We have been talking about building God’s people, the theme of the second half of the book of Nehemiah. Hopefully as we study these chapters, you will allow the Lord to build in you. May He put some new bricks of hope down. May He remove some old rubble that’s been allowed to stay for too long. May He come as our Master Builder as build us to be builders for Him! Amen!
Thanks for allowing me to just sit a little bit longer in Neh. 8 last week. As we walk through Bible country, we need to stop and take a look at the view, breathe the air, and just soak in what is in front of us. Hopefully we do that every week in God’s Word, but sometimes you need to especially do that. We desperately need the Lord to minister to us. I was reading this past week of a musician named Ricky Skaggs. He said something pretty profound to me: “What I have seen in the past 10 years of traveling- performing at a church one day and a casino the next- is that a lot of people in the church want to be entertained, and people in casinos want to be ministered to. That's hard to understand, but I see a hunger in the world that I don't see in the church.” Down with entertainment at church! Up with true ministry of the Holy Spirit!
The reason why I lingered a little longer in Neh. 8 was 1) God did not allow me to go further 2) Revival and brokenness are so very important for the Christian life! One of the things someone once told me that haunts me every time I get up here to preach is, “Do you serve out of brokenness or giftedness?”
A great question! After you serve for a while, things can kind of get automatic. That is where the danger is in ministry. I remember in the beginning when I started preaching, I would be so nervous, so in prayer and so dependent on God. But as I got used to it, there are times I know I am preaching out of the flesh instead of in the Spirit. You are tempted to rely on yourself. So as I’m preparing and even right up to Sunday morning, I am praying all the time, knowing unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers labor in vain (Ps. 127:1) and apart from Him I can do nothing (John 15:5). And God says in Is. 66:2 that He looks upon those who are broken and those who tremble at His Word! So I still get nervous up here and I hope to always be! So I pray that question haunts you every time you get up and serve in any capacity.
Building God’s people is based on personal revival. This is what we have been talking about for the last couple of weeks. Our working definition said revival was “a renewed interest and passion for God and the things of God after a period of indifference and apathy.” What are the necessary ingredients for personal revival? We said it all starts with:
I. A growing appetite for the Word of God (Neh. 8:1-8)
This is where the fire is fueled. The Jews here wanted Ezra the priest to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses to be read to them. Being in the Word of God brings you to:
II. A glorifying adoration for the God of the Word (Neh. 8:6-8)
All the Scriptures lead you to find the one true and living God. We know that Jesus tells us that the entire Scriptures point to Him. The bigger our view of God the better off we will be. Looking in God’s book leaves you looking up at the awesome majesty and beauty of God. But this does not end there. The next ingredient is:
III. A grieving awareness of sin (Neh. 8:9)
We know the reading of the Law produced a deep, emotional response from the people. When you truly see God on His throne, you always see self in the dirt. You see sin in the mirror of God’s law. Brokenness results in seeing how perfect and holy God is and how far we have fallen short of God’s glory. One of the reasons we looked at that list was so that we see sin in our own lives. How can you run to the fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins if you don’t realize how dirty you are? Leonard Ravenhill once said, “Everyone wants to be clothed, but no one wants to be stripped.” I pray we keep that list ever before us as we seek to grow in our awareness of sin, keeping us crying before God: “Naked I come to thee for dress, helpless I come to thee for grace; Foul, I, to the fountain fly, wash me Savior or I’ll die.”
We have one more ingredient in the recipe of revival:
IV. A greater attitude of joyful obedience (Neh. 8:10-18)
To understand what’s going on here, we need to look at Lev. 23:23-25. Here we see that the Feast of Trumpets, i.e. Rosh Hashanah, was to be celebrated in the beginning of the seventh month, which was the New Year. According to Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, “The trumpets were blown on the 1st day (Lv 23:24) as the animal and cereal sacrifices were offered...This feast was to be observed as a day of solemn rest and as a holy convocation, and the trumpets were sounded as a triumphant memorial to God’s great provision for his people through the Sinai covenant.”
This was one of three festivals they celebrated that month. The second one was on the 10th day, and it was called Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the Day of Atonement. The nation would confess its collective sins and symbolically they would send what was called a scapegoat into the wilderness. Just as that goat was banished, so were their sins. The Day of Atonement is not mentioned here. It does not mean that they did not celebrate it, but it is not mentioned here due to the focus on the section, which was their joyful obedience to the Word to the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, which we will talk about in a second.
In Neh. 8:9-12, the leaders are urging the people to not fall into despair over sin. There is a time to grieve over sin, but there is also a time to rejoice in God’s forgiveness. They were told to go home and get some barbeque. Notice “eat the fat,” which means “the choicest and thus the best” and some think the “sweet wine” was some sort of wine mixed with honey. Practice hospitality and go celebrate what God has done for us. The Exile is over and God’s faithfulness remains. He has brought His people back to the land. Remember and rejoice!
What does it mean to be joyfully obedient? First of all, it comes from:
a) Receiving God’s forgiveness
Warren Wiersbe says, “It is as wrong to mourn when God has forgiven us as it is to rejoice when sin has conquered us.” Both are acts of pride. The Scripture says that “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). I don’t want God to oppose me! It is a slap in the face of our Lord to keep mourning over our sin once we have confessed them, just as it is to step on His blood and rejoice knowing there is unconfessed sin in our hearts. 1 John 1:9 tells us that He is faithful to forgive us once we have confessed our sin. Col. 2:13-14 says that the Carpenter of Nazareth became the Carpenter of Calvary, when He forgave all of our sins and nailed them to the cross. Forgiveness does not mean that God cancels all of the consequences of our wrongdoing. But it does mean that He refuses on His part to let our guilty past affect His relationship with us.
Some of my favorite passages on God’s forgiveness include: Ps. 103:12: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” and Is. 1:18, “though your sins are red as scarlet, it will be made white as snow” and Micah 7:19: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.” D.L. Moody adds, “God has cast our confessed sins into the depths of the sea, and He’s even put a “No Fishing” sign over the spot.” In a dream Martin Luther once had he saw a book where all his sins were written. In the dream, the devil spoke to Luther, “Martin, here is one of your sins, here is another,” pointing to the writing in the book. Then Luther said to the devil, “Take a pen and write, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”’
We need balanced thinking. On the one hand, I always want to have a grieving and growing awareness of my sinfulness. But at the same time, we need to learn to grow in love for our Lord, not excusing sin, but growing in adoration for His great salvation that came with such a great cost! This balance is always the result of personal revival.
Secondly, joyful obedience means:
b) Rejoicing in God’s joy
Look at the phrase there in Neh. 8:10 “the joy of the Lord is your strength” and again in Neh. 8:12 that they went home to “make great rejoicing.” The words “joy” and “rejoicing” are repeated a few times in Neh. 8:10-18. The Word of God brings conviction, but it always brings joy. The Word wounds, but also heals. This is why Jeremiah says, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by Your name” (Jer. 15:16, NKJV). Ps. 19:8 says, “The statues of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.”
For the Jews, where did their joy come from? Look at Neh. 8:10: in Yahweh! The justice of the Lord brings sorrow, but the joy of the Lord brings strength. I had a question, however, with this phrase. Is it the Lord’s joy our joy in Him? In the English, it does not read, “The joy in the Lord” is your strength right? I am not completely sure and the Hebrew is not clear, but I would say it’s both. In a sense, they are interconnected don’t you think? We find joy in God’s joy over us as His redeemed people.
The word “strength” was used to describe a “fortress or well-protected stronghold.” So the joy you have in Yahweh (the personal covenant name of God is used here in capital letters LORD) as you acknowledged His greatness (Neh. 8:6), as you appreciated His Word (Neh. 8:8-9,12), received His forgiveness, helped others in love (Neh. 8:10), may that be your protection where you can run to for a secure refuge.
Here comes another Vance Havner quote. He notes that in John 20:20 we read: “Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” He says, “Here we have the secret of Christian joy: it turns upon those two words, “then” and “when.” It does not read, “Then were the disciples glad when they saw themselves …” or their circumstances.… We do not even read that the disciples were glad when they saw a particular doctrine about the Lord.… We are glad only when and as we see the Lord.”
Have you ever thought of God’s joy over you? Most of us picture God with His arms crossed, shaking his head every time we fail and looking over at His angels asking, “Why did we save this guy again?” But just listen to Scripture: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will rejoice over you with loud singing” (Zeph. 3:17). That strengthens me! Oh to hear His song over you when you feel so unworthy and undeserving!
I don’t think you need to pursue joy. The Bible says, the fruit of the Spirit is love and then joy (Gal. 5:22). Paul just talked about walking in the Spirit, the idea of consciously making choices to honor the Lord. When you walk by the Spirit, you bear the fruit of the Spirit. It is called fruit, so it not something manufactured. You don’t ever see a tree straining to bear fruit. It happens when the tree abides under the sun and draws its nutrients from the root system. Interesting that in John 15, in a context of talking about abiding in the Lord and fruit, he says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
I am not talking about happiness. Happiness depends on happenings, but joy comes from the inside out. Happiness is an emotion, and joy is an attitude. Emotions come and go, but attitudes come and grow. I was listening to an author this past week and he said most of us live from “the outside in.” If our outside circumstances were good, then we are good. So we put our head on our pillows saying, “It was a good day.” So we are “outside in” people. But God wants us to be “inside out” people, who are not victims to what the day brings, but there is a deep, abiding, overflowing joy that comes bubbling forth regardless of circumstances. Wiersbe adds, “The world’s joy is temporary and artificial; and when the joy is gone, people are left with even greater weakness and emptiness. But the joy that comes from the Lord is real and lasting and enriches our lives. God doesn’t give us joy instead of sorrow, or joy in spite of sorrow, but joy in the midst of sorrow. It is not substitution, but transformation.
C.S. Lewis adds, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
When I was in seminary, I lived in the graduate school apartments. Moody bought that building to house students, but there were already a lot of elderly people living there. So instead of kicking them out, they kept them there, waited and allowed to leave naturally, if you know what I mean. Anyway, it was a chance for us to really minister to these people as we lived with them. But it was nearly impossible. Not all of them, but most were so bitter. They refused any help from us whether it was helping them carry their groceries or holding the door. They complained about everything. They were unapproachable. In talking to some of them, I found out they grew up in Christian homes and even went to church and you can see them even going to church on any given Sunday morning. What happened to them? I said to myself, “Lord, kill me before I ever become like that.” But I sensed in my soul back then that if I am not walking in the Spirit and having personal revival continually, I am going to shrivel up on the inside long before I shrivel up on the outside.
So joyful obedience means receiving God’s forgiveness and rejoicing in God’s joy. These things fuel you for the next thing:
c) A heart for others
Did you notice that in Neh. 8:10 that the leaders encouraged generosity and a heart for others as they said, “…and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready.” The mind grows by taking in, which theirs did, but the heart grows by giving out. True revival always results in a heart for others. There is a desire to be a channel of blessing and not a reservoir. You know you need revival when you are not thinking about others around you or your heart becomes so self-absorbed that you always think, “How does this benefit me?” as opposed to “how can I serve others with this?” Notice even the fathers of the households were not even celebrating yet when they were told, because they wanted to know God’s Word to share it with others, namely, their own family. What a challenge for those of us who lead our homes driven and taking initiative to take what the Lord has given us to share it with our families.
d) Choosing to apply God’s Word
This is how we know the revival was genuine. First, there was intellectual understanding of the Word (mind). Several times the words “understand” or “understood” were found in Neh. 8:1-12. There was also an emotional response to the Word (heart) as found in Neh. 8:9-12. There was sorrow, but it was followed by joy. But it does not end with the mind and the heart. The will is also active and working. Notice Neh. 8:12: “They WENT [actions] their way…to make GREAT REJOICING [emotions] because they had UNDERSTOOD THE WORDS [mind] that were declared to them.” You see all three requirements for true repentance and revival there. Remember, Judas heard all of Christ’s sermons! But it did not translate in transformation with him, because it did not take this three stop journey, so it led to his downfall.
You see, they weren’t just studying the Word to understand it better. There are people like that. Give me more information! Hey, I don’t want just information. I want transformation! They weren’t just listening to the Word to make them feel better or get some motivational fuzzy feelings. I loved the fact that they allowed the Word to travel the longest distance ever known to man: from the head to the heart to the hands!
So they had sent everyone away to celebrate and rejoice in God, but look what happens in Neh. 8:13. The head of the clans (groups of families) come to the leaders to study the Word further. “Explain that verse again to me Ezra,” they said. And as they heard and were being taught, it dawned on them in Neh. 8:14 that in the seventh month, there was another festival that God had wanted them to celebrate. This was the third festival.
It was called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. Halfway through the seventh month, they were to celebrate this weeklong feast. This festival was supposed to be an “annual reminder of God’s protection and provision centuries earlier as their forefathers traveled through the wilderness on their journey from Egypt to Canaan.” Between Egypt and Canaan, they lived in simple tents from leaves and branches. They faced natural hazards, wild animals and enemies, but through it all, the Lord had brought them safely to the land He had promised to give them.
If you notice in Neh. 8:15-17 that they all leave their homes and set up tents all over the place to celebrate this festival. It was in a sense, like family camping. So there you go, a biblical premise for camping right here in Scripture! (We had biblical premise for barbeque earlier and now camping---man, we must be a biblical church since we obey those two commands a lot!). As you camped, you would be thinking about three things. First of all, you would look back and think of God’s faithfulness, remembering the nation when they were homeless and wandering around the wilderness for 40 years. Then you would thank God for His faithfulness. If it was now, you would sing, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; 'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and grace will lead me home!” So it was a time to say, “I put my confidence in you Lord for your faithfulness!”
It was also a reason for people from the outside to stop and a look around. This would also signify an end of the harvest season. It was an opportunity for the people of God to thank God for the current blessing of God. In addition, when strangers and foreigners would visit and when their own children and young people ask, “Why are we camping for a week?” they had an opportunity to witness about God to them. Apparently, Jerusalem also had a lot of merchants and traders come in and out of the city constantly, so this would be a great opportunity to praise God in the present as they were participating in a vivid teaching aid to teach the truths of God.
Lastly, the Feast of Booths also reminded the people to look ahead. When the Israelites of old where in their tents, they constantly thought about the promised land. They knew they were just pilgrims. The author of Hebrews says of their forefathers Abraham, and his descendants Isaac and Jacob, that they lived in tents even in the land of promise, “as in a foreign land…for he [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9-10). They lived as though this world was not their home, but they were just passing through.
Also, think about it. What do you think the people saw when they looked outside their tent or man-made tabernacle? They saw the wall they had built. But they had to remind themselves not to have a false trust in walls and everything else that they cannot take with them after this life. So this festival helped them maintain that perspective. What a reminder for us not to store up treasures in this life and get caught up with the here and now and forgetting that we are just pilgrims awaiting our final destination.
Though Scripture does not command us to observe the Feast of Tabernacles now, the truths of the festival are to be treasured by us. We obey God and apply His Word in our lives because we look back and see how good and faithful God has been for us. Then we see His hand working in our present and we look forward to the day we will receive our reward in the city being prepared for us. In essence, we apply God’s truths because of our relationship with Him. It is not that we have to, but that we get to. What a joy to obey a God who has lavished us in the past, is guiding us in the present and is promising a future for us, through Jesus Christ who gave Himself for us!
Notice four areas they applied God’s Word to in Neh. 8:16. They constructed them each on his own roof (their family life), in their courts (courtyards were where you invited your friends and welcomed guests, so their social life), in the courts of the house of God (their religious life) and in the square at the Water Gate and in the gate of Ephraim (where people sold their produce and made a living, so their business or work life). God’s Word is applied to every area of their lives. Whether they were at home, in the neighborhood, at worship or at work, they “were to testify to these great unchanging realities of God’s faithfulness in the past, generosity in the present and provision for the future.” They joyfully obeyed!
A father asked his little boy to go clean up his room before they were supposed to go out one evening. However, in the process of cleaning up, the little boy got distracted with some of his favorite toys and got preoccupied. The father was waiting for a while and finally went up to find the boy totally immersed with his toys. The boy, upon seeing the father, immediately remembered his objective, but stood there smiling sheepishly. “I cleaned up Dad,” he said. The father said, “Son, partial obedience is still disobedience.” The father left and the boy was convicted and finally cleaned up his room. He went downstairs and told his father, “Father, I did what you wanted me to do. Is there anything else?” This is joyful obedience. Lord, are there any areas you see in my life as disobedient? Show me what else I can do to please you, because you have been so good to me!
One thing needs to be cleared up here as I close. Now it may appear from Neh. 8:17 that they did not celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths since the time of Joshua. However, we find evidence that they actually did celebrate in Solomon’s Day (2 Chron. 8:13) and when the Babylonian exiles had first came back to the land in Ez. 3:1-4. What they are saying here was unique was not that they hadn’t done this festival since Joshua’s time, but the way they celebrated, with “great rejoicing.” Revival had made their traditions real and full of meaning, and filled them with tremendous joy. Notice the sequence again: insight into God’s Word led to joy and obedience and joy again. Matthew Henry says, “Holy joy will be oil to the wheels of obedience.” Notice in Neh. 8:18 that they spent that entire week in God’s Word, filled with joy and continuing to apply it in their lives, even to the last day, when they had a “solemn assembly,” (which was like a closing service) they were asked to do, according to Num. 29:35, before they went back to their regular routines.
Author Stephen Davey shares a story of when someone once came to evangelist Billy Sunday (this was in the early 1900s) complaining. He said, “I’ve confessed, tried, failed so many times—revival does not last.” His point was that since “personal revival wasn’t a permanent end-all to temptation, sin, and failure, revival wasn’t important.” Billy Sunday looked at him and said, “A bath doesn’t last either, but it’s good to have one occasionally.”
Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:7 that we are like “cracked pots” in which the Father has chosen to put His priceless treasure of Christ. So as cracked pots, we will often leak. Revival is not a one time or once a year thing. It is a daily thing, like a bath or shower (I hope you take one every day!). How do you keep cracked pots filled with water? You keep it always under a running faucet!
This is all I am saying about revival. We need to keep ourselves under the faucet of God’s Word every day! Do you want personal revival? It starts with a growing appetite toward the Word of God, which triggers a glorifying adoration of the God of the Word, producing a grieving awareness of sin, but eventually resulting in a greater attitude of joyful obedience! Are we partially obedient Christians? Have we received His forgiveness and rejoice in His joy, which makes our cup overflow in love for others and wanting to make us not just hearers of the Word but doers as well? (James 1:23)
As found in http://www.heprayed.com/Quotes/ accessed September 29, 2009.
Elwell and Beitzel, 785.
Wiersbe, W. W. Neh. 8:9-12
Vance Havner in Morgan, 499.
 Wiersbe, Ibid.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory quoted in Morgan, Ibid.