By Edward Dennett
NEHEMIAH 12:1 - 13:3.
THIS chapter is divided into two parts: the first, reaching down to verse 26, dealing with genealogical matters; the second, extending to verse 3 of chap. 13, containing the account of the dedication of the wall, together with certain reformations that seem either to have been connected with or to have followed upon it.
The chapter commences with the names of the priests and Levites that went up with Zerubbabel and Jeshua; i.e., (the reader will remember) those who went up in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia. (See Ezra 1, 2) The names only of "the chief of the priests, and of their brethren," in the days of Jeshua, are given. Next we find the chief of the Levites, with Mattaniah, who was over the thanksgiving, he and his brethren; also Bakbukiah and Unni, their brethren who were over against them in their watches. (vv. 8, 9.)
It is worthy of note, in passing, what a prominent place praise and thanksgiving occupied in the Jewish ritual. The Psalms abundantly testify to this — many of which are filled with notes of adoration, and some commencing and closing with Hallelujah — "Praise ye the Lord." (See Psalms 148 - 150) The believer is enjoined in everything to give thanks; and yet it is a question whether praise (which can only be known in its full and blessed character in redemption) marks the assemblies of the saints as distinctly as it should. Not that it is to be supposed, even for a moment, that the notes of praise can be raised by any sense of obligation: they can only indeed spring from hearts made "merry" by the enjoyment of redeeming love in the power of the Holy Ghost.
In verses 12-21 the names of the chief of the fathers (priests) in the days of Joiakim are recorded. Joiakim was the son of Jeshua. (v. 10.) Then in verse 22, we have the statement that "the Levites in the days of Eliashib, Joiada, and Johanan, and Jaddua, were recorded chief of the fathers: also the priests, to the reign of Darius the Persian." Comparing this with verses 10, 11, we find that this goes five generations down from Jeshua; that, in other words, the above names are the high-priestly line of descent to the fifth generation from Jeshua. "The sons of Levi, the chief of the fathers, were written in the book of the chronicles, even until the days of Johanan the son of Eliashib;" i.e., only so far as the great-grandson of Jeshua. Then the offices of some of the Levites are specified; namely, to praise and to give thanks, according to the commandment of David, the man of God, ward over against ward, others being "porters keeping the ward at the thresholds of the gates." (vv. 24, 25.) The names of some of these correspond with some mentioned in verses 8, 9, the reason of this being given in the next verse: "These were in the days of Joiakim the son of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and in the days of Nehemiah the governor, and of Ezra the priest, the scribe." It would seem as if God had a special delight in those who were occupied in the service of His house in this time of sorrow, when it required more faith and more spiritual energy to be devoted to the interests of His people. He has caused these names to be recorded — recorded, no doubt, mainly for Israel, yet containing lessons for us whose lot is cast in similar times. True that there was failure, very sad failure, with some here named, but in the eye of God, while He is never insensible to the failure of His people, they were robed with the beauty which He in His own grace had put upon them; and in the preservation of their names, He would remember nothing but the fact of their service amidst His people in this sorrowful period of their low estate.
Passing now to the second part of the chapter, we have the dedication of the wall. From the place it occupies, it will be at once seen that the subjects of the latter part of the book are given in their moral rather than in their historical connection. It has already been pointed out that from Neh. 7 onwards to Neh. 12: 31, Nehemiah, if he is the writer, no longer describes his own actions. In this portion it is "we" or "they," not "I." It might seem therefore that the dedication of the wall belongs historically to the first section of the book — to Nehemiah 6, wherein we find the account of the completion of the building of the wall. But when the order of the intervening chapters is considered — the restoration of the authority of the law, the confession of the sins of the people, and of their fathers, the covenant made to walk according to the law, and to make provision for the services of the temple, etc.; the distribution of the people in Jerusalem and around, the ordering of all the affairs of the house of God under priests and Levites, according to the commandment of David the man of God — it will be perceived that morally it is inserted in its only fitting place. Taking all these things together indeed, we have the pattern of all divine reformation. The commencement was made with the people themselves; then they proceeded to God's house, and finally to the walls of the city. They worked from within to without; thus, beginning from themselves, they worked outward to the circumference of their responsibility. And such is ever the true method, even as Paul writes, "Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." (Rom. 12: 2.) We shall find this order also illustrated in the procedure connected with the dedication itself.
First of all, the Levites were sought "out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps." The "sons of the singers" were also collected from their different places of abode (for they "had builded them villages round about Jerusalem") to aid in the observances of this eventful day. (vv. 27-29.) Next we read, "And the priests and the Levites purified themselves, and purified the people, and the gates and the wall." (v. 30.) Here again is the order (and it is most instructive) to which reference has been made and we may also learn that unless we have "purified" ourselves, it is vain for us to attempt to "purify" others. This truth is everywhere affirmed in Scripture. For example, it would be impossible for any whose own feet were not washed (John 13) to wash the feet of their fellow-believers; and the Lord Himself taught, that before we could take the mote out of our brother's eye, the beam must be taken out of our own eye. It is exceedingly interesting therefore to observe that the priests and Levites purified themselves as a necessary preparation for purifying the people, the gates, and the wall. (See also 2 Chr. 29: 5; 2 Chr. 35: 6.)
The means of purification must be gathered from other scriptures. In the wilderness the priests had to wash their hands and feet at the laver every time they went in to accomplish their service (Exodus 30: 17-21), and in the ashes of the red heifer provision was made for all kinds of defilement that might be contracted in their daily life and walk by the people. (Num. 19) Now, as already indicated, a provision of another and more efficacious sort has been made. "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." (1 John 2: 1.) When therefore, through carelessness, or through the allowance of the flesh, we fall into sin, and become defiled, He in His love and mercy intercedes with the Father for us on the ground of what He is as the Righteous One, and of His perfect propitiation; and in answer to His advocacy the Spirit of God works, through the Word, in the conscience of the defiled believer, produces self-judgment and contrition, and leads to confession, whereon God is faithful and just to forgive the sin, and to cleanse from all unrighteousness. Thus the believer is "purified," restored to communion, and so divinely qualified to be sent forth in service to others. It cannot be too earnestly pressed, that in order to be used in any way we must ourselves be "purified" from defilements.
This then was the first thing attended to on this day of the dedication of the wall. In the next place, two companies were arranged by Nehemiah (the reader will remark his reappearance) to make, as it would seem, the circuit of the walls. The first was composed of Hoshaiah, half the princes of Judah, together with certain whose names are given (vv. 32-34), and certain of the priests' sons with trumpets. Of the last Zechariah (whose descent is traced back to Asaph) was the chief; for he and his brethren had charge of the "musical instruments of David the man of God." (See 1 Chr. 15: 16, 17; 1 Chr. 25: 6.) Ezra, the scribe, was the leader of this company; he was "before them." The composition of the other company is not given with such detail. Nehemiah says, "The other company of them that gave thanks went over against them [i.e., we judge, on the opposite wall to the other company], and I after them, and the half of the people upon the wall, from beyond the tower of the furnaces even unto the broad wall." And then, after describing the line of the procession, he says, "They stood still in the prison gate."1 It appears as if the two companies, starting at different points, proceeded to make the circuit of the walls until they met, as Nehemiah, after giving the route of each of the companies, says, "So stood the two companies of them that gave thanks in the house of God,2 and I, and the half of the rulers with me: and the priests: Eliakim, Masseiah," etc., "with trumpets." (vv. 40-42.) If this were so, the service of the day took place after the procession was ended, as the statement follows: "And the singers sang loud, with Jezrahiah their overseer. Also that day they offered great sacrifices, and rejoiced; for God had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off." (vv. 42, 43.)
Examining a little the details given, there were, we find, those who gave thanks, those who had trumpets, and those who sang; besides this, sacrifices were offered, and all rejoiced. Thanksgivings would seem to have been most prominent, and this is easily understood when it is remembered what the completion of the building of the wall meant for this poor remnant. Truly it was in "troublous times" that it had been built, and, as we have seen, amid opposition and difficulties of every sort, inspired as their enemies had been by the malice of Satan. But encouraged by the indomitable energy of their leader, they had persevered, and now their work was completed; the walls of the city were once more raised for the security of those who dwelt within, and for the exclusion of evil as displayed in their enemies round about. Thanksgiving was therefore but the natural and appropriate feeling on this day of dedication. Observe also that there were trumpets. (vv. 35, 41.) These were carried by the priests; for they alone, as those who had access into the immediate presence of God, and might be thus in communion with His mind, had the privilege of raising the notes of testimony through the sacred trumpets. (Num. 10) This day of dedication was for God; but whenever the claims of God are responded to in the energy of the Holy Spirit, testimony for Him also proceeds from His people. For example, when the saints gather together on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20), it is in response to His desire who said, "This do in remembrance of me." It is for Him therefore they gather, for Him — without a thought of others. And yet as often as they eat the bread and drink the cup they announce the Lord's death "until He come;" that is, though they gather in remembrance of the Lord, and, while thus occupied, their hearts are led forth in thanksgiving and adoration, they yet, by the very thing in which they are engaged, proclaim to all the Lord's death. The trumpets are in this way associated with their notes of praise. There were also musical instruments and singing. The singers indeed "sang loud," or, as it is in the margin, made their voice to be heard.
They thus, by the musical instruments and their songs, expressed their joy before the Lord. The character of this is given in the next verse in connection with the sacrifices; for they remembered again on this festival that the only ground on which they could stand before God, though it were to thank and praise His holy name, was the efficacy of the sacrifice. Joy could therefore flow out, and it was joy of no ordinary kind; for "God had made them rejoice with great joy." Nothing could be more blessed. Our poor hearts long for joy, and are ever tempted to seek it from human sources, only to find that it is both unsatisfying and evanescent. Hence the apostle writes, "Be not drunk with wine" (type of the joys of earth), "wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." (Eph. 5: 18, 19.) Such was the joy on this day of the children of Israel; for it had its source in God, and He it was who had filled their hearts with thanksgivings and their lips with praise. They had, we might say, sown in tears, and now they were reaping with joy.
Mark also that all classes of the people participated in it. It is expressly said, "The wives also and the children rejoiced." This was precious to the heart of God; for the wives and children were numbered amongst His people (compare (Eph. 5, 6), and why should they be excluded from the gladness of this day? They had been assembled also with the congregation at the reading of the law (Neh. 8); and indeed it is a characteristic both of this book and in Ezra (see Ezra 10), that the women and children were present in all the great assemblies of the people. The effect of their rejoicing was great; for we read that "the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off." (v. 43.) It went forth into the midst of their enemies as a mighty testimony to Him, by whose grace they had been rescued from Babylon, and by whose protection and succour they had now been permitted to re-erect the walls of the holy city. They were proving anew that the joy of the Lord was their strength both for praise and for testimony. And it is added that "Judah rejoiced for the priests, and for the Levites that waited" (or stood), that stood in their places of service in the temple. It was joy to Judah to behold the services of the house of God restored, and the priests and Levites engaged in the work of their office.
In connection with the ceremonies of the dedication some necessary things were attended to in the house of God: it says, "At that time" — not perhaps on the same day, but "at that time" the time following upon the dedication of the wall. What they did was to appoint some "over the chambers for the treasures, for the offerings, for the firstfruits, and for the tithes, to gather into them, out of the fields of the cities, the portions of the law for the priests and Levites: for Judah rejoiced for the priests and for the Levites that waited." (v. 44.) There was evidently a continual tendency to neglect the concerns of the house of God, and together with this the priests and the Levites were overlooked. It was so on the first return of the captives (Haggai 1), and it was so in every time of declension, as it has been also in every age of the Church. Ceasing to care for the house of Jehovah, the maintenance of the priests and Levites enjoined by the law was not forthcoming; for all were minding their own things, and not the things of the Lord. But when their hearts were touched by the goodness of God in permitting them to complete the wall, they at once remembered the ministers of their God, and again (see Neh. 10: 37-39) made provision for them. This is how God works in the low estate of His people. Granting them a revival, it may be under the power of some special truth, they, acted upon by the new impulse they have thus received, proceed to correct by the application of the Word the abuses that have sprung up on every hand. So it was in this case; and hence we find that the singers and the porters were also arranged, who "kept the ward [charge] of their God, and the ward of the purification, according to the commandment of David, and of Solomon his son. For in the days of David and Asaph, of old, there were chief of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God." (vv. 45, 46.) They recall how it was in the beginning of the temple services, and their desire now was to be conformed to the original model. This is an abiding principle; for it is only by testing everything by what was at the beginning that we can discover the extent of our departure, and it is only by going back to it that we can be in harmony with the mind of God.
Moreover, we read, "And all Israel, in the days of Zerubbabel, and in the days of Nehemiah, gave the portions of the singers and the porters, every day his portion; and they sanctified the holy things unto the Levites; and the Levites sanctified them unto the children of Aaron." This can hardly be more than a general statement (see Neh. 10: 37-39; Neh. 13: 10) to the effect that there were times, during the periods named, when all Israel owned and met their obligations to these servants of the house of their God. Their failure is not here recorded; that has to be gleaned from the other parts of the book. Here it is only remembered that all Israel had cared for God's ministers of His sanctuary.
Lastly, we are told that "on that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people;" and that when they found therein that "the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever," etc. (Deut. 23: 3, 4), "they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." (Neh. 13: 13.) Again and again they had thus separated themselves (Ezra 10; Nehemiah 9: 2, etc.), and again and again did "the holy seed mingle themselves with the people of the lands." In truth, then as now, alliance with the world was the most successful snare of Satan; and hence there has ever been need for vigilance and for the enforcement of the truth of separation unto God. But there is a special reason for the introduction of this subject in this connection. The meaning of the wall, as pointed out more than once, is exclusion of evil, separation of God's people from other nations (for us, from the world; from evil, whether in the world or in the Church), and thus to be set apart to God. When we read, therefore, of Israel purging themselves from the mixed multitude, we see that they were simply maintaining the truth of the wall; that, together with its dedication, they felt themselves bound to carry out into practice all that its completion signified. The reader will not fail to perceive the force of the term "the mixed multitude." It was the mixed multitude that "fell a lusting" in the wilderness, and so became a hindrance and a curse to Israel; and ever since that day, whether in Israel or in the Church, they have been the source of almost all the evils that have afflicted the saints. It is among the mixed multitude that Satan ever finds ready instruments to his hands wherewith he may disturb, harass, and ensnare God's people; so that the only pathway of safety is to follow the example of Israel before us in separating from it.
1 It is impossible to elucidate all these topographical notices. Much time has been expended in conjectures upon this subject; but, after some examination, the only conclusion reached is that nothing certain can be ascertained. No doubt, through recent investigations, much new light has been discovered, and the time may come when the line of Jerusalem's ancient walls may be redrawn with tolerable accuracy; but at present the reader must be contented to wait, apart from the question whether such a study would tend to any real edification.
2 This might mean that those whose employment it was to give thanks in the house of God were, on the present occasion, divided into two companies in connection with the ceremonial observed at the dedication.