Rejoicing in God’s Mercy
Growing up in a small town in Maryland, holidays were always a big affair for my family. I particularly liked the Fourth of July. Aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives whom I rarely saw otherwise came from Philadelphia and New Jersey. After a big noon meal, we all took our seats in my great-grandmother’s front lawn to watch the parade go by. Although our town was relatively small — less than ten thousand — we had one of the biggest parades in the area. It lasted about an hour and a half, and included fire trucks, high school bands, clowns passing out lollipops and gum, state and local politicians, and nationally known acts like the Philadelphia Mummers. In the evening, we all went to Tidings Park, where the Susquehanna River joined the Chesapeake Bay, for a carnival and a massive fireworks show at dark. The fireworks were launched from a small island in the bay, and the reflection of the lights on the water made the display truly impressive. Thousands of people came from all over Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware for the festivities.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence is worthy of celebration by all freedom-loving people, especially those from my hometown. When the founding fathers of our country were choosing a capital, Havre de Grace, MD, was in the running. It received more votes than either Philadelphia or New York, and lost to Washington, D.C., by a single vote. The British Admiral George Cockburn launched a naval attack on the town in 1813, eventually burning it to the ground, sparing only two houses and the Episcopal church. Prior to the Civil War, people from my hometown were also heavily involved in the Underground Railroad.
In our text, Nehemiah arranged a different kind of celebration —one that had national implications, but was specifically religious. He arranged for the dedication of the wall in celebration of God’s overflowing mercy to his people. This was to be a time of great joy. Songs of thanksgiving would be sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and all the people would rejoice together.
Today’s text begins by outlining Nehemiah’s preparations for the dedication ceremony. We find this in verses 27 through 30.
The rebuilding of the wall was, of course, a major part of Nehemiah’s reason for going to Jerusalem, but it was not his only reason. He also oversaw the rebuilding of the city itself. Thus, the dedication ceremony and the joy of the people celebrated not just the completion of the wall, but also the city that it circumscribed. The completion of the wall demonstrated that God had blessed the city with his favor once again. It was where the temple, which Zerubbabel and Joshua had rebuilt seventy-five years earlier, was located. It was where the people presented their sacrifices to the Lord, and it was where God accepted them. It was the city from which David reigned, and it would be the city where David’s greater Son would fulfill the will of his heavenly Father. It was where God met with his people. If the dedication had been only for the wall, it could have taken place much sooner, since the wall had been finished for some time. But Nehemiah waited for the complete restoration of the whole city.
Although Nehemiah did not tell us how soon the dedication ceremony took place after the completion of the work, we can assume that it was relatively soon. The suggestion of one commentator — that the ceremony might have followed the completion of the work by as much as seventeen years — comes across as rather preposterous when we consider the people’s great joy and enthusiasm in the immediately preceding chapters. In chapters 8 through 10, they repeatedly reaffirmed their commitment to the faith of their fathers.
The Jews dedicated the wall and the city to the Lord with the expectation that it would bring glory and honor to God. They had learned from Haggai and Zechariah that their efforts, feeble as they may seem in the eyes of men, anticipated the coming of the Messiah. In fact, the weakness of their efforts only made the glory of Christ shine more fully. Paul explained how this works in his first epistle to the Corinthians: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (I Cor. 1:27–31).
If Nehemiah and his contemporaries worked so hard and with such great joy to prepare for Christ’s first advent, should we not work even harder and with greater joy in preparation for his coming in glory? But, you ask, how do we do that? First of all, we must pray. Wrestle with God in prayer for his blessing on your labor. Beg him for specific things, e.g., faith for an unbelieving grandmother or wisdom for handling a troublesome coworker. And second, punctuate your speech with the Word of God. Be always ready not only to give an answer to those who ask about the reason for your hope, but create opportunities to testify of God’s wonderful love for his people. Let the promises of God’s grace season every conversation. I honestly believe that, if you do these two things, everything else will fall into place.
Having laid this foundation for understanding today’s text, let’s consider Nehemiah’s preparations.
First, he gathered together the Levites, most of whom had settled outside of Jerusalem. The census of the previous chapter listed only 284 Levites who were actually living within the confines of the city. Therefore, according to verses 28 and 29, Nehemiah had to summon them from all over Judah: from the south (Netophah), the east (Beth Gilgal) and the north (Geba and Azmaveth).
Gathering the Levites was the first thing Nehemiah did in preparation for the dedication celebration. But why? Two reasons. First, according to verse 27, Nehemiah had planned that the celebration would feature singing and music (v. 27). Leading the congregation in singing had been the responsibility of certain Levitical families — Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun — since the time of David. Therefore, verse 28 reports that the sons of the singers gathered themselves together. Second, Nehemiah wanted the singing to usher in a new era of joy for the people of God. Remember that Sanballet and Tobiah had opposed his work from the very beginning. Their opposition introduced a lot of uncertainty and fear into the workers. Nehemiah successfully countered this, as the Spirit of God gave the people courage and strength. Now that the project was done, the time had come for the very last remnants of their fear to be turned into joy. Psalm 126:5 says that those that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
The Psalms, and to a lesser extent the book of Isaiah, are filled with exhortations for believers to sing to the Lord. Singing is often connected with joy — it is the natural response of rejoicing hearts, and it encourages us to seek greater joy. Isaiah 51:11 says, Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away. The next chapter adds, Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem (Isa. 52:9).
Both passages just quoted anticipated the coming of the Messiah, whose life and ministry Isaiah foretold in chapter 53. Now that Christ has come and provided us with perfect salvation, our whole life should be characterized by a constant and inward singing of the heart. Colossians 3:16 says, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
The second thing that Nehemiah did to prepare for the dedication can be found in verse 30. He had the priests purified themselves and the people, as well as the gates and the wall. This, no doubt, involved the offering of blood sacrifices, but may have also included fasting, abstaining from marital relations, and perhaps bathing and putting on clean clothes.
Psalm 24 asks one of the most important questions that a man can ask: Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? (v. 3). What man, being a mere creature and a sinful one at that, can stand before God in worship? The next verse gives the answer. David wrote, He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
If purification was necessary in the Old Testament, where sacrifices consisted only of bulls and goats, then it is even more so now. We must not profane the blood of the Son of God, by which he purchased our whole salvation, including the forgiveness of our sins, righteousness and everlasting life. The fourth chapter of the book of James strictly warns us not to approach God while any of our filth still clings to us. He wrote, Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up (vv. 8-10).
The Dedication Procession
The next section of our text, verses 31 through 43, narrates the actual dedication celebration. It was a procession like no other! Nehemiah led the entire assembly, starting with the princes of Judah, to the southwestern part of Jerusalem near the wall. There he parted the people into two great companies to praise and give thanks to the Lord. He lined up both choirs in exactly the same order: the princes went first, followed by trumpet-blowing priests, and then the singers.
Note also that both processions marched on top of the wall, not beside it. According to verse 31, Nehemiah took the princes of Judah upon the wall (מֵעַל לַחוֹמָה). Verse 38 adds that the second company was also upon the wall. Archaeological excavations of Jerusalem show that Nehemiah’s wall averaged about nine feet wide, so it was certainly wide enough for the processions mentioned in our text.
But why did Nehemiah want the people to march on the wall? What was the point of this? While it might seem like he was boasting in his accomplishments, this is not the case at all. To the contrary, it was a visible demonstration of God’s blessing. When the Jews were just starting their work, Tobiah complained that, if even a little fox were to climb up on the wall, the whole thing would immediately disintegrate (4:3). To show that this wasn’t so, Nehemiah did not put a fox on the wall, but the two processions. He did this for two reasons: first, to show that the wall, though built quickly and under the constant threat of danger, was, humanly speaking, more than strong enough to protect the city; and second, to make it clear to Tobiah and his allies that God’s work had prevailed in spite of their relentless opposition.
Eventually, everyone who stands opposed to the kingdom of God will also be forced to admit his defeat. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote that God has highly exalted Jesus Christ and given him a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:10–11).
Nehemiah’s first choir probably began near the Valley Gate, which is also the place where Nehemiah began to survey the ruins of the city when he first arrived at Jerusalem several months earlier (cf. 2:13–15). This choir marched counterclockwise on the southern and eastern wall, going north toward the Dung Gate and probably descending the wall at the East Gate. Ezra the priest led this group.
The second choir marched clockwise (northward and then eastward) from the Valley Gate and descended the wall at the Gate of the Guard. Nehemiah led this group.
The culmination of the dedication ceremony took place when both choirs arrived at the temple. Verse 43 says, Also that day they offered great sacrifices, and rejoiced: for God had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off. There several things to observe here.
To begin with, the people continued their praise by offering sacrifices. In fact, Nehemiah described them as great sacrifices, i.e., plentiful sacrifices. The number of slain animals is probably a lot less than Solomon sacrificed at the dedication of his temple, but considering the miniscule population of Judah and Nehemiah’s day it was still very impressive. These sacrifices were probably thanksgiving offerings.
Yet, the thing that really stands out here is the tremendous joy of the people. They rejoiced while they were making their sacrifices, and they rejoiced with great joy. It was such great joy that it could be heard far away! What accounts for joy of such magnitude? For one thing, they were rejoicing in Jehovah, who had blessed their labors more than they ever dreamed possible. But their joy was also great because it was God himself who had caused them to rejoice. Nehemiah was not the only one who took note of this. Ezra 6:22 says, And [they] kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy: for the LORD had made them joyful. Our joy is as much a gift of God as is our faith, love and hope. The apostle Paul even listed it as the second part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The fact that God gives us joy should make us rejoice even more.
Even the wives and children participated in the rejoicing. After all, the rebuilding of the wall and the settling of Jerusalem demanded the commitment of the whole family. Now that these projects were completed, the whole family came together to celebrate God’s great mercy.
Can those afar off hear your rejoicing? Can they hear your family’s rejoicing? Would they say that your rejoicing is great? Living in the New Testament era, we have even greater cause to rejoice than did the people of Nehemiah’s day. They had only shadows and types, but we have the reality in the person and work of our Savior Jesus Christ. Just as we should constantly sing in our hearts, so we should also be known for our rejoicing. God’s commands to you is, Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice (Phil. 4:4); and again, Rejoice evermore (I Thess. 5:16). With Jesus Christ as your God and Savior how can you do anything except rejoice?
In the remaining verses of our text, we find Nehemiah taking advantage of the dedication to arrange for the continuation of worship and celebration of God’s people.
First, men were appointed to supervise the Lord’s treasury or storehouse. In other words, it was their job to oversee the storing of the offerings, the firstfruits and the tithes that the people brought to the house of the Lord. These gifts provide for the priests and Levites. Earlier, the people had agreed to make sure that the needs of their leaders were satisfied (10:37–39). They brought their tithes to the Levites, who, in turn, gave a tenth of their increase to the priests. Here at the dedication they reaffirmed their desire to do this.
Their desire to provide for the priests is remarkable in light of the fact that their finances were extremely limited. Not only were they paying high taxes to the Persian government, but the reconstruction of Jerusalem used up almost everything that remained. Nonetheless, they devoted themselves entirely to supporting the temple ministry, and they did so with joy because they had seen for themselves the hand of God’s blessing on their work. They could hardly begrudge God the proceeds of the land, since they were only tenants anyway.
In times of economic uncertainty, a lot of Christians cut back on their contributions to the church. For those who have suffered a reduction of income, perhaps this is not unwarranted. But we should not reduce our giving to the church by a greater percentage than our income has dropped. On the other hand, it might be that the Lord is testing us in hard times to show us whether we can trust him to provide for all our needs even when our wallets are lighter. The prophet Malachi wrote, Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Mal. 3:10). In other words, we should see everything that God brings into our lives as an opportunity to increase our commitment, not to decrease it.
Furthermore, the standard in the New Testament is high. We no longer offer bloody sacrifices because the blood of Jesus Christ has completely satisfied for all our sins. But we are commanded to present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God (Rom. 12:1–2). Our total obedience to God must freely flow out of hearts that have been renovated by his grace. We must, therefore, joyfully surrender ourselves and all our possessions to his service.
Verses 45 through 47 demonstrate that this is exactly what the people did. The singers and doorkeepers kept the ward of God, i.e., they performed their duties just as David and Solomon had commanded them: the singers sang, and the doorkeepers kept every unclean thing from the holy place. The people provided for the Levites, and the Levites sanctified their offerings to the children of Aaron.
Most people enjoy celebrations and festivities. We rejoice at birthdays, graduations, national holidays and special church celebrations. Like my childhood Fourth of Julys, there’s something really great about being with family and friends, and doing things that we don’t normally do.
But do we rejoice in the Lord, or do our celebrations have nothing more than our own merriment in view? Nehemiah saw the completion of the wall as an opportunity to praise God in song and sacrifice, and as an occasion to reaffirm the people’s commitment to obey the Lord. When the Lord shows his mercy to you — when he adds another year to year life, brings you to the end of a huge project (e.g., four years of college), or gives you some other cause to rejoice, you have an opportunity to rejoice in the Lord, too. You can eat cake, drink punch and go home, or you can include in your festivities a recognition of God’s great mercy to you. You can remember that you were once dead in your trespasses and sins, and Jesus Christ by his death upon the cross and triumphant resurrection raised you to everlasting life.
In fact, your whole life should be filled with joy in the Lord and singing his praises. If you have been covered by the precious blood of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, then you have great things to celebrate. Isaiah 35:10 says, And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Amen.