Back in the 1930’s and 40’s the comedic team of Abbott and Costello were “all the rage”. They moved vaudeville and burlesque humor from the “live stage” over to the climbing number of radio audiences listeners as they brought laughter coast to coast in the US. Pre-WWII radio was quickly becoming filled with drama and news, and Abbott and Costello were perfect for “lightening the mood” of growing worry that characterized the times. The country was still quite rural, and the advent of radio was “tying the country together” in ways it had never experienced. Entertainment left the city and entered the home through radio waves and hot, glowing tubes.
One of the more famous ”routine skits” played out by the duo was a little bit called, “Who’s on first?” The premise of the sketch was Abbott explaining a baseball game staffed by mythical players with names and nicknames that were interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello’s questions. For example, because the first baseman was named “Who”; the question “Who’s on first?” simply got a reply of “Yes”! The names of the players at each position were: First Base: Who, Second Base: What, Third Base: I Don’t Know, Left field: Why, Center field: Because, Pitcher: Tomorrow, Catcher: Today, Shortstop: I Don’t Care. If you ever heard the skit, you remember it, because it was a classic exercise in miscommunication.
I mention that skit because the poignant question is more than a simple comic title. It is a serious question about the priorities and director(s) of your life? Obviously for a believer and follower of Jesus, I WOULD LIKE to say that Jesus is “on first” in my life. I would like to say He has pre-eminence over my choices and decisions. Some days that is true. Others, sadly, that is not true at all. The question I want to address today, as a direct result of the study of our text, is this:
“If my Lord is first in my life, how will I be able to tell?”
In other words, what are the priorities of the believer that, if firmly grasped, will show up in the daily choices of my life? Nehemiah 10 has some excellent words for us that will lead us to a firm set of expressible priorities. This isn’t a lofty message with deep theoretical principles – quite the opposite. It is a painfully practical set of priorities expressed clearly in the ancient journal of a wine steward made “construction project manager” that will guide us. From the beginning, we will see an important underlying truth…
Key Principle: My faith is best expressed in my priorities. If you cannot see what I believe from how I live, I may not be living honestly.
We open our story not at the beginning of a chapter, but at the end of chapter nine, to remind us that we are dropping in on a drama already in progress. We have returned after an intermission – the story is well underway. Look at the words of Nehemiah 9:38 and you get the sense that all we are about to see is completely connected with what has been going on before it:
Nehemiah 9:38 “Now because of all this, we are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed document [are the names of] our leaders, our Levites [and] our priests.”
At the outset, Nehemiah made the connection in a simple phrase “because of all this”… forcing us to look back and ask WHAT preceded our reading that caused the scene that is unfolding. The people were about to outline written priorities to PUBLICLY PROCLAIM THE LORD because of what they had been through since the wall was erected. They were changed:
• Because they had the Word of God read carefully and explained to them – they were confronted with their sinfulness (Nehemiah 8:1-9). The pure Word of the Lord lit up the darkness of their hearts, and they responded with weeping over their sin.
• Because they experienced the message of God’s grace – they heard from the Levites that they should NOT weep over the past, but begin to celebrate God’s renewal (Nehemiah 8:10-12). The Levites sent them to FEAST because this was the right time to celebrate!
• Because the heads of families and leaders among the people sought God more deeply than ever before – the men were instructed in the way of keeping Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) and they did as they were instructed (Nehemiah 8:13-18).
• Because the people separated all foreigners from them, and gathered for an extensive time of confession and repentance to God (Nehemiah 9:1-4).
• Because the leaders called for the people to join together in praise and rejoicing, along with prayerful confession to God (Nehemiah 9:5-38). The Levites led in a solemn prayer of confession and history that made clear that God was just, but the people were prone to wander.
• Because the men gathered to draw up a covenant to follow God that could be sworn, signed and checked. They placed themselves in the position of objective accountability: That was the point of the record in the first twenty-nine verses of Nehemiah 10. The opening of the chapter is a series of names of those present for the record:
Nehemiah 10:1 Now on the sealed document [were the names of]: Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah, and Zedekiah, 2 Seraiah, Azariah, Jeremiah, 3 Pashhur, Amariah, Malchijah, 4Hattush, Shebaniah, Malluch, 5 Harim, Meremoth, Obadiah, 6 Daniel, Ginnethon, Baruch, 7 Meshullam, Abijah, Mijamin, 8Maaziah, Bilgai, Shemaiah. These [were] the priests. 9 And the Levites: Jeshua the son of Azaniah, Binnui of the sons of Henadad, Kadmiel; 10 also their brothers Shebaniah, Hodiah, Kelita, Pelaiah, Hanan, 11Mica, Rehob, Hashabiah, 12 Zaccur, Sherebiah, Shebaniah, 13 Hodiah, Bani, Beninu. 14 The leaders of the people: Parosh, Pahath-moab, Elam, Zattu, Bani, 15 Bunni, Azgad, Bebai, 16 Adonijah, Bigvai, Adin, 17 Ater, Hezekiah, Azzur, 18 Hodiah, Hashum, Bezai, 19 Hariph, Anathoth, Nebai, 20Magpiash, Meshullam, Hezir, 21 Meshezabel, Zadok, Jaddua, 22 Pelatiah, Hanan, Anaiah, 23 Hoshea, Hananiah, Hasshub, 24 Hallohesh, Pilha, Shobek, 25 Rehum, Hashabnah, Maaseiah, 26 Ahiah, Hanan, Anan, 27 Malluch, Harim, Baanah.
The rest of the passage in Nehemiah 10:28-29 makes clear what they were doing. These men were accountable to the covenant they were about to publicly declare. The passage says:
Nehemiah 10:28 Now the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the law of God, their wives, their sons and their daughters, all those who had knowledge and understanding, 29 are joining with their kinsmen, their nobles, and are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given through Moses, God’s servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of GOD our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes;
Let’s not be unduly complicated. What preceded the message of clear priorities? What changed the people?
The passage clearly states that seven things preceded the revealing of a clear path of priorities for the people:
• Surrender to the clear message of the Word of God.
• Serious recognition of sin, both past and present.
• Careful notice of God’s incredible grace to accept them.
• Separation in worship “for the family only” as they sought God.
• A time of worship and praise.
• A season of confessional prayer and thanksgiving for God.
• Public agreement to be accountable to follow God.
Now a group of surrendered, challenged, repentant men stood to take an oath before God and men that their lives would show the world they belonged to, and voluntarily served Yahweh. Here was their declaration of new priorities:
The Seven Top Priorities:
The rest of the passage is dedicated to the priorities the people grasped in their walk with God. These were the priorities of renewal. These were the path forward to a people who agreed they were sinful and needed to be placed back on track by God. These were not simply theories – they were a public, specific and measurable commitment before God. The verses contain powerful transformational values:
Nehemiah 10:30 and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons. 31 As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego [the crops] the seventh year and the exaction of every debt. 32 We also placed ourselves under obligation to contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: 33 for the showbread, for the continual grain offering, for the continual burnt offering, the sabbaths, the new moon, for the appointed times, for the holy things and for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God. 34 Likewise we cast lots for the supply of wood [among] the priests, the Levites and the people so that they might bring it to the house of our God, according to our fathers’ households, at fixed times annually, to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law; 35 and that they might bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all the fruit of every tree to the house of the LORD annually, 36 and bring to the house of our God the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, and the firstborn of our herds and our flocks as it is written in the law, for the priests who are ministering in the house of our God. 37 We will also bring the first of our dough, our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the new wine and the oil to the priests at the chambers of the house of our God, and the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns. 38 The priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive tithes, and the Levites shall bring up the tenth of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of the storehouse. 39 For the sons of Israel and the sons of Levi shall bring the contribution of the grain, the new wine and the oil to the chambers; there are the utensils of the sanctuary, the priests who are ministering, the gatekeepers and the singers. Thus we will not neglect the house of our God.
1. Relationships: No intermarriage (10:30)
The beginning place for a change in the people’s walk with God was a change in the surrender of their so-called “rights” when it came to relationships…
Nehemiah 10:30 and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.
This was not simply a kind statement that each family would not allow social contracts, it was a costly step, because it would cause the neighbors to look on the Israelites with deep suspicion. Add to that the fact that some of the people sent home unlawfully married wives and children, and there is NO QUESTION that such a decision would have impact on both their personal safety and their economic livelihood.
Imagine you lived out west 100 years ago. Certain areas of the frontier were still controlled by local tribes of Native Americans. Some journeys were not safe without military escort. Some homesteads were in danger and needed to always be on guard for a flying arrow. Now imagine that you had the opportunity to forge a bond between your clan and the tribe of Native Americans near you. Wouldn’t you want to do it? It would make you safer and increase your trade in the local community. Whatever you made, if it was universally useful, would have many more clients to whom you could offer your wares. The same was true with ancient Israel. Snubbing the locals is no way to stay safe or get popular – but snub they did – because God COMMANDED them to do so.
By the time of the Christian Scriptures, the message of the Gospel was growing in the streets of Roman cities, and Gentiles were coming to Jesus in significant numbers. The early Jewish community that followed Christ had to come together to face the fact that Gentiles were coming into the faith but were not separated from the relational practices of paganism. When the first council of the church met (as recorded in Acts 15) the elders of the church passed to the Gentile congregations and followers only a few simple requirements. Look at Acts 15 and you will see the result of the council’s decision:
Acts 15:22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas– Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them,
“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. 24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with [their] words, unsettling your souls, 25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word [of mouth]. 28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
Look closely at the end of the letter. Four specific commands were passed to the Gentiles from the council:
• First, the people needed to abstain from idolatry and its practices.
• Second, the people must not ingest blood.
• Third, the people must withdraw from ceremonies and their resultant meats that were killed by ceremonial strangulation.
• Finally, the people must abstain from the use of the brothels and not be sexually impure.
The point of recalling that letter is that Gentiles could not be a part of the people of God if they didn’t surrender to God in the specific area of relationships as well. Like the people of ancient Jerusalem under Nehemiah, the withdrawal from pagans and their festivals would hurt the follower of God economically, as well as socially. Indeed, had such restrictions not been given, it is possible the persecutions of the early church would have been quite a bit less prolonged and dramatic.
The point is simple. God is in charge of my relationships and my personal economy. I am to choose to follow Him no matter the cost. He is my safety against the enemy’s arrows, and my security against the loss of trading partners. He defines the circle of my relationships, and the use of my body. I AM NOT MY OWN, and the first place that should be easy to observe is in the purity of my relationships both sexually and contractually (see 1 Corinthians 6:19).
2. Time: Honor Sabbath (10:31a)
In addition to my relationships, God is in charge of my time, and how I use it to further my own ends…
Nehemiah 10:31 As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or a holy day…
It was always a temptation to try to take advantage of any time possible to make a little extra money, but a believer needs to make a priority out of obedience, and surrender the desire for greater success. It was no easier to follow God in antiquity than it is today.
Let me ask you something: Is worship REALLY a priority to you, or is it more a habit? Do you WANT to take time with God, learn about Him, and seek His face with other believers? If you said in your heart “NO!” then I would only say this: Thanks for coming today. Thanks for doing this, whether you did it to make your parents, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone else in your life happy – thanks. I am glad you came. We don’t want you to feel condemned for your feelings. We know we aren’t as exciting as watching your favorite sports team, and we might do you less good than sleeping in – if you choose to block out what God wants to say to you. At the same time, if you will give the Scriptures a listen, I think you will find what you have been searching for. God IS interested in your life, and you CAN know Him.
For every believer, we must remember that it is impossible for the world to see our love for Jesus if we don’t want to be with other believers, and we don’t want to know His Word. Just imagine if you went to work tomorrow and told the people there that you LOVE a certain young man or woman – and they see you turning down every opportunity to be with the so-called “object of your affection.” No one will believe you love them, because you don’t show it. Gathering to worship and study, as they did on Sabbaths beginning about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, were a certain sign of a man or woman’s faith. Jews kept Sabbath, because God told them to do so. They did it because they needed the together time in worship and instruction. Though we may not be under a DAY COMMAND – we still need those same things! A believer knows that alone time with God is essential, and corporate worship is also absolutely necessary. That is why the early Messianic believers were warned about “forsaking the assembling together” times (see Hebrews 10:25). God is in charge of my relationships, and He is Lord over my time. I will never be what He wants me to be without intentionally and consciously choosing to consistently give these over to Him.
3. Advancement: Observe sabbatical year (10:31b)
Another demonstration of surrender to God in the area of time was allowing the ground to go fallow every seventh year in keeping with God’s commands (Lev. 25). This law had been summarily neglected during kingdom period prior to the exile, and God charged the length of the captivity to punish the people for that specific neglect (2 Chronicles 36:21). Shockingly, it appears by this time that Sabbath was already being disobeyed yet again! The people pledged:
Nehemiah 10:31b “…and we will forego [the crops] the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.
The temptation to “get ahead” was always one of the sacred cows that needed a temple sacrifice. God wanted then, and wants now, His people to depend upon Him. Though we may not need to let the land fallow, for the agreement of the Torah was not made with us – yet God does call men and women of God to forego many an opportunity to follow Him. Some believers are giving up double overtime to be in a church service on Sunday.
As a Christian leader, I am increasingly uncomfortable by the ease with which people dismiss God from their choices when it comes to something as simple as what JOB one should take. If God could command our older brother Israel to forego every seventh year’s crops, what can God ask YOU OR I to forego in our economic life? Can He command you to drop your pursuit of money and make your way to a mission field? Would you be willing to go?
I was thinking this past week in my class about William Borden. His story always touched me. Perhaps you heard it? “In 1904 William Borden, heir to the Borden Dairy Estate, graduated from a Chicago high school a millionaire. His parents gave him a trip around the world. Traveling through Asia, the Middle East and Europe gave Borden a burden for the world’s hurting people. Writing home, he said, ‘I’m going to give my life to prepare for the mission field.’ When he made this decision, he wrote in the back of his Bible two words: No Reserves. Turning down high paying job offers after graduation from Yale University, he entered two more words in his Bible: No Retreats. Completing studies at Princeton Seminary, Borden sailed for China to work with Muslims, stopping first at Egypt for some preparation. While there he was stricken with cerebral meningitis and died within a month. A waste, you say! Not in God’s plan. In his Bible underneath the words No Reserves and No Retreats, he had written the words No Regrets. (Daily Bread, December 31, 1988.)
4. Money: (Before God) Temple tax (10:32-33)
The issue of giving to God was also addressed:
Nehemiah 10:32 We also placed ourselves under obligation to contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: Nehemiah 10:33 for the showbread, for the continual grain offering, for the continual burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moon, for the appointed times, for the holy things and for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God.
This wasn’t the tithe assessed based on your increase, it was a “FLAT TAX” for the operation of the Temple and its sacrificial system. This was an assessed giving plan based on the needed budget. The people did not likely find themselves emotionally attached to this. They were not moved by the sunset at the end of a missionary slide presentation – they were ASSESSED A TAX. How did covenanting together to do that help them? The simple answer is that it showed where their hearts were.
In the Summer Games of 2012, Kim Rhode again won the gold medal in “skeet shooting” as she became the first American to win five Olympic medals in five consecutive Olympics – spanning the period from 1996 to 2012. If you are impressed with that, you should recall that her score was also incredible. She hit ninety-nine of one hundred and set the new and current Olympic record for the event. In an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, Rhode explained how she got so good at her sport. She told the reporter that she shoots an average of between 500 and 1,000 rounds every day of the week, 365 days a year – more than 3,000,000 shots annually. If you divide that out, it comes to about 600,000 rounds per medal received. Think of that amount of investment to gain a gold metal! Let me ask a question: Do you think ANYONE would dare ask what she was passionate about? “Where our treasure is, there is our heart also.” (Mt. 6:21).
What kind of testimony do you think it was to the Persian governors to see the people collect sacrificially to offer sacrifice to their God? Giving is more than meeting the needs of a ministry – it is a specific form of declaration of passion and care, and it is a testimony before others. If we claim we love God but give only what is left to Him, are we being genuine?
5. Work Life: Sacrifice (10:34)
The people got together for more than learning. They came to the Temple to deal with sin in a sacrifice that was costly for them, both in time and treasure. Nehemiah reminds:
Nehemiah 10:34 Likewise we cast lots for the supply of wood [among] the priests, the Levites and the people so that they might bring it to the house of our God, according to our fathers’ households, at fixed times annually, to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law;
If you lived in the cold and damp winters in Jerusalem, you would understand the value of a good wood pile. There are not many trees in Jerusalem – NOTHING like an average North American town could supply. To get a large wood pile, one harvested everything from bushes to old grape vines and olive trees that no longer produced well. Olive wood burns hot because of its oils, but leaves a residue on the chimney that must be regularly cleaned. Over the years of living in Judea, I found my only relief was a hot bath and evenings beside the wood stove.
Can you imagine working SO HARD to build up a wood pile and then having the LOT fall on you? You would have to give what was required to the house of the Lord, and you would LOSE all that hard work? Why would God drop on your shoulders such a heavy burden?
Think about a little story you know from the apocraphal surroundings of modern Christmas, and the opportunity becomes clearer… “The Little Drummer Boy” (originally “Carol of the Drum”) is a song written by composer Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. It was recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and further popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale. In the lyrics the singer relates how, as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the nativity where, without a gift for the infant Jesus, he played his drum with the Virgin Mary’s approval, remembering “I played my best for Him” and “He smiled at me.”
The use of your wood represented the work of your hands, and the hours of your life. God wasn’t TAKING something from them – He was GIVING AN OPPORTUNITY to them – because He offered the privilege of serving the King of the Ages with the small pile of wood. Love is easiest shown by sacrifice of things that are hardest to gain. David’s cup of water from the well of Bethlehem wasn’t for drinking – it was for worshiping! Love without sacrifice is a cheap plastic version of the real deal.
Let me ask you: Can people tell that you love Jesus by what you are willing to give in time, talent and treasure to Him?
6. In all things giving the first fruits! Tithing our lives (10:35-39a)
The idea of first fruits was that of the “best of the best”. It was the “extra virgin” olive oil – the highest quality from the first press, etc. Nehemiah shared the covenant about giving the best:
Nehemiah 10:35 and that they might bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all the fruit of every tree to the house of the LORD annually, 36 and bring to the house of our God the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, and the firstborn of our herds and our flocks as it is written in the law, for the priests who are ministering in the house of our God. 37 We will also bring the first of our dough, our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the new wine and the oil to the priests at the chambers of the house of our God, and the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns…
Malachi the prophet made clear a bit after this time that God considered left-overs a rip-off. He considered “seconds” not worthy of the Most High. It seems that even AFTER this commitment, the Israelites were tempted to slack off giving God the from first and the best of what He gave them.
Is it really different with us? How many a Sunday School teacher slid by last weekend with poor preparation for teaching? How many pulpits were subject to “wing it” affairs? In days like these, do we not need GREATER PREPARATION, GREATER PRAYER and GREATER STUDY? I SIMPLY ASK, How many followers of Jesus got big paychecks but wrote no offering checks back to God for what He provided? The church need not answer to the Pastor for such things, and the questions were merely rhetorical. At the same time, we need to be assured that God pays attention to such things. The people of Israel saw the result of cheating God, and when they were sensitive, they covenanted to stop the practice.
7. Commitment to the public testimony: Not forsaking God’s house (10:39b)
There is little more to say, but what is summarized in the end of the verses:
Nehemiah 10:39b: “…Thus we will not neglect the house of our God.
Remember, they were talking about the Temple of God at Jerusalem in the text. We know that in our time, God’s house is within the believer. YOU are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not neglect keeping your heart clean and inviting to that Spirit. At the same time, the Temple was the place of gathering for believers in a corporate body. Don’t neglect that either.
Beloved, the day may come, not too many years from now, when a gathering like this will no longer be free. Our African brothers are already facing that day, as are many of our Arab brothers. Don’t neglect the opportunity while it is freely available to you. You will wish you made more of the time if the door is closed.
“History knows them as the forty martyrs of Sebaste (now Sivas, northern Turkey). They were soldiers in the famed Twelfth Legion of Rome’s imperial army (Fulminata), around 320 CE. One day the captain informed his troops that Emperor Licinius had sent down an edict commanding all soldiers to offer a sacrifice to his pagan god. Forty of the soldiers were followers of Christ, and they refused. ‘You can have our armor and even our bodies, but our hearts’ allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ,’ they said. “The emperor decided to make an example of the soldiers, so in the middle of winter he marched them onto a frozen lake and stripped them of their clothes. ‘Renounce your God and you will be spared from death,’ he told them. Not one man came forward. So he left them there, huddled together to contemplate his offer. Throughout the night the man stayed together, singing their song of victory: Forty Martyrs for Christ. When morning came, thirty-nine of the men had frozen to death. The one survivor finally relented and crawled to safety, recanting his confession of faith in order to live. The officer in charge that night had been so moved by the scene that during his watch he’d come to Jesus, so he broke rank and walked out onto the ice. Stripping his clothes he openly confessed his faith in Christ. The furious emperor demanded that he renounce Jesus, but he refused. When the ordeal was over, the Roman soldiers carried forty frozen men off of the ice.” (Ref: Lahaye, Tim, Jerry B. Jenkins and Frank M. Martin ed., Embracing Eternity, Living Each Day With a Heart Toward Heaven: The Persecuted, Matthew 5:10- February 15. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.)