creation of man, God’s choosing of Abraham and the blessings on his descendants, the exodus of God’s people out of Egypt, their disobedience to God which results in the 40 years of wandering in the desert, the designation of Moses as speaker and leader, the 10 commandments, along with hundreds of other laws and rituals all saturated with the reinforcement of God’s goodness to His chosen people. This is what would have been read to them. Men, women and anyone old enough to listen and understand.
Ezra, Scripture tells us, reads from morning until noon as he stands on a high wooden stage. Scripture also tells us that the people listened carefully and paid close attention.
Nehemiah 8: 5 “And 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.”
As Ezra read from God’s Word from morning until noon, the people stood up. As they’re listening to the Words given by God to Moses for 6 or more hours, they stood up. They listened carefully and they paid attention while they stood up. Literally, on their feet for six hours or so letting the Words of God marinade their thoughts.
You can’t help but appreciate their longing for God’s Word and their sole focus on absorbing every bit of it. Is anybody else feeling a little guilty right now? Anyone feeling a little less righteous than you did driving into church this morning?
Growing up in the Methodist Church, I didn’t have to wear a watch to know what time it was on Sundays. By golly, when 11:00 a.m. came around, the church service started. And just like clockwork, when 12:00 noon came along, we were headed to the doors to get to Morrison’s Cafeteria before the Baptists got there. And we didn’t even stand up the whole time during that hour.
Do you think we’ve lost that hunger to hear from God? It’s like we feel good about ourselves if we just schedule an hour with Him every day. I think sometimes the Bible has become like the old phone books. We think of it as somewhat obsolete to us until we need it. We rely on substitutions and tiny doses of Scripture. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with devotion books and things like that, but unfortunately, we’ve lost our appetite for the authentic and original Word of God. Listen, I love devotion books and reading what God has revealed to others, but I think sometimes God wants us to hear His Word firsthand. Directly from the source.
And for these Israelites, this was what they craved. To hear His Word. But for them, this was more than just Bible Study.
Nehemiah 8: 6 “And 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.
7 Also 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. 8 So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.
9 And Nehemiah, who was the [b]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.”
This was revival! A spontaneous gathering of people that resulted in revival! This was full on worship! I think we neglect to worship like this. We may take notes and underline in our Bible things that were said during the sermons, but how often are we making application to our own lives? I read this quote from Rev. Charles Seet: “You may be listening to a sermon, but without thinking of how God’s truth applies to your life and affects your relationship with Him, you aren’t worshipping.”
They listened to His Word, to the promises God had made to those that had been before them and they took them personally. Listen to Deuteronomy 30 which more than likely was read to them that day.
Deuteronomy 30: 1 “Everything that I have mentioned will happen to you—both the blessings and the curses. And you will remember these words when the Lord your God sends you away to other nations. 2 Then you and your descendants will turn back to the Lord your God. You will follow him with all your heart and completely obey all his commands that I have given you today. 3 Then the Lord your God will be kind to you. The Lord your God will make you free again! He will bring you back from the nations where he sent you. 4 Even if you were sent to the farthest parts of the earth, the Lord your God will gather you from there and bring you back. 5 The Lord your God will bring you into the land your ancestors had, and the land will become yours. He will do good to you, and you will have more than your ancestors had. You will have more people in your nation than they ever had. 6 The Lord your God will make you and your descendants want to obey him.[a] Then you will love the Lord your God with all your heart. And you will live!”
Later on in that same chapter. 19 “Today I am giving you a choice of two ways. And I ask heaven and earth to be witnesses of your choice. You can choose life or death. The first choice will bring a blessing. The other choice will bring a curse. So choose life! Then you and your children will live. 20 You must love the Lord your God and obey him. Never leave him, because he is your life. And he will give you a long life in the land that he, the Lord, promised to give to your ancestors—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Also, they probably read from the next chapter in Deuteronomy. 10 Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of debt cancellation, during the Festival of Booths, 11 when all Israel assembles[d] in the presence of the Lord your God at the place He chooses, you are to read this law aloud before all Israel. 12 Gather the people—men, women, children, and foreigners living within your gates—so that they may listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law. 13 Then their children who do not know the law will listen and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”
Hearing God’s Word, His laws, His call to obedience. Remembering their ancestors, the years in exile due to their disobedience to God and looking around to how far they had steered from the Word of God caused them to mourn. They had been so excited to build the walls around their city, to secure it, preserve it. But now it was time to rebuild themselves. Because they realized that gradually they had lost their desire to please Him. There was such sadness among them. They were weeping. They were mournful not just because of what they themselves had done, but what their ancestors had done against God in the past. We seem to distance ourselves from the people in the Bible forgetting that these are also our ancestors. We only take Bible verses personally when they comfort us or offer to bless us. We tend to have the mentality that those condemnation verses belong to the likes of Jonah and Judas – the disobedient ones. We don’t often find ourselves mournful thinking over how our Father in Heaven has been hurt, shunned, disobeyed, taken for granted despite His unending love and mercy.
I think back on revivals of years ago. Even before Jesus became my Savior and I truly understood what being a Christian, a child of God, was all about, I loved revivals. I remember thinking that even though we were in the same sanctuary and I was sitting in the same pew as I did every Sunday, there was something that felt different. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was the Spirit of God moving throughout. I just knew that it gripped my attention even as a little girl and as a pre-teen. I can picture the altar calls with people that I knew who were sobbing as they knelt and bowed their heads. I remember sing all 129 verses of Just As I Am while people who weren’t at the altar remained in their pews sniffling with emotion. I also recall not being anxious or antsy for the service to end. There was a feeling that I can’t, as hard as I try, put into words.
The thing about revivals in the church though is that they are usually scheduled once a year at the most. Most churches don’t even hold revivals like they used to. When was the last time you felt revival? The word “revival” is from the Hebrew word chayah and means “to bring back to life”. Here’s the kicker. We don’t have to wait for our church to put it on the calendar. We don’t have to wait for someone else to organize it or schedule it. Do you realize that we can have revival with God on our own?!
Hebrews 4:12 “God’s Word[c] is alive and working. It is sharper than the sharpest sword and cuts all the way into us. It cuts deep to the place where the soul and the spirit are joined. God’s word cuts to the center of our joints and our bones. It judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts.”
Just two things are needed there: God’s Word and ourselves.
Can you just picture the ripple effect if each one of us were to experience revival in our lives? Psalm 85:6 “Will You not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You?” Well, rejoicing is exactly what Nehemiah wanted the Israelites to do. This was to be a time of celebration; not a time for mourning. He tells them to stop crying.
Nehemiah 8: 10 “Then 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.’
11 So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.’ 12 And 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.
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Our strength is the joy of the Lord. But what is the joy of the Lord?
Hebrews 12:2 “We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. He suffered death on a cross. But he accepted the shame of the cross as if it were nothing because of the joy he could see waiting for him. And now he is sitting at the right side of God’s throne.”
The joy He could see waiting for Him was the relationship that the cross afforded us to have with Him. The Israelites’ strength was fueled by the joy that God had in His relationship with them. So guess what happens in the rest of the chapter? They celebrated because they understood the Word of God. They got it! They experienced revival and they end the chapter in obedience and tradition as they celebrated with the Festival of Booths.
Had they not desired to hear God’s Word, paid attention to what He said, and applied it to their own lives, recognizing their sins and God’s mercy, revival would not have taken place. All it took was God’s Word and themselves.
I’m going to end with just a little bit of trivia to think on. What are some of the adjectives that are used to describe the Holy Spirit? Amplified translation of John 14:26 “But the [a]Helper (Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor—Counselor, Strengthener, Standby), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name [in My place, to represent Me and act on My behalf], He will teach you all things. And He will help you remember everything that I have told you.”
The name Ezra in Hebrew means: helper. The name Nehemiah in Hebrew means: God comforts. God used two men, a helper and a comforter, to revive the lives of His people. Today God uses the Holy Spirit, our Helper and our Comforter to revive the lives of His people. May we never stop being amazed at how God doesn’t miss even the smallest of details.