The dedication of the restored wall of Jerusalem was the climax of the work of Nehemiah. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, the wall of the city was in ruins. Nehemiah and the people worked hard, despite the opposition of those who were against the construction of the wall. The restoration of Jerusalem began when the people returned from exile and continued with the rebuilding of the temple under Zerubbabel and with the reading of the Law by Ezra. Now that the wall of Jerusalem was finished, the people prepared for the dedication of the wall.
In preparation for the dedication of the wall, the Levites were brought to Jerusalem to lead the celebration: “At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres” (Nehemiah 12:27 NIV).
The Levites had to be brought to Jerusalem because the “priests, Levites, temple servants and descendants of Solomon’s servants lived in the towns of Judah, each on his own property in the various towns” (Nehemiah 11:3). The dedication was to be a joyful celebration. The Levites who served as musicians in the temple, would lead the people with songs of thanksgiving while playing musical instruments. The celebration also would include prayers and sacrifices.
The dedication of the wall was designed to thank God for the completion of the work and to rededicate the city for the glory of God since Jerusalem was the city God had chosen to manifest his name. It is because of the presence of God in the temple that Jerusalem was called “the holy city” twice in the book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 11:1, 18).
At the time the wall was dedicated, the city of Jerusalem was in poor condition. According to Paul Redditt (2014: 314), “The impression given thus far in Nehemiah that the city of Jerusalem was uninhabited (or nearly so anyway) before the wall was repaired.” When the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon, they made an effort to rebuild the city. However, the Persian officials in Jerusalem lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem accusing them of being against the empire and reminding the king that Jerusalem had “a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition” (Ezra 4:19).
When the king read the letter sent to him, he issued “an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order” (Ezra 4:21). As a result, the Jews who lived in Jerusalem were compelled by force to stop the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:23-24).
With the coming of Nehemiah, the work of rebuilding the wall had the approval of the king. After the wall was completed, the community began the process to repopulate the city. The first group to return to Jerusalem was the leaders of the people. Then, the people cast lots in order to bring one out of every ten people to live in Jerusalem “while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns” (Nehemiah 11:1). In addition, several people volunteered to leave their villages and live in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:2).
The dedication of the wall began with the purification of the priests and Levites: “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall” (Nehemiah 12:30).
The ceremonies of purification included the washing of the priests and Levites and their garments, the sacrifice of a sin-offering, and the sprinkling of blood. In ceremonial purification, both persons and things were purified. So, the people, the gates, and the wall were purified in preparation for the ceremony.
The purification of the gates and of the wall may reflect the fact that Jerusalem, the “holy city,” had been defiled by the invading army of the Babylonians, by the influx of a Gentile population in the city, and probably because many people had died on the wall defending the city during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
The dedication of the wall of Jerusalem consisted of a ceremony in which the leaders of the community, the Levitical singers, and a large number of people marched together in two groups: “I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate” (Nehemiah 12:31 NIV). Nehemiah went with the second group: “The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people” (Nehemiah 12:38 NIV).
The two groups processed on top of the wall giving thanks and praising God with songs and music. The two groups were led by the priests and by the Levites. One group marched from the northern wall and the other from the southern wall and they came together on the eastern side of the Temple, “The two thanksgiving processions stood in the house of God” (Nehemiah 12:40 HCSB).
When the people met at the temple, the priests and the Levites “offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced” (Nehemiah 12:43). The people’s celebration and rejoicing were heartfelt because “God had made them rejoice with great joy.”
The celebration was inclusive because “the women and children also rejoiced” (Nehemiah 12:43). This is not the only time where women in Israel are mentioned celebrating special occasions in the life of the nation. After Israel came out of Egypt, a group of women, under the leadership of Miriam, took musical instruments and went singing and dancing, rejoicing after the defeat of the enemy’s army (Exodus 15:20).
So great was the rejoicing of the people that “the rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard from afar” (Nehemiah 12:43). The people had many reasons to celebrate. Their gratitude for what God had done for them was evident. As one writer puts it, “The events of the day, viewed in connection with the now repaired and beautified state of the city, raised the popular feeling to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and the fame of their rejoicing was spread far and near.”
When the people of Israel offered thanksgiving to God, they did so in worship. The people came before God in the temple and as God’s people they expressed their joy and their gratitude for all the blessings they had received from God.
In worship, the people came before God to express their gratitude for the things God had done that changed their lives and blessed their community. The people, however, did not approach God empty-handed. Whenever the people came to offer thanks to God, they also brought their offerings.
In Israel, the worship of God within the community of faith was a grateful acknowledgment of the gifts and of the blessings received from God. In Psalm 7:17 the psalmist expressed the sentiment of the people of Israel: “I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High.”
The video below is the sermon Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois, preached on November 25, 2019. The title of his sermon was “Nehemiah: Thanksgiving.” The text for the sermon was Nehemiah 12:27-43. The above post is based on Jeff’s sermon.
Throughout the sermon Jeff emphasizes that the people of God should be a people who give thanks to God. Jeff ends his sermon by mentioning how his family celebrates a night together. He concludes that Thanksgiving should be a time of celebration. He urges Christians to become better and better at the art of giving thanks. He also encourages the congregation to explode with joy in the simple blessings of God this coming Thanksgiving Day and beyond.
As you and your family set aside time to worship God and give him thanks for the blessings received, Jeff and I want to express our gratitude for your faithfulness to God and wish you and your loved ones joy and happiness this Thanksgiving Day.
Sermon: “Nehemiah: Thanksgiving” by Jeff Griffin
Studies on Nehemiah
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Redditt, Paul L. Ezra-Nehemiah. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2014.