Historical Introduction to Nehemiah
Through Abraham, God had made covenant with a particular people on earth. Through Moses and Joshua, God had set His covenant people free from slavery and brought them into the Promised Land. Through David, the Lord established Jerusalem as the city of the great King. God’s desire was to glorify Himself through a people whom He could call His own. God wanted to shine His light and share His life and speak His truth into a lost world. To do that, He needed a people who would live in a holy, covenant relationship Him.
Around 1445 BC Moses led Israel out of Egypt and forty years later Joshua led the nation into the land of promise. Around 1,000 BC David was crowned king and the nation reached its highest level of power and prosperity. Prosperity continued under Solomon and then a gradual decline led to a civil war and the dividing of the nation into two separate entities. The Northern Kingdom, containing ten of the original twelve tribes, was called Israel and included the regions later known as Samaria and Galilee. The Southern Kingdom, comprised of the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, was called Judah and included Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
However, over the centuries, the two kingdoms turned from God and fell into idolatry, injustice and immorality. God patiently called to His people through the prophets — pleading, warning.
When Israel and Judah ignored God’s call, the Lord’s response was to judge His covenant people. In 722 BC the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and deported many of the Jews who survived the war. In 605 BC, God used the Babylonian nation to defeat the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon. (Daniel a young boy at this time, was taken as a captive to Babylon. He later became an important official in the court of the Babylonian kings and still later, in the court of the Medo-Persians).
In 586 BC the Babylonians returned and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Thousands more of the people were taken away into exile in Babylon. At this time, Jerusalem, the temple and much of the land was reduced to ruins. There was not one stone left on another in Jerusalem.
In 539 the Persians defeated Babylon and assumed control of the empire. Daniel, now an elderly man, then became an official in the court of the Persian king. The following year, 538, Cyrus, the Persian King, decreed that the Jews could return to their native land and rebuild their temple.
The first group of exiles returned, led by a man named Zerubbabel. They immediately began rebuilding the Temple which was completed in 516 BC. Though it was far less beautiful than Solomon’s temple, nevertheless, it provided a spiritual center for the exercise of the Jewish religion.
A second group of exiles returned under Ezra’s leadership in 458. During all this time, however, Jerusalem was never rebuilt — it lay in ruins.
The book of Nehemiah begins somewhere between 446 and 444 BC. Approximately ninety years had passed since the first group of exiles had returned and 70 years had passed since the temple had been rebuilt (in 516). Nehemiah, a Jewish official in the court of the Persian king, receives word that after all this time, Jerusalem remained in ruins and the survivors are in great distress (Nehemiah 1:1-3). The wall of Jerusalem is still broken down and the gates are nothing but ashes.
The rebuilt temple was literally surrounded by the garbage and rubble of an uninhabited city which had been destroyed 140 years previously. Worshippers traveled from the neighboring villages, passed through the ruins of Jerusalem to worship at the temple, then returned to their homes outside the city.
This is the historical setting as we begin the book of Nehemiah.
Restored From Rubble
A famous evangelist was in town. He was the latest thing, had his picture in the paper. He intended to make it big in the religion business and was moving up the ladder. This was during World War II and while he was preaching in the area he was invited to a nearby army training center. During his tour of the base he was taken to a building set apart from the others.
From the outside he could hear shouting and screaming. As he entered, the noise was unearthly. His eyes followed a stairway and at the top of the stairs were iron bars. Behind the bars were hundreds of men crouching, hiding, writhing on the floor, crying out. Broken men, broken by the horrors of war in the South Pacific.
Behind a desk sat a full colonel, watching the minister staring at the soldiers. The evangelist was repulsed by the scene and amazed that such a high ranking officer would be in charge of such a terrible place. He wondered, “Why is he wasting his life here? No great battles will be fought, no glorious marches into the history books. What’s he doing?”
The evangelist turned to the officer and rendered a cheery, empty, hypocritical greeting. The colonel, as if sensing every thought in the vain soul before him, rose from his desk and approached the evangelist with a loud, defiant response.
“Reverend, I don't care what you think about anything in this building.”
Then putting his hand roughly on the minister's shoulder and thrusting his face into the face of his startled visitor, his voice quaking with emotion, the colonel added, “Reverend, these boys are lost. Do you know what it means to be lost?”
The minister was silent as the officer continued, “The reason I’m here is because I want to see the day when one mother will enter, hear the voice of her son, race up the stairs and call his name. And her son will reply, ‘Ma, I don't know where I’ve been.’ And the mother will reply, ‘Son, it doesn’t matter where you’ve been. Let’s go home.’”
“That’s why I’m here.”
The evangelist said, “I was converted that day. Not to Jesus — I already believed. But I was converted to heaven’s way of seeing. I caught a glimpse of heaven’s vision for people.”
Do you know what he saw? He saw the treasure of one lost soul.
Jesus said the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls and finding one of great value, sold all and bought it (Matthew 13:45,46). This is what our Lord did. He left the splendor of heaven, laid aside the robe of His glory and being clothed in human form, gave all of His love, spent all of His heart, poured out all of His life on a cross to purchase a pearl of great price.
That pearl is you and me. We are the reason Jesus came to earth. We are the only treasure God is interested in.
Hell will spend anything to trash you.
Heaven has spent everything to redeem you.
Hell wants to trash your marriage, your health, your life, your eternity.
God treasures your marriage, your health, your soul, your eternity.
What does it mean to be redeemed? It means that having trusted in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and having accepted His Lordship over our lives, we have been forgiven of our sin, redeemed from slavery to sin and death and reconciled to God. Someday we will stand in the presence of the Lord and worship His glory. But there is more to salvation than this.
Having been redeemed by God and reconciled to God, He desires now to shape and mold us, rebuild and restore us into a vessel of honor through whose life He may show forth His glory, His mercy, His wisdom and power and holiness. He wants to extend His Lordship into every area of our life so that He may be glorified in and through us.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).
You and I are the pearl of great price, a city set on a hill and the Lord does not intend to hide us. Rather, He wants to reveal Himself through us. He wants to conform us to Himself and fill us with His life, that He might pour His life through us into this hurting world.
We are the pearl that shows forth the treasure of heaven.
We are the city that shows forth the kingdom of God.
We are the light that shows forth the glory of God.
The problem is, when we came to the Lord, there were areas of our lives that had been broken, areas intended for beauty but reduced to rubble. Rubble obscures the light, hides the pearl.
How did that happen?
Some of the rubble is part of our family or cultural inheritance. We didn’t ask for it, we just inherited it — born into a fallen family in a fallen world. Some of the rubble is due to sins committed against us when we were too young or too vulnerable to resist. Some of the rubble is due to our own sins committed in ignorance, during our years apart from the Lord. Some of the rubble is due to our willful disobedience and aggressive rebellion against God. But whether the rubble resulted from inheritance, ignorance, disobedience or rebellion, the damage was grievous.
During those years when we were separated from the Lord, we were at the mercy of the god of this world. Just as the armies of Babylon were ruthless in their desire to tear down and destroy the representation of God in the city of Jerusalem, so Satan is ruthless in his desire to tear down the image of God in people.
The result is a human personality burdened with doubt, shame, fear, lust, greed, compulsive behaviors, bitterness, violence, confusion and every expression of sin. Even after a man or woman has been forgiven of sin and reconciled to God, and though it is God’s purpose to show forth His glory through this redeemed life, there is still the rubble of past years.
Rubble obscures the light, hides the pearl.
We have two choices. We can deny the truth and pretend we are OK.
Or we can be honest and confess our need to God. When we do, we discover a God who meets us in the rubble, not to shame us but to rebuild and restore us.
We have a picture of this in Nehemiah. He lived many years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The Babylonians had leveled the city and slaughtered multitudes of Israelites and taken thousands into exile in a foreign land. A generation had returned to the Promised Land in 538 BC and by 516 the temple had been rebuilt and the worship life of Israel was restored. But 70 years after that, Jerusalem was still in ruins. The restored temple was literally surrounded by the rubble of an abandoned city.
When Nehemiah heard the news, he was grieved. He knew that the purpose of God for Jerusalem and all Israel could not be accomplished while the holy city lay in ruins. God is not glorified by a rebuilt temple surrounded by rubble. As Nehemiah wept and prayed, the Lord called him to rebuild. The book of Nehemiah is the historical record of that rebuilding.
In that historical record, we also see a spiritual picture of the One who comes to rebuild our lives. Who is He? His name is revealed in Nehemiah’s name. In Hebrew, Nehemiah is Nechem Ya: Yahweh Comforts (Jehovah Comforts).
As Jesus neared the end of His earthly ministry, He promised, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper (Counselor, Comforter), that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans (comfortless); I will come to you” (John 14:16-18).
Jesus promised that though He was leaving His disciples, He would still be present with them through the ministry of another Helper. The word another is allos, which refers to another of the same kind, someone like Jesus who will take His place and continue His ministry. The word which we translate Helper is Paracletos, which may also be translated Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor — someone who comes alongside to help.
Jesus tells us more about the ministry of this Helper: “But the Helper (Comforter), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26).
“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper (Comforter) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you” (John 16:7-14).
Jesus promised to send a Helper, Comforter, Advocate who would indwell the disciples and teach, lead and glorify Christ. This indwelling Comforter also ministers transformation, restoration, consecration: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17,18).
The Holy Spirit, the Helper, Comforter, is committed to the ministry of transformation, restoring what the enemy has broken. There is a reason why the Lord never backs off from the rubble in our lives. It is because salvation is not merely a judicial statement whereby God forgives us of our sin and declares us to be just. Salvation is also a process of restoring that which sin has destroyed.
Picture a city which once was conquered by a counterfeit king but now the true king has returned and recaptured the city. He establishes his throne in the heart of the city but he doesn’t want his throne to be surrounded by the rubble, the memory of a conquered city so he begins a campaign of rebuilding the city.
So with us. Salvation is not merely the recapture of a ruined life, the ransom and release of a life from the hands of a conqueror. Salvation is more than our rightful King establishing His throne in our heart. Salvation is also the rebuilding and restoring of our life by the true King.
This is why the Lord works so slowly and carefully in our lives. He is the consummate craftsman and is building us for time and eternity, that He may be glorified through us now and so that in eternity we may stand in His presence blameless in holiness.
“For are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
The Lord, the Comforter, our Nehemiah, is crafting us, rebuilding us for glory. Someday we will stand in the presence of the Lord and worship His glory. Until that day, He desires to be glorified in us and through us day by day.
He has the authority, the resources and the time. He has a blueprint. He will not back off until the restoration is complete. “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
1. What does the name Nehemiah mean in Hebrew?
2. Now that we are saved, redeemed, is there something more the Lord wants to do in us and through us?
1:1,2 “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, that Hanani, 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.”
Nehemiah identifies himself as the narrator. His name means God comforts (Yahweh or Jehovah comforts). He also identifies the time of this event — it is in the month Chislev (Nov / Dec) and in the 20th year (that is, the 20th year of the reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes who reigned from 464-423 BC). So the time would be approximately 444 BC (not an exact date).
He identifies the place where he was residing, “While I was in Susa” (also known as Shushan). This was a city east of Babylon and north of the Persian Gulf. His brother, Hanani, and some other Hebrew men have returned from Jerusalem and Nehemiah asks them about the conditions there.
1:3 “And they said to me, ‘The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.’”
Remember from our introduction that Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians, first in 605 BC and then, when Judah rebelled in 586, the nation was again defeated and the city of Jerusalem was leveled. When the Persians conquered Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus allowed Jews to return to their home land. The first group arrived sometime between 538 and 536. They immediately began to rebuild the temple and it was completed in 516.
Some ninety years after the first exiles had returned to Jerusalem, after the temple had been rebuilt, the walls of the city were still broken down, the gates still burned, the city still lay in rubble as it had since the destruction of the city by the Babylonians over 140 years previously. The worship life of the nation had been restored but no one lived in the city and the temple was surrounded by the ruins which speak of past defeat.
Why do the messengers mention walls and gates in particular?
In Bible times, walls represented identity, definition. The city exists within the walls. Outside the walls is not our city. Walls define the city. A city without walls was a city with no identity — you can’t tell where the city begins and where it ends. It is also a city with no defense — anyone can come in or out. Walls provided definition, defense, security.
People also need a healthy sense of definition or identity. Within these boundaries, this is me. Outside these boundaries, that is not me. We shouldn’t build walls for the purpose of keeping people out of our lives but we each need a strong, secure sense of who we are. In a world that is constantly deceiving, lying, seducing, we need to be able to say, “I know who I am in Christ.”
Why are gates important? In a biblical city, gates were not just swinging doors on the walls. In earlier days, the elders met at the gates, heard judicial cases, made governmental decisions. Sometimes, located alongside the gates was a complex of buildings compared to our City Hall. The government of the city functioned there and so gates represent the wise exercise of governmental rule.
Gates also were used as instruments of authority. They would open to that which was good, close to that which was harmful or evil.
A healthy personality also needs to be able to exercise wise, discerning self rule under the Lordship of Jesus. We assess the information that comes to us and we make decisions. We open our lives to that which is good, close to that which is evil or harmful. Gates represent our capacity to make wise decisions and assessments.
In Nehemiah’s day, a city without walls and gates was a city without identity, security or authority. That is a vulnerable city. We can say the same thing about a person who has no stable sense of identity or security, who has no capacity to exercise personal authority or autonomy.
In Proverbs 25:28 we read, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit.” That is a vulnerable, at-risk person.
1:4 “When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
When the report came that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and the gates destroyed, Nehemiah wept, mourned, fasted and prayed for many days. But why was he so grieved? Jerusalem had been that way since 586 and Nehemiah knew that. Why is he so deeply troubled over a condition that has been unchanged for 140 years?
The reason is because the survivors were in great distress and shame. It was good that the temple had been rebuilt and worship had been restored but there was so much more to do. God is not glorified by a temple surrounded by rubble, where there is no identity, no defense against evil, no governmental authority. God wanted a city on which He could place His name and His glory, a city filled with people through whose lives He could shine and speak and reveal Himself to a lost world. Without walls and gates, even the rebuilt temple was vulnerable to Israel’s enemies. The city of the Great King was a pile of rubble and the people were ashamed and troubled and well they should be.
I believe Nehemiah’s tears were an echo of the Holy Spirit’s grief for the shame of God’s people. The Holy Spirit wept over the face of the unformed deep, wept for the unfulfilled purposes of God for Jerusalem. God grieved a holy temple surrounded by rubble.
I believe the Holy Spirit is grieved today over that which has been torn down, that which is unfulfilled, in God’s people. It is good that we have come to believe in the Lord and have been born again, forgiven, redeemed from slavery to sin and death. When we invited Jesus to be our Savior and Lord, His Holy Spirit came to indwell us, the temple of our spirit was restored as a place of worship and habitation of the Lord. This is good and wonderful.
But during those years when we were separated from the Lord, we were at the mercy of the Evil One, the ruler of this world. Just as the armies of Babylon were ruthless in their desire to tear down and destroy the representation of God in the city of Jerusalem, so Satan is ruthless in his desire to tear down the image of God in people.
As with the broken walls and burned gates of Jerusalem, there may be aspects of our identity or self concept that have been breached or maybe never formed properly and so the enemy enters in through those points of vulnerability and wreaks havoc. There may be an inadequate sense of authority, manifesting in the inability to exercise wise self rule under the Lordship of Christ. There may be the inability to defend against the corrupting influences of the world, resulting in uncontrollable habits, fear, shame, bitterness and a host of other destructive forces. Even those who came to know the Lord at an early age have known the damaging impact of living in a fallen world. It’s not just our own sins that have scarred us. We also bear scars from generations past.
The sins of generational inheritance and cultural / social impact, the sins of others against us and our own sins have created points of vulnerability within us — broken walls and gates. The adversary knows well those entrance points because he did it. He knows where and how to get in.
Yes, it is good that we are the temple of the Lord but a temple surrounded by rubble is less than what God has purposed for us. And the Holy Spirit weeps over the face of the unformed deep, weeps over the unfulfilled purposes of God for the people of God.
I do not mean that God is ashamed of us — we are His children and His treasure and He loves us. But He wants us to stand with a strong sense of identity in Him, able to say, “I know who I am in Christ Jesus. I know the plan and purpose God has for me.” God wants us to stand with a sense of authority in Him, able to say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
It is good that worship and fellowship have been restored between God and a believer, but God wants to do more than that. More than the forgiveness of sin, He wants to restore that which sin destroyed. More than restoring relationship with Himself, He wants to extend that relationship into every area of our life.
Why? So He can reach out through us to a hurting world. More than reconciling sons and daughters to Himself, God also wants to reconcile a lost world to Himself through us. We are a city set on a hill, individually and corporately as the church. Jesus said,
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).
Your soul is your command center, the capital city of you. The Lord wants to rebuild and restore these rubble strewn areas of our soul, wants our inner being to be like a lovely city, where He can set His name and His glory. Restoration is what the Lord purposed for the Hebrew people and why He shared His grief with Nehemiah. As Nehemiah wept and prayed, he was able to receive the Lord’s burden to go and rebuild Jerusalem.
1:5 “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.’”
Nehemiah’s prayer is recorded for us. He begins by hallowing God’s names, praising God’s attributes and works. Praise is a wonderful entrance into prayer.
He praises “the great and awesome God.” He praises the God who preserves covenant love for “those who love Him and keep His commandments.” Though their walls are broken down and the gates are burned, though the city is filled with the rubble of past judgment and destruction, nevertheless, God preserves covenant love. God had made a covenant with Abraham that a nation would spring forth from his seed. God had made covenant with Moses and led the Hebrew people out of slavery and into the land of promise.
The Lord had exercised judgment over His covenant people because they were unfaithful to the covenant. The nation had been conquered, the capitol city and the temple destroyed, multitudes had been killed and thousands taken into exile but not because God is unfaithful to His covenant. It was because Israel was unfaithful to the covenant and came out from under the blessings of the covenant. However, many years before, God had promised through the prophet Jeremiah that after 70 years of discipline, a remnant of the covenant nation would be restored (see Jeremiah 29:10-14 and 25:12-14).
Who would comprise that remnant? “Those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Neh. 1:5). Our God is a God who makes covenant and keeps covenant with all who love Him and live within the boundaries of His covenant love and law. He is a God who makes promises and is always faithful to the utmost to keep and fulfill every promise to “those who love Him and keep His commandments.”
Nehemiah knows this and praises the covenant keeping God.
Notice that Nehemiah moves into prayer by appealing to the unchanging character of God. God answers prayer for His name’s sake, for His glory. He intervenes in our lives and in this world because of who He is. His perfect, holy being will never change and therefore, His purpose will not change. He will always act in a manner entirely consistent with His name.
1:6 “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 of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned.”
Nehemiah moves from praise to confession of sin on behalf of the nation. This was also Daniel’s pattern many years previously (see Daniel 9:3-19). The intercessor prays on behalf of the people and identifies with their sin. He confesses “the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against you.” The pronoun we reveals the mark of a true intercessor. Nehemiah does not hold himself apart from the people.
He also understands, “We have sinned against You.” All sin is ultimately against God.
1:7 “We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.”
Nehemiah confesses that they “have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes nor the ordinances which you commanded your servant Moses.” All sin can be reduced to lawlessness. Over the centuries, the people of Israel and Judah had continued to practice some of the rituals of their religion, but had also continued to act in a lawless manner, flagrantly disregarding the commandments given by God through Moses, worshipping false gods, oppressing the poor. God’s response was to reject their worship, their prayers and their sacrifices.
In Proverbs we read, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent” (Prov. 21:27). God does not receive worship in the context of unrepented sin. He considers that to be hypocrisy, abomination.
Centuries before Nehemiah, the Lord had spoken to that mindset of religious lawlessness through Amos the prophet, “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Who gave Israel their festivals, their rituals and songs? Who commanded the people to bring offerings and sacrifices? God did. But He will not receive our offerings or our praise in a context of unrepented sin.
The Psalmist said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18). Even Solomon, tainted as he was by sin and compromise, understood this, “He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov. 28:9).
Jesus spoke to that same mindset of religious lawlessness in His day: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
God does not receive outward expressions of religious ritual from lives compromised by sin. What God will receive is the humble repentance of a broken heart. As David said, “For you do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16,17).
Because Nehemiah understands this about God, he comes before the Lord with praise and humble confession of sin.
1:8,9 “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.’”
Nehemiah now reminds God of His Word: “If you return to me” (repent) and “keep my commandments” (walk in obedience), I will gather you and I will bring you “to the place where I have chosen to cause my name to dwell.” Nehemiah may have been thinking of the promise made through Jeremiah so many years before:
“For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile’” (Jeremiah 29:10-14).
The Lord had made marvelous promises to the nation: “I will be found, I will restore, I will gather, I will bring you back.” But there was also a condition: “Call upon me, come and seek me with all your heart.”
This is what Nehemiah is doing. He is seeking God with all his heart. People have returned to the land but the nation has not been restored. A temple surrounded by rubble is not restoration. So Nehemiah is seeking the Lord for the fulfillment of the promise of restoration.
1:10 “They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.”
Nehemiah reminds the Lord of His mighty act of deliverance in redeeming Israel in times past. He is probably referring to the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Israel could not have fulfilled God’s covenant purpose while living as slaves. It was God’s power, God’s strong hand that had brought about deliverance. God had redeemed them, not simply from slavery, not merely out of Egypt, but into the purpose and the land that God had ordained for them. They had been redeemed to be God’s covenant people.
In Nehemiah’s day, Israel is unable to fulfill God’s covenant purpose. The Lord had purposed that they would be His covenant people, on whom He would place His glory, through whom He would shine His light. They were to be the covenant people who will someday receive the Messiah and go forth to the nations proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom of God.
The reality is a rebuilt temple surrounded by rubble, a city with neither gates nor walls. In this condition, they will not fulfill God’s covenant purpose. Nehemiah is trusting that the same God who did that mighty work of redemption in Egypt and in the wilderness, will again redeem Israel by His power and for His glory.
1:11 “‘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.’ Now I was the cupbearer to the king.”
Nehemiah closes His prayer by beseeching the Lord to hear his prayer. He reminds the Lord that he, and those who pray with him, reverence the name of the Lord. He asks for success and compassion when he goes before the king.
It sounds like he has a plan. You see, he has access to the king. He is cupbearer to the king, meaning he had the responsibility of testing all the beverages that came to the royal table. In modern terms, he was head of the Secret Service, charged with protecting the security of the reigning monarch. This gave him a unique relationship of confidence and created opportunities to communicate with the most powerful ruler in that part of the world.
Nehemiah knows exactly what he intends to do but he appeals to God for success. He understood that the most powerful person in this world is not any mere mortal ruler, not even the Persian king who ruled an enormous empire at that time. The great powerbroker is the King of kings, God Almighty. Nehemiah understood this principle, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord, He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).
God had positioned Nehemiah to be His personal instrument in the accomplishing of covenant purpose — the restoration of Jerusalem. As with Joseph, Daniel and Esther, God always positions his servants where and when they need to be in order to serve His purpose.
God has also positioned a Nehemiah for the restoring of our lives. Who is this Nehemiah? His identity is revealed in the name — Nehemiah, Nechem Ya: God comforts. The purpose of the Comforter is to rebuild our walls and gates, to restore men and women who have an unshakeable sense of identity in Christ, whose authority is established in Christ, upon whom God may set His glory and through whom the Lord may shine His light, speak His truth and manifest His power.
In the following chapters we will see how Nehemiah corresponds to the Comforter whom the Lord has sent for the restoring of our lives.
1. Why was Nehemiah so grieved over the condition of Jerusalem? (see v. 3,4)
2. What does the Holy Spirit want to do in our lives that would be comparable to repairing the walls and gates of Jerusalem? (see v. 4)
The Apostle Paul said that the light of the glory of Christ has shined in our hearts and we carry this treasure of light in the earthen vessel of our lives (2 Cor. 4:6,7).
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).
Followers of Jesus are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. We carry the glorious presence of Jesus in our hearts and the Lord does not intend to hide us. Rather, His purpose is to reveal Himself through us. We are purposed to be the vessel that shows forth the kingdom presence, power, mercy, truth and glory of God. The Lord wants to conform us to Himself, fill us with Himself and then pour His life through us into a lost, broken world.
The problem is that when we came to the Lord there were areas of our lives that had been intended for glory but had been reduced to rubble. Rubble obscures the glory that the living God wants to shine through us.
We have two choices. We can hide from the truth, insist that we are OK just the way we are. Or we can be honest, confess our need and open our lives to the transforming, restoring work of God in us. When we open our hearts to the Lord in humility, we encounter a God who meets us in the rubble, not to shame us but to restore us.
We have a beautiful picture of this in the book of Nehemiah. Jerusalem had been destroyed because of the unfaithfulness of God’s covenant people. Many years later, two groups of exiles had returned to the land and the temple had been rebuilt. But the city itself was still in ruins, the gates were burned and the walls were still broken down. The temple was surrounded by the rubble that once had been Jerusalem.
The lack of gates and walls represented a lack of identity and authority. God wanted a city that would represent His glory and His covenant purpose in this world. An uninhabited, garbage strewn ruin surrounding a restored temple could not fulfill the purpose of God. So God raised up Nehemiah for the rebuilding of the city.
In chapter one, Nehemiah heard about the condition of the city and wept, mourned and prayed. He took his grief to the Lord. Now he stands in the presence of the king.
2:1,2 “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. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.’ Then I was very much afraid.”
Nehemiah is an official in the court of the Persian king, one of the men charged with guarding the security of the king and who regularly entered the king’s presence. On this day he comes to serve the king but he is sad because the condition of Jerusalem is weighing heavily on his heart.
The king asks the reason for his sorrow and this caused Nehemiah to be afraid — sadness in the king’s presence was dangerous. If this sounds odd it is because we are not associated with rulers who exercise absolute authority over every aspect of our lives.
2:3 “I said to the king, ‘Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?’”
Even though Nehemiah is afraid, he gives an honest reply, “I’m sad because the city that is sacred to me lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire.”
2:4 “Then the king said to me, ‘What would you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven.”
The king does not question Nehemiah. He simply asks him what he wants. This signifies the favor of God in Nehemiah’s life. The man of God throws up a quick prayer and replies.
2:5 “I said to the king, ‘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.’”
A bold, simple, direct request. Send me to Jerusalem to rebuild it. He has heard from God. He is expressing the desire and purpose of God.
2:6 “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.”
Again, the king doesn’t question Nehemiah. He simply asks, “How much time do you need?” Nehemiah set a definite time and the king evidently agrees. That is favor.
Nehemiah is a symbol to us of someone greater than himself. His name, Nechem Ya, means: God comforts.
King Jesus, said: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper (Comforter), that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:16,17)
The word which we translate Helper or Comforter is Paracletos, one called alongside to help: Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor. Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit who comes to indwell all confessing Christians. Just as the Persian king sent Nehemiah to rebuild the city of God’s covenant people, King Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit, the Comforter from God, for the rebuilding of the lives of covenant people.
The Persian king did not set the time for Nehemiah’s work in Jerusalem. Nehemiah did. He went with a commitment to stay as long as it took to rebuild and restore.
That’s how it is with our Nehemiah, the Comforter. He comes to us with a commitment to spend as much time as is needed in restoring our lives. Sometimes people say, “I'm through with you.” God will never say that. He knows exactly how long our life will be and will spend every moment of that time rebuilding and restoring. How wonderful is the faithfulness of our God!
The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the judgment of God on Jerusalem, yet he testified, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22).
Through the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord said to His covenant people, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jere. 31:33).
Even though God judged His covenant people, He never ceased to love them, never nullified His covenant commitment to them, never ceased being faithful. God is utterly, perfectly, unceasingly faithful because of who He is.
David said, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3). For His name’s sake — because of who He is, God faithfully ministers grace to us. God always acts in a manner perfectly consistent with who He is. Therefore, He is perfectly righteous when he judges sin but He is perfectly merciful to sinners who turn from their sin, faithfully pouring out grace and lovingkindness on all who call upon Him. Truly as the Psalmist reminds us, “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness” (Psalm 145:8).
Nehemiah went to Jerusalem, faithfully committed to stay until the work of restoration was complete. In the same way, the Holy Spirit comes to us, faithfully committed to stay until the work of restoration is complete. David the Psalmist worshipfully exclaimed to the Lord, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Psalm 139:16). The Holy Spirit knows how long your life will be and just as Nehemiah set a definite time for his work, so the Holy Spirit is willing to take all the time, every moment of life, in this process of restoring.
We can trust in the consistency and commitment of a Savior who says, “I will never fail you nor forsake you” (Hebr. 13:5b).
Jesus said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He is committed through each moment of time to rebuild and restore.
2:7,8 “And I said to the king, ‘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, 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.’ And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on
Nehemiah asks for and receives letters of authority from the king. Those letters bore the seal, the stamp of the king. The bearer carried the authority of the king and no one would dare to resist him. In the same manner, the Holy Spirit comes to us in the name of the King of kings, the name above all names in heaven and on earth. Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of me” (John 15:26).
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father in the name of Jesus. Who can resist His authority?
Nehemiah also asks the king for necessary resources and the king gives him timber for building gates and walls, “Because the good hand of my God was on me.” He rightly understands that he has favor with the king because he has favor with God.
In the same way, our Comforter comes to us bearing all the necessary resources of grace for the restoring of our gates of authority and walls of identity. Whatever we lack in the completeness of our humanity, the Comforter has an unlimited supply.
2:9 “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.”
Nehemiah did not ask for soldiers to guard him but the king granted that because it was needed. The king even provides what Nehemiah does not ask for, such is his favor.
Rightly did the Psalmist say, “For not from the east, nor from the west, nor from the desert comes exaltation (promotion); but God is the Judge; He puts down one and exalts another” (Psalm 75:6,7).
Nehemiah arrived bearing the authority of the king, with the timber needed to build, the soldiers necessary to guard the work, and no doubt with every other resource needed to rebuild the city because he had favor from the God whose purpose was to rebuild and restore Jerusalem. The Lord provided the resources necessary to accomplish His purpose.
In the same way our Nehemiah, the Comforter, comes to us: “My God shall supply your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phlpns. 4:19).
“His divine power has made available to us all things pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Whatever resources are needed to restore you to God’s full purpose for our life, the Lord has already positioned these resources and He will lavish them upon us. Such is His grace. The Holy Spirit is sent by King Jesus for the purpose of rebuilding and restoring our lives. He comes with all the time, authority and resource needed to rebuild. All this is from our King.
2:10 “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.”
Nehemiah’s arrival is displeasing to the enemies of Israel. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria and probably a Moabite. Tobiah was an Ammonite. They understand that Nehemiah has come seeking the welfare, the restoration of the covenant people of God. There is a foreshadowing here of opposition to come. The rebuilding program will be opposed.
So with us. It is displeasing to Satan that someone has come seeking the welfare, the restoration of the people of God. There is opposition but though this opposition may be expressed through people, people are not our true adversary. The Apostle Paul reminds us,
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Our enemy is not flesh and blood but the spiritual forces of darkness which seek to destroy the creature made in the image of God. Demonic powers try to prevent a soul from experiencing redemption through faith in Christ. When we are redeemed, they resist the process of restoration and consecration.
However, though there will be opposition to this work of rebuilding, take heart and hear the words of the Apostle Paul, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:57).
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place” (2 Cor. 2:14). If we will cooperate, the Lord wil have His way, He will perfect what He has begun in us.
Let’s review what Nehemiah took with Him when he went to Jerusalem. It is what our Comforter, the Holy Spirit, brings to us.
1. A commitment of faithfulness: 2:1-6
The king did not set the time for Nehemiah’s work in Jerusalem. Nehemiah did. He went with a commitment to stay as long as it took to rebuild and restore.
So with us. The Holy Spirit knows how long our life will be and is committed to take all the time needed to do the work of restoration. He will be faithful moment by moment until this life is ended.
2. Nehemiah went in the name of the king, bearing the king's authority: 2:7
In the same way, the Holy Spirit comes to us in the name of the King of kings, the name above all names in heaven and on earth. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father in the name of Jesus. He brings with Him absolute authority to accomplish His purpose.
3. Nehemiah came with all the resources needed to rebuild: 2:8,9
So in our lives, the Holy Spirit comes to us with all the gifts of grace necessary for the restoring and rebuilding of our lives.
There’s something else Nehemiah brought with him and we will discuss that in the next lesson.
1. What did Nehemiah bring with him to Jerusalem? (see v. 6-8)
2. How is this a picture of the Holy Spirit coming to us?
Nehemiah, whose name means Yahweh’s Comforter, came to rebuild Jerusalem because God was not glorified by a rebuilt temple surrounded by rubble. He came bringing a committment to stay until the work was complete and he came bringing the authority of the king and the resources of the king. He also brought a blueprint.
2:11-16 “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. So I 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. Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned. The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work.”
In the darkness of night Nehemiah arises and surveys the rubble. He surveys the Valley Gate and the Dragon’s Well, the Refuse Gate, the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool. What is he doing? He is gathering information, developing a blueprint. Before he ever called anyone to work, before anyone was aware of his intentions, Nehemiah develops a plan.
So with us. While we were still asleep in the darkness of sin, before the sun had risen in our hearts, the Holy Spirit was watching, yearning, brooding over the face of the deep. When at last the sun arose and the day of salvation came, the Holy Spirit had a blueprint prepared for the restoration of our life. A hymn writer put it this way:
“Unnumbered comforts to my soul thy tender care bestowed
before my infant heart could know from whom those comforts flowed
When in the slippery paths of youth with heedless steps I ran
thine arm unseen conveyed me safe and led me up to man”
Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31).
The Comforter’s ministry in our lives is based on a blueprint which itself is an expression of the omniscience of God — the perfect, timeless wisdom and knowledge of Almighty God.
Let’s review what Nehemiah took with Him when he went to Jerusalem. It is what our Comforter, the Holy Spirit, brings to us.
1. A commitment of faithfulness: 2:1-6
The king did not set the time for Nehemiah's work in Jerusalem. Nehemiah did. He went with a commitment to stay as long as it took to rebuild and restore.
So with us. The Holy Spirit knows how long our life will be and is committed to take all the time needed to do the work of restoration. He will be faithful moment by moment until this life is ended.
2. Nehemiah went in the name of the king, bearing the king's authority: 2:7
In the same way, the Holy Spirit comes to us in the name of the King of kings, the name above all names in heaven and on earth. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father in the name of Jesus. Who can resist His authority?
3. Nehemiah came with all the resources needed to rebuild: 2:8,9
So in our lives, the Holy Spirit comes to us with all the resources of grace necessary for the restoring and rebuilding of our lives.
4. Nehemiah came with a plan, a blueprint based on his knowledge of the needs: 2:11-16
So in our lives. The Holy Spirit has perfect insight into our hearts and minds. He understands our past, present and future perfectly.
Nehemiah came to Jerusalem with a commitment of faithfulness, authority, resources and with a blueprint. In all of this, we see a picture of the Holy Spirit coming to us with a specific plan based on the omniscience of God, for the restoring and rebuilding of our lives.
But there are two things Nehemiah did not bring.
1. He did not bring any tumbled down, broken stones.
We will see later that they rebuilt the wall using the tumbled down, broken stones that were already there. Even the rubble of past experience was useful.
Sometimes we have said, “If I could just be like that person over there.” But God does not need another version of “that person.” He is not rebuilding you to be someone else.
The convergence of our time, talent, personality, resource and opportunity creates a once in a universe event and the Lord is rebuilding us to be that full, unique person He purposed that we would be. And He is using the very stones — the talents, gifts, knowledge and experience — already resident in us. These stones may have been trashed by the enemy and buried under rubble, they may even look like rubble. But the Lord is able to consecrate the very rubble of our life to build a lovely city, the city which He designed from eternity.
2. He did not bring all the necessary labor.
Nehemiah could not rebuild the city by himself. The people would have to cooperate. They would need to receive his plan and surrender their hands and hearts to the work.
It is so with us and the Holy Spirit. He possesses all authority, all resources, has all the time in the world, has a perfect blueprint. But He cannot rebuild without our cooperation.
2:17 “Then I said to them, ‘You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.’”
“You see the bad situation we are in.” This is a question and an exhortation: “Do you see this, are you willing to see this?” The people have been walking through the rubble of Jerusalem for so many years, going to the temple to worship God and walking through the ruins for so long, they may have become desensitized to the destruction. They may have made peace with rubble. Maybe they were saying, “This is how it is. This rubble is our life.”
Maybe they had become accustomed to destruction, acclimated, conformed to rubble. Maybe they did not even see it anymore.
Nehemiah focuses their attention on the problem and exhorts them to rise up, to take accountability. He wants to stir them, plant in them a desire for change.
The Holy Spirit also will focus our attention on the necessary work in our lives, He identifies the problems with gentle clarity. He focuses our attention, calls us to accept ownership and then inspires in us the confidence to rise up and work with Him.
2:18 “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. Then they said, ‘Let us arise and build.’ So they put their hands to the good work.”
Here is one of the key phrases in the book of Nehemiah: “They put their hands to the good work.” When the Holy Spirit shows us some area of rubble in our life, we can deny the problem and pretend we don’t see. We can cover the problem with religious rituals or ministry business. We can play little religious games or self denial games. But at what cost?
When we refuse to join with the Holy Spirit in the work of restoration, something will remain unfulfilled, unbuilt, in our lives. This will limit God’s use of us. He has a purpose for our lives, wants to shine His glory through us. But He cannot shine glory through rubble. Rubble obscures the glory. Those works which God prepared for us beforehand will go unfulfilled. How sad.
Far better that we would agree with our Nehemiah, rise up and put our hands to the work of rebuilding.
Will there be threats, opposition to the work? Yes, but they overcame. So can we.
Will there be times of discouragement and weariness? Yes, but they overcame. So can we.
In time the wall was rebuilt and God had a lovely city which He could bless, where He could manifest His glory and fulfill His purpose.
This is God’s desire for each of us.
We are the light of the world, a city set on a hill.
There is no question about it.
God is able to rebuild and restore any area of our life that may have been trashed.
No question about it.
Here’s the question: Will we put our hands to the good work?
2:19 “But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab heard of our plan, they scoffed contemptuously. ‘What are you doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ they asked.”
Once the people are committed and the work begins, now opposition begins. Notice the enemy’s strategy:
1. They mocked them, as if to say, “Who do you think you are to suppose you will ever change? You’ve had this rubble forever. Just accept it.”
2. They despised them, as if to say, “You’re a conquered people, that’s all you are. Don’t pretend to be someone more than you really are. Don’t even try to imagine being something more. This rubble, this is who you really are. This is the real you.”
3. They accused them of rebellion. That’s a serious charge. Rebellion would be quickly crushed by the king. So with us, the adversary wants us to believe the lie that the rebuilding of our lives is rebellion against God. “Who do you think you are to rise up against the king? What are you doing, stirring around in this rubble, talking about being restored, rebuilt. Broken identity and authority must be God’s will for your life because this is how it is. Are you rebelling against God’s order? Your place is in the dust and that is where your dreams and hopes and aspirations belong — in the dust.”
What a lie! But the enemy speaks through our memory of times when we have failed and fallen. He speaks through circumstances of rubble that may surround us. He speaks through identity confusion and lack of authority. He speaks through loved ones who may mean well but who remind us of our failure. He can speak through religious teaching or ritual that over emphasizes guilt and under emphasizes grace.
Remember, Nehemiah began this whole process by confessing the greatness of God and the sin and failure of Israel in his prayer (1:5-11). If we have done this, if we have sincerely confessed our sins to God, trusting in His greatness and goodness, we may be certain that He has forgiven and cleansed us. Indeed, confession is the act that begins the entire work of restoration.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
2:20 “So I answered them and said to them, ‘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.’”
Nehemiah’s response to the accusers is three fold:
1. “The God of heaven will give us success.”
Nehemiah knows God intimately enough to carry in his heart the assurance that they are not rebelling against God and God is not their enemy, rather, God is their source. We need to know God well enough to resist the accusation of the enemy. We need to know the mind and heart of God so intimately that we are not deceived by false doctrine or false accusation. God is not against us in the rebuilding of our lives. He is the One who comes to us, initiates the process and completes what He begins, if we will allow Him. From beginning to end, the work is based on His authority, His resources, His faithfulness and His blueprint. It is God and God alone who will give us success.
2. “We His servants will arise and build.”
This is a statement of commitment. It’s a statement of faith. Because God is committed to us, we will commit to Him. Because God is faithful to us, we will be faithful to Him.
3. “You have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem”
He reminds the enemy that they have no right, no portion, no place in this work. Get out. The enemy does not have a vote or a voice on the purpose of God in our lives, so why should we listen? Jesus said, “So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him” (Luke 8:18). The voices we listen to will determine how much we are willing to receive from God.
“So faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). Are we listening to voices that build faith or diminish faith? Paul reminds us, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (I Thes. 2:13).
The Word of God performs its work in us who believe because that Word is living, active, powerful, dynamic. But there is also some power in words that are evil. In Proverbs we read, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21). Whose word are we listening to?
Nehemiah said to the accusing, mocking, threatening enemy, “You have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.” You have no place or voice in this rebuilding process. Get out.
It is the Lord who comes to us to redeem us and to rebuild what He has redeemed. He is the only One who has the right to speak into our lives because He alone is our Creator, our Redeemer and our Restorer. He comes to us with the authority, the resources, the time, the blueprint and the commitment to fulfill His purpose in us. We can trust in His faithfulness, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phlp. 1:6).
Abraham Lincoln was walking through an army hospital and stopped at the bed of a young soldier. He was scarcely more than a boy and obviously dying. Moved with compassion, the President asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Would you hold my hand until I cross yonder river?” the soldier replied.
President Lincoln sat down, held the boy’s hand while he breathed his final breaths.
This is a picture of the tender faithfulness of God.
The Lord would say, “It’s a long way to yonder river. Let me take hold of your hand and your life and let us walk together. Along the way, if you will surrender to me the ruins and the rubble, I will rebuild it with you. Together, you and I.”
Is there anything you need to surrender today?
1. What did Nehemiah not bring with him?
2. What was Nehemiah’s response to the accusers? (see v. 20)
Chapter 3 is the chronicle of the families that put their hands to the good work of rebuilding and restoring Jerusalem. The listing of family names throughout the Bible tells us something about the heart and mind of God — He knows our names and our families. Our names represent who we are; our families represent where we are from. The Lord’s knowledge of this reminds us that our lives are significant, important to Him. (We’ll talk more about names and families in chapter 7).
This list of people who joined in the work tells us something else about the heart of God — He values our work. We do not earn our way into heaven but we are held accountable for the work we do and we will be rewarded for works done with a pure heart for the glory of God. Paul says that our works will be assessed by Christ (I Cor. 3:11-15, 4:5). Even a cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name will be rewarded (Matt. 10:42).
Sometimes we think our vocations are so unspiritual but Paul tells us that all we do can be done “to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31.) He said, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17).
Paul further exhorts us, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:23,24).
Names are listed here in chapter 3 because names are important to God and so is the work we do. We don’t need to examine each name in this chapter but we do want to look at the variety of people the Lord used.
3:1-32 “Then Eliashib the high priest arose with his brothers the priests and built the Sheep Gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors. They consecrated the wall to the Tower of the Hundred and the Tower of Hananel.”
Notice in verse one, the first group of workers Nehemiah mentions are the high priest and his brother priests. Other priests are mentioned in verses 22 and 28. In verse 17 Levites, who assisted the priests in the temple, rolled up their sleeves and went to work. In verse 26, temple servants took their place at the wall. Although the vocation of these men was leading the people in worship and sacrifice, leading in prayer and ritual and maintaining the sanctuary, they understood that the Lord wanted more than a temple that was busy with the good work of praise and offerings. The Lord also wanted a city on which He could place His glory. And so the priests put their hands to the good work of rebuilding the walls and rehanging the gates.
It should be so in our lives. A service of teaching and praise should be far more than a good message and good music. It should be a message in which the Lord speaks to us personally; worship that enables us to experience the presence of the Lord personally. This living encounter with the living God enables us to grow into the design the Lord has for our lives. The pastors and teachers who bless us with the word of God, the musicians who lead us in praise should be partnering with the Holy Spirit and with us as we all put our hands to the good work of rebuilding the walls of identity and rehanging the gates of authority in our lives and in the lives of our fellow believers.
So the priests, the praise leaders and the temple workers joined in as all the people put their hands to the good work. We see that men came all the way from Jericho, Tekoa and Gibeon and other cities to assist in the restoration of Jerusalem. As the Holy Spirit restores and rebuilds our life, conforming us to the likeness of Jesus, we should never limit the help God can bring us from outside our own walls — from north, south, east and west. And we should never limit the assistance we can provide as the Lord brings us alongside others.
Verse 5 reports that some of the nobles would not support the work. We will see in chapter five that their lives were compromised by greed and in chapter 6:17-19 that they were compromised in their loyalties, pledged to support the enemies of the work of rebuilding. They may have owed their wealth, their prestige and their power to the adversaries of Nehemiah. Therefore, the rebuilding of the city was a threat to their exalted position. It is no surprise that they refuse to help.
There is a word of warning in this. If we are so entangled in the currency of the world, so conformed to the prevailing values of our culture, we may find it impossible to join in the work of restoration in our world, in the lives of those around us and in our own life. However, these few nobles were the exception, not the rule.
In verses 8 and 31 we see that craftsmen participated in the work: goldsmiths, perfumers. God had given them wonderful vocations as artisans but they did not allow the joy and profit derived from their creativity to keep them away from this good work of rebuilding the city. Indeed, artistic talents are given not only for our joy and blessing but primarily so that God may be glorified and for the blessing of others. But how could they glorify God in a city of rubble? So the artists put their hands to the good work of rebuilding Jerusalem.
How wonderful if all artists would see their giftings, not as an opportunity to achieve applause and self glory, but as an opportunity to glorify God with beauty and truth. In the very act of giving glory to God, they will be sharing in the rebuilding of their world. Unexpectedly, they will also experience the rebuilding of their own walls and gates.
In verse 9 we see an administrative official joining in the work and in verse 12 an administrative official and his daughters put their hands to the work. These two men were something like co-mayors of Jerusalem but not sitting behind a desk — they are governing in the midst of the dust and noise of restoration. How refreshing that government employees were not above the work of restoring the city they were governing. How wonderful it would be if all government employees saw themselves as builders of a society, as opposed to merely deriving personal profit from a city or nation.
In verse 32 merchants shared in the work. They laid aside their trade, their business opportunities, to rebuild the city. That’s wise because as the city prospers, so will their businesses. How our cities would be different if the merchants who derive profit from the city also invested themselves in the restoring of the city.
People from all walks of life, from all vocations and social classes put their hands to the good work. The entire community rose up together and partnered with God in the restoration of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was sent by the king with a blueprint, with royal authority and resources but the work would not have been accomplished if the people had not joined in.
So with us. Restoration is a work of God. But we must all commit ourselves to the work.
The Holy Spirit is committed to rebuild us, consecrate us, conform us to the image of Jesus. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). The Lord is crafting us, shaping us for works which He prepared for us from eternity. Whatever particular works and ministries the Lord has purposed for us, we know that the great desire of the Lord is that He would be glorified in us and through us. We are individually and as Christ’s church, the light of the world, a city set on a hill through which the Lord may show forth His glory.
But even though the Holy Spirit has come to us with a blueprint, with authority and resources, the work will not be accomplished unless we give ourselves to the work.
1. Men and women from all walks of life were putting their hands to the work of rebuilding Jerusalem. Who has God used to assist you in the work of rebuilding, maturing, growing in the Lord?
2. Is the Lord using you to assist someone else in their work of restoration?
4:1,2, “Now it came about that when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews. He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy men of Samaria and said, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore it for themselves? Can they offer sacrifices? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?’”
The spiritual warfare intensifies as the building progresses. Sanballet, the leader of the opposition is furious that Jerusalem is being rebuilt. In the same way, Satan becomes angry that our lives would be restored.
The people were going back and forth from the surrounding villages into Jerusalem to work. Each day they passed by Sanballet and those who opposed the work, listening to their mockery. Remember this — creation and destruction begin through words. God created a universe of light and life through His Word. Satan seeks to extinguish light with the darkness of his curses and accusations. We are surrounded by a battle of words, as we read in Proverbs, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).
Whose voice will we listen to?
Sanballet mocks Nehemiah and the people, asking five questions:
1. “What are these feeble Jews doing?”
He is calling attention to the inadequacy of the people. He is saying, “You’ve been here all these years and you’ve done nothing. Look at the rubble — what makes you think any of this will ever change?” He is also pointing out the enormity of the project in comparison to the strength and resources of the people.
He has no concept of the reality that God is active in history, making covenant with people, working through covenant people to reveal His glory and establish His kingdom. He has no clue that the rebuilding of Jerusalem is part of the eternal redemptive purpose of God. It is God who brought them back to the land. It is God who inspired the rebuilding of the temple. It is God who chose Nehemiah, called Him, put it in His heart to return and rebuild. It is God who gave Nehemiah favor with the king. It is God who is bringing about the restoration of the city.
It’s true that the task if greater than the sum of the people’s strength or resource. But because this is God’s work, the Jews are not feeble at all. They are empowered by the God who “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). This is the God who “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11 ). They are not feeble at all. It is God’s work.
So with us. The rebuilding of a life is impossible from a human perspective but all things are possible with God. We are not feeble. We are mighty in Christ. Whatever work God is doing in us and through us, it is God’s work accomplished by God’s power. The Apostle John exhorts us,
“You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (I John 4:4).
“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (I John 5:4,5). Overcomer is one of the New Testament words for a believer.
The Apostle Paul reminds us, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phlpns. 4:13). Even our lack of strength and resource becomes a resource multiplier because our lack casts us on the Lord’s abundance, as Paul discovered. When he asked the Lord to remove some impairment from his life, the Lord refused, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul’s response was, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
With Paul we may say, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Sanballat’s question, “What are these feeble Jews doing?”, is easily answered. The work of restoring, rebuilding and consecrating our lives is God’s work accomplished by God’s power and for His glory.
2. “Are they going to restore it for themselves?”
Because Sanballet does not understand that God works with and through covenant people, he does not understand that this is not only for the Jews. It is also for God and for His redemptive purpose on earth. Because God has purposed this and it is not only for the Jews but also for God and for His glory, the work will be completed.
It is so with us. The Lord is restoring us for His glory and He will see it through.
3. “Can they offer sacrifices?”
The meaning is unclear but possibly Sanballet is implying that the people will need to offer sacrificial bribes to God in order for the work to be completed. This would be the way of idol worshippers. Offer enough sacrificial offerings, say enough prayers, chant enough chants, mumble our way through the right rituals, and maybe the gods will have mercy on us and our work will be successful. Again, he has no concept that it is God who inspired this work and if the people will give themselves to God, the Lord will accomplish His work.
Isn’t this what they have done? In chapter two, after Nehemiah told them of the purpose of God and the favor of God on his life, the people said, “‘Let us arise and build.’ So they put their hands to the good work” (Neh. 2:18).
So with us. God will accomplish His work in us if we will surrender ourselves to the work God is doing. We don’t need to bribe God with religious payoffs. The restoration of our lives is God’s idea, accomplished according to His plan, by His authority and with His resources. He requires only that we give ourselves to the work.
4. “Can they finish in a day?”
If Sanballet can’t prevent the work from starting, maybe he can create enough resistance that the work will drag on and the people will become weary enough to quit. Maybe he can cause them to be discouraged about the challenges and the length of time needed to finish. He doesn’t know that Nehemiah has come with a commitment to stay as long as is necessary to finish what they have begun.
Can they finish in a day? No, but Nehemiah will be there with the authority and resources of the king as one stone is set upon another and the city is rebuilt, brick by brick.
So with the Holy Spirit. He is committed to work with us and in us until God’s purpose is accomplished. We won’t be restored in a day. But we will be restored. We have this promise:
“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless (without fault) with great joy” (Jude 24).
We also have this promise as a corporate body, the church: “That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).
In fact, our salvation and restoration was purposed before there was a universe: “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph. 1:5).
We won’t be restored in a day but we will be restored and we will stand in the presence of Christ, holy, blameless and “beyond reproach” (Col. 1:22).
5. “Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble, even the burned ones?”
Sanballet reminds them that they are pulling stones out of rubble and these stones are dusty, covered with ash, a memorial to the destruction of Jerusalem years ago. “How do you hope to rebuild a city out of garbage and even the garbage bears the marks of the fire that destroyed you?”
This is Satan’s question to us: “Can you make stones rise up from rubble? Can you resurrect, revive, restore a life after all the sin and failure you have known?”
The honest answer is, “No, I cannot but my God can.” This is the God of whom David testifies, “He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:2,3).
He is the God who, “Gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist” (Rom. 4:17). This is the God who gave a son to a barren, 90 year old Sarah. This is the God who promoted a former slave and prison inmate, Joseph, to Prime Minister of Egypt. This is the God of whom the angel testified to Mary, “With God, all things are possible.”
With our brother Paul we testify, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20,21).
4:3 “Now Tobiah the Ammonite was near him and he said, ‘Even what they are building — if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!’”
More ridicule. Tobiah is Sanballet’s sidekick and he chimes in, “Yeah boss, even a fox could knock this over. The restoration is so superficial, so fragile, it can’t last.”
Satan is always looking for someone to agree with him. As we partner with God in the rebuilding of our lives, we hear these evil whisperings, “You'll never finish what you've started. You've always been a failure. Who are you to think anything will ever change in your life, your marriage, your church? Just a little breeze of trouble will knock down the progress you think you’ve made.”
Be careful who you listen to. Notice Nehemiah’s response:
4:4,5 “Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders.”
Nehemiah does not argue with his adversaries or defend himself. Neither does he ignore their threats. He takes his case to the Lord: “Hear, O our God, how we are despised.” In Ephesians chapter six, Paul reminds the church that we are in a war with a spiritual enemy but after reviewing the tools of our warfare, he calls the church to prayer (Eph. 6:18-20).
In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus faced the challenge of the cross, He directed His disciples, “Watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). Peter may have been thinking of that night when, many years later, he exhorted the church: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith” (I Peter 5:8,9).
How do we resist the devil? Peter gives good advice in the preceding verses: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (I Peter 5:6,7).
How do we humble ourselves before the Lord, casting all our cares upon Him? Two good ways to do this are prayer and worship. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to employ thankful, worshipful prayer: “Be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phlpns. 4:6,7).
Nehemiah responded to threats, mockery, ridicule and intimidation by humbling himself before the Lord in prayer. God alone is our shelter and our refuge and He will vindicate us when we call on Him and depend on Him. Isaiah reminds us: “‘No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their vindication is from me,’ declares the Lord” (Isa. 54:17).
The Psalmist reminds us, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread? Though a host encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war arise against me, in spite of this I shall be confident. For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; He will lift me up on a rock” (Psalm 27:1,3,5).
Nehemiah prays what is known as an imprecatory prayer. He prays judgment on his persecutors, “Return their reproach upon their own heads.” He is not being hateful, rather, he is praying in agreement with the judgment which God has determined for those who oppose His loving, redeeming purpose in this world.
However, Jesus gave us a higher example, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus shows us what this looks and sounds like when, from the cross, He prayed forgiveness for those who had mocked and crucified Him. So powerfully impactful was this prayer that He had scarcely given up His spirit when the Roman officer and his soldiers testified of the Deity of Christ (Matt. 27:54).
The first martyr of the church, Stephen, shows us the value of praying for our persecutors when, as he was being stoned to death, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). One of the young men holding the coats of Stephen’s murderers later had a life changing encounter with Jesus and became the greatest missionary-evangelist in the history of the church. At that time he was called Saul. He is better known as the Apostle Paul.
Nehemiah’s response to persecution and opposition: he prays and so must we.
1. The adversaries of the rebuilding project mock the people with a series of questions. Choose two of their questions and answer them as if they were being addressed to you. ( see v. 1,2)
2. What is Nehemiah’s response to the opposition? (see v 4,5)
4:6 “So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.”
Nehemiah and the people continue to build even in the midst of opposition and the wall is built to half its height, “For the people had a mind (heart) to work.” They press on, they persevere in the work and so will we for it is God who gives us grace to continue. We are partnering with God in the establishing of His purpose and who can resist God’s purpose if we are in agreement with the Lord?
4:7,8 “Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it.”
The enemy is angry and intensifies the opposition. They move from mockery to conspiracy and intimidation, threatening violence. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The enemy of our soul will stop at nothing to destroy the work that God is doing in our lives. Jesus will stop at nothing to establish His life within us.
With whom will we partner? To whom will we surrender? Creator or destroyer, Redeemer or adversary?
4:9 “But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.”
Nehemiah’s response: “We prayed to our God and … set up a guard against them day and night.” Pray and be vigilant, night and day. The wall is partly rebuilt but the work is unfinished — don’t let your guard down.
Again we are reminded of the words of Jesus, “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41). The flesh is weak, there are still entrance points where the gates and walls are unfinished. Be vigilant, stay disciplined, watch out for those points of vulnerability in your life. Keep praying and partnering with God in the work of rebuilding.
4:10 “Thus in Judah it was said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, yet there is much rubbish; and we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.’”
Their strength is failing and there is so much more work to do. They are becoming weary, demoralized by the rubble and the challenge of the unfinished work. This also is a tactic of the enemy: wear us down, bring us into discouragement with words, rumors, opposition; intimidate us by focusing us on the walls and gates that still need to be restored.
It means so much when someone speaks the Word of God into our weariness. The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church with these words, “Let us not lose heart in doing good for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9). The King James says, “Let us not be weary in well doing.”
Many years before, the prophet Isaiah encouraged Israel with these words:
“The wilderness and the desert will be glad, and the Arabah will rejoice and blossom. Encourage the exhausted, and strengthen the feeble (NIV: strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way). Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, but He will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah. The scorched land will become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water. And the ransomed of the Lord will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isa. 35:1, 3-7, 10).
Yes, we do grow weary. Yes, there is much rubble. But we will reap in due season. God has promised restoration. Be encouraged, listen to encouragement and be an encourager of others.
4:11 “Our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.’”
The enemy continues to use verbal intimidation but the threat level escalates. They are not just mocking or ridiculing. Their threats of violence are intensified, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” Behind the rising tension we sense Satan’s desperation. His goal has always been to oppose and defeat God’s salvation purpose on earth. Essential to Satan’s goal was the destruction of the covenant people, Israel. The rebuilding of Jerusalem represented a major defeat in Satan’s campaign.
Aside from the possibility of violence, the enemy hopes to tire them out and discourage them with a sustained high level of stress. The rebuilding of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of a life involves struggle. We need to learn perseverance, how to press on. At the same time, we need to learn how to be refreshed in the midst of the struggle.
The Psalmist reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1,2).
Mountains seem so solid but sometimes solid things quake and shake and fall into the sea. Economies can be shaken. Our resources, our wisdom, our relationships, sometimes all of society can be shaken. But notice what the Psalmist says next, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns” (46:4,5).
Where is this place that will not be moved?
It is the dwelling place of God. Out of His presence there flows a river of peace and joy and mercy. In His presence there is fulness of joy and a peace that passes all comprehension.
How do I enter that dwelling place in a world of storms, in a world where everything can be shaken? Again in Psalm 46, the Psalmist hears the Lord answer that question:
After reminding us that mountains do shake,
that waters do roar and foam,
that the earth is subject to change,
that kingdoms do crumble and fall,
after remembering that there is a river that flows
from the dwelling place of God, he hears the Lord say,
“Cease striving (be still) and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).
Laying aside his anxiety, assured of the presence of the sovereign God, the Psalmist responds with quiet confidence, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Psalm 46:11).
As storms shake the world around us, in the stillness of prayer and worship we enter the presence of the God who is present. We fix our eyes of faith on Him.
We can press on with the building because God is our refuge and our source of strength. Press on and be still. How do I do that? We press on in stillness as we rest in the faithfulness of Almighty God, relying on His strength, drinking from the everflowing stream of His life and peace and joy.
4:12 “When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, ‘They will come up against us from every place where you may turn.’”
Fearful rumors begin to spread among the people, “They’re coming for us.” Ten times the threat is repeated. But it’s not the enemy repeating the threat. Now it is the Jews themselves. Be careful that those close to you do not plant defeat in your mind with their words. Be careful that you are not planting defeat in yourself with your own words. Heed the warning of Solomon: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21).
Listen also to the words of James, “From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh” (James 3:10-12).
We must not bless the ministry of Christ in our lives and curse that same ministry. We must not speak words of doubt, death and defeat over the restoring work of God in our lives: “I’ll never change. There’s no way God can restore the mess I’ve made.” Speak the life-giving blessing of God over your life. Learn what God has said in His word and speak it over yourself. Position yourself in places where people are speaking the blessing of God into you and over you.
Jesus said, “Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Mark 4:24,25).
Be careful of who you allow to speak into your life. How we listen impacts what we say, what we give and what we receive.
4:13 “Then I stationed men in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows.”
Nehemiah takes the precaution of placing guards in the exposed, unfinished places along the wall. The King James reads as though Nehemiah stationed the families in the finished places while stationing himself and his own men in the places that were unfinished, exposed:
“Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall and on the higher places, I even set the people according to their families with their swords, their spears and their bows.”
That would be as if the Holy Spirit said, “You are responsible to guard and keep what has been restored in your life. But the places where you are still weak and vulnerable, where the wall is still broken down and the gates are not restored, I will guard that.”
We are reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).
The Comforter faithfully watches over our lives, restoring, rebuilding, lavishing grace upon us with such patient, tender care. He is faithful to guard this ministry of restoration. In the struggle of our warfare, we can rest in the promise of our Lord, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
1. “We prayed … and set up a guard against them day and night ” (v. 9). Watch and pray — are there areas of vulnerability in your life which require watchfulness?
2. The people began to grow weary from the struggle to rebuild. How do you respond to spiritual / emotional weariness? (see v. 11).
4:14 “When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.’”
Notice Nehemiah says, “When I saw.” Earlier, the enemies of the work had said, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” But Nehemiah does see. He is watching out over the people.
So with our Comforter, the Holy Spirit. He is all knowing, possess all truth, is aware of all events that ever have happened or could happen. Nothing escapes the gaze of the all-seeing God: “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebr. 4:13).
Nevertheless, as the threat intensifies, so does the fear of the people but Nehemiah exhorts them:
1. “Do not be afraid.” Countless times in Scripture we are exhorted, “Fear not.” But in the midst of such grievous, frightening warfare, how can we consistently resist fear? Nehemiah tells them exactly how to overcome fear:
2. “Remember the Lord who is great and awesome.”
Remember that it is God who has come to us to redeem us, to restore us. Remember that we did not choose Him — He chose us. Remember that when we were spiritually dead He raised us into everlasting life. Remember that when we were spiritually blind and deaf, He gave us eyes to see and ears to hear the Gospel of Jesus.
Remember that He is Almighty, perfect in wisdom and power. Remember that He creates out of nothing, He speaks and life exists. The entire universe consists in Him and is upheld by Him.
Many years before Nehemiah’s time, three armies were marching against Israel, intending to destroy the nation. The Spirit of the Lord came upon a man named Jahaziel and he exhorted the people:
“Listen, all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: thus says the Lord to you, ‘Do not fear or be dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s ... You need not fight in this battle; station yourselves, stand and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out to face them for the Lord is with you’” (2 Chron. 20:15,17).
How do we resist fear? By remembering that though we are required to stand in faith and face the enemy, the battle is really not ours. It is the Lord’s battle for it is He who came to us, redeemed us, began the work of restoration and He promises to perfect what He has begun.
We are required to stand and face the enemy. But remember that the battle is the Lord’s.
3. “Fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.”
We also resist fear by remembering that it is not merely our own life that we are contending for. Nehemiah exhorts them to remember their loved ones. Remember that this is not just about you. It is about the many people around you whom you, as a restored man or woman of God, will influence. It is not only about your future but the future of those whom you love, the future of those whom you will touch someday. It is important that your soul be restored so that God can set His name and His glory on you and release through you His blessing to others.
Jesus said, “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). It is as much His pleasure to give you the kingdom as it was His pleasure to create man and woman and give them dominion over creation. God’s purpose has not changed. His desire is to restore us and give us restored dominion.
But restored dominion is not only God’s gift to us. It is something which we must contend for. Nehemiah said, “Fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” The battle is the Lord’s but we stand in the midst of a spiritual struggle and with spiritual weapons, we contend for the faith.
Jude exhorts us to “Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Paul exhorts Timothy to “Fight the good fight of faith, take hold of the eternal life to which you were called,” and to “guard what has been entrusted to you,” (I Tim 6:12,20).
The battle is the Lord’s but we stand in faith, we contend earnestly for the work of restoration which God has begun in each of us. How do we contend for the faith? As we passionately worship the Lord, as we fervently pray, as we uncompromisingly live our faith day by day.
4:15-18 “And it happened, when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had brought their plot to nothing, that all of us returned to the wall, everyone to his work. From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah. Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon. As for the builders, each wore his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me.”
God frustrated the plans of the enemy because the people had taken a stand in faith. James reminds us, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
The people continue the work of rebuilding while some labor as warrior / guards and some as builders. But even the builders were armed — they worked with their weapons at their side. Others stood on the wall watching for the enemy, armed and vigilant. They remind me of the intercessors, those who watch and pray over Christ’s church. But whether our ministry is intercession or building as pastor / teachers, administrators or musicians, all must be prepared for spiritual warfare. The restoring of a life will bring us into spiritual conflict.
In Ephesians 6 Paul reminds us that we are engaged in a spiritual war. Three times in verses 11-14 he exhorts us to stand. We don’t chase the enemy, we stand. We have better things to do than to chase persecutors and demonic powers. But we labor armed and ready.
Nehemiah and his warrior laborers carried swords, spears and bows. However, the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but divinely powerful for the pulling down of spiritual strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4 Eph. 6:10-19). In particular, Paul exhorts us to pray, for prayer is a mighty instrument of spiritual warfare.
Nehemiah and the people labored, armed and ready. What happens to those who labor with Christ in restoration? They overcome. It is our nature to overcome. Even as it was our old nature to be overcome, it is our new nature to overcome.
In I John 4:4 we are reminded that God dwells within us and greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world. In I John 5:4,5 we are reminded that it is our nature to be overcomers because there is nothing in the universe greater than the God who indwells us.
In Revelation 12:11 we are told that the victorious saints, overcame “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony and they did not love their life even when faced with death.”
1. They overcame by the blood of the Lamb. We were not redeemed with silver or gold, “But with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (I Peter 1:18,19). Your worth as a person before God is not based on wealth, real estate or religious works. You stand worthy before God because of the blood of the Lamb. It is true that we were sinners unworthy of salvation but having been invited into a covenant of grace and having entered through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, we have been made worthy as children of God and heirs of the kingdom. We overcame the enemy when we believed and confessed what God accomplished through the blood of the Lamb.
2. They overcame by the word of their testimony. We confess what God has done and is doing in our lives. The Word of God applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, teaches us, restores, recreates. The Word obeyed and spoken through us gives the Holy Spirit substance to work through and is a sword of truth cutting through the lies and deceptions of the enemy.
3. They overcame because they loved the Lord more than their own lives. There is a wonderful liberty of abandonment in prayer, in worship, in service to the Lord. When we try to hold on to our lives, we lose our lives (Matt. 15:25). When we let go of our lives in joyful abandonment to the Lord, we find security and fulfillment.
As we believe and confess what God has done, as we lay down our lives in surrender to the Lord our Creator and Redeemer, the enemy is overcome.
4:19,20 “I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.’”
Everyone was busy and scattered around the city so the trumpeter stood near Nehemiah. At the sound of the trumpet, everyone was to gather in unity. Again he reminds them that it is the Lord who fights for them. But there is an important truth here about unity and the manifest presence of God: God manifests His presence and power in a context of unity.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head” (Psalm 133:1,2). Oil represents the anointing, the manifest presence and blessing of God among us. It flows in a setting of unity.
We see this in the early life of the church: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord (or “all together”) in one place" (Acts 2:1). “All together” is a weak translation. “With one accord” is better but still falls short.
The Greek word which we translate “one accord” is “homothumadon,” literally, “like-passioned” or “of a common breath.” This is more than mere geographical unity or intellectual agreement. It is a unity of heart and soul. Those men and women gathered in the upper room shared one overriding passion: to know, worship and proclaim Jesus Christ. That passion-in-common was their connection with one another and an important characteristic of the early church.
In Acts 1:14 we read that this is how they prepared for Pentecost, “These all continued with one accord (homothumadon) in prayer.” In 2:46 we see that this was part of the lifestyle of the newly birthed church, “And continuing daily with one accord (homothumadon) in the temple, and breaking bread.” In 4:24 we see that this was the church's response to persecution, “They lifted up their voice to God with one accord (homothumadon).”
There were times of doctrinal disagreement (Acts 15). They would soon lose their geographical unity, spreading out across the earth. They certainly had a diversity of background. It quickly became a multi-racial, cross cultural, trans-national church. Caught up in the outpouring of God’s Spirit that first Pentecost were people from Africa, Europe and the Mideast. There were men and women, Jew and Gentile.
But the variety and diversity of the church did not hinder them. They conquered the Roman Empire as they walked and labored in a unity of heart and soul. Their point of unity was a common passion to love Christ, to know Him and to make Him known.
This unity of heart is absolutely necessary in order for God to make full use of our lives. Yes, we are all busy, scattered around the city fulfilling our ministry callings, just as Nehemiah’s people were dispersed around Jerusalem, working diligently at the restoring of the walls. But if we would see God’s restoring purpose accomplished in us, in our cities and in the multitudes who are coming to know Christ, we must learn to labor in unity.
Nehemiah reminds them that though they must gather and fight together, it is God who fights through us and for us. What is the context in which God manifest His power? A context of unity. “At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there.”
4:21 “So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared.”
They labored from the rising of the dawn until the evening stars appeared. Our commitment to rebuilding is not a nine to five job. Restoring Jerusalem was at the center of God’s salvation purpose and the people labored in partnership with God to the point of exhaustion. So with us. The ministry of restoration in our lives and in the lives of those around us requires our commitment every day, all day.
Also, leadership is not a nine to five job. Notice that Nehemiah made the same sacrifices as the laborers and the guards. He was there from dawn to dusk, as they were. He bore the heat and thirst of the day, as they did. This is a model of true authority. When Jesus spoke of leadership in His kingdom, He talked of servanthood and He offered Himself as the model:
“But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many’” (Matt. 20:25-28).
Nehemiah led the work and the sacrifice and the people gave all they could give.
So with us. The Comforter lifts up before us the sacrifice of Jesus and we follow sacrificially. Restoring our souls so that the glory of Christ can shine through us — this is a ministry that requires the outpouring of our lives. Who are the overcomers? Those who “love not their lives, even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
4:22,23 “At that time I also said to the people, ‘Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.’ So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each took his weapon even to the water.”
They labored at their assigned posts and when they were exhausted, they slept at their post. They even carried their weapons when they went for water. There was no higher priority than rebuilding the walls and gates of Jerusalem.
Is this also our highest priority — yielding our lives to the redeeming, restoring work of the Holy Spirit so that others can see the light of the glory of Christ shining through our earthen vessels, so that they too may be redeemed and restored? How much of our life, our time, our resources are we willing to surrender to this good work?
Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24,25).
1. What is Nehemiah’s exhortation to the people in verse 14?
2. They worked with their weapons at their side and in their hands. How is this a picture of spiritual warfare? (see v. 15-18)
5:1-3 “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.’ There were others who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.’”
As the city was being rebuilt, there was a poor harvest which resulted in famine. This was forcing people to mortgage their fields, vineyards and houses just to buy food. Evidently, wealthier men who had grain were selling at inflated prices. This resulted in “a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brothers.”
Surely this was also an offense to the Lord. Previously, the Lord had judged the northern kingdom, Israel, through the Assyrians and had judged the southern kingdom, Judah, through the Babylonians. The covenant nation had been destroyed and a primary reason for the judgment of the Lord was not only idolatry. Just as grievous to the Lord was oppression of the poor.
The Lord had said through the prophet Amos, “Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over, so that we may sell grain, and the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, and to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?’” (Amos 8:4-6).
The Lord had judged the covenant nation for its worship of false gods and for its oppression of the poor. Now, a multitude of Israelites have been released from exile in a foreign land, the temple has been rebuilt and the city of Jerusalem is being restored. Yet some of the wealthy folk have returned to one of the primary sins that led to national destruction. Surely the Lord will confront this.
5:4 “Also there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards.’”
In addition to this, the king’s tax on their land was so great that, combined with the poor harvest, many were forced to borrow money to pay their taxes. The money was lent at excessive interest rates (see 5:10) driving the people into deeper debt. This is called usury and had been condemned by God many centuries before in the Law of Moses (Ex. 22:25-27 Lev. 25:35-37).
As we have said, the nation is being restored by the mercy of God and yet some of the people, the wealthy, are falling into sin which God had clearly condemned and had recently judged.
5:5 “‘Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.’”
Evidently, the poor were also giving their children as surety for their debts or selling them as indentured servants. Who was lending money at excessive rates? Who was foreclosing on property and taking children into servitude for the payment of debts? Who did that? As we read in verse one, the outcry of the people rose up “against their Jewish brothers.” These oppressors are “our brothers.” The children of the poor are of the same flesh as the children of the greedy — they are fellow Jews.
These may have been the nobility referred to in 3:5 who refused to join in the work of rebuilding. They are probably related to the nobles of 6:17-19 who were involved with Tobiah, one of the leading enemies of Nehemiah. They were Jews in name only. Their primary loyalty was not to the Lord or to the people of the Lord. Compromised by their lust for wealth and power, their primary loyalty was to themselves and their money.
What a disgrace they were! While Jerusalem was being rebuilt, they were busy bringing their own people into slavery for a profit. So Nehemiah needed to not only overcome satanically inspired opposition from foreigners but also he had to overcome the sin of some fellow Jews.
Notice that in chapter 4, the threat was from the outside — Sanballat and Tobiah, Arabs, Ammonites and Ashdodites. But now the threat is from within. How typical of the adversary. He tried to destroy the work of God with ridicule, mockery, accusation and threats of violence but the people overcame and the work of rebuilding continued. However, if Satan can’t destroy the work from without, then he will try to destroy from within. How sad that as Jerusalem began to rise from the rubble, the people began to oppress one another. The threat now is from inside.
How often, over the centuries, the prophets of Israel had warned that economic injustice and oppression would result in the judgment of God upon the nation. The prophet Amos is typical in his warning, “Thus says the Lord, ‘For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they sell the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals,’” (Amos 2:6).
“They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks with integrity. Therefore because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, you who distress the righteous and accept bribes and turn aside the poor in the gate ... I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:10-12, 21-24).
The oppression of the people with debt and slavery reminds us that one of the primary reasons for the judgment of God on Israel, for the destruction of the nation and Jerusalem and the temple, for the exile into Babylon, was the failure to observe the year of Jubilee.
What was the year of Jubilee?
In Leviticus 25:1-7, the Lord commanded that every seventh year was to be a Sabbath in which land and laborer should rest. There would be neither sowing nor reaping. The people would eat what they had gathered in the previous six years and what would grow of itself in the seventh. It was a time when the land and the laborer could rest and the people could renew their communion with the living God. This was not the Year of Jubilee. It was something of a Sabbath preparation for Jubilee.
In Leviticus 25:8-22 we read that every forty-nine years (at the end of seven periods of seven years), on the day of Atonement (when sacrifice was made for the sins of the people), the priests were to blow the trumpet and proclaim Jubilee. This fiftieth year, the Year of Jubilee, was to be consecrated as a holy time of Sabbath rest for the people and the land. With the blowing of the trumpet, the priests were to proclaim liberty to the people and everyone was to return to their family and to their family property.
If an Israelite had sold himself as a servant (25:23-38), he was to be released in the Year of Jubilee, then with his family he would return to their property. If he had sold himself to a foreigner, he could be redeemed by himself if he was able. But if he was too poor to redeem himself, a blood-kinsman would redeem him.
Servants were released from bondage, families regained possession of their ancestral property, debts were forgiven and everyone rested in a holy, Sabbath year of worship and praise to the God of new beginnings. It is especially significant that the Year of Jubilee was to be announced — the trumpet was to be blown — on the Day of Atonement, a day associated with forgiveness, cleansing, starting over.
We must note, though, that the purpose of Jubilee was not merely freedom for the slave nor economic readjustment for the debtor and the property-less. The deeper, ultimate purpose of Jubilee was to bring the people to a holy, renewed communion with the Lord. Without that communion, neither liberty nor economic justice would be truly established or preserved. The human heart, scarred and twisted by sin, is incapable of inaugurating or maintaining authentic liberty and justice except as we abide in sacred fellowship with the Lord of all liberty and justice. Therefore the essence of Jubilee is renewal of relationship with the Lord.
What a marvelous festival! “Blow the trumpet,” God was saying to Israel, “and proclaim release to the debtor, sinner and servant and to the land. Return to your inheritance, the place of your beginnings. Proclaim a holy renewal of rest in Me, the Lord of new beginnings.”
That sounds like the Good News that we preach: forgiven of our indebtedness to God, released from slavery to sin and death, restored to our inheritance as children of God and resting in Sabbath fellowship with God.
Jubilee was not an option. It was a commandment. Israel’s failure to observe this command resulted in judgment at the hands of the Babylonians who, “Burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its fortified buildings with fire” (2 Chron. 36:19). Many were killed, many were carried away into Babylon, “Until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete” (2 Chron. 36:21).
God enforced the Year of Jubilee through the destroying avenger of the Babylonian armies. Then, when seventy years were complete,
“In order to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it into writing, saying, ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him and let him go up!’” (2 Chron. 36:22,23).
The Lord decreed the judgment of Jerusalem and decreed the return of the exiles. The temple was rebuilt and now the city is being restored under Nehemiah. But some of the wealthy and the powerful are again enslaving and oppressing the people, forcing them into debt, forcing them to mortgage their land and sell their children, violating the spirit of Jubilee. They were reinstituting the criminal economic system that had only recently caused God to judge the nation!
5:6,7 “Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, ‘You are exacting usury, each from his brother!’ Therefore, I held a great assembly against them.”
This grieved and angered Nehemiah, that people who had been set free from slavery in a foreign country, who had returned to rebuild the holy city of Jerusalem, would then be oppressed by their wealthy countrymen. He contended with the threat within the city as he had contended with the threat from without. He condemned the nobles for their usury (the charging of excessive interest). In fact, the Law of Moses forbade Israelites requiring any interest on loans of food, money or any item to fellow Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38).
Nehemiah is also a portrait of the Holy Spirit who, throughout the history of the church, has continually confronted corrupt religious institutions which enslave people in false teaching, dead rituals and powerless religion. How disgraceful, that people who have been set free from slavery to sin and death by the mercy and power of Jesus would then be bound again by the unredeemed priests of counterfeit grace.
How tragic, that people who have been translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, would encounter greater darkness within the kingdom of light. How sad, that people would flee the corrupt city of the world, seeking refuge in the city of God, only to experience greater corruption within the cathedral. Therefore the Spirit of the Lord is continually confronting the darkness, continually lighting fires of reformation and revival, creating new structures, new paradigms of ministry, birthing fresh vision and setting people free from the oppression and manipulation of dead religion.
This is also a picture of the Holy Spirit contending with the worldliness, immaturity and sinfulness in our own lives. There are aspects of our life, our personality that may be drawn back toward the world, points of vulnerability which cause us to be drawn back to live again the slave patterns of our former life. The Holy Spirit will confront those aspects of our personality not yet matured in the holy likeness of Christ. Even as He confronts the enemy without, He will also confront the enemy within.
It is a confrontation of grace. Where there is brokenness, He confronts us with restoring grace. Where there are wounds, He confronts with healing grace. Where death has infected our hopes and dreams, he confronts with the grace of resurrection.
But it is always a partnership. We must put our hands to the good work.
In Colossians 3 the Apostle Paul exhorts us: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3).
We put our hands to the good work as we focus our attention, our affection on God’s truth and beauty. We refuse to give place to the temptations and seductions of our former way of life. We refuse the toxic poisons and passions swirling around us. We keep our eyes on the Lord.
Again Paul counsels us, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience” (Col. 3:5). Greed is idolatry — making an idol of wealth. Those men in Nehemiah’s Jerusalem were placing the idol of wealth above the Lord, violating His commandments and sinning against their brothers and sisters. Nehemiah contends against them lest the judgmental wrath of God fall on them once again. In like manner the Holy Spirit contends with us lest we fall back into prior patterns of sin.
1. Nehemiah contended with those who were bringing their brethren back into economic slavery. In the same way, the Holy Spirit contends with anything that would bring us back into slavery to the world’s values. You don’t need to list them here, but are you aware of ways the Holy Spirit has contended for your freedom? Meditate on this and thank Him.
2. We mentioned the Year of Jubilee. How is that celebration similar to the Good News of salvation through faith in Jesus? (see v. 5)
5:8-10 “I said to them, ‘We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?’ Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. Again I said, ‘The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury.’”
Nehemiah had used his own money to redeem some of the Jews who had become slaves in exile. He now rebukes the oppressors for their re-enslavement of those whom he had redeemed, contrasting their oppression with his own generosity. He also reminds them that he is loaning money and grain at no interest, which is what the law of Moses requires.
In rebuking those who would bring their brothers into slavery again, we are reminded of Paul’s rebuke to the Galatian church, which, having begun in the liberty of Jesus, had fallen into submission to false teaching. Paul asked, “Oh foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1). The people had been set free by Christ but were being oppressed by false teachers who said that they must submit to the yoke of Jewish law and ritual. Paul condemned the false teachers and exhorted the church: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery,” (Gal 5:1).
Who had bewitched these wealthy adversaries of Nehemiah who were enslaving their fellow Jews? Not who but what. They were bewitched by the spirit of the age which teaches that it is acceptable to oppress other human beings for the sake of personal gain.
5:11 “‘Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.’”
Nehemiah demands that the oppressors cease from their usury and restore the fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses which they had taken. He also requires that they restore a “hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil.”
In this, Nehemiah is a picture of the Holy Spirit who contends for the freedom of those whom Christ has set free. The Spirit of the Lord wants to restore our emotional and spiritual wholeness. He wants to restore our freedom to worship the Lord without guilt or manipulation, wants to restore the clear, truthful teaching of the Word, wants to restore our peace and our joy.
However, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we also must contend for our freedom. The Apostle Paul counsels us to put aside the old self (Col. 3:8,9). How? By not doing those things which we once did. Paul counsels us, “Put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (Col 3:10). How? By practicing the new way of life which is ours in Christ.
Paul tells us what that new, restored life looks like: “Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love … And let the peace of God rule in your hearts … and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:12-16).
For freedom Christ has set us free and even as the Holy Spirit contends for our freedom, so must we contend for our freedom and not fall back again into anything that would enslave us. So Paul contended for the Galatian church, that they not fall back again into spiritual slavery. So Nehemiah contended for the freedom of his brothers and sisters.
5:12 “Then they said, ‘We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.’ So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise.”
The nobles agree to return what they have unjustly gained and they take an oath before the priests to follow through on their promise. Nehemiah calls them back to the lifestyle of the covenant people, even as the Holy Spirit calls us to the practice of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with others, forgiving others just as the Lord has forgiven us.
5:13 “I also shook out the front of my garment and said, ‘Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen!’ And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise.”
Nehemiah pronounces a curse, the promise of God’s judgment, on all who renege on their promise. In fact, the wrath of God had been poured out previously on the nation because of the greedy, idolatrous oppression of the poor. There should be no question that the Lord will judge them again if this practice continues.
Living in covenant relationship with God brings us into the dimension of His blessing. This is why the Lord brought Israel out of exile and back into the land of promise, so that He could place His blessing on them and manifest His glory through them. But Nehemiah reminds them that covenant relationship also involves covenant discipline, covenant lifestyle. The people agree and give thanks to the Lord.
5:14 “Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor's food allowance.”
Nehemiah demonstrated his love for the people by living sacrificially, refusing to burden them with the expense of caring for him. The Apostle Paul often ministered in churches at his own expense. He did not want to take from them, only give to them. So he advises us, “Put on love” (Col. 3:14). How? By practicing love. Love is revealed in the way we give to others.
5:15 “But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God.”
The former governors “domineered the people.” Nehemiah served them. His motive? Surely he cared for the people but he was also motivated by a sincere reverence for a holy God. Love for people and reverence for God produced a servant heart in Nehemiah.
When Jesus talked about leadership He talked about serving, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).
It takes a strong, secure man or woman to serve others. We must be at peace with who we are in Christ. But that is the person the Holy Spirit is restoring us to be.
5:16 “I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.”
A true leader develops a vision, communicates the vision and then puts her hand to the vision. She doesn’t say, “Get to work.” She says, “This is how it’s done. Come join me.”
Where do I obtain vision and where do I obtain the faith and strength to step into the vision and put my hands to the good work as a Servant-Leader? By entering into the discipline of reading and studying the Word of God, listening to good teaching, meditating on the word, praying through it and living it. Wisely does the Apostle Paul exhort us, “Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you” (Col. 3:16). The Word of God is dynamic, powerful, creative — it works within us the purpose of God. Paul said, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (I Thes. 2:13).
5:17 “Moreover, there were at my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us.”
Nehemiah had a large staff. They sat at his table and he provided for them out of his own pocket. In this he is a picture of the Holy Spirit who invites us into the Lord’s provision. The Lord is restoring us so we can partner with Him in ministry. Surely He will provide for the ministry which He designed. The Apostle Paul reminds us, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (2 Cor. 9:8).
The Lord is restoring and rebuilding our lives so that we may fulfill His design and as we require resources, we bring our needs to the Lord, not with anxiety but with confident gratitude. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phlpns. 4:6).
The entire work of restoration should be done with an attitude of thanksgiving for it is the Lord who began the work and it is the Lord who will bring it to fulfillment. Therefore we are exhorted, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17).
Do all things with thankfulness. Gratitude, thankfulness to God is a choice of the restored heart.
The Holy Spirit will come alongside us and assist us as we put off the old nature and put on the new with thanksgiving.
5:18 “Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor's food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people.”
Nehemiah came with a commitment to faithfulness, with a commitment to stay as long as needed and he brought with him the resources needed to rebuild the city. He came as a servant, not taxing the people but serving them, giving to them. He is a picture of the Holy Spirit who lavishes upon us the resources needed to fulfill the Lord’s design for our lives.
5:19 “Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.”
Nehemiah recounts his faithfulness to God, how he refused to lay burdens on the people, how he provided for his personal guards and assistants. He refused to purchase land for himself, though he could have at the most advantageous price. He not only confronted the dishonest, greedy tactics of the oppressive nobles, he also provided a model for leadership — the Leader as a Servant-Giver.
Again he is a picture of the Holy Spirit, faithfully confronting anything in or around us that would rob us of our freedom in Christ, faithfully pouring into our lives the blessings of grace necessary for the restoring of walls and gates. And He points us to Christ, the Servant-Shepherd, enabling us to fix our eyes on Jesus, “The author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebr. 12:2).
Nehemiah asks the Lord to remember the good that he did and surely the Lord will remember and reward His faithful servant. And just as surely the Lord knows our works and will be faithful to reward us. May we hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:33).
1. Nehemiah contended for the freedom of the people just as the Holy Spirit contends for our freedom. But we must also contend for our freedom. The Holy Spirit is restoring us to the design of our Creator but there is a human side to this. We mentioned Colossians 3:1-17 where Paul talks about putting off the old self and putting on the new self. How do we do that?
2. Nehemiah presents us with a picture of Servant-Leadership. How does that work? (see v. 16-18)
6:1,2 “Now when it was reported to Sanballat, Tobiah, to Geshem the Arab and to the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall, and that no breach remained in it, although at that time I had not set up the doors in the gates, then Sanballat and Geshem sent a message to me, saying, ‘Come, let us meet together at Chephirim in the plain of Ono.’ But they were planning to harm me.”
The walls have been rebuilt and though the gates are not finished, the work is nearly complete. The enemies of restoration had been unable to prevent the work. So now they try to lure Nehemiah out of the city, out of the place of protection, away from the walls and gates he has rebuilt, away from the protection of the people he has been working with, away from the work God has called him to do, to a place where he would be vulnerable. Having isolated him, the enemy could kill him and thereby destroy any future work.
There is an adversary to the work of God in this world and in our lives. If he cannot prevent God’s purpose from being accomplished in us and through us, then he will try to lure us away to places we don’t need to be, lure us into circumstances where our physical, emotional and spiritual life will be in jeopardy. He will try to draw us away from the safety of accountability relationships, distract us with work we are not called to do; tempt us with activities we do not need to be a part of. He will try to break our focus.
We must learn to rely on the Holy Spirit to provide us with discernment as to what is legitimate and what would do us harm. Do not stray from the place and the work to which the Lord has called you. Make sure you hear from God. Pray for a heart to discern His voice over all the other voices of the world that call to us.
6:3 “So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’”
“Why should the work stop while I leave?” Nehemiah discerned their true intent to harm him. He has no intention of abandoning the work or exposing himself to unnecessary danger.
Don’t let the enemy distract you from the work of God in your life. Don’t let the enemy draw you into places and activities that are not God’s choice for you. There are places you do not need to be when serving God. There are activities you don’t need to be involved in while serving God. They are not all evil, just unnecessary. Don’t go there. Don’t do that.
It is easier to stay where we belong than to resist the devil when we arrive some place where we ought not to be. Stay in the center of God’s revealed will. If we know what God is calling us to do and where God is calling us to be, then we should stay focused on what we know to be true.
6:4 “They sent messages to me four times in this manner, and I answered them in the same way.”
The enemy persists, sending four messages. Notice the repetition of temptation and threat. Our adversary does not ease up in his opposition to the purpose of God. This is why we need to be diligent, to persevere, to press on. The race is not always won by those who are fast. But it is won by those who endure.
6:5 “Then Sanballat sent his servant to me in the same manner a fifth time with an open letter in his hand.”
Now the enemy sends an “open letter.” Official documents were rolled up and sealed. An open letter, unsealed, shows disrespect. Also, because it is open, anyone can read it. It contains false accusation, slander and threats and by sending it unsealed, the intent is that anyone can read the lies and threats. The enemy is again trying to spread fear and division among the people of God and trying to intimidate Nehemiah.
As the Holy Spirit restores and rebuilds our lives, there may be times when the adversary uses false accusation to intimidate us. Don’t retaliate — just stand firm and trust the Lord to defend and vindicate the work that He is doing. It’s His work. We are His workmanship. Trust Him to preserve His work.
6:6,7 “In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations, and Gashmu says, that you and the Jews are planning to rebel; therefore you are rebuilding the wall. And you are to be their king, according to these reports. You have also appointed prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, ‘A king is in Judah!’ And now it will be reported to the king according to these reports. So come now, let us take counsel together.’”
Nehemiah is accused of seeking to make himself king in Judah. This would constitute rebellion against the king of Persia and the enemy threatens to report Nehemiah to the king.
The truth is that the king had personally commissioned Nehemiah to this work, based on a relationship of trust and respect. He had provided resources, authority and armed guards. The restoration of Jerusalem is not an act of rebellion. It is an act of obedience. But if the king were to believe this lie, he would send soldiers to destroy Jerusalem again. Nehemiah would be arrested and executed for treason.
Sanballat’s letter concludes with these words, “So come now, let us take counsel together.” The enemy is using slander and false accusation to lure Nehemiah to a meeting which would certainly have resulted in his death.
It is the same with us. The adversary will try to convince us that it is it is an act of rebellion against God to restore the broken walls of identity, to rebuild the ruined gates of authority. He will whisper the lie that if we are really humble and truly spiritual, we will be content to stay defeated and oppressed, that we should worship God in a context of rubble, that the restoration of our life is rebellion against God.
What a lie! Believing that lie is nothing more than an exercise in false humility. The longing to be restored and transformed in the image of Christ is not rebellion against God. It is God’s purpose for our lives that we “become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). It is God, through His Son Jesus Christ, the perfect Lamb, who came seeking us, awakened us to His grace, redeemed us. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who begins the work of rebuilding what sin destroyed, restoring the image of God in our souls. It is the Lord who initiated this work of restoration and it is not rebellion to partner with God in it. It is obedience to His revealed will.
When you are tempted to believe the lie that this wonderful new growth that you are experiencing is contrary to the will of God, confess what the Lord says about you: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus … For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:4-7,10).
“Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” ( 2 Peter 1:3,4).
6:8,9 “Then I sent a message to him saying, ‘Such things as you are saying have not been done, but you are inventing them in your own mind.’ For all of them were trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘They will become discouraged with the work and it will not be done.’ But now, O God, strengthen my hands.”
Nehemiah’s response to lies and false accusation is three-fold:
1. He speaks bold truth to the lie. He does not insult the enemy. He simply calls a lie what it really is, an invention of the heart. Jesus responded to the lies of Satan with the truth of God’s Word, “It is written.” The Holy Spirit within us will enable us to discern the lie of the enemy and will bring God’s truth to our minds. We respond to a lie with truth but this requires that we know the truth. Take the word of God into your heart, as Paul counsels us, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you” (Col 3:16). This requires that we read it, meditate it, listen to it skillfully taught and then live it, walk it out, pray it, speak it.
2. Nehemiah exercises true discernment as to the intent of the enemy, which is to intimidate and discourage the people. The phrase, “They will become discouraged” is, literally, “their hands will drop.” He recognizes that the enemy is trying to disconnect the hands of the people from the work of restoration. The enemy would like to disconnect our hands from the work of restoration. Discernment is a necessary gift in any generation but especially today. Pray for discernment, stay in the Word of God where we gain God’s perspective, where we see God’s way of seeing.
3. Nehemiah calls on the Lord, “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.” Nehemiah recognized that the source of his strength is the living God. He was a dynamic leader but he knows that the source of his power to lead is not his natural gifting. It is the power of God. Therefore in a crisis he does not lean on his own strength but on the strength that God provides. The enemy cannot disconnect our hands from the work if our hands are strengthened by God.
The Apostle Paul recognized this in his own life. He had asked the Lord to relieve him of a “thorn in the flesh,” some tormenting problem or affliction. The Lord did not give Paul the healing or deliverance that he desired. Instead, the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (I Cor. 12:9).
Paul understood that God was allowing the opposition or affliction of this thorn to create a greater dependence on the Lord. His need drove him to a greater reliance on the grace of God. So weakness became a strength multiplier. Lack became a resource multiplier.
Reliance on the strength that God provides inspired Paul to pray for the church, “That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16).
Reliance on the power of God inspired Paul to boast in the Lord, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philpns. 4:13). It inspired him to celebrate, “Now to Him who is able to do abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20,21).
Men and women who accomplish great things for God understand that the source of their greatness is God and God alone.
Nehemiah speaks bold truth to the lie, he discerns the intent of the enemy and he calls on the Lord, recognizing that his true strength is found in the Lord. What a good pattern for our lives. Speak boldly to the lie using the word of God. Discern the true intent of the adversary and lean on the Lord, cast your burden on the Lord, trust His strength and resource. Let your weakness become a strength multiplier and your lack become a resource multiplier.
1. The enemy tried to draw Nehemiah out of the safety of Jerusalem. Are there places, activities or people that you need to stay away from? (see v. 1-3)
2. The enemy tried to intimidate Nehemiah with the lie that in rebuilding Jerusalem he was rebelling against the king. What was Nehemiah’s response and does this have relevance for you? (see v. 6-9)
6:10 “When I entered the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined at home, he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you, and they are coming to kill you at night.’”
Now the enemy tries to intimidate and mislead Nehemiah with false counsel from within the city. We will see in verse 12 that Shemaiah was hired by the enemies of Nehemiah for this purpose, to bring false counsel, “They are coming to kill you. Let us flee to the house of God.”
Hiding in the temple would have discredited Nehemiah’s leadership in the eyes of the people. And it would also have removed him from the exercise of leadership. He can’t hide and lead both at the same time.
There are false prophets, false teachers, false counselors and lying temptations that will try to persuade you to run from restoration: the job is too big for you, give up, run back to your former life. But cover yourself with the stuff of religion, hide in the busy-ness of religion, hide from the responsibilities of restoration but hide in the temple.
6:11 “But I said, ‘Should a man like me flee? And could one such as I go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.’”
“Should a man like me flee?”
What kind of man? A man called by God, appointed to an important work and anointed to complete that work. A man working in the authority of the king, with the resources of the king. A man partnering with God in the outworking of kingdom purpose on earth.
We should have the same attitude. Should persons like us flee from the work of restoration? Who are we? We are men and women created and redeemed by God for His glory. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them,” (Eph. 2:10).
Don’t back down. Don’t run and hide from the good work. Press on.
6:12 “Then I perceived that surely God had not sent him, but he uttered his prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.”
God gives Nehemiah discernment that Shemaiah is a false prophet hired by the enemies of Israel. He is a hireling, prostituting his gifts to the highest bidder. We are reminded of Balaam, the false prophet hired by Balak to curse Israel (Numbers 22:1-6). Jesus taught that as history moves closer to the end, there will be an increase in lying teachers and false prophets (Matt. 7:15 24:11, 24; see also 2 Peter 2:1-3 I Jn 4:1). We must pray for a spirit of discernment.
6:13 “He was hired for this reason, that I might become frightened and act accordingly and sin, so that they might have an evil report in order that they could reproach me.”
Nehemiah discerns that this man is a false prophet, hired by the enemies of God to speak a false word to him for the purpose of frightening him into sin. The sin would have been to run and hide from the calling and purpose of God, to abandon the work of leadership in rebuilding Jerusalem.
The Holy Spirit gives us discernment so we can distinguish between truth and lies. Satan will use a false word to frighten us, to plant in us a spirit of fear. If our actions then are motivated by fear, there is a good possibility that we will sin:
1. By getting ahead of God, acting in ways that God has reserved for Himself, taking responsibility on ourselves that God has not given.
2. By taking what God has promised but not yet given.
3. By fighting battles that only God can fight.
4. By running and hiding from responsibility, refusing to put our hands to the responsibility that we have been given in the good work of rebuilding.
The indwelling Holy Spirit provides us with discernment. We need to exercise it.
6:14 “Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were trying to frighten me.”
Nehemiah takes his case to God, “Remember, O my God.” Surely God does remember.
“The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry. The righteous cry and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 35:15, 17,18).
Jesus said, “I will never desert you nor will I ever forsake you” (Hebr. 13:5).
The Lord hears, the Lord sees. The Lord takes into account all that is happening in Nehemiah’s life and the Lord will bring him through as long as he relies on the Lord. So also with us.
6:15 “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of the month Elul, in fifty-two days.”
On our calendar, the wall was completed on the 25th day of Aug / Sept of 445. It had taken 52 days to complete. More important than the time was the commitment required — the people had put their hands to the good work, had refused intimidation, lies and threats. Nehemiah brought the authority and resources of the king but the people brought their hearts and hands.
6:16 “When all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations surrounding us saw it, they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”
The enemies lost their confidence when they saw that the wall was completed, “For they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” The finished work was a testimony to the enemies of God that Israel’s God is alive, is mighty and is acting in history. Jesus said, “You shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria and even to the remotest part of the earth,” (Acts 1:8b).
Yes, but our witness is not just in words. Our very lives are a testimony to the presence and power and wisdom of God. When a lost, dead sinner is awakened to repentance and faith through the saving grace of God, when addictions are broken, when confused personalities and broken lives are made whole, when walls of identity are rebuilt and gates of authority are restored, a powerful testimony of the glory of God is released into visible and invisible spheres of this world.
Rebuilding the city of Jerusalem was an important part of God’s kingdom purpose. So is the restoring of a redeemed person. God’s purpose to redeem, rebuild and restore was designed in eternity past and as it is worked out in time, the enemies of God see the power and promise of God manifesting in history. Demons can see the presence and anointing of God in our lives. They see the work of God that is ongoing. Notice how often in the Gospel stories the demons cry out in recognition of Jesus. They also see Christ in our lives.
The Apostle Paul said that grace had been give to Him to preach the riches of God’s grace in Christ, “So that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places,” (Eph 3:10).
In sharing the gospel of grace with the world, we are also revealing the manifold wisdom of God to the spiritual rulers in the heavenlies. “Manifold wisdom” suggests a design, a purpose of glorious beauty and variety. How truly glorious God’s purpose is, that though we rejected God, He would nevertheless love us while we hated Him, treasure us while we despised Him, choose us while we abandoned Him, pursue us, awaken us, pour out His own life to redeem us from slavery to sin and death and restore us into reconciled fellowship with Himself in the community of new creations known as the church.
What is more astounding is that this manifold wisdom, this glorious purpose of God, is made known through the church in union with Christ to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies. These spiritual rulers are the angelic powers, who, evidently, do not have complete insight into the purpose of God. The holy angels rejoice to see the redeeming purpose of God revealed through the church. Fallen angels, though they will not praise God, see clearly God’s glory revealed in the salvation of lost sinners, in the restoration of the Lord’s creative design in them and in their preservation in Christ’s church.
These fallen angelic rulers are not to be feared. Though we must “wrestle” against them (Eph.6:12), they have been made subject to Christ (I Peter 3:22). Following His resurrection, Jesus was seated at the right hand of God, “Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). All things have been put “in subjection under His feet,” He is “head over all things to (for) the church” (1:22). And we have been raised with Him, seated with Him in the heavenlies (2:6). We do not fear powers of darkness. Rather, God displays His glory to them through us.
In I Corinthians 4:9, Paul says that the apostles are a spectacle to angels and to men. The word spectacle is theatron, from which we derive the English word theater. The ministry of the apostles, and of the church, is not limited to time and space, to what we can see and touch. The church is God’s messenger to spiritual rulers as well as to the rulers of the world. Through the church, and through each of our lives, God displays the spectacle, the theatrical presentation of His glory.
Paul testifies that he was called into apostolic ministry, “So that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10,11). That the church would be God’s instrument in making His glorious wisdom known is not something the Lord thought up suddenly. It is according to His eternal purpose which He has accomplished through Jesus. “Eternal purpose” can be translated “purpose of the ages.” It has always been God’s purpose to reveal His redeeming grace through Jesus and through His church. Not only has God always intended this but all of history moves toward it. Now, “in the fulness of time,” as Paul says in Galatians 4:4, in Christ Jesus this purpose is realized. Through Christ’s church this purpose is proclaimed.
The rebuilding of Jerusalem and the redeeming and restoring of our lives is a part of God’s eternal design. At each stage of the work, the glory of God is revealed. The adversary sees this. Your redemption and restoration is a testimony, a spectacular, theatrical presentation of Satan’s defeat and Christ’s triumph.
6:17 “Also in those days many letters went from the nobles of Judah to Tobiah, and Tobiah's letters came to them.”
Not all of the people of Jerusalem were celebrating the restoring of the walls and gates of Jerusalem. Again we read of nobles, men of power and wealth, who had not been involved in the work of rebuilding and were not rejoicing in the completion of the work. They were instead communicating with the enemy, sending Tobiah letters and receiving letters from him.
6:18 “For many in Judah were bound by oath to him because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah.”
Why were they communicating with Tobiah? Because they had allowed the enemy to marry into their families. Tobiah, the adversary of Nehemiah, had married into a priestly family. This was a serious matter because Tobiah was an Ammonite and Ammonites worshipped false gods. A primary reason for the judgment of God upon Israel in centuries past had been idolatry, the worship of false gods. The Lord had forbidden marriage into other cultures because it had often led to idol worship.
Nehemiah is leading the rebuilding of Jerusalem which had been destroyed because of unfaithfulness. Yet here are Jewish noble families allowing worshippers of false gods to marry their children. How can we partner with God in the work of rebuilding what the world has destroyed, if we are allowing our lives to be bound up with the world and its idols? It is no coincidence that these compromised nobles did not participate in the work of rebuilding nor did they celebrate its completion.
Rightly did Paul exhort the church, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14).
Poor choices in relationships have compromised more than a few lives. We cannot partner with God in His kingdom purpose if we are bound up in the world. How can God restore in us what the world destroyed if our heart is still in the world? We have been translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We cannot mix darkness with light — either the light will overcome the darkness or the darkness will obscure the light.
When a man or woman comes to Christ but is married to an unbeliever, they cannot undo a past decision. Instead, they should trust the Holy Spirit to restore the fullness of His design in their life and let the rebuilding of their life be a testimony to the unbelieving spouse. But do not share again in the values of a world which deceived you and nearly destroyed you.
Regarding our jobs, our vocations, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers” does not mean that we cannot work in this fallen world. It means that we do not share in the values of a world that is in moral rebellion against God.
6:19 “Moreover, they were speaking about his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. Then Tobiah sent letters to frighten me.”
These compromised nobles are giving Nehemiah a good report of Tobiah the adversary. That’s how bound and blind they were, giving a good report of the one who was trying to destroy the work of restoration in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Tobiah is still trying to intimidate Nehemiah.
Jesus said, “So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him” (Luke 8:18). What we hear determines how we receive from God and therefore, how we live and respond to the challenges of life. We are surrounded by the testimony of a world that is in violent, perverse rebellion against God, against God’s truth and purity and love and holiness. It is no surprise that the world gives a good report of its violent perversity and a bad report of God’s goodness. It is no surprise that the world calls darkness light and light, darkness.
Take care how you listen. Take care who you listen to.
1. The redeeming and restoring of your life was eternally purposed by God. What does this mean to you? (see v. 16)
2. The redeeming and restoring of your life is a theatron, a spectacle of the glory of God. What does that mean to you? (see v. 16)
7:1 “Now when the wall was rebuilt and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed,”
The work is complete, the walls are rebuilt, the gates are hung. Identity and authority have been restored to the city. Nehemiah now appoints gatekeepers, singers and Levites.
Note the interesting combination of appointments. Gatekeepers are entrusted with the physical security of the city, guarding the entrances and exits. Singers lead the people in worship and Levites assist the priests and the musicians. They are spiritual guardians of the city, gatekeepers in the realm of the spirit.
Nehemiah is concerned with protecting the physical and spiritual well being of the city so he appoints guardians. No doubt some were armed with swords and some with musical instruments.
In our own lives, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, watches over our physical and spiritual well being, as the Psalmist reminds us, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). But we also must take responsibility for this redeemed, restored life. Armed with the sword of the Spirit and musical instruments, we take our place on the wall. The Psalmist said, “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand” (Ps. 149:6). Our sword is the word of God and as we sing the word, speak the word and live the word, we are exercising triumphant spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness that oppose the work of restoration.
We are reminded of the exhortation of the Apostle Peter, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). There is a spiritual adversary outside the walls who seeks our destruction. Be vigilant, be discerning. But there is also an enemy lurking within the walls —our own unredeemed humanness. Therefore Jesus directed His disciples, “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).
Restoration is shared responsibility. Only the Lord can restore His image in us but we are called to commit our lives to the discipline of restoration. It is a partnership. The Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy,“O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge” which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” (I Tim 6:20,21).
Timothy was exhorted to guard the work of God in His life. In the following passage, Paul reminds us that it is the Lord who guards what He has begun in us but that does not release us from our responsibility: “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day. Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:12-14).
Paul says it is the Lord who guards the life we have entrusted to Him. But we are required to retain the truth, that is, hold on to the truth. How do we do that? By reading the truth, meditating on the truth, living and obeying the truth. The Lord will guard what we hold onto.
Paul then exhorts Timothy to guard the treasure entrusted to Him. That treasure is the work of Christ and the life of Christ in us. How do we guard that work and that life? As Paul said, “Through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” The Holy Spirit opens the word of God to our understanding and then empowers us to live that word, energizes us to overcome indwelling sin, gives us discernment to see temptation and threat. But we must act in concert with the Spirit, committing ourselves as worshippers and gatekeepers. It is a partnership.
David expressed this so beautifully in Psalm 63, “My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me” (Ps. 63:8). We cling to the God who upholds us. We guard what has been entrusted to us by the God who guards us.
Nehemiah appointed physical and spiritual gatekeepers. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit appoints us to partner with Him in guarding the work of restoration in our lives. “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand.”
7:2 “Then I put Hanani my brother, and Hananiah the commander of the fortress, in charge of Jerusalem, for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.”
Nehemiah puts faithful men in charge of Jerusalem. Their qualifications? They are faithful and they reverence God. So should it be with us. The Lord appoints us to greater responsibility as we demonstrate faithfulness and reverence to God.
7:3 “Then I said to them, ‘Do not let the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot, and while they are standing guard, let them shut and bolt the doors. Also appoint guards from the inhabitants of Jerusalem, each at his post, and each in front of his own house.’”
Nehemiah is aware that a threat still exists against the city so he not only appointed musicians in the temple but also watchmen at the city gates. As we said, musicians are tasked with the spiritual well being of the city and gatekeepers with physical security. It was normal for city gates to open at sunrise and close at sunset. But Nehemiah directs the guards to wait “until the sun is hot,” that is, later in the day when the city is active. He also orders a guard to stand watch when the gates are closed.
7:4 “Now the city was large and spacious, but the people in it were few and the houses were not built.”
The city was still mostly rubble, even 140 years after the Babylonians destroyed it. Although the temple had been restored 70 years previously and now the walls and gates have been rebuilt, few people lived inside the city. But the foundational work of restoration is complete. The walls provide a sense of identity and security. The gates provide authority, opening to that which is good and closing to that which is evil. In time, houses will be rebuilt. God will have a city on which He may place His glory.
So with us. There are stages of restoration. Regaining the purpose of God, growing into the men and women who can live that purpose — this is a process.
What was the Lord’s purpose in Jerusalem? He wanted a city on which He could place His glory, through which He could shine His light, declare His truth and release His kingdom. A rebuilt temple surrounded by rubble would not serve God’s purpose. So He sent Nehemiah to restore and rebuild.
Although the walls and gates of Jerusalem have been rebuilt, Jerusalem is far more than walls and gates. Jerusalem is people. And so the Lord begins to rebuild the people who will inhabit the city. This process begins by recording the genealogical record of the people who had returned to Jerusalem many years before with Zerubabbel (7:5-73).
7:5 “Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogies. Then I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up first in which I found the following record.”
Families are listed, as in Genesis. Really, the entire Bible, after Genesis chapter 2, is about families — families beloved of God, families falling from grace, families redeemed and restored by grace. The listing of family names in Genesis and here in Nehemiah and so many other places in the Bible reminds us that the Lord knows our names and our families. Our names represent who we are; our families represent where we are from. The Lord’s knowledge of this reminds us that our lives are significant, important to Him.
It is marvelous, as the Psalmist reminds us, that the Lord “counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them” (Psalm 147:4). Billions of galaxies each with billions of stars and God has given names to all of them. But far more marvelous is this truth — God knows your name and mine, your family and mine.
Even more wonderful is that the names of the redeemed are recorded in the Lamb’s book of life “written from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 23:8). From eternity the Lord chose to set His love upon us, redeem us, restore and rebuild us so that He could manifest His glory through us. The recording of our names is a demonstration of His eternal redeeming purpose.
Equally wonderful is the new name we will each receive someday. In Revelation 2:17 Jesus says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.”
This new name speaks of the journey that began when we became new creations in Christ. It speaks of the journey of our commitment, our giving, our ministries of service, our choice to love Him with all of our heart, soul mind and strength in the midst of storms and failures. It speaks of our desire for this Savior who set His desire on us, of our willingness to receive His love and love Him in return.
It is a name which no one knows but the one who receives it. Who else can know the personal journey of transformation from sinner to saint, the struggles and trials and tribulations, the joy of overcoming and entering into the Bridal feast of the Lamb? Who can know that journey but the one who makes it and the One who walks beside us along the way?
Who gives us the new name? The One who wrote our names in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world, the One who knows our name and our journey.
7:6,7 These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, and who returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his city, who came with Zerubbabel …”
This census is a record of “the people … who came up from the captivity of the exiles.” It is a living record of where the people had been and the Lord’s deliverance from the captivity which the covenant people had experienced because of their personal and national sin. It is a living record of the Lord’s faithfulness to His covenant promises. It is a testimony of praise unto the Lord whose grace is greater than the sin of families and nations.
Nehemiah now lists the names of the families which had returned to Jerusalem. The list contains the names of the Levites (v. 43), the singers (v. 44), the gatekeepers (v. 45), the temple servants (v. 46). These were especially important vocations because they were central to the spiritual and physical security of the nation. But doesn’t this speak to us also? As followers of Jesus, we are all gatekeepers of our lives, families, ministry assignments. We are all priests —royal priests. In our worship of the Lord we are all musicians and in our service we are all servants unto the Lord.
Whatever our particular vocation may be, all our work is important to God and provides an opportunity to bring Him glory, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17).
7:66-73 “The whole assembly together was 42,360 … And some of the heads of the fathers’ houses gave to the work … the rest of the people gave … ”
Nehemiah provides us with a census of the people and also a record of their giving. This is why the Lord brought the people back to their land — so they could give. This is why Jerusalem was rebuilt, so that the Lord could set His glory on the city and the people could shine the light of the Lord into the nations of the world. They were restored so they could share.
We also have been redeemed and restored so that we can give. The Psalmist exhorts us, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name” (Ps. 29:2). We are exhorted to give to the world by making known the glory of the Lord, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples” (Ps. 105:1).
Solomon reminds us that when we give to the poor we are giving to the Lord (Prov. 19:17). Through Isaiah the Lord exhorts us to give into the lives of the oppressed, the hungry, the destitute (Isa. 58:6,7).
Jesus reminds us that our giving will never be forgotten by God and will be rewarded, “And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42).
“For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (Hebr. 6:10).
The angel said to Cornelius, “Your prayers and alms (gifts to the poor) have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).
Our God is a Self-giving God — it is His nature to give and this is why He redeemed and restored us. This is why He rebuilds the walls of identity and restores the gates of authority, so that we can join Him in this most fulfilling of all work — the giving of ourselves. We were created and redeemed to be givers. This census that Nehemiah recorded reminds us that the Lord is aware of every detail of our giving into the work of His kingdom. We will be rewarded someday for every act of ministry and every gift, if our giving was motivated by a pure heart.
1. We are reminded that restoration is a partnership with the Holy Spirit. With the high praises of God in our mouth and a two-edged sword in our hand, we take our place on the wall. Let us continually feed on the word of God which is able to build us up. Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise.
2. As we partner with the Holy Spirit in the work of restoration, let us take time to remember that the Lord knows our name and knows every detail of our journey with Him. Let us take time to celebrate His faithfulness and give Him thanks.
3. We have been restored so we can give.
1. When the walls and gates were restored, Nehemiah set up musicians in the temple and guards at the gates — physical and spiritual gatekeepers. How do we partner with the Holy Spirit in guarding the life that has been restored? (see v. 1 and 3)
2. Nehemiah recorded a census of people and gifts. Why is it significant that our giving is remembered by God?
8:1,2 “And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.”
The people ask Ezra to read the book of the Law of Moses to them. This would be the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. They gathered as a covenant community and listened to the word together, reverenced the word together. It was lack of reverence for the word that had led to the downfall of their nation. We see in this our need to be part of a faith community in which the word of God is taught clearly and the word is honored, reverenced.
This took place on the first day of the seventh month. This would be the month of Tishri (our Sept / Oct). This was the day set aside in the Law of Moses to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets but because Israel had become unfamiliar with the word of God and its commandments, the nation may not have been faithful in its celebrations.
But how will anyone understand and obey God’s word unless pastor / teachers are faithful to preach and teach the word with clarity? As the Apostle Paul said, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14,17).
8:3 “He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
Ezra read the word to the people from early morning until midday, a period of at least 6 hours. The people were hungry for the word of God. Peter reminds us that the word is nourishing, like milk (I Peter 2:2). Jesus said that God’s word is as necessary as bread (Matt. 4:4). The Psalmist tells us that God’s word is “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
Indeed, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16,17). God’s Word is alive, dynamic, powerful, creative, piercing down to the deepest place of our being (Hebr. 4:12). By it, the Lord created the universe. It will surely have a dynamic, creative impact in us. When we commit ourselves to study God’s word, we are opening our lives to the transforming power of God.
8:4 “Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand.”
Standing on the platform with Ezra were leaders, possibly priests. They are publicly demonstrating their agreement with the preaching of the word.
8:5 “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.”
The people stood as an act of reverence for God’s word. When we reverence God’s word, it will have a dynamic, life changing impact on us. The Apostle Paul said, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (I Thes. 2:13).
8:6 “Then Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
The people respond to the word with “Amen, Amen” which means truly, truly. As they affirmed the truth they also lifted up their hands; “Then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” They are listening to the word in an attitude of worshipful humility. When we listen with that attitude the Lord is able to accomplish everything in us which He intended.
8:7,8 “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”
The leaders weren’t just reading the word. They were explaining it (that’s what the word translate means), giving the sense of it. The teaching ministry is one of God’s gifts to the church (Eph. 4:11), the purpose of which is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:12-14).
The teaching ministry of the church, and our submission to it, is an essential component in the rebuilding and restoring of our lives. This is why the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, our Nehemiah, was given to the church — to bring us into the knowledge of the truth — truth about Jesus, about ourselves and the world around us, truth about God’s purpose in us and in our generation.
In an age of deception and lies, it is essential that we seek the truth and finding it, that we say “Amen” (so be it). As we humble ourselves to the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, He will give us the discernment we need to navigate this darkness.
8:9 “Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law.”
The people wept as they heard the word because they understood why the city, the temple and the nation had been destroyed. The judgment of God had fallen on their ancestors because of continual unrepented abominations against the holy, righteous God. Their ancestors had been clearly warned in the Law and by generations of prophets who spoke the word of God clearly but they had refused to turn from their sin. So God had judged them.
The tears of the covenant community reveal repentant hearts. They are receiving the word with repentance. This is what happens when we listen to God’s word in a spirit of reverence. The word performs its work in us because it is alive, powerful, creative: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebr 4:12).
The word of God accomplishes God’s purpose in us because God is intentional in all that He says and does: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will my word be which goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10,11).
The Word of God pierces hearts with truth and when we receive it with humility, the result is change, transformation. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, the multitude of listeners were deeply impacted: “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37,38).
As Ezra read the Law and the other men explained its meaning, the covenant community received the word of God with reverence and wept over the sins of Israel. But their leaders encouraged them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” As we said, this was the Feast of Trumpets — a day of celebration and so the leaders exhort the people to celebrate.
Yes, God is righteous and therefore He judges sin but He is also a God of grace who makes all things new. In spite of judgment and terrible destruction, the exiled people had returned, the temple had been rebuilt and now, the gates and walls of the city were restored. There is a time for repentance wherein we mourn our sins but there is also a day of rejoicing wherein we celebrate the triumphant, restoring grace of God.Truly, this is a day of new beginnings, a day of rejoicing.
8:10 “Then he said to them, ‘Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”
The people are encouraged to go and celebrate together, “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” It is to be a day of feasting and rejoicing, sharing in the joy of the Lord’s triumph.
What a wonderful thought, that God was rejoicing over the people and they were invited to share His joy. The prophet Zephaniah foresaw a day when God would rejoice over a restored Israel: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy. He will rest in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zephaniah 3:17)
The word rejoice is giyl which means to spin around under the influence of great emotion. Shouts of joy is rinnah, from the root word ranan which is a ringing cry of exaltation. This is a picture of a heaven that shouts, whirls about, dances and rejoices over repentant and restored people (in this case, over Israel in a time of national repentance and restoration).
Why does God rejoice over a person, family, church, nation that sincerely repents and returns to Him? Because then God can restore His purpose, pour out His blessing and fulfill His promise to and through that person or body of people.
There was a time when unconfessed sin was wasting King David’s life. But when he confessed his sin, he discovered the wonderful forgiving grace of God. But more than that, he found that he was surrounded by God’s song of triumph. David then rejoiced in the wonderful reality of God’s saving, redeeming presence in his life: “You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble, you surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7).
David then hears God make this promise: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).
God promises to instruct the forgiven, restored sinner and among the many wonderful truths that God teaches us is this — He teaches us how to sing His joyful song of triumph. In Isaiah 57:18,19 the Lord says that He creates the fruit or the praise of our lips. He teaches us to praise and in Psalm 40:1-3, the Lord gives a new song of praise to the person whom He delivers.
Notice in Psalm 32:11, David exhorts us to, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones and shout for joy." This word shout (ranan) is the root of the word songs, ron, used in verse 7, when David realized he was surrounded by God’s song of deliverance. In verse 11, God’s song of deliverance has become David’s shout of joy. David has learned God’s song.
God surrounds / covers the repentant sinner with shouts of victory and teaches David heaven’s joyful shout of praise so that David can sing it back to God. Beneath the canopy of God’s joyful song, God will teach us heaven’s dance and song of deliverance so that we may sing it back to Him in joyful thanks. Truly then, the joy of the Lord becomes our source of strength.
8:11 “So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.’”
The people of Jerusalem are exhorted to cease from their weeping and to share in the joy of the Lord over their restoration. As we have said, there is a day of repentance, a day of dust and ashes but there is also a day of grand celebration, singing and dancing and feasting in the goodness of God and in the triumph of His grace.
8:12 “All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.”
They celebrated as a covenant community for “they understood the words which had been made known to them.” They celebrated because they understood. As the Psalmist said, “The unfolding (entrance, teaching) of Thy words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).
How great our rejoicing when we hear the Word of God and understand it!
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;
In keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).
They listened to the word with reverent humility and wept in repentance. Then they rejoiced, sharing in the joy of the Lord, for it is that word which is able to restore us. Just as Jerusalem was rebuilt by God’s Nehemiah, so are we rebuilt and restored as we listen to the word of God with reverence and understanding. The same God who created a universe with His spoken word is also able to recreate, transform and restore us through His word.
8:13-16 “Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ households of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law. They found written in the law how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of other leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.’ So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim.”
Again, for a second day, the community gathers to gain insight into God’s word. In the Scriptures, they rediscover the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. This festival was commanded by God as a time of holy remembrance of Israel’s years in the wilderness and God’s faithfulness to provide. It was a celebration of God’s protection, provision and deliverance during the journey from slavery in Egypt to blessing in the land of promise. It was also a celebration of the autumn harvest. Although the Feast of Booths was normally celebrated from the 15th to the 21st day of the seventh month, it sounds here as though they celebrated it beginning on the second day.
8:17 “The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing.”
Having rediscovered this festival, they now reinstitute it. They are reclaiming their holy history. Part of restoration is to remember and reclaim where we have been with God, the faithfulness of God in times past, who we were called by God to be and therefore, who we are now and who we will be tomorrow. Notice that this feast had not been celebrated since the days of Joshua, approximately 1,000 years before (or at least it had not been celebrated with such sincere repentance and unrestrained joy).
The nation had lost touch with its spiritual history. When we forget where we have been, and the faithfulness of God to bring us through, there is then a tendency to fall into pride, self exaltation. We tend to give thanks to ourselves when we forget to give thanks to God. This leads to a spirit of independence and leaves us vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy and to all manner of sin. How truly this is demonstrated in the history of Israel from Joshua’s time to Nehemiah’s time.
8:18 “He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly according to the ordinance.”
They celebrated for seven days and part of the celebration was daily reading from the book of the Law. They were feasting but also feeding on the word of God. Jesus reminded us of the necessity of this holy food, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). Peter also exhorts us, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (I Peter 2:2).
They celebrated, feasting on the bounty of the land and the richness of God’s word. Then on the eight day, they held a solemn assembly according to the law of Moses (see Lev. 23:36 and Num. 29:35). This was a day of fasting, repentance and confession. This assembly was an expression of the zeal, the passion, the holy reverence and gratitude of the people toward God.
As we partner with the Holy Spirit in the work of restoration, let us continually feed on the word of God which is able to build us up. Let us take time to remember where we have been with God, rejoicing in His faithfulness. And let us take time to reverence the God of our deliverance, turning from our sin and celebrating the God who lavishes grace on all who turn to Him.
1. What impact did the word of God have on the people? (v. 6,9)
2. The people moved from repentance to rejoicing. As the Holy Spirit rebuilds the walls of identity and gates of authority in your life, are you gaining a spirit of rejoicing?
9:1 “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them.”
Historically, the Feast of Booths / Tabernacles was celebrated from the 15th to the 21st day of the seventh month, following the Day of Atonement, which took place on the 10th day of the month. But as we said in chapter 8, it sounds as though they celebrated Booths beginning on the second day, in response to its discovery in the book of the Law. That celebration was followed on the eighth day by a solemn assembly, a day of fasting, repentance and confession of sin.
Now, on the 24th day, the people again hold a solemn assembly, humbling themselves before the Lord, confessing their sins. This is a continued response to the reading of the Word of God. Fasting and sackcloth and putting dust on their heads are outward expressions of an inner conviction of grief over sin.
9:2 “The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.”
Repentance is not merely a prayer but a change of mind and heart resulting in a changed life. This is what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
The people are not merely confessing their sins to the Lord, they are taking actions which demonstrate the sincerity of their repentance. They need to separate themselves from foreigners because there had been much intermarriage and intermingling with pagan cultures since the first exiles had returned. This had always been forbidden by God because it brought Israel into intimate contact with foreign gods which led to the abomination of idol worship. Such practices in previous centuries had resulted in a downward spiral of social injustice, personal immorality and idol worship which included child sacrifice — the offering of infants on the fiery altars of false gods. This had led to God’s judgment of the nation.
Now, as the Word of God is being read to the covenant community, the people are freshly convicted of sin and convinced of the need for personal holiness. Their response is to separate themselves from all that is unholy. The Apostle Paul also exhorts the church,
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers, for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial (an ancient name for Satan), or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me’ says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:14-18).
As the people worshipfully listen to the Word of God, they enter a time of fasting and confession of sin. Then acting on their confession, they separate themselves from relationships and customs that would separate them from God. God is restoring people to dwell in the restored city. They do this as a covenant community.
Those who have experienced the pain of divorce might find Nehemiah chapter nine to be troubling. Israelites were separating themselves from all that was foreign and idolatrous, including relationships that entangled them in idolatry, but this is not the same thing as one spouse merely rejecting another. God had made covenant with Israel so that His redemptive purpose could be fulfilled in history. In order for Israel to remain faithful to that purpose, they needed to maintain separation from the idol worshipping nations around them. Without fail, the worship of those idols led people into moral failure, social injustice and spiritual adultery toward God.
This process is described in detail in Psalm 106. In verses 35 and 36 we read that the Israelites “mingled with the nations and learned their practices and served their idols which became a snare to them.” Notice the progression — they mingled with the nations, then they learned their practices, then they served / worshipped their idols which then became a snare.
However, the downward spiral of sin does not stop there. The idol worship of the surrounding nations included child sacrifice. So we read in Psalm 106:37, “They even sacrificed their sons and daughters to the demons and shed innocent blood.” The result is that “the land was polluted with the blood” (Psalm 106:38). Not only did the land become polluted — the people also “became unclean in their practices” (Psalm 106:39).
Again, notice the progression — they mingled, learned, served and were snared in the demon inspired worship of idols, which included child sacrifice until both land and people were polluted, unclean. This resulted in God’s judgment — God “gave them into the hand of the nations” (Psalm 106:41). This is called judicial abandonment — God gave them up to their choices. They chose the nations and rejected God, so God gave them up to the nations and their false gods.
Yet even in judgment, God was gracious, “Many times He would deliver them; they however, were rebellious in their counsel and so sank down in their iniquity” (Psalm 106:42,43). God delivered, the people sinned again and sank into the mire of their choices.
Yet God continued to act in faithful, covenant love, “He remembered His covenant for their sake ... He also made them objects of compassion” (Psalm 106:44-46). After the destruction of the nation, the Lord in His kindness restored the people to their land, the temple was rebuilt and now the city is being restored. But the people have begun to fall back into old patterns of mingling with the nations around them. So the Lord inspired this time of repentance, separation, cleansing and recommitment.
This a necessary part of the restoration process in our lives also, that we separate ourselves from all that would pollute and ultimately destroy the work of restoration.
9:3 “While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God.”
For a fourth of the day they listen to the word being read and taught. For another fourth of the day they confess their sins and worship the Lord. Notice the pattern which we see over and over again — the reading of the word of God, and as we saw in chapter 8, the explaining of the word, followed by confession of sin and praise to the God who lavishes grace on all who call upon Him with sincere repentance. This is what God’s word does — it shines light into our hearts and gives us clarity, convicts us of sin, convinces us of grace and inspires a sacrifice of praise.
David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:1-3).
9:4-6 “Now on the Levites' platform stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani and Chenani, and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah and Pethahiah, said, ‘Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever! O may Your glorious name be blessed and exalted above all blessing and praise! You alone are the Lord. You have made the heavens, the heaven of heavens with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them and the heavenly host bows down before You.’”
There was a platform for the Levites who are the worship leaders and they lead the people in worship: “Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever.” Notice again the pattern — reading of the word leads to confession of sin which leads to exultant, unrestrained praise. As they encounter the truth of God they also experience the grace of God which calls forth praise, worshipfully declaring that God alone is the Creator of heaven and earth. God alone gives life to all that live and therefore all should worship Him, in heaven and on earth.
9:7,8 “You are the Lord God, Who chose Abram and brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees, and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before You, and made a covenant with him to give him the land of the Canaanite, of the Hittite and the Amorite, of the Perizzite, the Jebusite and the Girgashite — to give it to his descendants. And You have fulfilled Your promise, for You are righteous.”
They worshipfully declare that God is the God who sovereignly makes covenant with those whom He chooses. He is the God who called Abram out of an idol worshipping culture, gave him the name Abraham and made covenant with him to give him the land of promise. Their worship included the profession, “You have fulfilled your promise.” He is not only a covenant making God but also a covenant keeping God. The proof is their return from exile to the land that God had promised. God is restoring people to live in a restored city because He is faithful.
9:9-11 “You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, and heard their cry by the Red Sea. You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his servants, and against all the people of his land. For You knew that they acted proudly against them. So You made a name for Yourself, as it is this day. You divided the sea before them, so they passed through the midst of the sea on dry ground; and their pursuers You hurled into the depths, like a stone into raging waters.”
They recount the miraculous deliverance from Egypt and worship the God who judges the arrogance of kings and thereby glorifies His name — “You made a name for yourself”. This is the God who hears the cry of all who call to him in humble repentance and true faith. This is the God who responds, who divides the sea and makes it a highway for His people. This is the God who makes a way for us to leave the dominion of our former slaveries, who makes a way for us through the blood of Christ.
9:12 “And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day, and with a pillar of fire by night to light for them the way in which they were to go.”
They worship the God who shepherds His people, recalling God’s faithfulness in guiding their ancestors through the wilderness. The Lord covered Israel with the cloud of His glory by day and the fire of His glory through the night. So he shepherds us.
9:13,14 “Then You came down on Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, and laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, through Your servant Moses.”
They worship the God who reveals truth and teaches people how to walk with Him, recounting Israel’s encounter with God at Mt. Sinai and the gift of the Law. In the same manner this God teaches us how to walk with Him in this new life.
9:15 “You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger, You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst, and You told them to enter in order to possess the land which You swore to give them.”
They worship the God who provides, recalling the miraculous provision of manna and water in a desolate, thirsty land. They worship the God who chooses our inheritance for us, remembering the Lord’s command to enter and possess the land of promise which God gave them.
We are reminded here of the partnership between God’s grace and man’s perseverance. God had given their ancestors this land but they had to enter and possess the gift. To put it another way, God brings us in to what we are called to possess. In recent days, the Lord had given them the opportunity to restore the city but they had to rise up and build and defend God’s gift.
So with us — we must always enter and possess what God gives. The Lord has begun a process of restoration of the image of Christ in our lives. Only God can restore but we must join in the holy discipline of restoration. And let us remember the importance of praise in this process. As we worship the God whose purpose is to restore, we enter more deeply into the transformation which He has purposed for us.
9:16,17 “But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly; they became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments. They refused to listen, and did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.”
They now remember and confess the arrogant pride, rebellion and stubbornness of their ancestors in the wilderness. That rebellion had two components:
1. “They refused to listen,” When we refuse to listen to God’s Word, we are easily taken captive by the false philosophies of false gods.
2. They “did not remember Your wondrous deeds.” They became forgetful. Forgetfulness leads to ingratitude, compromise and pride. Failing to give thanks to God, we usually give thanks to ourselves and our false gods which leads into a spiraling deception. In Israel’s case, the rebellion and deception had led to a desire to return to slavery in Egypt.
As the people recount the sins of their ancestors, they also remember the qualities of grace which are eternally true of the living God. He is gracious, abounding in mercy and forgiveness, a God who does not forsake His covenant people. They understand that this is their God and that He is unchanging in His nature. Implied in this is a sense of awed worship at the faithfulness and grace of this God.
1. As the people listen to the word of God, they enter into a time of repentance and separation from defilement. Why is this a necessary part of the restoration process? (see v. 1,2)
The Levites continue the worshipful recounting of God’s grace in the history of Israel.
9:18-20 “Even when they made for themselves a calf of molten metal and said, ‘This is your God Who brought you up from Egypt,’ and committed great blasphemies, You, in Your great compassion, did not forsake them in the wilderness; the pillar of cloud did not leave them by day, to guide them on their way, nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go. You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth, and You gave them water for their thirst.”
They remember the faithfulness and patience of God in the wilderness. Even while their ancestors had worshipped false gods and committed blasphemy, God in His compassion did not forsake them but continued to guide, cover, instruct and feed them. Again, we sense their awe and their wonder, for their recent history has included unfaithfulness and blasphemy yet they too have encountered the faithfulness of this God who did not abandon them but brought them back to the land of promise.
Do you recall the many times you have encountered the faithfulness of God, even in times when you were unfaithful? This can be part of our song of praise.
9:21 “Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want; their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell.”
God’s gracious provision to their ancestors for forty years in a forbidding wilderness provided unmistakeable evidence of His presence among them and His blessing upon them. But this had also been the experience of this present generation that had returned from exile. God met them in the person of Nehemiah who brought with him the authority of the king, the resources and the protection of the king. God had met them in the wilderness of a rubble strewn Jerusalem and had provided for the restoring of the covenant city and the covenant people.
We may also claim this. Our Nehemiah, the Comforter, has met us with the authority of our King, the resources and the protection of our King. He met us in the rubble strewn wilderness of our life and has demonstrated His faithful provision in the restoring of covenant sons and daughters.
9:22,23 “You also gave them kingdoms and peoples, and allotted them to them as a boundary. They took possession of the land of Sihon the king of Heshbon and the land of Og the king of Bashan. You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven, and You brought them into the land which You had told their fathers to enter and possess.”
They worship the God who had always been faithful to prosper His people. In spite of their sin, the Lord had brought that ancestral generation into the land that He had promised, had subdued their enemies and caused the covenant nation to multiply. Surely Nehemiah’s generation could also see this same God at work in their own lives. In spite of their sin, the Lord had brought them out of exile, had subdued their enemies and restored the covenant city. We may also claim this as redeemed, covenant people. The Comforter brings us into the life which we are called to possess because He is faithful to His promises.
9:24 “So their sons entered and possessed the land. And You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and You gave them into their hand, with their kings and the peoples of the land, to do with them as they desired.”
They remember the God who gave victory to their ancestors, who subdued their enemies. It was not that Israel was mighty, but “You gave them into their hand.” Victory was God’s gift to His covenant people. It was an expression of the covenant faithfulness of God.
No doubt Nehemiah and the people are claiming this story for themselves. The Lord had brought
them out of a foreign land, back to the land of promise and had subdued all who opposed the work of restoration. He had been faithful to the covenant — faithful to judge when they sinned and faithful to restore.
May we also claim this in our lives, in our day. As we surrender to the work of restoration, as we commit our hearts and hands to partner with the Holy Spirit, may we also be assured of the faithfulness of our God.
9:25 “They captured fortified cities and a fertile land. They took possession of houses full of every good thing, hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, fruit trees in abundance. So they ate, were filled and grew fat, and reveled in Your great goodness.”
The song of worship continues as they recall how their ancestors had inherited a fruitful land from the Lord “and reveled in (God’s) great goodness.” May we also revel in the goodness of a God who pours out such abundance of grace on those who once rebelled against His grace, but now are forgiven and blessed.
9:26,27 “But they became disobedient and rebelled against You, and cast Your law behind their backs and killed Your prophets who had admonished them so that they might return to You, and they committed great blasphemies. Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them, but when they cried to You in the time of their distress, You heard from heaven, and according to Your great compassion You gave them deliverers who delivered them from the hand of their oppressors.”
They remember and praise the God who judges sin. Once again, worship includes confession of failure, confession of God’s justice in judging the people and remembrance of God’s mercy. Having cast away the Law and killed the prophets, what other way could God reach them than to give them up to oppression and destruction?
Yet even in judgement there is mercy. They cried out, God answered and delivered “according to (His) great compassion.” God always acts consistently within His character. He judges sin and responds to repentance with grace and mercy. He is faithful to chastise and to forgive. He glorifies Himself in mercy and in judgment, in tearing down that which is sinful and building up that which is holy.
This is the God we have come to know through His Son, Jesus Christ.
9:28 “But as soon as they had rest, they did evil again before You; therefore You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they ruled over them. When they cried again to You, You heard from heaven, and many times You rescued them according to Your compassion,”
The pattern continued to cycle through the centuries — as soon as they had rest, they did evil again. Notice God’s terrifying response to their sin: “You abandoned them to the hand of their enemies.” Judicial abandonment is an act of judgment on sinners who refuse to repent. In Romans chapter one Paul writes about humanity’s rejection of God and the resulting downward spiral into idol worship and degrading, destructive sin. Three times, in 1:24,26,28 we read these sobering words: “God gave them over.”
God called to Israel through the prophets for centuries but when the people would not listen, He gave them over to their choices. When people will not turn from their sin, God will allow them to experience the consequences of their choices. But it is not always final abandonment. God’s judgement is for the purpose of moving people to repentance so that He might deliver them. “Many times you rescued them according to your compassion.”
9:29 “And admonished them in order to turn them back to Your law. Yet they acted arrogantly and did not listen to Your commandments but sinned against Your ordinances, by which if a man observes them he shall live. And they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck, and would not listen.”
Nehemiah and the congregation worship the God who calls people to His truth so that they may live. For many years the Lord had admonished Israel to turn back to His commandments which, if a man observes them, he shall live. But they would not listen. Israel became increasingly rebellious, hard-hearted and stubborn toward God.
9:30 “However, You bore with them for many years, and admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets, yet they would not give ear. Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.”
They worship the God who is patient, long suffering, who mercifully bore with them for many years as the Spirit of God admonished them through the prophets. The Lord continued to call, year after year, century after century, through His anointed, inspired prophets. And year after year, the people refused to listen. Therefore the Lord gave them into the hands of their enemies. This refers to the destruction and judgment exercised against the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians and especially to the judgment poured out on the southern kingdom of Judah through the Babylonians. This was not ancient history. This was the recent experience of the covenant people.
9:31 “Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or forsake them, for You are a gracious and compassionate God.”
They worship the Lord who preserves a righteous remnant of covenant people so that He may continue to work out His salvation purpose in history. Even in judgment, God would not make a full end of Israel. Why? Because He had made a covenant with Abraham. A remnant survived and returned to the land so that God could continue to fulfill His merciful, redeeming purpose. Mercy tempers judgement. There is a boundary around the judgement of God called mercy.
9:32,33 “Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness, do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You, which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people, from the days of the kings of Assyria to this day. However, You are just in all that has come upon us; for You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly.”
They worship the God who is great, mighty and awesome, “Who keeps covenant and lovingkindess.” They worship the God who is always righteous and holy in all that He does, confessing that God has been just in all that has come upon them. They recognize that God acted faithfully while they had been unfaithful.
Notice their humility — “You are just in all that has come upon us; for You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly.” Truthful accountability always connects with the heart of God. Truly, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Therefore Peter exhorts us, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (I Peter 5:6).
9:34-37 “For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonitions with which You have admonished them. But they, in their own kingdom, with Your great goodness which You gave them, with the broad and rich land which You set before them, did not serve You or turn from their evil deeds. Behold, we are slaves today, and as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, behold, we are slaves in it. And it yields much increase to the kings You have set over us, because of our sins; also they have dominion over our bodies and our cattle at their pleasure; and we are in great distress.”
They confess that neither their kings, their priests nor their fathers had kept God’s law. Therefore they are now slaves in their own land, ruled over by the king of Persia. They are grateful that God has brought them back, but they are servants of a foreign king.
They understand that they lost their freedom because of their sins and the sins of their fathers before them. They understand and confess that it is God who set this foreign government over them. In Eden, there were no kings. Man and woman were governed by the Spirit of the Lord guiding their pure hearts. But the sin of Adam and Eve was an act of rebellion against the government of God. Now, God sets governments over people because we will not be governed by God and in the world's fallen condition, there is a need for lawful restraint of sinful people.
The kings of Israel had been unfaithful and so now there is no Israelite king. They are ruled by a Persian king. This is both an act of judgment and mercy. It is the judgment of God to give them into the hands of a foreign government. But it is the mercy of God to place them under the protection of a king, for in a fallen world, we need the peace and stability which a government provides.
So in our own nation. God sometimes allows foolish, unrighteous leaders to rise to positions of authority in our government, as a means of judgment on our sins as a nation. But in mercy, God allows government to continue, for without it, even as flawed as it is, we would fall into anarchy and every form of evil.
This long recitation of God’s faithfulness and mercy, set against the confession of Israel’s unfaithfulness and rebellion, is a song of worship. Jesus said that the Father seeks those who will worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Worshipping God in spirit means that from the deepest part of our soul we express our adoration of Him, “All that is within me bless His holy name” (Psalm 103:1). Worshipping in truth means we worship God as He has revealed Himself to us in holy Scripture. But worshipping in truth also means that we come before God honestly, sincerely. Since we know that God is holy, then we must worship Him with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3-6). So confession of sin and repentance is as much an act of worship as the profession of God’s great mercy.
9:38 “Now because of all this we are making an agreement in writing; and on the sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests.”
Having recalled the history of Israel’s sin and God’s faithfulness, having repented of their own sins and separated themselves from sinful practices, having worshipped the Lord in spirit and in truth, the people now renew their covenant commitment to live together, holy unto the Lord.
The walls and gates were restored. God is now restoring a people through whom He may show forth His glory. May we also follow this pattern: continually confessing our sins to the God who continually lavishes grace on our lives as we give Him praise and glory and honor.
1. The people review the history of Israel with its cycles of unfaithfulness and restoration through the faithfulness of God. Are you confident of the absolute faithfulness and uncompromising commitment of God to you and to the process of restoration in your life?
2. How important is confession of sin and repentance to the process of restoration?
10:1-27 “Now on the sealed document were the names of: Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah, and Zedekiah …”
The sealed document refers back to chapter 9. The people had recalled the history of Israel’s sin and God’s faithfulness, repented of their own sins and separated themselves from sinful practices. They then renewed their covenant commitment with God and one another to live together as a faith community, holy unto the Lord. They expressed this commitment in a sealed document.
The covenant is signed by the leaders whose names are listed here. The people of Jerusalem had partnered with Nehemiah and with God in the restoring of the city. Now they renew their commitment to partner with God in the restoring of their lives. God wants a city through which He can be glorified but Jerusalem is comprised of far more than walls and gates. Jerusalem is people. God wants a people through whom He can show His glory.
When we make covenant with God as a community of faith, we are entering into relationship. We are committing ourselves to be accountable to God and to one another for the way we relate to the Lord, to one another and to the world around us. When we enter into covenant with God, the Lord considers this to be as sacred as marriage. The Lord considers covenant unfaithfulness to be spiritual adultery.
10:28,29 “Now the rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants and all those who had separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the law of God, their wives, their sons and their daughters, all those who had knowledge and understanding, are joining with their kinsmen, their nobles, and are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God's law, which was given through Moses, God's servant, and to keep and to observe all the commandments of God our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes;”
The priests, the worship leaders and temple servants and all the people who had repented of compromise, who had separated themselves from the pagan cultures around them, united in agreement with this renewed covenant. They agree to observe the law of Moses and maintain holy separation from the sinful, idolatrous practices of the God-rejecting societies around them.
God is able to restore our lives if we will commit ourselves to walk close to Him, if we will be accountable to Him and separate ourselves from the evil that nearly destroyed us.
Salvation, the forgiveness of our sins, peace with God, eternal life in God’s presence, the restoring of our personality and talents and calling, is God’s gift to us. Salvation is by grace through faith. But there is also a process of discipline and obedience whereby we commit to walk with God while separating ourselves from the evil customs, idolatrous religions and false philosophies of a world that is in violent rebellion against God. Failure to commit to this discipline will negate the process of restoration which God desires to work in us.
Their agreement not only included an oath to observe the law of Moses but they also took upon themselves the curse which accompanied that Law. Centuries before, when God gave the Law to Moses, the commandments were accompanied by the promise of blessing and judgment:
“Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the Lord your God …. But it shall come about, if you will not obey the Lord your God to observe to do all His commandments and His statues with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deut. 28:1,2,15).
Because of willful disobedience and rebellion, the curse of the Law had come upon them. Today we have a new covenant with God, a covenant ratified by the blood of Jesus, the unblemished Lamb of God. Jesus Himself bore our curse so that now we may enter the blessing of God:
“For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,’ in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:10-14).
Through faith in the blood of Christ, we have been redeemed from slavery to sin and death, saved from the wrath of God and the curse of the Law. Now, if we will commit ourselves to the daily discipline of holy living, we will experience the restoring work of God.
10:30 “and that we will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.”
They commit to keeping their sons and daughters separate from entanglements with pagan neighbors. In our day, we certainly can’t control who our children marry but we can raise them with a sense of distinction between that which is holy and that which is profane, that which is Godly and that which is ungodly. We are exhorted to raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
There is an intentionality in the way we live our lives, raise our families and relate to the world around us. We are not neutral observers. We are invested in presenting Christ to the children and youth in our families, churches and cities. We share and model Biblical principles of living and we actively disciple the generation that follows us. The world is militant in sharing its pagan lifestyles and philosophies. We also must be intentional, committed and faithful in protecting our young ones from mental, emotional, spiritual and relational entanglements with a fallen, idolatrous, God-rejecting world.
10:31 “As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.”
They agree to keep holy days holy and to keep the year of Jubilee (see chapter 5). A restored people remember reverence and mercy.
10:32-34 “We also placed ourselves under obligation to contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, for the continual grain offering, for the continual burnt offering, the sabbaths, the new moon, for the appointed times, for the holy things and for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God. Likewise we cast lots for the supply of wood among the priests, the Levites and the people so that they might bring it to the house of our God, according to our fathers' households, at fixed times annually, to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the law;”
They agree to remember to give offerings into the house of God for the work of God.
10:35-37 “and that they might bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all the fruit of every tree to the house of the Lord annually, and bring to the house of our God the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, and the firstborn of our herds and our flocks as it is written in the law, for the priests who are ministering in the house of our God. We will also bring the first of our dough, our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the new wine and the oil to the priests at the chambers of the house of our God, and the tithe of our ground to the Levites, for the Levites are they who receive the tithes in all the rural towns.”
Included in their offerings are the first fruit offerings. When a harvest came in, they would offer the first fruit to God, the first of their flocks and their wine and their oil. Giving into the work of the Lord is not merely an obligation — it is also an act of worship. We are thanking the Lord with a portion of our harvest for the abundance of His blessing.
Giving is also a source of great blessing. Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure — pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (Luke 6:38). We see this in a garden. If I plant three kernels of corn in a little mound, I will get back a stalk with two or three ears on it — multiples more than what I planted. This is how the Lord designed the universe.
The Apostle Paul reminds us, “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; as it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad, He gave to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.’ Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in everything for all liberality (generosity), which through us is producing thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:6,8-11).
The surest way to multiply resources is to give into the lives of others.
Giving is also a proof that we really are being restored in the image of God for God is a giver and we show His presence in our lives most greatly as we give into the lives of those who cannot repay us.
10:38,39 “The priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive tithes, and the Levites shall bring up the tenth of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers of the storehouse. For the sons of Israel and the sons of Levi shall bring the contribution of the grain, the new wine and the oil to the chambers; there are the utensils of the sanctuary, the priests who are ministering, the gatekeepers and the singers. Thus we will not neglect the house of our God.”
As we’ve said, the purpose of these offerings was to support the ministries of the temple. What was true for Israel is also true for us. As God blesses us, we return a portion of our blessing to the Lord as an act of worship, thanking Him for His kindness in providing for us. We give these gifts to the Lord through the various ministries which we support. And as God blessed the giver in Jerusalem, so He blesses us.
1. The people renewed their covenant with God and with one another. What does it mean that you are in covenant with the living God?
2. The people renewed their commitment to be givers. You were created to give. What does that mean to you personally?
11:1 “Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem, but the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while nine-tenths remained in the other cities.”
Recall that Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Not just the temple and the walls and gates — everything had been demolished. When the first exiles returned and rebuilt the temple, they were living outside the city and would walk through the rubble on their way to the temple. Now, Jerusalem itself has been rebuilt but only the leaders, Nehemiah and those who assisted him in government, actually lived inside the city.
It was only natural that the people wanted to return to their ancestral property but it was also necessary to repopulate Jerusalem. To fill out the population, they cast lots and one of every ten families moved into the city.
11:2 “And the people blessed all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.”
It appears that the people consented to accept their lot. Those who volunteered to stay were blessed by the people and the others returned to their ancestral homes. Surely this was a profound blessing — to live in the same city in which David had once lived and which, someday, the Messiah would visit.
11:3-36 “Now these are the heads of the provinces who lived in Jerusalem, but in the cities of Judah each lived on his own property in their cities — the Israelites, the priests, the Levites, the temple servants and the descendants of Solomon's servants …”
The names of those who lived in the holy city are recorded. Again we see the importance of names to God — God knows each of us by name. Through the prophet Isaiah the Lord said, “But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine’” (Isa. 43:1).
This reminds us that the names of the redeemed are also recorded in a registry — the Lamb’s book of life. This is the registry of those whom God foreknew as His redeemed (Revelation 13:8). Our names were written “from the foundation of the world,” that is, from eternity past. In the ancient councils of eternity, God the Father, God the Holy Spirit and God the Son agreed and decreed that Jesus would be the Lamb slain for the sins of the world and that His work would obtain everlasting salvation for all who believe. That salvation was also foreknown and decreed from eternity. Our names were written in the Lamb’s book of life before there was ever a creation or a sin committed. The source of that salvation is the blood of a Savior who committed to this saving work in eternity past.
Not only are our names written in the registry of the Lamb. Jesus says that He will give each of us a new name (Revelation 2:17). This new name speaks of the journey that began when we became new creations in Christ. It speaks of the journey of our commitment, our giving, our choice to love Him with all of our heart, soul mind and strength in the midst of storms and failures. It speaks of our desire for this Bridegroom God who set His desire on us, of our willingness to receive His love and love Him in return.
It is a name which no one knows but the one who receives it. Who else can know the personal journey of transformation from sinner to saint, the struggles and trials and tribulations, the joy of overcoming and entering into the Bridal feast of the Lamb? Who can know that journey but the one who makes it and the One who walks beside us along the way?
Who gives us the new name? The One who wrote our names in the Lamb’s book of life before the foundation of the world.
Not only are our names registered in the holy city — we will also live there. Not the old Jerusalem — we will live in the New Jerusalem which comes down “out of heaven from God, made ready as a Bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
This is a real, physical city with specific dimensions (see Rev. 21:15-17). It is not heaven itself, rather, it is heaven’s capital city, the center of the new universe. This is the third Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible. The first was the Jerusalem that existed in the Old and New Testaments and endured to the end of pre-millennial history. The second Jerusalem is the restored city from which Jesus rules the earth during His thousand year reign. This last Jerusalem exists in the new universe and is an entirely new creation, therefore John calls it the new Jerusalem.
John calls it “the holy city” because its Builder is holy, its purpose is holy and everyone in it is holy. In fact, as the city comes into focus, John sees it is as a Bride adorned for her husband. The heavenly city is the dwelling place of the people of God and takes on the character of the redeemed, who, themselves, are transformed in the holy likeness of their Lord.
Not only are our names written in the registry of the New Jerusalem, not only will we be given a new name and not only will we live in the holy city. Even more wonderful, Jesus said to the overcomers in the church at Philadelphia that He would write upon them the “name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down out of heaven” (Rev. 3:12).
What does that mean, “I will write on him the name of My God”?
In the days of Moses, God used His own finger to write the commandments on tablets of stone. But the Lord promised through the prophet Jeremiah that a day would come when He would write on human hearts, “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jere. 31:33).
We who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, we are those in whom the Lord is writing. Paul says that we “are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3).
Even as a servant in ancient days bore the mark of his or her owner, so the mark of God will be on those who have surrendered to His Lordship. This speaks of identity. We are His, bought with a price — the blood of the holy Lamb. This speaks of permanence — He purchased us for Himself and marks us with Himself for all eternity.
God writes in us the story of the Bridegroom’s desire for the Bride. He inscribes in us His holiness, His beauty, His strength and His truth. He leaves a mark upon our character: we are changed into the image of Jesus, given holy desires that did not originate within ourselves. He leaves a mark upon our mind and memory: we are forgiven, renewed, transformed, given revelation of the heart and mind of God. He leaves a mark upon our spirit, our soul: the resurrection life of Jesus is at work in us, the promise and presence of eternal life.
What does it mean that “I will write on him … the name of the city of my God which comes down out of heaven from My God”?
It means that mark of the New Jerusalem will be upon us. It is the gift of everlasting citizenship in the heavenly city and the kingdom of God. It means that the character of that city will be inscribed in our heart. The beauty and truth and glory of the city will be reflected from within us.
What does it mean that Jesus “will write on him My new name”?
We already have a new name: children of God, saints, overcomers, Christians. Christ shares His name with us. His name represents the fulness of His being but He has infinitely more of Himself to share with us. His new name represents the unfolding and ultimate revelation of His essence which is not now known or seen but will be revealed in glory. As we bear His name now, so we shall bear this fuller expression of His name, His being, in eternity as we behold Him and are changed to be like Him. In that day when Christ has conquered all, we will stand with Him in the new Jerusalem as new people, wearing a new crown and bearing a new name.
How wonderful that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt — identity was restored. The gates were rebuilt — authority was restored. The rubble of the city was cleared away and the city was raised up — a city on which the Lord could set His glory. How wonderful that people were restored and invited to live in the restored city.
But this is our story too. Our Nehemiah, the Comforter from God, is restoring the gates of authority, rebuilding the walls of identity, registering us in the New Jerusalem and recording our names — our new names. And not only will we live in the holy city, we will reflect from our inner being the beauty and truth and glory of the heavenly city.
1. What does it mean to you that God knows your name?
2. What does it mean to you that your name is registered in the New Jerusalem?
12:1-26 “Now these are the priests and the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra …”
The names of the priests and Levites are listed who had returned with the first group of exiles under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 BC. Their descendants continue to exercise priestly duties. They are listed here because this is a new day, a new beginning in a restored Jerusalem.
12:27-29 “Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites from all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem so that they might celebrate the dedication with gladness, with hymns of thanksgiving and with songs to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps and lyres. So the sons of the singers were assembled from the district around Jerusalem, and from the villages of the Netophathites, from Beth-gilgal and from their fields in Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built themselves villages around Jerusalem.”
The worship leaders are summoned to Jerusalem to “celebrate the dedication” of the walls “with gladness, with hymns of thanksgiving” accompanied by cymbals and stringed instruments (and trumpets, v. 35). Just as Solomon’s temple was dedicated and also the rebuilt temple, so are the walls dedicated with praise and thanksgiving to God. Only God can restore what has been destroyed. Only God can raise up what has been broken down. Only God is worthy of glory and honor.
The Lord is restoring us personally and corporately as vessels of His glory although there is not one final moment of dedication in this life in which we celebrate the Lord’s completed work in our lives. Restoration, consecration, is a process encompassing all the days of our life. Nevertheless, we give thanks and praise to God daily for His faithfulness as He recreates, transforms and consecrates us for His purposes on earth. And we give thanks for the promise that God will someday perfect what He has begun in us when we stand before Him in glory.
12:30 “The priests and the Levites purified themselves; they also purified the people, the gates and the wall.”
Before they sang, the priests and Levites purified themselves, the people, the gates and the wall. Notice that they are not only consecrating the gates and walls of the rebuilt city. They are also consecrating the people who will live and work and worship in that city. It is the people whom God will bless or judge. It is the people who will carry the glory of God or the wrath of God. It is the people who will beautify the city or again reduce the city to rubble and garbage.
This purification was a symbolic act, a ritual of some kind, possibly involving the blood of sacrifices or consecrating oil. What matters is not the form or ritual. The ritual represented the reality of the inner work of God in the hearts of people who truly repented of sin and cried out to God for cleansing.
The outward act of dedication is meaningless if our hearts are insincere. But when we truly humble ourselves before God and practice the disciplines of holy living, God will create in us true holiness. When we seek the Lord with all our heart, He will sanctify us with holy fire.
Then we are qualified to worship:
“Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood
and has not sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3,4).
12:31-39 “Then I had the leaders of Judah come up on top of the wall, and I appointed two great choirs, the first proceeding to the right on top of the wall toward the Refuse Gate … and some of the sons of the priests with trumpets … with the musical instruments of David the man of God …At the Fountain Gate they went directly up the steps of the city of David by the stairway of the wall above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east. The second choir proceeded to the left, while I followed them with half of the people on the wall …”
Nehemiah appoints two great choirs (literally, “thanksgiving choirs”) to mount the walls with the leaders. Not only are singers on the wall but also those who play instruments. The restored city is surrounded by musicians lifting up praise to God.
As the Lord works restoration in our lives, how wonderful to surround the work with grateful praise and thanksgiving. The Lord then will fill our praise with His presence, for truly, God is “enthroned upon the praises of Israel” (or “inhabits the praises” Psalm 22:3).
12:40-42 “Then the two choirs took their stand in the house of God. So did I and half of the officials with me; and the priests, Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah, with the trumpets; and Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malchijah, Elam and Ezer. And the singers sang, with Jezrahiah their leader.”
The two choirs evidently processed along the walls and converged in the temple, taking their stand in the holy sanctuary which symbolized the presence of God in their midst.
12:43 “and on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy, even the women and children rejoiced, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar.”
Whatever other sacrifices were offered, they surely offered a sacrifice of praise. They rejoiced and we rejoice because it is God who gives us great joy. It was God who rebuilt Jerusalem. It is God who restores our lives. It was God who restored their identity and authority. It is God who restores our identity and authority. It was God who reclaimed His purpose to have a city and a covenant people on whom He could set His glory. It is God who reclaims His covenant purpose in our lives. Surely we do offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
We praise God because He alone redeems, restores and keeps His beloved. He alone is worthy of our thanks. The word worship derives from the ancient Anglo-Saxon word — worth-ship — ascribing to God the praise of which He alone is worthy. He is the God who lavishes His grace upon us and He alone is worthy of our praise.
God “had given them great joy.” God not only gives us reasons to praise Him. Even the joy of our praise is His gift to us. Indeed, as Nehemiah had said to them previously, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
David expressed this truth in Psalm 40. The Lord had brought him up “out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay.” But in addition, the Lord also “put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:1-3). The Lord not only delivers us from destruction. He gives us the very song of praise by which we offer our grateful songs of thanksgiving.
Notice that their joy “was heard from afar.” In a world which refuses to give God thanks or glory, in a world which glorifies itself and its false idols, in a world polluted with the noice and clamor of false gods and their false praise, when we worship God in spirit and in truth, the sound of our praise echoes throughout the world.
12:44-46 “On that day men were also appointed over the chambers for the stores, the contributions, the first fruits and the tithes, to gather into them from the fields of the cities the portions required by the law for the priests and Levites; for Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites who served. For they performed the worship of their God and the service of purification, together with the singers and the gatekeepers in accordance with the command of David and of his son Solomon. For in the days of David and Asaph, in ancient times, there were leaders of the singers, songs of praise and hymns of thanksgiving to God.”
The worship life of the nation was restored and the people committed themselves to support those who served in the temple and those who led them in worship. God desires a city on which He may place His glory, a city set on a hill that glorifies Him. In order for that to happen, a restored Jerusalem must be a city of praise.
So with us. God wants to restore our lives so that we may be a people of praise, showing forth His glory. The Lord does not intend to hide His light shining through us. But it is essential to the work of restoration that we grow in our passion to glorify God, to worship Him in spirit and in truth. Restored covenant people are a people of praise.
12:47 “So all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah gave the portions due the singers and the gatekeepers as each day required, and set apart the consecrated portion for the Levites, and the Levites set apart the consecrated portion for the sons of Aaron.”
The people brought their offerings, worshipping with their voices and with the produce of their harvest. As we said in chapter ten, giving is an act of worship. We are thanking the Lord with a portion of our harvest for the abundance of His blessing and His restoring ministry in our lives. And giving is a proof that we really are being restored in the image of God. The Lord our God is a giver and we show His restoring presence in our lives as we give back to Him.
But the opportunity to give is also a great blessing. When the walls of identity are torn down and the gates of authority are burned, we do little giving. We are in survival mode, hoarding our meager scraps of blessing. But restored to a true sense of our unique design in Christ, empowered to open our gates of authority to that which is good and close to that which is evil, we find it a precious and joyful blessing to share out of our newly discovered abundance.
As we’ve said, the purpose of these offerings was to support the ministries of the temple. What was true for Israel is also true for us. As God blesses us, we return a portion of our blessing to the Lord through the ministries which the Lord has used to bless us and to bless others. These gifts are an act of worship, an offering of thanksgiving to our God for His kindness in restoring us and in providing for us.
1. The people dedicated the rebuilt walls and gates with thanksgiving. What do we mean when we say that restored covenant people are a people of praise (see v. 43).
2. The people brought their offerings and gifts for the support of the temple. How is our giving a proof or restoration? (see v. 47).
We will see in verse 6 that Nehemiah, having completed the rebuilding of Jerusalem, returned to Persia (in the 32nd year of Artaxerxes, which would have been 433 BC). He was absent until 424. During his absence, the priests, the leaders and the people fell back into old patterns of spiritual complacency, corruption, compromise and sin.
Sabbath laws were being violated (which revealed a hardness of heart toward God). Jewish men were divorcing their Jewish wives and marrying foreign women (which exposed them to the worship of false gods). Injustice and oppression were becoming characteristic of social and economic relations (which revealed a lack of love toward fellow Israelites and disobedience to the Law of Moses).
It was during this time that Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, exercised his ministry in Israel, speaking against the unfaithfulness, compromise and complacency of the people, calling them back to a sincere commitment to the Lord.
This cycle of faithfulness / unfaithfulness had been occurring in Israel for centuries, ever since they had left Egypt and especially since they had entered the promised land. God would bless the people, they would then become complacent, apathetic and then unfaithful. Spiritual adultery would bring the judgment of God. Judgment would lead to repentance and as they cried out to God for deliverance, God would respond with mercy. The people would give thanks and then the cycle would repeat.
It is the same in Nehemiah’s day. Jerusalem was rebuilt — the walls and gates were restored, the city and the people were restored, Israel was blessed and the people gave thanks. They then fell into unfaithfulness during Nehemiah’s absence.
13:1,2 “On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing.”
We recall from chapters 8 and 9 how Ezra and other priests and leaders had read from the Law of Moses and explained the word of God to the people. The reading of the word re-acquainted compromised lives with God’s standard of holiness which had led to a revival of repentance and cleansing in the nation. The leaders had even signed a covenant in which they agreed to be a people set apart for God’s glory (see 9:38-10:27). That was an essential part of the restoration of the nation, for true restoration involved more than just the rebuilding of walls, gates and houses. God wanted a people through whom He could be glorified and this required a sincere commitment to holiness.
That had taken place during the time that Nehemiah was with the people. It appears though, that after he returned to the court of the Persian king, the nation had once again fallen into the familiar cycle of compromise. They had been allowing unbelievers to enter the assembly, Ammonites and Moabites, whose ancestors had refused hospitality to the Israelites when they passed through the wilderness in the days of Moses. Rather than sharing bread and water with Israel, they had hired a false prophet to curse the nation. God had turned the curse into blessing, as only God is able to do.
Now, centuries later, the descendants of those who had been blessed are inviting into their fellowship the descendants of those who had cursed them. They are not inviting the Ammonites and Moabites for the purpose of leading them to faith in the true God. Rather the presence of the unbelievers is evidence of Israel’s lack of faith, of a compromised faith.
How sad that a generation of Israelites who had experienced the reversal of curse and judgment, who had seen the restoration of the holy city, would again enter into relationship with people who had cursed them centuries before and who had only recently opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
How sad in our own lives, when the Lord has turned our curse into blessing through Christ, when we have been set free from slavery to sin and death, that we would invite into our lives representatives of the world that had cursed and enslaved us. The Apostle Paul exhorts us,
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord.’And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,‘says the Lord Almighty,” (2 Cor. 6:14-18).
If in our past there was some habit, ritual, belief or relationship that overpowered our wholeness or holiness, and Christ set us free, why would we then invite that same unholy influence back into our life? “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
13:3 “So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.”
Once again, the reading of God’s Word shines light into the unholy practices and compromise of the people. The reading of the Word results in the entrance of light which produces repentance. As a result of changed hearts, life styles change. A changed life demonstrates a changed heart. Israelites repented and unbelieving, idol-worshipping foreigners were put out of the fellowship.
As we said, the Israelites were not inviting unbelievers into the temple for the purpose of leading them to the knowledge of the true God. They were fellowshipping with idol worshippers and inviting them into their hearts, their homes, their families and their place of worship because their own lives were compromised by sin and unbelief.
13:4,5 “Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being related to Tobiah, had prepared a large room for him, where formerly they put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.”
Eliashib was the High Priest at that time. While Nehemiah was away, Eliashib had prepared a room in the temple for Tobiah, the Ammonite who had led the opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The temple, the holy place that represented the presence of God in the midst of the people, now had an apartment in it for the man who represented and incarnated satanic resistance to the purpose of God for Israel! It is entirely possible that Tobiah brought with him his idols and set them up in his apartment there in the temple chambers.
His apartment is in the rooms formerly used to store grain offerings and the incense and utensils which were used in the services of worship. This room also had been employed to store the offerings used for support of the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers and the priests. This was a room which had been dedicated for the storing of holy things used to support holy work and holy people. Now it is an apartment for an enemy of God and possibly housing the images of false gods!
Imagine that! Tobiah had helped to lead the resistance to the work of restoration, yet a priest invites him into the center of the holy place. Why would he? We read in verse 4 that Eliashib was related or close to Tobiah. The High Priest had allowed a representative of Satan to gain entrance into his life — he was in relationship with darkness.
Syncretism, mixing darkness and light, is always evil. But we see this today: churches inviting the mind of the world and customs of the world into its doctrine, preaching, worship and fellowship. We see this on a personal level: men and women who have truly been redeemed and restored inviting the world to re-establish relationship, welcoming the mind of the world, practicing the customs of the world, making an apartment, a dwelling place for the world in the life that has been redeemed and restored.
Jesus told a parable about the danger of opening our lives to the powers of darkness after we have experienced a ministry of cleansing and restoration:
“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation” (Matt. 12:43-45).
We must continually allow the Holy Spirit to search the holy temple of our lives. Have we rented out any time-shares, any condos, to the powers or darkness?
13:6,7 “But during all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time, however, I asked leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, by preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God.”
Nehemiah explains that during this time of apostasy, he had been away, having returned to Persia to report to the king as he had promised when he left. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he learns that a room has been prepared for Tobiah “in the courts of the house of God.” Nehemiah does not dilute his words. He calls this what it is — evil.
13:8,9 “It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense.”
Nehemiah’s response is to throw all of Tobiah’s household items out of the temple. Notice the similarity to Christ’s cleansing of the temple five centuries later.
“Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ He said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers’” (Matt. 21:12,13).
Nehemiah then directs a reconsecration or cleansing of the rooms and returns those items which were formerly stored there. Here is a good prescription for all followers of Christ. When the Holy Spirit shows us an area of compromise in our lives, ask God for the spiritual strength to cast out the evil, invite the Lord to cleanse our temple and restore proper order by reconsecrating our lives to Christ.
The Apostle Paul exhorted the church, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor” (I Thes. 4:3,4).
“Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear (reverence) of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
Through the Apostle Peter, the Lord exhorts us, “You shall be holy for I am holy” (I Ptr. 1:16).
Because we have been brought into covenant relationship with a holy God, we are directed to live in holiness in every area of life, in all our ways.
13:10 “I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field.”
Nehemiah also discovers that the people had become unfaithful, complacent, compromised in their giving for the support of those who worked in the temple. This resulted in the Levites and singers returning to their homes because there was no support for their ministries.
What irony! There was room in the temple for Tobiah, the satanically inspired enemy of Jerusalem’s restoration, but there was no support for the worship leaders of Israel. So the faithful worshipper leaders had gone home, leaving the temple to those who were compromised, complacent, corrupt worshippers of idols.
When compromise takes up residence in our life or our church, the first area to be impacted will be the worship of God. It’s impossible to praise God with the same passion and humility of a pure heart when we have allowed darkness to intrude into our heart. The presence of darkness always diminishes worship.
But Nehemiah discovers and confronts the compromise. Remember that the name Nehemiah means Jehovah Comforts. He is a picture of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent to be with us in His absence. Another name for the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth.” Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:16,17).
The Holy Spirit reveals the truth about Jesus, about our world and about ourselves. If Nehemiah in his humanity was able to discover the truth about God’s people, how much more is our Comforter, the Third Person of the Trinity, able to discern. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebr. 4:13).
It was for Israel’s good that Nehemiah dealt with sin in Israel, for unrepented sin would have reversed the process of restoration. It is so with us — the Holy Spirit reveals our sin and brings us to repentance so that we will not lose the blessings of restoration.
13:11 “So I reprimanded the officials and said, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’ Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts.”
Nehemiah reprimands the leaders who allowed the desecration of the praise ministry. He then restores “them,” meaning the Levites and worship leaders, to their God-ordained responsibilities.
13:12,13 “All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses. In charge of the storehouses I appointed Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and in addition to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered reliable, and it was their task to distribute to their kinsmen.”
In response to Nehemiah’s dynamic, Spirit-led leadership, the people bring their offerings to the temple so that the holy work of worship ministry can continue. He also appoints responsible men to positions of oversight. Good leaders train and appoint good leaders to carry on the ministry. Paul advised Timothy, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
13:14 “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.”
Nehemiah asks God to remember his good works. It is important to know that God does remember our works and we will be held accountable for our discipleship and we will be rewarded for every gift given with a pure heart. The angel said to Cornelius, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:14b). Jesus said that even a cup of cold water given in His name will be rewarded (Matt. 10:42).
Paul reminds us that we will stand in the presence of the Lord and give an account for the way we used the time, resources and opportunities which the Lord gave us.
“Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire,” (I Cor 3:12-15).
In the presence of God’s glory, some works may be consumed in holy fire — that which was done with unworthy motives. But the works which we did and the gifts which we gave with a pure heart of love will be rewarded by a God whose generosity of blessing is infinite and eternal.
1. During Nehemiah’s absence, Eliashib the High Priest had invited into the temple an enemy of God. What is the cost when, having been redeemed, we again fellowship with values and habits which once enslaved us?
2. Are you confident that the Lord will remember and reward your good works?
13:15,16 “In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food. Also men of Tyre were living there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem had been restored by the grace of God but some of the people were failing to observe the sabbath, treating it as any other day of work and commerce with no thought of the Lord who had so greatly blessed them. The reason the Lord directs us to observe a holy day is not so we may become bound up in religious rituals and laws but so that we might have a day set aside to rest, to give thanks to the Lord and to receive instruction from His Word.
Jesus objected to the Pharisees and their endless sabbath laws because they had set aside God’s true intent for the Sabbath and substituted man made regulations which had become burdensome to the people. But Jesus never nullified the Father’s purpose for a holy day of rest and worship.
It is for our good that the sabbath was instituted. Failure to observe it reveals a lack of reverence and gratitude toward the Lord.
13:17,18 “Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.’”
Nehemiah admonishes the leaders who were involved in this failure. He reminds them that unfaithfulness in prior generations had led to sin which brought the judgment of God upon Israel.
Again, what irony! God had set Israel free from foreign enslavement so the people could return to the land of the covenant. He had enabled the people to rebuild the temple and inspired them to restore the city of Jerusalem so that the Lord would have a city on which He could place His glory. The Lord had also restored the people, consecrated them to be again His covenant people who would give Him glory. But now the people refuse to glorify God even on the holy Sabbath. They were nullifying the very purpose for restoration.
So in our lives, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, knows where a lack of reverence or gratitude will lead. He is constantly watching over us and will shine His light into any areas of compromise in our lives.
13:19 “It came about that just as it grew dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and that they should not open them until after the sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates so that no load would enter on the sabbath day.”
Nehemiah set a Sabbath guard at the gates — gates which, until recently, had been destroyed along with the walls. For what purpose had they been restored? Walls give identity to a city — inside the walls is the city, outside is not the city. Gates provide authority — they open to that which is good, close to that which is evil. The living God wanted more than a temple surrounded by rubble. He wanted a Jerusalem with identity and authority, on which He could set His glory.
The city had been restored, along with its walls and gates. But now the gates were opening to people who profaned the Sabbath. The authority of the restored city was being compromised by ingratitude and disrespect to the Lord who had so wonderfully blessed the nation. So Nehemiah sets a guard at the gates, enforcing the Sabbath law.
You can be sure that our Nehemiah, the Holy Spirit, jealously watches over and guards what has been restored in us. We were restored so that God may be glorified in and through us. If we now refuse to glorify God, we have nullified the purpose of restoration. May it never be!
13:20,21 “Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem. Then I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.’ From that time on they did not come on the sabbath.”
The unfaithful camped outside the gates, just as the tempter camps close to those who make themselves available to his temptations. Nehemiah drove them away with his warning. Peter reminds us, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith” (I Peter 5:,8,9a).
The enemy of God’s redeeming, restoring purpose in our lives actively seeks any areas of vulnerability through which he may destroy us. The Holy Spirit watches over our lives but we too must be vigilant, disciplined, committed in faith. We cannot invite evil into our minds without damaging the work of God in us. Paul exhorted Timothy, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you” (I Tim. 6:20).
The Lord said to Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, “Sin is crouching at the door and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen.4:7). So the Lord would say to each of us. The enemy is close by. Therefore be vigilant, guard the work of restoration and the treasure of God that has been planted in us.
13:22 “And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come as gatekeepers to sanctify the sabbath day. For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.”
Nehemiah directs the Levites, who were worship leaders, to purify themselves and be gatekeepers on the sabbath. What better way to guard what the Lord has entrusted to us than to develop a holy heart of worship and praise?
The Psalmist reminds us, “Yet you are holy, O you who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel” (Ps. 22:3). God is enthroned upon the praises of His people and where God is enthroned, He rules. The life of praise is a life where the walls and gates are well guarded.
13:23 “In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.”
Ashdod was a Philistine city and along with the Ammonites and Moabites, were bitter, generational enemies of Israel. The worship of their false gods had introduced abominable customs into their societies and had impacted and infected Israel so deeply that the Lord had brought catastrophic judgment on the nation. Now restored to their land by the grace of God, a generation had intermarried with their pagan neighbors in violation of the law of Moses (Ex. 34;15,16, Deut. 7:3), in violation of the covenant made with Ezra when they returned to the land (see Ezra chapters 9,10) and the covenant which they made with Nehemiah (9:38) which had been signed by the leaders of the people, including the Levites, worship leaders and gatekeepers (Neh. 10:28). As has been emphasized, intermarriage with idol worshipping cultures was forbidden because it always resulted in Israel falling into idolatry which then led to a host of sins and abominations.
The follower of Christ is often warned by the New Testament writers against opening our lives to the false philosophies and unholy customs of a fallen world: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? … ‘Therefore come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and do not touch what is unclean’” (2 Cor. 6:14,17).
It is from enslavement to this world system that we have been delivered. Why would we marry our souls again to that which would have destroyed us, if not for the saving, gracious intervention of our Lord?
13:24 “As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people.”
Having married into the God-denying culture around them, their children were more literate in the ways of the world than the ways of God. They spoke the language of the world system but not the language of Israel. As we said, Ashdod was a Philistine city and the children were more acquainted with the words of godless people than the Word of God. Probably they were also much more familiar with the customs of the world than with the customs of the people of God.
How tragic. I grew up in a Christian home but in Sunday School and youth group there was no instruction in Godliness, no mention of our need for a Savior and the atoning work of the holy Lamb of God. Our youth group was as secular as anything in public school. I then attended a college that was affiliated with a major Christian denomination but there was nothing of Christ there, only dead religion in a context of massive immorality and sin.
We were not taught the ways of God and as a result, I entered young adulthood with no foundation of faith. I was quite literate in the ways of the world but completely ignorant of the ways of God and the Word of God. My walls and gates were completely torn down and the city of my being was rubble, completely vulnerable to the onslaught of the enemy.
Had it not been for the sovereign intervention of Jesus Christ, I would have been lost forever. How many generations have grown up in a church or in the shadow of a nearby church yet were illiterate in the ways of God but well versed in the customs of the world?
This ought not to be. Nehemiah was grieved at this in Israel and so is the Holy Spirit today.
13:25 “So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.’”
Nehemiah is deeply grieved and angry at the people of God who have compromised not only their own lives and the well being of their nation, but also have compromised the well being of the next generation, their children. But Nehemiah loves them and because he loves them, he contends with them, confronts them and even used harsh language and he struck them.
God also disciplines His children, allows us to experience some of the harsh consequences to which we may have married ourselves. But in mercy, God is always ready and willing to deliver us when we call upon him. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us (in 12:4-11) that the Lord disciplines us out of a loving regard for our well being.
Nehemiah makes the parents take an oath that they will no longer give their children to the ungodly, idol worshipping cultures around them. In many communities today, the children are being consumed by false gods which intend only to destroy. Consider the high rate of depression, suicide, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, gang affiliation, criminal activity and interaction with the juvenile and adult justice systems among our youth. Consider the high percentage of young people who intentionally cut themselves in their misery and confusion. Consider the growing number who cannot even identify who God created them to be.
How wonderful it would be if Godly parents stood in their churches and made covenant together that their children and the children of their neighborhoods will not be destroyed by the God-rejecting culture around them. How wonderful if Godly parents practiced the counsel provided by the Apostle Paul to the church: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction (or nurture and admonition) of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Only the sovereign intervention of Jesus Christ will save this generation. But He will intervene through His holy people.
13:26 “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin.”
Nehemiah reminds them that a man as great as Solomon fell into sin because of his involvement with ungodly, idol worshipping cultures. As wise as he was, as blessed and beloved of God as he was, nevertheless, when he married idol worshippers, he himself became joined to idols and fell into all manner of sin and compromise. If so great a man as Solomon could not resist the corruption which resulted from entanglements with darkness, who are we to think that we can become entangled and not be overcome by corruption?
13:27 “Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by marrying foreign women?”
Nehemiah confronts the evil of their unfaithfulness, which is really spiritual adultery. He reminds them that they have been “acting unfaithfully against our God.” All sin is, ultimately, sin against God but especially the worship of false gods is sin against the true God. The people of Israel, and we who follow Christ, have entered into covenant with God, intimate communion. When we bind ourselves to a God-rejecting culture, we may fall into the worship of its idols and to worship any other god is to commit spiritual adultery against the true and living God.
13:28 “Even one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, so I drove him away from me.”
Even the grandson of the High Priest married the daughter of Sanballat, the Moabite governor of Samaria, who with Tobiah, an Ammonite, was the leader of the forces which had resisted the restoration of Jerusalem. Think of it: Tobiah lived in the temple and the grandson of the High Priest was son in law to Sanballat. The devil had not been able to intimidate the Jews into ceasing their work of restoration. So he waited until they were finished and he then infiltrated and corrupted the people of God.
Nehemiah drove the offending man away. So with us. The Holy Spirit desires to purge us of any infiltration of the world into our lives. James exhorts us, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:7,8).
The devil will not flee from the life that is submitted to the world rather than to God. But if we will submit daily to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of life, if we will surrender daily to the holy discipline of God’s cleansing, purifying work, then the devil will flee.
12:29-31 “Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I purified them from everything foreign and appointed duties for the priests and the Levites, each in his task, and I arranged for the supply of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.”
Again Nehemiah asks the Lord to remember his good works. We are assured that God does remember and record that which we do with a heart to glorify Him.
In particular, Nehemiah asks the Lord to remember his purification of the people and especially of the priests and Levites. “Thus I purified them from everything foreign.” Having restored the city, Nehemiah now concludes the restoring of the people. He concludes the work of consecration, purification, without which no one can serve God.
Having concluded this purifying, restoring work, he appoints the priests and Levites to their duties. This is God’s goal, the restoring of a people who can serve Him in their appointed ministries, a people upon whom God can set His glory and through whom He may proclaim His excellent greatness.
Peter reminds the church, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (I Peter 2:5,9,10).
We have been redeemed and restored to serve God as a holy priesthood, royal priests who “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Christ redeemed us because He loves us and because He loves the lost sheep who are not yet in His fold. He has restored us to His design so that through our lives He may shine his light, pour out His mercy and speak His truth, if we will give ourselves to His purpose.
That we might be restored as His shining lights in this world, He sent to us another Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Even as Nehemiah, whose name means God’s comforter, was sent to rebuild Jerusalem, so our Comforter has come to us. He is the Third person of the Trinity and He indwells all who have truly trusted in Christ for their salvation.
He is the Spirit of truth who guides us into all truth. He is the Sanctifier, consecrating our lives to God. He is the Glorifier, who continually lifts up Jesus and focuses us on His glory. He is the Restorer who rebuilds us according to God’s gracious design. His goal is that we will indeed be a city set on a hill, even as God intended for Jerusalem.
As we submit our lives to His restoring, consecrating ministry, we truly become the light of the world, shining forth the glory of Christ’s presence into this dark and broken world.
May it be so in our day.
1. Nehemiah directs the Levites, the worship leaders, to purify themselves and be gatekeepers on the sabbath. Is there a principle here for our lives? (see v. 22).
2. You also have been redeemed, restored and purified as a priest, a proclaimer of the light of the glory of Jesus. What are your thoughts on your priesthood?
God brought the Hebrew people into the Promised Land and established Jerusalem as the city of the great King. His desire was to glorify Himself through a people whom He could call His own. God wanted to shine His light and share His life and speak His truth into a lost world. To do that, He needed a people who would live in a holy, covenant relationship Him.
Over the centuries the covenant nation turned from God and fell into idolatry, injustice, immorality. God’s response was to judge His covenant people. In 722 BC the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and deported many thousands of Jews. In 605 BC God used the Babylonian nation to defeat the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Many thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon. (Daniel a young boy at this time, was taken as a captive to Babylon. He later became an important official in the court of the Babylonian kings).
In 586 BC the Babylonians returned and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Many more of the people were taken away into exile. At this time, Jerusalem, the Temple and much of the land was reduced to rubble.
In 539 BC the Persians defeated Babylon. Daniel, now an elderly man, then became an official in the court of the Persian king. The following year, 538, through the prayers of Daniel, the first group of exiles returned from captivity. They began rebuilding the Temple and it was completed in 516 BC, seventy years after its destruction. Though it was far less beautiful than Solomon’s temple, and though the glory of God had long since departed, nevertheless, it provided a spiritual center for the exercise of the Jewish religion.
The book of Nehemiah begins in 446 BC. Ninety years had passed since the first group of exiles had returned and 70 years had passed since the rebuilding of the temple. Nehemiah receives word that after all this time, even though the rebuilding of the temple had been completed 70 years before this (in 516 BC), Jerusalem remained in ruins and the survivors are in great distress (Nehemiah 1:1-3). The wall of Jerusalem is still broken down and the gates are still nothing but ashes. Literally, the rebuilt temple was surrounded by the garbage and rubble of a city which had been destroyed 140 years previously.
Jerusalem was still in ruins. No one lived there. Worshippers at the temple traveled from the neighboring villages, passed through the rubble to worship, then returned to their homes outside the city.
Nehemiah, an officer in the court of the Persian King, lived in the foreign city of Susa. In 1:3 we read that Nehemiah’s brother and some other men came and informed him that the walls were still broken down and the gates, which had been burned so many years before, were still destroyed. Nehemiah’s response was to weep (1:4).
You see, God wanted more than a Temple surrounded by rubble. He wanted a city upon which He could place His glory; a city filled with people through whose lives He could shine and speak and reach into a lost world. It was good that the Temple had been rebuilt but a Temple surrounded by rubble does not glorify God.
The destruction of the walls and gates was significant:
Walls represent identity, boundary, defense.
Gates represent authority — they open to the good, close to the bad. In former times, the elders of the city met at the gates to make decisions and hear judicial cases — it was a place where government was exercised.
A city with no walls or gates was a city without identity, defense, authority. The city of the Great King was a pile of rubble and the people were ashamed and troubled and Nehemiah wept for the shame of God’s people.
I believe the Holy Spirit weeps today over that which has been torn down, that which is unfulfilled, in Gods people. It is good that we have come to believe in the Lord and have been born again. When we trusted in Jesus as our Savior and Lord, our sin was forgiven, His Holy Spirit came to indwell us, the temple of our spirit was restored as a place of worship and habitation of the Lord. And this is good and wonderful.
But during our years away from the Lord we were at the mercy of the Evil One and there was damage done to our gates and walls. People sinned against us, tearing holes of vulnerability in our sense of personhood. We also added our own sins and rebellion against God, against others and against ourselves. As a result, our sense of identity and our capacity to exercise authority was compromised and broken. Even those who came to know the Lord at an early age have known the damaging impact of living in a fallen world.
Identity confusion and lack of authority have shamed and troubled the people of God. Yes, it is good that we are the temple of the Lord but a temple surrounded by rubble is less than what God has for us. And the Holy Spirit weeps with us.
I do not mean that God is ashamed of us — we are His treasure. But He wants us to stand with a strong sense of identity in Him, able to say: “I know who I am in Christ Jesus. I know the design and purpose God has for me.”
The Lord wants us to stand with a sense of authority in Him, able to say: “I can fulfill the purpose of God in my generation, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
It’s good that worship and fellowship have been restored between God and a believer, but God wants more than that. More than the forgiveness of sin, He wants to restore that which sin destroyed. More than restoring relationship with Him, He wants to extend that relationship into every area of our life. More than shining the light of His glory into our lives, He wants to shine the light of His glory through us. He wants to manifest Himself to this broken world through us.
This is what the Lord wanted for the Hebrew people and why He shared His grief with Nehemiah. As Nehemiah wept and prayed, he was able to receive the Lord’s burden to go and rebuild Jerusalem. He went to his king and asked permission to do this. At this point, Nehemiah becomes a symbol to us of someone greater than himself.
His name, Nechem Ya, means: the Comforter from God or God comforts.
Our King, Jesus, said: “I will pray the Father and He will give you another Comforter to be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16). Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit who comes to us to rebuild and restore, that we might be the light of the world, a city set on a hill shining forth the glory of God.
Notice what Nehemiah took with Him when he went to Jerusalem. It is what our Comforter, the Holy Spirit, brings to us.
1. A commitment of faithfulness: (see Nehemiah 2:1-6)
The king did not set the time for Nehemiah’s work in Jerusalem. Nehemiah did. He went with a commitment to stay as long as it took to rebuild and restore.
Sometimes people say, “I’m through with you.” God has never said that. Here’s what the Lord has said: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jere. 31:3).
Even after Jerusalem had experienced the devastating judgment of the Lord through the Babylonians, Jeremiah was able to testify, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22).
Abraham Lincoln was walking through an army hospital and stopped at the bed of a dying soldier. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.
“Would you hold my hand until I cross over yonder river” the soldier replied.
Mr. Lincoln held his hand while the soldier passed on. This is a picture of the faithfulness of God.
“I will never desert you nor will I ever forsake you” Jesus said (Hebr. 13:5).
“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The Holy Spirit comes to us committed to rebuild and restore and will walk with us all the way through time to eternity.
2. Nehemiah went in the name of the king, bearing the king’s authority (Nehemiah 2:7).
He carried letters which bore the seal, the stamp of the king. This meant that he carried the authority of the king and no one would dare to resist him. In the same way, the Holy Spirit comes to us in the name of the King of kings, the name above all names in heaven and on earth.
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things” (John 14:26).
“When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of me” (John 15:26)
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father in the name of Jesus. Who can resist His authority?
3. Nehemiah came with all the resources needed to rebuild: (Neh. 2:8,9)
He arrived with the timber, the soldiers, and no doubt every other resource needed to rebuild the city. So our Nehemiah comes to us.
“And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phlpns. 4:19).
“His divine power has made available to us all things pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3)
Whatever is needed to restore you to God’s full design and purpose for your life, He will provide it and He will spend it.
4. Nehemiah had a plan, a blueprint: (Neh. 2:11-16)
In the darkness of night, before anyone was aware that he was on the scene, Nehemiah surveyed the rubble. Before he ever called anyone to work, Nehemiah devised a plan.
So with us. While we were still asleep in the darkness of sin, before the sun of righteousness had risen in our hearts, the Holy Spirit was watching, yearning, brooding over the face of the deep. When at last the sun arose and the day of salvation came, the Holy Spirit had a blueprint prepared for the restoration of our life.
A hymn writer put it this way:
“Unnumbered comforts to my soul thy tender care bestowed
before my infant heart could know from whom those comforts flowed
When in the slippery paths of youth with heedless steps I ran
thine arm unseen conveyed me safe and led me up to man
When all thy mercies O my God my rising soul surveys
transported with the view I’m lost in wonder love and praise”
(Joseph Atkinson 1672-1719)
Before we knew the Lord’s name, His restoration blueprint was prepared. Indeed, there is nothing He does not know regarding our life — past, present or future. As Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31)
Nehemiah came to Jerusalem with a commitment of faithfulness, authority, resources and a blueprint. This is a picture of the Holy Spirit coming to us to rebuild and restore our lives.
But there are two things Nehemiah did not bring.
1. He did not bring any tumbled down, broken stones.
Do you know what they rebuilt the wall with? The tumbled down, broken stones that were already there. Sometimes we have said, “If I could just be like that person over there.” But God does not need another version of “that person”. He is not rebuilding you to be someone else. He is rebuilding you to be the full person He purposed that you would be. And He is using the very stones — the talents, gifts, knowledge and experience already resident in you.
These stones may be buried under rubble, they may even look like rubble. But God can use the very rubble of your life to build a lovely city.
2. He did not bring all the necessary labor.
Nehemiah could not rebuild the city by himself. The people would have to cooperate. So we read in 2:18 that they put their hands to the good work (and their hearts / minds — 4:6 ). When the Holy Spirit shows us some area of rubble in our life, we can play little religious games and pretend we don't see, in which case something will remain unfulfilled, unrestored in our lives. Or we can agree and put our heats and hands to the work.
Was there opposition to the work? Yes, but they overcame. So can we.
Were there threats, times of discouragement? Yes, but they overcame. So can we.
In time the wall was rebuilt and God had a lovely city which He could bless, where He could manifest His glory and fulfill His purpose.
This is His desire for us.
We are the pearl of great price, the light of the world, a city set on a hill. There is no question about it.
God is able to rebuild and restore any area of our life that may have been trashed. No question about it.
Here’s the question: will we put our hands and hearts to the work?
Study Questions / Personal Survey
1. Are you familiar with areas of your life that might be called “points of vulnerability”, places where the walls of identity and gates of authority are weak or broken? You do not need to list them here but do ask the Holy Spirit to help you see them without shame.
2. Will you ask the Lord to enable you to have conversations with Him about walls and gates without shame?
3. The Holy Spirit brings a commitment of faithfulness, authority and resource for the restoring of His design in you. Are you confident of His faithful commitment to you and His absolute authority to do what He purpose to do in you? Will you thank Him for His faithfulness and His authority?
4. Do you recognize the resources of restoration that He brings? Can you name some times, places, people who have been resources in restoring you?
5. There has been some adversity and opposition to the restoring of your life. How did Nehemiah respond and how do you respond to adversity?
6. The people put their hands and hearts to the work. How committed are you to the work of restoration?
7. Jesus sees you in the glory of heaven, blameless, as perfected as a human being can be. He will perfect what He has begun. Will you praise Him for that future? Your praise will be an instrument of transformation.
The Lord designed each of us to be like a city set on a hill manifesting His truth, His mercy, His justice, His glory in our generation. So that we can live out that design, He pursued us and redeemed us. But because of the traumatic impact this fallen world has had on our lives and because of our own sin, there are broken places in our sense of identity, aspects of our personhood that are vulnerable to confusion, deception, weakness, addiction, self destructive choices. Our ability to exercise healthy authority and personal autonomy has been compromised.
So our gracious Lord sent the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to lead us in the rebuilding of our walls of identity and our gates of authority. He restores His design in us.
As we have seen, this is a process, a journey of transformation. The Psalmist compares this journey to climbing the hill of the Lord and he asks, “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3,4)
But how does that happen? Living in such a world as this, how do we arrive at purity of heart?
I. Broken mirrors
A man was walking down the street and found a small mirror that someone had dropped. It was broken and so he was not surprised when he looked at his reflection and saw a broken person. That’s what you see when you use a broken mirror.
Have you ever walked through The House of Mirrors at a carnival? We look so tall, small, thin, wide. We can’t find our way through — that’s what happens when you look into warped mirrors.
How do we discover who God designed us to be? By looking into truthful mirrors. What we look at, what we share in, will determine what we see and who we become. If we look into warped mirrors, broken mirrors, that is how we will see ourselves and that will influence who we become.
The world is filled with broken people yearning for freedom, struggling for freedom but the world does not even know what true freedom is because the world is looking into broken mirrors.
II. Freedom vs. transformation: What does it mean to be free?
Most people associate the concept of freedom with independence:
1. Independent of restraint or restriction
2. Independent of authority, law or conscience
3. Independent from any want or need
For many people, freedom is the opportunity to do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, the capacity to satisfy whatever desires they have at any time. But true freedom has nothing to do with independence. True freedom is not liberty to do as we like but the liberty to become who we are.
When the Bible talks about freedom, it does not talk about independence. It talks about transformation.
When is a caterpillar most free? When it can eat anything it wants? When it can go anywhere it wants? When it can do anything it wants? No. A caterpillar is most free when it becomes a butterfly.
If a caterpillar had emotions and language, it might say that the process of becoming a butterfly can be frightening, unsettling, confusing, restricting: “I was in this cocoon. It was really dark and I had trouble moving around”. But that cocoon leads to true freedom.
The process is called metamorphosis. From two Greek words:
Metamorphosis is not about outward change in the sense of something looking different (Satan can transform himself into an angel of light but that is a different word referring to outward change / disguise). Metamorphosis is about inward change, the transforming of the substance of something.
A caterpillar is most free when it is transformed in substance into a butterfly. A butterfly is not an improved caterpillar, not a worm with wings. It is a new creation.
Metamorphoo is translated into English by the word transformation. It is the word used in Matthew 17:2 when speaking of the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain. It is used in Romans 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It is a word which has to do with inner change, the changing of the substance of a person.
It is the word we read in 2 Cor 3:18 but first let’s start with verse 17 —
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (I Cor. 3:17,18).
When Paul talks about liberty, he speaks of transformation. When the New Testament talks about freedom, it talks about being transformed in the image of Christ.
A Christian is not an improved sinner. Not a sinner with wings. A Christian is a new creation being transformed into the image of Christ and in this transformation we find true liberty.
2 Cor. 3:18 tells us two truths about this transformation.
1. It is a process, it is gradual: “being transformed”. The verb tense is present continuous, indicating an ongoing process. This process has a beginning: when we come to Christ in faith. It has an ending: someday in His presence.
2. This transformation is something the Holy Spirit does in us. I cannot transform me. God can.
How does the Holy Spirit bring about transformation?
1. First, He turns us to Christ. This is called repentance. Repentance is necessary prior to transformation. Repentance is not simply a prayer we pray — it is a reorientation of the way we think and act. The Holy Spirit shows us our sin and how our sin has separated us from God; convinces us that this has grieved God and enables us to turn from those actions, choices, thoughts that have separated us from the true and living God.
2. Then the Holy Spirit convinces us of the forgiving grace of God available to all who trust in the saving work of Jesus on our behalf, convinces us of that in Christ Jesus our sins are forgiven, our guilt is washed away; convinces us to commit our life, time, talent, our being to Christ. As we choose to believe this Good News, this results in new birth, regeneration which is the beginning of the process of transformation.
The uncommitted person, rather, the person committed to nothing more than his or her own self, is never truly free and never transformed. They must always remain who they always were, being continually conformed by the prevailing values of the surrounding culture, continually transformed in its image, which is broken. Likewise, the worshipper of idols is being continually transformed in the image of whatever idol they worship.
We will always be mastered by something or someone. We are free to choose our master but we are not free to choose the result. The master to whom we commit ourselves will transform us in its image. “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16).
Jesus said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart … For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:29,30). A yoke is not a burden. It is a means by which the burden is borne without friction or strain. If a yoke is easy then the burden will be light.
To be yoked to Jesus is to be yoked to His mercy, His humility, His wisdom and discernment, His strength and grace and power and purity. When we commit ourselves to Christ, He yokes us into a love relationship with Himself wherein we experience forgiving grace and restoring grace and are gradually, progressively transformed into His image.
3. The Holy Spirit continues the process of transformation as He focuses our worship on Christ. We become in the image of that which we worship. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
The effect of continually beholding is continual transformation into the image of the One we behold. The promise is, “We shall be like Him” (I John 3:2).
4. This process of transformation involves cleansing:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8,9).
The prophet Malachi compared the ministry of Jesus to a refiner’s fire and “a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Mal. 3:3).
What does the process of refining involve?
In the old days, a refiner of silver heated the silver, which caused the impurities to come to the surface. He skimmed off the dross and continued the heating and skimming process. He knew the silver was pure when he could see his reflection in the molten metal. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives — skimming the impurities until He can see the image of Jesus in us.
5. This process of transformation involves restoration:
When we fail, sin, stumble or fall, the indwelling Holy Spirit shows us our failure, not to condemn or destroy us but so that we can repent of that which would condemn and destroy us. The Holy Spirit enables us to honestly confess our sin, gives us grace to turn from it and empowers us to resist and overcome it. He then ministers to us the Lord’s forgiving, restoring grace.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul” (Ps. 23:2,3).
A picture of restoration is found in Ps. 40: “He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:2,3). The Lord doesn’t just forgive our fall into the pit — He restores us to the rock and restores the song of praise to our mouth.
6. This process of transformation is a cooperative work, a pursuit:
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebr. 12:14). A pursuit is an intentional act, a commitment of will. We pursue something because we want to apprehend it. So with the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in us— we pursue it, we desire it, we set our heart, our will, our mind on this. Like an athlete who desires excellence, like a soldier who desires to be victorious, we commit ourselves to the discipline of holiness.
7. But holy transformation is a work which only God can produce in us:
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thes. 5:23).
Only God can produce His holiness in us but He does so only as we choose to yield our lives to God’s work. The Holy Spirit takes God’s word of truth and applies it to our hearts and empowers us to live that truth but we must choose to live it. When the Spirit of God pierces our heart with the truth of our sin, we accept accountability by confessing our sin. Confess means to say the same thing — we agree with the Lord. As we submit to the Holy Spirit and obey the word of truth, as we commit ourselves to live that truth, as we confess our sins and failures and open our lives to God’s restoring grace, we are progressively transformed in the grace and knowledge and likeness of Jesus.
As we said, our will is involved in this. We choose to refuse sin. We choose to resist temptation. We choose to do that which is holy. We choose to obey the truth. We choose to repent when we fail. We choose to accept God’s restoring, forgiving grace.
David the Psalmist prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23,24). Only God can show us what is truly in us and only God can truly change us but He does so as we pursue purity of heart, as we make it a priority.
We do well to pray with David, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me,” (Psalm 51:10). He will if this is our pursuit.
The Apostle Paul exhorted the Colossian church to consider themselves dead to their former sins (3:5). This was partly a matter of focus: “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is … Set your mind on the things above” (Col. 3:1,2).
But it was also a matter of practice: they were to“put off” the practices of their former life (3:8,9) and“put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” (3:10). Paul goes on to name the character traits of our new life and says to put them on — compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, etc. (3:12-17).
Transformation is a daily pursuit — putting off, laying aside our former habits, and putting on, practicing the qualities of our new life in Christ — obeying the Word of God, submitting to the leading of the Holy Spirit, forsaking our sins, honestly confessing when we fail and allowing the Lord Jesus to forgive, cleanse and restore us.
So Paul is saying, “Consider yourself dead to the old life, alive in Christ. But put off the old life by not thinking or living it. Put on the new life by thinking it and living it.” As we do this, the Lord Jesus through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit will progressively renew our minds and transform our lives in conformity to Himself.
8. This process of transformation has a goal.
a. The immediate goal of holy transformation is a life that glorifies God. The Lord’s desire for us in this life is that we will be “a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). God has prepared works for each of us so that we can glorify Him with the time, resources, talents and opportunity that He gives us (see Eph. 2:10).
b. The ultimate goal of holy transformation is to stand before God, blameless.
Jude says, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24,25).
John says, “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (I John 3:2,3). When Jesus appears, when our vision of Jesus is perfected, then our transformation in Him will be perfected — we will be like Him. Fixing our faith on this hope is part of the process of transformation.
Someday we will stand before God blameless in holiness. The Apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus loves the church and gave Himself up for her, “So that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:26,27).
In fact, this future day is so certain that the writer to the Hebrews says, “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebr. 10:14). He does not mean that we have been made perfect today but that our present position before God is perfect and our future standing before God is perfectly secure.
John saw that day, “Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.’ It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev. 19:6-8).
Someday we will stand before God as a pure and holy bride. We live toward that day as we surrender hour by hour to the cleansing, transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Don’t lose your confidence when you stumble or fail.
III. Whole and Holy
Why does God so constantly say, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”? Because God is the only true reference point for holiness. God is holy. That is what they sing around the throne in heaven: holy, holy, holy. That is the way we worship God and the way we enter into prayer: holy is Thy name.
God is holy and He is the only reflection point for true holiness. As we look into Him, we see holiness and we are transformed into holy people.
Leviticus is the handbook for liberated slaves and in that book we read this constant phrase,
“For I the Lord your God am holy.”
“This is how you shall manage money, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
“This is how you worship, build relationships, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Why does God keep saying that? Because we do not have any other clear picture to look at.
As we look at that reference point, God transforms us into His image.
What is holiness?
Unholiness is the reduction of human personalty due to the damage sin has done. Therefore holiness might be said to be that process whereby a person is rebuilt, restored into the full person God intended. Holy living is a life lived for God, with God, through God, like God, unto God, fulfilling His design for our life.
Holiness needs a point of reference. We look to ourselves / our world for the image of holiness but we are only looking at broken mirrors. There is only one true point of reference: God Himself.
The word holy is derived in early English from “Hal.” The word “whole” is derived from same root, “Hal”. “Health” and “heal” come from the same root.
Holiness has to do with wholeness — an integrated personality — and with a purity of heart which enjoys completeness, transparency and depth in relationship with God —a whole person in holy relationship with a holy God.
The world view of holiness is completely disassociated from the true concept of joy, happiness, wholeness. “Don't talk to me about holiness, I want to get my life together.” What they mean is, “I want to be whole and my point of reference is the world.” But what kind of world is this? It’s a broken world.
When the Bible says that humanity is unholy, it means simply this: when we fell, we broke. When we fell from grace, when we fell from relationship with God our Creator, we broke. That is what happens to fallen things. Fallen things break. People are broken in so many ways.
Broken in relationship to God. Jesus came to restore / reconcile us to God.
Broken in relationship to other people, “We broke up,” is more than a description of a failed romance.
“Her heart was broken” is more than the description of the after-effect of that failure.
“The city is falling apart, society is breaking up” is more than a demographic or political statement.
People are broken in relation to their own self: broken in spirit, broken in health.
People are broken in relation to prospects, dreams: He’s broke, dreams were dashed on the rocks.
The problem in this world, since Eden, is that broken people build broken communities: the first city was built by Cain, the first murderer, who broke his brother, broke his mother’s heart and in the process, broke his own soul into pieces.
Most people are trying to do their best but operating with broken mirrors. Parts of their lives are broken but they have no valid point of reference. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with no picture, no boundary. The result is confusion, anger, trying to force the pieces together.
I believe the Lord is saying to us:
“I have a design for your life, there is a divine purpose behind your life, and My desire is to bring you in to a wholeness of being which will allow you to fulfill My design and I will be your point of reference. Look into the mirror of My word and see the reflection of Me. Look into the mirror of my Son as you worship Him and you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Surrendering to this process of transformation means there will be boundaries and so the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (2 Cor. 6:14-16).
There will be boundaries. People protest, “What are you trying to do, put me in a religious box?”
The Lord replies, “I have designed a unique life for you. The convergence of your time, talent, resource, personality, opportunity and genetic inheritance has produced a once in a universe event. But the fulfillment of this design is found within My boundaries. I have a life for you, but it must be lived within My terms, within My frame of reference.”
The Lord has a picture, a looking glass: His Son revealed in His Word: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (3 Cor 3:18).
God has extended His arms to us, wants to embrace us in His holiness, not to box us in or limit our lives, but so He can put our lives back together again, so that we can live out the fulness of His design and purpose. Looking to Jesus, we are changed into His image from glory to glory and as this transformation takes place over the years of our journey, we are able to live out the Lord’s design, whole and holy.
In school we studied math, learned about integers: from the word integrate. Something is integrated when all the pieces are joined together. An integer is a whole number. The opposite of a whole number is a fraction.
God is saying, “I don't want you to be a fraction of the man or woman I designed you to be. I want you to be the whole person rising up and taking hold of the full design that I purposed for you.”
Holiness relates to the living God bringing us into the full restoration and recovery of the whole person exercising all the resources and living out the full purpose that God designed for us.
In Florence, Italy there are several blocks of marble on which Michelangelo had been working. He died before they were finished. In each block there is a dim human figure emerging but not distinct. The figure is still imprisoned in the marble. In fact, one marble is called, “The Prisoner.”
So with us. We have often been imprisoned in circumstances, memories, habits, sins of others committed against us and our own sin — the stuff of yesterday. But as we accept from the Holy Spirit the freedom to turn to Christ, to commit to Christ and to behold Christ, we are transformed into a new creation. And as new creations we are set free to enter the new tomorrow that God has designed for each of us.
Your past says, “No, you will never be free.” Your memories say “no”. The world says “no”. Your habit patterns say “no”. The world, the devil and the flesh say, “No, you are a prisoner in a block of marble, a block of time, a block of memories and habit patterns and you will never be free.” The Spirit of God says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The Apostle Paul exhorts us, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phlpns 1:6). Becoming the whole woman, the whole man that God designed — impossible? No. We honestly confess our sin and failure to the Lord, we gratefully receive His forgiving, restoring, transforming grace, and gazing into His glory, we get up and we walk on from glory to glory.
A father gave his young son a puzzle. It was a map of the world. The little boy put it together in about 45 minutes. His dad marveled that this young child knew the map of the world that well.
He asked, “How did you do that, did you know how all those countries fit together?”
The little boy said, “No.” He showed his dad the other side of box. The puzzle had 2 pictures, one on each side. The world was on one side, but on the other side was the face of a man. He turned the puzzle over and put together the picture of the man.
He said, “Dad, when I put the man together, it put the whole world together.”
Jesus was born in human form, died for our sins and rose from the dead to put us together. As He does, we begin to make a difference in our world.
A man was living in a country which had endured one revolution after another. New governments followed by new governments but nothing ever changed. Finally the man shouted, “We don’t need a new revolution. We don’t need a new government. We need new people.”
That’s the Gospel, the Good News. God has entered human history in Jesus Christ to redeem us, to reconcile us to Himself and as we look to Him, focus our hearts and minds on Him, He transforms us, restores us into men and women with clean hands and pure hearts, whole and holy, through whom He can pour out His truth, His mercy, His justice, His kindness, His goodness and beauty into this broken world.
In our study of the wonderful book of Nehemiah, we have seen how the Lord restored Jerusalem from rubble and ashes — restored the walls of identity and the gates of authority, consecrated the people so that He could shine His glory through them into a broken world.
I hope you also have seen how the Lord can put a person back together, restoring us into men and women on whom He can place His glory, through whom He can shine His light, speak His truth and pour out His mercy in our generation. I pray this process is ongoing in your life and may we all go forth, day by day, to love and serve the Lord.
1. Do you have a set time each day when you look into the glory of God in His word, in worship and in prayer?
2. Are you aware of the process of transforming grace in your life and are you thanking the Lord for His restoring work in you?