Monday, February 23, 2015
This evening, my wife and I were privileged to attend a preview concert of a local group of musicians known as the Roanoke Valley children’s choir and sat in awe of the consistent beauty that only excellent choral music is capable of producing. Although it may be cliché to say, music truly is a universal language and as such it is a powerful medium worth pursuing in our endeavor to both glorify God and advance His kingdom. In fact, the beautiful amalgamation of the boundless wonder of music and boundless spirit of the Gospel is something that believers gifted in music ought to consider using while on mission in this world.
Meet Dan Forrest.Born in Elmira, New York and educated at Bob Jones University and the University of Kansas, Forrest has become one of America’s most accomplished choral and instrumental composers. His talent has decorated him with awards such as the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer’s Award, the ACDA Raymond Brock Award, first place in the John Ness Beck Foundation (beating the legendary John Rutter) (to name just a few), and his music has filled the rooms of Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and numerous other prestigious performance spaces across the world. With notable original works like Requiem for the Living, and inspired arrangements such as his take on The First Noel, Forrest is a true virtuoso that is appreciated for his excellence everywhere his music is performed.
However, what is most impressive to this humble choral enthusiast is that Forrest has not lost sight of the forest among the trees (shameless pun). On his own website (danforrest.com) there is a “what I believe” page where, among other things, he admits,
“Whatever abilities I have, for creating beauty, are gifts from God. So I will make the most beautiful music I can, not because music-making is my ultimate end, but because I want to press my gifts to their maximum potential toward the true ultimate end: glorifying God. This is equally true of my “secular” music and “sacred” music, of my concert music and church music.”
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease.’”
Admissions like this from people with this kind of recognition are a rarity for two reasons. Unfortunately, those who produce excellent products do not give glory to God because many of them do not know Him. Second, Christians often produce mediocre products that do not afford them the kind of influence achieved by the likes of Dan Forrest. Therefore, though those of the second group may be quite open about for Whom they are writing, singing, acting, or performing, only Christians ever hear it.
Forrest demonstrates what every believer should aspire for in their own lives. Whether a believer is a physician’s assistant, politician, janitor, doctor, beautician, nurse, stay-at-home mom, teacher, or salesman, the aim should be to “make the most beautiful music” he or she can because they “want to press [their] gifts to their maximum potential toward the true ultimate end: glorifying God.” When excellence is accomplished in a way that translates effectively into the world, believers gain the respect of those in their corresponding fields and a captive audience among their peers who may or may not know from where beauty, truth, healing, safety, hope, and love comes.
All who listen to the music of Dan Forrest are captivated by its beauty and impressed by its subtle harmonic nuances—placing him in the company of Eric Whitacre, R. Murray Schafer, Rene Clausen, and Morten Lauridsen. Those curious enough to learn more about the man behind the music will eventually learn after a thorough investigation that
“Our world was designed to be a place of beauty and goodness, but was marred by sin, and continues to struggle with evil. But one day God will make things fully right again; and in the meantime, beauty and goodness are not totally lost- they still shine through, and point us toward the way things ought to be.” (Dan Forrest-courtesy of danforrest.com)
This is what an effective witness looks like. Uninhibited excellence accompanied by an undiluted message. We must at the same time be Daniels (Daniel 6:3-“Then this Daniel was preferred above the presidents and princes, because an excellent spirit was in him; and the king thought to set him over the whole realm”) and John the Baptists (John 3:30-“He must increase, but I must decrease”). May believers never settle for less on whatever stage God has placed them.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Firsts are always fun to celebrate,….well….most of them anyway. A first Date, first kiss, first child, first car, first job—whether you remember these with joy in your heart or a knot in your stomach, firsts cannot be soon forgotten. My position at this church has come with its own list of firsts—first baptism, first wedding, first funeral, first building project, first event, first victory/defeat—that have taken me to the school of hard knox and taught me some important lessons of what to do and what not to do in any number of situations. More recently, my first major construction project, has come with its own exciting list of firsts—first meeting with contractor, first blueprint, first sign of moving dirt, and the list goes on! Though you may not be able to learn all that I have learned from these “firsts” in my life, all of us can learn from the firsts that Nehemiah experiences in 2:11-20. As Nehemiah and his people go about the business God gave to them, we are able to learn so much about how we ought to go about the business God has handed to us.
1. The Initial Inspection-2:11-16
As the story continues, Nehemiah recalls, “So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. And I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding…” (2:11-12). Though Nehemiah had been granted permission to rebuild the wall and had already saturated this endeavor in prayer, Nehemiah was cautious from the beginning so as not to create unnecessary complications. Had Nehemiah immediately set out to work and make God’s plan public without an initial inspection, he would have no doubt opened up the floor to all kinds of discussions and debates for which he would have been unprepared. In any new endeavor, it is important to think things through and gather an accurate assessment of the variables so that problems can be avoided and answers can be acquired to the many questions people will inevitably have about what is taking place. This is why Nehemiah waits “three days” before making his initial inspection and confides in only a “few men” once he decides to begin his survey. In an effort to remain inconspicuous, Nehemiah even limits himself to only one animal as he moves about the city of Jerusalem.
In order to avoid letting others know his plans before they were firmly fixed in his mind, Nehemiah “went out at night by the Valley Gate, in the direction of the Dragon’s Well and on to the Refuse Gate inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were consumed by fire…” (2:13). The cover of night no doubt cast an ominous shadow on the trouble Jerusalem faced because of what Nehemiah beheld in the twilight. These troubling observations are made even more frightening when Nehemiah passes several sinister landmarks along the way. The “Dragons’ Well” was a mythical place where many at the time believed water monsters dwelled and the “Refuse Gate” led to the trash heap in the Hinnom Valley where infant sacrifices were conducted in the days of Manasseh. These were not the landmarks you would write home about or take pictures of. However, Nehemiah mentions these in order to accentuate the dismal and troubling scene around him. The initial report Nehemiah had heard in Chapter 1 was confirmed—the wall was destroyed and the gates were burned.
As Nehemiah continues his unfortunate survey he says, “Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the king’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass…”So bad was the rubble in this one area that there was no room for his donkey to get through! This statement from thousands of year ago was confirmed in a modern day excavation of this region in 1961. There on the original hill of Jerusalem just south of the temple area, scientists uncovered the remains of the terraces built and maintained originally by David and Solomon. On what these excavators found it was reported, “the tumble of stones uncovered by our Trench…is a vivid sample of the ruinous state of the eastern side of Jerusalem that balked Nehemiah’s donkey…” (Kenyon, 107-8). What Nehemiah saw was not only disturbing, but the destruction was acute.
The survey Nehemiah made would normally not be something to get excited about. Things were really bad. However, though many may have been tempted to stop short and call it quits, Nehemiah presses on, “So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned…” (2:15). Although decay and destruction faced him at every turn, Nehemiah makes a complete circuit around the city and gathers all of the data necessary to put a plan in place.
Nehemiah reminds the reader at this point that “the officials did not know where [he] had gone or what [he] had done” (2:16). This is because he had not yet told the “Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work” (2:16). In protecting the mission and keeping nay-sayers and complicators at bay, Nehemiah holds his initial inspection close to the chest and makes as objective an assessment as possible. In fact, Nehemiah was uniquely qualified to make a promising assessment of the situation following this initial inspection because of his relative disconnect from Jerusalem over the last couple of decades. Had Nehemiah returned with the others years ago or had he revealed God’s plan too early to the wrong people, he may have been brought down by the learned helplessness of his countrymen and tempted to abandon what God had in mind.
The initial inspection reveals that things are not just bad, they are abysmal! It would be a huge undertaking to fix what Nehemiah beheld as he made his difficult journey around Jerusalem. However, though this account serves to highlight how desperate the situation was for the Jewish people it also indirectly demonstrates how the mighty hand of God would have to intervene to accomplish the impossible.
2. The Initial Report-2:17-18
With the inspection complete, Nehemiah offers his initial report that is equal parts honest, purposeful, inspiring, and effective. He begins by stating the arrestingly obvious, “Then I said to them, ‘You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire’…” (2:17a). Though it might seem unnecessary for Nehemiah to make this statement, it is quite possible that the rubble had been around so long that the citizens of Jerusalem became accustomed to the site and forgot their dire straits. In many cases, those who have been subjected to problems/limitations the longest are those who are blinded to how bad things really are. This new comer-stands out in front and says to them, “Guys, things are bad!” Not the easiest thing to hear—but absolutely necessary if something is to be done about it.
This is exactly what Nehemiah calls for in his next statement, “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach” (2:17b). Ultimately, Nehemiah says “Let us do something about it! Are you not tired of being a disgrace to those around us?” Though many had lived among the rubble for years, Nehemiah is the first one to actually dare to fix it! What Nehemiah calls for, rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem would take a huge effort. However, what they had to gain would be worth it—they would “no longer be a reproach” but instead could once again be used to bless the nations.
Though being brought face-to-face with how bad things were would have been motivation enough for some, others who had a worse case of learned helplessness or skepticism would have needed more convincing. This is why Nehemiah gives the people good reasons to join him by saying, “I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me” (2:18a). According to Nehemiah, the people of Jerusalem should follow him for two reasons: 1. God had proven to be with Nehemiah in the way he orchestrated things back at the Persian Capitol, and 2. They had the blessing of the sitting king Artaxerxes. This was not just a pie-in-the-sky idea that a single individual cooked up. This was God’s will confirmed by the King of Kings and made possible in part by the king of Persia.
Nehemiah’s report had its desired effect. The people respond with “’Let us arise and build’…” and “they put their hands to the good work…” (2:18b). Awakened from their inactivity and despair, the people join Nehemiah on mission and begin the long overdue project that God was bringing about.
This pattern of honesty, mission, confirmation, and action witnessed in Nehemiah continues to this day. When the people of God are honest about what surrounds them (death, decay, and destruction), are confronted with the mission of God (to make disciples), and see the confirmation of God (in the many blessings and victories He provides), they respond with action and join the effort to see lives changed as they are about the business of building His kingdom.
A reinvigorated population in Jerusalem is galvanized to action once again. Before they were inactive and dysfunctional. Now they were united and eager to join the mission. But this is not the last of the firsts in this passage.
3. The Initial Confrontation-2:19-20
Immediately following this amazing report, Nehemiah reveals that the initial confrontation quickly follows, “But when Sanballat the Honorite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, ‘What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’…” (2:19). The busy-body-up-to-no-good home-owners association of rural Persia (which has grown from two representatives to three) is not down with the new project all of its Jewish neighbors are excited about. Sanballat (sin gives life) and Tobiah are joined by Geshem (bulky) the Arab and collectively call out insults to those living down the street. This initial plan of attack, although relatively superficial, had the potential of being quite affective in lieu of the fragile historical realities surrounding the Jewish people. It would not have been too far a slip for these relatively manic people to go from determination back to despair again when confronted by discouragement. However, things were different now. God had sent Nehemiah who did not have a history of being intimated by this unsightly bunch.
Unfamiliar with how things normally went down in this neighborhood and unacquainted with the usual power structure, Nehemiah actually responds to the homeowners association saying, “The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem” (2:20). In other words, Nehemiah says, “This is going to happen and you have no say in the matter.” What gave Nehemiah confidence in the face of this intimidating bunch? Answer, God. Once again Nehemiah brought the task—both in the eyes of Judah and now in the eyes of his enemies—into clear focus. Their dependence in completing this project was not on their abilities, human resources, personal genius, or local approval. Their hope and assurance was in the God of heaven!
This is a passage of firsts. The first inspection is conducted, revealing a God-sized problem. The first report is given, demonstrating a pattern of honesty, mission, confirmation, and action. And the first confrontation is presented in which discouragement is met with hope from God. This series of firsts is not unlike what we experience today as disciples of Jesus Christ. When we inspect our world around us, we observe God-sized problems—growing numbers of the lost, societal decay, persecution, and (closer to our church home) a neighborhood unconvinced that it has any real need for God. It is important for us, as it was for Nehemiah and the people of Judah to be honest about this and come face-to-face with our God-given mission to reach into these situations to make disciples and build the kingdom of God! God has confirmed that He is with us by bringing us all here to such a place as this and giving us the resources He has gracious provided (money, a place, opportunities, blessings, growth, etc.). Therefore, we must take action to do something about it and face the opposition we will inevitably confront with the hope and assurance that comes only from God!
Monday, February 9, 2015
The act of writing a contract is an art as well as a science. Not only do you have make sure that elements are clearly spelled out, but it has to remain fluid enough to allow for unforeseen circumstances. The devil is always in the details and the language used is paramount. This is why when important contracts are drawn up, teams of lawyers are involved to parse every word and analyze each implication therein so that their party is pleased. Contracts are no small feat. Some are one-sided—those in which one party seems to be shouldering much of the risk or resources; while others are more equal. The contract drawn between Artaxerxes and Nehemiah is an example of the former. In fact, what is agreed upon for the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem is so one-sided that it begs one question—who is really drawing this up and making this happen? We will soon find out the answer to this question as we examine four elements involved in the contract itself from Nehemiah 2:1-10.
ELEMENT #1: The Occasion of the Contract-2:1-3
At the outset of chapter 2, Nehemiah reminds the reader that is the twentieth year of the new king, Artaxerxes. At this point, the Jews had enjoyed plenty of time back in their Promised Land and yet they do not seem too terribly motivated to do anything about their fledgling wall. This, as was discussed in the notes on chapter one, left the city of Jerusalem vulnerable to attack and paralyzed to any social, economic, or cultural development. It also kept them from fulfilling their mission to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12).
In spite of the failure of the Jews, things are looking up. Artaxerxes, a relatively gracious king (albeit toward the Jews) is now in power and has for one of his cupbearers Nehemiah who, as we learned in chapter 1, is concerned about His people. Only God could put these conditions in such perfect order. Therefore, in taking advantage of what God has orchestrated, Nehemiah uses a common occurrence to make his request for a contract to be agreed upon that involves the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2:1 says, “And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king.”
Though this was not the first time Nehemiah brought wine before the king, it was unusual for him to do so with a disheartened countenance. In fact, it was forbidden for servants to show negative emotion before royalty lest the monarch believe it was directed toward him or her. This is one reason why servants would cover their mouths with their hand when they approached the king (especially in Persia). However, instead of saving face, Nehemiah boldly wears his emotions on his sleeve.
After noticing Nehemiah’s peculiar expression, Artaxerxes asks, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart...” (2:2a). That Artaxerxes is even considerate enough to ask Nehemiah this question might suggest that He was fond of this servant of his and had grown to learn his mannerisms. Something was off on this day (purposefully) and in response Artaxerxes asks the question that Nehemiah hoped he would.
Though Nehemiah had no doubt planned for this and had run this situation over and over again in his mind, the text says he was “very much afraid” (2:2b). In a formal setting such as this, it was queer for royalty to speak to servants like this. What was he to do now? How could he set up the occasion he longed for that would lead to the contract he desired? Fortunately, Nehemiah knows how to frame an issue. Though fearful, Nehemiah responds by saying, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my father’s tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?’…” (2:3). After buttering him up with a prayer of longetivity for the king’s reign, Nehemiah shares with Artaxerxes his concern in a way that would have appealed to this king. Kings knew, more than most, how important cities were. Kings were concerned, more than most, about their heritage and parentage. Kings understood, more than most, the significance of a wall and its gates. No doubt, Artaxerxes could understand, more than most, how dire the situation was in Jerusalem from the explanation Nehemiah provided. In fact, Nehemiah’s explanation is so appropriate and so compelling that it sets things up for a formal request, the second element of this passage.
ELEMENT #2: The Request for Contract-3:4-5
In response to Nehemiah’s explanation of his dreariness, the king does something unprecedented—he actually asks Nehemiah, “‘what would you request?’…” (3:4a)! As we see earlier in the Scriptures and later in the New Testament, empires were largely indifferent to the people they had conquered. Aside from keeping the peace as in the Roman Empire of the New Testament, most rulers actually persecuted the Jews (see Babylon and later in Rome). Here, King Artaxerxes is so touched by what Nehemiah has to say that he actually gives him an opportunity to say exactly what he wants and even seems interested!
However, before Nehemiah answers the king, he prays to the King of Kings, “So I prayed to the God of heaven” (3:4b). Some argue that this is perhaps the most beautiful example of spontaneous prayer in the Scriptures! However, this is not the first time Nehemiah immediately fell on his face before the Lord in prayer (see Neh. 1:4). Though Nehemiah was fearful to approach king Artaxerxes, he demonstrates here who he fears most! (Special note: We will continue to see Nehemiah’s immediate recourse to pray in 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 13:14). For Nehemiah, prayer was of primary concern—even if it meant putting his employer (who just so happened to be one of the most powerful men in the world) on hold.
You have heard it said, “crawl before you walk,” “walk before you run,” “look before you cross,” etc. These describe the natural and instinctual steps/habits to take if we are going to be safe in crossing the street or able to move about freely/efficiently. No one questions these. In fact, in most cases, we cannot (or should not) mess with the order of these maxims. However, too often in our lives we are guilty of saying or doing before praying. Therefore, may I suggest another maxim to live by, “pray before you say.” Reversing the order of this can lead to all kinds of trouble.
Prayer’s primary place in the believer’s life is a theme that continues on into the New Testament. Verses like “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33) and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), seem to support Nehemiah’s behavior here.
Nehemiah’s prayer to the King of Kings pays off as he was blessed with boldness before King Artaxerxes. In answer to Artaxerxes question, Nehemiah replies, “’If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it’…”(2:5). Nehemiah voices a request for a contract to be drawn that would allow him time off to go and do what he believes God is leading him to do. However, the provisions of the contract (the third element of this passage) will not end there.
ELEMENT #3: The Contract Provisions-2:6-8
It is obvious by the king’s response that he is actually considering Nehemiah’s appeal, “then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, ‘How long will your journey be, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time…” (2:6). Not only was the king going to let Nehemiah go, he was pleased to do so! Nehemiah would be allowed a specific amount of time off to act as a superintendent over a huge project. Much like a timeline for a construction project today, both parties decide on an appropriate schedule for its completion.
However, Nehemiah does not stop there. If the king was going to be generous in the time he would give Nehemiah, perhaps he would also provide other necessities. Therefore, in the spirit of striking while the iron is hot, Nehemiah continues, “’if it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah’…”(2:7). This was no small favor. Fixing a wall in some small province was one thing, but granting safe travel through multiple provinces was a much bigger deal. Though this was a big favor, Nehemiah knew he would face opposition from his enemies and the former enemies of the Jewish people. This makes this provision especially significant.
The fact that Nehemiah has not been stopped or thrown out of the court by this point means that the iron is not just hot, but red hot! Therefore, Nehemiah asks for even more, “…’and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go’…” (2:8). This contract is becoming exceedingly lengthy and more expensive for Artaxerxes. Not only was Artaxerxes giving time off and granting safe passage, but now there is an amendment which asks for the king’s own lumber to be used in the construction!
In spite of the lengthy and expensive nature of this contract, Artaxerxes gives it his seal of approval, “and the king granted them to me…” (2:9). But why? What was Artaxerxes to gain? According to the way this contract is drawn, he only suffers loss! What ruler would give up so much for so little? None! However, anything is possible, even the highly improbable when the hand of God is involved, “And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me” (2:9). Only God could draw up and notarize a contract like this! Nehemiah gives all glory for this incredible achievement to Him.
ELEMENT #4: The Response to the Contract-2:9-10
Now that the occasion and the request has paid off with a killer contract, everything should be well underway and smooth sailing! In fact, as verse 9 reveals, the response to the contract initially seems positive. Nehemiah writes, “Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen…” (2:9). The safe passage Artaxerxes promised is working great as Nehemiah’s crew cross the “river” (the Euphrates) and head into more remote provinces of the empire. However, as expected, Nehemiah confronted the governors of these more remote lands and their response to the new contract is anything but positive.
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel…”(2:10). These two men filled the two chairmen positions of the busy-body-up-to-no-good homeowner’s association of rural Persia. They even have names to fit their unique and yet equally appalling personalities. Sanballat, “sin has given life,” is the free spirit crazy of the two and Tobiah, “Yahweh is good” (don’t let the name fool you), is the holier than thou aristocrat from the well-to-do family who looks down on everyone else. Change, especially big change that they don’t benefit from, was bad news for these two and the groups they represented.
Opposition lurks behind the corner for Nehemiah and his building project. These two and others will show up and continue to act as pesky nuisances who distract, discourage, and destroy the progress God is bringing about. How will Nehemiah respond? We will have to see as the construction begins in the coming passages.
However, I’m sure we can wager an educated guess as to how at this faithful man will respond. In chapter 1, Nehemiah responded to bad news with prayer and in chapter 2, Nehemiah responds to a golden opportunity with, you guessed it,…prayer. No doubt, he will continue this theme as he faces the opposition around him. When Nehemiah sought the Lord in front of Artaxerxes, an incredible contract was crafted. Surely God will show up in even bigger ways to bring Himself glory in the face of opposition. As has been demonstrated in these short ten verses, when God is sought first, blessings quickly follow.
So what opportunities has God given to you? What opportunities has God given this church? Perhaps God has given you or this church a golden opportunity that seems too hard to achieve and that would require a whole lot in order to work out. As we have witnessed in this passage, God is pleased to go above and beyond to do the impossible when He is given primary placement in the process. He not only gave Nehemiah time off, He provided safe passage and plenty of supplies in order to set Nehemiah up for success. Seek Him first church and stand amazed at His provision to do the impossible!
Monday, February 2, 2015
When I was a young boy, I remember a construction site that was in progress next to a fast food restaurant that my family frequented for lunch. Because the structure grew beside the interstate leading to our home, I was able to measure the progress this site achieved with each passing day. After a couple of months went by, it was clear by the shape of the substructure that this building would eventually be a hotel. However, soon after the scaffolding was attached to the wooden frame to finish the walls and windows, funding was pulled for the project and the site was abandoned for years. The structure, which was left exactly as it was, slowly decayed under the extreme weather conditions of south Texas and stood as an effigy of failure and hopes crushed. Similar sites are witnessed around Roanoke. Up until recently the site at Franklin Road and Wonju has laid dormant after a venture was erected and then abandoned. Nearly every day for the last couple of years I’ve passed this empty shell of a building that once promised growth and business opportunities. An abandoned, neglected, or unfinished construction site is anything but a pretty picture. Nothing can grow, thrive, or begin to yield a profit if it is unfinished, incomplete, or full of holes. Unfortunately a similar site existed in Israel and as we begin our study in Nehemiah, we are taken to survey the rubble. However, as is the case for the site on Franklin Road and Wonju, new life will come to this forgotten structure. In this case, an opportunity to finish what was started will come as a faithful follower of Yahweh answers the need of His people. Let us being our exciting study in this book by looking at four actions taken in its opening chapter. Ultimately, from this passage we will learn how we out to respond when God reveals to us the needs of those in our vicinity as we are about His kingdom building work.
ACTION #1: A Question is Posed-1:1-2
Nehemiah picks up exactly where Ezra leaves off. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, there is no division between these two books (they were not separated until about the 15th century AD). Though these two books once belonged to the same work, there is a good reason to treat them separately. One of the significant marks of the division that does occur between these two literary works involves the opening verse, “the words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah,” which switches the principle character of the narrative from the prophet Ezra to Nehemiah. In fact, this book is Nehemiah's first person account of the unfolding events.
But what of this man, Nehemiah? That he is the “son of Hacaliah” does not reveal much; and yet, his name says a mouthful. Nehemiah means “Yahweh has comforted” and in the unfolding narrative, Nehemiah will be used of God to fulfill this title.
At the time this book was written, Israel had suffered in the captivity of Babylon. However, as a new empire emerged, more freedom was granted to conquered peoples. Cyrus, Emperor of Persia was an enlightened ruler who made it his general policy to permit people who had been dispersed to return to their homeland. He also allowed them to practice their own religious beliefs. In keeping with his policy of repatriation, Cyrus permitted a group of Jewish people to return to Judah in 538 and even funded the rebuilding of the Temple. These events are preserved for us in the book of Ezra which documents the reestablishment of Israel’s spirituality depicted in the newly refurbished temple.
After the temple was complete and the Jews were restored to their land, Nehemiah reveals that “...it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, that Hannai, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem,…” (1:1b-2). Obviously, Nehemiah is concerned about his people who have made it back home to the land God had promised them from the time of Abraham. Who better to let him know how his countrymen were fairing than his own friends and brothers from Judah. Little does Nehemiah know that soon (as a result of the answer to his question) he will be made superintendent over a large and overdue construction project.
ACTIVITY #2: A Need is Shared-1:3
Unfortunately, the news from home is not good. Nehemiah recalls, “They said to me, ‘the remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach…” (1:3a). The Hebrew words here describe a place of brokenness and disgrace that is a far cry from the times of great exuberance and power experienced during the reign of king David.
Part of the reason for this unfortunate predicament involved the state of Jerusalem’s wall. Nehemiah’s brothers and friends reveal “…the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire” (1:3b). This porous perimeter surrounding the crown jewel of Israel made it susceptible to enemy attacks and kept economic growth and social development from taking place. This was no way for God’s people to prosper! This was no way for them to be a blessing to the nations!
What adds insult to injury is how long the mess had been left sitting there. The walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed almost 150 years prior by Nebuchadnezzar! Not only was this a real problem, but it was a near-ancient need that had gone unmet because of the century long exile and the present apathy/fear of a broken and disgraced people.
Things are rotten in the state of Israel. Though the people had expected the dawn of the national resurrection predicted by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1-14- after introducing the idea of dry bones taking on flesh and living again, the prophet says, “Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,” declares the Lord.’”), they faced a crisis which threatened to still the feeble heartbeat of nationhood (Lassor, Hubbard, Bush, 550). With the superintendent identified (Nehemiah) and the need described (a wall is missing where it should be and it has been absent for far too long) it follows next that a plan be put together to fix it. Right?
ACTIVITY #3: A Prayer is Offered-1:4-11d
Not so fast. Nehemiah’s kneejerk reaction is not to organize, draw up plan, or make travel arrangements. He does not even take things up to his employer to get time off to go help,…at first. Nehemiah’s initial response to this troubling news is to fall on his knees in fervent prayer. Listen to what he does in his own words, “When I heard these word, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven…” (1:4). This intimate description tells the reader something about the nature of the prayers that Nehemiah offered--they were immediate, they were emotional, they were appropriate, they were accompanied with fasting, and they were offered to the one true God. Oh that these same words could be said of our prayer lives! What did Nehemiah say during these times of fervent prayer and mourning? Thankfully, Nehemiah answers this for us by providing a sample summary of what he may have said.
The first element in Nehemiah’s prayer is praise and adoration for Yahweh, “I said, ‘I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments…” (1:5). Both the primary place God has in Nehemiah’s prayer life and the attributes he uses to describe the Almighty delineate Nehemiah’s reverent view of Yahweh. He is Master over all (“Lord”); He is above everything, (“of heaven”); He is all powerful (“great and awesome”); He is faithful (“preserves the covenant”); and He is merciful (“lovingkindness”). For all of these reasons and millions more Nehemiah turns to Him for direction and wisdom concerning this pressing issue his people now face.
After grabbing the attention of Yahweh through praise and adoration, Nehemiah makes his supplication saying, “Let your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons to Israel which we have sinned against You;…” (1:6a). Ultimately this is Nehemiah’s way of asking God to listen to him. In Nehemiah’s mind, God should pay attention to his earnest plea for several reasons: he is God’s servant; he is praying constantly (“day and night”); he is praying on behalf of God’s people; and he is willing to be honest about his sin and the sin of his people.
In fact, Nehemiah is quick to be up front about his personal and Israel’s corporate failings, “I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statues, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses…” (1:6b-7). Indeed, failure proliferates Israel’s history like mold growing on a damp basement wall. The Jews required constant saving during the times of the judges because of their sin, demanded to be like everyone else in asking for a king, and chose wickedness over God at nearly every turn. As for the Law God had given them, What law? To the Jews at this moment in history, Moses was a memory and the law of God an afterthought. Things were desperately rotten in the state of Israel. This is one reason why Nehemiah appeals to God’s lovingkindness (mercy) in the opening of His prayer.
Though there is plenty of bad news and the initial survey of the site is deplorable to say the least, Israel is not without hope. God has made a promise to Israel that Nehemiah reminds Him of next, “…Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell…” (1:9). Quoting from Leviticus 26:33, Nehemiah appeals to God’s faithfulness to the covenant promises He makes to His people (the same faithfulness Nehemiah celebrates in verse 5). Nehemiah’s prayer is that God will make good on His promise to restore His people when, not if, they turn back to Him—not for their names’ sake but for sake of the name of Yahweh!
In addition to God’s promises, Nehemiah believes God should answer his prayer because it involves His people. These were the same people that God had in mind when He called upon Abraham, the same people he anticipated in the boy Isaac, the same people he wrought in Jacob and multiplied in His twelve sons including Judah. As Nehemiah recalls, “They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed [time and time again] by Your great power and by Your strong hand…” (1:10). Just as God had looked out for His people and would continue to do so on into eternity, Nehemiah asks that He do so here in this situation.
“…O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man…”(1:11a). Nehemiah’s reiteration of His supplication in verse 11 only enhances the passion behind His fervent prayer. Obviously, though the many had failed God, there were still a few who revered the name of Yahweh. This gives Nehemiah the boldness to ask God for success in the first step he now feels led to take—asking his employer for a leave of absence to go and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem (allowing Jerusalem the safety necessary to grow and thrive). Don’t be fooled by the casual reference to Nehemiah’s boss (“this man”), for he is none other than Artaxerxes, king of Persia!
Nehemiah’s response to the need he is confronted with provides us with a glimpse into this man’s heart. Nehemiah is a devout follower of Yahweh and incredibly concerned about Yahweh’s people who are struggling. Unlike his countrymen, Nehemiah is not going to sit around and allow the wall to forever hamper the development of God’s people. He is going to take action—the first of which is calling upon the Lord for help, forgiveness, guidance, and blessing.
ACTIVITY #4: A Hand is Traced-1:11b-“…Now I was cupbearer to the King…”
With the superintendent chosen, the need identified, and contract drawn up, the only thing left to do is get the permits signed by the proper authorities. In this case, the authority is king Artaxerxes (as he is the one who can green light a construction project of this magnitude and allow Nehemiah to head it up). It is a good thing Nehemiah was His cupbearer, “Now I was cupbearer to the King” (1:11b).
Do not mistake this casual reference as an example of a coincidence. On the contrary, this remark is Nehemiah’s way of subtly tracing the hand of God’s sovereignty. Yahweh had planted this man in a close and trusting relationship with the king for such a time as this. If anyone could bend the ear of Artaxerxes, it was Nehemiah who taste-tested the king’s food, entertained him in conversation, and acted as an informal advisor. The one who had the ear of God also had the ear of the king—this was no accident.
All of these activities suggest that we are in for quite a saga in the remaining chapters of Nehemiah. However, this opening chapter is not without application for our own lives as we act as builders of God’s kingdom today. Just as Nehemiah surveyed the situation and found it in shambles, if we take a survey into the state of the kingdom of God in this neighborhood, city, state, and country, we will find it porous, and therefore vulnerable to all kinds of calamity. Don’t let the beautiful homes and landscaping fool you, things are rotten in the state of South Roanoke and unfortunately, I’m convinced that our hearts don’t break for her as Nehemiah’s did for Israel. How bad does it bother us that there are many who claim to be Christians in our vicinity that are far from God? How much does it hurt that people are attacked by wickedness and sin every day and on their way to eternity without God? Does the growing allure of atheism send a chill up your spine?
I don’t’ know about you, but I feel called to this place to do something about it—to help make this place, Crystal Spring Baptist, suitable for God’s kingdom to thrive here for His name’s sake. However, before we draw up the plans, organize ministries, strategize, and get to work, we must be a people who, like Nehemiah, fall on our knees before God in fervent prayer, broken and desperate for Him to intervene and guide the way. We must infuse our prayer with passion and accompany it with fasting when led. In so doing, we will have eyes to see the hand of God’s sovereignty –the same hands that have brought each of us to such a place as this, for such a time as this, in order to fulfill His incredible mission.