If you knew death was quickly approaching, how would you spend your last days? Nehemiah has served as governor for 12 years (Nehemiah 1.1; 5.14; 13.6). The last chapter of this topical biography is saying good bye to its readers; and sounds like what a good last few days should be: filled with corrections, reflections and prayers.
The remnant keeps reading the Law of Moses and learning (13.1-3). Restoration means change is happening and needed. While Nehemiah is back in Babylon (13.6), God’s people start falling apart…again. Rather strange to our ears, Tobiah, a familiar antagonist, has wheedled himself into a storehouse of the house of God making it his house too. Before, this room had been used for gifts for the Levites, singers and gate keepers, along with other provisions for the priests. While that is bad enough, Tobiah is an Ammonite; and not lawfully allowed in the temple (13.1; 2.19). How did this spiritual defilement happen? Tobiah had a relative who was a priest, Eliashib. Nehemiah returns and throws out all of Tobiah’s belongings. Nehemiah is nothing, if not a man of action! He works then prays, “Remember me for this, my God, and don’t erase the deeds of faithful love I have done for the house of my God and for its services” (13.14).
More restoration is needed. This time the remnant is defiling the Sabbath (13.15-22). Instead of keeping it holy, they are treading wine presses on the Sabbath. Again, Nehemiah is a man of action. After reminding his people that this is the same sin their ancestors committed, he ordered the gates closed. Foreign merchants are so greedy to sell their wares, they camp outside the gates. Nehemiah threatens, “If you do this again, I’ll use force against you.” He works then prays, “Remember me for this also, my God, and look on me with compassion in keeping with Your abundant, faithful love.”
Still, restoration is required; this time on marriage. As in Ezra, the Israelites have unscripturally married foreign women. Unlike Ezra who tore his own beard (Ezra 9.3), Nehemiah pulls out their hair (9.25)! Different men, different tactics, same results. These law breakers include a grandson of Eliashib the high priest, who had become a son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. Yes, the Sanballet who had been the main nemesis of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the wall (2.19). Nehemiah works then prays twice: “Remember them, my God, for defiling the priesthood as well as the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites;” and “Remember me, my God, with favor” (9.31).
As the end of our days approaches us, there should not be a decrease in learning, restoration, correction, working and prayer. Part of this is watching whether our associates are leading us away from God or to God. Work and pray.
Prayer Challenge: Pray that we will work every day as if these are our last days. Act in a way so that we can comfortably pray for God to remember us.
Have you prayed the Bible? Have you taken entire books or significant sections as an outline for your prayer? This is amazingly what we see the Levites doing in Nehemiah 9. They had just “read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day and spent another fourth of the day in confession and worship of the LORD their God” (Nehemiah 9:3). A fourth is six hours. We pray what fills our minds. What fills our minds is what fills our time.
- 9.6 –God the Creator – Genesis 1
- 9.7-8 – God’s covenant with Abraham – Genesis 12-15
- 9.10-12 – Israel’s Escape from Egypt – Exodus 1-15
- 9.13-14 – God Gives Israel the 10 Commandments – Exodus 10
- 9.15 – God Provides Manna and Water – Exodus 16-17
- 9.16-18 – Israel Rebels – Exodus 32
- 9.19-21 – Pillars of Fire and Cloud – Exodus, Numbers
- 9:21 – Israel Wanders for 40 Years – Numbers
- 9.23-25 – Israel Inherits the Land – Joshua
- 9.26-28 – Israel cycles through sin and salvation – Judges
- 9.29-31 – Israel, Judah Punished – Samuel, Kings, Chronicles
Starting in v.32, the Levites pray “modern history,” the protection during and return from captivity. All through they confess Israel’s sins and God’s compassion. Although having no right, even though God has brought them back, they lift up their complaint to God because they are still slaves in their land (9.36-37). That is how much they believe in the compassion of their God. Literally, this prayer is a history lesson. Literarily, this prayer is a factual morality play. It is their history with a moral lesson.
Now how can we imitate this prayer? One way is to pray the Bible. More than is comfortable to admit, our lives mirror the Israelites. God created us, freed us from slavery, and provides for us daily manna; and yet we continually get stiff necks and foolish hearts. We could take Jesus’ life and pray about the events and how Jesus overcame, pleading with God to empower us to overcome ourselves. Study a book to pray is another way. Use your Bibles in an imaginative way! A second way is to pray our lives. This might mean our personal life, family, or the historical life of our church and its ups and downs. What is undeniable is this Levitical prayer is one of the most knowledge filled prayers in the entire Bible. To pray like this, we must be filled with knowledge ourselves. To pray like this, we must be humble, having confessed and worshiped. Remember, we pray what fills our minds. What fills our minds is what fills our time.
Prayer Challenge: Whether from memory, or making an outline, imitate this style of prayer. Pray through the Bible by praying the Bible.
Each gospel account makes mention of Jesus being betrayed by Judas. Paul makes mention of Jesus being betrayed in correcting the Lord’s Supper. Is this just a fact to Paul, or it is part of his overall lesson? Unnoticeable in most translations, but the same Greek word is used for Paul who “delivered” or “passed on” the original lesson of the Lord’s Supper; and for Judas who “betrayed” Jesus (1 Cor.11:23). One was faithful in what he handed over, and the other was unfaithful. But that might not be the only comparison or contrast as to why Paul mentions Jesus was betrayed. Notice how the Corinthians were treating the symbolic and mystical “body” of Christ – the body being both the Lord’s Supper and the church. Isn’t that how Judas treated the physical body of Jesus? Both feigned affection, Judas even kissed Jesus. No doubt the Corinthians feigned affection, maybe even greeting one another with a holy kiss (1 Cor.16:20). Instead of the Lord’s Supper, they eat their own supper because they wouldn’t even wait on one another (1 Cor.11:21,33). Both Judas and the Corinthians betrayed Christ’s “body.” Both were guilty of sin (1 Cor.11:27). Also, the structure of the vv.23-26 suggests another lesson. In the middle is a long section on the bread and the fruit of vine (vv.23-25); followed by a short repetition of the bread and cup (v.26). That suggests there is another comparison, or better, another contrast. Judas betrayed Jesus the night of the Supper. But the day we take the Supper, we proclaim. How glorious! How opposite of Judas! So who are we? Do we faithfully deliver the truth of Jesus’ Supper? Do we faithfully proclaim Jesus’ death, resurrection and return? Or, do we betray Jesus and His body through selfishness? If we are not preaching or proclaiming, are we betraying?
Opening our Bibles to Nehemiah 8 shows us that the Jews were opening their “Bibles” (8.1). The result is a revival. “Revival” is used today to describe an event instead of a result. Churches have “revivals” with no revivals. One curmudgeon suggested we shouldn’t call these special meetings “revivals” because a church can’t be revived in just a few sermons. Maybe this was an unintentional indictment of his preaching?! Nehemiah 8 shows a great revival, after just one sermon. Of course, this sermon did last about six hours (8.3)! What makes revival possible?
- Desiring to hear the word of God (8.1).
- Accepting the “Bible” as given by God (8.1).
- Agreeing God gave these words for them (8.1).
- Understanding God could be understood from children to adults (8.2-3).
- Reading the word of God (8.3).
- Listening to the word of God (8.3).
- Respecting the word of God as seen in them standing up (8.5).
After this, the result is a praying revival: “Ezra praised the LORD, the great God, and with their hands uplifted all the people said, ‘Amen, Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (8.6). Revivals can turn into just a short-lived emotional experience if not careful. These Levitical leaders ensure this revival is more. They “explained the law to the people as they stood in their places. They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read” (8.7-8). They understood emotions must follow the intellect, and not lead them.
Frederick Buechner, wrote, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” That bad news is personal and divine. Personally, we are sinners. Divinely, we deserve punishment. What is salvation if there is not first damnation? In this Jewish revival, they experienced the bad: “All the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law” (8.9). Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites also give the good news, telling them to stop mourning because this day was holy to the Lord (8.9). They celebrate (8.10-12). The next day they keep being revived by reading (8.13) and discover new but old truths: “The whole community that had returned from exile made booths and lived in them. They had not celebrated like this from the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day. And there was tremendous joy” (8.17). Revival results in restoration. If we want revival, start by opening our hearts and Bibles.
Prayer Challenge: Today cannot be holy without accepting the gospel. If you need someone to share that news with you, pray God will send someone. If you have accepted it, praise the God who makes you and today holy and keep being revived.
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.”