Month: February 2018
Jesus’ kingdom is an upside down kingdom. The first shall be last and the last first, the rich will be poor and the poor rich and those who lead God’s people are meant to serve rather than be served!
All round the world Leadership is prone to abusing its power for personal gain. But not Nehemiah! In stark contrast to those who had gone before him, Nehemiah as the appointed leader in Jerusalem while under Babylonian control, did not take for himself the taxes that he could have taken.
And what was Nehemiah’s reason for being so counter-cultural? Scripture tells us when it records Nehemiah saying; “But I did not do so (place heavy burdens on the people), because of the fear of God” (Nehemiah 5:15).
Friend, right believing leads to right behaving! Fearing God is the beginning of wisdom, it helps us to see with an eternal perspective and helps us to live accordingly.
And good, godly leadership will follow Jesus’ example – serving those they lead, doing so willing as sacrificing servants because that is who Jesus was an is and he is our role model of what goofd relationship.
May we serve others wiith same dedication and upside down focus.
One of the proofs that the bible is authentic and therefore the authoritative word of God is that it is not edited or airbrushed to remove all blemishes! It is authentic in that it is not a triumphalistic version of events but is real about even the sad stuff.
Chapter 4 is a rousing chapter of overcoming opposition by praying and working together in unison, chapter 5 however brings us right back down to earth. Not everything was rosy in Jerusalem with those who had come to rebuild and those Jewish people living nearby.
The rich and the powerful were exploiting their economically weaker brothers, making themselves rich by exacting interest from those who were struggling in a time of famine even ruthlessly demanding that poor people mortgage their fields, houses and sell their children into slavery to pay their way in the midst of a famine! In response the poor rose up with a ‘great outcry’ (vs1). Not exactly a harmonious picture of unity amongst God’s people.
What was needed was leadership! Leadership who would not be pressurised by the rich and powerful but would be willing to stand up against injustice and exploitation, to speak out on behalf of the poor and the weak and the marginalised.
And that’s exactly what we find Nehemiah doing (vs6) – he is outraged on hearing of the exploitation, calls the rich to account, has the courage to challenge the status quo and calls all God’s people together for an assembly to correct the wrongful ungodly actions of extortion.
God honours this courageous step and the wealthy who were in the wrong are silent before their leader; ‘They were silent and could not find a word to say” (vs8). Nehemiah exhorts them to ‘fear God’ (vs9). God honours courageous leadership which acts according to God’s heart for people and so those who had been in the wrong respond saying; “Let us abandon this exacting interest from one another.” (vs10)
Amazingly, Nehemiah doesn’t just call for a stop to the exploitation but he goes beyond calling for restitution from those who had sinned agains their fellow-country men. Saying; ’return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine and oil that you have been exacting from them.’ (vs11).
God’s social justice here wasn’t merely the stopping of exploitation but a form of ‘making good’ restoring back to people what had been taken from them! Remarkably, the powerful and rich commit themselves to such restitutive actions (vs12) even though it was going to be costly to them to do so. This is a move of God! When our attitudes to money and possessions, when our attitudes to what we have done wrong in the past and when there is a willingness to make good what was wrong and to praise God for the change God has brought about in your heart (vs13) – then you know there has been a move of God’s Holy Spirit!
Writing as a white South African, this passage causes me to consider our own nation, our sad history and how stopping evil practices is a good thing, but not necessarily all God calls us to do. Currently, amongst even believers who are white, the concept of ‘restitution’ is like a swear word to some. But when God moves, I believe there can be restitution even with praise and an Amen! Lord heal our land.
I love how the spirituality of the Bible is so practical. All through this chapter there are references to Nehemiah’s response to the opposition to rebuilding from both without and within God’s people.
The pattern that emerges is that Nehemiah’s first response was to respond to criticism/opposition, threats or doubt with prayer. We read of this in vs4 and again in vs9 which follow the pattern from Nehemiah 1:4, 2:4…
But what strikes me in Nehemiah 4 is the word; “AND”.
Some people are so spiritually minded that they are no earthly good! But this is not the spirituality of the Bible.
So with Nehemiah & God’s people they hear of the threats and the mocking of Sanballat & Tobiah and in vs4 they pray AND in vs6 we read “So we built the wall”.
Later in chapter 4:7-8 when Sanballat and Tobiah get angry at the news of the rebuilding, they plot together to come and threaten overthrow those rebuilding Jerusalem.
God’s people under Nehemiah respond to the threat; “so we prayed to our God” (vs9) AND “we set a guard as protection”. I love that!
They didn’t hear the threat and make a plan and then go to God when their plans had failed, no they went to God first in prayer AND they made a plan for protection.
This is attractive spirituality to me, it is trusting in, calling to God first but then it is thoroughly practical too, God gives us the facility of thought and the ability to make plans and it is not unspiritual to do so but is in fact us utilising the God-given talents we have.
So, when you face opposition and threats – whether they come in the form of internal monologue and doubts and fears (see vs10&12), or whether they come from doubt (vs10-11) or opposition from the outside, I urge you to respond first in prayer taking the trouble to the Lord AND then act, do what God’s told you to do, be decisive and use the ability and understanding God has granted you.
Making a plan with the resources you have is not to lack faith but to have faith believing that God has given you what you need to accomplish what He has planned for you.
So, don’t be immobilised but act (Nehemiah made a plan to arm the workers and to organise a strategy to gather if there was an attack, he posted watchmen by night).
Lastly, we read in this passage the crucial role that good leadership plays. There is a moment when Nehemiah stands up and counters the negativity that was draining their faith in God and says;
“Do not be afraid of them, remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, sons, your daughter ” (vs14)
Again, a wonderful balanced spirituality; “remember the Lord…AND fight!” (vs14). And because of these prayers AND action; ‘God frustrated their plan’ (vs15) as a result of their prayers.
PRAY AND ACT!
The Christian life isn’t like a battle, it is one. Christ Followers have an ever present enemy who will resist us, obstruct us and try to discourage us at any opportunity.
Most significant advances for God, whether those be personal in nature or corporate, will attract the attention and opposition of our enemy. In fact if there is no opposition it’s worth asking whether you’re attempting anything great for God in your life!
Nehemiah chapter 4 is an example of kingdom advance being opposed:
- In Nehemiah 2, Nehemiah called for the people to join together in rebuilding the wall
- In Nehemiah 3 we read about the rebuilding project having begun in earnest
- Yet as soon as that rebuilding project had begun opposition to it arose (Nehemiah 4:1-6)
Analysing the Opposition:
Anger/Rage (vs1) – the more you love God and serve God’s purposes the more you anger/frustrate and irritate the enemy. Advancing God’s kingdom through your life shrinks his kingdom’s influence. Don’t try to make people agnry, but anger in others isn’t always a sign that something is going wrong, but rather might well be that you’re doing something right as you serve God.
Jeering/Mocking (vs1-2) – opposition often takes the form of an attack on one’s identity, character, wisdom or ability. “What are these feeble Jews doing?” – said Sanballat. This is designed to humiliate, to influence the perception of others and to insert doubts into the mind and heart of the person being derided. We do well to remember that our enemies name is the “Accuser” of the followers of Christ and so ought not to be surprised when we face such opposition.
Doubt (vs2) – Another one of the enemies favourite tactics is to get into our minds and sow seeds of doubt. “Will they restore it for themselves?”, Sanballat questioned. Such questions can set off doubts that can cause the ones being opposed to back off, pull-back, to reconsider thereby capitulating to the opposition and being controlled by it.
Misrepresentation (vs2) – “Will they finish in a day?”, Sanballat said. At no point did Nehemiah or the Jewish people rebuilding the wall claim that they would be finished in any short-time frame. Opposition often takes the form of misrepresentation and distortion of what one has said or claimed they would do. Unjustified misrepresentation cuts deep as one often isn’t afforded the opportunity to correct misrepresented facts about oneself. Again the strategy here is to pull the rug out from underneath the person being opposed, distracting them from the task at hand and undermining their will to proceed.
Gossip/Slander (vs2-3) – Sanballat is making these comments and accusations in the company of his brothers, the army of Samaria and Tobiah. Opposition often takes the form of slander and gossip. When we face such things, we need to be careful not to get drawn into ourselves sinning too against those who slander against us.
Criticism & Exaggeration (vs3) – Tobiah joined the chorus claiming that the wall they were building was so weak that it would break down with even just a fox walking on it! We need to know who we are, we need to also know what we are doing to allow unfounded criticism to not disrupt our progress or sow seeds of doubt.
Responding to criticism
1. Take it to God! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised…” (vs4) Your Father is large and in charge of everything. You have free access into His presence because of Jesus and your faith in Him. You are the beloved child of the most high God. So take the opposition you face to Him, lay it out before Him because you can and because He loves you.
Their prayer at this point essentially was; ‘defend us God & vindicate us Lord’. When you take criticism and opposition to God in prayer it relieves you of the need to try to defend yourself or vindicate yourself. Letting go of your right to feel wronged helps one to keep focussed on what you have been called to do and to keep focussed on being like Christ in the midst of this opposition.
2. Get back to the job at hand. “So we built the wall” (vs6) After praying, they got back to the work at hand in spite of the opposition. Isn’t that the best response to opposition, to proceed with the course of action you know God told you to proceed with?
We will all face opposition to the mandates God gives us personally and corporately to advance His kingdom in our lives and through our church. May we never get drawn in by the tactics of our enemy, distracted from the task, tempted to sin, but may we take it to God in prayer and may we get back to the job at hand!
What do you do with sections of Scripture that just seem like they are just long lists of people or places, when they seem boring or just plain irrelevant to your life or are just detailed for you to care?
The lists in the bible contain some gems! You just need to take the time to look for them.
In this list we have here in Nehemiah 3 we have a record of all those who responded to the call by Nehemiah in 2:17&20 to rise and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, detailing what they contributed to the rebuilding project and where they worked.
So, what gems are there in this list?
1. God sees everything
The very fact that all these people’s names are here all recorded for us underlines what elsewhere Scripture explicitly teaches – that God sees everything. God sees, He looks for obedience and service (that’s the majority of this list), and God sees disobedience/unwillingness (see vs 5). Our lives and how we live them really matter! The details of our lives matter to God and so it should matter to us. How we respond to the Gospel, how we spend our days is all recorded in God’s books (Revelation 20:12) because God is looking to reward us for obedience and faithfulness with that which He has entrusted to us.
2. Kingdom advance is a community thing!
God’s plan to restore Jerusalem was not a private project of Nehemiah’s. No God mobilised a whole host of diverse people to work together, to literally work alongside one another. In this one chapter the phrases ‘next to him’ or ‘after him’ are mentioned 27x in just 32 verses! The big idea is that this was a joint effort, the purposes of God was achieved in community, partnering with others.
3. Know what’s your responsibility
Verse 28 says of the priests repaired a portion of the wall ‘each opposite his own house’. So often we are waiting for someone to do what we have seen needs doing! “Who’s going to reach those children/mom’s/school’s…..?”, “Who is going to gather the young adults?”, “There isn’t great pastoral care in this church!”, “Who’s going to fix that tap at the church building or door that’s banging…?”
If you have seen something, if you have been sensitised to a gap in your church’s ministry to people may I suggest that maybe you now have a responsibility, a mandate from God to do something about it! Serve where God shows you need, where God sensitises you to things others might not have seen, take responsibility for your portion, a portion of the wall, something you can say over; “I’ve got this, you can count on me!”
4. Don’t ever think we graduate from serving
In verse 5 we read that the novels ‘would not stoop to serve their Lord’. This is not a good situation. It appears as though this group of people thought that helping with the rebuilding project was beneath them, it wasn’t for them. Serving, getting stuck-in in practical ways is something we should never graduate from. After all we serve Jesus who came not to be served but to serve and give His life for us… May we always be like Jesus.
5. Serving in families
In verse 12 we read about Shallum who repaired the wall, ‘he and his daughters’. May we be like this guy and his daughters, families on mission together, serving God as family units! Parents that might mean supporting your child as they want to serve on sound, or set-up or children’s ministry, dropping them off early fetching late to enable them to serve. Children that means sacrificing time with mom or dad sometimes so that they can minister to people or take responsibility, it might mean sharing your home with others who are being ministered to through a Community Group or something of the sort… Let’s be such families that live not just for one another in the family unit but seek to encourage and support one another as we serve God with all of our unique talents and abilities.
So there they are, five little gems in this passage. Did you uncover any more as you read? Never disregard any section of Scripture but ask God to show you the gems.
Nehemiah is a cupbearer for king Artaxerxes of Persia. His job is to taste food and wine set before the king to ensure that he dies in the kings place if there is any attempt to assassinate him by poisoning. As a foreigner in the court of the king he would not have had any position of power or influence, and would not have chatted to the king unless the king addressed him.
His job was to be happy, least they mistook sadness for poison-induced illness and quiet unless addressed.
But Nehemiah can’t hide what’s going on in his heart and in his mind, he is battling to keep up the facade of pleasantries all because his heart has been sensitised by God to the news of the ruinous state of Jerusalem.
The king can see something is wrong and so addresses Nehemiah his cupbearer; “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick?” (vs2)
Nehemiah is terrified, what should he say? This is the king of the marauding captors of Israel wants to know why Nehemiah is sad, but what he is sad about is the very fact that Babylon invaded and destroyed and took Israel captive! Awkward!
Nehemiah courageously or foolishly tells king Artaxerxes the truth about what’s bugging him – probably fearing for his life as he does so. Pause, nothing happens…
Then the king says; “What are you requesting?” (vs4)
Scripture records that Nehemiah multi-tasked at this point, way before Windows & iPhones and Android.
“So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king…” (vs4-5)
Nehemiah knows how he responds now in this moment is crucial, he is still alive after being honest, maybe in this moment he might be granted some favour? Sensing the moment he cries out to God under his breath, in his mind. It might have just been; “HELP!” but Scripture indicates that this is happening as he is simultaneously replying to the kings question.
Nehemiah proceeds to converse with the king and make his bold requests known, he asks for time, for permission and for resources and for protection & favour. And importantly vs8 reports;
“And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.” (vs8)
Scripture acknowledges the source of the favour extended to Nehemiah as being directly linked to Nehemiah’s multi-tasked prayer!
What I have found is that it is not the length or the might of your prayer or even the faith of your prayer that matters! What really matters is the fact that you prayed, and who you prayed to!
What can you learn from this moment in Nehemiah’s life and Nehemiah’s prayer?
Do you know the feeling? There is a moment when you know what you need to do is pray, there is some form of great need that exceeds your resources or decision that outstrips your wisdom…and yet as you get down to pray you feel at a loss for words.
I love considering the great prayers of Scripture, learning from them by observing how these men and women engaged God in moments of great significance. Nehemiah hears a report of the state of Jerusalem, is reminded of the dire situation God’s people are in, under God’s judgement in a foreign nation, with the temple and the capital city in ruins. Nehemiah has no real power or position to affect any change to the situation…
But Nehemiah is in a personal relationship with the ONE who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth (Isaiah 40:22), and so he can call out to God. As he prays we can listen in and learn from one of the greatest prayers of Scripture.
So what can we learn from this great prayer:
- Heart: great prayers come from the heart that has been moved! (vs4)
- Clarity: prayer that starts with a clear understanding of whom you’re praying to fills that prayer with faith and meaning. After all there is no point praying to someone who can’t do anything about the thing you’re praying about! (vs4)
- Character: great prayers petition God on the basis of His unchanging character and the promises He has made (vs5)
- Repentance: in prayer we allow God to reveal what’s wrong in us and we turn to Him by turning from such sin. (vs6-7)
- Scripture: great prayers quote Scripture, the infallible word of God (vs8-9)
- Requests: to pray is to make your requests known to God (vs11)
- Perspective: true prayer helps us to keep things in perspective (vs11) so that even powerful kings become just ‘this man’.
- Action: prayer is not passive, when we pray invariably God reveals next steps which we must take with faith & obedience (Nehemiah 2:1)
Meditate on this prayer of Nehemiah’s and then incorporate elements of his prayer into yours.