Friday, 20 June 2014

(172) June 21: Nehemiah 11-13 & Acts 4:23-37

Ask God to open your mind, heart and will to understand, delight in and obey what you read.

To discover:­­
As you read consider what the final chapter is teaching us about God’s people.

To ponder:
We learn the reason for registering the people (7v4-73) was to ensure Jerusalem was populated (11v1-2). The leaders set an example by living there, and the remaining inhabitants were decided by lot as a means of God’s determination. Such upheaval is the equivalent of someone moving in order to serve or plant a church.
            The list of those who lived in Jerusalem has a military feel (11v6, 8, 14), suggesting security was still a need. Amongst the leaders were those governing parts of the city, those working at the temple, and those leading music. The references to “the king” (11v23-24) probably refer to the king of Persia. The record of those settling both in Jerusalem and in the villages, and over an area larger than Judea, highlights that the land was resettled with an ambitious desire to regain the entire inheritance given in the days of Joshua.
            The list of priests and Levites includes those from the days of Darius (Ez 5-6) and the high priest Jeshua, and so from both returns. The sources of the names are no doubt noted to emphasize the accuracy of the records, which was necessary if their descendents were to be deemed fit to serve at the temple. The concern that only those of the priesthood of all believers serve in the church is a commendable one.
            By recounting the dedication of the newly rebuilt walls of the city, the closing section of the book returns us to its great theme. It seems this took place after Nehemiah had returned from a trip back to Babylon, and so over twelve years after he first arrived (12v27, 44, 13v1, 4, 6-7). The Levites were called together to conduct this event, and Nehemiah arranged a great procession along the wall, comprising Judah’s leaders, two large choirs, musicians, and Nehemiah himself. It culminated in the temple with many sacrifices and much joy (12v31-43).
            It was then that people were put in charge of the tithes the law required for the priests and Levites. It is noted that they fulfilled their responsibilities to purify the people (12v30, 45, see Lev 11-15) and served with others as in the days of David and Solomon. This stresses the continuity of practice, and makes this a high point for the Jews. Indeed, when “the book of Moses was read” and it was realised Ammonites and Moabites should not be included in the worshipping community, the people seemed to go as far as excluding all foreigners from it.
However, despite such zeal there were ample signs the kingdom of righteousness was still distant. At some earlier point, while Nehemiah was away, a priest had actually given a chamber in the temple to Tobiah, an Ammonite. On returning, Nehemiah had to evict him and purify the rooms. He also learned that the very three things the people had covenanted with God to do (10v30-39), had been neglected: First, portions hadn’t been given the Levites, forcing them to neglect the work of the temple and return to their fields in order to eat. Second, the people were working and engaging in commerce on the Sabbath. Third, they had intermarried with the surrounding peoples so that the next generation couldn’t even speak the language of Judah, threatening the passing on of the faith and their distinctive witness to the nations. In each case Nehemiah took action. He put trustworthy men in charge of the provisions for the Levites, praying God would remember that. He warned and rebuked those desecrating the Sabbath, reminding them this previously led to the exile and that they were “stirring up more wrath.” He then shut and posted guards on the gates, threatening any who came to trade, again praying God would remember his act and show him mercy. Finally, he rebuked and even beat those who married foreigners, making them take an oath not to have their children do the same, reminding them of how this led Solomon himself into sin. Nehemiah also drove off the High Priest’s grandson for marrying a foreigner (against Lev 21v14, because he could become High Priest). Here he prayed God would remember the sins of these priests, but finishes again asking God to remember and favour him for purifying, organising and providing for the priests and Levites.
The book therefore ends making clear that the people are the same as they have ever been, ready to repeat the very sins that led to the division of the kingdom after Solomon and its eventual exile. Rulers like Nehemiah might be able to ensure obedience for a time, but what was really needed were new hearts that would consistently obey and an everlasting king who would be forever present. For this, the people had would wait 400 years.

Praying it home:
Praise God for renewing our hearts into obedience. Pray for him to raise up leaders like Nehemiah to reform his church.

Thinking further:
None today.
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