Joy Heard Afar Off
Background Scripture: Nehemiah 12:27-43.
Devotional Reading: Psalm 96.
The walls of Jerusalem were finally repaired and rebuilt, thanks to Nehemiah and the willing workers of Jerusalem — and, of course, to Yahweh their God.
Now, about a month later, on the 24th day of the seventh month, there is to be a great celebration and dedication (Nehemiah 6:15; 9:1).
The worship on this day would be in the hands of the Levites, the order of priests King David had organized 450 years before for leading the music in worship. Having ritually purified themselves, they would purify the gates, walls and people (12:30).
The great throng of celebrants was divided into two groups, each taking a different route to the Temple.
The first group would begin at the lowest point in the city, the Dung Gate, and make its uphill ascent past the Pool of Siloam and through the Fountain Gate, up across the ancient City of David, ending at the Water Gate leading into the Temple precincts.
The second group had it considerably easier — perhaps these were elderly celebrants — beginning on the higher ground at the Tower of the Ovens, and then in succession to the Broad Wall, the Gate of Ephraim, the Old Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel, the Tower of the Hundred, the Sheep Gate and entering the Temple area at the Gate of the Guard, presumably joining the first group there.
As you read Nehemiah 12:27-43, you will possibly note the use of the first-person singular in verses 12:31,38, 40: “Then I brought up the princes,” “and I followed them” and “I and half the officials with me.”
Scholars presume that this passage was a personal memoir of Nehemiah and was inserted into the text. It is quite rare for a personal memoir inserted into the Old Testament.
This personal view helps us to appreciate the sheer grandeur and exhilaration of the great day: “The women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard afar off” (12:43).
It might be that, immersed in all the intricate details of this celebration, we could lose sight of the purpose of the great event — celebrating the completion of the repairs to and rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
The city is no longer vulnerable to the attacks of enemies as it has been since Nebuchadnezzar breached the walls and conquered the city in 597 B.C. If it was again to be the viable capital of the Jewish nation, the walls would have to be at their maximum strength.
Recently, the church in Dallas from which I retired and which I still attend dedicated a new atrium. We celebrated this because it would make our church more accessible and provide a central meeting place. We like to think our joy “was heard afar off.”
Bible scholar Dwight E. Stevenson, while acknowledging the need for the Jews to guard against alien influences, warns against what he calls “particularism,” the conviction that “we must maintain a flint-headed exclusiveness towards those who do not follow the truth as we see it.”
The Old Testament at its best, in Jonah, Ruth and II Isaiah, repudiates particularism. The New Testament as a whole repudiates it.
I have just finished a mind-opening book by Bernard Bailyn, “The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675.”
Bailyn demonstrates that most religious groups that came to America fled from governmental interference and persecution. But, most came seeking it for themselves and, when they got it, they denied that same religious freedom to those who did not agree with their doctrines and practices.
Bailyn writes, “In Massachusetts, anyone professing the pernicious opinions and practices’ of those quaking and trembling enthusiasts,’ ... all such blasphemers were to be severely whipped, locked up in jail and then shipped out of the colony. Those who returned would have an ear cut off; those who appeared yet again, another ear; and the women among them would be severely whipt.’ For a third offense they shall have their tongues bored through with a hot iron. If after all of that ... they still persisted, they should be banished on pain of death.’ ”
Four proselytizing Quakers “were taken from jail and hanged.” Others followed. It is a miracle that, despite these violent beginnings, our nation was founded on religious freedom. We should celebrate that, too, so that in today’s world our joy may be heard afar off.