Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
When a community has been in decline or some good habits have fallen off, rededication is often in order. This passage shows us how to rededicate our church to the Lord.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
I’ve been in some pain the last couple weeks because I recently rededicated myself to exercise. Let’s just say this pandemic hasn’t exactly been helpful for my bodily health. Trying new things is kind of exciting, but when you’ve fallen out of something for a while, it can be hard to rededicate yourself to it. In the passage at which we are looking today, we’re nearing the end of the book of Nehemiah. The book focused in the beginning on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, and at this point it’s turned to rebuilding the people of Jerusalem. In this passage, as we get toward the end, the two converge as the people assemble for the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem. But really, it’s a rededication: The city has been built and dedicated to the Lord hundreds of years before, but after destruction and exile, a rededication was fitting. So also for churches and our individual Christian lives, as we are prone to wander from the Lord, regular rededication is part of rebuilding. Rebuilding requires rededicating, and this passage shows us three ways to rededicate ourselves to the LORD: Purify yourself, sing God’s praises, and support God’s workers.
Our passage begins with the preparations for the dedication of the wall. The first few verses make clear that the main thing they’re planning to do is sing. They gather together the Levites and the singers, but before the singing actually begins, verse 30 tells us the priests and the Levites purified themselves, and they purified the people and the gates and the wall. They’re rededicating not only themselves, but the city of Jerusalem, to God. The text obviously doesn’t tell us how they did this: Based on other biblical texts, we can guess it might have involved ceremonial washings with water, the offering of a sacrifice, and/or special prayers. Such things are no longer binding on us today, but the principle remains: Only a purified people can offer acceptable worship to a pure and holy God.
So Jesus tells us, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Similarly, lately when we take the Lord’s Supper, I’ve been reading from 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, which says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Earlier in 1 Corinthians, the church is told to purge an evil person from among them, so that they might “celebrate the feast” “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:13, 8).
Coming to church and especially taking the Lord’s Supper is like a weekly rededication festival, but you shouldn’t do it without purifying yourself first. Do you have unresolved conflict with someone, especially a fellow church member? Sometimes that’s not on you, but the idea of what Jesus is saying about going and being reconciled to your brother before coming before the altar is doing what you can, so far as it depends on you, to be genuinely reconciled. If you’ve sinned against them, confess and seek their forgiveness. If they’ve sinned against you, forgive them. Don’t take the Lord’s Supper with them as a sign of your union with them if you aren’t actually unified. Is there sin in your life that’s not against another person, but simply against God? Don’t come worship Him and think that’s going to cover up for it. God sees it. Confess it, repent of it, then take the Supper. Is there sin you’re planning to commit after you leave church that day? Change your plans, then take the Supper. Is there sin in our midst as a church that we aren’t dealing with? Let’s faithfully carry out the discipline process Jesus gave us, then celebrate the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. These things are how a rededication to the LORD begins. You can’t just hop right in; you’ve got to purify yourself of what has defiled you. Then, sing God’s praises.
Sing God’s praises
The focus of this passage really is on the singing. In verse 27 we read that they gathered the Levites in order to celebrate the festival with gladness, with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. There were even specially designated singers that we read about next. The verses after the purification narrate how the singers were organized and located, and then verse 42 tells us the singers sang. Why at a rededication ceremony did they have such a focus on singing?
Well, for one thing, singing is one of the most common commands in the whole Bible. They didn’t just ask what would make them feel a certain way; they worshiped God according to the standard He’d given them in His Word. Verse 45 makes that clear, where we read that they performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon, commands recorded for them in the Book of the Law. It’s even been said that singing is the most common command in the Bible. It’s more common than commands to evangelize, abstain from sex outside of marriage, or even pray. But there’s another reason given in our passage in verse 43. There we read that they rejoiced because God had made them rejoice with great joy. Most of the things in my life that bring me joy don’t give me that kind of joy. When my kids do something extra cute let’s say, my wife and I are always telling each other about it. But we don’t sing about it. No, that kind of joy is uniquely appropriate to the one who is joy, the highest good, and the source of all other joys. When He lets you see His goodness and gives you a sense of it upon your heart, singing songs of rejoicing is the natural response.
It’s important to keep both of these reasons in mind: The command and the expression. The command is important to keep in mind because there are days when you aren’t filled with joy. On those days, you should admit that to God, and then sing anyway, because even on those days, God is still worthy of our rejoicing, even if we are struggling to feel that He is. But the expression component is important to remember too, because it really isn’t God’s end goal for you that you sing to Him with no joy in your heart from Him. He honors and blesses that, but if that becomes the norm for you, you really should stop and ask, “What is it about God that I’m not seeing? I know he is true joy and He’s revealed Himself to me. Why don’t I feel the joy that should come with that?” You can’t manufacture the feelings (verse 43 says it’s God who gives us this), but you can choose to sing, you can choose to meditate on what’s true of God, and ask Him to bring the joy to your heart. And when you are feeling the joy from the LORD, the command shows you how to express it: Sing according to the command of Scripture.
We also see here that the singing is something the people do together. Of all the times the Bible commands singing, I actually couldn’t find a single time an individual was commanded to sing to God privately. That doesn’t mean you can’t sing alone to God, but it does indicate that’s not what God intends when He commands us to sing. That’s even more so the case in the New Testament. At this service in Nehemiah you may have noticed there were designated singers. It’s the singers who sang in verse 42. Under the covenant given through Moses, worship was an activity of some in the community who were set aside to offer it regularly at the temple. But listen to this from the New Testament, written to a church: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19). The Bible’s not speaking to a subgroup there, and telling them to address the church with songs. It’s telling everyone of us in the church to address one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. As one author puts it, “When you join the church, you join the choir.”
Because here’s the deal: God’s glory is better displayed when black, white, Asian, Latino, male, female, rich, poor, old, young, assemble to sing His praises than when some subgroup of them does it, or when any one of those individuals does it by themselves in the comfort of their home. And, honestly, we need to hear one another singing what’s true of God. God is the primary audience of our worship, but Ephesians 5 shows us that a secondary reason God has us worship together as the people in this passage do is in order to address one another. I believe this stuff, but some Sundays my faith is weak, and my joy faint. So I need to see Voke, who I know is fearing for the safety of her family in Nigeria, lift her hands while singing God’s praises, and I need to hear her sing to God, “You are good, good.” I need to hear Frank, who I know is going through it at work right now, sing to me, “He’ll not let my soul be lost, his promises shall last, bought by Him at such a cost, He will hold me fast.” I need to hear Khoi and Jen who I know are concerned about the recent uptick of anti-Asian racism sing, “In Christ alone, my hope is found.” When I feel the weight of my sin, I need you all to sing to me, “Our sins, they are many, His mercy is more.” And even when I’m feeling blessed I need you all to sing to me, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also…the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
Maybe the style of some of the songs is hard for you; welcome to the club. I don’t like the style of half the songs we sing here. We are a diverse church, and we’re praying that God would enable us to become more diverse going forward. For us to sing together, then, that means we’re going to be singing songs that you wouldn’t sing or listen to if you were alone, that may make you uncomfortable. Our hope is just that it’s not the same people who are uncomfortable every week. That’s just loving and welcoming one another as God’s people.
Beyond that just being a loving thing toward one another, each of us has neighbors who are different from us too, and verse 43 shows us that as they sang, “the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” That’s not just an accident. We want the unbelieving people around us to not only hear the gospel when we speak it to them, we want them to hear it as we sing it together, and ideally to not hear something so musically distasteful to them that they dismiss the words. So we aren’t just trying to sing songs we like; we’re trying to sing songs that faithfully communicate the gospel and aren’t musically exclusive. We rededicate ourselves to the LORD by singing His praises together among the nations. And finally, we rededicate ourselves to the LORD by supporting His workers.
Support God’s workers
Now I’m just going to come out and say that this feels like an awkward point for me to make, because I am one of these workers, and this passages tells you all that you should pay me. Nonetheless, you don’t pay me to beat around the bush and avoid awkward passages, and these are the verses in front of us, so let’s look at this one: Verse 44 says on that day men were appointed over the storerooms, the contributions, the firstfruits, and the tithes, to gather into them the portions required by the Law for the priests and for the Levites according to the fields of the towns. Verse 47 goes on to tell us that all Israel, so the whole community, took responsibility to give daily portions for the singers and gatekeepers, set apart that which was for the Levites, and the Levites set aside that which was for the sons of Aaron, who were the priests. There were things that the singers, gatekeepers, Levites, and priests did at the temple that meant they couldn’t farm fields. Yet they still, like any human, needed food and shelter. So God commanded in His law that they get their living from the contributions of all Israel.
Again, New Testament is different; we don’t have designated singers, gatekeepers, Levites, and priests, but Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 – “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” So similar to singing, we have the command feature here: Verse 44 makes explicit that they give what is required by the Law, and here Paul says that the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But there’s also a joy element similar to that of singing: Read on in verse 44, and the reason given that they gave according to the Law is “for Judah rejoiced over the priests and the Levites who ministered.” Again, the command helps us when we don’t feel the joy, but it also shows us that we ought to feel the joy, and it shows us how to express it when do we feel the joy.
The people in this passage are rededicating themselves to the LORD, and they are filled with joy on that day, such great joy that it makes them sing according to the command of David and Solomon. And for that reason, they also rejoice in the priests and the Levites because they are ministering, they are serving, in this worship of the LORD. If you love the LORD, you will want to see Him praised, and if you want to see Him praised, you will rejoice in those who serve to make that happen. My father-in-law recently went into cardiac arrest at home, an event which only 5% of people who go through it survive. By God’s grace, he’s alive and well today. But do you know as we rejoiced in the LORD for this, we also rejoiced in my mother-in-law, who administered CPR for 5 minutes until the ambulance arrived, and we rejoiced in the ambulance workers who arrived within 5 minutes? Why? Because we love my father-in-law.
So also, if you love God, you should rejoice that someone sets aside time to prepare and preach His Word to you. You should rejoice that someone plans the music and leads us to sing God’s praises together. You should rejoice that you have pastors who pray for you and keep watch over your souls, who are willing to take on the responsibility to give an account to God on judgment day for how they cared for you. You should rejoice that you have pastors willing to make hard decisions for the direction of the church going forward. You should rejoice that there are people going out to the unreached peoples of the world to preach the gospel to them. With the stimmy hashtags flying and some of you perhaps expecting more income over the next year with the child tax credits, now is a providential time to consider: What will it look like for you to rededicate yourself to supporting God’s workers?
And yet, I’ll level with you: I think on some level it’s easier for me to esteem ambulance workers very highly in love because of their work than it is for me to esteem even other pastors very highly in love because of their work. Why? It’s not because I love my father-in-law too much; it’s because I love God too little. I feel what tragedy his death would have been, but I struggle to feel how tragic the eternal death of a lost soul is. My father-in-law puts joy in my heart, but I sometimes don’t feel much joy from the LORD. Aren’t you like me in some ways? This is why we need regular rededication and purification. But how often can you really purify? And how can you make sure you really cleansed all the sin out before coming into God’s presence? If we must be pure to offer acceptable worship to a pure God, how will our worship ever be acceptable? Can the washings and sacrifices offered in this ceremony really do it?
They can’t. The washings and sacrifices performed here according to God’s command were a shadow of a greater washing that comes through a greater sacrifice. We all have sinned, and so there was only ever one human who could offer to God truly pure, acceptable worship. Jesus Christ dedicated Himself to His Father alone, in order to rededicate us to God. On the cross He offered Himself, the one unblemished sacrifice, truly man and therefore able to die for the sins of man, but truly God and therefore able in 3 days to cleanse the sins it would have taken us an eternity to pay for. He rose from the dead, cleansed even of the defilement of death, and then sent His Spirit to sprinkle clean water on our sinful hearts. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14).
The only way to rededicate yourself to God with a clear conscience is to have your conscience cleansed by the blood of Christ. The only way to purify yourself is to repent and be baptized for the washing away of your sins. Do that, then come take the Supper. But don’t wait until you’ve perfected yourself, or else you will never come. If you are in Christ, not only are you acceptable to God, but your worship is also made acceptable to God in Him. So let’s sing together as one body in Him among the nations. Let’s provide for the ongoing worship of Him by supporting His workers. And let’s rejoice in our Savior, who has purified us by His blood, and whose love has been poured into our hearts by His Spirit.