Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Something Worth Celebrating Nehemiah 12:27-47

June 1 of this year marks the fifth anniversary of my time at Crystal Spring Baptist Church. This realization reminded me of something that took place on May 23rd 2010, just a couple of weeks before my first day in Roanoke—my ordination. On that day I was prayed for by a large group of men at Oakwood Baptist Church, enjoyed a small worship service, and was supported by many people who surrounded me with love and, in some cases, even gifts. This was a day that I will never forget as it marked the end of a chapter (my undergraduate preparation) and the beginning of a new chapter (my ministry career). Though this was a highly personal event in my life, it bears some resemblance to the scenes of Nehemiah 12 which successfully wrap up one chapter of the Jews’ history and propel them into a new era. In Nehemiah 12:27-47, we are going to bear witness to three scenes that the Jewish people of Nehemiah’s day would never forget—and neither should we, for in these scenes we learn what is required of us to capture the attention of the world in a redemptive kind of way.

The Dedication Service-12:27-30

As we near the end of our study in Nehemiah, we are taken to three scenes that together provide the culmination of what God has been doing throughout this exciting book. The first of these three scenes involves a dedication service, “…Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites from all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem so that they might celebrate the dedication with gladness, with hymns of thanksgiving and with songs to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps, and lyres…” (12:27).

Many people use dedication services today to draw special attention to the completion of a project and the beginning of a new era. Whether it is a dedication of a young child that marks the beginning of a life set aside for service to God, or a ribbon cutting ceremony that marks the end of construction (something I hope we will see in our near future also at Crystal Spring Baptist) and the beginning of a building’s use, dedications are special events that celebrate what has been accomplished while looking forward to what lies ahead.

This specific dedication in Nehemiah 12 celebrated the completion of the wall that had been restored under Nehemiah’s inspired leadership. Having overcome the obstacles of laziness, enemies, famine, and corruption, the wall that once lay in ruins now acted as a formidable perimeter that encircled Jerusalem, allowing her and her people to thrive. Great enthusiasm must have characterized the people’s march to the joyful music played on a host of instruments.

Everyone connected to this wall in some way was represented on this special day, -“…So the sons of the singers were assembled from the district around Jerusalem, and from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth-gilgal and from their fields in Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built themselves villages around Jerusalem…” (12:28-29). In fact, much like a host of family members show up at a baby dedication or employees gather to christen a new building, all of the inhabitants in and around Jerusalem showed up for this momentous occasion.

What distinguished this dedication from others in the Old Testament and those that we witness in our world today was how the dedication was administered. On this day in Nehemiah 12, “the priests and the Levites purified themselves; they also purified the people, the gates and the wall,” (12:30). Just as God had set His people apart from the days of Abraham in choosing them, providing them with a law, and caring for them in extraordinary ways, so too do the Jews in this scene desire that their leaders, themselves, and that which God had provided be pure—set apart for God’s use in the world. This was accomplished by sprinkling the blood of sacrificed animals.

Ultimately, this dedication is a ceremonial acknowledgement of the distinctive character of God, His appointed leaders, and His chosen people. The Jews hoped that this distinction would apply also to the wall God had graciously provided against all odds. This is what is meant by the purification of the gates and the wall along with the leaders and the people.

The Celebratory Worship Experience-12:31-43

This solemn service of purification was followed by a celebratory concert (the second scene in Nehemiah 12:27-47). Just as weddings are followed by receptions and ordinations with fellowship, so too is this dedication service following by a joyous celebration—this time coming in the form of a collaborative concert involving two choirs that surround the people from atop the newly constructed wall. The first group identified might be called the “Refuse Gate Singers,” “…then I had the leaders of Judah come upon top of the wall, and Ii appointed two great choirs, the first proceeding to the right on top of the wall toward the Refuse Gate…” (12:31ff). Though this distinguished group’s name might seem off-putting (Refuse Gate Singers), I imagine that they wore this peculiar title with a great deal of pride (or could have if this was really how they referred to themselves J) for this location had come to take on new meaning.  

When Nehemiah first arrived in Jerusalem and beheld the city in ruins and the wall utterly destroyed, he was said to have passed several landmarks during his investigation.

Nehemiah 2:13-“So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon’s Well and on to the Refuse Gate.

Here, at the beginning of Nehemiah’s saga, these landmarks stood as painful reminders of what state Jerusalem was in because of their pigeon-holed perimeter.  The Dragon’s Well was believed to be haunted and the Refuse Gate was an ancient sewer drain leading to a trash heap. These images bring to mind how scary and repulsive it was for Jerusalem to be without the protection of a wall. However, as Nehemiah identifies the “Refuse Gate” here at the end of the book, he demonstrates how places like these were no longer looked upon with great disappointment, reminding them of how bad things were; instead, they served as monuments of sorts, reminding them of how far they had come with God’s help.

 “…The second choir proceeded to the left…they stopped at the Gate of the Guard…” (12:38-39), we will call them the “Guard Gate Ensemble.” The first procession led by Ezra (12:36) and Hoshaiah (12:32) moved in a counterclockwise direction on the wall while this second group, led by Nehemiah himself, moved in a clockwise direction. Hovering some fifteen feet above the people within the city walls, these choirs met between the Prison Gate and the Water Gate and then entered the Temple area for this glorious concert.

“Then the two choirs took their stand in the house of God…and the singers sang…” (12:40-42). Oh what a sound these complementary choirs must have produced! With victory realized against all odds, hope for the future in their hearts, and God’s grace showered on all of them, this, no doubt, proved to be a worship experience of a lifetime!

Nehemiah reveals next that “on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy, even the women and children rejoiced, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar” (12:43). In this response one can witness how successful the choirs were at their job of directing the people’s gaze to the Lord. So powerful and appropriate were the songs shared by these choirs that the text immediately skips over reporting any applause they might have been given and moves immediately to the sacrifices the people are compelled to make and the rejoicing given to God. So loud was this holy celebration that the “joy…was heard from afar” (12:43). Before God intervened through Nehemiah only silence was heard and inactivity witnessed in Jerusalem. Now, the people had something to sing about and much rejoicing for which to make up.

Finally God’s people were in a position to make beautiful music again on the world’s stage and draw the attention of other nations to the Lord of heaven.

The Refurbished Institution-12:44-47

The final scene we witness in this passage is, in reality, a resulting institution of giving, praise, and thanksgiving. First, we are introduced to the tradition bearers in verse 44, “…On that day men also appointed over the chambers for the stores, the contributions, the first fruits and the tithes, to gather into them from the fields of the cities the portions required by the law for the priests and Levites; for Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites who served…”. Here, men desired to see to it that provisions were set aside for those who worked to facilitate the worship that they had come to enjoy in and around the Temple.

“For they performed the worship of their God and the service of purification, together with the singers and the gatekeepers in accordance with the command of David and of his son Solomon…” (12:45). The faithful ministry of the priests and Levites, in collaboration of others were a huge blessing to the people of Jerusalem and for this reason, they wanted them to be fully funded. However, providing for the ministry to this extent was not a totally new idea. Instead, it was the refurbishing of a long standing tradition.

 “For in the days of David and Asaph, in ancient times, there were leaders of the singers, songs of praise and hymns of thanksgiving to God. So all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah gave portions due the singers and the gatekeepers as each day required, and set apart the consecrated portions for the Levites, and the Levites set apart the consecrated portion for the sons of Aaron…” (12:46-47).  

Ultimately, this third scene illustrates to what lengths the people were willing to go to make sure that the ministry was taken care of (as it should have been all along), marking the continuation of an important tradition that is reiterated in the New Testament and witnessed in Church history.

So What?

These three special scenes, a dedication service, celebratory worship experience, and refurbished tradition together highlight an especially wonderful chapter in the life of Jewish history. Here, the people of God are purified, worshipful, and faithful; and the world takes notice as a result (as the sound of their joy was heard far off). These same elements involved in these three scenes here unlock the combination necessary for the world to take notice of the people of God today. However, unfortunately, the world is not taking notice of the church in the way it should. Numerous articles suggest that, like the Jews at the beginning Nehemiah, Christianity is asleep at the wheel, losing market share, and dwindling away in nearly every demographic, region, and affiliation. Craig Dunkley in “Christianity is Losing in America” states the following, “Christianity is under attack in America and it’s losing. Meanwhile, the church is, in general, sitting out of the fight and hoping the problem goes away.” This lack of action in response to the world’s onslaught of deception has discouraged many young people to, in growing numbers, join the ranks of the unaffiliated (according to Nate Cohn of the New York Times). Inactivity, apathy, and complacency will inevitably kill the cause of God in our culture (it nearly wiped out the Jews on numerous occasions in the Old Testament).

In light of this, we must adopt (as demonstrated in Nehemiah 12) a pattern of purification (setting ourselves apart from this world), engage in meaningful worship, and support the ministry in every way. Why? So that the world takes notice and is wooed by the sound of our joy and compelled to satisfy their curiosity by coming to know our God!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Peculiar Promises Nehemiah 10:28-39

When was the last time you promised someone something? Maybe it was a commitment to be on time at a particular event, or to cook a favorite dish for a loved one’s birthday dinner, or to check on someone who was not doing well. Perhaps when you think about promises you remember those commitments you made to your kids silently at night as they slept in their crib or those that you shared before witnesses on your wedding day. Promises can prove to be powerful agents that can either make or break relationships (depending on whether or not they are kept). In fact, broken promises that accumulate over a long period of time can erode intimacy between two parties, leaving very little room for reconciliation. This is exactly what had happened between God and the Jewish people leading up to Nehemiah’s time with one difference—there was still plenty of room for reconciliation. After a long period of broken promises and failing to keep the commitments they had made to God and His law, the people of Nehemiah 10 decide to make things right again by repenting. In an effort to continue the program of distinction God was working out in Jerusalem, her people decide to make some peculiar promises that, if kept, would set these citizens apart from the rest of the world. Interestingly enough, similar promises made by God’s people today accomplish the very same thing.

PROMISE #1:“I Promise Not to Intermarry” (To Keep Myself Equally Yoked)-10:28-30

Last week we observed the passionate confession of God’s people in Nehemiah 9. This week, the Jewish people of Nehemiah’s day repent (change direction), by means of three promises that place them on a trajectory toward distinguishing themselves as God’s people on the world’s stage. Before their path was marked with ignorance and neglect of God’s law, leaving them headed in the wrong direction. Now their knowledge of and commitment to the Law of God demanded that they change course. This is what they set out to do in Nehemiah 10 with these three peculiar promises.

The first promise involves intermarriage. Those who make this promise include,… well,…everyone,  “…Now the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons and their daughters, all those who had knowledge and understanding, are joining with their kinsmen, their nobles, and are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given through Moses, God’s servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of God our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes;…” (10:28-29).

Specifically, these promise first “…that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons…” (10:30, see also Ex. 34:16). What made this command so important to the program of distinction among God’s people in Nehemiah’s day? Let us read (from a primary source) exactly what was to be prevented in this ordinance:

Deuteronomy 7:3-4-“Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.”

For God’s people to be distinct, they had to maintain a higher standard, even/especially in the area of marriage.  Failing to uphold this command would lead to all kinds of calamity. Just look at the fate of Solomon!

1 Kings 11:1-4-“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonion, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the sons of Israel, ‘You shall not associate with them, nor shall they associate with you, for they will surely turn your heart away after their gods.’ Solomon held fast to these in love. He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been…

Though you might be tempted to believe that this kind of a law and even its spirit is limited to those in the Old Testament, think again. If marriage played a role in keeping God’s people distinct in the Old Testament, should we not also believe that marriage is one way for God’s people to remain distinct today? In fact, there is a compelling biblical case from the New Testament that says as God’s people, we are NOT free to marry whomever we please.

2 Corinthians 6:14-“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

You might say, “but I’m attracted to Him/her or I fell in love with him/her.” However, God wants the best for His people and desires to make you distinct from the world. Therefore, mixing your life with an unbeliever is settling for less. In fact, it has the very real potential of bringing you down and stealing your attention away from your first love—God.

However, what if you are already married to an unbeliever, does this mean you are required to divorce that person? 1 Corinthians 7:12-16-“…if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband…For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” It is not recommended in scripture that you flee a marriage in divorce based on a wrong decision in the past. Instead, Paul encourages those in these kinds of marriages to allow God to move and even potentially use a husband or wife to help lead the lost spouse to Him!

However, the biblical parameters of marriage do not stop there. Listen to these words about how another kind of union does not qualify for God’s high standard of marriage for His people,

Romans 1:26-27-For this reason, God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”
1 Corinthians even suggests that this kind of union is like all kinds of other wicked behaviors that keep men and women from enjoying a right relationship with God,

1 Corinthians 6:9-10-“Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, not adulterers, nor 
effeminate, not homosexuals, not thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Those who practice (i.e. make it their habit to indulge) in these kinds of behaviors reveal that they are not of God and therefore belong to the world.

In order for God’s people to be distinct, they must enjoy marriage properly defined. And just so everybody knows what page I’m on and what page this church is reading from, for all people, marriage is designed for two people of the opposite sex. Anything falling outside of this purview is NOT marriage (I don’t care what court says what). Homosexuality, according to God, is a “degrading passion.” People might say, “but I love him/her or am naturally attracted to him/her.” However, with this kind of precedent, it is logically possible to endorse nearly anything based on how it makes us feel or what our natural proclivities lead us to do. You could justify nearly any kind of behavior, no matter how nefarious, in this kind of way. Ultimately, to indulge in the practice of homosexuality is to settle for less than God’s best. For God’s people, the best kind of marriage one can enjoy is with a fellow believer of the opposite sex. To endorse any other kind of intimate relationship is to put oneself at risk of being at least distracted from God and at most pulled away from Him.

Ultimately, marriage is one way for God’s people to demonstrate their relationship with the Lord. It was for the Jews in Nehemiah’s day and it is for Christians today. God’s people cannot just marry anyone they want. They live by a higher standard and should settle for nothing less. However, the principle here is even more general. Ultimately, the promise made in Nehemiah 10:28-30 is to be in the world but not of it. Marriage is one way of accomplishing that. Even if worldly courts change its definition, the standard for God’s people will be the same.

PROMISE #2: “I Promise to Keep the Sabbath (Rest)”-10:31

The second promise that the people make is to keep the Sabbath, “As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt…” (10:31). This outlines a commitment to live on a divinely-inspired schedule of work and rest. Just as God worked for six days and rested on the seventh, these Jews would do the same (see also Ex. 20:8). However, not only that, but every seventh year they promised to allow their land to lie fallow and to cancel all outstanding debts. This is in keeping with the law found in Ex. 23:10-11 and Lev. 25:2-7.
Ultimately, the spirit of this law in the Old Testament is something that applies to New Testament saints as well.  When a question is raised about the Sabbath in Mark 2, Jesus ultimately concludes the following,

Mark 2:27-“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath…”

This revelation given later concludes that in the end, Sabbath rest is a gift from God for humans to enjoy. In the Old Testament, the prescribed way to enjoy this gift involved a rigorous program of rest and planning centered on the seventh day of the week and every seventh year. However, in the New Testament, Jesus concludes that the Sabbath is a rest God prescribes for men and women to take and use more freely, i.e. without the cumbersome regulations used in Old Testament Judaism. This allows Christians to keep the spirit of the Law while preventing them from being enslaved to its minutia. Ultimately, God’s people are to be those who take time to rest—this is another way to distinguish themselves from the world around them. Men and women were not created to work 24/7 (like the world seems to promote). Therefore, not only should their intimate relationships look different from the relationships enjoyed in this world, but God’s people should also be well rested in a world that suffers from exhaustion. This particular promise would have been especially important for these Jews who had just finished rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, had kept enemies at bay, and had scraped to feed their families.

PROMISE #3: “I Promise to Contribute to the Ministry”-10:32-39

The final promise given in Nehemiah 10 involves contributions made to the many ministries involved in the worship of the Lord in the temple.  First, the provisions for the temple service are promised, “…We also placed ourselves under obligation to contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God…” (10:32). This involved a relatively small yearly donation that would have been used for the logistics of the church.

This is not unlike the yearly Annie Armstrong offering our church gives to help provide for the needs of those church plants in North America. All of those donations go to help fill the logistical needs of the churches who receive them.

These yearly gifts were used “…for the showbread, for the continual grain offering, for the continual burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moon, for the appointed times, for the holy things and for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God. Likewise we cast lots for the supply of wood among the priests, the Levites and the people so that they might bring it to the house of our God , according to our fathers’ households, at fixed times annually, to burn on the altar of the Lord our God as it is written in the law…” (10:33-34). All of these items were meaningful and necessary for the worship services held in the temple.

Another provision that was promised involved the first fruits of everything acquired, “…and that they might bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all the fruit of every tree to the house of the Lord annually….We will also bring the first of our dough, our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the new wine and the oil to the priests at the chambers of the house of our God, and the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns…” (10:35 & 37). The first of everything that was earned, reaped, or picked was donated to the “house of the Lord” in order for it and its ministers (like the “priests“ and “Levites”) to have all that they needed to perform their prescribed work. However, these first fruits not only applied to that which was acquired or earned; it extended to those who were born!

 “…and bring to the house of our God the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, and the firstborn of our herds and our flock as it is written in the law, for the priests who are ministering in the house of our God…” (10:36). As prescribed by the law in Num. 18:15-17 and Deut. 12:6, even these “firsts” were offered to the priests and Levites for the ministry! Obviously, God’s prescription was given so that priority to His work would supersede all others. Requiring the first of everything for the ministry was a practical way for God to help the people demonstrate His place in their lives and consciousness (a principle echoed by Jesus in Matthew 6:33-“Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.”)

The provisions promised also extended to income and regular tithes, “…The priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive tithes, and the Levites shall bring up the tenth of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of the storehouse…” (10:38). That these tithes were integral to the daily life of the temple is seen in how these tithes were used in verse 39, “…For the sons of Israel and the sons of Levi shall bring the contribution of the grain, the new wine and the oil to the chambers; there are the utensils of the sanctuary, the priests who are ministering, the gatekeepers and the singers…” (10:39).

All of these provisions were promised in an effort to demonstrate their support for the ministry, “thus we will not neglect the house of our God.” (10:39b). This is a radical change from where these Jews were in Ezra & Nehemiah’s day (building their own homes to the neglect of the temple). Ultimately, there was no reason the temple in Jerusalem should have need for anything to accomplish what God wanted it to accomplish through its priests and Levites. If everyone was living up to the promise to provide in these ways (practical provisions, first fruits, and regular tithes), the temple of Jerusalem should have want of nothing!

The same is true of churches today who are in existence to do the ministry of God. If everyone prioritized God, His ministry, and the mission given by seeing to it that the practical needs of His church and its ministers were met through giving, then the church in any one locality and universally should have want of nothing! We have all that we need to do all that God wants to do through us. The problem is that in many cases, it has not yet been handed over to be used appropriately!

So What?

These three promises mark a significant turn in the people’s lives in Nehemiah’s day from sin to sanctification. Though it is one things to confess sin before God (see Nehemiah 9), it is another thing entirely to actively pursue godliness through specific actions that are endorsed by God’s Word. This is why the promises in Nehemiah 10 are made: The promise to abstain from intermarriage, keep the Sabbath, and contribute to the Temple services. More generally speaking, the spirit behind these commitments apply to those who repent of their sin today: do not be distracted from God in the relationships you pursue, take time to rest, and contribute to the ministry of God. Your distinction and my distinction as God’s people shows up in these kinds of activities.

So how distinct are you living today? Are you actively keeping distractions at bay (specifically in the relationships you enter into)? Anyone can justify any behavior by blaming it on genetics, environment, etc. However, God’s people don’t settle for anything less than His best. Are you taking time to rest? It is so easy to give oneself over to the world’s 24/7 demands with a 24/7 workload. However, you are going to reap a 24/7 heart condition and real spiritual burnout doing so. Are you committed to contributing to the ministry here and abroad? So much more could be done here and elsewhere if everyone gave as they should. If the answer is “no” to these questions, repent, make these same commitments today, and keep these peculiar promises. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

A New Kind of Party -Nehemiah 8:13-18

Parties of all shapes and sizes permeate the cultural landscape today. Some parties are themed celebrations that attracted people with something in common (Finale-watching parties, renaissance festivals); some are thrown in an effort to help sell merchandise (Mary Kay, 31, etc.), commemorate achievements (anniversary, birthday, graduation, super bowl, etc.), say goodbye (going away party), or help out (wedding and baby showers). Some are reverent events while others are out of control. However, all of these occasions have at least one thing in common—they celebrate something that those in attendance deem significant.

The same was true in the ancient world. Make no mistake, those in the ancient world knew how to party (for better and for worse). Human nature draws us together and gives us over to celebration. This is one reason why God decides to use His own kinds of celebrations. In addition to connecting with us as human beings, God designs His festivals and special occasions in a way that brings those who believe in Him closer to Him.

ACTIVITY #1: The Party Planning Committee Is Reinstated-8:13-15

The day after the Law was read, studied, and celebrated, many returned to Ezra again for more of the same, “Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ households of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law…” (8:13). Those in attendance here include the heads of the different family clans and the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Their return on the “second day” accentuates the commitment the people had to the revelation of God at this point. Having been brought out of exile, protected against enemies, provided for in famine, and given a new wall around their city, the people were exceedingly motivated to pursue God in the study of His Word. For those mentioned in verse 13, one grand event the day before was not going to satisfy their hunger to know and celebrate God.

While studying the Law (that document which set them apart from every other nation) “they found it written in the law how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month” (8:14). Perhaps they were reading Leviticus 23.

Leviticus 23:37-43-“37 These are the appointed times of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire to the Lord—burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each day’s matter on its own day—38 besides those of the sabbaths of the Lord, and besides your gifts and besides all your votive and freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord.   39 ‘On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. 40 Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. 41 You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month.42 You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, 43 so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”

Per Moses’ instructions, the Jews were commanded, at the end of the Harvest (15th day of the month 
of Tishri [mid-October]), to celebrate the completion of the agricultural year and commemorate their deliverance from Egypt by the hand of God. On the first day, the Israelites were to cease from their daily work and proclaim a memorial by means of trumpets. Then for seven days they were to present burnt offerings. After the seventh day, they were to enjoy another day of rest and participate in religious activities while making their offering. For the entire length of this feast, the Israelites were encouraged to live in booths made from branches of palm trees. This served as a reminder of the Lord’s care and protection during the wilderness wanderings and His promise to protect them in the future. Originally, this festival was intended to be one of the “big three” (in addition to Passover and the Festival of Weeks) that every Jewish male was required to observe. However, although Moses’ prescription is clearly recorded in the Law, God’s people paid little attention to these instructions. In fact, the Old Testament records only one king that fulfilled this obligation—Solomon in 2 Chronicles 8:13. This was about to change. 

As God would have it, the spiritual leaders in Nehemiah 8 happened upon these instructions on the second day of the seventh month (see 8:2, 13). This meant that this long-forgotten holiday was coming up in exactly two weeks! Therefore, Inspired by Moses’ instructions in Leviticus and galvanized by the time of year, the students around Ezra form a party planning committee and begin to spread the word that there is going to be a festival, “So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem” (8:15a). In the spirit of “the more the merrier” and “we don’t want anyone to be left out,” this message was not reserved for those inside Jerusalem’s walls; it was for all of God’s people everywhere.

Therefore, the following message was spread by the party planning committee to everyone possible, “Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written…”(8:15b). Using the foliage available to them in the region, the people of God are encouraged to join the party and plan accordingly for what will transpire in just a couple of short weeks.

If in last week’s message we saw how God used His revealed Word to distinguish His people from the world, here, God is going to distinguish His people by changing the way they party!

ACTIVITY #2: The People Participate in the Festivities-8:16-18

 “So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves…” (8:16a). Like the Israelites who escaped Egyptian slavery, the people were obedient to the leadership of the time and took the initiative to participate in the activity. In a subtle way, this demonstrates that at least at this juncture, the people of God were not only committed to reading about and understanding the Law; they were determined to act in accordance with it and obey its commands!

As the festival approached, temporary structures punctuated the entire region, “each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim” (8:16b). Some temporarily displaced themselves on their own flat roof, while others displaced themselves in worship spaces or public places. However, all, like their forefathers, took to living in temporary dwellings and could not help but remember God’s faithfulness in the wilderness experience.

 “the entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them…” as they participated in this nearly forgotten celebration (8:17). Just like the Jewish population of Moses’ day, the people in Nehemiah’s day had been recently held captive for hundreds of years (the former in Egypt and the latter in Persia). However, in both situations, God brought them out. For Moses’ people, God brought them out and led them to the Promised Land. For Nehemiah’s people, God brought them home and rebuilt their wall. So many connections can be drawn between Exodus and Nehemiah by means of this festival. However, in a unique way, Nehemiah’s observance of the Feast of booths draws attention to another dwelling place, Jerusalem. As the newly restored wall is being commemorated, this festival solidifies God’s people as sojourners in the wilderness of this world. Whether God’s people are made to temporarily dwell in tents or in a fortified city, ultimately, “home” is temporary until God restores the world to perfection and establishes His New Jerusalem. However, this festival also teaches that God’s faithfulness goes with His people wherever they are made to live. This specific festival celebration in Nehemiah 8 is ripe with divine providence, special parallels, and charming connections to the person and work of God throughout the ages.

Oh how the people of God had missed out every year in failing to observe this feast up to this point, for, “the sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua and the son of nun to that day…”(8:17b). Though many in the past probably thought little of this feast’s significance and decided that keeping it was of little consequence, even today’s readers can appreciate the strong message it sends of God’s provision for His people-- a message God’s people would have benefitted from on countless occasions.

This year for God’s people was different. This year, “there was great rejoicing” (8:17c). God’s people rejoiced because of the faithfulness God had demonstrated in their immediate situation. However, in addition to this realization, reflections of God’s faithfulness in the past and trusting in His faithfulness for the future no doubt exaggerated their joy.

Accompanying the festivities of the feast of booths was the reading of the Law, “He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day…” (8:18a). As mentioned in the sermon last week, the Law was not merely a cold code to follow for these worshippers, it was the Scripture of the their time. Just as we reflect on our Scriptures during the two big holidays we celebrate (Easter and Christmas), so too did these Jew give special attention to their Scriptures during this feast. The Law for these Jews was, in addition to revelation, their prescription for a right relationship with God. What better time was there to bring it out and read it than when all the Jews were gathered together? (Remember, copies of the law were not nearly as available as our Bibles are today.)

After the celebration begins, the people party hard for “seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance…” (8:18b). Refreshed by both the reminder of God’s faithfulness and the Sabbath rest on the final day, the people enjoy one final worship service together before they head home, put up their party tents and head back home to their more sturdy and yet equally temporary dwelling places.

So What?

I, for one, am excited that the party planning committed was reinstated and that those in Jerusalem participated in this exciting festival. In this passage we are reminded of God’s faithfulness in the exodus narrative and in Nehemiah’s day. However, this passage, with all of its theological nuance and delightful parallels, is also intended to encourage all who read it by saying, “God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (Heb. 13:8). Just as He was faithful in the days of old, so will he be for His people today.” For Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem, this encouragement came by means of this feast. For God’s people today, this encouragement comes by means of the Holy Spirit’s witness in our hearts.

However, this passage also serves as a sober reminder that this world and everything in it, including the home that God has graciously given you, is temporary. We are, like those in the wilderness of Exodus and those within Jerusalem’s walls in Nehemiah, sojourners passing through the desert of this world. We would do well to remind ourselves of this in creative ways (just as Moses prescribed in a feast) so that we live appropriately, redeeming the time so as to fulfill our God’s given mission. Then, and only then will we have something to truly celebrate.