PART 2 THE EXAMPLE OF NEHEMIAH

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KNOWING THE CONTEXT

 

It is not only necessary for us to know the context in order to truly understand the Book of Nehemiah, but it was also vital for Nehemiah to know the background to the situation in order to analyse it before he made any decisions or took any actions.

 

The Book of Nehemiah is set in the time of the Jewish return from exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had finally fallen to Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon in 587 BC. He had King Zedekiah blinded after his sons were killed in front of him, and he also had other leading officials executed. The remaining population was taken into captivity in Babylon or fled to Egypt. The walls of Jerusalem were broken down and the whole city including the temple set on fire, while the temple's contents were taken back to Babylon. You can read all about this in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 39-41.

 

Nebuchadnezzar's son Belshazzar lost his empire to Darius the Mede (Dan. 5v30) and in 539 BC Cyrus King of Persia took over Babylon. Whereas Syrian and Babylonian policy had been to deport conquered peoples to different parts of their empires (2 K. 17v5-6 & 24) Cyrus' was to return exiled nations to their own lands and allow them to worship their own gods.

 

The first six chapters of Ezra deal with the return of the Jewish exiles under Zerubbabel to Judea, and with the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jews were also given back the gold and silver ware looted from the temple, though not the larger bronze items which had been broken up. However there was opposition to the rebuilding of the temple from those who had been deported to Samaria and Trans-Euphrates as the area was called. With rebukes and encouragements from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the temple was eventually completed in 520-516 BC.

 

Then in the reign of Artaxerxes, in 458 BC, another group of exiles returned to Jerusalem with Ezra, a learned scribe and descendant of Aaron. His task, authorised by Artaxerxes, was to re-establish the Law of God and temple worship, which would also provide political stability in Artaxerxes' interest.

 

Nehemiah was cup bearer, chief butler, to Artaxerxes. In 446 BC in the citadel at Susa, the Persian kings' winter palace, messengers arrived from Jerusalem, and Nehemiah enquired about the returned exiles. He heard that they were in disgrace and great trouble as the city walls had been broken down and the gates set on fire (Neh. 1v3). Having restored the temple the Jews had now started repairing the walls but without Artaxerxes' permission. Ezra 4 v7-23 records the exchange of letters between the Jews' enemies and Artaxerxes which ended with the Jews being forced to stop the work, presumably by a physical attack on the walls resulting in the damage reported to Nehemiah. Humanly speaking the only person who could enable Nehemiah to rebuild the walls was Artaxerxes who had so recently ordered the work to stop. No wonder one commentary on Nehemiah is called When Your Goals Seem Out of Reach.

 

All this Nehemiah would have known before taking his initiative, and we see him analysing the situation regarding the detailed condition of Jerusalem's walls when he arrives there, before he takes any further initiative (Neh. 2v11-16).

 

We need to understand the background, the context, the details of any situation, and of a developing one, to be enabled to make interventions based on informed decisions - but with the eye of faith, knowing God's call and guidance as situations often seem impossible. But we must also avoid the paralysis of analysis which always wants more information, more research, more training, more self or church preparation. Nehemiah did not wait for someone else to survey the walls, nor go on a bricklaying and carpentry course. Nor did Abraham wait in Ur until he knew his final destination - he set out in faith.

 

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TAKING AN INITIATIVE

Nehemiah took the initiative from the very beginning in finding out what the situation was in the city of his fathers (Neh. 1v17). He questioned those who had just come from Judea and found out that the returned exiles were in great trouble, as the city walls had been broken down and the gates set on fire. He had great concern for Jerusalem and was upset by the news. His love and compassion for his city led him to fast and pray, both night and day, for his people for four months (Neh. 1v4). He was also prepared to be the answer to his own prayers, and when the time came he asked God specifically for success in granting him favour in the presence of Artaxerxes. (Neh. 1v11).

 

He was then ready to take the opportunity when it came, and needed only an arrow prayer (Neh. 2v4), and put his case diplomatically - he did not mention Jerusalem, known as a rebellious city (Ez. 4v19), but the city where his ancestors were buried, and only in response to the King's questioning does he say it is in Judea. He also asks not simply to be allowed to go but to be sent by Artaxerxes, with his authority. Nehemiah had his plan ready and requested a visa and requisitions for materials.

 

At each stage Nehemiah took the initiative and within three days of arriving in Jerusalem he had inspected the walls for himself to ensure his facts were correct (Neh. 2v11-16) before involving many other people.

 

As the manager of the enterprise Nehemiah continued to take the initiative and he led by good example. He got the people of Jerusalem to own the project by his inclusive language of the trouble "we" were in, and let "us" rebuild the walls. (Neh. 2v17). He encouraged them by sharing his testimony of God's grace. (Neh. 2v18). His good example included lending without charging interest (Neh. 5v10) and not demanding the food allocation which came with his job, but rather shared his food with others. (Neh. 5v18).

 

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IDENTIFYING RESOURCES

We tend to list resources in terms of money, manpower, materials, and that in terms of voluntary church work we can probably succeed given two out of the three. Nehemiah had none of these, was a captive in a foreign country, and had no experience of the construction or defence industries. As chief butler perhaps he had management skills in the catering industry!

 

From his high position he was obviously thought to be honest, trustworthy and a person of integrity - personal characteristics which should apply to every Christian and give us influence with other people. The early church chose people known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to take responsibility for what might be seen either as catering management for a widows' luncheon club, or managing the fair distribution of food aid. This was a matter for prayer (Act. 6v6) and prayer was also Nehemiah's first resort and continuing resource.

 

Nehemiah's first responses to the news from Jerusalem were to weep, mourn, fast and pray (Neh. 1v4). In his prayer he began with confession, admitting that it was through collective failure that the present situation had arisen, and then he claimed God's promises and made a specific request for his project. (Neh. 1v5-11). He then prayed as that request was being granted (Neh. 2v4), and later as the project got under way he prayed against the opposition to it (Neh. 4v4 & 9), and again when he personally was under attack (Neh. 6v9 & 14).

 

Having requested Artaxerxes' authority and not simply permission to go (Neh. 2v5), Nehemiah then asked him to supply the timber needed. The stone could presumably be reused. The manpower, indeed woman power (Neh. 3v12) for the project was a volunteer force of unskilled labour, unskilled in construction work though with other skills, as the task force included the high priest (Neh. 3v1), goldsmiths and perfumiers (Neh. 3v8), local rulers (Neh. 3v14-15), and merchants (Neh. 3v32).

 

Nehemiah's own management skills were shown in his planning of the work, bringing the whole wall up to half its height (Neh. 4v6) to avoid weak points, organising people to repair the wall outside their own homes (Neh. 3v23 & 28-30), or to work as family groups elsewhere (Neh. 3v3 & 12). He also got groups from outside Jerusalem to help.(Neh. 3v2, 5 & 18).

 

The resources are there and God given but we need to identify them - God's word (2Tim. 3v16-17), His Spirit (Is. 61v1 and 1Cor. 12v7), wisdom (Jas. 1v5), physical resources (Lk. 12v31).

 

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OVERCOMING OPPOSITION

Opposition and obstacles are to be expected on any project, especially those which God has particularly called us to and through which He wants to bring great blessings.

 

Immediately after his initial success in getting Artaxerxes' authority but before arriving in Jerusalem Nehemiah encountered opposition. Sanballat and Tobiah, governors of Samaria and Ammon were very disturbed to hear that someone was coming to promote the welfare of the Jews (Neh. 2v10), and they joined up with Geshem, an Arab leader to mock and ridicule the proposed work, and claimed that Jerusalem was rebelling again, building the walls without Artaxerxes' permission. Nehemiah's reply was to claim that God would give them success (Neh. 2v19-20). As the work began Sanballat returned bringing his army with him to ridicule and frighten the Jews (Neh. 4v1-3). Nehemiah responded in prayer, and the wall was built to half its height (Neh. 4v4-6). Opposition then mounted and the men of Ashdod joined in, and then instead of just making threatening noises they all plot together to fight against Jerusalem. Nehemiah's response is both spiritual and practical as the people pray and post a 24 hour guard.

 

Not surprisingly the people of Judea were discouraged and some found excuses not to continue (Neh. 4v10). Their enemies planned a surprise attack to kill them (Neh. 4v11) and the Jews from outside Jerusalem bring frightening stories (Neh. 4v12). Nehemiah again responded practically and prayerfully, stationing some of the people at the weakest points of the wall (Neh. 4v13) and encouraging them in prayer (Neh. 4v14). Not only was the plot frustrated but their enemies see that it was God who had given the Jews success (Neh. 4v15). The initial crisis was over but from then on Nehemiah had to take account of the possible opposition and kept half the men on guard duty (Neh. 4v16), armed the whole work force (Neh. 4v17-18), worked from dawn until dusk (Neh. 4v21) and kept the "outside contractors" permanently on site (Neh. 4v22). Nehemiah encouraged them all with the words "Our God will fight for us."

 

We may well find this kind of situation on the spiritual warfare front of a project followed by a personal attack to harm or discredit the leader. This is precisely what happened to Nehemiah. First Sanballat and his associates tried to entice him out to a meeting in a village where they could kill him (Neh. 6v1-4). After four failed attempts they tried misrepresenting the project, claiming that Nehemiah was doing it to build his own empire, and to threaten dire consequences. (Neh. 6v5-7). As it is all untrue Nehemiah could dismiss it; nevertheless he felt the pressure and prayed for strengthening. (Neh. 6v8-9).

 

Sanballat's next move was to hire false prophets, perhaps even from amongst those Nehemiah trusted, in an attempt to get him to do something which would discredit him, and consequently harm the project. (Neh. 6v10-13).

 

Nehemiah also faced opposition from within Jerusalem and Judea. The nobles of Tekoa refused to help in the work (Neh. 3v5), Noadiah and other prophets tried to intimidate him (Neh. 6v14), and some of the nobles of Judea supported Tobiah and kept telling Nehemiah how good he was (Neh. 6v19). There was also the problem of the Jews exacting usury from their own people which Nehemiah seems to have had to deal with during the actual building project (Neh. 5v1-13). Nevertheless with God's help the wall was completed in 52 days, and the Jews' enemies lost their self confidence when they realised that the work had been accomplished with God's help.

 

Another tactic apparently not used against Nehemiah, but which he perhaps forestalled when he claimed that Sanballat and his associates had no rights in Jerusalem, was used when the temple was being rebuilt. Then the Jews' enemies came to Zerubbabel and offered to help, claiming that they worshipped the same God and had been sacrificing to him since being deported to Samaria by the Assyrians. Zerubbabel countered that they had no part in the temple, and that Cyrus had commanded them alone to rebuild it. That it was not a genuine offer to help is shown by their subsequent actions to discourage the Jews and frustrate the work. (Ez. 4v1-5). That the Jews would include genuine converts is shown later when a Passover is celebrated by the returned exiles together with all who had separated themselves to seek the God of Israel. (Ez. 6v21).

 

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INVOLVING AND ENABLING THE COMMUNITY

Nehemiah heard of the people of Jerusalem's need (Neh. 1v3) and he enabled them to themselves rebuild the walls and replace the gates. Though having the authority and help of Artaxerxes Nehemiah did not rush from Susa with a building team to do the work for them, and nor was rebuilding walls Nehemiah's pet interest which he wanted to try out somewhere. He was a butler (Neh. 1v11b). Nevertheless he was of course a Jew whose ancestors were from Jerusalem, so we can see two important themes overlapping in Nehemiah.

 

First there is that of the outside aid agency enabling a community to fulfil for themselves their own aspirations, but secondly that of a manager encouraging and enabling his work force to own and carry out his plan, for it is clear that Nehemiah carefully made his own plans before explaining them to those who would carry them out (Neh. 2v11-16). Nehemiah both identified with the people he came to help, and got them to take on his plans, based on their aspirations when he said to them "You see the trouble we are in; Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burnt with fire. Come let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace." (Neh. 2v17).

 

He then encouraged them by explaining that he had both the gracious hand of God upon him, and permission and help from central government for what they wanted to do. The people's immediate reply was "Let us start rebuilding;" which they then do. (Neh. 2v18).

 

Chapter 3 lists all those who joined in the rebuilding work. It involved the whole community, not just those with relevant qualifications, and included priests, Levites, craftsmen, merchants, district rulers, local families and people from the surrounding villages. Nehemiah obviously took pains to know all his work force and gave them the credit for the work they accomplished. As already seen Nehemiah also led and encouraged the people through all the opposition they encountered, and had to deal with problems within the work force and the community. There was no overabundance of people of integrity (Neh. 7v2), and Nehemiah made do with what there was. He did not wait for spiritual renewal to be complete, for although the temple itself had already been rebuilt, spiritual renewal seems not to have come until after the walls had been rebuilt. (Neh. 8-10). Though Haggai had called the people to rebuild the temple before they could expect material blessing it seems that the physical security of the walls was needed before the people could or would seriously respond to the Law of Moses and confess their sins. In enabling the people of Jerusalem to rebuild their walls Nehemiah enabled them to go on to further action including the spiritual - but that is to go on to list the community benefits.

 

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COMMUNITY BENEFITS

 

The first two community benefits were that most people regained the physical security of having walls and gates and the psychological removal of their disgrace, the very two aspects which were first brought to Nehemiah's attention (Neh. 1v3) and which he specifically addressed. (Neh. 2v17). Though the project roused the anger and opposition of their enemies it also increased their protection from them, removed their enemies' self confidence and was a powerful witness of God at work. (Neh. 6v16).

 

Nehemiah restored confidence in the community and following the temporary work of rebuilding the walls there were then permanent jobs created for gatekeepers, singers, Levites, and a civilian guard. (Neh. 7v1-3). Houses could then be rebuilt or repaired and administrative work carried out. (Neh. 7v4-5).

 

There was also spiritual renewal as the whole population assembled to listen to the Law of Moses being read and expounded (Neh. 8v1-8). They celebrated the Feast of Booths in a way not seen since the time of Joshua (Neh. 8v14-17); they fasted and confessed their sins (Neh. 9v1-2); and they renewed their commitments to obey God. (Neh. 10v28-29).

 

But there were also disappointments for Nehemiah. When he returned to Jerusalem after an absence of some years he found that the High Priest Eliashib had let one of Sanballat's associates live illegally in the temple precincts; tithing and temple worship had been neglected; the Sabbath laws were being openly flouted, and men were marrying outside the covenant community. (Neh. 13v6-27). However such was Nehemiah's standing with the community that he was able to re-establish law and order.

 

While Nehemiah is best remembered for rebuilding the walls, something visibly spectacular, he himself asked to be remembered for this final aspect, a fruit of having rebuilt the walls, as his most important work. "So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the first fruits" (Neh. 13v30-31).

 

Together with Ezra Nehemiah established a people of the Book and of faith, no longer a kingdom, but a community from which in the fullness of God's timing the Christian church would be born.

 

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LESSONS LEARNT

There are two aspects to this - what Nehemiah and the community in Jerusalem learnt and what we can learn from studying Nehemiah's account.

 

Until we step out in faith in some initiative the head knowledge we have gained from studying Nehemiah will not be the heart knowledge of experience, and so at the end of the study we may only have reached where Nehemiah was at the beginning - waiting to hear about a situation to which we can respond. No doubt there were other things Nehemiah could have done either in Susa for the Jews still there like himself, or he could have tried to return to Jerusalem. Instead he continued his current calling of cup bearer fully and conscientiously, but open to receive God's calling when it came. Then he prayed for several months waiting for the opportunity to do something - by which time he was certain of what the Lord wanted him to do, and had a plan ready to share with Artaxerxes.

 

For the previous generation of Jews in Susa, for Mordecai and Esther, the situation and calls were different. How many years had Nehemiah been waiting patiently, working as a butler, for the call to come? Then he patiently persisted in prayer awaiting the right opportunity. He was clearly a man of faith and of prayer to begin with, and he continued to be so - he had not arrived when he arrived in Jerusalem, as that was the beginning of his problems. His faith was tested and he was called to further prayer and learnt to depend on God that He would work in the whole community, for protection from the attacks of the enemy and from discouragement, and for personal safety.

 

Nehemiah learnt of the practical aspects of making best use of limited resources, of overcoming opposition and involving the whole community. Above all we should learn that no situation is hopeless or impossible even if humanly speaking it seems so, as it must have for Nehemiah to begin with. He was a captive servant, really a slave to Artaxerxes; he had no means of getting to Jerusalem, no resources of any kind at first except prayer, and no authority or ability to do anything if he were to reach Jerusalem. He came to realise just how great God's provision was, and because he gave the credit to God instead of assuming his own abilities had triumphed, the things the Jews achieved were acknowledged even by their enemies as the work of God.

 

Clearly many members of the community shared in this learning experience as they followed Nehemiah's example and encouragement. Having seen God at work the people returned to the study of God's word under Ezra and the Law was established for all time in a way that it was not under the monarchy. Ezra should not be blamed for the later legalistic misinterpretation of the spirit of the Law by the Pharisees and Sadducees. We too should turn to make God's written word, and his Living Word, the basis for our lives.

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