Nehemiah 12: Lessons from Nehemiah on the Elements of True Worship for God

Introduction: After completing the walls, a plan to repopulate Jerusalem, and rededicating their hearts to serve God, the Jews gathered together to worship Him. From this account, God reveals seven lessons on the elements of true worship. True worship includes: (1) continuity, (2) thankfulness, (3) a clean heart, (4) praise, (5) joy, (6) generosity, and (7) Spirit-led obedience.

First, to stress the importance of ongoing worship, Nehemiah listed the priests and Levities who served from the time of the first returning immigrants until this celebration. Your worship should also be ongoing and not limited to positive events. Second, the Jews gathered together to thank God for His faithfulness in restoring what they had lost because of sin. Your worship should also express thankfulness for God’s faithfulness. Third, before worship began, the priests and the Levites cleansed themselves, the people, and their surroundings. Your worship should also come with the right motives and an upright and clean heart. Fourth, all of the Jews gathered before two choirs at the gates and on the walls to worship together. Your worship should also include praise as part of collective body of Christ. Fifth, the Jews’ joyful songs of praise could be heard far off into the distance. Your worship should also include the joy of the Spirit that evangelizes others. Sixth, as part of their worship, the Jews gave tithes and first fruits offerings. Your worship should be also expressed through a giving heart. Finally, the Jews were obedient in complying with God’s Word as they worshiped. Your worship should also include obedience.

1. Continuity: True Worship Is Ongoing and Not Limited to Positive Events. Neh. 12:1-26.

  • The priests led each generation of Jews in ongoing praise and worship. Before recording the joyful worship at the completed walls, Nehemiah observed that the Levites had faithfully led “songs of thanksgiving” since the first immigrants under Zerubbabel: “1 Now these are the priests and the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Amariah, Malluch, Hattush, Shecaniah, Rehum, Meremoth, Iddo, Ginnethoi, Abijah, Mijamin, Maadiah, Bilgah, Shemaiah and Joiarib, Jedaiah, Sallu, Amok, Hilkiah, and Jedaiah. These were the heads of the priests and their kinsmen in the days of Jeshua. And the Levites were Jeshua, Binnui, Kadmiel, Sherebiah, Judah, and Mattaniah who was in charge of the songs of thanksgiving, he and his brothers. Also Bakbukiah and Unni, their brothers, stood opposite them in their service divisions. 10 Jeshua fathered Joiakim, Joiakim fathered Eliashib, Eliashib fathered Joiada, 11 Joiada fathered Jonathan, and Jonathan fathered Jaddua. 12 Now in the days of Joiakim, the priests, the heads of fathers’ households were: of Seraiah, Meraiah; of Jeremiah, Hananiah; 13 of Ezra, Meshullam; of Amariah, Jehohanan; 14 of Malluchi, Jonathan; of Shebaniah, Joseph; 15 of Harim, Adna; of Meraioth, Helkai; 16 of Iddo, Zechariah; of Ginnethon, Meshullam; 17 of Abijah, Zichri; of Miniamin, of Moadiah, Piltai; 18 of Bilgah, Shammua; of Shemaiah, Jehonathan; 19 of Joiarib, Mattenai; of Jedaiah, Uzzi; 20 of Sallai, Kallai; of Amok, Eber; 21 of Hilkiah, Hashabiah; and of Jedaiah, Nethanel. 22 As for the Levites, the heads of fathers’ households were registered in the days of Eliashib, Joiada, and Johanan, and Jaddua; so were the priests in the reign of Darius the Persian. 23 The sons of Levi, the heads of fathers’ households, were registered in the Book of the Chronicles up to the days of Johanan the son of Eliashib. 24 And the heads of the Levites were Hashabiah, Sherebiah, and Jeshua the son of Kadmiel, with their brothers opposite them, to praise and give thanks, as prescribed by David the man of God, division corresponding to division. 25 Mattaniah, Bakbukiah, Obadiah, Meshullam, Talmon, and Akkub were gatekeepers keeping watch at the storerooms of the gates. 26 These men served in the days of Joiakim the son of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and in the days of Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest and scribe.” (Neh. 12:1-26). Among other things, the book of Nehemiah stresses the importance of leadership. The list begins with the priests and Levities who first served under governor Zerubbabel and the High Priest Jeshua (Neh. 12:1-11). The list then names those who served during the days of Joiakim, the High Priest at the time Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (Neh. 12:12-21). The list also includes those who faithfully served during the reign of King Darius of Persia (Neh. 12:22-26). Eliashib was the High Priest who led the priests and Levites at the time of the celebration at Jerusalem’s walls.

  • Worship leaders are an important part of God’s plan to ensure worship continuity. David appointed the Levites to lead the people in joyful worship bands of praise and worship. “Then David spoke to the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their relatives as the singers, with musical instruments, harps, lyres, and cymbals, playing to raise sounds of joy.” (1 Chr. 15:16; 6:31). “Moreover, David and the commanders of the army set apart for the service some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, who were to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals; and the number of those who performed this service was:” (1 Chr. 25:1). Solomon again appointed the priests to lead the nation in worship. “Now according to the ordinance of his father David, he appointed the divisions of the priests for their service, and the Levites for their duties of praise and ministering before the priests according to the daily rule, and the gatekeepers by their divisions at every gate; for this is what David, the man of God, had commanded.” (2 Chr. 8:14). The great reformer King Hezekiah reappointed the Levites to lead the nation in worship after decades of spiritual decline: “He then stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the command of David and of Gad, the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for the command was from the LORD through His prophets.” (2 Chr. 29:25). For a church to succeed and grow, it needs dedicated worship leaders. If you have a gift of singing or playing musical instruments, are you using your gifts?

  • God will remember your worship and praise. Some might wonder why the Bible doesn’t simply say that there were appointed worship leaders since the time Zerubbabel led the first wave of immigrants returned to Jerusalem. But that would not recognize the individual efforts of the brave priests and Levities who served to inspire and encourage others. This detailed list was therefore meant to stress that God values each individual contribution: “It may seem tedious to us to find so many lists of genealogies and place names in Ezra and Nehemiah. But it reminds us again that God’s work is done by individuals. Even though it is a community activity, each person in the community is important and must be given responsibility and must be an integral part of the community’s activities . . . Not only were the outstanding leaders necessary for God’s work in the community; the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Levities were all indispensable. In God’s work each believer is important. . . In a time when self-centeredness seems to dominate Western life-styles, the Word of God calls us to work and live together as a community, to be dependent upon one another, and to help one another in achieving the task God has set before us.” (Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (B&H Publishing Group 1993) p. 260, 63). Whenever you step out in faith to worship, serve, or encourage others, God will remember your acts as well: “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, by having served and by still serving the saints.” (Heb. 6:10). Are you using your gifts to help your church? Are you also giving God many things for you to be remembered and celebrated for when you get to heaven?

  • Make your worship life ongoing and not limited to great events. Without the references to the worship team leaders who served under Zerubbabel, the Bible might have led some to believe that the Jews only gave thanks when they received good news. But that was not the case. Each wave of returning Jews faced constant opposition. Even when the Jews have felt defeated, discouraged, or angry, these leaders were there to lead the people in worship. Your worship should also be continuous. Don’t wait for the positive news to give thanks. If you do, you are more likely to take the credit away for yourself.

  • The greatest leaders in the Bible praised God in both good and bad times. When Saul was trying to kill David, David wrote in one of his many psalms that he would always praise God: “A Psalm of David, when he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed. I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” (Ps. 34:1). Likewise, when Daniel learned that the king had signed an order that would result in him being thrown in the lion’s den, he continued in his regular praises for God: “Now when Daniel learned that the document was signed, he entered his house (and in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and offering praise before his God, just as he had been doing previously.” (Dan. 6:10). Likewise, even in times when he was jailed and persecuted, Paul worshiped God: “always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to our God and Father;” (Eph. 5:20). Are you worshiping God in both good and bad times?

2. Thankfulness: True Worship is Thankful for God’s Faithfulness. Neh. 12:27-29.

  • The Jews praise God with songs of thanksgiving. Instead of taking the credit for the walls, the Jews publicly worshiped God for His faithfulness with “songs of thanksgiving”: “27 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites from all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem so that they could celebrate the dedication with joy, with songs of thanksgiving and with songs to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps, and lyres. 28 So the sons of the singers were assembled from the territory around Jerusalem, and from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth-gilgal and from their fields in Geba and Azmaveth, because the singers had built themselves villages around Jerusalem.” (Neh. 12:27-29). Singers came from the villages to pour out their songs of gratitude. Their instruments included cymbals and stringed instruments like harps.

Singers, musicians, and faithful believers all came together to worship God1

  • God was faithful to keep His promises and worthy of praise. To fulfill a prophecy given through Jeremiah, God moved upon King Cyrus’ heart to issue a decree that allowed the Jews to leave captivity and return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4). He then safely brought back the Jews with the faith to return (Ezra 1:5). He later moved King Darius’ heart to issue a decree to allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple over local opposition (Ezra 6:1-12). He then caused the Temple to be rebuilt (Ezra 6:13-16). He later moved upon King Artaxerxes to issue a decree to give the Jews both permission and the royal resources needed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1-9) He then caused the walls to be rebuilt over local opposition (Neh. 6:15). And He restored the Jewish community and their hearts to walk with Him (Neh. 8:1-12:26). Thus, He was worthy of the Jews’ praise.

  • Praise God with songs of praise. The law included obligations for the Jews to express their gratitude through proper worship (Dt. 12:7, 12, 18; 14:26; 16:11-15; 26:11; 27:7). But God hated their worship when it was done out of obligation (Is. 1:14). Thus, to set the Jews’ hearts for proper worship, David previously led the Jews with both psalms and songs of praise and thanksgiving: “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His faithfulness is everlasting.” (1 Chr. 16:34) “Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets.” (1 Chr. 13:8). Ezra also led songs of praise and thanksgiving: “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: ‘For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.” (Ezra 3:11). The psalmist also encourages believers to praise God with both songs and musical instruments: “It is good to give thanks to the LORD and to sing praises to Your name, Most High; to declare Your goodness in the morning and Your faithfulness by night, with the ten-stringed lute and with the harp, with resounding music on the lyre. For You, LORD, have made me joyful by what You have done, I will sing for joy over the works of Your hands.” (Ps. 92:104). “Praise Him with trumpet sound; praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with tambourine and dancing; praise Him with stringed instruments and flute. Praise Him with loud cymbals; praise Him with resounding cymbals. Everything that has breath shall praise the LORD. Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 150:3-6). Are you filled with songs of thanksgiving for God? Do you keep track of His answered prayers for praising Him?

  • In heaven, the praise and thankful worship for Jesus will be ongoing. In heaven, your worship praises of thanksgiving will never end. “And I heard every created thing which is in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, or on the sea, and all the things in them, saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be the blessing, the honor, the glory, and the dominion forever and ever.”’ (Rev. 5:13; 13:8). Matthew Henry once observed: “If we hope to spend our eternity in praising God, it is fit that we should spend as much as may be of our time in this work.”2 Is your praise life alive and ongoing?

3. A Clean Heart: True Worship Comes from a Clean and Upright Heart. Neh. 12:30.

  • The priests and Levites purified the people and the walls. Before the actual worship began, the priests and the Levites cleansed themselves, the people, and then the walls: “30 The priests and the Levites purified themselves; they also purified the people, the gates, and the wall.” (Neh. 12:30). The priests and Levities had to get their own hearts right with God before they could lead others in praise. They then purified the people so that they would be holy, acceptable, and worship with the right motives. Finally, they purified the gates and walls. This meant that they sought to purify their surroundings.

  • Worship with a clean and upright heart. Worship with a purified and upright heart is a central element of true worship: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.” (Ps. 32:11). “The righteous person will be glad in the LORD and take refuge in Him; and all the upright in heart will boast.” (Ps. 64:10). “My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart.” (Ps. 7:10). “Light is sown like seed for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.” (Ps. 97:11). If you are distracted or focused on yourself, you are not worshiping with an upright heart.

  • Let Jesus purify your heart so that you can properly worship Him. Jesus calls upon believers to be holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16; 2 Pet. 3:11; Lev. 11:44; 20:7; 20:6). To be holy for worship, you can turn to Jesus to give you a clean and upright heart. As one commentator observes: “Without purity, we can’t worship God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus commanded us to (John 4:24). Psalm 24:3-4 asks, Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, and it means it in the sense of bringing praise to God. We can be made pure and clean before God today, right now, by doing what the Bible says to do – not in following an Old Testament ceremony, but by receiving the word of the New Testament: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9).” (David Guzik on Neh. 12).3 Are you confessing your sins to Jesus so that He can give you a clean and upright heart to properly worship Him?

4. Praise: True Worship Includes Praise From the Collective Body of Christ. Neh. 12:31-42.

  • The two choirs of praise for God. To stress the importance of community participation, Nehemiah recorded that worship leaders gathered the people at each of the ten gates: “31 Then I had the leaders of Judah come up on top of the wall, and I appointed two large choirs, the first proceeding to the right on top of the wall toward the Dung Gate. 32 Hoshaiah and half of the leaders of Judah followed them, 33 with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34 Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah, 35 and some of the sons of the priests with trumpets; and Zechariah the son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zaccur, the son of Asaph, 36 and his kinsmen, Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah, and Hanani, with the musical instruments of David the man of God. And Ezra the scribe went before them. 37 At the Fountain Gate they went directly up the steps of the city of David by the stairway of the wall, above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east. 38 The second choir proceeded to the left, while I followed them with half of the people on the wall, above the Tower of Furnaces, to the Broad Wall, 39 and above the Gate of Ephraim, by the Ancient Gate, by the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel, and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate; and they stopped at the Gate of the Guard. 40 Then the two choirs took their positions in the house of God. So did I and half of the officials with me; 41 and the priests, Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah, and Hananiah, with the trumpets; 42 and Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malchijah, Elam, and Ezer. And the singers sang, with Jezrahiah their leader,” (Neh. 12:31-42). Jesus proclaimed that a matter is confirmed by two or more witnesses (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28; Dt. 17:6; 19:15). The two choirs served as confirmation that God was worthy of everyone’s praise. They further stood at each of the ten gates leading into the heart of Jerusalem. This symbolized praise for every part of their lives.

Two choirs played worship music to praise God from the top the rebuilt walls4

  • Don’t forsake worshiping with your church. The worship included men, women, and children (Neh. 12:43). This means that it included everyone. Even when you are alone, you should worship God. But that doesn’t mean that you should forsake worshiping with a community of believers in your church: “not abandoning our own meeting together, as is the habit of some people, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:25). Wherever two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, He is present: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt. 18:20). When you worship in a group, you can frequently feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Do you arrive on time for worship at your church?

5. Joy: True Worship Includes the Joy of the Spirit that Evangelizes Others. Neh. 12:43.

  • The joyful praise heard far away from Jerusalem. The Jews’ worship and praise music was filled with heart-felt joy that even the gentiles could hear from far off in the distance: “43 and on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy, and the women and children rejoiced as well, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard from far away.” (Neh. 12:43). The Spirit-led joy was felt by everyone, including the men, women, and children. Their praise was also a witness to the gentiles.

The Jews’ joy was a witness to all the people who lived near Jerusalem5

  • Be joyful in your worship. David and other psalmists were joyful in their praises: “I will rejoice and be jubilant in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High.” (Ps. 9:2). “But rejoice, all who take refuge in You, sing for joy forever! And may You shelter them, that those who love Your name may rejoice in You.” (Ps. 5:11). “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to You; and my soul, which You have redeemed.” (Ps. 71:23). When you worship, are you joyful or merely going through the motions?

  • Joyful worship helps to evangelize the lost. Nehemiah stressed that the worship music could be heard far away from Jerusalem (Neh. 12:43). The Jews were meant to return to Jerusalem and joyfully proclaim God to the gentiles: “Go out from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans! Declare with the sound of joyful shouting, proclaim this, send it out to the end of the earth; say, ‘The LORD has redeemed His servant Jacob.”’ (Is. 48:20). The Jews were also to be God’s light to the lost through their witness, which included joyful worship: “He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the protected ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”’ (Is. 49:6). Today, believers are to represent Jesus’ light (Matt. 5:14). Those who feel embarrassed to publicly worship fail to appreciate its role in evangelism. Worship should entice non-believers to experience the joy of the Holy Spirit. Is your worship a witness to the lost?

6. Generosity: True Worship is Also Expressed Through a Giving Heart. Neh. 12:44.

  • The Jews gave their first fruit to support and sustain the worship leaders. In addition to praising God with their lips, the Jews praised God by tithing to support His servants: “44 On that day men were also appointed over the chambers for the supplies, the contributions, the first fruits, and the tithes, to gather into them from the fields of the cities the portions required by the Law for the priests and Levites; for Judah rejoiced over the priests and the Levites who served.” (Neh. 12:44). The Jews understood that their worship and sacrifices required people willing to sacrifice their lives to serve others. Thus, as led by the Holy Spirit, their worship included supporting priests and Levites.

  • The Jews gave their tithes and their first fruits as an act of worship. The Jews had previously given tithes and the first fruits to support the priests and Levites (Neh. 10:34-37). They previously did this to comply with God’s law (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Dt. 14:27-29; 26:1-2; Lev. 23:10; Nu. 18:12-13; Ezek. 44:30). Here, they gave again as an act of worship to honor God: “Honor the Lord from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.” (Prov. 3:9-10). Do your tithes reflect your gratitude for God? (Mal. 3:8).

  • True worship is manifested with sacrifice through a giving heart. If you are truly thankful for all that God has done in your life, your gratitude should be expressed by giving the best of your time, talents, and treasure as an act of worshiping God: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Ro. 12:1). “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:20). Are you worshiping Jesus with the best of your time, talent, and treasure?

7. Obedience: True Worship Includes Spirit-Led Obedience. Neh. 12:45-46.

  • The Jews worshiped in accordance with God’s laws. Finally, because the worship was led by the Spirit, the Jews worshiped in the manner that God proscribed through David: “45 For they performed the worship of their God and the service of purification, together with the singers and the gatekeepers in accordance with the command of David and of his son Solomon. 46 For in the days of David and Asaph, in ancient times, there were leaders of the singers, songs of praise and songs of thanksgiving to God. 47 So all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah gave the portions due the singers and the gatekeepers as each day required, and they set apart the consecrated portion for the Levites, and the Levites set apart the consecrated portion for the sons of Aaron.” (Neh. 12:45-46). Ezra and Nehemiah were motivated to restore and maintain the Jews’ covenant relationship with God. They encouraged the Jews to return to God’s Word to guide every aspect of their lives. Thus, their worship followed God’s Word as well.

  • If you are thankful for what Jesus has done, your worship will include obedience. A believer may proclaim Jesus as Lord. Yet, Jesus is not your Lord if you disobey Him: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matt. 7:21). “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk. 6:46). “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (Jam. 1:22). “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matt. 7:24-26). If you are grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice for you, are you showing it through your obedience to His Word?