Nehemiah 10

“Because of all this we are entering into a binding covenant in written form; our leaders, our Levites, and our priests have affixed their names on the sealed document.” Nehemiah 9:38

The reading and teaching of God’s law exposed how far the Israelites had strayed from God’s commands, they responded by confessing their sins and now they renew their covenant with God which reveals their genuine repentance. They write an agreement which their leaders sign and the remaining Israelites swear an oath to follow God’s commands in these specific areas. This is not a new covenant with new laws; the Israelites are renewing the Covenant that God made with them and their ancestors at Mount Sinai.

They agree that they would do the following things:

  • They will not marry their sons and daughters to non-Jewish neighbors (10:30),
  • They will observe the Sabbath (10:31),
  • They will observe every seventh year as a Sabbath year for the land and debts (10:31),
  • They will pay the Temple tax (10:32, 33),
  • They will supply wood for the burnt offerings in the Temple (10:34),
  • They will pay their tithe to the Temple (10:35-38).

“If God’s chosen people were going to witness for him in a pagan world, they needed united, God-fearing families. They also needed to avoid any enticements to worship the idols of the people who lived around them. This was why God prohibited marriage between Israelites and the pagan inhabitants of the land. But Israelites and pagans often intermarried anyway, and the results were disastrous for the families and for the nation. Time after time, marrying foreigners led God’s people into idolatry. Whenever the nation turned its back on God, it also lost its prosperity and influence for good”. LIFE Application

“When you drift in a boat you often don’t even notice that you have moved. It is so easy for us to drift from walking in the light of God’s truth”. The Israelites had drifted away from God’s commands; they like their ancestors made marriage alliances with their pagan neighbors and did not realize how far they were from God’s intended purpose. This was also true about the Sabbath observance; one of the consequences of Israel’s sin was that they no longer had control over who lived and operated in the province. Their non-Jewish neighbors brought their goods into Jerusalem to sell on the Sabbath, the Israelites were tempted to participate to both buy and sell on the Sabbath. God set up the Sabbath as a reminder of His special relationship with the Israelites; they were to behave differently than the nations that surrounded them. This is a visible sign, the Sabbath rest, which reflected the image and character of God. God set a rhythm of life in creation and His people should adopt this same rhythm in their work and rest.

“The promise to stop the sin of trading inside the city on the Sabbath was an application of the fourth commandment. The people recognized that the lure of money would conflict with the need for a day of rest, keeping the Sabbath holy. By deciding to honor God first, the Israelites would be refusing to make money their god. Our culture often makes us choose between convenience and profit on the one hand, and putting God first on the other. Look at your work and worship habits: Is God really first?” LIFE Application

God’s Sabbath command was that no one was to work on the 7th day of the week, because God set that day apart as holy. Notice how different this was to the pagans around them, everyone rested, even their sons and daughters, their servants and their animals. This rhythm of work and rest that God built into creation was not just another day off, it is a day for worship and to remember the goodness of God. The Sabbath was both a command and a gift. Jesus reminds of this gift saying, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.  For this reason the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

“We exhale all week long as we give of ourselves to our jobs, families, and other responsibilities. When we practice a rhythm of Sabbath restfulness, we inhale rest, joy, and delight, and we exhale tension, worry, and grief”. The Foundry Publishing blog 

Here’s some ideas for Sabbath practices, surrender to God your worries; exhale your worry, inhale God’s peace. Celebrate you accomplishments, exhale your to do list, leave that list for the next day. Enjoy your day, do the things that refresh you, that promote peace and fill your time with those you love.

The Israelites also committed to apply the Sabbath rest to the land that God gave them. “We will let the fields lie fallow every seventh year, and we will cancel every loan”.  These limitations make us nervous, but God provided for the land as well as the people. He commanded that every 7th year the land must lie fallow, but He also promised that they could eat from the land and that He would provide for their needs during this Sabbath year.

Additionally, the Jews were to cancel the outstanding debts of their fellow Jews in the 7th year. God’s plan was that the Israelites would keep short accounts with their fellow Jews; this would prohibit unending generational debt that would force them to sell their children into slavery.  It also kept the tribal lands in the possession of the Israelites that God gave as an inheritance.  God promised that if they carefully followed His commandments, “there should not be any poor among you, for the LORD will surely bless you in the land that he is giving you as an inheritance.”

“Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years”. Leviticus 25:18-21

The Israelites also promised to pay the Temple tax of a third of a shekel each year; this was the funds that the Levites used to maintain the Bread on the table of Presence, for making various offerings, for celebrating monthly and annual festivals and for their other duties. The Israelites also promised to supply the needed wood for the sacrifices which burned continually.

The Israelites promised to bring their first-fruits of the land, every fruit tree, grain harvest, olive oil press and wine, to the Temple as an offering to the LORD. The first tenth of the harvest, the best and the sweetest was dedicated to God; also the firstborn of their sons, the cattle and their flocks belonged to the LORD.

“This practice was instituted at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. The people needed to relearn the importance of dedicating the first part of their yield to God. Nehemiah was simply reinstating this practice from the early days of the nation. Although this principle was not carried over to New Testament times, the concept of giving God the first portion of our time, treasure, and talent still remains”. LIFE Application

The priests and Levites collected the tithe from the Israelites, and from that collection they tithed one tenth to the Temple of the LORD, to the storerooms and treasury. The remainder of the harvest collection was for the Levites, priests and their families to eat, this was their wages for their service in the Temple.

“There, then, are the goals for successful living. That is what both Testaments teach us. Let me review them quickly for you:

Marry in the faith. Do not choose a mate who does not know the Lord. Learn to work and live out of rest. Learn that God will pick up what you do and use it far greater than you were able to do. Expect him to do so and rest on that fact. Do not strain or worry, and feel it all depends on you to produce success. Frequently remind yourself of the cost of your redemption. Do not forget the precious blood of Jesus. We are all sinners by nature. We have not done anything that can make us acceptable to God, but we have acceptance because of the blood of Jesus. Daily remember that you are not your own. We are responsible to the Lord to follow His guidelines, to obey His words, and to honor him. Support the ministry out of gratitude — do so out of a sense of blessing and thanksgiving. And, finally, do not neglect meeting with others for mutual support, worship and prayer. That is the way to make a success of the Christian life. How wonderfully practical it is!” JOY of Living notes on Nehemiah 10

Nehemiah 9

One day after the conclusion of the Feast of the Tabernacles the Israelites “separated themselves from all the foreigners, standing and confessing their sins and the sins of the ancestors”.  The Hebrews practiced open confession, admitting their sins to one another. Reading and studying God’s Word should precede confession because God can show us where we are sinning. Honest confession should precede worship, because we cannot have a right relationship with God if we continue to hold on to our sins.

One striking point about this passage is the absence of the names of either Ezra or Nehemiah. The emphasis here is on each individual accepting a share of responsibility in word, attitude and deed for the past sins and the present plight of the community.

The people of Israel engaged in an extended time of confession, first reading from the Law for 3 hours followed by 3 hours of worship when they called “loudly to the LORD” naming their sins and by shouting praise and worship in call and response. This extended time of confession includes the characteristic of telling the truth – the truth about God and the truth about one’s own self. They told the truth about themselves, and more importantly they told the truth about God.

“All of our efforts to dilute sin dissipate in the presence of our holy, righteous God. As long as we compare ourselves with others we can play this self-justification game. But when we place our sins alongside the attributes and actions of God, feeble excuses to discount our wickedness fail miserably. Juxtaposed to God, each of us stands our as what we truly are: sinners and rebels against God, who, are lost completely apart from his mercy. It is a matter of being compared to the incomparable”.  Mark Roberts’s commentary

In addition to confession and praise, the people recounted their rich biblical history, beginning with creation, God’s call of Abraham, the deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and the establishment of the nation and laws of the people of Israel. They remembered and named the truths about God: You alone are God, you made the heavens, the earth and seas and everything that is on and in them. You alone have given life to them all, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. You LORD God chose Abram from the land of pagans and established a covenant with him and that will give Abraham’s descendants the land He chose for them. When the Israelites were oppressed, they cried out to God, He heard their cry and rescued them. Even though oppressed the Israelites by God’s grace and design multiplied and became a large people group. The LORD performed miraculous signs against Pharaoh which eventually allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt with great wealth and supplies, and then miraculously the LORD split the Red Sea so they could walk across on dry land to their freedom and at the same time destroyed their enemies to secure their safe travels. The Lord guided the Israelites with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading them in their travels to the land He had chosen for them. The LORD spoke with Moses and the people from Mount Sinai, he made a covenant with them giving them Laws to live by, a written Law to show them how to live with each other and how to worship and approach the LORD God Almighty. The Lord’s blessings enabled the Israelites to grow from a small family into a numerous people group and finally to be established as a nation of common laws, worship and culture.

But the Israelites took all the blessings and protections from the LORD for granted, they rebelled and did not follow His commandments. They refused to obey God’s Laws and purposely ignored the miracles and provisions that God supplied. Instead of thanking God for saving them from slavery, they made a golden calf and claimed that it was this idol that saved them; additionally they appointed a leader to return them to Egypt to serve as slaves once again.

God answered their blasphemies, when they claimed that God’s goodness and glory really belonged to the idols made by their own hands. ‘As I live, says the LORD, I will surely do to you just what you have spoken in my hearing. Your dead bodies will fall in this wilderness—all those of you who were numbered, according to your full number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me. You will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you”. Everyone who rebelled and refused to obey God died in the wilderness, they never entered the Promised Land to enjoy the rest promised by the LORD.

The confessing Israelites declared all the blessings that the LORD provided them in the wilderness even during their times of rebellion. The LORD did not abandon them in the wilderness, He continued to guide them both day and night, He continued to teach them His ways and provided the needed food and water daily. God was the one who caused them to survive for 40 years under harsh condition, their clothing did not wear out and their feet did not swell, they never lacked for anything.

Seeing how God continued to be with his people shows that his patience is amazing! In spite of our repeated failings, pride, and stubbornness, he is always ready to forgive, and his Spirit is always ready to instruct. Realizing the extent of God’s forgiveness helps us forgive those who fail us, even “seventy times seven” if necessary. LIFE Application

After 40 years of wilderness wandering the LORD God brought the next generation into the Promised Land. God went before them and subdued the people who were on the land that He gave the Israelites. God delivered the land into the hands of the Israelites against insurmountable odds. Nevertheless, the Israelites grew disobedient and rebelled against God. They disregarded His laws and they killed the prophets that the LORD sent to call them back to God’s way. Once again they committed atrocious blasphemies. Then God delivered them into the hands of their enemies who oppressed them. In their distress they called out to God to deliver them. God heard their cries of distress and in His abundant compassion He provided deliverers to rescue them from their oppressors.

“Israel was devastated by times of intense rebellion and sin. Yet when the people repented and returned to God, he delivered them. God puts no limit on the number of times we can come to him to obtain mercy, but we must come in order to obtain it, recognizing our need and asking him for help. This miracle of grace should inspire us to say, “What a gracious and merciful God you are!” If there is a recurring problem or difficulty in your life, continue to ask God for help, and be willing and ready to make changes in your attitude and behavior that will correct that situation.”. LIFE Application

The Israelites acknowledged that it was their sin and the sins of their ancestors that landed them in their current situation. God acted justly, God was faithful and God was gracious in forgiving their rebellion, it was the Israelites that were in the wrong. The Israelites were slaves in their own land, each year they needed to pay tribute to foreign kings.

“Sometimes the way we take for granted the very blessings God has showered on us leads us to forget him. We are often tempted to rely on wealth for security rather than on God who makes it possible. As you see what happened to the Israelites, look at your own life. Do your blessings make you thankful to God and draw you closer to him, or do they make you feel self-sufficient and forgetful of God? LIFE Application

Nehemiah 8

After the census, the people settled in their ancestors’ towns and villages; they rebuilt the walls providing security for the people of Israel and it was time to repopulate that land and city under Nehemiah’s leadership.

The next three chapters form an intermission in Nehemiah’s narrative. Chapter 8 picks up the account of Ezra the priest, who arrived in Jerusalem 14 years earlier to teach the Jews God’s Laws. When Ezra first arrived in Jerusalem, the moral and spiritual condition of the people was deplorable. But as he prayerfully taught them God’s Word, they began to respond to and to obey the laws of God. A few years later Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and challenged them to trust God to help them rebuild the walls.

After the triumph of the wall “all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate”; they told Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses to be read aloud. The people were eager to hear Ezra read the Law, all those who were able to understand, men, women and children stood from dawn to noon. This was quite a task; this would have been between 30,000-50,000 people, while Ezra read the Law, the Levites circled through the crowd to repeat what Ezra read, translate as needed and impart understanding. As Ezra began the reading, “he opened the book, all the people stood up. Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people replied “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground”.

Upon hearing the word of God and understanding just how far the Israelites had strayed from God’s appointed way to live, the people responded with remorse and great weeping. “Ezra said to all of them, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep’.”

“The people wept openly when they heard God’s laws and realized how far they were from obeying them. But Ezra told them they should be filled with joy because the day was sacred. It was time to celebrate and to give gifts to those in need. Celebration is not to be self-centered. Ezra connected celebration with giving. This gave those in need an opportunity to celebrate as well. Often when we celebrate and give to others (even when we don’t feel like it), we are strengthened spiritually and filled with joy. Enter into celebrations that honor God, and allow him to fill you with his joy”. LIFE Application

Ezra gave instructions to the people: “Go and eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared. For this day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” “So all the people departed to eat and drink and to share their food with others and to enjoy tremendous joy, for they had gained insight in the matters that had been made known to them”.

We see an important principle for living here: when we delve into God’s word to understand His holiness and our place in His world we soon realize our great sin then we confess and mourn over our wrong thinking and actions. But God has provided a way of forgiveness, He has covered our sins, and our response is gratitude and rejoicing. This is followed by repentance; we change our thinking and actions to align ourselves with God’s purposes and laws. As we go through this process over and over again, realigning ourselves to God’s way, we are reformed to be more like Christ. “When the Word is opened up, people begin to understand themselves. This is the great thing about scripture. When you know God you begin to understand yourself, because you are made in the image of God”.  “The primary business of Christians is to understand the Word of God so as to think God’s thoughts after Him — to learn to think like God”.

When the reading of the Law was completed, the leaders from each tribal group met with Ezra and the priests to consider seriously the words of law. They discovered in the Law of Moses that the Israelites should at this time of year be celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. This festival was during the fall harvest when the people would build temporary shelters to live outdoors for seven days. It was a festival of remembrance, the Israelites were to remember when God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and when they lived in tents, wandering for 40 years relying on God’s provision of water, manna, quail and His protection from their enemies.

“Ezra read in the book of the law of God day by day, from the first day to the last. They observed the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day they held an assembly as was required”.

The Feast of Tabernacles, also called Feast of Booths, Sukkoth, Feast of Ingathering and Feast of Shelters, begins 5 days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Day of Atonement is a strict day of rest, a day of fasting and prayer seeking forgiveness from all the sins of the previous year. It was and is a day of national mourning and repentance. In Nehemiah this seems to connect to the great weeping that occurred when Ezra read the Law of Moses to the people and they realized their sin and violation of God’s laws (Neh. 8:9)  Nehemiah records that the Israelites had not followed God’s commands to celebrate Sukkoth since the “days of Joshua son of Nun”.

“Every day they read the scripture. Every day they saturated themselves in the thinking of God. That is what makes for realism: When you think like God thinks, you are thinking realistically. You are beginning to see yourself the way you really are. You are seeing your children, your home and your nation the way they really are. For the first time you are able to divest yourself of the illusions and delusions of a mistaken, confused world. You are beginning to work toward wholeness, healing, and strengthening of the things that abide”.

Nehemiah 6-7

When Sanballat, Tobiah and Gershem the Arab heard that Nehemiah had accomplished rebuilding the wall and that there was no longer a breach into the city they inaugurated a new plan of attack. This time the attacks were directed against Nehemiah personally, each of the three attacks were designed to either take his life or destroy his credibility.

At first they sent a message to Nehemiah asking him to meet with them 25 miles north of Jerusalem on the plain on Ono. This carefully penned message suggested that they wanted to negotiate a peace treaty, when in reality they wanted lure Nehemiah out of Jerusalem to harm him and to distract him from his work. Instead of falling for their false message, Nehemiah responded to their message by saying he was too busy with his work to leave Jerusalem at this time. Though Nehemiah could not prove their nefarious intent, he chose to respond in a way that would reveal their true intent; four times they sent the same message with Nehemiah answering in the same way.  If they had truly wanted to make a peace agreement, they would have proposed a new meeting location near Jerusalem where Nehemiah was safe from attack.

The fifth message came from Sanballat; his assistant delivered the opened letter, and this was purposely done so that many could read these accusations and spread the rumors. The rumors were generated by Nehemiah’s enemies accusing the Jews of rebellion against Artaxerxes and that Nehemiah was going to set himself as “King of Judah”. The letter was worded in way to make it appear that Sanballat and Gershem had Nehemiah’s best interests in mind; they wanted Nehemiah to respond out of fear for his position with both the Jews and Artaxerxes. Nehemiah responded quite simply, “I sent word back to him; we are not engaged in these activities you are describing. All of this is a figment of your imagination.”

The backstory on these repeated rumors about the Jews is that this tactic worked previously. Ezra 4 records the opposition to Zerubbabel’s rebuilding of the Temple, their enemies set upon a campaign to discourage the Jews, then during the reign of Xerxes I they began to file accusations and rumors against the Jews until finally during the reign of Artaxerxes the king believed the rumors and ordered the stoppage of the repairs and allowed the accusers to attack the Jews. But even though this was a setback for years, God was still accomplishing His plans; Nehemiah became the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes which allowed him the opportunity and the resources to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah’s cried out to God in prayers, “So now, strengthen my hands!” Nehemiah trusted God, he denied the accusation and continued in his work.

“When opposition builds up against you or God’s work, it is tempting to pray, “God, get me out of this situation.” But Nehemiah prayed for strength. He showed tremendous determination and character to remain steadfast in his responsibility. When we pray for strength, God always answers”.    LIFE Application

Nehemiah’s enemies didn’t give up; the next plot was insidious and clever. Nehemiah receives a message to come to the house of Shemiaiah, who claimed to be confined to his home. When Nehemiah arrives he delivers the prophecy that Nehemiah’s enemies will come that night to kill him, Shemiaiah pretending he had Nehemiah’s best interests in mind encourages Nehemiah to hide himself in the Temple. Nehemiah’s discernment is seen in his reply, “I recognized the fact that God had not sent him, for he had spoken the prophecy against me as a hired agent of Tobiah and Sanballat. He had been hired to scare me so that I would do this and thereby sin. They would thus bring reproach on me and I would be discredited”. There were two reasons this prophecy was false, first why would God want Nehemiah to hide away when his project on the walls was so near completion and second, no true prophet would ask Nehemiah to violate God’s law. Only priests were allowed in the sanctuary, Nehemiah was not a priest if he entered the Temple he would desecrate it and bring himself under God’s judgment.

“So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in just fifty-two days”. The speed, leadership and organization of Nehemiah is revealed in this accomplishment, in that it took less time to repair the wall than it took for Nehemiah to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. The result was that the nations surrounding Jerusalem and their enemies were astonished and discouraged because they knew that this work could not have been accomplished except for the help from the LORD God Almighty.

“They said it couldn’t be done. The job was too big and the problems were too great. But God’s men and women, joined together for special tasks, can solve huge problems and accomplish great goals. The vision that Nehemiah saw through humble tears in Persia became a reality with God’s help every step of the way. Don’t let the size of a task or the length of time needed to accomplish it keep you from doing it. With God’s help, it can be done”. LIFE Application

When the wall was rebuilt and the doors put in place with gatekeepers stationed to guard the entrances, Nehemiah appoints his brother Hanani to be in charge of Jerusalem and Hananiah to be the chief of the citadel.  Nehemiah, knowing that his enemies were still around, ordered that security measures be maintained: the city gates were to be opened only a few hours each day; and citizens, probably many of whom had been wall-repairers, were to serve as guards.

Nehemiah 7 begins with a list of additional repairs that needed to be accomplished, the houses of Jerusalem needed to be rebuilt now that they were safe with the walls and guarded gates and the need to repopulate of the city. Nehemiah begins these next steps by taking a census, listing everyone who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. The ability to trace your lineage was vitally important to the Jews, both as a descendant of Abraham and to designate what tribal lands belongs to their family. Additionally only those who could trace their genealogies to Aaron and Levi were allowed to work in the Temple, Nehemiah records the names of descendants that could not verify their ancestry so were therefore excluded from the work of the priesthood.

Nehemiah 4-5

When Sanballat the governor of Samaria heard that Nehemiah and the Jews were going forward with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem he became very angry and began his campaign of opposition starting with ridicule.  Nehemiah’s arrival with the support of Artaxerxes quite possibly derailed Sanballat’s plans for Samaria’s eventual control of Judah, his opposition was twofold stopping the rebuilding of Judah and diminishing Nehemiah’s influence in the region.

There was a long history between the Samaritans and the Israelites, originally Samaria was a part of the one Kingdom of Israel, but after the death of King Solomon they divided the kingdom and set up an alternative capital and worship sites.  Eventually Samaria (Kingdom of Israel) was conquered and most of the people carried away as captives by Assyria. Assyria’s policy was to repopulate the land with captured peoples from other lands; these captives began to intermarry with the few remaining Israelites, mixing both their bloodlines and their pagan worship practices. The Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon were from the tribes belonging to the southern Kingdom of Judah. They considered the Samaritans to be both racially and spiritually impure.

Sanballat joined forces with Tobiah the Ammonite to mock and demoralize those building the wall and to reassure their own people that they would stop the revitalization of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s response was also anger and he responds with a very harsh prayer:

“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Return their reproach on their own head. Reduce them to plunder in a land of exile!  Do not cover their iniquity, and do not wipe out their sin from your sight, for they have bitterly offended the builders”.

This harsh prayer troubles our 21st Century sensibilities, consequently we have a tendency to skip over these verses and move quickly on to other topics. However please notice a few things: first contrary to his enemies Nehemiah did not immediately respond with aggressive and hostile actions. Nehemiah’s first action was prayer, he prayed out his anger, pouring out his heart to the LORD. He was not praying for revenge but for God’s justice to be carried out. Furthermore Nehemiah recognizes that Sanballat and company were actually opposing God and God’s plan for the restoration of Israel and Jerusalem, including the renewal of God’s promises to Abraham.  Nehemiah did not “bless those who cursed him”, even though he was in the position to retaliate against his enemies in harsh ways, he didn’t act, instead he called on God to act.

When our feelings are offended by Nehemiah’s anger and language I think it is important for us to remember that Nehemiah did not have the example of Christ that we have today. Additionally, the assurances we have from the work of Jesus and the New Testament scripture, which gives us confidence of our final victory despite the manipulations of evil, were not known by Nehemiah. This is another reminder of Nehemiah’s great trust in God despite his current circumstances. “When you are mocked for your faith or criticized for doing what you know is right, refuse to respond in the same way or to become discouraged. Tell God how you feel and remember his promise to be with you. This will give you encouragement and strength to carry on”.   LIFE Application    

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”                                                                       Hebrews 12:1-3, The Message  

Even with the psychological warfare against the Jews, the God given result was “we rebuilt the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height. The people were enthusiastic in their work”. The efforts to discourage the Israelites didn’t work; the Israelites rose above the negative talk and worked enthusiastically at God’s work. The next move by Sanballat was to gather a larger coalition now including the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod; Judah and Jerusalem were effectively surrounded by hostile actors threatening to attack with an armed force.  Nehemiah now faced additional crisis, his workforce was in danger, and they were becoming demoralized by the threat to their families and the outlying villages by an increasing number of enemies.  

Nehemiah’s response was twofold, “So we prayed to our God and stationed a guard to protect against them both day and night”.  Nehemiah gathered the people and laid out his plan of defense, he purposely encouraged them with familiar words, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the great and awesome Lord, and fight on behalf of your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your families!” The Israelites were reminded of all the times that God had saved them when they were in impossible situations. Nehemiah was able to turn their fear into courage and their sense of vulnerability to the assurance that the greater force of the unseen God stands by them each and every day.

“Obstacles and foes can make us work smarter and live wiser or make us give up our purpose and our way of living. If they accomplish the latter, they have won even if they haven’t actually attacked us. But if we adjust our way of living wisely while continuing resolutely to live under God’s instructions, the opposition will fail”. LIFE Application

Nehemiah placed half of the men standing guard while the other half worked unhindered. Every builder carried his weapons with them even when working; everyone worked from nobles and officers to common laborers. He also set up a long distance communications system so that no one would be surprised by an attack and the guards were there day and night, camped outside the walls and inside the city.

Just when Nehemiah thought they were safe from the outside forces, new problems came from within from the people of Israel. These problems were centered on the Jews themselves and their violations of the Law and injustice. First, the people without land who labored for others were suffering because they could not earn money to buy food for their families. Then the people who own land could not tend their crops and were forced to mortgage their land to buy food for their families. If the harvest failed there would be famine and they would not have the money to pay their debts. The wealthy nobles who had the funds also had the grain to feed these workers, but they were forcing them to mortgage their homes and land to purchase food. Additionally the wealthy were taking advantage of the situation by charging exorbitant interest rates to their fellow Jews; the poor were then forced to sell their children into slavery to pay their debts. Overall the people felt powerless against this injustice and hopeless about their future.  Morale, which was already low because of external pressures, physical exhaustion, and fear, now took another plunge because of these internal problems.

Once again Nehemiah is angry and once again he didn’t react quickly. “I considered these things carefully and then registered a complaint with the wealthy and the officials”. Though Nehemiah’s anger was certainly righteous indignation, he did not take immediate action. Spending time reflecting on the problem enabled him to cool down, to see the facts in proper perspective, and to decide on a course of action.  Then and there Nehemiah calls a “great public assembly” and addresses the problems directly. Apparently these same noble families had previously been involved in purchasing redemption for Jews sold into slavery in foreign lands, but now they owned Jewish slaves and were treating them like the pagan nations treated the Jews, this was in violation of God’s laws.  Nehemiah appeals to their national pride; they were destroying the unity of the Jews and making them a laughingstock to the nations that surrounded them. Nehemiah also confesses that he and his family were guilty of these same practices and prompts the nobles “abandon this practice” this very day.

Nehemiah follows up with a living personal example; he did not ask the people to do something that he would not do.  The nobles agreed to Nehemiah’s instruction to return their fellow Jews land, homes, children and interest paid then made a public oath to affirm that they would do what they had said.  Finally, Nehemiah records the generous way he governed went way beyond what was required of him to do as the Governor of Judah, even though he was entitled to a portion of the harvest of food and a tax of 40 shekels he did not take it, “But I did not behave in this way, due to my fear of God”. Additionally, he paid for the food and wine for 150 Jews and officials and all visiting nobles out of his own pocket. He did not demand these payments because the work on the wall was hard.  Nehemiah worked alongside the people to finished the wall; he never lost sight of God’s calling on his life. He was in Jerusalem to help the people, not exploit them. He was there to exemplify God’s Law, not violate it. He was there to rebuild the wall, not a personal empire. His final prayer in this chapter reflects his heart, “Please remember me for good, O my God, for all that I have done for this people”. Nehemiah led by example, in prayer, in patience, in wisdom and in his focus on rebuilding Jerusalem and the good care of the people of Israel.

                     

Nehemiah 3

Today the Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by 2.5 miles of walls built by the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1540 A.D. This wall has seven gates through which you can enter the old city, the eighth gate, the Golden Gate, which enters directly to the Temple Mount has been sealed for centuries.

The Golden Gate is also called the Beautiful Gate and the Mercy Gate, it leads directly from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount. This is the gate that Jews, Christians and Muslim believe that the Messiah will enter at the end of times. It was first closed by Muslims in 810 A.D., then reopened by the Christian Crusaders in 1102 A.D. and then closed again in 1541 by Suleiman the Magnificent and has remained closed to this day. However, in recent years it has been the site of protests, violence and arrests by a group of Muslims that want to reopen the gate as a place of prayer for Muslims. Only the Golden Gate stands in the same place as the gates in Nehemiah’s day.  

Nehemiah 3 begins with a list of the people who worked on the walls, where they worked and those who refused to help with the re-building. The first person mentioned is the High Priest and the priests who worked on the Sheep Gate, which led directly to the Temple Mount.  Right outside the Sheep Gate was the animal market and the Pool of Bethesda; animals destined for sacrifice were brought to this market, washed in the reservoirs and presented to the Priests for offering. It was through this gate that Jesus entered and met the man born lame waiting on the steps of the pool to be healed. Apparently, there was a natural phenomenon that caused the waters to be disturbed, the people of Jesus’ day believed an angel came to stir up the waters and the first person in the water would be healed. Jesus healed this man waiting on the steps at the Pool of Bethesda, which means house of mercy. Archeological discoveries have unearthed these pools and ancient pagan healing sanctuary with marble representations of healed organs. Remember also that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”; He walked through this Sheep Gate, healed at this gate and passed through to worship in the Temple courts.

Nehemiah made the assignments for work close to the area where people lived; this plan ensured that they would be personally invested in repairing the wall and gates near their homes for protection. Also they would not need to travel to work or abandon their section when attacked to protect their homes.  Nehemiah also records those men from outside of Jerusalem who worked at repairing the wall, men from Jericho, Tekoa, Gibeon and Mizpah even though they did not live in Jerusalem. Nehemiah reveals that “the nobles of Tekoa did not help”, they were not willing to submit to Nehemiah’s leadership. But later he records that “Shallum head of a half-district of Jerusalem” worked on his section of the wall “assisted by his daughters”.  The people who refused to submit to God’s authority given to Nehemiah are contrasted to the people who would not have be expected to participate in the rebuilding but were willing to submit to God’s revealed plan thus join in the hard work.

The next two gates listed are the Fish Gate and the Jeshanah Gate or Old Gate. The fish market was near the Fish Gate, this is where the merchants for Tyre and the Sea of Galilee would bring their products for sale. The Old Gate refers to the ancient paths or the paths the LORD set out in ancient times. “The LORD said to his people: ‘You are standing at the crossroads. So consider your path. Ask where the old, reliable paths are. Ask where the path is that leads to blessing and follow it. If you do, you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not follow it’” Jeremiah 6:16

The next gates are the Valley Gate and the Dung Gate. The Valley Gate is where Nehemiah began and ended his nighttime inspection tour. The Dung Gate was the exit to the Valley of Hinnon or Gehenna in Greek. This was where the refuse from the city was burned, but it was also the place of idol worship, where the evil kings of Judah sacrificed their children to Baal and Molech. The current Dung Gate is not in the same spot as the ancient gate, this current gate was named after the old name of Dung Gate in the 19th century.

The next gates are the Fountain Gate and the Water Gate. These two gates were in the area of the City of David south of the Temple Mount. The Fountain Gate was near the Pool of Siloam and King’s Garden, this is the spot where the last King of Judah attempted to escape the destruction of the Babylonians.  The Fountain Gate is where Jesus sent the man born blind to wash in the Pool of Siloam and he came back seeing. The Water Gate is where Ezra and Nehemiah will gather the people of Jerusalem to read the Law of Moses.

The last three gates listed are the Horse Gate, the East Gate and the Inspection (Muster) Gate. The Horse Gate was the entrance to the horse stables, Solomon’s stables built in the southeastern wall of the Temple Mount. The East Gate is also known as the Beautiful Gate and the Golden Gate, notice that it is a double gate and is believed to be the gate through which Jesus rode to the Temple on Palm Sunday. The Inspection Gate was close to where the present day Lion’s Gate stands. The Lion’s Gate is also referred to as Saint Stephen’s Gate; tradition has this as the gate where they dragged Stephen outside the city to be stoned.

“Nehemiah 3 begins and ends with the Sheep Gate and so must our Christian walk. Our hope rests in Jesus Christ alone who loved us and gave himself for us. He takes care of the past-forgiving our sins and removing condemnation. He takes care of our present-rebuilding the broken areas of our life and giving us victory in life’s battles. He takes care of our future – He is coming again in power and glory and we will dwell with Him forever”. JOY notes

Nehemiah 2

Four months have passed since Nehemiah heard the dire news about the Israelites in Jerusalem; they were in a desperate condition, little food to eat and no protection from hostile forces that surrounded them. On this particular day Nehemiah reports that he was going about his usual work of serving the King and his family.  It is important to note Nehemiah’s elevated position in the court of Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was the cup-bearer to the King, his closest and most trusted servant. This day he was serving the King and Queen in an intimate setting, when the King noticed that Nehemiah didn’t appear his usual self.

We can understand a couple important details with this simple scenario, first Nehemiah was a faithful servant, even when depressed and worried he still completed his job fully. The reason the King noticed his demeanor because it was so contrary to his usual countenance and that the King and Nehemiah were very familiar with each other. Second, that Nehemiah had not previously used his position to gain influence for himself or his relatives as signaled by the King’s concern. Last, as we will see that God will once again use un-believers to supply all Nehemiah’s needs and to accomplish His will.

Nehemiah is an example of perfect balance between reliance on God combined with careful and thoughtful planning.  Nehemiah persevered, which means to persist in anything undertaken; maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles or discouragement to continue steadfastly.

When King Artaxerxes questioned Nehemiah about his “sadness of heart”, Nehemiah records that he was very fearful.  In the Persian court a servant was never to let his negative emotions show before the King, this might signal dissatisfaction with the King which could jeopardize his position or even his life. We know from Esther 4 that no one was allowed inside the palace area while wearing mourning clothing. Additionally, Nehemiah knew his request was very bold, since previously King Artaxerxes ordered the stoppage of all rebuilding in Jerusalem after accusations of rebellion lodged against the Israelites. But Nehemiah’s response was wise, he has been in constant prayer and fasting for four months in preparation for this very moment.

“Nehemiah wasn’t ashamed to admit his fear, but he refused to allow fear to stop him from doing what God had called him to do. He acknowledged the king’s position and clearly stated the reasons for his own sorrow. When we allow fear to rule us, we make fear more powerful than God. Is there a task God wants you to do, but fear is holding you back? God is greater than all your fears. Recognizing why you are afraid is the first step in committing your fear to God. Realize that if God has called you to a task, he will help you accomplish it”.    LIFE Application commentary

When King Artaxerxes asks Nehemiah, “what are you seeking?” Nehemiah quickly “prayed to the God of heaven” and then states his case. He begins by saying “O King, live forever!” Nehemiah starts by speaking respect to the King then states that he is dejected because “the city with the graves of my ancestors lies desolate and its gates destroyed by fire”. Notice that he did not name Jerusalem at this point in his plea and he framed the problem in terms of an issue that the Persian King would understand, the desecration of ancestral burying grounds.  Nehemiah was careful to state the problem in terms that spoke to Artaxerxes heart. Additionally, Nehemiah was prepared for this moment, the opportunity that he has been praying specifically for. Then he spoke boldly asking if he could be dispatched “to Judah, to the city with the graves of my ancestors, so that I can rebuild it”. God miraculously answers Nehemiah’s prayer through the pagan King Artaxerxes, giving Nehemiah letters of introduction to the governors of each province they traveled through, permission to harvest timber for rebuilding Jerusalem’s gates from the King’s preserve and even supplying a military escort for Nehemiah’s safety. All this perfect culmination of Nehemiah’s prayers was a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9:25, delivered 95 years earlier in Babylon.

When the non-Jewish rulers in Jerusalem heard of Nehemiah’s coming they were very displeased that someone had come that would help the Israelites.  As Nehemiah traveled to Jerusalem he greeted the governors of the provinces in the King’s name and it appears that all of his interactions were positive. But when he arrives in Jerusalem the opposition to Nehemiah immediately begins. Sanballat the Horonite, from the town of Beth-Horon about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem; the Elephantine papyri identifies Sanballat as the “governor of Samaria”.  We can easily see how he would be threatened by a close personal advisor and cupbearer of King Artaxerxes arrival accompanied by supplies and protection provided by the King. Tobiah was most likely Sanballat’s associate, from the land area of Ammon, across the river Jordan.

When Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem he keeps to himself for three days, in the middle of the night he quietly goes out to inspect the walls of Jerusalem. “The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had been doing, for up to this point I had not told any of the Jews or the priests or the nobles or the official or the rest of the workers”. Previously Nehemiah took 4 months for prayer and fasting before presenting his request to the King, now he took 3 days to understand the situation and needs of the people where God called him to serve and lead.

When Nehemiah finally speaks to the Israelites he challenges them to notice their deplorable circumstances “Jerusalem is desolate and its gates are burned”. Remember the report he received that indicated that the people were suffering greatly and disgraced without the protection of the city walls. Nehemiah identifies their need then reveals how God’s “good hand” had allowed him to arrive with supplies and permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When Nehemiah gave his challenge to rebuild the walls along with his personal testimony of God’s provision the people’s disgrace and depression turned to hope. They quickly agreed to start rebuilding right away.

The news of the Israelites positive response to Nehemiah’s challenge quickly spread to Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arab who immediately began to harass Nehemiah and the Israelites. They used every demoralizing tactic, beginning with ridicule and accusing them of rebellion against King Artaxerxes.

Nehemiah was ready for their attacks; he quickly affirmed that the God of Heaven would enable them to succeed. “The God of heaven will prosper us. We his servants will start the rebuilding”. Nehemiah clearly focuses both Israelites and their enemies on to “who” is in charge of this restoration, and it is not Artaxerxes, it is the “God of Heaven” their confidence was in the Creator God not in mere men.

“Now the man of tears and prayer appears as a careful strategist: one who formulates just the right way to approach the king; who carefully appraises the demolished condition of the wall without telling anyone; who makes sure he is prepared to confront his regional opponents; and who finds the best way to persuade the people to support his project”

The Communicators’ Commentary, Mark D. Roberts

Nehemiah 1

God’s message of hope to the Jewish exiles in Babylon came through the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah revealed that their exile would be limited to 70 years then God would fulfill His promise and restore Israel to their Promised Homeland.

“‘For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the LORD, ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, I will make myself available to you,’ says the LORD. ‘Then I will reverse your plight and will regather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,’ says the LORD. ‘I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you’.”  Jeremiah 29: 10-15

Ezra 1 records how this came about: “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the LORD’s message spoken through Jeremiah, the LORD motivated King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his kingdom and also to put it in writing. It read: “This is what King Cyrus of Persia says:

 “‘The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the LORD God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. Anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner must be helped by his neighbors with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem.’”

Cyrus was motivated by the LORD, to free the slaves and return the temple equipment that was stolen by the Babylonians. Additionally, voluntary financial support was made from Jews who stayed behind and from non-Jews living in Babylon. This reminds us of the great Exodus from Egypt, when Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to leave they were showered with gifts and supplies by the Egyptians. It is important for us to understand that this return from Babylon is significant in Israel’s history too, it is similar to the exodus from Egypt with the understanding that everything the Israelites needed was provided by the LORD. This return to Jerusalem was an act of divine deliverance and the divine rebirth of a nation.

Nehemiah begins with the account of his hearing a report from his brother about the dire circumstances of his fellow Israelites in Jerusalem. He identifies the time and place of this account, in Susa, the winter palace of King Artaxerxes in the 20th year of his reign.

Susa was the city where the events of the book of Esther took place and King Artaxerxes of Nehemiah was the successor to King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) of the book of Esther. This gives us some important context to the condition of the Jews in the kingdom of Artaxerxes. We remember from Esther the manipulation of King Xerxes by Haman and his court officials, specifically the rule that when the King made a proclamation it could not be reversed, the risk of death if Esther approached the King without permission and the ultimate evil purpose of Haman to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth.

Zerubbabel led the 1st group of exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 B.C., and then Ezra led the 2nd group 80 years later and finally Nehemiah will lead another group in 445 B.C. When Nehemiah hears the dire news from Jerusalem it has been 93 years since Cyrus’ decree that marked the beginning of the return, restoration and renewal of Israel. The troubles and issues in Jerusalem are not new to Nehemiah, but for some reason it is at this time that God stirred Nehemiah’s heart to be moved by events that he has known about for years.

The Israelites in Jerusalem are experiencing great distress and adversity, we know from Nehemiah 5 that there has been a famine in the land and many of the Israelites have been forced to sell their sons and daughters into slavery just to eat. Additionally, from Ezra 4 we know that the pagan politicians in Trans-Euphrates have been stirring up trouble with King Artaxerxes about Israel, spreading falsehoods and accusing them of rebellion, and refusing to pay their taxes and tributes to the King. Sounds familiar, this is the same accusation that Haman made against the Jewish people.

Nehemiah’s response to this dire news was to immediately sit down, “crying and mourning for several days. I continued fasting and praying before the God of Heaven”.  We have the tendency to move from hearing bad news to action without pause, Nehemiah is a wonderful example to us of what our first response should be; prayer and fasting before the God of Heaven. Nehemiah prayed on behalf of the Israelites, he prayed on behalf of others far away, he personally was in a good place but he was concerned for his brothers and sisters on the other side of his world. Furthermore Nehemiah was focused first on God’s plans, God’s purposes for His people and their future.

Nehemiah’s prayer begins with recognizing his own sin and Israel’s sin and confessing those sins to the LORD.  He remembers God’s word spoken through Moses: ‘If you act unfaithfully, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you repent and obey my commandments and do them, then even if your dispersed people are in the most remote location, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen for my name to reside’.

From Chronicles the LORD says: “If I close the sky so there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send a plague among My people, and if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land”.  2 Chronicles 7:13-14

During this time of a plague in our world, we should be like Nehemiah go before the God of Heaven with our anxieties and distress, we should get back to the basics and examine whether our heart are pure and if we have elevated our thoughts and wants above God’s commands and purposes. Then we should wait patiently, like Nehemiah, for God’s direction.

Are we prepared to hear this old story and our story in a new way?

Is God preparing your heart to be moved by something old yet in a new way?

Nehemiah Introduction

When we last studied in the Old Testament, 1 & 2 Kings, we traced the history of Israel from glory to ruin. During the reigns of King David and his son Solomon Israel was a united kingdom with their influence and control extending all the way from the Euphrates River in the north and to Egypt in the south.  This was a time of great wealth and peace for the nation of Israel, and rulers came from all over the known world to meet King Solomon who was known for his great wisdom. During this time the first Jewish Temple was built plus many palaces, ships and cities.

After the death of King Solomon his descendants divided the kingdom and battled each other for control. The kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, thus began many years of civil war and struggle for dominance. Israel in the north quickly set up an alternate capital in Samaria and alternate worship sites separating the people from the Temple, the teachings of the priests and the sacrifices for sin. 

God sent prophets to both Israel and Judah to warn them of their sins and the coming destruction. There were good kings that would heed the prophets’ warnings and usher in a time of peace, but overall it was a long descent into pagan practices and violation of God’s covenant with His people.

Israel, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The Assyrian plan for their conquered lands was to remove the healthy and strong men and women to be slaves scattered across their empire. Then they replaced the men and women with people from other conquered lands to live in the land. Whoever remained in the land intermarried with the new comers and incorporated the gods that came with them. This became the land of Samaria we know from the New Testament, people who did not worship in Jerusalem and who had intermarried with pagans for generations.The people Judah listened to the prophets’ warnings and had small periods of renewal and restoration of the covenant blessings. However they too eventually worshipped foreign gods and abandoned God’s laws and justice. Judah and Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C. The temple was burned to the ground and all the wealth and sacred contents were carried off the Babylon. Again, the best and brightest of the Israelites were taken as captives to Babylon.

In exile the people of God yearned for the day when God would restore the nation of Israel and the glory of the Temple. The prophet Ezekiel who was a captive in Babylon preached of a day when the Temple would be rebuilt and that the “dry bones” of Israel would come to life again.

Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem of their coming defeat by Nebuchadnezzar, but he also proclaimed hope for the people. He prophesied that their captivity would be limited to 70 years and that Israel would be restored at a time in the distant future.

The prophet Isaiah was very specific in his proclamation; he identified the king who would be raised up by God to overthrow the Babylonians and set the exiles free.

“This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:

 I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.  I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me…..

I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward,  says the LORD Almighty.” Isaiah 50:1-4,13

It is important to note that Isaiah ministered in Israel 740-700 B.C., which was 113 years before the fall of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C. which was 37 years before Cyrus of Persia overthrew the Medes in 550 B.C., 11 years later Cyrus of the Medes and Persians captures Babylon in 539 B.C. The next year, 538 B.C. Cyrus issues the decree that will allow the first group of captives to return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel.

The earliest manuscripts of the Old Testament record Ezra and Nehemiah as one book.  The author is unknown, but what we do know is that the same author or composer wrote both Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah is a collection of royal decrees, lists of people, correspondence between Jerusalem and Babylon and the written memoirs of both Ezra and Nehemiah. The editor of Ezra and Nehemiah carefully arranged these different components into a wonderful narrative of restoration, renewal of the covenant and re-dedication to God’s laws and purposes.

How appropriate that this year, as we all face a time of crisis and restrictions in various forms, from the virus, loss of income and ability to worship together, that we will study Nehemiah and learn again how to move forward in restoration, renewal and re-dedication to the LORD.

Here is a link to Bible Project overview of Ezra and Nehemiah https://bibleproject.com/explore/ezra-nehemiah/

Nehemiah in the time of Covid

This year our JOY of Living Bible study will tackle the Book of Nehemiah; we will begin on September 15, 2020. If you would like to study along with us you can purchase a study book directly from JOY of Living at https://joyofliving.org/

Every year can become a perplexing year with the trials in our families, work or community situations, but it appears that this year 2020/2021 will be especially challenging for all of us.

Therefore, it is very appropriate that we study Nehemiah together. Nehemiah was a man called by God who was moved deeply by the distress of his fellow Israelite’s far away in Jerusalem.  Today, we know many of our neighbors and friends who are in distress. Additionally we hear of the misery and fear in other cities in our nation and around the world.

Nehemiah is a great example for us on how to be faithful to God during a crisis. In preparation for this study I took a class from Fuller formation title Leading like Nehemiah in a Crisis by Mark Roberts.

“Suddenly, an unexpected crisis hits, and you’re a leader. In addition to navigating the havoc it may wreak on your personal life, people are turning to you for answers. What should you do? Where should you start? Thankfully, you are not alone in this moment. Nor are you the first follower of God to be a leader in a time of crisis! The Old Testament example of Nehemiah provides a striking and hopeful example for us to follow”.                                                                                                           Mark Roberts

One thing we can all agree upon it that we, our families, our church, our country and our world are currently in crisis mode.  And furthermore this crisis doesn’t seem to be ending quickly and it has gone on much longer than we thought possible. We would all like to get back to normal, yet we are not sure what this “new normal” will look or feel like.

Additionally we are all experiencing strong emotions during this lock-down quarantine. I have seen a range of emotions from completely normal concern for our health, the health of our economy, questions of long term consequences for our children and the vulnerable among us to unfounded and just plain crazy fear that breaks out against others.

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel”.                                                                                            Nehemiah 1:4–6

When Nehemiah was faced with a crisis concerning his fellow Israelite’s he responded with very strong emotions, he wept and mourned for days. Nehemiah didn’t deny his feelings nor did he get lost or stuck in these emotions. Nehemiah acknowledges his emotions and brings his fears and concerns before the throne of God with prayer and fasting. As we move forward in our study this year and the turmoil of our coming election we need to be like Nehemiah. I challenge all of us to be a people who acknowledge our feelings, emotions and thinking but are not so self-focused that we fail to be sensitive to the fragile feelings, emotions and thinking of our neighbors.

Four months will pass before God allows Nehemiah to proceed with action. This would have been a very difficult time of anxiety very similar to what we are experiencing today. Nehemiah was anxious about Jerusalem waiting and praying for some solution to this crisis to be revealed by God. Mark Roberts refers to this as “the in-between time”.

“One of the most difficult, anxiety-provoking places to be is in the waiting, in-between time. The more we become aware of the uncertainty surrounding our situation, the more we want to fix it, to make it go away, to return to homeostasis again. But God thrives in the mystery and the unknown, and what is unknown to us is always known to God. These in-between spaces—the painful moments between learning about the crisis situation at hand and the moment when you can take steps toward fixing it—are where God meets us. Seeking God in these moments allows us to act with clarity when the time comes for us to make potentially difficult decisions. Joining God in these moments gives us greater security than trying to push ahead, deeper into the darkness”.                                                                                                Mark Roberts

We are currently in this “in-between time” anxious and waiting for a cure and a return to a “new normal”.  We are afraid for our loved ones, staying locked away and slowly going crazy, but also afraid for our friends and families who have lost their jobs and desperately need a return to a normal economic situation. As we go forward with JOY, we will endeavor to be “real” about our fears and feelings, but we are not a hopeless people, we can take our fears and anxieties before the throne of the Creator of the Universe. 

“Remember what I accomplished in antiquity. Truly I am God, I have no peer; I am God, and there is none like me, who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred; who says, ‘My plan will be realized, I will accomplish what I desire;’ who summons an eagle from the east, from a distant land, one who carries out my plan. Yes, I have decreed, yes, I will bring it to pass; I have formulated a plan, yes, I will carry it out”.                                                       Isaiah 46:9-11