Nehemiah 7 and 11-12 are mostly comprised of lists of names. Jerusalem’s walls and gates have been rebuilt, but as Nehemiah looks around at the city, he realizes that far too few people live there to maintain and protect it. God puts it on his heart to order a census of all the exiles that have returned. This will allow Nehemiah to take stock of who is actually living in Israel, and how they can best serve God’s people.
In the middle of the lists of names and families, we find our lesson for today. “Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.” (11:1-2)
There are many reasons why people would need to be asked/convinced/assigned to pick up their lives and move to the city. When the exiles returned, they would have naturally wanted to go back to the smaller towns where they used to live. Matthew Henry (commentary) brought up three other reasons which have spiritual implications for us.
First, the people knew that Jerusalem would be the primary target of any enemy attacks. They had either personally experienced or heard vivid stories of Babylon’s destruction of the city and temple in 586 BC. They saw the broken-down walls and burned gates. To live in the city was to place oneself in the plain sight of the enemy.
Second, Jerusalem was considered a holy city. Temple worship was central to their way of life. You couldn’t live in the city and choose not to be part of the religious life of a Jew. Your friends and neighbors would certainly know if you refused to bring sacrifices or attend services. To live in the city was to put your faith on display.
Third, there was less opportunity for financial security in the city. Henry says, “It was more for their worldly advantage to dwell in the country. Jerusalem was no trading city, and therefore there was no money to be got there by merchandise, as there was in the country by corn and cattle.” At this time, Jerusalem was not a bustling, vibrant city. To live in the city was to set aside your personal desires for wealth and prosperity, and choose to live modestly, even poorly.
Ten percent of the people were chosen by God (lots were cast) to pick up their lives and move to the city. In a very real sense, they were a called-out people giving up their security and personal desires for the good of the kingdom. Isn’t that what we are, as the church, the body of Christ?
In the New Testament, the word “church” comes from the Greek word “ekklēsia” which literally means “to call out.” We are called to live holy, committed lives, give up chasing worldly success, and be bold in our witness for Christ. Just like that ten percent who were asked to give up everything so that the place God chose to put His name, Jerusalem, could be established and grow strong, we are to structure our lives for the spread of the gospel, the growth of the kingdom of God here on earth.
Who would you be in this story? The one willing to give up everything for the sake of the kingdom, or the one staying back where it’s safe and comfortable, cheering on others’ commitment? What are you willing to do as a “called-out” people?