Nehemiah - The Beginning
Date: 21 Feb 2016
Text: Nehemiah 2:11-20
When we left our story last week in 2:10, Nehemiah had already arrived in Jerusalem and met his first opposition. His prayer from 1:5-11 had been answered and he had spoken to the King who had agreed to help him. The King had agreed that he could visit the place where Nehemiah’s ancestor’s were buried, had given him letters of safe passage, had sent an accompanying group of cavalry officers and had given him a letter to allow him to have timber from the royal forests. So far; so good. Now that he had arrived in Jerusalem it was time to start the seemingly mammoth task of rebuilding the walls and gates before embarking on any other much needed work.
Before we look at what happened next, I just want to consider the journey that Nehemiah, and those with him, had undertaken. When we calculate the distance between Susa and Jerusalem it works out at about 800 miles. That may not seem too far to us, after all we have the luxury of cars, trains and planes, and yet this journey took almost 4 months to complete, probably because the group travelled only 8 or 9 miles a day. It was hot and sticky and the terrain wasn’t the easiest, meaning that they would have camped overnight and started the next stage of the journey at dawn before the weather got too hot to cope with. After a journey like that it is hardly surprising that Nehemiah tells us, “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days...” (2:11), indicating that he had three day’s rest.
Ezra, who also wrote a book of Jewish history, made a similar journey from Susa to Jerusalem when he went with others to rebuild the Temple. The details of that journey are in Ezra 8:15-31 and in 8:32 we read that on arrival he too took a three day rest.
The Rest Period
Nehemiah simply followed Ezra’s lead by having a three day rest period before starting any work; you see, rest is vital if we are to successfully carry out God’s work. Tiredness can rob us of a good decision making ability, the energy needed to work in the right way and the ability to get on with those around us.
Jesus always recognised the great need for taking a period of rest. Upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s beheading the Lord, “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matthew 14:13). Jesus needed time alone with His Father to meditate on what had happened and He could only do that by taking a break from the hustle and bustle of His daily ministry.
Jesus also cared for His disciples and encouraged them to take a rest following a busy period. In Mark 6 we can read of Jesus sending the disciples out two by two to drive evil spirits out of demon-possessed people and heal those who were sick. Naturally on their return they were very tired and so Jesus said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).
Whilst it was intended as a rest period, I’ve no doubt that Nehemiah also communicated with God during those three days. God had brought him this far and now Nehemiah needed his spiritual batteries re-charged to face whatever was to come next in the major task that he was about to face.
The Night Visit
Having had his rest period, we see in 2:12 Nehemiah starting the detailed planning that was needed to complete the rebuilding of the walls. Rather interestingly he didn’t start first thing in the morning by visiting the site but, with a few chosen men, went out at night. He helpfully tells us that, “I had not told anyone what God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem”. That reads as if God had spoken to him and that was the end of the conversation. The NEB, remember that from a few years ago, puts the same verse this way, “I told no one what my God was prompting me to do for Jerusalem”. To me, that reads as if God is still prompting him, perhaps leading him, in the right way to go. I don’t believe that God leads us to do something and then leaves us. Rather, I believe that He prompts us and leads us and keeps on doing so in order to assure us and help us through whatever it is we are doing to serve Him. Who knows, perhaps Nehemiah felt the same.
Why did Nehemiah go out in secret and at night? Why would he do that? The answers to those questions are simpler than you might imagine. Firstly, Nehemiah couldn’t work on this project on his own, he needed help, local help. Consequently, he chose a few loyal men who were both local and trustworthy. He needed their local knowledge to visit the parts of the wall that were most in need of restoration and he also needed to keep his plans as close to his chest as possible. When working for God and the Lord Jesus Christ we cannot work alone, we need people around us to help us. Jesus knew that which is why He selected the twelve disciples to work with Him. He taught them what they needed to know and built them up so that they would work on their own. The Apostle Paul also knew that he couldn’t work alone which is why he carried out a lot of his mission and church planting work with the help of people like Barnabas and Silas. We always have God with us especially when we are working for Him and Nehemiah knew that. However, he also knew that he needed “boots on the ground” to help with the detailed planning of the work to be done hence choosing a few local men.
Secondly, Nehemiah had already met his first opposition in the form of Sanballat and Tobiah and there was every possibility that there could be spies in the camp who would do their utmost to sabotage and delay the work on the walls. Having only a few local men with him was probably the safest way to keep his plans as secret as possible.
In 2:13-15 Nehemiah gives us details of exactly where he went in order to survey the scene and gauge exactly what work was needed. It was not easy as he went on horseback as far as he could and then walked when he needed to. The inference is that that survey was carried out in a single night although I suspect that since it was such a comprehensive and wide ranging survey it may well have taken a number of such night visits. When we read Nehemiah 3 we find a detailed explanation of just who did what work and where. Comparing that account to a plan of Jerusalem shows just how big a job it was; a job so big that a single night’s survey probably wouldn’t have identified all that needed to be done. However long it took, it would undoubtedly have given Nehemiah an idea of what resources in terms of men and materials he needed to carry out the work; in other words, the scope of the project. He had spent a long time thinking, planning and praying about what needed to be done but it was only when he got to the site that he got a real feel for the immense scale of the project.
When we get to 2:16 we see just how secret this reconnaissance had been; none of the locally based Persian officials, nor the Jews nor the priests and nobles knew what he was doing. Wow, he really wanted to keep this thing secret didn’t he? Not telling the Persian officials what he was up to indicates to me that Nehemiah doubted their loyalty. When attempting to rebuild the Temple some years earlier, Ezra had met constant opposition from the local Persian officials. This opposition arose despite Ezra having the approval and support of the then King, Cyrus I. It was only when Darius became King and consulted Cyrus’s original decree that Ezra was given the go ahead to complete the Temple and all opposition stopped. Nehemiah would have known of that and was obviously anxious to ensure that any possible opposition would be nipped in the bud before it had chance to take root!
Between Nehemiah hearing the news of the state of the walls of Jerusalem and actually speaking to the King, a period of four months had elapsed. During that time he did a lot of praying and a lot of planning. That pattern would definitely have continued during the four months of the journey as I’m sure that Nehemiah wouldn’t have wasted the non-travelling time but would have spent more time in prayer seeking God’s help and guidance. That is what we all need to do, isn’t it. We can plan for events and projects to our heart’s content but unless we involve God in everything, we have little or no guarantee of success. Nehemiah knew that, which is why he spent time with God before carrying out his nocturnal survey and before laying a single brick or cutting the first piece of timber.
Nehemiah needed to know exactly what materials he needed and where they should be placed. He needed to know how many people would be required to carry out the work and he needed to know how long it was likely to take to rebuild the walls surrounding this large city as well as the gates that went towards its protection. The work involved in carrying out all this reconstruction would be demanding, hazardous and would require co-operation between many groups of people. To achieve all that needed good planning and lots of prayer.
Sharing the Plans
Having carried out his survey Nehemiah was now in a position to share what he had found and what he planned to do, with some of those who he hoped would be involved in carrying out the work. He begins in 2:17 by telling them what he has found, “Jerusalem lies in ruins ... its gates have been burned with fire”. I would have loved to have been there to see the faces of the officials, Jews, priests and nobles when Nehemiah then said to them, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace”. How do you suppose they would have received that proposal? Would they have shaken their heads in despair at the enormity of the task that lay ahead or would they have been fired up by Nehemiah’s infectious enthusiasm? I hope that it was the latter. Notice though that Nehemiah didn’t end his speech there, he went on to tell them about “the gracious hand of my God upon me” and “what the King said to me” (2:18). Letting them know that God was right behind all that Nehemiah had been doing and was now planning was absolutely vital to the success of the rebuilding project. They could see that these weren’t simply the ideas of a mad man from 800 miles away but had the backing and blessing of God Himself. That surely would have given them both assurance and confidence that the project would be successful. I am not ashamed to quote again the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:31b, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
When we read 2:18b, I think we can see that Nehemiah’s speech had hit the right spot since, “They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work”. I gauge from that that they had caught Nehemiah’s enthusiasm bug!
So far from 2:11 to 2:18 everything had once again gone well for Nehemiah. He may have met opposition in 2:10 but because of the way he started his task by working in secret he had yet to meet any further opponents. Needless to say that happy state of affairs didn’t last long since in 2:19 we once again meet Sanballat and his pal Tobiah. This time though they are accompanied by Geshem the Arab. It seems that Geshem was an Arab from Kedar a group who controlled the vital land route from Palestine to Egypt. They were apparently regarded as the guardians of that route by the Persians and so would have carried some influence with the Persian officials. Whoever he was he was yet another opponent of Nehemiah’s plans.
Nehemiah reports that “they mocked and ridiculed us” (2:19). Nehemiah and his friends were carrying out the work of God and were mocked and ridiculed for doing so. Does that sound familiar? That still happens today since those who carry out God’s work anywhere in the world are also constantly mocked for their beliefs and for working for an “invisible” God. Notice too though, that not only did these three opponents ask what they were all doing but also asked, “Are you rebelling against the King?” They obviously hadn’t heard what Nehemiah had told his supporters about what the King had done for him. The King was hardly likely to help someone who was going to lead a rebellion against him. I suspect that Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem were simply looking for a reason, any reason, to oppose and obstruct this vital work, God’s work.
Despite this opposition, and the opposition that we receive from time to time, we should follow Nehemiah’s example and ignore such criticism and remember that we have God on our side. Nehemiah’s riposte to their mocking was the right thing to say; he simply told them, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it” (2:20). Perfect!
A lot is happening in these ten verses but the vast majority of what is happening has the full support of God. Nehemiah didn’t make any move without seeking God’s face on how to proceed added to which he was being prompted by God at every step of the way. In order to minimise opposition he had carried out a detailed site survey at night and in secret. He had made further plans and at the right time shared them with all those whose help he needed to enlist. He didn’t just share the plans with them though; he also made it clear that God was behind the plan in every detail. Nehemiah was full of enthusiasm for this major building project and his enthusiasm was catching since as soon as he finished his speech explaining what was going on, the people wanted to start building seemingly immediately.
Nehemiah had involved God in all aspects of the project which is why he could tell his opponents with total confidence that “The God of heaven will give us success” (2:20). If we want to do something, anything, to serve the Lord, we must involve Him at every stage of the task. In that way our success will be guaranteed.