Week One Nehemiah 1 – 2:8
Before we get started on the lesson, I want to share a burden that’s on my heart. There is a mission in Honduras that my family is invested with. We sponsor children and send supplies when there is a need. Right now, there is a great need to have latrines built. They have no facilities whatsoever. Obviously, this is a sanitary concern. Prayers are needed. Funds are needed, supplies are needed, builders and workers are obviously needed. Later on, I’ll share more details about that if any of you are interested in helping.
Last week we finished up the book of Ezra and we left him mourning and weeping over the sins of the Israelites. He had arrived in Jerusalem to find that they had compromised themselves and had intermarried with non-believers. He was so distraught over their ways and how it hurt God that Ezra was literally lying prostrate in front of the temple, weeping bitterly to the point that those who had committed the sins also wept and asked Ezra to lead them back to pleasing God.
So, up to this point, from Ezra 1 to where we begin today, there have been two sets of Jews that have returned to their homeland of Jerusalem. Under Zerubbabel’s leadership, the temple was rebuilt and the city was re-established. When Ezra arrives with the second set of exiles, the law is reinstituted.
Now we meet Nehemiah. Since last week, approximately 13 years have passed. Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani came with other men to see him and v. 2 of Nehemiah 1 tells us that the first thing Nehemiah asked was how the Jews in Jerusalem were doing. I find it interesting that Nehemiah doesn’t inquire about his brother or immediate family, but instead, asks about the entire Jewish population that had been re-established in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. He asks because he cares.
Verse 3 gives us their response: “They answered, ‘Nehemiah, the Jews who escaped captivity and are in the land of Judah are in much trouble. They are having many problems and are full of shame because the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’ “
From this statement, we learn a few things. The Jews are in a lot of trouble and experiencing many problems. They are full of shame because their city wall is in ruins and their gates have been burned away.
To get us in the right mindset of what’s happening, think back to January 6th of this year. We watched and listened to the minute by minute report of protestors breaking through barricades of protection around the United States Capitol building. As pictures and videos were released, we felt the vulnerability of being attacked. The barriers, the walls of protection were penetrated, and safety and security were of great concern. That describes Jerusalem. What happened in Washington, D.C. went on for hours. This happened in Jerusalem for years.
The lack of fortified walls surrounding their city left the people defenseless against their enemies. There was no protection. Besides that, back in those days, a city with broken walls signified defeated people. The Jews who had returned to their homeland were both in unsafe conditions and humiliated at living in a destroyed city.
When we hear of bad news or a crisis, what is our response?
I ran into someone about a week ago who told me how bad things were in a situation of which I used to be a part. She just shook her head and said, “You can’t imagine how bad it is there.” My response was, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” And I was genuine about it. I really hated to hear that. Around that same time, I read the post from my friend who runs the mission in Honduras. I read about the needs that they had. Prayers, funding, supplies, workers. This is the same mission that is in the process of building an enrichment center named after my mom. Even though I’ve never been there, my heart is invested with the people there. I was struck by the fact that an ordinary convenience that we take for granted – a private and more sanitary place to go to the restroom – was not available to them. Just another reminder of how luxurious our lives are as compared to others.
Now, I mentioned this mission at the beginning of the lesson and I want to ask you what your thoughts were when I mentioned there was a need. Did you feel compelled to help? If so, how? With prayers? Funds? Supplies? How many of you thought you needed to make sure your passport was still valid because you were about to hop on a plane to Honduras to start building latrines? Most of us are quick to offer to pray for people and their situations. We don’t usually hesitate to contribute financially. But when it comes to inconveniencing ourselves and doing more, we don’t entertain the idea at all. When I read of the needs, I jumped to action. I immediately went and sent her the funds to sponsor the building of a latrine and I followed the progress as more and more funds were collected. I also prayed that God would stir the hearts of others reading her post and would also join in. Not once did I entertain the thought of going over there and helping to build. I did want to do something. I wanted to play a small role in fixing the problem. I simply did what was convenient and easy for me to do.
Before any of you offer to help, their goal was met and they have the necessary funds, supplies and workers to carry this through. Mentioning it to you earlier was just a way of getting you to consider your options. When I read her post that the goal had been met and they would soon begin the construction of the latrines, it gave me joy. I can guarantee you, though, that the joy I experienced is nothing compared to the joy of those who will actually be building the latrines onsite and seeing the appreciation of the people in that village. My two minutes logging into Paypal to send her money and the few moments I spent in prayer for them were minimal compared to the effort of others. Here’s the neat thing. The mission in Honduras needed 100 people to donate a certain amount in order to achieve their goal. This was because an anonymous donor had posed a challenge and was matching all funds collected during a period of time. When the time was up, there had been 101 donors. I could not have participated and the goal would have still been met, but because I had participated and I was directly invested in the project, my joy was great when the prayers were answered.
All within a couple of days I encountered two different people with two different sets of problems or hardships. I gave two different responses and therefore, two different results.
One of them I chose to simply say, “so sorry to hear that” and I didn’t give it a second thought until I started working on this lesson; the other I responded with action and became interested in its outcome.
That brings us to Nehemiah. We learn at the end of chapter 1 that Nehemiah had the position of a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. This meant that he was part of the king’s staff and as a cupbearer, he would have been a trusted member as well as a high-ranking official. It was Nehemiah’s responsibility to serve the wine to the king and to ensure that it was safe for the king to drink by doing a taste test to ensure the food or wine had not been poisoned. He would have resided within the kingdom meaning that other than the occasional threat of ingesting poison, he lived a pretty comfortable and cushy life.
When he learns of the state of Jerusalem (a place that he most likely had never been to), this is how he responds: “When I heard this, I sat down and cried. In fact, I refused to eat for several days, for I spent the time in prayer to the God of heaven.
‘O Lord God,’ I cried out; ‘O great and awesome God who keeps his promises and is so loving and kind to those who love and obey him! Hear my prayer! Listen carefully to what I say! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you; yes, I and my people have committed the horrible sin of not obeying the commandments you gave us through your servant Moses. Oh, please remember what you told Moses! You said,
“‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to me and obey my laws, even though you are exiled to the farthest corners of the universe, I will bring you back to Jerusalem. For Jerusalem is the place in which I have chosen to live.’
‘We are your servants, the people you rescued by your great power. O Lord, please hear my prayer! Heed the prayers of those of us who delight to honor you. Please help me now as I go in and ask the king for a great favor—put it into his heart to be kind to me.’ (I was the king’s cupbearer.)” Nehemiah 1:3-11
Nehemiah’s immediate responses? He cried, he fasted, and he prayed. Remember, this is not directly affecting Nehemiah. His response could have easily been, “So sorry to hear that, but I must get back to the king.” But instead, much like Ezra last week, Nehemiah was grieved. His prayer to God is beautiful and pure. He praises God for Who He is and what He’s done. But Nehemiah also recognizes what the Jews have done and their horrible sins. He recalls God’s Word, His promises. And immediately, Nehemiah desires to take action.
What’s interesting is that Nehemiah chapter 2 picks up about four months later. We can safely assume that during those 4 months, Nehemiah continued to pray to God for direction and timing. It’s that timing that gets us, though, isn’t it? When reading chapter 1, we make the assumption that Nehemiah is going right then to speak with the king. But perhaps Nehemiah felt God saying, “Hurry up and wait. The time is not right just yet.” Nehemiah knows the direction he needs to go, but it’s not time. Reminds me of those timed entrance lights that are now on some expressway entrance ramps. There’s an uncomfortable waiting period because you’ve got two lanes of traffic but only one car at a time is allowed to proceed. You know where you need to go, but you have to wait for the right time. I imagine that these four months of waiting were difficult for Nehemiah. We know that he is burdened and troubled over the state of Jerusalem. We know this because in Nehemiah 2:1-2 it reads “In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’ “
After four months, God gives Nehemiah the opportunity to speak up. After four months of patience, praying, fasting and mourning, God cracks the door of conversation so that Nehemiah can have an audience with the king. And it just pours out of him. “I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ “ Nehemiah 2:2-3
Again, bad news is delivered to someone not directly affected by it. But listen to what the king says in the following verse. The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
The king’s response could have easily been, “So sorry to hear that. Hope that things turn around.” But instead, the king asks what he can do to help.
A question is posed and an opportunity is presented four months after the problem is discovered. Don’t you know that Nehemiah had anticipated this moment multiple times over the four months. How often do we play out scenarios in our minds thinking, “Well, if they say this, then I’ll say that. Or this happens, then I can use that to get what I need or want.”
But notice what Nehemiah’s kneejerk reaction is. What does the end of verse 4 say he did? He prayed to the God of heaven. He prayed and THEN he responded to the long-awaited conversation. Do you find yourselves receiving inspiration from God to do something, but when it comes time for action, you neglect to still conversate with Him about it? It’s almost like, “OK, I get it God. I understand what You want me to do. I got it from here. Thanks.” Ephesians 1:11: “In Christ we were chosen to be God’s people. God had already chosen us to be his people, because that is what he wanted. And God is the One who makes everything agree with what he decides and wants.” Everything! Not just the big things – every thing! And for us to know what God wants, we must continue to pray all along the way. Nehemiah prays to God and then speaks to the king.
“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
Note that Nehemiah, a cupbearer, a high-ranking official of the king, is requesting to leave his post to go to a land to which he’s never been to do a job he’s never done. When a problem is presented, most of us do a personal inventory of what we know we can do and we respond accordingly. If you need a spreadsheet done or a t-shirt made, I’m going to be the first to volunteer. But if you need a latrine or a city wall built, I’m happy to make a donation but that’s going to be as far as I go with it. But Nehemiah, he was going all in. He was temporarily leaving what he did know for what he didn’t know. He was leaving behind his routine and familiarity for chaos and uncertainty. He was turning his back on his comfortable life and turning towards God’s uncomfortable plan.
See if you agree with this statement: Most of us are rarely put in the position as Nehemiah was simply because God already knows we are going to say “no”.
I think some of us can be pretty resistant when God calls us to do something that is not comfortable for us. I also think that God knows our answer before He ever places the task before us. But He also knows if we’re going to eventually say “yes”. Consider Jonah. God called him to go to Nineveh, but not only did Jonah just ignore God, he literally ran away to hide from God. It took being inside the belly of a big fish for Jonah to be obedient, but Jonah ends up going to Nineveh to carry out God’s will. But unlike Jonah, Nehemiah upon hearing of the situation in Judah and sensing the burden that God had given him for these people sets out to help.
He not only asks for a leave of absence from his duties as cupbearer, but also asks the king for letters. These letters were for the purpose of safe travels through foreign lands as well as for obtaining timber for the building. And guess what? Verse 9 of Nehemiah 2 reads: “And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.”
Isn’t it amazing what can happen when the hand of God is on you? Opportunities presented, pathways cleared, doors opened. We all have moments in our life when we know the hand of God was on us because otherwise, things wouldn’t have gone the way they did.
Nehemiah knew that the hand of God was on him. Nehemiah was burdened and distressed about a land he had likely never seen, about people he didn’t really know, and about a city in which he didn’t live. We’re not told that Nehemiah was looking for something else to do. He wasn’t searching for a great adventure. He was simply living his life.
“We don’t choose what we will do for God; He invites us to join Him where He wants to involve us.”Henry T. Blackaby, Experiencing God
God sends out those invitations to join Him continuously. How many do we miss because we’re too busy living the life we choose? How many invitations do we turn our back on because we’re not truly invested in the cause? Perhaps we don’t feel ready or prepared to do what He’s asking us to do. He’s not always content with us just praying or just donating and we shouldn’t be content with that either. Sometimes He wants us to actively participate and take action. Will you be a Jonah or a Nehemiah?