By Kim Reindl
Lesson for the week of Aug. 18
Scripture: Nehemiah 12:27-38, 43
Opening questions: When have you witnessed or participated in a time of public celebration (i.e., a parade, an inauguration, a dedication)? What was being celebrated? Why was it public?
Today’s scripture passage comes from the “Nehemiah memoir,” a firsthand account of Nehemiah’s career as governor of Judah. Nehemiah’s story began during the “twentieth year” of King Artaxerxes I of Persia, in the year 445 BCE. Nehemiah held a high position within the royal court as cupbearer to the king. Through his position, Nehemiah had immediate access to the king and most likely a place of influence by which he could offer the king informal advice.
One day when Nehemiah stood before the king, the king noticed sadness on Nehemiah’s face (Nehemiah 2:2). Nehemiah had learned from his brother, Hanani, who had just visited Judah that the people of Jerusalem were in “great trouble and shame,” that the wall was broken down, and that the gates had been destroyed by fire (Nehemiah 1:3). Nehemiah’s sadness over the plight of his people prompted a discussion with the king. That discussion led to royal support for the reconstruction of the Jerusalem wall and Nehemiah’s eventual appointment as governor of Judah.
The reconstruction of the Jerusalem wall was important for the Jews because it served both a practical and a symbolic purpose. From a practical standpoint, the wall set a boundary between the Jews and the people of surrounding areas. As evidenced by the ridicule and threat that Nehemiah and the Jews faced from their immediate neighbors (Nehemiah 4 and 6), the wall offered a level of safety to the citizens of the city. Also, the wall served the practical purpose of allowing the city to be sealed off for religious purposes. Such boundaries were important for maintaining Jewish identity, like proper observance of the Sabbath, which did not allow for association with outsiders (Nehemiah 13:19-22). Furthermore, since the prominence of community played an important role in the reconstruction of life in Judah, the building of the wall served the practical purpose of involving the people in a community wide project. Aside from a few carpenters and masons, most people did not need special skills to participate in the rebuilding project. Anyone who could lift stones and clear debris could be involved. Therefore, the list of builders included both men and women (Nehemiah 3:12).
The reconstruction of the Jerusalem wall also served a very important symbolic purpose. The wall stood as a symbol of honor. For the Jewish people who had lived in the midst of “shame” (Nehemiah 1:3) and had “suffer[ed] disgrace,” the wall was an immediate (rebuilt in 52 days; Nehemiah 6:15), tangible success that created honor for the city and its people and could be seen as a sign of God’s favor. Given the fact that the Jews had suffered ongoing “hardship” from the time of the kings of Assyria” until that day (Nehemiah 9:32), the wall stood as a visible message to the enemies of the Jews. Nehemiah states, “the wall was finished … and when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:15-16).
It is no surprise, given the practical and symbolic importance of the wall, that the Jews celebrated the dedication of the wall in a highly public way. They gathered all the people – men, women, and children – and assembled two great processions made up of priests, Levites, nobles, singers, and musicians. Starting at the same point, one procession went to the right and the other procession went to the left, giving thanks to God through song and music as they walked on top of the wall meeting up at the temple (Nehemiah 12:27-42). There they offered great sacrifices (Nehemiah 12:43). Unlike the sound that was heard when the foundation for the temple was laid (Ezra 3:12,13), the rejoicing of the people was not mixed with sounds of weeping. This was a sound of “great joy” that “was heard from far away” (Nehemiah 12:43).
As I imagine the people of Judah walking on top of the Jerusalem wall, singing and playing instruments for all to hear, I cannot help but to think of the overwhelming joy that must have enveloped them. After years of despair, shame, and persecution, how they must have felt as they celebrated God’s deliverance. The wall that was once a symbol of disgrace was now a symbol of God’s grace. A people once filled with visible sorrow, were now filled with visible joy!
Questions for further reflection:
What other examples of public celebrations can you recall from the Bible? Why were these celebrations important to the people of God?
Can you think of examples of how Christians today celebrate God’s goodness publically? Are the examples that you can think of subtle or dramatic? What might non-Christian observers think as they witness such celebrations?
Kim Reindl chairs the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is available to lead retreats, workshops, and seminars through Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation, www.pomegranatece.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.