Grace For The Journey
We are starting a new series this morning called “REBUILD.” Most of us can relate to that word. The textbook definition of “rebuild” is, “To build (something) again after it has been damaged or destroyed.”
- Some of us are in the middle of personal rebuilding projects.
Many of us are rebuilding our lives. The walls have broken down and the gates have burned, we have made a mess of things, and we are rebuilding ourselves in anticipation of better days.
- Some of us are rebuilding our spiritual walk.
You have been applying the words we learned from Romans 6: “I’m dead to that.” You have been working on rebuilding your walk with God, your purity, your growth in holiness, or rebuilding your devotional life.
- Others of us are rebuilding in other areas.
Rebuilding your discipline – taking in what is healthy and avoiding what is harmful. Maybe you are rebuilding your job, your organization, your house, your home, a marriage, a relationship, or a family.
The Book of Nehemiah is about rebuilding. The walls of Jerusalem are broken down and the city gates have been burned. Scattered stones, bricks, and charred wood are lying everywhere, and somebody needs to do something. And a guy living a thousand miles away learns about it and has the courage to say, “I’m going to talk to God about this.” And that man, Nehemiah, leads one of the most daring and deliberate rebuilding projects to bring glory to the One True and Living God.
This book that we will be studying is a reading of Nehemiah’s personal diary or journal about how it all happened. What we are going to discover in Nehemiah is . . .
Not only the need for rebuilding the walls
Around the city of God’s people,
But the rebuilding of God’s people themselves.
Nehemiah is about both
Physical and spiritual rebuilding.
Let me invite you to find the Book of Nehemiah in your Bibles. It is in the Old Testament, right after the Book of Ezra which we just concluded on Wednesday. While the events of Nehemiah really occur at the end of the Old Testament period, you find it closer to the beginning. It is right after Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, then you have Ezra, and Nehemiah. It is just before the Book of Job and Psalms. It might be kind of confusing because the events of Nehemiah occur at the end of the Old Testament period – or as we will see, during what we call the post-exilic period, post exile, after the exiles of God’s people. Some of you are reading through the chronological Bible and you are seeing this, that the order of the books, the canonical order, is not necessarily the chronological order.
What I want to do in today’s blog is look at the first few verses of Nehemiah and then do an overview of the Book. That is pretty much what we do when we start a series. We look at the main divisions, themes, teachings, and background, to help us have a good foundation for our study.
Let me begin our study with a prayer to that God right now: “Father, as we begin this new series of messages through Nehemiah, give us grace to learn. Holy Spirit, be our teacher and Jesus gives us the power and resources to rebuild what is broken down in our lives. May we be pointed to Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, in whose name we pray, amen.”
Let us get an understanding of the background of Nehemiah. Where does this book fall in the history of God’s people? The history of Israel begins in the Book of Genesis. In Genesis 12 (about 1900 BC), God makes a promise to Abraham. God says, “I’m going to bless you and make you a great nation. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That covenant is renewed from time to time. Progressing through the years through Joshua, Judges, and 1 & 2 Samuel we get to King David and it is about 1000 years BC. Then you have David’s son Solomon and the times of the kings, recorded in 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles. The kingdom becomes divides about 900 BC – Divided into North and South: Ten tribes to the North are called Israel or Samaria; the two tribes to the South are called Judah.
The people have broken God’s covenant time and again. They were unfaithful to God and began worshiping other gods. And God raises up enemies to bring punishment upon His people. In 722 BC the Assyrians invade the Northern Kingdom, Samaria, and carry away the 10 tribes of the Israelites into captivity, scattering them to the north in the Assyrian Empire. You can read about this in 2 Kings 17. The Assyrians exiled the people in order to separate them from one another, forcing them into other geographical areas so that they would intermingle with other peoples and lose their identity and strength.
In 586 BC the Babylonian empire invaded God’s people and took captive the Southern Kingdom of Judah at Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried away the two Southern tribes to Babylon. You can read about the Babylonian captivity in 2 Chronicles 36. Nebuchadnezzar robs the temple of its treasures, destroys everything of value, burns the palaces, and burns down the temple. He destroys the walls that went around Jerusalem. He killed both men and women, and the few who remained were taken away into captivity to Babylon. He took them up north along the Jordan and then east along the Euphrates river, resettling them in Babylon, a massive empire that reached into present day Iraq and Kuwait up to the Persian Gulf. This was a sad time. This was when Psalm 137 was written. Verses 1-4 say, “By the rivers of Babylon. There we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How Shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” The Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years. It lasted until the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra is also the name of the Book of Ezra, just before Nehemiah. Ezra was a contemporary of Nehemiah and there is a bit of overlap of the events of Ezra and Nehemiah. So again, Babylonian exile 586 BC. 70 years of captivity.
In 536 BC something wonderful happens. There is a new empire that comes upon the scene – the empire of the Medes and Persians. The Persian Empire was massive, including present day Iran and spread east as far as India. God raised up a King named Cyrus. Cyrus was not a believer, but God worked through Him to accomplish His will. The Bible says in Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” So God turns Cyrus’ heart and causes him to issue a decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city walls.
There were three “waves” of Jews returning to the land to do the work:
- The first was led by a guy named Zerubbabel, head of the tribe of Judah during this time. You can read about him in the Book of Ezra chapters 1-6.
- The second comes 70 years later led by Ezra. And you can read about that in Ezra chapters 7-10.
- Nehemiah will lead the third “wave” of God’s people to Jerusalem.
In fact, Nehemiah will make more several trips, from Babylon to Jerusalem over a period of 20 years. But his work begins in 445 BC. We know that because the book opens with the date. Nehemiah 1:1 says, “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan (or Susa) the citadel.” Chislev corresponds to our mid-November to mid-December. And the twentieth year corresponds to the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes. We will be reading about him in Nehemiah. That makes it the year 445 BC; 13 years after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem.
We do not know much about Nehemiah. He is name is pretty significant though. In the Hebrew it is “Nechem Yah.” Literally, it means the “Comfort of Yahweh.” We are told he is “the son of Hachaliah.” We do not know anything about Hachaliah. There is no long listing of prestigious pedigree here. God is showing us that He works through common folks. His dad is just a regular guy. This also teaches us that spiritual empowerment is more important than physical pedigree. Nehemiah is from a regular family, but he has an important position.
In the last verse of chapter 1, Nehemiah tells us what his position is. The last sentence of verse 11 says, “I was the king’s cupbearer.” That sounds like Nehemiah was the king’s butler or protector of the king. But it was more than that. The cupbearer to the king was a position of high office in the royal court. The cupbearer had personal access to the king. His chief responsibility was both to choose and taste the wine that the king drank. He tasted it to demonstrate that it was not poisoned by some enemy of the king.
The Bible tells us in verse 2 that Nehemiah is in Shushan. This was where the fortified palace and residence of the king, and capital city of the Persian Empire was located. It was at the furthest point east in the Babylonian Empire. It was the winter resort of Persian kings. That is where Nehemiah is when the book opens. In essence he says, “I’m sitting in the palace in Shushan, minding my own business; it is just a regular day, when verse 2 tells us, “That Hanani one of my brethren (fellow Israelite) came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.”
An entire sermon could be built upon Nehemiah’s question in verse 2. He asked them concerning the Jews. He wanted to know how they were doing. How are things going in Jerusalem? How is everyone getting on? He is one of those guys who asks questions more than he talks about himself. He is concerned, compassionate, and caring.
He does not know how things are in Jerusalem. He does not know. It is a thousand miles away and there is no Internet search engine or Messenger to research the issue or check with somebody about it. He is having to ask folks who have traveled from there.
Verse 3 gives us their report, “And they said to me, ‘The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach (disgrace and shame). The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.’ When the first couple waves of Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, they faced immediate opposition. It took 20 years to get the temple restored, but the walls and gates were never finished. This is what Nehemiah learns. The walls are broken down and the gates burned with fire.
Walls are critical to the safety and security of a city.
The walls represented the strength and protection of God.
Many of the psalms talk about the walls of Jerusalem and the people of influence and favor gathering at the city gates (See Psalms 48, 79, 84, and 87). The walls are still broken down and unfinished and the people are in “great distress and reproach.”
Verse 4 tells us, “So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” From verse 4 on we learn . . .
How the cupbearer becomes the wall builder.
In fact, we will watch Nehemiah go
From cupbearer, to wall builder, to governor.
But we would miss so much of this book
If we thought it were only about rebuilding walls.
It is about more than that.
In fact, there are two important divisions in the book . . .
1. Reconstruction of the Walls – Chapters 1-6.
These chapters will focus on the physical rebuilding of the walls of the City.
2. Reinstruction of the People – Chapters 7-13.
These chapters will focus on the spiritual rebuilding of the people.
First half of Nehemiah is largely about a physical rebuilding and the second half of Nehemiah is largely about a spiritual rebuilding. Rebuilding the walls and rebuilding the people. And . . . Rebuilding the people takes more time. Rebuilding the walls happens in record time. We will be reading about that in the days to come. All of the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt just inside of two months; a record 52 days. That is incredible! Rebuilding the people, however, takes much more time. Spiritual reformation always takes time.
In the rest of this blog, I want to address the subtitle of our series. The message within the message. The series is entitled “REBUILD.” But . . .
This is not simply a book about
Man doing the work of rebuilding.
Many have taken the Book of Nehemiah and used it simply to teach man-centered leadership lessons or how to build a team. But . . .
The Bible is not primarily a book about man.
The Bible is a Book about God.
Nehemiah teaches us to
Trust God to do the work.
We will see this throughout the Book, trusting God to do the work in at least three ways:
1) Forgiving our Sin.
Nehemiah recognizes that sin is the reason the walls have come down in the first place. The sin of God’s people turning away from God. Spiritual unfaithfulness. Nehemiah teaches us how to confess our sin to God and ask forgiveness.
We will be reading, for example, about a couple bad guys who come against Nehemiah and try to disrupt the rebuilding process. Their names are Sanballat and Tobiah. They were really bad guys. We will learn that Nehemiah does not ask God to utterly destroy them or to destroy the godless nations surrounding Jerusalem. In the opening chapter Nehemiah asks God to forgive the sins of his own people. It was Judah’s sins that caused God to bring the Babylonians to Jerusalem and lead His people into exile.
We will see that the Book opens and closes with confession of sin. Any lasting work in our lives will begin and end with confession and prayer. Nehemiah also teaches us a lot about prayer. He is praying right after he learns the news about Jerusalem. Verse 5, where we will pick up on Monday, begins with Nehemiah’s first prayer. He prays several times throughout this book. His prayer life demonstrates what the Apostle Paul will call “praying without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
Sometimes he prays longer prayers like his prayer one in chapter 1, a word-saturated prayers of confession. Sometimes those short are “bullet prayers” or “arrow prayers” when he pray hurriedly when necessary (like chapter 2 when the king asks him a question and he wants to answer wisely). Nehemiah 2:4-5 says, “Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king …’” A short, arrow prayer, like shooting a quick arrow up to God. Nehemiah prays a lot of those arrow prayers. We should pray those all the time! Going into an important meeting, we bow our heads and quickly say, “God, help me” . . . “God, guide me” . . . “God give me understanding” . . . “God give me wisdom.”
Trusting God to do the work of forgiveness, of forgiving our sin.
Secondly, we will be learning about trusting God to do the work of . . .
2) Empowering our Service.
Nehemiah trusts God to do the work of rebuilding in and through the people. For example, we will learn that no sooner do they get to the work of rebuilding when the bad guys try to discourage them and keep them from the work. In fact, their enemies begin to threaten their lives. So, Nehemiah positions the people around the wall so that half of them are working and the other half are standing with swords, spears, and bow. Nehemiah tells them that in the worst case scenario of needing to defend themselves, that the trumpet will sound, rallying all of God’s people together to battle. He makes this really encouraging statement in chapter 4, verse 20, “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” Those six words, “our God will fight for us,” . . .
Say everything about
In God to do the work
In and through His people!
He will empower our service.
We do not do this
In our own strength.
It is easy to do things in our own strength. You do not have to be strong to do things in your own strength. I heard about a who was sitting with his wife on the couch and she took his arm and said, “Wow, your muscles are firming us.” But and then she quickly said, “Oh, that is not your muscle, it is your elbow!” That really built his self-esteem!
You do not have to be strong to do things in your own strength. And from man’s perspective, it may even be considered successful. Yet, it was Jesus who said in John 15:5, “Without Me you can do nothing.” How much did our Lord we could do without Him? Nothing. Even if it looks like “something” to others.
Trust God to do the work of empowerment.
That sure is true for living the Gospel! When we sing those words in “All I Have is Christ,” we say, “the strength to follow your commands could never come from me.” As Christians we are not strong enough to live the Christian life without continually relying on the Holy Spirit to empower us. Our God will fight for us. Trust God to do the work of empowerment. Empowering your service. Empowering everything you do.
Finally, we must trust God to do the work of . . .
3) Reforming our Souls.
The Book of Nehemiah is not just about rebuilding walls. It is also about rebuilding our souls, bringing true spiritual reformation to the people of God. One of the things we will see is that . . .
Nehemiah has an unassailable
Trust in the Word of God
To bring reformation to the people of God.
Not only will we see that in his prayer life,
But also in his belief in and trust in
The sufficiency of God’s Word, the Bible.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Chapter 8. And we will be learning about the people gathering together in the open square and calling for Ezra to read the Book of the Law to the people. Nehemiah 8:2-3 says, “So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in the front of the water Gate from morning until midday …” Trust in the authority of the Word of God to bring about spiritual reformation in the people of God.
Nehemiah 8:5-6 goes on to say, “And 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. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Others are also enlisted to explain the word of God to the people . . . Nehemiah 8:8-9 state, “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep.’ For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.”
The Word brought conviction upon them! When was the last time you wept as you read the Word of God? We will be learning about trusting God to do the work of spiritual reformation by reading and understanding the Word of God.
The rebuilding of the people takes longer than the rebuilding of the walls. This book is so brutally honest. It actually ends with the people of God still struggling with sin in the last chapter. Nehemiah is faithful. He sticks with them and continues to lead them and ask God to do the work of spiritual reformation in their lives. We too need to stick with folks when they struggle. Spiritual reformation takes time. Nehemiah was faithful. And we can be grateful. Because through the gates of this rebuilt city and its rebuilt walls would one day enter the very One who would take away the sin of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ came into the world to make possible the rebuilding that every one of us so desperately needs. Jesus Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1Peter 2:5-6). He is the most important building block in the wall of your life. If the walls of your life have broken down and the gates have burned, trust Jesus to do the work of rebuilding your life. Have you allowed a crack in your wall, a little sin to creep across your wall like poison ivy that grows and wraps itself around you, confess that sin and repent. Turn to Jesus this morning. Trust Christ to do a REBUILD of your life. Say to Him, “Lord, here am I. I have made a wreck of my life. Rebuild my life today.”
This is God’s Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”