“Do not give the Devil a foothold…”

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Reading Nehemiah 13

You might think the title rather alarming, but it comes, of course, from Ephesians 4:27 “Be angry, yet do not sin. Do not let the sun set upon your anger and do not give the devil a foothold.”

The opposite trajectory is described by Jesus when he said, “I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me.” (John 14:30)

In the first instance we are warned against demonic footholds. In the second, their absence is remarked upon. Satan could find no foothold in Jesus.

In Nehemiah 13, the worst has happened. A foothold has already occurred and it looks set to become a stronghold.

That which you tolerate will one day dominate.

So what did they tolerate? What was the foothold? Look at Nehemiah 13:1-3:

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent.” (Nehemiah 13:1-3)

Previously (see Chapter 10), the Israelites had vowed not to intermarry, but after this ten year gap, we find that this vow has been ignored.

But why make it at all? Isn’t that racist?

The record refers to the wilderness wanderings when the Ammonites and the Moabites refused to accommodate the travelling people of Israel, but instead hired the prophet Balaam to curse them.

(You remember the affair with the donkey?)

So there was a pattern of hostility from their earliest association. It became a kind of “Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” thing.

But in Exra 9, perhaps a generation before Nehemiah’s day, an already tense situation worsened. Ezra had led a group back from Babylon to Jerusalem and he, too, discovered intermarriage:

“After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’ (Ezra 9:1-2)

Ezra was devastated: “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” 

As he prays, he reveals the real reason for the demand to keep Israel separate from A & M:

But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands 11 you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: “The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. 12 Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.” (Ezra 9:10-12)

It’s important to realize that this is not a matter of racial bigotry but moral purity and social safety. The issue was not their race but their lifestyle. When we lived in a certain area of London, we were very concerned that our children didn’t become part of the prevailing gang culture or get into the drug scene or fall victim to the street violence that had become distressingly commonplace.

What kind of parent would not be concerned about these things? Answer: a bad one.

The concern here was that if these people were allowed to intermarry with Israelites the lifestyle of Israel would be compromised. And don’t forget the overarching principle that Paul draws from the narratives of the Old Testament, that God intends us to draw a lesson for ourselves from this passage, that “all these things happened to Israel as examples for us upon whom the ends of the ages have come,” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

An example of what?

Ammon and Moab represent the example of an ancient choice of evil. Ammon and Moab were the sons of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. During the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s family escaped to a cave (minus Mrs Lot, who, according to my son’s account, was “assaulted”). And then the sordid story unfolds of Lot’s two daughters being impregnated by their drunken father and producing A & M.

So Ammon and Moab were related to Israel and yet tainted, according to this ancient story.

It is interesting too to read that this original association was sex-related, for in the intervening generations, the ongoing trouble between the tribes of Israel and the peoples of Moab and Ammon invariably involved the sense of Israel being corrupted or morally polluted by contact.

So, as we said above, association was forbidden not because of racial intolerance but because of the desire for righteousness within the covenant family.

It’ the same with us. We are constantly struggling in what Paul calls the battle between “flesh” and “spirit.” We would love to get rid of the flesh because it tricks us and traps us, corrupts us and injures us. But you cannot because it is related to you. Yet we are called to live above it, in victory, while we struggle with it. We are called to overcome it, and to walk with God nevertheless. That is the normal struggle of the Christian life.

So how does this condition relate to the story of Nehemiah?

Nehemiah 13:4-9 tells the story of a foothold gained by the Enemy at the very centre of the action, within the temple itself.

“Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil prescribed for the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests.

But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense.” (Nehemiah 13:4-9)

Here’s the foothold: the high priest had allowed his grandson to marry into this Ammonite family. We learn later in this chapter that he had married the daughter of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, who was an ally of Tobiah the Ammonite. Both of these were enemies of Nehemiah. This cosy alliance led to an invitation to Tobiah to actually move into the temple itself. To make room for him the high priest took over the storeroom that was set apart for the grain, oil and incense used by the Levites in their purification and ritual ceremonies. So there were two wrongs involved. An Ammonite and his family were actually living in the temple of God, contrary to the Law of Moses; and second, in order to permit that they had deliberately defrauded the Levites of their rights of storage.

And Nehemiah promptly evicted them and fumigated the room.

How intolerant! Couldn’t he just have lived and let live? No. Some things cannot be manoeuvred around or swept under the carpet. You cannot compromise with evil. You have say no to it. It’s similar to the incident in the New Testament when Jesus came into the temple and found it filled with money-changers making extravagant income off the sale of the sacrifices and offerings required in the temple. It was a sordid scene of commercializing the worship of Israel. Jesus reacted in a way similar to Nehemiah’s response here. He made a whip and went slashing and flashing around the Temple, upsetting tables and driving the moneychangers out — much to the distress of many pacifists ever since! It indicates that there is a time for drastic action. There is a time for strong stands against evil which others have indifferently accepted.

Evil sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? One compromise leads to three more. That which you tolerate will one day dominate.

Jesus was brutal about compromise:  “If your right hand offends you, cut it off. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out,” Matthew 5:29-30). Take action. Do not allow these evil things to remain. Even if it takes painful effort to do so, end it!

Nehemiah went still further, as Nehemiah 13:10-12 records: I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields. 11 So I rebuked the officials and asked them, ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’ Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and olive oil into the storerooms.”

This neglect of the Temple is a result of the practice of intermarrying with Ammonites and Moabites. When Tobiah moved into the temple and they had to throw out the grain and oil and incense that the Levites needed, it meant that the Levites had no supplies to work with. Since they could not perform their ministry, they could not even be adequately supported, so they went to work in the fields to earn a living for themselves.

The centre of their life as a nation was not being maintained.

How about us? If we let our Bible reading and prayer life slip then God has no easy way of talking to us on as daily basis. And false forces start to creep in and take over. What it calls for is drastic, deliberate action to change the whole picture. This is what Nehemiah did. He rebuked the officials, we are told. Insistent on obeying the Scriptures, he calls them to account. Then he calls on the people to bring in the tithes and the oil and the incense again and to refill the temple storage areas, allowing the Levites to go back to work. Thus God’s order was restored in the nation.

Sometimes you just have to be tough.


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“Givingness” is not really a proper word, but it should be, for we all know instinctively what it means. And we all know people who exemplify that quality (and those who don’t).

Following on from the idea of gratitude, purity and joy as the three components of the covenant community in celebration, Nehemiah rounds off chapter 12 with an account of an offering. It’s an obvious sequence, for if you are filled with gratitude, joy and heart-purity, sooner or later it’s going to affect your wallet.

But how was that offering made? It was made cheerfully: “Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites.” (Nehemiah 12:44) It was a question of due respect and honour. “Honour the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.” (Proverbs 3:9)

The Motive of the Giver

So here’s the thing: if you are not pleased as your motive for giving, God does not want your gift.

The first way of understanding this concept of givingness is not the size of the gift nor the reputation your generosity creates. God looks for that note of pleasure. Jesus told of a widow who put in two tiny coins into the treasury, and noted that she had given more than all the rich folk. Motive. It always comes back to motive.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full”. (Matthew 6:2)

Paul made the same point: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

And he also said this: “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” (2 Corinthians 8:12)

It’s important to mention here the prophecy of Malachi, from just a little later in Israel’s history, because sometimes there’s a strong distinction made between the tithe of the Old Testament and the free-will giving of the New Testament. But it is important to notice that both Nehemiah and Malachi, despite their insistence on a tithe, anchor the practice in faith, devotion and relationship. In fact, the classic passage in Malachi 3 expresses not the duty of man so much as the givingness of God!

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” (Malachi 3:10)

And this is the flavour of Paul’s teaching too, in 2 Corinthians 9:8, 11: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work… You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”

The Purity of the Gift

Givingness is not restricted to money, however, and there’s a second point in this passage that states that these offerings were given, “according to the command of David and his son Solomon.”

David and Solomon had lived some five centuries before Nehemiah, so here is something that had been passed along through the centuries and had become a tradition by the time Nehemiah led this celebration. But it was a good tradition. It included, as we are told here, the requirement for the singers and the gatekeepers also to perform the service of purification. The ushers (gatekeepers), the instrumentalists, the musicians and the soloists all were to be purified before they performed.

What does that mean?

It means that they were to be sure that they were not pleasing themselves or performing to get attention. They needed to be cleansed from selfish ambition and self-aggrandizement. People in the public eye can easily be tempted to act from a wrong motive. This speaks of the need for each one who ministers today to purify his or her motives before performing.

What a great tradition that is! Worship musicians are always wonderful when they operate of a sense of love and for the glory of God. This service of purification, which was a traditional thing, looked back to the fears of David and Solomon that someone would misuse the service they were called to minister in for their own glory.

But if you give and you get it right, out of a pure heart and straightforward motives, what a blessing your giving creates!

A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.” (Proverbs 18:16) That could be understood as a cynical view of the use of money, but I choose to believe that it has a spiritual connotation! As you give, you are blessed and brought into blessing. And the blessing ripples outwards:

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25)

“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand”. (1 Chronicles 29:14)

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)

 “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 9:10)

“Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

The Extended Blessing

Then there is still a third point made, in the closing sentence of this paragraph. It says, “They also set aside the portion for the other Levites.” They were careful to take care of others who were not able to be there, or who were busy performing and therefore did not have opportunity to share in the offerings. Whatever the reason, they recognized that they deserved a part of the offering as well. The blessing is always extended –  often in ways that you cannot possibly imagine.

This is a beautiful picture of the oneness of the nation Israel. God was constantly seeking to teach these people that they belonged to each other. They were not individualists, doing their own thing, but they were workers together with God. I do not know any truth that is more important in the body of Christ than to recognize that God uses people different than we are. They have different gifts and yet he uses them. We need to appreciate them for that. We must recognize that our way of serving God is not the only way but that we belong to and need one another.

We really do need each other.

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A Circle of Praise

Reading Nehemiah 12:27-47

There’s a remarkable scene at the end of Nehemiah 11. In a sense, it’s a resolution of the problem stated in the first chapter, when Nehemiah weeps for the broken walls and desolated spirit of the People of God. Here, as we approach the end of the book, and as the new walls are dedicated, the band of dedicated musicians come into their own and walk the walls, forming a living circle of praise around the people of God.

It’s like a re-run of Joshua at Jericho, only in reverse! The People of God are laying claim to what God has given.

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. 28 The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem – from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the musicians had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. 30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.”

It’s like a music festival where talented groups from far and wide come together. It’s particularly interesting too, to hear of villages of musicians outside Jerusalem.

Now listen to Nehemiah’s instructions:

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, towards the Dung Gate….

 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, 39 over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah[h] 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…

 And 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.

The chapter indicates the three elements that make up celebration: joy, purity and gratitude.

First, the circle of praise is characterized by joy: “The Levites were … brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully.”

One of the primary elements of true celebration is the expression of joy. A modern writer who has really stimulated my own thinking on this point is Steve Brown in his book Scandalous Freedom. I can’t resist a few quotes here!

Steve Brown writes: “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”

“You ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation.”

“The good news is that Christ frees us from the need to obnoxiously focus on our goodness, our commitment, and our correctness. Religious has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited us to a dance…and we’ve turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we’re doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching.”

It’s important to remember that joy is not the same as happiness. These people were happy, but they were also joyful. Happiness is liking the present moment because it pleases us. But joy is much deeper and more long-range. Joy appreciates the past, the present, and the future, not because the circumstances are pleasing, but because the heart is right with God. That is what fills us with joy.

These people were happy because the wall was finished. They had achieved their objective. But they were joyful because God had helped them to finish it. They were co-labourers with him. His hand was involved in their labour. Aware of God’s love and acceptance, they therefore were joyful and wanted to celebrate joyfully.

There is a second clue hidden in this paragraph that tells us what celebration should be based on. Verse 30, “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.” Purification is necessary to celebrate. You cannot do it with a hypocritical heart. You cannot celebrate with your life in ruin. It becomes a festival of empty words. There is a need for purification.

So, second, the circle of praise is drawn in purity.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.”
(Psalms 24:3-6 )

Purity doesn’t mean self-righteousness or some kind of moral one-upmanship. It’s just the same kind of logic that prevents you from setting your table with dirty plates. We do not want to serve our guests with dirty dishes. And God does not do his work with dirty vessels!

We need a periodic cleansing of our lives and hearts. This is what is being said here. The priests and the Levites had to purify themselves, and they purified the walls, the gates and the people because they were participating in something related to God.

Remember how simply John puts that in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity,” 1 John 1:9). This word is true. So if we daily find occasions to admit our weaknesses, our faults, our ugliness, our short tempers, and our unhappy words, we can immediately receive from God the gift of forgiveness, and rise purified, to be an instrument of his working.

And one more thing:

“I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks.” (Nehemiah 12:31 )

Gratitude is the third element of celebration.

The People of God were bursting with thankful hearts. They looked at the walls and thanked God for Nehemiah’s leadership, for the king’s compliance, for rescue from their enemies, for the spirit of unity and cooperation that prevailed, for strength to work, and for the supply of food and shelter. I think primarily they were thankful for the will to work, which enabled the project to be carried through to completion. This raises the question: Are we properly thankful?

A lovely, quirky quote on this one is the character of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh stories:

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

How much gratitude do I hold? I guess that anything less than a state of bursting with happiness over all that I have been given only indicates a lack of faith and a poisonous sense of self-reliance.

The only antidote is gratitude in the living God who promises never to leave us or forsake us.

Lord, build us into a people of gratitude, purity and joy. What an unstoppable combination!

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People and Projects

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Some wise person once said to me that “People are always more important than projects.” It’s a good word, isn’t it? There’s a kind of person (among whose number I might even find my own name listed) who conceptualize rather than personalize the issue. They might be really good at spearheading idea-driven tasks, but simultaneously hopeless at managing and caring for the people who take the tasks forward.

Stalin -I’m sure- bore no personal ill-will to the millions he consigned to famine and death, during the dark days of his leadership of the Communist world. He was focused on the Good of the Country. The project came before the people, with devastating consequences.

It’s interesting, when we come to chapter 12, and consider yet another intimidating list of names, to reflect that Nehemiah made no such mistake. The people clearly come first! On the other hand, the project still seems preeminent…

And then you realize the different shift in the way we followers of Christ think about the body of Christ – the Church.

For us, the People ARE the project.

The people are being built up into a new city:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5)

The “You” stands for all of you, being brought into one new reality together That’s the essence of the project. Nehemiah was not fixated on walls and gates, and pots and pans and 528 men from the tribe of Something… He was focused on what God was doing for all of them together.

And so those names, far from being a distraction, were the main point!

Nehemiah 12 begins with a historical overview of names: “These were the priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and with Jeshua.” (Nehemiah 12:1)

The reference is to the famous Zerubbabel who brought the first group home from captivity in Babylon almost a century before. Nehemiah is honouring the heroes of the past, and naming names.



Michael Crichton made the point: “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” 

This too is part of the Project of the People! George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Nehemiah is making sure that doesn’t happen.

And other, later hands are evident here, involved in the same procedure. Looking down at vv 22-26 gives us the chronological time when the records that we have just looked at were recorded. It is not exciting reading but we notice that “the family heads of the Levites … were recorded in the reign of Darius the Persian.” That meant that there was a time when they were kept as temple records but they were not actually recorded permanently until the days of Darius the Second. This would put that record somewhere between 423 and 404 B.C, somewhat later than Nehemiah. So, a later editor is at work here.

And in Nehemiah 12:23, there’s another mention of “the book of the annals” which refers to the annals of the kings of Judah.

What’s my point here? It’s the same point. Past, present and future (from the point of view of Nehemiah himself) are being brought together and named. It’s the massive project of rebuilding the People of God. But the Project does not distort the meaning and value of the individual and so every name must be named and every lowly gatekeeper duly recorded.

They too had their place.

But the story of the whole is the massive Story of which we too take our part. And we cannot neglect our history without devaluing our own present. Cicero said as much: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

This is a distinctive element of Christianity itself. Many of the other religions are religious philosophies or provide a record of visions and dreams of dubious origin, but the Bible claims to mark the deeds of God as part of the record of history. Christianity is based upon facts. It is not legend. It is not myth. It is not fiction. It is not a record of philosophies or of human invention. It is made up of historic facts. God grounds His story in the history of our world.

“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” (Winston Churchill)

Remember that old song? It still has a word to speak:

For I’m building a people of power,

And I’m making a people of praise

That will move through this land by My Spirit,

And will glorify My precious name.


Build Your church, Lord, make us strong, Lord,

Join our hearts, Lord, through Your Son.

Make us one, Lord, in Your body,

In the kingdom of Your Son.

(Dave Richards)


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Mysterious Ways (Nehemiah 11)


“The Lord knows all – His timing and reasoning is perfect. If we really trust Him, then we no longer see our failures as a bad thing. We will see them as an answer to our prayers even if we don’t understand how in the moment.” ― Lindsey Rietzsch, Successful Failures: Recognizing the Divine Role That Opposition Plays in Life’s Quest for Success

The processes God uses, the interplay of human freedom and God’s sovereignty, and God’s ultimate summations are far beyond what the limited human mind can understand. The Bible and the testimonies of Christians down through the ages are brimming with true stories of how God turned situation after situation, problem after problem, life after life, completely upside down—and He often does it in the most unexpected, astonishing, and inexplicable ways.

I’m looking again at Nehemiah 11, that daunting collection of data about the people co-opted to live inside the new Jerusalem. It starts thus:

“These are the provincial leaders who settled in Jerusalem (now some Israelites, priests, Levites, temple servants and descendants of Solomon’s servants lived in the towns of Judah, each on their own property in the various towns, while other people from both Judah and Benjamin lived in Jerusalem.”

The list that follows combines family names from the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. 468 “brave men” from Judah volunteered to live in the city, and 928 men from Benjamin.

It’s always good, when assailed with such a plethora of names in a Bible reading, to check whether any of them sound familiar, and cross-reference them so that you don’t miss anything interesting. And here we come to the first indicator of “Mysterious Ways.”

In this list, for example, there’s a focus on Perez. “The descendants of Perez who lived in Jerusalem totaled 468 brave men.” Why Perez? Why not Judah himself or Jacob?

Perez was one of Judah’s sons. Judah was the son of Jacob, and was one of the twelve family heads who fathered the twelve tribes.

But from there the story goes downhill. If you read the account in Genesis 38, there’s a grim tale of how Judah conceived this son with his own daughter-in-law. It was an illegitimate birth. It was a bad beginning.

And since he pushed ahead of his twin brother in the womb, he was called “Break-out.”

Perez went on to become one of the great heroes of Judah and his descendants are traced in almost every generation since. Even here in Nehemiah, some 400 years after Judah lived, Perez is regarded as one of the heroes of the nation. His descendants are called “the brave men of Perez.”

What about Benjamin? It’s interesting that they provided twice as many men from this small tribe as those from larger tribe of Judah. The sordid history of Benjamin is given us in the book of Judges. The last few chapters of Judges tell a sorry tale of people who fell into sexual sin and brought disgrace on the life of Israel. But two important men came from this tribe.

One is called Saul, the first king of Israel. In contrast to Perez, he began well and ended badly, committing suicide on a battlefield. But there was another Saul of Benjamin who is better known to us as the apostle Paul.

So we have to acknowledge those Mysterious Ways of God. Ray Stedman put it like this in a sermon entitled “The Way God Works”:

“The point is that God does not care how you started out in life. You do not wreck your chances for success in his eyes by beginning at a very low level. God can cleanse people and use them in mighty and wonderful ways. He chooses, we are told, the obscure, the once tainted, the rejects of life. He loves to pick up those kinds of people and do wonderful things with them.”

He chose you, after all. And me!

And whoever He chooses, He uses!

And yet, what of those others who quietly walk through life in what Catherine McNiel called the Long Days of Small Things? The chapter is filled with such, too many to be individually named, who are called, less dramatically but just as surely, through God’s mysterious ways, to serve in the new city.

There’s a company of priests selected, for example, an amazing total of 1192.

Some 822 of them “carried on work for the temple,” (Nehemiah 11:12). These were the normally officiating priests. They offered sacrifices, presented offerings, and performed the ritual that Moses had prescribed. They were the ones who ministered to the spiritual life of the people. Quiet, unremarkable service.

Some 242 were set aside as “heads of families,” (Nehemiah 11:13). They had a ministry of counseling families, of working out problems and dealing with difficulties in the families of the priests.

And 128 of them are labelled “brave warriors,” (Nehemiah 11:14), which probably means they were also part of the defence of the city.

Isn’t this how the “city of God” operates today? This is how pastoral work proceeds:

  1. Teachers There are those who are gifted in helping people to understand the meaning of the cross of Christ. They teach the doctrines of redemption and forgiveness of sin and help people to understand how to become and what it is to be, a new creature in Christ.
  2. Counsellors Then there those gifted in helping families understand the difficulties they are passing through and what answers there may be.
  3. Intercessors Finally, there are prayer warriors – and those who patiently watch against the invasion of wrong doctrines, or wrong practices that infiltrate the church from outside.

Finally, there’s another group labelled “Levites.” Some 284 are classified thus, in two groups: The first group “had charge of the outside work of the house of God,” (Nehemiah 11:16).

Building repairs.

A second division comprises the musicians, but more of them later. The point here is that it’s all so unglamorous, unremarkable, but absolutely necessary. I was reading a novel by Tana French, entitled Broken Harbour which made the same point:

“I have always been caught by the pull of the unremarkable, by the easily missed, infinitely nourishing beauty of the mundane.”

For this too is one of the “Mysterious Ways” in which God works, not in the earthquake and fire, but in the still small voice of quiet daily service.

We neglect the ordinary at our peril.  “They say that God works in mysterious ways, but what is so mysterious about love?  It’s in everything!” ― Anthony T. Hincks.

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Voluntary Conscripts (Nehemiah 11)

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Nehemiah 11 is another telephone directory. As you scan wearily down the pages, remember that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable,” (2 Timothy 3:16), and ask with me what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through it right now.

The historical truth is that these were real people with real lives and the Bible is not an abstract philosophy as such but a real record of revelation.

And there are real people in the crowd, with individual lives with all its hopes and fears -and yawns- beneath the names. And as Philip Pullman once noted: “People are too complicated to have simple labels.”  And remember Jerry Spinelli: “Every name is real. That’s the nature of names.”

The chapter begins with an application of that principle of the tenth that we saw in the previous chapter: “Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.”

This is the idea of the tithe again, with the tenth part representing the whole, but look at the next verse: “The people commended all who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.”

This indicates that this was not an entirely positive decision! In fact it was conscription. Presumably, Nehemiah had ordered an edict, counted off each tenth man and commanded him to live in the city. But those who acquiesced were commended! This indicates that there must also have been something of the quality of choice about the matter.

My father once told me of the simple rule of life in the army ranks that “You never volunteer for anything” but that sometimes the choice was forced on you.

The chapter addresses a serious social problem. The walls are completed, but the city needs to be set in order and resettled. Presumably, few really wanted to live there -a thought which tells you just how bad the devastation must have been. It also tells you something of the strength and purpose of Nehemiah’s leadership.

Maybe if someone refused, then the lot was cast again and another name chosen. Sooner or later someone would be found who consented freely to go. According to the account, those who chose to go were commended by the people. They honoured them because they volunteered to do what God called them to do.

The application for us is obvious. The same principle applies in the church today. According to the New Testament, we are all called into the ministry – all of us! The ministry belongs to the saints! The minute you become a Christian you are moved into God’s new Jerusalem. You are asked to take up labour there, to do work according to the spiritual gift God has given you.

But you must also volunteer to do it.

God does not force his people to do what they are asked to do. He gave us all spiritual gifts, but he does not force us to use them. Yet if you want to be respected or honoured and commended at last by the Lord himself and by all His people, then the wise thing is to volunteer to perform the realm of ministry he has opened up for you.

I remember an old old hymn from my childhood:

There’s a work for Jesus, ready at your hand,
’Tis a task the Master just for you has planned.
Haste to do His bidding, yield Him service true;
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.

Work for Jesus, day by day,
Serve Him ever, falter never; Christ obey.
Yield Him service loyal, true,
There’s a work for Jesus none but you can do.

William Carey, often called the father of modern missions, was a shoe cobbler by trade before he went to India. He kept a map of India in his shop, stopping every so often to study and pray over it. Sometimes, because of his preaching ministry, his shoe business suffered. One day a friend admonished him for neglecting his business. “Neglecting my business?” said Carey, looking at him intently. “My business is to extend the kingdom of God. I only cobble shoes to pay expenses.”

In other words, every Christian is in the ministry. Ephesians 4:11-12 states that God gave to the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service (ministry), to the building up of the body of Christ.” My job is to equip you to do the work of the ministry. If you are a saint (= “holy one,” true of every believer) then you’re in the ministry! Every Christian, like William Carey, should see their main business as serving God.

Maybe you justify your lack of involvement by thinking, “I’m not all that gifted anyway.” But remember, in the parable of the talents, it was the guy with only one who buried it and was rebuked by his master because he didn’t use it to further the master’s interests. If you know Christ as Savior, you’re called to serve Him in some capacity.

Voluntary conscripts.

Here’s Paul’s summons to Timothy: “Pay close attention to yourself [your walk] and to your teaching [your work]” (1 Tim 4:16). It’s the same principle Paul imparted to the Ephesian elders when he said, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock” (Acts 20:28). First, your walk; then, your work. Your work for the Lord can only be the overflow of your walk with the Lord.

Pay attention to your walk with Christ.

There’s a necessity of rigorous self-examination. The Christian life is not living for self and using God and the church to meet your needs. We’re called to deny ourselves and live under Christ’s lordship. We are no longer our own; we have been bought with the precious blood of Jesus. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who died and rose again on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:15). As we live each day with our hope fixed on the living God, He shapes our character in conformity to Christ and then uses our changed lives as a witness of His saving grace so that others come to know Him and grow in Him.

So ministry is not volunteering for Jesus, or doing a job because the pastor or the church needs your help. Ministry is based on dying to self and living to please Jesus. God never calls us primarily to a task. Rather, He calls us to Himself. Before I can do something for God I must be something in relationship with God.

Pay attention to your work for Christ.

Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Tim 4:16). Since Timothy’s spiritual gift was in the area of public ministry of the Word, he was to focus on that. Note the importance of the ministry of the Word in the church assembly: reading it (especially in a culture where many slaves would have been illiterate); applying it to life (“exhortation”); and, teaching it (1 Tim 4:13). Paul exhorts Timothy not to neglect his gift (1 Tim 4:14), to take pains in making progress in it (1 Tim 4:15), and to persevere in it (1 Tim 4:16), which implies that it won’t be easy or automatic.

So this is how I receive this account from Nehemiah 11. God summons us to joyful, freely-given volunteer service – into our place in the work of God. Our availability is much more significant than our ability. But He also gifts us for that calling and looks to see a return upon that gift. The city is ruined and needs our input.

In fact, in the solemn words of Fred Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

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A church full of music

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“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
― Victor Hugo

I was trawling through one of Nehemiah’s massive telephone directories (in  Nehemiah 11) and came across a couple of familiar names.  It was a bit like going into a conference (or a pub) where you think you don’t know anybody and then a couple of old mates welcome you to their table.

Nehemiah is listing the folks allotted to live in Jerusalem after the rebuilding of the walls has been completed. It’s part of a programme to re-jig the whole society, and to revive a flagging morale. The physical ruins have been repaired, but now the spiritual ruins of a broken people have to be restored.

So how does Nehemiah accomplish that?

One of the ways, according to this chapter, is the re-introduction of a ministry of music. My old mates, so to speak, are there among the Levites, which means that they were regarded as servants or deacons, ministering in the life of the temple.

I think that’s appropriate. Our culture makes celebrities of talented musicians, which puts the person or the gift on a pedestal. But the authentic songwriter will always want their song to take first place, and is, in a sense, the servant of that song.

So though these musical Levites are named here, they would find it bizarre to think that their own personalities and gifting might obscure the object of their service.

Having said that, it was wonderful to read here of Asaph, who is called “the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer.” Another is called Jeduthun.

Here’s Nehemiah’s list, in v17: “Mattaniah son of Mika, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer; Bakbukiah, second among his associates; and Abda son of Shammua, the son of Galal, the son of Jeduthun.”

These two names, Asaph and Jeduthun,  appear frequently in the Psalms. Many of the psalms are dedicated “to the Chief Musician,” who is either Asaph, or, in some cases, Jeduthun. These two men, who lived in David’s day, were chosen to set up the ministry of music within the congregation of Israel.

It’s worth looking back -to 1 Chr 16:41- where we are given this account: “Heman and Jeduthun were designated by name to give thanks to the LORD, ‘for his love endures forever.’” We might declare, according to this verse, that the central hub of all music in the temple of God is gratitude. All worship is gratitude to a God whose love endures forever.  Maya Angelou put it this way: “Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” 

The ministry of music in the church is not entertainment. It is a means by which we are strengthened, fed, and helped. It is the enablement of the corporate experience of gratitude.

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

In order to enter into gratitude, you have to give up its opposite which is a spirit of payback and retaliation. It’s a form of release and forgiveness, and in its place our awareness is heightened towards all the thanks that is due to all the people who have sustained our lives in a million ways over a million years. The ministry of music is like a wave of surrender  before the miraculous scope of human generosity as Elizabeth Gilbert put it,  “and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”

Another verse, from 1 Chr 25, is interesting. There we are told that “David … set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals.” (1 Chronicles 25:1). “And Jeduthun prophesied, using the harp in thanking and praising the Lord,” (1 Chronicles 25:3). “Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the King,” (1 Chronicles 25:6 ).

Speaking for myself,  these verses contain something that thrills and inspires me. Sometimes I have sat at the piano and spontaneously sung through a Psalm or a new song, asking the Holy Spirit to guide my fingers. I remember baptising my oldest son, Luke, and being so filled with joy that I “sang a new song” over him. And it rhymed. Imagine that! But those times are rare in my own experience.

What would it look like to prophesy to the sound of a guitar?  I’m sorry to acknowledge the paucity of my own experience, but I feel, after all these years of being a musician serving in the temple of my Lord, I have only a toe in the water of what the Scriptures declare here.

The reason I say this is because of the next verse. Listen to this:  “They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets.

Can you imagine the scene? Working with an orchestra is wonderfully exhilarating.  Conducting a choir of fifty voices is a simply fantastic thrill. Once or twice I’ve worked as the director of school musicals with 80 or so children…

But 120 trumpets? What a powerful gathering!

We had an Ethiopian band at one of the churches I’ve pastored, and we had a noise order served on us! We were informed that we were interfering with the tannoy system of the local railway station (a quarter of a mile away!).

But imagine the ability and precision required! Imagine the sheer volume they must have had! You would not have wanted to miss church in those days.

These are the men who set up the ministry of music within the nation of Israel.

Now obviously, we follow in their steps. We have choirs, orchestras, pianists and organists and soloists. It is not merely entertainment. It is powerful, satisfying, teaching ministry. We ought to honour those who are involved in it.

But Lord, I would love to go deeper.

There’s a Bible verse that says “He trains my hands for war.” Maybe my prayer is: Lord will you train my fingers for worship?

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