As I walk about the synagogue, I sometimes overhear conversations and many times I reflect upon what I have heard. Often my reflections lead to a message. This message is a result of one of those times.
The genesis of this message came when I overheard Norm teaching Matt about the Temples and who constructed them. This led me to begin thinking about Nehemiah. Since Norm is a rabbinical student, this can also serve as an exercise demonstrating for him how messages are born. It is good to have facts readily available, but it is not enough unless we examine the spiritual foundation behind those facts.
First, we have to ask ourselves who is this man Nehemiah. He lived during the time that ancient Israel was divided. Judah the southern kingdom consisted of Judah, Benjamin, and the Levites. Israel the northern kingdom, consisted of the other 10 tribes. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians carried off the northern kingdom into exile. A few pockets of these exiles trickled back into the land over the years, but the vast majority have been lost to history. The Babylonians on the other hand carried Judah into exile three times: in 606 BCE, 597 BCE, and 586 BCE. Unlike the northern kingdom, Judah did return en masse.
In 538 BCE the first group of exiles from Babylon returned to Judah under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:1-2:2) but the rebuilding was not completed until 23 years later in 515 BCE. During this time a second group returned in 458 BCE (Ezra 7:10) and it was this group’s primary responsibility to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
The wall did not get built. The problem was spiritual weakness, political pressure, and concerns for material comfort. In 444 BCE, Nehemiah the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of the Medo-Persian Empire received bad news from Jerusalem. He learned that there was little progress in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and in Nehemiah 1:2 we see that Nehemiah sat down and wept. We are told that Nehemiah mourned for certain days, fasted and prayed before YHVH Elohim Elyon. He was distraught that G-d’s Holy Temple and city was not rebuilt.
Our first clue to Nehemiah’s character is that he was the cupbearer of the King. An important position for he was responsible for the King’s safety and was a position of great trust. It was also a position that required attention 24/7. There were no days off for relaxation or entertainment. Secondly, Nehemiah’s distress, zeal and brokenness showed his zeal for G-d and sets the standard for believers concerned for G-d’s programs.
Next, we learn that after fasting, prayer and seeking YHVH, Nehemiah was demonstrated that he was a man of decision. He decides to seek the king’s help, but this was no ordinary request for the king at the slightest whim might respond by having Nehemiah killed. Like Esther, he prepares asking for G-d’s grace in securing the kings permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall.
In chapter two Nehemiah is downcast and the king notices. Nehemiah who is also a man of discernment recognizes an opportunity when it knocks. He decides this is the right time to broach the subject to the king. G-d has given him the opportunity. Even so, in verse 2, we read that Nehemiah was sorely afraid but mustering courage, he broached the subject anyway, but not before he uttered an urgent prayer to Elyon. Here, we should learn a lesson from Nehemiah for prayer need not be long, drawn out, but fervent and effectual. And in v. 6 in response, we see that Artaxerxes acquiesces to his faithful servant’s Nehemiah’s request. Then in v 9 we read that Nehemiah is dispatched to Judah with an “army and horsemen.” YHVH has supplied a faithful servant’s needs beyond his expectations.
In verse 10, we are introduced to Nehemiah’s nemeses upset that someone has come to Judah to rebuild the wall. These two later to be joined by a third: Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiath the Ammonite and later Geshem the Arabian become a constant irritant to Nehemiah.
Upon Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, he sets aside three days to examine the damage. Here we learn that he is a man of planning. In addition, Nehemiah is a man of discretion for he tells no man of his G-d given mission. We learn from this that he is a man of perception for as an outsider he cannot merely say that G-d has sent him to supervise the rebuilding of the wall. That would cause more resentment and inertia than cooperation. Instead, we see that Nehemiah is a man of persuasion for he implores the populace to rebuild the walls around the city. Nehemiah demonstrates he is a man of foresight by building protective walls for the security of the city and the people.
Next in the narrative, we see Nehemiah’s opposition rallying against him. In v 19, we are told, “they laughed us to scorn and despised us.” In v. 20, Nehemiah in the face of this opposition is faithful for he tells them that “The G-d of heaven will prosper us.” Not only that, but he tells his nemeses that they have no portion in the work. It is the same in our own lives when unbelievers confront us. The may deride or abuse us even laugh at us, but we must remember that they have no portion in our work. We should always know, it is from envy that they attack us. If we stand steadfast in our commitment to G-d, stand up to ungodly opposition and not compromise our walk, He will be faithful to see us through any crisis.
In chapter three, we see that Nehemiah is a man of humility giving credit to those to whom it is due. Although Nehemiah was commissioned by G-d to rebuild the wall, he could not do it alone. And probably no one would have objected if he took all the credit, but we see here that he lists the names of all those that worked on the wall. When was the last time you saw a plaque affixed to a government project that lists anyone other than the government commissioners and architect of the project.
Then we see that Nehemiah was a man of courage. In verse 3 Sanballat along with his cohort Tobiah are back accompanied by the army of Samaria and their associates to intimidate Nehemiah. This time they resort to ridicule and ask “What do these feeble Jews?” Tobiah adds his own degrading remark saying, “even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down the wall.” We should take a note from Nehemiah because there will be a time you and I have to face ridicule. Nehemiah would not let this aggression go unchecked, and after assessing the situation, he prays to G-d that the reproach they are dealt be turned back upon them. Nehemiah shows us, we are first to pray and solicit the help of the Almighty when faced by opposition, and he understands that YHVH always hears but does not always respond in the way we expect. So Nehemiah implements a plan of defense. He acts! In verse 9 he states: Nevertheless, we made our prayer unto Your G-d, and set a watch against them day and night.” Along with our prayers we must also take action. We see Nehemiah doing just this and later he beefs up his defenses by arming the builders. In all this He does not lose sight of YHVH Elohim for in v. 14, he reminds the builders not to be afraid, and in the same breath he urges them to “Remember the L-rd.” And later, in v. 20 if any should be remiss in remembering the source of their strength he again reminds them that “our G-d shall fight for us.”
In chapter five of the narrative, we come to the enemy within. Four calamities confront them. There is a shortage of food, the people of Judah are forced to mortgage their fields and vineyards. They have borrowed money from their Jewish kinsmen, and are hard pressed to pay it back because of the excessive rates they are being charged. Grievously their children are being turned into slaves to pay it back. Nehemiah is faced with internal dissent of the worst kind, which threatens to destroy his whole building program. We see that Nehemiah is a man of equity and integrity. He is enraged against this injustice and shall not stand for it. He speaks out, but notice he puts G-d squarely in the forefront of the matter. The people know they should not charge usury, take advantage of their brothers nor become war profiteers. Nehemiah gets to the heart of the matter. If G-d is their priority and incidentally ours, then, selfishness and greed will flee. In a sense Nehemiah tells them, “don’t they have enough heartache from their enemies so why bring more pain and suffering upon themselves by their false sense of values and priorities?” He appeals to the people to put G-d first and this is our lesson. Let us put G-d first in all our endeavors. Nehemiah’s logic cannot be argued against and the people wholeheartedly agree ending their injustice. Nehemiah goes on to remind the people that he unlike other governors of Judah has not weighed the people down with heavy taxes. The reason his fear of YHVH Elohim. Nehemiah is not appealing to the people’s gratitude for their ingratitude is already obvious since they have not recognized his benevolent rule. Instead, he is reminding them that he is motivated by G-d and that his generosity is a result of his love and fear of YHVH Elohim, just as their actions should reflect.
In chapter 6 we see that Nehemiah is a man of perception for he is summoned to confer with his enemies. In today’s world believers suppose they can they can deal with unbelievers and reach equitable settlements, but does Nehemiah go; no he does not, for he knows they mean to “do him mischief.” He is a man of G-dly discernment and knows no conference or compromise with unbelievers would result in any settlement that would not be counterproductive to G-d’s plan and will. We too need to set ourselves apart from unbelievers, even if they are well meaning, for in the end they will do us mischief. If we compromise our walk with G-d only heartache can result. Nehemiah is courted several more time but he remains firm in his convictions and will not meet with them. They then resort to subterfuge and enlist and insider, Shemaiah, a Jew who apparently enjoys some measure of credibility with the people for he summons Nehemiah to meet with him at the Temple. Nehemiah a man of vision immediately recognizes that this is another ploy of Tobiah and Sanballat (v. 12) and refused to come to the Temple. Nehemiah’s actions teach us that we are to remain firm in our convictions even when enticed by someone or a group in our own community. Someone who may have been previously trusted, but is now opposed to us. We must always remain resolute and steadfast in the will of our G-d.
Nehemiah is now faced with opposition within and without, but Nehemiah is a man of resolution and stands firm. The wall is completed in 52 days (v. 15). Even after the completion of the wall, Nehemiah still must endure dissidents. Despite all he has done many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem support his enemies probably because of economic connections. They cajole upon Nehemiah to make some sort of compromise with his and incidentally, G-d’s unbelieving enemies. Nehemiah takes an unwavering stand, as we should, when faced by those who would have us compromise our walk with G-d. We are not to compromise to achieve some goal or settle for less than G-d has granted us.
In chapter seven, Nehemiah does not relent but now considers the security of the city. Nehemiah could have said I have fulfilled my commission and let it stand at that, but he is a man of dedication and responsibility. He sees the need and responds to it. I’m sure Nehemiah is tired both physically and mentally. He has had to deal with enemies both within and without. He has had to deal with the logistics of building the wall as well and the finances required. He has had to deal with labor problems and the constant political and personal attacks upon his person. He has had to deal with the ever-present threat of physical attack from his enemies. Obviously, he deserves a rest, but his sense of responsibility and dedication to G-d want allow him to sit back on his laurels. Nehemiah appoints spiritually mature and qualified men and organizes them to watch over the security of the city. He is a man of foresight who surrounds himself with faithful and upright men. Today, too many leaders choose someone to do a job because they are willing or available and they soon run into difficulties. They have shown bad judgment in whom they chose because that person was not spiritually mature nor grounded in Torah.
After having settled the problem of security Nehemiah then begins to enlist the help of the nobles, the rulers and the people to fill the city with believers and we find that the rest of this chapter is a list of exiles that returned to the city from captivity.
In chapter 8, the rebuilding of the city is complete and we see Nehemiah as a motivator who encourages the spiritual rebuilding of his people. He gathers the people together so that Ezra a scribe and priest can read them the Torah. We see that Nehemiah is now a man of graciousness because he steps aside and gives Ezra first place, to edify the people as he teaches Torah. Having encouraged and uplifted YHVH Elohim, Nehemiah gives us a last word, a verse for all ages, “for the joy of YHVH is your strength.” We as believers should recognize that all our strength, our joy, encouragement, peace, and consolation come from our joy of YHVH Elohim. Not from some outside source as many seek, but from within, from our joyful relationship with our Creator. The people of Nehemiah have a national revival because of this man’s firmness and resolution, and they set about to right some grievous wrongs they have committed.
Nehemiah stayed about 12 years in Jerusalem and we are given no account of his return to Persia is in 432 BC, but we do know that he had to return to Jerusalem about 2 years later because the people floundered after he had departed. He returns to find that Tobiah had been given a room in the Temple. Compromise with unbelievers at his absence had been accomplished. Eliashib, who had been one of the original workers on the wall and a High Priest, had given Tobiah, one of the original opponents to the construction of the wall, occupancy in the Temple. We see that the Levites are being neglected for the people are not giving their tithes to them, hence there is nothing to put into the storerooms, the result is that Tobiah, an unbeliever, has room for occupancy. When we fail to obey G-d we make room for sin to enter.
Nehemiah finding himself in a familiar position first gets rid of Tobiah; metaphorically we might say he rids sin from the Temple. Then he orders that the rooms of the Temple be purified. When we rid ourselves of sin, we need to purify ourselves by repentance and separation from all unholy behavior. Next, he restores proper worship, the Priesthood, and the Levites. We must support and encourage our leaders who not only trust in Yahshua’s faithfulness, but also are Torah Observant. In all this Nehemiah seeks G-d’s guidance, support, and help. Again, we see Nehemiah as a great leader who does not seek personal fame, but is unselfish, and whose primary concern is the welfare of others.
Nehemiah closes his book with: “Remember me, O my G-d, for good.” We as believers should take Nehemiah as a paradigm of how we should act, not only toward our Creator, but also toward each other. If we did many of our problems would dissolve before our eyes. Nehemiah never once forgot his mission nor compromised his position; neither did he solely rely upon his own abilities or skills to lead his people and to get the job done. Instead, he first placed his trust and dependence upon YHVH Elohim then he brought all his G-d given abilities and skills into play. Nehemiah stands as G-d’s pattern as to what a leader should be.