A New Sinai, A New Start
Well we're more than half way through Nehemiah, quite close to the end in fact, especially if you consider Ezra and Nehemiah as a whole. And I wonder how many of you have been wondering the same thing I have 'yes, but what's it all about?' It's easier with Ezra where they rebuild the temple, and where Ezra comes to teach them the law – but what's so important about a wall?
Am I the only one?
This is the end of the narrative of the OT – Esther's probably twenty years before Ezra went back to Jerusalem… Why does the story end here, with building a wall?
This is one of the big questions that we want to answer in our studies of Nehemiah, and it's been becoming clearer, here in this chapter we get a massive hint that helps us to see what is the deep significance of these things.
It's not spelt out in detail, but there is at least a very strong hint here that in Ezra and Nehemiah we are seeing a new Exodus, with Ezra a new Moses and Nehemiah a new Joshua, leading the people into the Promised Land. So these books are about God taking his people back to be his very own.
Where do we see that here?
I think we can unpack this chapter under four headings:
1 A New Sinai (Moses=Ezra) v1–8
2 A New Conquest (Joshua=Nehemiah) v13–18
3 A Permanent Home? (Jerusalem=but a shadow of it's former glory) v9
4 A True Celebration (celebrate the unspectacular because God is truly at work, just as he was in the spectacular) v10–12
1. A New Sinai (Moses=Ezra) v1 – 8
"When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns,
all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam. Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. The Levites--Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah--instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read."
If you've been listening to the morning service series from the 39 articles I hope you'll have seen this clearly – this is just like the day when God gathered his people at Mt Sinai to give them the law. Recorded for us in Exodus 19 and following that was the quintessential 'day of the church', when God assembled his people at the great assembly on the day of the assembly. That word in verses 1 and 2 'assemble' is the word that is translated 'church' in the New Testment. Throughout Deuteronomy Sinai is called the day of the assembly, or the day of the church. In Hebrews 12 – our New Testament reading – we see Sinai being used as a template for our modern day church services – church is the gathering, the assembling, of God's people to hear God's voice as God speaks to us to enable us to be his people. (cf Deut 4,9,10,18; Acts 7… goes back to Exodus 19-34)
And it's not just that Nehemiah chooses to use the word 'assembly' look at how Ezra stands high above the people on a platform constructed for that purpose to speak God's words to God's gathered people. And notice how Nehemiah makes a point of emphasising that it was the Law of Moses, which the LORD (the Lord Yahweh, the great I am who revealed himself to Moses on the Mountain as Yahweh) commanded for Israel. Eight times we are told that it was the Law that they read, the chapter starts and ends with it. I think we're supposed to notice, I think Nehemiah thinks its important that we see it. Ezra, like a modern day Moses brings the Law of God to the people of God, who are gathered in order to hear from God.
And if we were to go back and look at the law of God, as I think Nehemiah wants us to do, we'd see that this gathering on the first day of the seventh month is itself commanded in the law of God. Leviticus 23 sets out the celebrations they are to celebrate as God's people. And there we read that on this day they are to celebrate the feast of trumpets – a sacred assembly with no work. Now I don't think it's a coincidence that they happen to come together and ask Ezra to read the law to them on this day, and that they happen to have a wooden platform constructed for that purpose there on that day. Rather it seems that Nehemiah has been keen to get the wall finished in time to celebrate this feast with the people.
[Now it might be a stretch, because Leviticus doesn't tell us what the feast of trumpets was about… but when I think of trumpets in the Old Testment I think of Jericho, and the 7 days of marching round the city wall and then sounding the trumpet, climaxing with 7 laps around the walls followed by a great noise and the collapse of the city walls:
"March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Make seven priests carry trumpets of rams' horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, make all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in."
Do you think that a day of trumpets might make God's people think of that day too? As I said it might be a stretch, but I wonder if in the back of Nehemiah's mind there's something fitting about completing the new wall in time to remember God's destruction of an old wall]
Now by this stage Ezra has been back in Jerusalem for 13 years. He said in Ezra 7v7 that he came to Jerusalem because he had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. That's his great obsession, his life's work. I'm sure this is not the first time he's instructed the people about the law. Yet something special happens here. This is the first time we read about Ezra's instruction. There's something special and significant about it. And Nehemiah seems to shape his telling of it so that it reminds us of the giving of the law at Mt Sinai, during the Exodus. God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt and in the desert he gave them his great laws so they could know how to be his people when the got into his land.
Now he has gathered his people again from slavery in a foreign land and brought them into the land that he promised them. And
Note that first day of seventh month is a religious convocation, therefore probably planned according to the law, not the case that they were just discovering the law, Ezra has been teaching it among them for 13 years; but something special and significant happens this time that they read it together.
Ezra = a new Moses (but a reduced one)
Perhaps a bit tenuous… but note that Seventh month celebration is one of trumpets/shouts – recalls (to some extent) the trumpets (shouts – same word as used in Joshua to describe the noise that precipitated the fall of the walls of Jericho) that sounded at the destruction of the walls of Jericho, God can bring down the walls, just as God can raise them up again, security isn't found in walls, but in God!
Our church services today a similar participation in the work of long ago – Sinai a paradigm shaping event for all time – this is what the church is, what it is for, what it does, how it functions – God rules over his people by his word, spoken, written and preached. God present among his people to teach and to rule through his powerful word. Cf. sermon on 39 articles, art 19, or weekend away 2013: The Church.
Significance? Shows that God is still at work with his people, they have been rejected by him, called 'not my people' and rejected out of his land for their many sins – but now they are being brought back and God is reminding them of the things he did at first, re-newing them among them so that they can see that he is choosing them again – like renewing the wedding vows after a time of separation.
Repeating the event like a sacrament, more than just remembering, re-enacting in order to participate, shaping our imaginations to see the underlying realities of those events still at work in our lives…
Re-new our wedding vows?
Proclaiming the latest football star 'the New Maradona/Pele/Cruff/Shearer … always looking for a replacement…
Political commentators looking for prior races to compare to
Like kids playing in the back yard re-enacting the great events of their day – the moon landing, the try that won the world cup, the goal that secured the title on the last day in time added on… they want to be like their idols, their heroes, like Lorde and co doing David Bowie tributes…
The people of Israel remain God's people, God has chastised them, disciplined them, but he has not given them what their sins deserve. The law exposed their sin. The law decreed their exile; and the law contained the promise that after exile they would return and God would restore them and make them his people again.
They would again be God's people in God's place under God's rule enjoying God's blessing. This is like putting the ring back on their fingers after they ran off into adulterous affairs – they sold the engagement ring and the wedding ring and whatever else they could carry off with them in their pursuit of other lovers; but God provides a new one and here he slips it back onto their finger and whispers in their ears 'I love you'
So what does this have to do with us? The Law's ongoing significance in teaching what God requires and how to please him; God's ongoing faithfulness to it (mirrors) and his faithfulness to us;
We are part of this today – we in our church services the same thing is going on – God is speaking to us, we are gathered together as his people under his rule receiving his blessing…
Part 2 A New Conquest (Joshua=Nehemiah) v13–18
"On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered round Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"-- as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly."
The point of Nehemiah is more seen here than in the last one – as Ezra echoes Moses, so Nehemiah echoes Joshua, and so this feast foregrounds the work that Joshua did – the completion of the Exodus with the move into the Promised Land, the securing of the permanent home for God's people.
So this feast marvellously pictures not just what God did way back then, but what God is doing among them at that time – bringing them back into the Promised Land, not tearing down the walls of enemies who would keep them out, but building up the wall that will keep them safe.
The contrast is between temporary structures and permanent homes.
If reading of the law is like slipping on a new wedding ring, this is like carrying the re-new-ed bride over the threshold and back into the family home. God has brought them home – again.
Mt Sinai was the wedding, Joshua was the honeymoon period, but they were always having affairs – cf. Ezekiel 16, 23; Hosea… but here God is re-newing the marriage vows, just as he told Hosea to do to his prostitute wife! Like Jesus gently restoring Peter after he denied him three times – do you love me Peter?
Once they were called 'not my people' now they are called 'my people' again. Hosea 1,3
3. A Permanent Home? (Jerusalem=but a shadow of it's former glory) v9
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
The people weep as the law is being read – why? I think it is weeping of repentance over sin, we'll see more of that next week; but it's much more than that, because they have lost so much through that sin and the discipline that followed. They are back in Jerusalem, they have the temple and the sacrifices and the wall is built and God is beginning the work of removing their disgrace – and yet things are really not the same as they were.
If this has been a new Exodus it is also something less – 600 000 men came out of Egypt, last week we heard reminder there were only 43 000 this time – not even 10%! Is God's currency not worth what it once was? Is God's arm too short to really save them? But more than that, the ark is missing from the temple, the great blessing of the Exodus was that God would live among them, his glory would dwell in the tabernacle and then the temple on the mercy seat, on the Ark of the covenant…. And so if we're paying attention – and we should be – we see a major celebration missing in this chapter – between celebration on first of the month and booths on 15th of the month was supposed to be day of atonement on the 10th of the month… but it's not here, presumably because there is no ark in the temple, there is no visible manifestation of God's presence among them. They're back, but the glory hasn't returned. Compare and contrast Nehemiah with Ps 48!
Illustration – like Leeds in the FA cup a few years back against Manchester United – they won that match, but supporters were like 'this is where we belong', but they continue to languish below the premier league… like moving back into the family home after a fire has gutted all but the servants quarters… like coming back into the city after the cyclone has destroyed it all, after the Tsunami washed most of it away, like moving back into a disaster zone, like Greece proclaiming itself a world power because Alexander the Great once conquered the world and Plato and Aristotle still have an influence – they are surrounded by reminders of past glories, but have only the dimmest recollection of them in present reality..
This reduction is not what the prophets promised – after the exile comes return and then comes glory that surpasses the old; but as Nehemiah and Ezra et al look around there is no sign of greater glories – push us to look forward for a true return from exile, a true temple, a true city where God's glory shines over all the earth; and we find all these things and more in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the salvation that he wins over sin and death, and in the people that he gathers to himself to become his Kingdom that covers all of the earth.
The point is that God is not going to win the nations by a military conquest – King David's greater son will not be a greater warrior who conquerors a greater empire… God's way of winning the nations will be much different – not a new Caliphat, no ISIL; but something that looks o so insignificant but that grows to encompass the whole earth – just a man dying on a cross, conquering sin and opening heaven itself.
4. A True Celebration (celebrate the unspectacular because God is truly at work, just as he was in the spectacular) v10–12
"Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them."
They are reduced… and yet still God's people, the things they are celebrating seem small compared to the originals they re-enact. And yet Nehemiah commands them to celebrate all the same. Because God's way of victory might not look spectacular, but it is victory all the same.
The refrain in Ezra and Nehemiah – the people are in trouble and disgrace; and the Lord's hand was on me – both are happening simultaneously, things look unimpressive, but God is working, he is working truly and effectively, in the little things that don't look much. They have much to celebrate – and in fact it is essential for their faith that they learn to celebrate the things that God is doing among them now – because their strength does not come from walls, it does not come from temples, it comes from faith – from seeing that God is at work in them and so learning to trust God to continue to work in the future and so learning to do what God says even when it seems crazy, because God can remove walls and God can build them up, the only true security any of us has is in trusting God.
Nehemiah tells us to celebrate the work of God in our here and now as he continues to work out the pattern of salvation that has been seen in the Bible from the first – the pattern that is seen in the Exodus – where the ignoble slavery to Pharaoh gives way to glorious freedom as God's people; and in the return from Exile – where ignoble scattering among the nations is gives way to a new gathering in the land under the blessing of God; and most clearly in Jesus – whose ignoble death for sin gives way to the glorious resurrection as Lord of all – and which is now in operation in our lives too – where our ignoble battles with sin and insignificance will one day give rise to glorious victory if we continue to hold on to God and entrust ourselves to him. How can we do that? Nehemiah encourages us here to make use of the thing that God has given to us to strengthen us – his word taught and his people gathered, and the remembrance of God's great acts of old to save his people, recalled and relived among us so that we can see that our own lives follow the very same patterns of shame giving way to glory as we follow in the footsteps of the master.