Nehemiah 11, 12
November 14, 1999

ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP

Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church

Nehemiah 11, 12

Let's be honest. When we come to chapters of the Bible that contain lists of people, whatever their spiritual intent, we tend to skip over them. In the Reader's Digest Condensed Bible, they don't appear at all. I admit that as I read the Bible, I skip over list chapters also, except when I'm preaching on them, and then I force myself to think about what they say. These two chapters have some interesting lessons for us about, first of all, spiritual principles for our lives and, secondly, worship examples that may instruct us.

These chapters are not merely genealogies. They feature some important biblical truths we need.

1. Chapter 11 shows us people who have complete confidence in God. The temple has been rebuilt. The value of the Law of God has been restored. The walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt. But the people like living in the suburbs. So the problem Nehemiah faced was finding people willing to move to the inner city. 11:1 tells us the procedure which he and the leaders used to determine who would come to inner city Jerusalem. They cast lots. One tenth of the people living in the suburbs were chosen to move to the city. And they cast lots to decide who would come. Do you realize what that means? These people had complete and utter confidence in God's will. For these Jews, casting lots was one way to discover God's will. It was the writer of Proverbs who made a theological defense of this. Proverbs 16:33, "the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord." I don't think this works for the lottery or the stock market. It works for learning God's will.

Now each one of us knows by experience that it is not easy to know what God's will is. One thing we can know is that God wants to reveal His will to us. He does this in the Bible and He does this as we seek His will today. But casting lots to find God's will? Yet even while we look askance at the method, we can admire the faith and sacrifice of people who were willing to uproot themselves and their families from the suburbs to the inner city because the lot convinced them that it was the will of God for them to move. That's one matter we discover in the midst of these chapters of lists. The people who move into the city are named by family: the families of Judah and Benjamin (remember that Judah was populated before the Babylonian captivity by only two faithful tribes out of the 12 tribes of Israel, that is, Judah and Benjamin.). Further, people are named by professions that will be needed in the city, Levites, gatekeepers and various officers.

2. But we also discover in these people a willingness to serve God. In 11:2, we see that not only were some chosen by lot, but others volunteer to come to Jerusalem. Every time we read in the Bible about volunteers, we remember the vast crowd of people who, throughout history, have offered themselves willing for the work of the Lord. Every church has people like this. Jeff Yeager told me about a woman in his new congregation who runs two dairy farms but who comes in once every week to clean the church.

She is only one of a large company of saints doing God's work as volunteers. I've often exclaimed to volunteers in our church, "It's so good of you to do this." To which they reply, "It's something I can do." I sometimes wonder why people give so much of themselves, though I know the answer. Let me give two biblical illustrations. In Jeremiah, chapter 1, God calls Jeremiah to be the Lord's prophet, but Jeremiah doesn't want to be a prophet. And he tells God that. In Isaiah 6, God calls for someone to go do the task the Lord has, and Isaiah says, "Here am I, send me!" Jeremiah finally does what God wants because he loves God and wants to obey Him. Isaiah responds because he loves people and he wants to help them. It was like that in Jerusalem. But it is also like that in the Grantham Church. Whether you agree to serve gladly or reluctantly, when you surrender yourself to God, you also stand ready to do what God wants you to do and when that happens, God changes your life. All of these volunteers served the Lord and helped the people. There were thousands of them. That's what the lists in chapters 11 and 12 show us.

3. We may also notice from these lists in chapter 11 that some of the people had responsibility for worship. Verse 11, Seraiah was supervisor in the house of God. Mattaniah in verse 17 was the minister of worship. In chapter 12, we are told that Mattaniah had associates. In chapter 12, verse 24, we learn that there are two choirs, and in chapter 12, verse 8, there is a further list of people who help with music..

Let us consider worship in more detail.

Beginning in chapter 12, verse 27, Nehemiah describes for us the worship service of Thanksgiving that shows us some important biblical guidelines for worship. Worship is, to play on the English word, ascribing worth to God. Worship is more than singing and praying and giving. Worship is the total giving of all that we are and have to God. While we might agree about what worship is, today there is not agreement about the form worship should take. There are some who believe that we are in a transition time in worship forms. We certainly talk a lot about worship. We tend, however, to overweight sociological studies which describe what makes churches successful. Further, people like a church that makes them feel good ­ after all, feeling good has tremendous appeal in our society. The question we ought ask is, what most honors God as we worship? It is important in this discussion to discover what the Scriptures have to say about worship. It seems to me they always describe worship that exalts God.

It is not only Christians who are raising questions about worship. As Eastern religions make their way into western societies, their people are asking, what will attract people to us? Of course, what is helpful to us may not even be acceptable to God. What we want is clear, biblical teaching so we know what is acceptable to God.

1. Nehemiah 12 tells us the purpose of worship. In verse 27, we read that the purpose of worship is to celebrate joyfully and to give thanks.

The people were celebrating what God had done ­ even though they were the ones who had built the wall. They were convinced that God had protected them and given them courage to go on. They were thanking God for His care. "The Levites... were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication (of the walls) with songs of thanksgiving and music...." (verse 27) The people were thankful for God's astonishing generosity to them. After all, they had been sinners, living in exile in Babylon because of their history of being unjust and disobedient, and here they were, back in their home and verse 31 says that Nehemiah assigned two large choirs to give thanks. And in verse 40 after the choirs had processed around a bit, "the two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God."

The passage doesn't say this, but I have found in my experience that thanksgiving must be itemized so that we can see clearly all that we are indebted to a gracious God for. The people of Israel were probably thanking God specifically that Hanani, Nehemiah's brother, had met him in the citadel of Susa and encouraged Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem. They were probably thanking God that Nehemiah had found favor in the eyes of King Artaxerxes so he allowed him to return. Those are the kind of specific things we need to pray.

2. Secondly, the passage makes clear that right worship is not simply what we do, but how we do it. Verse 27, the Levites were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully. Verse 43, "on that day, they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy." When these people worshiped, they were happy about it. When in chapter 8, verse 17, the people were celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, "their joy was very great." That was exactly what the Lord wanted. In Deuteronomy 16:14-15, when God gives directions for this festival, He says, "Be joyful at your feast."

Is that how you come to worship? Do you have joy about it? I can't see that in a balanced way here because of the role I have in worship, but in the months I was in Cambridge, I loved going to worship on Sunday. I don't think I missed once. It was joy to hear the Scriptures exposited. It was joy to sing. It was joy to meet English believers, with a few Scots and Welsh thrown in. Worship isn't meant to try our souls. It's meant to give joy.

3. The passage shows that worship has traditions. These Israelites had a sense of continuity with the worship of their ancestors. They sang, chapter 12, verse 36, led by musical instruments prescribed by David some 550 years before. Ch 12 vs 24, the Levites stand so they can sing antiphonally, "as prescribed by David, the man of God." 550 years before. These people sensed that before they were born their ancestors had worshiped God. They sing the same Psalms their forebearers had sung. And yet the event of the dedication is a new thing, and bringing together the people for the dedication is a new event. So the new and the traditional were blended together.

How to bring together both old and new is where the debate about worship is today. We have a lot to receive from people like Timothy Dudley-Smith, Graham Kendrick and Daniel Schutte. Their music of the past 10 or 15 years brings an immediacy and vigor to worship. They use images and words from the Bible and put them in contemporary idiom.

There is another side. Many of the great hymns of the faith are rich in teaching and devotion. They often arise from lives that experienced hardships many of us have never known. And the words of those older hymns have encouraged believers for tens and hundreds of years during times of distress. I remember a discussion in the creation of the Brethren In Christ hymnal we use here about a particular camp meeting style hymn. One of the mountain community brethren said, "This is a hymn we want to put in our hymnal because it has been so important in the devotional lives of my people." It was a hymn that had never been important to me personally. It felt old-fashioned, but I felt with this brother for the spiritual experience of people it truly helped, and we included it.

When these people in 450 BC sang Psalms under the direction of Jezrahiah (12:42), these Psalms, which were created over a period of hundreds of years, confirmed the reality of their faith because they affirmed a bigger and stronger faith than the personal faith which is always apt to waver up and down depending upon how you feel on a particular day. What traditional Psalms showed the people of Israel was that many people have sung in other times and have been sustained and encouraged by the God the Psalms praise. When they sang them, they lost the feeling of being alone that is the plague of suffering.

But the Psalms also spoke of the greatness and splendor of God who had guided and blessed His people over centuries. Even a cursory study of Christian history shows how believers have failed to trust God in times of crisis. But what God has done is, He has been faithful ­ Great is Thy Faithfulness. What God has done is continue to be our shield and our defender, as Edith Cherry's hymn sets forth.

Martin Luther said in his preface to the Psalms, "we can use their words to talk with God as they did." Luther called the Psalms a "beautiful, bright, polished mirror which will show you what Christianity is." Something of that must have encouraged Nehemiah in this great celebration of worship in Jerusalem.

4. There is also in this passage worship seen as a witness to the people around. So it should be with us. Notice in verses 31 and 38 that the leaders of the people and the choirs were on the top of the wall of Jerusalem. We say we have a church on a hill, and so we do. Not a bad thing! Verse 43 says that "the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away." Everyone in Jerusalem could see and hear what was happening, and so could people who lived around Jerusalem.
In a similar way, every time we meet to worship, we give a testimony. First, because we take part of our day to worship God; but further, when people visit us they should have a clear sense from the preaching of the Word and from our worship that we believe Jesus Christ is central to all of life. Today there is a model that wants churches to be user friendly. Churches like the Willow Creek model where seeker services try to attract non-believers. And they have been successful. What we need to beware of in such contemporary models is creating churches whose model is based on the media so that the church looks like "Friends" or MTV. What we want is worship which exalts and glorifies God.

5. Some years ago, Gordon MacDonald wrote an article for Leadership Magazine about churches growing. He said that one of the marks of a growing church is the quality of its worship services. We certainly see that in this worship Nehemiah orchestrates. It is not haphazard. The choirs had been trained under Jezrahiah (verse 42). 12:8, a whole troop of Levites were in charge of the songs of thanksgiving. The Levites who were to assist with the dedication were sought out wherever they lived, according to verse 27. The singers, similarly, were gathered together from their homes. Verse 30, rites of purification were necessary to prepare the priests and Levites to be involved in worship. How do you get ready for our worship? In earlier days in America, food for Sunday was prepared on Saturday. The whole family took a bath on Saturday. Families would walk or ride to church and spend Sunday afternoon together. Today we tend to rush into worship at the last moment, a kind of MacDonald's worship, and then rush off to competitions and sports events and work.

Verse 31, Nehemiah had gathered two choirs. They had rehearsed not only what they sang, but how they would process. This worship was not put together at the last minute. Why shouldn't God receive our best preparation? That's what brings quality to worship.

6. Lastly, giving was a part of worship. There was money, but people also gave crops. Verse 44, men were appointed to receive these gifts, like our ushers and treasurer. What was given is specifically described in verse 44, "contributions, first fruits and tithes." Now the Law had set out a pattern of giving, but verse 44 also suggests that the people gave willingly. Here is what it says, "Judah was pleased with the ministering priests and Levites," and so they gave willingly, but there was also an obligation to it, for the law commanded giving. Verse 47, "all Israel contributed the daily portion." And notice, it was regular, the "daily portion."

I really like using offering envelopes. Many people in the church use envelopes, but some don't. I'll tell you why I like them. They remind me I need to give. Each year Nancy and I decide how much we will give in the coming year. When we are away on vacation, or for some other reason, the offering envelope reminds us that we still have this obligation to give to the church. We don't give because we are present and get something from the service. We give because we promise the Lord that we will. That's the way it was with Israel, though sadly, when Nehemiah returned to Persia to continue to serve the Persian king, the people gradually stopped giving. That will be one of the themes of chapter 13. But what happened with Israel in chapter 12 says something to us. Giving is something that we do to obey God. Just because what we give in the Grantham Church is designated for specific church and missions ministries doesn't change the fact that each one of us, when he gives, gives to the Lord. That's how Israel gave.
What a worship time Israel had. And what worship we can have when we come together. We may worship in many different ways. The issue is, does what we do glorify God and bring praise to His name, not is it comfortable to me? It may not be. But is God praised in this?

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