Nehemiah: But There Were Few People

Sermon by Cory Brock on June 6

Nehemiah 7:4-73

Download Audio

Well we are working on Sunday nights through the book, Ezra-Nehemiah. It was in the Hebrew Bible one book, and we have it separated into two books in our English Bibles. And we are in Nehemiah. And both Ezra and Nehemiah are all about Jerusalem. You get this sense when you read the Old Testament, because it calls Jerusalem “the hope of the nations,” that whatever happens to Jerusalem is going to be the fate of the entire world and the prophets talk about Jerusalem in that way. And so in this book they took fifty-two days and they rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem and we saw the ending of that last week. And we actually know from the passage last week, chapter 6 verse 15, exactly what day they did it, they finished it, and the day that we are on here right in Nehemiah 7 as Nehemiah is going to read out this genealogy, we’re told in 6:15 that it was the twenty-fifth day of Elul. And Old Testament scholars have a pretty good sense of an ability to pinpoint that down exactly to what time of year. According to the modern calendar it’s sometime in the first week of October. And people even said that they know the day – it’s normally said to be October 2 for some reason – 444 or 445 BC; that’s the year we’re in. And that means that this October 2 will be the 2,465 anniversary of the wall being finished, and so we’ll rent somewhere out, a restaurant, and we’ll all go and we’ll celebrate together!

We’re about to look at a passage that’s hard to read and this is not your standing morning devotion material here in Nehemiah 7. We’re going to read a genealogy; it’s a genealogy that was for the purpose of taking a census and this census was taken in 536 BC, 90 years before Nehemiah’s reading it here in Nehemiah chapter 7. And it shows up in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7, almost word for word, nearly word for word, so this is a reprint, a rereading of it in both books. And when you look at it you might say, “Why is this in the Bible?” and “Why did God put it in once?” and then you have to ask, “Why did You put it in twice, God?” – Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. And in order to know, we’ve got to look at it. So let’s pray and then we’ll read it together. Let’s pray.

Our God, we come and ask for help as we try to understand parts of Your Bible that are difficult to read and confusing at times. And we know, Lord, that You speak in every single word, and so come Lord and speak and teach us here in this census, this genealogy. We ask this in Christ’s name, amen.

So what we’re going to do is we’re going to read some portions of it now and then I’ll come back during the sermon and have a look at each section of it. So let me read verses 4 to 7 and then jump to 66 to 73 and then we’ll come back. Verse 4:

“The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.

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:

These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah.

The number of the men of the people of Israel…”

And then we’ll jump over to verse 66 to 73:

The whole assembly together was 42,360, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337. And they had 245 singers, male and female. Their horses were 736, their mules 245, their camels 435, and their donkeys 6,720.

Now some of the heads of fathers’ houses gave to the work. The governor gave to the treasury 1,000 darics of gold, 50 basins, 30 priests’ garments and 500 minas of silver. And some of the heads of fathers’ houses gave into the treasury of the work 20,000 darics of gold and 2,200 minas of silver. And what the rest of the people gave was 20,000 darics of gold, 2,000 minas of silver, and 67 priests’ garments.

So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.

And when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns.”

This is God’s holy Word.

In the Old Testament, a census can be either commanded by God or by Satan. We have a passage like 1 Chronicles 21:1 where it says, “Satan moved David’s heart to count Israel.” And here in chapter 7 verse 5 it says, “God put it in Nehemiah’s heart to assemble the people and take stock of who was there.” God gives a census for good and Satan does it for evil, and here it says that God does this. God moves Nehemiah’s heart to take this census, to read this census. And that means that God has reasons for it. There are lessons here for us from God, God moving Nehemiah toward this. And I want to explore two of those tonight. This census teaches us, first, the purpose for Jerusalem. The purpose for Jerusalem. And then secondly, what it means to be a citizen in the city of God.

The Purpose for Jerusalem

So first, the purpose for Jerusalem. If you look down at verse 4, you’ll see it right there. It says that, “The city was wide and large but the people within it were few and no houses had been rebuilt.” The walls had been put up and the gates had been hung and the security was in place, but there weren’t any people hardly living in the city at all. And they couldn’t because before the walls were put up and before the gates were hung there was no security. Jerusalem was always under a threat in this season but now it was finished. And he is saying here there aren’t any people. And so the question that chapter 7 is answering, the point of chapter 7, is to really address who is going to live in Jerusalem; who is going to get to be a citizen of the city of God here in Jerusalem. And it says in verse 5 that God put this on Nehemiah’s heart to figure it out. And this census is part of the answer to that. And it will pick back up in chapter 11 when we get to that later on in the book.

But one of the great 20th century Old Testament scholars, Brevard Childs, he says this about Nehemiah 7. He says that “Nehemiah 1 to 6 is preparation for the climax of Old Testament sacred history.” So Brevard Childs claims that Nehemiah 7 is the climax of Old Testament sacred history. And when you look at it and you say its names and its numbers, how could this be the climax of Old Testament sacred history, according to Childs? And Gary started this last week and I want to pick up on it. We see the point all along, and this is why it’s the climax. This is the very end of Old Testament history. And the climax, the point, comes in negatively in verse 4. It comes through what’s missing. It says there are gates and there are walls but there aren’t any people. And you know, you can have walls and you can have gates and you can even have a temple, but none of those things make a city. The only thing that really makes a city is people. People make a city. And in Ezra, the foundation was laid and the temple was built and in Nehemiah now the walls have been built and the gates have been put up, but there is no city without human beings dwelling together. That’s really what makes a city. And so the reason Childs says that this chapter begins the climax of all of Old Testament history is because we learn here that the climax of all of Old Testament history is that God is rebuilding the city because He wants people. He wants a people. He is doing this for the sake of human beings.

And let me just run through really quickly and show you who these people are by section in this census. If you look down at verse 8, 7b into 8, you’ll see this first section of people. From verse 8 all the way down to 25, these are lay people, regular citizens, and they get the most ink here. Nehemiah, the census starts with them. And they are listed here by family name. You’ll see that – Parosh and Shephatiah and different family names and then the number of how many there were. But then if you jump down to verse 26 to 38, it lists more lay people by the town that they originally came from. So you’ll see that it lists them according to Bethlehem or wherever they might have been from originally. And then when you jump down to 39 to 42, it’s the priests. And let me just read this short little section for you:

“The priests: the sons of Jedaiah, namely the house of Jeshua, 973. The sons of Immer, 1,052. The sons of Pashhur, 1,247. The sons of Harim, 1,017.”

David, in his time as king, had divided the priesthood into 24 different sections according to the 24 families of priests that were alive at the time. And this is the lineage of those 24. It was 24 families of priests and they would come from wherever they lived in Israel to Jerusalem to work 2 to 3 week shifts per year in the temple and then would go back home. And when this group of people comes back from Babylon and Persia in 536, there are four priestly families left out of the 24 here. That’s all that remains.

And then if you look at the very next section you’ll see in verse 43 the Levites. The Levites – this might be confusing because priests are Levites and we just read the four priestly families – but the four priestly families that are left of the 24 we just read are sons of Aaron; the 24 families that have come from Aaron, there are 4 left. But the Levites are a broader tribe and so the Levites here, starting in verse 43, are essentially servants, priestly servants, of the Aaronic priesthood. The Aaronic priesthood are priests who could go into the holy place and from them a chief priest would be selected to go into the holy of holies. But these are the priests who could not enter the holy place. They were on the outer portions of the tabernacle.

And then you get down to the singers, verse 44. These, the sons of Asaph, these are the family lineage of Asaph who wrote many of our psalms. They were to lead worship in the temple. And you go from there and you see the gatekeepers in 45. These are also part of the Levite tribe and they were guards for both the temple and the city. And then in 57 to 59 you have Solomon’s servants, which means the royal palace servants. And if you look closely at that you’ll see many, many Gentile names; all sorts of names that are not Jewish. And that means – and this is so important – that this census of who is of Israel includes many, many Gentile families that had been engrafted in because they believed in Yahweh. And you see the same thing right after that.

In verse 61 to 65 you see that these are people who couldn’t prove that they had originally come from Israel but they came back with the Israelites in the original return from exile. And that means in 64 that they’re not going to be able to serve in the temple until the high priest can determine whether they are truly of Israel. But lastly, at the very end where we read in 66 to 72, you’ll see the economics, the money that was given to rebuild and restore the city. And finally, verse 73 again – and this is key and this is what connects it all and it brings us all back to verse 4 at the very beginning. “The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.” Meaning that 90 years ago when all these different groups of people came back from Persia, they did not go to Jerusalem. They all went to their differing towns where their families had originally been from. And in verse 4, when we read in verse 4 we’re 90 years later and the wall has been rebuilt and the temple is there and the gates are up, but still nobody is living in it. Everybody is still living in their towns and they have come to help but now it is time to actually repopulate the city.

So let’s be brief here on this first point because it’s simple but important. God is doing all of it for the sake of human beings, for the sake of a community, for the sake of a people – the people of the city of God. And Abraham Kuyper, he’s one of the great Dutch theologians of our tradition, he calls this “the program of creation.” What’s that? When he says “the program of creation” he’s answering a question – “Why did God create the world?” And you know, if God is full of joy and complete in Himself; He is unity and trinity and trinity and unity – Father, Son and Spirit – why did He, in perfect joy, overflow into creation? Why did He make the world? That’s the question that he’s exploring in this idea of the program of creation.

And first, Kuyper says, “I don’t know.” And then he says of course what we would say, “to shine forth His glory to creatures.” But then Kuyper goes on and thinks about specifics and he says that in the midst of God’s creation, out of all the creatures, God chose one creature to truly be His stewards, to be the image of God in all the world. And that’s human beings. And Kuyper points out that human beings in God’s great program of creation, what He is doing in all of history, will even rule over the angels we are told in the book of Revelation. That the point has always been that we are to be the pinnacle creature of God. That we are even to rule in the new heavens and the new earth over the spirits. That the angels are not the image of God; human beings are the image of God.

And the simple point here is that God has always been for humans. It’s always been about humans. All of Old Testament history has been moving to this point, to this list in some sense, because it’s not about rebuilding the walls. It’s about rebuilding the people that is the city of God. He rebuilt Jerusalem for the sake of this people. And three brief applications here about this point.

The first is theological. In our tradition, we like, we love to emphasize the doctrine of total depravity. And there is a good reason for that because we are sinful from top to bottom, inside and out, the Bible teaches it and it’s absolutely true. And you can’t make sense of your life without something like that, without a doctrine like that. It’s absolutely true. But a key insight and a subtlety here, and Kuyper points this out when he’s thinking about the program of creation, he says that total depravity – the Bible teaches it – but what the Bible says about it is our problem is not what we are, human beings; our problem is entirely ethical. The issue with us is not ontological as the philosopher says. It’s not with our being; it’s not with being human. God is not coming to move us away from humanity, to get us out of what we are into something else – some angelic-like being, some mere spirit. The problem is not with what we are; it’s with our sin. It’s entirely ethical from top to bottom. So when you come to a passage like Psalm 22 and David says, “I am a worm, not a man,” and we sometimes will pray, “Lord, we are worms. We are not humans.” God says, no. We are ethical worms but we are human beings from top to bottom. Our problem is ethics, not what we are. God loves human beings.

And in the context of Psalm 22, David is saying, “All the people around me despise me and my circumstances are so bad, and God, have You forsaken me?” But then – and I like the King James here – he says, “But Thou art He that took me out of the womb. Thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon Thee from the womb. Thou art my God from my mother’s belly, from the very beginning.” God does not think humans are worms but that we are sinners. Humans are humans and God says humans are the image of God to the world. He’s chosen us to be the pinnacle creations of creation and He loves to save human sinners. And Kuyper even goes so far as to say that “when God saves us He makes us fully human.” He’s bringing us to full humanity again. God loves human beings and the walls and the gates and the temple here in Jerusalem. There is no city of God without human beings. God has come for human beings.

Secondly – and we have to listen to this. This list, it’s difficult to read and the names are hard to pronounce and you didn’t read this in your devotions lately, but even this list says to us, “God loves you.” This list, when you read all these names, the message is, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s even right here in a census like this. If you were asking the question, “Does God love me?” you don’t have to go any further than Psalm 22 because David says, “I am a worm, not a man. Hast Thou forsaken me?” And you can stay right there in Psalm 22:1 and remember that there was one other person in all of history that asked that question – the Son of David Himself when He was being murdered by His own creation. He said, “God, have You forsaken Me? Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He cried out. And you look at that man, the Son of David, and you know, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And that’s exactly what even a census, even a genealogy like this teaches – that God loves us, boy does He love us, when we look at the cross.

And third and finally to wrap up this point, Kuyper says, in light of all of that, that Christians have two duties in life. And he puts it like this. He says, “Our first duty is to confess God.” And he actually calls this, he coins this little phrase – he says, “This is the mother idea of Calvinism.” The mother idea; the basic idea; Calvin’s great insight. That every single moment we live right before the face of God. That every single moment in all of our lives God sees us and we are to live for Him and confess Him at all times in the way we live. But then he says our second duty is to serve God by loving people. And you know that matches up with what Jesus said. He gave us a two-fold Christian ethic – love God and love neighbor. And then they asked Him, “Well who is our neighbor?” And He said, “Even your enemy. Love God and love people.”

There’s a temptation, especially in a historic church like ours, like First Pres, to revert to a tendency sometimes where we think, naturally, that people exist for the sake of our programs,  that people exist for the sake of prolonging our institution. And God comes in and says, “No, the program of redemption and the program of the church and the institution of the church exist for the sake of people.” And we’ve got to exist for the sake of people because we are called to love like God loves, and God loves human beings. And that’s got to be true in the life of our church and in our personal life of ministry.

What It Means to Be a Citizen in the City of God

Now secondly – and let’s get a little more specific – what it means here to be a citizen in the city of God. When I preach, I like to look at systematic theology, some of the famous systematic theology textbooks, and I’ll flip to the index and all of the good ones provide you with a Scripture index. And you look at the Scripture index and you see where did the theologian use this passage in the logic of systematic theology. And it’s a helpful practice. And I usually look at about 10 to 12 different ones, and I’ll bet you and guess where you can find Nehemiah 7 in the Scripture index in almost all the systematic theologies. And that’s – nowhere! So that was not helpful! There was one, however, that did. And I’m not even going to say who it was – you probably know who I am going to say. I’ll say it – it was Herman Bavinck. He had it in there! And he’s worth reading. Where he puts Nehemiah 7 is in a section where he’s going over the history of the great moments of “special grace” as he puts it; where are the key moments in all of human history where we see God’s special grace unfold. And Nehemiah 7 is one of them. He says that this is one of the great parts of human history, of God’s special grace.

What’s special grace? We say in theology that special grace is God’s saving grace. It’s the kind of grace He gives to save sinners, to bring sinners home. And the reason for that is that Nehemiah 7, what we’re reading – this list of names and numbers – is the fulfillment of many of the great prophecies of the Old Testament. And we can’t miss that – that this list is one of the great historical fulfillments of so much prophecy. Let me read a couple to you from Isaiah. This is 300 years prior to the moment we’re reading about, this genealogy – 300 years before it. Isaiah 26, “In that day, the day of return, a song will be sung in the land. ‘We have a strong city! God has set up our walls for security.’” And that’s Nehemiah 7. This is the fulfillment of that. And even Isaiah 43, one of the pieces of prophecy we love to sing, Isaiah 43 – “When you pass through the waters I will be with you” – that text, it says, “For I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” And I won’t go into the chorus. That is about this moment. “For I have redeemed you.” It’s a past tense prophecy, speaking in the past tense, of the future return from the exile to Jerusalem when they would actually enter into the city of Jerusalem. And when they’re singing in Isaiah 43 it’s about this moment when the people of God are chosen to enter in to the city of God that’s been restored.

And this is what theologians often call “remnant theology.” This is the remnant. This is them. They are being brought back from exile. This is a new exodus. This is like being brought out of Egypt all over again, this moment. And this is the list of names that were first brought back. And you read this list and we struggle through reading this list. And if you’re reading through the Bible and you come to a list like this, it is very difficult to get your heart and your mind to settle in and focus and think about the people involved. But when you know that this is the remnant, this is the list of people that Isaiah and Jeremiah and so many prophets talked about.

It’s a lot like if you go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and there is a list of names that’s more than 2 miles long in the Holocaust Museum they have printed. And it’s a list of Gentiles, of non-Jewish people, of Germans and Frenchmen and Polish and all sorts that aided Jews getting out of Germany during the Holocaust. And you look at a list that’s more than 2 miles of names long and you think there’s no way I’m going to sit here and work through this. But when you see a list of names and somebody says to you, “These are the people that were hiding Jewish refugees under their floorboards when the Nazis came knocking on the doors,” you stop and you say, “I’m reading it. I want to know their names.” So many died and lost their lives; you read it. And you know this is the remnant that was prophesied about. These are the ones that God ripped out of exile, out of Egypt if you will, all over again, and brought into salvation, it makes you want to know. And most of these people are not famous. They don’t have spots elsewhere in the Old Testament. They are regular citizens. They are people of God.

And the question to finish up tonight, the question then that this text is asking is, “Who can live in Jerusalem? Who among the people are going to be citizens of the city of God?” It’s a question of citizenship. “Who can be a citizen?” And the first temptation I think is to look at this list and say this was the first generation of Israelites that came back when they were first allowed to, when God first opened the door. And they are to be honored they did not bow the knee to the Persian gods. They did not bow the knee to Baal. When the door was opened they walked through it and they were obedient and they were faithful and they gave their economic lives and they gave up all their security and they counted the costs and they came back. And it’s tempting to say God is picking them to be the remnant and to be part of the city of God because they didn’t bow the knee to the Persian gods when they were there and they came back when they had the opportunity. But the entire Old Testament and all the prophets go out of their way to tell us that all of Israel went into exile because of their rebellion and their idolatry and their disobedience and that they did not deserve a single ounce of God’s mercy.

And we look at this – who is it that should come back from Persia and be given citizenship in the city of God? Is it the remnant? And the only answer reading the Old Testament, the sacred history climaxing in this point that you can come to, is that the answer is, “nobody.” And they had to be thinking of Psalm 15 right here. Psalm 15, if you’re read through it, it’s a psalm of citizenship in the city of God. And we, Heather and I, love a rendition of Psalm 15 by the band called, “My Soul Among Lions,” has set Psalm 15 to new music. We play it so much at our house that when I read the lyrics here it’s very difficult for me to not sing them! But when I first came back from Scotland to First Pres and I think I did one or two worship services, Bill Wymond came up to me once after the service and he told me that if I wanted to we could meet and he would teach me how to sing! So we haven’t met yet. I need to take him up on it! But I won’t sing it but this is what it says – “O Lord, who can abide in Your tent? Who can dwell in Your holy hill? What are the conditions of citizenship on the holy mountain of God?” And here is the answer – “He who walks with integrity, he who does what is right, who speaks honestly in his heart, who does not slander with his tongue, who does no harm to his friend, who does not take a bribe against the innocent. This person can never be shaken.”

Psalm 15 evaluates for us who can be a citizen in the city of God. And yes, these men and women left Persia. They did not bow the knee to Baal. But when you read Psalm 15, just like when you read Matthew 5 to 7 and it concludes by saying, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and you say that’s the condition of being a member, a citizen of the city of God – how could God restore anybody to the great city of God, the ultimate city of God, if this is the condition? And the answer is only this – How could God, how could the census be printed if that is the condition to be a member of the city of God? And the answer is that God looked forward. How were these people saved? And the answer is that the Old Testament remnant was saved by the very and exact same Gospel that we are saved by. And God looked forward for them and He asked, He asked, “Who can ascend the holy hill of Zion? Who can climb the mountain of God and be a citizen of the city of God?” And the answer is only one person. He who walked with integrity and He who did not slander with His lips and He who did no harm to His friends. Only He, Jesus Christ, could ascend the holy mountain, the city. And He came to the city that the remnant built and He went up the holy hill and they murdered Him and we murdered Him and we crucified Him and He who knew no sin became sin for us so that a census like this could be printed, could be written, because this is a census that says every single one of these people comes back to the city by grace alone.

And this is only one of the many that are listed in all of history. And in heaven, there is a great census – there is the book of life. And God tells us about it in the Bible. And it’s the same as this. And to be a citizen and to be listed, the first condition of a citizen – you know citizens have rights and the first condition of a citizen in the city of God is to know that you have no rights to be a citizen in the city of God. We’ll close with this. We might ask the question, “What makes a person a citizen of the United States of America or Scotland or Germany or France?” And I know that’s a complicated question. But people often ask Heather and I, we had two children when we were living overseas and they’ll often ask, “Were Juliette and Ames, our two that were born there, are they citizens of the United Kingdom, of Scotland?” And we’ll say, “No, they’re not, unfortunately. We wish, because if you are a citizen in the UK in England or Scotland and you get into a university you go for free, and that’s amazing, so we want that but we don’t have it!”

No, what makes a citizen in Scotland or Germany or the United States of America – wherever it might be? And the reason our kids aren’t citizens is because to be a citizen you have to be born from a citizen. To be a citizen you have to be born of a citizen. And that’s the exact same thing in the kingdom of God. The only way to be a citizen in the kingdom of God is to be born of one who is. And there is One who is. He is the Citizen and He is the King and we have to be united to the Citizen. We have to be born of God to be a citizen, to be united to the holy one of Israel who went up the holy hill. And so the question of this census is simply this – Are you a citizen of the true city of God? Have you come to God without rights, bearing nothing in your hands, empty? And whether you’re exploring the Gospel for the first time tonight or you’re a mature believer who has been walking with the Lord for years and years, are you starting this new week on this Sabbath evening pleading the blood of Jesus Christ as your only right to be found a member, a citizen of the true city of God?

Let’s pray together.

Father, we plead the blood of Jesus Christ tonight. We come with nothing but His righteousness. And we think of this morning, Lord. We know that if we believe, we are called then to the duties of citizenship, so strengthen the work of our hands this week that we would believe and rest in justification more than ever and walk the path of sanctification more than ever. We ask for this heart in Christ’s name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

To view recordings of our entire services, visit our Facebook page.

Print This Post