It has only been one week since we were together and taking one final look at Ezra. Today we are starting our new study of Nehemiah. You’ll find the two books right next to one another, Nehemiah follows Ezra, but between those two thin pages in your Bible is almost thirteen years of history. How had things gone in Jerusalem since we were told about the sad scene of 110 Jewish men holding their foreign wives who worshiped other gods for the last time before they were separated, and sent away? Thirteen years is a long time. That’s long enough for change to come…isn’t it? Had God’s people recommitted themselves to worshiping the Lord, serving Him among those in the city who didn’t know Him? How had things changed in Jerusalem? Had anything changed in Jerusalem? Let’s read Nehemiah 1:1-5 together and see what we can learn.
1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 3 They said to me, “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.” 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:1-5 NIVO)
Thirteen long years. What we had hoped for is not what we’ve been told. We had hoped to get a report of how the city was thriving, how the people were prospering back in the Holy City, and how the Lord’s name and fame were being proclaimed all across the region, but that’s not what was happening thirteen years later. Instead we’re told that God’s people were in “great trouble and disgrace.” The wall around the city of Jerusalem was broken down, the gates in the walls had been burned with fire. And when Nehemiah heard the news he sat down and wept. He wrote, “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”
Before we go any further I need to introduce you to Nehemiah. Who was Nehemiah? Nehemiah tells us that he was the son of Hacaliah and he was in the citadel of Susa. He’s not in Jerusalem. He had never been to Jerusalem. It was the year 445 B.C. when Nehemiah got word about the dreadful situation in Jerusalem. That’s 150 years since Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army had invaded Jerusalem and carried so many of God’s people living in Jerusalem back to Babylon. One hundred and fifty years. Generations had been born and died in Babylon since the devastating defeat. It had been almost 100 years since the Persian King Cyrus had given permission to the Jews to go back home when he conquered the Babylonians. Zerubbabel had led about 42,000 Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem to reestablish the worship of YHWH God in the Holy City.
It had been about thirteen years since Ezra left for Jerusalem from Babylon with the singular task of teaching the Word of God to the people in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Time after time the people got their hopes up that a new day was about to dawn, but what they hoped for never materialized.
Nehemiah had never been to Jerusalem. He was born in Babylon and at the opening of the book of Nehemiah he was in the citadel of Susa. Susa was the winter resort of the Persian kings. It is located about 225 miles from the city of Babylon. Susa, modern day Shush in Iran, is over 6,000 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Susa is mentioned once in Daniel and nineteen times in the book of Esther. Susa is the place where Esther became Queen to King Xerxes in 478 B.C. in the very palace where Nehemiah would serve King Artaxerxes.
What was Nehemiah doing in Susa? That’s a great question! We can find the answer to the question in the very last verse of Nehemiah 1. Nehemiah writes rather matter of factly, “I was cupbearer to the king” (Nehemiah 1:11) It is an amazing statement. The office of “cupbearer” doesn’t mean anything to most modern-day people so let me let you in on a little secret–the cupbearer was the king’s most trusted servant. The cupbearer made sure that the king’s cup wouldn’t kill the king. One of the greatest threats to ancient kings was that someone would poison the king’s food or drink. The cupbearer tasted the kings food and drink before the king so that if it was poisoned, the cupbearer and not the king would die. The cupbearer title was given to someone who was unquestionably loyal and trustworthy. How did a Jewish boy named Nehemiah rise to such an important position in the court of a pagan king? No doubt it was the Providence of God and the impeccable integrity and loyalty of Nehemiah. We will learn so much more about Nehemiah during the next few weeks of our study, but we can get a glimpse of Nehemiah’s heart in verses 1-5.
Did you notice how Nehemiah responded when he got word from his brother Hanani and the other men who had come from Jerusalem about what was happening in Jerusalem? Nehemiah sat down and wept. For some time his days were filled with mourning, fasting, and prayer before the Lord. Nehemiah was broken over the news about the “great distress of the people back in Jerusalem. It’s a response that we need to really stop and think about. Remember, Nehemiah had never been to Jerusalem, he was living in the lap of luxury as the king’s right hand man, and he didn’t have a worry in the world. Why would he be so torn up over what was happening more than 800 miles away in Jerusalem? Well, there are at least a couple of reasons we should think about. First, the Jews knew Jerusalem as the Holy City of God. Even though they were in Babylon, it was Jerusalem that was the City of God. We can get a glimpse of Nehemiah’s heart for his people and Jerusalem by reading what the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 137.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. (Psalm 137:1-6 NIVO)
Even though the people of Jerusalem had been in Babylon for so long that generations had been born and died there, there was still no place like home…Jerusalem. Nehemiah and the other jews in Babylon loved Jerusalem, they wanted the city and the people to thrive because they wanted God’s name to be exalted and glorified throughout all the earth.
There’s another reason Nehemiah was broken over the horrible news coming out of Jerusalem and that is he was compassionate, his heart broke for others. Nehemiah was living the life in Susa, that’s for sure, but he had family members, friends, people who were once neighbors, and fellow Jews that he had never met before who were enduring tough, tough times back in Jerusalem and it broke his heart. The scene of Nehemiah breaking down in tears reminds me of another story I read in God’s Word. It was the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry when the crowds were shouting His name and praising God that Jesus wept over the city. Turn with me to Luke 19:41 and let’s read together.
41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace– but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44 NIVO)
Jesus wept over the people of the city because of the hardships that were coming in the future because they would reject Him. Nehemiah wept from a distance because of the hardships being endured by the people of God for so many years now. It was not supposed to be this way. What the people hoped for, longed for, had turned out quite different than they had imagined and it was crushing to Nehemiah. The Hebrew word that is used to describe Nehemiah weeping is “??????” (bakah) and it is used to describe how Ezra and the crowd around him wept when they heard the news about the men of Jerusalem. Turn to Ezra 10:1 with me and I’ll show you.
1 While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites– men, women and children– gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. (Ezra 10:1 NIVO)
It is the same word that is used to describe what happened to Hagar when she and Ishmael had run out of water in the desert of Beersheba. Hagar knew they were going to die so she sat her little boy under one of the bushes because she couldn’t bear to watch him die. Then we read in Genesis 21:16,
16 Then she went and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she said, “I can’t bear to watch the boy die!” So as she sat nearby, she wept loudly. (Genesis 21:16 CSB)
I get the impression that it wasn’t simply a tear that trickled down Nehemiah’s cheek. He was a broken man. He fasted, his heart was so heavy, and he prayed…for himself and for those in Jerusalem. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been studying the first chapter of Nehemiah this week. Compassion, empathy, and entering into the sorrow and trials of others is a mandate from Scripture. Can we take a look at this for a moment? I think it is such an important part of Jesus’ call on the lives of those who follow Him that we have to sit down and think about this for a moment. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia.
2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2 NIVO)
We are to carry each other’s burdens. What does that look like? What kind of burdens did Paul have in mind when he wrote those words? I can tell you exactly what he was thinking when he wrote this to the folks in Galatia because, in verse 1, he describes someone who is “caught” in sin, someone who is ensnared in sin, bound up in sin. Paul calls the man’s brothers and sisters in Christ to “gently restore them.” Then he follows his direction with verse 2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This mandate of Paul’s is so counter-cultural in our day. Have you noticed how we love to idolize those who are larger than life, until…until their flaws become visible. When they mess up, when they sin, then the media pulls out their hooks to drag them through the streets. It’s not just high profile people who are branded with the scarlet letter, it happens to those who are not so well known as well.
The burden of sin is one area where we need the help of our brothers and sisters, but it isn’t the only burden we face in this life, it’s not the only burden that weighs us down, which requires the help of others. When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, it would be the last correspondence he would write in his life. Paul was chained and in prison, awaiting his execution. Paul wrote,
15 You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. 16 May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. 17 On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. (2 Timothy 1:15-17 NIVO)
Of course everyone deserted Paul. He was charged as a criminal. The Romans were going to execute him. You want to risk being seen with someone like that? Do you know the risk you’d be taking to go and see Paul. Yet, Onesiphorus knew he had to help carry his brother’s burden so he risked it all.
Just one more story and then we’ll move on. In Acts 9 we learn about a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas. She was one of those ladies like some of you that I’ve known for so many years. Luke describes her as “always doing good and helping the poor.” Let’s pick up the story in Acts 9:36.
36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” 39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. (Acts 9:36-39 NIVO)
God raised Dorcas from the dead, but what I want you to notice is who was in the room with her when Peter arrived. “All the widows stood around him…” They were Dorcas’ friends, they were there to help carry her burden.
Connie and I went to a GriefShare sculpting on Tuesday night of this past week. Bob Willis did such an amazing job of helping those who are grieving. He helped carry the burden of those who worked the clay and wiped their tears. After I left I was thinking about Lisa and Mike Curtis and the countless people they have helped in their grief. People they’ve known and that they had never met until loss brought them together. We are called to be like Nehemiah, “Nechem-yah” in Hebrew, which means “YHWH comforts” or “the comfort of YHWH.” We are called to be like the widows who were with their friend Dorcas. We are called to be like Onesiphorus who risked it all so that Paul would know he was not alone in that prison cell counting down his days. More than being like these saints we are to follow the One who is called “Immanuel,” God with us.
Nehemiah didn’t simply weep, he also prayed. We don’t have time to take a look at Nehemiah’s prayer in detail this morning. I want you to go home and read it over and over again before next Sunday when we will take a deeper look, but there are a couple of things I’d like to highlight for you. Look once again at Nehemiah 1:4 with me.
1 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4 ESV)
When did Nehemiah pray? He tells us, “As soon as I heard these words…” His tears and mourning were mixed with prayer. And when did he stop praying? He tells us he continued to fast and pray before the God of heaven. Oswald Chambers wrote,
We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all. Most of us would prefer, however, to spend our time doing something that will get immediate results. We don’t want to wait for God to resolve matters in His good time because His idea of ‘good time’ is seldom in sync with ours. (Oswald Chambers)
Nehemiah was a man of prayer. There is hardly a page of the thirteen chapters of Nehemiah where one of Nehemiah’s prayers or the mention of Nehemiah praying is not mentioned. The longest recorded prayer in the Bible is Nehemiah’s prayer, it’s found in Nehemiah 9. Other prayers are short, like the one in Nehemiah 2 where we have no idea what Nehemiah prayed, but it took place in the midst of his conversation with Artaxerxes. Take a look at Nehemiah 2:4-5 with me.
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:4-5 NIVO)
How long was that prayer? A sentence? A breath? “Help me Lord.” “Give me the right words Father.” Which kind of prayer gets heard by God? How long must we pray before God hears us? It has been said that Martin Luther prayed for at least two hours each day. Nehemiah’s prayers are a great comfort to me. Some are long, some are simply a few words. What I learn from Nehemiah is that prayer is sharing our hearts with God. Prayer is a quiet waiting on God. Prayer is an expectation that God hears and will act in our lives. Paul wrote to the people of Thessalonica,
16 Be joyful always; 17 pray continually; 18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIVO)
Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He was not a monk who was cloistered in a monastery somewhere. He had a job to do. It was an important job, a demanding job. Nehemiah worked for the king, a king who didn’t share his faith and had no regard for prayer, but still Nehemiah prayed.
Nehemiah was a man of prayer because he knew that only God could turn around the situation in Jerusalem and only God could change the king’s heart. How about you? Are you smooth sailing across the seas of life, then you probably aren’t praying like Nehemiah. Are you unconcerned about those around you, at least not concerned enough to weep and fast over their distress and burden, then you probably aren’t praying like Nehemah. It is my prayer that during our study of Nehemiah the Lord will open our eyes to our great, great need for Him. I’m praying that during our study of Nehemiah that God will burden us for others who are in distress, they are all around us my friends, and that He will so stir you and me that we will do something. Henry Blackaby once wrote,
Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes–all the time! It must be that way, for God’s glory and kingdom. If we function according to our ability alone, we get the glory; if we function according to the power of the Spirit within us, God gets the glory. He wants to reveal Himself to a watching world.
I love that. God wants to show you and me His glory, His faithfulness, and His great love my friend. As we turn page after page of Nehemiah’s journal we will see how God showed Nehemiah each of these. He wants to show you and me as well. I want to invite you this morning to humble yourself and cry out to the Lord. If you’ve never asked Jesus into your heart, if you’ve never given Him the reigns of your life, then won’t you do that this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
February 2, 2020