The Seventeenth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
If you know the history of Israel, you know that there are great turning points in redemptive history which determine the subsequent course of events for the people of God. We find one of these turning points in our passage, when the people of Israel assemble for a covenant renewal ceremony outside one of Jerusalem’s gates just rebuilt by the Israelites, despite the sustained efforts of their enemies to stop the rebuilding process. The covenant renewal ceremony brought about a revival within Israel and led to a desire on the part of the people to return to those biblical practices revealed to them by God in his word. From this point forward, the Jews will be characterized as the “people of the Book.”
As we continue our series on Ezra and Nehemiah, we will consider, briefly, the opening section of Nehemiah 7, before moving on to spend the balance of our time in Nehemiah 8. One thing is now obvious–the repeated attempts by Sanballat, Tobias, and Geshem to stop the Jews from rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls, gates, and fortifications, have failed. As we learned from our time in Nehemiah 6, thanks to the capable leadership of Nehemiah, in just 52 days the Jews managed to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gates, much to the chagrin of the enemies of Israel, who, out of disdain, stooped so low as to make death threats and threaten blackmail when their previous efforts had failed.
If the rebuilding of the city’s walls was the theme of the previous chapters of Nehemiah, and if the first generation of returning exiles rebuilding the Jerusalem temple had been key to the Book of Ezra, one very important element of Israel’s religion has remained somewhat in the background until now–the central role the law of God played in the life of Israel. Now that the temple has been rebuilt, sacrifices resumed, priests and levites are once again performing their duties in that temple, and the city of Jerusalem finally has been made safe, the law of God now moves to the front and center of Nehemiah’s account. The focus of Nehemiah 8-10 shifts away from rebuilding walls to the renewal of that covenant which God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Once the city’s walls have been rebuilt it is time to seek YHWH’s blessing and favor, and this entails renewing Israel’s covenant with YHWH.
The opening verses of chapter 7 make several important points and set the stage for what follows, so we will consider them briefly before moving on to discuss chapter 8. With the Sanballat saga seemingly at an end with the completion of the city’s walls, Nehemiah recounts his subsequent actions in verses 1-2 of chapter 7. “Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.” If rebuilt walls and gates were necessary for the safety of the people and for the city of Jerusalem to become a habitable place, Nehemiah reminds us that while this all may be well and good, the people of Israel must not forget the reason why Jerusalem is so important–it is in this city that God’s temple stands, and it is in the midst of this city where YHWH’s people are to worship him according to his word. This is why in addition to those gate-keepers who stood guard and opened and closed the city’s gates (no small task), Nehemiah appoints singers and Levites to serve in the temple. The one necessitates the other.
Once again, Nehemiah mentions his brother Hanani, who was the one who first brought Nehemiah the difficult news about the sad state of Jerusalem, news which set the events recounted in the Book of Nehemiah into action (as recounted in the opening chapter). Nehemiah trusted his brother, as well as a man named Hanahiah, and so he placed them in important positions in the city’s administration. The “castle” refers to the Tower of Hananel which stood adjacent to the temple mount–a defensive fortification and watch-tower. These men were placed in charge so as to ensure that the city was properly defended, and its rebuilt gates function so as to bring order to daily life.
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