He that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. (St. John 10:2-3)
You and I, as good Presbyterians who believe the words of St. Paul to Timothy, profess that “all Scripture is inspired of God and profitable.” When we come to a passage such as today’s, however, you and I have our doubts.
“Come on, preacher – what could be so profitable about a bunch of hard-to-pronounce names of people I don’t know?”
In a community where we like to keep the Lord at arm’s length, and at the same time make salvation cheap, you and I need Nehemiah 7.
I’ve met plenty of professing Christians in our community – and you likely know folks like this as well – who claim to have “walked an aisle” or had some sort of “experience” with Jesus years ago, yet their lives bear no evidence of the indwelling Christ. It’s as if salvation were cheap and an inch deep – some sort of feat to be crossed off the “to-do” list of one’s life. “Do” it … and move on.
In another vein, I also have met plenty of professing Christians who doubt their own value before the Lord. They’ll point to Billy Graham or Jim Kennedy as being men the Lord has loved and utilized in His service; but they themselves are nothing more than “little ol’ me” languishing in obscurity in the country.
Nehemiah 7, with all those names, doesn’t allow you and me to think this way.
This chapter issues a challenge to God’s people to never stop growing in grace, smashing the notion of “easy believe-ism.” It also offers comfort to you, Christian, that the Lord Jesus Christ loves you personally amid the coldness of this world.
Perhaps you and I get uncomfortable with the doctrine of a “personal” Savior. But know this: God’s grace to you in Christ is personal, and He calls you to grow in that grace every day.
Chapter 7 opens by informing us that Nehemiah and his fellow Jews had completed the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. Briefly, you’ll remember that God in 586 BC judged His unfaithful people by allowing Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to destroy Jerusalem and to lead the Jews captive to Babylon. The Lord mercifully willed their release in 538 BC, but many of the Jews stayed put and didn’t bother to return to Jerusalem. The few who did return finally managed to reconstruct Solomon’s temple; the city wall, however, lay in ruins due to their spiritual apathy. Yet the Lord stirred Nehemiah to return to Judah and to lead the people in rebuilding the wall as a matter of spiritual revival, and here we have the record of the completion of the wall.
The work of God’s people, though, was far from finished.
Indeed, this chapter presents us first with a challenge to God’s people: to grow in grace continually.
The Jews were to remember the Lord had fashioned them into a worshipping community: that’s why Nehemiah set the singers and Levites in their orders soon after the completion of the wall. Worship, whether corporately, in families, privately or in moment-by-moment living, is your chief calling! The Revelation paints a portrait of the New Heavens and New Earth in which you and I, the faithful in Christ Jesus, will gather around the Lord’s throne offering Him our worship and adoration forever.
Sometimes, though, you and I in the church lose sight of our primary vocation. We do a great work – perhaps beginning a new nursing-home ministry or building a new fellowship hall – but lose sight of our main calling: worship. We rest on our churchly laurels and suppose we have fulfilled our calling in life once the project is complete. That’s precisely why Nehemiah instituted the officers to promote right worship in the City of God. Your worship of the triune God is never done!
Chapter 7 also challenges God’s people to continued watchfulness. We’ve read in recent weeks how the Jews needed to be ever-vigilant in their spiritual battles with those who didn’t seek the Lord’s glory. In the first four verses of chapter 7, Nehemiah again established orders for guarding Jerusalem in daytime and at night; he also installed Hanani (whose spiritual keenness we noted in chapter 1) and Hananiah as leaders in Jerusalem in order to promote safety and stability in the city.
Surely the Jews had triumphed over their enemies (6:16) in completing the wall – but their (and our) enemy never sleeps. He is always prowling about looking for someone to tear to pieces: they needed to be constantly prayerful and aware of our weaknesses and enemy, as do we.
This chapter additionally challenges God’s people to a willingness to give to God’s work. At the end of the chapter, we read of only some of the nobles and chiefs giving to the treasuries of the Lord. To maintain the City of God and His temple, however, would require grace-motivated generosity by all His people. They might have thought they had given enough of their time and energy to completing the wall (for which some of the Jews suffered financially), but they needed to continue to give to the Lord’s work. As He had blessed them, so they were to offer freely of their substance for His glory.
This chapter can trouble you and me, if we’re honest about it. You and I, like God’s people of old, can find it awfully tempting to relax once we’ve reached a goal. (Far less serious, this is precisely why health professionals do not encourage you to lose weight for a specific event [say, your wedding)] but instead to make permanent lifestyle changes. How easy it is to abandon good habits and to relent in our dedication when you and I achieve our aims!)
Perhaps God has stirred you in the course of our study of Nehemiah to develop new, Godly habits such as daily Bible study or supporting one of our missionaries with prayer and financial backing. And perhaps God, in His grace, has empowered you to reach your goal of Bible study every day for the past month or to give the monetary amount you had pledged to a missionary.
Now isn’t the time to let loose of the throne of grace!
Professing believers in Greene County like to think they can walk an aisle, say a prayer, then walk out the church doors into a life devoid of Jesus. But that’s not grace.
The grace of God in Christ is challenging, always calling you and me to seek the Lord’s strength as we press on toward the high calling of God in Christ. This side of glory, you’ll never “arrive” at bearing the perfect image of Jesus.
As well as being challenging, chapter 7 secondly is comforting to God’s people: it reminds you and me of God’s faithful, personal love of us in Christ.
When you and I come to lists of names in Scripture, we tend to discount them as being of minimal, if any, value for us today. To be sure, this list – essentially copied from Ezra 2 with some minor differences – was particularly helpful to Nehemiah as he verified property claims in Jerusalem and in Judah. But while you and I don’t really know the people on this list, the list still teaches us comfortable lessons about our God.
The list informs us that our God is a faithful God who does not abandon His promises to His people – despite their manifold sins and wickedness. Now, 42,360 is not an imposing number, yet this is the total number of those who returned to the land of Judah with Zerubbabel the governor. Compared to lists of residents in, say, David’s era, this number seems miniscule.
Compared to zero, however, the number of returnees is breathtaking.
Zero, you see, is the number of Jews who deserved to return home after exile. Zero is the number of people – you and me included – who deserve to call God our Father to expect a heavenly home. But our Lord always promised to preserve a faithful remnant for Himself, and even if the true church today seems tiny, praise the Lord that He has not cast us all away but has preserved you and me in Christ to be His own.
This list of names also teaches you and me about the personal love of our Lord. No, you and I don’t know who these folks are; but the Lord does, and that’s all that matters.
Think for a moment about the importance God places on people and on names. For example, we have a plethora of Old and New Testament lists of His people’s names; just glance at Chronicles, Romans and Philippians (to name a few). On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would wear a breastplate with 12 precious stones, each stone bearing the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Moreover, in St. John’s gospel Jesus tells us that as the Good Shepherd, he calls you and me by name and lays down his life for you and me personally. And to go a bit further in Scripture, in Revelation the names of believers are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Jesus didn’t die for everyone indiscriminately; he died for his sheep, God’s elect. His love for you is intensely personal!
Thank the Lord for these lists of names of those who returned to Judah. The world around you tells you that you don’t matter unless you’re rich, innovative or a newsmaker.
The only One who matters says he gave himself for you, Christian, personally – therefore you are the apple of his eye.
It’s extremely useful, because this is just the Word you and I need to snap us out of unbiblical, modern-day thinking.
Justification is a once-for-all act of God, to be sure – but it’s an act (if you please) with enduring consequences. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a challenging gospel, always calling you to put off the old man and his lusts and to put on the new man, clothed in Christ. A walk down the aisle and subsequent walk away from Jesus amount to nothing more than wasted steps.
And the gospel of Jesus Christ is comforting in an impersonal world with a warped view of personal worth. In a world in which you and I can feel awfully alone, Jesus our Savior calls you by name, and he calls you to draw closer to him continually.
A challenge and a comfort. Come to think of it, this list of names is just what you and I needed after all.