Tackling the task together
Sunday 9th June, 2019
Resuming Nehemiah’s Story (2:10)
When we interrupted Nehemiah’s story last Sunday, things were going well for him. He set out for Jerusalem with the blessing of King Artaxerxes. He carried letters of authority from the king, was accompanied by a military escort and was authorised to take timber for building from the king’s forest. More important even than these things, Nehemiah saw that behind them lay the reality that the gracious hand of his God was upon him. But I commented last Sunday that this did not mean that everything was going to be easy for Nehemiah. This is confirmed by the very first verse of this morning’s passage – read 2:10.
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.”
Neh. 2:10 NIVUK
Nehemiah has powerful opponents. Our knowledge of these two men is not extensive, but they were clearly men of influence, and it seems probable that they were governors under Persian authority of Judah’s neighbouring territories of Samaria and Ammon. It is understandable that they might see the rise of the territory of the Israelites as a threat to their own territories. And Nehemiah, who enjoyed the favour of King Artaxerxes, was a rival to their own influence. So what was Nehemiah to do? And what might these men, with their followers, do to him?
Nehemiah Responds to Opposition (2:11-18)
Nehemiah could have told himself that his opponents were too powerful and the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem was too difficult, and he could have given up and returned to Susa. But he didn’t. Or he could have told himself that God was with him, and so plunged into the task without planning or caution. But he didn’t. This is what he did: read 2:11-12.
“I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.”
Neh. 2:11-12 NIVUK
He acted decisively but carefully, taking three days to get ready, then going out at night with only a few men and only one horse. Nehemiah was not deterred by powerful opposition, but he took wise measures to circumvent the opposition. And he proceeded systematically to survey the walls and the gates, thus preparing well for the task of rebuilding. Read 2:13-15.
“By night I went out through the Valley Gate towards the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then I moved on towards the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and re-entered through the Valley Gate.”
Neh. 2:13-15 NIVUK
At this early stage, he avoided drawing attention to himself. Read 2:16.
“The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.”
Neh. 2:16 NIVUK
He prepared secretly by involving only a few trusted men in what he was doing. He made sure that he fully understood what the task of rebuilding the walls involved before he spoke publicly about it. But it wasn’t a task to be carried out by a few men, it was a task for many, so when he was ready Nehemiah spoke publicly. Read 2:17-18a.
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.
Neh. 2:17-18A NIVUK
Here we are given a glimpse of Nehemiah’s leadership style. He was honest with those whom he led, stating plainly that they faced a daunting task.Nehemiah did not make light of the ruined walls or the gates which had been burned. But he didn’t speak uncertainly or timidly. Rather he called the people without hesitation to their task, and motivated them by saying that this was the way to wipe out their disgrace. And he encouraged them by sharing his own story, a story which showed that God had his hand upon Nehemiah, and upon those prepared to follow him. And Nehemiah’s leadership bears fruit – read 2:18b.
“They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.”
Neh. 2:18 NIVUK
Here at the beginning we see that Nehemiah was a good leader. But he was not alone. God’s gracious hand was upon him. And he was not alone at the human level either. When he surveyed the walls he only had a few men with him, but he did have a few men. And when he was ready he called for the help of many men, and at least some women too, as we will see. Chapter Three will show us just how many people were needed in order to rebuild the walls of a great city. But first there is just a little more of Chapter Two to consider.
Opposition Continues (2:19-20)
God has brought Nehemiah all the way from Susa to Jerusalem to carry out a great task. And now God has spoken through Nehemiah to many other people, and they have committed themselves to the task, to “this good work”. So God now sweeps away all opposition and all difficulties, and the task becomes easy. Is it not so? No, it is not. Read 2:19.
“But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?’”
Neh. 2:19 NIVUK
Sanballat and Tobiah, those men of power and influence, are still opposed to the building of the walls. And they have been joined by Geshem the Arab. He was probably the leader of Arab people who lived to the south of Judah, and a Bible Dictionary which I consulted suggests that he may well have been the governor of a Persian province in this region. The opposition to Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls has become even more formidable. So what is Nehemiah’s response? Read 2:20.
“I answered them by saying, ‘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.’”
Neh. 2:20 NIVUK
Nehemiah is not deterred by powerful opposition. He is not deterred because his God is with him, and his God is “the God of heaven”, the great and awesome God who is king over all the earth. He is not deterred because he is not the only servant of this awesome God, but stands alongside many other servants of God. And he is not deterred because these leaders of the surrounding territories have no right to determine what will be done in Jerusalem, God’s special city.
The Honour Roll of God’s Builders (3:1-32)
We now come to Chapter Three, and you will be pleased to hear that I don’t intend to read all thirty-two verses aloud. This is one of those chapters of the Old Testament, like the genealogies, which we struggle to read without losing concentration. But this is not how the first readers would have felt.
Nehemiah wrote this account himself, so the first readers would have been close in time to the events recorded. Some of them would have found their own names in this chapter, and many of them would have found the names of people who were important to them, such as the head of their family at that time, or a generation earlier.
Even as time went by, Jewish readers would have recognised the names of famous ancestors and of towns where their ancestors lived. But Chapter Three of Nehemiah still has important things to say to us. One is simply the size of the task and the size of the work force.
By my count, the work of rebuilding the walls is divided up among forty separate groups of workers. I tried to discover the length of the walls in Nehemiah’s day, but without success. But I did find a map of modern Jerusalem, the walls of which seemed to be about eight kilometres in length. We may call this book “Nehemiah”, but the task of rebuilding the walls was not carried out by Nehemiah alone, or even by Nehemiah and a few picked men.
This was a huge task, carried out by a huge work force. This chapter also records for us the varied character of the workers. First in place of origin. We are told that some of them were able to work on the wall right near where they lived.
On several occasions we find comments like these: “Jedaiah son of Harumaph made repairs opposite his house” (v.10) and “Benjamin and Hasshub made repairs in front of their house; and next to them, Azariah son of Maaseiah, the son of Ananiah, made repairs beside his house” (v.23).
But we are also told that many of the workers lived outside the city walls, some as far as fifteen or twenty kilometres away. Eight such places are named, including some familiar from other biblical stories, namely Jericho, Tekoah, Gibeon and Mizpah. There is also great variation in occupation and social class. There are rulers of districts and half-districts; there are priest and Levites; there are goldsmiths and perfume-makers; and there are merchants. There are prominent citizens and obscure, unnamed people, and the only group singled out for criticism is a group of nobles – read v.5.
“The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.”
Neh. 3:5 NIVUK
There is even some variation of gender. Probably most of the workers were men, but we are told that some were women – read v.12.
“Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.”
Neh. 3:12 NIVUK
There were many people, and there were many differences between them. But they worked together on the one great task.
Chapter Three of Nehemiah reminds me of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians about the church. In each local church varied people with varied gifts come together to serve God, and to serve one another. Leaders are important, and it is important that we choose well in choosing leaders within this church, including in calling a new pastor.
But Eastwood Baptist Church will only become all that God wants it to be if everyone contributes to the life of this church. We don’t need any “nobles of Tekoah” here, people who won’t contribute actively to God’s work. I don’t mean that everyone should do the same amount of work, or the same kind of work.
I do mean that God values the service of every person, and that each of us is meant to serve according to our capacity. This very much includes serving in prayer. We may or may not face human opposition if we seek to make our church effective in sharing the gospel, but should expect that Satan will put obstacles in our way, obstacles which will need to be opposed by fervent prayer.
It is good to respect the Nehemiahs in our midst, but not to think that only they are worthy of our respect. Let us all commit ourselves to serve God with whatever gifts and abilities we have, here at Eastwood Baptist Church and wherever we may go in the future.