Week Five – Nehemiah 6 & 7
Poor Nehemiah. I don’t want to discount the fact that he willingly gave up his prestigious position working for King Artaxerxes to travel some 500 plus miles to build a city wall – all because God told him to do so. We all know Mark Lowery’s song “Mary, Did You Know?”. I think there could easily be a “Nehemiah, Did You Know?” song. Nehemiah, did you know that you would be mocked, threatened, bullied by enemies on the outside? Nehemiah, did you know that your fellow Jews within your circle would take advantage of one another and betray the law? Nehemiah, did you know that your enemies would resort to false rumors, intimidation, public humiliation against you? Nehemiah, honestly. Did you really know what you were getting yourself into when you said, “Yes,Lord” ?
Nehemiah more than likely had no idea what was in store for him, but one thing he did know was that God wanted the wall around Jerusalem built. Nehemiah first had a burden on his heart, followed by a passion all of which flowed along the river of determination. He’s not been without opposition on this building of the wall and today’s scripture continues that theme.
Nehemiah 6:1 Then Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and our other enemies heard that I had built the wall. We repaired all the holes in the wall, but we had not yet put the doors in the gates. 2 So Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, Nehemiah, let’s meet together. We can meet in the town of Kephirim on the plain of Ono.” But they were planning to hurt me.
3 So I sent messengers to them with this answer: “I am doing important work, so I cannot come down. I don’t want the work to stop just so I can come down and meet with you.”
Nehemiah receives this invitation to meet with his enemies, but his discernment kicks in and he knows he’s being trapped. They want to meet in a place ironically named “Ono” and Nehemiah promptly responds to the the invite with “Oh no!”
Much like most enemies, that isn’t enough of a deterrent to make them turn around. In fact, they send the same invitation four times and each time, Nehemiah declines. Normally after four rejections, people will give up; but not these guys. Sanballat, Tobias and the others take it to a new level. They send a messenger of Sanballat with an open letter full of some serious allegations. The open letter, or as some translations say, “unsealed” means that it was made public. People used to write letters to the editor of the newspaper and that would be their way of publicly saying what they wanted to say. Nowadays, we’ve got all sorts of avenues we can take to publicly proclaim whatever we choose whether there’s any truth in it or not. A lot of harm can be done when untruths are stated. Even if we find out that the rumor is untrue, somehow that falsity still hangs around. Do you remember years back when there was a rumor that a popular fast food chain used worms in their hamburger meat? That rumor was started 43 years ago and I still can’t bring myself to eat there even though I know the rumor wasn’t true. Rumors tend to stick around especially is there seems to be some credibility to it. Sanballat and the others knew this and they decide to stir the pot.
Nehemiah 6:6 This is what the letter said:
“There is a rumor going around. People are talking about it everywhere. And, by the way, Geshem says it is true. People are saying that you and the Jews are planning to turn against the king. This is why you are building the wall of Jerusalem. People are also saying that you will be the new king of the Jews. 7 And the rumor is that you have chosen prophets to announce this about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’
“Now I warn you, Nehemiah, King Artaxerxes will hear about this. So come, let’s meet and talk about this together.”
Talk about fake news! By making these allegations public, Sanballat is doing his very best to bully and intimidate Nehemiah into stopping the rebuilding and meeting with the herd of enemies. There is a quote “You don’t have to attend every argument you are invited to.” Nehemiah, once again, declines the invite.
Nehemiah 6: 8 So I sent this answer back to Sanballat: “Nothing you are saying is happening. You are just making all that up in your own head.”
9 Our enemies were only trying to make us afraid. They are thinking to themselves, “The Jews will be afraid and too weak to keep on working. Then the wall will not be finished.”
Well, I guess Sanballat and the others realize their tactics aren’t working so they approach it from a different angle; this time in a quite sneaky way. They hire a prophet by the name of Shemaiah who shamelessly tries to trick Nehemiah into hiding inside the temple (of all places) in order to save his life! Oh no he didn’t!?! But Nehemiah has his discernment radar on and he knows that only priests can enter the temple and only at certain times. Because his communication with God is ongoing and his obedience is steadfast, Nehemiah recognizes that this is a false prophecy meant to bring him harm. Nehemiah knew Scripture. He didn’t have to guess or consult anyone else; he already knew what God would have him to do.
But alas, Nehemiah’s opponents don’t stop. The end of chapter 6 of Nehemiah tells us that Tobiah, who is well-connected in the community through his father-in-law as well as his son’s family, continues to write letters of harassment to Nehemiah in order to intimidate him and stop him for carrying out the mission that God has assigned to him.
I’m not sure that all of us can immediately think of some mission in our life that we’ve taken on that compares to building a city wall. I know some who felt led by God to further their education later on in life and they dedicated themselves to doing just that. Others have created organizations that help specific groups of people in need such as single moms, veterans, grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. These organizations can have a huge impact on those in need. These are certainly monumental, tangible things that are news-worthy.
But if you’re like me, I could not think of one major, news-worthy mission that God has called me to do. I thought of a lot of little things in which I was obedient, but certainly nothing that would have given me my own book in the Bible if it were being written today. That can be a bit depressing though, can’t it? We read about Nehemiah (and others as well) who are determined to not only begin, continue, but also finish a great task God has called them to do. Do you ever put yourself in the position of say, Abraham when he was told to sacrifice Isaac, the son of whom a great nation was to be born? Or what about Noah when he was instructed to build the ark for a flood while the sunbeams danced all around him? How about Mary, a mere teenager, when she was informed by Gabriel about the unexpected bundle of true joy? There are many others, of course, but just looking at these three, you have to admit that their journey of obedience was the complete opposite of easy. It wasn’t without grief, mockery, opposition and shame. What they were asked to do was huge!
In today’s world, people who are obedient in tackling the major missions that God has called them face similar obstacles. There still exists the grief, mockery, the opposition and shame. But now you’ve got to throw in political correctness, threats to life, retribution, discrimination and the fear of offending others. Let’s be honest. Many of us don’t feel equipped to deal with all of that; therefore, we’re most likely not going allow ourselves to be in the same ranks as Nehemiah. Does that mean that if God doesn’t call us to the BIG things in life (like building a city wall), that we are useless to Him?
Certainly not! Let me ask you this. What’s your opinion of Shiphrah and Puah? What’s that? You don’t have a clue as to who I am referring? I’ll just bet you do know, but you just might not know them by name.
Exodus 1:15 There were two Hebrew[a] nurses who helped the Israelite women give birth. They were named Shiphrah and Puah. The king of Egypt said to the nurses, 16 “You will continue to help the Hebrew women give birth to their children. If a girl baby is born, let the baby live. But if the baby is a boy, you must kill him!”
17 But the nurses trusted[b] God, so they did not obey the king’s command. They let all the baby boys live.
18 The king of Egypt called for the nurses and asked them, “Why did you do this? Why did you let the baby boys live?”
19 The nurses said to the king, “The Hebrew women are much stronger than the Egyptian women. They give birth to their babies before we can go to help them.” 20-21 The nurses trusted God, so he was good to them and allowed them to have their own families.
The Hebrews continued to have more children, and they became very strong. 22 So Pharaoh gave this command to his own people: “If the Hebrew women give birth to a baby girl, let it live. But if they have a baby boy, you must throw it into the Nile River.”
Now take a wild guess as to what baby boy was later born and placed in the Nile River.
Had it not been for these two women who trusted God and feared God more than they feared the king, Moses may have never survived. Shiphrah and Puah. You may never mention or hear their names again, but I do hope that you’ll think of them every time you hear of Moses. These two women whose names are only briefly mentioned made a choice to be obedient to God having no earthly idea what the fruit of their choice would be.
Each day, we make choices. In fact, take a wild guess as to how many choices it’s estimated that we make on a daily basis. Would you believe an average of 35,000 choices are made by people every day? If you sleep 8 hours a night, that’s an average of over 2,000 decisions you make each hour. First thing in the morning, we decide if we hit the snooze button or not, whether to take a shower or a bath, wash our hair or use dry shampoo, what to wear. Heels or flats? Should we check our emails that came in overnight or wait on that? Oatmeal or eggs for breakfast? Eggs it is! Scrambled or sunny side up? Turn on the TV or listen to music? Have a positive attitude or be grumpy? That’s 10 choices already and the day hasn’t even gotten started good yet!
The good news is that all along the day, we have the opportunity to make choices that are God-inspired. You may encounter someone on the way to work who isn’t a considerate drive and they cut you off. Do you angrily honk your horn, yell at them, throw up some sort of a hand signal? Or do you do like Nehemiah and ask God to recognize the wrongdoing? “My God, please remember Tobiah and Sanballat and the bad things they have done.” Nehemiah 6:14
I’ve got to be honest with you. I’ve never thought to ask God to remember the bad things that others have done. That’s certainly a way to shift any grudge we might have. Another choice that we have opportunities to make is a simple one. Smile at people. Treat people of all walks of life with dignity and kindness. Hold the door open for them. Allow them to take the only parking space close to the store. Simple acts of kindness are choices that we can do to keep the goodness of God flowing throughout our community. Proverbs 3:3 “Don’t ever stop being kind and truthful. Let kindness and truth show in all you do. Write them down in your mind as if on a tablet. Then you will be respected and pleasing to both God and men.”
“When you have a choice to be right or to be kind, choose kind and you’ll always be right.”Wayne W. Dyer
I’m thinking it would be nearly impossible to keep track of all of the choices we make in a day. But I do think it’s possible to have such a relationship with God and so in tune to the nudges of the Holy Spirit so that the choices we do make – whether BIG or small – fall within God’s will for us.
Luke 16:10 “The one who faithfully manages the little he has been given will be promoted and trusted with greater responsibilities. But those who cheat with the little they have been given will not be considered trustworthy to receive more.”
On average, would you say God approves or disapproves of your choices? Nehemiah all along the way made good choices. His choices weren’t always popular, sensible or unopposed. And neither are ours. Nehemiah may have been assigned a great task that could be seen and the progress followed by others while the assignments God gives to us are on a much smaller scale. But they still matter! What we encounter in our life and how we respond is a part of our witness. It’s that moral authority we talked about last week. Don’t we all want to accomplish things in our life that can only be explained by God’s involvement? On our own, there are concrete limits as to what we can do and what we can handle. What inspiration are we to others when we respond to life’s obstacles in an ordinary manner? We should want to be a beacon of God’s extraordinariness just like Nehemiah, Shiphrah and Puah!
We learn in verse 15 of Nehemiah chapter 6 that the wall is completed after just 52 days. Bless Nehemiah’s heart. I’m sure that he’s ready to pack up and go back to living with the king at this point. But his work is not yet done.
Do you recall studying about Ezra? The Israelites went in and the first thing they did was built the altar. Zerubbabel then proceeded with the building of the temple. When the construction of God’s place was done, that’s when Ezra came along and rebuilt the people. He saw that the people had strayed from the laws of God that had been given to them and intermarriage was one of the big hurdles. Jews had married non-Jews and therefore, the holy water had been mixed with tap water, so to speak.
The Jews had been selected by God not because there were so many of them, but rather because they were so small.
Deuteronomy 7: 6 “You are holy people. You belong to the Lord your God. He has chosen you from all the people on earth. You are his very own.”
7 “The Lord did not care for you and choose you because there were many of you. You are the smallest nation of all. 8 But the Lord chose you because he loved you. And he kept his promise to your ancestors. So he brought you out of Egypt by his great power. He brought you back from the land of slavery. He bought you back from the power of the king of Egypt. “
All that God’s chosen people could offer Him was their obedience. He loved them and had chosen them. But they would often not take that seriously. In fact, they took it for granted. Quite honestly, I believe we do the same thing. We don’t have the fear of God that guides us to take Him seriously. He’s often casually thought of and taken for granted until we face a situation that only He can fix. But until a crisis arises, many of us don’t consider our choices and decisions with the idea of obedience to God behind them. It occurred to me years ago that every decision I make is either scoring for God or scoring for Satan. I know beyond a shadow of doubt that I add points to both teams on a daily basis, but my prayer is that each day I score more for God than I do for the enemy.
Now that the walls had been rebuilt, what next?
Nehemiah 7: 1 “After the wall was finished and we had hung the doors in the gates and had appointed the gatekeepers, singers, and Levites, 2 I gave the responsibility of governing Jerusalem to my brother Hanani and to Hananiah, the commander of the fortress—a very faithful man who revered God more than most people do. 3 I issued instructions to them not to open the Jerusalem gates until well after sunrise, and to close and lock them while the guards were still on duty. I also directed that the guards be residents of Jerusalem, and that they must be on duty at regular times, and that each homeowner who lived near the wall must guard the section of wall next to his own home. 4 For the city was large, but the population was small; and only a few houses were scattered throughout the city.”
5 “Then the Lord told me to call together all the leaders of the city, along with the ordinary citizens, for registration. For I had found the record of the genealogies of those who had returned to Judah before”
Nehemiah at this time starts to rebuild the community. But rebuilding them doesn’t mean that just anyone can set up residency there. Rebuilding the community of God’s people has to be more deliberate. It means protecting them and separating them from the non-Jews. That separation was needed in order for them to redefine who they were and Whose they were. In order for this to be accomplished, the authenticity of the Jews needed to be done. Nehemiah then gets a list of those who were either in that first group of exiles or were descendants of those exiles. These are the ones who would have been eligible to reside in Jerusalem. It was done this way so that Jerusalem could be purified.
Years ago, my mom and I took my girls to Washington, D.C. One of the highlights of our trip was visiting the Smithsonian. We were fortunate because at that time, many of the Smithsonian buildings were being renovated so they had condensed many of the more popular exhibitions into one location. It was fascinating to see the Hope Diamond and the Wright Brother’s plane. But my girls and I got downright giddy when we saw Dorothy’s red ruby slippers. There they were. Right in front of us. As many times as we had seen the Wizard of Oz, seeing Dorothy’s slippers was like meeting a real life celebrity. Of course, the girls wanted them removed from the glass enclosure so that they could try them on. They knew how special the shoes were so they even offered to be extra careful with them. I had to explain that that the shoes were so special and so they needed to be protected from sticky fingers, being dropped or damaged, being picked apart (I mean who wouldn’t want to have one of the sequins?) and also protected from being stolen. That glass case allowed us to see the special shoes and know that they were real, but it also kept them protected from being soiled, tainted and mishandled.
In some ways, that was how the wall around Jerusalem functioned. God wanted Nehemiah to build up that wall of protection and put His people there so that others could see how special they were while, at the same time, protect them from being soiled or tainted by outside influences. A few weeks ago we talked about our own personal walls and how we have to keep them up to keep up protected from the enemy. Just as that wall was necessary for the Jews, we too must have walls of protection.
Nehemiah was obedient to God with every choice he made in order to fulfill God’s task. Although we may never directly achieve the magnitude of what Nehemiah accomplished, we still have the ability to be a Shiphrah or Puah with our choices. By choosing to keep our walls of purity and righteousness intact, resisting the fiery darts of the enemy, by choosing to stay dedicated and passionate about the assignments God does give to us and allowing others to see that being chosen by God makes us something pretty special! You’ve got roughly 35,000 chances a day to make God smile!