Ever since Pentecost, Satan has been working to destroy the church. He moved the Jewish leadership to stone and arrest Christians. After God worked in Saul’s life, Satan turned to the Romans to bring down Christianity. It failed. With every martyr, more Christians sprang up to fight the good fight. Eventually, Christianity became a legal religion and then the sole religion of Rome. Once it was established, Satan tried to enter it and bring it down. Oh, he succeeded in making this heresy or that problem accepted for a time, he has even brought it about that the three main branches have little peace between them for centuries at a time. But through it all, the Church has remained. Each generation the threats against her seem to be the largest ever and most dangerous. Christ’s bride has stood strong because the Christians who make up the bride have remained strong.
As you turn with me to Nehemiah, remember that this is the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, the king who took Esther to wife early in his reign. This king, like no other king before him, knows that God protects the Jews. The Jews have been in exile now for decades. The city has fallen to ruin as we will see. For your city to be ruined is a disgrace. And it gets worse. For a courtier to be sad in front of the king can result in a death sentence. This is the situation Nehemiah, cup bearer of the king, found himself in. We will be reading verses throughout the sermon today.
Nehemiah Disgraced (Nehamiah 1)
NAU Nehemiah 1:1 ¶ The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They said to me, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” 4 ¶ When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5 I said, “I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 6 let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 “We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. 8 “Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ 10 “They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. 11 ¶ “O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.” Now I was the cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah begins by telling us this is the 20th year of King Artaxerxes I of Persia. This is 445 BC. He had come to power after his father was assassinated. Artaxerses was widely respected throughout the region. He put down a revolt in Egypt. He was a clever king and defeated Greece by funding their enemies who were already warring with them. When the Athenian league was weakened and distracted, he drove them from his territory. And always one to recognize strength, he offered asylum to Themistocles, his father’s greatest enemy, as Themistocles had fallen out of favor.
One of Nehemiah’s brothers comes to see him with some men of Judah. I believe this is one of Nehemiah’s physical brothers and not merely a fellow Judean. The news is not good. Jerusalem lies in ruins. The city walls are down. The once majestic city that had been a beacon of God to all the Middle East was disgraced. Moreover, her people were disgraced. A walled city then was a treasured object. To live in a city with walls meant the city was rich and powerful. It was strong. A walled city was less likely to be overtaken in a battle. When fighting, the enemy would leave as much of the wall up as he could because taking the city meant that much less the invaders had to do when they brought their people in.
As you can imagine, to lose your city like this meant the enemy saw no use for it. To be taken from your city was disgrace enough. For the city to be ruined meant everything was upside down. Your city was your home. Even though Nehemiah has been in the king’s palace for years and become one of his most trusted courtiers, he still thinks of Jerusalem as home. Hearing that the city is ruined shatters his well being, but, significantly, it does not shatter his faith.
Many people back then believed that each people had their own gods. When two peoples went to war, the stronger god won. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, it meant that Rostam had overthrown Marduk. The Babylonians saw it that way. However, when the Babylonians took Jerusalem, the Jews, for the most part, did not conclude that God was weak. They concluded that they were weak in their spiritual walk and that God would restore them later.
This was Nehemiah’s place. For years, he had consoled himself in exile by repeating that the walls still stood, the people would one day return, God was still strong. Jerusalem still stood as a bright city upon a hill. As long as the walls were tall, he could take comfort. This day his comfort was taken from him. He has been with the Babylonians and now Persians for years, decades even. Nehemiah could have said that the Persians were right and that Rostam was stronger that God. But he didn’t. He fasted and prayed, he wept before God.
When Nehemiah begins his prayer, he lists out the great things of God. He isn’t telling God anything He doesn’t know. He isn’t trying to butter God up. By saying these things he is getting his mind right with God; he reminds himself of who he is talking to. The God of Heaven, the maker and keeper of covenants. The God of mercy and grace to those who walk rightly with Him.
Then Nehemiah says, “we have sinned.” He doesn’t say “they sinned in Jerusalem.” He is part of the people. “We sinned.” How does Nehemiah know the people have sinned? They’re exiled! Moses told them that if they rebelled against God, they would be exiled from the Promised Land. They had been scattered, therefore, they had sinned.
But Nehemiah also knows that there is a promise from God to return the people if they repent. If they return spiritually to God, then He will return them to their land. He will restore the disgraced people.
Nehemiah Takes a Risk
Nehemiah 2:1 And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” 6 Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, “How long will your journey be, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time. 7 And I said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, 8 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 which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.” And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me. 9 ¶ Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. 11 ¶ So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. 12 And I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding. 13 So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon’s Well and on to the Refuse Gate, inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were consumed by fire. 14 Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. 15 So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work. 17 ¶ Then I said to them, “You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.” 18 I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us arise and build.” So they put their hands to the good work. 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, “What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 So I answered them and said to them, “The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.”
Nehemiah resolves to bring this matter before the King. He is the trusted cup bearer to the King. That means, Artaxerxes tastes the wine first and must tell the king if it is poisoned. If poison sneaks past him and kills the king, the cup bearer will be killed. It’s not a job for the weak of heart.
Apparently, Artaxerxes and Nehemiah are friends as well as king and servant. The king asks why Nehemiah is sad. Being sad in front of the king could cost you your life. Nehemiah explains with the queen seated next to the king. I believe this is Esther. And the king agrees to give Nehemiah safe passage to rebuild the walls. Nehemiah tells us this happens in the month of Nissan. While he does not give the day of the month, long-standing Jewish tradition is that the king granted the request on 14 Nisan, Passover.
With letters of safe passage, Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem and takes stock of the city. He doesn’t just come in and say “this is what we will do.” He makes plans. Like Jesus tells us, “count the cost” before you build a tower. How much more so the walls of a city. He goes all over the walls, even to places that he cannot get to easily.
After three days of inspections he calls the civic leaders and tells them what he plans. He tells them how God has been favorable to him. They agree to the work, except for three: Sanballet the Honorite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab. These three will go on to work against him. Nehemiah warns them that because they have ignored God, they will have no right, portion, or memorial in the city once it is rebuilt.
The Men Work
Nehemiah 3:1 ¶ Then Eliashib the high priest arose with his brothers the priests and built the Sheep Gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors. They consecrated the wall to the Tower of the Hundred and the Tower of Hananel. 2 Next to him the men of Jericho built, and next to them Zaccur the son of Imri built. 3 ¶ Now the sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate; they laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and bars. 4 Next to them Meremoth the son of Uriah the son of Hakkoz made repairs. And next to him Meshullam the son of Berechiah the son of Meshezabel made repairs. And next to him Zadok the son of Baana also made repairs. 5 Moreover, next to him the Tekoites made repairs, but their nobles did not support the work of their masters. 6 ¶ Joiada the son of Paseah and Meshullam the son of Besodeiah repaired the Old Gate; they laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and its bars. 7 Next to them Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite, the men of Gibeon and of Mizpah, also made repairs for the official seat of the governor of the province beyond the River. 8 Next to him Uzziel the son of Harhaiah of the goldsmiths made repairs. And next to him Hananiah, one of the perfumers, made repairs, and they restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall. 9 Next to them Rephaiah the son of Hur, the official of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs. 10 Next to them Jedaiah the son of Harumaph made repairs opposite his house. And next to him Hattush the son of Hashabneiah made repairs. 11 Malchijah the son of Harim and Hasshub the son of Pahath-moab repaired another section and the Tower of Furnaces. 12 Next to him Shallum the son of Hallohesh, the official of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters. 13 ¶ Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah repaired the Valley Gate. They built it and hung its doors with its bolts and its bars, and a thousand cubits of the wall to the Refuse Gate. 14 ¶ Malchijah the son of Rechab, the official of the district of Beth-haccherem repaired the Refuse Gate. He built it and hung its doors with its bolts and its bars. 15 ¶ Shallum the son of Col-hozeh, the official of the district of Mizpah, repaired the Fountain Gate. He built it, covered it and hung its doors with its bolts and its bars, and the wall of the Pool of Shelah at the king’s garden as far as the steps that descend from the city of David. 16 After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, official of half the district of Beth-zur, made repairs as far as a point opposite the tombs of David, and as far as the artificial pool and the house of the mighty men. 17 After him the Levites carried out repairs under Rehum the son of Bani. Next to him Hashabiah, the official of half the district of Keilah, carried out repairs for his district. 18 After him their brothers carried out repairs under Bavvai the son of Henadad, official of the other half of the district of Keilah. 19 Next to him Ezer the son of Jeshua, the official of Mizpah, repaired another section in front of the ascent of the armory at the Angle.
The third chapter of Nehemiah tells how the common people, the everyday citizens of Jerusalem, stood together to work on the wall. Listen to the names. What’s important about them? They answered the call to rebuild the wall. They had a job to do, it looked ordinary but it was from God. They stood together and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. For that, they are recorded in Scripture. They rebuilt wherever they lived. One of these men is a city official, and he rebuild the Refuse Gate. That means this noble-born man worked on the area near the latrines. Bad smell, but he did it because it needed to be done.
What is our work? Today, the church has been under attack for millenia. For the first time, the West shows strains of breaking. Look around us at the court rulings that have gone out. Abortion legal. It tells us that we as a people are woefully wicked if we can stomach the thought of the most defenseless of us being murdered. Christian bakers, photographers, and florists sued for not wanting to provide a cake to a gay couple. Schools teaching less and less about educational subjects and more about safe spaces and feelings. Sandy had an incident just the other night where a high schooler first didn’t know if a nickel was 0.5 or 0.05. Then had to get out a calculator to figure out how much 100 of the item would be at 5 cents each. College students shouting down speech makers who dare say something the student disagrees with. I thought that’s why you went to college, to be exposed to ideas you had never heard before. To learn.
What can we do? These are the walls that have been torn down. Our society lies open to the wolves. How can we rebuild it so that we may no longer be a reproach? First, we do like Nehemiah and pray. We seek God, confessing our own sins. I don’t know your sins, so I can’t confess it. You don’t know mine, so don’t confess it either. Confess your sin before God, and trust the Holy Spirit to move your neighbor to confess his sins.
Secondly, look at what you can do and do it. We can’t all go and fight on all fronts, but each of us has a place where we can fight. You and me, common people, do what God has called you to do and let Him take care of the rest. You have a neighbor on the brink of divorce? Pray for him. Pray with him. Help that family stay together. You can talk well? Speak God’s message. You can write? Do it. You paint houses? Do it to the glory of God.
Thirdly, worry about your job and not your neighbor’s. These men fought. They rebuilt the wall with one tools in one hand and a sword strapped to their waist. Sanballet wasn’t done. He brought men to fight against the people of Jerusalem. They fought back because the work of God had to continue.
Satan will fight us every step of the way as we rebuild our homes and communities. But we know who wins in the end. All you have to do is do your job when God gives it to you.