Scriptures

44. Nehemiah, Quite A Character

Introduction

By Justin Boitnott

Prelude

Our story begins with Nehemiah working as royal cupbearer in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes. Why was he living in a foreign land? About 140 years earlier, the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem, desecrated and destroyed the Temple, carried off all the wealth of Judah, and had carried back the majority of the people to Babylon as slaves.

In Psalm 137, we read a poem written by one of these Babylonian captives. The poem begins with the author having just arrived in Babylon with a large group of other recent Jewish captives. Their long journey of marching 800 miles had just come to a conclusion as they finally arrive in the Babylonian city.

They were likely exhausted, overheated, sweaty, dirty, and had been subjected to constant verbal and physical abuse along that journey by their Babylonian guards.

‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. ‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’ Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.’ Psalm 137:1-9

Despite the 2600 years that separate us and this author, notice the beautifully poetic sorrow in these words.

What would be some of the challenges living in Babylon as a Jewish captive?

What would this captivity do to their confidence?

Their spiritual walk? Their national psyche?

Pay particular attention to verse 9. How does this verse make you feel?

Why is this verse in the Bible?

Is this verse included because it is prescriptive (that is, commanded by God) or because it is descriptive (that is, describing human tendencies and feelings)?

It seems that this verse is merely a crude way of describing the deep hatred and desire for vengeance felt by this Jewish author toward his captors.

Act 1. Nehemiah In A Foreign Land

Our story begins about 140 years after the initial Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the writing of Psalm 137. Much has occurred in the intervening years.

For one, Babylon itself had fallen to the Medo-Persian Empire, led by a wise ruler named Cyrus the Great (an event recorded in Daniel 5). Cyrus has been called the ‘Father of Human Rights,’ and his long rule was notable for his leniency to all the slaves the Babylonians had acquired throughout their violent rule.

He is also the first recorded ruler in world history to allow ‘self-determination,’ that is, allowing the captives and non-Persian citizens under his new empire to decide for themselves if they wished to remain members of his Persian empire or to gain their independence.

(Fun fact: Cyrus’ philosophy on self-determination was utilised by Thomas Jefferson, who was an avid admirer of Cyrus, while drafting the Declaration of Independence).

‘King Darius then issued an order, and they searched in the archives stored in the treasury at Babylon. A scroll was found in the citadel of Ecbatana in the province of Media, and this was written on it: Memorandum: In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. It is to be sixty cubits high and sixty cubits wide, with three courses of large stones and one of timbers. The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God.’ Ezra 6:1-5

The Jews were part of this new program of leniency and independence under King Cyrus. In Ezra 6, we read of a decree by Cyrus to allow the return of the Jews to their homeland as well as a command to rebuild the Temple.

However, the Jewish return to their homeland and the Temple rebuilding process did not occur all at once. Instead, it took many decades of the Jews trickling back to Judah and slowly rebuilding the Temple.

However, even with the Temple rebuilding process nearing its completion, most of Jerusalem still lay in ruins and the city walls had not been rebuilt. It is at this point that Nehemiah enters the scene. Cyrus the Great has died, and there is also a new ruler, King Artaxerxes I, who sits on the throne. King Artaxerxes has allowed the rebuilding process to continue.

Read Nehemiah 1, which is a prayer of Nehemiah upon learning that despite the Temple rebuilding progress, the city of Jerusalem is still largely in ruins.

Is it possible to roughly divide this prayer into a few parts and/or themes?

What parts do you see in this prayer?

‘In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’ I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’ Nehemiah 2:1-5

Pay attention to verse 4. Why did Nehemiah pray to God?

What emotions was he going through in that moment?

How long could this prayer have actually lasted, given that he prays it in the middle of a conversation with the king?

The Bible has much to say about prayer life. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to ‘pray without ceasing.’ Mark 1:35 tells us that Jesus often arose early in the morning and went off by himself to pray.

What other verses or examples can you think of that describe a proper prayer life?

Compare Nehemiah’s very short prayer in Nehemiah 2:4 with his longer prayer in Nehemiah 1.

Although we don’t have his actual prayer from Nehemiah 2 recorded, what do you think would be the similarities and differences between the two prayers?

The king granted Nehemiah’s request and gave him authority to begin to rebuild of the city of Jerusalem. The king gave him soldiers and royal decree papers to be able to enforce this decree.

Act 2. To the Work!

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he inspected the walls and saw that, quite frankly, everything was a mess.

‘Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So, they began this good work.’ Nehemiah 2:17-18

Have you ever been confronted by a seemingly insurmountable task?

How did you feel at the beginning of that task?

How did Nehemiah respond to his task?

How long did it take Nehemiah to begin his task?

It was not long at all before Nehemiah’s job met with opposition and hostility.

‘But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?’ Nehemiah 2:19

‘When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, ‘What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?’ Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!’ Nehemiah 4:1-3

‘But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.’ Nehemiah 4:7-9

‘Also, our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.’ Nehemiah 4:11

‘When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates—Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm me; so, I sent messengers to them with this reply: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: ‘It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so, come, let us meet together.’ I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’ But I prayed, ‘Now strengthen my hands.’ One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, ‘Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you—by night they are coming to kill you.’ Nehemiah 6:1-10

What motivated these opponents of Nehemiah?

Have you ever met opposition when undertaking a large task?

What motivated this opposition?

How did Nehemiah respond to this opposition?

‘Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders. So, we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.’ Nehemiah 4:4-6

‘Therefore, I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.’ When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work. From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armour. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me. Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!’ So, we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out.’ Nehemiah 4:13-21

Nehemiah prayed and worked, Nehemiah and the people stayed vigilant.

How much time was spent responding to their enemies and fighting their enemies?

How much time was spent rebuilding the wall?

‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him.’ Proverbs 26:4

Do you think this verse applies here?

The wall is finally finished in Nehemiah 6:15. Throughout this process we see three key things that Nehemiah and the people did:

1. Nehemiah prayed. Nehemiah 4:4.

2. Nehemiah took proper steps to defend against attacks but did not escalate or directly confront his enemies. Nehemiah 4:16-17.

3. Most importantly of all, he and the people worked tirelessly from dawn to dusk with tools in one hand and weapons in the other. Nehemiah 4:21.

How do we apply these concepts to our lives today?

Our elders have recently set a goal to intentionally, 1. Disciple/mentor each other within our congregation, 2. Grow our congregation to 500 souls by 2025, particularly in our community area, and 3. work and performs acts of service, particularly serving the greater community area.

Although we are not going to be rebuilding the walls of a city, what are some of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that we will confront on this process of reaching out and evangelising in our area?

What are you doing to help in this effort, and/or how can you help in this effort?

Act 3. Nehemiah As Leader

‘Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’ Others were saying, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’ Still others were saying, ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’ When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest!’ So, I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: ‘As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!’ They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. So, I continued, ‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.’ ‘We will give it back,’ they said. ‘And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.’ Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.’ Nehemiah 5:1-12

Why was Nehemiah so upset about this?

Not only were the rich taking advantage of the poor (even to the point of forcing them into slavery to pay off their debts!) but this was also a violation of the Mosaic law, Exodus 22:25 / Leviticus 25:35-37.

How did the people respond to Nehemiah’s rebuke?

What does this say about their opinion of Nehemiah?

‘Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. Remember me with favour, my God, for all I have done for these people.’ Nehemiah 5:14-19

What do you think of this leadership style?

What is our natural tendency when we acquire leadership roles? Mark 10:42-45.

In addition to his role ruling for 12 years as governor of the territory for King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah also had an impact on the moral reformation of the people. Ezra, a contemporary of Nehemiah, read the Book of the Law to the entirety of population of Judah in one day, Nehemiah 8.

The people had many spiritual problems, not the least of which was intermarriage with Gentiles. This even included the priestly tribe of Levi intermarrying with Gentiles. This problem was partly addressed by Ezra in Ezra 9-10. However, there were other spiritual reforms needed.

Read Nehemiah 13:10-31.

What were the other spiritual issues which needed correction?

How did Nehemiah react to these problems?

How did Nehemiah enforce these changes?

What do you think of Nehemiah’s very physical response, particularly in v. 25?

Do you think Nehemiah’s approach was approved by God?

(Biblical scholars are divided in opinion on whether Nehemiah’s ‘strong-handed’ approach was by divine directive or not).

Conclusion

Remember those tired, exhausted, defeated captives weeping by the shores of Babylon from Psalm 137?

In many ways, the story of Nehemiah represents the culmination of all those hopes from the very beginning of the Babylonian captivity to finally return to Jerusalem and see the Temple restored.

Have you ever experienced heartache or catastrophic loss?

Did it ever feel that there would be reprieve from your suffering?

What can the story of Nehemiah tell us about restoration and God’s plan in our lives?

What can we learn about triumphing through adversity?

Nehemiah’s story ultimately represents victory for God’s people and a re-dedication to Jehovah after all the generations of apostasy and worship of other gods. However, Nehemiah’s success did not come easily and required constant vigilance and hard work.

What can you do in your life this week, this month, this year to help Christ’s kingdom grow?

In what ways or areas must we work hard and be vigilant?

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."

Isaiah 40:31

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