Introduction – when was the last time you were genuinely moved?
We live in a noisy culture. Everyone is competing for your affection, your time or your money. The windows of attention are so small that most people have decided that there is no time to make a reasoned argument about why, say an Audi is better than a Mercedes, or Miller Lite better than Budweiser. Instead they try to touch your emotions. They would have us believe that it is not what is under the hood of a performance car that is important but that it sets you free and makes you an extraordinary person. Buy this beer because every time you pop open a bottle a party breaks out. These notions are absurd, of course, but it is the best way to move you.
When was the last time you were authentically moved by something you heard or experienced? I say “authentically” because I am not asking about how you felt after a movie, YouTube video or commercial but if you were ever affected by something outside of all this noise. This is how the Book of Nehemiah starts. A successful man working as confidant to the king hears something about his homeland that breaks his heart and changes the direction of his life.
The Situation – The people of Jerusalem are suffering despite the return from exile
It is end of November 446 BC and Artaxerxes has been in power for twenty years. Artaxerxes is King over the Medo-Persian Empire and Nehemiah works is a cup bearer, one of the trusted inner circle. Here is what happens.
1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:
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 had 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.
The people of Israel became a nation when Moses led them out of Egyptian slavery and into the wilderness (Deut 27:9). It was here that they swore allegiance to their God and received his law. A generation after Moses, Joshua led the nation into Palestine – the Promised Land — between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan and Dead Sea. David was their greatest King but after his death and after the Golden Age of his son Solomon, the nation spilt into two small vulnerable nations. The southern kingdom was called Judah and the northern kingdom, Israel. As the face of international power changed, Assyria became the dominant force. They attacked and destroyed the northern kingdom. They were eventually overthrown by the Babylonian Empire lead by Nebuchadnezzar. The Babylonians attacked and destroyed Judah, flattening Jerusalem and destroying the temple. The Ark of God, the most sacred object in the nation, was lost forever.
It is hard to overstate how devastating this was for the nation of Judah. Its most promising young men and women were taken away to captivity. Its wealth plundered, its population killed captured or scattered. The people felt great fear and confusion. They could not understand why their God would allow this. Was he not strong enough to protect them from pagans? The disorientation they felt is similar (but much deeper and widespread) to what we all felt after 9-11. Vulnerability, fear, confusion, anger. It was at this time that they wrote 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!”
The Jews were confused but they should not have been. The agreement between God and the people of Israel (the Bible calls it a covenant), said that God would give the Jewish nation extraordinary protection and blessing as a way of demonstrating his power and character to the world. The people, though, needed to live according to the law of God. This meant obeying some laws that seem merely cultural yet remained binding like kosher and Sabbath commands, as well as others that are the foundation of justice for any people – honesty, marital fidelity, impartial courts, protection for those with no money or influence. If the people stopped obeying, they would no longer be distinctive. Their purpose would be lost and God would not only stop blessing them he would allow their nation to be destroyed by foreigners. God’s law and God’s prophets were very clear about this. Look at Deuteronomy 28
63 Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess.
64 Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known.
God would discipline his people with captivity and exile if they failed to obey him. This was his promise but it was not his only promise. There was also hope embedded in this warning. God’s plan was never to destroy the nation completely but to discipline them, lead them to repentance and then back to the Promised Land.
30 When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes[a] and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back.
God did bring his people back. He guided the geo-political landscape according to his will. Babylon was defeated by the Medo-Persians and their king Cyrus. When Cyrus died Darius took the throne and it was his policy that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. This was a joyous time, one that God had prophesied and assured the people would happen. This is when they wrote Psalm 126
A song of ascents.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
The people returned 14 years before the conversation in Nehemiah 1 and the temple was rebuilt. So why was Nehemiah still in the land of exile? He was there because he had never known anything else, and because he had a very important job: cupbearer to the king. The cupbearer was one of the most trusted people in the kingdom because he handed drink to the king. This access to the king and the continuous opportunity for assassination meant that he had to be extremely trustworthy. It was a job of privilege which is probably why Nehemiah was still there. Still, he was Jewish, so when friends came from the rubble of Jerusalem he inquired about the people there. What he heard unexpectedly broke his heart.
Nehemiah was not being propositioned by the men from Jerusalem, but the news they shared cut Nehemiah to the core and convinced him that he must do something. Notice how he responds.
Nehemiah’s response: he brought his discontent and sorrow to God in prayer
5 Then I said:
“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
I was cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah feels deep sorrow so he turns to God in prayer. He is feeling powerful emotions and a desire to do something. But is his passion God’s passion? Does God want him to do something? This is a question which Nehemiah asked and which all people must ask when they are moved by suffering to do something. Look at his prayer.
He begins with confession. Nehemiah knows that the people are in exile because of their own sinful actions. He confesses the sins of the people and his own sins as well.
He placed his passion within the larger history of God’s people. In short he looked to see where his story and God’s story met.
He prays God’s promises back to God. God has promised to bring the people back from captivity. God had done that but the people were still not safe. Nehemiah asks God to hear his prayer on behalf of God’s people.
Here is a man in the middle of a successful life, a gifted administrator and a leader. His heart is broken at the notion that people are suffering and his pain leads him to prayer. It opens him up and allows him to see more of God. Notice that Nehemiah’s view of God grows as he prays and he begins to understand his place in God’s story. He suffering does not diminish it his faith or his love. They grow as he prays and as he allows himself to feel empathy, sorrow and concern.
What does it take to feel like this? What does it take to knock you out of the stupor that you are in and allow you to feel? Have you ever been with someone who broke down and cried? Have you ever been with someone when you broke down and cried and if so what was it about? Authentic, not manipulated emotions are often the first step in God’s calling.
Nehemiah is touched and he prays. We will see this story unfold in the weeks ahead. Next week we will meet a modern day Nehemiah, a man whose life has been altered by his compassion for those in the inner city. He saw where his story and God’s story met. Then we will look at the steps we must begin to take once our hearts are opened up. After that we will see how we all work together in this mission. But for now, let us be attentive to what God is doing in us. Are you willing to let God touch your heart?