Nehemiah, the Exorcised Man

Nehemiah 1:1—4

In the book of Ezra, we see a remnant of Jews heading back home to Jerusalem from Babylon. We read of their history and the story is all very much a matter of facts with a smattering of the story from the personal perspective of the priest, Ezra. Nehemiah covers the same general period of history, beginning about 13 years after the end of Ezra, and pursues this period of Hebrew history even further, but from a different, distinct perspective.

His big concern was for the construction of the walls around Jerusalem. Modern people wonder why there was a wall around Jerusalem in the first place and why Nehemiah was so bent out of shape about it’s constant state of disrepair. The wall around the City of David was both for protection and exclusion. It protected the Jews from enemy attacks and it kept unbelievers out of the city. The wall around Jerusalem speaks to us today of the moral and spiritual responsibility every believer has in their own lives; the responsibility to be ever vigilant; keeping watch that the enemy of our souls doesn’t find a way into our lives and overtake us. The wall around Jerusalem also speaks to the spiritual warfare that exists in the Church of Jesus Christ today. The Church is a place of refuge for believer, a place where they can find protection in God’s presence and the great Wall of the Spirit keeps the enemy out as long as believers are gathering in Christ’s Name.

No wonder Nehemiah was so upset when he got news that in spite of all the construction going on up there in Jerusalem, that wall remained unrepaired. In fact, that subject fills up the first seven chapters of the book. The remainder of the book concerns revival and reform within Jerusalem.

Nehemiah, like Moses before him, was singularly suited to the work God had lined up for him. He was a child of the captivity and was therefore in complete sympathy with the captives in Persia. He was also the king’s cupbearer, a position of great wealth and influence and pre-eminence among his people and the people of Persia. But Nehemiah was also a man of God; a man of great moral conviction and courage. Like Ezra, Nehemiah was intensely devoted to the cause of God.

1. Nehemiah’s position

I was in the citadel of Susa…I was cupbearer to the king. (verses 1, 11)

At the very beginning of Nehemiah’s book, we see that there was a world of difference between Nehemiah and Ezra. Ezra was a priest, but Nehemiah was a man with great political influence and personal wealth. Even though this man occupied one of the highest positions in the Persian courts, he had not sacrificed his morality or religious principles. We have every reason to believe that Nehemiah held that enviable position because of his sterling, trustworthy character.

We know next to nothing about Nehemiah’s family, other than he must have come from an influential Jewish family living and prospering in the Persian, formerly the Babylonian, Empire.

God works like that; He has a way of getting His people into the right places to affect the most good for His people. The “person of God” should always be the most dependable person on the payroll of any business, by the way. But, very often like Joseph, their virtue may become their only fault.

2. Nehemiah’s question.

Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. (verse 2)

Not every Jewish exile returned to Jerusalem. Many Jews, like Nehemiah, had come to call Persia their home. They had started businesses and families and many of them were prospering and, rather than give all that up, they chose to remain in Persia, working, and sending money and other resources home to Jerusalem so the city could be rebuilt.

So, even though Nehemiah remained in Persia, he was a man of prayer, a devout believer, and was keenly interested in what was going on up in Jerusalem. A group of pilgrims, led by a man by the name of Hanani, made its way back to Persia from Jerusalem with news of the reconstruction efforts. Some scholars think Hanani was Nehemiah’s brother, but that’s pure speculation.

Nehemiah is a fine example of how believers ought to behave. We ought to be interested in God’s work. We should always be concerned about God’s House, what’s going on there, what condition it’s in. We should care about the welfare of other believers, whether we have the resources to help them or not. Where material resources may be lacking, there is always the most important resource available to us: prayer! We need to be like Paul, who said this:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. (2 Corinthians 5:14)

Christ’s love for the Body of Christ should compel us to be concerned about the Body of Christ; its welfare, its reputation, and so on.

Like Paul, Nehemiah was deeply concerned about the state of Jerusalem and the people living there, even though he lived a world away.

3. The answer.

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (verse 3)

This was terrible news. It was the worst news Nehemiah could have received. He was not given a pretty picture, and to Hanani’s credit, he hadn’t sugar-coated it. What a pitiful spectacle was God’s cause and the state of His people! The Jews that had returned home were in “great trouble,” which we can understand. It was a Herculean task, rebuilding an entire city from the ground up. But the people were a “disgrace.” Why a disgrace? Because they had failed in their attempts to rebuild the city. The nations around Jerusalem could see this and it reflected poorly on God. After all, was God not responsible for the rebuilding effort? Was the whole restoration of Jerusalem not His idea? The people were failing and they were a disgrace to the cause of God.

Did you know that God’s reputation in the world depends in large part on how you live your life? If you are “a failure” as a Christian, then you bring disgrace upon God, and are therefore a disgrace yourself. Nobody wants to be known as a “disgrace,” yet churches are full of disgraceful believers, living half-lives, making a mockery of their confession of faith, holiness and purity as they recklessly pursue their own worldly agendas, doing whatever makes them feel good, all the while justifying their sin before God and man.

The people up in Jerusalem were suffering greatly from poverty, sickness, and reproach, and the wall of their protection and defense went unrepaired. They were still reaping the fruits of their rebellion and idolatry; their 70 year captivity hadn’t accomplished its purpose.

Weakness and reproach, failure and disgrace will always characterize the people of God when their walls of separation are broken down and the gates of praise smashed. A powerless, praiseless Christian is nothing but a disgrace, a reproach to the Name he bears.

4. What Nehemiah did.

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (verse 4)

This is a pretty phenomenal verse for several reasons. Nehemiah could have gotten angry and criticized the people up in Jerusalem, but he didn’t do that. Nehemiah was not indifferent to the problems of the Jews who had gone home. He showed genuine concern about the state of both the city and the people. Think about it. Thousands of people left their relatively new homes in what was a Babylonian state, now Persia, to embark on a perilous journey back to Jerusalem, a place no Jew had seen for 70 years and almost certainly nobody who returning there had ever seen, to rebuild and to re-establish a Jewish presence there. For these brave Jews, Jerusalem must have seemed like a fable. Yet they went, their faith inspired by Ezra and other people of faith. They survived the trek, they began the rebuilding, they had experienced revivals of faith and felt the unseen hand of God. Yet for all they had seen and experienced, their work had stalled and their faith was faltering.

The Church of Jesus Christ and the cause of God today is in jeopardy. It is being attacked from without by enemies of the Gospel and the plan of God, and from within by worldly, lackadaisical Christians who are so in name only. Is anybody really concerned about the state of the Church and its members? We are all very good about criticizing it, about pointing out its faults and failures, but are genuinely concerned about it?  And if we are concerned about it, what are we doing about it?

What about the believer who is stumbling in their walk with God? Are we concerned about him and his welfare? Or are we neutral about their condition? Today in the Church of Jesus Christ there is a lot of talk but very few tears; there is a lot of criticism but little compassion. Like Paul, many centuries and a dispensation later, Nehemiah knew how to weep for the state of his people. Like Jesus, Nehemiah was moved with compassion over their condition.

Notice how this man addressed God: “the God of heaven.” That was not a mere title of honor or respect, we see that phrase often in both Ezra’s writing and Nehemiah’s, and it is used with a tinge of sadness. God no longer dwelt among His people, as in earlier days. Thanks to their sin and rebellion, God had removed His presence from His people. Ezra knew this; Nehemiah knew this, yet they instinctively knew that God still cared for His covenant people. As we read his prayer, we see Nehemiah doing what Daniel did: he confessed the sins of his people. Of course God was well-aware of them, but this man of God assumed the place of ultimate humility before an all Holy God of the universe to plead the case of a weak and wayward people, whom he loved so much and whose cause was vitally important to him.

God is looking for people like Nehemiah; people who do not have a casual relationship with Him, people who have more than a passing concern for their church and their fellows. God is looking for men and women who are so in tune with His will for His people that they grieve as He grieves when but one follower of Jesus Christ struggles in their faith. God is looking for prayer warriors not armchair quarterbacks. Are you willing to step up and plead the case for your church’s weaknesses, rather than criticize? Are you willing to show love and compassion for a wandering believer, so that you’ll weep and pray for them, as Nehemiah did for his people?

There aren’t too many Nehemiah’s in the church, but we sure do need them now more than ever.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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