Taking Time to Give Thanks

Nehemiah 11-12

November 12, 2000 | Brian Bill

You made a good decision this morning to come to church because I have some inside information about the recent presidential election that you will not hear on CNN.  With all the intrigue and controversy surrounding the final tally, coupled with the waiting that we’ve had to do as a country, I wanted to fill you in on what really happened this past Tuesday.

The election, contrary to what the experts have been telling us, did not swing on the sunshine state of Florida.  The outcome was actually determined by a group of relatively unknown, first-time voters who cast their ballots a short distance from here.  

It was a landslide and there will be no recount – in a tightly contested race between a cat and a dog, the cat won by a certified margin of 6 to 2!

A kindergarten class participated in the election by marking their ballots for either the canine or the feline (and there was no confusion about who they were voting for!).  Mr. Cat now has a clear mandate since he received 75% of the vote.  As far as I know, we are not waiting for any absentee ballots!

I read something this week from Chuck Colson, President of Prison Fellowship that helps us keep the presidential election in perspective.  I want to share part of it with you:

“Whichever way things turn out, some people will be joyous, and some people will be dismayed.  But one thing is absolutely clear.  It should not alter in the slightest the course that we, as Christians, follow in our society…If you’re disappointed in the election results when they’re finally clear, that’s understandable.  All of us have partisan choices.  Maybe you’ll be jubilant over them.  If so, you’re going to think, ‘Well, the culture war’s been won.’  And if you’re discouraged over the results, you’ll think, ‘The culture war’s been lost.’  Nonsense!

Cultures are changed from the bottom up.  Fads start from the top down.  Movements start from the bottom up…what moves America are the ‘habits of the heart.’  This is the genius of America.  We are moved by the tastes and dispositions of the people.  We’re moved by the way we live with our neighbors around us.  People need to see something better, something that they can long for in our lives.  That isn’t affected by elections.  They’re not going to look to Washington for that, they’re going to look to us.  

So we keep living in biblical faithfulness.  And remember, too, that God appoints the leaders.  And that whatever happens in the election that’s now being tallied; we have to accept God’s sovereign judgment.  We have to pray for those in authority.  We have to respect those whom God has put in power over us, and live peaceably in the midst of whatever government we have.  The first century church did that; the twenty-first century church ought to be doing exactly the same thing.  Don’t be overly jubilant, but don’t despair. Take a cool-headed perspective and keep your Christian faith and your Christian witness strong.” (Break Point with Charles Colson, 11/8/2000)

Colson is saying that we need to keep the main thing the main thing.  We need to focus on the most important.  As we near the end of the Book of Nehemiah, we’re discovering what really matters.   As someone has said, “God is large and in charge.”

When an election is this close, it shows the value of everyone’s vote.  When there are only a few votes separating the candidates, some have suggested that we should just flip a coin or have them draw straws.  I’m not sure this would be the best way to elect a president today, especially when there’s such a difference between their personalities, their platforms and their positions.

In Nehemiah 11, we come across a situation where the people are faced with a national referendum.  But instead of taking a vote, they flip a coin to determine what should be done.  Actually, the biblical phrase is that they “cast lots.”  In the Old Testament, the casting of lots was like throwing dice and was a way of discovering God’s will.  We even see this used in the Book of Acts when the disciples are trying to figure out who should replace Judas in Acts 1:26: “Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

They didn’t believe in “luck” or “chance.”  They actually were so committed to the sovereignty of God that they knew God would direct the outcome of the lots according to His divine providence.  Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”  The votes are cast by the people but the election is determined by the Lord.

Since the walls and gates of Jerusalem were now restored, it was important that the builders inhabit their capital city and make the population grow.  Some of the citizens volunteered willingly while others had to be “drafted.”  We see this in verse 1: “Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.”  The people had promised to tithe their produce and income in chapter 10; now Nehemiah decides to tithe the people by arranging for 10% of them to move from the suburbs to the city.

These believers exhibited four counter-cultural traits that have application to us today.  Regardless of who is the president, this is how God wants us to live.

4 Traits to Emulate

1. Move out of your comfort zone. 

Most of the families living outside Jerusalem depended entirely on the land for their daily existence.  Over the years they had developed a pattern of life as they plowed, planted and harvested their crops.  For many of them, the thought of leaving their comfort zone was highly traumatic.  But some left their homes, relatives, neighbors, work, friends, and familiar routines to set up a new life in a radically different environment.

Are you willing to leave your comfort zone for the sake of the kingdom?  I don’t know what God might be asking you to do, but I do know that He wants you to be available.  I’ll never forget what God did about five years ago, as a result of a prayer I prayed: “Lord, I’m willing to do whatever you want, to go wherever you want, whenever you want it.”  It was shortly after this that God moved us out of our comfortable routine in Rockford, Illinois to the heart of Mexico City.  

What is God asking you to do that may stretch you?  Maybe you need to check out a short-term missions trip.  As you pray for your neighbors, and look for ways to care for them, God wants to use you to share with them.  For many of us, that’s outside our comfort zone.  Whatever it is, tell God you’re willing to live outside your normal boundaries.  Let him stretch you.

2. Commit to holiness. 

After moving out of their comfort zone, the believers commit to holy living.  They didn’t just agree to live in a remodeled city; they were coming to “the holy city.”  Nehemiah was fascinated by the holy and has reminded us that the Sabbath is a distinctive day (10:31) and that the temple sacrifices are sanctified (10:33).  His ministry partner, Ezra, emphasized that God’s people need to be holy (Ezra 9:2).  Jerusalem itself was set apart for the Lord’s special use.  To live in Jerusalem and be given the opportunity to serve God in such a holy place was an immense privilege.  This would outweigh their natural sense of disappointment about leaving their friends and families.

To live in the holy city might be a great privilege, but it was also a challenging responsibility. It’s one thing to have a home in a holy city; it’s another thing to make a home holy., .  Living in a holy context did not automatically transmit holiness to the individual citizens – they were made holy be giving everything over to God.  Have you committed yourself to holiness and purity?  Are you living your life separated from the “world” because you’re set apart for His use?

3. Mobilize for ministry. 

Now that the people were committed to live outside their comfort zone and wholeheartedly devoted to holy living, they are now ready to be mobilized for ministry.  We’ve already seen that some people were drafted to live in Jerusalem.  But there were others who offered themselves freely to this new work in verse 2: “The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

In the remainder of chapter 11, we see that God has always used a wide variety of people.   I see three different groups in this passage:

Those with leadership gifts.  In addition to the leaders mentioned in verse 1, there were “provincial leaders” mentioned in verse 3.  These pacesetters were noble examples to those who were relocating to Jerusalem.  If the leaders are out front, then others will follow.  Someone has said, ‘The speed of the leader determines the speed of the team.”  This is true.  As the leaders of our church commit their time, talents and treasures to kingdom living and kingdom expansion, the environment is set for others to follow that example.

  • Those with administrative gifts.  As you read this long list of names in chapter 11, there were other people who served as administrators.  Verse 9: “Joel son of Zicri was the chief officer, and Judah…was over the Second District.”  These officers made sure the city functioned well and that the infrastructure was sufficient to handle the growing population.
  • Those with serving giftsVerse 16 tells us that two guys “had charge of the outside work of the house of God.”  The temple had to be kept in good repair and these individuals dedicated their practical skills to care for the building.  We have been blessed with deacons at PBC who serve with both their hearts and their hands.  Thanks, guys for your commitment to this part of the ministry.  Actually, this church is filled with people who use their serving gifts on a regular basis.  You are appreciated!

Friend, are you mobilized for ministry?  As Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 make clear, every believer has at least one spiritual gift that has been given to be used.  We are saved to serve.  As I like to say: No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.  Let me encourage you to find your ministry niche and discover the joy of serving in your area of giftedness.

4. Adore God in worship.  

Take a look at 11:17 where we see that Mattaniah was the “director who led in thanksgiving and prayer.” In thanksgiving we acknowledge God’s generosity.  In prayer we seek God’s help.  These themes were often expressed in song as we see in verse 22: “Uzzi was one of Asaph’s descendants, who were the singers responsible for the service of the house of God.” 

Praise and prayer are central to the spiritual life of God’s people

David had commissioned his worship leader Asaph in a similar way centuries earlier in 1 Chronicles 16:8: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name.”  Praise and prayer are central to the spiritual life of God’s people.  

Guidelines for Worship

Worship can be defined as “worth-ship,” where we engage our mind, our emotions, and our will to gratefully acknowledge the worth of our God.  There is no other human activity as lofty as that of adoring God.  As important as electing a president is to our country, the determination to worship God is supreme.  Like Colson said, “we must keep living in biblical faithfulness.”   The Westminster Shorter Catechism states “our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” 

If we’ve been made to magnify the Majesty, then we need to know how to do that.  

Nehemiah 12 begins with a long list of names.  Verse 24 helps us see that there were two choirs who stood opposite from each other to “give praise and thanksgiving.”  I want to spend our remaining moments gleaning 4 worship guidelines from verses 27-47.

1. The Purpose of Worship.

Let’s start by looking at the purpose of worship.  In verse 27 we read about a dedication service for the newly constructed wall.  The Levites were brought “to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.”  Grateful celebration, thanksgiving and dedication are the three main themes, and they take us to the heart of what worship is all about.

Celebration is the primary aspect of worship.  It does not begin with us, but with who God is, what God has said, and what God has done.  Thanksgiving was a way of marveling at God’s generosity.  Verse 31 tells us that the choirs were appointed “to give thanks.”  That was their job or purpose.  Let me just say that our thanksgiving needs to be specific.  I think its best when we can itemize our thanks to God.  

These three elements of celebration, thanksgiving and dedication are expressed by our total being.  When we celebrate, we engage our minds by recalling what God has said and done.  When we give thanks, we express our hearts in gratitude.  And, in dedication we employ our wills by surrendering to Him.

2. The Joy of Worship. 

The opportunity to magnify God was a supremely happy occasion

The secret of acceptable worship is not simply what we do but how we do it.  The new residents of Jerusalem radiated joyful hearts with jubilant songs of thanksgiving.  The opportunity to magnify God was a supremely happy occasion.  Recall their response to the reading of Scripture in 8:12: “they celebrated with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.”  When they made their ‘twig tents’ and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, “their joy was very great” (8:17).

Worship was never meant to be drab and boring.  There was nothing stereotyped or monochrome about this thanksgiving service.  A wide variety of musical gifts were used to express adoration and praise.  In verse 27 we see that instrumentalists played “cymbals, harps and lyres.”  Verse 35 and verse 41 tell us that the priests played their trumpets.  Choral music was given the most prominent place, as many singers joined the two large choirs to give thanks on behalf of all the people.

This passage is filled with superlatives.  In verse 27 they celebrate “joyfully.”  The choirs are not just choirs but large choirs” in verse 31.  In verse 43 the priests “offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy.” There is nothing half-hearted about their joyful adoration because it is the outflow of supremely grateful hearts from people who have personally experienced the lavish generosity of God.

3. The Witness of Worship. 

Verses 31-39 tell us that the leaders went up on the top of the wall.  The Jews were accustomed to having workers and watchers on the walls, now the people are assigned to be worshippers on the walls.  The two large choirs walked on top of the wall, one to the right, and the other one went to the left.  Ezra was one of the worship leaders and Nehemiah led the other choir.  

This worship service could have taken place at the temple area, but instead Nehemiah wanted it to take place on the walls themselves.  I think he did this for at least three reasons.  

First, it was important for the people to see and touch the walls during this dedication service.  It was a visual reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Secondly, the people were bearing witness to the watching world that God had done the work, and He alone should be glorified.  The enemy had said in 4:3 that the walls were so weak that a fox could knock them down, but here the people are marching on the walls!  It was another opportunity to prove the truth of 6:16: “…this work had been done with the help of our God.”  As they marched on top of the walls, everyone could see what was happening, and for miles around unbelievers heard the sound of praise.  Look at verse 43: “The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.”

Let me suggest a third reason for this march around the walls.  It was a symbolic act by which they stepped out in faith to claim God’s blessing.  In that day, to walk on a piece of property meant to claim it as your own.  In Joshua 1:3, God said to Joshua, “I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.” 

4. The Response of Worship. 

The concluding verses present us with another aspect of authentic worship: the offering of our money as well as our time and service for the Lord’s work.  After the exciting service of dedication was over, provision must be made for the continuing worship of God’s people.  Verse 47 says, “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.”  

It was organized, specific, grateful, regular and universal.  But most of all, the people gave in response to who God is and what He had done on their behalf.  Thomas Adams, a colonial Puritan, said this: “Let us do good with our goods while we live…to part with what we cannot keep, that we may get what we cannot lose.”

The Valley of Decision

This has been a crazy week for our country as we wait to hear the final results of the presidential election.  We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now.  As I think about all this, I’m reminded of a verse I read in my Quiet Time from Joel 3:14: “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!  For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.”

As important as it is for us to cast our votes in order to elect government officials, we are really faced with an even greater decision.  Joel pictures millions of people in a valley called decision.  And, one day the Lord is coming back.  Those who have cast the ballot of their lives for the Lord will be saved; those who haven’t will face eternal condemnation with no hope of a recount.

  • Ultimately, there are really only two questions.  The first one is this.  Is Jesus resident in your life?  Have you ever elected to receive Him into your life by turning from your sins and asking Him to forgive you?  If not, that’s what you need to do this morning.
  • The second question is this.  Is Jesus president of your life?  Are you living under His lordship and leadership?  Is He on the throne, or are you?  

You see, Jesus is Savior and Lord.  He is forgiver and leader.  He not only wants to be resident, He desires to be your president.

If you are ready for the first time to make Jesus resident in your life by asking Him to save you from your sins, would you please stand up?

If you are ready to make Him president of your life, would you please stand in recognition of lordship and leadership in your life?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?