Category: Bible Study

Mondays with Nehemiah

Default to Prayer?

Read chapter 4 of the book of Nehemiah. We have come to a very interesting part in this book. This is the part that I remember most from the Bible stories I heard in Sunday school when I was a child. It is basically THE story that I knew about Nehemiah.

Things had been going well for Nehemiah and the people of Judah. They were making progress in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Chapter 3 describes how they had divided up the sections of the Jerusalem wall and they were all working hard to finish it.

But the enemy was not asleep. Chapter 4 starts out as follows:

1 Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews, 2 saying in front of his friends and the Samarian army officers, “What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they’re doing? Do they think they can build the wall in a single day by just offering a few sacrifices? Do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap—and charred ones at that?”

 

3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was standing beside him, remarked, “That stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!”
Sanballat didn’t hold back with ridicule, did he? He had ridiculed Nehemiah before (Neh 2:19), but this time he chose to do it in front of his friends and the Samarian army officers. First he ridiculed the people working on it (bunch of poor, feeble Jews), then Tobiah the Ammonite chimed in and helped to ridicule the work itself: “That stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!”
“Of course, much that Sanballat and Tobiah said was true from a human point of view, for the Jewish remnant was weak and poor, and the work was too great for them. But they had great faith in a great God, and that’s what made the difference.” (e)We see Nehemiah respond to the ridicule of Sanballat and Tobiah: “Then I prayed…” (verse 4) and later on in verse 9 “But we prayed to our God…”

I am amazed at this first response: prayer! I would love to have this same default, when I’m ridiculed or when I face opposition. To default to prayer, it has to be practiced over and over again. For prayer to become my first response, I have to have made it a habit of praying first and solving the problem later. We see Nehemiah and his people stop for prayer and then they go back to work. “They did not let the harsh and insulting words win the day. They kept the momentum going and got the all built to half its necessary height. Their goal was in sight.” (d)

(d) Bill Hybels with Kevin & Sherry Harney “Overcoming Challenges”
(e) Warren W. Wiersbe, “Be Determined”

Mondays with Nehemiah

And off to work we go…

Nehemiah chapter 2 finished with Nehemiah’s reply to his opposition, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. Nehemiah said to them,

“The God of heaven will help us succeed.
We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall.
 But you have no share, legal right or historic claim in Jerusalem.”

And so in chapter 3 we see the people getting to work. All 32 verses of that chapter describe the sections of the wall that people worked on. People from all walks of life repaired the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah seemed to have had a great plan for this project. Verse 5 mentions that there were construction supervisors in place. People worked enthusiastically on this project. It must have been a sight to see!!!

But even there, in the midst of all the excitement, we find in verse 5 that the people of Tekoa worked on a part of the wall, but “their leaders refused to work with the construction supervisors.” I wonder what their issue was? Did they think the same way we sometimes do?

If I don’t get to have a say in it, then I won’t participate.
If I don’t get to be the manager here, then I’ll go somewhere else where my expertise is valued.
If I…
If I…

I’m glad to see that the people of Tekoa did not have the same attitude as their leaders. They willingly submitted to the leadership of the construction supervisors and did the work that we so badly needed.

The leaders of Tekoa could learn a thing or two from their own people. I’m glad to see that they took part in this project despite their leaders’ attitude. The people saw that the need was bigger than the leaders’ issues. The people did not feel safe, they saw the danger every day. It didn’t matter to them that their leaders and the construction supervisors didn’t get along. They saw the need, and they wanted to do something about it. And they did.

Sometimes I got to swallow my pride and my way of thinking and just get down to business, get up from my high horse and get down to work. And yes some things might not get done my way, but who says that my way is the only way?

“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do it all to the glory of God.”
1 Corinthians 10:31 NLT

Mondays with Nehemiah

Nehemiah’s Faith
We have seen Nehemiah moved by bad news from Judah. We have seen Nehemiah break down and mourn for his people. We have seen him fasting and praying.
In chapter 2 we see the results of his time of preparation. We see that for four months he has been not only fasting and praying, but also planning to do something about the dire situation in Jerusalem. We see that a plan had formed and that he had done some research as well.
Nehemiah “appeared sad” in King Artaxertes’ presence. Whether he was just exhausted from all that had been going on in his mind, or whether he just slipped in front of the King, either way, the King noticed that his servant was sad and asked about the reason. Verse 2 states that Nehemiah was terrified. It was very dangerous for a servant to show any emotions in front of the King. But since it had happened, Nehemiah had to answer the King. Once the King heard of the problem, he asked ,“Well, how can I help you?” (Nehemiah 2:4)
“With a prayer to the God of heaven” (verse 4) Nehemiah replied and brought his request before the King. He showed enormous courage, and once his initial request was granted, Nehemiah got even bolder and added some more requests. He probably thought, “Well, I’ve got his favor already, I might as well ask for the rest!” This shows even more courage. He received what he had asked for: letters from the King to the governors of the territories that Nehemiah would have to pass through on his way to Jerusalem; a letter to Asaph, the manager of the king’s forest with a permission for timber. And then we see that the King gave him even more than he asked: he also got army officers and horsemen for his protection on his journey. He must have looked very official when he arrived in Jerusalem with all the permission letters and an army escort.
In verse 8 Nehemiah doesn’t take credit for his cleverness and courage to have received this much from the King. No, he gives credit to God. “And the king granted those requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me.” “Nehemiah had position, power, and many good organizational skills, but he acknowledged that God’s gracious hand was upon him. He knew that without God’s strength, his efforts would be in vain.” (f)
I love to organize events. And I am good at it. But I’ve got to learn a lot from Nehemiah. He spent 4 months in fasting and prayer and did his research. He had 4 months of preparation before he took the first step. Once the opportunity was there, he was ready with an answer. And yes, even there, he first sent a prayer, before he answered the King. “This short prayer – whatever its unvoiced words – was built on his praying for four months.” (a) (emphasis mine)
When I think about the Women’s Bible studies that we’ve been organizing, we pray as a team and individually for women to come and sign up. We especially would like to see more women from our own church come and participate in these studies. Often I get discouraged by the disinterest and the comments I hear. And yes, sometimes I even get ridiculed for my passion to see women in the Word of God.
I wonder if Nehemiah knew what he got himself into. Or better said, what God got him into. I wonder if Nehemiah knew the opposition he would have to face. In chapter 2 we see opposition from outside. But later on we will see also some opposition from inside the ranks ofhis people.
When I look at Nehemiah and his leadership skills, I can see that he had the faith to wait and pray. He had the faith to speak up and answer the King truthfully, and then of course, ask the King for the favors he needed. But we also see Nehemiah’s faith when he engages the people of Israel in his plan. “A wise leader knows when to plan, when to speak, and when to work… Leaders must not live in a dream world. They must face facts honestly and accept the bad news as well as the good news. Nehemiah saw more at night than the residents saw in the daylight, for he saw the potential as well as the problems.” (e)
Does opposition scare me? Do I give in to the comments and ridicule I receive? Do I give in when things are just not working out and it seems pointless to continue? Am I afraid of what people might think? Am I certain of my calling, and am I faithful to what God has called me to do? These are all questions I have been asking myself when reading through Nehemiah, chapter 2.
The one main thing from this chapter that I want to remember is this: Everything I want to do has to start with a time of prayer (and fasting, yes, that too!) and a time of preparation.
“When you wait on the Lord in prayer, you are not wasting your time; you are investing it. God preparing both you and your circumstances so that His purposes will be accomplished. However, when the right time arrives for us to act by faith, we dare not delay.” (e)
Have a great week everyone!
(a) Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck
(e) Warren W. Wiersbe, “Be Determined”

(f) Life Application Study Bible, New Living Translation

Mondays with Nehemiah

Nehemiah’s Prayer

Last week we looked at Nehemiah’s first response: he prayed. Today we’ll take a look at the prayer itself. Here is what Nehemiah prayed:

5 Then I said,
“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7 We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.
8 “Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. 9 But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’
10 “The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. 11 O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”
In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.

I like Warren W. Wierbe’s explanation of Nehemiah’s prayer the best. Most of what I’m writing here today, I’ve studied in Wiersbe’s book “Be Determined”.

This prayer of Nehemiah is one of 12 recorded prayers in the book of Nehemiah. For Nehemiah to default into prayer when facing a challenge it is very obvious that he was a man of faith. He knew the Scriptures that were available to the Jewish people at that time.
There are three points in Nehemiah’s prayer:

        The acknowledgement of God’s greatness

        Confession of Israel’s sins

        The request for God’s help

Nehemiah starts his prayer by addressing the “God of heaven” as God was known to the people at that time. King Cyrus used this title for God as recorded in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-2. “Nehemiah began his prayer as we should begin our prayers: ‘Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be your name.’” (Matthew 6:9) (e)

 5 Then I said,

“O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands…”
Nehemiah starts with praise and worship. He acknowledges that his “God of heaven” is “the great and awesome God…” He knows that the challenge he is facing will require a “great and awesome God” to get him through this challenge, his God will help him to face the King, and also help him succeed with the plan that was shaping up in his mind.
But Nehemiah also confesses the sins of his people. And he includes himself and his family in this confession.

 “I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7 We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.” Nehemiah 1:6b-7

 Nehemiah knew the Scriptures of the Old Testament! He knew that God was a loving and forgiving God. And if his people would confess their sins, God would return them to their land “and restore them to His favor and blessing.” (e)

 When Nehemiah begins his prayer, he knows that he prays to the God of heaven and earth, to the LORD, JAHWEH, the God who keeps his covenant with his people. There is a certain confidence in Nehemiah’s words, that he knows who he is praying to.

 He ends his prayer with a plea for help. He does know that his God is able to help him. And so he brings his specific request for help before God.

11 O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.”

Nehemiah was confident that God would soften the heart of King Artaxerxes and grant him the practical help he and his fellow men needed to complete the project in Jerusalem. “Too often, we plan our projects and then ask God to bless them, but Nehemiah didn’t make that mistake. He sat down and wept (Nehemiah 1:4), knelt down and prayed, and then stood up and worked because he knew he had the blessing of the Lord on what he was doing.” (e)

What do I learn from Nehemiah’s prayer? I would like to include these three components in my prayer as well:

        Acknowledge who my God is (great, awesome, all-powerful, faithful, loving, forgiving)
        Confess my sins
        Bring my specific request for help before God and then
        Go and do the work.

 I’ve just come home from the Winnipeg Film Festival that was running this past week. I’m overwhelmed with the way God has answered my prayers and the prayers of so many others who were involved in organizing this event. I have to say that I’ve never worked on a project or event before that was covered with so much prayer. We prayed at all times of the day and for all things that were happening. It’s been an amazing week of movies, documentaries and discussions. It was incredibly hard at times, but because we knew we were doing the right thing, we got strength and energy day after day.

 I have the privilege to serve an awesome God, who hears my confession and forgives me. And when I ask for His help when doing His work, He does what He does best: He comes through every time and overwhelms me with His response.

Today I give all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ever dare to ask or hope. (see Ephesians 3:20)

 Have a blessed Monday everyone!

 

(e) Warren W. Wiersbe, “Be Determined”

Mondays with Nehemiah

Nehemiah’s First Response

In last week’s post we learned about Nehemiah’s position at the King’s court. He had an influential position, yet when confronted with bad news about Jerusalem, he did not run to the king or other influential people he had access to. No, he “mourned, fasted and prayed to the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 1:4b) Nehemiah, who’s described as a man of action, defaults into prayer when faced with a challenge. His first response is not to do something about it, no, his first response is prayer.
I find it very interesting to see these examples of default. In the book of Esther we have the story of Haman and Mordecai and Esther. Haman has the ear of King Xerxes, and he uses this position and gets the king to sign an edict that would destroy the Jews in the Persian empire. Mordecai, the Jew, learns of this plot and gets word to Queen Esther. Mordecai wants Queen Esther to intercede for the Jewish people before King Xerxes. What does Queen Esther reply to Mordecai, when faced with this death and life situation? Before she even thinks or makes any arrangements to appear before King Xerxes, she sends this request to Mordecai:“Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.” (Esther 4:16)

Or look at the example of Daniel. He was exiled with other Jews to Babylon. When King Darius appointed Daniel as one of his administrators, some other administrators became jealous and brainstormed to get rid of him. Their verdict was: “Our only chance of finding grounds for accusing Daniel will be in connection with the rules of his religion.” (Daniel 6:5) And here again, they got King Darius’ ear and got the king to sign a law that for 30 days everyone should be praying to King Darius, no one else. If anyone was found breaking this law they would be thrown into the den of lions. What do we learn about Daniel’s reaction? “But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God.” (Daniel 6:10)

 

When faced with danger, both Esther and Daniel, defaulted into prayer. Esther even added a fast for three full days before she took any action. And Daniel prayed as usual, three times a day, just as he had always done, knowing that it could cost him his life.

Nehemiah’s life was not in danger here. But he knew that the only practical help he would get for his people in Jerusalem would be if King Artaxerxes would give his written permission for Nehemiah to do something about the challenges his people faced.

“All through the book of Nehemiah we will see this pattern in Nehemiah’s life. A challenge would surface and he would pray. Before he took action, before he talked with others, before anything else.. prayer was his reflexive response.” (d)
How do I handle a challenge? How do I face a problem? I have to admit, I’ve got lots to learn from Nehemiah, Esther and Daniel. I like to share my problem with family and friends first, sometimes I complain, sometimes I get frustrated and discouraged. And often I move ahead and try to solve the problem on my own. After learning from Nehemiah, I am sure my life would look different if my first response was prayer.
“Once we have prayed, our actions can be directed by the hand of God, and then the counsel of others has a foundation on which to build.” (d)
Nehemiah’s conviction was that prayer and action were two sides of the same coin. They were both equally important. To just do the work without prayer would not result in success. And to only pray, but not do the work would equally not bring the desired outcome.
I would like to put out a challenge for this week: Let prayer be our first response in whatever we face. Let’s practice it, so that it becomes our default!
I would love to hear from you, my readers, how you practised this first response of prayer. Leave me a comment.
(d) Bill Hybels with Kevin & Sherry Harney “Overcoming Challenges”

Mondays with Nehemiah

For part 1 click here.

Who was Nehemiah?

We don’t know much about his childhood, his youth or his upbringing. He was the son of Hacaliah, and he had a brother named Hanani. We can only assume his family background. He probably was from an upper-class Jewish family, that was taken captive and “carried off to Babylon” (Daniel 1:3) Nehemiah was probably born in Persia and received his education there.
The book Nehemiah is considered Nehemiah’s memoirs. It’s mostly written in the first-person. He was a “contemporary of Ezra, Malachi, Socrates in Greece, and only a few decades later that Gautama Buddha in India and Confucius in China.” (c) (Just in case you love history and would like to connect some dots…)
Nehemiah “had risen to a position of prominence in his pagan environment.” (a) He was the king’s cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11). This meant that he was tasting the king’s food and wine before it was given to the king, and therefore Nehemiah “stood between the king and death. That Nehemiah, a Jew and a captive, served this Gentile king in such a strategic capacity was an unusual credit and honor to this man of strong character” (c) “This important position in the king’s court gives insight into Nehemiah’s life and character. A mighty monarch such as the king of Persia would select for that position a man who was wise and discreet, and consistently honest and trustworthy. Nehemiah’s position alone reveals much about his intellectual capabilities, his emotional maturity, and his spiritual status.” (a)
The book of Nehemiah starts out like a diary entry:
 1 These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.
    In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.
 3 They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”
 4 When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.
It was only natural of Nehemiah to inquire how his people were doing in Jerusalem. He might have still had family “back home”. Here we see the caring heart of Nehemiah. He might be serving as the cupbearer of a Gentile king, and a very powerful king at that, but he still knew where he “belonged”, even though he most likely had never been to Jerusalem. He still had a heart for his people. When he heard that they were in “great trouble and disgrace” (Neh 1:3) “he sat down and wept.” (Neh 1:4)
I always wondered what it was like to be moved by something so terrible that one would – for example – have to vomit, like it’s shown in many movies. You know, when someone goes to identify a body, or someone sees a murdered person, like Marie in the first Bourne movie, coming down the stairs with Jason Bourne, and the woman that had just minutes or hours before opened the front door for them, is now dead, shot. And Marie vomits.
It has only happened to me once, and it came as a big surprise. I had opened up the BBC news website at the office one morning in 2011, and the front page was showing a live feed of last year’s earthquake in Japan. The pictures were so horrifying, the destruction looked so surreal, and when the cameras zoomed in on the people… I just lost it, I had to run to the washroom and I lost my breakfast.
This is how I picture Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about his people in Jerusalem. We are not given a lot of details on the news. But to get a man sit down and weep, and then to mourn, fast and pray for days, there must have been more details that were given to him.
I wonder what it would take for me to sit down and weep. Do I have a heart that cares so much that I would, in fact, mourn, fast and pray for days? With the media saturation that we experience day and night, do I still get moved when I hear about a tragedy? Or is it just part of the news that I see for a few seconds and then I move on to the next news segment?

(a) The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Old Testament
(b) The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah by F. Charles Fensham
(c) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary

Mondays with Nehemiah

Last year, when I read through my chronological Bible, I got quite fascinated by the book of Nehemiah. And of course by the man Nehemiah. He’s quite the character, I must tell you! So I’ve done a bit of reading and research on this book of the Bible and would like to start a series for the next few Mondays.

Here is an interesting piece of info: “Nehemiah and Ezra were one book in the ancient Hebrew and Greek Old Testament and probably were not divided until after the interbiblical period. Jewish tradition says Ezra or Nehemiah was the author. Because of the close connection between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, one person might have written or compiled all three books. Those who follow this argument refer to the author as the Chronicler.” (c)

God had told the people of Israel to “fully obey the LORD your God and carefully keep all his commands…” (Deuteronomy 28:1) But if they would refuse to listen to the LORD and would not obey His commands and decrees, God would – among other things – exile them and their king to an unknown nation. (See the chapter of Deut. 28) And this is exactly what happened to the people of Israel. They were not obedient, they did not follow God’s commands, and so the kingdom of Israel was divided in 931 B.C. The ten northern tribes formed one kingdom, and the two southern tribes (Judah & Benjamin) formed another kingdom. First the Northern Kingdom fell and the people were taken captive by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The Southern Kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

“The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom were absorbed into Assyria and eventually into other cultures. However, the Southern Kingdom remained intact in Babylon, and after the power of Babylon was broken by the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C., many Jews returned to their homeland.” (a)

We know from the book of Daniel that the Babylonian kings were not very tolerant when it came to different religions. Daniel and his friends were threatened a few times with death if they would not worship the Babylonian king and their gods. But they stood their ground and God honored their faithfulness. However, the Persian king Cyrus was different. He was a lot more tolerant toward the people living in exile, and once he captured Babylon he announced an edict that would allow the exiles to return to their homeland. They were also allowed to rebuild their temples to worship their gods. His goal was to “create maximum amount of contentment among the people under the jurisdiction of the Persians. This created an excellent occasion for the exiled Jews in Babylon to return to Judah and to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.” (b)

“Not all the Jews in Babylonia went back to Judah. A significant group stayed behind, because they had become prosperous and were satisfied with conditions in that country. They enjoyed a great amount of freedom and some of them concentrated with success on business… Although financially assisted by their rich Jewish compatriots, the Jewish returnees were poor and ill equipped to shoulder their responsibilities in Judah.” (b)

Three groups that had returned back from exile are mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. There was the first group of people that returned with Zerubbabel as their leader in 538 B.C. (See Ezra chapter 1 and 2) This group’s priority was to rebuild the temple and after some difficulties, opposition and a standstill (Ezra 4:24) the temple was finally finished in 515 B.C.

Some time later (458 B.C.), another group of Jews returns with Ezra as their leader (Ezra 7:1-10). “This Ezra was a scribe who was well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given to the people of Israel. He came up to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the king gave him everything he asked for, because the gracious hand of the LORD his God was on him… This was because Ezra had determined to study and obey the Law of the LORD and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel.” (Ezra 7:6 and 10) Because of Ezra’s faithfulness, the people living now in Jerusalem got taught the Word of God and once again they were following God’s commands and decrees.

So, now we come to Nehemiah, who returned to Jerusalem 14 years after Ezra, in 444 B.C. Who was Nehemiah? Why did he come to Jerusalem? Come back next week and find out!

(a) The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Old Testament
(b) The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah by F. Charles Fensham
(c) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary