Hard to pronounce names
Nehemiah 10: The sealed document bore these signatures.
The Book of God has been read and a song of invitation has been given. Now, the civil, religious, and family leaders line up to put their names on the dotted line. Once they finish, the people join in a binding oath to obey the Laws of God. It’s these signers who draw my attention today. I doubt they ever imagined that almost 2500 years later I’d be sitting here looking at their names: Mica, Bigvai, Hasshub; an entire page of names that mean only one thing to me: these are people who committed themselves to obey God. I don’t know what Adin or Beninu did for a living and I don’t know what became of their family tree. Hariph and Nebai might have built big businesses or designed impressive architecture but 2000+ years later that’s all lost to me. It’s their relationship to God that still resonates across the centuries. If the Lord tarries for 2500 more years I will, no doubt, be forgotten too and that’s okay. I’ll add my name to the only list that really matters and join these remembered people as a committed follower of the Lord.
Take Away: In the long run it’s your relationship to the Lord that matters the most.
Nehemiah 9: In your great compassion you heard and helped them again.
One result of the reading and study of God’s Word is a powerful reconnection by the returned exiles to their history. Nehemiah 9 is made up mostly of a song written to tell this story. In it, God’s grace and mercy is highlighted. The Lord is good to them, from Abram of Ur to the day when they occupied the Promised Land. However, there’s great spiritual failure as their ancestors reject God and his Law. There’s a lot of repentance in this song, but there’s also great hope. God is still their God and they rely on him to deliver them from their enemies and re-establish them in this place that was promised to Abraham so long ago. This song is not only a song of history but is a hymn of invitation as well. As it ends, the heads of the families are challenged to come forward to sign a binding pledge. From this moment forward they’ll be a faithful people of God. They’re sure of God’s grace, now they commit themselves to that grace. It’s a powerful moment. Without it, the story of Nehemiah is just about rebuilding a wall. With it, we have a story about God rebuilding a people.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his patient, merciful, transforming grace.
Nehemiah 8: This is a day holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!
Many of those listening to Ezra read and explain the Scripture this day left the land of their birth to return to this land of their ancestors. They left family and friends, security and comfort to go to an unsecured city that wasn’t a city at all; rather, it was a pile of rubble. They made the hazardous journey to Jerusalem and then braved real opposition as they labored to rebuild the wall and prepared to re-occupy the City of David. As this task is completed, a holy event is planned. Governor Nehemiah and Priest Ezra organize an event centered on the Word of the Lord. However, something unexpected happens as Ezra reads and explains the Scripture to them. These good people begin to weep and wail. The sense of celebration is replaced with a feeling of failure and fear. The leaders have to act quickly or this holy day will turn in to a day of mourning. Why is it that the people react as they do? I think it’s because they begin to grasp the enormity of their sins and that of their forefathers. Generations earlier, King Josiah responds in the same way when the Book of God is found in the Temple. As he hears it read he’s alarmed and responds in humble fear of God. There’s a place for this kind of response to God’s Word. In fact, I need to be fearful and heartbroken when I realize my sin. However, the story must never end here. The Word of God is not intended to condemn me. Instead, it’s to be for me a wonderful message of hope. I’ve failed God and should stand condemned but God is gracious and offers me hope. The bad news is that I’ve sinned against God. The good news is that he’s the God of Second Chances graciously offering me and you hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Please stand for the reading of God’s Word
Nehemiah 8: He read it…from early dawn until noon…and all the people listened.
With the Temple rebuilt and the walls providing security to the city a special gathering is scheduled. Ezra the priest stands on a specially constructed platform to read the Word of God. For three hours he reads as the people stand in honor of the Sacred Word. As Ezra reads, something powerful is happening in the lives of his listeners. In some church traditions time is set aside every service for the reading of and hearing of the Word. This isn’t the same as listening to a sermon, even if it’s well preached and faithful to the meaning of the passage being considered. This is hearing the Word simply as the Word and letting God minister his grace through it. There is, I believe, a place for the reading and hearing of Scripture in every church. We might have to shorten the singing a bit (or just lengthen the service) to make more room for Scripture. Most of us church folks claim to be “people of the Word.” Perhaps we should practice what we preach and give the reading of and listening to God’s Word a more prominent place in our services.
Take Away: The Word of the Lord is powerful – life changing – and we need to spend a significant amount of time letting it be drawn deeply into our lives.
Don’t fence me in
Nehemiah 7: The city was large and spacious with only a few people in it and the houses not yet rebuilt.
Security issues aren’t solved once the walls and gates of Jerusalem are rebuilt. The enemies of the returning Jews are still their enemies and the area is still partly untamed. Because of that Nehemiah has to create a national guard to oversee security within the walls of Jerusalem. Seeing the statement that this ancient Jerusalem “was large and spacious with only a few people in it” makes me think of the coming New Jerusalem. Leaving end days theology out of it, we still have a picture of a huge city, the city of God. This heavenly Jerusalem is even more spacious than the city Nehemiah defended. I pray that the population will not be only “a few people” but instead will be, to borrow from John the Revelator, “a vast number, more than anyone can count.”
Take Away: There’s enough room in the plans of the Lord for all of us.
When the enemy throws everything at you
Nehemiah 6: I prayed, “Give me strength.”
As the rebuilding project nears completion the enemies of Nehemiah desperately try to stop it. Since Nehemiah doesn’t fall for their “let’s meet” ploy they try slandering him. Their rumor is that Nehemiah’s about to set up a private kingdom behind the walls of Jerusalem and they threaten to send this word to Artaxerxes, himself. Nehemiah can’t stop them from their lies, but he can pray. Their next effort is to hire Shemaish son of Delaiah to pose as a prophet of God. Shemaish comes to Nehemiah pretending to be his friend. He’s heard from God that this very night people are coming to take his life. According to Shemaish, Nehemiah’s only hope is to hide in the part of the Temple reserved only for priests of God. It’s there that he’ll be safe. In spite of the credibility of this warning, Nehemiah decides that this “prophecy” doesn’t add up. For one thing, he’s not a priest and his going into that part of the Temple would be an act of desecration. Nehemiah refuses to cooperate and continues rebuilding the wall. The effort of Tobiah and Sanballat to stop Nehemiah from doing what God called him to do serves as a sort of spiritual warfare field manual for us. The enemy of our souls uses all these ploys to distract us from serving the Lord. First, they mock Nehemiah and his crew, telling them that they’ll never be able to finish what they’ve started. When that fails, they threaten them with personal violence. Next, they pretend compromise. After that there are lies and insinuation. Finally, they pretend to be the Voice of God. Nehemiah’s defenses are: a firm belief that he’s doing God’s will, absolute commitment to the task, an abundance of common sense, and lots of prayer. Fifty-two days later, Jerusalem is once again a walled city.
Take Away: The more committed you are to doing the will of the Lord the more committed his enemies will be to stop you from doing just that.
Doing a great work
Nehemiah 6: I’m doing a great work; I can’t come down.
I think this is my favorite quote from Nehemiah. His enemies have tried intimidation but Nehemiah refuses to be intimidated. Now they resort to the ploy of trying to lure him away from Jerusalem where they can do him harm. They suggest a meeting of the minds, a “friendly” get together where they can discuss their differences. Nehemiah sees it all for what it is: an attempt to stop him from doing what God called him to do. Four times they invite him to cease the work and come to their meeting and each time he sends word back, “I’m doing a great work; I can’t come down.” Not everything I do is a “great work.” Sometimes I’d be better off to put my agenda on hold and go to a meeting instead. However, if I’m sure it’s God’s work that I’m doing I too can respond in Nehemiah’s words. In fact, I ought to. This principle applies to pastors who are being used of God right where they are when the opportunity is offered to move to a more prestigious pulpit. It’s true of denominational leaders who ought to sometimes say, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I’m where God wants me to be right now.” It’s true of church people who, instead of saying, “That church down the road has a better music (children’s, teen’s, senor adult’s, etc.) program so we’re going to go there.” If you’re where God wants you to be there’s no better program or position or pulpit. Just tell ’em that you are “doing a great work and can’t come down.”
Take Away: The greatest place to be is right in the center of the will of the Lord.
Nehemiah 5: What you’re doing is wrong.
The work Nehemiah and his team is doing is physically challenging and time consuming. Not only are they working very hard, but they’re working with defense against an attack in mind so there’s also mental fatigue. Meanwhile, life goes on. These men have families to feed and bills to pay. The work on wall is vitally important but there’s no income from it. To make ends meet, they go to the local business men for loans. In spite of the fact that the restoration of the wall is to everyone’s benefit the loan sharks take advantage of the problem faced by the workers. When Nehemiah learns what’s happening he’s furious. He calls for a meeting and reads the riot act to these financial predators. Both the fear of the Lord and fear of Nehemiah takes hold and the gouging of the workmen stops immediately. What a situation! The workers face the challenging task of rebuilding, the threats of their enemies, and the greedy business practices of their fellow Jews. In some ways, this is the unkindest cut of all. Yet it often happens, even within the church. As many pull together to accomplish some worthy goal there are those who can’t see the big picture because they’re blinded by their own agenda. When that happens those doing the real work are distracted or discouraged from their task. Nehemiah dealt with this problem head on. Our tendency is to just try to work through stuff like this. Sometimes that’s probably best, but not always. I pray that the Lord will give us wisdom to know when Nehemiah’s course of action is necessary and then help us to follow it.
Take Away: If we ignore some problems they will go away, but not always. Sometimes leaders have to deal with issues head on.
Preparedness and perseverance
Nehemiah 4: The common laborers held a tool in one hand and a spear in the other.
Nehemiah thinks the threats of his enemies to attack the builders are more than just hot air. Prayer is backed up by planning. He stations armed guards, divides the work crew up into builders and defenders, and distributes weapons to every worker. He also assigns trumpeters to each work crew so that they can quickly call for help if an attack comes. Some are given double duty: they’re guards at night and workmen by day. They sleep in their clothes with weapons at hand. A key phrase is: “and so we kept working.” Nehemiah and his crew’s commitment to the task is impressive. Even without the threat of an attack their job is a daunting one as they attempt to build a great wall out of rubble. Great accomplishments often include working through opposition and discouragement. It might be said that the greater the goal the more difficult the task. How do I respond in such situations? Do I work with “a tool in one hand and a spear in the other” or do I decide it’s too hard and find an easier route? Nehemiah’s story teaches us the importance of preparedness and perseverance.
Take Away: Preparedness, perseverance, and prayerfulness: these three are keys to accomplishing great things in the Name of the Lord.
The real work
Nehemiah 4: We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
The enemies of Nehemiah and his rebuilding project first try to discourage the workers by making fun of their effort. When that doesn’t work they begin to prepare for more concrete action, or at least threaten an attack. Nehemiah takes this threat seriously and organizes two defense efforts. One is to post guards to keep watch. The other is to organize prayer. This reliance on prayer isn’t unusual for Nehemiah at all. Often we find him responding to problems by praying. While posting guards is a practical thing to do, I think the most practical thing he does is to pray. I tend to treat prayer as a last ditch effort to be used when all else has failed, or something to be done by people who are unable for some reason to get involved in the “real work.” Know what? It’s prayer that’s the real work. Nehemiah goes ahead and arms the workers for self-defense but the attack never comes. The reason is that he and his team first countered the threat with prayer. Thank God for prayer “warriors” who fight and win battles in prayer.
Take Away: Its prayer that’s the real work.