Nehemiah: The Good Hand of God

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on April 18

Nehemiah 2:1-8

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If you would turn with me back to the book of Nehemiah tonight; Nehemiah chapter 2. It can be found on page 398 in your pew Bibles. And we looked last week at Nehemiah chapter 1 where Nehemiah heard the report about the shame and the trouble and the distress in the city of Jerusalem and he was broken down with sorrow and he turned to God in prayer and fasting before he turned to the king to ask for the king’s help. Now this chapter tonight is about that interaction with King Artaxerxes. And it’s about Nehemiah receiving the permission to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild the city and to make a place for God’s name to dwell to bring glory to the name of God.

The question for us tonight is, “Who is responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem? Nehemiah? Artaxerxes? Or God?” And the answer, of course, is “Yes. Yes.” It’s Nehemiah’s plan, it’s the king’s command, and it’s God’s good hand that are all responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem. In fact as we get further along in the story we’ll find that it’s the whole people of God who gather together and unite and they rise up and they build the city walls. And it’s as one commentator said, explained it, that the major theme, the overall theme for Ezra and Nehemiah is that “God works sovereignly through responsible human agents to accomplish His redemptive purposes.” And that’s exactly what we’re going to find in this passage tonight – is that God works sovereignly through responsible human agents to accomplish His redemptive purposes.

And what these verses teach us tonight is so significant for understanding what God is doing in our own lives and also in the world around us, but also what God is doing in all of history as He is bringing together His redemptive purposes in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And that’s a lot for us to see from just a few verses of Nehemiah tonight. So let’s go to God in prayer and ask Him to help us as we read His Word.

Father, we give You thanks for Your good hand upon us, that Your good hand is upon Your people. And we ask that You would guide us and direct us into all truth and wisdom and knowledge and understanding, that we would grow in our faith and that we would see Your grace and Your love and Your power. We ask that Your Spirit would open our hearts and our minds to hear, to have ears to hear and to understand what You have to say to us tonight that we would see Jesus; that we would see His kingdom and His reign. Speak Lord, for Your servants listen. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Nehemiah chapter 2. Starting in verse 1:

“In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, ‘Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ Then the king said to me, ‘What are you requesting?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.’ And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), ‘How long will you be gone, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.’ And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

Now this might look like a bunch of preliminary details and governmental affairs, but really this is Hebrew storytelling at its finest. There is an amazing amount of variety and creativity all throughout the Bible, whether it’s in the telling of the historical events like we have with Joseph or with Ruth or with Esther, or whether it’s in the parables of Jesus and the story of the good Samaritan and the story of the prodigal son. These are the greatest stories ever told. “The narratives of the Bible are brilliant literary works with mind blowing depth,” is the way one writer put it. And this passage is no different. There’s structure and there’s contrast and there’s repetition and there’s reversals and there’s humor and there’s a surprising end, all of which is meant to grab our attention and to draw us into what’s happening and to bring us to a greater wonder and awe of God and of His power and of His wisdom. So let’s look at this story in a little more detail.

What we find here is that this chapter picks up around four months after the events of chapter 1. These four months Nehemiah had spent praying and fasting. It was in the month of Kislev, in November or December, that he heard the report about the destruction of Jerusalem. Now we come to “the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.” So this is in the spring of 445 BC and the reign of King Artaxerxes. King Artaxerxes was the most powerful man in the world. It could arguably be said that he was perhaps one of the most powerful men in the history of the world. He was a part of the Persian empire and he was the king of the empire for forty years. And part of his territory was this province called “Beyond the River.” In that providence, Beyond the River, was Jerusalem. And in fact, Ezra tells us in the book just prior to Nehemiah that Artaxerxes had absolute control over the flow of people in and out of Jerusalem and over the events that took place in that city. If you look in the bulletin there is a map that’s provided there today. You can see the distance from Susa to Jerusalem. It was around 900 miles, and that’s just a part of Artaxerxes territory or his dominion. The Greek writers of this day called Artaxerxes “long handed” or “long armed” because of the far reach of his power.

And as a Persian, Artaxerxes was a follower of Zoroastrianism. Now Zoroastrianism is the worship of a god, Ahura Mazda, which is where the car company gets its name. And it was the official religion of the Persian Empire. I won’t go into many details about Zoroastrianism, but I did come across and article in the BBC from a few years ago that said that “one could well argue that the cosmic battle between the light and dark sides of the force in Star Wars have Zoroastrianism written all over them.” And that’s what this religion is in the Persian Empire that Artaxerxes is a follower of.

And so here’s this contrast that’s set up in the very beginning of this passage. You have Nehemiah and Artaxerxes. Nehemiah, he’s a Jew. He’s a member of God’s covenant people and God’s covenant promises. He’s a member of this broken down and humiliated people that are in Jerusalem. He’s a member of this people among whose province is in the King Artaxerxes’ power and he worships the LORD. Nehemiah worships Yahweh, I AM, the great and awesome God, the God that is the same yesterday, today and forever; the living God. And Artaxerxes, he’s a Persian, he’s a Gentile. He is at the top of this great empire and he is a follower of Zoroastrianism. And then there’s Nehemiah. He’s a servant. He’s the cupbearer to the king. Artaxerxes, he is the king. And so there is this wide gulf between these two men. They are separated economically, ethnically, religiously, politically, everything; whatever you can divide someone by, they are divided. There is this wide gulf between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes.

And then on top of that, Nehemiah is sad. He’s downcast. He’s heartbroken over the conditions of his people in Jerusalem. And Artaxerxes is in a place of joy and comfort. We read in verse 1 it says, “In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king.” Wine is a representation of the banquet table. Wine is all about fruitfulness and feasting and enjoyment. Nehemiah is not having any of it. He’s in no mood for it. His sadness is this deep sadness and it’s obvious to the king. It’s all the more obvious to the king because this is an occasion for enjoyment and festivity. And so you have this contrast between these two individuals, between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes, and what happens in the exchange between the two of them initiates the rebuilding of Jerusalem and reverses Nehemiah’s condition altogether.

Now it’s hard to notice as we read through these verses in a paragraph form, but actually the dialogue between these two men breaks down into six equal parts. The king speaks three times and Nehemiah speaks three times. And in the first half of their conversation, it’s a preparation for Nehemiah to make his request. And in that part of the conversation, Nehemiah is still sad. In fact, it says in verse 2 that he was afraid. Verse 2, when the king asked him why he was sad, “Then I was very much afraid.” It was his job as the servant of the king not to be sad in the king’s presence. And when the king points out his sadness, he was afraid.

I saw a chart the other day that said that the overlap – it was a very over simplistic chart – but it said that the overlap between sadness and fear is anxiety. And here you have Nehemiah in this overlap between sadness and fear in this passage, and throughout the first part of their conversation he’s very deferential to the king. He says, “Long live the king! Let the king live forever!” And he waits for the king to ask him to make the request before he says anything, before he puts anything out there. I think you could even say that Nehemiah undersells the significance of Jerusalem a little bit in these verses. Did you notice where two times Nehemiah refers to Jerusalem as the place or the city of “my father’s graves.” He’s talking about it as a gravesite city. It’s similar to what I saw recently – some t-shirts about New Orleans, and they’re kind of promoting the city and one of them says, has this sailing scene on it and it says, “Set Sail on Exotic Lake Pontchartrain. Escape to the Brackish Waters of Paradise.” And another one, it’s a t-shirt of City Park in New Orleans and it calls it “The Amusement Swamp.” And there’s something that’s meant to be – there’s an intentional irony there that’s even enduring about those representations.

Well that’s sort of what Nehemiah is doing here in this passage. You can’t help but laugh when he refers to Jerusalem two times as basically a city of cemeteries. It doesn’t make it sound very appealing or very significant. And to say that that’s what made it significant and special. But you notice that shortly after that everything changes, and Nehemiah goes from being very differential and retiring to being very bold and daring in what he says to the king, because not only does he ask to go back to Judah to rebuild it in verse 5, but he also asks for an official letter from the king to make clearance for his travel and, and he asks the king for supplies to rebuild the city. Verse 8 it says that he asked for “a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted it. It says that, “The king granted me what I asked.” So here you have this pagan king, Artaxerxes of Persia in the palace in Susa, he’s an outsider to the covenant promises, an outsider of the people of God, and he is the one who is committing himself to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and to bless the people of Jerusalem. Artaxerxes is doing that! That’s the last thing that you would expect from this conversation and interaction between Nehemiah and the king of Persia. And here is Nehemiah, and he goes from sadness to success. He goes from being helpless to having the authority of the king, of the most powerful man in the world.

And really the whole story, the whole story turns right there in the middle of their conversation, in the middle of the conversation between Nehemiah and the king. It’s a hinge. There’s a hinge in this story and it happens in verse 4. It’s right in the middle of the dialogue, so there are three lines of speech on each side of this part of verse 4 and Nehemiah says, “So I prayed to the God of heaven.” You see, while he’s talking to the king and before he makes his request, Nehemiah prayed. It wasn’t a long prayer. It wasn’t anything that the king even would have noticed that he had done. But right there in the middle of his appointment with Artaxerxes, right there in the middle of his sadness and fear, Nehemiah acknowledges his inadequacy and his weakness and he acknowledges his dependence upon God and he prays to God for help, for strength, for courage, for wisdom, for blessing. Whatever it was that Nehemiah needed in that moment, he made a short, brief prayer to God asking for that thing. He made this prayer before he made his request. And Nehemiah’s little “arrow prayer,” as it’s sometimes called, because it’s like he just shot up a prayer to heaven like an arrow right there in the moment, that arrow prayer is at the heart and center of this passage and it really explains everything that happens here in these verses. And it tells us why the events unfold as they do for Nehemiah and into the rest of this book.

But don’t miss the encouragement that Nehemiah’s prayer gives to us to make this same sort of prayer a part of our daily interactions and responsibilities. Spurgeon says this. He says, “Short arrow prayers are of great use to us, dear friends.” He says, “Oftentimes they check us. Bad tempered people, if you are always to pray just a little before you let angry expressions fly from your lips, why many times you would not say those naughty words at all.” He says, “I can recommend it as a valuable prescription for the hasty and the peevish, for all who are quick to take offense and slow to forgive insult or injury.” Spurgeon says these little prayers, right in the middle of what we are doing, they can go a long way for showing our dependence upon God and a lack of confidence in ourselves; they’ll check our confidence in ourselves. And they’ll keep us from being worldly. And Spurgeon has this line; it’s a line that maybe only Spurgeon could say. He says, “It would be like sweet perfume burnt in the chamber of your soul to keep away the fever of the world from your heart.” Now I’m not even sure what that really means! But this sort of prayer is significant and it’s an indication of an overall habit of a prayerful life. And it’s an overall indication of a life that is ordered under the rule of God and not according to the ways of the world.

You see, Nehemiah understands in this passage, in this episode, Nehemiah understands that this snapshot of his life is part of a bigger picture. And he understands that this story is part of the bigger story, and that is the story of God’s sovereignty, working through responsible human agents to accomplish His redemptive purposes. And you get to the end of this section, verse 8, and look at what it says. It says, “The king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.” “The good hand of my God was upon me” – God is in control of the days and the seasons. God is in control of time and eternity. He rules over all of creation and over everything that happens within His creation. God ordains and directs the affairs of His people. He is over all of the decrees and the decisions of kings and the rise and the fall of nations. There is nothing that happens outside of God’s foreknowledge and plan, and yet God is not the author of sin in any way. There is nothing that happens that does not bring ultimate glory to God and good for His people. “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass. And by His almighty and ever present power, He upholds heaven and earth and all creatures and so governs them so that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed all things come to us not by chance but as from His Fatherly hand.” That’s what The Westminster Confession and The Heidelberg Catechism teach us about the sovereignty of God.

Nehemiah recognizes that it is God’s good hand that directs the course of his life and it directs the course of the nations. God is the King and His kingdom is over all things. His kingdom is forever. If we were to think about the Persian Empire in light of God’s kingdom, it’s just a little blip on the timeline. And if we were to think about King Artaxerxes compared to God’s reign, we wouldn’t even really remember or have ever even heard of Artaxerxes had he not been recorded in the pages of God’s Word. God is sovereign and He rules over all. And so Nehemiah, Nehemiah springs into action. He’s dependent upon God and he acknowledges that any success, any blessing, any good result is the work of God’s good hand upon him and not the result of anything that he does or plans.

God’s Sovereignty is a Call to Action

And I think there are at least three things we can learn from this passage about God’s sovereignty and the way we see God working in Nehemiah’s life and among the nations and among history in this passage. And number one is that God’s sovereignty is a call to action. Nehemiah had wrestled with what to do about the problems in Jerusalem. He had done that for four months. He fasted and he prayed, he planned and he prepared, but now he was ready to go and to speak to the king. He was ready to go and enlist the king’s permission to go and rebuild and to get to work. He’s ready to get to work. And this was a completely new and a major undertaking for Nehemiah. C.S. Lewis said in one of his books that “oftentimes it is easier for us to pray for someone rather than to go do something for them. And even it’s easier for us to pray about our own sin when there is actually work that needs to be done.” Well there’s work that needs to be done now for Nehemiah and he stops praying, he stops his period of praying and fasting in order to get to work and to go to do the job God has called him to do.

My favorite part of this passage is the change that we have, the shift from verse 4 to verse 5. If you look back there, Nehemiah says, on the one hand, “So I prayed to the God of heaven and I said to the king.” “I prayed to God and I said to the king.” It’s like those two things are happening at the same time. He didn’t let his prayer be an excuse not to act, but instead, it emboldened him to go to the king and make bold requests of the king’s power. It was because he knew the sovereignty and the power of God that he was able to go into the presence of the King of Persia and to ask him for his help to rebuild the city of his people and to begin the task that he had ahead of him.

I received some junk email earlier this week and it was about some wristbands for children who are having difficulties in some way. And the message that was on the wristband is, “I Am Awesome,” as if that’s the thing that we really need to be telling ourselves is that we are awesome. Because thinking that we are awesome will not help us do hard things, but it’s knowing that God is awesome, that God is almighty and He can do all things, that will encourage our dependence upon Him and our engaging in difficult things and working for His glory in whatever we do.

Last week we left the end of that passage, chapter 1, and I asked that question, “What are you deeply burdened by and uniquely qualified to help?” And I said let’s make a list of those things this week and let’s write down the things that we’re deeply burdened by and we’re uniquely qualified to help and turn those things into a prayer list. Like Nehemiah, make those items for our prayer. But you know what, it can’t stop there. There comes a time when we must move from prayer to action and to look for the times when God is preparing us and preparing our circumstances and giving us the opportunity to do the things that He is calling us to do for His glory. God’s sovereignty is a call to action, to boldness. It gives us confidence and it gives us a boldness to do what He has called us to do.

God’s Sovereignty is Responsible for Every Blessing

Also, God’s sovereignty, secondly, God’s sovereignty is responsible for every blessing. Any success, any good result is due to the good hand of God. All credit and all praise belongs to God and to God alone. If you notice in verses 5 to 8 there’s an interesting sequence there. Verse 5 it says, “If it pleases the king” – Nehemiah asks that he would be sent to Judah. And then in verse 6 it says, “So it pleased the king to send me.” And then in verse 7 it says, “If it pleases the king that he would give him letters and supplies.” And then verse 8 says, “The king granted me what I asked for the good hand of my God was upon me.” Now if we were going to follow the pattern, it would be that he granted what he asked for because it pleased the king. And actually the word there in Hebrew, it’s the same word for “please” and “good.” And instead you get to the end and the result, what causes the king to grant the request is not because it pleased the king ultimately, because it was God’s good hand that was upon Nehemiah that set these things in action. Yes, Nehemiah and Artaxerxes contribute to the work in their own way, but God brings it all to pass and it’s God’s sovereign power and will that makes any good thing happen.

I heard a story the other day about Duke Ellington’s manager. And Duke Ellington’s manager would find a way to get his name on every piece of music that Ellington assembled. It was his way to get his name out there and to take credit in some way and to earn profits off the royalties. And you realize that we’re often the same way; that we are often about self-promotion and we’re looking to take more credit than is our due. God’s sovereignty humbles us. John Calvin says that, “The denial of ourselves is the sum of the Christian life.” Yes, it is amazing that God would use such inadequate and weak people such as us for His purposes, and all praise belongs to Him. He deserves all of the credit, all of the praise. He deserves all of the glory for it. Any favor with the king, any rebuilding of Jerusalem, any success in ministry, whatever good blessing we enjoy is the result of God’s good hand that is upon us. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give the glory,” as the psalmist says.

God’s Sovereignty Extends Over Every Political Power

And so there’s boldness and there’s humility and the third and the last thing that we see from God’s sovereignty is that God’s sovereignty extends over every political power. God’s sovereignty extends over every political power. Politics is a perpetual rollercoaster. A few months ago one of our boys said to me, “I don’t think I can take another Saints playoff loss.” And I thought, “He’s a man now! He’s become disillusioned like his dad! And tired of riding that rollercoaster!” Politics can be the same way. There’s no hope, there’s no contentment tied to the Republican or Democratic party or to any political figure our leader. Someone has even said that, “America itself is a near religion.” And too many hopes and fears and expectations and desires are attached to government leaders and their decisions. But real peace and real hope and real contentment comes from the kingdom of God. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t be engaged in the political process. In fact, one of our newest ministries is Families Count, and it’s a way to take some of the government requirements and to come alongside families that need help and to reach out into the communities where we may not have been able to reach out before. And that’s pairing ministry with government requirements.

And Nehemiah does the same thing. Nehemiah uses his connection to the king and he understands who to talk to and who he needs letters to go to in order to get what he needs. But, Nehemiah does not let his engagement in the political process take away or sacrifice from his piety and he does not misplace his faith in any way for the sake of power or for political gain. He knew, he knew the good hand of his God was upon him, and it was the good hand of his God that was over the king and over the Persian Empire as well. God’s sovereignty extends over every political power. Scratch that. God’s sovereignty extends over every power. Period.

And when Jesus was rejected by the Jewish authorities, and when He was condemned by the Roman government, and when He was assaulted by the schemes of the devil and executed on the cross, He disarmed rulers and authorities and put them to open shame. “He triumphed over them,” as Paul writes in the book of Colossians, by His resurrection from the dead. Jesus defeated death and He overcame sin to that He can extend forgiveness and grace and love and the authority and dominion of His kingdom over everyone who would come to Him in faith and call Jesus King and Lord. All who call Jesus King and Lord will receive the blessings of the kingdom of God – of love and forgiveness; of steadfast love and mercy and patience and kindness and blessing on top of blessing so that all of those who call Him King and Lord can say with Paul, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure, that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other thing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus.” That’s the power of the kingdom of God. That’s the kingdom of which we are a member if we trust in Jesus and we serve Him with joy, with a confidence and a security that we can say, in whatever situation we are in, in whatever challenge we face, “The good hand of my God was upon me.” Boldness. Humility. Contentment. That’s what God’s good hand brings to us.

Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for Your good hand upon us. We are humbled by it. We are unworthy and undeserving and oftentimes we seek our own way. We are like sheep who oftentimes go astray and we look in so many different directions for hope and for joy and for blessing. We look upon ourselves and we boast in our own accomplishments and our own merit, in our own standing, in our reputation and our own righteousness. Lord, take all those things away; that we would boast in nothing else but the cross of Christ and His death and resurrection, in His victory, in His glory. That we would say that, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.” We thank You, Father, for the good news of the Gospel. Make these things near and dear to us that we would live by them and seek Your glory in all things. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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