Posts Tagged 'Nehemiah'

Panic Podcast: The Story of the Old Testament, Conclusion

It’s Wednesday and I hope you’ve all had a good week, enjoying the good graces of the Lord.  Today we’ll bring our quick survey of the Old Testament with a quicker look at two historical books a lot of people overlook.  So open up those Bibles to Ezra and Nehemiah and let’s get the ball rolling.

 

Panic Podcast: 3 Separated Men, Part 1

Good morning, everybody.  Welcome to my place on this really soggy Friday morning.  On today’s program, I want to explore the Biblical doctrine of “separation,” by using Nehemiah as our first example of a “separated man.”

Thanks for stopping by today.  Tomorrow is a very special day of prayer all across America.  Christians from all over the country will be gathering in Washington DC to pray for the nation – for repentance, healing, and unity.  Our church will be open, starting at 9 am, for anybody who wants to join in this great prayer movement.  If you are out and about tomorrow, Saturday, feel free to stop by the church and spend a few minutes in prayer.

 

NEHEMIAH, ANOTHER MAN OF PRAYER

Remnants of part of the walls of Jerusalem restored by Nehemiah,

Nehemiah was a man of prayer, but he wasn’t perfect. When God’s people began their Babylonian captivity, God’s Word to them through the prophets was that it would eventually come to an end; eventually they would be allowed to return to their land. Seventy years after the Captivity began, Cyrus, king of Persia, ended it. By royal decree throughout his empire, all Jews were permitted to return to Judah and rebuild their homes. However, while there were millions of Jews scattered throughout the kingdom of the Medes and Persians, very few wanted to leave and go back home. In fact, there were probably only 65,000 Jews who were obedient to God’s will and chose to go home. The vast majority chose to remain in Persia, where they had built their lives and were enjoying safety and prosperity. One of those who decided to say put was Nehemiah. Clearly, he was living outside of God’s will.

Having said that, we can understand why it would have been so difficult for Nehemiah and others to go back home. He was part of the generation that had been born in Persia; he had no connection whatsoever to Jerusalem. Nehemiah and those other captivity babies had never seen Solomon’s Temple. They may have heard the stories from their parents and grandparents, but the only world they knew was the world of Persia. Nehemiah had been born to educated, wealthy parents and he had a good job: he worked in the palace for the king! He was a high government official.

In spite of that, Nehemiah was not aloof from his people. Though he was outside of God’s will, Nehemiah still loved God and was faithful to Him as he lived and worked in the palace. Nehemiah was also empathic to the those who chose to go back home. There were a lot of problems with resettling in Judah and Jerusalem. Those who chose to go back encountered problem after problem, set back after set back. Nehemiah felt their pain and their burdens were his. God moved on Nehemiah’s heart and Nehemiah decided he needed to do something to help his people, and the very first thing he did was to pray. His prayer is magnificent and we may learn a lot about the nature of prayer as we study his.

1. Concern

Before Nehemiah prayed for the exiles and their return to Jerusalem, he was made aware of just how bad things were for them:

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 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.” (Nehemiah 1:1—3)

The picture Nehemiah’s brother painted of life in Jerusalem was not a pretty one. Things were tough and getting tougher. Now Nehemiah, hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, living in luxury, could have spoken any number of cliches when he heard the news. However, Nehemiah was a man of honor and this bad news moved him:

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)

Nehemiah was so concerned about the plight of his people back in Jerusalem, he couldn’t work and he couldn’t eat. He fasted and prayed for days and days. It took a while, but Nehemiah got a heavy burden for his people.

This is a rare thing in the Church these days. We are very quick to take our needs to the Lord in prayer, as we should, but most of us rarely have a burden for a particular need or situation like Nehemiah had for those who went back to Jerusalem. Do you know what a “prayer burden” feels like? Don’t be ashamed if you don’t; not many Christians do. A “prayer burden” feels like a spiritual weight you can’t shake. It’s a heaviness of heart, a drag on one’s emotions, a spirit of mourning, or a feeling of restlessness that arises because you can’t seem to get your mind off a certain need. This comes directly from the Lord; it doesn’t originate in you or in your emotions. A burden of prayer is the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in a believer.

2. Intercession

Praying for the needs of others, or on behalf of others, is arguably the highest form of prayer. Paul stated the importance of the prayer of intercession like this:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:18)

Notice that serious prayers “for all the saints” are part of praying in the Spirit. What is praying in the Spirit? It’s a prayer that is prayed by the Holy Spirit through an individual. Like Nehemiah, we are not perfect. We don’t always have a lock on God’s will even though we are supposed pray for God’s will to be accomplished! Romans 8:26, 27 helps us understand what it is to pray in the Spirit:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

Nehemiah began his prayer with a sense of reverence:

Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God… (verse 5a)

His was a prayer prayed with the understanding that God was far, far above the world He created. Nehemiah’s view of God was impressive and “awesome.” And yet, as huge and as mighty as God was, He wasn’t so far away as to miss one word of this prayer:

...let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying… (verse 6)

So, Nehemiah’s big and busy God was “attentive” and “open” enough to hear Nehemiah pray. This tells us that as far as Nehemiah was concerned, God may have been the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and the “national God of Israel,” but He was still a personal God who listened to a persona prayer. This is a pretty significant attitude for an Israelite, living in Persia, to adopt. No formal, liturgical prayers for Nehemiah! He slaughtered no animal and made no offering.

That’s not to suggest this prayer was easy an easy prayer to pray.

...let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. (verse 6)

Notice three points. First, Nehemiah prayed “day and night.” In other words, this royal cupbearer didn’t just pray about this situation in the morning before he wen to work or at night before he drifted off to sleep. He literally prayed all the time as he went about his daily duties in and around the palace. He prayed not only from his lips but also from his heart. This is something the great apostle Paul would pick up on in his letter to the church at Thessalonica:

…pray continually… (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

This is a two word (or three word in the KJV) verse that should form the basis of the Christian lifestyle! A mature believer is one who “walks in prayer” all the time. It’s an attitude of prayer; it’s a burden of prayer that is always “in the back of your mind,” wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

The second point is that Nehemiah recognized Israel—all Israelites including himself—had sinned. Sin is something we don’t hear much about in church these days. It’s a very unpopular subject; it is not a topic that draws the crowds. Who wants to hear how bad they really are? The fact is, God wants you to admit how sinful you are; it’s important that when we approach God, we recognize His perfection and our sinful state. However, Nehemiah didn’t stay there, and neither should we:

Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ (verses 8, 9)

The third point of Nehemiah’s prayer is an important point. He acknowledged God’s will concerning the Israelites and he acknowledged God’s promises concerning Israel. In Israel’s case, His will and His promises were two sides of the same coin. The nation had sinned and as God said would happen, they were exiled from their homeland. However, God promised that exile wouldn’t last forever; it would come to an end, and Nehemiah reminded God of that great promise. It’s important to remember God’s promises and to claim God’s promises concerning you.

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

It’s good to remind God of what He said; it can lead to salvation!

3. Submission

This prayer of Nehemiah’s was remarkable and it certainly got God’s attention. But Nehemiah was moved to pray about a particular situation. His prayer was not the end of his burden. He acted upon his prayer; his prayer led him to do something about those he was praying for:

Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man… (verse 11b)

What is this verse referring to? Who is the “this man” referred to? The last sentence of chapter one tells us:

I was cupbearer to the king.

In other words, Nehemiah was about to and speak to the king about the situation. He didn’t just pray about, he was going to do something about it by going right to the top on behalf of his people. The cupbearer will talk to king about how he may be able to help the Israelites who went home.

How many of us pray about something or pray for somebody but then leave it there? Now, sometimes we may not be able to do anything, but, sometimes was can. For example, have you ever prayed for the salvation of a family member or friend or co-worker? That’s a good prayer to pray, by the way. But have you ever approached them about the subject? Have you ever actually shared the Gospel with them?  It’s fine to pray for them, but there are times when “doing” is better than praying.

We all know what Jesus said in Matthew 9:38—

Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

But a lot of us don’t what He said a few sentences later:

Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. (Matthew 10:6)

Our Lord said to pray and ask God to send missionaries out to save the lost, then He told those same people to go and do that very work! This is exactly what Nehemiah did:

…and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:5)

So our cupbearer asked his boss for a “leave of absence” to go and help his people rebuild their city. Nehemiah not only prayed but he did. He submitted to the will of God and went to a part of the answer to his prayer.

(c)  2012 WitzEnd

EZRA/NEHEMIAH, Part 14

Revive Us Again!

Nehemiah 8

For people who don’t find history interesting, Nehemiah chapters 8—11 are a refreshing change of pace. The first 7 chapters of Nehemiah’s book are two parts history with one part of intrigue. Very often, the following 4 chapters are referred to “revival chapters,” because they contain all the elements of a genuine spiritual revival. Students of revivals throughout Church history will readily recognize the four elements:

  • A renewed and sincere interest in the Word of God and a return to expositional preaching;
  • A conviction of sin under the ministry of the Word of God;
  • Fasting, prayer, confession of sin, and heightened awareness of God’s justice and mercy;
  • A commitment to learn and follow the will of God.

When these four things are present in a church, then we might say that church is in a state of revival. Add verse 10 into the mix, and we not only have a revival, but a truly satisfied congregation:

…the joy of the LORD is your strength.

The setting of chapter 8 is found in the last verse of chapter 7:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…

Let’s look at what happened when the people of Judah had finally settled in their towns. It all began with the Preacher.

1. The Preacher, 8:1

They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel.

We haven’t heard from Ezra in a long time; it had been years since the end of his book and the beginning of Nehemiah’s. But Ezra hadn’t been idle during those years. While he may not have been directly involved in Nehemiah’s reconstruction efforts, he was very much involved in his own reconstruction efforts. Scholars generally agree that Ezra had already been teaching the Scriptures to the people of Judah; he was “reconstructing” the Law of God in their hearts. This was important because the generation now living in Jerusalem had no exposure to the Temple, the festivals, or most of the aspects of the religious life of their parents and grandparents; they had to be taught, and Ezra did just that.

It was not accident or coincidence that the people asked Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. Their hearts were ready for more of God and ripe for a move of God.

2. The Place of Meeting, 8:3, 4

It’s hard enough for a modern preacher find a congregation that can pay attention to the Word of God for a mere one hour Sunday morning, but here, Ezra read the Word of the Lord all day, and the people listened!

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. (verse 4a)

So we have recorded for us the first time a pulpit was used in the ministry of God’s Word. It wasn’t the Baptists that invented it, it was the people of Ezra’s day. It was a special elevated platform (the Hebrew means “tower”) built specifically for this purpose, about 300 feet from the Temple grounds.

To most people, a 40 minute sermon seems like an eternity, but the people who had gathered to hear Ezra had been in captivity all their lives; they heard stories about the old days when God moved during the ministry of His Word; they had a taste of His Word and they were hungry for more.

3. The Listeners, 8:2—3; 5—6

A. They were many but not all, verse 2

the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.

Notice who was there to hear the Word: those who could understand it. This tells us a couple of things. First, from the perspectives of Ezra and Nehemiah, some preparations must have been made. Ezra had prepared their hearts for more through his ministry. Perhaps they made arrangements for babies and children to be looked after so as to keep distractions down to a minimum. But also, not every citizen was there; some didn’t show up for “whatever” reason. Maybe they had better things to do that morning, like wash their cars or plant their gardens. The point is, a true revival of faith is brought about when faithful followers of Christ have an interest and show up.

Second, the people that cared enough to show up that day already had an understanding of Scriptures. They didn’t need to be taught more; they didn’t need to be convinced to listen to Ezra. They understood what God wanted of them because they understood the Scriptures.

These things help us understand the nature of a true revival. It starts, not with an evangelist and praise band; it begins with individual believers who are already sold out to God; who are already in His Word and devoted to studying it. To those, revival comes.

B. They listened, verse 3

And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

This verse is quite remarkable for two reasons. First, the people, who already had an understanding of Scriptures because they knew them, listened “attentively” as Ezra read it. They knew it, they could probably recite it, yet they still listened “attentively.” They paid strict attention as they heard the Word being read. This is really astonishing. Very often, we Christians, who are so familiar with the Bible, have the bad habit of skipping over the verses or stories we think we know so well. They were more interested in the book than the preacher; they sought the message, not the man.

The other reason this verse is so remarkable is the fact that the those who gathered to hear the Word read, stayed and listened “from daybreak till noon .” Imagine that! For some 5 hours or longer, the faithful stood and listened as Ezra read the Scriptures. Talk about devotion and reverence. They were really interested; they had been held in exile for 70 years, finally they’re out and they can’t get enough of the Word of God!

C. They were reverent, verse 5

and as he opened it, the people all stood up.

They didn’t have padded pews to sit on. They stood up as Ezra read the Word for 5 hours. They stood up; a sign of reverence and obedience. These people, as a show of their high regard for the Scriptures and of their devotion to its admonitions, “stood up.” No wonder revival came to these people; they were ready for it every way.

D. They responded, verse 6

They people responded in two stunning ways:

…and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!”

When the crowd shouted, “Amen! Amen!,” they were basically shouting to Ezra, “We’re with you! We’re with you!” And the fact that they repeated it twice shows how intense the feeling was behind their affirmation.

Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Their second response was to “bow down.” This phrase occurs only a handful of times in the Old Testament and it’s an undignified posture. These people got down on all fours, with their foreheads on the ground in humble, reverential worship of God.

From the posture, they “worshiped” God. They responded to the demands of the Word by assuming a humbling position and offering God the adoration of their hearts. They yielded completely to the Scriptures with all their being.

4. The preacher

A. He blessed the Lord, verse 6

Ezra praised the LORD

Literally, Ezra the preacher began by “blessing the Lord.” He recognized God as “the great God,” far greater than himself or his ideas. The message of God was great; Ezra was merely a messenger. To “bless” the Lord means to make God smile. When we bless the Lord, we make God happy.

B. He stuck to the Book and spoke clearly, verse 8

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

It seems as though several preachers read and interpreted the Scriptures that day in addition to Ezra. Some scholars think Ezra was the “head reader” and the Levites were assigned by him to paraphrase the Hebrew into the language of the exiles. Some of those born in exile may not have had a good understanding of the Hebrew language, so Ezra made sure that he did whatever was necessary to make the plain meaning of the Word clear, and the people understood.

Ezra and the Levites made the Law of God clear, they did not teach their own ideas. They simply enabled the people to grasp what was being read: the Book of the Law. They did no engage in silly histrionics in trying to make it more interesting. How different from today’s church, where all manner worldly methods are employed in “preaching the Word.”

As R.L. Stevenson correctly observed: “The Bible should be read as freshly as a book, not dreamingly as the Bible.”

Ezra and the Levites were not song-and-dance men, they were not entertainers. Their job was to make the people understand the Word of God. For the preacher, it is not enough simply to read a verse or two and tell humorous stories. It’s not enough for the people in the pews to simply hear the Word. They must use their reasoning minds to understand it; to grasp intelligently the mind of God.

We have to admire Ezra as much as we admire Nehemiah, for he was faithfully adhering to the prophet Jeremiah’s admonition:

Let the prophets who have dreams tell their dreams, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:28)

5. The effect of the Word

A. They wept, verse 9

For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

This was the first response of the people to the Word of God. They were filled with sorrow because of a consciousness that the Law of God had been broken. The powerful exposition of God’s Word will always bring about a deep conviction of sin. Notice, it wasn’t a hymn or worship chorus that brought about the tears, it was the preaching (exposition) of the Word of God. This is what brings about revival in a person’s heart. Revival is not an emotional gimmick, but a conviction of the heart caused by an honest exposition of God’s Word, not a manipulation of it.

This kind of sorrow is not a kind of self-centered remorse, but a genuine sadness of knowing how far from God’s ideal you have fallen and how much you have offended Him. But this kind or sorrow is not meant to last long:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

B. They rejoiced, verse 12

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

When the Ezra and Nehemiah saw the people weeping, they said something that may sound odd at first, but was actually very wise:

This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” (verse 9)

This revival among the people was NOT about the people; it was about God. The day during which the Word was read was a holy day to God; it was set apart for HIM, not THEM. Had the people continued in their weeping and mourning, the day would have degenerated into a wishy-washy self-centered celebration of emotionalism, and that is not what a revival is for. The religious leaders forced the people to get a grip on their emotions and to remember Whose day this was.

Then they told the people what they should be doing:

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (verse 10)

Repentance was to be followed by celebration. God’s Word, at first, may cause sadness and conviction and it may cause a heart to melt or break, but that’s not the end it! The end-goal of godly conviction must always be rejoicing and celebration in the Lord. Or, another way to look at it: mourning because of sin must always precede the joy of salvation.

C. They ministered to those in their midst in need, verse 10

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.

The beautiful words at the end of verse 10 have formed the basis of many sermons: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Now you know the context. Repentance, followed by joy leads to service, which leads to the ability to tap into God’s strength. This is how believers look after each other. Those who have share with those who don’t have, in the strength of the Lord. True revival will lead to needs within the community of faith being met.

The Word of the Lord, read and taught faithfully, will bring about a revival in the hearts of those who hear it IF they are seeking more of the Lord. The Word of the Lord will convict of sin, which will lead to repentance, ending in joy. This idea of “joy” was one reason why John wrote his first letter:

We write this to make our joy (or your) complete. (1 John 1:4)

God does not want any believer to be miserable, He doesn’t want you to have a little bit of fun. God wants His people to have a whole lot of fun around His word and in service to Him. Studying the Word of God and listening to its exposition ought to bring an abundance of joy into your life. If it doesn’t, there is a problem in your life that you need to face up to. Something is seriously wrong with a Christian who has no interest in God’s Word; no interest in reading it, studying it, hearing it preached, and no interest in Christian fellowship. Those are the things that must precede any revival.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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