The Lord's Day Evening
November 9, 2008
“The Finished Project”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Please be seated. Now turn with me once again to the book of Nehemiah. We come this evening to a transitionary period in the story. The wall and building project in Jerusalem has now been completed, and we are going to segue in a week or two's time into what will be one of the most outstanding days of blessing and revival, and an extraordinary sense of God's presence, as we come to the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. Before that, however, as you can see, in chapter seven there are more names! But before we read tonight's section, which is the end of chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 7, let's look to God in prayer. Let's pray.
Father, we thank You that we live in a time when we can have the Bible in our own hands. We have many versions. Some of us probably have several copies of the Bible in many different editions in our own homes, in our car, at the office, on our cell phone or iPod or electronic gadgets. We are surrounded every day by the potential of being able to hear and read the Scriptures. Lord, we confess that perhaps we know the Scriptures less than our forefathers did who barely had one copy of it in their home. And we pray tonight again as we read the Scripture together, as we study it together, we want a love for the Bible. We want to love it more than our necessary food. We want to taste its sweetness, sweeter than the honeycomb. We want to experience once again the way in which it provides light to our path. We thank You, Lord, for breathing the Scriptures out, for giving to us a Bible that is infallible, inerrant, Your word to us; that in every aspect of our lives in our homes and families, in the way that we respond to the current economic crisis and everything else in between, there are principles in the Scriptures to help us. So tonight as we go back more than 2400 years ago to a small community, an embattled community in Jerusalem, we want to identify with them. They are Your people and we are Your people. We and they alike need to hear and to do Your word. Now bless us as we read it together. Help us once again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now our reading begins in verse 15 of Nehemiah 6, and you’ll find it in your pew Bible on page 402:
“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah's letters came to them. For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid.
“Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many. And I said to them, ‘Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.’ The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.”
Amen. May God bless to us that reading from His holy word.
Now the section begins with a date, the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, and all we need to know is that that is somewhere around the beginning of October. You will remember that there was another date way back at the beginning of chapter 1, and then another one at the beginning of chapter 2. The one in chapter 2 is important because that's the date when Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem, and that was somewhere in March-April of the same year, 445 B.C. Six months have gone by. They had been six months of defensive maneuvers, of inspection, of planning, and recruiting and motivating, and challenging. And sometimes the work went on, and sometimes the work came to a stop, especially when Sanballat and Geshem and Tobiah and other enemies of the people of God were threatening to do them harm.
The wall was finished in 52 days. It's not clear what that exactly means. Obviously it doesn't mean that the entire wall was completed from beginning to end in 52 days. It looks as though the wall, at least parts of the construction of the wall, began as soon as they returned, and it may be that this 52 days is a reference to what occurred from the end of verse 14, when the plots and schemes and connivings of the previous section that we were looking at last Sunday evening… once that had been dealt with, another 52 days now transpired and the wall was finally finished.
This wall, you know, has been found this year, in 2008.1 For many, many years now unbelieving archeologists and unbelieving Bible commentators have been having fun with the book of Nehemiah saying of course no such wall exists and this is just pure fantasy. Now God in His providence has proven them to be the fools that they are — fools in the Bible sense: he who knows not God is a fool, in the Bible sense. And this wall has been discovered. You can do an internet search. Just type in “Nehemiah's wall”, I guess, and look for the year 2008 and you’ll probably see pictures of it. I'd love to go and see it. It's not a great piece of architecture. They’re just stones, really, upon other stones. There are better walls. There are more beautiful walls. I imagine the wall of China, the Great Wall of China that you can see from space, is a much greater piece of architecture than this particular wall of Jerusalem.
That's not the point, you understand. The point is that in many respects this was God's wall. These were God's people. This was God's city. This was God's plan. This was God's purpose that was unfolding before their eyes. Jerusalem, at least in this period of the history of redemption, is at the center of all things. That changes of course when we come into the New Testament where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free. But in this period of the history of redemption, Jerusalem is the center of all things. This is where God is present in a way that He wasn't present anywhere else in the temple, in the services and worship of the temple. This was what it was all about.
And God has raised up a leader, Nehemiah. And I want us to see, as we were seeing last week, and I want to continue thinking about Nehemiah in particular as a leader. I want us to see three things.
1. Nehemiah's God-centered leadership.
I want us to see first of all the God-centered nature of his leadership. Now this wall…you know, this isn't one of the great feats of engineering that you might see on a certain channel. On Discovery Channel there is a certain program about great feats of engineering — I'm becoming something of an addict! Just the sheer immensity of some of these projects that seem to last for years…the latest one was digging a tunnel somewhere in Alaska, I think. Well, this isn't one of those great projects. Notice what Nehemiah says in verse 16: that
“When all our enemies heard of it…” [the finishing of this project, the building of the wall] “…all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”
First of all, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemies. We've seen it now on many occasions: folk who threatened the work; folk who despised the Jews because of their privileged position as part of the people of God. Nehemiah must constantly work in the face of trouble and in the face of opposition. We’ll see tonight that once one opposition dissipates another comes in its wake. There never seems to be a period when the church of the Old Testament isn't troubled in some form or other by enemies and hostility, by difficulties within and without. It's no different today. It's no different for the church of the twenty-first century. Those of you who are leaders, in particular those of you who are office bearers, we need to be aware of that. Every Christian needs to be aware of that, but every church leader especially needs to be aware of that. Shepherds of the sheep need to be aware that there are enemies, enemies seeking to undo the work of God, enemies seeking to bring down the purposes of God.
The second thing here in this section of God-centered leadership is that there is a turn in this reversal of affairs. I love this! This is God doing something that's quite wonderful and quite extraordinary.
What have these enemies been doing? They've been trying to make Nehemiah afraid. They've been trying to make the Jews in Jerusalem afraid. But what has God done? Well, He's made them afraid. When these enemies heard that the wall had actually been finished, “all the nations around us were afraid.” Fear has come upon them. The balloon of their pride has been pricked. They have “fallen greatly in their own esteem.” There are always proud and arrogant leaders of nations. Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem…they were minor figures on the political scene, to be sure, but there are great princes of the world — Nebuchadnezzar, boasting that he had built this kingdom by his own power and by his own strength. You only have to turn on the news. In the last couple of days there have been a couple of world leaders venting their strength and their spleen and testing the nations, and particularly this one. There's nothing new in it. And here we see what God can do. Not what man can do, you understand; not just what Nehemiah can do; not just what the people of God can do: but God has done this, and that's what Nehemiah wants us to see. He wants us to focus on the fact that “this had been accomplished by the help of our God,” and even their enemies knew that. They saw that in Jerusalem and with Nehemiah, and among the people of God, that there was something extraordinary taking place. God was with them. The God of creation was with them, the God of the exodus was with them.
That's a wonderful thing, when unbelievers are suddenly conscious that among the people of God is the true God. They’re not believers, understand; they’re not acknowledging this God in any shape, way, or form; they’re not bowing down to Him, they’re not knocking on the gates of Jerusalem wanting to know the way of salvation. But they do know that God is, and that He is among these people. That's an extraordinary thing, and Nehemiah, you see, as a leader wants to acknowledge that. He's writing his memoirs for posterity. How does he want to be remembered? He wants to be remembered as one who gave all the glory to God. He wants to be remembered in the future — he's a politician, you understand. He's an ambassador. He's the governor of Jerusalem. He's subject to the king of Persia, but he wants to be remembered as one who gave all the glory to God, all the honor to God. All that had been done, every part of it, every aspect of it, all the details of it, all the triumphs of it were all by the hand of Almighty God. That's the first thing: this God-centered leadership of Nehemiah. He's a man, it seems to me, who was infused with God. He was God-shaped and God-centered, and his conversation was about the Lord, and his life and ministry and even his vocation was all about the Lord. And, oh, for such leadership here, here at First Presbyterian Church, for godly leadership of that nature.
II. Nehemiah is tested.
The second thing I want us to see is the testing of his leadership. This is not just God-centered leadership, but it's tested leadership.
You notice that Nehemiah tells us about Tobiah in verse 17: “Moreover, in those days….” Actually the sense of it means something a little stronger than that. Nehemiah is saying just as the wall was finished something else was also going on. We've met Tobiah before. We met him in chapter 2. We met him at the beginning of chapter 6. He's a cohort with Sanballat and Geshem. He's the leader of Ammon, one of the neighboring territories around Jerusalem.
Now Tobiah has two things in his armory which some of you can readily identify with. The first is a good marriage. You know, he's, as my mother used to say, “he's married above his station.” It makes him look better. He's married among the nobility of Jerusalem. His wife is part of the in-crowd, the hoity toity of Jerusalem. And not just him, but his son…oh, we needn't go into all of the technicalities of who this looker was that he’d married —“the daughter of Meshullum the son of Berechiah as his wife.” This is his son, now, has married somebody among the hoity toity in Jerusalem.
You know, I was at the barber's the other day — it was a quick visit for me, you understand! But I always have to wait, so it turns out sometimes to be a longer visit than it needs to be. And there was one of these Jackson magazines, you know, with pictures. A lot of you were in it! [Laughter] I flicked over the pages and I thought, “Oh, there's So-and-So… and did he realize that when he was at this function that his picture was going to be taken?” You may know what I mean. But Tobiah was in that magazine…you know, whatever that magazine was for Jerusalem, all the big functions among the nobility - the Welsh word would be Crachach — the hoity toity of Jerusalem, he would be there. And his son, his family would be there, because he has connections among the nobility of Jerusalem.
Now hold that thought in your mind for a minute. And you understand now where all of that is going. Well, you do. Blood is thicker than water. When Nehemiah is criticizing Tobiah, and criticizing Tobiah Nehemiah did, the nobility are saying, “What right has he got to criticize one of us? You know he's married into the family now, so he's one of us now.” You understand all of that.
But there's a second thing, because in verse 18 it gets a little more complicated: “For many in Judah were bound by oath to him.” Now that's technical speak for the fact that the hoity toity, the big-wigs in Jerusalem, were actually engaged in business associations with Tobiah. It may be the loan shark thing that Nehemiah has been criticizing. So there are business connections and family connections. You understand all of that. You know where family connections go. It goes like this: Blood is thicker than water. You know what business connections do: Business is business, right? I mean, ‘Who cares what this man is? Who cares about his shady past or the fact that he's been threatening the people of Israel? Actually, he hasn't been threatening the people of Israel at all. He's just been threatening Nehemiah, and maybe, maybe Nehemiah deserves to be threatened, because who is he anyway? He's just a Johnny-come-lately. You know he's only been here six months. He's not really one of us. He wasn't born here. He didn't have a house here. He doesn't have family here.’ (Well, maybe he does. He does have Hanani. We’ll come to him in a minute.) But you understand.
And then there are letters. Oh, letters can be so hurtful. Letters between Tobiah and the nobility in Jerusalem, and letters between them and Tobiah, and it looks as though Tobiah (at the end of verse 19) is sending Nehemiah letters — letters to make him afraid. It sounds, doesn't it, like the seeds of a military/political coup, a coup d’йtat, that some of the nobility of Jerusalem are now giving their allegiance and their affection and their loyalty to Tobiah and not to Nehemiah. You thought politics was dirty in 2008? It's just as dirty here. Politics — and I think there's a lot of politics going on here.
The point of course is that leadership is being tested. Nehemiah is being tested. He's being shunted off to the side. You know - ‘The wall is finished now; we don't need Nehemiah; he was useful to motivate us to get us to build this wall, but maybe we don't need him anymore.’ And all of a sudden his leadership, his position in Jerusalem is being tested. I imagine at the business Rotary lunches in Jerusalem there were whispers of take-over and of ousting Nehemiah, and a need for new leadership. Leadership is being tested.
There are 35 officers-elect here tonight who will be installed in two weeks’ time in the church. Let that be a lesson to you that you will be tested. You will be tested, and Satan will find a little nook or cranny in your life to test you, to test your loyalty to Jesus, to test your loyalty to the word of God, to perhaps bring you into alliances that are less than honoring to the people of God. It wouldn't surprise me one little bit. The devil would just love that. You know, the devil…don't give him too much power, and certainly don't give him too much wisdom. He only has a few strategies in his armory and he uses them over and over and over again.
III. Shared leadership.
Well, there's a third thing that I want us to see, and that is a sharing of leadership. Not just the God-centeredness of his leadership and not just the testing of his leadership, but in the first four verses of chapter 7, the sharing of his leadership. He appoints middle management, that's what he's doing. He has to make wise choices because he can't do everything. The wall is now finished, and now attention has to be given…and there's a little hint of it at verse 4, that no houses had been rebuilt. Now if ever there was a sign of discontent and the potential for real trouble and difficulty for Nehemiah that was it. It was one thing to build a wall, but now their homes have not been rebuilt. They’re living in sub-standard homes and you know what that's going to bring. It's going to bring grumbling. It's going to bring complaint. It's going to bring charges of unfairness. After all, Nehemiah was living in the governor's mansion, paid for by the Persian king. So if ever there was a sign of trouble to come, there it is. And Nehemiah senses that he has to share leadership.
Now what does he do? Notice with me what he does. You know the stories about choirs. Well, if you don't, I'm not the one who's going to tell you. But Nehemiah does something very daring here. He puts the choir to work. He puts the choir members, the singers, the gatekeepers…now these are the gatekeepers of the temple, but he's putting the gatekeepers of the temple now on duty at the city gates along with the singers and the Levites. It's a curious thing.
Why would Nehemiah put temple singers, and Levites who were associated with the singers and helped in temple administration…why would he put temple folk on duty at the gates of the city? Perhaps to keep them occupied, but perhaps also to send a signal that not just the temple was holy, but the whole city was to be holy; that worship wasn't just to be done at a certain time in a certain location like 8:30 on a Sunday morning and that's it; that worship was to be done in the entirety of the city, day and night, at work and at play, at home and in the workplace. And how better to send that signal than to send the temple choristers to guard the city gates, so that as people (and you know there were houses outside of the city)…as people came in and out of the city by day, they would perhaps see and perhaps even hear the singers singing at the gates of the city. What a beautiful thing that would be! What a little picture that is of the new Jerusalem, where there's a whole lot of singing, and where everything is holy unto the Lord!
Then he appoints two people. One is called “Hanani, my brother” and the other Hananiah. Now we've said before, we've met Hanani before. Hanani was the man who made that covert mission to Susa when Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king Artaxerxes. He made that four-month journey from Jerusalem to inform Nehemiah that things weren't well in Jerusalem. Hanani may well be his blood brother.
Now, do you see a problem? He's appointing in charge of the city in middle management his own brother. You can see the charge of nepotism coming, can't you? But Hanani was being rewarded, too. You know none of this would have happened if it hadn't been for Hanani. If he hadn't come in the first place, none of this would have happened, and Nehemiah is rewarding him. The other thing of course is that he could trust his brother, and you've seen — at least you should have by now — that there are enough things going on that may call trust into question, and he needs somebody in middle management that he can trust.
The other person [and I love this] is a Hananiah. And Hananiah is described as the governor of the castle. Now what castle? Or citadel? This is where the Persian troops — you understand this is part of the Persian Empire now — and the Persians would have had troops somewhere in the city, over which Hananiah was the governor. You know, he's the chief of police. He's the head of military operations in Jerusalem. What a brilliant choice to look after some middle management that involves safety and security!
It's not just that. You notice two things, two essential qualities in leadership that Nehemiah sets down. “He was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.” What do you need for good leadership? Faithfulness. Loyalty. Trustworthiness. And the quality of being God-fearing. You know, John Witherspoon, one of the cosignatories to the Declaration of Independence, wrote “It is only the fear of God that can deliver us from the fear of man.” Well, there was plenty abroad in Jerusalem to create the fear of man, and what better person to have in charge than Hananiah, who feared the Lord more than he feared man?
Now one more thing that they were asked to do...well, it's not clear what they were asked to do. On one version of it they were not to open the gates until the sun had arisen: “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot.” That's how the ESV translates that. Now you have to know that not all translations agree with that translation. The ESV has gone for that one. If that's the correct translation, it means the gates were shut in the morning and somewhere around noon time the gates were opened.
If that's the right interpretation, what Nehemiah is saying is keep the world outside in the morning. Why would he want to do that? Perhaps because one of the things that Nehemiah sees for the community of the Lord's people is they need to work on being the Lord's people. They need to understand what being the covenant people of God actually means in practice, and one of the best ways to do that is to keep the world outside for a little time. And maybe Nehemiah was saying to them, ‘You know, in the morning let's concentrate on being the people of God that we ought to be.’
Now there's another interpretation that says the exact opposite, and the other interpretation is that what he was actually asking was to shut the gates at noon. Why would he do that? Because at noon it was hot, and this was after they’d eaten their lamb for lunch and it would be siesta time and they would be falling asleep, and there would be a period of perhaps military danger. So shut the doors at noontime. But let's go with the ESV translation, since it's the one before us: they were to work on being the people of God.
You know, five days from now — in the story, that is — the most extraordinary thing is going to happen. You've been following Ezra and Nehemiah now for several months, and you've got to get excited about this. You've got to work yourself up to a pitch about it, because it's coming! It's one of the most extraordinary days in the life of Israel, when God comes down. God breaks into their community in a way that He had rarely done before. They stood listening to the Bible being read for three or four hours. Now maybe that's not such a sign of blessing to you, but that probably says more about your heart than you’d care to think. God came down in revival and blessed them, owned this work that Nehemiah was doing. And you know, my prayer…and let's make it our prayer that God would come down again, and He would come down and shake the very foundations of our existence and cause us as He did for a brief moment of time in the life of Israel at this period in 445 B.C., caused them to see Him in a fresh way, and with a love and a worship and an adoration for Him and His word that went beyond the bounds of normality. And, oh, for such days again!
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We thank You for this passage. We do pray for ourselves, and pray for those in places of leadership and influence within our own church, tested and tried as they are going to be and are; we pray that You’d make us a people who love You and serve You, and follow after You and fear You. We ask it, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
- Nehemiah's wall
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