Giving Thanks is Serious Business

For many Christians (especially in the U.S.), thanksgiving means either a quick prayer before a meal or the fourth Thursday in November. But for the Israelites in Nehemiah’s day, giving thanks was a serious endeavor.

Completing Hard Tasks

When some of the Jewish people were sent back to a decimated Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, they faced a steep challenge. They needed to rebuild the temple, the city walls, and the city itself. The tasks themselves were difficult, but they were made more so by enemies who lied about, threatened, and attacked the people. (These stories can be found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.)

But God was still with his people, after all these years! He protected them, strengthened them, and provided for them over and over and over again. So, when the wall was finished and ready to be dedicated, it was time to give God proper thanks.

The Ceremony

To prepare for the dedication ceremony, the first order of business was to call all the Levites and singers back to the city (Neh 12:27–29). The Levites were the assistants and managers of the temple, and for this occasion they were needed for their musical abilities. This was to be a worship service, so the Levites and priests purified themselves, the people, the gates, and the wall (Neh 12:30).

The procession to the dedication service was a bit unusual. Nehemiah appointed “two great choirs that gave thanks” (Neh 12:31). It seems these choirs were created just for this purpose, which says a lot about the importance of their work! These choirs were part of a split march around the walls of Jerusalem—half in one direction, half in the other (Neh 12:32–39). Since the ceremony was explicitly for the purpose of thanking God for the walls, this unorthodox march makes sense. It was as if the people were saying along their walk, “We thank you, God, for these very walls.”

The destination of this procession was “the house of God” (Neh 12:40). This was the only logical location for a service designed to worship God and give thanks to him. And their gathering was overflowing with joy.

And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away. (Neh 12:43)

Our Thanksgiving

The way that modern Christians give thanks to God looks weak and miniscule in comparison to this gathering in Nehemiah. To be fair, this was a singular, enormous accomplishment that the people of God were celebrating. Completing the temple and the wall of the city allowed them to regain some of the identity they had lost in the exile: they could now worship God again in the place where he desired, and they could do so with some larger measure of physical safety. Our day-to-day giving thanks doesn’t need to look like this once-in-a-generation celebration in Nehemiah.

However, we really have swung in the opposite direction, haven’t we? We might offer up a few words of thanks to God when we pray, but we usually spend most of our time in supplication. We focus on what we want God to do rather than what he has already done.

But these are connected! We can trust that God hears our requests and will answer both because he has promised this in his Word and because he has always done this for his people—including us!

It is good and necessary for us to cultivate a thankful spirit, both individually and as a community. Giving thanks regularly reminds us that we receive all that we have, not because we have earned or deserved it, but because God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Meditating on God’s provision for us gives us a natural connection to the saving work of Jesus.

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God’s Work and Our Work, Hand in Hand

I love watching toddlers learning to walk. Once they’ve reached the stage of pulling themselves up on chairs and coffee tables, they’re ready for the big adventure. Some brave souls make a few solo attempts, but these wobbly steps often end in tears.

What comes next? A parent or grandparent steps in! You’ve seen this adorable dance—the adult, bent at the waist, the child between their feet; the toddler, reaching up to grasp the offered hands, ready to barrel out into the wide-open spaces.

This picture always brings to mind the way that our work and God’s work are joined together.

Opposition to Nehemiah’s Work

At his request, Nehemiah was sent from the Persian city of Susa back to Jerusalem so that he might rebuilt the city that lay in ruins (Neh 2:5). He quickly won the support of the people and directed an effort to rebuild the walls that encircled Jerusalem (Neh 2:9–3:32).

However, from his first days back in the holy city, Nehemiah faced opposition (Neh 2:10, 19). This hostility reached a breaking point in the fourth chapter of Nehemiah.

Praying and Working

We have much to learn from the way Nehemiah pointed the Israelites to their God and to their work in response to the resistance of the surrounding peoples.

Sanballat the Horonite heard about the Jewish work on the Jerusalem wall and he was “angry and greatly enraged” (Neh 4:1). He and Tobiah the Ammonite taunted and mocked the Israelites (Neh 4:2–3). Nehemiah responded by praying to God for his people (Neh 4:4–5); then everyone got to work and built the wall (Neh 4:6).

When Sanballat and Tobiah (and others) made a plan “to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (Neh 4:8), Nehemiah took the same approach. The people prayed and set a guard for protection (Neh 4:9).

Later, there were reports of a more specific threat, so Nehemiah stationed armed Israelites in strategic places near the wall (Neh 4:13). Nehemiah addressed the nobles and officials and people:

Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.

God frustrated the plans of these opponents, and thus the Israelites got back to work (Neh 4:15). Nehemiah organized an alert system for the workers—a trumpet would blow when an attack came, and the people would rally there. Nehemiah was confident of the Lord’s hand: “Our God will fight for us” (Neh 4:20).

Throughout this chapter, Nehemiah urges the people to work while reminding them of God’s work. He instructs them to look to the Lord and to look to their labor.

Hand in Hand

Without older hands for stability, a toddler would stagger and fall. But without the child’s desire to learn and move, the adult would just drag an unhappy, small person across the floor. The child’s and the adult’s work go together.

We may be tempted to work without looking to the Lord, but that is foolish. We cannot accomplish God’s work without him. But we must not swing to the other extreme either—praying without putting our hands to work is presumptuous and faithless. Most often, God works through our work.

Nehemiah 4 is a good reminder that God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are not opponents to be pitted against one another. They are friends, walking hand in hand, accomplishing God’s will.

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