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Living in the Ruins

Last Sunday we began looking at the story of Nehemiah. Well, that’s not entirely true. We actually didn’t quite get to the story of Nehemiah. Instead, we looked at the history and the background to the story of Nehemiah – which I think will come in handy as we go through this series.

But basically, we started way back at the formation of the nation of Israel. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant or an agreement with them. In that covenant, we saw how God promised that He would pour his blessings on them if they followed his ways and obeyed the terms of the covenant that God had made with them. On the flip side of that, we also saw how, if they choose to abandon God – going their own way and breaking the terms of the covenant –  then God would send curses upon them and they would uprooted and exiled from their land.

So with that in mind, we took a quick snapshot of the history of Israel, and we saw both sides of those promises coming to pass. When Israel and it’s kings obeyed God and followed His ways – they enjoyed peace and prosperity on every side. It was the golden years of Israel. However, as Israel & it’s kings choose later to abandon God and worship idols and do things their own way – calamity overtook them. They ended up being invaded by other nations, defeated, uprooted from their homes and exiled into captivity – just as God had promised.

However, this was not a surprise to God. In fact, as part of that original covenant, God also promised that when all this would happen (as he knew that it would) – that when they found themselves in exile because of their disobedience, if they were to turn back to God – if they were to confess and repent of their sin – then God would forgive them and would restore them to their land.

And this is exactly what is happening in the lead up to Nehemiah. While in exile in Babylon, the Israelites began to see how they had sinned and had turned away from God – and so they confessed their sin and began to repent. And as a result, God kept his promise once again and began to restore them to their land.

The Bible records three major excursions of Israelites from Babylon back to Jerusalem.  After 70 years in exile, the first group of Israelites was led by a guy named Zerubabbel. He brought about 50,000 Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to once again worship and serve God there – just as God had instructed centuries ago. So that’s what they did – they resettled around Jerusalem and then they rebuilt the temple.

80 years after that, another group arrived – a much smaller group – probably around 2,000 people – and they were led by a scribe named Ezra. Ezra’s main purpose in returning to Jerusalem was to teach the people the Word of God – which is another thing that hadn’t been happening for centuries. Back then, not every person had access to a Bible like we do, and so without a teacher like Ezra to teach them, much of what God had said in his Word had been neglected and forgotten. And so Ezra was actually commissioned by King Artaxerxes of Persia, to return to Jerusalem and teach the Israelites the ways and the laws of God.

Then so that brings us to Nehemiah. Nehemiah would arrive with a third group of Israelites about 13 years after Ezra – but that’s getting ahead of the story. We’ll probably get to that part in couple weeks.

But now that we’ve got the big picture of what’s going on, I want to start looking specifically at Nehemiah. How did he get involved in all of this? What’s his story? So to find that, we’re going to start reading in Nehemiah chapter 1.

I think we’ll read through all 11 verses of chapter 1 right away just to give us an overview – and then we’ll break it down into some bite size pieces afterwards as we go through it. So Nehemiah chapter 1.

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

3 They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

4 When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. 5 Then I said,

“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7 We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

8 “Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. 9 But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

10 “The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. 11 O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.

Nehemiah 1:1-11

So that’s the introduction to Nehemiah. And I want to start by looking at the last part of this last verse – verse 11 – because even though it’s pretty short and sweet and to the point – it actually tells us a lot about who Nehemiah was.

In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.

Now to us, that might not sound very impressive. At first glance, we’d probably think that Nehemiah was a waiter of sorts. His job was to bring the king his wine. But Nehemiah was much more than just a waiter.

As the cup-bearer to the king – your job would be to taste the food and drink before it was served to the king to ensure both the quality of the food – but more importantly – to make sure that it wasn’t poisoned. If someone was going to try to kill the king by poisoning his food, he’d have to go through the cup-bearer first. So you can be sure that a cup-bearer would have been hand-picked by the King – after all, the king is trusting this person with his life. You sure don’t want a cup-bearer that could be persuaded or bribed to “forget to taste a meal” before it was served to the king. You want a cup-bearer that you know is loyal and trustworthy.

And so naturally, the king would choose a cup-bearer that was one of his closest and most trusted friends. And for Artaxerxes, that was Nehemiah.

The Bible doesn’t give us any information as to how Nehemiah, a Jewish exile, became the most trusted companion of the King of Persia – and really, it probably doesn’t matter how that happened… But just for fun, I’d like to throw out a theory…

In doing my research this week, I put together a timeline of the key people and events of the exile and return to Jerusalem – and I discovered something interesting that I had never really thought of before.

Let me show you the timeline: [Timeline of the Exile Period]

Now just as a disclaimer, these dates are taken from several different sources. And of course, specific dates are pretty hard to come by for some of these people and events – some we’re pretty sure about, others are more like educated guesses – but based on what I’ve read – here’s a general timeline of what we’ve been talking about.

What I found interesting was that the timeline of Esther completely overlapped with the timeline of Nehemiah and Ezra.

Now most of you know the story of Esther. Esther was a young Jewish girl living in exile with her Uncle Mordecai in Susa (which you might noticed is where Nehemiah was). To make a long story short, the King of Persia wanted a new queen, and so he called for a beauty contest of sorts and Esther was chosen to become the next queen. Well, all of that was part of God’s providence, because later, when a man named Haman tried to exterminate the Jews in the Persian empire, Esther was able to use her influence with the king to save the Jews from destruction. As a result, the Israelites were saved and Esther’s Uncle Mordecai become the prime minster of all of Persia.

Well Nehemiah’s story happens not too many years after this – probably within about 30 years or so.

Most scholars believe that Esther’s husband – King A-ha-suerus – was actually King Xerxes – many Bible translate it as such. And if that’s the case, the King Artaxerxes in Nehemiah’s story would have been either Queen Esther’s son or more likely, her step-son.

In any case, Esther would have most certainly known Nehemiah. Perhaps he was even a close relative of hers (maybe a nephew or something) or maybe a family friend? We don’t really know.

But you can imagine that with a Jewish queen Esther and Jewish prime minister Mordecai, many positions and jobs in the palace and other ‘royal’ places would be filled by Jewish people – so its very easy to imagine how the Jewish exile, Nehemiah and the Prince Artaxerxes could have met at the palace and maybe even grown up together.

Now of course, that’s all just educated guessing – but it certainly gives us a good way to understand how a Jewish exile could become the most trusted companion of the Persian king.

But anyway, regardless of exactly how he came to that position – we know that Nehemiah was much more than just a waiter – he was part of the king’s inner-most circle of friends and as such, would have been a man of considerable power and influence.

So with that understanding of who Nehemiah was, let’s start working our way through his story. Verse 1 & 2…

These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 1:1-2

Now keep in mind that this was about 13 years after Ezra had gone to teach the Israelites in Jerusalem all about the laws of God and how God wanted them to live. And Ezra had been sent and commissioned to do that by King Artaxerxes. And so it’s quite possible that Nehemiah had been part of those initial conversations with the King 13 years ago when the King determined to send Ezra to Jerusalem. At the very least, Nehemiah would have been well aware of what was going on.

It’s also quite possible that he personally knew some of the people who had returned to Jerusalem with Ezra. He may have even had family that went. It seems at least his brother Hanani was good friends with some of the people who had gone and had now returned.

So when those guys came back from Jerusalem and came to visit Nehemiah in Susa, naturally, Nehemiah was curious to know how things were going. Back in those days, I imagine it was pretty rare to hear a first-hand account of events that took place in a city that was a 4 month’s journey away. So, of course, Nehemiah want to hear a report from these guys who had just returned.

However, the report was not good.

3 They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”

4 When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:3-4

Now I’ll be honest – for most of my life, the way I understood Nehemiah – this seems like a bit of an over-reaction. Why in the world is Nehemiah mourning and weeping over a city that he had likely never even been to – a city that had been destroyed nearly 150 years ago?

I mean, do you and I weep over the cities that were bombed in WW2? Not likely. I know I don’t! This information –  that the wall of Jerusalem had been torn down and it’s gates destroyed by fire – was not new news! That happened well over a century before. Nehemiah would have learned all about it when he was a kid in school.

So it took me a while to understand what Nehemiah was so upset about. But as I took a closer look at this story – I realized that it wasn’t so much that the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed – but that the people of Israel – his friends, his family, his countrymen – were still living in the ruins.

They were in great trouble and disgrace because they hadn’t rebuilt. They were still living in the shame of what had happened 150 years ago. I mean, imagine living in Jerusalem at that time.

I know it’s hard to picture, so here’s a visual aid.

This is a photo of some folks returning to city in Germany after WW2. Can you imagine living there among those ruins for the rest of your life? Seeing the burnt out, bombed out buildings and the rubble every day?

Or to bring it a little closer to home – here’s a photo from Slave Lake in 2011…

This was Slave Lake just a few years ago after a forest fire swept through and destroyed about 1/3 of the town. Imagine putting up a house and living in the midst of all that.

Now today, both that german city and Slave Lake have rebuilt. The rubble has been cleared away and new structures have been put up. But in Jerusalem – 150 years later – the people were still living in the ruins.

And you’ve got to remember that at one time, Jerusalem was the glory of Israel. It was the city of David – the Holy city. The one true God of the Heavens had once made his home there. Jerusalem was the symbol of how God had chosen the Israelites as his own special people – how he made them into a great nation – how He had blessed them and conquered their enemies.

But now, everyday, as the Israelites saw the broken down walls or the burnt out gates, they were reminded of own their failings as the people of God. There were reminded how their ancestors had abandoned God and refused to follow his ways and as a result – God allowed their city to be destroyed and the people exiled.

So here they were, 150 years later, the Israelites were back, but were still living in the shame of what they had done. They were living in the ruins. God had forgiven them – He restored them to their land – but they were still living in the disgrace of the past.

And just as a little side note – don’t we often do the same thing? Don’t we often live in the disgrace and the shame of our past? We live in the ruins instead of rebuilding.

Now I realize that the consequences of our sin and the sins of others are far-reaching and have deep, lasting impacts on us and the people around us. And we can’t just brush that off. But at the same time, God doesn’t want us to live in the ruins. I shared 1 John 1:9 with you last week:

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 1 John 1:9

If we do our part – that is we confess and repent of our sin – then God promises He will do his part – and that is to forgive us and cleanse us from all wickedness.

We may still have to deal the consequences of our sin – but we don’t have to live in the shame and the guilt of our sins anymore. We have been forgiven. We have been cleansed. God now see us as clean and sinless – He sees us as righteous as his own son Jesus.

You see, all of our shame, all of our guilt, all of our sin – was taken from us and placed on Jesus when He died on the cross. He took all of that junk on himself and in exchange, offered us his perfect righteousness.

Because of Jesus, we don’t have to live in the ruins any longer – we can rebuild and start again.

And I think that’s what Nehemiah was so upset about: The Israelites had been given a new fresh start, but they were still living in the ruins. It broke his heart. Verse 4 tells us:

4 When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:3-4

Nehemiah’s compassion and empathy for the people of Israel in Jerusalem is pretty incredible.  I mean, you’ve got to be pretty concerned for someone to spend days mourning, fasting, and praying for them and their situation.

It kinda makes me wonder, how little do we care about the people around us that we see suffering and living in ruins (as it were.) Maybe in our world today where we are constantly bombarded with bad news, I wonder if hearts grow callused to the pain and suffering of others and we lose our ability to feel compassion and empathy for others.

There’s a old Keith Green song that you probably don’t know – but the first line of it goes “My eyes are dry – my faith is old. My heart is hard. My prayers are cold.” And I think for me anyway, that’s too close to the truth. When’s the last time I cried when my neighbour was hurting? When’s the last time I wept for someone who was living in the ruins? Do I care enough for the people in my neighbourhood to spend days fasting and praying for their salvation? Sadly, too often, like the song says… my eyes are dry. I don’t weep or mourn for others like I think I would if truly loved them like God does.

I think we need to ask God to soften our hearts – to break our hearts with the things breaks his heart, so that, like Nehemiah, we grow so concerned for others, that we actually do something about it.

Cuz that’s what happened with Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s soft heart led him to weep, to mourn, to fast, and to pray for his fellow Israelites – and all that made him passionate about changing their situation.

And we get the first hints of that in Nehemiah’s prayer starting in verse 5:

Then I said, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7 We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.

8 “Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. 9 But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’

10 “The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. 11 O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

Nehemiah 1:5-11

You can see he has an incredible compassion and an empathy for these people – praying for them night and day, and then coming up with a plan of action, as we’re going to see in the next chapter. Whatever it is that he’s planning to do to fix this situation – it’s obviously going to be something significant, because it requires the favour of the king to pull it off.

Now at this point in the story, we don’t yet know what Nehemiah has in mind, but it’s clear that his concern for his fellow Israelites has stirred him to action.

And I love that He doesn’t look down on them for their failings – but rather, he lumps himself in with them. He says…

I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7 We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. Nehemiah 1:6b-7

He doesn’t just pass the buck and find someone else to blame – He takes responsibility. He confesses his own sin and the sin of his family. He asks God to remember his promise of forgiveness and then he asks for help to make things right.

Which, by the way, is a great pattern for us to follow. We talked a little bit about confession and repentance earlier – and this is a great example of how to do that.

Confession means you take responsibility for your sinful actions – asking God for his promised forgiveness. Repentance means you ask God to help you make things right. Any time that we sin, this is the pattern that we need to follow.

But that takes a soft heart too. A callused heart can ignore the pointy promptings of the Holy Spirit when we do wrong. But a soft heart is responsive towards God. Someone with a soft heart knows immediately when they have done wrong and they immediately take steps to make it right.

So to wrap up this morning, perhaps our take away is to ask God for a soft heart. It’s pretty easy for our hearts to grow cold and callus. Callus and indifferent towards others – and even callus and indifferent towards God. And if that’s the case, maybe we need to ask God to soften our hearts. Ask him for a heart like Nehemiah’s – a heart that weeps when others suffer and a heart that quickly responds to the promptings of God. And if we ask for that, I believe God will give that to us. In Ezekiel, God’s says to the Israelites living in exile – as part of their restoration when they repent, God says…:

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. Ezekiel 36:26

And God will do that for us too. Ask him today for new, soften heart.

Next week we’re going to see how Nehemiah’s soft heart was responsive to God and how his compassion and empathy for the Israelites in Jerusalem turned into actual action. He didn’t just feel bad for them – he actually did something about it.

You can watch this message series on youtube – Penhold Church of Hope Youtube Channel

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