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May 23 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

May 23, 2021



And you warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey Nehemiah 9:29

Intro: I apologize for where we jumped into this passage

It’s not enough to give you the context, so–a brief explanation
– Nehemiah had taken charge of a massive project,
• rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and the spiritual renewal of the people
• for the renewal to occur they had to break with their past
◦ so he arranges a day for this long prayer, which is a confession of Israel’s sins
◦ it recounts a history of unfaithfulness
– the prayer tells a story, and like all stories, it’s build around a plot
• it’s easy to find the plot of a story, because it always involves a conflict
◦ some sort of tension and struggle takes place, creating suspense
• the conflict here is between a good God and his rebellious people
◦ Nehemiah’s goal that day was to surrender to God fully and end the conflict
◦ then to re-enter the covenant God made with them from the start
Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing . . . (Neh. 9:38)

I brought us here, because of the two body parts mentioned in verse 29
– as a reminder, we’re exploring a biblical spirituality of the body
• philosophy and theology separated the spirit from the body
◦ philosophy stopped talking about spirit, because it is unknowable
◦ theology mostly postponed discussion of spirit until it enters heaven
• but in scripture, the body is spirit as well as flesh and bone
◦ it has a capacity to experience transcendence, intuition
Blaise Pascal (I think every Xian should hear about his experience at least once), “. . . from about half past six in the evening until about half past midnight. Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and the scholars. Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace. The God of Jesus Christ. Your God will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, save God.”
John Macquarrie explains that these are “words which try to express an ecstatic experience. Jesus Christ had become for Pascal the center of a mystical contemplation in which the truths of God and religion were opened to him in a way that he could not doubt. He goes so far as to say, ‘Jesus Christ is the goal of everything and the center to which everything tends. He who knows him knows the reason for everything.’”
◦ the invitation of scripture is for us to seek God, and to find him (Jer. 29:13)
– our bodies are limited–we cannot see, hear, touch, smell, or taste spirit
• so the body isn’t everything–but it’s enough!
◦ when God created the human body, stepped back and said, “It’s good”
◦ it was all he intended it to be, and nothing more or less
John of Damascus–an eighth century monk and theologian who argued the merits of sacred art, and icons in particular wrote, “I shall not cease to honor matter, for it was through matter that my salvation came to pass. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable; nothing is despicable that God has made.”
• so today we’re going to consider the spirituality of our material neck and shoulders

There is not a great deal to say about the neck

It is the most vulnerable exposed part of the body
– Joshua had commanders symbolically affirm their dominance over their enemies (Jos. 10:25)
• the poet described his precarious situation as water rising to his neck (Ps. 69:1)
• Paul had friends who risked their necks for him (Ro. 16:4)
– in other passages:
• people who were haughty might walk with outstretched necks (Is. 3:16; cf. Ps. 75:4-5)
• the lover in the Song of Songs describes the beauty of his beloved’s neck (Song 4:4)
• the neck’s beauty is sometimes enhanced by necklace (Song 4:9)
• a gold chain could also represent royal position (Ge. 41:42; Dan. 5:7)
• the neck was a prime area for receiving affection
◦ greeting with kisses on the neck (Ge. 35:4)
◦ forgiving with kisses on the neck (Ge. 33:4)
◦ expressing love and joy of reunion with tears and kisses on the neck (Ge. 45:14-15)
– perhaps what we hear most often regarding the neck is when it was stiff
• not a muscular stiffness, but an attitude of stubborn resistance
◦ a vivid picture of this connects an internal condition with the external expression
King Zedekiah did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet . . . . He stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD, the God of Israel (2 Chr. 36:12-13)
• the price Israel would pay for having a stiff neck was that a yoke would be placed their necks
therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you . . . . And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you (De. 28:48; Jer. 28:14)
• the most dire punishment Jesus’ pronounced was against anyone who harmed a child
whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to [stumble], it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Mt. 18:6)

I want to add the jaw to this overview, because neck muscles are attached to it
– God’s fierce devotion to Israel and their protection poetically described:
his breath is like an overflowing stream
that reaches up to the neck;
to sift the nations with the sieve of destruction,
and to place on the jaws of the peoples a bridle that leads astray (Is. 30:28)
• the same Hebrew word for jaw is translated cheeks
• and typically one or the other is receiving abuse
◦ the cheeks are struck (or a beard plucked from it)
◦ the jaws are hooked or bridled (Job 41:2; Eze. 29:4)
– a special case is that of Samson, when rushed by a troop of Philistines
• he found the jawbone of donkey nearby and used as a weapon
◦ he celebrated afterward with a poem worthy of a small child
With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of a donkey
have I struck down a thousand men.
. . . And that place was called [Jawbone Hill] (Jdg. 15-7)
• I find this ironic, because in this scene Samson is the one who is heehawing

The shoulders in scripture are what we would expect

They mostly have to do with carrying heavy burdens
– a water skin or water jar (Gen. 21:14; 24:15) or stones (Jos. 4:5)
• the only way the ark of the covenant was to be transported (Num. 7:9; 1 Chr. 15:15)
◦ also other nations who carried their idols (Is. 46:7)
• in Nehemiah, the nobles did not put shoulders to the work (Neh. 3:5)
– shoulders could also symbolize carrying responsibility
• for instance, the responsible leadership (Is. 9:6; 22:22)
◦ or responsibility for the spiritual welfare of God’s people
And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance (Ex. 28:12)
• this is one of my favorite images of the priests
• it’s how I imagine Jesus always interceding for us
◦ and the reason I pray for you every week
– like the neck, people could turn a stubborn shoulder toward God (Zec. 7:11)

God is the one who relieves the burden from the shoulders of his people
I relieved your shoulder of the burden (Ps. 81:6)
And in that day his burden will depart from your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck; and the yoke will be broken (Is. 10:27)

There is one more step I want us to take in the Scriptures

The neck generally refers to the body part that surrounds the throat
– the Hebrew word for throat (nephesh) is stretched in many directions
• it can be what we know as the esophagus and refer to eating and drinking
◦ by extension, it can be translated appetite, hunger, and even greedy desire
• it can be what we know as the trachea and refer to breath, breathing, and life
• it is also translated “soul” and refer to all that is felt internally, or thought, or willed
nephesh can mean the person, the “self”
◦ but more on that in a later talk

The throat is one of those body parts that will tell you when something’s wrong
– for instance, when:
• it is tight or constricted–voice changes; nerves, anxiety
• you have a dry throat, itchy, or sore throat
◦ these can result from allergies or abuse
– the neck and shoulders will also tell us when something’s wrong
• with the jaw, these are the places where most of us carry the majority of our stress
Pat Ogden, “There are many ways our normal style of breathing can be less than optimal. Fear may cause us to hold our breath or breathe only in the upper chest, failing to fully engage the diaphragm to do its job. . . . Poor posture also contributes to poor breathing—if we are slumped, our lungs are compressed and do not have much room to expand as we [inhale]. We may habitually breathe shallowly if we experience depression. Fast breathing that emphasizes the inhale may contribute to panic or anxiety. The neck and shoulders, which should be relaxed during healthy breathing, may be tense and constrict more while inhaling our exhaling.”
• changing our posture can change our attitude

Our bodies tell us something about the burdens we carry
– listen to your neck and shoulders, your jaw and throat
• whose yoke are you wearing? Has God placed it on you
◦ did someone else lay it on you?
◦ are you going to let God lift it from you?

Conclusion: I want to bring all of this back to Jesus

Regarding the neck:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Mt. 11:29)
Regarding the shoulders:
When the shepherd has found his lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing (Lk. 15:5)
We can reject a yoke,
but we can also accept one
We can choose to resist or receive
We can lug our stress around on our backs
or we can let Jesus carry us on his shoulders

Our bodies speak
We want to be the ones to write the script
so that our bodies tell the world
our God fills our lives with love and grace

An Exercise

Notice any tension in your neck, your shoulders, or throat.
Focus your attention on the area that is tense.
• With your fingers, gently explore the tension
• Is there a central point of tension?
(Usually there is one spot that is the tightest or most sensitive)
• Describe what the tension feels like
(Dull pain vs sharp pain, achiness, restricted movement)
• Try tensing the muscles in that area and then relaxing them
(Don’t do this if it’s too inflamed or painful)
Notice the difference in the way it feels when tensed or relaxed
• Ask the area of tension why it is so tight
Does it answer with a specific physical cause? “I turned my head too fast”
Does it answer with a specific psychological cause? “I’ve been under a lot of stress”
Does it answer with a specific emotion? “I’ve been feeling sad”

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