The book of Nehemiah can be divided into two main parts: chapters 1 to 6 which we’ve already studied and chapters 8 to 13 which we’ll study in the weeks to come. The first half of the book was about the wall; the second half of the book is about the people. The first half was about building up the wall; the second half is about building up the people.
In the first half of the book we read that when Nehemiah was far away in Susa, he heard that the city wall of Jerusalem was in ruins; and so he asked the Persian King for permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall; then, when he arrived at the city, he inspected the wall to see the extent of the damage; and then he summoned the people and called on them to start rebuilding it; and they began to repair the wall and in chapter 3 we read all the different names of all the different people who helped to work on the wall.
And then we read how their enemies tried to stop them; and how there were problems and divisions among the people which threatened to disrupt the work. And so, we also read about all that Nehemiah did to protect the builders from their enemies; and what he did to sort out the divisions among the builders; and how he himself stood up to his enemies and would not let them frighten him. And then, at the end of chapter 6, we read how they finished the wall in 52 days. It was a marvellous achievement. The first half of the book was all about building up the wall.
And the next half of the book is about building up the people. And so, we’ll read in chapter 8 how the people gathered in Jerusalem to listen to Ezra who read to them from the word of God. And we’ll read in chapter 9 how the Levites led the people in prayer to confess their sins before the Lord. And in chapter 10 we’ll read how the people promised to follow the law of the Lord and to obey all his commands and regulations and decrees. In chapters 11 and 12 we’ll read the names of those who agreed to live in Jerusalem. And then Nehemiah describes for us how they dedicated the wall of the city and celebrated before the Lord. And the book ends with a list of Nehemiah’s final reforms, because now that the city wall had been rebuilt, and the city had been repopulated with God’s people, Nehemiah wanted to ensure that God’s people would live holy lives in God’s holy city.
The first half was about building up the wall; the second half is about building up the people. And today’s chapter really spans both halves of the book, because it acts as a fitting conclusion to the first half and a fitting introduction to the second half. And I can say that because this chapter — chapter 7 — deals with the wall and the people.
Verses 1 to 3
Look with me at verse 1 where we’re told that after the wall had been rebuilt, and Nehemiah had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed. Well, we’ve come across the Levites before: they were from the tribe of Levi and had been set aside by the Lord from the rest of the people in the days of Moses to help the priests in the temple. The gatekeepers and singers were also Levites.
But what were these Levites appointed to do? The commentators discuss it, because it’s not altogether clear. Some think that, once the wall was complete, Nehemiah and the leaders of the people turned their attention to other matters; and they must have decided that the next thing they needed to do, now that the wall was repaired, was to ensure that Levites were appointed to help in the temple. That’s one option. But other commentators wonder — if that’s the case — why mention it here in verses which are about protecting the city? And so, other commentators think that these Levites were appointed to guard the city. So, now that the wall had been rebuilt, and the doors were put in place, these gatekeepers and singers and Levites were appointed to stand guard at the city gates.
But that raises the question: Why would Levites be appointed to stand guard at the city gates?
‘It doesn’t make sense’, some of the commentators argue. But it does make sense when we remember what we read in the book of Numbers, which we’ve been studying on Wednesday evenings at the Midweek. After the Lord rescued his people from Egypt, he led them through the Red Sea to Mount Sinai. And after a census was taken to count the people, the Lord gave instructions to Moses on how they were to organise the camp. Remember they were living in tents in those days, because they were travelling through the wilderness to the Promised Land. So, whenever the stopped and set up their camp, they were to erect the tabernacle at the centre of their camp.
The tabernacle, you might recall, was really a special tent for the Lord. And the people were to arrange their tents to form a square around the tabernacle. So, every time they set up their camp, it was to be in a square-shape with three tribes on the east side; three tribes on the south side; three tribes on the west side; three tribes on the north side; with the tabernacle in the centre. However, the Levites were to arrange their tents between the tabernacle and the tents of the people. The Levites were to act as a buffer between the Lord and the people. The Levites were to guard the tabernacle and to prevent anything unclean from coming into God’s holy presence. The Levites were guards; and they were to guard God’s holy dwelling place.
Back to the book of Nehemiah now and to the city of Jerusalem. The whole of the city was to be holy. In fact, Nehemiah refers to Jerusalem as God’s holy city in chapter 11. The whole of the city was to be holy, because the Lord had chosen to dwell there, among his people. And so, it makes sense from what we know about the Levites to have them appointed as guards at the city gates. In fact, in chapter 13 we read how Nehemiah commanded the Levites to go and guard the gates of the city because merchants were trying to enter the city on the Sabbath day to buy and sell their goods. He sent the Levites to prevent the merchants from entering the city on the Sabbath day. And so, here in chapter 7, Levites were appointed to guard God’s holy city and to prevent the unclean from coming in and defiling God’s holy city.
And then we read in verse 2 how Nehemiah himself appointed two men with similar names to be in charge of Jerusalem. The first man is Hanani, who was Nehemiah’s brother. The second man is Hananiah. Nehemiah adds that he was a man of integrity who feared God more than most men do. So, these two men were appointed to oversee the whole of the city.
And in verse 3 we read that Nehemiah instructed these two men to ensure that the city gates were not opened until the sun was hot. So, don’t open them too early in the morning. Moreover, before the gatekeepers go off duty in the evening, shut and lock the gates. That means that when the doors were open, there would always be gatekeepers on duty to stand guard; and when the gatekeepers went off duty, the gates would be locked. In that way, no unclean person will be allowed to enter the city. Furthermore, Hanani and Hananiah were instructed to appoint some of the residents of Jerusalem to stand guard at posts along the wall and near their own homes. So, the residents were guarding the walls, while the Levites were standing guard at the gates. God’s holy city was being guarded.
And do you see? These three verses are about the city and its wall. The wall was complete. The gates were in position. The city was being guarded. Those verses are about the city and its wall. The next verses are about the people.
Verses 4 to 73
We read in verse 4 that the city was large and spacious. However, there were few people in it. Furthermore, the houses were not yet rebuilt. So, while the city wall had been repaired, clearly the rest of the city was still in ruins; and very few of those who returned from the exile in Babylon had chosen to live in the city.
So, says Nehemiah in verse 5, God put it in his heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people to register them by family. Nehemiah wanted to repopulate the city. He wanted to fill this empty city. But he didn’t want to fill it with just anyone. He wanted to fill it with God’s holy people.
And in order to do this, the first task was to find out who had returned from exile. So, let’s get a list of all of God’s holy people who have returned from exile and who are back in the Promised Land. And once we have that list in place, we’ll be able to make some arrangement with them, so that some of them will come and live in the city.
That’s the task before him. But before he could begin to register the people — which would have been an enormous job since the returning exiles were now living in towns throughout the land of Judah — he found an old record. He found an old document. He found a list which had been compiled almost a hundred years earlier when the first exiles had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. In other words, he found the list which appears in Ezra chapter 2. What we read here in Nehemiah 7 is virtually identical to what we read in Ezra 2. And so, this old list formed the starting point Nehemiah needed to know which of the Lord’s people had returned to Jerusalem and Judah from the land of Babylon after King Cyrus’s decree.
Imagine if there was some disaster in Northern Ireland which meant we all had to move away for several decades We all had to move away to live in different parts of the world. But after several decades, we’re allowed to return. And many of us and our children do so. And those who return decide that it’s time to form Immanuel Presbyterian Church again. But how do we know who among all the people who have returned to Belfast are members of Immanuel? Well, we’d dig up the time capsule which was buried in the ground and we’d find in it an old membership list. Here’s a list of the last members of Immanuel. Now, is your name on this list? Or are you descended from the people whose names are on this list? If so, you can be a member of this newly formed Immanuel Presbyterian Church. That’s what Nehemiah was doing: Here’s this old membership list. Is your name on the list? Are you related to any of the people on this list? If that’s the case, then I know that you’re part of God’s holy people. That’s what this list is for.
And so, whereas verses 1 to 3 of this chapter are about the city and its wall and the need to guard the Lord’s holy city, the following verses are about the people. They’re about God’s holy people who will dwell in God’s holy city.
Why was it important for Nehemiah to build up the city and the people? Why did he rebuild the wall? I don’t think we’ve addressed that yet, even though we’ve been studying this book for several weeks. And why did he want to ensure that the newly built city remained holy? And why was he concerned about repopulating the city with God’s holy people?
Let me turn your attention for a moment away from Nehemiah 7 to Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah the prophet was ministering in the land of Judah in the years before the people went into exile. And he foretold how Jerusalem would fall to their enemies and the people would be taken away into exile. But then, in Jeremiah 31, he spoke about better days to come. He spoke of a time when the Lord would gather his scattered people. He will ransom and redeem his people from their enemies. He will bring them back from captivity. And he spoke about a time when the Lord would make a new covenant with his people in which he promised to forgive their wickedness and to remember their sins no more. And then, he also spoke of a time when the city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the whole of the city will be holy to the Lord. And the city will never again be demolished.
Jeremiah spoke of a time when the Lord would bring his exiled people back to the city; and the city will be rebuilt; and it will be holy. And because Nehemiah believed God’s promises, he wanted to rebuild the city; and he wanted to make it holy; and he wanted to repopulate it with God’s holy people. That’s why rebuilding the city was so important to him. That’s why ensuring the city was kept holy was so important to him. That’s why repopulating the city with God’s holy people was so important to him. These things mattered to him, because God had promised — hadn’t he? — that this would happen. The city would be rebuilt. The city would be holy. The city would be filled with God’s holy people. This was God’s will for the city.
Let me turn your attention to Daniel 9. Daniel 9 is a difficult chapter. In fact, it’s a very, very difficult chapter. But we studied it on Sunday evening a few months ago. And in this chapter, Daniel — who was among God’s exiled people — was praying for the city of Jerusalem which was lying in ruins. And after he prayed, the angel Gabriel came to him with a message about what was going to happen in the future. And he said that in the future, a decree will be issued to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. That happened in the days of Cyrus; and we read about it in Ezra 1. But then, according to the angel in Daniel 9, the rebuilding of Jerusalem will be followed by the coming of the Lord’s Anointed King and Saviour. So, some time after the rebuilding of the city, God would send the Saviour into the world.
And that’s another reason why rebuilding God’s holy city and filling it with God’s holy people was so important. It was one step along the way to the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s Anointed King, who would lay down his life on the cross as the ransom to set us free from condemnation; and who would shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. And because of Christ the Saviour, who died for sinners, God is able to do what he said he would do and forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more. Rebuilding the city and making it holy and filling it with God’s holy people was important, because God had revealed through his prophets that this was one step along the way to the coming of the Saviour into the world.
And God always keeps his promises. And so, sure enough, after bringing the people back from exile; and after rebuilding the city and its wall; after filling it again with his holy people, the Lord sent his Anointed King into the world to deliver you from your sin and misery and to give you forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life.
And where will you live when God gives you everlasting life? Where will you live? Well, so long as you believe in the Saviour, you’ll live in God’s holy city to come.
Here’s another reason why rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and keeping it holy and filling it with God’s holy people was important. It was important because this earthly city of God — which Nehemiah rebuilt and repopulated — foreshadowed the city that was to come, the new Jerusalem, the holy city of God, where all of God’s holy people will dwell securely on God’s holy mountain forever and forever.
Despite Nehemiah’s best efforts, the earthly city of Jerusalem was never perfectly holy. Despite his efforts to rebuild the city, despite his efforts to keep it holy, despite his efforts to fill it with God’s holy people, it was never perfectly holy. In Nehemiah’s day, he had to implement reforms, because the people continued to sin and to disobey the Lord. And when the Lord Jesus visited Jerusalem, centuries later, do you remember how angry he was, because the people had turned the temple — which was meant to be a house of prayer — into a market place? And do you remember how he wept over Jerusalem, because he knew the disaster that was coming on it, because the people in it continued to sin against the Lord. Despite Nehemiah’s best efforts to rebuild the city and to keep it holy and to fill it with God’s holy people, the city and its people always fell short of what it was meant to me.
But the Lord has something better in store for you, if you believe his promises and trust in his Son for forgiveness and for eternal life. He had something better in store for you, which the earthly city of Jerusalem foreshadowed. When Christ the Saviour comes again, he will bring you and all his believing people into the new heaven and earth and into a new, heavenly Jerusalem, to be with him forever in glory. It will be a far, far, far greater city than the earthly Jerusalem ever was. Its wall — we’re told in Revelation 21 — is tall and strong; so this city to come is secure and will never to removed. And nothing impure will ever enter there to spoil its holiness or its perfect peace.
And the city to come will be filled. It will be filled with all those who names are written on a list. In Nehemiah 7 we have a list of those who belonged in the earthly Jerusalem. But then there’s another list: it’s a list of all those who belong in the heavenly Jerusalem to come. And the book of Revelation calls this list ‘the Lamb’s book of life’. The Lamb is the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for sinners. And in the Lamb’s book of life are listed the names of all those for whom Christ died and who have or who will trust in him as the only one who can save them from the coming wrath and who can give them eternal life. Whoever’s name is not listed in the Lamb’s book of life will be shut out of the heavenly Jerusalem to come. They will be shut out of the presence of the Lord; and they will sent away to be punished forever for all the ways they have disobeyed the Lord. But those who believe are listed in the Lamb’s book of life; and they will be allowed to enter that city to come and live forever in perfect peace and rest in the presence of the Lord.
And so, will you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Will you confess your sins before the Lord? Will you ask him to forgive you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners? Will you ask him to give you the hope of everlasting life in the heavenly Jerusalem to come? Will you do that? Nehemiah posted guards at the gates of the earthly Jerusalem to keep out any who did not belong. And God will keep out any who don’t belong in the new Jerusalem to come. He’ll keep them out forever. But whoever believes in the Lord will be brought into that heavenly Jerusalem to enjoy perfect peace and rest.
And if already believe and are waiting for the day when Christ the Saviour comes again to bring you to your eternal home, if you already believe, he calls on you now to live a holy life. He calls on you now to live a life of obedience to his will which he has revealed to us in his word. He calls on you now to live a holy life so that your life here on earth reflects the glory of the heavenly city to come, which is where you really belong. By faith you’ve become a citizen of that heavenly city. By faith you belong there with Christ your Saviour. And your life here on earth should reflect that and demonstrate that. By the way you live your life — doing the will of the Lord here on earth — you’re to show a watching world that this world — which is destined to perish — is not your home; that you’re looking forward to better things to come. So, turn away from all that is wicked and sinful. Turn away from all that is not right. And do the will of the Lord, who has called you to live with him in the heavenly city to come.