Nehemiah 12:27-47

Nehemiah 12:27-47

SERIES: Godly Leadership

A Celebration of Joy

Introduction:  Two and a half years ago I stood at the Berlin Wall and watched as hundreds of young people, under the confused and helpless gaze of East German guards, chipped away at that hated symbol of Communist repression.  To the German people that wall divided them from their families, from their fellow-countrymen, and from the ideals of freedom and opportunity.  There was no joyful dedication when that wall was erected in 1961, only when it was torn down thirty years later.

However, when the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, there was an incredible celebration of joy, for this wall did not divide; rather it united a people together and reminded them of the faithful protection that almighty God gives to His people in a world that is anything but friendly.  

The chapter before us today, Nehemiah 12, records that dedication ceremony.  It shouldn’t surprise us that so much was made over the rebuilding of a wall, because God’s people in the OT frequently observed major milestones, accomplishments, and providential events by means of public dedications.  

They dedicated the Tabernacle; 

they dedicated the Temple; 

they dedicated their children;

they dedicated monuments to God’s miraculous deliverance;

they dedicated themselves to special service.

We are perhaps not so given to dedications, or at least we generally don’t take them so seriously.  But I think it is providential that this passage comes up three weeks before the dedication of our new church home.  This enables us to think through what we are doing. Are we simply going through a process that is traditional and expected, or is there a valid and lasting purpose in such a dedication?  

By the way, there was also a delay of some weeks between the completion of the wall of Jerusalem and its dedication.  It was finished back in chapter 6, verse 15, but there are apparently at least two good reasons why the dedication doesn’t occur until chapter 12.  First, as one scholar noted, “It is clear from the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah together that the walls are not an end in themselves.  Yet had their official dedication come immediately upon their completion, precisely this impression might have been given.” [i]  

Furthermore, the time lapse allows Ezra and Nehemiah time to bring about some very important changes:  a revival occurs at the Water Gate, sins are confessed, a list of spiritual commitments are written down and signed, and the city of Jerusalem is repopulated by a variety of volunteers who are willing to fill the gaps in ministry both inside and outside the temple.  I would suggest for us that instead of allowing these weeks at the end of the summer before our dedication to be a dead time, each of us might well consider what God wants to do in our personal lives so that we will be in a position to take full advantage of the new opportunities for ministry God is making available to us.

I believe our passage reveals five valid purposes of a dedication ceremony, the most predominant of which is the first.

Dedication day is a time for celebration.  (12:27-43)

If there are two themes that come through this chapter more than any others, they are joy and thanksgiving.  Look at it first in verse 27: “At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving.”  Verse 31:  “I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall.  I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks.” Verse 40:  “The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God.” Verse 43:  “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.”  

Godly celebration always includes joy and thanksgiving.  Let’s talk first about joy.  If there is one characteristic that is almost a dead giveaway that the person exhibiting it is a genuine member of God’s family, it is joy.  All of the other character traits listed as fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5—love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—are evident to some degree in unbelievers as well as believers, though certainly there is a different quality to them when the Holy Spirit is the source.  But joy is a trait that is virtually impossible for an unbeliever to experience.  Happiness, yes; exhilaration, yes; momentary ecstasy, yes.  But joy, no!  Why do I say that?  Because joy, as defined biblically, is impossible without the settled conviction that God is in control of my life, that He accepts me unconditionally, and that as my Lord and Master He is working to bring my best good out of the circumstances of life.

Warren Wiersbe entitled his commentary on the Book of Philippians, Be Joyful; It Beats Being Happy.  His point was that happiness depends upon happenings.  If the things that happen in your life are positive and pleasurable, you’ll be happy (unless you’re a died-in-the-wool pessimist); but if they are negative and painful, you can still have joy.  Happiness comes from without, but joy comes from within.  Happiness fades quickly, but joy is designed to last forever.  

Sadly, however, many Christians have never found, or at least rarely exhibit, real joy.  Friedreich Nietzsche, the famous 19th century German philosopher who devoted his life to ridiculing Christianity, was the son of a Lutheran pastor and married a pastor’s daughter.  At one time he felt the appeal of the Christian faith and set himself to examine it in the lives of some Christians he knew.  But he was disappointed in their joyless natures and concluded, “These Christians will have to look more redeemed before I can believe in them!” [ii]

It is particularly troubling when Christian leaders lack joy.  Chuck Swindoll writes,

         “Those who look to a leader for encouragement and hope aren’t ready for a personification of the grim reaper.  Many of the followers crawl to work every morning whipped black-and-blue by domestic conflicts and a ton of financial worries.  They face a day of monotonous demands and thankless tasks, only later to return home to bickering, discontented mates and kids. Away from the job they have little more to look forward to than the glare of a television set.  Somewhere, somehow, God can use you to introduce one ingredient–real and lasting joy—that will lighten their load.”

What’s your joy quotient today?  I’m not talking about whether you walk around with a phony smile on your face telling people everything’s great when underneath your life is a wreck and you’re really bitter and resentful that life hasn’t dealt you a better hand.  I’m talking about the settled confidence that you and God are OK, even if little else is.  I’m talking about the ability to see the potential good in a situation rather than just the obvious evil.  I’m talking about being ready to offer a word of encouragement to others based upon your own experience of God’s absolute faithfulness.  

I’m sure these Jewish settlers were happy because the wall was finished.  But, more importantly, they were joyful because they were aware of God’s love, acceptance, forgiveness, and presence.  Oh, the enemies were still there; the economy was still a wreck; they were still under the thumb of a foreign king.  But God was over that king and He had helped them build the wall.  Why not celebrate with joy?  

Thankfulness is closely related to joy; in fact, it’s virtually impossible to have one without the other.  Nehemiah’s choirs gave thanks, and it’s not hard to imagine what they were thankful for.  They must have been grateful for God’s moving of the Persian king’s heart that permitted this whole project in the first place.  They were grateful for angelic protection that watched over them as they traveled from Babylon back to the Promised land and as they built the temple and wall right under the nose of their enemies.  They were thankful indeed for the godly leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.  They were thankful for the spirit of unity and cooperation that prevailed, for the most part, through the project; for strength and the will to labor; for food and shelter; for wives and children who stood by them in spite of the danger and inconvenience.  (By the way, have you ever thought about how difficult it must be for an atheist when he feels gratitude but has no one to thank?)

People need periodic times of celebration to express joy and thanksgiving to God.  And wow, did these Jews ever know how to do it!  This whole account of the two huge choirs getting up on the wall and walking in opposite directions until they came together near the temple, reveals a freedom in worship and praise which I have not often observed in church.  But I am pleased to announce that on September 13 Donna Lusk is planning to have half of our Dedication Choir climb on this roof over here and the other half on this roof over there, and they’re going to sing antiphonally while the rest of us march around the building seven times.  

No, we won’t do that because we might repeat the experience of Joshua at Jericho and then we’d really be in trouble.  By the way, walking on top of the wall by these Jewish worshippers visually demonstrated that the walls were strong, be-lying the claim of Tobiah back in 4:3 that if even a fox walked on top of it, it would fall down. 

Celebration.  We need to do more of it.  We need to experience and share the joy of the Lord more.  We need to have a smile on our face, a lilt in our gait, a word of encouragement on our lips, an attitude of thanksgiving in our hearts—all based upon the settled confidence that God is for us!  

Dedication day is a time for cleansing.  (12:30)

Though cleansing is mentioned after celebration in verse 30, it obviously happened before.  It says, “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.”  Then they mounted the wall.  There’s a lesson here:  we cannot celebrate appropriately or experience the joy of the Lord without clean hearts.  

Ceremonial purification was a major issue in OT religion.  Not only did people have to be purified—usually with ritual washings—but even objects had to be purified.  The indication here is that the priests and Levites took holy water of some kind and sprinkled it on the gates and the walls.  That kind of ceremonial purification was a picture of spiritual cleansing, but once Jesus shed His blood to provide permanent cleansing, ceremonial purification became unnecessary.  

However, the principle behind this is still valid today.  The first step to a joyful countenance is moral purity.  Listen to the 24th Psalm:

         Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?

Who may stand in his holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not life up his soul to an idol

or swear by what is false.

He will receive blessing from the Lord

and vindication from God his Savior.

And how do we find cleansing today?  Through confession of sins.  Admit them, don’t hide them.  Don’t blame someone else for them.  Don’t gloss over them.  Confess them, not only to God but to any who have been affected by them.  Then believe that God cleanses and forgives and restores you to fellowship.  Remember how simply the Apostle John puts it:  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  

Dedication day is a time for consecration.  (12:43)

Look at verse 43:  “And on that day they offered great sacrifices.”  Animal sacrifice is, of course, another element of Old Testament faith that is rendered unnecessary by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ for our sins.  However, again I believe there is a principle here that is applicable.  While some sacrifices were for the atonement of sin, others were for consecration, and I believe the context here indicates that these were sacrifices of consecration.  In other words, the people were so overwhelmed by joy and thanksgiving that they desired to consecrate their lives, their crops, their herds—everything to God’s service.  This was done by bringing the firstfruits, not the leftovers, to God.

It is my hope as we approach the dedication of this building on September 13, that many similar sacrifices will be offered by individuals and families—consecrations of gifts, of time, of talents, of service.  It is my hope that every one of us will realize that while we are dedicating a building, this building by itself is not a ministry—it will not love people, or meet their needs for acceptance, or teach them the Word of God, or equip them to serve others.  It is only as this building is inhabited and used by consecrated believers that lives will be changed and people will be brought into the family of God.

In the final paragraph of chapter 12 we find a fourth key element of the Dedication of the Wall.

Dedication day is a time for contribution.  (12:44-47)

I find it interesting that this entire paragraph is devoted to giving.  Tithes and offerings from financial resources were, of course, a regular part of Jewish religious life, but this paragraph apparently speaks of special contributions connected to the dedication of the wall.  Notice how verse 44 reads: “At that time men were appointed to be in charge of the storerooms for the contributions, firstfruits and tithes.” It sounds to me like they were expecting some unusually large gifts on Dedication Day—so much so that they needed extra ushers.

But I notice something else very interesting.  What were these gifts for?  If you’ll look carefully at verse 44, these offerings were for the priests and Levites, “for Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites.”  Now the obvious application seems to be that we should have a major offering on September 13 to be split up among the pastors and elders.  I mean, it’s hard to argue when it’s here in black and white! 

You look unconvinced!  Actually, if you look a bit further you will find that other recipients of this offering include the deacons, the singers, the ushers, and others who serve in various capacities, leading me to believe that the real point here is that the people recognize the need to meet the regular, ongoing operating expenses of the temple.  It would have been easy for them, now that they have sacrificed in so many ways to build this wall, to relax and say, “We’ve sacrificed enough.  We’re going to take it easy.”  But they don’t.  They realize that the priests and Levites need to eat, the temple supplies need to be replenished, the light bill needs to be paid, and the mortgage payment on the wall is due the first of each month.  (Actually, that last item is a marginal reading; I can’t vouch that it belongs in the original).

There have been churches and other Christian organizations, of course, which sacrificed so much to build walls that the ministry suffered.  Staff had to be laid off, ministry had to be cut back, sometimes even property had to be foreclosed.  We, too, need to realize that the day we dedicate our building is not the time to relax and say, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.  Let me know when it’s time to build the sanctuary and I’ll consider another gift.”  And I hasten to add that few of our people, if any, have done that.  In fact, even though our faith-promise program ended officially last May, most of our people seem to have continued on at the increased level of giving they assumed at the start of the project.  

God has given many of us a new goal—stretching but attainable—of seeing our 25-year mortgage paid off in five years or less.  Because of the extremely favorable financing we have received, that is possible with only a slight increase over present giving.  

Dedication day is a time for conversion.  (13:1-3)

Allow me to read these first three verses: 

    “On that day (i.e., Dedication 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.” 

Now what’s going on here and how do I get conversion out of it?  During Israel’s Dedication Service the Book of Moses was read, referring, of course, to the first five books of the Old Testament. Among the portion read was Deut. 23:3-5, which forbade any descendants of Ammon or Moab to enter the temple for ten generations, which was a Hebrew way of saying “forever.”  This was due to the fact that when Moses was leading the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land exactly one thousand years earlier, the Ammonites and Moabites refused to give them bread and water and actually tried to put a curse on them. 

God has a long memory when it comes to injustice done to His people, and, as a judgment upon these nations, He excluded them from His house—even from the Court of the Gentiles.  Other nations, like the Edomites and Egyptians, were not so banned, because they had treated Israel better.

What is very important to understand, however, is that this ban on Ammonites and Moabites was not absolute.  An Ammonite or a Moabite who converted to faith in Israel’s God was not banned.  Neh. 13:1 really means that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God as he or she is.”  While this text does not make that exception clear, the rest of the Old Testament does, and there are some notable examples of Moabites and Ammonites who became full participants in Israel’s religious life.  Perhaps most notable was Ruth the Moabitess, who actually became the grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ, as evident from His genealogy in Matthew 1.  

The way for any Ammonite, Moabite, Hittite, Perrizite, or any other kind of “ite” to become a full participant in the family of God was to renounce his paganism and accept the covenant God made with Israel, as evidenced by obedience to the Mosaic Law, submission to the rite of circumcision, and full participation in the sacrificial system.  Fortunately, today anyone can become a member of the family of God simply by acknowledging his lost and sinful condition and placing his faith in Jesus Christ.  No religious rites and rituals are required, no list of rules and regulations must first be obeyed, and no sacrifices are even possible.   

Dedication Day for the Jews was a reminder that there is an inherent exclusivity to the people of God.  As we have watched the political conventions over the past month, particularly the Democratic Convention, we have seen the politics of inclusiveness at work.  There is a national move afoot today to treat all choices as equal, all lifestyles as acceptable, all diseases as morally neutral. 

We see this tendency in some churches as well, as every mainline denomination is considering, if they have not already ordained, clergy whose lifestyles are diametrically opposed to biblical morality.  

But there is a certain exclusivism to biblical Christianity, just as there was to OT Judaism.  It’s not an exclusivism based on race or color or status or wealth.  It’s based on one’s spiritual standing with God.  To become a member of the family of God, one must be converted.  That is, he must renounce his self-righteousness and all his own efforts to save himself from the wrath to come, and humbly accept God’s way—the way of the Cross.  Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man comes unto the Father but by Me.”  His cross became the bridge, the only bridge, that crosses the infinite gulf between a holy God and sinful man.  What better time to dedicate one’s life to Christ than now!

Conclusion:  Whether we are dedicating a church building, a home, a child, or our own lives, we should see the occasion as not only solemn, but joyful.  It is an opportunity to acknowledge publicly God’s absolute ownership of everything.  

I would like to close with three truths that come out of today’s message but deserve to be reiterated.  First, a spirit of joy should characterize God’s people.  By “characterize” I’m not speaking of Sunday morning demeanor but rather of our daily demeanor.  That doesn’t mean we should never be sad or never cry or never be under the weather.  It means that when all is said and done, the people around us should know that we recognize the sovereignty of God, we are resting in it, and we believe the last chapter of human history, or our history, is going to be good.

Second, a joyful spirit is contagious, but so is a sourpuss.  Nehemiah was a man of joy and he infected the rest of the city.  Nearly everyone got into the praise and worship and singing and giving because one man was willing to let his confidence in God show.

Third, joy is not dependent upon outward circumstances but rather on inward reality.  I know your life is not entirely smooth.  There are some major ruts in your road.  There are some irregular people you have to deal with constantly.  There are some fears in that you don’t know what the future holds.  But if you know who holds the future you can face it all with joy.

August 23, 1992






[i] J. G. McConville, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, 141.  

[ii] Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, 183