“The Redeemed Remnant”
October 11, 2009
God redeems a remnant of his people to continue his work and receive his promises.
I. The need for a people to work. (Nehemiah 7:1-5)
II. The heritage of a redeemed people (Nehemiah 7:6-73)
III. The focus of a remant people. (Nehemiah 7:6-73)
Do you ever see a pattern to how God works, the way He achieves his purposes? There is a pattern in Scripture, and as we sit here, you and I are part of that pattern; we fit at a specific place in this God-ordained process. And since one of the basic longings of the human heart is to know where we fit, I think it’s profitable to explore that pattern this morning, especially in Nehemiah 7.
So what is this pattern? I don’t know if it has an official name, but I call it the redemption of the remnant. We see it from the earliest pages of the Bible. The world multiplies in sin, and God rescues Noah from the judgment. God chooses Abraham and his descendents out of all the nations to be his people. Famine strikes the land, and God sends Joseph to Egypt in order to rescue for Jacob’s family. This is where the word ‘remnant’ is first used. Joseph says “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” God preserves the remnant of his people from oppression or persecution or judgment by a great redemption
Not all Scriptural redemptions look the same. Sometimes the remnant is few, sometimes many. When the nation of Israel multiplied in Egypt, they were many, but oppressed and enslaved. So God rescued the whole nation from slavery by the great redemption of the plagues, the Passover, the parting of the sea. This is where ‘redeem’ is first used. God tells Moses “Therefore, say to the Israelites: 'I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.’”
Scriptural history is the history of redemption, as God shows over and over again, that when the remnant of his people cries out to him he redeems them according to his promises. At any point in Scripture on this side of Noah, you have a people who have been redeemed, and yet the same people are often themselves a remnant looking forward to a greater redemption. And that’s us, that’s where we fit in the Divine pattern as a redeemed remnant.
But we need to ask “What does a remnant do that sets it apart as a remnant?” and “What characterizes God’s redeemed people being drawn toward a greater rescue? These are the kinds of questions you can explore even in a chapter like Nehemiah 7. These 73 verses consist almost entirely of names and places and numbers, so many that not even I, who tries to preach every verse of Scripture, am going to try to preach every verse of this chapter.
But these names, places and numbers are important because they concretely present the remnant, who have been redeemed, who are continuing God’s work, and yet who are looking forward to a greater redemption. They show us where we fit. We are the redeemed who are continuing God’s work, but we are also the remnant, looking forward to a greater redemption.
We begin in the middle. Nehemiah and these people have completed rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. It’s a great victory, a great blessing, done with the help of God. Yet it’s not a stopping point. Nehemiah immediately turns his attention from the physical walls to the people who will man those walls and make Jerusalem a living city. He goes from rebuilding the city to rebuilding the citizens, and we will see over the next several chapters a transformation in people rivaling the physical rebuilding that has already taken place.
I. The need for a people to work. (Nehemiah 7:1-5)
So the first verses give us a snapshot of God’s people continuing to pursue God’s work. Nehemiah 7:1 After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed. 2I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do. 3I said to them, "The gates of Jerusalem are not to be opened until the sun is hot. While the gatekeepers are still on duty, have them shut the doors and bar them. Also appoint residents of Jerusalem as guards, some at their posts and some near their own houses."
4Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. 5So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return.
The first few verses of this chapter are an overview and forecast of things that will be reported in more detail later. Nehemiah is setting the scene for a revival to come. He says ‘Okay, we’ve got a wall: now we need gatekeepers, and singers and Levites.’ We know there were already a considerable number of priests in Jerusalem: they’ve been building the walls. But there have not been these teams of people who really make the worship of God possible.
The gatekeepers are guardians of the city, and most of these first few verses focus on them. But the singers and Levites are given equal footing in this verse. The singers were those who led worship at the temple, and since the time of David, they’d had a central role in the spiritual life of the people. Solomon used them extensively at the dedication of the temple. Jehoshaphat set them at the head of the army to sing while the Lord defeated his enemies.
And in the latter days of the kingdom and in this restoration from exile, whenever someone thinks to celebrate God and his feast, the singers are at the heart of it. Nehemiah is wise and godly to take thought for the singers.
In the same way, the Levites are critical to the spiritual life of God’s redeemed people. The priests served at the altar, in the temple, but the Levites were the ones who served the worshippers, accepting their tithes and offerings, guarding and maintaining the temple precincts, and increasingly, being the teachers of God’s word to the congregation. It appears, however, that the number of Levites had declined in the exile, for neither Zerubbabel nor Ezra had brought very many of them back to Jerusalem. Their numbers are much fewer than they had been in the days of the tabernacle and the temple.
So Nehemiah shows sensitivity to having God’s people do God’s work. One commentator said Nehemiah that knew the reason Jerusalem existed was for worship. And in many ways it is also at the heart of what we do as God’s redeemed people. We need to focus spiritual priorities on God himself.
But Nehemiah didn’t neglect the physical security of the city. He appointed the gatekeepers, and also reliable, godly men to lead them: his brother Hanani and Hananiah, commander of the citadel. Hanani we’ve already met. He was the one who told Nehemiah of the poverty and destruction of Jerusalem, prompting Nehemiah’s prayer and action. Nehemiah obviously trusted him.
Hananiah is new. Apparently he’s one of the soldiers Nehemiah relied on to organize the defense of Jerusalem through this critical period. Now Nehemiah makes him military commander of the city, not entirely because of his military prowess but because he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than most. We’ve seen how Nehemiah’s life is motivated by reverence for God. He looks for the same qualities in those who serve God’s people.
Nehemiah gives these two men practical instructions: the gates we’ve built need to be guarded whenever open, from early morning until dusk, securely shut at other times. Furthermore some of the citizen-soldiers from the wall-building period – those whose houses or workplaces are near the walls – need to be retained as a ready reserve if an attack should come.
Nehemiah wants to protect the city. He also wants to populate the city. Notes in verse 4 that the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses – or at least most of the houses - had not yet been rebuilt. When we worked through the rebuilding teams in chapter 3 we noticed that many of them came in from the surrounding towns. Only the priests and some of the craftsmen seemed to have homes in Jerusalem.
As Nehemiah confronts this issue, God helps him to begin addressing larger issues in the lives of his people. God ‘puts it in his heart’ to take a census of Judah before encouraging people to move to Jerusalem. In Nehemiah 11:1 we’ll see that ten percent were chosen by lot to move from the towns to the city.
II. The heritage of a redeemed people (Nehemiah 7:6-73)
As the starting point of his census, Nehemiah includes in his record a copy of the list of returnees from exile, not those who returned with Ezra some thirteen years earlier, but those who first returned, with Zerubbabel about ninety years earlier. Ezra already includes this list. He records the decree of Cyrus that permitted the first return from exile under Zerubbabel and this same list, with minor differences is included in Ezra’s account as chapter 2.
So we have to ask why this is here? Clearly it was of some value to Nehemiah. We’ll find that his organization of the people by towns and families in chapter 11 bears striking resemblance to this list. But why include it in his account? I think Nehemiah has a theological reason: he wants to establish and celebrate this redemption/remnant theology I’ve already described.
Chapter 1 supports this. Here’s my version of verses 1-3 “The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some others, and I questioned them about the Jews, the escaped remnant of the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 3They said to me, "The remnant which remains and is back in the province is in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire."
The obvious key word is remnant; the Hebrew word specifically means that which remains, left after winnowing or narrowing, so not usually in the sense of what was useless and left behind, but what was valuable and survived. The other key word is ‘escaped’ in verse 2. It has a similar meaning, but leans toward the idea of deliverance, or more broadly, of redemption: these are the ones who are rescued, escaping from persecution or oppression or trouble.
Nehemiah subtly celebrates this deliverance, this redemption. The prayer that he prays when he hears about the poverty of this remnant reminds God that “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.” These are the redeemed, the rescued, the helpless ones God has delivered by his own supernatural acts.
So Nehemiah includes this long list from verses 6-73 because these people are the redeemed remnant. They are the ones who came up from captivity just as God had promised. They are the ones who returned, the ones God has brought back, the lost sheep whom God has restored.
These people are a redeemed remnant. Zerubbabel stands at the head of the list, followed by the leaders of that generation. Remember, the list is over ninety years old when he cites it, so ‘Nehemiah’ in verse 6 isn’t our Nehemiah, nor is the Mordecai the same person as the hero of the book of Esther.
But it is a list of very specific individuals. We know little about them, but they are the redeemed; God knows them by name. I want you to do an exercise here to personalize this list. The verses run from 6 to 73. I imagine almost everyone in this room is in the age range 6 to 73. So look at your Bible, or at your neighbor’s and see who is listed at the verse that is your age number. I’m 53; verse 53 is Bakbuk, Hakupha and Harhur; three real people.
Then look up here where I’ve listed what groups those people fall into: men of Israel from verse 7 on; priests, verse 39 on; Levites, verse 43 on; temple servants, verse 46 on – that includes Bakbuk and my others; then servants of Solomon, verse 57 on; and people from the towns, verse 61 on. If you’re a little older your verse may be names of towns, or of possessions or of gifts.
That’s okay, because all I want you to do is to imagine yourself as a person in that return, a specific individual who has heard of Jerusalem all your life, but never seen it. Now God has brought you back, over the Mount of Olives to a home you’ve never been before, maybe singing a Psalm of ascent: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. 2Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 3The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
These are the redeemed. Yet this is just a little redemption. Nehemiah reports the total company to be 42,360. Don’t try to add it up – they don’t add up. There were apparently some who came back whose genealogy was so obscure that they didn’t fit anywhere on the list – but they were still included in the total.
I was struck the first time I read Nehemiah in preparation for this series by how small the number was. When God redeemed the nation from Egypt they were 600,000 men, plus women and children. That was the great redemption, the model for all future redemptions. We already quoted Exodus 6:6 “I will redeem you.” And as they were about to enter the promised land Moses reminded them that “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” To be redeemed is to be bought back from slavery.
In the same way, this return from exile is a redemption from slavery. Isaiah portrays it this way: “Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, "The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob."
III. The focus of a remnant people. (Nehemiah 7:6-73)
There are many redemptions in Scripture, because our God, to the praise of his glory, is a redeeming and rescuing God. But the greatest redemption is in Jesus. At the beginning of Luke, when Jesus’ birth is near, Zechariah says “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people. 69He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” He’s talking about salvation through Jesus. At the other end of Luke the two disciples on the road to Emmaus hoped they’d found the one who would redeem Israel. And they had: It was Jesus.
Paul extols this redemption often. In Galatians 4 he says “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” He says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." “He gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” This is the great redemption. We’re bought back from slavery to sin by Christ’s sacrifice, rescued by his work from a death worse than death and a bondage worse than exile. Where do we fit in God’s plan? We are his redeemed! And we are redeemed to be a people who are his very own, eager to do what is good.
This is why Nehemiah’s list emphasizes their spiritual commitments, as priests, as Levites, as temple servants. And this is why his list emphasizes their caution about calling people priests whose genealogy isn’t certain: they wanted to do things God’s way. And this is why he emphasizes their giving, their contributions to the work: because the redeemed make it a priority to faithfully serve God, to put him first. That is also our priority as his redeemed. It stands above every other calling.
We are the redeemed, who are called to carry on God’s work. But we’re also the remnant, looking forward to God’s fulfilling of his promises. These people Nehemiah listed, though they were redeemed from exile, they were also still a remnant looking for a greater redemption. That’s how Ezra describes them. Ezra 9:8 “But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us as a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage.” Ezra saw these people as having been redeemed but still being in bondage.
And one of the prophets of this period, Zechariah, is even more explicit that these people looking forward to a greater redemption, when all God’s promises to his people will be fulfilled. He says, Zechariah 8:11 “But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty. 12"The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.”
Zechariah is painting a picture of a fulfillment, a final redemption that has not happened yet, a redemption in which God finally pours out all the blessings promised to Israel through the centuries. ‘Remnant’ is used in Zechariah to speak of a time when Jerusalem will be called "a city of truth," children will play in her streets, God will call them "my people" and will have brought them from the east and west. God will be their God "in truth and in righteousness," her agriculture will flourish, she will be a blessing, not a reproach among the nations; they too will worship the Lord in Jerusalem and will acknowledge that God dwells again with Israel in a special blessed way.
This is the final redemption blessing for the remnant of Israel. Paul teaches in Romans 11 that God still has a remnant among the Jews, and I believe God will fulfill these promises to that final remnant who come to trust in Jesus. Nehemiah and Ezra, Zechariah and Haggai all sense that this return from exile is not the great redemption, but God has something greater in store.
And we sense that as well, you and I. We know we’re the redeemed, we know Jesus has rescued us, but we sense that we’re also the remnant who are yet looking forward to something greater that God has in store. This is where we fit into God’s pattern, God’s plan: looking back to rejoice in our redemption, but also looking forward. Peter calls us aliens and strangers on this earth and that is how we feel. Paul says we eagerly await a Savior from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our bodies so that we will be like him. Hebrews teaches that we are looking forward to a city yet to come, and that just as “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people, so he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” We are a remnant, just like the people in Nehemiah 7, waiting for these promises to be fulfilled.
So what should a redeemed people do? As those who have been rescued, how can we do anything else but serve the Lord, heart, soul, mind and strength. Our calling is to be his sold-out followers, his servants, supporting his work, upholding his ways.
And what should a remnant people do? Hope in the Lord who has made these promises, and who keeps his promises. He is coming again to complete the rescue of His people. God redeems a remnant of his people to continue his work and to hope in his promises.