Pioneer Spirit: Nehemiah 7

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Today’s reading: Nehemiah 7.

The book of Nehemiah makes Nehemiah’s wall-building famous, but the point of the building was not stones but souls. Nehemiah 7 shifts the focus from masonry foundations to spiritual foundations. Though the wall was built, the city of Jerusalem remained largely empty and full of ruins.

Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there… Nehemiah 7:4-5

Nehemiah repeats a combination census/genealogy first listed in Ezra 2. The lists are far from identical and that has caused consternation for many Bible students. Nearly 100 years had passed between the events of Ezra’s list and Nehemiah’s repeating of the list. The exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon about 537 BC. These are the people recorded in both lists – not those living in the time of Ezra or those of Nehemiah’s day. Ezra came to Jerusalem about 458 BC, some 80 years after the first exiles. Nehemiah arrived in 445 BC or 92 years after the exiles. As Will Kinney states on his website, the differences in the two lists are best understood as an accurate initial list and a somewhat less accurate retelling of the list. Both lists tell the same story, however. God made a way for his people to return to their land so that a holy nation of set-apart people could be reestablished, so that the temple could be rebuilt, so that the family of David could continue to live in the land, and so that the Messiah could come to them.

The pioneering exiles had the faith to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem. Chief among them was Zerubbabel, listed by both Matthew and Luke as an ancestor of Jesus, and the first governor of the reborn nation. The men and women who worked alongside Nehemiah were also pioneers with an equal faith in God to overcome the obstacles that threatened them. By pointing out these early pioneers to the later pioneers, Nehemiah did several things.

  1. He linked them by family and place to former heroes, so that they would be inspired to continue the work.
  2. He gave them and us a record to prove the legitimacy of Israel’s heritage and to help document the genealogy of Jesus.
  3. He reminded us that each individual matters, and that God knows our names and remembers us.

In Ezra, this list of names of those who returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel in 536 B.C. served to document who was a true Jew. In Nehemiah, nearly a century later (444 B.C.), the list answers the question, “Who is available to repopulate the city and to provide for temple worship?” Nehemiah uses the list to instill in the people a reminder of their personal and national identity as God’s people and to encourage them to fulfill their responsibilities in light of this identity. – Steven J. Cole

Image by Hc_07 on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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What’s inside the wall? Nehemiah 5

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“I want God to be a wall of protection around me.”

Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to build a wall. It had been 140 years since the Babylonians tore it down, ninety years since the Jewish exiles began returning, and seventy years since the temple had been rebuilt. Yet the city of Jerusalem was still empty, unprotected, and at the mercy of surrounding hostile nations. The sad state of his homeland moved him to tears. Inspired by God, and with the king’s blessing, Nehemiah headed to Jerusalem. Natural leader that he was, and despite many threats from the hostile neighbors, he and the other Jews quickly built the wall to half its height.

Then real trouble arose – not from outside the city but from within. The people cried out to Nehemiah that their own countrymen were taking advantage of the current food shortage to charge them exorbitant interest, to take over their fields and homes through mortgages they could not repay, and to enslave their children to satisfy their debts. The injustice threatened to end the wall-building project. It made Nehemiah angry, but wisely he waited until his anger had cooled and until he considered what should be done. Then he went to the men who were responsible for the injustice.

So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Nehemiah 5:9-11

The men listened to his rebuke and pledged to make restoration for the damage they had done. The work on the wall resumed and was soon completed. God blessed the work and soon Jerusalem was once again the chief city of the Jews.

The people labored on a stone wall of protection, but the real wall that surrounded them was God. He saw what they did not see: the wall which they were raising, which they wanted God to bless, was enclosing a stew of sin and injustice. God would not have allowed it to proceed if they had not confessed the sin and eliminated the injustice. God would not allow himself, the true wall, to surround and protect such an unholy assembly.

You and I don’t build stone walls for protection today, but we do raise up other walls: armies, police, security systems. We also cry out in prayer for God to protect us and be that hedge around us. But what are we asking God to protect? What’s inside the wall? As I look around I see much that God would refuse to protect, not only outside the church but inside it as well. Abuses of marriage, adultery and other sexual sins, pornography, child abuse, neglect of Bible study, robbing God of our offerings. It’s time for the church to confess its sins and agree to stop these unholy practices. Today, be Nehemiah and react with passion against the injustices in your own life. Then God will once again build up the wall of protection we long for and bless our cities.

Image by Tim Lucas on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Intimidation: Nehemiah 6

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Today’s reading: Nehemiah 4-6.

Nehemiah succeeded in leading the Jews to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, but they encountered all sorts of opposition. The lesson for us today isn’t how to use all these forms of intimidation, but to recognize them so that we can be prepared for them and disarm them. Also, notice how Nehemiah didn’t just pray and leave everything in God’s hands, but whenever possible he added action to his prayers.

The opposition made fun of the Jews (4:2-3). The enemy began by mocking and insulting. It was psychological warfare, and words can hurt and demoralize. Nehemiah responded by calling on God for justice, and by building the wall.

They threatened to harm the Jews (4:11-12). When insults didn’t work, the opposition turned to threats. Nehemiah considered the danger and armed his people, organized them, and set a watch.

They pretended to negotiate (6:2). The offer of “peace talks” was really a trap to lure Nehemiah out in the open where he was an easy target. Nehemiah told them he was too busy to leave and meet them.

They spread lies (6:5-7). The opposition waged a campaign of false information. Rather than falling into despair, Nehemiah prayed that he and his people would be strengthened to complete the work.

They tried to discredit the leader (6:10-13). Weakening the general is an effective strategy. How many times have churches seen their pastor sidelined by Satan? Nehemiah was tempted to give in to fear and take advantage of his privileged position to protect himself, but he recognized the trap and avoided it. He did not lose his influential leadership.

Led by Nehemiah and protected by the LORD, the Jews accomplished the amazing feat of completing the wall around Jerusalem in 52 days. Even more remarkable, they did it despite tremendous opposition. Nehemiah wisely saw through the tactics of the enemy and was able to avoid their threats and traps. How is the enemy trying to trick and trap you today?

You half expected to read, “So we stopped building the wall, and answered Sanballat and Tobiah.” Not a bit of it. They kept to their work and let these two men scoff as they pleased. They built the wall half as high as they meant it to be ultimately; but they carried it all round, and joined it well together. If we cannot do all we would like to do, let us do what we can; and let us endeavor, as far as possible, to finish off the part that we do, waiting for better times to carry the walls higher. – Charles Spurgeon

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Powerful Prayer: Nehemiah 1

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Today’s reading: Nehemiah 1-3.

Prayer is powerful. Prayer pleases God. Yet prayer is neglected, even in my own life. The book of Nehemiah demonstrates a formula for prayer that moved a king, overcame great opposition, and rebuilt a city.

 Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.” Nehemiah 1: 5-6.

Nehemiah prayed because of the heart-breaking news he heard about the sad state of the rebuilding effort in Jerusalem. It had been 90 years since the first exiles had returned to Jerusalem, 70 years since the temple had been rebuilt, and 10 years since Ezra had arrived and stemmed the slide of the people into assimilation with the pagans around them. Yet the news which Nehemiah heard was that the returned exiles were in great trouble and disgrace and unprotected because there were no walls around the city.

Nehemiah prayed with emotion. He prayed out of a broken heart and had been weeping for his disgraced brothers. Aren’t our prayers most fervent when we pray with the sense of great need and anguish?

Nehemiah prayed after fasting. Fasting is not a prerequisite to prayer, but Jesus himself said that the combination of the two had the power to overcome difficult situations.

His prayer invoked the character of God. Nehemiah’s prayer described and praised God at the same time (great and awesome God). It then made God’s character the foundation of God’s response to the prayer (the one who keeps his covenant of love with those who love and obey him).

His prayer emphasized the relationship with God. Nehemiah emphasized (1) that he was subordinate to God as a servant (2) that the Israelites were God’s people.

His prayer confessed the sins of himself and his people. He was general in his admission of guilt, then specific in admitting that the people had not kept the law of Moses.

His prayer recalled the promises of God. I continue to see overwhelming evidence that this is crucial to answered prayer. Nehemiah reminded God of his promise that if his exiled people returned to him in obedience he would redeem them and bring them back to the Promised Land.

His prayer was specific. He asked that God would give him success with the king, in order that the king would support his mission to rebuild Jerusalem.

After Nehemiah prayed, he still  had to step out in faith to bring his plan before the king. The king could have charged Nehemiah with divided loyalty, but instead he responded with whole-hearted favor. Nehemiah’s method of praying unleashed all of God’s influence and molded the will of the king.

This good man was greatly affected by the sad news which he heard. He was not indifferent to, the condition of his countrymen; he did not say, “We are getting on very well here; I am a Jew, and I am in the palace of Artaxerxes, but I cannot do anything to help my brethren. You, who are away there at Jerusalem, must do the best you can.” No; Nehemiah said no such thing; he looked upon himself as being part and parcel of the whole Jewish race, just as every true believer should regard all Christians as being near akin to himself. We are not twenty churches, brethren, nor two hundred; our Lord Jesus Christ is the head, and we are members of that one body which is his Church. We ought to sympathize with all who are in Christ; and, especially, if the cause of God is not prospering in any place, we. should do as Nehemiah did, he wept, and mourned, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven. – Charles Spurgeon

 

Should I date or marry an unbeliever? Ezra 10

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Today’s reading: Ezra 8-10.

There may be no more discouraging situation for young Christians today than the problem of finding a believing mate. The problem could become more difficult in the future as Christians become more of a minority in our expanding  culture of “nones” – those who are affiliated with no church. Desperation may drive some, whether young or older, to seek mates from among the unbelieving. Also, love can be blind, and sometimes the heart binds itself to another before the mind considers whether it is wise to marry someone of a different faith or no faith.

This is not a new problem. The Israelites who returned from exile also had issues with their members marrying unbelievers:

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right!” Ezra 10:10-12

Let me be clear about this command to avoid foreign mates.

  • It isn’t a command to avoid marrying someone of another ethnicity.
  • It isn’t a command to avoid marrying someone of another race.

This is a command to avoid marrying someone who does not worship Jehovah but instead worships a pagan idol or any other false god. In the days of Ezra, the Jews were the only ones who worshiped the LORD. All the other nations and cultures around them worshiped other gods. God had made it clear in his law that they were to avoid marrying unbelievers because the unbelievers would lead them away from God, and the history of Israel had shown that his words were correct.

This is one topic where the New Testament clearly supports the Old Testament view. Paul said, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Paul’s prohibition against being unequally yoked with unbelievers applies to marriage, but also to legally binding business partnerships that are difficult to dissolve. Paul goes on to explain that the result of such partnerships is like trying to mix Jesus and the Devil, that there can be no Christian fellowship in such a relationship, that there can be no agreement on the most important matters of life and eternity, and that it defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit within believers. 

“But I love him/her.” God says that your relationship with him is more important than your relationship with your mate. If that relationship is with an unbelieving mate, it is a defiant act which says to God, “You matter less than my loved one.” It is an act of faithlessness that says to God, “I don’t believe you can provide what I need.”

“But I will change him/her.” The Bible and experience tell us the opposite. The general rule is that the unbeliever weakens the believer’s life of faith. The exception is the case where the believer changes the heart of the unbeliever, though by God’s grace it does sometimes happen. To be clear, I am talking about a man and woman who are already married or deeply emotionally bound to each other. I don’t mean that a believer shouldn’t witness to the lost.

“But I can’t leave him/her.” The New Testament teaching (1 Corinthians 7) does recommend that the unequally yoked couple stay together if they are already married. Paul says that this is best for the children and does allow for the possibility that the believer may save the lost spouse by their godly example.

People learn this principle at different stages in their lives. Some learn it before marriage. For them, it’s imperative to look for a partner who shares their faith in God. Some learn it after marriage. If that’s your situation, God says you can be a witness that will sometimes win your spouse (more by example than words) and will always set them apart in God’s eyes (1 Corinthians 7:14).

If the pagan wife had decided to keep her primary allegiance with her former people and their idols, she could not live among the covenant community and had to be divorced. To the end of the chapter, there is a list showing that only about 114 of these pagan wives refused to embrace the God of Israel and had to be divorced. Yamauchi calculates that it was less than one-half of one percent of the people who were guilty of this pagan intermarriage and who had to divorce their wives. Though it was such a small percentage, it still had to be dealt with strongly – and it was. It also shows that most of the foreign wives joined the people of God in their heart as well as their home. In the New Testament believers are also instructed to marry within the faith. Marriages to unbelievers are condemned (2 Corinthians 6:14) and widows (as one example of the unmarried) are directly commanded to marry within the faith (1 Corinthians 7:39). However, Paul specifically commanded that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, they are to remain in the marriage if at all possible, both for the possibility of a witness to the unbelieving spouse and for the benefit it brings to the children (1 Corinthians 7:12-17) – David Guzik

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When you face opposition: Ezra 4-7

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Today’s reading: Ezra 4-7.

Bump in the road. Detour. Road block. You can tell we Americans drive a lot. Just look at the way we use highway jargon to describe the difficulties we face off the road. The question is, how do you handle the detours and road blocks that pop up in your life? Do you easily get discouraged and give up? I hope you find the strength to push on through the difficulties and make it to the end of your road. That’s what the Israelites did when they faced opposition in rebuilding the temple.

It wasn’t long after the foundation stones were laid and the altar was rebuilt that the returning exiles faced major conflict:

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:4-5

Let’s look at a timeline of the rebuilding of the temple.

  • 537 BC – Proclamation of Cyrus allows the exiles to return
  • 535 BC – Foundation of the temple laid
  • 534 BC – Adversaries report to Artaxerxes who stops the temple work
  • 520 BC – Adversaries report to Darius that the temple work has resumed, but Darius permits the work to proceed
  • 515 BC – The Israelites complete and dedicate the temple

Opponents of the Israelites hindered the construction of the second temple for fifteen years. The Israelites could have given up. They must have questioned how one king could rule for them and another against them.  They might have wondered if it was God’s will to keep trying. They could have decided that God didn’t want the temple after all since there was so much opposition. They answered their doubts by recognizing that the opposition was from man, not God. They resumed the construction whenever there was an opportunity and they finished the temple 22 years after their return from exile.

Roadblocks don’t necessarily mean that God opposes our efforts. Sometimes a closed door is being kept closed by an adversary. If you are doing God’s will, keep pushing.

  • God uses difficulties to test us, as he tested the Israelites during their wilderness journey.
  • God uses struggles to strengthen us  “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” Jeremiah 12:5
  • God uses trials to perfect us and teach us patient endurance (James 1). 
  • God uses suffering to teach us to depend on him.  “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

Image by Dan Diffendale on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

Don’t despise discipline: Ezra 3

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Today’s reading: Ezra 1-3.

Israel returned to the Promised Land after seventy years in a foreign land. Their release and return was a miracle of God’s grace, but the greater wonder is how they responded when they returned. They had no king, no temple, and little besides what they brought with them. They were descended from ancestors, kings and commoners alike, who had often abandoned the Lord and worshiped idols. Yet, when they returned to their former homeland they acted like the people of God.

  • They assembled as one in Jerusalem to observe the feast of Tabernacles.
  • They gave offerings to rebuild the temple.
  • They rebuilt the altar and offered sacrifices even though they feared the reprisal of neighboring countries.

The greatest evidence of their changed hearts was visible when the foundation stones of the new temple were laid.

With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. Ezra 3:11-13.

The people wept and shouted for joy. Some wept because their hearts were broken over what had been lost. Others were joyful because of the new opportunity to worship God in Jerusalem. In both cases they responded out of devotion to the Lord. This was the same nation that had “mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:16). The difference? They had responsibly accepted the Lord’s discipline.

Five hundred years earlier Solomon had written, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12). The Israelites had accepted the Lord’s reproof and were restored to their position as children of God. They weren’t perfect, but they had been redeemed from their captivity because they submitted to God’s correction.

The book of Hebrews outlines some of the steps in the process of discipline, beginning with the foundation of Solomon’s principle from Proverbs 3. Chapter 12 of Hebrews goes on to say:

  •  God disciplines those he loves; therefore we can accept his correction as intended for our good.
  • Parents discipline their children, and God’s discipline should reassure us that we are still his own.
  • We should submit to the authority of God’s correction as a child submits to his or her parent’s authority.
  • God’s aim in disciplining us is to make us holy.
  • Correction which seems painful now will bring peace and righteousness later.

Jesus amplified this idea when he said that we are like the grape-vine which God prunes so that it will bear more fruit. Is God pruning you today? Do you feel like you are experiencing the pain of correction? God wants you to accept his discipline. If you will, you will find it leads to freedom from captivity and a fruitful future.

Image by Stefano Lubiana on Flickr, CC by 2.0.