SEIZING OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE GOD

God has been interested in Jerusalem for a long time. In Deuteronomy 12:5 we read this:

But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go…

That was spoken during Moses’ time, but it wouldn’t be until David’s time that Jerusalem was made the capital of Israel and later Solomon build the Temple there. Unfortunately, a lot of other people have been interested in this piece of real estate, from ancient time up until today. When we understand that Jerusalem is central to God’s will for His people, we can easily understand why the enemies of God and of God’s people want it. They will do whatever it takes to thwart the plans of God.

Sadly, God’s people have been doing a good job of that on their own. Back in Deuteronomy 17, long before Israel had a king, Moses warned them that if they ever put a king in place to be like the nations around them, they would be courting disaster. Knowing the people as well as he did, Moses knew they would eventually want a king, so he issued them the following guidelines:

  • the king must not accumulate horses, which are representative of power and warfare, and a pomp and pageantry like the pagan nations;

  • the king must have only one wife;

  • the king must not accumulate a stockpile of gold and silver;

  • the king must make his own copy of the Law, read it, and study every day.

How many kings did it take before these guidelines were abandoned? Just one, the very first one, Saul. David, the godly king who had a heart for God, even ignored them. Because of the rebellious nature of all the kings and their proclivity toward idolatry, God determined to punish the nation of Judah (the city of Jerusalem in particular) and Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was His chosen instrument.

In all, it took Nebuchadnezzar three invasions (605, 597, and 587 BC) to completely sack Jerusalem, burning it to the ground, carting off almost all of its citizens back to Babylon (later Persia) and resettling them there. Daniel and Jeremiah were among the people who were forced to leave Jerusalem; for 70 years, or about two generations, Judah would remain in Babylon.

1. Less than ideal circumstances, Nehemiah 1:1—11

It wasn’t all bad for the Jews in Babylon. God’s people have a way of prospering no matter what, but still, they were not home. They had some freedom to build lives for themselves, and many did well as they not only built homes, but also businesses. In fact, we find some of the exiled Jews serving in the King’s court! In 539 BC, Cyrus king of Pesia, the kingdom that succeeded Babylon, came to power. Instead of making life harder for the Jews, he decreed that their exile was over and that those who wanted to return to Jerusalem could do so and rebuild their homes and their Temple. Not all the Jews wanted to make the difficult and dangerous four month journey back home. By now, almost all of the exiles in Persia had been born there; the only knowledge they had of Jerusalem came from the stories they heard from their parents and grandparents.

When the first group of exiles finally reached Judah, they saw the enormity of the task. The city and the Temple were non-existent. While they started to work laying the foundation for the Temple, for various reasons the work came to a standstill for some 17 years. Haggai and Zechariah came along and urged the people to get back to work and finally in 516 BC the Temple was completed.

In 458 BC, the next wave of pilgrims found their way to Judah led by Ezra. Ezra loved God’s Word and was angered by the self-centered attitude of those living in Judah at that time. The Temple had been rebuilt, but the people themselves were not serving the Lord as they should. His job was to restore spiritual order to the lives of the people, which included kicking the heathen wives of the priests out of Jerusalem and giving full obedience to the Law of God.

The last wave of Jews came to Jerusalem in 444 BC led by Nehemiah. Nehemiah was the right man at the right time to push the people of God even closer to their God but at the same he was a skilled politician who gained the favor of the heathen monarch.

Nehemiah

The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa. (Nehemiah 1:1)

Nehemiah actually worked for the King of Persia, as his cupbearer. He lived in Susa in the palace of Artaxerxes. Just like Queen Esther, he used his position to bring favor to God’s people.

By the time Nehemiah decided to return to Jerusalem, the Jews had been back there for some 100 years. While many had returned, most chose to stay in Persia; they had families, lives, and businesses there, after all. The ties to their people back in Judah were very lose at best. Generally, those who returned home were ones who did so because of a strong desire to return to the old ways of worship at the Temple and observance of the Law and a return to Jewish culture.

Nehemiah didn’t seem interested in returning to Jerusalem at first. He held a lofty position of great influence. He came from the noble class and it must have been hard for him to think of giving it all up to go to a place he had never seen to face an uncertain future.

Hanani

Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace.  The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

Hanani was one of Nehemiah’s brothers and he reported some discouraging news to Nehemiah. God used this report to move the heart of Nehemiah and to show him the seriousness of the situation back in Jerusalem.

Nehemiah’s reaction, verse 4—7

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.

Even though Nehemiah was miles and miles removed from what was going on in Jerusalem, he at long last identified with the plight of his people. This is similar to Jesus’ reaction to the state of Jerusalem during His day:

He saw the city and wept over it. (Luke 19:41)

Nehemiah’s powerful prayer is similar to that of Daniel’s (Daniel 9:5, 6) and Ezra’s (Ezra 9:6, 7). Notice that all three of these godly men completely identified themselves with their people b y using “we” and not “they.” Nehemiah approached the Lord in prayer as though he were as guilty as his people who had forsaken the Lord.

I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. (1:6, 7)

What a great lesson for us today! It’s easy to point fingers at others while ignoring our own shortcomings.

Nehemiah’s prayer (vs. 8—1) reveals that he had some knowledge of how God worked in the lives of the people. He understood that sin brings punishment but also that God is merciful and forgiving. The last sentence of chapter 1 shows us that Nehemiah also understood something of the sovereignty of God. Being the cupbearer of the king put him in a unique position to do something of meaning for his people back in Jerusalem.

2. Divine opportunity, 2:1—8

The right time, vs. 1, 2

Some four months had passed before Nehemiah approached the king. We don’t know why it took him so long; perhaps Nehemiah wanted to make sure of God’s will; that he wasn’t acting on impulse. However, it is clear that his concern for his people stayed with him and increased. Doing something for Jerusalem was more than just a desire to advance the cause of his homeland. Jerusalem was special, and Nehemiah knew it.

The bold request, vs. 3—5

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 ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (vs. 5)

Nehemiah controlled his feelings for 4 months, but finally—at the right time—the king was made aware of what was going on in Nehemiah’s heart. Artaxerxes would have been well aware of the heritage of the Jews. His step-mother was Queen Esther. This probably predisposed the king to grant Nehemiah’s request.

But it was a tricky request for this cupbearer to make all the same. Nehemiah was well aware that the reason the work in Jerusalem has ground to a halt was because the king had issued a decree stopping it! So this seemingly simple request was actually quite dangerous; Nehemiah was literally putting his life on the line making it.

Request granted, vs. 6—8

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.

It seems almost coincidental that the queen was with her husband during this conversation, but there are no coincidences with God. She would have known Nehemiah as well as her husband the king did and would have been sympathetic to his cause. Nehemiah seemed to have a plan in place before approaching the king, but we know that he stayed in Jerusalem for 12 years; probably much longer than he could have conceived of at this point.

The king granted Nehemiah’s every request, but we know he did so because it was God’s will:

And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. (vs. 8b)

3. A well-prepared plan, 2:9—18

Bad blood, vs 9, 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.

With a military escort, something Ezra didn’t have, Nehemiah made his trip to Jerusalem. This escort caught the attention of some people along the way, especially some of disreputable character. The people mentioned here hated the Jews and they were responsible for the work stoppage. They in no way wanted these people back in Jerusalem and they certainly didn’t want the city rebuilt! Of the trouble makers mentioned, Sanballat was the worst of the lot. We find out later on that he held a strong military position in Samaria. Tobiah was an Ammonite; a people about whom God had said:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. (Deuteronomy 23:3)

Strangely enough, this man was a close friend of Eliashib, the high priest in Jerusalem at the time! Nehemiah had his work cut out for him to be sure!

Checking out the situation, vs. 11—16

I set out during the night with a few others. 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.

Why do you suppose he inspected the walls in the dead of night? Obviously Nehemiah didn’t want anybody to know what his plans where. In all, he took three days to make sure that what his brother had told him was true. Sometimes even when we are convinced of God’s will, it’s good to keep it to ourselves until the right time to reveal it.

Mission revealed, vs 17, 18

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

The time had come for Nehemiah to reveal what God’s will was. He made sure that the people realized that it was God who had prompted him to take this action; that the plan of rebuilding did not originate with himself or the King.

Another interesting thing is that it took an outsider to see the situation clearly. Sometimes another perspective is essential if we have a problem that needs cleaning up.

It may all seem like chance, but God in His sovereignty had Nehemiah in the right place at the right time to accomplish His eternal purposes for His people. Nehemiah was not a religious man—he was not a priest or a prophet. All too often we think it’s up to those “religious types” to do the work of the Lord, but that’s not how God works! God uses all kinds of people in and out of the Church to advance His will. No matter what your career is or your talents may be, never be afraid to do the work of God right where you are. God will provide ample opportunities, so be ready to take advantage like Nehemiah did.

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