Dedications And Purifications
Key Verse 13:22
“Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.”
Purification! Purification is the act of making that which had become dirty or contaminated clean again. The purification of the returned exiles— the people of God— was vital to the life of the newly rebuilt nation. The people under the leadership of Nehemiah had rebuilt the wall. The temple worship had been reinstitute. The Law had been publically read. And the people had responded to it. They had clearly seen their sins, and had publically vowed to correct the mistakes their ancestors made and to make a new beginning. They would live again as the chosen people of God— chosen to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In other words, they would once again fulfill their purpose to be for God an instrument of righteousness— to live by faith and to serve their mission. That’s what God wanted from them— to be shepherds for all the people of the world, and to lead the world by example, until the whole world returns to God.
But to be the shepherds God wanted them to be, they had to live by the word of God. They had to make a decision of faith to obey the word of God. And so they did. They vowed that they would obey the Law of God in its entirely. And to make it absolutely clear that they were fully aware of the sins their ancestors committed against God (and which led to the disciplinary exile), they stood there before the Lord and vowed to uphold these very laws absolutely. They bound themselves to God in a promissory covenant. Chapter 10 conveys the promises they made to keep before the Lord. First, they would take responsibility for upholding God’s marriage laws. They would not give nor take to themselves wives of a foreign nation. They had violated that sacred law and now they avowed themselves to God to no longer break the law of marriage. Second, they promised to keep the law of the holy Sabbath, giving the Sabbath its rightful place in their lives, because the Sabbath law was dear to the heart of God. Third, they promised to take responsibility to follow and obey all the laws dealing with tithes and offerings which God had imposed on his people. Fourth— and this one seemed to be a major breach of the love covenant with God— they promised to take good care of the house of God, the place where God promised to dwell with them, the place of holy fellowship with God. Unanimously they had declared with one voice: “we will not neglect the house of our God.”
And when they raised their voices to heaven declaring, “We will not neglect the house of our God”, they were as deeply convicted by their sin of neglect as they ever could be. For decades they had neglected the house of their God, the very place where God their Father had built for them and had dwelt with them and had called them to come to him for the forgiveness of their sins and the binding of their wounds and the healing of their hearts and souls. The house of the Lord had been for the people of God a shelter and a sanctuary, a haven and a resting place. It had been the one place on earth where they could find comfort and peace, and most of all, a love and compassion that could not be found anywhere else in the world. In their sinfulness, they had neglected it. In their pride and arrogance they had neglected it. In their complacency they had neglected it. The place where their children were dedicated and blessed by the Lord. They had neglected it. And for what? They had neglected it in pursuit of better things in the world. And there was no better place in the world. So when they stood on that day and lifted their voices to heaven saying: “We will not neglect the house of our God”, their hearts were as repentant, as tender and as eager to make the house of the Lord their home, for home is where one’s heart is, and their hearts were now at one with God.
“We will not neglect the house of our God” was a vow they made to return to God, to remain with God, to be for God once again a God’s people, a people who deeply understood that to be with God and to enjoy fellowship with God is the chief end of a soul; that “better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Ps.84:10); They shared David’s heart when he said: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Ps. 73:25) To better understand their conviction we only need to remember Saint Peter’s words to the Lord Jesus when he humbly confessed: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn. 6:68) Indeed, where and to whom shall we go but to the Lord in his house.
And when they made that good promise not to neglect the house of God, it was a decision of heart to give of their material goods and their skills and their time and their service. It was also a decision to give of themselves as well. No sooner did they make that goodly vow to not neglect the house of God, than God landed a tremendous challenge of faith in their laps. Who among them would make that ultimate sacrifice to offer their bodies as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God as their spiritual act of worship? (Rom.12:1) Chapter 11 of Nehemiah tells their story. The walls of the city were rebuilt. The house of God was rebuilt. But who would fill them and bring life to them? Offerings and titles were aplenty. But who would offer their own lives and families to actually live within the walls of the city? Who would offer their lives and families from among those who were consecrated to the Lord to live within the temple walls and perform the numerous duties required to upkeep the house of God? Usually there is no shortage of work of God to be done, but almost always a shortage of workers to do it. It was our Lord Jesus who in the same spirit once said: “The harvest if plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Lk. 10:2) Reviving the heart of a nation— the city of Jerusalem— was not easy. It would take dedicated sacrificial workers ready to give their lives in exchange. And so the bravest of hearts volunteered to be uprooted from the comforts of their rural homes and to settle in Jerusalem and the house of God. And when their numbers were no enough, others were chosen by divine lot to fill in what was required. Either way, chapters 11 and 12 is a divine record of those whose sacrifices made spiritual history.
Purification! The remainder of the book of Nehemiah, the grand ending of this remarkable book, deals with issues of dedication and purification. In the last part of chapter 12, the wall is dedicated, and everything and everyone was purified. And by the nature of purification or of what purification is all about, this was the first but it would not be the last time a purification ceremony would be required or carried out. What is dedicated in God’s history, is usually dedicated to God and to God’s use and service. And what is purified, is usually purified from sin and from corruption for the purpose of dedication or re-dedication to God. When we read in chapter 12-13 what happened after the dedication of the wall, and the purification which everything and everyone had to undergo, we clearly see the true condition of the human nature. And we also see the depth and width and the far reaches of God’s grace and mercy.
Chapter 12:27-47, recounts the dedication ceremony of the wall. The ceremony was indeed elaborate. Nehemiah describes the proceedings of the dedication ceremony almost step by step. The priest and the Levites as well as the singers were all brought from wherever they had resided into the city of Jerusalem. They were brought to celebrate together with the people the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem. Some were to go to the top of the wall, while others were to proceed somehow in a circuit around the wall, reaching some of the gates and towers. They celebrated with singers and instrument players the whole while. Nehemiah includes himself in the dedication celebration. He tells us: “The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials.” The procession of celebrants would make their way to the house of God where the dedication of the wall would take place. Here is how they did it. Read 12:43. “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.” We see from these words that they celebrated with offerings and sacrifices. And we see that they did it with great joy welling up in their hearts until the whole world could hear the sounds of jubilation coming from the city. It is significant to also note that while the source of their joy was the actual celebration, the joy they experienced came from the Lord, “because God had given them great joy”. In Biblical history it was always God himself who is the wellspring and giver of joy. Even on the eve of his painful crucifixion and the disciples’ own anguish Jesus still taught them the essence of real joy, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in your and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn. 15:11)
Read verse 12:47. “So in the days of Zerubbabel and of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers. They also set aside the portion for the other Levites, and the Levites set aside the portion for the descendants of Aaron.” They had vowed to not neglect the house of their God, and they had begun to fulfill their promise and to take their responsibility seriously. But they begun to fulfill another obligation as well, an obligation most crucial in the upkeep of the city, of the house of God. Read verse 12:30. “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.” They had an obligation and a responsibility to purify all things before the Lord. They also had an obligation and a responsibility to purify their own hearts and the hearts of the people. Their hearts and souls needed cleansing from sin. For no one can come into God’s presence with a sinful and corrupt hearts. It needs to be purified. And it needs to be purified time and again. For these Jews, the purification ceremony required the blood of animals, sacrifices made on their behalf for the cleansing from sin. And they needed a continuous flow of the blood of sacrifices in order to keep them purified before God— to come into his presence— to serve his purpose.
Things have changed a lot for God’s people ever since that time. The Lord Jesus came and sacrificed himself on the behalf of all sinners. And faith in his him cleanses a man or woman from sin once for all, for Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all, and exceedingly sufficient— unlike the animal sacrifices that were never enough and had to be given time and again on behalf of the people and of the nation. And we thank the Lord Jesus for giving us a purification and cleansing from sin once for all. But regardless of how much a Christian is purified once for all, still the Christian must come before God on a continuous basis to be purified from sin, claiming the blood of the Lord Jesus to cover sins. No sacrifices are needed. But purification is needed because the Christian walks in a world contaminated and corrupted by sin. It takes a humble heart to do so, a heart that recognizes how deeply sinful the soul is and how greatly needy it is of the grace of the Lord Jesus. It also takes a diligent heart that listens to the urging of the word of God and of the Holy Spirit to be purified and cleansed by the blood of Jesus lest we become complacent and take the blood of our Lord for granted. We need to be purified time and again, because like the Israelites of Nehemiah’s day we tend to break promises given, turn our backs on vows made to follow and to obey the word of God— because like the Israelites of Nehemiah’s day, we grow unfaithful to God the moment we find ourselves enjoying a time of God’s grace and mercy.
While chapter 10 is the story of the returned exiles who vowed to obey the word of God, stating exactly what commands were most urgent to obey, chapter 13 is the story of the same people who were quick to break every promise they made to God. Chapter 13 truly reveals the utter sinfulness of man, and the utter faithfulness of God who called his people to mold them into a people useful to God and close to his heart. Read verses 13:1-3. They had read the law before and discovered many things in it. And even though they had understood once that they ought not intermarry with foreigners, it seems that this time the law they read spoke specifically of the Ammonites and Moabites whom Israel was absolutely forbidden to marry— on account of how they treated with God’s people when God’s people were still on their pilgrimage to the promised land and vulnerable. God could not overlook this great sin that these foreign people had committed against the then infant Israel— God’s people. They took advantage of them in their weakness and plotted against them to cause them to sin against God. They had particularly used their own women to seduce God’s people, and many of them had fallen during that time to the seductions of these foreign women. To God it was like watching one’s own son or daughter be led astray in front of one’s own eyes, by a wily and dangerous person, and helplessly watching their demise. God could not stand that, and never forgot this grievous violation of these foreign people. He forbid Israel to accept them into the assembly of God.
Now it seems that the wounds of the past were opening up again. The exiles had married these foreign women and by virtue of their marriage, they had been admitted into the assembly of God. And God was not happy about that. Partly because his word had been disobeyed, and partly because a recent vow had been broken, and mostly because to enter into the assembly of God— to become one of God’s people— is a privilege reserved for those whom God would accept as his people. It was tragic that so many of these foreigners were being accepted as the people of God simply because they had married one of God’s people. The privilege was reserved to those who would enter by faith, and who would commit their hearts and lives to the Lord and to his glory. To breach such a privilege and to treat it lightly was a grave sin against God. It is like being granted the privilege of being a Christian only by virtue of marrying a Christian or by virtue of invitation to receive such a title. The word of God explicitly tells us what a great privilege it is for a Christian to be a Christian. The word of God is explicit when it tells us that no one can come to God except through Christ, and specifically through faith in Christ. This privilege if it is violated for any reasons, demeans everything the Lord Jesus had done no the cross and in his resurrection. We must honor that privilege ourselves, and also treat it with respect and honor, with humility and with tears, and not take it for granted. When the Israelites learned the grave sin they had committed in this, they did what was right. They excluded all the foreigners from the assembly of God. These who were excluded must petition God alone, New Testament based on their marriage, but based on God’s own standard of who may or may not be called by his name.
Look at verses 4-9. Here Nehemiah also learned of another grave sin these people had committed against God while Nehemiah was away on business with the king of Persia. They had violated the law of God and admitted a foreigner who was an avowed enemy of God and of God’s people, to the temple no less. They had given Tobiah room to stay at the temple, when the temple was exclusively reserved to Israelites and not only any Israelite but Levites and priests who were chosen by God for this tremendous responsibility of keeping the house of God. And it seemed that the high priest himself had given the permission for this sin and the violation of God’s law. It was a thing that should not have been done in the house of God. Only a while ago they had vowed to keep the temple pure and holy. And now they had broken one of the most sacred laws of the temple. It revealed that they had lost their reverence for God and had become pragmatic in the way of their thinking. They had reasoned that it might be politically or socially a good move to accept Tobiah who had earlier been hostile to God. But God never compromises and neither should his people. Those who do things in Christian life based on reasons, or on convenience, or based on their comforts and self interests rather than on God’s interests— those are they who had replaced the fear and love of God with their own twisted motives and sinful desires for personal gain or glory. Nehemiah did what he needed to do when he cast this outsider out. He did no less than what Jesus did when he entered the temple and saw that all kinds of business transactions were being made in the guise of serving God. We ought to learn how to keep what is God’s holy, out lives, our children, our motives, our desires— all must remain under God’s grace so that we may not sin against God in our moments of weakness to the world.
Look at verses 10-13. Nehemiah discovered upon his return that those who needed to remain in the house of God were for the most part gone to their homes in the villages. They had gone because there was not enough in the temple treasury to support them and the work of God going on at the temple. It seemed that the Israelites who had vowed to not neglect the house of God had already broken that vow and neglected the very house they vowed not to neglect. What a tragic turn of events, to see the beautiful and gracious house of God abandoned for lack of funds. What excuse can those who have been blessed by God and called to be his vey own people, who have been given privileges and forgiveness of sin, what excuse do they have for not giving of their hearts and goods to the house of God! Nehemiah was appalled at how quickly they had neglected the house of God and their fundamental duty towards God. So he appointed trustworthy men to this most holy task. The house of God of God must never be neglected. Nor those who keep the flame of faith burning for the sake of the people’s life and the life of the nations they serve.
Look at verses 15-21. Nehemiah also witnessed how the Sabbath law had been violated as well. He said 18— Read it: “Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” They had vowed to keep the Sabbath holy. But when they saw the goods to be bought and sold on the Sabbath, how it would be a shame to ignore such business opportunities, they were quick to give in to the temptation and thereby violate the law of the Sabbath. They sinned because they thought and acted reasonably, according to the worldly standards. In a worldly way, to break the Sabbath for good opportunities was reasonable and commendable. But as God’s people they should never treat the day of the Lord’s day with contempt. They should honor God’s law to keep the Sabbath holy to God. Nehemiah warned them that it was because their ancestors broke the Sabbath law God brought calamity upon them. How much more will he bring calamity on these people when they purposely and knowingly violated the word of God!
After Nehemiah rebuked them for violating the Sabbath, look at what he did. Read verse 22. “Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” Nehemiah commanded the spiritual leaders, those who should have known better than to sin and to cause others to sin as well, to purify themselves. They needed to repent and ask God’s forgiveness for what they had done. They needed to truly purge their hearts of any desire to use the Sabbath for any other purpose than to honor God. God demands worship on the Sabbath. He demands that we give our hearts and minds to him on the Sabbath so that he might commune and fellowship with us as we commune and fellowship with him. God is a father who wants his children to deeply understand his love and his intense desire to shine in the hearts of the people as a beacon for all other people. If we do not uphold what is most sacred in the eyes of God, and comprmise our faith and commitment, how can we ever hope to win all other peoples to the cross of our Lord Jesus! Jesus taught us how to honor him, how we must live by faith and obey his will and serve his purpose. As Jesus tells us that we did not choose him but he chose us to go and to bear fruit— fruit that will last. (Jn. 15:16) And how can we bear that kind of everlasting fruit if we are not absolute about some of the most basic commands and faiths that are sacred to God and should therefore be sacred to us as well. Thank God who forgives our trespasses, who covers our weaknesses, who has shed his Son’s blood on our behalf so that when we have violated his laws we can simply come and be purified again and again. May God truly purify us as we again and again make holy decisions of faith to live not by our own thinking of feelings but by the word of God and the guidance of his Holy Spirit.
Look at verses 22-28. Nehemiah had to once again face the violation of the very law they had sworn to obey, regarding intermarriage. They had violated this law more than once, too may times in fact. Now Nehemiah was severe with them. His method of disciplining them was severe, something no one would ever do even if others deserved it. But when we consider how much worse it would be for the sinner who in unforgiven, for the sinner who ignores God’s word time and again, for the sinner whose wages are far worse than anything Nehemiah could have done that seemed too severe in human eyes— when we consider how serious it is for the unforgiven sinner to meet with God’s just judgment, then we can clearly see the heart of Nehemiah the shepherd who would rather fight with God’s people to make them obey the will of God rather than ignore their fate and commit them to God’s just judgment. Nehemiah did not want to see them perish in their sins. He had sacrificed his own life in order to build them and to rebuild them in the way God would reshape the nation. He deeply loved them. His treatment of them was more love than anger. Like a father who disciples his children severely so that they might face the consequences of their sins, so also Nehemiah lived and acted the shepherd God called him to be.
Look at verses 29-31. “Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, O my God.” Frequently, Nehemiah stops to pray. He prays that God would remember him, and remember how much God had invested into these people to give up on them now. For they had violated laws in the same way their ancestors had. They were no better off than their ancestors. But they were different in the sense that they were ready to repent and to start again. They were great in that sense. They were just weak. And Nehemiah prays for them according to the sins they had committed. In his prayers, he lists what they had done and relies on God’s mercy. He also purifies the priests, and so teaches them the importance of purification, time and again. He would prepare them as a nation worthy to bring forth the Messiah. A nation that is humble and that knows the grace of God. May God helps us to make decisions of faith that would change our lives and would also change the world. May God also help us come to Jesus for purification until the walls of our lives and ministry can stand tall enough to show Jesus to the world. Amen.