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.
The Dung Gate
Nehemiah 3: The Dung Gate itself was rebuilt by Malkijah son of Recab.
As the work begins on the big wall rebuilding project, Nehemiah, as general contractor, takes us on a tour of the job site. This is a huge undertaking so he’s organized the leading families of Jerusalem to take on different sections of the wall, including some who are rebuilding the gates to the city. We meet Hanun and his team who are rebuilding the Valley Gate and then we come to Malkijah and his crew. Malkijah is an important person among the returned exiles; in fact, he’s the mayor of the nearby district of Beth Hakkerem.
Just a second, it looks as though Malkijah is taking a short break, maybe we can have a word with him, “Excuse me, your honor, do you have a second?”
“Sure, but not long mind you; there’s work to be done.”
“Being such an important person in Jerusalem, I imagine you have an important gate to rebuild. So tell me about this gate…is it one of the historic royal gates, used only for the king?”
He smiles and shakes his head.
“Maybe it’s used for religious purposes, like the Sheep Gate…or for commerce?”
Malkijah grins at us, “This, my friends, is none other than the Dung Gate.”
We’re somewhat taken back by this. “Do you mean this gate is primarily used for human waste disposal?” We’re surprised that this important man is rebuilding such a lowly gate.
Then Malkijah son of Recab, mayor of Beth Hakkerem says, “But it is an important gate – it’s important because it’s being rebuilt in the Name of the Lord. Anything you do in his Name is a worthy effort.”
As we rejoin the tour we find ourselves thinking about our attitude toward some of the more lowly things we do in the Name of the Lord.
Take Away: If the Lord gives us a task, for us, that task is the most important one in the world.
With God’s help anything is possible
Nehemiah 2: The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah quietly inspects the walls of the city. Well, it might be better said that he inspects the ruins of the city walls. They were demolished decades earlier. He meets with city leaders and proposes that the next big project be rebuilding those walls and gains their enthusiastic support. As word of this project spreads, we meet Nehemiah’s three adversaries: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men are leaders of the area’s non-Jewish residents and they oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. There’s likely a power struggle here. At first, the returning Jews brought welcome capital and man power to the area, but now they threaten to become its dominant residents once again. Nehemiah’s reply to them is that in spite of the overwhelming task before them and even in spite of the opposition of these three men that he’s assured of success. The reason is that he is doing God’s work and that God, Himself, will bring them success. As I hear this declaration of faith from a man standing in the rubble of a city I’m impressed with his absolute trust in God. This isn’t some “pie in the sky” situation; this is real work in the most unlikely of circumstances and with real and powerful opposition. Nehemiah doesn’t think he can rebuild the wall because he’s going to try real hard or because he’s going to outsmart his enemies. He’s going to do it because God’s there to help them. There’s a good lesson here for me in all I attempt to do in the name of the Lord.
Take Away: If it’s up to me the chances of success are nominal. If I’m doing God’s work God’s way, the chances of success are 100 percent.
Two sides of the same coin
Nehemiah 1: The wall of Jerusalem is still rubble; the city gates are still cinders.
The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are actually two sides of the same coin. Ezra returns to Jerusalem as priest and teacher. His mission is to reestablish worship and teach God’s Law to the returned exiles there. Nehemiah returns as a builder. He brings building and organizational skills to bear on the pile of rubble that is Jerusalem. Together these two men are used by God to accomplish a fresh start for the people of Israel. If I’m ever tempted to divide “sacred” from “secular” in my life I need to spend some time thinking about Ezra and Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s work is every bit as necessary and Spirit-driven as is that of Ezra. When Nehemiah hears of the conditions in distant Jerusalem he immediately prepares to do something about it; not by organizing work crews and accumulating building materials, but by praying. As God’s people, everything we do, even building walls, is done “unto the Lord” and therefore, falls under the “sacred” category.
Take Away: Everything we do as a people of the Lord has a sacred flavor to it.