Today: [Nehemiah One] How to Respond to Bad News. In this chapter we are introduced to Nehemiah. He is one of the most powerful men in Persia – serving as the king’s cupbearer. He receives a report from Jerusalem just 10 years after Ezra’s time that the city of Jerusalem is in ruins and the people in jeopardy. What he does next is a lesson for us all regarding how to respond to bad news when it comes.
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[Neh 1:1-11 KJV] 1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace, 2 That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and [certain] men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province [are] in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also [is] broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.
The events of the book of Nehemiah take place 550 years before John the Baptist stepped out on the banks of the Jordan and identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. 400 years silence between the testaments casts a deep shadow over this final chapter of the biblical history of the Jewish people. Nehemiah is in the threshold of the last final gasp of piety of the people of God as a nation. The next time we see Israel as a nation in the biblical narrative they are crying out for the crucifixion of their Messiah. The walls are down and the gates are burned with fire not only metaphorically but spiritually as well.
Nehemiah was a high official working in the Persian court under Artaxerxes II. At this time Judah is not a nation but simply an 800 square mile province in the Persian empire. To give a timeline we see Zerubabbel and the first returnees coming to Jerusalem about 536 years before Jesus. Their purpose is to rebuilt the temple. 60 years pass and Ezra shows up with a much smaller 2nd group of returnees. Ezra finds the returned exiled community in disarray and institutes reforms which we covered in the last chapter of Ezra. Note: in the intervening years between Zerubabbel and Ezra’s separate arrival we will fit into our timeline the story of Esther covered later.
Now when Ezra showed up 60 years after Zerubabbel things weren’t going well. He institutes reforms and writes the books of 1-2 Chronicles and Ezra which we have as part of our canon today. You might wonder how things went after this. 10 years later Nehemiah shows up. The walls are destroyed and the city is burned with fire. Ezra for all his zeal has failed in his mission. 1000 years before this Moses had come on the scene leading the people out of Egypt. Now 400 years before Jesus it the walls are destroyed the gates are burned with fire and Nehemiah working in the palace 100’s of miles away gets the grim report.
4 And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned [certain] days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven, 5 And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: 6 Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.
Now Nehemiah is hearing all of this from the comfort and luxury of the king’s palace. He is the cup bearer to the king himself. Many times people who are failures at everything else “get religion” and decide to do something for God. Nehemiah was one of the most powerful men in a world empire. He had everything to lose thinking of doing any other than what he was employed in at the time.
When Nehemiah inquires of the people left in Jerusalem they are called “survivors”. They are not liberators or returnees. They are not pioneers they are the ones who are left that haven’t fallen prey to the ravages of time, foreign enemies and assimilation back into the pagan cultures around them. In essence the report given to him is “yes there are a few survivors in Judah but the city of Jerusalem is a veritable ghost town…” Remember in those days an unwalled city was of no value at all. Unwalled cities were mere backwater communities incapable of retaining any value or building an economy because they were vulnerable to every bandit, every marauding nation to come and pillage them at will.
In making the comparison we might ask what is God saying to us that we can extract as wisdom for our own situation in Christian culture. The writer of Hebrews calls the church the heavenly Jerusalem. What are the condition of our walls? Are our gates burned with fire? Walls are a clear and unbreachable boundary separating Christian culture from the culture of the world. When the lines are blurred and the secular world encroaches upon our values at will as it is today then we know that our walls and gates are nonexistent. Christianity as we know it – as a religious culture is in danger of becoming little more than an obscurantist, historical anomaly whose cathedrals we visit once in a while as it is today in Western Europe.
Nehemiah’s reaction to the news is similar to Ezra’s. Originally Ezra and Nehemiah were one book. The difference is that Ezra was in Jerusalem at the time and Nehemiah is in the king’s court at Babylon. To show shame-facedness or sorrow before the king could be a death sentence. Nehemiah was taking his life in his hands to allow himself to be so openly grieved. Nehemiah also chooses to fast and to pray. He doesn’t immediately try to implement some reform or other project. His first resort is to pray. No doubt he is panicked. No doubt he knows that time is of the essence. How many times have you gotten bad news and the last thing you thought you had time to do was pray? This tells us something of Nehemiah’s character before God and something of our own character if this is not our response when getting bad news.
8 Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, [If] ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: 9 But [if] ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, [yet] will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. 10 Now these [are] thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. 11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.
Nehemiah’s prayer is different than other prayers we could read about. Elisha’s prayer on the banks of the river was quite different. Nehemiah humbled himself but Elisha shouted in almost defiance “where is the Lord God of Elijah…” Nehemiah is recognizing that if this situation can be changed only God can change it. He doesn’t have to prove it to himself. He doesn’t have to come to the end of himself. Though he is one of the most powerful men in a world empire he knows how powerless he truly is and he cries out to God. The story of Nehemiah is one of prayer and intercession. It is the same with Ezra. Ezra and Nehemiah teach us to pray in the midst of monumental, even epic problems that we may find ourselves in from time to time. Let your first resort be to prayer and then wait upon God to make a way.
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