Rejoice: Marking Milestones (Neh. 12:27-47)
Milestones. I used to think of this as those things on the side of the road that tell you how far you have traveled or in some places, how far you have left to go. I think they are now called mile markers. I then heard another use of this term when we first had Abbie. It is used to refer to “tasks most children learn, or physical developments, that commonly appear in certain age ranges.” So you look for milestones and mark when children smile, roll over, crawl and walk, etc. I think in both ways, the idea is conveyed of that of a journey and to stop and identify times along that journey. I am not good at this, because when one thing is done for me, I get ready for the next thing. I have a hard time being festive and celebratory. I am thankful for a wife that does not have a hard time with this and has helped me over the years to be better. Whether you are festive or not, we often see God’s people pausing and identifying milestones in Scripture.
There are so many examples, but I like 1 Samuel 7:12, where we find Samuel, to praise God for His faithfulness to His people, raised a monument and called it Ebenezer, meaning “thus far has the Lord helped us.” The founder of the China Inland Mission, J. Hudson Taylor, had a plaque displayed in each of his residences that read “Ebenezer—Jehovah Jireh,” Together, these Hebrew words say, “The Lord has helped us to this point, and He will see to it from now on.” Maybe this is why Abraham and others built altars everywhere they went!
We celebrate a lot of things like birthdays, anniversaries, new home, new baby, wedding, etc. And with each year that passes, it is another milestone. But I can tell you that God marked a huge milestone for us the moment we said to yes to Jesus Christ. That is the greatest milestone in anyone’s life. And when you came to the cross, it wasn’t the end. It was the beginning of a journey. But how are we going to take this journey? Will it be one task after another? Will it be just getting by and moving to one stage after another and crawling across the finish line? Yes, we can celebrate earthly milestones, but I want to have some milestones for the Lord. I don’t really care how big or how small they are, but I want some….everyday! I consider every time I can influence people to think about God, it is somewhat of a milestone. Victory over sin is a milestone. Perseverance is a huge milestone in God’s book. I want to have some developmental milestones like growing another inch like Jesus in my character. Learning quickly to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Another day of being in God’s book is a milestone. But these milestones should all have certain characteristics. This is what I want to look at today.
We are going to look a significant milestone in the life of Nehemiah and the Jews. It is the dedication of the wall. If you remember I was kind of surprised that when the wall was finally finished in Neh. 6:15-16, Nehemiah simply said, “So the wall was finished…” He was very matter-of-fact. I thought this was a good place to have a party. Let’s cut the ribbon, invite everyone and celebrate! However, now that we have gotten further into this study, I totally understand why was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped. There was a lot of work to do because though the wall was built, the people were not. Their hearts were broken and in pieces. They did not know what it meant to worship the one true and living God. Besides, the people were scattered. No one was living in the city that this wall was supposed to protect. So let’s start with this first lesson:
I. Mark milestones by first dedicating yourself to God (Neh. 12:27-30).
We see in Neh. 12:27 that it was finally time to dedicate the wall back to God. We do not know how much time exactly had passed from the completion of the wall to the dedication. But here we see worship leaders are brought in from everywhere, pretty much in every direction according to Neh. 12:28-29. They had to pause at what they were doing to commit some time to celebrate what God had done for them. Not only did they pause, but in Neh. 12:30, we see that they also prepared.
We are not exactly sure what was entailed with the purification process, especially with how they purified the wall (ritualistic cleansing?). It no doubt included fasting, abstaining from marital intercourse, making sacrifices, and perhaps bathing and using clean garments. This is refreshing to see! Usually in their history, they are confessing and repenting AFTER they have sinned terribly. Here we see them pausing and preparing their hearts BEFORE the dedication. In essence they were saying, “Lord, I dedicate myself you to you before I dedicate this wall to you.”
The wall can only be dedicated once the people were dedicated. This is always the correct order. Dedicated walls and gates are no good if the people are not dedicated. I have seen so many parents wanting to dedicate their children, but they are not dedicated themselves. I have seen people wanting to dedicate their homes, but forgetting that it means nothing if they themselves are not. But here, now that the people were dedicated, he can finally dedicate the work to the Lord for His glory and blessing.
What we learn here is: dedicate yourself to the Lord before you dedicate anything else. The word “dedicate” is latin for “to offer” or to “give.” You are asking the Lord to give for His control and use. Look at 2 Cor. 8:5. Paul commends the Corinthians for giving themselves first to the Lord and then to others. Don’t mess that order up. Always dedicate yourself first to the Lord.
Whatever your “milestone” is, remember that God is always after us and our hearts and not just our performance. This is why Paul in Romans for the first 11 chapters talks about all that we are in Christ and all that Christ has done for us leading him to his conclusion in Rom. 12:1: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Let’s look at Isaiah 1:11-18. Here we see it was religiosity that kept people from the Lord. Pastor Jon Courson adds, “If we’re compromising, if we’re trying to be righteous through our own efforts or energy, if we’re failing to realize our need to come before God in brokenness, God won’t answer our prayers—not because He’s mad at us or because He doesn’t like us anymore, but because He’s saying, ‘There’s something wrong in your relationship with Me. If I continue to answer your prayers, you will persist in those things and they’ll destroy you. So you’re not going to sense My presence. You’re not going to have answers to your prayers in order that you might seek Me.’” Secondly,
II. Mark milestones with reflective worship (Neh. 12:31-37)
So Nehemiah speaks to us again in the first person (first time since Neh 7:5). One of the things I have learned from the Jews in Nehemiah is that not only are they good workers and watchers, but they were also good worshippers. Can you picture this scene? He brings the leaders on top of the wall! So far we have seen them building the wall with great fear and trepidation. Remember when Tobiah said, “Even a fox can go up on this wall and it will fall” (Neh. 4:3)? I do not know where Tobiah is at this point. I would have loved to see his reaction. You see, it says in the Psalms, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5) and they who sow in tears, shall reap in joy (Ps. 126:5). Yes there are Good Fridays, but hold on, Resurrection Sunday is coming!
Nehemiah’s wall must have been about nine feet wide, due to excavations. Although it is not specified, the starting point must have been the Valley Gate (Neh. 2:13).
The first group, Ezra’s procession, went to the south (“to the right”) and followed the wall in a counterclockwise direction. The phrase, “two choirs that gave thanks” in Neh. 12:31 can be translated literally as, “thanksgiving choirs.” The second part of the procession started off to the north and followed the wall in a clockwise direction (Neh. 12:38). We have leaders of Judah (family heads, nobles, princes, etc.) followed by seven leading priests (the Ezra in Neh. 12:33 and the Jeremiah in Neh. 12:34 are not the same ones that we are familiar with). The priests blew trumpets and the Levites played stringed instruments.
But notice in Neh. 12:31-37 the references to David. Warren Wiersbe says, “This special service of dedication would have been a failure were it not for a man who had been dead for over 500 years. That man was King David. It was David who had organized the priests and Levites (Neh. 12: 24; 1 Chron. 24:7–19) and written many of the songs for the temple choirs (Neh. 12:46). He had also devised musical instruments for use in worship (Neh. 12:36; 2 Chron. 29:26–27). David had served his generation faithfully (Acts 13:36), but in doing so, he had also served every generation that followed!”
You see it is not just a simple wall dedication. They are seeing themselves as part of God’s continual plan. We lose a lot of that in our day and time because of the individualism that pervades our culture. We fail to see that we are part of God’s great plan of salvation. Look around you. We are part of what is going to be people from every tongue and tribe and nation that will one day surround the throne of God in worship like we see in Revelation 7. We are part of God’s promise that He will reach the Gentiles. This is what God was thinking when He reached down that day and saved you and made you His own. It wasn’t just that He saved you because He loved you, but because He was fulfilling His promise that His love reaches the world!
But here we see solidarity with the past. Look at Lamentations for a second. Written most likely by Jeremiah after the city of Jerusalem was devastated by Babylon and the people of God were sent to Exile. Jeremiah is lamenting because the people of God never got it when the prophets had warned them to repent and turn from their sins. So a lot of it is sad and depressing, but look at Lamentations 5:1. There is hope there. There is prayer. Look down at Lam. 5:15. Their joy had ceased. Animals now inhabit their city. It ends in a prayer for restoration in Lam. 5:21. What we are reading now in Nehemiah is an answer to that prayer! Look over at Ps. 137. This is another psalm where they are mourning over the fact that they cannot sing anymore like they did in Israel because they were in Exile. But praise God who turns our prisons to praise!
The God who called this nation is still faithful. Their song had returned. They are ecstatic. Also think what this means for Nehemiah as he’s walking around the walls. I wonder if he thinks about how he did his midnight tour in Neh. 2. I wonder if he remembers every obstacle he had to face. I can picture him worshipping reflecting on all of these things. This is what I mean by reflective worship. You look back and see that you are standing today not because you walked here, but because God carried you. Think about even your salvation today. This is the greatest milestone for me.
For me, some of it in shrouded in mystery. The man who brought my family and me to Christ ended up being my grandfather’s first cousin! What are the chances that he would be in New York, would be a believer, come in contact with our family and bring us to the Lord? Were some previous generations praying for us? Jenny’s great-grandfather was a martyr. We come from a country with 800 million Hindus and 120 million Muslims. We come from one of the smallest states in India. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a farmer in the middle of nowhere. How am I saved today? I have to ask the Lord when I see Him. You start to think about God’s fingerprints all over your life. I’m not just floating around here. I am part of God’s story. When you start to think about that, you will want to get up and rejoice and praise God like a madman! When my worship meter is low, these are the things that I think about to crank it up again! This will help you to MAKE worship happen every time you go before God.
Jot this third thing down:
III. Mark milestones as a joyful witness (Neh. 12:38-43)
So one choir goes counterclockwise and the other goes clockwise in Neh. 12:38-43 and they meet at the Temple. Lot more singing and notice in Neh. 12:43. The word “rejoice” is there five times! (three times as a verb and two times as a noun). Can you figure out how they felt? No wonder they were singing. The best songs come out of a joyful heart. This joy came from the Lord and it was their joy that was heard afar off, not their music. Chuck Swindoll says, “People don’t pay much attention to voices and words, but they cannot ignore genuine, heartfelt joy.” People do not need a definition of joy as they do a demonstration of it.
The procession of both choirs around the walls was a public act of worship. They were confessing to everyone around that God had done the work and is worthy to be glorified. This witness was not about them. Milestones are to be made known to others. No one person could say they did it themselves. Nehemiah provided great leadership, but he couldn’t have done it by himself. No one person could say the wall was theirs, since Neh.3 tells us it was joint effort. Wiersbe adds that they were saying essentially that, “It all belongs to God and must be used for His glory. As the Jews marched around the walls, they were symbolically saying just that. “Yes, we all had part in the work and a place to serve, but now we are giving it all to the Lord that He alone might be glorified!”
I see something else here. Notice in Neh. 12:43 that “the children also rejoiced.” This milestone was a joyful witness to unbelievers, believers, but also for the next generation. I wonder what those little children must be thinking. I don’t know if you remember, but Shallum worked on the wall with his daughters (Neh. 3:12). What a great testimony that Shallum, who was a ruler, left for his daughters. Now he and his girls must be dancing on the walls. I wonder if he bends down at some point and says, “You see, look at what our Lord has done. You can follow Him too. You can trust Him. You can do the impossible for the rest of your life. You have seen it with your eyes.”
As I get older, I am thinking more and more about the next generation. Will they know me for my joyful witness? It was not that I was always happy or things always went great, but that I was a man of joy that found joy in the Lord? What great leadership shown here shown by the heads of families and religious leaders to the next generation, of truly finding joy in what God has done. Look at Ps. 48:12-14. One last thing:
IV. Milestones motivate us to keep serving God faithfully (Neh. 12:43-47)
In the last section here, we see that after the party, they made sure again to keep the daily grind stuff..the routine things…going. Remember that they had a conviction about God’s work earlier (Neh. 10:32-39), but now they are following through with their convictions. The religious leaders were faithful and the people joyfully serve the Lord. Missionary leader J. Hudson Taylor used to say, “When God’s work is done in God’s way for God’s glory, it will not lack God’s support.”
Ray Brown notices several things here about the characteristic of the people’s giving to the Lord’s work. I will give them to you without much commentary, since we have spoken of these things in detail already:
1. Organized (men were appointed Neh. 12:44)
2. Specific (contributions, firstfruits and tithes, Neh. 12:44).
3. Grateful (the ministry of God’s servants had brought them joy, Neh. 12:44)
4. Obligatory (all Israel contributed Neh. 12:47)
5. Regular (daily portions Neh. 12:47)
6. Universal (everyone, including the Levites Neh. 12:47)
But what I love here is that they don’t dwell on the milestone. It wasn’t the end of anything. It was only the beginning. This is the goal of the milestone: to keep you serving faithfully for more milestones! I wish the story ended here with feasting, gladness and obedience, but unfortunately life is not always like that. We will see some more challenges Nehemiah will have to face next time as we finish the book.
I pray we can be people with milestones. Sometimes we are moving backward instead of forward in our journey. But regardless, as we keep going, we continue to offer ourselves to God continually, marking off every milestone in reflective worship and joyful witness and motivated to keep serving our worthy Lord.
Let me end with this. We see that all of this celebration because God was given the right place of worship. Romans 1 tells us that the problem always comes when people become ungrateful, put creation in place of Creator and worship it. We all worship something. Whatever we worship, we serve, we dedicate ourselves to and then we sacrifice for it. Go to a Bears game. You see the fans going crazy. They wear the jersey to show their dedication. They give their time, their energy and devotion to it. I am not saying don’t watch sports or go to a game, but it’s a good example of where people put their worship. When it is not God, there is not true joy. When it is a person, work, sex, food, your children, or your image, anything that is created you put in God’s place, you start serving and dedicating yourself to it, eventually your pleasure turns to pain. So this is where you start. Put God in His proper place.
“Developmental Milestones” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Developmental_milestones accessed November 28, 2009.