Nehemiah 11 is an awkward chapter. It comes after the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt, and the great covenant renewal service has taken place in chapters 8-10. But after this high point it seems to hit a brick wall (ha!). The bulk of chapter 11 consists of a list of names of people who settled in Jerusalem after the return from exile. What’s that all about? Why is it there?
It is tricky, and it is tempting to skip over it and move on to more ‘meaty’ devotional and exemplary stuff. However, Paul’s words to Timothy ought to cause us to be cautious about skipping over anything in the Bible:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
– 2 Tim 3:16 (NIV)
The “all” requires us to ask the question of any part of Scripture: “Why is that there?” It demands an answer.
Well, here is my stab for Nehemiah 11. The chapter emphasises family leaders (4-9), priests (10-14), Levites (15-18), and sundry people in a support role for a functioning temple (gatekeepers, temple servants, singers) who were to in habit the still run-down interior of the walls (see Neh 7:4). Who were these people?
The priests were descendants of Aaron, a Levite, whose task was to perform the acts of worship in the tabernacle and temple. (Zechariah was one of them – see Luke 1:8.) Other Levites acted as their assistants. The Levites had no land. The Lord was their portion.
What this tells us is that chapter 11 is about how the people took seriously the reformation that was stimulated by the reading of the Law in chapters 8-10. With renewed zeal, they read the Bible and wanted to do what it said. In particular they wanted to ensure that the people of God would continue to worship in the ways that God had prescribed. So, in these chapters we see revival (heart) and reformation (practice). This meant that the ‘holy city’ must be a secure place for the functioning temple.
This of course reminds us that this is always God’s desire: that his people assemble and worship him. It was the motive for the Exodus (Ex 4:23) and now for the return from Exile. It will be in glory too.
Not only that, but it must be done in God’s way. God sets the parameters for how worship should be conducted.
It is easy to see why in Nehemiah it should be ‘just so’. The symbolism is pregnant with redemptive historical meaning. The temple? Immanuel (God is with us). The sacrifices? Christ our sacrifice. The Law? Christ the perfect, sinless Man. etc.
The whole chapter shouts, “Christ is coming! Prepare!”