We're almost finished this series entitled 'Building for God' in the prophet Nehemiah. We're looking at chapter 12 today, not all of chapter 12, we're going to skip out - to make it easier for me - all these difficult names. But we're going to begin our reading at verse 27, skipping through a couple of verses as we go along. We're beginning to read at verse 27 - now if you haven't been here, just to say that Nehemiah's chief work was before God to build the walls of Jerusalem again, and to build Jerusalem up as a holy city for the Lord. We've reached the point, almost at the end of this book, where the walls have been built. Last week we saw how he tried to encourage the people to move from the suburbs of Jerusalem outside the city wall, into the city. We saw how many unknown people, unknown to us today, their names aren't recorded in the word of God, were used of God and volunteered their services to move - to pack their bags and leave, and do God's will and come into the city.
Now what we're seeing today from verse 27 on is the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem, the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem - and I've called the title of this message 'A Praise Service To Remember'. Verse 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. And the sons of the singers gathered themselves together, both out of the plain country round about Jerusalem, and from the villages". Go down to verse 30: "And the priests and the Levites purified themselves, and purified the people, and the gates, and the wall". Then Nehemiah says: "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" - and then down to verse 35 - "And 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" - then down to the end of verse 36, all these people - "with the musical instruments of David the man of God, and Ezra the scribe before them. And 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. 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; And 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. So stood the two companies of them that gave thanks in the house of God, and I, and the half of the rulers with me". Down to the end of verse 42, just this sentence: "And the singers sang loud, with Jezrahiah their overseer. Also that day they offered great sacrifices, and rejoiced: for God had made them rejoice with great joy: the wives also and the children rejoiced" - now if you mark your Bible, it would be good to mark this statement, "so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off" - isn't that remarkable? So that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off..."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. And 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. For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chief of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God. And 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", and we end our reading at verse 47.
The title is: 'A Praise Service to Remember'. I think most of you would agree with me that looking out into the world around us, there is very little happiness - or at least, you would have to say, there is very little true happiness. Yet happiness is the most sought after commodity, yet also the most elusive. Everyone wants it, but it seems that very few can achieve it - and some would go as far as to say that happiness is almost extinct in our modern age. Now maybe you're sceptical about that statement, and you're doubting that? Well, the next time you're in a traffic jam, look at the driver's face beside you - or maybe even look in the mirror in front of you, and you'll see how happy people are in this rushing world! Perhaps the next time you're in a cafe, look at how the man and wife at the table beside you behave toward one another and talk to one another, or perhaps don't talk to one another! Listen to how the child speaks to or even about its parents, or vice versa, listen to how parents talk about their children or talk to their children.
All you have to do is go into a newsagents tomorrow morning and look at the various headlines in our newspaper, and you will see that there is an appetite today for bad news - there's very little good news about, nothing to make us happy, it would seem. When you consider the economic scene around us, it does not promote our happiness. Houses and property have never been more expensive. You look at the moral scene round about us, crime rates are at an all-time high. You look at sin round about us, and you see that people are delving into sins that wouldn't even have been mentioned a generation or more ago.
One person has christened this age as the 'aspirin age' - the aspirin age. Everybody has a headache! It seems that no one is happy, no one is really content or at peace, and our hospitals have never been worse - but yet they are filled with people, I'm told almost 50 percent of beds are occupied with people whose ailments primarily come from a mental or emotional cause. This is the world in which we live: we have all the mod cons, all the technology imaginable, yet men and women's hearts are failing them for fear and very few people could really call themselves truly happy. Now surely the world would be forgiven for thinking that those who claim to be God's people on earth should be different from all that - do you not think that's reasonable? That Christians, or God's people if we encompass those in the Old Testament, should be a happy people? Yet the fact of the matter is, if we're honest with ourselves and honest with others, we of all people get the reputation of being more sour-faced than all the sinners of the world put together! Isn't that the way we're perceived?
In fact, religion in general is seen as something that is depressing! 'Why would I want to become religious?', people say, 'Why would I want to become a Christian? All those do's and don'ts - I'm depressed enough as it is without taking on Christianity!'. One religious pilgrim on one occasion called Hagor (sp?), was climbing up a holy mountain and he cupped his hands and shouted to someone up the mountain, he didn't know who, 'What is the secret to happiness?'. The answer came back 'Celibacy, abstinence, fasting, poverty' - and Hagor didn't like the answer he got, so he shouted back: 'Is there anybody else up there I can talk to?'. That's the way people feel about religion and specifically, whether we like it or not, Christianity - we've got a reputation of being dour, of being depressing, and certainly not of being the epitome of true joy and true happiness.
The German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche said scornfully about Christians of his day, listen, I quote: 'I would believe in their salvation if they looked a little more like people who had been saved'. Isn't that scathing? Do we look like a people who have been saved? Oliver Wendell Holmes said: 'I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers'. Isn't that the way we are at times? We think that holiness is portrayed in this dour, depressing, dark manner. Vance Havner, whose quotes many of you I'm sure will love, says: 'When one recalls that we are to rejoice in the Lord always, and then looks in on the average Sunday congregation, he realises that something has happened to us since Pentecost. Something has happened to us - what is it? Many of us have lost our joy!'.
David could pray in Psalm 51: 'Restore unto me the joy of my salvation', and whilst we cannot lose our salvation per se, we can and many of us have lost the joy of it all. Gypsy Smith, that great evangelist, used to say that you could not get a 'Hallelujah' out of some Christians if you squeezed them through a wringer. It's a real problem! Now it's not only a problem for our own well-being, because everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to feel happy and joyous in the Lord - but here's where the big problem comes in a wider sphere, looking at it panoramically: it affects the perception of our message among those who are in the world. If they do not see a joyous people, they ask themselves: 'Why should I believe and imbibe such a Gospel as that?'.
Phillip Brooks, the puritan, put it like this - and I think he said it well: 'The religion that makes a man look sick certainly won't cure the world'. We betray the good news of the gospel if, when people see us coming towards them, all they can think of is bad news. There's something wrong with our Christianity - Billy Sunday, the evangelist, put it like this: 'If there is no joy in your religion, there is a leak in your Christianity somewhere'. Is there a leak in your Christianity? I'm not talking about an airy-fairy, happy-clappy, some kind of emotionalism that ignores the stark realities of life and the tears that you shed on a regular basis, we are talking about a joy that is different than the happiness of this world, a joy that transcends even the darkest experiences that you might go through as a child of God.
One commentator said that 'the Christian is a man of joy, a gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms, and nothing in all religious history has done Christianity more harm than its connection with black clothes and long faces'. You've heard about the little boy who thought the horse in the field was a Christian, and his Mummy asked why, and he said: 'Look at the long face on it' - that is the perception that we get among the people in the world. As we read the Bible, in the New Testament specifically, we see that Christianity is the most encouraging faith, it is the most joyous faith, because it's the least repressive faith - or at least it ought to be - in the whole of our world. While there are sorrows in Christianity, while there are many stern disciplines that we have to come to grips with, the end of the Christian faith is resurrection not burial - a rising again to new life. Christianity is a feast and a festival, not a funeral.
Whilst we do not believe that we are to be like ostriches and stick our heads in the ground, and pretend everything is OK, and when our hearts are breaking we're to smile and sing choruses, and tell people that we're as happy as the day is long, that is not what we're talking about. Whilst we're not to ignore the stark realities of life, neither are we to be the personification of the Grim Reaper, and look as if we have no joy within our hearts at all! What does that do for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
As we look at Nehemiah chapter 12 we see that although things were hard - and you remember some of them had to pack their bags, and leave their luxurious homes in the suburbs and come into an urban life in Jerusalem for God, and it cost them everything - although things had been difficult, they'd been fighting, and building for a long time with great opposition - when these walls were finished there was joy. When it came to the day of dedication for these walls, there was celebration! I want to tell you this morning that that celebration ought to speak to us as the children of God of the joy that ought to be ours as God's people today. Is it ours? Well, let's see, let's look at it in a bit more detail.
The first thing I want to leave with you is the precursor to happiness, the precursor to all true happiness. Now this is important, before we get carried away and start dancing down the aisles: holiness precedes happiness. Holiness precedes happiness! If you look at verse 30 of Nehemiah chapter 12, you will see that Nehemiah called for the priests and the Levites, and they purified themselves, and they purified the people, and they purified the place, and they purified the walls. You've got to understand, if you want to be happy as a Christian, if you want to have the joy of the Lord, you've got to be pure - because holiness precedes happiness. They didn't just say: 'Oh, the walls are built, let's have a party and a great celebration!', but the first thing that was done before all the joyous festivities was that the priests came, they were cleansed, the people were cleansed, the walls were cleansed, the gates were cleansed.
One businessman was asked on one occasion: 'What is the secret to happiness?'. His answer surprised the man, he put it very simply: 'The important thing is to be content with one's lot, provided it's a whole lot!'. That's the way people live their lives today, isn't it? 'Provided it's a whole lot, I'll be happy. A whole lot of money, a whole lot of fame, a whole lot of success, a whole lot of education, a whole lot of pleasure, food, drink, sex, luxury, amusement' - you name it, the world's perception is that to have a whole lot means to be happy - but the Bible says that happiness equals holiness. To not have the things of the world, the material things, the things of pleasure which are sinful - God's word says if you want to really be happy, you need to be holy. So, before they celebrated, they were purified. Charles Swindoll put it this way: 'Moral carelessness and borderline sin give laughter a hollow ring'. Have you a hollow ring in your laughter? Is it because there's sin in your life, there's compromise, there's backsliding in your heart? You want to really be happy, and you see others who are happy in the Lord, and you say: 'There's something wrong with me, I just don't seem to have what they have' - but you're not prepared to face up to sin that's in your life! You're not prepared to let go of the thing that is making you downcast!
The Psalmist said in Psalm 24: 'Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord? Him that hath clean hands and a pure heart'. In Psalm 16 he said: 'Thou wilt show me the path of life, and in Thy presence is fullness of joy, and at Thy right hand are pleasures forever more' - but at God's right-hand it's holy! If you're going to get there and enjoy all those pleasures that God has for you, you need to be holy even as the Lord is holy. The value of a dedicated wall is valueless without a dedicated people. Do you understand that? We can build 20 churches and they can be the most state-of-the-art architecture that you've never seen, but if we don't have a dedicated people what's the point of a dedicated building? A building set apart that we might say is holy in the sense of what it's used for, but what's the use of anything holy if we are not holy? The precursor to happiness is holiness.
Now here's the second thing I want you to see, and this is my main thought today: the expression of their happiness. This is wonderful, this shows us the vibrancy of it all, how they express the Lord in their lives. It was done twofold: by celebration, and by singing - by celebration and by singing. Now if you were to cast your mind back to when they were in exile, or even remember our Psalm 137 where it says: 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion'. This is the reply of God's people: 'How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning'. They were out of God's city, they were away captive by a godless nation in the Empire of Babylon, and they couldn't sing, they had lost their song - but now we see them, and praise God Nehemiah has delivered them from it all. He has brought them to a place where the walls are built, where they're back in the city, and now the joy of the Lord is their strength.
What a wondrous turnaround this is! Now they take the opportunity that they are given to publicly thank the Lord for the work that He has accomplished. As they stand at those walls and witness Him, they lift their hands and their voices and hearts to God in joy and adoration. The passage says that they sought the Levites from their places, and the Levites brought them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication of the wall 'with gladness'. Do you see that word 'gladness'? I think it's verse 27 of Nehemiah 12, it literally means 'gaiety, mirth, pleasure and delight' - they were filled with the spirit of joy and celebration. It goes on to say that they praised God with hymns of thanksgiving, and songs that were accompanied with cymbals and harps and lyres. So this great company of people were gathered, and then it says that the sons of the singers were assembled from the district round about Jerusalem - verse 27 and verse 28: 'And the sons of the singers gathered themselves together'. These were specialists in the field of praise and worship in the Old Testament, and so they got these people together who knew what they were doing, and they said to them: 'Lead us, lead us in the happy celebration toward our God, and let us' - and this isn't a sin by the way - 'let us enjoy ourselves praising and magnifying, and celebrating what the Lord has done for us'.
Can you imagine the scene in your mind's eye for just a moment? I don't know, someone has said perhaps there was a ladder up to the walls, and Nehemiah leads them. He cries: 'Come on you people, everybody let's get on the wall', and by their dozen all the people get on the wall. In verse 31 we read that the first great company, or as some versions say 'choir', proceeded to Nehemiah's right toward the gate at the bottom of the city, the refuse gate. Then in verse 38 it says that there was a second group, a second choir, that proceeded left - and he says, Nehemiah, that when he followed them, the half of the people on the wall, Ezra went with the first choir and Nehemiah went with the second choir. So can you see it? There are these two great companies of choirs, one led by Nehemiah, one led by Ezra, and they're marching round the walls in separate directions, and they're all coming to meet at the temple, they're coming to a great crescendo of praise and worship to God. As they're going along they've got cymbals, they've got lyres, they've got cymbals and all sorts of instruments praising and magnifying the Lord.
Groups of singers, all sorts of instruments, a spirit of hilarity - what must it have been like? I'll tell you, it was a praise service to remember that certainly wouldn't resemble today's average church service, would it? Verse 43, look at it, this is the one I asked you to mark, the last section: 'so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off'. Now note that it doesn't say the music was heard afar off - I'm sure that the music was - but it was the joy, because music isn't just about music, music is expressive of the joy that is in the Christian's heart. I'll tell you there's hardly, if any, a Christian that I know that's on fire for God that doesn't love to praise the Lord with music and a song in his mouth. For miles away the people knew that God's people were in God's city, and that they were thankful to God and praising the Lord for all that He has done.
One person has put it like this: 'They weren't ramrod straight to attention, and they didn't walk step-by-step like pallbearers, tightlipped and straightfaced'. If you were near Lisburn yesterday you would have heard the pipes of the European pipe band competition, and as soon as you rolled the window down no matter how far away you were, there were that many pipe bands that you could hear them squealing! This is what it was like in Jerusalem, people all around about could hear the great praise, the great shout and glory that there was in the people of God worshipping the Lord. Can you imagine what it would be like if every single Sunday, when we praise the Lord, we were like that? Can you imagine? Vance Havner, who I mentioned to you earlier, said: 'Today's church member who yells like a Comanche Indian at a football game, sits like a wooden Indian in the house of God on Sunday'. It wouldn't be hard to get out of your bed on a Sunday morning if you praised the Lord like this, would it?
Now let me tell you physically what was involved. Verse 28 says that there were songs of thanksgiving, for music is one of the most expressive ways to communicate happiness - do you know why that is? One writer has put it like this: 'Music short-circuits the senses with a direct pathway into human emotion'. You know when you hear a tune that you know well and you love, it touches your heart right away, it almost goes past the mind. Music is a tremendous way to praise the Lord. Now I'm not overemphasising music as opposed to the words, but the fact of the matter is Paul said: 'Do not be drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord'. There's something spiritual about music, music conveys something spiritual to others, and it communicates something spiritual to us.
If you look at verse 42, it says that they sang loudly, and it says that they sang clearly - that's very important. They weren't dead in their singing, but neither did they waken the dead in their singing! Verse 36 and 46, it says they did it decently and in order. If you look at verse 36, you see that they used the instruments that were prescribed by King David to worship the Lord. It wasn't just a free-for-all praise the Lord as you like. And in verse 46 it says that they followed the teachings of Asaph with regards to this, and the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:40 that in the house of the Lord, that is the church of the Living God, all things are to be done decently and in order. But you know sometimes I think that some people think 'decently and in order' is a euphemism for 'deadly and in boredom' - they enjoyed themselves worshipping the Lord! Do we enjoy ourselves? Some of you don't look it when you're singing some of the hymns! You're nearly afraid! There's like a bondage on us that we can allow ourselves in our spirits to let ourselves go towards the Lord in a worship and praise and adoration that is due to His name.
Verse 40 says they took their places, and that was the families as well, they were all united together - verse 43 - in family worship. Verse 43 also says that they made sacrifices unto the Lord, verses 44 and 47 say that they dedicated money. It wasn't just all one-way that they got a great blessing from this great celebration, but they gave unto the Lord - but this is the point that I want you to get: the expression of their happiness was celebration and singing, there was an atmosphere of happiness that should surround all of God's people when they get together, even us! Well, does it?
The precursor to happiness is holiness, the expression of happiness is celebration and singing, and the third thing I want you to notice is really a question: the reality of the desertion of happiness - have we stopped smiling? Have you stopped singing? Where is your song this morning? You know a smile and a song affects absolutely everything. We give lip service to this, but the Bible teaches in Proverbs 17 that a joyful heart is like a good medicine. Proverbs 15:13: 'A joyful heart makes a cheerful face: but when the heart is sad the spirit is broken'. Now imagine what a difference it would make to our church and our fellowship if we had such joy like this, if our singing and our song and celebration was like the children of Israel here in Nehemiah's day! It would be like a winsome magnet that would draw people in, because it's something that the people don't have! They would be remarking: 'Listen, look, look at the joy that those people have. I have to go and see what it is!'. What a difference would it make to our witness as individuals! Spurgeon said that holy joy will beautify you, it will change your actual appearance in people's eyes if you walk around with a smile rather than a frown.
The King of a particular country travelled often, but one day a man living near the palace remarked to a friend: 'Well, it looks like the King's home tonight', and he said: 'How do you know that?'. The man replied, pointing up toward the Royal House, 'Because when the King is home the castle is all lit up'. We sang as children: 'There's a flag flying high in the castle of my heart', there's joy, there is meant to be joy there! It's meant to show in our faces! What a difference it would make to our church, to our own personal witness - what about our friends? Anne Frank, who was of course in Holland during the war, and was hiding as a Jew from the Nazis and wrote the diary of a young girl. She says in it this quotation: 'Whoever is happy will make others happy too'. This was a girl in great sadness and difficulty, yet she knew this much: whoever is happy will make others happy too. It is contagious - you know and I know that when we're a bit down, we want to be around individuals who smile and who sing rather than those that make us feel worse!
In fact not only does it affect our church and our witness and our friends, but I want to tell you it affects absolutely everything. Your disposition of joy will affect everything - Thomas Carlyle said: 'Wondrous is the strength of cheerfulness and its power of endurance, the cheerful man will do more in the same time and will do it better and will persevere in it longer than the sad or the sullen' - you'll even do your work better, and maybe work for the Lord better, if you've joy in your step! Well, Iron Hall, have we stopped smiling? Have we stopped really singing? Really praising the Lord and coming to the house of God with His people, and really enjoying ourselves as we bring to the Lord an offering that is worthy to His name - do you think He takes pleasure in an offering that we don't even enjoy?
Well, if you want to know the secret to happiness, true happiness, it's got to do with fourthly your focus, your focus. True happiness is not dependent on your outward circumstances, but it is dependent on your inward focus - what you are focusing on. It is not your position in life that makes you happy, it is your disposition of heart that makes you happy. Let me show you this, turn with me to John 20:20 very quickly, and it's just this part of the verse that I want you to notice - remember, the disciples thought that the Lord was gone, and this is the word of God: 'Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD'. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD - that is the secret of Christian joy, it turns upon those two words. Look at it: 'Then...', and 'When...' - 'Then were they glad, when they saw the Lord'. Notice what it doesn't say, if you're focusing on yourself and how you are as a Christian, and what's going wrong in your life, 'Then were the disciples glad when they saw themselves'? No! When they saw the Lord! 'Then were the disciples glad when they saw their circumstances'? No! They were still under threat of death whether Christ had risen or not! We don't even read that the disciples were glad when they saw a particular piece of doctrine that they rejoiced in - no! They were glad when they saw the Lord!
You've got to stop looking to yourself, you've got to stop focusing on your circumstances, you've even got to stop focusing on some little doctrine that gives you a buzz, you've got to look to Christ and you will have true joy - for you will be glad only when and as you see the Lord, for joy is not the absence of trouble but it is the presence of Jesus. Where is your focus today? Could the absence of Christ's presence in your life point to the absence of joy in your faith? James Guthrie went to the scaffold because of his faith in the Lord Jesus, Jock Purvis telling his story writes of this man and his life, that James Guthrie ever kept through his busy life his own personal fellowship with Christ in the fresh joyous bloom of his new birth, as if he had been but a young convert. All through his Christian experience he had the joy that he had right at the very beginning when he was first saved, and now he's going to the gallows, how would he feel? Purvis goes on to tell us: 'Waking about 4am on the day he was to be executed, Guthrie spent time in personal worship and was asked by his friend James Cowee (sp?) how he felt. 'Very well', replied Guthrie, 'this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it''.
Do you have a joy like that? Are you a Christian, or are we a church, that started out in revival fires and is now living in the smoke? We've lost our vibrancy, we've lost our life, we've lost our joy, we've lost our attractiveness to those in the world who don't have true happiness in Christ, we've even lost our song. You know how to get it, don't you? Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD.
Father, forgive us. We ought to be a happy people. Yes, we're going through sorrows and toils, tribulation and tragedy at times, but we ought to have the joy of the Lord as our strength. We ought to have that smile of God in our hearts that transcends life's darkest experiences. Lord, if You've not received the praise that You are due from all our hearts, forgive us. If You look down upon us and see a people that are not happy to be here, Lord forgive us and make us a people whose worship and celebration is heard abroad - that not only is the Lord in this house, but the Lord is in our hearts, and the joy of the Lord is on our countenances. Help us Lord, bring us from our backsliding and show us the way ahead, that we may again have that joy in our step, focusing on the Lord, that we may be glad. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the fourteenth tape in his 'Building For God' series, entitled "A Praise Service To Remember" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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