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“Faithfulness in Space and Time”

Nehemiah 11:1 - 12:47
Bob DeGray
November 8, 2009

Key Sentence

God allows his people to celebrate continuity in place and time.


I. Continuity in Place (Nehemiah 11:1-36)
II. Continuity in Time (Nehemiah 12:1-26)
III. Celebrating God’s Faithfulness (Nehemiah 12:27-47)


Francis Schaeffer was a Christian philosopher who deeply impacted my generation of believers. Born in Pennsylvania in 1912, he grew up in the liberal church which had become skeptical of Scripture and truth. In response Schaeffer celebrated both Scripture and truth. His books of Christian philosophy, The God Who is There, Escape From Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent challenge the popular view of the unknowability of truth by saying that God made true truth known from His side so men might trust in Him.

Schaeffer carried that philosophical thinking into studies of Scripture, especially Genesis in Space and Time. Here he argues that the accounts of the book of Genesis must be historically true: if God did not create the world and man in real space and a real point in time as described in Genesis, then Christianity is no different than any other cultural myth; the Bible is merely a storybook.

And I’d add that in the same way God created a real world in space and time, he’s also shown himself faithful in space and time. In the Bible God continually provides both a place for his work to take place and a people among whom his work be done from generation to generation. The great detail of Scripture in places like Nehemiah 11- 12 which we’ll study this morning are evidence of God allowing his people to celebrate connectedness in space and time.

Doesn’t this address a very basic human need? Don’t we need a place to be rooted? Don’t we need connectedness with the past and future, with those who’ve gone before and those around us? Our culture says ‘move-on, move-on; find the next place; get the next thing; try this, do that.’ But the noise deafens us to the quiet human cry for connectedness, to our heart’s cry for relationship and community. So our deep frustration and our aching only grow.

But the Bible reveals a God who meets this need, a God so faithful he makes a place for us, gives a connectedness in time that binds us to each other and to Him. God allows his people to celebrate connectedness in place and time.

The book of Nehemiah is about a place and a people. The place is Jerusalem, a devastated city, its walls broken, its gates burned, but now by God’s grace rebuilt and repaired. The people are the Jews who returned from exile, who worked side by side to build the wall and stood side by side to hear God’s word, celebrate his goodness and mourn their sin. Chapters 11 and 12 show how those people fit in place and time. These chapters are filled with names, places and historical notes that show God’s faithfulness in space and time.

I. Continuity in Place (Nehemiah 11:1-36)

Chapter 11 begins: Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. 2The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

Very few people lived in the ruined Jerusalem: only some priests and some of the temple servants. But rebuilt Jerusalem needed a population, to act as its defenders, to support its worship and to make it prosperous. So Nehemiah instituted a tithe on the people of the land – one in ten were to come up and live in Jerusalem. It appears some of these were selected purely by lot, while others had the opportunity to volunteer and were commended for it.

The rest of this chapter is spent putting individuals in their place. Nehemiah starts by listing some from the tribes of the Southern kingdom, Judah, Benjamin and Levi. 1st Chronicles 9 tells us there were people from other tribes who also came back to Jerusalem, but Nehemiah focuses on just these three. He includes families and individuals: Joel son of Zicri was probably military head of the Benjamites, Judah son of Hassenuah who an administrator.

These are real people in a real place. In verses 10-19 he lists the residents who were priests and Levites, and traces their lines back to the time of David. He calls them able men, emphasizing the competence of those God provided for this moment. Though the total numbers listed are small, these men were privileged to serve God as temple servants, worship leaders, gate keepers.

In verse 20 Nehemiah ventures outside the city itself: The rest of the Israelites, with the priests and Levites, were in all the towns of Judah, each on his ancestral property; they had gone back to their place, the inheritance their families had received from God’s hand more than five hundred years earlier.

Verses 21-23 record specific places given to some of the Levites, who served at the temple or sang. These verses catch your eye by mentioning a king: there was no king in Israel at this time. Either the Persian emperor took a direct interest in this worship, which is possible, or Nehemiah talks about an organization and protocol for the Levites established centuries earlier by King David.

The next verses give a good list of places in Judah, some of which are familiar to readers of the Old Testament: Kiriath Arba, Ziklag, Adullam. Verse 30 tells us they settled all the way from Beersheba to the Valley of Hinnom. That’s a lot of territory, much of it outside the shrunken province of Judah, controlled by Sanballat or the other baddies we’ve heard about in this book. In Hebrew the word used for living in these towns means a military encampment. They were going back to their ancestral places, but it wasn’t always easy.

So the focus is on people in their places, not just their places to live; Jerusalem and these ancestral towns, but also their places to serve; priests at the temple, Levites at the gates, singers on the hill of Ophel. God gives continuity of place. From Genesis to Malachi he promises a land, an ancestral home.

But is more to the concept of place in Scripture. The true promise to God’s people from beginning to end a place where God dwells with man. He promises the patriarchs and Moses and Joshua “I will be with you”. And at the end he’ll say “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

So the ultimate place, Scripturally, is the place where God is: The tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem were the focal points of Jewish place because God had promised to be present in those places. But when Jesus comes, then place becomes tied to a person: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling, his tabernacle among us.” He was ‘immanuel’, God with us. He said “behold I am with you always even to the end of the age.”

How does the concept of ‘place’ apply to us? In one sense it’s clear that the place for us right now is Jesus. Said another way, the presence of God is with us, in us, now, through the Holy Spirit, and isn’t tied to a location. Our longing for a God-place is substantially satisfied by the Comforter who has come.

But, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want to use ‘place’ in our lives. God uses ‘places’ in my world to connect me to him. Probably the most obvious is simply noticing the beauty of his creation. This can be as simple as sunrise in the parking lot early Sunday morning or as profound as the majestic locations he’s allowed our family to visit. Just last weekend Gail and I visited Minnesota for Mike Rice’s ordination and rejoiced in the fall colors.

But the more profound sense of place is associated with people, especially with ‘home’. Home is supposed to be a safe place, a place of acceptance and love, a refuge where God shows up. And by God’s mercy, my home with Gail and our family has been those things: not perfectly, but profoundly. One of the places we all felt that keenly was ‘the little yellow house’ in Illinois where we lived during seminary:700 square feet, four young children. It was home. And the question we need to ask is whether I’m helping to make home a place where my spouse and family safely find God’s refuge and peace?

The other kind of people place has been church, not in any mystical hallowing of the building, but in the sense that God shows up in a special way when we worship, serve and care for each other in this place. He gives us a sense of connectedness through the place where that happens, as he did for the Jews.

II. Continuity in Time (Nehemiah 12:1-26)

But God also gives us a sense of connection in time. Chapter 12 focuses on this, though you might miss it at first. Verse 1: “These were the priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and with Jeshua.” Nehemiah is looking back, again, to the return from exile some 90 years earlier, naming those who served God in that generation.

Then, in verse 10 he says: “Jeshua was the father of Joiakim, Joiakim the father of Eliashib, Eliashib the father of Joiada, 11Joiada the father of Jonathan, and Jonathan the father of Jaddua.” These are the generations of the high priests. We know from Ezra that Jeshua was high priest under Zerubbabel, and from Nehemiah that Eliashib was high priest while the wall was being rebuilt. Three more high priests are listed, probably taking us beyond the end of Nehemiah’s life. They may have been added by the writer of Chronicles extending Nehemiah’s memoir; he explains his sources in verses 23 and 24.

In verses 12-21 we get detail on the priestly, Levitical families during Joiakim’s time, between Zerubbabel and Ezra. We find the family names occur over and over, just as in modern times the English crown comes from the house of Windsor, and the chief executives at Ford are descendants of Henry Ford. A lot of this data can be expressed on a chart. The first column, from chapter 12:1-7, shows the priests and Levites during the first return from exile. The second, from 12:12-21 and shows the groups when Jehoikim was high priest. The third column, from Nehemiah 10, shows that these families continued to serve under Nehemiah. Most of the names appear in all three generations.

Nehemiah shows the importance to God’s plan of continuity and connectedness in time. Again, this is something that started with Abraham, to who God said: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Isaac and Jacob received this same promise, as did later generations in Egypt and the wilderness.

So the Israelites learned to look back on God’s faithfulness to previous generations and to proclaim his faithfulness to future generations. The Psalms are full of this kind of thinking: “What we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. 4We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. 5He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, 6so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. 7Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.”

What God has done is made known to us so we can trust him and in turn tell others God is faithful through time; he keeps his promises. We’re part of his plan, no less than Isaac or Jacob or the people of Nehemiah’s time. But how do we celebrate this kind of connectedness? I can offer several ways. First, study Bible and church history. You’ll start to see God work from generation to generation. With Thanksgiving coming, it wouldn’t be bad to read the journals of William Bradford, and see how faith and dependence on God were lived out in the hardships of the New England Pilgrims in the 1600’s.

The second is family. You may or may not know of a Christian history in your family, but if you do, it’s certainly a blessing: parents, or grandparents who have walked with Jesus. Chuck Colson highlights one such family history this week in a Breakpoint commentary on Jonathan Edwards, New England pastor, revivalist, theologian, and writer of the middle of the 1700’s.

Colson says “Edwards and his wife, Sarah, were also loving parents of 11 children. Of their 929 descendents, history shows there have been 13 college presidents, 86 college professors, 430 ministers, 314 war veterans, 75 authors, 100 lawyers, 30 judges, 66 physicians, and 80 holders of public office. That includes three U.S. senators, seven congressman, three mayors, three governors, and a vice president of the United States.” It’s a great heritage of God at work in people from generation to generation.

And you and I can continue that heritage by our sold out followership of Jesus, and by modeling and speaking that truth into the lives of our children. And on orphan Sunday wouldn’t it make sense to consider helping others to find that heritage, people who desperately need the connectedness of a godly family.

But perhaps our greatest connectedness is to a spiritual heritage in being discipled and discipling others. 2nd Timothy 2:2 “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others.” Four generations: Paul, Timothy, reliable men, those they disciple. God’ continues to work from generation to generation.

We have a Gospel heritage to pass down: the Good News that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, to rescue those helplessly caught in the grip of sin and doomed to death and judgment. He rose from death to guarantee eternal life and to keep his promises and to send His Spirit, so that all those who depend on him and not on themselves are rescued and renewed.

This is the heritage you and I received from somebody. There came a moment in time when someone shared that Good News with you and a moment in time when you believed.

If that hasn’t happened I implore to seriously consider that Jesus is the only answer to the truth about your life; that you are a sinner and separated from God, and that your ache is for rescue and relationship.

Believers become part of a living legacy, both hearing and sharing the Good News. Furthermore they become those who are discipled and who disciple others. Someone, I pray, has helped you grow in your faith. Someone has pointed you toward Scripture and prayer and fellowship and worship and outreach so that you’ve taken hold of these things in your own life. And someone needs to learn these things from you, to see faith modeled, wrestled with.

There is no greater joy than making a difference in someone’s life for Jesus. I had a taste of that joy this last weekend, as Gail and I went to Minnesota to participate in the ordination service for Mike Rice. Mike and Vanessa were only at Trinity for about three years before going off to seminary. But spiritually Mike and I shared a heritage and a kinship, and by God’s grace I was able to mentor Mike in his path toward ministry, and make a difference God is using today. When ministry gets discouraging it’s a blessing to know there are one or two folks who’d point to you as having made a difference.

III. Celebrating God’s Faithfulness (Nehemiah 12:27-47)

God intends us to be connected to people by virtue of place and by virtue of time. We need to pursue those connectednesses, for the sake of others and because of the need within ourselves. And we need to celebrate them.

Let’s read and enjoy the last part of chapter 12, pausing only a few brief times to highlight these continuities and the celebration of them. Verse 27: At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. The wall’s been rebuilt, the people have been renewed, it’s time to celebrate.

Verse 28: The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem--from the villages of the Netophathites, 29from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. 30When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall. Purification was done by sprinkling with blood and washing with water.

Verse 31: I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. 32Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them, 33along with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah,

35as well as some priests with trumpets, and also Zechariah son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zaccur, the son of Asaph, 36and his associates--Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani--with musical instruments [prescribed by] David the man of God. Ezra the scribe led the procession. 37At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east.

Do you get the picture? Nehemiah divides all the celebrants into two groups, each with choirs and leaders and musical instruments, and they walk on top of this rebuilt wall. They walk most of the way around the city and apparently re-enter near the temple on the east side.

Verse 38: The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people--past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, 39over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped. These people walk around the walls the other way and also end up near the temple.

Verse 40: The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, 41as well as the priests--Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets-- 42and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. 43And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

So the choirs come together at the temple and they sing their hearts out and rejoice because God had given them great joy. They are celebrating what he has done, they are celebrating their heritage, they are celebrating his promises, they are celebrating each other, his people, and they are celebrating Him. And there is no reason in the world why we should not join that celebration, for we have these and even greater blessings.

Verse 44: At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes. From the fields around the towns they were to bring into the storerooms the portions required by the Law for the priests and the Levites, for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites.

45They performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did also the singers and gatekeepers, according to the commands of David and his son Solomon. 46For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the singers and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. 47So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.

The heritage is there, the continuity of place and time is there, and the people support the heritage, support the continuity, support the celebration and participate in it in an ongoing way. You and I can do no less, because God calls his people to celebrate their connectedness in place and time.