Nehemiah 11

Nehemiah 11

SERIES: Godly Leadership

Distinguished Service from Undistinguished Servants

Introduction:  When I submitted my preaching schedule for Ezra and Nehemiah to the Worship and Music Committee last April, it listed Nehemiah 10 for last Sunday (August 9), and Nehemiah 12 for today (August 16).  It left chapter 11 out, and that wasn’t accidental.  When I first read through Nehemiah in preparation for this series, my initial thought was that if ever a chapter could have been left out of the Bible without anyone noticing, this is it.  It seemed as unpromising as any in the Old Testament. 

Nevertheless, even this chapter is included in Paul’s affirmation that “all Scripture is … profitable.”  As I gave further time to reading and study, and particularly as I reflected on the faithful experience of so many in this church over the past several months, I decided chapter 11 not only belongs in the Bible after all, but that it has some very special truths to communicate to us today.

Here at First Free we believe the Bible is not only good literature, and not only a fine source for spiritual truth.  We believe it is the very Word of God, so nearly every sermon comes right out of the Bible.  If you’re looking for social commentary or political opinion or financial advice or book reviews, you can find help from a number of sources, but when you come to church, we believe you should hear a word from the Lord.  

The book of Nehemiah, which we are concluding this month, is a treatise about the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the middle of the 5th century B.C.  That is a century and a half after it had been sacked by the Babylonians.  It is a book on godly leadership, featuring two men—Ezra and Nehemiah—one clergy and one laity.  But it is also a book on godly followership—the godly followers who served with such distinction, though they are relatively unknown to us.  The theme that runs through this strange grouping of nearly unpronounceable names in chapter 11 is that one may be relatively unknown by others, but still remembered by God for service with distinction.  The setting we find is that …

A “voluntary draft” meets the need for repopulating Jerusalem.  

Much has been accomplished by the three groups of exiles that have returned from Babylon over the previous 100 years.  The temple has been erected from the ashes of the great Solomonic Temple, the walls and gates have been rebuilt, giving the city some desperately needed security.  But there is still a major problem.  No one wants to live there.  Back in 7:4 the problem is stated starkly:  “Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it.”  Why?  Well, probably the same reason many people don’t want to live in the city of St. Louis today.  The suburbs are newer, safer, cleaner, and closer to work for most.  But Nehemiah knows that Jerusalem will never recover its status as the center of Jewish religious life unless it is able to attract people, businesses, and jobs.  The Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce has its work cut out.

The solution chosen by the leaders is a “voluntary draft.”  I recognize that is something of an oxymoron, which means “an expression with contradictory elements.”  We have a lot of oxymorons in our language today, like “congressional ethics” or “fresh frozen food” or “country western music” (that’s Brad’s favorite!). The two words “voluntary” and “draft” are antithetical, yet they seem to describe well the solution offered in verses 1 and 2.  First, every family counts off by tens, they cast lots, and every tenth family is expected to move to Jerusalem.  But apparently those chosen were permitted to decline if they wanted to, perhaps because the last thing the city needed was a bunch of resentful residents.  

Notice in verse 2, “the people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.”  Every tenth was drafted; of those drafted, the ones who volunteered to move were commended.  Why were they so honored?  Because they had to pull up their roots, start over from scratch, clear the rubble, build a new house, and make new friends—all without resettlement grants or moving expenses being paid.  They simply subordinated their personal interest to the good of the people as a whole. 

One of the lessons here is that God rarely forces His people to do what they are asked to do.  In fact, He virtually always gives us an “out.”  Sometimes when we take that “out” we think we have pulled a fast one on God, not realizing that He wouldn’t have drafted us in the first place unless it was for our long-term good.  I strongly suspect that some of those who declined the draft here in chapter 11 lived to regret it.  

Now of those who settled in Jerusalem, a number of names are given in the list that follows.  And hidden among those names are some clues that speak clearly of distinguished service from some undistinguished servants.  

             Some of the settlers volunteer for work in the temple.  (12) Let’s start reading in verse 10:  “From the priests:  Jedaiah; the son of Joiarib; Jakin; Seraiah son of Hilkiah, the son of Meshullam, the son of Zadok, the son of Meraioth, the son of Ahitub, supervisor in the house of God, and their associates, who carried on work for the temple—822 men.”  These were priests who had gone through extensive preparation in order to be involved in the professional ministry.  You might wonder why one temple needed 822 clergy, but this is hardly analogous to a local church.  This is the central sanctuary for the entire Jewish faith, and all the sacrifices, the teaching of the Law, the funerals, the weddings, the circumcisions, the bar mitzvahs, the discipline of wayward members—all was done by this group.  

Most of these 822 priests were virtual unknowns, and obviously few of them had visible up-front ministries, but every one of them carried on important ministry.  One of the troubling things I see in some young pastors today is a kind of disdain for the unheralded ministry, the small church, the rural church, the inner-city church.  If they have to start there, they will, but only to earn their union card. Their sights, however, are set on the big suburban church with the multiple staff and the nice facilities and the prestige.  

Well, I’ve been both places, and what I tell these young men when I have the chance is that big is not necessarily better, nor is it necessarily better for you.  The happiest, most fulfilling three years of my ministry life were the first three years here in St. Louis when I worked out of one of the bedrooms in my home, when administrative responsibilities were minimal, and when I knew everyone by name.  Certainly, I enjoy some of the great advantages I have today, principally in the great colleagues God has given me, but my point is that it is not size and success that determines significance—it is being where God has put you in ministry.  

             Others commit themselves to the outside work of the House of God.  (16) There’s another group mentioned, starting in verse 15:  “From the Levites:  Shemaiah son of Hasshub, the son of Azrikam, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Bunni; Shabbethai and Jozabad (there’s some great names there for those of you who are expecting in the near future), two of the heads of the Levites, who had charge of the outside work of the house of God.”  

What is “the outside work of the house of God?”  Well, it probably doesn’t refer to those who landscaped the temple grounds or swept the parking lots after the camels left.  Note that these are Levites, and the job of the Levites was to take care of nearly everything apart from the ministry of the Law and the sacrifices, in other words, everything that took place outside the Holy Place.  This included the collection of tithes and offerings, benevolence, administration, counseling, buildings and grounds, civil affairs, etc.   These individuals would correspond most closely to deacons in a church like ours.

Let me ask you, which is more important—the work of a priest or elder, or the work of a Levite or Deacon?  Your answer to that question will reveal a lot about your understanding of God’s perspective.  Several years ago a man in this church made it known through various channels that he wanted to be an Elder.  After some deliberation the Nominating Committee decided that the man’s gifts were more suited for Deacon, and he was subsequently nominated for that office.  He acted insulted, declined the nomination, and shortly afterward left the church.  This man exhibited several problems, among them spiritual pride, but his chief difficulty may have been a total failure to understand that God ranks His children on the basis of faithfulness with the ability He has given, and not by any other standard.  

I see no indication here in Nehemiah 11 that those who worked in the temple were any more important than those who worked outside of it.  In fact, let me go a step further by way of application.  If it weren’t for the superb and faithful work of our Deacons and the support staff they supervise, there wouldn’t be any “inside” in which the pastors and Elders could minister.  The reason why we have finished our building project on budget without cutting back any ministries is because the deacons and the building committee they supervise have managed so well the faithful and generous giving of God’s people.  

There are, of course, other “deacons” who aren’t on the deacon board but who “deac” faithfully anyway.  I’m talking about administrative assistants who handle endless details, the custodian who keeps the place clean, the people who provide childcare, those who work in our library, those who visit the sick, those who run the tape ministry, the sound technicians (thanks, Trent—no one even sees you way up there, but we honor your service; we’d be in big trouble if you decided to sleep in some Sunday morning!).

By the way, there is another kind of “outside” work of the house of God that is a step removed from the deacon’s ministry.  There is a sense in which your careers are, or can be, the ministry of the church outside the four walls.  Whether you are a student or an accountant or a salesman or a housewife or a teacher or you own your own business, your career can be “outside work on the house of God” if you are willing to view it that way.  It can be your mission field.  

             One individual who leads in thanksgiving and prayer.  (17) I’m not terribly surprised that only one person is named here in verse 17, because people with a real vision for prayer are few and far between.  But I am encouraged that he was “a director,” which indicates that others were following his example.  Look at verse 17: “Mattanaiah son of Mica, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer.”  Nothing is more important to the success of a church than thanksgiving and prayer.  When an attitude of thankfulness permeates a body of believers, there isn’t room for bickering or complaining, and problems take on a different perspective.  Furthermore, an attitude of thanksgiving is usually accompanied by a commitment to prayer.  In other words, prayerful people are usually thankful people and thankful people are usually prayerful people.

It’s easy for pastors to put people on a guilt trip regarding prayer.  Most of us know we should pray more than we do, and all of us know that prayer is hard work that takes tremendous discipline.  But I don’t think you should feel guilty if you’re not a Mattaniah, any more than you should feel guilty if you’re not a pastor or an elder or a deacon.  What you can do is to find a prayer warrior and get on his or her prayer list.  Get to know a Gery or Linda Kotthoff, a Terri Layne, an Art Wrisberg, or a Paul Koenig.  In the process you can learn something from them about persistent prayer and the way God answers.  Little by little you will find your own prayer life enhanced.  

The fourth category I’d like to draw attention to is found in verse 19:  “The gatekeepers:  Akkub, Talmon and their associates, who kept watch at the gates—172 men.”  

             Some keep watch at the gates.  (19) A gatekeeper may not have the most prestigious position in the world, but he can play a very strategic part in total the scheme of things.  If these men are the gatekeepers of the city, they are the ones responsible for admitting dignitaries, for preventing enemies from infiltrating, for allowing merchants in and out, and for generally protecting the welfare of the city.  

If these are the gatekeepers of the temple, their job is to greet people as they come to worship, to maintain order and decorum, to help the old and lame approach the altar, and to prevent unqualified worshipers from desecrating the temple.  Obviously, the closest parallel today is the usher.  I want to go on record as saying that ushering is a task that should never be taken lightly.  The usher can be the key to setting the proper mood, making sure everyone finds a place where he can participate, keeping distractions to a minimum, adjusting the temperature if it becomes unbearable, and allowing the Word of God and the Spirit of God the maximum freedom to do their work.  

Please give respect to the ushers.  If they hand you a note about the existence of a cry room, please don’t be offended; they’re merely trying to help you and everyone else find a way to get more out of the worship.  If they come up to you in the foyer after the start of the second service and ask you to talk quietly, it’s because the noise filters into the auditorium and distracts the worshipers.  

I’m reminded of a verse in the Psalms which gives dignity to the job of ushering.  Psalm 84:10 reads, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper (a gatekeeper, an usher) in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”  If we were going to try to paraphrase that last sentence it might sound like this:  “I’d rather be an usher at First Free than to have a high roller’s suite in Las Vegas or be the guest of honor at a Hollywood premier.”  Ushers, let me pay you honor today and urge you to esteem your ministry and do it with the best of your ability as unto the Lord.  Learn people’s names so you can greet them personally.  Smile and show the love of Christ in your life.  

Finally, we come across one more group in the middle of verse 22.  

             The singers take responsibility for leading the worshipers.  (22-23) It says, “Uzzi was one of Asaph’s descendants, who were the singers responsible for the service of the house of God.”  When one sees the name “Uzzi” today one doesn’t think of singing, though I suppose to a freedom fighter an Uzzi makes sweet music. 

Where would we be without music in worship?  Those of you who have been at First Free over the years know that we used to sing three hymns, each separated by the offering or the Scripture reading.  In recent years we have averaged 2 or 3 hymns and 4 or 5 worship songs, often back-to-back in order to allow us the opportunity to experience the joy and freedom that comes from praising God.  

I confess that when I first became a pastor, I considered singing to be a preliminary to the real worship, which was preaching, and my 50-minute sermons reflected that attitude.  But I now realize that music is at the very heart of our worship.  We are not the audience; God is.  And every one of us is here to offer to God a sacrifice of praise. 

By the way, music in the church is not entertainment, but it is not wrong to enjoy it.  It is principally a means by which we are strengthened, fed and encouraged.  There is an interesting reference in I Chron. 25:3 that speaks of “Jeduthun, who prophesied, using the harp in thanking and praising the Lord.”  He preached a sermon with his instrument.  That should be the goal of every church musician—to draw attention to the message, not his talent.

We have seen five groups or individuals who responded to the voluntary draft to meet the need for repopulating Jerusalem.  But I spotted a sixth that deserves mention, even though it didn’t make it into the outline.  Friday morning one of our secretaries was very sick and the other was in Colorado. Fridays, you have to understand, are a zoo at the office.  Gathering all the announcements from the four corners of the earth and publishing the bulletins with all the inserts is a major task, and here we were up a creek without a paddle.  

When Jerry Rich arrived at the office about 8:00, I gave him the bad news, and even though he was scheduled to take the afternoon off, he rolled up his sleeves and sat down at the computer to finalize the bulletin.  I was in my office working on the message when suddenly I spotted Jerry right here in Nehemiah 11.  Look at verse 24:  “Pethahiah son of Meshezabel, one of the descendants of Zerah son of Judah, was the king’s agent in all affairs relating to the people.”  Pethahiah is Hebrew for Jerry, and since he was the king’s agent, he must have been rich, so there you have it—Jerry Rich.  

Actually what struck me was the fact that Pethahiah was the Jewish settler who was administrative agent, the trouble-shooter, the problem solver in all affairs relating to the people.  Nehemiah couldn’t do that work or he’d never have gotten the wall built.  The priests and elders couldn’t do it, or they would have never been able to meet the spiritual needs of the people.  The Levites or deacons certainly helped, but there needed to be one person at whose desk the administrative buck stopped, a guy to deal with the contractor, to handle the bankers, to serve as liaison with the building committee, to finish the bulletin when the secretary is sick (by the way, she recovered sufficiently by 10:00am and helped save our necks!).  Pethahiah was the one.  

Now quickly, what is this passage saying to us this morning?  What is the principal analogy we can learn for our lives?  I’d like to suggest that …

Another “Voluntary Draft” calls us today to salvation and service.  

First, in regards to salvation:

             God takes the initiative in salvation, but we must respond willingly.  (John 6:44, Rev. 22:17) It’s not my point to get into a theological argument this morning with the Calvinists or the Arminians or anyone in between.  My only point is that the Bible indicates there is both an element of draft and an element of voluntarism in the plan of salvation.  Allow me to read just two verses:  Jesus says in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  That sure sounds like a draft to me.  If God weren’t actively seeking us, we would never seek Him.  

On the other hand, Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’  And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’  Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”  You see, not everyone drafted comes, but those who wish to are never turned away.  During the Viet Nam War thousands of draftees opted for Canada or alternative service or even prison.  In the spiritual realm, too, there are millions who have heard the Gospel and have experienced conviction regarding their rebellion against God, but they still haven’t believed.  God will never force you to come to Him; He will ask, He will urge, He will command, but He will not interfere with your will.  It is you who must say, “Yes, I need the gift of eternal life.”  

There is, however, another voluntary draft that confronts us after we come to God by faith in Jesus Christ: 

             God takes the initiative in service also, but once again we must respond willingly.  Perhaps the best way to express this truth is to turn to the passage that was read earlier in our service—Romans 12, where we find three very important truths that apply to every child of God.  

1.  The Holy Spirit has distributed spiritual gifts (talents and abilities with eternal value) to every believer.  (Romans 12:6; I Cor. 12:7-11) Verse 6 says, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”  These gifts come from the Holy Spirit, as we learn in I Cor. 12:7ff.  Listen:  “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, etc.  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”  We don’t go shopping for spiritual gifts.  We can’t take credit for them.  God takes the initiative by sovereignly equipping us with talents and abilities with eternal value.  

2.  The mere possession of a spiritual gift benefits no one—it must be used. And that’s why Rom. 12:6-8 goes on to say, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach.”  We’ve all been drafted for service by virtue of the fact that we’ve been gifted by God, but we must volunteer to use those gifts for the good of others or they are wasted.  

3.  The mere use of a spiritual gift benefits no one—it must be used in love.  The voluntarism we’re talking about is not reluctant or selfish or resentful—it is enthusiastic, selfless, and motivated by love.  Notice, please, that immediately after Paul urges us to use our spiritual gifts in Romans 12, the very next words are, “Love must be sincere.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”  And immediately after the longest discussion of spiritual gifts in the Bible, found in 1 Cor. 12, the very next words are the great love chapter: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  

God knows that spiritual gifts can very quickly become unspiritual gifts if love does not permeate our hearts.  The pastor who is resentful that he isn’t in a larger church, the usher who is resentful that he isn’t teaching Sunday School, or the deacon who is resentful that he isn’t an Elder, is really an involuntary draftee, and his efforts will be without eternal value.  

In conclusion let me offer two points for us to ponder: 

Points to ponder:

1.  Your willingness to serve God makes you valuable, even though it may not make you famous.   Success or attention are never the criteria that God measures us by—His criterion is always faithfulness.  Few of us will ever become famous in the Lord’s work; we will probably be about as well known as Mattaniah or Uzzi or Pethahiah.  And frankly, fame is not all it’s cracked up to be anyway.  The glamour of being a Charles Swindoll or a Charles Stanley or a Charles Colson or a Charles Ryrie (there must be something about that name, Charles!) fades quickly in the loss of privacy, the public criticism, and the stress of other people’s expectations.  

None of these names in Nehemiah 10 are among the one hundred best known characters in the Old Testament.  Yet every one of these individuals was a valuable, even indispensable cog in the family of God that re-populated the Holy city.  Likewise, every one of you who volunteers for the draft that God has issued for His people today is a valuable, even indispensable cog in a spiritual family which is seeking to populate the kingdom of God by bringing the lost to Christ.  A second important truth that strikes me here is that …

2.  Every act of service done in love is remembered by God.  (Hebrews 6:10, Psalm 112:6). These names are not listed in Nehemiah 11 to fill up space or to give us tongue-twisters.  They are there to communicate the fact that God cares about little people, and He cares enough to remember their names.  Hebrews 6:10 says, “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them,” and Psalm 112:6 reads, “A righteous man will be remembered forever.” 

Every time you begin to feel sorry for yourself because you are not in the limelight, remember that God never overlooks one deed.  The public may never know of your ministry, but that will have nothing to do with God’s final evaluation.  He never checks an applause meter to determine rewards.  Our goal should be distinguished service, even though it comes from undistinguished servants.  

DATE: August 16, 1992






Spiritual gifts