As Paul was beginning to bring his Epistle to the Romans to a close, he commented – “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning…” If we were to paraphrase Romans 15:4 we might say “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our INSTRUCTION,” and that certainly would not be incorrect. But the word Paul used was “didaskalia” (did-as-kal-ee’-ah), and it is most often translated “doctrine.” “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our DOCTRINE…” But the verse doesn’t end with that word; it goes on to say, “that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Bible doctrine ought to provide us with a great many blessings, including patience, comfort and hope. It should also supply us with direction, inspiration and encouragement.
We aren’t studying the Book of Nehemiah just to kill a little time as we wait for the return of our Redeemer. This study is not for our entertainment – or even to know the Bible a little bit better. We are studying this book “for our instruction” that we might be better equipped to serve our Saviour. You are right, we don’t need to know all the names and places in this chapter. But there are little things – small comments and even single words – which open pathways to instruction which can teach significant doctrine, if we are willing to pay attention and apply.
The City of Jerusalem was beginning a new chapter in its life. God’s temple had been rebuilt a few years earlier, and now the city wall had been completed. Those who had returned to Israel from Persia were ready to move on with their lives. Earlier, their ancestors had settled and bequeathed parcels of land to their families throughout Judah, and these, their descendants, had their sights set on rebuilding their grandparents’ homes and farms. Very few of this remnant had physical ties to Jerusalem itself. Of course Judah’s rulers were expected to live in the royal city, but few others were willing to join them. So there was a national lottery, and the losers of that lottery were expected to settle in the “holy city.” We aren’t told, but I would imagine that this was overseen by Ezra, Nehemiah and the priests in such a way that the results would have been considered to be the will of the Lord. It was God’s will that certain specific families – one out of ten – were to take up residence in Jerusalem. You might say that God used these lots to demonstrate their “election.”
In addition to these families, there were a number of men who willingly chose set their roots down in Jerusalem. They are briefly described to us “for our learning” that we “that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” – and direction, inspiration and encouragement. I’m not sure that I can do this lesson justice, but I’m going to try.
WHO were these people who volunteered to live in the city?
Even though we have a number of names here in the first half of the chapter, we can’t be sure whether these are the volunteers or the draftees or both. Even with these names, we don’t know many specifics, other than that a few were relatives of famous people. And perhaps there are blessings and lessons in that. If we knew they were rich people, we might find it hard to apply their lessons to ourselves. If they were unmarried – widowers or single teenagers – we might say they couldn’t teach us anything because we have families. But did these men have families, and if so were they large or small? Were their children young and happy to be wherever mom was, or were they teens and unhappy to be moved to such a drab and dismal place? Were these people educated or ignorant? Were they secular, pharisaical or spiritual? Not knowing who they were, we have no excuse not to use them to illustrate ourselves.
All right then, WHAT did they do?
The people we are talking about “willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.” I’m going to try to be positive and say they were observant enough to see a need and willing enough to meet that need. Even though no one declared that it was their duty to serve, they may have looked at it that way. If Jerusalem was not occupied by God’s people, it was likely that the Devil’s people would have reentered, further desecrating the “holy city.” So these folk “willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.” Perhaps.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “offered” in this kind of context? I don’t know about you, but my mind turns immediately toward some sort of “sacrifice.” The right kind of sacrifices are “offered” to the Lord. They are not “relinquished” or “surrendered” to God; they are freely “given” or “offered” with joy. God said to Abraham, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and OFFER him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Even though the Hebrew wording doesn’t directly lend itself to that substitution, I think the principle is here. These people sacrificed what others were hoping to enjoy in moving to the country. In other words, these people displayed the Christian attribute of self-denial.
Scattered across the Bible are other people who did similar sorts of things. For example, there is an excellent study of the Hebrew word “willingly offered themselves” in Deborah’s song of praise in Judges 5. It follows the victory which God gave Barak over Sisera and Jabin, one of the kings of Canaan. Sisera had 900 chariots of iron, which he used to terrorize Israel for more than 20 years. When Israel was sufficiently humbled, and the iniquity of the Canaanites was sufficiently full, God raised up Deborah, Barak and Jael to deliver the nation. In her hymn of praise to God, Deborah referred to the people of Israel who followed Barak into battle. “Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly OFFERED themselves.” Israel was delivered from Sisera and Jabin because God’s people voluntarily laid down their lives as sacrifices to the Lord. It may not have come to death, but like the offering of Isaac, those people were willing to give their all.
Another example comes from the New Testament, when Paul was encouraging the well-to-do saints of Corinth to contribute to the needs of their poverty-stricken Hebrew brethren in Jerusalem. In II Corinthians 8:1 he wrote – “Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia; How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; Praying us with much intreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.”
Again, despite that they “willingly offered themselves” – none of the people involved died. It was not that kind of sacrifice. God protected the small army of Barak when He used them for His glory. None of the Macedonians starved to death because they gave their free-will offerings to Paul. And even though their lives were redirected, I believe the volunteers in Nehemiah’s day, didn’t die any earlier than their country-bumpkin cousins. And yet, what did they do? “They willingly OFFERED themselves” in sacrifice to the Lord. Gifts given to the infinite God are not wasted. Rather they are usually magnified and multiplied.
This week I spent some time studying the Hebrew word which is translated “that willingly offered themselves.” It is one word – not four as we have it here in English. After the Hebrew Bible uses the word fourteen times, this is the last verse where it is found. In some cases people willingly gave of their GOODS…. Exodus 25:2 – “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it WILLINGLY with his heart ye shall take my offering.” Ezra 1:6 – “And all they that were about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside all that was WILLINGLY offered.” Some folk gave of their SERVICE as well as their property…. 1 Chronicles 29:5 – First David and then Solomon appealed to the people to give … “Gold for things of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and for all manner of work to be made by the hands of artificers. And who then is WILLING to consecrate his SERVICE this day unto the LORD?” And then sometimes that Hebrew word is used to speak of people who willingly gave their LIVES… That is to what Deborah was referring in her song. And 2 Chronicles 17 lists Jehoshaphat’s mighty men saying “And next unto (Jehohana) was Amasiah the son of Zichri, who WILLINGLY OFFERED HIMSELF unto the LORD; and with him two hundred thousand mighty men of valour.” According to its use in the Bible, to “willingly offer” something was to give it up – give it away. It is a shallow reflection of the sacrifice which Christ and even God the Father made for our salvation. “For God so loved the world, that he GAVE (gave up) his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
And to WHOM did these people in Nehemiah make this offering?
In every one of the verses using this word, the offering was given to Jehovah or one of His representatives. Some gave to Moses for the building of the tabernacle, and some gave to David and Solomon for the temple. This is the only scripture where we don’t clearly see a sacrifice – made to God. But I’m going to assume that these men were looking into the face of their Saviour as they volunteered. I know that I have no Biblical right to make this statement, but I picture them like the brethren in Macedonia, first giving their hearts to the Lord their God, before giving their futures to dwell in Jerusalem. They first gave their own selves to the Lord and then unto the need of the nation.
Outwardly, the gifts they gave were to be spent on an imperfect project – the fallen city of Jerusalem. But they didn’t see it that way…. because they were giving themselves to their Saviour. The situation is very similar today. We could argue that our church, our ministry, our minister – are not as glorious as they ought to be. But this is still God’s “holy city” in a sense, and our service here is ultimately service to the Saviour.
WHY did they do it?
Only our imaginations can supply the answer, because we aren’t told. Was it patriotism? Perhaps for some that was the reason. Some people, including many Christians, have raised national patriotism to the level of idolatry. “Our country – right or wrong.” Wrong. The Lord must come before Jerusalem, Israel or the United States. Was their goal some sort of financial reward? It was unlikely, but perhaps some were willing to buy the stock of Jerusalem, because at this point, it was priced so low. Perhaps there were eager entrepreneurs who saw some cheap land upon which they could build hotels. Maybe some wanted to get into businesses with high potential because of a lack of competition at the moment. Were some young people trying to escape difficult homes – abusive fathers? There could be many possible answers, but I’m going to ignore the fleshly possibilities.
And yet, I can’t overlook that statement – “And the people BLESSED all the men that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.” Did these men volunteer in order to be praised by their peers? I don’t think so. First, because they “willingly offered themselves” before the blessings began to sprinkle down on them. And then there is that enigmatic word “bless” itself. Sometimes that word refers to praise; but sometimes to prayer and sometimes to promises of prosperity. Israel’s great official benediction uses the word in several ways. Numbers 6…. “The LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall BLESS (not praise, but bless) the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” The “blessings” given by the citizens of Judah could have been praise, but I think it was more of a promise to pray that GOD’S blessings would be on them. Those people who choose to live in the “Holy City” – close to the “House of God” – need our daily prayers. They need the blessing of God for strength, courage, wisdom and endurance.
Again, why did these people “willingly offer themselves to dwell at Jerusalem?” I hope that some of them might have done so for the glory of the Lord. This was the place where God had chosen to place His Name. “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
This was God’s “holy city” – but in truth, as seen through the eyes of the heathen, it wasn’t very glorious. The Holy Spirit generally works through God’s people, but there were very few of those people. There were fewer coming under conviction – and even less being converted. These people may have given of themselves to be used of the Lord in the revival of the “holy city.” In other words – they volunteered for victory, as it was in the days of Deborah and Barak.
As far as the New Testament brethren in Macedonia were concerned, they gave of themselves because they had been redeemed. They certainly weren’t trying to be redeemed; that was a done deal by the grace of God. They knew the principle of 1 Corinthians 6:20 – “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Since their souls already belonged to the Saviour, their bodies were willingly given up as well.
You may be able to think of some other potential explanations for their sacrifice, but I move on.
HOW did they make this offering? In WHAT MANNER? WHAT did it INVOLVE?
I am repeating myself – but they willingly denied themselves. The grass is always greener on the other side of the wall. Those moving out to the country may have dreamed of peaceful pastoral lives. They may have envisioned more prosperity raising sheep and oats, than shuffling along the streets of the city. Their cousins of these volunteers may have been pleading with them to join them in Hebron or Dibon, but these good people were willing to sacrifice those potential joys to be close to the House of God.
They wanted to be a part of the “holy city” – and to be close to God’s temple. They wanted to hear the daily blowing of the trumpets and the call to worship. They knew their kids needed to hear the teaching of the great Bible stories, and they needed the instruction of hard doctrine. They yearned to be close to the altar upon which their sin-cleansing sacrifices were made. They wanted to live and die near the cross, so to speak.
They gave of themselves in faith. One of the lessons of Hebrews 11 is that the Lord rewards the trust that we place in Him. Most of the men and women mentioned in that chapter gave of themselves in faith expecting that their little mustard seeds of faith would sprout and grow into outstanding shrubs and trees. And in every case the Lord, blessed. So Enoch believed God offering himself to the ministry, and “he was translated that he should not see death.” Abraham and Sarah believed God, and a son was given unto them in their old age. Moses’ family sacrificed him by faith to the Nile and its crocodiles, and God rewarded their faith. I can’t say, because I don’t have enough information, but I doubt that any of those who chose to live in the city ever regretted their choice – they were blessed by God for their “sacrifice.”
They gave of themselves cheerfully and not out of constraint. They gave out of love for the Lord and His glory. They gave publically, but not for praise and reward.
Isn’t it true that gifts given to the Lord are measured not in their size or worth, but in what is left behind? The wealthy man may give a $100,000, but because he has millions, there is no pain or loss in the gift. But the widow may give $10.00 out of her $20.00 or even her $100.00, and God is far more pleased because of the sacrifice involved. These men gave their all to God and in a sense nothing was left behind.
And speaking of widows – the Bible lets us watch the Lord watching a certain widow. “And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.” May we compare this woman and the men who “willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem?” Were not both of them in Jerusalem, and making this sacrifice in, or in respect, to the Temple? Didn’t this woman give “all that she had, even all her living,” because she was casting herself upon the Lord to meet her needs tomorrow and next week? I read one commentator who said that the sacrifice in Nehemiah’s day was greater than this woman’s offering because she gave only of her substance rather than her life. I’m going to politely disagree. She did “willingly offer” herself to the Lord by faith, trusting Him to meet her future needs.
The “house of God” and the “holy city” have three kinds of residents. There are the unsaved – people who are constrained to be there or who live there for some sort of reward. There are some redeemed people who really don’t relish the privilege to live in God’s city. And there are those who delight to be fellow citizens with the saints and the brethren of Christ. These people are examples to us and to Israel. These people provide a rebuke to others by the simplicity of their dedicated lives.
God house still needs men and women who “willingly offer themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.”