Over the past several weeks we have explored the post-exilic era of the Jews as told in the Bible. The people of God had been overthrown and carried away captive to Babylon for 70 years. But in 539 BC the Persians conquered the ruthless Babylonians and allowed the exiled people to return to their homeland.
We have already studied the first group of exiles who returned with Zerubbabel and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. We’ve also spoken about the second group who journeyed to Jerusalem led by the priest/scribe Ezra who was intent on renewing the worship of the remnant by reinstituting the proper observance of the Law of Moses.
Today we will introduce Nehemiah, who would lead a third expedition of exiles to Jerusalem. We will discover that he felt an intense burden to revive the downtrodden city by rebuilding its walls. Nehemiah also enacted several reforms to energize and refocus the people of God on the plight of others around them.
In these 3 men, I believe we can see three key elements in God’s plan for rebuilding a dying or struggling church. There must be an emphasis on rebuilding or renovating the facility, on renewing and restoring vibrant and reverent worship, and on reaching and reviving the people of the surrounding community.
Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in 445 BC, some 13 years after Ezra. These two men knew each other personally, shared many common experiences, and served several years together as leaders in Judah - Ezra as the high priest and Nehemiah as the governor. Both men were commissioned by King Artaxerxes, who himself was quite sympathetic to the Jewish cause.
Turn in your Bibles to the book of Nehemiah. We will be reading from chapters 1 & 2 this morning. Our outline has five major points - Nehemiah’s Burden, Nehemiah’s Prayer, Nehemiah’s Request. Nehemiah’s Journey, and Nehemiah’s Preparation.
I. NEHEMIAH’S BURDEN (Nehemiah 1:1-4, 11c)
Nehemiah was the son of Hacaliah, a Jew by birth. He lived and worked in Susa, the capitol of the Persian Empire, where he served as the cup-bearer for the king. He is the author of much of the book Nehemiah, though it was likely added to and compiled by Ezra.
Some men came from Judah to Susa, where Nehemiah served in the king’s court. He asked them about the state of affairs in Judah and they told him that things were not going well for the Jewish remnant living there. They informed Nehemiah that the city’s wall was “broken down” and its gates “burned with fire”.
Like Ezra had done, when Nehemiah heard of the desperate condition of the city his first response was heartfelt prayer, fasting, and mourning. His intense grief went on “for days”. We can learn from his example that our first response to trouble and hardship should be prayer!
II. NEHEMIAH’S PRAYER (Nehemiah 1:5-11b)
Nehemiah began to pray, including himself in his confession, acknowledging that both he and the Jews had sinned against God by breaking His law. He didn’t make any attempt to sugarcoat or downplay their actions.
Nehemiah recalled the enduring faithfulness of God, who promised to gather the scattered exiles, bring them back to their homeland, and restore their nation - that is, if they first returned to Him and were obedient to His commands.
Nehemiah could not allow things in Jerusalem to remain as they were. He felt that he must go there and rebuild the walls. Of course, this meant that he was going to have to ask the king for permission. He prayed that the king would be agreeable to his request.
III. NEHEMIAH’S REQUEST (Nehemiah 2:1-8)
For some reason, Nehemiah was fearful that the king might not grant his request. Up until this point, he had kept his mourning a secret. But his sadness showed on his face and in his actions, and the king picked up on it. There are many people around us who live silently in sadness. We need to be more perceptive of their condition.
Notice that just before he asked permission to return, Nehemiah said a quick prayer. Have you ever done that? He had put off approaching the king for 4 months and was liking very nervous, but when the moment came God gave him the boldness to speak. The king agreed to let him go, but only for a limited time after which Nehemiah was expected to come back to work.
Nehemiah had initially been hesitant to speak to the king, but now that he had received the king’s favor he also asked for the assurance of his safe passage to Judah and for the provision of timbers to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem. The king readily agreed. All of his fears had proven to be unfounded. Isn’t that often the case with us? Scripture teaches us not to worry - God has everything under control.
IV. NEHEMIAH’S JOURNEY (Nehemiah 2:9-10)
Nehemiah and those with him were sent with a military escort. When they arrived, they informed Sanballat and Tobiah of the king’s commission to rebuild the walls. Both of these officials were upset that Nehemiah had come seeking to help the Jewish exiles. Unlike the first 2 expeditions of Zerubbabel and Ezra, those who came with Nehemiah are not listed.
V. NEHEMIAH’S PREPARATION (Nehemiah 2:11-20)
Three days after his arrival, Nehemiah and a few others went out at night to inspect the walls of Jerusalem in order to get an idea of how badly they were damaged. He did not tell anyone what he was doing or why.
After seeing the damage, Nehemiah knew what needed to be done. So he announced his plan to the people and invited them to join him in rebuilding the city’s wall. The people cheerfully accepted his invitation.
Before they even began the work, the officials of the region “mocked” and “despised” them. Nehemiah shook off their ridicule and told them that the wall would be rebuilt regardless of their displeasure. He further stated that this was his homeland, not theirs, and that they had no say in the matter.
The wall that surrounded Jerusalem had provided more than simply protection from outside enemies. The security it offered alleviated fear and created a brighter atmosphere within the city. Walled cities were generally more prosperous and vibrant during ancient times than walless ones. They held a place of distinction and honor.
Symbolically speaking, the wall represented the safeguarding of God. The hedge of protection that the LORD had placed around Jerusalem had been removed - both literally and symbolically. The enemies of God had free reign and access to the inhabitants, and were causing significant damage.
As Nehemiah looked around, he saw a city in great despair. It was without walls, defenseless and vulnerable to the enemy. He knew something had to be done. That said, what do you and I see when we look at our city today? Isn’t it also in great need? The Enemy freely comes and goes as he pleases. Something still needs to be done, and we as believers are the ones to do it. We have to carry the hope of the Gospel to our city - to “rebuild its walls” by sharing the message of Jesus Christ with our neighbors.