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Archive for March, 2018

Kicking-Butt-Taking-Names-feature

If you have never read the final chapter of Nehemiah, you need to read it right now.  This is very possibly one of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible.  Nehemiah cleans house – God’s house that is and he does it like a boss.  If there are any superheroes in the Old Testament, Nehemiah has to qualify.

A number of years has passed since Nehemiah led the Israelites in the restoration of the walls, gates, temple, and re-population of Jerusalem.  He had been the cup-bearer to the king when the Lord burdened him to go and help his people.  The king had graciously allowed him to go for a time with an agreement that he would return.  These years were the time after the rebuilding of the wall under his direction when he had returned to his king.

In Nehemiah chapter 13, we find Nehemiah coming back about 20 years later to check up on his people in Jerusalem.  He finds a whole lot of ugly.

Nehemiah essentially finds five major problems among the people of God in Jerusalem.  They are as follows.

Firstly, he finds foreigners who had previously been specifically forbidden to dwell with God’s people, dwelling with God’s people.  The Ammonites and the Moabites were not permitted to enter the assembly of God.  The reason was because these would-be friends of the Jews had made themselves enemies by doing much harm and injury to them in the past.  They cursed God’s people and they failed to bless them.  Therefore, they were forbidden.

Nehemiah comes in and and reads the law concerning these people living among them and the people immediately separated out all those who were there illegally.  They repented at Nehemiah’s command and instruction.  We should remember that sometimes all it takes for people living sinful lives in disobedience to God is for a strong leader to come and tell them the truth of God’s word.

Next, Nehemiah finds that a particular Ammonite, Tobiah, who also happened to be a fierce enemy to all that God had done in the building of the wall under Nehemiah was LIVING in the temple and keeping the tithes of wine, grain and oil for the priests from them.  Did you get that???  One of the main opposing enemies of their restoration project was now living in the temple of God!!!  He was being catered to at the expense of the ministers of God’s temple.  He was being put up on a pedestal and given ultimate respect while those who should have been given respect and deference were suffering as a result.  How could this be?

Two words: Nepotism and favoritism.  The chief priest, Eliashib, was related to this enemy by marriage and had a strong friendship with him.  The chief priest – AKA the guy in charge – was placing his own personal agendas and relationships above the good of the people under his care as well as above the very glory of God.  Do you know any church leaders like this?  I sure do.  What an absolute disgrace.

Nehemiah was not there when this guy moved his enemy buddy into God’s house and that’s the only reason why he got away with it.  Funny how cowards will sneakily kill, steal, and destroy when no one is looking.  Anyway, Nehemiah Throws. Him. Out.  The text says he was “very angry.”  He literally takes all this guy’s stuff – furniture and all personal belongings of Tobiah and threw it outside.  He then proceeded to clean the chamber from top to bottom and replace all the tithes and offerings inside. Now that’s courageous leadership.

Nehemiah is not one bit afraid of what anyone thinks.  He’s not afraid of offending this greedy cheat.  He’s not afraid of Eliashib’s reaction either.  Remember, this guy was the CHIEF priest.  Still, Nehemiah has only one concern and that is the safety, security, and good will of God’s people and God’s house.  Let the cards fall where they will.  Nehemiah doesn’t care who gets mad, who dislikes him, or who whispers behind his back.  He ain’t scared.  He’s there to clean house and that’s exactly what he does.

The third issue Nehemiah addresses is related to the second.  Because Tobiah the traitor had been living in the temple, the tithes and offerings were not being properly distributed to the priests, Levites, and ministers of the house of God.  This, in turn had caused the priests and Levites to leave their ministries in the temple and go back to the country to farm land and do other work.  So the temple duties were not being appropriately accomplished either.

Nehemiah addresses the leaders about this problem.  The text says he “…confronted the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” ”  The chief priest had forsaken the temple, the people had forsaken their giving, and the ministers had forsaken their duties.  Nehemiah brings the ministers back immediately to their places in the temple and commanded the people to pay their tithes.  They repented and obeyed.  Nehemiah simply said, “Remember me…” to the Lord as he has so often done.

The fourth issue Nehemiah finds is that the people were grossly violating the Sabbath – something they had solemnly promised and covenanted with God not to do.  The people were treading the winepresses, loading donkeys, and buying and selling their wares on the Sabbath day.

Once again, Nehemiah is not afraid to bluntly confront the people.  He confronts them, corrects them, and literally physically threatens those who seek to persist in leading his people into sin!!!  He concludes his name-taking house cleaning by asking God once again to remember him, this time for mercy because he is extremely, righteouslyangry!

Lastly, Nehemiah addresses the serious issue of intermarriage with foreigners among God’s people.  This was strictly forbidden and all the people knew it to be so when they acted.  As a result, the children born to these forbidden marriages could not even speak the native Jewish language.  They could only speak foreign languages.

Nehemiah reminds the people that this is the very thing that led the greatest, wisest  king of all time to fall into sin.  Clearly, if even Solomon could not avoid falling neither could they.  One particular foreign intermarriage was to another one of the three fiercest enemies he had when rebuilding!  One of his very own had married into Sanballat’s family!

Nehemiah literally chased this dude out!  Not only that, he separated all those who had intermarried and made them all promise to do so never again!  He concludes by again asking God to simply remember him.

The very last words of the book of Nehemiah are, “Remember me, O my God, for good.”  -Nehemiah 13:31b

Wow.  What an awesome, courageous, just leader.  Nehemiah 13 is one of my absolute favorite chapters in the entire Bible.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.  This is a guy who is willing to stand up for what’s right at all personal costs.  That’s a leader I could follow.  That’s a leader like Jesus Christ.

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dedication

Anytime we do a significant project, especially for the Lord, we should never forget to honor the one for which we have done it at it’s completion.  That’s exactly what the people of God did when the walls and gates of Jerusalem had been completely restored under the direction of Nehemiah.

The latter portion of Nehemiah 12 gives us the details of how the dedication ceremony worked at this job’s completion.  All of the Levites, priests, and leaders were called together and separated into two groups.  The groups were actually two choirs who were to worship, praise, and use musical instruments and talents to thank God for this great accomplishment.

Before the people began to worship and thank God, the priests purified themselves, the people, the gates, and the wall.  Matthew Henry says, “We are concerned to cleanse our hands, and purify our hearts, when any work for God is to pass through them.”

Once they were prepared and purified, the choirs went in different directions.  One went north and was led by Nehemiah, and one went south and was led by Ezra.  Both were offering praise, worship, and thanksgiving to God for their success in this project as well as their triumph over the enemies who tried numerous times to stop it.  They offered great sacrifices and rejoiced.  The text says, “…And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” (Nehemiah 12:43b)

When we accomplish something great and difficult despite all odds, we ought to spend a considerable amount of time and energy thanking God.  We should never take success for granted.  Others around us ought to experience our culture of joy and recognize it.  Worship and rejoicing at God’s good toward us glorifies God and proves his grace and mercy toward his people.  If that doesn’t make the world stop and think about what kind of God we serve, nothing will.  Joy is a characteristic of Christian people that cannot be duplicated by the world.  We ought to share it and the world ought to see joy in us.

After the celebration, men were appointed over the storerooms and tithes that were given for use in the Lord’s house.  The people gave to the leaders in the temple and encouraged these priests and Levites in their ministries.  Nehemiah’s good leadership ensured that every worker got his due.

Consider what God had done here.  He had called and equipped a strong, courageous, just leader to go and help his people.  He enabled them to rally together in unity for one common purpose.  He showed them how to overcome opposition and stand guard while working.  They overcame foreign and domestic enemies.  They accomplished the goal of protecting themselves and working together.  They chose leaders and city dwellers.  They dedicated their work to the Lord with great joy and thanksgiving – so much so that their joy and celebrating was heard “far away.” 

That’s the kind of project God puts his people on.  Where do you fit in?  Let’s get busy doing God’s work in our own lives that our joy might overflow to all those around us.

 

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chase

In Nehemiah 11 and 12 we are given a record of those who went back to live in Jerusalem after the captivity.  Jerusalem was the Holy City of God.  The temple was there and all of those who attended it.  Let’s consider who was there:

Nehemiah 11:1 – The leaders and the chosen were living in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 11:2 – The willing were living in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 11:10 – The priests were living in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 11:15 – The Levites were living in Jerusalem.

One would think more people would have wanted to live here given the overwhelming number of high quality, godly men who resided within the city.   But, no, many did not and there were several reasons for that.

Firstly, people know that the closer to God and His people they get, the more responsible they are for their own actions and attitudes.  Therefore, many choose to keep their distance in order to keep their comfort and pet sins close and God farther away.  I think we can all relate to this kind of avoidance whether we have done it or seen others do it.

Not only that, but Jerusalem was hated by their neighboring communities.  Many times, the closer we get to Christ, the more we are hated by the world.  He said it would be so.  Many people who are happy to profess belief are simply not willing to suffer for his namesake.  It was true of these people and it’s true today.  Only those who are sold out and wholehearted will follow God wherever he leads with absolute reckless abandon.

Lastly, Jerusalem wasn’t a place to sell wares and get rich.  It did not have the advantages of a good trading city so those who were trying to make money in business wouldn’t have wanted to be in Jerusalem if they could help it.  Men often look out for number one rather than placing the priority of their lives in their spiritual journey and responsibility.

Still, Jerusalem had some pretty great men manning it.  Because primarily those with position and integrity dwelt in Jerusalem, that in itself should have been a draw for others to relocate to this city.  Those that were not encouraged to move were at least inspired to encourage.  Nehemiah 11:2 says, “And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” While they may not have been willing to sacrifice comfort and safety for the Lord’s work, they did admire those who were.

Then again, it may have been more of a, “You go so I don’t have to,” kind of encouragement.  These people knew that their leaders were drawing names to determine who would move because there weren’t enough people in the city.  The more men who volunteered to move meant the less who had to be randomly chosen.

Chapter 12 begins by listing by name the priests and Levites who came back from exile first.  It tells us that some were in charge of songs of thanksgiving, some as priests, some overseeing praise and thanks, and some standing guard at the gates.

Jerusalem was a great city of God complete with spiritual warriors, watchers, and pray-ers.  They would not have had to cast lots if it hadn’t been wanting for workers, though.  Such is God’s Kingdom.  The harvest is plentiful, but he workers are few.  May we be ever willing to go wherever he calls and make a home wherever he blesses.

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recommit

After finishing the project to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem, the people of God spent a considerable amount of time praying, fasting, confessing, repenting, worshiping God, and looking intently at God’s law.  They were thankful for his mercy and providence and ashamed of their disobedience.  God used Nehemiah – the great, godly leader he had called to help them – to spur them on to rebuild not only their city and their homes, but also their very own lives.

After their time of reflection and repentance, the leaders drew up and signed a covenant with God.  The people all took an oath of commitment to carry out the terms of these promises.  They also risked a curse if they would fail to obey.  Matthew Henry notes that, “Every oath has in it a conditional curse upon the soul, which makes it a strong bond upon the soul; for our own tongues, if false and lying tongues, will fail, and fail heavily , upon ourselves.”  In other words, if we would make a promise to God or man, we best be prepared to do all within our own power to keep it.

With all this consequence for failing to keep such a pact, why did these people seem so forward to sign up?

The answer is that these people had been failing.  They had been in sin.  They had been exiled, enslaved, and their home had been devastated, destroyed, and left desolate. Yet God had burdened a man named Nehemiah to come and help them.  God had brought them back to rebuild and re-establish themselves.  Now, they recognize both their guilt and his grace and they feel obliged to make these promises and strive to keep them.  Here is a group of people who truly want to be right with God.  These are God’s people.

So, what was it that they bound themselves to do?

The people promised not to intermarry with foreigners as they had been doing, they promised to observe the year of jubilee and forgive all debts in the seventh year, they promised to tithe all they had to God first and to give him the very best of their possessions to use in his house.

What did they commit to God?  Family; money; food; assets; only…everything.

That is the kind of commitment we must make to Our Lord if we would seek to truly repent and follow him.  WE are the ever failing, exiled from the garden, living in the  broken world we call home, sinners.  When we recognize the things he has done for us in sending a Savior to rebuild and recenter our very lives around the truth and His righteousness, we cannot help but to commit our everything to the building of His house and His kingdom.  If that is not our attitude and desire, we have not yet seen him and we do not yet know him. Therefore, let us repeat the words of these restored sinners and do as they committed to do saying, “We will not neglect the house of our God.” ~Nehemiah 10:39b

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true_repentance

After God’s people had spent a considerable amount of time hearing his law and glorifying him through praise, worship, and feasting as they were commanded, they begin  a time of confession and repentance in Nehemiah chapter 9.  This is the function of God’s law.  It is meant show us our sin and lead us to Christ through our recognition of guilt and need.  Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.”

Previously, they had been instructed not to weep or mourn, rather to celebrate.  Now they are commanded to mourn their sin.  First, they change their clothes.  The people put on sackcloth and mark their heads with dirt and ashes to show that they are mourning.  They begin to fast as a sacrificial proof that they are sorry and reliant upon forgiveness and provision from God.

Most times we would mourn first and later celebrate forgiveness and favor.  They celebrated first and then mourned.  God had it that way that they might be all the more aware of his goodness and mercy to them, as well as obedience to his order and command about how to carry out all things in his time and in his way.

The people of God were also commanded to separate from all foreigners during this time of confession and repentance.  Likely, this was because they had previously been commanded to be separate, not intermarry with those who follow foreign gods, etc., and had disobeyed, but such is a wise practice for other practical reasons as well.  Any of us who seek to genuinely bare all, bore our rightful blame, and confess intimately to God must always be wise about who is among us when we do so.  Let us not forget that there are those who seek only to gossip, destroy, and bring dishonor upon God himself when they hear about the failings of his people.

After God’s people had separated from those who weren’t of him, they began to confess their own sins as well as the sins of their fathers.  They read the law for a quarter of the day and offered confession and worship a quarter of the day.  Half the day would amount to six hours.  Six hours time they spent in the presence of God seeking forgiveness and favor knowing they did not deserve it, yet relying upon his great mercy.  When is the last time your church did that?

The people cried out to God in prayer and praise offering adoration and thanksgiving for the many great wonders God had done for them and their people.  They made it a point to remember who God really was and talk about his goodness to them in the past.  They spoke of his promises kept, his deliverance, his signs and wonders, his law, his providence, his forgiveness, his slowness to anger, his mercy, his leading, and his faithfulness even despite their own great sin.

Then, they made it a point to remember who they really were and they confessed all their sins, faults, and failings.  They spoke of their presumptuousness, their stiff-necks, their disobedience, their ignorance of his miracles and goodness toward them, their idolatry, their blaspheme, and their broken promises.

Matthew Henry says this, “They abused God’s prophets, slew them because they testified against them to turn them to God, so returning the greatest injury for the greatest kindness.  They abused his favors.  After they had rest, they did evil again.  They were not wrought upon either by their troubles or their deliverances out of trouble.  Neither fear not love would hold them to their duty.”  

At the end of the day, the bottom line was clear.  God had been altogether faithful to them and they had been altogether unfaithful to him.  They knew it and they admitted it.  They confessed it and they repented of their sin.  They made a covenant stating their desire and intention from that day forward to obey God and not turn away again.

Notice that it was not just the leaders who did this.  It was the whole assembly and all the people who belonged to God.

Christians, these this is a true picture of what a heart full of godly sorrow looks like.  These are the things one will do when he is serious about repentance and getting his heart and life right with God after sin.  He will carry out plans God’s way and in God’s time.  He will change his disposition to a somber, sober seriousness.  He will separate from all that would entangle him.  He will spend a considerable amount of time looking at God’s expectations; his law; his Word in order to recognize his own responsibilities.  He will duly confess his sin and repent.  He will make every effort to right his wrongs and promise to not sin in the same ways again.  He will surround himself with accountability and have others join together with him in his efforts to change.  He will leave spoken and written proof in the presence of God and many witnesses of his future intentions.  These are the things a man does when he is serious about correcting his failure against God and man and avoiding sin.

 

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strength

After the people of God have heard the law read aloud to them in the public square, their natural reaction is weeping and mourning.  Why?

The Jews had been in captivity for quite a long time.  Now, they had finally returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt their city walls, and gathered together for the reestablishment of their community and customs.  During their captivity, they had had no opportunity to practice the feasts or ceremonies commanded by God.  They had no access to the Word of God and, at this point in time, many of these returning exiles had never even heard God’s law for themselves.

In Nehemiah chapter 8, we find Ezra the scribe reading God’s law to them right in the middle of the street for a number of hours.  Subsequently, the people, not having known what was expected of them and realizing at the hearing of the law how much they had failed, forgotten, and bore the guilt of began to unanimously grieve over their guilty position before God.

This is precisely what the law of God is made to do.  When we hear God’s perfect law, our conscience ought to accuse every one of us as guilty and in need of grace.  The Bible says that the law of God is perfect, converting the soul.  The function of the law is not to make us feel comfortable, but to break our hearts over our own sin, lead us to repentance, and cause us to yearn for God’s grace and forgiveness.  The law is the teacher which leads us to Christ.

These people had a conscience.  They heard the law, recognized themselves as guilty before a holy God, and that made them rightly unwell.  They grieved over their sin and saw their own need for repentance and forgiveness.

When the people begin this weeping and grieving, something interesting happens.  Their leaders instruct them to be joyful and forbid them to continue grieving.  They command the people to eat, drink, and rejoice because they understood God’s Word.

Many religious people think that pretending to be perfect is the proper way to honor God.  God’s Word teaches us just the opposite.  It is when we humble ourselves and admit our own sin that God is truly glorified in our lives.

So the people are called to change their faces from mourning to joy.  The reason was because their joy in God was their strength.  God wanted his people strong.  He wanted them to rejoice because it was time for a feast.  Mourning was not appropriate.  The Feast of Booths was about to begin.

The Feast of Booths was a time that the Jews were called to remember their time in wilderness, give thanks, and live in temporary shelters for seven days.  The reason for the shelters was to keep them from growing comfortable, fat, and happy in their houses after harvest.  God wanted them to remember their time in the desert, how he had provided all their needs, and how they must never stop trusting and relying upon Him for all things no matter how blessed they currently are.  This was a time of great joy, feasting, and thanksgiving for the goodness, faithfulness, and provision of God toward his people.  No one ought to mope and cry when blessing is abundant and harvest is at hand.  They were called to feast.

At the end of the feast was a solemn assembly.

God wants us to remember how good he really is to us.  It is in the best times that we tend to forget how much we need the Lord.  That is why this feast was performed at harvest.  God wanted to ensure that his people understood their desperate need for him in all things.  Let us remember that we, too, are exiles on a journey toward the promised land.  Let us never forget how God takes care of us through all of our wilderness journeys and the water he provides in the deserts of life.  Let us be joyful as we remember his faithfulness to us.  “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” ~Nehemiah 8:10

 

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first

Once the Jews have finished rebuilding and securing the wall of their city under the direction of Nehemiah and Nehemiah has taken a count of all who were there, we find out what their priorities really were.

The very first thing the people of God do once they are protected and counted is gather together and hear God’s Word.  Both community and God’s perfect law are so important to these people that they make these two things their number 1 priorities.

“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate.  And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel.  So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.  And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand.  And the ears of all the people were attentive tot he Book of the Law.” ~Nehemiah 8:1-8

Not only do they make listening and learning God’s law together their first priorities, they literally stay and listen the entire morning attentively.

These people were gathered in the public square, in the street, all morning listening to God’s law.  They weren’t falling asleep.  They weren’t checking their watches.  They weren’t watching Youtube on their iphones while Ezra read God’s Word to them.  They were respectfully, attentively listening and learning what God’s expectations of them were.

They stood up in respect for God’s Word.  They answered “Amen, Amen,” lifted up their hands, bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.  This was serious business and they treated it so.

Interestingly, this event took place on the first day of the seventh month.  On the Jewish calendar, this day marked the end of the year.  It was called the Feast of Trumpets.  No work was to be done and the people were to be preparing for atonement.  Likewise, we must always look intently at the law and our own hearts before our sins can be atoned for.

The significance of the trumpets were that of alarm.  This particular day was to be followed by 10 days of introspection and repentance.  The sounding of the trumpets also pointed to future judgement.

This was their call to ready themselves.

How do we ready ourselves for future judgement?  We ready ourselves by preparing our hearts the same way these people did.  We cease from self-sufficiency and works-based efforts of religion.  We gather with other believers in community.  We listen and learn God’s perfect law.  We look introspectively at ourselves and repent.  We wait for grace and we keep always in mind the reality of our future judgement.  Doubtless this is why Christ’s return is also signified by the blowing of trumpets (1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.)

These actions must be our first priorities.  We must be attentive to do them if we would have a strong community of believers.

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