Most commentaries recognize a transition point here in Nehemiah 7. One scholar even sees it as the climax of the book. I know, personally, I have been excited to preach the next chapter. From my perspective, we’re standing on the precipice of the pinnacle of Nehemiah.
We have already seen a list of names in chapter three. Is there really much more that can be said that has not already been mentioned? This particular list—with minor exceptions—appears in Ezra 2. Why bore you with this long list of names? Why include it twice? Does God really expect us to find something “profitable for teaching” here (2 Tim 3:16)?
Sections like this, and every difficult text in Scripture, is tremendously important to read and teach. I trust you will be edified by our study this morning.
› Before we read the chapter, we need to explore the value of biblical genealogies.
Genealogies Defy Mythology
I love how O. Palmer Robertson says, “Genealogies defy mythology.” Unlike other ancient stories, Scripture deals with real people and verifiable experiences. Biblical genealogies differ in content but consistently maintain continuity with previous covenants. God’s redemptive plan has not changed.
One of the surprising aspects of most of the biblical genealogies, including this list as well as the genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke, is the number of non-Hebrew names.
On the one hand, we know that the Messianic line of David traced through a few prominent Gentiles. David’s great grandmother was Ruth the Moabite, who was the daughter-in-law of Rahab the prostitute from Jericho. In the case of the list in Ezra/Nehemiah, the non-Hebraic names likely reveal that their exilic masters had renamed them (see Dan 1:7).
But, we will also see that some of the returnees could not prove their ancestry (Neh 7:61-65), including some of the priests. That certainly opens the door for Gentile converts to be included among the number of returnees.
Later in the book we will find that many exiled families—even among the returnees—had mixed marriages with foreigners. Israel had lost much of its religious distinctiveness in exile. Only a small percentage of those carried off into exile returned to Jerusalem during the first wave. We can assume that the vast majority of the Jewish nation had so heavily integrated into the culture where they were scattered. They could not imagine returning and starting over. They had become almost entirely disconnected from their heritage.
In light of all that, genealogies reveal something of man’s sinful nature as well as God’s covenant faithfulness. Despite the constant opposition to God’s covenant promises, both from outside as well as inside the covenant community, God has preserved a remnant.
Robertson “This genealogical aspect of the covenants underscores both the reality of redemptive history and the inclusion of peoples from all nations alongside Israel in God’s covenants.”
Last week we learned that the population in Jerusalem was sparse after completing the walls (Neh 7:4). Ninety years prior, about 50,000 people returned from their captivity in exile, but they went back to their own towns rather than Jerusalem.
The strength of the walls could not make up for the lack of citizens. A city’s defense depends upon people. Nehemiah’s solution was to wait for the Lord’s guidance. That is the solution to many of our most frustrating circumstances. Stop fretting. Wait for the Lord to guide and provide.
All of us face uncertainties for which we are seeking the Lord’s guidance. We can grow impatient and question if God will be faithful to keep his promises. Beyond that, we often lose sight of the support God has provided in the communion of the saints.
This morning’s text corrects both of those tendencies: Biblical genealogies (1) reflect God’s covenant faithfulness and (2) remind us of the heavenly community to which we belong.
Pray & Read Nehemiah 7:5-73.
A Covenant Keeping God
Why would God want Nehemiah to enroll everyone by genealogy? Genealogical records reflect God’s covenant faithfulness, the purity of the assembly, and the present circumstances in light of the mission he has given them.
We have already seen how genealogies reflect the reality of redemptive history, which implies that God is faithfully accomplishing his purposes. He fulfills his covenant promises for his covenant people. The list of names emphasizes the importance of maintaining a pure religion that is accountable to God’s revelation.
However, considering the sparse population of Jerusalem, their circumstances did not reflect a thriving community. Even though they recognized the importance of building the walls, they did not trust God enough to live within them. They needed homes to be rebuilt and occupied, but apparently, Jerusalem was not as attractive as the surrounding agrarian suburbs.
Jerusalem’s low population was a problem, so Nehemiah waited for the Lord’s guidance. The first thing God compelled him to do was to enroll the people by genealogy.
Have you ever worried how you were going to pay next month’s bills? Or how you were going to afford groceries at the end of the month? We weren’t the only family in seminary to experience times like that. It would be like God telling us to look at our bank statements for the past ten years and reflect upon his provision. We would have seen how we had five years of plenty, when we hoped we would sell our home to pay for seminary.
Then we would have noted where the housing bubble began to burst, I lost my job, and Carrie delivered Caitlin a month later. In that whirlwind of confusion I was accepted to attend RTS a year early, we sold our home and main family car, and had to make ends meet for three months. Then, after moving to Mississippi, for the next four years, we watched God provide what we needed month after month. Never that much, but never too little.
Maybe you have gone through lean months or lean years like that. You think it would get easier to trust in the Lord after awhile. But, looking back on years of evidence in the past may be the best means of preparing for challenges we will face in the future.
Genealogies teach us to trust the covenant keeping God who has called us and given us the same covenant promises. When we go through trials and tribulation, we can look back—even to previous generations—and trust that God will be faithful.
Every name in this list was like God shouting “I am faithful! You can trust me. Just as I was with the sons of Parosh, all 2,172 of them…so I am with you. Just as I preserved them, so I will preserve you.”
Even more importantly, from our new covenant vantage point, we can look back at the cross. Whenever we feel like the fulfillment of God’s promises seem bleak (like when the walls were built, but few people were living within them), or when we feel like we have been abandoned by God, the cross reminds us of God’s love.
Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God’s love is evident at the cross where he had a particular people in mind. And genealogies ultimately lead to the One who died upon that cross.
› Genealogies don’t only reflect God’s faithfulness, but they remind us of the heavenly community to which we belong.
A Covenant Belonging People
What do we learn about the people of God? Diverse people with a sacrificial calling. Each of them were committed to God’s singular objective.
The list is not reserved for social elites or folks with major works to their credit. The list was divided into several basic categories:
• There were a few leaders (7),
• People numbered according to clan and region (8-38),
• Temple personnel: priests, Levites, and servants (39-60),
• Those who lacked proof of their genealogical connections (61-65). Priests without proof of genealogy restricted from eating “most holy things” until able to inquire of God through Urim and Thummim (an accepted form of determining God’s will similar to flipping a coin). They were still part of the covenant community, but unable to confirm a priestly role—possibly ever.
The Message of Nehemiah: God’s Servant in a Time of Change 8. Obey Biblical Teaching (7:61–65)
The rigorism here is not designed to preserve a pure race but to protect a pure faith within a community of believing people who would later welcome God’s Son, the world’s Saviour and Israel’s Messiah.
• They totaled numbered just under 50,000 people some of who were generous in their donations (66-73). Willing to invest sacrificially following Nehemiah’s example (70).
These returnees were leaving the only place they knew for a land left destitute and untended. Their return to the Promised Land probably felt more like entering the wilderness. But they trusted. Now 90 years later, Nehemiah is asking their great grandchildren to do the same. He is connecting them to their past.
A list of names has much more meaning to those in some way connected to them. Your own family tree means more to you than it does to me. On a national level, the names of war casualties from the US mean more to us than the names of those from other nations.
This past August our family had the privilege of visiting historic sites in Philadelphia and Washington DC. It was great seeing all of the incredible buildings along the National Mall. However, the best experience for me was visiting the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. I could have spent the entire day in that building.
The exhibits depict unbelievable scenes in such a memorable way. You can walk through a life-size train boxcar that mimics the dimensions of those used by Nazi Germany to transport Jews to concentration camps. The Tower of Faces exhibit spans several stories with photos of people who lost their lives in those camps. At one exhibit you can listen to the voices of survivors sharing their heart wrenching experiences. It’s a powerful encounter with one of the darkest realities in history.
One constant throughout the museum is the countless names. Names are mentioned in every room. Oftentimes they are mentioned in the context of a story. Other times they are contained among a list of those who experienced a particular scene. There is a glass bridge connecting the towers of the museum with the names of the victims etched into the walls. There is another list of names of those who hid or rescued Jewish families. No matter which holocaust museum you attend, one of the more powerful exhibits is always the massive list of names.
Once you see the memorabilia that has been preserved, watch the videos of the atrocities that took place, and observe the journal entries of men, women, and children who didn’t survive—the endless list of names become meaningful. Each name represents a story.
At the end of the tour you enter into the Hall of Remembrance. Your eyes are led to an “eternal flame” at the far end of the room. On the wall behind the flame is the following inscription from Deuteronomy: “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”
We honor the names, and we honor the God in whose image each of those names was created, by remembering their stories. The names remind us that we are reading about reality.
Ultimately, the list of returnees point to the Book of Life which catalogs the names of people who belong to an eternal city—the New Heavens and New Earth. This is the True City of God that Jerusalem faintly foreshadowed (Rev 21:9-27)! It is a city “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).
The genealogy will result in the casting of lots to determine which 10% of the population would dwell in Jerusalem (Neh 11:1). At this point, Jerusalem was a dim shadow of the New Heavens and New Earth. It wasn’t even an appealing city to live in. Those who were eventually selected to move there did so sacrificially.
Maybe you wonder what God is up to. You wonder what is happening in our nation. Did we draw the short straw to live in this state? Maybe worrying too much about this temporary dwelling—where we live for such a brief stint in light of eternity—radically misses the point.
The bigger question we should be asking is whether or not we belong to the city of Zion. It is far more important to know where we will live for eternity than where we will live temporarily.
Who is worthy to dwell in the city of Zion?
Psalm 2:6 ESV
“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
Psalm 15:1–2 ESV
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart;
Who is worthy to ascend the holy hill? None but Jesus. Yet, he invites you to join him there and enjoy everlasting security.
Do you belong to this city?