Nehemiah: Fought the Good Fight

from sermon series
“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

by Pastor Dave Strem

Used by permission

Knowingly violating God’s best plan for a situation always brings bad consequences.  And the closer someone is to God the more negative and far-reaching the consequences.  The life and rule of Solomon is a good example of this principle.  Early in his kingship over Israel he has an encounter with God that changed his life.  “That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, ‘What do you want?  Ask, and I will give it to you!’  Solomon replied, ‘You were wonderfully kind to my father, David, because he was honest and true and faithful to you.  And you have continued this great kindness to him today by giving him a son to succeed him.  O Lord my God, now you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a child who doesn’t know his way around.  And here I am among your own chosen people, a nation so great they are too numerous to count!  Give me an understanding mind so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong.  For who by himself is able to govern this great nation of yours?’  The Lord was pleased with Solomon’s reply and was glad that he asked for wisdom.  So God replied, ‘Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people and have not asked for a long life or riches for yourself or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for’” (1 Kings 3:5-12)!  God promised to give Solomon all the wisdom he needed to govern.  A thorough reading of 1 Kings 3-1 Kings 10 will show that God kept His promise to bless Solomon.  He blessed Solomon with wisdom, honor, and riches.

     One of the projects Solomon undertook was to build a central place of worship—a temple.  Until this time there were many local sites for offering sacrifices and burnt incense.  David wanted to build a temple, it was his idea, but was unable because the many wars he was involved in took-up too much of his time and attention.  Blessed by peace Solomon built the temple according to God’s specifications.

     After the temple and all the temple contents were finished and Solomon offered prayers and sacrifices of dedication, God appeared to Solomon a second time.  “I have heard your prayer and your request.  I have set apart this temple you have built so that my name will be honored there forever.  I will always watch over it and care for it.  As for you, if you will follow me with integrity and godliness, as David your father did, always obeying my commands and keeping my laws and regulations, then I will establish the throne of your dynasty over Israel forever.  For I made this promise to your father, David; ‘You will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’  But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey my commands and laws, and if you go and worship other gods, then I will uproot the people of Israel from this land I have given them.  I will reject this Temple that I have set apart to honor my name.  I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations.  And though this temple is impressive now, it will become an appalling sight for all who pass by.  They will scoff and ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to his land and to his Temple?’  And the answer will be, ‘Because his people forgot the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and they worshipped other gods instead.  That is why the Lord has brought all these disasters upon them’” (1 Kings 9:3-9).  Unfortunately, despite God’s explicit warnings and commands against marrying foreign, idolatrous wives Solomon married hundreds of them.  And as God predicted, these women lead him and Israel away from the exclusive worship of God the Creator and Redeemer. 

     As a consequence of one powerful man’s disobedience and idolatry, the kingdom of Israel was split in two.  Immediately after Solomon’s death the kingdom he worked so hard to build began to crumble.  The corrupting process proceeded faster in the Northern section of the divided kingdom than it did in the Southern section.  The Northern section, now called Israel, fulfilling God’s warning given to Solomon in 1 Kings 9, was sent into exile by the Assyrians in 722 B. C.  The Southern section, now called Judah, was sent into exile by the Babylonians in 586 B. C.

     These exiles were times of discipline for a rebellious people.  They were not evidence that God had given-up on Israel.  God always remembers His promises to Abraham and David.  Temporary disobedience does not thwart God’s overall plans to fulfill His promises.  History teaches us that these exiles accomplished an important objective—Israel never again returned to the idolatry that provoked the exiles. 

     The exiles were temporary.  Starting in 538 B. C., God began returning people back to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.  There were actually three periods of return.  The first was under Zerubbabel in 538 B. C.  The second was under Ezra in 458 B. C.  The third was under Nehemiah in 445 B. C.  The remainder of this paper will focus on Nehemiah, the leader of the third return from exile.

    Under Zerubbabel and Ezra, the Temple was rebuilt and the Law of Moses was again spoken to the people.  But the city and its walls were still in ruin.  Jerusalem was not yet a safe place to live.  It was still a place of ridicule.  The people who had already returned were struggling to survive.  Listen to the words of Nehemiah: “Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah.  I asked them about the Jews who had survived the captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.  They said to me, ‘Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah.  They are in great trouble and disgrace.  The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned’” (Nehemiah 1:2-3).  Upon hearing this news, Nehemiah began to weep and mourn.  Nehemiah was born a Jew in a foreign land.  He had no memories of the way Jerusalem used to be before the exiles.  His reaction to the bad news was not a sentimental one.  His prayer to God shows us that his heart was with God.  John 4:23-24 tells us that God has always sought people who worship Him in spirit and truth.  Jesus said, “But the time is coming and is already here when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  The Father is looking for anyone who will worship him that way.  For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.”  Many Israelites got lost in the Law, or worshipped false images of God, misrepresenting Who He is.  While in exile, apart from the Temple and altar, many Israelites learned to worship God in spirit and truth.  They developed a spiritual connection to the Lord.  The prayer of Nehemiah shows this spiritual connection.  “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer!  Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel.  I confess that we have sinned against you.  Yes, even my own family and I have sinned!…. Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations.  But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored…. Please grant me success now as I go ask the king for a great favor.  Put it into his heart to be kind to me’” (1:5-10). 

     Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes’.  As a cupbearer he had great responsibility and access to the king.  A cupbearer not only made sure that the king’s wine was safe to drink, but was also a trusted advisor and confidant.  A cupbearer had to have great organizational skills in order to manage the selection and protection of the wine; to make sure it was not poisoned by enemies of the king.  For three months Nehemiah prayed about speaking to the king.  Finally, in God’s providence, Artaxerxes’ noticed Nehemiah’s sadness and sought the reason.  Upon hearing Nehemiah’s wish to go to Jerusalem, he granted Nehemiah’s request to return to rebuild the city and its walls. Nehemiah left the privileged job of cupbearer, and all the luxuries that go with that position, and journeyed to Jerusalem, which was characterized by want and strife.

     While it is not necessary to look at all the specific details regarding the rebuilding of the city and walls, we are going to look at the opposition Nehemiah faced.  Read 2:19-20, 4:3-14, 5:1-11, and 6:1-7.  These passages speak of all the opposition Nehemiah and the rebuilders had from those with a vested interest in the project failing.  Greed, anger, ridicule, discouragement, and deceitful conspiracy fueled the opposition.  But how did Nehemiah react to all this negativity and sin?  His was not a response of compromise and reconciliation.  He actually prayed against the ridiculers and conspirators.  To pray that God’s judgment will fall against His enemies is called an imprecatory prayer.  It is to take sides with God against God’s enemies.  Nehemiah twice prays against these people: 1) “Then I prayed, ‘hear us, O our God, for we are being mocked.  May their scoffing fall back on their own heads, and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land!  Do not ignore their guilt.  Do not blot out their sins, for they have provoked you to anger here in the presence of the builders’” (4:4-5).  2) “Remember, O my God, all the evil things that Tobiah and Sanballat have done.  And remember Noadiah the prophet and all the prophets like her who have tried to intimidate me” (6:14).  Not only did God not forget these people, but He put the accounts of their opposition in His Word for all to read about and condemn.  The reality of their opposition is no longer confined to a small plot of ground called Jerusalem, but wherever the Bible is read their evil deeds will be known, and their names cursed.  This should strike fear in our hearts.  If we should dare to oppose God’s work and ways, will all hear of our opposition at the future judgment?  Will our names be listed along Tobiah’s, Sanballat’s and Noadiah’s? 

     There seems to be several purposes for the writing of Nehemiah (Malik, 1996), and its companion book, Ezra (both are records of the return from captivity).  1) To provide a record of the reconstruction of the Israelite theocracy upon the physical and spiritual foundations of the past and to give a continuity between the preexilic and postexilic times.  The promises given to Abraham and David were still in force.  God is not done with Israel, but He still has plans for it, within His overall plan to redeem the world from sin and death.  2) To demonstrate God’s faithfulness in restoring His people to the blessings found in His promises to Abraham and David.  3) To proclaim the legitimacy of the restored religious, political, and social life of God’s nationally-chosen people.  God called them back to the land.  They are not illegitimate occupiers of the land.  They belong there.  4) To foreshadow the complete fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and David.  Despite what the critics said in Nehemiah’s day, and despite what critics say today, God is not finished with Israel yet.  He allowed them to return and receive His blessing when they confessed the unholy sins of disobedience to the Law of Moses and idolatry.  He will bless them in the future when they confess the sin of rejecting their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.  Until then they will remain in spiritual exile.

     Nehemiah is an example of a man who fought for what he knew was God’s will.  It was obvious that the city and walls needed to be rebuilt for the protection of the people.  Only those who had selfish hidden agendas could oppose it.  We need to learn from Nehemiah.  Hardship and opposition does not necessarily mean that we are out of God’s will.  It may actually occur because we are directly in the middle of His will, involved in His project.  It is interesting, sometimes our projects proceed along smoothly because God is blessing us, but at other times all hell seems to break loose against what we are doing.  Yet, like Nehemiah, we are doing exactly what God wants us to do.  Nehemiah triumphed for two reasons.  First, he knew that what he was doing was God’s will for his life.  He was strengthened by his convictions to complete what God called him to do.  Second, he was surrounded by good people who also were faithful to complete the task assigned to them.  When we face opposition we should examine ourselves to see whether we are receiving flak because of our own bad actions, whether there has been a misunderstanding, or are our enemies actually striking at God by striking at us.  If the former two can be eliminated, and the later confirmed, then we must stand strong in God’s strength and refuse to backaway from our holy task! 

     Nehemiah did not quit.  The postexilic history of Israel might have been different had he not triumphed.  But Nehemiah is an example of someone who followed God’s best plan for his life.  And God’s people benefited from his faithfulness.  Solomon, despite his great wisdom, is an example of someone who knew God’s best plan for his life but failed to do it.  Solomon’s unfaithfulness brought great suffering to his people.  The lives of Solomon and Nehemiah should stand as examples to us.  Solomon is often looked upon as a great man and is remembered for his great wisdom.  But his end was not good.  Nehemiah is not as well known, but when one reads his story carefully one sees another David-type character.  Solomon inherited peace, but eventually squandered it on immoral living.  Nehemiah ‘inherited’ conflict, but eventually turned it into peace.  Nehemiah, along with Paul, fought the good fight and finished the race (2 Timothy 4:7).  David would have been proud of him!

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