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The One True God of Nehemiah

This morning we continue looking at the story of Nehemiah. And if, by chance, you’ve missed the last couple of weeks, let me try to quickly catch you up.

The story of Nehemiah takes place roughly around 450 BC. It’s one of the last stories in the Old Testament (chronologically speaking) before we pick it up the storyline again around 400 years later in the New Testament with the birth of Jesus.

So Israel has already had a lot of history by this point. Way back 1000 years before Nehemiah, God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and had established them as his own special nation. They were to be a holy people – set apart from all the other people of the world – as God’s special representatives. Of course, they didn’t always do very well at that. Although there were some people and some eras where the Israelites did follow God wholeheartedly, as we look at their history as a whole, we find they often disregarded God’s instructions – worshipping other gods and really, just acting like every other nation around them.

Now when God had first chosen them as his own special people – God promised that if they were to follow Him, He would bless them beyond their wildest imaginations. (And in those times when they did follow God, we see God doing exactly that.) But God also promised that if they choose to follow other gods, then God would remove his blessings and would in fact, remove them from the land that he was giving them. They would be destroyed and exiled into other nations. And this too, is what we see happening. After years of the Israelites chasing after other gods, God finally removed the Israelites from their land. The northern part of the kingdom was conquer by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the southern part of the kingdom (including Jerusalem) was conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BC.

For the next 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Israelites lived in exile in Babylon. But during their time in exile, it seems they learned their lesson. The repented of their sin and turned again back to God – and so, God began to restore them to their land. The first set of exiles returned to reestablish themselves around Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Another group returned about 80 years after that under Ezra. About 13 years after that, we meet Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was a Jew who was still living in exile – he was actually the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia – which made him a rather prominent person in the king’s court. He was one of King most trusted companions.

But when Nehemiah heard the reports that the Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem were still living among the ruins of Jerusalem – God stirred Nehemiah’s heart to do something about that. It was not right that 150 years after it’s destruction, that Jerusalem still lay in ruins.

Centuries ago, Jerusalem was the centre of the nation. God had chosen Jerusalem as the location of his temple – it was the symbol of God’s presence among his people. And now, for the city to lay in ruins – it was a bitter reminder of Israelite’s failure to be God’s holy people. But now that God had given them a second chance, and they had returned to Jerusalem, now was time to rebuild the city and once again live as God’s holy people in God’s holy city. So after 4 months of prayer and fasting before God, Nehemiah asked the king to allow him to go to Jerusalem to rebuilt the city.

Now this was a little scary – since the king had early declared that Jerusalem was not to be rebuilt except at his express command. Nehemiah notes that he was terrified to bring this up to the king, but because he was convinced that this was what God wanted him to do – he did it.

Well, God moved the heart of the king to grant Nehemiah his request. And actually, the king sent him on his way with royal letters granting Nehemiah permission to travel through the empire and to acquire wood from the royal forest for the project. And, as we’re going to see in just a minute, the king also sent along a regiment of soldiers and horsemen for Nehemiah’s protection along the way.

All of this happened because, as we read in chapter 2, verse 8, the gracious hand of God was on Nehemiah. And it’s a good thing too, because the challenges that Nehemiah was about to face were  about to start coming fast and furious.

So we’re going to start reading right where we left off last week. So if you want to follow along in your own Bibles, we’re going to be in Nehemiah chapter 2 – starting at verse 9.

9 When I came to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River, I delivered the king’s letters to them. The king, I should add, had sent along army officers and horsemen to protect me. 10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very displeased that someone had come to help the people of Israel.

Nehemiah 2:9-10

Right out of the gate, here is our first challenge facing Nehemiah. Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official were not happy that Nehemiah had come to help the people of Israel. Why? Probably the main reason was that a strong Jerusalem would weaken their own political positions.

Both men ruled the areas around Jerusalem. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria to the north (we’ll learn that in chapter 4 – and Tobiah ruled the Ammonites to the east.) Interestingly, Tobiah is actually a Jewish name. So it seems that Tobiah, although not a full-blooded Israelite himself, at least had some Israelite heritage in his ancestry. And that will actually come up again, at the end of the chapter, so we’ll revisit these two guys again when we get there.

But for now, let’s keep reading. Verse 11.

11 So I arrived in Jerusalem. Three days later, 12 I slipped out during the night, taking only a few others with me. I had not told anyone about the plans God had put in my heart for Jerusalem. We took no pack animals with us except the donkey I was riding. 13 After dark I went out through the Valley Gate, past the Jackal’s Well, and over to the Dung Gate to inspect the broken walls and burned gates.14 Then I went to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but my donkey couldn’t get through the rubble. 15 So, though it was still dark, I went up the Kidron Valley instead, inspecting the wall before I turned back and entered again at the Valley Gate.

Nehemiah 2:11-15

So what’s Nehemiah doing? He’s doing his homework. Sure, he had heard about the state of Jerusalem’s walls – he knew it was bad – but before he announced to all the people his grand plans to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, he went out and he personally inspected the walls. He wanted to know first hand what he was up against.

Now if you’re a visual learner, I found an interesting book on the internet. 

This little photo really helped me wrap my head around the geography of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem. 

The whole trek around the city would be about 4km – and just to give you an idea of the scale – If you were to build a wall NOT around Penhold, but around around the part of Penhold that is on this side of highway2A – so that’s long narrow strip between the railroad and 2a – if we built a wall around that part of Penhold, that wall would about 3.5 km around. And Jerusalem at this time, was about 4km – so it’s not a huge city. Of course, that didn’t include upper Jerusalem – (that’s the left side of this map) at this time there simply was not enough population to inhabit that part of the old city. So it was still uninhabited and thus unwalled.

So pretty small for a city – but it would still be a huge undertaking to repair 4km worth of walls. And we’re not talking about the 6ft tall, 6inch wide brick walls like we see around someone’s yard. These would be huge thick walls. From what I understand, these walls would be an average of 20 ft tall and about 15 ft thick.

I actually found a couple interesting pictures of the remains of these walls.  

This is part of the wall called the broad wall – so it’s probably a little thicker than the others. It’s about 23 ft wide. You can kinda see in this picture how these walls were constructed. You’ll also notice on the corner of the building behind it – there are those blue vertical strips. Those strips are each one meter long. There is another picture here that shows how tall this wall would have been. 

That’s 8 strips – 8 meters tall (or 26ft)

So that gives you an idea of what kind of walls Nehemiah is looking to repair.  23ft wide – 26 ft tall. Now of course, the walls weren’t all absolutely destroyed. Nehemiah doesn’t have to build everything from scratch… Verse 13 tells us the walls were broken and the gates were destroyed. So they certainly needed new gates (we see in the next chapter there were nine of those if I counted right) and then there was 4 km of walls to be repaired.

So it’s a pretty massive undertaking. And I think it was very wise of Nehemiah to do his homework and know exactly what he’s getting into before he announces his plans to the people.

I mean, can you imagine if Nehemiah just showed up from Babylon and announced – “Hey good news, everyone! I’m here to help you rebuild the walls?” And they would say, “Are you kidding? Have you seen how bad it is? Have you seen the rubble and the burnt out gates?”

And Nehemiah would have to say… “Well, no…  I haven’t actually SEEN it – but I’ve heard all about it!”

How much credibility would this cup-bearer who shows up out of the blue from the palace in Susa have among these Israelites who have been living here years and years? Probably not much.

But having personally gone around and inspected the wall for himself – knowing full well the situation and the work required to carry out his plans – now Nehemiah might just have the credibility to rally the people and move ahead with the work.

And I think we can apply this principle to a lot of different areas in our lives – in fact, we probably already do.

  • When you do a renovation or building project, you probably do your research first – figure out what you’re getting into. Figure out what it’s going to cost, how much time it’ll take.
  • When you apply for a new job, you probably do the same thing. Learn a bit about the company and perhaps about your boss. Look ‘em up on facebook. You look up their reviews and see what their customers say about them. You got to do your homework.
  • In fact, that’s what you do when you date someone. You’re doing your homework – getting to know that person – meeting their family. If you’re going to marry this person, you want to know what you’re getting into.

I think we realize the importance of doing our homework in most areas of life – but I just wanted to throw this out there: do we do our homework when it comes to reaching our community for Christ?

Because I think this principle very much applies to that. Without doing our homework and knowing our community – knowing the people we are trying to reach, understanding the things they wrestle with, seeing how they see the world, recognizing what barriers maybe keeping them from Christ – if we don’t do the homework – we will certainly have no credibility with them and we will be largely unsuccessful in our efforts to introduce them Christ.

We’ve got to figure out – How can we reach them? What are their needs and how can we met those needs? What presuppositions do they have about the church and about Christ? How can we successfully communicate our message to them?

One thing that I’ve always been careful about is that we don’t want to just run all these different programs because they seems like a good idea or some other church is doing it or we did it back in our church 20 years ago. We need to do our homework here and now to see what will help us win souls for Christ here in Penhold in 2018.

So I would encourage you to do some research on your community.

And I don’t mean that you have to go door-to-door – asking your neighbours to take church survey or anything like that. Really all you have to do is to pay attention to people. What are their needs? What do they struggle with? What’s most important to them? What do they like to do? What do they not like to do? What issues are they dealing with? A little attentiveness goes a long way.

Paul, as a missionary, was always adapting his methods to his audience. He writes in 1 Corinthians 9 verse 20

20a When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ…

21a When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ….

22 When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. 

1 Corinthians 9:20a, 21a, 22

You see, the more we can do our homework and understand our community, the more credibility we will have with them and the better chances we have that we can be effective in reaching them for Christ.

So Nehemiah did his homework, he saw first-hand the task that was before him, and so now that he fully understood the situation – he was ready to present his solution to the people.

16 The city officials did not know I had been out there or what I was doing, for I had not yet said anything to anyone about my plans. I had not yet spoken to the Jewish leaders—the priests, the nobles, the officials, or anyone else in the administration. 17 But now I said to them, “You know very well what trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace!” 18 Then I told them about how the gracious hand of God had been on me, and about my conversation with the king.

They replied at once, “Yes, let’s rebuild the wall!” So they began the good work.

Nehemiah 2:16-18

Now there are lots of things that we could talk about here. We could talk about how Nehemiah waited until just the right time to speak to the people. He didn’t rush ahead of himself or rush ahead of God. He waited until the right time. Good lesson for us – sometime it’s hard to wait until God’s perfect timing.

We could also talk about how Nehemiah identified himself with the people. He didn’t say “You know very well what trouble YOU’RE in…” He said “You know very well what trouble WE’RE in…” This is our problem. We’re in this together, and we’re going to fix it together. That’s another good lesson for us – it’s rarely helpful to simply point fingers and tell people about their shortcomings. It’s much more helpful to come alongside them, identify with them, and then work together to bring about a change.

We could also talk about how Nehemiah made sure the people knew that God was at work. He didn’t focus so much on his own qualifications or his own expertise. He told them all about how the gracious hand of God was on him – how God moved in the king’s heart and how it was God that was going to make this all possible. That was the important part to know. Because if they knew that God was for them, then who could be against them? They could have the courage to move forward with this project.

We could talk about all those different things, but for the sake of time today, I’ll leave you to mull over those thoughts this week on your own. Instead, I want to end with a little bit of a rabbit trail. Earlier we met Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official. Well, they make another appearance at the end of this chapter – along with a new friend Geshem. Let me read that for you.

19 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab heard of our plan, they scoffed contemptuously. “What are you doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” they asked.

20 I replied, “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.”

Nehemiah 2:19-20

And there are two things I find interesting here. First of all, notice that Nehemiah doesn’t whip out his letters from King Artaxerxes. Remember Nehemiah has been commissioned by the King to go to Jerusalem, to use the king’s lumber, and to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. So you would think it would be a natural response for Nehemiah to say “Of course, I’m not rebelling against the king. Look, I’ve got these letters right here proving that I’m doing this according to the King’s instructions. You are the ones rebelling against the king by trying to get in my way!”

He could have said that, but he didn’t. He said “The God of heaven will help us succeed.” Nehemiah didn’t put his trust in King Artaxerxes – although he certainly had reason to. Instead, he put his trust in a higher authority – the God of Heaven! He knew full-well what we learned last week – that the heart of the king is like water in God’s hand – He directs it wherever he wants it to go. Artaxerxes had authority, yes, but God was the one who gave him that authority in the first place. Paul tells us in Romans 13:1.

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. Romans 13:1

Nehemiah understood that he was commissioned to rebuild Jerusalem – not just by Artaxerxes, but by the God of heaven! God was the real authority here. Which is just another reminder of what we learned last week – if God is for us – who can possibly be against us?

Anyway, the other interesting part of Nehemiah’s response is what he says after that:

20 I replied, “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.”

Nehemiah 2:20

This is a bit of a curious response. Why is Nehemiah asserting so strongly that these three guys have no claim or share of any sort in Jerusalem? Well, let’s back up a little bit – actually, let’s back up quite a bit – about 100 years prior.

When Zerubbabel had first returned to Jerusalem and they were rebuilding the temple, we see a very similar situation to what Nehemiah is facing and Zerubbabel back then, gave a very similar response. Let me read it for you in Ezra chapter 4, starting at verse 1.

The enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were rebuilding a Temple to the Lord, the God of Israel. 2 So they approached Zerubbabel and the other leaders and said, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God just as you do. We have sacrificed to him ever since King Esar-haddon of Assyria brought us here.”

3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other leaders of Israel replied, “You may have no part in this work. We alone will build the Temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, just as King Cyrus of Persia commanded us.”

4 Then the local residents tried to discourage and frighten the people of Judah to keep them from their work. 5 They bribed agents to work against them and to frustrate their plans. This went on during the entire reign of King Cyrus of Persia and lasted until King Darius of Persia took the throne.

Ezra 4:1-5

So this is interesting. Here we have these enemies of the exiles. We know they are the local residents – they live in the area. They were brought here by King Esar-haddon of Assyria. And they claim to worship God just as the Israelites did. So why, then, does Zerubbabel says they may have no part in this work – and as a result, why do they tried to discourage and frighten the Israelites – frustrating their work until the time of King Darius?

Well, to get a bit more clarification, we need to go back even further. Jump way back to 2 Kings chapter 17. This is before Jerusalem was destroyed. The southern part of the Kingdom was still intact, but the northern part had just been conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians strategy for dealing with conquered people was to displace them – scatter them around the empire so they would be assimilated. So the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Israel were scattered among the Assyrian empire and in their place the king sent groups of Assyrians to Israel to repopulate their towns.

We read in 2 Kings 17, verse 24…

24 The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. 25 But since these foreign settlers did not worship the Lord when they first arrived, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.

26 So a message was sent to the king of Assyria: “The people you have sent to live in the towns of Samaria do not know the religious customs of the God of the land. He has sent lions among them to destroy them because they have not worshiped him correctly.”

27 The king of Assyria then commanded, “Send one of the exiled priests back to Samaria. Let him live there and teach the new residents the religious customs of the God of the land.” 28 So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord.

29 But these various groups of foreigners also continued to worship their own gods. In town after town where they lived, they placed their idols at the pagan shrines that the people of Samaria had built. 30 Those from Babylon worshiped idols of their god Succoth-benoth. Those from Cuthah worshiped their god Nergal. And those from Hamath worshiped Ashima. 31 The Avvites worshiped their gods Nibhaz and Tartak. And the people from Sepharvaim even burned their own children as sacrifices to their gods Adrammelech and Anammelech. 32 These new residents worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests to offer sacrifices at their places of worship. 33 And though they worshiped the Lord, they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations from which they came.34 And this is still going on today. They continue to follow their former practices instead of truly worshiping the Lord and obeying the decrees, regulations, instructions, and commands he gave the descendants of Jacob, whose name he changed to Israel.

2 Kings 17:24-34

So all that to say that these people who moved into Samaria – while they may have ‘worshipped God’ by offering the prescribed sacrifices or what-have-you – they may have acted the part of worshipping God, but they certainly didn’t worship God as the one true God. They didn’t honour God with their lives. They simply went through the motions of worshipped him as just another god of many. They continued living in total opposition to how God wanted them to live – even sacrificing their own children to these other gods.

And these are the people that Zerubbabel would not allow to help rebuild the temple – saying they may have no part in this work, because although they claimed to worship the same God, they clearly had no desire to serve the one true God – and to worship him alone as God had commanded.

To complicate the matter, some of the Jews who had returned with Zerubbabel ended up intermarrying with these people and so when Ezra arrives on the scene – he’s just absolutely aghast because this is the very reason the Israelites ended up in exile in the first place. Centuries ago the Israelites had intermarried and adopted the gods of the people around them and as a result, God allowed them to be conquered and exiled. And here they were, doing the same thing all over again.

Now if I were to guess, since Tobiah was not a Jew, but had a Jewish name, he was likely a descendant of one of those mixed marriages.

And just as note for the future, these people of mixed marriages (and mixed gods) in the towns around Samaria became known of course, as the Samaritans. And we hear lots about them 400 years later when Jesus comes on the scene. When you hear of Jesus interacting with that Samaritan woman or telling the story of the good Samaritan – you can understand how shocking that would be to a Jewish audience. Because these Samaritans came from some Jewish descent, but they had intermarried with Assyrians and adopted their detestable gods as well. And so the Jews really considered them worse than pagans.

But to get back to Nehemiah now: These same people (these Samaritans) are now represented by Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem – who also had no desire to worship the one true God and worship him alone. So you can see why Nehemiah said in verse 20

20 I replied, “The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.”

Nehemiah 2:19-20

Although they may have had some Jewish blood somewhere in their ancestry, they simply were not true followers and worshippers of God alone – and as such, had no share in this project of restoring God’s city and bringing glory to God.

Now – had they repented and turned from their other gods and genuinely desired to worship God alone and serve him alone, then I think maybe it might have been a different story.

But clearly that was not the case as we’re going to see in the weeks to come. These three fellows would continue to be a pain in Nehemiah’s side throughout this project. But we’ll talk more about that later.

But just as our closing thought for today, as I was thinking about these Assyrians who came to Israel and added God to their list of many gods to worship, I wondered if we sometimes do the same thing?

Do we just add God into the mix of our lives? Do we throw in some church and Bible study – maybe a few prayers here and there – but then go on and live life however we see fit?

Is God just one priority among many? Or is God THE priority of our lives?

I’ve heard it explained this way: God doesn’t want to one of the passengers in your van as you drive through life. He wants to be the driver.

If you’re honouring and serving God only when it doesn’t conflict with the god of sports or the god of leisure or the god of personal comfort or the god of your career – or whatever it is – if that’s the case, then we’re not really honouring and worshipping God. God deserves to be our one and only God.

4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Worshipping God means that nothing else – nothing else – takes priority over honouring and serving God. Not our career – not our financial situation – not our personal comfort. We can take those things into consideration, but they are never the determining factor. Honoring God is always the bottom line in every decision that we make.

That’s what it means to worship God alone. To love Him with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.

In every decision – every choice we make – the bottom line question is: Does this honour God? No other question matters.

Is that how you live your life? Do you serve and worship God alone – or is He just one of many considerations?

Listen, O Penhold Church of Hope! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.

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