Settling the Holy City
So far, the outline of Nehemiah has been rather straightforward, and the remainder of the book is just as clear. Chapters 1 through 6 record the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Chapters 8 through 10 narrate the spiritual revival that took place when the people asked Ezra to read to them from the Word of God. The remaining three chapters, beginning with today’s text, describe the organization of Jerusalem, the newly rebuilt holy city, as it is called in verse 1. It was a holy city because of the special role it had in the history of redemption.
Two things stand out here. One is the unity of the people. It’s not just that they were a single political entity known as Jerusalem or Judah, but that they had a single purpose, viz., to serve God as his covenant people. The second thing that stands out is really an extension of the first. If their goal was to serve the Lord, the way that they did this was by making the worship of God central to all their other activities and by using their gifts and talents for the advancement of all.
To use the language of our creeds, what we find here is the communion of the saints. Question 55 of our Heidelberg Catechism defines this as follows: “First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.”
The main issue at the beginning of today’s text was the repopulation of Jerusalem. Nehemiah had expressed his concern over the low census in chapter 7. He wrote, Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded (v. 4). He wanted to make sure that there were enough people in the city to keep up with its maintenance and to provide for its defense.
The first three verses of chapter 11 explain how Nehemiah went about increasing Jerusalem’s population. First, he brought all the rulers to Jerusalem. This made sense since Jerusalem was the seat of local government. Second, while most of the people undoubtedly preferred to live on their own land so that they could earn a living, it was clear that some of them would have to move to Jerusalem anyway. But what would be the fair way of determining who would get to stay on his own land and who would have to relocate? Nehemiah determined that this would be done by the casting of lots —one out of every ten would move to Jerusalem. And finally, Nehemiah accepted volunteers to dwell in the city. It isn’t perfectly clear whether these volunteers were the men just chosen by lots or additional men. I tend to think that they were probably additional men, but either way they were making a huge sacrifice for the kingdom of God. Not able to farm their land, they had to trust the Lord to provide for all their needs.
Now, before we get too far away from this, perhaps I should explain a little bit about the casting of lots. Some might object that casting lots or rolling dice leaves the matter up to “chance.” But even if this is so, the mere fact that we have put a label on it doesn’t tell us whether it’s right or wrong. In the Bible, there are at least two occasions for which the casting of lots is appropriate. One is when there simply is no other way to make a decision. In the first chapter of Acts, the apostles, in their effort to find a qualified replacement for Judas, were unable to choose between Barsabas and Matthias. Therefore, they resorted to the use of lots. Acts 1:26 says, And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. The second occasion for using lots is when there is no fair way to make a decision. When the decision is made by lots, no one can complain, since each side had an equal chance of prevailing. Proverbs 18:18 speaks to this when it says, The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty. And this is exactly what we find in our text. No one wanted to be in the unenviable position of having to relocate to Jerusalem, but some had to do so anyway. The casting of lots made the choice acceptable to all concerned.
Please understand, though, that the lot should not be our first choice for making decisions. We would be rather foolish, for example, if we chose a wife or a calling by saying “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” Rather, the Lord expects us to make responsible choices of their own. He wants us to consider our options and choose the ones that make the best use of our gifts and offer the greatest potential for serving Jesus Christ. Yet, in those very, very rare cases where the lot may be useful, we need to remember that it is ultimately not a game of chance. Proverbs 16:33 says, The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD. When we cast lots, we do so with the prayer that God will make an extremely difficult decision for us. We must, therefore, approach the casting of lots as the apostles did, viz. , with the humble expectation that the Lord will glorify himself through our weakness.
Now, to continue with the repopulation of Jerusalem. Our text also says that some of the priests, Levites and temple servants chose to live in the villages immediately outside of Jerusalem. Since their daily presence in the city was not required, they were permitted to commute as necessary.
But perhaps the most interesting thing of all is that Nehemiah mentioned the Israelites in verse 3. Most of the Israelites had been carried away by Assyria more than two centuries earlier. They had become so intermixed with the pagans that they had almost completely lost their identity. Here we see that God had mercy on some of them. The few that were left and had remained faithful were reunited with the people of Judah, and all traces of the division that occurred in the days of Rehoboam were obliterated. God does not have two peoples (Judah and Israel, Jewish and Gentile, white and black), but one. He gathers all of his people into one holy fellowship, which we call the holy catholic church, and in that one church each person serves the God of his salvation according to the gifts and talents that God himself provides.
The Population of Jerusalem
The rest of this evening’s text is a list of the family lines that settled in Jerusalem, which begins with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Nehemiah dealt with these two tribes separately.
He started with the tribe of Judah in verses 4 through 6, where two heads of Judah are named: Athaiah, a descendent of Perez, and Maaseiah, a descendent of Shelah. Both Perez and Shelah were sons of Judah (cf. Gen. 38:2–5, 26–29). Shelah was the product of Judah’s marriage to a Canaanite woman. The Lord killed their other two sons, Er and Onan, because of their extreme wickedness. Perez, on the other hand, was conceived when Judah visited Tamar, his daughter-in-law, who had disguised herself as a prostitute. Their illicit union produced twin sons: Perez and Zarah. Zarah and his descendents are not mentioned in Nehemiah at all.
According to Nehemiah’s calculations, there were four hundred and eighty-six valiant men among the sons of Perez, a number that may include the descendants of Shelah, although this is far from certain. In any case, I Chronicles 9:6 says that the number of men among the sons of Judah was nine hundred and sixty, but since Nehemiah apparently did not count the descendents of Zarah there is no conflict.
Next, we have the tribe of Benjamin in verses 7 through 9. There are two things to note here.
To begin with, although Nehemiah mentioned only one of Benjamin’s family lines by name — Sallu (cf. I Chron. 9:7–9), the total number of men from this tribe totaled nine hundred and twenty-eight — almost twice as many as from Judah. This is remarkable because the tribe of Benjamin had been almost completely destroyed by the other tribes in the days of the judges. The fact that it was doing so well in Nehemiah’s day shows that God was not yet done with it. In fact, in the New Testament we meet with one very prominent Benjamite named Paul the apostle (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5).
We might compare this in a sense to the history of our own denomination. When the theology of John Williamson Nevin almost destroyed the faith of the old RCUS, one classis consisting of a handful of churches and even fewer ministers refused to participate in this ungodly union. But over the years the Lord has blessed us with increasing faithfulness, and today we have a good influence with other reformed denominations far out of proportion to our size. We should pray that the Lord would continue to raise up many Pauls from our midst as well.
Just as importantly, the two men whom Nehemiah put in charge of urban affairs within the city of Jerusalem were both from the tribe of Benjamin. Joel, the son of Zichri, was the top man, and immediately under him was Judah, the son of Senuah.
Following the tribe of Benjamin, the priests and their families are mentioned in verses 10 through 14. Oddly, though, only six of the twenty-four classes of priest are named here: Jedaiah, the son of Joiarib, Jakin, Seraiah, Adaiah and Amashsai (cf. I Chron. 9:10–13 with variant spellings). This fact probably accounts, at least in part, for the difference in the numbers between Nehemiah and I Chronicles.
But there is something else that should be noted here: some of the priest are described as mighty men of valor (גִּבּוֹרֵי חַיִל) in verse 14. Earlier the sons of Perez were said to have been valiant men (אַנְשֵׁי־חָיִל; cf. v. 6). In English there isn’t much difference between the two phrases; however, in Hebrew the phrase used in verse 14 specifically refers to military personnel. This may mean that they were like the theological lions of Jerusalem, but it is even more likely, given the historical situation, that they had actually been trained in mortal combat in order to defend the temple area in the event of a military invasion. We might cal them warrior-priests.
Verses 15 through 19 provide a list of the Levites, who were in charge of the outward business of the temple, i.e., the physical building and its property (I Chron. 26:29). This was necessary for the continued worship of God. Mattaniah the son of Micha is singled out in verse 17 as the one who led the people in the praise of the Lord. As such, he had significant influence over the people, their values and priorities. Bakbukiah seems to have been his assistant. Altogether there were two hundred and eighty-four Levites living in Jerusalem. This number is somewhat small in comparison to the number of priests. Usually the Levites outnumbered the priest significantly.
The gatekeepers, according to verse 19, were not included in the list of Levites in Nehemiah’s list. In other places they were included, as in I Chronicles 9:23–26 and 26:1–19.
Verse 20 seems somewhat parenthetical. Stating what seems rather obvious, it says that some people did not live in Jerusalem. This is not altogether with purpose, though. It lays the foundation for verses 25 and following, which we will consider in a subsequent sermon.
The Nethinims or temple servants were also singled out from the rest in verses 21 and 22. This makes sense since they did not technically move to Jerusalem, as did those mentioned in the preceding verses. They did not move to Jerusalem because they already lived there. They were situated, as Nehemiah says, in Ophel, i.e., at the north end of the City of David just south of the temple area. Their leaders were Ziha and Gispa.
Adding all of this together, the total number of men, representing the different family lines, who lived in Jerusalem was as follows: 468 from Judah, 928 from Benjamin, 1192 priests, 284 Levites and 172 Nethinims. This gives a grand total of 3044.
What impresses me about this is that the population of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day was so extremely small. Contrast it, for example with the vast sea of the servants of God who were sealed on their foreheads in Revelation 7. There it wasn’t just a few partial tribes, but twelve thousand from every tribe — even those that had been carried away in the Assyrian captivity. Every tribe was whole once again, and they all worshiped Jesus Christ. They set their hopes on a heavenly Jerusalem, a city not made with hands, an enormous empire in which God himself provides everything that his people need and all his people meditate unceasingly upon his greatness and glory.
The Centrality of Worship
In the last few verses of today’s text, Nehemiah concerned himself specifically with the work of the Levites and their provisions.
Uzzi, a descendent of the sons of Asaph (the singers), was responsible to direct their ministry at Jerusalem. Since the time of David, some of the Levites were designated as singers. This demonstrates not only the importance of worship, but more specifically the importance of music in worship. Nehemiah observed that this area of divine service should not suffer since King Artaxerxes had made provision for the care of the Levites. He had also excused them from paying taxes (Ezra 7:11–24) so that they might be free from worldly concerns.
Pethahiah, on the other hand, served as an intermediary between the king and the people of Judah. He may been an adviser on Jewish affairs. In any case, his appointment reminded the Jews that they were not free politically but were subject to the Persian king. His presence underscored the anticipation with which the Jews of this time looked forward to the coming Messiah who would set them free from spiritual bondage.
In the New Testament, there are several passages that describe the communion of saints within the body of Christ. Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 do so by analyzing the gifts that Christ gives to his church and our responsibility to use them.
Yet, the one passage that stands out in my mind is the second chapter of Ephesians. After telling how the Lord drew us out of spiritual death into everlasting life and made us part of one body, Paul gave the following description of the church, beginning in verse 19: Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit (vv. 19-22). Here we have one household (the church) resting upon one foundation (the Bible), focused on the message of one Savior, and always growing both in its holiness and in its fitness to serve the Lord.
Now, you might wonder how we are to do this. Does the Bible just state these theological truths and expect us to figure out how they relate to our lives? Definitely not. In a broad sense, we can say that everything in chapters 4 through 6 of Ephesians answers this question. But the narrow answer comes right at the beginning of chapter 4, where Paul took up this subject once again: every believer has a responsibility before God to help other believers grow in grace, truth and love. Paul wrote, And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Eph. 4:11–16).
The Lord gives us our gifts and talents for a reason. He gives them to us to use in his service. Their purpose is not to increase our wealth or allow us to build a little kingdom of our own, but to minister to one another in the fear of God.
In Nehemiah 11 have a practical example of how the people organized themselves and worked together to advance the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is vitally imperative that we make it our goal to do the same. May the Spirit of God increase that desire with us and teach us how to do so! Amen.