Neh 2:1 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before;

Neh 2:2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid,

Neh 2:3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

Neh 2:4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven,

Neh 2:5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.”

Neh 2:6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.

Neh 2:7 I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah?

Neh 2:8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.

Ne 2:9 So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.

The king also sent army officers and cavalry with me – ‘As a testimony to the faithfulness of God, Ezra had refused military protection for his journey; (Ezr 8:21-23) but since Nehemiah was a governor on official business, he had a military escort. Nehemiah had just as much faith as Ezra; but as the king’s officer, he could not travel without his retinue. For one thing, he would not oppose the will of the king; and he could not force his faith upon others.’ (Wiersbe)

Kidner points out that the military escort not only provided protection, but also meant that Nehemiah arrived in style, and with credentials derived from royal approval. ‘It may help to explain why Nehemiah’s enemies resorted to bluff instead of force in their campaign against him.’

Ne 2:10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.

Sanballat the Horonite – A later document refers to him as ‘governor of Samaria’.

‘When the official caravan arrived, it was bound to attract attention, particularly among those who hated the Jews and wanted to keep them from fortifying their city. Three special enemies are named: Sanballat, from Beth Horan, about twelve miles from Jerusalem; Tobiah, an Ammonite; and Geshem, an Arabian, (Ne 2:19) also called “Gashmu” (6:6). Sanballat was Nehemiah’s chief enemy, and the fact that he had some kind of official position in Samaria only made him that much more dangerous (4:1-3). Being an Ammonite, Tobiah was an avowed enemy of the Jews. (Deut 23:3-4) He was related by marriage to some of Nehemiah’s co-laborers and had many friends among the Jews. (Ne 6:17-19) In fact, he was “near of kin” (“allied”) to Eliashib the priest (13:4-7). If Sanballat was in charge of the army, then Tobiah was director of the intelligence division of their operation. It was he who gathered “inside information” from his Jewish friends and passed it along to Sanballat and Geshem. Nehemiah would soon discover that his biggest problem was not the enemy on the outside but the compromisers on the inside, a problem the church still faces today.’ (Wiersbe)

Ne 2:11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days

Nehemiah: keep serving - sermon notes

Text: Nehemiah 2:11-20

Let me tell you about two men of God.  The first has spent much of his life as a semi-skilled labourer in the family business.  He’s not highly educated, and is used to working long hours out of doors in sometimes wild weather.  After a rocky start as a follower of Jesus, he has become a leader in the Christian church, and a fearless preacher of the gospel.  But the church is under persecution.  Some of his closest friends have been killed for contending for the faith, and he himself has been arrested and thrown into jail.  Heavy chains, locked doors, and four guards combine to make escape seemingly impossible.  But his fellow-Christians have been praying for him, and, in the middle of the night, the prisoner is astounded to find his cell bathed in light, and an angel standing in front of him.  As if by magic, Peter’s shackles fall to the ground, and the angel leads him past the helpless guards, through a heavy door that mysteriously swings open before them and out into the freedom of the street beyond.

Different time, different place, different circumstances: our second man of God is a sophisticated and well-educated nobleman in the court of the king of Persia.  But he longs for a homeland that he has never seen.  When he hears news that the great city of his God is in ruins, he prays fervently, and the Lord lays it on his heart to ask the king if he may return home and organise the rebuilding of the city walls.  The king grants his request, and Nehemiah makes the hazardous three-month journey to the home of his ancestors.  Then, in the teeth of a gale of ridicule and abuse, he sets about organising the work of rebuilding the walls.

In a way, these stories are quite similar.  In both situations, a lone servant of God faces the challenge of building up and strengthening God’s people in the face of hostile opposition.  And yet they’re also very different.  In the first case – the case of Peter – we discern the direct and miraculous intervention of God.  In the secnod story – that of Nehemiah – God lays a burden on his heart, and he responds obediently, wisely, efficiently.  But God is no less at work in Nehemiah’s careful strategy than in Peter’s miraculous deliverance.

1.  Notice, firstly, how Nehemiah assesses the need, vv11-16.  Suppose the first thing he did, the moment he arrived in Jerusalem, was to announce to everyone, “God has told me to rebuild the walls of this great city.”  They would have asked, “Who are you?  Have you ever been to Jerusalem before?  Do you know exactly what state the walls are in?  Do you know how much money, or how many people, or how much time, it will take to do this work?”  No: Nehemiah waited three days before he did anything.  Then he went out at night, with a minimum of fuss, to assess the problem.  Before announcing the rebuilding project to anyone, he quietly assesses the need and counts the cost.

Luke 14:28-30  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'”

2.  Notice, secondly, how Nehemiah recruits his team, v17f – Suppose you had some ruined walls to rebuild.  You could try to do it on your own.  Or, you could order others to do the job.  Or, as with Nehemiah, you could build a team to help you.  Note that although he had been there only a few days, Nehemiah identifies with the people and their need.  “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”  He encourages them with personal testimony: “I told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.”  How did the people respond?  “Let’s start rebuilding right now.”

Do you sometimes contemplate the enormity of the task of building the kingdom of God and ask, “What’s the point of even making an effort?  What difference will it make whether I put my little brick in place or not?”  The Bible teaches that to each one of us the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good, but it is only when we work together as a team that we start functioning properly as the church of Christ.

3.  Notice, thirdly, how Nehemiah deals with opposition, v19f.  We are not told why Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab were so antagonistic towards Nehemiah and his rebuilding project.  But we do know that they opposed the plan from the outset, and did everything they could to undermine it.  As for Nehemiah, he doesn’t stoop to answer their criticisms directly.  Instead, he simply states his conviction that God has called them to the task and that God would give them success.

Brothers and sisters, once we have become convinced that we are about the Lord’s business then we too can proceed like Nehemiah, cheerfully undeterred by setbacks and opposition.  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Indeed, if we find that we are experiencing no opposition, no hostility, no setbacks in our Christian work, we might well ask if we are being as faithful to our calling as Nehemiah was to his.

We are living in a time when to many eyes the Christian church seems to be in a state of near-collapse, when family life is being heavily eroded, when the moral fabric of the world is breaking down.  As followers of Jesus we face a task unfinished, that drives us to our needs.  And if God, in answer to his people’s prayers, grants us miracles, as he did to Peter, then blessed be the name of the Lord.  Or if, in answer to prayer, he lays on our hearts a plan that requires wise, patient and determined implementation, as he did with Nehemiah, again, blessed be the name of the Lord.  In either way – in every way – let us serve the purpose of God in our generation, to ‘rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; [and to] renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.’

Ne 2:11-3:32 – God will prosper the work, despite opposition, so Nehemiah trusts the Lord, the people work together and the work goes (2:20).

I went to Jerusalem – The first time in his life. Brown points out that although he must have felt overwhelmed, he faces the task with a clear strategy:-

  1. Replenishing resources, vv11f
  2. Assessing the needs, vv13-16
  3. Recruiting colleagues, v17
  4. Inspiring confidence, v18
  5. Handling opposition, vv19f

After staying there three days – As Kidner points out, for all Nehemiah’s energy and enthusiasm, he does not rush into action, v11, or talk, v12. Brown remarks that after a journey of four months, through inhospitable territory, he would have needed rest. ‘These inner reserves of spiritual resourcefulness are indispensible for the servant of God, yet the increasing pressures of contemporary life can crowd out that “vital space” which we all need for physical rest and spiritual renewal.’ (Brown) See Mt 14:12-13 Mk 6:7-13,30-32.

Ne 2:12 I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.

I set out during the night – ‘Those that would build up the church’s walls must first take notice of the ruins of those walls. Those that would know how to amend must enquire what is amiss, what needs reformation, and what may serve as it is.’ (MHC) The assessment was done at night so as not to raise the suspicious of the opposition, v10.

‘After arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah tested his vocation with caution. First, he engaged physically, but in secret, with the task which confronted him (vv11-16), no doubt ‘counting the cost’ of so momentous an undertaking cf. Lk 9:57-62 14:28-32). Secondly, with more than a hint that he believed that God had sent him, he invited the co-operation of the people in the fulfilment of his call (vv17-18). Their unanimous response confirmed that he was on the right path. Individual vocation generally finds such confirmation by the community of faith. (Ac 13:1-2) Finally, he was not deflected by opposition, but rather responded with a positive assertion of what he had been called to do, and left the outcome to the God who had initiated the task (vv19-20).’ (NBC)

With a few men – Either drawn from those who had travelled with him to Jerusalem or ‘reliable locals who knew the terrain and especially those parts of the wall which were almost impassable.’ (Brown) The interdependence of God’s people is emphasised here, and even more so in ch 3.

I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart – Nehemiah recognized that all of his thoughts prompting him to rebuild were put into his heart by God (2:12). Moreover, the carrying out of these thoughts was done by the help of his God (4:14). We should not forget that he was man of prayer: the person who is on intimate terms with God not only speaks, but listens, to God. And this hints at another reason why he waited for three days before taking any action: he required not only physical, but spiritual, replenishment.

Ne 2:13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire.

‘He anticipates the obvious objection that a newcomer can have no idea of the task, so he briefs himself thoroughly and chooses his moment to show his hand, v16.’ (Kidner)

Ne 2:14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through;

The King’s Pool – Probaly to be identified with the Pool of Siloam.

Ne 2:15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate.

The valley – Probably the Kidron Valley.

Ne 2:16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.

The officials – ‘The officials were likely representatives of the Persian empire, either those who had come with Nehemiah or those who had local jurisdiction.’ (OT Background Cmt’y)

‘The careless leakage of information at this early stage might bring the work to the same abrupt end that had wrecked the earlier rebuilding venture. Most work for God thrusts us into the arena of conflict. The enemy is always on the alert, ready to destroy any undertaking which might glorify God and help others. The apostle Paul knew that whenever there is an opportunity for service, the element of opposition is never far away, 1 Cor 16:9 2 Cor 2:11.’ (Brown)

Ne 2:17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”

“You see the trouble we are in” – ‘He had been in the city only a few days, but he spoke of “we” and “us” and not “you” and “them.” As he did in his prayer (1:6-7), he identified with the people and their needs.’ (Wiersbe)

‘He did not undertake to do the work without them (it could not be the work of one man), nor did he charge or command imperiously, though he had the king’s commission; but in a friendly brotherly way he exhorted and excited them to join with him in this work.’ (MHC)

“We will no longer be a disgrace” – The sorry state that Jerusalem is not just a physical disaster, but a (spiritual) disgrace. ‘It is a reproach to the name of God, a matter for scorn and abuse among Jerusalem’s pagan meighbours and visitors. The sight of those collapsed walls for well over a century has created the impression in the pagan mind that Israel’s God has abandoned his rebellious people and is no longer on their side.’ (Brown)

‘Sometimes it takes a stranger to see sharply what has been softened by familiarity. Nehemiah’s perspective is significant. On the debit side it is the disgrace, not the insecurity, of their position, which strikes him – for Jerusalem should be seen as “the city of the great King” and “the joy of all the earth,” Ps 48:1. And on the credit side he speaks first of the hand of…God upon him, and only then of the words of the king. This was indeed the right order, as cause and effect. It was also his genuine conviction = the end of v8 – and as such it was infectious.’ (Kidner)

‘Here is a man who is not only ready to work for God but knows exactly why he is doing it. Some church activities are habitually maintained largely because they have been in existence for some time, and the good people who work in them are too busy to evaluate their purpose, motives and aims. Well-established organisations can be perpetuated without examining their precise spiritual aims. Most activities could benefit from a healthy evaluation exercise now and again. What is their purpose and how far are they achieving their ambitions? Are they evangelistic, educative or simply social? Could they be done just as effectively by people without a clear faith If so, in what way do they serve Christ’s kingdom? Nehemiah is in no doubt whatever about his objective, and knows exactly why those walls must be rebuilt. It is not simply to defend the city’s fortification and improve its economy. God’s Name is at stake in the enterprise, not simply Jerusalem’s welfare.’ (Brown)

Ne 2:18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.

This may be regarded as the key verse of Nehemiah.

I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me – ‘He was convinced that he had not reached Jerusalem merely because he had been a skilful persuader, vv3-5, or because the queen was possibly a compliant helper, v6, or the king a generous benefactor, vv7f, but because God had been a sovereign provider.’ (Brown)

Notice here the inspirational power of personal testimony. ‘The whole chapter is a testimony, a written and vocal affirmation of confidence in a God who hears, v4, guides, v5, instructs, v12, and sustains, v20 his people.’ (Brown) See Ps 66:5-6,16.

‘Nehemiah’s testimony captured those two vital elements in any rich doctrine of God: transcendence and immanence. He acknowledges his transcendence as he worships “the Lord of heaven,” v4, 20, but his God is not remote and distant. The Lord puts creative thoughts into the minds of his people, v12, and his “gracious hand” is upon them in everyday life, v8, 18. Those two attributes of the character of God must never be separated. God’s eternal transcendence guards us against irreverence; his immanence and immediate involvement save us from despair.’ (Brown)

‘To encourage them hereto, he speaks of the design, First, As that which owed it origin to the special grace of God. He takes not the praise of it to himself, as a good thought of his own, but acknowledges that God put it into his heart, and therefore they all ought to countenance it (whatever is of God must be promoted), and might hope to prosper in it, for what God puts men upon he will own them in. Secondly, As that which owed its progress hitherto to the special providence of God. He produced the king’s commission, told them how readily it was granted and how forward the king was to favour his design, in which he saw the hand of his God good upon him. It would encourage both him and them to proceed in an undertaking which God had so remarkably smiled upon.’ (MHC)

They replied, “Let us start rebuilding” – ‘Many a good work would find hands enough to be laid to it if there were but one good head to lead in it. They all saw the desolations of Jerusalem, yet none proposed the repair of them; but, when Nehemiah proposed it, they all consented to it. It is a pity that a good motion should be lost purely for want of one to move it and to break the ice in it.’ (MHC)

Ne 2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”

Geshem the Arab – ‘Geshem the Arab is known from extrabiblical sources. There is a Geshem in Libyanite and Aramaic inscriptions who is known as the king of Kedar. The name is also found in a later inscription at Beth Shearim, as well as on a silver vessel dedicated by his son Qainu to the goddess Han-‘Ilat found at Tell el-Mashkuta in the Egyptian Delta. The Arabs had recently settled in the Negev and Trans-jordan regions.’ (see Ne 2:10) (OT Background Cmt’y)

They mocked and ridiculed us – we are in good company when we find ourselves ridiculed for God’s sake. Not only Nehemiah suffered this indignity, but also Paul, Acts 13:45 14:2,19 17:18,32 18:6 19:9 21:31 22:22. Our Lord told his followers to expect such treatment, Mt 5:11f.

“Are you rebelling against the king?” – The opponents not only mocked Nehemiah, but also questioned his motives. The previous attempt to rebuild was ruined by this very accusation, Ezr 4:12-16.

‘Christian workers across the centuries have had to absorb bitter criticism and the imputation of wrong motives. If, on examining our hearts, we know that we treasure no ambition other than the glory of God, it matters little what others may say.’ (Brown)

Ne 2:20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”

“The God of heaven will give us success” – Nehemiah ‘does not stoop to answer their lies’ (Brown). Instead, he asserts that God has called them to the work and would give them success.

Nehemiah has made up his mind that God will be given the credit for the ultimate success of the project. ‘There may be times when the Lord might use us more evidently if we did not secretly desire personal acclaim.’ (Brown)

“We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share…” – Nehemiah and his team have integrity that arises from a conviction that what they are about to do is right.

It is likely that Sanballat’s jurisdiction over Samaria included the greater Jerusalem area. Nehemiah was therefore seen as a political threat. Moreover, Sanballat’s name is Babylonian, suggesting that his ancestors were among those foreigners who settled in the towns of Samaria, replacing the Israelites who had been deported to Assyria, intermarrying with northern Israelites, and bringing in their own gods and idols. Religiously, theirs was a syncretic mix of Yahweh-worship and idolatry. (cf. 2 Kings 17:24,29-41) As for Tobiah, his is a Hebrew name, indicating that his roots were Jewish. He may have felt usurped by this outsider Nehemiah, and guilty that he had not attempted, or angry that he had not been asked, to rebuild the walls himself.

‘Nehemiah had good reason not to associate with them, and their later hostility proves how wise he was to resist their opposition in the early stages. Jerusalem was a “holy city,” 11:1, and those who participated must also be holy, that is, “set apart” for God’s work and “separated from” anything which might mar their distinctive witness. The holiness theme is prominent in Nehemiah and will appear again later in his memoirs. It is given rich application in NT teaching, where believers are also called to a characteristically different lifestyle modelled on the example of Jesus, Rom 12:1-2 1 Pet 2:21, actively contributing to the world but not manipulated by it.’ (Brown)

‘See with what good reason the Jews slighted these discouragements. They bore up themselves with this that they were the servants of the God of heaven, the only true and living God, that they were acting for him in what they did, and that therefore he would bear them out and prosper them, though the heathen raged, Ps 2:1. They considered also that the reason why these enemies did so malign them was because they had no right in Jerusalem, but envied them their right in it. ‘ (MHC)

‘In chapters 4-7, Nehemiah will describe the different weapons the enemy used and how the Lord enabled him to defeat them. They started off with ridicule, a device somebody has called “the weapon of those who have no other.” They laughed at the Jews and belittled both their resources and their plans. They even suggested that the Jews were rebelling against the king. That weapon had worked once before (see Ezra 4). Whether in the area of science, exploration, invention, business, government, or Christian ministry, just about everyone who has ever accomplished anything has faced ridicule. Our Lord was ridiculed during his life and mocked while he was hanging on the cross. He was “despised and rejected of men.” (Isa 53:3) On the Day of Pentecost, some of the Jews in the crowd said that the Christians were drunk. (Ac 2:13) The Greek philosophers called Paul a “babbler” (17:18, NIV), and Festus told Paul he was out of his mind (26:24). Nehemiah could have dealt with their ridicule in several ways. He might have ignored it, and sometimes that’s the wisest thing to do. (Pr 26:4) But at the beginning of an enterprise, it’s important that leaders encourage their people and let them know that God has everything in control. Had Nehemiah ignored these three men who were important in the community, he might have weakened his own position among the Jews. After all, he was the official governor, and he was doing official business. Or, Nehemiah might have debated with the three enemy leaders and tried to convince them that their position was false. But that approach would only have given “official promotion” to the three men along with opportunity for them to say more. Why should Nehemiah give the enemy opportunity to make speeches against the God whom he served? Of course, Nehemiah would not ask them to join the project and work with the Jews, although Sanballat and his friends would have welcomed the invitation. (Ne 6:1-4) In his reply, Nehemiah made three things clear: Rebuilding the wall was God’s work; the Jews were God’s servants; and Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem had no part in the matter. Sometimes leaders have to negotiate, but there are times when leaders must draw a line and defend it. Unfortunately, not everybody in Jerusalem agreed with their leader; for some of them cooperated with Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem and added to Nehemiah’s burdens. The stage is now set and the drama is about to begin. But before we join the workers on the wall, let’s ask ourselves whether we are the kind of leaders and followers God wants us to be. Like Nehemiah, do we have a burden in our hearts for the work God has called us to do? (2:12) Are we willing to sacrifice to see his will accomplished? Are we patient in gathering facts and in planning our work? Do we enlist the help of others or try to do everything ourselves? Do we motivate people on the basis of the spiritual-what God is doing-or simply on the basis of the personal? Are they following us or the Lord as he leads us? As followers, do we listen to what our leaders say as they share their burdens? Do we cling to the past or desire to see God do something new? Do we put our hands and necks to the work? (Ne 2:18 3:5) Are we cooperating in any way with the enemy and thus weakening the work? Have we found the job God wants us to complete? Anyone can go through life as a destroyer; God has called his people to be builders. What an example Nehemiah is to us! Trace his “so” statements and see how God used him: “So I prayed” (2:4); “So I came to Jerusalem;” (Ne 2:11) “So they strengthened their hands for this good work;” (Ne 2:18) “So built we the wall” (4:6); “So we labored in the work;” (Ne 2:21???) “So the wall was finished” (6:15). Were it not for the dedication and determination that came from his faith in a great God, Nehemiah would never have accepted the challenge or finished the work. He had never seen the verse, but what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:58 was what kept him going: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (NKJV). No matter how difficult the task, or how strong the opposition, BE DETERMINED! As Dr. V. Raymond Edman used to say, “It is always too soon to quit.”‘ (Wiersbe)