November 6, 1994
Nehemiah understood that in order for the dedication of the wall to have significance, it had to coincide with the dedication of the hearts of God’s people. Alistair Begg outlines the significant sacrifice God’s people made, as well as their overwhelming joy in response to His Word. The surrounding peoples witnessed the Israelites’ submission to God’s Word and their joy from worshipping Him in obedience. Likewise, the depth of our obedience to God and the outpouring of joy that comes from walking with the Lord will be apparent to those around us.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles once again to the portion of Scripture that was read for us. I think in light of the list, and the long list, of names, you would agree with me that it was a strategic act of delegation on my part.
Before we look together at the portion of Scripture that was read, let us pause once again in prayer:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me thyself within thy Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
We are moving towards the conclusion of a series of studies in the book of Nehemiah in which we’ve been discovering the way in which God’s people were learning how to do God’s work in God’s way, and this under the leadership primarily of one man by the name of Nehemiah. And here they have reached a day for which they had long been waiting—namely, the day of the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem. And the whole record of this begins in 12:27.
And as you allow your eye to scan that, let me remind you that the people on this occasion had come a long way since the news had first reached them of the sorry state of affairs in Jerusalem. You need to go all the way back to chapter 1 and the word coming to Nehemiah while he was in the capital of Susa. And as he receives the news, he’s told that “those who survived the exile … are back in the province,” they’re “in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
And from that he then proceeded to Jerusalem, he reminded the people of the situation, and they, first of all, faced the issue. They faced the issue. Whenever God’s people are going to do God’s work in his way, then first they must determine what the issue is. And we often should be in no doubt at all, because the Bible will make it very clear to us. And as in that case, they realized that the broken-down walls were simply symbolic of a far more dreadful situation, insofar as God’s glory was being dragged in the dust of a Judean hillside.
And so, back there in the early chapters, they faced the issue. And when you allow your gaze to wander through the pages, you realize that they then in turn began the work: “They replied,” in 2:18, “‘Let us start rebuilding.’” And “so they began this good work.”
They not only faced the issue and began the work, but they overcame their doubts. Because by the time you reach the fourth chapter, some of the people in Judah are beginning to say, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” Not an uncommon thing in the work of God, not an unusual thing in the life of a church: that people face the issue, the peculiar challenges and opportunities of the time in which they live; they set about the task; they encourage one another to take their place and play their part; and then, suddenly, into the midst of it all come these deep and disturbing doubts—the idea that perhaps we will not have the strength to continue or that the fact of the matter is that the rubble is so great and so severe that maybe we would be better just throwing in the towel.
And some people may have been tempted to feel that way in a week that is gone, with so much strife and bloodshed, so much sadness and hate and disappointment—so much that seems to portray the fact that the devil and his hosts are gaining the upper hand and that the rubble is all around us. And we’ve been trying our best to move it and to remove it. We’ve been doing our very best, under God, to carry the light into the darkness—to build up, as it were, the glory of God and his great proclamation of good news. And yet some of us may well have arrived in worship this morning more focused on the rubble and our ability to move it than, perhaps, on the glory of God and his power within us. You can apply that just as it relates to your own family life and your own personal walk as well.
But they faced the issue; they began the work; they overcame their doubts; they fought the foe. Chapter 6 and in verse 9: the people who were opposing them “were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’ [But I prayed,] ‘Now strengthen my hands.’” God’s people will never know what it is to be victorious until we identify the foe . When God’s people do not understand who the real foe is, then they always fight each other . And that’s how you can tell a church that has lost its way—one of the key ways. If you come amongst the people of God, and they’re full of backbiting and criticism and disenfranchisement and disgruntlement, and they see everything in poor and grim terms, and they have little kind things to say for those around them, then I can guarantee you that that group of people have forgotten where the battle really lies and who it is that they’re really opposing and whom they’re being opposed by.
We wrestle not, this morning, against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places. The devil is “a liar and the father of [all] lies.” The devil is “a murderer” and has been “from the beginning.” And every murder that we have seen in the last week or ten days come across our screens and into our newspapers is ultimately sourced in his evil agenda. And when we lose sight of the great challenge that is before us, then we may be tempted, as God’s people were tempted here, to engage in warfare with one another.
Well, fortunately, Nehemiah’s leadership brought them through that. And having faced the issue and begun the work and overcome their doubts and fought the foe, we’re told in verse 15 that they completed the task. And “the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth [day] of Elul, in fifty-two days.” Now from there, you would think that they would go directly to dedication. [Chapter] 6, [verse] 15: they complete the wall. They’ve been working on it now for almost two months. In fact, when you add in the time of prayer and preparation and journey, it’s a process that has gone back over a considerable length of time. And you would assume that having built the wall, having set the gates in place, having made sure that everything was in order, they would proceed directly to this time of dedication. But interestingly, that doesn’t happen.
You find in chapter 7 that we’re given a long list of the exiles who returned. And then in chapter 8, you’re found that they have this big Bible conference. And then in chapter 9, you find that they take time to confess their sins. And then in chapter 10, they make a binding commitment to God. And then in chapter 11 and in the opening part of chapter 12, again we have a big, long list of the people who were present at that time—skillful leadership on the part of Nehemiah! He recognized that if he went immediately to a big time of praise and dedication, then some of the most necessary things would perhaps be lost sight of in this great time of celebration. And he knew that it was absolutely imperative that there would be rededication on the part of the people and that there would be repopulation of the city. And so he took care of this time of dedication, he took care of this repopulation, and finally, when all of this was set, then he and his colleagues led the people in this time of dedication.
You see, the dedication of the walls was only going to be as significant as it was representative of the genuine dedication of the hearts of God’s people. The construction of buildings, as we’ve seen in these last eighteen or nineteen months, is ultimately only significant insofar as it is representative of the commitment of God’s people to the work of the gospel. And Nehemiah, along with his colleague Ezra, was very clear about the fact that whatever role they may have been privileged to play, the completed wall which now, this day, they celebrated was a graphic illustration of the reality of God’s power and God’s provision.
It would have been a dreadful thing for Nehemiah to take glory to himself or for Ezra to begin to congratulate himself. And in actuality, these men understood that it was on account of God’s faithfulness. And if they’d had the hymn, I think they would have been glad to include it as they roamed around the walls on this day:
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed your hand has provided;
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
For Nehemiah to waken to this day of dedication, he would remember the gracious hand of God upon him that allowed him the freedom to move from Susa. He would remember the way in which he was granted the letters from the king—the amazing way in which God went beyond his demands and gave to him the provision of soldiers and forests and wood and all that was necessary for him. There’s no sense of self-congratulation in the midst of all of this.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that CNN was covering the event, and they had their reporter at a vantage point somewhere on the walls of the city, and he was there to capture all the sights and all the sounds. He would want to be able to report back that here in Jerusalem today, despite what had taken place on days before, were the sounds not of war but of peace. “This that you hear in the background,” he would have said, “is not the wailing of people; it is the worshipping of God. You are not hearing in this metallic ringing sound swords engaged in battle, but what you’re listening to,” he would have said, “are cymbals being employed in blessing.”
And with every good journalist looking for some succinct phrase with which to summarize the events that he had been covering and which the cameras had been scanning, he would have said, “And here I am, CNN, Jerusalem, a day of”—and borrowing from verse 43—“a day of great sacrifice, great joy.” For that summarized it more than any other thing. And if you allow your eyes to focus on verse 43, you find this pivotal little statement: “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. [And] the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.”
Will you think with me just for a moment about what’s involved in great sacrifice and what’s involved in great joy? For this is a principle which is timeless in its application.
Well, first of all, their sacrifice involved the sacrifice of their pockets. The sacrifice of their pockets. And if you look at verse 44 and following, you will see that this process whereby they made provision for the ongoing work of God, and particularly for the privileges and responsibilities of worship, was a sacrifice and a contribution which was systematic rather than haphazard. If you allow yourself to read through this again, you would realize that these men were appointed to be in charge of storerooms. They set up the storerooms because they anticipated contributions, and the contributions which would come would be “firstfruits and tithes.”
We mentioned this a few Sundays ago. And we said how important it was for the people of God to be bringing that with which God had prospered them into the family of faith and into the storeroom, as it were, of the local church. We had a number of people asking us questions about that afterwards, because it was clear that a number of them have decided that approximately a tenth of their income was going to be used in the Lord’s work, and then they would sit at home and decide where they would break up the 10 percent and put it different places. And it was something of a revelation to them, the idea that that 10 percent would come first to God’s people, in God’s house, to sustain the ministries of the local church, and other things beyond that could then be supported in another way.
It was also interesting, in subsequent conversation, to find people saying to me that they were very happy to support missionaries out of their tithe and separate from the local church. And again, it was very clear that we had done a less than adequate job of making our congregation aware of the fact that when you bring your money and when the sacrifice of your pocketbook is involved in the ministry of God’s people here at Parkside, you are supporting world missions.
This morning, as on every other occasion when money is mentioned, it’s always potentially a little stressful. Because as we said before, sex and money are probably the two key gifts that God has given us that we would get as messed up as any. And the Bible says a number of things concerning this and gives to us principles of application. And according to this idea of being those who are responsible for the bringing of our finances, let me just quote to you 1 Corinthians 16, where Paul says,
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
In other words, he says, “I want you to make sure that the way in which you give,” as did the people in Nehemiah’s day, “will be the approach to giving which is not haphazard, but it is systematic, and that we make provision that is in accord with this.”
Second thing to notice is that as these people gave, there is no sense in which their giving was grudging, but rather, it was grateful. It just is filled with a sense of joy and excitement. It is again a reminder of the way in which Paul encouraged the Corinthians, again, to make sure that they brought gifts for the work of the kingdom, when he says in 2 Corinthians 9:6,
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
What happens, then, when God touches my pocketbook, when a great sacrifice takes place at the realm of the resources that he has given me? Because the real issue is not so much how much we have; it’s what we do with what we’ve got. And it’s proportional. It doesn’t matter whether we’re a student on a fixed income, whether we have unlimited resources—which is a very unusual situation—but it just is this: each one should decide in his heart what he’s going to give and should do so not reluctantly, not under the compelling urgency of somebody who tries to create a guilt trip for people, but rather should do so in a way that is glad and generous.
The man who followed D. E. Hoste as the general director of the China Inland Mission made this statement concerning money, which I find phenomenally challenging. He said,
Nothing offers so practical a test of our love for Jesus or for others as does our attitude to money and possessions, nor does anything so test our claim to be delivered from this present evil world. The world asks how much we own. Christ asks how we use it. The world thinks more of getting. Christ speaks more of giving. The world asks what we give. Christ asks how we give. The world thinks of the amount. Jesus thinks of the motive. Men ask how much we give, the Bible how much we keep. To the unconverted, money is a means of gratification, to the converted a means of grace; to the one an opportunity of comfort, to the other an opportunity of consecration.
I was greatly challenged this past weekend as I listened to missionaries from literally all around the world give testimony to the calling which was theirs—none more so than the challenge that came as a result of a couple who had been in the Philippines for the last forty-two years. It’s as long as I’ve lived. It registered with me for that and other reasons. But for forty-two years they have been in the Philippines. They came to this conference—the gentleman is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, his wife a sprightly lady in her sixties—and they testified as to how they had gone out to the Philippines, begun to work amongst a particular people group there forty-two years ago. There was no church, no message of Christ. The people to whom they went forty-two years back had never seen a white person until the two of them walked into that community.
Today they’re in the States, finalizing the hard-backed edition of the New Testament which for forty-two years, amongst other things, they have been laboring to produce so that these people may have the gospel in their own tongue. And the lady said, as a humorous aside and certainly not to draw attention to herself, the other evening, she said, “We do not own a house, and we do not own a car, but we are a two-computer family.” And the reason they have computers is to do the hard work of Bible translation. Today there are twelve churches among these people, and fifty people from the churches have gone on to advanced theological education as a result of a very talented young couple forty-two years ago who offered a great sacrifice. It was a sacrifice that hit their pockets.
It was a sacrifice, then and now, that hit their preferences. Great sacrifice redirects my preferences. And when you read this chapter through—indeed, when we read the whole event through—you realize that these people, as a result of getting serious with God and as a result of reading the Bible, their whole preference package had changed. And every time they found something in the Bible that they were supposed to do, they did it! They were supposed to build booths; they built them. They were supposed to gather sticks; they gathered them. They were supposed to do this or that, and they did it. And now they were supposed to come and offer up their lives in consecration and in purification. They were faced with their sin. They were faced with their predicament. And the natural reaction of man is to turn away from that and just get on with his life. But here you discover that these folks made preparation for this day of dedication, setting aside their own personal preferences. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll go to the dedication. We want to have some time on our own.” “I don’t think I’ll go to the dedication. My sheep are in need of my attention.” “I don’t think I’ll go to the dedication. I bought a new field.” “I don’t think I’ll go to the dedication. I think I need to polish my cart.” “I don’t think I’ll go to the dedication.” Great sacrifice, then and now, not only touches my pocket, but it touches my preferences.
What would you prefer to do with the remainder of this day? And what if God’s plan for you was different from your preferences? Great sacrifice affects their pockets, their preferences, and their praise.
You see, this was not some commandeered, organized environment in which this took place. It certainly was not chaotic. It certainly was done decently and in order. But as you read this and as you get the flavor of all these different people taking their places, you realize that what was going on here when they finally got up on the walls and got these choirs going in two different directions, waiting for this great cataclysmic meeting in the middle, you know that it was exuberant; you know that it was loud; you know that it was marked by variety—not only in terms of instrumentation, but the whole thing was dynamic!
Chuck Swindoll, referring to it some years ago, said, “As I look at chapter 12 in my mind’s eye,” he said, “I see them like a kind of Jewish Disneyland parade. From a distance, I guess they resembled a charismatic drum and bugle corp.” An interesting picture! If we think of this dedication ceremony a bit like the Westminster Abbey kind of approach, with everybody walking and arriving at the right place at the right moment, we’ve probably got the wrong picture.
You will notice that Ezra and Nehemiah were at the heart of it all. Ezra led one choir, Nehemiah followed the other choir, and they must have looked at one another and said, “See you in the middle, and we’ll see what happens!” It was great joy, great praise. Great. Great! It wasn’t average. It wasn’t adequate, wasn’t passable, wasn’t insignificant, wasn’t irrelevant. It was great!
Had a few letters recently, all anonymous, from people who are concerned that we might be having great praise in our church. Number one: sign your name. I’d love to talk to you. And number two: yeah, it is a little scary, isn’t it? Yeah, it is a little different. Yeah, it moves me out of my comfort zone. But you’ll never have anything that’s great that doesn’t involve sacrifice. And for some of us, it is a sacrifice of our pride. It is a sacrifice of our preferences. Because when we come to corporate worship, it is corporate worship. If I want to worship on my own, singing the liturgical Psalms, I can do that. But when I come to worship, I can’t do that, because there’s another eight or nine hundred people here in worship with me, and they’re my brothers and my sisters, and I am responsible to them, and I am responsible along with them. And I am responsible to look up on the wall and see Nehemiah, to see Ezra there, and say, “Well, you know what? I don’t really like these trumpets. But I trust Nehemiah. I trust his judgment. And maybe this is something God has for me.”
The other possibility, of course, is that where you have people who are not in touch with Jesus, any kind of exuberance will be regarded as fanaticism or extremism or unreality. And that’s why we said—and I’m not going to repreach the sermon—that in order for genuine worship to take place, we need to be spiritually alive, we need to be spiritually assisted, and we need to be spiritually active. “I will sing. I will give thanks unto you. I will enter your gates with thanksgiving. I will enter your courts with praise. I will give thanks unto you and bless your name. For you, O Lord, are good, and your mercy is everlasting, and your truth endures to all generations.”
And in the last days, I’ve worshipped in an Anglican church, in a funny wee church, and in another kind of church. And none of it has necessarily been the way I would put it together. But I worshipped, for the focus is Jesus.
Great sacrifice, great praise, great joy. Great joy. “And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy.” Let me just show you three things about this joy.
Notice the source of the joy: God is the source of their joy. Back in chapter 8, I think it is, and verse 10, Nehemiah had said to them, “Go [out] and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks.” (“Go out for your lunch.”) “Send some to those who have nothing prepared.” (“Make sure you don’t neglect the poor.”) “This day is sacred to [the] Lord. Do[n’t] [be] griev[ing], for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” This is a happy time. This is a joyful time. “Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know.” We’re not in the ranks of the gloomy. This is not a cemetery. This is not a crematorium. It may not quite be a carnival, but it’s certainly not a crematorium.
And the average Sunday morning congregation looks like the London Tube: a bunch of people trapped in a steel case going who knows where and wishing they weren’t going, and not about to talk to anybody or let anyone know that they might be having a nice time. And so when the Spirit of God comes and lights a spark amongst that and people start getting joyful and as a result of great sacrifice there is great joy, it’s infectious! People who are joyful in your work are infectious people. People who are happy are the people you like to be around. The people who exude something of the joy and wonder of the day alone are themselves the kind of people who are contagious. And that’s exactly what was happening here.
“When peace, like a river, attend[s] my way, when [sorrow] like sea billows roll”—as it does for some this morning. We’re not talking here about an approach to life which says, “You know, you don’t have to go through it. You can always go over it.” No, you can’t! You have to go through it. This idea of “Fly above it” is a good notion, but sometimes you can’t get above it. The pilots will tell you that, right? They say to you, “We’ve gone as high as we can go, and we still cannot get above the turbulence. We have asked air traffic control. We come down, we go up, we come down. We’re in it. We’re going through it.” And some of you this morning are going through it. So the world looks on and says, “Well now, he’s going through it. She’s going through it. What do they have to offer?” And the answer is, “Great joy!”
When peace, like a river, attends my way,
When sorrow like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to know,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
I took the lists in USA Today of the American Eagle flight, and I found my mother’s cousin on it and her best friend—a lady that I’ve known since I’ve been a small boy in Scotland. There it was: Elizabeth McKay, 63, Glasgow, Scotland. In a moment, gone. And some of you lost friends on that as well. Well then, what is the world to say to this? What have they to say this morning in Glasgow and in the other places across the nation as they gather up the sorry remains of this? Nothing without the reality of a living Christ, a true Bible, a genuine joy. We’re not talking about silly stuff, silly grinning. We’re talking about crying and somehow, in the middle of it all, knowing that there is joy in the midst of my tears.
That’s the source of it. What about the course of it? Well, the course of joy ran through their hearts—or emerged from their hearts, ran through their houses, and made their gatherings what they were.
You see, the extension of our lives is really seen when we come together in worship. And what’s going on in my heart is what’s going on in my home. “I wonder,” I say to myself—“I wonder: Are my kids happy? I wonder: Do I bring any measure of joy to their lives?” Sometimes I hear myself talking; I say, “This doesn’t sound joyful. This doesn’t sound remotely joyful.” And if I think that, you can be sure they’re saying, “Good night! Where did he come from, you know?”
Well then, do you bring joy from your heart to your home? Do you bring joy from your home to the assembling of God’s people? Not silly stuff. Just joy. “Yeah, I am going through it. Yeah, we did have tests this week. Yeah, this is difficult. Yeah, I am unemployed. Yes, I am facing fearfulness. Yes, I am anxious about this. Yes, I am deeply concerned about my teen,” and so on and so on. “But you know what? There’s a joy in my heart.”
The source is God. The course is from my heart, through my home, to my gatherings. And the force of it—the force of joy is a dynamic force.
Look at the last sentence in verse 43, and we’ll wrap this up: “The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” So I want to add another “great.” There’s a third point now. Just add it now: great sacrifice, great joy, great impact. Great sacrifice, great joy, great impact. They made an impact. The sound that they made was unmistakable. It was the sound of joy.
As a boy, I used to ride my bike to Hampden Park, which was where they played the international soccer matches. On the majority of occasions, while I was still so small, it was impossible for me to ever be inside these events. I didn’t have a ticket, and I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to go if I had one, and so I used to sneak off on my bike. And I would ride my bike after the game had begun, and I would park it against the wall. In those days, they allowed 132,000 people into the stadium. They have now restricted the same stadium to 60,000. But there were 132,000 people in there, and I used to just sit against the wall and listen to the Hampden Roar. Listen to the Roar. And it used to billow out from the stadium and up through Mount Florida and up Cathcart Road and all the way out. And people’s windows in the immediate vicinity would actually shake as a result of the 132,000 lifting their voices together in song and in excitement.
That’s exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. “The sound of [their] rejoicing … could be heard far away.” People would have looked at one and another and said, “What’s that?” Said, “That’s Jerusalem. That’s those Jews—you know, the ones that built the wall? They’re having a deal, big dedication.” Person said, “I don’t know quite what it’s all about. But it sounds to me like they’re having a good time.”
I suppose it could happen. I don’t quite know how. But I’d love to think that somehow or another, people came, and they just parked their cars around the perimeter of the building just to hear God’s people, as a result of great sacrifice, experiencing great joy and making a great impact.
Let’s bow for a moment in prayer, shall we?
Summer and winter and the springtime and the harvest,
The sun, the moon, the stars in their courses above,
They join with all nature in manifold witness,
To thy great faithfulness, goodness, and love.
We thank you for your great sacrifice, Lord Jesus. We thank you for your great joy in enduring the cross set before you. And we thank you for the great impact of your death and resurrection upon our lives today. May we worship you, living Lord, and praise your name forever and ever. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).
 Nehemiah 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 Nehemiah 4:10 (NIV 1984).
 See Ephesians 6:12.
 John 8:44 (NIV 1984).
 Nehemiah 6:15 (NIV 1984).
 Thomas O. Chisolm, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (1923). Language modernized.
 1 Corinthians 16:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 See Nehemiah 8:14–17.
 Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 186. Paraphrased.
 Psalm 100:4–5 (paraphrased).
 John Newton, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (1779).
 Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1876).
 Spafford. Lyrics lightly altered.
 Chisolm, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 See Hebrews 12:2.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.