Nehemiah 1–3. To Build the Wall.
Key anotes: Nehemiah gets the wall started. The nature of the spiritual wall that we must build. The holes in the wall: post-modernism; inclusivism; the Openness of God; the Jesus Forum; sexual anarchy.
The book of Nehemiah completes the work that the exiles started 90 years before, when they laid the foundations of the temple.(Ezra 1–10). The temple was started in 536BC, three years after Cyrus’ decree, and finished in 516BC. The work stopped there. It is now 446BC and Jerusalem is still in ruins, with individual houses repaired, but the city unprotected. Who will continue the work?
Nehemiah is the author of this book. It is unusual for an OT book to be signed. More than half of the text is his personal record. The first two chapters are expanded into a story.
1:1–3 Nehemiah was in the Persian capital city of Susa. His brother Hanani came from Jerusalem describing disheartened exiles and a broken city, with burned gates.
1:4–11 He cried, fasted and prayed, confessing the sins of Israel, and reminding God of the covenant He had made to scatter them if they were unfaithful, and to re-gather them if they returned to Him. He begged God for His attention and for success before the king.
1:11 He was King Artexerxes’ cupbearer. The cupbearer was the wine-taster, finding the best wine, testing it to assure its goodness, and in the process making a bright moment in the king’s daily life. However, if someone should attempt to poison the king, he would die first. He was likely tall, handsome, cheerful, with great communication skills. He was in a position to be the king’s confidante. He was a member of the royal retinue but without governmental responsibility. He was also a Jew, a captured slave, probably a eunuch, without personal rights or hope of freedom.
2:1–8 Four months passed. He did not allow his feelings for his homeland to be seen during that time. Finally, one day he appeared to the king looking downcast. He had decided to gamble. If he was rejected and dismissed for being morose, or because his request was denied, he could be jailed or executed. If he was accepted, he would win hope for his people. We might wonder if it was worth the risk of losing a plush job and perhaps his life.
“A king’s wrath is like the growling of a lion but his favor is like dew on the grass.” (Prov.19:12)
“A king’s wrath is a messenger of death….” (Prov.16:14)
“The King’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He will.” (Prov.21:1)
His rapport with Artexerxes was excellent. The king enquired after his health. Nehemiah had a shiver of fear. Then he replied that he was sad because the city of his fathers’ sepulchers was in ruins. [He did not mention Jerusalem by name; that might have had a political connotation. He spoke of his fathers’ graves, making an emotional appeal.]
Artexerxes asked what he wanted. Nehemiah prayed an “arrow” prayer. "Help me now." He asked to be sent back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. Artexerxes asked how much time he needed. He had accepted Nehemiah’s plea.
Nehemiah gave a time (?10 years). Then he asked for letters of introduction, and authorization to get timber from the king’s forest. Artexerxes gave him what he wanted. He was also given an armed guard. The hand of God was upon Nehemiah--and Artexerxes.
2:9–10 His trip and arrival were uneventful except that Sanballat, governor of Samaria, and Tobiah, the king’s servant who ruled Ammon, were upset that anyone would come to the aid of the Jews. Their names are used in ways that suggest contempt. [We note that the Samaritans had not attempted to take over the city.]
2:11–16 After three days [needed to get rested and cleaned up from the journey], he made a secret trip around the city, inspecting the wall. In one place, rubble blocked his path.
2:17–18 Nehemiah then described to the leaders how God had helped him with Artexerxes. He mentioned the disgraceful condition of the city and made a motion to build.
2:19–20 Sanballat and Tobiah, and Geshem who was in charge of the Arabian territories, challenged their loyalty to the king. Nehemiah pushed them away: God will make us prosper. We are his servants. You have not rights here.
3:1–32 This chapter lists the workers in order, going around the wall counter-clockwise, starting and ending at the north-east corner, the Sheep Gate. (See Figure.) The people were not stone-masons. They were priests, goldsmiths, women as well as men, district rulers, perfumers, temple servants and merchants. Some were residents in Jerusalem and were working at the wall adjoining their houses. Others came from towns as far away as Tekoa, about five miles south.
The subject is wall-building. This passage is often used by churches that are planning construction projects. But we may also think of applying the text to other than literal walls.
Wall and fences define space; they are barriers to outsiders, protection for insiders. Some walls need to be taken down. Fear, suspicion, pride, selfishness, prejudice and all sorts of psychological defenses like denial, forgetting, and blame-shifting need to be taken away.
If we as Christians are building a non-physical wall that has high priority, what might it look like? What wall separates us from non-Christians? It is not our good behavior. That should be a door, an attraction to come in. Jesus is The Door, the way in, into the fold. It is not the Bible. The Bible is our data base, material evidence, stuff to build with, bricks and mortar. What is it that separates us from non-Christians? It is Doctrine, the Faith, our Theology.
Doctrine defines what a Christian is. It is the wall that separates us from non-Christians. Doctrine tells us who God is, where the world came from, the nature of the human problem, who Christ is and what He has done for us. Doctrine describes the Church, the collected people inside the wall. And Doctrine tells us where it will all end up.
But isn’t doctrine for experts who teach in seminaries? Doctrine is too good to be left to the professionals. We must all learn the basics and be able to dscern when we hear errors of fact. J.I. Packer, F.F. Bruce and John Stott are excellent resources; we should read them, and weigh what they say about Scripture. Collectively, the evangelical theologians convey the truth to us.
Moreover, the wall has large holes in it. The Faith is always being eroded and is in need of patches and shoring up. Five current attacks weaken the structure. We will not spend time discussing the general drift of Evangelicals toward liberalism, with its tendency to deny the supernatural. That is the subject of many books and articles.
(No Place for Truth. D.F. Wells; Eerdmans,’93).
*Postmodernism. Modernism teaches that truth can only be known by experience. Postmodernism teaches that truth is not an objective reality. It resides only in communities. Each community has its own truths, values, and legends, including the scientific community. Communities try to impose their truths on others, and in so doing oppress them. When Christians try to evangelize, they are imposing their power on others.
Christian believe that God’s revelation is objective truth, verified by archaeology, history and personal experience. In that sense we are like modernists. Postmodernists are suspicious of anyone with convictions. Perhaps at least we can get some of them to listen while we try to tell them our story, which they think of as our legend.
What shall we say? Jesus teaching His disciples, said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me." That is categorical, and briefly, that is our case. But our story is the Life of Christ and we can tell stories of Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Peter and the disciples.
*Inclusivism. This is an answer to the question about how God will deal with those who have never heard the Gospel. It is a solution to an unsolved problem, an appealing way to deal with a frequently asked question.
“I became convinced, much to my own surprise, that God may save people whom He does not reach with the Gospel." “Salvation is accessible where God chooses to apply the work of Christ by his Spirit, and he can do that even where new covenant revelation is not known.” (T.L. Tiessen’s interview in IVP Academic Catalog, Spring-Summer 2004, p.51)
“I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ.” ”He is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in Heaven”. –Billy Graham.
“What, what I hear you saying, that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they have been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you are saying? “ –Robert Schuller.
“Yes it is.” –Billy Graham .
(Evangelicalism Divided. I.H. Murray; Banner of Truth, 2001; p.73–74)
We must be careful when we challenge a spiritual leader, an evangelist known all over the world, arguably the most outstanding Christian of the 20th century. He has obviously struggled with this issue over his lifetime. But he is giving us an opinion without Scriptural backing. All we know from the Bible says the opposite. The mandate of Matt. 28:18 to go into all the world is the driving force that leads missionaries to risk their lives to preach the Gospel in the worst places on earth.
We can go back to the Proverbs:
"Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say 'Behold, we did not know this,' does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will He not requite man according to his work?"
Ezekiel was given a mandate by God:
"...If I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you shall surely die', and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand." (Ezek.33;8)
Paul also struggled with the problem of evangelism.
“But how are men to call upon Him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without a preacher?
And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Rom.10:14–15).
But then he is quite explicit:
"...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom.10:9)
"And there is salvation in no one else for there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." ( Acts 4:12)
And God used several resources to bring a godly centurion to Christ because his prayer and giving alms was not enough. Peter had to be upset by a vision; God sent an angel to Cornelius and a special delegation to Peter.
The answer is clear. Go and leave the rest to God.
*The Openness of God or Free-will Theism. Some theologians are exploring OT statements that God changes his mind, and has feelings of joy and anger. They have come to a position that is between orthodox theology which emphasizes God’s power and fore-knowledge, and process theology which thinks that God is learning, changing, evolving with the universe. It is an interesting area to explore, but the danger of heresy is great.
Free-will theists believe that our freedom to make choices is done at the expense of God’s knowledge and sovereignty. They believe that God’s power is limited by our decisions. God does not know the future because we have not acted yet. If plan A is thwarted, God has plan B. It is an extreme form of Arminianism which emphasizes free will and human effort over against predestination. (The Openness of God. C. Pinnock et al; IVP; 1994).
What does the Bible say? God is sovereign over the affairs of mankind, and His purposes cannot be thwarted. Idols vary, but they are all the construction of human inventors, including revised images of who God is and what He does.
"I am the First, and I am the Last; besides Me there is no god. Who is like Me? Let him proclaim it, let him declare and set it forth before Me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell Us what is yet to be. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And your are my witnesses! Is there a God besides Me? There is no Rock; I know not any". (Isa.44:6–8).
( See also Psa.2; Isa. 40:12–26 and many other sections through Isa. 40–49).
*The ”Jesus Forum” examines the text of the Gospels to determine what Jesus actually did and said. They conclude that most of the Gospel records are not truthful. This is only the most recent of attacks on the truth of Scripture that goes back to 1700. It seems ironic that God who created the universe and human beings in His image would be thought too weak to create a believable record of what He did and wanted human beings to know.
The Apostle John said "This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true." (Jn.21:24). He was there with Jesus; the Jesus Forum was not and they are just guessing.
*Sexual Liberation. This evil movement infests all of society. It has produced major conflicts in Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian governing bodies on the question of the ordination of homosexuals. The Catholic Church, which is officially opposed, has whole seminaries that are corrupted by homosexuality. (US News and World Report . John Leo; 6/3/2002, p.16) Abortion is being fought by Catholic and other Christian leaders with vigor. Divorce breaks about 50% of marriages, creating a younger generation that is defeated and disillusioned. Divorce almost guarantees that the parents will commit adultery.
Pornography, especially on the internet, is a serious temptation for pastors as for the rest of us. One survey has 37% of pastors struggling with pornography. ( “The Internet: Blessing or Curse for Pastors? JC LaRue, Jr.; “Your Church”, an advertising magazine, March/April, 2001; p.88). My personal survey indicates that two thirds of men have or have had a problem with pornography, and about a quarter of the women--in a devout Christian group.
Sexual sin is a universal, and destructive trap. There is an escape.
"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common in man. God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it." (ICor. 10:13)
"...abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul."
"So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love and peace...."
"Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. " (Jm.4:7)
We must pray often. We must be solidly grounded in Scripture. We should be widely read. We must be “wise as serpents…” so that we are not caught in sin.
And we must build into our children and children’s children solid blocks of truth to rebuild the Wall.