My High School English teacher often said of commas, “When in doubt, leave it out.” She didn’t realize she was also affirming a great hermeneutical principle to apply to Biblical authority. When members of the remnant tried to prove their priesthood, “These searched for their entries in the genealogical records, but they could not be found.” It’s not that they were specifically forbidden by name that they could not serve; but there was no mention of their names showing they could. “So they were disqualified from the priesthood.” They were not allowed to serve despite their sincere desire to, because there was no record proving they could serve with God’s approval. “The governor ordered them not to eat the most holy things until there was a priest who could consult the Urim and Thummin” (Nehemiah 7:63-65). The Urim and Thummin was used to determine God’s will; which for us is found in the Scriptures. If one day they discover they had been mistaken, they would change their mind and practice. Until then, their attitude was not, “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Their attitude was, “When in doubt, leave it out.”
My friend, an ex-Satanist to whom I had taught Jesus, returned to his former master and threatened to cut off my head. For some of God’s servants, such threats are carried out. For Nehemiah, such terrorization comes through a death threat delivered by a “friend.”
This threat comes under the veil of holiness and pomposity from the lips of God’s supposed friend. Surely God would intervene to save a servant like Nehemiah, hiding in God’s Holy Place! Sanballet and his ilk hire Shemaiah, son of Delaiah. Sadly this holy man, probably a priest and prophet, chooses the wages of the unholy (Nehemiah 6.10, 12-13; 10.8; 1 Chron.24.18). There will be another man bribed to lead one of God’s servants to his death.
For some reason, Shemaiah is restricted to his house (6.10). Yet in his scheme he is willing to risk leaving if he can persuade Nehemiah to flee to the temple for sanctuary. There is a hint of self-sacrifice and concern on his part; but it is betrayal. He says: “Let us meet at the house of God inside the temple. Let us shut the temple doors because they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you tonight!” (6.10).
Nehemiah hasn’t a death-wish; and yet he claims, “Should a man like me run away?” His point might not be only who he is, but who he isn’t: “How can I enter the temple and live?” (6.11). Although a governor; Nehemiah is not a priest. Some who are fearful and proud, might think, “My life is worth more than ceremonial law!” Or, “I’m too important to God!” Nehemiah doesn’t go there; nor does he tempt God. Nehemiah treats God as holy, accepting He would slay him for profaning His temple. Maybe the enemies hope at least the priests would too. Death is not the worse result: “He was hired, so that I would be intimidated, do as he suggested, sin, and get a bad reputation, in order that they could discredit me” (6.13). Sin is the worst. Added to that, a leader’s reputation is one of his most powerful motivational tools. If Nehemiah is disgraced, the wall will not be completed. Leaders beware of getting your reputation besmirched. Leaders beware thinking you are so important, the rules don’t apply to you; even God’s rules.
Nehemiah prays, “My God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat for what they have done, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the others prophets who wanted to intimate me” (6.14). This prayer saddens me. Nehemiah’s enemies are God’s enemies; and his enemies are God’s “prophets.” Titles don’t make people right or righteous. Enemies can come from those who should be friends.
My friend never followed through with his threat. He did continue to harass and intimidate, in ways I shall leave to your imagination. Our enemies today can be God’s friends from yesterday.
Prayer Challenge: The “church” has friends and leaders who turn; pray not to be one.
Great leaders attract great enemies and are attacked by great means. One of America’s great leaders was Martin Luther King, leading a great cause to break down the walls of inequality among the races. Studying history we learn he attracted great enemies such as J. Edgar Hoover, who stooped to blackmail to discredit and stop him. That was not the first time a great leader is attacked by blackmail.
Nehemiah’s hope of finishing the wall is almost complete: “No gap was left in it – though at that time I had not installed the doors in the gates” (Nehemiah 6.1). Punning that statement, the enemy sees the door of their opportunity still open; but rapidly closing.
Still at it, Sanballat and Geshem send Nehemiah a message: “Come, let’s meet together in the villages of the Ono Valley” (6.2). Is this feigned friendship? Unfortunately pretend friends are too common; maybe we are personally guilty. Posturing is done until they get what they want. Nehemiah knows what they want, “they are planning to harm” him (6.2). So…oh no, it’s plain, they plan to cause pain to Nehemiah in the plain of Ono! Some will say that is feigned humor. Risking sounding judgmental, not everyone is what they appear to be. This proposed trap is located 25-30 miles geographically north of Jerusalem. Such a delay would cost Nehemiah several days even if on the up and up. The true intentions of others can be revealed by how easy or difficult they accommodate us. Do they go the extra mile or require only us to do so? Rephrasing Shakespeare, prudence is the better part of valor. Courage and wisdom to stay the course is needed.
Nehemiah replies: “I am doing a great work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (6.3). Notice Nehemiah considers his work “great.” Four times this message is sent. When someone has more time to waste than we have to work, they might not be the proper partner for God’s great work.
The fifth message stops feigning false friendship. The fifth message is blackmail, in the form of an open letter, open for all to see. This letter spreads the false rumor that all the nations agree Nehemiah and the Jews intend to rebel. Insurgency is the truth, according to the lie. Furthermore, Nehemiah is setting himself up to be king, say the naysayers. In closing the miscreants warn, “These rumors will be heard by the king. So come, let’s confer together” (6.6-7).
Knowing such rumors to be false, Nehemiah counters, “You are inventing them in your own mind” (6.8). Since a wall without doors and gates is not finished, nor much protection; Nehemiah prays, “But now, my God, strengthen me” (6.9). Strength is needed to both physically finish the task and not be emotionally finished by enemies. Some walls need to be built. Some walls need to be torn down.
Prayer Challenge: Pray not to be swayed from great work by feigning friendship or fear.
Pardon me for this political rant, but this tirade crosses political parties. No doubt this diatribe is not only cross-cultural, but cross-national. There is a story that when Leonid Brezhnev became Premier of the Soviet Union, he showed his mother the lavish palace which now served as his home. She asked, “Do the Communists know about this?” My political rant is about political perks. It is too easy to replace the “p” with a “j.” Maybe this definition of politics will help: poly mean many, and ticks are blood sucking pests.
In America, legal perks are now carefully regulated. Not naming names, one governor received “gifts” amounting to $303,550. All legal. Look briefly at the US congress: base salary of $174,000; even though half are millionaires. Then they retire with an average of $59,000 a year if serving 20 or plus years; again, half are millionaires. We could get into much, much more; but this rant is over. Hopefully it hasn’t been meaningless. Let’s compare another politician, Nehemiah, governor of Jerusalem for 12 years (Nehemiah 5.14). What kind of politician was he? Maybe more important is why.
Nehemiah and his associates never eat from the food allotted to the governor (5.15). Not naming names, he says, “the governors who preceded me had heavily burdened the people, taking food and wine from them, as well as a pound of silver. Their subordinates also oppressed the people, but I didn’t do this, because of the fear of God” (5.15). Why, “the fear of God,” is missing today in most politicians. Instead Nehemiah devoted himself, with his associates, to the building of the wall (5.16). Such is not only dangerous and tiring, but something he personally did. Being an example and not a legislator, he didn’t just sign off legislation for the dirty work and hard labor to be done by others. In addition, “we” didn’t buy land (5.16), which means Nehemiah is not interested using his position for wealth and influences those who serve with him.
Because he is a governor, certain expensive obligations exist. Commonly he has to feed at his table 150 officials, plus guests (5.17). Making a grocery list, “Each day, one ox, six choice sheep, and some fowl were prepared for me. An abundance of all kinds of wine was provided every 10 days” (5.18). Of the Jews he feeds, some are associates but others, it has been suggested, are the poor. Nehemiah practices is both godly hospitality and political hospitality. Despite this he again emphasizes, “But I didn’t demand the food allotted to the governor, because the burden on the people was so heavy” (5.18). Here is another reason why he did what he did – concern for the people.
Understandably, he prays, “Remember me favorably, my God, for all that I have done for this people” (5.19). Think Nehemiah would rant against today’s politicians?
Prayer Challenge: Pray, when in a position of power and influence, not to take advantage. Pray for politicians to be like Nehemiah.
To whom should God’s people show more care? Should believers show equal care to believers and unbelievers? What about more to those outside the faith, evangelistically?
Nehemiah 5.1-13 describes the disloyal treatment of Jews to Jews during the reconstruction of the city’s wall. Looking outward at the enemies, the remnant protected one another (4.6-23). Looking inward, the well-off abused the less fortunate. The unifying need for protection somehow coexisted daily with the disloyal want of greed.
Social enmity among God’s people can affect morale and progress. God provides for the poor through the rich, allowing the fortunate to be His blessing. Such is seen in the law of gleaning (Lev.23.22); and the year of Jubilee which returned all property to the original owner and forgave all debts (Lev.25.8-13). Both daily bread and financial forgiveness are a blessing.
Inside and out of the real yet symbolic wall, the poor are starving (5.2); trading tomorrow for today by mortgaging life progressing possessions to buy food (5.3); even borrowing money to pay royal taxes (5.4). The result is a self-inflicted slavery, reestablishing what they had recently escaped via God’s hand (5.5). This time, the oppressors are not foreign, idolatrous, pagan, kings. God’s people are enslaving God’s people.
Nehemiah hears and gets angry (5.6). Anger is not always wrong; it can be very righteous and constructive. One way to control and channel anger is to contemplate then respond, instead of reacting without thinking. “After seriously considering the matter” (5.7), He accuses the rich, “Each of you is charging his countrymen interest” or collateral (5.7). Such usury was forbidden among fellow Israelites; however, God’s people could charge outsiders (Deut.23.19-20). Nehemiah’s indictment against the new enslavers and money-lenders is they are undoing the good their own had accomplished by redeeming these slaves, and paying off their debts (5.8). Ashamed, “they remained silent and could not say a word” (5.8). Silence can be a proper confession when guilty. Nehemiah charges them to stop charging interest, to return the poor’s property, to fear God, and to not invite the reproach of their enemies (5.9-11). Together they take this expensive prayer oath, “the whole assembly said, Amen;” and followed through, actions fulfilling the vow (5.13). To raise the wall, they can’t raze the poor.
Today, “as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal.6.10). “Especially” means those in the same spiritual family; first and foremost. Today we cannot build Christ’s church if we are tearing down Christ’s people.
Prayer Challenge: If we are mistreating anyone, fiscally, emotionally, physically, mentally, or spiritually; then build them by repenting, confessing, praying and acting.
That they prayed is recorded. What they prayed is not. Watching them work with tools and weapons in hand, leads us to an obvious conclusion.
Unrelentingly, the enemy is furiously plotting against God’s people. Their goal is to fight against, and throw Jerusalem into confusion (Nehemiah 4.8). Under Nehemiah’s leadership “we prayed and stationed a guard because of them day and night” (4.9). Enemies don’t relent at our convenience.
Despite the prayers and preparation, morale is not uniformly high. What can be and will be, is never as visually influential as what is. Walking by sight and not faith is easier. In Judah they say: “The strength of the laborer fails, since there is so much rubble. We will never be able to rebuild the wall” (4.10). Confusion over the goal’s attainability can be emotionally debilitating. The enemies say, “They won’t know or see anything until we’re among them and can kill them and stop the work” (4.11). Impending fear can be psychologically devastating. More than just a campaign of words and emotions, the Jews nearby show the present reality of fear, “Everywhere you turn, they attack us.”
Waging a campaign of words himself – but not just words – Nehemiah restores morale. Nehemiah responds with more protection and encouragement: “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the great and awe-inspiring Lord, and fight for your countrymen, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes” (4.14). Recalling the reasons we fight to survive can be uplifting and inspiring.
Read Nehemiah 4:15-23. It is one of the most thorough examples of reliance on God and one another. Notice how their energy is restored because they knew and their enemies knew “God had frustrated” their enemies’ scheme (4.15). When God is on our side, anything can be accomplished. That thought permeates Genesis through Revelation. Under God and with Nehemiah, all work with either one hand holding tools while wearing weapons; or wielding and watching by standing guard for one another. Spiritually speaking, we should follow suit and be prepared for all, never resting from the relentlessness of Satan’s schemes. God, leadership, prayer, tools, weapons, brotherhood and perseverance all will lead to success for God’s people. Today, when doing God’s work we use weapons of righteousness.
Although unstated, obviously these wall builders prayed for protection and perseverance. Against our enemy Satan, that must be our prayer too. Even if others don’t hear us, can they tell what is in our heart and on our lips to our God? Do our actions declare our prayers? Are our prayers in line with our goals? Neither protection nor perseverance is possible with prayer.
Prayer Challenge: Along with “pray without ceasing” add “work without ceasing.”
Not everyone wants others to succeed. Some wish and work for the failure of others for no good reason, maybe even for no reason at all. They are unreasonable in their reasoning. Sadly, they look at the achievement of others as indicative of their own personal failures. Evilly, they are envious of accomplishment. What should we do when others desire our failure? Pray for their failure.
Did that answer startle you? Admittedly it does me. Is such against the code of the Christian? Nehemiah and God’s remnant are rebuilding the wall (4.1). Such a work is the plan of the King of All, and the command of the Persian king, Artaxerxes. When Sanballat the Horonite, one of the inhabitants of the land, hears about this, “he became furious” (4.1). Cruelly, he mocks the Jews before his colleagues and the powerful Samaritans: “What are these pathetic Jews doing? Can they restore it by themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they ever finish it? Can they bring these burnt stones back to life from the mounds of rubble?” (4.2). Tobiah the Ammonite, who is beside him, joins in sarcastically: “Indeed, even if a fox climbed up what they are building, he would break down their stone wall!” (4.3). It is easier to mob hate in a crowd of haters.
Nehemiah discovers this and prays: (4) Listen, our God, for we are despised. Make their insults return on their own heads and let them be taken as plunder to a land of captivity. (5) Do not cover their guilt or let their sin be erased from Your sight, because they have provoked the builders (4.4-5). Nehemiah has not done anything to provoke these haters; and will not act out against them in hatred. Nehemiah goes to God for God to mete out the justice. Nehemiah is wishing on them what God did to the nation of Judah. The result for Judah is national repentance.
Ever pray like Nehemiah, for God not to forgive? Let’s ask some important questions: Whose people are they despising? God’s. Whose people are they insulting? God’s. Whose people are they calling incompetent? God’s. Whose people are they wishing to fail? God’s. These enemies of the Jews are more importantly enemies of God.
While there are times to pray, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing;” Jesus prays this after His enemies crucify Him, unknowingly according to God’s plan. A difference is this; in Nehemiah, God’s plan is still being worked by His people. While we might think it better to pray that the enemies repent; in their unrepentant state the prayer is that their craving for God’s failure will fail. Nehemiah is asking for God to remove the stumbling blocks (Mk.9.42). Just as the enemies were enemies of God when against God’s people; praying for the failure of those wishing our failure is praying for Satan to fail. That is very Christ-like. Who knows, it might even lead to their repentance.
Prayer Challenge: When others wish our failure when doing God’s work, they are wishing for God’s failure. Pray for their failure and eventual repentance.
“Help!” Ever pray that concisely and clearly? A good friend said many of his prayers are just that – a one word exclamation begging for divine intervention.
Most likely Nehemiah has been praying for 4 months before being questioned by the king (1.1; 2.1). Most likely part of his praying is pleading for an opportune time. Privately he is praying, but publically he has never been sad in the king’s presence (2.1). His job description as cupbearer does not include sharing his personal feelings with the king.
Imagine the weariness of having to fake and pretend for all to see – so as to not see – not being burdened. Many have no need to imagine; we have lived or are living this. Then one day, the protected, hidden burden leaks from our soul onto our face, shoulders, and gait. Something is wrong, and now anyone who cares can see.
When King Artaxerxes asks, “Why are you sad, when you aren’t sick? This is nothing but depression,” Nehemiah is “overwhelmed with fear” (2.2). Persian kings were autocratic (Esther 4.11). Coming into their presence and ruining their good mood could be lethal! Nehemiah explains, “May the king live forever! Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (2.3). Do you remember in A Christmas Movie when finally, the mother asks Ralphie what he wants for Christmas? Ralphie: “I want a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle. Oooooooh!” He’s thinking, “That was too direct.” Mother: “No, you’ll shoot your eye out.” Finally Nehemiah has his opportune time. Does he ruin it with such an abrupt answer? We have no idea if there is a pause after this emotional expulsion before the king speaks (2.3-4). Even if it was for one second, we can imagine that one second seemingly lasting way too long. Four months of praying and this is it. No doubt Nehemiah had rehearsed what he would say if given the chance; such is only natural, and I’ve done it myself. Verses 6-8 shows he was prepared.
Providentially the king asks, “What is your request?” (2.4). “So I prayed to the God of heaven and answered the king” (2.4-5). Think Nehemiah tells the king, “Let me get back to you on that after I pray?” Does anyone picture this: Nehemiah gets down on his knees to pray, making the king wait? Or, is this an example of a prayer in a blink of an eye – or with eyes wide open – silently screaming “Help!” or maybe “Thanks!”
Communication to God can be physically demonstrative, prostrate, kneeling, standing, or raising hands. Sometimes it can be solemn, eyes closed, closing out the world. Then there are the times when there is no time for anything but “Help!” If so, pray “Help!”
Prayer Challenge: Prayer doesn’t have to be time-consuming; but understand there is always time for prayer, even if it is just “Help!” or “Thanks!”
Inundated by emails and cell phones, it is nigh impossible to experience the isolation distance brings. Nehemiah is in Persia, the remnant in Jerusalem. When his brother returns he eagerly asks concerning their welfare. Unwanted news (Nehemiah 1.1-3). Being distraught should lead to prayer; prayer is often more than mere words. Nehemiah weeps and mourns for days, his mourning includes fasting (1.4). Analyzing the prayer we see: 1) God is not the source of problem (v.5); 2) Sin is the source of problem (vv.6‑7); 3) God is the source of solution (vv.8‑9). Analyzing deeper we see how to effectively pray:
- Effective Prayer Must Be Directed to God (1.5). We cannot expect God to answer a prayer never said. Never be too proud to pray! God is always the answer.
- Effective Prayer Must Be Preceded By Knowledge of a Need (1.3). Ask people about their needs. Be aware of your own. Nothing is too big or small.
- Effective Prayer is Based upon Scripture (1.5,7-9). Nehemiah knows God’s word, mentioning the covenant, commands and promises.
- Effective Prayer is Persistent (1.6b). It is very likely Nehemiah prays for four months (1.1; 2.1). He prays longer than it will take to accomplish the goal of rebuilding the walls (6.15).
- Effective Prayer is based upon God’s Promises (1.8-9). These promises of God are both positive and negative. God is merciful, and God is just. I find it intriguing that Biblical prayers often include “reminders” of God’s promises.
- Effective Prayer Includes Adoration (1.5). Nehemiah’s thanksgiving is based upon the character of God. Do we ask more than we praise?
- Effective Prayer Pleads (1.6a). Nehemiah knew as we should that God wants to hear us pray. God is the greatest giver.
- Effective Prayer Includes Confession (1.6c-7). As did Ezra, Nehemiah includes himself as one with the nation, and not separate or better than those who sinned the nations into captivity.
- Effective Prayer is Submissive and Dependent (1.11). Anything good we do is because God is working through and for us.
- Effective Prayer Accepts God’s Time Table and Answer. Nehemiah prays 4 months before seeing results. Sometimes God has us wait.
If we feel isolated from God, Nehemiah teaches how to effectively communicate to God. The distance between us and God is as small as a prayer.
Prayer Challenge: Not every prayer needs all the above every time; but such does help us examine our prayers. Are we effective prayers? Pray to be effective.
Big sins often begin with small steps. Returning from exile, never again do the Jews commit idolatry. But they easily could have, had it not been for Ezra. The leaders report, “the Israelite men have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons;” and “the leaders and officials have taken the lead in this unfaithfulness” (Ezra 9.1-2). Lust, sex, and convenience often lead to sin. Big sins often begin with small leaders.
What follows is Ezra’s demonstrative devastation by his tearing his tunic and robe and pulling out some of the hair from his head and beard (9.3). Ezra had just recently arrived. This national sin is not Ezra’s fault, nor is he overwhelmed by his own sin. Repentance often begins with the right leaders.
The Holy Spirit records Ezra’s sorrowful supplication (vv.6-15). Unlike our American individualism, Ezra does not consider himself apart from the masses: “My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heaven” (9.6). Solid leadership often begins with solidarity. There is no blaming God for past suffering: “Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering and open shame” (9.7). Healing often begins with honesty. God is not only the purveyor of punishment, but is the giver of grace: “But now, for a brief moment, grace has come from Yahweh our God to preserve a remnant for us and give us a stake in His holy place. Even in our slavery, God has given us new life and light to our eyes” (9.8). Growth often begins with gratitude. Despite great grace, these survivors again commit the same sins of their fathers, which eventually led to idolatry and expulsion (9.10-15). Being saved does not save us from repeating sins, and possible future punishment (9.14). Even recognizing we have been punished less than our sins deserve and have been allowed to survive isn’t enough incentive to keep us pure (9.13). Too often we want to forget the past instead of allowing it to caution our steps. Warnings often lead to wise decisions.
Following Ezra’s leadership, the Israelites do the necessary and difficult. After Ezra confessed for them, they now confess themselves: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women” (10.2). These great sinners amazingly still believe in the greatness of God’s grace: “but there is still hope for Israel in spite of this” (10.2). They know God prefers forgiveness over punishment! Their confession is accompanied by action: “Let it be done according to the law” (10.3). Their action is accompanied by cooperation: “Get up, for this matter is your responsibility, and we support you. Be strong and take action” (10.4). Big revivals often begin with small steps.
Prayer Challenge: Whether a leader or not, don’t be overwhelmed by the gravity of any sin. In prayer small steps can lead to big changes.