Date: 01 May 2016
Text: Nehemiah 3
A few weeks ago we started to look at the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. We took a careful look at the first two chapters which give us the background to the story and the early preparations that Nehemiah made to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls and gates that had been destroyed over many years. We left the story at the end of Nehemiah 2 where Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem and explained his plans to the people who he was hoping would help him in this construction task.
Today, and in a couple more sermons, I want to think about those who were involved in the building work, the opposition that they faced and the way that Nehemiah helped the poor. We’ll start this morning by considering all those who were carrying out the building work and the areas that they worked on.
Before we do that though I just want to spend a few minutes recapping the story so far so that we know where we are starting from! Nehemiah was a Jew who had been born in Babylon during the long period of exile. He worked for King Artaxerxes as a cupbearer, a very important and responsible job since it meant that not only was he in charge of the King’s wine and tasted it for him before serving it, but he also had regular access to the King. At some stage Nehemiah heard from friends and relatives in Jerusalem that the city of his ancestors was in ruins with the walls and the gates all but destroyed. As a result the city had no defences against its enemies and was no longer a credit to God Who regarded it as His Holy City.
Over a period of about 4 months Nehemiah arrived at the point where he believed that he should go to Jerusalem and organise the rebuilding of the walls and gates. To do this he needed leave of absence from his role with the King, materials to use to carry out the work and letters of safe passage to allow him to travel through some potentially hostile territory. At every stage of his thinking Nehemiah turned to God in prayer to seek His help and guidance. God was always there for Nehemiah and answered his prayers in due course. We can learn from that; if we always take our problems and plans to God in prayer, then He will always answer and help us, we simply need to be patient as we wait for His response. Having sought and received God’s help, Nehemiah spoke to the King explaining what he needed to do. He was always very careful in how he spoke to the King, never mentioning Jerusalem by name but always talking about the ‘city of his ancestors’. This was very diplomatic of Nehemiah given that there was an almost constant level of animosity between Persia and Jerusalem. The King responded positively to Nehemiah’s requests and not only granted him leave of absence but also gave him letters authorising him to have timber from the Royal forests and other letters guaranteeing him safe passage on his journey to Jerusalem. God was indeed with Nehemiah in this project.
It was a long journey from Babylon to Jerusalem that took somewhere around 4 months to complete. That gave Nehemiah lots of time to plan and think as well as lots of time to be in prayer. The nature of the heat and the terrain meant that Nehemiah and his party tended to travel early in the morning and rest overnight. When he arrived in Jerusalem I would imagine that Nehemiah was dumbfounded at what he saw, devastation all around, possibly even far worse than he envisaged. He hadn’t yet shared his plans with anyone other than God and so he did his initial site survey under the cover of darkness. The implication in what we read is that he only went out for one night but seeing the area that he covered, I suspect that he must have gone out on more than one night. Having done that basic site survey, Nehemiah felt that the time was right to share his plans with others and so gathered together the various officials, Jews, nobles and priests to tell them of his rebuilding plans. Nehemiah undoubtedly spoke from the heart and was able to ‘infect’ them with his own enthusiasm and get them fired up to get the work done. So much so that almost as one they said, “Let us start rebuilding” (2:18b).
When you say it quickly, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem may not sound too much of a task. That is, if you are a professional builder with the necessary experience, ability and materials. It was however, a huge task. When you read through Nehemiah 3 and compare what Nehemiah has to say with a plan of the City you will count 10 gates, 6 towers and huge stretches of wall. Add to that the vast number of dwellings and other buildings that also needed rebuilding and you will soon see that this really was a mammoth task. The materials requirement alone must have been huge and it is here that we may start to realise the importance of Nehemiah’s night time surveys that we read about in 2:11-16. Nehemiah had planned ahead and with the very important help of his prayers and God’s response, Nehemiah was able to obtain all the materials he needed, probably ahead of time. We know from 2:8 that Nehemiah had been given letters by the King authorising him to take wood from the Royal forests to be used in rebuilding the gates and wherever else it was needed. We aren’t told though where any stone or bricks came from although I think it is probably safe to assume that Nehemiah would have made some arrangements for all that before leaving for Jerusalem. We also know from Nehemiah 1 & 2 that Nehemiah relied heavily on prayer and I have no doubt that he wouldn’t have undertaken this task if he had not involved God through prayer. God is always faithful to those who come before Him in prayer and with hearts full of love for Him. Nehemiah prayed at every stage of what he was planning. Sometimes he asked God for help with little things and sometimes with big things, and, as I mentioned to someone recently, God is there for the little things just as much as He is for the big things; nothing is too trivial or too big for us to take to God in prayer. Nehemiah knew that which is why he always started with prayer. Now whilst there is no mention of prayer in Nehemiah 3, I am sure that Nehemiah would have committed each day of the project to God in prayer.
And so we come to Nehemiah 3 and the start of this enormous building task. On first reading this chapter may seem to be nothing more than a list of who did what and where. However, when you look carefully and think about what you are reading I’m sure that you will find it fascinating to see that there was so much work to do and so many people involved. These workers were from all walks of life as well as whole families, including both sons and daughters. A careful reading and analysis of Nehemiah 3 reveals 39 separate groups of people doing the building work with 2 of those groups actually working in two areas meaning that there were 41 separate areas of building. Counting just how many people were involved is difficult at this point since not everyone is listed here by name. For instance, in 3:1 we read that Eliashib the High Priest did some building work together with “his fellow priests”. We have no idea quite how many other priests there were although I suspect that there would have been quite a few.
It is interesting to see that Nehemiah was able to enlist and motivate the High Priest and several other priests, nobles and officials of different ranks, a perfume maker, a goldsmith and some merchants. It is noticeable though that although so many people got involved with this building project, the nobles of Tekoa pointedly refused to work under their supervisors. Everyone else seemed happy to join in which is fascinating given that when you look at that list you get the feeling that none of them had any particular building or construction skills. What they did have was the infectious enthusiasm engendered by Nehemiah. This man, a cupbearer to the King with no obvious management or building skills, was able to organise and motivate an extraordinary group of people to engage in this huge rebuilding task and complete it as quickly as possible. Although when we come to Nehemiah 4 we will see some opposition there is no mention whatsoever of dissent within or amongst the groups actually carrying out the work, apart that is, from the nobles of Tekoa refusing to “put their shoulder” (3:5); i.e., not work. There is no mention though that they prevented any others from working. In fact everyone seemed to have worked harmoniously and we know from 4:6 that “the people worked with all their heart”. Later in Nehemiah 4 where we read of the opposition that they faced, we read in 4:21 that, “we continued to work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out”. So hard did they work that Nehemiah also tells us that, “Neither I nor my brother nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when we went for water” (4:23). Those verses give a clue as to just how hard they all worked. We can also discern from 2:18 that this was very much a team based project; not for nothing did the people say in that verse, “Let us start rebuilding”.
This rebuilding work can’t have been easy especially given that no actual builders seem to have been involved. However, despite that, most groups seem to have been involved in rebuilding a Gate or a Tower or a section of Wall or a dwelling nearest to where they either lived or intended to live. If that was the case then it was very good management by Nehemiah since each group would have ‘owned’ that piece of work and would have taken great pride in their achievement when it was finished.
Nehemiah himself isn’t actually mentioned as doing any building work. There is someone with the name Nehemiah mentioned in 3:16 but he is not the Nehemiah whose journal we are reading. That doesn’t mean that Nehemiah didn’t do anything; quite the opposite. Actually managing a project of this magnitude is quite a task and throughout all the work Nehemiah maintained records of just who did what. We know from 7:5 that “God put it into my [his] heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families”. He then goes on in the remaining verses of Nehemiah 7 to list the families and their genealogies of all those involved, a group that totalled 42,360 people. Try managing a workforce of that size! Nehemiah also mentions in 7:66-73 the numbers of slaves, singers, horses, mules, camels and donkeys who also played their part. As I’ve already said, this was a huge task and required a huge workforce.
We need to remember that Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the King with no apparent management or building experience behind him. What he did have though, was faith in God and a huge reliance on prayer. Could the same be said of us? When we start a task that we have never done before or for which we have no training or experience, do we take it to God in prayer and seek His help? That is what Nehemiah did, regularly. We can read of his specific prayers in 1:4-11 and again in 2:4. Whilst there is no explicit mention of prayer in Nehemiah 2 & 3 after that short prayer in 2:4, I think it is safe to assume that Nehemiah would have prayed very regularly. The journey from Babylon to Jerusalem took about 4 months and there would have been plenty of opportunity for Nehemiah to come before God with his prayers and share with Him the concerns of the day and the needs for the next day. We can all learn from that by following Nehemiah’s example and taking everything to God in prayer; not just occasionally but regularly.
As I’ve already mentioned, Nehemiah doesn’t seem to have had any management knowledge or experience as such and yet was able to motivate everyone involved, organise the workforce, delegate to others those tasks that he couldn’t handle or cope with and arrange for all the materials to be available and in the right place at the right time. Through all this he was helped by God, just as God will help us in similar circumstances. Many people feel called to serve God in a particular way but balk at the idea because they don’t have the necessary skills. If Nehemiah had thought like that the Holy City of Jerusalem would have stayed an absolute ruin. When Nehemiah went before God in prayer and sought His help, God gave him the skills that he needed, and He will do exactly the same for us. No one is born with the skills to serve God in the way that God may call them but they will be able to acquire them with God’s help. All we need to do is to be like Nehemiah and respond positively to God’s call and rely on Him no matter what happens.
It may not be immediately obvious what we can learn from this chapter. After all, it just seems to be a long list of names of the places that needed rebuilding and the groups of people who did the work. Closer examination though will reveal the size of the task that faced them and it doesn’t take too much imagination to visualise the amount of materials that would have been needed to fulfil that task. Despite all that we don’t read of any dissent or argument from anyone. Yes, there was that group of Tekoan nobles who refused to work but they were an isolated bunch and don’t seem to have stirred up any trouble among the other workers.
The key to all this comes from Nehemiah’s absolute reliance on God and His response to Nehemiah’s prayers. Nehemiah took everything to God in prayer safe in the knowledge that God would answer and lead him in the right direction. We know from other passages in the Old Testament that some of those whom God chose to do something for Him frequently argued about it with Him. That didn’t happen with Nehemiah; he totally accepted what God asked him to do and trusted Him to provide the people and the materials needed to do the job.
God will do the same for us if we simply trust Him just as much as Nehemiah did.