Date: 07 Feb 2016
Text: Nehemiah 1
I’ve felt for quite a while now that I’ve been ignoring the Old Testament on a Sunday morning by not taking an extended look at some of the marvellous books that exist there. So, starting today and then for the next three Sundays I intend to try and take a detailed look at the book of Nehemiah, a fabulous book that is part history, part journal and part autobiography. It is also the story of one man’s deep faith in a living God, and how he took everything to God in prayer, something that we can probably all learn from.
Before we go into too much detail of the story though, it is important to understand the setting behind the events that Nehemiah is writing about. Without that background a lot of what he has to say is rendered almost meaningless. It is a bit of a history lesson I’m afraid although I’ll do my best not to make it too boring!
Jerusalem had been invaded by the Babylonians in 586 BC and when the occupying army departed they left behind a city that had been destroyed. The walls and most of the buildings in the city were in ruins; there were piles of rubble and smouldering timber wherever anyone looked; the magnificent Temple that had been built by Solomon some 400 years earlier was also left as a pile of smoking rubble. All of the useful people, that is the leaders and the officials, including Daniel and his friends, had been taken into exile in Babylon. Only the old and the infirm appear to have been left behind and they had to survive by scavenging and scraping about in the rubble that was once their city.
But, why did all this happen? If this was God’s city as we are frequently told in Scripture, then why did God allow it to be so comprehensively destroyed? The answer to that is long and complex but worth knowing.
The main story begins in Genesis 12 where we read about Abraham, then called Abram, heeding God’s call and receiving God’s promises. In that chapter God made three promises to Abraham. Firstly, that He would provide land for the people; secondly, that He would make them a great nation; and finally, that He would bestow His blessing upon them and they would have a special relationship with Him. We can read in Exodus 1 that they did become a great nation albeit whilst in slavery in Egypt. We can read in that chapter that they “became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7); and two verses later the new King said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us.” (Exodus 1:9). God rescued His people from that slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses and then went on to establish a special relationship with His chosen people. It was during this period that God gave His people the Law and said to them, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 6:7). Later, in Leviticus God makes a further promise to the people when He says to them that if they are obedient to Him then, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12). That phrase then appears on a number of occasions as we read through the Old Testament as an assurance to the people that God is there with them.
It was under the leadership of Joshua that the Israelites entered the Promised Land. However, the real high point came under the leadership of David. They were prosperous and at peace and all the promises that God had made to Abraham had been fulfilled. Sadly, the decline began under the leadership of David’s son, Solomon, when the people turned away from God. This led to the kingdom of Israel dividing into the North, Israel, and the South, Judah. For a long time the people turned their backs on God, worshipped idols and did their own thing! That went on until 722 BC when Israel was invaded by the Assyrians and then in 586 BC when Jerusalem was attacked and destroyed by the Babylonians. As I mentioned earlier, as part of that conquest all the leaders and officials were taken into exile in Babylon where they remained for many years. That situation lasted until 538 BC when the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians under King Cyrus. This King appears to have been a bit more benevolent than some as he allowed some of the exiles to return to their homes, and they were followed in 458 BC by a second group of exiles. The events that Nehemiah describes started in 445 BC, just over 140 years after the original destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
None of this destruction happened by accident, it was all prophesied by, amongst others, Jeremiah who wrote these words in Jeremiah 1:14-16, “The Lord said to me, ‘From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,’ declares the Lord. Their kings will come and set up their thrones in the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem; they will come against all her surrounding walls and against all the towns of Judah. I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshipping what their hands have made.” Jeremiah gives similar warnings throughout Jeremiah 2, and in Jeremiah 2:21 he quotes God’s words when He says, “I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” We should never forget that God is all powerful and all knowing; there will come a time in the not too distant future when the world will be punished for turning away from Him. This brief history of His chosen holy city, Jerusalem, should be seen as an example of what can happen when people turn their backs on Him and turn to worshipping idols.
That’s the history and the build up to where we find ourselves at the start of Nehemiah 1. As we start to consider what Nehemiah is telling us there are perhaps a couple of questions that we need to ask, in the hope that they will be answered as we move along. Firstly, what is happening with God’s promises? Secondly, will God’s people get back to the land and re-establish and the rebuild the kingdom that had been destroyed so long ago? Hopefully we will find answers to those questions over the next four weeks.
The book begins in this month of Kislev, which in our calendar is somewhere between mid November and mid December. As he wrote this Nehemiah was in the city of Susa which was the capital city of the Persians, and he lived at the “citadel” which was a fortified palace. Nehemiah helpfully tells us in the final sentence of 1:11 that he was “cupbearer to the king”. This King went under the wonderful name of Artaxerxes and as we may see in future passages seems to have been quite a nice chap! Being cupbearer to the King was a very important and senior role in the Palace. As cupbearer Nehemiah would have been responsible for choosing and purchasing the wine, then looking after it and finally tasting it in the King’s presence before serving it to him. All of this gave him a direct and privileged access to the King and as we make progress through the book it will become much clearer as to just how important that was for Nehemiah.
The opening words in 1:1 identify the writer of what follows as being Nehemiah. That certainly applies to the first eight chapters although there seems some doubt about who wrote the remaining five chapters. We’ll come to that problem later. Historians can identify the date that these words were written reasonably accurately given that Artaxerxes reigned from 464 BC to 423 BC and the phrase “in the twentieth year” refers to the 20th year of his reign putting it as being 445 BC.
At that time Nehemiah received a visit from a brother named Hanani with some others. Nehemiah appears to have been very concerned about those who survived the exile and had returned to their homeland, and he refers to them as “the Jewish remnant” (1:2), a phrase that is used regularly throughout the Bible. I don’t know what sort of news Nehemiah was expecting but the news he received wasn’t good. This group of friends told him that “The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (1:3). Whilst Nehemiah was a Jew who had been born in exile rather than in Israel or Judah, like all Jews, even today, he regarded Jerusalem as his ‘home’ city and as a God fearing Jew the news that he received about Jerusalem would have been devastating. What we don’t read here but do know, is that the rebuilding of the Temple had been completed in 516 BC and so there was some good news amongst the bad.
Notice his reaction to this dreadful news. He “sat down and wept” (1:4a). We don’t know for how long he did that but he goes on to tells us, almost in the same breath, that, given the nature of the devastation it was like a bereavement which is why he says he “mourned”. Notice too though that, perhaps immediately, he “fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (1:4). That is very important; rather than weep and mourn, rather than mope about bemoaning his life, Nehemiah prayed. How many of us would do that in a similar situation? He doesn’t seem to have hesitated; he almost immediately went to prayer and gave the problem to God. How much better would we be if we followed suit? How much better would things be if instead of trying to find our own solution to a problem we went straight to prayer and sought God’s face on a problem?
This short book of Nehemiah contains nine prayers. Whilst most are brief and spur-of-the-moment prayers, this first one in 1:5-11 appears to be quite structured.
Nehemiah begins by honouring God calling Him “the God of heaven, the great and awesome God” (1:5a). God is great and awesome isn’t He? He is the Creator of the Universe, the Controller of all that happens in the world, the Father of Jesus. No doubt you can come up with other ways to describe Him, but those will do for now. Next, Nehemiah seeks His attention, “let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open” (1:5b). Because we know that God hears all prayers, we have a tendency to assume that He will always listen to our prayers. Nehemiah doesn’t seem to make that assumption; he asks God to be attentive to what he has to say. That seems to me to be quite a humble approach, acknowledging that even though God is always there and is a great God, we need to be polite and seek a hearing before Him. Nehemiah wants God to be attentive because he is praying “day and night” for the people of Israel. This isn’t a selfish prayer; Nehemiah isn’t praying for himself, he is praying for others, for God’s chosen people who are desperately in need.
Having sought God’s attention; Nehemiah moves on to a few words of confession and repentance. How often do we do that? How often do we include in our own prayers a part where we acknowledge our sins and seek God’s forgiveness? Nehemiah very obviously felt the need to do that, not just for himself and his family but for all the people of Israel. He acknowledges in 1:7 that, “We have acted very wickedly towards You. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws You gave Your servant Moses.” The fact that the people of Israel didn’t obey such commands, decrees and laws is what landed them in this mess in the first place, and so it is good that Nehemiah acknowledges that fact on their behalf.
In 1:8-9 Nehemiah seems to pray a combination of verses from two parts of Deuteronomy. He starts by quoting Deuteronomy 4:27 when he uses God’s words when He had said, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations”. Then in 1:9 Nehemiah continues, without a pause, to quote Deuteronomy 30:1-5, when he again uses God’s words and says, “but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling place for my Name.” In quoting those verses Nehemiah seems to be reminding his heavenly Father of what He had said in the past. Children do that, don’t they? Many years ago we moved into a house that had a cat flap. On spying this, our eldest daughter, who was then about 5½, asked if that meant that we could have a cat. Since Bruce was still a babe in arms Sue thought very quickly and replied that we could but only when Bruce was three! On or just after his third birthday, Catherine came to her Mum with those immortal words that most parents will remember, “Mum, you said...”! As a parent God doesn’t seem to be immune from being reminded of something that He had said in the past!
In 1:10 Nehemiah reminds God that the people to whom He was referring were His chosen people who He had rescued before. Having done that, Nehemiah again seeks God’s ear to be attentive to his prayer and to the prayers of others. Finally in 1:11, in the very last sentence, he gets to the main point of the prayer. Nehemiah has decided to seek the help of the King in a plan that he has and he asks God to help in that quest and give him success by “granting him favour in the presence of this man”.
When we look at Nehemiah 2 next week we will see exactly what that plan is and how he put it into action.
This is an amazing prayer that runs from 1:5 to 1:11 in which Nehemiah has honoured God, sought His attention, offered repentance for the sins of the people, reminded God of His words in two parts of Deuteronomy, reminded God that he is praying for God’s own people and then sought His attention again. Finally, at the very end of the prayer he gets to the point. Does that make the prayer seem unbalanced? I don’t think so; Nehemiah has quite rightly honoured God and then repented of the sins of the people. He has sought permission to come before Him with this prayer, a prayer that is for others not himself, he has reminded God of God’s own words, sought His attention again and then finally, almost in the last breath, asked God for His help with a specific problem. I’m sure that we can all learn from that and perhaps modify our style of prayer to be more like Nehemiah.