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Edington Chapel: Devotion and study notes -
Sunday 23rd August by Andrew Farquhar
Job done? Nehemiah 6:15
These sermon notes began life as a sermon on Nehemiah 6:15-7:73, when I thought I was preaching on 9th Aug, before I realised that Tom Oaks thought he was too! I have remodelled and expanded my notes to use this morning and look at the book as a whole: I think it’s very helpful, when we’re working our way through a book chapter by chapter, to take stock and look at the big picture. In particular, I want us to focus on Nehemiah himself, as a biblical character – it’s really challenging, I think, to look at his life and learn from it. Let’s begin with 6:15: “So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days” (6:15). This is a monumental moment; it is worth us putting ourselves in Nehemiah’s shoes to help us try and appreciate just how much it meant to him. In Chapter 2, he had told the Jews, priests, nobles, officials and others, after inspecting the walls, that whilst Jerusalem lay in ruins, with its gates burned with fire, its inhabitants continued to be “a reproach” (2:17 NKJV) / “be in disgrace” (NIV) / “suffer derision” (ESV). They they responded with, “Let us rise up and build” (2:18) and when the rebuilding almost instantly attracted strong opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem, he had said to them that the walls WOULD be rebuilt because “The God of heaven will make us prosper,” (2:20). The opposition grew in intensity, as they realised Nehemiah meant business, and they tried every conceivable tactic they could think of to stop the project being completed. Yet God frustrated their plans (4:15) and fought for his people (4:20).
Those labouring with Nehemiah worked hard (4:6, 21), despite having to think as much about defence as about rebuilding (4:21-23). And in 52 days, an incredibly short time, the job was done. The builders Nehemiah had galvanised for the work had seen that he wasn’t repeating empty words when he had said that the good hand of God was upon him/them; Nehemiah’s prayers – and it is clear from reading the book that he saturated the whole project in prayer – had been answered. Moreover, all those who had opposed him saw that the work was complete and even they knew, however grudgingly, that God had been behind it all: And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16). He had sought to repeatedly honour the LORD and trust that he would help him and he had – all could see that despite everything seemingly being against him, the walls were rebuilt. It’s so easy, in moments like this, to think the job is done.
If I was producing a film about the life of Nehemiah, I would be tempted to end it with 6:16. We like happy endings – our films nearly always end well don’t they?! I can just imagine the soundtrack that would play as the last portion of the wall is complete and we see Sanballat, Geshem and Tobiah look dismayed and Nehemiah jump for joy, before the credits appear and we all leave the cinema with that “feel good” feeling! But there’s still around half the book to go – the job isn’t done. There’s still plenty for Nehemiah to do. He doesn’t do what Alex Ferguson did on 8th May 2013. Two weeks earlier, Manchester City had lost to Spurs and Manchester United had beaten Aston Villa, which meant they had won their 13th Premier League title with Sir Alex in charge. And on 8/5/13, he announces he will retire, which meant that in 4 days’ time, he would take charge of his last home game at Old Trafford and lift the trophy after the game. He went out on a high. He timed it perfectly. Man United even managed to win that game in the 87th minute so everyone could say it summed up his whole career. Perfect! But for Nehemiah, it’s not about timing his exit perfectly. There’s a job to be done and it’s not finished yet. Why isn’t the job done?
I’ve got 2 answers to this question: 1) The persecutors haven’t gone away 2) The people haven’t gone away 1) The persecutors haven’t gone away Though Nehemiah’s enemies knew the walls had been completed against all the odds, because God had blessed the work (6:16), they still kept opposing all Nehemiah was doing and they did so slyly and subtly. Much opposition came from people who might at first sight have appeared to be on Nehemiah’s side: it included nobles in Judah (6:17-18) who were allied with Tobiah, who has already opposed Nehemiah time and again in this book. Some influential people in Jerusalem were even related to Tobiah and his name and the name he called his son, Jehohanan (6:18), could have given the impression that he was a believer in Yahweh. He had ensured that many important Judeans had given Nehemiah good reports about him (6:19) and his son’s marriage had made him seem like an insider, not an outsider. He had gone out of his way to look like a friend of the Jews, not an enemy. But Nehemiah is watchful and sees through the smoke screen. He has to avoid being intimidated by the letters Tobiah sent (6:19). Even in the last chapter of the book, Tobiah is still up to his usual tricks (13:4-9). Nehemiah can’t stop being watchful. And he has to put plans in place to keep the gates well-guarded by men he could trust (7:1-3) I read John Bunyan’s The Holy War about a month ago. (Well, a modern English version of it. Feel free to ask to borrow it if you like – it’s very easy to read and deeply challenging.) At the very end of the book, Emmanuel (Jesus) tells Mansoul (a Christian believer) why this side of glory, a Christian finds himself/herself in a battle with the world, the flesh and the devil.
God could have ordered things so that once we trust in Jesus as our Saviour, we are no longer in a battle but he hasn’t. Why? What would your answer to this question be? Here’s what Emmanuel says on the last page of Bunyan’s book: “It is to keep you watchful and alert … to cause you to prize my noble captains and my mercy. It is so that you may never forget the deplorable condition you were once in … However they may tempt you, remember that my purpose is that they shall drive you, not further off, but nearer to my Father, making you eager to petition him and keeping you small in your own eyes.” If we are Christian believers this morning, the world, the flesh and the devil are against us and life is war – God has ordered it so for our good. Let’s remember that he calls us to a life of watching and praying this side of glory… …to keep us prizing all he has given us to help us in the battle, …to keep us remembering how awful sin is and how great his mercy has been in forgiving us of all of our sin, …to keep us drawing near and nearer to him in prayer as we seek his help in the battle …and to keep us humble. We are weak and vulnerable and if it wasn’t for the sheer unmerited grace of God, the victory would not be ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. Given Jerusalem has enemies, Nehemiah has to strategise (7:3) and the people need to keep watch. It is an astute man, who sadly is all too well aware that there are many who should be with him 100% who aren’t as faithful and God-fearing as Hannani and Hananiah (7:2). What a support, given all the opposition, to have them. 2) The people haven’t gone away It’s worth going back to the very beginning of the book:
“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." (1:1-3) When his brother arrives in Susa, what is Nehemiah desperate to find out? Answer: how the Jewish remnant in Jerusalem is getting on. The state of the walls and the gates are a mark of the fact that things are not going well at all. And so, as we know, Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem with the King’s permission, and seeks to rebuild the walls, but as a means to an end – not as an end in itself. It’s no good having pristine walls without people inside them: “The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt” (7:4). So Nehemiah assembles the people – he organises and enrols them. He is pro-active in finding the book of the genealogy of those who first retuned to Jerusalem and he then uses it to help him register everyone. Nehemiah is a thorough man, with an attention to detail, and he needs to make sure that all is done in accordance with the Law of Moses – e.g. he needs to make sure the priests are those prescribed to be priests and he needs to make sure that everyone lives in their allotted spaces (Chapter 7). It’s very striking that Nehemiah knew God had put it in his heart to assemble the people to enrol them (7:5). He’s not just meticulous and thorough because he’s that way inclined – again and again in this book, he is aware that God is with him and is helping him. And he can see that in order to lead the people, they need to be sure of their inheritance and their calling – where they are to live and who they are (individually and corporately). The heart-searchings and rededications that follow in Chapters 8-10, such as what Steve Clarke looked at with us last week, when the people heard the Torah being read and explained under the spiritual leadership of Ezra and the Levites (8:1-8), all happen because Nehemiah has assembled and enrolled them by genealogy first. It wasn’t just a teacher of the Bible like Ezra who was about God’s work – Nehemiah was too, as God put it in his heart to find the old book of the genealogy and to assemble and enrol and organise the people.
The people were in desperate need of leadership – practical and spiritual. And this need doesn’t go away. Even after they’ve rededicated themselves and paid fresh attention to the Law of Moses in Chapters 8-10, there’s still huge problems Nehemiah has to address: e.g. he has to take decisive action when he realises that the Levites aren’t getting what they should, the people are trading on the Sabbath and Jews are marrying Gentiles (Chapter 13). People need leading and people can be hard work! There’s a reason why in most companies, those who are responsible for managing people get paid more – people aren’t easy! Basil Fawlty’s hotel would have been so much easier to run if there weren’t any pesky people around to spoil all the systems and organisational structures that had been carefully put in place!!! Yet Nehemiah kept leading the people, despite all their faults, and knew that in nitty gritty activities, he was serving God (13:14). His concern for the covenant people of God, which started the whole book off in 1:2, has energised all he’s sought to do throughout the book. And the book ends quite unremarkably (13:30-31) – nothing particularly dramatic. It’s a case of getting on with the job of serving, however unglamorous the tasks might be. No doubt as one who was on the lookout for reliable, faithful people to entrust responsibility to (e.g. 7:2, 13:13) Nehemiah sought to ensure that when he wasn’t around, there was still leadership in place as the job was never done – while people are still around, this side of glory, it’s never a case of “job done”! It’s vital at this point that we remember what Nehemiah was so keen to ensure those around him remembered – it was God who gave him success.
Nehemiah would not want us to focus on him. God was ensuring the Jewish remnant survived, in faithfulness to his covenant promises to Abraham. Nehemiah would have liked the way J S Bach wrote the letters “SDG” at the bottom of a piece of music once he was satisfied with it: Soli Deo Gloria (for glory to God alone). So let us not leave our study on the life of Nehemiah without being challenged to live to the glory of God alone. If he had stayed in Susa and continued in his life of privilege and greatness, God would have raised up someone else to build the walls. If he had gone back to Susa once the walls were built, God would have raised up someone else to lead the people. If he had slowly become less focused on the people and their needs, and more absorbed in his achievements and his success, and had missed what was going on and e.g. not stopped the people intermarrying, God would have raised up someone else to stop his people blending into the world so much that they were no longer a distinctive people under the Law of Moses waiting for their Messiah. Yet because he remained faithfully committed to God and his people and his ways and his work, he was a much-used servant. May God keep us battling on, aware of our enemies and aware of the needs of his people. Amen.