Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 24. Nehemiah
Neh 1:4-6 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying.
Nehemiah is the counterpart book to Ezra except, while Ezra focuses on rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem, Nehemiah is about the rebuilding of the walls of the city, re-establishing it as a city. We could have just cited verse 4 but it makes more sense to include the three verses for they really explain all that follows. The explanation for these verses comes in the one before it: “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.” (v.3) This is it in a nutshell: Nehemiah hears of the terrible physical state of Jerusalem and he is so moved by it that he can only pray and fast and mourn. It is because Nehemiah was so moved that the rest follows.
If we were to follow the same analogy as we used with Ezra, it is not filled with so many ‘fireworks’ as Ezra although the pattern is similar. Chapter 1 is about Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about Jerusalem and getting the king’s permission to return, and chapter 2 is about his journey back and secret inspection of the walls as he desires to make plans but without yet making it public. At the end of that chapter we get the first inkling of opposition that is going to arise against his plans: “But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” (Neh 2:19) Mockery and suggestion of treason are the first shots fired.
Chapter 3 lists off the sections of the wall being rebuilt and who is involved in each section but no sooner has that been done than the threats against them really start in earnest in chapter 4. In verse 1 to 3 mockery is again employed and we see Nehemiah turn to prayer yet again: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face ofA the builders,” (4:4,5) and we then read, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” (v.6) No prophecy, just prayer. And so the conflict carries on: the opposition plot an attack (4:7,8) Prayer was the response yet again (v.9). Yet problems with the work and the possible enemy attack continue (v.10-23) but with obvious wisdom they overcame.
In chapter 5 the next problem Nehemiah had to overcome was an internal one, involving complaints by those who were poor (v.1-5), canceling debts against them (v.5-13), and Nehemiah’s good example (v.14-19). Chapter 6 sees the opposition seeking to distract and possibly kill Nehemiah (6:1,2) but he refused to be drawn away (v.3,4). When this ploy had failed four times, the enemy sent him a letter claiming a plot by those in Jerusalem to make Nehemiah king and to rebel against the king and demanding that they meet together (v.5-8), but Nehemiah resisted and prayed again (v.8,9). He then had to resist false prophecy (v.10-13) and prays yet again (v.14) with the result that the wall rebuilding was completed (v.15). So, although the book has 13 chapters, it is only the first 6 that are given over to the subject of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
So what is significant about all this? Various things come to mind. First walls delineate boundaries of a city. Until the walls were rebuilt the occupants of the city would be vulnerable to intruders. The fact of broken down walls spoke of the years of shame and they were best put behind them. God had brought them back, it was a new day! Walls enabled the city to be identified as a distinct city. Second, this is a story of a spiritually sensitive man. Nehemiah recognized the significance of the broken down walls in this new day and he recognized that this had been God’s city and now it is a shame. It was his heart anguish that provoked action. Third, this is a story of a man of prayer. I have underlined above the word ‘prayer’ and you will see it occurs again and again. Whenever something went wrong, whenever the enemy rose up against them, he prayed. What an example! Fourth, it is a story that involves opposition, those who took it on themselves to mock and deride the people of God and even plot to come against them and then schemed to bring about their downfall. (Yet, it is interesting that in reality it is all talk and physical opposition never occurred!)
Now what does this say to us today? First, are we aware today of the state of the Church, when it is often almost impossible to distinguish between people inside the church and those outside it? The ‘walls’ are the things that should mark out the Church as different from the world around it, in a good way – holiness, righteousness, honesty, integrity, love, compassion, obedience to the word of God.
Second, are they clearly visible and if not, are we moved by that? The challenge is there to ask whether we have hearts that are moved by the honour or disgrace of the Lord’s name as expressed by the church in our land today. It was in that period that the prophet Haggai asked, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Hag 1:4) i.e. you have spent much time on your own homes, but what about the house of God? Yes, that was about the temple but no doubt the same could have been said about the walls and therefore we might ask about the state of the Church today. We are called ‘the temple of the Lord’ so what state is the temple in and are we moved by it?
Third, are we people of prayer for whom it is automatic to turn to the Lord whenever any difficulty arises, any opposition occurs to the outworking of the kingdom of God? Is our prayer life a demonstration of our reliance upon the Lord? Is it the natural direction for us to turn, not only in times of need, but also in times of plenty when we should be grateful?
Fourth, are we aware of the opposition of the enemy, aware that we are in a spiritual battle that will only be won by those who hearts are knit with His, who seek Him regularly and are open and obedient to His leading. Are we aware of the strategies of the enemy – temptation, deception and outright attack – that need countering by faith. These, I believe, are some of the challenges that arise here, challenges that are equally pertinent today as in Nehemiah’s day.