Nehemiah 11:1-12:47.
Giving Thanks when the Job is Done

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

The restoration of the walls around Jerusalem, coupled with the restoration of both the city government and the administrations of the temple, and the restoration of faith in God were certainly reasons for great celebration in Israel.   Since the city walls had been demolished for several generations, there had been very few people living in the city.  When the walls were rebuilt and the infrastructure of the city established, there were still very few residents since all who had returned from Persia had already settled in communities surrounding the city.  By the time of the celebrations and commitments that are recorded in Nehemiah, chapters 9-10, the resident population was primarily characterized by the leadership of the city.  In order to provide both the safety that a community needs, as well as the social interaction that defines a community, it was now time to invite people from outside the walls to move into Jerusalem and create a city.

Nehemiah 11:1-2.  And the rulers of the people dwelt at Jerusalem: the rest of the people also cast lots, to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities. 2And the people blessed all the men, that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.

In order to establish a population in Jerusalem, volunteers from outside the city were solicited to move their families from the surrounding villages to inside the walls. 

There were many benefits of living in the city of Jerusalem, particularly the security offered by the walls, and the close proximity to the Temple and the leadership of Israel.  It is reasonable that many in the community would have volunteered, man more than the city could handle.  Consequently, order was provided by the casting of lots.  A lottery was held among those who would volunteer with the intent of including about one tenth of the surrounding community.

Nehemiah 11:3-12:26.  Now these are the chief of the province that dwelt in Jerusalem: but in the cities of Judah dwelt every one in his possession in their cities, to wit, Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the Nethinims, and the children of Solomon’s servants.  4And at Jerusalem dwelt certain of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin.  …  36And of the Levites were divisions in Judah, and in Benjamin.  12:1Now these are the priests and the Levites that went up with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, … 26These 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.

The remainder of chapter eleven through the twenty sixth verse of chapter twelve is a detailed list of the names of the men who led their families to live in Jerusalem, organized by their genealogies.  Because of the random nature of a lottery, people were included from virtually every tribe and social classification.  The people celebrated the lottery and blessed those who made commitments to live in the city.  Consequently, Jerusalem went from a sparsely-populated pile of rubble to a dominant city in a very short time.

Nehemiah 12:27.  And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites 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.

When the wall was completed, Nehemiah held a ceremony of dedication.    Nehemiah put out a call for all Levites to come in order to register them and organize their tasks, reestablishing a lost Levitical system of priestly divisions.  King David had appointed 24 priestly divisions to serve in the temple when it would be built.[1] Nehemiah listed the 22 leaders of the priests who had returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, almost 100 years earlier, in 538 B.C. Perhaps two names were dropped from the list in copying or perhaps it was not possible to fill the roster of 24.

Cymbals, harps and lyres are mentioned.  Other references to these instruments indicate their use in times of great joy,[2] and also indicate that they were not to be used in times of sorrow or grief.[3]  We are not sure exactly what these instruments were, but they were small enough to be carried as they were played. 

Nehemiah 12:28-29.  And the sons of the singers gathered themselves together, both out of the plain country round about Jerusalem, and from the villages of Netophathi; 29Also from the house of Gilgal, and out of the fields of Geba and Azmaveth: for the singers had builded them villages round about Jerusalem.

The singers referred to here are literally, the "sons of the singers" that may describe the musical guilds of the Levitical families of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthan that are mentioned in the Psalms.

Nehemiah 12:30.  And the priests and the Levites purified themselves, and purified the people, and the gates, and the wall.

Finally, the last step in the dedication, prior to the celebration, was the purification of the leadership, the people, the gates, and the walls.  What is purification?  Of course, nothing in this world can ever be truly pure.  Only by God's grace can anything be declared righteous.  An individual is declared pure and righteous only by their accepting that purity by faith in God through the atoning death and Lordship of Jesus.  We have no cause for celebration if we, or that which we are celebrating, is impure. 

Purification was performed by rites that serve to declare that the people or objects to be dedicated are given to God.  They belong to him, and to Him alone.  This idea of purity comes from the simple idea that since God is pure, that which is wholly His is pure also.  We may witness this same form of purification today when we give of our resources to the work of the LORD and do so by wholly committing it to His use, and not our own. 

An important component of the dedication of objects to the LORD is the transfer of ownership that takes place when such a commitment is made.  When one dedicates their tithes, offerings, gifts, and other resources to the LORD, one is making a solemn and inviolable gift of them to the LORD.  After the dedication, those items belong to the LORD, not to the giver.  If the giver retains any part, portion, or influence over the property or resource that is given, it is not fully dedicated, and is not purified by the act.

Many different Christian denominations have similar activities that serve to dedicate their children to the LORD, whether through a form of baptism or simply a simple service of dedication.  These activities serve as a testimony of the parents of their intent to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the LORD,[4] and also provides an opportunity for the church fellowship to share in the nurturing and protection of the child through prayer, acceptance, and guidance.

Nehemiah 12:31.  Then I brought up the princes of Judah upon the wall, and appointed two great companies of them that gave thanks, whereof one went on the right hand upon the wall toward the dung gate:

With the work done, it was time to give thanks for the LORD for all He has done.  The celebration of thanksgiving is centered around the wall, but represents their thankfulness to the LORD for the very context of the Israelite experience, from the call of Abraham, to the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law by Moses, to God’s faithfulness through the years of Israelite apostasy, to the preservation of the remnant in Babylon, to the reestablishment of Jerusalem, represented by the wall.

The celebration of thanksgiving involved a great number of the people who were gathered at the wall and were divided into two groups, one who would process to the right, and another who would process to the left.  However, the procession did not take place along the ground.  Though the grammar in this verse is not clear, the following verses make it very clear:  the groups climbed up steps alongside the near gate and spread out along the top of the wall.

Nehemiah 12:32-37.  And after them went Hoshaiah, and half of the princes of Judah, 33And Azariah, Ezra, and Meshullam, 34Judah, and Benjamin, and Shemaiah, and Jeremiah, 35And certain of the priests’ sons with trumpets; namely, Zechariah the son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Michaiah, the son of Zaccur, the son of Asaph: 36And his brethren, Shemaiah, and Azarael, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethaneel, and Judah, Hanani, with the musical instruments of David the man of God, and Ezra the scribe before them. 37And at the fountain gate, which was over against them, they went up by the stairs of the city of David, at the going up of the wall, above the house of David, even unto the water gate eastward.

Obviously, if the top of the wall was large enough to handle this large group, it was quite a massive wall.  Archeologists estimate that the walkway on top of the wall was from 8 to 9 feet wide, encircled the city, and had a stone balustrade that was chest-high and contained parapets from which to direct weapons in the event of an attack.

It was this group that specifically included the “musical instruments of David.”  These were instruments that were maintained by the Temple and were used for important celebrations.  Had the Temple been maintained from its first construction under Solomon, they could easily have been applied through the years as David had intended.  Music was David’s favorite means of worship, and is still the favorite form of worship for many today.

Nehemiah 12:38-40.  And the other company of them that gave thanks went over against them, 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; 39And from above the gate of Ephraim, and above the old gate, and above the fish gate, and the tower of Hananeel, and the tower of Meah, even unto the sheep gate: and they stood still in the prison gate. 40So stood the two companies of them that gave thanks in the house of God, and I, and the half of the rulers with me:

From the description of the named gates, it appears that the processions started at the Dung Gate at the very southern tip of the city, with the first group that included Ezra moving eastward and northward and the second group moving westward and northward until they met at the northern tip of the city.  The procession completely filled the wall around the entire circumference of the city.

Ancient trumpets that are indicated in verses 35 and 41 were not considered musical instruments as they are today.  Modern trumpets are usually made of brass and include valves that allow the changing of the length of the tube to make different musical notes.  If we remove the valves, we have a bugle that can play only harmonics based on a single length.  The ancient trumpets were similar to the bugle, but were made from the horn of a ram.  Where a modern bugle can play five to seven notes, depending upon the skill of the player, the rams horn only plays two or three, with one note in its mid-range being particularly loud.  This trumpet, the shofar in Hebrew, was not used to play music, but rather to sound an alarm or call since its loudest note could be heard for long distances.  Though the scripture does not indicate the details of the celebration that took place on the wall, the presence of the trumpets imply that, once the people were in place, the trumpets were all sounded as a call to thanksgiving.  Only a few trumpeters are identified, but it is possible that there were more trumpets among the people, particularly the clan leaders, and those who are mentioned served to lead the call.  With the trumpeters stationed around the wall, this call from the circumference of the city would have been heard for many miles, encompassing the bulk of the communities surrounding Jerusalem.  At the call, all attention would turn to the celebrants on the wall.

Nehemiah 12:41-43.  And the priests; Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Michaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah, and Hananiah, with trumpets; 42And Maaseiah, and Shemaiah, and Eleazar, and Uzzi, and Jehohanan, and Malchijah, and Elam, and Ezer. And the singers sang loud, with Jezrahiah their overseer. 43Also 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. 

Following the call of the trumpets, the people sang songs of thanksgiving.  It is notable that these song were sung loudly.  It is reasonable to estimate that there were actually several thousand people standing on the wide, paved, pathway that was the “top” of the wall, and like the call of the trumpet, the singing of the people, led by Jezrahiah and the Temple singers, could also be heard throughout the city of Jerusalem and far beyond its walls.

In addition to the procession around the wall, the people collected in the courtyard of the temple.  Verse 43 refers five times to the expression of joy that came from their celebration and worship.  What did the people have to be joyful (and thankful) for?  The restoration of the wall brought physical security and stability to their way of life, protecting the restoration of the law and its application, provided security for the temple, restoration of the temple's purpose, a restoration of their traditions and their lifestyle, and restoration of the ability to worship God in their traditional form.

The scripture states that the sound of their rejoicing was heard far away.  It would not be surprising that God may have even intervened here, allowing the sound of their praise to reach the ears of people at quite a distance from Jerusalem, again verifying the power of God to the Jew's enemies.  Sound carries a long way in the quiet of a desert.  More than likely, the celebration was heard up and down the Jordan valley for many miles.  Such a unique sound would be remembered and retold for generations.

Nehemiah 12:44-47.  And at that time were some appointed 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. 45And both the singers and the porters kept the ward of their God, and the ward of the purification, according to the commandment of David, and of Solomon his son. 46For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chief of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God. 47And 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 holy things unto the Levites; and the Levites sanctified them unto the children of Aaron.

Following the celebration, life did not go back to "business as usual."  As the most important part of the dedication of the wall, they also dedicated themselves to God's purpose, and undertook other tasks to which God had called them.  The first example given is the assignment of men to be in charge of the storerooms.  These were part of the temple design, but had not been used previously for the purpose intended.  The Levitical Law prescribes that people tithe to the temple for the purpose of its support, the support of the Levites, and the specific support for the priesthood, a commitment that was recorded in previous chapters.  We find later in the text that Tobiah was living in one of these storerooms and Nehemiah personally evicted him. 

The gifts that were brought were of three kinds:  Contributions (free-will gifts), first-fruits, and tithes.  We have continued the tradition of giving tithes and free-will gifts.  We no longer give the first-fruits of the produce from our land, herds, and flocks.  Though Solomon is credited with the building of the Temple, David is the founder of the musicians of Israel.  These singers, as well as the gatekeepers, were supported from these offerings.

When the wall of Jerusalem was completed and dedicated those who had been involved could have relaxed and enjoyed the moment.  Instead, they moved on to the next task God placed before them.  Furthermore, though they might have done so, the people did not turn their attention solely to themselves.  To the contrary, they set out to show in a tangible way their appreciation for those who had a significant part in completing their God-given task. 

Despite the obstacles the people of Israel had faced along the way, they brought their God-given task to a satisfactory conclusion.  Not only so, they finished the job with amazing speed.  When they had finished, they dedicated the fruit of their labors to the God who had called them and joyfully celebrated with praise and thanksgiving to God. This service involved representatives from everyone who had been involved in the work.  When this great celebration was completed, instead of sitting back and resting from their labors, they went on to the next tasks God had in store tor them.  In this entire process, Nehemiah and his followers left us a powerful example of how to accomplish a seemingly impossible task for God.

[1] 1 Chronicles 24:7-19.

[2] Genesis 31:27; Psalms 33:2; Isaiah 5:12.

[3] Job 30:31; Psalm 137:2.

[4] Proverbs 22:6.