Reading for today’s lesson: Nehemiah 4:1-15
Ezra and Nehemiah are some of the latest Old Testament history accounts in the Bible. The end of Chronicles, which records events decades earlier, tells us of the terrible times of extreme crisis that have brought ruin and collapse of the Davidic dynasty. Israel as a nation has been threatened with near extinction through the devastation wrought by Assyria and Babylon. The Northern tribes will henceforth be called “the diaspora,” or scattered tribes. Even in the New Testament books of James and 1 Peter we see this as they open their letters addressing the scattered tribes of Israel who are chosen of God. Not every Jew returned home after the exile, in fact, most didn’t. Jews of the Northern tribes seem to have stayed scattered. Those who did return faced challenges and struggles that we can’t even imagine. Their vision was the golden age of Israel under David and Solomon. Only by God’s help could this be attained. Their mission? To return, rebuild and restore what had been lost. They had the three “R”s, we have the three “S”s. There mission was returning, restoring and rebuilding, ours is seeking, saving, serving.
It has been over 7 decades since, as we read in 2 Chronicles, the fall of Judah, the destruction of God’s temple and the entire city of Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. Like a forest fire that consumes acres of vegetation, leaving bare and smoldering coals and ashes in its wake, the Assyrians and Babylonians had decimated Israel’s homeland. But, like God’s creation of nature, after a fire, as years go by, new life begins to recover and restore the devastation. God’s people will again take root below and bear fruit above, as the prophets said. God brings them blessing again in their land as a remnant returns both to the land and to the Lord.
It is far from easy, though. Snapshots of this recovery are recorded for us in these books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Nehemiah begins by telling of how his heart was broken over the news of the condition of Jerusalem and his homeland and people. He knows that many have returned since Cyrus’s decree, but things are far from going well. He is cup bearer to the great king of MedoPersia, Artaxerxes. Hearing of this sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, God puts in Nehemiah’s heart a longing to return there and rebuild, and restore. Nehemiah is in a position of great influence. And God grants him favor and supply from the king. Also, Ezra, a contemporary with Nehemiah, a scholar of scripture, and a priest, requested also to go to Jerusalem, moved by God. Years before Ezra, Cyrus, who defeated the Babylonians, issues a decree that the Jews may return home and rebuild the temple. Both 2 Chronicles and Ezra tell us about this. And so they did!
As we read to the end of Nehemiah, we see that returning and rebuilding were the easy parts, restoring the faith in a land now occupied with foreigners would take a few lifetimes.
Haggai and Zechariah the prophets, who spurred on the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of the worship of the Lord were contemporaries with Ezra and Nehemiah. These all should be read in conjunction. Lord willing, next year, as we go through the Bible again it will be in chronological order and these prophets and kings will be aligned so you can see how their messages and the history books fit together.
In the reading of Ezra and Nehemiah, we find that it is easier to return and rebuild a temple and a wall than it is to restore a faithful people. Especially, once they become enmeshed with the nations around them. In spite of great opposition, God helped Nehemiah rebuild the wall and set its gates in 52 days. On the other hand, Nehemiah worked 12 years on restoring faithfulness to God and purity of the priesthood and levitical services. Then, after 12 years, he had to return to Persia for a while. What do you think happened while he was away? Just read chapter 13, the last chapter to see.
Coming back to Jerusalem a while later (perhaps some years have passed) he discovered several disappointing developments. Do you recall Tobias and Sanballat in our reading in chapter 4? They were terrible adversaries of the work of Nehemiah. But they remained influential and gained power after Nehemiah went back to Persia. Look at chapter 13:6-7. So, what went on after Nehemiah returned to Persia, and what did he discover some time later when he returned?
First, we see that Eliashib, the high priest, had provided a room for Tobias, in the very courts of the temple of God, and one of Eliashib’s grandsons married Sanballat’s daughter! Tobias and Sanballat! These two Gentile political leaders despised everything Nehemiah stood for and had worked so hard to achieve for God. They had threatened Nehemiah in every way possible. Now, the high priest’s family is allied to Sanballat in marriage and has given Tobias living quarters in the courts of the house of God! (13:4-9)
Second, the services at the Temple had fallen into neglect. The offerings were not being brought in, and the Levitical ministers were not being paid, so they had to go back to working in the fields to feed their families. (13:10-13) When he was first there, Nehemiah had the people swear and they had taken oaths to never neglect the service of the house of God. (10:29-39). My how things change.
Third, the Sabbaths were being broken. The people had opened business on the Sabbaths and were working on the Sabbaths selling and trading and breaking the fourth commandment of God’s law. (13:15-22).
Fourth, many men of Judah, including the priests and Levites, had married Philistines and Ammonites and Moabites and their children were not even able to speak the language of Judah. Nehemiah was so appalled he beat some of them and pulled out their hair! Ezra heard about the intermarriages and sat appalled and pulled out his own hair. So a lot of hair was lost over that one. They ended up putting away their foreign wives and their children. That’s how serious they took this. (13:23-28, also, Ezra chapters 9-10)
Nehemiah, reflecting on these things utters a prayer after each.
Ezra and Nehemiah are like, “Guys! What are you thinking! We belong to God! We must do things God’s way! Why do you think all these bad things have happened to us???” You can rebuild the temple and repair the wall and reread the Law of God, and restore the worship, but getting real repentance and a real and lasting reunion with God in the hearts of the people, well, that requires THEIR commitment. THEY THEMSELVES must be whole heartedly convinced and convicted and committed.
So, that’s a look at how things ended in Nehemiah. So what’s the lesson for us? Where do you see God’s kingdom and righteousness in these two books?
Did you notice all the prayers of Ezra and Nehemiah? All through Nehemiah, this great leader walks in awareness of God’s presence and he keeps seeking God’s strength, authority, protection and guidance. They are seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness! Leadership that leans on God in prayer is THE biblical model. Every great biblical leader, including Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, lead while leaning heavily on God in prayer. Jesus said, “Watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation! The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!” A constant seeking of God’s kingdom and righteousness is essential for God’s people. It starts and continues through God’s word and prayer. This must be modeled by the leaders of God’s household, His Church. I thank God for our leadership and their prayerful work of leading us. Our prayers are just as essential to the spiritual health of this church. Commit to it and never quit!
Did you notice God’s provision for Nehemiah? It just so happened that Ezra, Haggai and Zechariah were also moved by God at the same time with Nehemiah. Also, God granted Nehemiah great power and supply through his relationship with the king Artexerxes. Ezra also was granted authority and given great wealth to bring back, including some of the furniture of the Temple that had been taken into Babylon! Also, there were thousands of returning exiles of Judah including priests and Levites who shared the vision of a restored Temple and city. Sometimes I look at who God has gathered in this congregation and am amazed at the provision of talent and giftedness among the membership here. We are experiencing God’s provision! Just consider who God has brought together in this church family. To whom much is given, much will be required. Let us keep seeking God’s rule and righteousness as we serve His purposes in our lives.
Finally, did you notice the opposition? Ezra and Nehemiah faced an embedded pagan influence that had gained roots even within the high priest’s family and among many of the leading citizens of Judah. Tobias, Sanballat, and Gesher, were chief, but there were many others, including false prophets who worked against this vision of God. Many of the people vacillated and required constant shepherding. Aren’t you glad we don’t ever have that problem today!
Seriously, We have to learn how to work in a time when boundaries are often unclear. “Celebrate diversity,” means what? Basically, don’t draw lines! Don’t set boundaries! Don’t use judgment! Forget all that, and everything will be better! That’s the mantra of today. That is where we find ourselves as a nation and indeed as a western society. In such a season, Christian values of God’s kingdom and righteousness are not welcome. The blurring of boundaries continues and is celebrated as the means to a better world. Such is not the message of the Bible. This is not the truth of God’s kingdom and it is an attack against God’s righteousness.
In such a world we must make choices that are not easy. We can build church buildings and bring in crowds of people while completely missing the message of God. We can think we are making great strides, calling, “Lord, Lord!” To Jesus, only to have Him tell us, “Depart from me, I never new you, you workers of lawlessness.” It’s doing the will of the Father that counts. That is discovered in His word, the Bible. We have to respect the lines God’s word lays out for us and rebuild the broken walls that the Tobias’s and Sanballats want to keep in ruins. Shepherds must know who the sheep are and who the wolves are. It helps if the sheep can recognize the difference as well. Only by seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness through God’s word can these boundaries be understood. Two extremes take place: sometimes the wolves are not recognized and they destroy the flock. Sometimes the sheep don’t recognize and respect one another and division and damage occurs.
This is why we as a church family keep our ears and eyes on the Lord through His word, staying on our knees and following God’s appointed leadership in our church family.
Are you part of that family? Are you willing to walk to the beat of the Kingdom of God and His righteousness even when it goes against that of the world around you?
Jesus came and gave His life on the cross for us. We are in that bad of a shape in sin! God calls us to unity in Christ. A unity where diversity has a heavenly community purpose, not a selfish one. We celebrate Christ in harmony as His family striving to keep unity and above all walk in God’s love, living for God’s will. Will you bow to God in Christ as your king?