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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 12

 

 

Verses 27-47

BEGINNINGS

Nehemiah 12:27-47

A CURIOUS feature of the history of the restoration of Israel already met with several times is postponement. Thus in the days of Cyrus. Zerubbabel leads up an expedition for the express purpose of building the temple at Jerusalem, but the work is not executed until the reign of Darius. Again, Ezra brings the book of The Law with him when he comes to the city, yet he does not find an opportunity for publishing it till some years later. Once more, Nehemiah sets to work on the fortifications with the promptitude of a practical man and executes his task with astonishing celerity, still, even in his case the usual breach of sequence occurs; here, too, we have interruption and the intrusion of alien matters, so that the crowning act of the dedication of the walls is delayed.

In this final instance we do not know how long a postponement there was. Towards the end of his work the chronicler is exceptionally abrupt and disconnected. In the section Nehemiah 12:27-43 he gives us an extract from Nehemiah’s memoirs, but without any note of time. The preservation of another bit of the patriot’s original writing is interesting, not only because of its assured historicity, but further because exceptional importance is given to the records that have been judged worthy of being extracted and made portions of permanent scripture, although other sources are only used by the chronicler as materials out of which to construct his own narrative in the third person. While we cannot assign its exact date to the subject of this important fragment, one thing is clear from its position in the story of the days of Nehemiah. The reading of The Law, the great fast, the sealing of the covenant, the census, and the regulations for peopling Jerusalem, all came between the completion of the fortifications and the dedication of them. The interruption and the consequent delay were not without meaning and object. After what had occurred in the interval, the people were better prepared to enter into the ceremony of dedication with intelligence and earnestness of purpose. This act, although it was immediately directed to the walls, was, as a matter of fact, the re-consecration of the city, because the walls were built in order to preserve the distinct individuality, the unique integrity of what they included. Now the Jews needed to know The Law in order to understand the destiny of Jerusalem, they needed to devote themselves personally to the service of God, so that they might carry out that destiny, and they needed to recruit the forces of the Holy City, for the purpose of giving strength and volume to its future. Thus the postponement of the dedication made that event, when it came about, a much more real thing than it would have been if it had followed immediately on the building of the walls. May we not say that in every similar case the personal consecration must precede the material? The city is what its citizens make it. They, and not its site or its buildings, give it its true character. Jerusalem and Babylon, Athens and Rome, are not to be distinguished in their topography and architecture in anything approaching the degree in which they are individualised by the manners and deeds of their respective peoples. Most assuredly the New Jerusalem will just reflect the characters of her citizens. This City of God will be fair and spotless only when they who tread her streets are clad in the beauty of holiness. In smaller details, too, and in personal matters, we can only dedicate aright that which we are handling in a spirit of earnest devotion. The miserable superstition that clouds our ideas of this subject rises out of the totally erroneous notion that it is possible to have holy things without holy persons, that a mystical sanctity can attach itself to any objects apart from an intelligent perception of some sacred purpose for which they are to be used. This materialistic notion degrades religion into magic; it is next door to fetichism.

It is important, then, that we should understand what we mean by dedication. Unfortunately in our English Bible the word "dedicate" is made to stand for two totally distinct Hebrew terms, one of which means to "consecrate," to make holy, or set apart for God, while the other means to "initiate," to mark the beginning of a thing. The first is used of functions of ritual, priestly and sacrifical, but the second has a much wider application, one that is not always directly connected with religion. Thus we meet with this second word in the regulations of Deuteronomy which lay down the conditions on which certain persons are to be excused from military service. The man who has built a new house but who has not "dedicated" it is placed side by side with one who has planted a vineyard and with a third who is on the eve of his marriage. [Deuteronomy 20:5-7] Now the first word-that describing real consecration-is used of the priests’ action in regard to their portion of the wall, and in this place our translators have rendered it "sanctified." [Nehemiah 3:1] But in the narrative of the general dedication of the walls the second and more secular word is used. The same word is used, however, we must notice, in the account of the dedication of the temple. [Ezra 6:16] In both these cases, and in all other cases of the employment of the word, the chief meaning conveyed by it is just initiation. It signalises a commencement. Therefore the ceremony at the new walls was designed in the first instance to direct attention to the very fact of their newness, and to call up those thoughts and feelings that are suitable in the consideration of a time of commencement. We must all acknowledge that such a time is one for very earnest thought. All our beginnings in life-the birth of a child, a young man’s start in the world, the wedding that founds the home, the occupation of a new house, the entrance on a fresh line of business-all such beginnings come to rouse us from the indifference of routine, to speak to us with the voice of Providence, to bid us look forward and prepare ourselves for the future. We have rounded a corner, and a new vista has opened up to our view. As we gaze down the long aisle we must be heedless indeed if we can contemplate the vision without a thrill of emotion, without a thought of anticipation. The new departure in external affairs is an opportunity for a new turn in our inner life, and it calls for a reconsideration of our resources and methods.

One of the charms of the Bible is that, like nature, it is full of fresh starts. Inasmuch as a perennial breath of new life plays among the pages of these ancient scriptures, we have only to drink it in to feel what inspiration there is here for every momentous beginning. Just as the fading, dank autumn gives way to the desolation of winter in order that in due time the sleeping seeds and buds may burst out in the birth of spring with the freshness of Eden, God has ordained that the decaying old things of human life shall fall away and be forgotten, while He calls us into the heritage of the new-giving a new covenant, creating a new heart, promising a new heaven and a new earth. The mistake of our torpor and timidity is that we will cling to the rags of the past and only patch them with shreds of the later age, instead of boldly flinging them off to clothe ourselves in the new garment of praise which is to take the place of the old spirit of heaviness.

The method in which a new beginning was celebrated by the Jews in relation to their restored walls is illustrative of the spirit in which such an event should always be contemplated.

In the first place, as a preparation for the whole of the subsequent ceremonies, the priests and Levites carried out a great work of purification. They began with themselves, because the men who are first in any dealings with religion must be first in purity. Judged by the highest standard, the only real difference of rank in the Church is determined by varying degrees of holiness; merely official distinctions and those that arise from the unequal distribution of gifts cannot affect anybody’s position of honour in the sight of God. The functions of the recognised ministry, in particular, demand purity of character for their right discharge. They that bear the vessels of the Lord must be clean. And not only so in general, especially in the matter of purification is it necessary that those who carry out the work should first be pure themselves. What here applies to priests and Levites ceremonially applies in prosaic earnestness to all who feel called to purge society in the interest of true morality. Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? The leaders of moral reforms must be themselves morally clean. Only regenerate men and women can regenerate society. If the salt has lost its savour it will not arrest corruption in the sacrifice that is salted with it. But the purification does not cease with the leaders. In ceremonial symbolism all the people and even the very walls are also cleansed. This is done in view of the new departure, the fresh beginning. Such an occasion calls for much heart-searching and spiritual cleansing-a truth which must have been suggested to the minds of thoughtful people by the Levitical ceremonies. It is a shame to bring the old stains into the new scenes. The fresh, clean start calls for a new and better life.

Next, it is to be observed, there was an organised procession round the walls, a procession that included citizens of every rank-princes, priests, Levites, and representatives of the general community, described as "Judah and Benjamin." Starting at the west end of the city, these people were divided into two sections, one led by Nehemiah going round by the north, and the other conducted by Ezra proceeding by the south, so that they met at the eastern side of the city, where opposite the Mount of Olives and close to the temple, they all united in an enthusiastic outburst of praise. This arrangement was not carried out for any of the idle ends of a popular pageant-to glorify the processionists, or to amuse the spectators. It was to serve an important practical purpose. By personal participation in the ceremony of initiation, all sections of the community would be brought to perceive its real significance. Since the walls were in the keeping of the citizens, it was necessary that the citizens should acknowledge their privileges and responsibilities. Men and women need to come individually and directly face to face with new conditions of life. Mere dulness of imagination encourages the lazy sense of indifference with which so many people permit themselves to ignore the claims of duty, and the same cause accounts for a melancholy failure to appreciate the new blessings that come from the untiring bounty of God.

In the third place, the behaviour of the processionists invites our attention. The whole ceremony was one of praise and gratitude. Levites were called in from the outlying towns and villages where they had got themselves homes, and even from that part of the Jordan valley that lay nearest to Jerusalem. Their principal function was to swell the chorus of the temple singers. Musical instruments added emphasis to the shout of human voices; clashing cymbals and finer toned harps supported the choral song with a rich and powerful orchestral accompaniment, which was augmented from another quarter by a young band of trumpeters consisting of some of the priests’ sons. The immediate aim of the music and singing was to show forth the praises of God. The two great companies were to give thanks while they went round the walls. Sacrifices of thanksgiving completed the ceremony when the processions were united and brought to a standstill near the temple. The thanksgiving would arise out of a grateful-acknowledgment of the goodness of God in leading the work of building the walls through many perils and disappointments to its present consummation. Rarely does anything new spring up all of a sudden without some relation to our own past life and action, but even that which is the greatest novelty and wonder to us must have a cause somewhere. If we have done nothing to prepare for the happy surprise, God has done much. Thus the new start is an occasion for giving thanks to its great Originator. But the thankfulness also looks forward. The city was now in a very much more hopeful condition than when Nehemiah took his lonely night ride among its ghostly ruins. By this time it was a compact and strongly fortified centre, with solid defences and a good body of devoted citizens pledged to do their part in pursuing its unique destiny. The prospect of a happy future which this wonderful transformation suggested afforded sufficient reasons for the greatest thankfulness. The spirit of praise thus called forth would be one of the best guarantees of the fulfilment of the high hopes that it inspired. There is nothing that.so surely foredooms people to failure as a despairing blindness to any perception of their advantages. The grateful soul will always have most ground for a renewal of gratitude. It is only just and reasonable that God should encourage those of His children who acknowledge His goodness with fresh acts of favour over and above what He does for all in making His sun to shine and His rain to fail on the bad as well as the good. But apart from considerations of self-interest, the true spirit of praise will delight to pour itself out in adoration of the great and good Father of all blessings. It is a sign of sin or selfishness or unbelief when the element of praise fails in our worship. This is the purest and highest part of a religious service, and it should take the first place in the estimation of the worshippers. It will do so directly a right sense of the goodness of God is attained. Surely the best worship is that in which man’s needs and hopes and fears are all swallowed up in the vision of God’s love and glory, as the fields and woods are lost in a dim purple haze when the sky is aglow with the rose and saffron of a brilliant sunset.

Further, it is to be observed that a note of gladness rings through the whole ceremony. The account of the dedication concludes with the perfectly jubilant verse, "And they offered great sacrifices that day, and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy, and the women also and the children rejoiced, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off." [Nehemiah 12:43] The joy would be mingled with the praise, because when people see the goodness of God enough to praise Him from their hearts they cannot but rejoice, and then the joy would react on the praise, because the more blessedness God sends the more heartily must His grateful children thank Him. Now the outburst of joy was accompanied with sacrifices. In the deepest sense, a sense almost unknown till it was revealed by Christ, there is a grand, solemn joy in sacrifice. But even to those who have only reached the Jewish standpoint, the self-surrender expressed by a ceremonial sacrifice as a symbol of glad thankfulness in turn affects the offerer so as to heighten his gladness. No doubt there were mundane and secular elements in this joy of a jubilant city. A laborious and dangerous task had been completed; the city had been fortified and made able to defend itself against the horrors of an assault; there was a fair prospect of comfort and perhaps even honour for the oppressed and despised citizens of Jerusalem. But beyond all this and beneath it, doubtless many had discovered Nehemiah’s great secret for themselves; they had found their strength in the joy of the Lord. In face of heathenish pleasure and superstitious terrors it was much to know that God expected His holy people to be happy, and more, to find that the direct road to happiness was holiness. This was the best part of the joy which all the people experienced with more or less thought and appreciation of its meaning. Joy is contagious. Here was a city full of gladness. Nehemiah expressly takes note of the fact that the women and children shared in the universal joy. They must have been among the most pitiable sufferers in the previous calamities, and they had taken their place in the great Ecclesia when The Law was read, and again when the sad confession of the nation’s sin was poured forth. It was well that they should not be left out of the later scene, when joy and praise filled the stage. For children especially who would not covet this gladness in religion? It is only a miserable short-sightedness that allows any one to put before children ideas of God and spiritual things which must repel, because of their gloom and sternness. Let us reserve these ideas for the castigation of Pharisees. A scene of joyous worship is truly typical of the perfect City of God of which children are the typical citizens-the New Jerusalem of whose inhabitants it is said, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away."

Lastly, following his extract from the memoirs of Nehemiah, the chronicler shows how the glad spirit of this great day of dedication flowed out and manifested itself in those engagements to which he was always delighted to turn-the Levitical services. Thus the tithe-gathering and the temple psalmody were helped forward. The gladness of religion is not confined to set services of public worship, but when those services are held it must flood them with the music of praise. It is impossible for the worship of God’s house to be limp and depressed when the souls of His children are joyous and eager. A half-hearted, melancholy faith may be content with neglected churches and slovenly services-but not a joyous religion which men and women love and glory in. While "The joy of the Lord" has many happy effects on the world, it also crowds churches, fills treasuries, sustains various ministries, inspires hymns of praise, and brings life and vigour into all the work of religion.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 12:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-12.html.

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