NEHEMIAH 7:1 – 9:38 and ACTS 23:1–35
The walls being now completed with the accompanying appointment of porters, singers and Levites in place Nehemiah now turns to his brother Hanani who had the charge over Jerusalem. Nehemiah had great confidence in his brother due to the Fear of the Lord that was upon him. A heightened state of vigilance needed to be maintained at all times. Nehemiah then has interest in gathering all of those who returned; the nobles, rulers and people and to reckon them by genealogy. There was a great work that needed to be done in rebuilding homes and placing people in appropriate places. He discovered such a record concerning those who were first in coming up out of the captivity. In verses 7-62 the recording of names is given. It is similar to the account that was given in Ezra 2. In verses 63-65 we have the account of the priests who could not be reckoned by their genealogies (Ezr 2:61-63). The rebuilding of the walls around the city was only the beginning step of the Restoration process. The people needed to be properly settled in their land and houses had to be built. The reckoning by genealogy helped to bring order to this process.
This is another one of those chapters that ranks among favourites. There is so much content and significance that takes place in this setting. First, it is one of those times where you have the convergence of both Nehemiah and Ezra in the same place at the same time. These are two men of great stature. It is interesting that the people gathered as one and requested of Ezra to bring the Book of the Law before them. These people must have been well trained. It usually is the other way around where the priest has to insist upon the Law being brought forth. The timing of this chapter also has significance. In verse 2 we see that this is taking place on the first day of the 7th month. This date has significance seeing that it represents the Feast of Trumpets (Lev 23:24). The blowing of trumpets had one of three different functions. 1) It was for the gathering of the camp. 2) It was sounded when war was about to commence. 3) It would signal for the moving forward of the camp. The Feast of Trumpets speaks of something new and fresh in the purposes of God. There were 7 primary feasts that Israel celebrated; the last 3 taking place in the 7th month. The Feasts help to signal what God is doing. Many theologians attribute the return of Israel to their homeland in 1948 as a sign that God was positioning the church for the last days. It was clearly a new era for Israel as a nation. The miracle of their return is something that cannot be minimized. There were significant moves of God that began to take place around the world after this event took place. God was moving in a new and fresh way as seen in His time clock involving Israel.
The 2nd feast of the 7th month is that of Atonement (Lev 23:27). This was the national feast of Israel when they would gather to afflict their souls because of sin before God. It was not a joyous feast but rather a sobering one as atonement for sin was acknowledged and appropriated. In 1973, Israel as a nation became involved in the Yom Kippur war. It was also called the war of Atonement seeing that it commenced on the actual Day of Atonement itself. God was signalling that He was about to deal with sin in high places. In a matter of a few years the heads of many governments were exposed for hidden sins that resulted in many being dismissed, jailed or even put to death. It was a time in America where the president was defending charges of corruption in a matter known as Watergate. Did you notice where the people met with Ezra in the beginning of chapter 8 or the place where Ezra read the Law to the people in verse 3? It was at the Watergate. Do you think that this is coincidence? President Richard Nixon was impeached and removed as president as a result of his attempt to cover-up a burglary. It was the matter of trying to “cover up” that eventually did him in. This is a malady we see from the very beginning in Genesis when Adam sought to “cover up” his indiscretion. The Feast of Atonement is a season that all believers must appropriate in their lives. It requires an embracing of the message of the Cross. It requires that we seriously address the issue of sin and to allow our hearts to be wholly open to the Lord. It also requires that we allow the Holy Law to have its rightful place in our lives. The people must have been very well trained by Nehemiah and others like him seeing that they wanted Ezra to bring and read the Law of God to them. The Watergate scandal in America, coupled with the war of Atonement taking place in Israel signified a new work that God was undertaking in His church. It was time to address the issue of sin in high places. In the early 1980’s we began to see many well-known church leaders falling due to hidden and unaddressed sin in their lives. The message of Atonement cannot be ignored because sin will eventually come to the surface.
Num 32:23 But if ye will not do so, behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out.
There is another verse from Leviticus 23 that needs to be understood and appreciated:
Lev 23:29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people.
Once again it comes down to a choice. We can both submit to the dealings of God and let Him do His work or we can ignore and cover it up. We may be able to hide things for a season but unaddressed sin will always catch up with us. Let us now go back to the account in Nehemiah 8. Ezra took the Book of the Law and with reverence and respect read it to the people. The people rose as he did so and gave him great attention as he read from the Book of the Law.
It is good to remind ourselves that Ezra was well schooled in the Law of God; he studied it, prepared his heart to seek after it, to teach it and then do it. In other words he was more than qualified for this task. Ezra acknowledged God before he read from the Book and all the people bowed in worship (vs 6). Ezra then read from the Book of the Law and was able to give the sense and understanding of it. The Law was in him, it was a part of him. He was a true teaching priest. We saw earlier how he was able to restore order to those who married foreign wives. Ezra kept their attention as he read from the Book. He was able to clearly communicate the power, conviction and holiness of the Law which resulted in the people crying out for mercy. In unison the people wept when they heard the Words of the Law because of its ability to expose and convict them of sin in their hearts. There was no covering up or sugar-coating of sin. It was there on full display in the hearts of the people that were gathered.
Nehemiah and Ezra declared that day to be holy unto the Lord for the work that was being done. The Bible says that God does not turn away from a broken and contrite heart (Psa 51:7). This is exactly where God wanted His people. It is in a state of brokenness when God can move to restore and heal. If we deny the Lord such access to our hearts it will limit His ability. If we are always in “cover up” mode we will never see the sword (The Word) come and extract that sin from our lives. We may have to face the sword of judgement if we continue to harden our hearts. The church at large today dismisses the work of the Atonement and the message of the Cross. It is alluded to but oftentimes never applied directly to one’s life. We can substitute it with easier non-confrontational type doctrines that make allowance for easier living. Such teaching never gets to the root. The Power of the Word of God is its ability to get the root of the matter. We can also speak of this as the New Covenant where the Law of God is established upon the fleshly tables of our heart. This is the impact of the teaching that Ezra was bringing to the people. They were now in deep mourning because their sin had been exposed and was before their face. What then can be done? Is there any remedy to man’s condition?
This now leads us to the 7th and last of the Feasts. It is known as the Feast of Tabernacles. It is the most joyous of them all and provides a striking contrast to that of the Atonement which the people were now experiencing. Let’s look at a few verses from Psa 30 to help bring this into perspective:
Psa 30:5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Psa 30:11 Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
One moment there is deep lamenting and mourning and then then it all changes into dancing and great rejoicing. When we look at the account of Nehemiah 8 we see this scenario taking place. The people were in deep mourning after hearing the Words of the Law being given. Then we see Ezra making a rather contrasting statement:
Neh 8:9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
Neh 8:10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.
The law has done its work in bringing the people to the place of true repentance. It took a priest who had the Law worked out inside of Him to effectively teach and convey its essence (Ezr 7:6). Once there was evidence of true repentance the Word of the Lord came to them to rejoice and experience the Joy of the Lord. We all know that verse from Neh 8:10 about the Joy of the Lord being our strength but do we understand its context? There first has to be the Feast and message of Atonement before one could experience the Feast of Tabernacles. Interestingly, one of the names of the Feast of Tabernacles is the Feast of Joy. John the Baptist made it clear that true repentance had to have the evidence of fruit. The fruits of repentance can only come about when sin is addressed in the life of a believer. The medium for this exposure is the Cross, which is the true essence of Atonement. Once its work is completed there can then be the fruits of the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus died a horrible death on the Cross and in a matter of a few days had the glorious reality of Resurrection life.
Nehemiah 8 has so much importance for all that it contains. The entire chapter covers the 3 Feasts of the 7th month (Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles). It is much much more than just a historical account of Israel’s history; it’s a blueprint for where the Lord is leading us today.
The three feasts of the seventh month have now ended. On the 24th day of the 7th month the people of Israel fasted and sought the face of God. They followed through in separating themselves from all foreign wives and strangers. They read from the law, confessed their sins and worshipped God. This is a beautiful template in how we can maintain a right relationship with God and help to immune ourselves from sin and falling back to old ways. In verses 4-38 the priests and Levites assembled the people and acknowledged the majestic and glorious God of creation. A reflection is presented from the time of Abraham straight through to their present day. It is another one of the concise historical accounts of God’s dealings with Israel from the time of Abraham. Chapter 9 is a more expansive version of Nehemiah’s historical record from chapter 1. What this says to me is that Nehemiah and Ezra taught the people very well. It is not enough to be engaged in the work of Restoration; it is just as important to reflect on the past so that similar mistakes are not made again. There is a danger in being overly “forward thinking” in our approach to life and ministry at the expense of anchoring benchmarks that help to steady and give perspective to our walk.
Pro 22:28 Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.
Pro 23:10 Remove not the old landmark; and enter not into the fields of the fatherless:
Nehemiah and Ezra are not living in the past but they sure are reflecting upon it and for good reason. They are teaching on the lessons of their forefathers so that they will be able to go forward without the tendencies of the past coming back to haunt them. The Book of the Law (Deuteronomy) was being constantly read to serve as a reminder. The teaching ministry should not be a back burner function in the church. Nehemiah is a product of good teaching; it was through his understanding of the Word and Israel’s history where he came to know of his calling. Nehemiah 9 is an important chapter because it takes place 3 days after the completion of the Feast of Tabernacles. There was great joy and rejoicing in the camp amongst the people. Nehemiah, Ezra and the other leaders did not sit on laurels or take it easy. They went right back to gathering the people for the reading of the Law, making confession as well as worshipping and honouring God. This approach will not just help to preserve a move of God but it will enable such a move to go forward in greater measure.
Paul is now about to make his defence before the gathered Sanhedrin. He will come at them directly with full courage and assurance of who he is and what he has now been called to proclaim. He was once of them and is able to put himself in their shoes, to know what they are thinking and knowing how best to speak to them. He recognizes that he will not have many such opportunities again before such a group. He also recognized that those who were in the audience were groups comprised of Sadducees and Pharisees. He utilizes a tactic often seen in the serpent whereby he divides the audience by emphasizing his upbringing as a Pharisee. He then speaks on the agreeable subject of the resurrection of the dead which all Pharisees upheld. This however was a subject that the Sadducees did not espouse. Paul was able to drive a wedge between the two groups of priests that were coming after him. Paul had great “presence of mind” in being able to see a bigger picture and doing what needed to be done at any given time. This is wisdom; the kind of wisdom that Jesus referred to when believers would be brought before rulers and judges.
Mat 10:18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.
Mat 10:19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.
Paul effectively drove a wedge between the two groups. A scribe from amongst the Pharisees spoke up saying that they find no evil in Paul, why provoke God if indeed an angel has spoken to him. This scribe had no real interest in defending Paul but rather used this occasion as a means of elevating the Pharisee over the Sadducee. What’s at stake for all these men is not truth but rather position and power. Paul understood this and used this opportunity to split the two accusing groups against him. It is an absolutely brilliant and appropriate tactic here. Paul was quickly rescued from a deteriorating situation by the Roman soldiers.
In verse 11 the Lord speaks to Paul and encourages him by saying that it is now time to bring forth testimony in Rome, as he had done in Jerusalem. He had to leave the city after stirring up the message of Christ to a fevered pitch in the eyes of his adversaries. There were men who determined to kill Paul and that they would neither eat nor drink till this was accomplished. They plotted with the chief priests a plan whereby Paul would be brought into their midst on a seemingly routine matter. This plan came to the attention of a certain young man (Paul’s nephew) who alerted Paul. This young man then shared with the chief captain what he had heard. It is wonderful to see how the Lord intervenes on his behalf. Paul was very much in the plan of God so we can see it is not yet his time to go.
The chief captain arranged for Paul to be taken away by night under heavy guard and be brought to Caesarea. He would be presented to Felix, the governor which would include a letter from the chief captain with the history of what transpired concerning Paul. He included in his letter that he came to know that Paul was a Roman and that he (the chief captain) rescued him from the Jews who under any other circumstance would have killed him. He agreed to hear his case when his accusers would arrive. In the meantime Paul was kept and held in Herod’s judgement hall.
One can see the antichristian forces gathering in similar mode today. Christianity is being morphed into a new kind of religion and relativism that is at variance with the TRUTH of the true gospel. Slowly but surely you see many known Christian leaders changing or altering their views on morality and absolutes. The Truth in the end will prevail but who will be holding its banner? It is going to take the strength and character of a Paul, a Stephen, a Daniel and his three friends and selected others that will prevail.