The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by the remnant who returned from Babylonian exile is a wonderful success story. The remnant, under the direction of Nehemiah (cupbearer to King Artaxerxes), accomplished the task despite great obstacles and opposition. The reasons for their success serve to teach us some very important lessons.
The Compassion of Nehemiah
Nehemiah had received word of the sorry state of those Israelites who had escaped captivity, and remained in Jerusalem. Of them it was said, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3). Nehemiah heard of their distress: “So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (1:4).
The compassion of Nehemiah led him to do something about the situation in Judah. First, he prayed to the Almighty God in heaven. He appealed to the goodness of God and his mercy. He confessed the sins of the people and admitted that their present state was of their own doing. “We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses” (1:7). He then reminded God of his promise regarding his people. “Remember, I pray, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations; but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name’” (1:8-9). Finally, he made his request to God. “‘O Lord, I pray, please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants who desire to fear Your name; and let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.’ For I was the king’s cupbearer” (1:11). Nehemiah’s prayer was that God would make Artaxerxes amenable to the request Nehemiah was to make to the king.
Not only did Nehemiah pray to God, he also took action! He made request of the King that the Israelites might return to the land, and rebuild the walls. “And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it’” (2:5). As a result of his initiative, King Artaxerxes let the people return to Jerusalem, and made provision for the rebuilding of the walls. As Nehemiah stated, “And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me” (2:8).
Christians today, and especially preachers and elders, need that same compassion and care for their weak and misguided brethren. They need to be active in calling those who are in sin to repentance, calling those who teach false doctrine to give up their heresy and return to the truth, and calling for purity before the Almighty God. If this is done, success is sure to follow! King Artaxerxes recognized the sadness of Nehemiah, and stated, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart” (2:2). We would be well served to express that same sorrow today!
Nehemiah and the people continued to build despite threats and hostility from Sanballat and his followers. When Sanballat, the Horonite, and Tobiah, the Ammonite official, were apprised that Nehemiah had come to supervise the rebuilding of the walls, they were openly hostile. The text reveals that they were “deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel” (2:10); and they “laughed us to scorn and despised us” (2:19). Nehemiah’s answer exhibited a great trust in God, “So I answered them, and said to them, ‘The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem’” (2:20). The text reveals that Sanballat and his followers expressed their opposition through ridicule (4:1-6), threat of attack (4:7-9), discouragement (4:10-23), extortion (5:1-13), compromise (6:1-4), slander (6:5-9), and treachery (6:10-14).
Two of these are especially interesting. Nehemiah’s response to a direct threat against his person is enlightening to us. He was apprised of a supposed threat of assassination. His informer Shemaiah said to him, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, at night they will come to kill you” (6:10). However, Nehemiah’s work was so important that he disregarded the personal danger, saying, “Should such a man as I flee? And who is there such as I who would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!” (6:11).
Today, the Lord desires men who will disregard personal concerns as they do his work. While it is not necessarily true that there is danger of physical reprisal (at least not in our nation), it is true that a militant stand for truth in our day can result in criticism and ostracism. Elders will suffer criticism as they deal with sin in the congregations where they serve as overseers. Evangelists will have their motives impugned, may have meetings canceled, and will not be welcome to preach in certain places because of their plain proclamation of truth. Christians will be charged as hard-hearted and judgmental when they practice the discipline demanded by God. We ought, as Nehemiah, to state, “Should such a man as I flee?”, and stand as did he, trusting in the protection of God.
Also significant was Nehemiah’s unwillingness to consider compromise. Now, we understand that the “esteeming” of others and exercise of humility is an important aspect of Christian living. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). We should always be ready to defer to others as children of God. However, this principle does not apply to a compromise with error and sin.
When all else failed and the walls were built, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, the Arab, the enemies of Israel called for diplomatic talks. In reality, their motivation was evil, as they sought to do Nehemiah harm before the gates were hung and Jerusalem was completely safe. Sanballat sent word to Nehemiah and said, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono” (6:2). Notice the response of Nehemiah, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (6:3). Four times the call to compromise was given, and four times it was immediately rejected!
Sin is always willing to compromise. False teachers are always willing to meet across a conference table and disregard differences in an attempt to “get along.” The false teacher on instrumental music at the turn of the century did not understand why the introduction of the instrument had to be divisive. The premillennialist called for toleration of his peculiar spin on prophecy. The institutionalist even today claims that division came about because of the opposition to his innovations. False teachers on the subjects of divorce and remarriage and fellowship are asking the same question, “Why must we divide?” The answer is that truth and error can not co-exist! Men and women of the cross are needed who will militantly oppose false teaching and sin and who will not be willing to compromise with the purveyors of error.
Nehemiah is a wonderful example to us today. We too ought to have compassion for the people of God and stand against all opposition to the tasks he has given us to accomplish.
In contrast to the zeal of Nehemiah and the people, another time in the history of the Jewish nation comes to mind. During the prophetic ministry of Jeremiah, the people were completely indifferent with regard to their standing before God. Jeremiah lamented the apathy of the people, and his question to them rings with relevance even today. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lam.1:12). Each of us as Christians ought to ask this question of himself! A recognition of the current troubles that face the people of God ought to rouse each of us to a zeal for him and his word. It ought to cause us to conform our conversation to revealed standards and cause us to “contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered” (cf. Jude 3) against all error.
From the May 3, 2001 publication of Truth Magazine.