Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 26. Heart Cries
Neh 1:3,4 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.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven
In the previous study we noted that it is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430, and we briefly noted that Ezra starts off with God prompting king Cyrus to allow the Jews to return to the land to rebuild the Temple, in accordance with the word He had spoken through Isaiah a century before, and more recently through Jeremiah. Dates are significant in all this, so please try and cope with them all.
The start of Ezra identifies the time as “the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,” (Ezra 1:1) which was 538BC. The temple rebuilding appears to have started in the Spring of 536BC (Ezra 3:8) and was completed in 516BC (Ezra 6:15) The traditional view of dating has Ezra arriving in Jerusalem in 458BC and Nehemiah arriving in 445BC.
The start of Nehemiah indicates a date of 446BC when Nehemiah first heard about the state of Jerusalem. So, looking at the big picture, Cyrus starts the temple rebuilding rolling in 538, but Nehemiah doesn’t get the city rebuilding under way until 446 which is roughly a ninety-year gap.
Now the interesting thing about Jeremiah’s word, which was, “This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jer 29:10), is that that seventy years was not tied to specific events. I have already suggested that between the destruction of the temple and the completion of its rebuilding, was exactly seventy years, but the words here “for Babylon” may indicate that the time frame is more to do with Babylon itself. Now Nebuchadnezzar first invaded in 605BC and started the deportation of the Jews then, and the first returning Jews seem to have come somewhere about 536/537 but such dates have a certain measure of leeway and so it is possible that the seventy years refers to the start of the deportation to the start of the return which again appears to be just about seventy years.
Varied Expectations: Now here is the point. These studies are all about ‘expectations’ and we saw in the previous study the possible absence of any expectations in respect of Jerusalem after the Exile in those who hadn’t heard Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word, and the possible long-term expectation of those who had heard it and believed it. So the initial return was accompanied by plans to rebuild the temple – and that happened. Then comes standstill and what we haven’t noted yet is the state of the city itself. This is where we come to the start of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah Moved: Nehemiah was in Susa, which was the major city of Elam (Neh 1:1) where King Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1) reigned, possibly the winter retreat city of the Persian kings. When some of the men return from Jerusalem he questions them on the state of Jerusalem (v.2) and is told, “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.” (v.3) From his descriptions in chapter 2 the city is still in ruins. Yes, the Temple has been rebuilt but it is a single restored building in the midst of a demolition site. This is the city of God and it has remained like this for almost ninety years. Nehemiah is devastated and “he sat down and wept” and for some days he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (v.5) It is only then that he composes himself enough to pray (see 1:5-11) and only after he has prayed does he risk speaking to the king (see 2:3-5).
One Different Man: So, back to our expectations. Everyone else for the past ninety years had focused on the wonder of the Temple being rebuilt – and it was wonderful! – but the fact was that the city of God, Jerusalem, was still a landscape of rubble, and was clearly going to stay like that. Now what is intriguing about all this is that we are told that the Lord prompted Cyrus to start the Temple rebuilding, but the city rebuilding was left until one man heard and was moved to tears by the state of the city. Everyone else seemed content to live with the fact of a devastated city; Nehemiah was the one person moved to bring change. How many times, I wonder, does history pivot on the moving of one person?
Gap Fillers: As I said, what is intriguing is that the Lord didn’t command the rebuilding of the city. It was almost as if He was watching and waiting for someone to catch His heart and do something about it. Years before, Ezekiel had prophesied, “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezek 22:30) Previously he had prophesied, “Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD.” (Ezek 13:3-5) Psa 106 describes how Moses had been a ‘gap-filler’: “So he said he would destroy them– had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.” (Psa 106:23) Moses had stood before the Lord to intercede for His people. The prophets of Jeremiah’s day were supposed to fulfil that same function, but they failed to do that.
And Us? Here is the point. The Lord looks for those who will look with His eyes on His people and intercede on their behalf before Him. Nehemiah saw the city in his mind’s eye when told about it, and wept before the Lord for it. How do we feel about the declining state of the Church in the West? As I have asked before, do we see a living body that is empowered by the Holy Spirit who testifies in power with revelation, wisdom, prophecy and insight and who back it with works of healing? Is the ‘body’ full of grace and truth? Does it so reveal its Lord that people glorify Him (Mt 5:16)? If not, are our hearts moved in anguish to pray?
Years before Haggai had prophesied to the people who had paused up on rebuilding the Temple and challenged them, “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. why are you more concerned for your materialistic lives than for God’s house – which in our case is the ‘church’? Are we happy with the state of the church that we see in our land? Really? Is it impacting the world and seeing the world being purified by its presence? Sadly the state of the western world is a downward spiral and the Lord looks for men and women who will stand in the gap, men and women who are not afraid to stand out as holy, utterly different, filled with goodness and love, people of faith who will cry out to the Lord for His people and this world, people who will make themselves available to Him to go and take part in the ‘rebuilding’. May He find that in you and me.