Ezra has been in Jerusalem about 13 years when the account written by Nehemiah takes place.
If Ezra was a spirit-filled teacher, Nehemiah was a spirit-filled builder. Jerusalem needed both of the unique gifts these two men possessed. As in the book of Ezra, parts of the book of Nehemiah are told in this champion’s own words.
Nehemiah is most probably of the tribe of Judah.
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 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.
3 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.”
4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Nehemiah 1:1b-4 niv 1984
Nehemiah received the news that the walls at Jerusalem were in shambles and as a result the exiles who have returned were in great affliction and reproach… Nehemiah 1:3 KJV
I think the enemies of Israel (for instance, the Samaritan Mafia which was still very active) was coming and going in and out of Jerusalem, probably ransacking and robbing the exiles on a regular basis.
Nehemiah is sickened by this bad news – but in God’s economy, it takes only one person to make a difference in the lives of countless others.
Nehemiah decides to go to war with the Samaritan Mafia through prayer. And his prayer is so perfect to teach the acrostic: WAR – 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 2nd Corinthians 10:4 esv It was true for Nehemiah in his century, and the enemies who had a ransacking stronghold on Jerusalem, and it’s true for us and the enemies we battle in this century.
WORSHIP: 5 Then I said, “O Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 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. Nehemiah 1:5-6a niv 1984
ADMIT: I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. Nehemiah 6:b-7 niv 1984
REQUEST: 8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 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.’
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” Nehemiah 1:8-11 niv 1984
And we get to the end of that awesome prayer and we’re suddenly wondering: what man?
Nehemiah adds the pertinent information: I was cupbearer to the king – so we know he’s been praying for 4 months about approaching the king of Persia.
And what’s not said in the narrative of the first chapter is that Nehemiah knows exactly what will give relief to his suffering countrymen. They need protection and defense. They need a wall around the city so that they can live and work unharassed.
I think Nehemiah wrote down his prayer and repeated it over and over again. And I think that as a result of his 4 months of fasting and praying in that particular way, the power of God working within him creates a holy and Divine vision of the wall within Nehemiah. Then he approaches the man whom he knows can make his vision a reality – the king of Persia.
Now, Nehemiah was a trusted man in the Persian Court. He was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, Queen Esther’s stepson. Esther probably has transitioned into more of a queen mother role there in the court – perhaps if Artaxerxes hasn’t married yet, or perhaps if he hasn’t chosen a new queen. However, some commentaries speculate that the queen mentioned in Nehemiah 2:6 could be Artaxerxes’ wife, Damaspia. Like Esther, Damaspia would have had great influence over her husband, the king. Apparently (but not so with Vashti!) scholars report that the women of the Persian royal court were notorious for the great influence exercised [over their husbands]. —NIV Study Bible © 1984 by Zondervon
Now, if it is Queen Esther (and many scholars like George Williams believe that this queen is Esther) that is seated with her stepson the king in Nehemiah 2:6 (and I tend to think that it is as well), her presence would have emboldened Nehemiah to allow his emotions to show.
George Williams wrote about that decision:
To be sad in the presence of the Persian monarch was punishable with death; hence Nehemiah’s fear…Eastern Monarchs being in daily dread of poison, any appearance of agitation in the cupbearer would be regarded as especially suspicious.
—George Williams, The Complete Bible Commentary
But Nehemiah makes the decision to allow his depression to show, the king asks what’s wrong and Nehemiah tells him: Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire? 4The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven…Nehemiah 2:3-4 niv 1984
The king asks Nehemiah what he wants to do about that, and seizing and instant opportunity, Nehemiah prays, and then instantly asks the king for a leave of the court for a time in order to rebuild Jerusalem.
This small episode is so revealing of where Nehemiah is at in his relationship with God. He shoots up a quick prayer, and then spills his guts to the king – with confidence that he’s going to get what he needs in the Lord. And I think because Nehemiah has been in prayer for an extended period of time, his answer comes as quickly as his prayer was given in that moment.
And what I found interesting is that while Ezra had decided against asking for safe conduct, Nehemiah boldly requests it. Not only that, but he wants materials for the rebuilding. Artaxerxes grants all these things to Nehemiah because, as Nehemiah points out: the gracious hand of my God was upon me. Nehemiah 2:8b niv 1984
10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites. Nehemiah 2:10 niv 1984
Sanballat is the governor of Samaria and Tobiah, most likely, was a governor of the Transjordan (Amon region) under the Persians. Their people are the ones who have been sacking Judah and Jerusalem every chance they get. With a new governor over Jerusalem, and one with obvious power to build some protection around Jerusalem, Sanballat and Tobiah are greatly disturbed because they feel threatened. No doubt they like it the way it is. Zondervan adds:
Sanballat and Tobiah were greatly disturbed that Nehemiah had been appointed to restore Jerusalem from its degradation, for they felt that if Judah became strong, Samaria would be relatively weakened.
—Zondervan Bible Commentary
Nehemiah continues his account: 11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. Nehemiah 2:11-12 niv 1984
Nehemiah didn’t tell anybody what he was up to. He had a divine plan to rebuild the city walls, and yet he kept that plan between himself and God – for a time. So instead of provoking the opposition (because there’s going to be opposition), he set out to disarm it behind the scenes, keeping a holy secret as he ascertained the situation there in Jerusalem.
There is much to be said about keeping what God has laid on our hearts a secret until the most opportune time is upon us. Esther kept the secret of her family background and nationality (Esther 2:20) until the time was just right. In the end, it destroyed her greatest enemy.
So under the cover of darkness, Nehemiah and a few men inspect the walls of Jerusalem. At one point during their inspection, the rubble is so deep that his mount cannot pass.
15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. 16The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews o the priests or the nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. Nehemiah 2:15-16 niv 1984
And now I have to switch over The Message for the rest of the chapter:
17-18 Then I gave them my report: “Face it: we’re in a bad way here. Jerusalem is a wreck; its gates are burned up. Come—let’s build the wall of Jerusalem and not live with this disgrace any longer.” I told them how God was supporting me and how the king was backing me up.
Nehemiah is completely honest with his assessment. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, and he doesn’t pull any punches. I think this is an excellent example of how we should be handling corporate failures, whether in the Church or outside of the Church. Oftentimes we so get hung up on trying to be nice about the damages caused by complacency, neglect, or even downright disobedience that it winds up taking us even longer to reconstruct what’s been destructed. Nehemiah doesn’t insult the people, there’s no name-calling for instance, but he doesn’t mince words about their condition either: It’s a disgrace, plain and simple.
So how do the people of Jerusalem react:
They said, “We’re with you…
Finally a little strength and honesty here and makes the people respond in kind.
Let’s get started.” They rolled up their sleeves, ready for the good work.
19 When Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they laughed at us, mocking, “Ha! What do you think you’re doing? Do you think you can cross the king?”
20 I shot back, “The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding. You can keep your nose out of it. You get no say in this—Jerusalem’s none of your business!” Nehemiah 2:17-20 msg
I love Nehemiah’s response here. He is a confident servant of The God-of-Heaven, he knows what his God has asked him to do, and he isn’t about to back down to a bunch of unbelievers who want to continue to walk all over him. That had to have been scary. Like it or not, we’ve all been there. We’ve been Nehemiah, and isn’t easy. However, if we are filled with God’s word, like Nehemiah, we will have a strength that we can’t explain. We will go through things we thought we could never go through. We will get over things that we thought we would never get over. We will take that leap of faith when we don’t know what’s on the other side. We will obey, even when we don’t want to.
Chapter 3 in Nehemiah lists the workers who jumped in and started rebuilding. There is only one exception, and that’s the Tekoa nobles. And as I looked a little deeper into that, I found myself laughing. How often have we experienced folks that think they are above certain labors? I experience it a lot in my line of work. Folks will sort of roll their eyes when they learn there’s a menial chore to be done. They’re horrified for instance if they have to scrub a wall or the bathroom, or even sweep a floor. Some people just won’t do it. These were the Tekoa nobels. Eugene Peterson translated it this way:
the Tekoites … nobles …wouldn’t work with their master and refused to get their hands dirty with such work. Nehemiah 3:5 msg
They thought they were too good, but the Holy Spirit by way of our Sacred Record makes certain to call them out for Eternity on their self-importance.
Paul gave this advice to the Romans: 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12:3 esv
Sober judgment…which I think would be different than drunken judgment, perhaps believing our own hype?
The chapter begins and ends with the Sheep Gate, I think to make clear to us how completely the walls were repaired. They went all the way around not neglecting to close up a single breach.
Breaches…we all got ’em. They are these places in our lives where we’re letting the enemy in and we have to close them up! I’ve got a couple right now that I’m working on. I can tell you this: my actions sometimes don’t line up with what is supposed to be produced in the fruit of the Spirit. For instance, if I lose my temper, where’s my self-control? My enemy can easily worm his way into a situation if I lose my self-control. If that happens, the situation that causes me to lose my temper is going to be even worse. I have to close up that breach in my wall! And with God’s grace, I can do it. I know He’s behind me in this.
Here’s the problem: when we start to close up those breaches, our enemy gets ticked-off.
1-2 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall he exploded in anger, vilifying the Jews. In the company of his Samaritan cronies and military he let loose: “What are these miserable Jews doing? Do they think they can get everything back to normal overnight? Make building stones out of make-believe?”
3 At his side, Tobiah the Ammonite jumped in and said, “That’s right! What do they think they’re building? Why, if a fox climbed that wall, it would fall to pieces under his weight.”
4-5 Nehemiah prayed, “Oh listen to us, dear God. We’re so despised: Boomerang their ridicule on their heads; have their enemies cart them off as war trophies to a land of no return; don’t forgive their iniquity, don’t wipe away their sin—they’ve insulted the builders!”
6 We kept at it, repairing and rebuilding the wall. The whole wall was soon joined together and halfway to its intended height because the people had a heart for the work. Nehemiah 4:1-6 msg
They had a heart for the work…
We have to have a heart for God, because the enemy is coming after us and God is the only thing that strengthens us for the task at hand. Jesus warned us about where our hearts needed to be when He said:
30And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Mark 12:30 esv
7-9 When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repairs of the walls of Jerusalem were going so well—that the breaks in the wall were being fixed—they were absolutely furious. They put their heads together and decided to fight against Jerusalem and create as much trouble as they could. We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
10 But soon word was going around in Judah,
The builders are pooped, the rubbish piles up; We’re in over our heads, we can’t build this wall. Nehemiah 4:7-10 msg
When our enemy figures out that we’re closing those breaches in our lives, he’s going to double down on his attack. He will discourage us and make us fearful. We’ll be led to believe that we’re in over our heads.
11-12 And all this time our enemies were saying, “They won’t know what hit them. Before they know it we’ll be at their throats, killing them right and left. That will put a stop to the work!” The Jews who were their neighbors kept reporting, “They have us surrounded; they’re going to attack!” If we heard it once, we heard it ten times.
13-14 So I stationed armed guards at the most vulnerable places of the wall and assigned people by families with their swords, lances, and bows. After looking things over I stood up and spoke to the nobles, officials, and everyone else: “Don’t be afraid of them. Put your minds on the Master, great and awesome, and then fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” Nehemiah 4:11-14 msg
Above all else, guard your heart…Proverb 4:23a niv 1984
Watch out for the weak places in your life because you never know what will wiggle in. Guard them with holy violence.
I want to show you two things that Jesus said:
12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11:12 esv
Put together with what Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke:
16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. Luke 16:16 esv
Violence and violent in Matthew 11:12, and forces from Luke 16:16 are all the same word, or come from the same Greek word that means:
to force, i.e. (reflex.) to crowd oneself (into), or (passive) to be seized :- press, suffer violence.
—Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary
Bob Sorge in his book Secrets of the Secret Place, which is how he refers to our prayer life, wrote:
Spiritual violence begins in the secret place. It all starts with how you apply yourself to the disciplines of prayer—adoration, gazing, fasting, reading, study, meditation, listening, absorption of truth…One of the most violent things you’ll ever do is wrestle down all the competing elements in your calendar and consistently carve out the time to shut yourself into the secret place.
—Bob Sorge, Secrets of the Secret Place
15-18 Our enemies learned that we knew all about their plan and that God had frustrated it. And we went back to the wall and went to work. From then on half of my young men worked while the other half stood guard with lances, shields, bows, and mail armor. Military officers served as backup for everyone in Judah who was at work rebuilding the wall. The common laborers held a tool in one hand and a spear in the other. Each of the builders had a sword strapped to his side as he worked. I kept the trumpeter at my side to sound the alert.
19-20 Then I spoke to the nobles and officials and everyone else: “There’s a lot of work going on and we are spread out all along the wall, separated from each other. When you hear the trumpet call, join us there; our God will fight for us.”
21 And so we kept working, from first light until the stars came out, half of us holding lances.
22 I also instructed the people, “Each person and his helper is to stay inside Jerusalem—guards by night and workmen by day.”
23 We all slept in our clothes—I, my brothers, my workmen, and the guards backing me up. And each one kept his spear in his hand, even when getting water. Nehemiah 4:15-18 msg
They came together as a holy Body and stayed ready to fight the enemy, with their weapons in their hands – even if they went to get a drink of water! They had a holy violence for the enormous task before them, yet they endured. We can too.
4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 2nd Corinthians 6:4-7 esv
At the end of the movie True Grit, Rooster Cogburn has to face his arch enemy, Ned
Copyright held by Paramount Pictures
Pepper. In confidence and strength Rooster twirls his Winchester lever action rifle above his head and aims the cocked weapon at his foes. He yells, “Fill your hands!” and puts the reins of his horse between his teeth. Taking a revolver in his free hand he rides straight into the Ned Pepper gang, weapons ablaze.
That’s who we can be when we fill our hands with weapons of righteousness, and we’ll build a wall that will stop our enemy!
One man, Nehemiah, influenced a king, and an entire community. It only takes one of us to make a difference.
© 2016, Ta`Mara Hanscom
To prepare for Lesson # 7, please read Nehemiah chapters 5, 6, 7, 8
There will be no worksheet for Lesson # 7
This is part of our continuing series: