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Today’s lesson is about Nehemiah, a man who loved his people and his homeland, a man of prayer, a man who was willing to take risks and to work. Because of those qualities, Nehemiah made a difference in his time and his place, just as we can make a difference in ours. Think of situations where you see a need, perhaps in your family, your work or your church. Then ask yourself how God might use you to make a difference there.
The prayer below may serve to guide us in our opening prayer. It is from a service of the Order of the Daughters of the King, an Episcopal organization founded in 1885 that still exists today. Its motto is “I am but one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do. Lord, what will you have me do?"
God of love, God of life, God of holy strength, guide us, that by our daily practice of prayer and service we may draw others to Christ. Help us to reach up in hope, receive in spirit, respond in faith, and reach out in love for all. We pray that Your Kingdom will come for all creation, all people living together in love and peace, for His sake. Amen.
This week's lesson is on Nehemiah 2:11-20.
Look around our area and you will see signs from people wanting to buy houses in any condition. Some say, “We Buy Ugly Houses.” Apparently the people or companies who post these signs are interested in renovating such “ugly houses” in order to sell them for a profit. The original home was undervalued because of its various flaws; the refinished product is intended to have good return on investment. The proliferation of television shows, magazines articles and websites devoted to “flipping” houses demonstrates the wide appeal of this business.
Long ago, Nehemiah was interested in renovating an “ugly city,” the once great city of Jerusalem. He wanted to address a condition of disrepair and confusion in Jerusalem, but his deeper motives and his leadership skill in so doing still have much to teach us today.
It was King David who consolidated power among the tribes of Israel and made Jerusalem the center of its government. His son Solomon added to its greatness by building a magnificent temple there. Following Solomon’s death, the kingdom divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In both kingdoms, ungodly kings rose to power and allowed idolatry and abhorrent practices to flourish in the land. In 722 BC, Assyria invaded the northern kingdom of Israel, effectively wiping the that kingdom from existence.
Jerusalem, which remained the seat of power for the kingdom of Judah, became filled with such wickedness and evil that the judgment of God fell on it. In 586 BC the Babylonians finally breached the city walls, following a siege of 18 months. The Babylonians ransacked the city and the temple and took all the leaders and skilled workers into captivity. The city’s state of massive disrepair still existed in the time of Nehemiah, some 140 years later.
While the Jews were in captivity, the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians in 539 BC. Cyrus, ruler of the Persians at the time, permitted any of the Jews who wanted to return to their ancestral homes to do so. But there were, like the members of Nehemiah’s family, who chose to remain in Persia.
Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes, who ruled from 465 to 425 BC. Nehemiah 1 describes what happened in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes reign, which would have been 445 BC. Nehemiah received news from his brother, Hanani, about the sad state of affairs back home in Jerusalem.
“Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” Nehemiah 1:3)
Deeply troubled, Nehemiah responded with tears, fasting and fervent prayer. He confessed his sins and the sins of his fellow Jews and begged the Lord to honor his promise to bless his people if they turned from their sinful ways. He also asked the Lord that he might receive favor from the king, which involved Artaxerxes’s granting permission for him to travel to Jerusalem and lead and effort to repair the wall and the gates of his beloved city of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah’s request included protection for the journey and also provisions of supplies needed for the planned projects. The king did, indeed, grant Nehemiah’s request, but Nehemiah knew that any favor he was shown ultimately came from the Lord. When Nehemiah arrived, he gave the territory administrators the letters from Artaxerxes that verified the king’s support for the undertaking. They also confirmed that the king had allocated the resources needed for the rebuilding effort.
I. Surveying the City: Verses 11 to 16
The journey from Susa, the capital city of the Persian Empire, to Jerusalem was nearly 1,100 miles. A daylight walking pace of two miles per house for six days per week (resting on the Sabbath) means a trip of about three months. After his arrival, Nehemiah rested for three days. The three days provided some needed rest after such a long journey. The break also gave him the opportunity to plan his strategy, an approach he would use again before confronting another problem.
Nehemiah news that not everyone was on board with his plan. Thus the best way to examine the city was under cover of darkness with only a few others. Perhaps his companions were residents of Jerusalem who knew the layout of the city or maybe some trusted advisors from Persia who could offer counsel. Nehemiah was secretive about his intention to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gates. Disclosing his plans too early could put the entire enterprise in jeopardy, so he bided his time to gather information. His sense of appropriate timing was a quality that made Nehemiah a capable leader.
What he found was the remnants of the devastation that had taken place 140 years earlier. The scene was very much in keeping with what his brother Hanani had described to him. Nehemiah’s survey of the walls and gates must have disturbed him. It’s one thing to hear a report of destruction and quite another to see it firsthand. Nehemiah returns, retracing his steps and re-entering through the same gate where he had started.
Still Nehemiah had said nothing to the officials or the Jews of Jerusalem about what he was planning to do. In these initial stages, there was wisdom in gathering information and considering his plans carefully without questioning a large group of people about the strategy needed to address the required repairs. To have revealed his plans too soon may have resulted in immediate negativity — a “we can’t do that” attitude.
Assessing the Situation
The Sunday school lesson author tells how he served as an administrator and professor in Christian colleges for many years. In each one, they assessed their work. There was regular peer review of teachers’ classes as well as student input about their classes. External and internal auditors scrutinized financial operations. As Christian colleges, they asked individual and church supporters whether they were fulfilling their mission. All of these assessment tools helped them carry out the mission of providing excellence in education.
Nehemiah’s first step toward rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall was assessing the damage caused by the Babylonian siege many decades earlier. The Bible encourages us — by example and command — to assess our personal spiritual condition. How does doing so prepare us to serve Christ?
II. Summoning the Leaders: Verses 17-18
Nothing is said about the span of time between Nehemiah’s excursion and this meeting. Most likely he convened it as soon as he could, given that the condition of the wall left Jerusalem vulnerable to attack. Even though it had been that way for many years, Nehemiah must have made a decision that the time for planning and for secrecy was past. It was now time to get to work.
In addition to providing physical protection, a strong wall provided an emotional bulwark as well. The city was the object of derision and mockery in its current state. Think of your own home. Leaving it open and in disrepair tells people something about the value that you place on it and on what is inside. Jerusalem was the holy city, the site of God’s temple. It needed to be maintained in a way appropriate to this distinction.
Nehemiah used the first person plural pronouns “we” and “us” to identify himself with those who were concerned with the dismal condition of Jerusalem. The solution as he saw it was of practical value. Rebuilding the wall offered protections well as going a long way toward rehabilitating the feeling that Jerusalem itself was in ruins. Three considerations determined where ancient cities were built: (1) access to water, (2) access to trade routes, and (3) defensibility. A great city needed all three! A city without walls was vulnerable to enemy armies.
Nehemiah was speaking to people who may have become rather skeptical about God’s plan and purpose for them and for the city. Over the years since the return of the exiles from captivity, various attempts to rebuild Jerusalem had been thwarted.
His proposal at first may have sounded like just another plan that would fail and simply add to the people’s disillusionment. But when he spoke of “the gracious hand of my God on me,” he offered reason for new hope of success. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s hand represents the work God does in the world.
When Nehemiah came to the Lord in prayer after hearing about the condition of Jerusalem, he noted how the Lord had redeemed the covenant people, of whom Nehemiah was a part, with his “mighty hand.” Opposition had stymied previous rebuilding attempts, but now Artzxerxes had given his approval and full support to the work. Even so, the true king, the King of kings, was the one in ultimate control of his people’s welfare.
The people responded with, “Let us start rebuilding,” which must have emboldened Nehemiah and lifted his spirits. The fact of God’s powerful hand leading and blessing does not eliminate for human hands to do their part. He prefers to work through people instead of just accomplishing his purposes all on his own.
III. Scorning the critics: Verses 19-20
Still, three men are identified as rising up to oppose Nehemiah’s plan. They are Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab. Any worthwhile undertaking for the Lord is bound to encounter opposition of some kind. Consensus is desirable, but it is not alway achievable.
The word “Horonite” may indicate that the first man is from Beth Horon, a town about 12 miles from Jerusalem. Although he is probably part of the northern Israelite tribe of Ephraim, this man always opposed Nehemiah’s work on behalf of Judah and Jerusalem. I wonder if there might be a note of envy in Sanballet’s opposition. The northern tribes had been given their share of the promised land, but they had separated from the southern tribes of Judah and had lost their inheritance when the Assyrian army conquered Israel.
Tobiah is identified as an Ammonite official. The Ammonites were enemies of the Israelites, and Tobiah is no exception. He was related by marriage to some of Nehemiah’s companions and had many supporters among the Jews.
Arabians like Gesham were a Transjordan people. During this period, they engaged in a lot of trade and commerce, and so Gesham may have seen any program to promote the welfare and prosperity of the Jews as a threat to his business dealings.
The three combine to ask what Nehemiah and his supporters are doing. They question if they are really rebelling against the king. Such an accusation had succeeded in halting an earlier rebuilding effort by Ezra (Ezra 4), but Nehemiah now has the full backing of the king. He knew the claims of his critics were baseless.
Nehemiah does not even bother to mention the king in his response. Instead, he appeals to the authority and the “God of heaven,” who had guided Nehemiah and would not abandon him or the people. As for those in opposition, Nehemiah reminds them that they have no share in Jerusalem and no historic right to it anyway.
The Hebrew word “share” is used to refer to God’s division of the promised land among the tribes of Israel. This may be directed at Sanballet. Regarding the idea of “historic right,” Nehemiah is probably saying that none of the three has a legal claim or history to Jerusalem that would give them the authority to stand for or against his work. Nehemiah boldly drew a clear line that would remain intact despite any continued resistance directed his way.
Often when asking for help, we say, “Give me a hand with this.” An often told tale illustrates the wisdom of asking for help when a task is too big for us.
As he story goes, a father watched through the kitchen window as his small son tried to move a large rock in the yard. The boy couldn’t get quite enough leverage to tip the rock over.
At one point the father came outside and asked the boy, “Can’t you life the rock?”
“No, Dad, I just can’t do it.”
“Are you using all the strength you have?”
The boy responded, “Yes, but I just can’t move it.”
The father replied, “No, you’re not using all the strength you have because you haven’t asked me to help.”
Nehemiah was going to have, not just one rock, but a whole pile of rocks and rubble to move in order to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. But heavenly and earthly hands would give him more than enough help.
Nehemiah could have sung, as precursor to the old hymn, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Like the little boy, our efforts matter, but they will not succeed all on their own. If we ask our Father for help, he has us and every task he gives us in his hands as well. Fervent prayer on the part of Nehemiah played a vital part.
God, give us your powerful hand! Without it we are weak; with it we have strength to overcome any obstacle. Let us rise up and build your church, confident in your promise to be with us. May our hands be strengthened for the work to which you have called us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
For our closing hymn, I thought we might try something new. The video shows all the words, if you would like to try singing along.
Today's benediction is from the New American Bible, Revised Edition.
Next week's lesson will be on Lamentations 5.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.