God Rebuild Us! (Nehemiah)
As we studied through Ezra and saw that God was restoring his temple, his word, and his people. God does what he has always done. He brings his people back to the land and enters into a relationship with them again. But did you know that this story is not over yet? Ezra is the first two parts of a three-part book. Ezra was combined with Nehemiah by the Jews originally. All of this restoration brought about by these two men results in the restoration of God’s people to some level of normalcy. They turn their hearts to seek after God and to repent of their sins truly. Tonight I would like for us to see the message of Nehemiah.
From a 10k foot level, we see Nehemiah as God’s ultimate restorer. God uses Zerubbabel to build the temple, Ezra to turn the people’s heart back to him, and Nehemiah to provide everything the people need to glorify God. He rebuilds the city in 1:1-7:3, rebuilds the community in 7:4-11:36, and rebuilds the priesthood in 12:1-13:31. Tonight I would like to understand what this book is about and understand it’s significance to us today.
God Rebuilds The City
This story starts in the capital of Persia, where his brothers from Jerusalem bring Nehemiah troubling news. The people in Jerusalem are living amid desolation. The houses and the city walls are still broken down and burned. Sure the temple has been built, and Ezra has been teaching the law. But no one can rebuild the city because their enemies have spoken against Jerusalem and called it a rebellious city. Nehemiah is distraught at this news. This would bring every Israelite on earth great shame. Jerusalem is the city where God has caused his name to dwell. So Nehemiah sits, weeps, fasts, and prays for days. But Nehemiah can’t go on like this forever. His duty calls him. He has a great job in the Persian kingdom. He is the cupbearer for the king. So he gets to drink some of the best wine in the kingdom, and the king holds him in high regard as being trustworthy. That sounds great except that he is the guy who tests the king’s wine to make sure it is not poisoned. After four months pass, Nehemiah is still affected by the news of his country, and he feels he has to say something to the king. So he says a prayer much like the prayer of Daniel and Ezra, confessing the sins of the people and asking God to be faithful as he has always been. He ’doesn’t know what the outcome will be, but he sets his heart to approach the king in Chapter 2.
As he approached the king, he lets the king see the sadness of his heart. As you might imagine, that is a dangerous thing to do as a cupbearer. When the king asks him what is wrong, he responds, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my father’s graves lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king responded favorably to him and asked him what he needed, so he said a prayer to God and asked the king for materials to rebuild the city. Then, he comes to Jerusalem, carrying all the materials needed to rebuild. God had provided them with everything they needed. Now all that lacks is a drive and desire to rebuild from an unwavering group of Israelites. After Nehemiah surveyed the walls, he speaks to the people, and they say, “Let us rise up and build!”
The People Rise Up
So, in Chapter 3, all of the families get to work, building every section of the wall all at once. It didn’t matter what their occupation was. They all could play a part from High Priest and rulers to goldsmiths, to perfumers, and even foreigners were allowed to build the walls. Chapter 3 lists the names of all those who would devote their lives to rebuilding this wall. It also mentions those few who refused to work.
Enemies Rise Up
In Chapter 4, things become complicated. Sanballat and other officials of the surrounding provinces heard what they were doing. They wanted to discourage the building. Listen to what they said,
Nehemiah 4:1--3 (ESV) --- 1 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2 And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building---if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
Listen to how the people responded.
Nehemiah 4:4-6 Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5 Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders. 6 So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.
The people had a mind to work. They had lived amidst ruins for well over a century. So they put their nose to the grindstone and worked hard. This only made their enemies more furious. Sanballat and all his army were planning to attack. So, Nehemiah had the Israelites set up guards, carry weapons, and come up with a plan for when their enemies would attack them while they worked on the wall. They were holding a weapon in one hand and building a wall with the other. When they did this, the enemies were disheartened and gave up on their plans to attack.
This scared their families from the surrounding towns who were telling the people, “Come home! Get out of there! It is too dangerous!” They sent for them ten times, but Nehemiah kept telling them to remember the Lord and fight for your brethren.
The People Fall Down
But all of this diligence met another obstacle in Chapter 5. The poor who were building the walls ran out of food. There was also a famine in the land. Many of them had to mortgage their fields and vineyards to eat and pay the king’s taxes. Some of them were selling their children as servants of other Israelites. Nehemiah was angry and called out those who were taking advantage of their brethren at this time of need. He had them give their money and grain back with any interest they had charged so the work could continue. Then, he shook out the folds of his robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied.” Also, Nehemiah was made the governor and fed those who were in need with his portion from the king.
The Enemies Try To Deceive
The internal strife was settled, and the people were able to be devoted again to working on the wall. But the enemies began to conspire against Nehemiah in Chapter 6. This time they were scheming to kill Nehemiah or make him sin by entering the temple. But he never fell for their deception. Nehemiah refused to believe the prophets they had bribed and sin against the Lord. He just kept on working in spite of all the threats on his life. Under his leadership, the walls that had laid in ruin for nearly 200 years were completed in just 52 days. The people in the surrounding nations were afraid when they heard this because they knew that God was with them.
God Rebuilds The Community
After the walls were completed and the city was established, Nehemiah 7:4 transitions to God rebuilding the community. Nehemiah tells us that, “The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.” It turns out that all of the people were living in the surrounding towns because Jerusalem itself was not safe to live in. So the work continues in the following months God put it in Nehemiah’s heart to assemble the people and put together a genealogy of all those who lived around Jerusalem.
Then, all the people gathered together in Chapter 8 to hear the words of the law being read and explained by Ezra. All of the people listened intently, and they wanted to hear the words of the law. The word was read, and the Levites provided a clear understanding. This enabled the people to grasp what God had done for them and what he wanted from them. As they heard the words, they began to weep. But the Levites and leaders told them to stop weeping and start celebrating. Because God has set aside this day as a joyful day, the Levites said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” and encouraged the people.
In Chapter 9, they gathered together again and confessed their sins and summarized the entire story of the Old Testament up to that point. They recognized that God has always been good to them and that they have always rebelled against God. Then, they begged God to bring them out of their current slavery and free them from the king of Persia.
In Chapter 10, they make a covenant that they would “observe and do all of the commandments of the Lord.” The promised to refuse to take foreign women as wives, observe the Sabbath, forgive debts, give all of the offerings, and not neglect the Levites or the house of God.
All of these promises show a heart that wants to do what is right. The people have a desire to become the faithful people that the prophets said would come after the exile.
In Chapter 11, the people cast lots for who will move to the city and begin to rebuild the houses there. Jerusalem would once again be a city full of people, and the community would be rebuilt with ten percent of the people from the surrounding towns living there permanently.
God Rebuilds The Priesthood
The final section of this book is found in the last two chapters. In this section, Nehemiah zones in on the covenant community of the priesthood. He goes back in time to discuss this. In the first 26 verses of Chapter 12, he recounts all of the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel one hundred years earlier. Then, he goes back to the completion and dedication of the wall by the Levites after it was completed. Here Nehemiah gives us some insight into how the Levitical priesthood was rebuilt to follow the pattern that David had commanded for worship. He had them dedicate the walls with loud praise and serving in the temple as David had commanded. God was rebuilding the covenant community of the Levitical priesthood so the people could worship God and praise his name as David had established hundreds of years earlier.
Then, when we get to Chapter 13, we see that even though the people had confessed their sins and made a covenant, they failed to keep it. Twelve years after Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, the priesthood was leading the way to corruption. We would think that the priests would have separated themselves from the evil around them, but they didn’t. The priests seem to be held to a higher standard than everyone else because they have greater responsibilities. They are the spiritual leaders of the whole country. But they had failed to be pure, to teach the people, and to keep the temple pure. They, along with the officials were allowing foreigners to keep their stuff inside the temple (13:4), they were failing to make the people uphold the Sabbath in Jerusalem (13:22), and they were among those who married foreign women (13:28). In response to their failures, Nehemiah chased them away, beat some of them, and tore out their hair (13:25, 28). Verse 29-30 summarizes what Nehemiah was trying to do in these two chapters, “Remember them, O my God, because they have desecrated the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work;”
What’s The Message?
Throughout this story, we see Nehemiah being involved and helping to rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah is the end of the historical narrative in the Old Testament. But the people are never set free from Persian rule through him. They would go on to live in great oppression under the Greeks and the Romans. Setting captives free was not the purpose that God had in mind for Nehemiah. He represents the work that God is planning to do in a more significant way through Jesus. Luke 4:18-19 records Jesus saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The text in Isaiah 61 he is reading from goes on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion--- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.” Jesus also promises a new city, initiates a covenant community, and sets up a pure priesthood. But his rebuilding project is grander than Nehemiah’s or Ezra’s because he does what they couldn’t do. Jesus has come to set the captives free.
What Does That Look Like For Us?
What does this mean for us? Can we throw out the book of Nehemiah because it is a failed attempt? If that were the case, we would throw out the whole OT. There is something essential for us to learn in this book. As the people worked to rebuild the city with what God had provided, so we work to rebuild our cities with what God gives us. In Isaiah 61:3-4 we see our response to God sending Jesus is much like the people’s response, “They may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” When we look around, do we see the devastation? If we were to rebuild this city, what would that look like? We are being called upon to rebuild the people around us. Is this the way we view ourselves? When we are reading Nehemiah, do we see ourselves as these people? This whole story is an image of what God’s people will be like in the New Testament. This story is saying that we will be a people with a mind to do the work set before us in spite of discouragement and threats, we will overcome our failures and repent when we are rebuked, we will pay attention to the poor and lowly, we will remove idols from our hearts, we will listen to God’s word and weep, then we will rejoice because we know that “the joy of the Lord is our strength,” we will renew our covenant with him, and we will purify ourselves for priestly service.
However, the book ends with a grave warning. When the people lost sight of their leader, they experienced rest, and they fell back into sin. If we aren’t careful, we will do the same thing. In Chapter 9, the people point out that they recognize what the problem has always been. We rest, and then we fall away. The church is not done working once the building is full, nor is it done working when no one will listen to the truth. We recognize that we aren’t going to save everyone in the world, but we are here to help save as many as God will help to be saved. We are working to rebuild the whole city of Saraland and once that is complete, all of Mobile County. All the while, God is preparing for us a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb 11:10).
We need to focus on our leader who came down to earth to serve us. He did not retaliate when threatened, he finished the work he came to do, and he gave us what we need to follow in his footsteps. Let’s pray for God to restore our city and help us rebuild the lives we interact with daily.