Friday, May 9. Nehemiah 9 – 11

Throughout scripture there are a number of prayers. The largest collection of them, of course, is in the Psalms. Some simply are parts of collections of prayers and serve as examples of how God’s people have prayed throughout time. Others, particularly those in the historical narratives, serve a variety of other purposes. They can underscore the character of the Pray-er. They can also tell us something about the God who has been prayed to.

Four particular prayers in the historical narratives have something in common: they are prose prayers of confession and specifically use the word “confession” in their presentation. Each of these tells us something about the God being worshipped.

One of those prayers is in Nehemiah 9. You see there the long-suffering of God is emphasized. On the basis of this long-suffering, the Jews determine to renew their covenant with the Lord in chapter 10.

You would think, given some of the ethical problems presented in the book thus far, that their promises would include commitments not to steal or gossip or oppress one another. They do not. Instead, the promises have to do with the religious activities of Israel: to maintain religious purity, observe the sabbath and laws about sacrifices and offerings and, in general, a promise to keep the religion of Israel alive.

Put in modern (and Christian) terms, the promises are like committing to not marry non-Christians, attend church each Sunday, give generously to support the works of the church, observe the Lord’s Supper, and make sure the church is taking care of the poor, and keep the building clean and the bathrooms sufficiently stocked with paper towels and soap.

None of these things typically rank high on our scale of Christian “duties.” Why were they so important to Israel? We could answer that this is an example of people who had their priorities wrong, or folks who were committed, but didn’t know how to be committed.

But that’s not the presentation here. These people understand that the focus of their lives is held in place by a proper response to worship, and corporate worship at that. Notice that this renewal of commitment is not an individual renewal, but a community-wide renewal undertaken by the leaders in behalf of those they led. It is a corporate affirmation of dedication. When the body of Christ is inattentive to the religion of the body, the parts of the body will forget they are first and foremost a community, that they are the community of God, and that they have responsibilities as a community to serve the Lord. Church is where these ideals are affirmed and reaffirmed, in rituals specified by God.

Thursday, May 8. Nehemiah 6 – 8

In Ezra 4 we noted the opposition of surrounding nations to the rebuilding of Jerusalem during the time of Darius (ruled 522 – 486 B.C.). Then, in the same chapter, we learn that this persecution and opposition continued well into the reign of Artaxerxes (ruled 465 – 424 B.C.).

Rebuilding Jerusalem, at least the wall anyway, was forbidden by the royal decree of the Persians. It continued to the 20th year of Artaxerxes (445 B.C.) when Nehemiah was specifically commissioned to get the work done. But even royal decree couldn’t insure against conflict.

Sanballet was the governor of Samaria. Tobiah is a powerful figure in the region of Ammon. Geshem is the ruler of Moab, Edom and parts of Arabia extending toward Egypt. Jerusalem and Judah is virtually encircled and these men exerted powerful influence among the Jews. Tobiah had married the daughter of Shecaniah, whose identity is somewhat obscure. The name is one of the priestly divisions created by David as well as the name of a priest during the days of Hezekiah. His son also married the daughter of Meshullam who was also likely related to the Levites. These connections help explain how he could have access to a storage room in the temple (see Nehemiah 13).

The pressure on Nehemiah must have been great. Four times these men, with military armies at their disposal, sent him “orders” to meet them at the plain of Ono, half way between Jerusalem and Samaria– which Nehemiah refused.

Sanballet then sends an unsealed letter, calculated to feed the curiosity of the messengers and be spread throughout the area, stirring up trouble for Nehemiah. Shemiah, possibly also of the priestly family, tried to scare Nehemiah into taking refuge in the temple to avoid assassination. Nehemiah, not being a priest, would have committed sacrilege by doing so (remember King Uzziah – 2 Chronicles 26:16ff).

Nehemiah focused on the task at hand and refused to be deterred. The result was the completion of the wall of Jerusalem in fifty-two days.

We cannot always be guaranteed the protection Nehemiah received during these difficult times, but the lesson here is not that if we are followers of the Lord nothing bad will happen to us. The message is that we must be followers of the will of God even if bad things could happen to us as a result.

Wednesday, October 9. Nehemiah 11 – 13

As we come to the end of Nehemiah – and in just a bit, the Old Testament – I am struck by the question: “How do you get people to be obedient to God?”

Ezra seems to have been a reticent fellow, but highly respected. When he heard about Israel’s intermarriage with the Canaanites, he pulled the hair from his own head and beard, tore his clothes, sat down appalled and prayed. His actions had only moderate success, for the people were at least embarrassed and repented.

Their repentance however was not whole-hearted. A generation later, they were guilty of the same things again – and even more. They used the temple of the lord as a storage rental facility, refused to support the Levites so that the work of worship in the temple could be carried on, and once again intermarried with non-Israelites. Nehemiah was not inclined to do himself harm to get people to change, so he pulled out the hair from the heads and beards of the offenders. But it didn’t change things.

You can make people sit in the broiling sun outside the city gate to force them to keep the Sabbath, but that won’t make them Sabbath observers. In the end, the only way to effect real change is to change people’s hearts. God will attempt to do this by sending Jesus to die in behalf of mankind, but it will not be a rousing success. In the end though, that’s the secret. When you change people’s hearts, you change their lives. It’s really the only way.

Tuesday, October 8. Nehemiah 8 – 10

In the seventh month of the year, the law prescribed an assembly to observe the “Feast of Trumpets.” Ezra used that occasion to read before the people the law of the Lord – which made them sad because they recognized how greatly they had failed to live up to it.

In their second day of Bible study, Ezra got to the part of observing the Feast of Tabernacles and, realizing how long it had been since such a feast had been observed, preparations were made for it. It was to be a week-long affair, but the revival meeting didn’t end on time. Some were so engrossed in what they were learning that they stayed beyond the twenty-second day. Considering all they had been through, it seemed an appropriate time to renew their commitment to God.

In Chapter nine, we have the preamble of their commitment. It rehearses Israel’s past to their present time, and in reading it several things are striking. First, it mentions nothing of the sins of the worshipers. It mostly refers to the sins of their forefathers. They are not saying: ‘our forefathers were bad, but we are not.’ They were connecting their lives to those of their forefathers. They recognized Israel’s status as a community.

Christian people are prone to “beginning anew” far too often. Churches split and new groups are formed (note the proliferation of “Bible” churches that maintain a distinction from their theological forebears). But we all have a common heritage, and no matter the failings of previous generations, we are one with them and we are who we are because of them. We cannot begin without their influence – which is why we so often fall back into the sins of old. We never learned their lessons.

But second, notice how God is described. He is the life-giving creator, the covenant maker and promise keeper. He is the compassionate deliverer and benevolent law-giver – all traits that show up in how He treats sinful Israel.

On the basis of what they know about God, and what they know about their past and present, Israel is moved to repentance and making a new commitment to God (chapter ten).

Monday, October 7. Nehemiah 5 – 7

It took fifty-two days for the workers to complete restoring the wall around Jerusalem, but it wasn’t an easy build – for a variety of reasons. First, there was the opposition from surrounding nations. Despite that fact that Artaxerxes had given his approval and obvious support, leading figures outside of Israel determined to stop the building. Second, surprisingly, there was the opposition of the leaders of Israel. The previous generation had come from Babylon to begin afresh and carve out for themselves success in a new land – at least, new to them. They had succeeded through hard work and careful alliances with non-Jewish neighbors around them. They did not want to risk their positions and fortunes by upsetting the balance of power. Those who succeeded most wanted the least to do with the building (note that the nobles had refused to be involved in chapter three).

Then, there was the sheer difficulty of the work itself. Not only were they trying to do things outside their skill level (note the participation of goldsmiths – jewelers – women and priests), but they built with one hand and carried a weapon against attack with another. Finally, in building, it took people away from their normal jobs when many of them were living “hand to mouth” already.

The complaint comes in chapter five from those working diligently, but who have mortgaged everything they have just to stay in business. And they have mortgaged their assets to the more successful – politicians and businessmen – who have, in turn, seized their assets by loaning money at such high interest rates that the debtors cannot pay.

You can’t say, “it’s just business.” In Israel, no one was allowed to take advantage of another’s misfortune. Not even the land could be sold forever. Every seventh year, it had to be returned to its original owner. We look at this today and note that it violates our ideas of a free-market economy, but this economic way of thinking is not God’s. God is most concerned that the needy are cared for – and that the rich care for them. Nehemiah is a delightful example. As governor, he was not a “taker.” He was a “giver.”

Sunday, October 6. Nehemiah 1 – 4

Nehemiah chapter two takes us to about the year 444 B.C. It has been nearly a hundred years since the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile and seventy years since the temple had been completed. And yet, the city of Jerusalem itself remained a burned hulk of its former self.

Why was it important to rebuild the city, especially the city wall? And why had it not been done?

The return to Jerusalem had been a religious one, ostensibly simply to rebuild the temple and re-establish the national religion. There was, of course, opposition to this from surrounding nations because Israel was a theocracy. If she established her religion, she would re-establish her national identity. To mitigate this result, the nations, forbidden to oppose the temple building, kept the city from being rebuilt. A nation without a capital would never be much of a threat.

Failure to rebuild the city however meant that the Jews would be absorbed into the surrounding nations, and the national identity of God’s chosen would be lost. In fact, with the intermarriage with the people of the land (a subject which crops up again in Nehemiah), Israel was well on its way out of existence.

Fortunately, God had raised up the right man to change all this: Nehemiah. Like Joseph of old, and despite the deep seated antisemitism of the time, he had risen to a place of power and trusted prominence in the Persian empire. Now, trusting only in the Lord, he made a bold request: a twelve year sabbatical, full salary, and funding to rebuild the capital of a nation that had once been an enemy of the empire.

His request was granted.

An old saying goes: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always the same.” But Nehemiah had confidence. He knew it was the right thing to do. He knew it needed to be done. He knew it was the Lord’s will. He just didn’t know if he was the right guy to pull it off. So he prayed, and tried, and God blessed him. What blessings the Lord will give to those who step out of their comfort zone to do His will! If we only have faith.

Monday, October 8. Nehemiah 11 – 13

    It is critically important to Israel that her priesthood and their functions be maintained.  David had divided the priesthood into twelve sections, each taking a turn at serving in the temple.  As chapter twelve opens, we are given the list of the leaders of the priesthood (vss.  1-7) when Zerubbabel returned.  A generation later, we have another list (vss.  12 – 21).  These are not all the priests who served during Nehemiah’s time, but there are some connections.  The priests during Nehemiah’s time are listed in 10:2-8.  The whole idea of the presentation is that the reader understand records were kept and the proper people where appointed to lead in the worship of God.

    Chapter twelve is also when the wall is dedicated.  Great pageantry filled the ceremony as half the worshipers, led by Ezra, began to walk one way along the wall.  The other half of the worshipers went the other way along the wall.  Note that Ezra the priest leads the first group, but Nehemiah, not a priest, but a governor, does not lead the other group.  He is preceded by the singers.  You get the feeling that he planned this celebration, but he recognizes his place in God’s scheme of things.  He may have the power to enforce the spiritual demeanor of Israel, but he is not the spiritual leader.

    Think seriously about this great occasion.  It required substantial practice and planning.  It wasn’t done “off the cuff.”  Just because something is to be heart-felt doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done with forethought and planning.  From public prayer to scripture reading to preaching to singing to presiding at the Lord’s Supper, these are all important occasions in worship.  They should not be done without careful consideration to what is being said and done, and who is doing the leading.

Sunday, October 7. Nehemiah 7 – 10

The temple has been built for fifty years, but little has been done with it.  Ezra was a righteous man who knew the law, but he lacked the motivational ability to set everything in order as it should be.  Additionally, even if the temple was rebuilt, few people lived in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t a habitable place, mainly because it lacked the security of a proper city.

    Nehemiah, through his commanding presence, righteous example, and political authority accomplishes in fifty-two days what no one else has been able to do in over sixty years.  I don’t want to leave out here the success insuring power of God, but that same power has been present in the lives of Zerubbabel and Ezra – but this sort of success has not been their’s.

    This is worth considering.  Sometimes, accomplishments are delayed because their completion must be on God’s timetable, not man’s.  I realize Paul’s statement that in his own weaknesses he was made strong because of the presence of God, but it is nevertheless true that God chose Paul separate from the twelve apostles, and that the gospel never went anywhere as well as when Paul took it.  Sometimes God uses what He has.  Sometimes, God raises up who He needs.  For whatever reason, success has been delayed in Israel until the days of Nehemiah, but as we shall see, these successes are only cosmetic.

    It remains to populate the city of Jerusalem, which will occur in chapter eleven.  But Nehemiah wants to be sure the city is populated with God’s people, not Canaanites.  And so, he begins with the genealogical record of the first returnees.  From there, he will look for volunteers to live in Jerusalem from their descendants.  This is why the bulk of chapter seven is but a repeat of the list in Ezra 2.

Saturday, October 6. Nehemiah 3 – 6

    The material from chapter three through chapter six covers only fifty-two days – the length of time it took to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.  Nehemiah’s account begins with a listing of who did the work, going around the wall, beginning and ending with the sheep gate. I’ve included the following diagram of the building of the wall, taken from Derek Kidner’s Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series).

    For the modern reader, chapter three is a rather tedious list of people we don’t know, and we’re tempted to ask why this much detail was preserved for us.  Ezra and Nehemiah, however, appear to be official accounts and it would be necessary to be specific in such an important document.

    While the building of the wall is not exactly an account of whole-hearted unanimity in Israel, it does tell us support was wide-spread.  A few of the rich and powerful opposed it, but there were many others who joined in the work.  Among them were Shallum and Rephaiah, sons of the two rulers in Jerusalem, Shallun (whose father ruled in Mizpah – 7 mi.  north of Jerusalem), Malkijah (whose father was ruler of Beth Hakkerem – 5 miles south of Jerusalem).  People from a variety of occupations (and both sexes) participated – priests, jewelry makers, perfume makers, and merchants – most of whom were not builders.  And people came from some distances – Jericho Keilah, and Beth Zur were twenty miles away, Tekoah and Zanoah fifteen miles away.

    All in all, that such inexperienced people could come, and did come, amid tremendous opposition (recounted in chapters 4-5), and rebuild this wall, eight feet thick and some three miles long, is a testimony to what can be accomplished when the people of God work together for the glory of the Lord.

Reading Through the Bible, Tuesday, May 10. Nehemiah 11-13

    You can’t lead the people of God without candid confrontation.  The history of God’s people is that they are a stubborn lot, easily susceptible to the influences of the world.  The great revival of Nehemiah and Ezra did not last.  Without a tight reign by faithful leadership, God’s people would go back to living like the world around them.

    You see this again at the end of Nehemiah.

    After twelve years of service, Nehemiah returned to his Persian master in Babylon and while he was away, the priests rented rooms in the temple for a storage facility, the people ignored their responsibility to the priests, and everybody ignored the Law.

    Nehemiah dealt candidly with the people, and sometimes he was tough.  I think Nehemiah felt the pressure of being strict on adults (who were God’s people after all) in his own conscience.  After all, we’d all like to seem more kind, more gracious and more loving.  Disciplining even a rebellious people can make you have second thoughts about how you are dealing with them.  And so, throughout the book that bears his name, Nehemiah offers a number of prayers for himself, asking God to “remember” that he was just trying to do good (5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29).

    Faithful leaders exercise their responsibility with the authority of God, but temper it with the knowledge that they too must submit to God’s hand.