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Text – Nehemiah 7
Today we come to the only chapter in Nehemiah that made me almost not teach Nehemiah. This could be the most boring lesson ever taught if I just went name by name and tried to tell you something about each of these guys, but I think there is actually much to be learned here. This is going to be more of a topical lesson today than an expositional lesson.
Let’s talk about topical versus expositional real quick. Expositional preaching is where you “expose” the meaning of a text, to let the text speak on the topic or topics it is going to speak on. This is the preferred preaching method and the reason I go verse by verse through various books of the Bible, because then I don’t choose what you should learn, God has already written it out. A topical lesson on the other hand, is where we look at topics in the Bible instead of a single passage. It’s like if we wanted to look at God’s love or wrath, or one of Dave Snyder’s better jokes was his upcoming book, “Birds of the Bible.” Topical sermons can be very edifying, but their danger is that the preacher may be cheating you out of topics that you might never look at in topical sermons, like last week we looked at an imprecatory prayer, something no topical preacher would ever choose, or what has gotten me into more trouble than any other topic, how to confront false teachers.
There is a new phrase that has been coined called, “Topositional”, a topical lesson based on chapter by chapter preaching of the Bible. This lesson will be a topositional sermon, we’ll be looking at three topics pulled from Nehemiah 7. The first will be that God cares for us individually; the second will be how people before Jesus were saved; and third will be an apologetic look at God’s order and the historicity of the Bible, and maybe even talk about some numerology. These three won't necessarily go in order.
I had a terrible time deciding if we should read the whole chapter, let’s start by reading the part I know we should read,
Nehemiah 7:1-4 Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many. And I said to them, “Let not the gates ofJerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.” The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.
Remember that in the last chapter the walls were finished, but the doors were not installed yet. Here in the beginning of chapter 7 the doors are put in place, and we see a ceremony to open and shut them for the first time. During this time, Nehemiah officially turns the city over to two godly men, his brother, whose petition had started the rebuilding process, and a man we know very little about named Hananiah (an especially popular name in the Old Testament) who though Nehemiah chose for being an exceptionally godly man. Our first application is that we ought to strive to have someone be able to say the same about us!
So they wait until the sun is up and it is hot out, partly so they can see any enemies approaching, and also so any enemies would be dissuaded to fight due to the heat. It was an ingenious way to avoid a fight. It reminds me of one of my favorite verses,
Hebrews 12:14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
Nehemiah looks around the city, which was quite large, a little more than six miles around, and sees that for the most part it is very sparsely populated. So that brings us to the rest of chapter 7, I decided we should read it, except we’re going to skip the numbers.
Nehemiah 7:5 Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first, and I found written in it:
Wait, stop there for a moment. Look who put it into Nehemiah’s heart, not just God, but “my God”, we’re going to see in this chapter that God cares for his church as well as the individuals in his church.
The list we’re going to see was compiled by Ezra, you can find almost the exact list in Ezra 2, but they are not exactly the same, sometimes the numbers are quite a bit different. You can find this is various other lists of names in the Bible, usually there is a logical answer as to why they are different, like look at verse 10, it says in Nehemiah’s list there are 652, but in Ezra’s list there were 775, and verse 11, Nehemiah’s list says 2818, but in Ezra’s list there are 2812. The logical answer is that in one case more said they would leave Babylon than made it to Jerusalem, some may have died, others may have changed their mind and stayed back. The cooler example is when there are more in Nehemiah’s list, because that means they originally didn’t return to Jerusalem, but later did decide to return. We don’t have time to look at the parable, but Jesus makes it abundantly clear that it is better to be obedient after saying you’ll be disobedient than to be disobedient after you say you will obey. (cf. Matthew 21:28-31)
Another option, which seems right in a few places, though I’m not sure, but is likely not true for this example, is what is called “copyist errors”, where someone was supposed to write 3000 but only wrote 300. Whether these are errors or not, and I believe they are not errors but have good explanations for appearing to be errors, it actually shows us something amazing about the Bible, that for more than two-thousand years the Bible has not been edited. Sometimes people claim that the Bible has been changed year after year and it’s no longer a reliable copy of the original. But if the Bible were being edited, the first thing people would have done is tried to take out the supposed errors, but we see that they haven’t, and the Old Testament we read today is the same Old Testament that Jesus read, is the same Old Testament that Nehemiah and others wrote down.
Confusing enough? In the early 1900’s, the oldest copy of the Old Testament we had was from about AD1100, more than a millennia after the New Testament was written. Some people doubted the age of the Old Testament, and this hurt the prophecies of the Old Testament, because people thought, of course the prophecies are perfect if the Old Testament was written after the New Testament. Well, this drove an effort to do what is called “Biblical Archaeology”, or to find some of the sites the Old Testament describes, like the old city of Jericho, which they found in ruins just like Joshua describes it. In 1946 they found what has since been called the “Qumran” or “Dead Sea Scrolls”, which were copies of the Old Testament dating from ~150BC. These copies were identical to the copies that were much later, showing that no editing had been done, even on supposed “errors”.
So, there are logical reasons why the numbers don’t match up, but also let this strengthen your faith in the transmission of the Bible that the Old Testament we are reading today is exactly the same Old Testament that Jesus read 2000 years ago.
So then, let’s read Nehemiah 7, sans numbers,
These are a lot of names, and beloved, I can tell you less than a sentence about most of them. But check out:
Luke 12:6-7 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
It doesn’t matter if you are super famous or totally unknown, God knows you, even infinitely tiny details about you, and he cares for you. None of these people who are utterly forgotten to us are forgotten to him. This list would have made way more sense to us if we were living in Jerusalem in 445BC, but now even the places are foreign to us, for example, he says, “The other Nebo”, we don’t know where either Nebo is, but the original audience did. It’s likely, if the world lasts another thousand years, that nobody will have a clue that there was a Summit Baptist Church or a Canyon Shearer or (insert your name), but God will, and you know who else will? Anybody who you preached Christ to, whether they are in Heaven because they repented, or whether they are in Hell because they held to their sin.
So what do you think happened to these Jews here who were trusting in the faithfulness of God (we’ll see in chapter 8 and 9 that they were), did they die and go to Hell because they didn’t believe that Jesus died on a cross and rose again? How could they possibly believe in something that had yet to happen? Throughout the Old Testament there are references to people going to be with God, having their sins forgiven, and having an eternal happiness. How can that be?
Romans 4:3 For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness."
These Jews were saved by believing that someday, in some way, God would rescue them and put their sins away.
Ephesians 4:7-8 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men."
These Old Testament saints were not allowed into Heaven, but neither were they forsaken, and when Christ defeated death, ascended to Heaven, and opened the gates, they were allowed into glory. They were saved not because they believed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but because they trusted that God would save them. The gospel is that God saves those who trust in him, Jesus Christ is the way he made that effectual. I often tell atheists, "I don't believe in God, I know there is a God, I believe he will save me from death when I step out of this world." Then I explain to them how I know that he is able to do that, having forgiven my sins, nailing them to a cross, and by raising Christ from the dead.
Does that make sense on how God saved people before Jesus? Think about this point as well, that many people in the Old Testament are currently in Hell. In 1 Peter 3 it says that Jesus preached through Noah to people who are now in Hell.
Alright, so we've seen that God cares for us individually as well as corporately, we've seen how Old Testament saints were saved by their faith in God, just as we're saved by our faith in God, accomplished through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, proven by an empty cross and an empty grave. Now we're going to look briefly at the order of God and a quick look into numerology, or a study of biblical numbers.
1 Corinthians 14:33,40 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace...all things should be done decently and in order.
There are a surprising number of people today, even within Christianity, who think that there is power in certain numbers and evil in others. For example, what is an unlucky number? 13, right? No! There are no unlucky numbers, there are no lucky numbers! Numbers are neutral.
There are preachers today who say that 40 is a special number, that if you do 40 days of something, you'll be blessed. Another preacher says that Satan hates the number 7 and by speaking in 7's you can hide your intentions from the Devil. Others play with the years, saying that 2011 is the beginning of a new decade and that you need to give them even more money so the rest of your decade will be blessed. None of these is true, the universe is put together very mathematically, but that doesn't tell us that God can be manipulated through numbers, it says that God is very orderly and the operating principles of the universe show that he is faithful. Every time science does an experiment they affirm God's faithfulness, expecting the outcome to be measureable and repeatable.
A quote that I like is "Science is thinking God's after him." Remember, it's not science versus God or the Bible, it is God and science versus sin. I'd love to camp out on this idea, but we're running out of time and that was sort of a rabbit trail.
There is a present day antichrist leading people away via radio named Harold Camping, he is basically a present day Joseph Smith (who started the Mormon cult) and the major way he is leading people astray is by messing with some numbers in the Bible and determining that the end of the world is for sure going to happen on May 21st, 2011. We have a little more than a month left, if he's right. Do you think he's right? We talked about this a bit when we looked at the 2012 end-time date. No, they are obviously not right,
Matthew 24:36 But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
So, here is our final application, we sort of got off track, but I wanted you to know the things we got off track on, which is the beauty of a topical lesson. God is a God of order, he knows both the number of people in his church, as well as each individual personally. We see this list that Nehemiah has as a precursor to a much more important list in the New Testament. Nehemiah's roll is just the membership of Jerusalem, and none of our names were on it, what we are much more concerned about is the membership roll of Heaven,
Revelation 21:26-27 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
So, cast your cares on Christ, know that he cares for you. Know that your Bible is trustworthy, know that there will be a great number of saints in Heaven from both before Christ and after Christ, and be hastening his return by preaching the gospel calling people to flee to the Lamb who was slain, who is alive forevermore. Know that no-one knows the day or the hour of his return, so don't fixate on any given date, just know that this present evil age will not last forever. In everything, know that God is not a God of confusion, but of peace, so let everything you do be done decently and in order.