An Enduring Legacy: “The Weakest Links” – Nehemiah 13

weakest-link-anne-robinson-8439893One of the BBC TV shows that was made famous in the first decade of the current millennium was that of “The Weakest Link”. The television game show first appeared in the United Kingdom in August 2000 and successfully ran until March of 2012. The show was so wrapped around the personality of its hostess, that when Anne Robinson ended her contract, the show was closed down. Ms. Robinson’s catchphrase “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!” dented pop culture, showing itself in overt references from TV shows like “Family Guy” and “Dr. Who” to ‘hat tips’ in pop culture movies like “Scary Movie 2” and “The League of Gentlemen”. The idea of the show was that contestants were pitted against one another, responding to increasingly tough questions. Though they worked as a “team”, they were eliminated by vote of the others. Anne stepped in each round to usher out the contestant voted to leave. Sometimes she seemed a bit gleeful, and sometimes quite harsh. At the same time, it was entertaining to watch people play a strategy against one another to gain personal advantage.

It is no secret; the weakest link determines the strength of the chain. If only one link is weak, the chain will falter exactly at that point– regardless of how strong all the other links are. What is true on your child’s bicycle is also true in a people project, or a ministry. Tensions will come, and the breaks will happen – leaders need to anticipate that from the beginning and keep an eye on those men, women and children who are struggling – because that is where a “break” will occur. That careful eye is made even more difficult when there are a number of people who are weak, all at the same time. The point is that building a work for God is not the same as maintaining and stabilizing a work of God. The necessary leadership skill sets are not identical. One can build well, but the ministry may not last if not maintained well.

One key to the successful navigation of trouble is the realism with which we set our expectations. When leaders don’t think trouble will come – their arrival brings a level of disillusionment that goes beyond the original problem. A second key is found in endurance… for no one ever accomplished a difficult goal without perseverance. This is a “given” in leadership. In Nehemiah 13, the leader we have been following ran his last lap on the job, and fell from the pages of history. The maintenance problems he faced were not new problems, but they were deeply discouraging ones that kept coming back around, again and again. The final chapter of the book records the struggle of a leader with three critical issues – inconsistent leaders, inconsistent practices and sliding malleable morals. The record is meant to warn us: building for God must be sustained by a careful approach to maintaining people. How? Nehemiah 13 offers…

Key Principle: People must be continually encouraged to stand firm, walk without compromise and see the value of a passionate testimony!

Before we look at the problem, let me share that I appreciate that Nehemiah was not a “Teflon man” – tough stuff stuck. He was passionate, and at times he became irritable and hurt by the people. His intense discouragement showed like the weft of a thread bare cloth in several places:

Note both his perception, and his pronounced reactions to those who brought sin troubles. When troubles were made known to him, they really got to him. I love the record of Nehemiah 13:8 “It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room.” Can you see yourself doing something like that? You get SO upset at the actions of someone who should know better, you give their room a full “clean out”? It is as though you could hear the sound of the making of a whip in the south porch of the Temple, as Jesus was welling up inside with the “zeal of his house”!

The text offered that he tossed out the property of Tobiah hastily (13:8), but also that he threatened to physically harm the Sabbath breaking merchants (13:21) after repeated violations. He smacked the men and pulled out the beard hairs (in disrespect, cp. Isaiah 50) of those who intermarried and then raised children that couldn’t speak Hebrew (13:24-25). He chased out a compromise-laden young man from the room! (13:28).

Because the issues of the text are SIN issues, that is, people acting out of lust or fallen values – they really got under his SKIN. I can attest to the extreme discouragement of facing people’s sin issues – especially those who KNOW BETTER. We all make choices that don’t honor our commitment and calling, but sometimes it just STINGS. I love that Nehemiah related that part of his own walk – where he just about LOST IT on the people who just wouldn’t quit rebellion!

Let’s move in close. Remember that Nehemiah 13 demonstrates three areas that undermine and destroy any good work that God has done. The three problems cited are:

#1) Inconsistent Leadership that keeps the vision without compromise (13:1-14).

#2) Incremental Easing of Commitment to the Passionate testimony in a walk with God (13:15-22).

#3) A Refusal of God’s People to walk distinctly in relationships in the world (13:23-31).

Let’s Look More Closely at Each:

First, Inconsistent leadership (13:1-14):

Nehemiah 13:1 On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2 because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. 3 So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel. 4 Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being related to Tobiah, 5 had prepared a large room for him, where formerly they put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests. 6 But during all this [time] I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time, however, I asked leave from the king, 7 and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, by preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. 8 It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. 9 Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense. 10 I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given [them], so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field. 11 So I reprimanded the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts. 12 All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses. 13 In charge of the storehouses I appointed Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and in addition to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered reliable, and it was their task to distribute to their kinsmen. 14 Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.

The text opened with an issue that it did not close until the end of the chapter – like a summation. He started by relating that people were growing in the Word – when they heard it- and began to obey. That is the summary point of the first four verses – but the STORY of those verses appears at the end of the chapter. Suffice it to say that the first verses are a mere statement: “The people grew in the Lord as they heard His Word. One example I can share is what happened when they learned they were not to join families with the Ammonite tribe or the Moabite tribe. I will get back to that later…”

Between verses five and thirteen, Nehemiah engaged the problem of Eliashib and the Levites that literally halted the forward work of the Temple – a problem that occurred in a time of absence and travel of Nehemiah. The writer described the scene he discovered when he returned to Jerusalem from a trip to Babylon. Essentially, the original commitment to the Temple quickly waned in his absence, and the people were not bringing the tithes they promised. As the tithes shrank, the room they were stored in was not seen as valuable in a time when space – particularly well designed space – was easily attained. The priest in charge gave the hall of storage away to a relative so that he could live there – right in the courts of the Temple.

There are several layers to this problem that we are invited to observe. First, note that when the leaders didn’t fervently encourage the people to stay with their commitments before God, those commitments quickly dissipated. People have to be constantly called back to the place of commitment and surrender. It is a function of the work of a leader of God’s people to remind them, to exhort them, to encourage them to keep their commitments and surrender to God at the FRONT of their mind. Peter knew well that it was not a problem to remind people of things over and over (2 Peter 1:13). Paul reminded Timothy without hesitation (2 Timothy 1:6).

Second, we are reminded that leaders, like all people, make compromises – and they need to be careful about how that tendency affects the purity of God’s work. Eliashib, like many leaders, made personal compromises that affected his leadership:

His family was allowed to defect from the vision, but still gain from his personal sponsorship and enabling to sin. Eliashib’s grandson had intermarried into the family of Sanballat the Horonite who set himself as an enemy of Nehemiah (he was upset about Nehemiah’s work in 2:10; accused Nehemiah of rebellion in 2:19; mocked the attempt to build the wall in 4:1; attempted to lure and kill Nehemiah in 6:2; etc.). That connection was the weak link the enemy used to draw him into corrupting the whole work! God’s people, particularly leaders, need to be reminded that our personal connections affect our heart, our fervency, our walk. Choose your friends well. If you are a leader, choose them with even more scrutiny. Bad company corrupts good morals. Corrupted morals destroy great works of God.

Eliashib also forgot obligations he and the people made before God when the Spirit was at work in an earlier time (Nehemiah 10:39 “we will not neglect the house of the Lord”) as demonstrated by the way he gave Temple space for personal use to a friend that had been restricted by God to even be in that place (13:1-9; cp. Dt. 23:3-5). He gave something that belonged to God – not something of his own. Further, he did not maintain the God-ordained system of care for those who were to minister to the people and care for Temple (13:10).

Are there problems we face in our day that look the same? Sure there are. When we make the patterns prescribed from Heaven mere civil arrangements, we forget what they really are – commitments before God. If our country decides that marriage, for instance, is nothing more than a contract – that is fine. Yet, a believer knows the truth – they know it is a sacred symbol given by God and cemented in Heaven. They know “God has joined them together” and that is why they must not lightly “put it asunder” as the wedding ceremony reminds.

When we forget what our forefathers knew and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that life and liberty were not bestowed by government, but rather by God to people – we can be persuaded over time that government has the authority to remove those fundamental rights. Our freedoms as a society are held in place by firm memory of the truth – and the place from which truth comes. That is always the case. Nehemiah 13 demonstrates what happens when truth is allowed to slip from the minds of the leaders, and then the people. Good stops, while evil supplants it. Eliashib forgot that GOD instituted the Temple system, and made its precincts holy.

How can a problem like this be solved? Nehemiah took the necessary steps to model the answer for us:

First, he inspected what was done since his absence. Leadership requires investigation and consideration of events and facts (13:7). Second, when he determined the action to be evil, he acted against evil. He did not “tolerate” or “accommodate” – he never once suggested they move the tithe storage to another place, nor put it “together” with Tobiah’s things. There was no compromise with a breach of God’s holy precinct. He removed the things that were in violation (13:8) – though I admit he did it with some extra “gusto”! Next, he attempted to re-establish the vision by setting the problem aright (13:9). He faced those in the structure of the organization directly with the problem, and replaced them as necessary to reset the standard (13:11-13).

Toleration and compromise, when it comes to things God has commanded, leads only to a waning of God’s desired work. We need to remember that what God commanded to be sacred – IS – by virtue of God’s Word. It isn’t up to us to accommodate those who desire to rebel against truth – but to lovingly hold the line on what is true – because God said it is!

Second, Slipping Testimony (13:15-22):

A second issue also arose, and we can see how the first bled into the second…

Nehemiah 13:15 In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading [them] on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought [them] into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished [them] on the day they sold food. 16 Also men of Tyre were living there [who] imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold [them] to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem. 17 Then I reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? 18 “Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” 19 It came about that just as it grew dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and that they should not open them until after the sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates [so that] no load would enter on the sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 Then I warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.” From that time on they did not come on the sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come as gatekeepers to sanctify the sabbath day. [For] this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.

The first problem was a relaxing the standards of God in regard to a HOLY PLACE. The second problem also concerned the relaxing of God’s standards – this in regard to the HOLY DAY.

Note the way such laxities occur. Three symptoms are given:

1) Truth was ignored when it lost its purpose among God’s people. The Sabbath was a command to show they were a distinct people that belonged to God (Exodus 31). By ignoring the way God told them to act as a testimony before the world (Nehemiah 13:15). When God’s people forget what the symbols of God actually denote – they lose all their intrinsic value – and are eventually abandoned.

2) Truth was ignored by allowing those of the world to participate in their disobedience (Nehemiah 13:16). The world is only too happy to help us abandon things God told us to do! We can easily begin to rationalize a reason NOT to obey – it was FISH, and they needed to be fresh. That is all predicated on the idea that we need FISH available every day. The point for us is NOT whether we need to keep the Sabbath that was prescribed to the Jewish people in uniqueness – but whether we recognize the ease with which we can lose our distinctiveness when we drop the symbols of our faith. Take, for instance, those believers that think they don’t need association with a local church. Probe them, and you will find that many think they can walk in obedience without the body, and find a new way to advance the faith. They have no clue that they are damaging their testimony and weakening the distinctiveness of the message of the body of Christ. They have little positive impact on the world, and blur the lines of what a believer should be.

3) Truth was ignored by forgetting the penalties they suffer through disobedience (13:17,18). People quickly forget that when believers abandoned the things God commanded in the past – it went badly for everyone. Judgment comes when rebellion is allowed to fester unanswered.

How did Nehemiah address this issue? He modeled a solution in steps:

• First, he pointed out the wrong with no ambiguity or uncertainty (Note the words in Nehemiah 13:15- testified; 13:17- contended; 13:18- questioned leaders).

• Second, he stopped the practice immediately (13:19) and got the others to participate in the change.

• Third, he expected opposition and took it on openly. If the standard is God’s, no less can demonstrate obedience (13:20-21).

• Finally, he got all God’s people to respond: (especially their leaders) to repent (i.e. clean up) and get back to the testimony of former days (13:22).

Third, Failed Persistence in a Distinct (Holy) Walk (13:23-31):

Yet a third problem was made known to him:

Nehemiah 13:23 In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon [and] Moab. 24 As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people. 25 So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. 26 “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin. 27 “Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by marrying foreign women?” 28 Even one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, so I drove him away from me. 29 Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. 30 Thus I purified them from everything foreign and appointed duties for the priests and the Levites, each in his task, 31 and [I arranged] for the supply of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.

Look at the progression. When people let down their guard on Holy Places (the standards of what they can allow and where) and Holy Times (faithful observance of God’s Word and the central place of worship), they will find themselves attracted to COMPROMISE in the standards of relationships in life. How does this happen?

• First, believers flirt with the world’s standard, and are not held to the call of the Word regarding distinction (13:23; cp. Dt. 7:3-11).

• Soon after, they compromise even the most basic identifications with the people of God, and go far beyond what their parents ever imagined they would (Nehemiah 13:24).

How can this painful situation be rectified? Nehemiah offered four examples:

• First, he took a stand! Altered obedience is disobedience. If the slip is not rejected outright, the problem will only grow (13:25).

• Second, he pointed out the problems caused by their sin, for the history of God’s people permitted such a lesson (13:26).

• Third, he reminded them that the standard was for THEIR GOOD because of the LOVE OF GOD (Nehemiah 13:26). God wasn’t trying to “spoil their fun”, but rather keep them from inherent danger.

• He made clear they couldn’t compromise for “important” or “well placed” people (13:28).

People must be continually encouraged to stand firm, walk without compromise and see the value of a passionate testimony!

Don’t mistake what I am saying. We are not talking about EARNING God’s love by doing right, we are speaking of RESPONDING to God’s love by obedience. A relationship with God begins when we surrender to Him and trust Him – but it is carefully grown and nurtured when we become DOERS of His Word and not HEARERS only.

Remember, God doesn’t simply judge men by what they SAY they believed, but by what they SHOW they believed. Theoretical musings are not equal to faithful steps of obedience. As you leave today, perhaps someone will approach you and say, “Is the sermon done already?” Tell them simply this: “No, just the speaking part. The sermon isn’t DONE until we stand firm, walk without compromise and see the value of a passionate testimony before the world. The sermon has been HEARD, but now it must be DONE.

An Enduring Legacy: “Celebrating an Outrageous God” – Nehemiah 12

injusticeHave you ever been OUTRAGED at an injustice you saw or heard about? Have you ever had to hold back anger or tears because someone you loved deeply was brutally taken advantage of – and there was little or nothing you could do to help? “Outrage” is a boiling over that comes when we encounter a seemingly immovable injustice… Our Creator encountered one in the Garden of Eden long ago – when men mutinied against His leadership – but there was something He could do. God answered one injustice with yet another – by allowing a sinless man to be beaten, and summarily executed for crimes He did not commit. Have we forgotten how outrageous that was? Not everyone has… There is a report of what happened to a tribe in the jungles of East Asia, when missionaries showed them the Jesus film a few years ago, reported by Ben Patterson. He wrote a few years ago:

It was a big deal when I was in Seminary and one of my friends was a missionary telling me about all that was going on with the Jesus Film. The movie was being shown as an evangelistic tool to people all over—in the desert, and in the jungles Not only had some of these people never heard of Jesus, they had never seen a motion picture. And on that one unforgettable evening, they saw it all—the gospel in their own language, visible and real. Imagine again how it felt to see this good man Jesus, who healed the sick and was adored by children, held without trial and beaten by jeering soldiers. As these East Asians watched this, the people came unglued. They stood up and began to shout at the cruel men on the screen, demanding that this outrage stop. When nothing happened, they attacked the missionary running the projector. Perhaps he was responsible for this injustice He was forced to stop the film and explain that the story wasn’t over yet, that there was more. So they settled back onto the ground, holding their emotions in tenuous check. Then came the crucifixion. Again, the people could not hold back. They began to weep and wail with such loud grief that once again the film had to be stopped. The missionary again tried to calm them, explaining that the story still wasn’t over, that there was more. So they composed themselves and sat down to see what happened next. Then came the resurrection. Pandemonium broke out this time, but for a different reason. The gathering had spontaneously erupted into a party. The noise now was of jubilation, and it was deafening. The people were dancing and slapping each other on the back. The Christ is Risen, indeed Again the missionary had to shut off the projector. But this time he didn’t tell them to calm down and wait for what was next. All that was supposed to happen—in the story and in their lives—was happening. SOURCE: Ben Patterson, “Resurrection and Pandemonium,” Leadership 4-13-04

What happened when people encountered the story of God’s outrageous love and sacrifice of His Son for men – people who knew NOTHING of the story? They DANCED. They CELEBRATED. They were OVERJOYED. They… WORSHIPED! Why? Because worship is the right response to properly reckoning Who God is, and what God has done for us!

Key Principle: Real worship is the celebration of WHO God is and what He has done!

In our series in Nehemiah, we are nearing the end. We enter chapter twelve, and the people are in a time of worship. The passage holds the key to the secret of a great testimony for God! Though it includes something as mundane as an historical interlude with name lists, it was provided by God in part to remind us Nehemiah’s priorities included the WORSHIP of His people (as becomes clear in places like Nehemiah 12:47) – not simply the physical security of the CITY WALLS, and the social ethos of a wounded people. Worship was a central issue to the great “wine steward become contractor” of the Bible. He knew worship needed to be restored, taught and encouraged. He recognized that worship provided a key to the testimony that allows others to hear from God – it is the JOY that comes from obedience to Him and a real encounter with Him! That is why he made a note that “joy” was “heard from afar” in Nehemiah 12:43.

Before we dive into the worship scene, it would be good for us to walk back through the story and recall how this scene became a reality for the people. We have learned incredible lessons from Nehemiah as we have studied together:

• In the beginning of the book, we saw that if God burdens your heart–He is about to work and wants to honor you by using you to work through.
• We watched as Nehemiah planned and recalled that faith is NOT a synonym for disorder or substitute for careful planning (Nehemiah 2).
• Shortly into the book, we noticed that when we move forward for God, the opposition came to the surface to fight back. We should expect trouble and hindrance in God’s building work, as we started to observe in Nehemiah 2:19.
• We examined Nehemiah’s assignments of practical work, and recalled there are laws of people work that God wanted us to recognize in the “job list” portion of Nehemiah 3.
• Next we saw the testing of a leader that began with his facing unjust and destructive Criticism (4:1-6). Next was…
• Test #2: Facing discouraging winds of gossip in the ranks of the ministry (4:7-23).
• That was followed by Test #3: the handling of broken spirits – people who were wounded by the behavior of others in Nehemiah 5:1-13.
• Another test followed – Test #4: the leader was tested by the temptation of “perks” he could enjoy to the detriment of the work (Nehemiah 5:14-19).
• When that failed, the enemy threw Test #5: open intimidation from political enemies of the work” (Nehemiah 6:1-9).
• Still another test followed – #6: an opportunity to be trapped in practical situational ethics and turn from reliance on God (Nehemiah 6:10-14) as the men tried to entrap Nehemiah and push him to do wrong.
• Finally the troubles relented, and the people began to learn about starting clean before God, as the principles in reestablishing the work by the Word were unfolded in Nehemiah 7.
• We looked carefully at some principles of revival (Nehemiah 8:1-8) as the Word was given and explained.
• We saw the people feel a sense of shame, and then need to be re-directed into celebration in a community clean-up – in their observance of God’s appointed times (Nehemiah 9:1-38).
• We watched as their leaders discovered the joy of prioritizing their walk with God in Nehemiah 9:38-10:39.
• We identified leaders who were willing to pay the price in Nehemiah 11.

Now we face the end of the story. It includes two scenes – one of WORSHIP and one of CORRECTION. This lesson zooms in on the response to God’s goodness – a joyful response that makes an impact on a lost world!. The entire chapter deals with the Priests and Levites and their work among the people. Like Elders and Deacons – these were the functional servants of God before the congregation.

The chapter divides simply:

• The first part of the narrative includes a record of the priests and Levites (12:1-26).
• The second part records the details of the holy processional on the walls of Jerusalem to dedicate the work they did (12:27-47). The purpose of the dedication was to refocus the reader on the purpose of the project – to regain safe worship in Jerusalem.

Look closely, for in the narrative, we can observe important principles of worship that help us reach out:


This looks like a shopping list of names broken into three groups:

Group #1: The first group was a record of those who returned with the original group under the order of Cyrus in 536, many years before Nehemiah was born (12:1-11) as recorded in the “Scroll of Zerubbabel” (in our Bibles as Ezra 1-7):

Nehemiah 12:1 Now these are the priests and the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua: Seraiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, 2 Amariah, Malluch, Hattush, 3 Shecaniah, Rehum, Meremoth, 4 Iddo, Ginnethoi, Abijah, 5 Mijamin, Maadiah, Bilgah, 6 Shemaiah and Joiarib, Jedaiah, 7 Sallu, Amok, Hilkiah and Jedaiah. These were the heads of the priests and their kinsmen in the days of Jeshua. 8 The Levites [were] Jeshua, Binnui, Kadmiel, Sherebiah, Judah, [and] Mattaniah [who was] in charge of the songs of thanksgiving, he and his brothers. 9 Also Bakbukiah and Unni, their brothers, stood opposite them in [their] service divisions. 10 Jeshua became the father of Joiakim, and Joiakim became the father of Eliashib, and Eliashib became the father of Joiada, 11 and Joiada became the father of Jonathan, and Jonathan became the father of Jaddua.

Scanning the list, you will note there are twenty-two names – connecting it with the twenty-four courses of priests of Davidic “courses,” from 1 Chronicles 24:7-18. Eight names match those of David’s time – probably priestly families that named sons after names of their priestly fathers. Sixteen of the names are the same as found in Nehemiah 10:2-8, with six absent from the list of Nehemiah 12. Perhaps six declined to seal to Nehemiah’s covenant given in Nehemiah 10.

Groups #2: The second group was the list priests of the second generation –the one led by Joiakim, the replacement priest to Jeshua of Zerubbabel’s generation.

Nehemiah 12:12 Now in the days of Joiakim, the priests, the heads of fathers’ [households] were: of Seraiah, Meraiah; of Jeremiah, Hananiah; 13 of Ezra, Meshullam; of Amariah, Jehohanan; 14of Malluchi, Jonathan; of Shebaniah, Joseph; 15 of Harim, Adna; of Meraioth, Helkai; 16 of Iddo, Zechariah; of Ginnethon, Meshullam; 17 of Abijah, Zichri; of Miniamin, of Moadiah, Piltai; 18 of Bilgah, Shammua; of Shemaiah, Jehonathan; 19 of Joiarib, Mattenai; of Jedaiah, Uzzi; 20 of Sallai, Kallai; of Amok, Eber; 21of Hilkiah, Hashabiah; of Jedaiah, Nethanel.

Groups #3: The third group of names appears to interrupt the list (that continues in 12:24). These verses interrupt the account of the Temple officers in the time of Joiakim, resumed in Nehemiah 12:24. This group appears to be a “drop in” insert to the text – a later addition from the time of Alexander the Great, to help fill in the gap for later Bible students. The “Darius” intended may be Codomannus, the adversary of Alexander the Great, as a contemporary with Jaddua – or perhaps his father.

Nehemiah 12:22 As for the Levites, the heads of fathers’ [households] were registered in the days of Eliashib, Joiada, and Johanan and Jaddua; so [were] the priests in the reign of Darius the Persian. 23 The sons of Levi, the heads of fathers’ [households], were registered in the Book of the Chronicles up to the days of Johanan the son of Eliashib.

Continued from Group #2: The fourth list appears to belong immediately after 12:20, as the “second wave” of leaders of the Levites under Joiakim’s time:

Nehemiah 12:24 The heads of the Levites [were] Hashabiah, Sherebiah and Jeshua the son of Kadmiel, with their brothers opposite them, to praise [and] give thanks, as prescribed by David the man of God, division corresponding to division. 25 Mattaniah, Bakbukiah, Obadiah, Meshullam, Talmon [and] Akkub [were] gatekeepers keeping watch at the storehouses of the gates. 26 These [served] in the days of Joiakim the son of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and in the days of Nehemiah the governor and of Ezra the priest [and] scribe.

“Fascinating!” you are no doubt saying. “Thanks so much for unfolding that riveting list of names”….

Don’t despair if you find that section boring and mind numbing. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a godly person. At the same time, if you will give it but another minute, you may find there are important principles from this seemingly dry litany of historical names!

• First, we cannot please God in our work without a thankful spirit to those who have gone before in the work. Heritage IS important, history IS essential. When we forget those who have gone before us, we misunderstand the level of our own accomplishments. Modern worship is built on the worshippers of the past!

• Second, God thought rejoicing was so important He instructed a dedicated few to lead the children on Israel in singing and praise (12:8) and to guard a heart of worship (12:24).

• Third, people who draw others into worship are remembered by both God and men (12:23)! This is a special commission of men and women that God selects and recalls!

FOR THE BALANCE OF THE PASSAGE, LET’S RECALL THE PARADES OF THE PRESENT (that is, from his time – Nehemiah 12:27-47).

Let’s begin by recognizing that God loves celebration and joyful singing – if it is a response of our heart to His love and goodness to us!! Singing can be empty if it celebrates, as so many songs do, OUR lusts, OUR passions, and OUR desires. God wants our hearts – that includes our emotions – to be deeply engaged in our surrender to Him. We need not fear emotions as some believers have done in the past, but we need to use our emotional expression in a way that pleases Him.

Look briefly at six details that set the scene:

First, Nehemiah tells us of the PULLING IN THE PEOPLE to a time of dedication (12:27-29).

Nehemiah 12:27 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites from all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem so that they might celebrate the dedication with gladness, with hymns of thanksgiving and with songs [to the accompaniment] of cymbals, harps and lyres. 28 So the sons of the singers were assembled from the district around Jerusalem, and from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth-gilgal and from [their] fields in Geba and Azmaveth, for the singers had built themselves villages around Jerusalem.

Bear in mind that even though it is to be an emotional celebration, proper preparations are necessary. It is not wrong to plan, and even practice what God will do through leaders in worship. In fact, it is necessary! Don’t get caught up in the “it cannot be the work of the Spirit if there was a plan” mentality.

Second, he related the account of PURIFYING THE PROCESSIONAL (12:30).

Nehemiah 12:30 The priests and the Levites purified themselves; they also purified the people, the gates and the wall.

God is invited when the lives of the worship leaders are cleansed and prepared. Sin left unattended in the lives of the leaders can, and often does, hinder the free work of God’s Spirit. It is not that God CANNOT work – it is that He is forced to do so with sadness.

Third, he recorded the PARTING OF THE PARADES (12:31).

Nehemiah 12:31 Then I had the leaders of Judah come up on top of the wall, and I appointed two great choirs, the first proceeding to the right on top of the wall toward the Refuse Gate.

The people were led into worship and joyful response. The leadership directed each step of the way. When people are instructed by properly prepared leaders – spiritually and technically prepared – the joyful response is not quenched!

Fourth, he related the specific PATHS OF THE PARADING (12:32-40).

Nehemiah 12: 32 Hoshaiah and half of the leaders of Judah followed them, 33 with Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam, 34 Judah, Benjamin, Shemaiah, Jeremiah, 35 and some of the sons of the priests with trumpets; [and] Zechariah the son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zaccur, the son of Asaph, 36 and his kinsmen, Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah [and] Hanani, with the musical instruments of David the man of God. And Ezra the scribe went before them. 37 At the Fountain Gate they went directly up the steps of the city of David by the stairway of the wall above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east. 38 The second choir proceeded to the left, while I followed them with half of the people on the wall, above the Tower of Furnaces, to the Broad Wall, 39 and above the Gate of Ephraim, by the Old Gate, by the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate; and they stopped at the Gate of the Guard. 40 Then the two choirs took their stand in the house of God. So did I and half of the officials with me;

The paths led both groups to join together in praise at the end. It is a good thing for leaders to praise God and give thanks for the work (v.40), and not simply praise the people or themselves. We lift people in a way that nothing else can do when we reach to the throne of Heaven with praise!

Fifth, he shared the names if the PEOPLE OF THE PROCESSIONS (12:41-42a).

Nehemiah 12:41 and the priests, Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah, with the trumpets; 42 and Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malchijah, Elam and Ezer. And the singers sang, with Jezrahiah [their] leader,

Listen to the sound of these who were walking about and praising God! They interceded as priests led the way in the loudest praise! They had trumpets blasting and singers praising – what a day!

Sixth, all that noise led to a POWERFUL TESTIMONY OF THE PEOPLE (12:42b-44).

Nehemiah 12:43 and on that day they offered great sacrifices and rejoiced because God had given them great joy, even the women and children rejoiced, so that the joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar. 44 On that day men were also appointed over the chambers for the stores, the contributions, the first fruits and the tithes, to gather into them from the fields of the cities the portions required by the law for the priests and Levites; for Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites who served.

The focus was NOT on the people’s teamwork, the dedication of the leaders, but rather on the goodness of the God that made the whole project possible. The louder they proclaimed this, the more the world heard them (v.43)! The secret to a powerful testimony was (and is) a heart filled with thanksgiving for God’s goodness!

• The world will not be changed by sour-faced believers that disagree with their moral innovations – they will see us energized with praise and wonder what we are doing!

• The lost do not want to prescription of a God that will bind them from satiating their lusts – but they will have their curiosity peaked when we are celebrating and praising His goodness continually.

• The excitement of true worship must energize our people in a day of rising darkness.

• The sounds of praise for God’s goodness must drown out the constant hum of our grousing and complaining for God’s name to be lifted among the nations.

• Missionaries must be sent with JOY of the message of freedom in the Gospel!

• Proclamations of testimony of God’s goodness should pervade the people of God!

Seventh, look at the closing words about the PRAISE OF THE PURIFIED (12:45-47).

Nehemiah 12:45 For they performed the worship of their God and the service of purification, together with the singers and the gatekeepers in accordance with the command of David [and] of his son Solomon. 46 For in the days of David and Asaph, in ancient times, [there were] leaders of the singers, songs of praise and hymns of thanksgiving to God. 47 So all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah gave the portions due the singers and the gatekeepers as each day required, and set apart the consecrated [portion] for the Levites, and the Levites set apart the consecrated [portion] for the sons of Aaron.

Praise is a holy act before God, a tool that helps separate us to His purposes! Those who made it possible were deeply loved and cared for by the congregation – because they understood the importance of the work of worship.

Don’t make this mechanical – it is far more than that! God loves a good song a mighty praise to His goodness! The Bible records that God rejoices! (Zephaniah 3:17).

• Singing and praise are prominent in His Word.
• Creation evoked songs (Job 38:6.7), as did the coming of Jesus (Lk. 1.2).
• There will be trumpets blasting again, and shouts of praise at the return of the Savior (1 Cor. 15:52; Ps. 47:4.5; Rev.18:1-4).
• Spirit-filled believers are to be filled with this praise! (Eph.5).

Margaret Sangster Phippen wrote that in the mid-1950’s her father, British minister W.E. Sangster, began to notice some uneasiness in his throat and a dragging in his leg. When he went to the doctor, he found that he had an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. His muscles would gradually waste away, his voice would fail, and his throat would soon become unable to swallow. Sangster threw himself into his work in the British home missions, figuring he could still write and he would have even more time for prayer. “Let me stay in the struggle Lord,” he pleaded. “I don’t mind if I can no longer be a general, but give me just a regiment to lead.” He wrote articles and books, and helped organize prayer cells throughout England. “I’m only in the kindergarten of suffering,” he told people who pitied him. Gradually Sangsters’s legs became useless. His voice went completely. But he could still hold a pen, shakily. On Easter morning, just a few weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter. In it, he said, “It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout, “He is risen!” — but it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not want to shout. – (Sermon Central illustrations from a sermon by David Scudder, The Four Hallelujah’s, 10/25/2009).

Sanger knew that real worship is the celebration of WHO God is and what He has done!

An Enduring Legacy: "Leaders Who Pay the Price" – Nehemiah 11

leader2There is no need to convince any room of people who are passing this time in history together that leadership is desperately needed and vitally essential for the complex times we live in! In fact, we would readily agree with John Maxwell’s well stated axiom: “Any person can steer the ship but it takes a leader to chart the course”. The course of our nation, and the course of our community is surely in jeopardy, and we are crying out for ethical, moral and stable leadership.

We need humble, other-person-centered leaders, not self-aggrandizing and disconnected leaders. Our nation has some, and we have built some! I think of the Marine corps, that has experience in constructing men of character. This story encouraged me:

Several years ago, when our embassy in Beruit was bombed, several people were injured. One marine was injured physically and he was also blinded. A general who was the commanding officer of that area went into the hospital and commended this man for suffering. A few days later, the commanding officer was advised that it was the birthday of the young marine who had been blinded. The general said, “Cancel everything on my schedule this morning, I need to go over to the hospital.” He got insignia stars from his uniform and arrived at the hospital, where he sought out the blind marine. When he found him he said, “I understand it’s your birthday today.” And he said, “Give me your hand.” And as he held up his hand, the general put the stars in his hand and said, “these are for certainly more for you than I, young man, HAPPY Birthday.” The young marine then asked for the hand of general and gave back the stars and said, “Semper fie” which means “always faithful.” This young marine was simply saying, “I do not deserve anything extra. I was simply remaining faithful.” That young man understood what leadership and sacrifice really meant. He was trained well.

Key Principle: Leadership is both a gift and divine appointment. Though it is bestowed, it must be deliberately cultivated.

We are heading to Nehemiah for the bulk of the lesson, but on our way, I want to look at a man who understood the need to cultivate leadership… an example from the early church found in a man known for his ENCOURAGEMENT – Joses, whose surname was Barnabbas.

• Barnabas was born on the island of Cyprus of Jewish parents of the tribe of Levi, a appears to have come to Jerusalem because of his priestly connections (some have surmised he was a fellow-student with Paul of the sage Gamaliel).

• A “cousin” of John Mark, he became an early leader in the Jerusalem church and was given the nickname Barnabas (son of encouragement) by the apostles (Acts 4:36-37).

• When Jerusalem’s early Messianic community “had all things common” (Acts 4:32-35), Barnabas sold a piece of property and turned the proceeds over to the apostles.

• After the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, Barnabas found the Jerusalem believers so suspicious of Saul’s motives, that he took Saul “under his wing” and introduced him to the apostles (Acts 9:26-27).

• Sent by the Jerusalem church to supervise the burgeoning Christian work at Antioch, Barnabas found the enterprise so demanding that he brought Saul from Tarsus to help him, and the two labored together in Antioch for a year (Acts 11:22-26).

Look at how the story is relayed by Dr. Luke:

Acts 11:22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Stop and think about what God did later through the Apostle Paul. Thirteen letters from his heart fill your New Testament. Ten thousand land miles were traveled presenting the Gospel message. The defense of the completed work for sin in the Cross was chiefly defended by this servant of God. We understand many things because of God’s work in Paul’s heart:

• The coming place of believer’s in God’s work – even sitting in judgment over spiritual entities.
• The concept of the church as the “body of Christ” that is joined together with Christ as her head.
• The place of men and women in ministry and relationship to one another.
• The teaching of God to the church concerning the communion service.
• The reality and description of Resurrection bodies.
• The proper principles of giving for the believer… and many, many other truths.

We have these because God used Paul… but we have Paul’s words because God used Barnabas. He saw the makings of a leader in the thirty-something year old Pharisee. He invited Paul into the chamber of leaders. He invited him into the heart of the work at Antioch. He joined Paul in the call of God to the first mission journey work. God COULD HAVE USED OTHERS to bring Paul in, but Barnabas was open, and Barnabas was obedient. He saw potential where others saw only problems. That, in its essence, is the heart of a leader.

God chooses to use men and women who will be obedient, but also those who will keep their eyes on people and see possibilities. Two thoughts should push us forward:

1. People follow examples better than words! Because of that, God is looking for more than truth dispensers – He most effectively uses those who embody the truths they espouse. Time and time again Jesus warned that His words were not for mere memorization – but a call to obedience!

2. “There are rocky danger areas that every leader needs to be conscious of in deliberate navigation:

a. First, no leader can afford to think too highly of himself. A good leader is not worried about making sure he gets the credit for things – but rather they must not concern themselves with what is visible over what is truly important. Leaders do what is necessary, regardless of whether people see it, or whether they know who took care of the need. God sees. God remembers – and that is the only focus a godly leader need have.

b. Good leaders see potential, and constantly seek to recognize others who have helped in the work. They not only don’t SEEK the credit – they LOVE to bestow the credit for the work on others!

Let’s take those thoughts with us as we look back at the text of Nehemiah 11.

Nehemiah included a record of the contributions of those who worked to repopulate and reestablish the city of Jerusalem, and what they gave up to make the vision a reality! He WANTED to credit them with the work, and he recognized their sacrifice.

Essentially, Nehemiah made clear four truths about leadership that were recorded to help us:

1. The Problem of Leading – it requires sacrifice (11:1).

First, there is a PROBLEM with the role of leadership that one must recognize and accept – or they cannot effectively lead.

11:1 Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem, but the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while nine- tenths remained in the other cities.

To lead means to serve a greater purpose than self-satisfaction and to seek to place the needs of others ahead of personal comfort and convenience. In short, there IS a price to leadership! While it is TRUE that there are often great perks and affirmation involved in leading – these cannot and must not be the drawing factor to leadership. Let uis say it plainly: leaders who take on the task for what they can GET are not real leaders – they are self-interested people wearing the costume of a leader.

Add to that the reality that some in our day have misunderstood TROUBLE for redirection from God. Some believers have fallen prey to the false teaching that COMFORT is God’s chief form of CONFIRMATION. Craig Larson talks about being at a lunch party on a warm, Chicago day in early September with a dozen of his fellow workers. The windows were left open, and soon a bee found its way in. After buzzing around for a while, it landed on some food on the table. Then someone took an empty bottle of sparkling grape juice and put the mouth of the bottle near the bee. Without a moment’s hesitation, the bee flew to the mouth of the bottle and climbed inside the narrow opening. Immediately, Larson’s colleague put the cap on the bottle and screwed it shut. The bee spent the rest of the party drinking at the bottom of the bottle, and as far as anyone knew, the bee was never released. The people at that table were not concerned about the bee. Their purpose was not to make sure it enjoyed itself and had a good time. No! Their only concern was capture and control. That’s the way it is with Satan. He is not concerned about us. His purpose is not to make sure we have a good time. No! He despises us, and his only concern is capture and control. (From a sermon by C. Philip Green, Pitfalls of Leadership, 7/29/2010)

Sacrificial leadership is best seen in the choice to surrender the comfortable thing for that which will bring blessing to the group we serve. If you are called to lead – you are called to put those you lead ahead of yourself. Think about what would happen if:

• A boss decided to work in place of an employee that was exhausted from the overtime of the high pressure goal they had just attained for the company. Would that worker ever forget the sacrifice of the boss? Would they see their efforts as deeply appreciated and rewarded? Would they recognize that boos as specifically taking on the cost to make things work better?

• A father decided to recognize the low self-esteem of his daughter and began to set up a weekly date night with her to help her see how beautiful she truly was! Would the young woman grow in confidence and be more prepared to accept her identity in Christ?

• A husband chose to really listen to his wife, and asked her what would help her grow in Christ and be more fulfilled and happy. What if he really heard what she said, and made a careful and prayerful effort to bring into her life the things that would bless her?

• A community leader decided that he or she would take a difficult stand because they recognized larger principles involved. Maybe in the short term their popularity would suffer – but in the long term the community would truly benefit.

• A committee chairwoman decided to appoint the best people to a task even though she personally found those people difficult to deal with. Would her sacrifice yield a better outcome?

Leadership isn’t about comfort, it is about energizing people to move to the vision God calls them to. Not only is there misunderstanding about comfort and leadership… but there is also misunderstanding about the value of mistakes involved in leadership. Mistakes WILL happen. How a leader responds to them can be the difference between success and failure! We must be willing to take responsibility for leadership mistakes! I love this little example:

Several years ago, Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Bob Patterson described one of his pitches, which the Cincinnati Reds’ Barry Larkin hit for a game-winning home run: “It was a cross between a screwball and a change-up. It was a screw-up.” (Wall Street Journal, 7/9/96; Leadership, Vol. 17, no.3)

Nehemiah got the walls up, the guards in, the worship going, and now was calling on long term leadership to set Jerusalem on a course to full rebirth. The casting of lots filled Jerusalem with families, children, movement and life. It wasn’t a great place to be… yet. At the same time, leaders look ahead. They see, not simply what IS… but what CAN BE.

Malcolm Muggeridge was a very famous and highly respected British journalist who for many years was an ardent atheist. His opinions and thoughts were coveted by American publishers and he occasionally wrote the editorial page for Time magazine. Toward the end of his illustrious career as the Dean of British broadcasters, he became a Christian. Several years ago he was a guest at a breakfast in Washington, D.C. where he shared his life story. When he had finished his testimony, he made a number of comments about world affairs, all of which were very pessimistic. One of those present asked, “Dr. Muggeridge, you have been very pessimistic. Don’t you have any reason for optimism?” He replied, “I could not be more optimistic than I am, because my hope is in Jesus Christ alone.” He allowed that remark to settle in for a few seconds, and then he added,” Just think if the apostolic church had pinned its hopes on the Roman Empire!”(Halverson/ The Living Body). I love that story! It reminds me NOT to place my hope on my political system – even if I have lived in its benefits for a long time.

America is NOT the hope of the world – Jesus is. Democracy won’t fix the world – the transformation of the Spirit will. Lasting world peace will not come because of a negotiated process – the Prince of Peace will bring it with Him! My hope is not in the characters of the story, but the Author of the book.

2. The Process of Leading – deliberate affirmation (11:2).

There is not only a PRICE to lead, but there is also a deliberate FOCUS one must grasp to be a leader. Look at the text:

11:2 And the people blessed all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem. 3 Now these are the heads of the provinces who lived in Jerusalem, but in the cities of Judah each lived on his own property in their cities —the Israelites, the priests, the Levites, the temple servants and the descendants of Solomon’s servants.

The leaders recognized (as did the congregation of returned Israel) that some among them were volunteering for hardship – and they joined in public praise of them. Those leaders who respond personally to the needs of the people they are leading are the most loved by them. At the same time, they DON’T HOARD AFFIRMATION – they focus on spreading it out for the purpose of encouraging people. The Bible is clear that blessing falls to those who place the others first!

3. The Personalities Who Lead – they bring fullness (11:3-24).

I think it is interesting how the passage honored the spectrum of leaders by recalling them and their families by name and type of service they performed. Note the groups of leaders mentioned. First the summary:

11:4 Some of the sons of Judah and some of the sons of Benjamin lived in Jerusalem. ..

Though they were CLOSE to home, they didn’t live at home – because the priority of getting Jerusalem restarted was more important! Five groups or titles were delineated in the record:

Laymen (4-9). Note the names of the men from each tribe:

From Judah: 11:4 “…From the sons of Judah: Athaiah the son of Uzziah, the son of Zechariah, the son of Amariah, the son of Shephatiah, the son of Mahalalel, of the sons of Perez; 5 and Maaseiah the son of Baruch, the son of Col- hozeh, the son of Hazaiah, the son of Adaiah, the son of Joiarib, the son of Zechariah, the son of the Shilonite. 6 All the sons of Perez who lived in Jerusalem were 468 able men.

From Benjamin: 11:7 Now these are the sons of Benjamin:Sallu the son of Meshullam, the son of Joed, the son of Pedaiah, the son of Kolaiah, the son of Maaseiah, the son of Ithiel, the son of Jeshaiah; 8 and after him Gabbai and Sallai, 928. 9 Joel the son of Zichri was their overseer, and Judah the son of Hassenuah was second in command of the city.

God began His work among the people who were brave enough to take a chance on God’s protection! These were the courageous “first followers” that became examples to all the people. Thank God that he calls some who will follow Him in profound ways – even when we cannot see the gift that they truly are to us:

Leadership Magazine offered a story of four young men who were Bible College students; the four were renting a house together. One Saturday morning someone knocked on their door. And when they opened it, there stood this draggled old man. His eyes were kind of marbleized, and he had a silvery stub of whiskers on his face. His clothes were ragged and torn. His shoes didn’t match. In fact, they were both for the same foot. And he carried a wicker basket full of unappealing vegetables that he was trying to sell. The boys felt sorry for him and bought some of his vegetables just to help him out. Then he went on his way. But from that time on, every Saturday he appeared at their door with his basket of vegetables. As the boys got to know him a little bit better, they began inviting him in to visit a while before continuing on his rounds. They soon discovered that his eyes looked marbleized not because of drugs or alcohol, but because of cataracts. They learned that he lived just down the street in an old shack. They also found out that he could play the harmonica, that he loved to play Christian hymns, and that he really loved God. So every Saturday they would invite him in, and he would play his harmonica and they would sing Christian hymns together. They became good friends, and the boys began trying to figure out ways to help him. They finally collected a bunch of clothes and secretly left it all on his doorstep, no note attached or anything. The following Saturday morning, the story says, right in the middle of all their singing and praising, he suddenly said to them, “God is so good!” And they all agreed, “Yes, God is so good.” He went on, “You know why he is so good?” They said, “Why?” He said, “Because yesterday, when I got up and opened my door, there were boxes full of clothes and shoes and coats and gloves. Yes, God is so good!” And the boys smiled at each other and chimed in, “Yes, God is so good.” He went on, “You know why He is so good?” They answered, “You already told us why. What more?” He said, “Because I found a family who could use those things and I gave them all away.”

Priests (10-14). Beyond the laymen, there were also priests that were voluntarily part of the rebirth of the city of Jerusalem.

11:10 From the priests:Jedaiah the son of Joiarib, Jachin, 11 Seraiah the son of Hilkiah, the son of Meshullam, the son of Zadok, the son of Meraioth, the son of Ahitub, the leader of the house of God, 12 and their kinsmen who performed the work of the temple, 822; and Adaiah the son of Jeroham, the son of Pelaliah, the son of Amzi, the son of Zechariah, the son of Pashhur, the son of Malchijah, 13 and his kinsmen, heads of fathers’ households, 242; and Amashsai the son of Azarel, the son of Ahzai, the son of Meshillemoth, the son of Immer, 14 and their brothers, valiant warriors, 128. And their overseer was Zabdiel, the son of Haggedolim.

I would wager, if I were a betting man, that the water system of the city was not all fully functioning. I doubt the city was comfortable, and that all the rubble of the destruction was fully cleared away. Yet, some priests chose to stay there, because that would make the function of the Temple work better. They understood that God’s continued blessing was dependent on the priority of worship in the people. It was essential that the Temple function well and its services remain steady – or the whole process of rebirth would quickly fall apart.

Real leaders know that spiritual growth is at the heart of economic growth and embittering of the social welfare. In our day of rising militant secularism, young people are trained to think that spiritual commitment is a drain – that the work of caring for people belongs to the government – not God’s people. In earlier days it was not so. Our great universities were begun, not to fight the church and disprove the Bible – but to teach it. There was, in days gone by, recognition of the positive role of the church in society. In secularism, society must now be protected from the church – and the downward spiral of morality is not connected in the public mindset with the deliberate isolation of the church.

The priests volunteered because they were leaders. They stepped out because they knew what God wanted, even if many of the people did not know how important their work truly was.

Levites (15-18). In addition to Priests, Levites were also called to be among those in Jerusalem.

11:15 Now from the Levites: Shemaiah the son of Hasshub, the son of Azrikam, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Bunni; 16 and Shabbethai and Jozabad, from the leaders of the Levites, who were in charge of the outside work of the house of God; 17 and Mattaniah the son of Mica, the son of Zabdi, the son of Asaph, who was the leader in beginning the thanksgiving at prayer, and Bakbukiah, the second among his brethren; and Abda the son of Shammua, the son of Galal, the son of Jeduthun. 18 All the Levites in the holy city were 284.

The Levitical corps provided the back bone of practical leaders that were essential to stable ministry and a good testimony (note v. 16). Some of the men were ordained to build and repair – while others directed ministry. All were essential.

Civil Servants: Porters, Nethinim, Singers (19-23). The record of the work also included those with civil service jobs:

11:19 Also the gatekeepers, Akkub, Talmon and their brethren who kept watch at the gates, were 172. 20 The rest of Israel, of the priests and of the Levites, were in all the cities of Judah, each on his own inheritance. 21 But the temple servants were living in Ophel, and Ziha and Gishpa were in charge of the temple servants. 22 Now the overseer of the Levites in Jerusalem was Uzzi the son of Bani, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Mica, from the sons of Asaph, who were the singers for the service of the house of God. 23 For there was a commandment from the king concerning them and a firm regulation for the song leaders day by day..

Every work for God included bold men and women of service. Civil servants had wives, children and dreams – just like everyone else. Worship leaders, Temple clean up crews, gatekeepers – these were all people with families… but they knew what God’s call in their life was – and they worked in an uncomfortable situation to fulfill that call.

The Ruler’s Staff (24): the king had an ambassador who also lived among the people, and represented the king’s policies to the people:

11:24 Pethahiah the son of Meshezabel, of the sons of Zerah the son of Judah, was the king’s representative in all matters concerning the people.

What keeps people from misunderstanding one another? Communication is the key. Wise administration and clear communication (the ability to respond to needs quickly and efficiently) cleared the way to effective team work!

4. The Promise of Leading – their vision brought blessing and stability (11:25-36).

Beyond those who lived in Jerusalem – there were those who went back to each town and village that had been abandoned in the captivity to begin to rebuild. This was the benefit to rebuilding Jerusalem – the people could establish it as a center from which the whole land could begin to be resettled…

11:25 Now as for the villages with their fields, some of the sons of Judah lived in Kiriath-Arba and its towns, in Dibon and its towns, and in Jekabzeel and its villages, 26 and in Jeshua, in Moladah and Beth-pelet, 27 and in Hazar-shual, in Beersheba and its towns, 28 and in Ziklag, in Meconah and in its towns, 29 and in En- rimmon, in Zorah and in Jarmuth, 30 Zanoah, Adullam, and their villages, Lachish and its fields, Azekah and its towns. So they encamped from Beersheba as far as the valley of Hinnom. 31 The sons of Benjamin also lived from Geba onward, at Michmash and Aija, at Bethel and its towns, 32 at Anathoth, Nob, Ananiah, 33 Hazor, Ramah, Gittaim, 34 Hadid, Zeboim, Neballat, 35 Lod and Ono, the valley of craftsmen. 36 From the Levites, some divisions in Judah belonged to Benjamin.

The beautiful and lush lands of their ancestral homes were for followers. Those who would lead, needed to surrender things that others have. We must see the worth of the vision – but that is not always easy. In the struggle of leadership, we can lose sight of what we are really doing!

David Kraft was a big, strong man — all muscle. At the age of 32, he was six feet, two inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. He had been to seminary and ended up working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, because of his athletic background. Then he was diagnosed with cancer. It wracked his body, and over a period of time, he dropped from 200 pounds to 80 pounds. When he was about ready to pass from this life into eternity, he asked his father to come into his hospital room. Lying there in bed, he looked up and said, “Dad, do you remember when I was a little boy, how you used to hold me in your arm close to your chest?” David’s father nodded. Then David said, “Do you think, Dad, you could do that one more time? One last time?” Again his father nodded. He bent down to pick up his 32-year-old, six-foot, two-inch, 80 pound son, and held him close to his chest, so that the son’s face was right next to the father’s face. They were eyeball to eyeball. Tears were streaming down both faces, and the son said to his father, “Thank you for building the kind of character into my life that can enable me to face even a moment like this.” (Ron Lee Davis, “Introducing Christ to Your Child,” Preaching Today, Tape No.92) .

Leadership is both a gift and divine appointment. Though it is bestowed, it must be deliberately cultivated.

An Enduring Legacy: “A Change is Gonna Come” – Nehemiah 9

mud bowl 2Did you ever get SO DIRTY, so incredibly cruddy, that you couldn’t wait to get into a hot shower? I remember just a few years ago, our family gathering that happens each Thanksgiving up north, included a family football game. I don’t play anymore – but I used to look forward to it for months. It was a perfect MUD BOWL, played on the thick, dark mud of northern New York state – and it took more than one shower to get it all off of your body – if you played the game well! Just like PEOPLE get dirty, nations get a layer of filth on them by practicing and tolerating terrible injustice and sinful behavior. In my lifetime, the prejudice of color is one example I have watched passing through successive showers. I remember this from my earliest years, and because I come from a family that adopted interracially, I probably became a bit more sensitive to it in my youth.

When I was only two years old, back in 1963, Musical artist Sam Cooke was again at the top of the charts. The African-American recording singer-songwriter was commonly known as the “King of Soul” in those days, writing and collaborating with soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston, Otis Redding and James Brown. In fact, between 1957 and 1964 Cooke racked up no less than 30 “top 40 hits” in the USA. By 1964, at the age of 33, he lay in a pool of his own blood, fatally shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. The courts ruled Cooke was drunk and distressed, and his death was ruled a “justifiable homicide” (something that since that time has been widely questioned). One of the moving tunes written and recorded by Cooke was the song “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a ballad of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The words and music will stir you even this many years later… Here’s the truth: Sam was right… change has been coming in race relations in America, albeit slowly and with great difficulty. Sometimes dirt takes great effort to remove – and the stain of civil injustice certainly has taken that…

At the same time, and perhaps even CLOSER TO US, sometime the removal of stains and dirt isn’t a SPORTS issue, nor a NATIONAL issue – but a PERSONAL ONE. Sometimes the change that is needed ISN’T about DIRT – but about SIN. The personal habits of my life may be a reflection of the SIN of my times… and that must be dealt with. Isn’t it possible that many of us have adjusted our eyes to the spiritual darkness of our generation, and now see what once was very DARK as NORMAL?

HAS THAT HAPPENED TO YOU? Have you begun to adjust the standards of your life away from a vibrant walk with the Lord and desire to please Him, and adopted the lesser standard of what others around you accept as NORMAL? It DOES happen…and when it does – CHANGE IS NEEDED. Cleansing is necessary. We need a good scrub…

Think back to the story we have been following from the fifth century BCE. Nehemiah the wine steward recorded in his journal an account of the aftermath of a stirring holiday service of worship and learning, where the people of Israel were challenged by the Word of God. In the face of conviction… change came. In fact, chapter nine lays out two phases of the change that follows acknowledgment of sin in our lives– the active repentance that brought about a careful cleaning up, and the celebration that followed a cleaned up community.

Key Principle: Great worship follows thorough cleansing. Celebration flows without hindrance from a cleaned heart.

Today we want to look at what happens when hearts are cleansed, and guilt is released. We want to feel the release of cleansing, and sing the song of the man or woman free from remorse. It is an exciting opportunity to look back at a great moment…

Part One: “Community Clean-Up!” (Nehemiah 9:1-3)

Before the celebration, there is the cleansing. Before the cleansing is the conviction. Nehemiah 9 is a careful record of what happened at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot).

• Remember to seventh month festivals include: Rosh Hashanah (Feast of Trumpets – 1st day) and Yom Kippor (Day of Atonement – 10th day) followed by the week long Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles – 15th-22nd).

• Following Sukkot, they held a special worship day (8:18). Two days after Sukkot ended, the people weren’t done! They wanted to hold a special meeting to mourn before the Lord concerning the sins of their fathers, and their own sin.

• The scene was one of sorrow and mourning, times of confession testimony and seeking the Lord in his Word and worship (9:1-3)! The scene is so important for our instruction, that God amplified the scene in 9:4-38.

Nehemiah 9:1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them. 2 The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for [another] fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.

I am not asking you to tear off your clothing and begin mourning in dirty clothes – that isn’t the point. The record of what the people DID offers us a pattern for action WHEN GOD CONVICTS YOU OR I OF SIN. Look at the eight responses to conviction:

(1) Changed pattern (“assembled with fasting” –9:1) When God spoke, they took Him seriously. They didn’t “blow off” His conviction. They showed outwardly they WEREN’T READY TO GO ON WITH LIFE until something changed. When something really matters to us, it takes precedence over our normal patterns of life. If a loved one is rushed to the hospital, dinner plans are shelved. It doesn’t matter if we eat or sleep – only that we are at their bedside or waiting in the hallway outside for the words of the doctor about their condition. You KNOW that is true! The people were so convicted about sin, that fasting was a natural thing. It was but one way to break away from the normal structure of their days to seek the face of God. Am I the only person who organizes his waking hours around MEALS and FOOD? I don’t think so! Fasting was a symbol of focused priority! The denial of food is not specifically helpful… It is only helpful if the time is filled with seeking God!

Here is the one thing that so strikes me about this record: Look how the conviction wounded them! When was the last time God spoke to you about things in your life, and it rocked you so deeply you couldn’t go on with regular life until you stopped and sought Him? Those words are as much self-convicting as shared.

(2) Changed dress (sackcloth). The text tells us people put on the alternative garment of sackcloth. In a time of intense seeking of God, every vain pursuit slips away as we pull all our energy to come before Him (9:1). People in the hospital bed that are struggling to breathe aren’t worried about their hairdo! In fact, people who are sitting vigil by a bedside aren’t dressed to impress. When conviction over sin is heavy – the need to look good slips away. The need for outer comfort is dwarfed by the need for resolution with God. The outer garments symbolized for others around them not to engage them in trivialities – but to identify the intensity of their focus on their walk with God!
Let me ask you honestly: Does your walk with God EVER mean more to you than how people view you? We are on the planet for a short time, and then have eternity. Isn’t it worth considering how much weight we place on the eternal versus this life?

(3) Put on dirt. The people knew they were guilty, and in a time of intense repentance they symbolized (visualized) their sin with the dirt upon them. Was that really helpful? I think it was! One of the temptations we have in our modern life is to minimize a sense of sinfulness and rebellion and rationalize our responses to situations. We don’t learn in our society to take sin seriously at all. In fact, we learn to be victims with titles that excuse us from our own chosen behaviors. We learn from lost men and women that “we are basically good!” in spite of the fact that God’s Word clearly teaches the opposite.

It is worth remembering that God loves pictures. When we come up close to Him – His kindness leads us to repentance. Yet, our sin continues to be a weight. Recognizing our guilt is essential to having a real relationship with God (9:1b). God only cleans the one who recognizes he is dirty! He only fills the one who recognizes he is empty! He only draws near to those who decide to stop running and turn toward Him! When the people put on dirt, it wasn’t for God’s benefit – it was for THEIR BENEFIT. Just as the waters of baptism cleanse NO ONE, but symbolize the cleansing God already provided, so the dirt didn’t MAKE them sinful, but symbolized the stains already within.

(4) Got alone with their “believing family”. Look again at 9:2 “The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” The world was not the appropriate place to “air the dirty laundry” of the family. There is a time for testimony, and there is a time for corporate repentance and confession – but this is a “family affair” (9:2). Believers must learn as they mature the appropriate forum for confession and restoration to God. Public sin must be publicly dealt with, while private sin can be shared with God and perhaps those closest to us. Yet, none of the restoration process was to be performed before the lost world.

Even today, in the church, we ask that people who do not know Jesus not attend our time of Communion. It ISN’T because we don’t love visitors – it is because the invitation was to God’s people to do business with God concerning the body of Christ – the other believers. One of the reasons we come together is to celebrate God’s work through Jesus – but we are commanded to DO IT TOGETHER and be a part of one another’s lives. We offer testimony to one another, but not for public consumption – it is for the believers we are linked to in fellowship. Failure to consider the others in the flock in the performance of the communion and in particular the Love Feast sent some to glory early in Corinth. We need to take seriously that even in repentance there are rules – and in this case it was a FAMILY THING.

(5) Don’t neglect that in the record of 9:2, they made public confession of sin. Public recognition and confession of sin – even of our NATION helps a beleiver recall that we are all together in Him – and we are all in need of His care. We all sin, and we all need cleansing from the throne of God. Doing it together helps us to stand together in accountability, and to be humble before one another (9:2).

(6) Look at the way they confessed “the iniquities of their fathers” in 9:2. They identified with “history of sin” (both sinful nature and acts). Their confession was not just THEM, but included viewing themselves as a part of the society from which they came. God wants us to recognize the impact we have on others BUT ALSO the impact they have on us. (9:2).

Because our eyes easily adjust to spiritual darkness around us, we need to stop and confess the sins of a nation in which we live – so that we may be again sensitized in the exercise to what God sees in our world. We cannot simply distance ourselves from the sin – because the national penalties will be shared by our families as well.

• There is a price every American believer is paying for the wholesale slaughter of the unborn in the nation.

• There is a price all of us are paying for the rising natural humanism that is emerging as our state sponsored religion and making efforts to purge all other faith forms.

• There is a corporate price we will all pay as part of a nation that teaches rights but mutes responsibilities.

• There is a national and personal price we will all face, and are facing, for the entitlement of excess and waste publicly that we have grown accustomed to in our day.

By engaging in prayers of confession, we make distant sin OUR SIN, because the penalties will also be OUR PENALTIES. Why is that important? That practice helps us to be balanced and prepared when judgment comes. When the value of our currency suddenly drops – and if we stay on this course it most certainly WILL drop – we will not feel as though God has PERSONALLY ABANDONED US as we face tight belts and renewed struggles unlike those of the past few generations. We will understand it ISN’T God PICKING ON US, but rather that we are part of a larger national system – and we all face what we have allowed and accepted. I don’t say that to frustrate you – but to teach the truth of the Word. We ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Even if America rejects Christian teaching and principle – American Christians will STILL be subject to the EFFECTS of a pagan government. When those effects become evident, we should not feel forgotten by God. We aren’t.

Before we go on, drop your eyes lower in the passage where Nehemiah offers some specifics on the content of the confession (Nehemiah 9:16-30). This adds texture to the simple words “iniquities of their fathers” and makes what they said more plain– It is all OUR fault! Confession is a frank look at motivations, not just allocution of a list of actions! Look closely at 9:16ff:

Nehemiah 9:16 “But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly; They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments. 17 “They refused to listen, And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; And You did not forsake them. …30 “However, You bore with them for many years, And admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets, Yet they would not give ear. Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. 31 “Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or forsake them, For You are a gracious and compassionate God.

Nehemiah outlined their confession from arrogance, stubborn rejection, blindness and repeated refusal to listen to God, but he DIDN’T STOP THERE. He revealed the people pressed on to make the point that God’s character did not let Him walk away. God judged to get their attention – and cleansed to get them back!

(7) Investigation into God’s truth (from His Word). Nehemiah 9:3 said: ”While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; and for [another] fourth they confessed and worshiped the LORD their God. It was the Word that lit the path for them to know God’s will. Believers must recognize that truth…We will never be equipped to serve and live for God by simply “feeling bad about sin”. We will never have a word adequate to transform a generation by deeply drinking in the principles of counseling. The power of the church comes from the Spirit of God at work through the Word of God.

Dear ones, I get concerned in our day that even pulpits don’t reflect that truth! I have sat in some messages and felt I was in a self-help seminar, learning good things that were placed before me as the answers to life. Yet, the Word of God was only vaguely mentioned. As foolish as it is to put our trust in horses and chariots – it is also a fool’s errand to place our trust in the insights and observations of men apart from the Word of the Creator. Faith is seeing it the way God says it is – not the way my fallen eyes see it in a mutinous world! Faith comes by hearing what God said and seeing it as the answer. God’s Word is not ONE of the options, and Jesus is not ONE of the ways to God. He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE – or He and His message is simply a lie. Every other source of insight must be filtered through His Word to be valid –even if it APPEARS to be true.

(8) Verse three ended with the fact that the people proclaimed the rightful place of God! The true response to seeing God as He is includes feeling our guilt, crying out for His cleansing, and receiving His love! (9:3). It doesn’t END in tears, but in CELEBRATION. The rest of the passage celebrated God and His grace in the face of their sin!

Part Two: “The Content of Praise” (Nehemiah 9:4-38)

God’s Word moved in to show us up close a portrait of what happened when God’s people took SIN SERIOUSLY and cried out to God for cleansing and love.

The cry of the people (9:4,5). The worship leaders (Levites) cried out to God in prayer (4)! They called to the people to stand up and bless the Lord and lift up His name (5)!

Nehemiah 9:4 Now on the Levites’ platform stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani [and] Chenani, and they cried with a loud voice to the LORD their God. 5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah [and] Pethahiah, said, “Arise, bless the LORD your God forever and ever! O may Your glorious name be blessed And exalted above all blessing and praise!

Don’t be offended when I tell you this wasn’t a quiet prayer circle – it was a loud and simultaneous praise of God by many at one time. I LOVE to be a part of that kind of celebration when I get the chance. Whenever I go to speak at a specific church up north, the elders of that church gather around and place their hands on me as each is praying out loud – all at the same time! It sounds like a riot is about to break out, but it is enriching, and it is praise filled. It is lifting! The people in our text were praising, they were LOUD, and they exalted God. This wasn’t the ONLY WAY to pray – but neither is the QUITE WAY!

The content of the praise (9:6-15). Look more closely as what praise looked like as a people washed by God’s love came together!

They cried out: Nehemiah 9:6 “You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens, The heaven of heavens with all their host, The earth and all that is on it, The seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them And the heavenly host bows down before You.

They began with His MASTERY – You are LORD!. They moved to His OWNERSHIP of all things – You are Creator! They acknowledged His RANK – all the host of Heaven bows to the Commander in Chief.

They continued: 7 “You are the LORD God, Who chose Abram And brought him out from Ur of the Chaldees, And gave him the name Abraham. 8 “You found his heart faithful before You, And made a covenant with him To give [him] the land of the Canaanite, Of the Hittite and the Amorite, Of the Perizzite, the Jebusite and the Girgashite– To give [it] to his descendants. And You have fulfilled Your promise, For You are righteous. 9 “You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, And heard their cry by the Red Sea. 10 “Then You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, Against all his servants and all the people of his land; For You knew that they acted arrogantly toward them, And made a name for Yourself as [it is] this day. 11 “You divided the sea before them, So they passed through the midst of the sea on dry ground; And their pursuers You hurled into the depths, Like a stone into raging waters. 12 “And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day, And with a pillar of fire by night To light for them the way In which they were to go. 13 “Then You came down on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. 14 “So You made known to them Your holy sabbath, And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, Through Your servant Moses. 15 “You provided bread from heaven for them for their hunger, You brought forth water from a rock for them for their thirst, And You told them to enter in order to possess The land which You swore to give them.

You are the One who CHOSE Your people (9:7), the One Who KNOWS THE HEARTS OF MEN (9:8), and the One who GAVE US A PLACE among the nations (9:8b). You drew us from BONDAGE (9:9-11) and led us to our home (9:12). You GAVE US THE TRUTH of Your Word (9:13-14) and provided for our needs (9:15).

Skip down to the covenant of change before God the people committed to initiating (9:32-38). The people proclaimed: “We will change!” The promise to change was only valid when they identified and agreed with God concerning the specific cause of their affliction! This was not a general amnesty, but acceptance after specific confession and commitment to repent!

Nehemiah 9:32 “Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and lovingkindness, Do not let all the hardship seem insignificant before You, Which has come upon us, our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers and on all Your people, From the days of the kings of Assyria to this day. 33 “However, You are just in all that has come upon us; For You have dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. 34 “For our kings, our leaders, our priests and our fathers have not kept Your law Or paid attention to Your commandments and Your admonitions with which You have admonished them. 35 “But they, in their own kingdom, With Your great goodness which You gave them, With the broad and rich land which You set before them, Did not serve You or turn from their evil deeds. 36 “Behold, we are slaves today, And as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty, Behold, we are slaves in it. 37 “Its abundant produce is for the kings Whom You have set over us because of our sins; They also rule over our bodies And over our cattle as they please, So we are in great distress. 38 “Now because of all this We are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed document [are the names of] our leaders, our Levites [and] our priests.

Look at the progression from:

(1) Appeal: Don’t discount the affliction we feel, though we deserve it. Lord, we truly are sorry. We trust your justice – YOU are the standard (32,33).

(2) Admission: We admit it – we have sinned! We have denied you and consistently done evil in spite of your goodness (34,35).

(3) Anticipation: We are not free because of our sin – and yet we are blessed by your goodness! (36) We long to be free again! (37).

(4) Agreement: We will agree to change, knowing by faith that You are a just God! (38).

Great worship follows thorough cleansing. Celebration flows without hindrance from a cleaned heart.

When we recognize our sin, cry out to God, admit our wrong and connect the wrong with our state of affairs – God waits on our agreement to walk away from the sin. It isn’t enough to FEEL BADLY if we are only going to do it again tomorrow.

Is the whole experience – sin, pain, judgment, repentance – all BAD? No, not at all. We learn much in the process of being healed and restored… In 2001, Tim Goeglein started running the White House Office of Public Liaison, providing him almost daily access to then President George Bush for seven years. Then it all ended abruptly on February 29, 2008. A well-known blogger revealed the startling fact that 27 out of 39 of Goeglein’s published articles had been plagiarized. By mid-afternoon the next day, Goeglein’s career in the White House was over. Goeglein, who admitted his guilt, said that this began “a personal crisis unequaled in my life, bringing great humiliation on my wife and children, my family, and my closest friends, including the President of the United States.” Goeglein was summoned to the White House to face the President. Once inside the Oval Office, Goeglein shut the door, turned to the President and said, “I owe you an…” President Bush simply said: “Tim, you are forgiven.” Tim was speechless. He tried again: “But sir…” The President interrupted him again, with a firm “Stop.” Then President Bush added, “I have known grace and mercy in my life, and you are forgiven.” After a long talk, a healing process was launched for Goeglein, which included repentance, reflection, and spiritual growth. “Political power can lead to pride,” Goeglein later reflected. “That was my sin. One hundred percent pride. But offering and receiving forgiveness is a different kind of strength. That’s the kind of strength I want to develop now.” (Warren Cole Smith, “Wins & Losses,” World magazine, 10-23-10, p. 11. From a sermon by C. Philip Green, Love and Longing, 5/13/2011).

When repentance leads to a flood of tears, it is grace that wipes those tears away. A simple cloth becomes the act of favor that renews the fallen countenance of one who has both failed and re-risen by God’s irresistible restoration call. They hear His gentle voice as He stretches forth His powerful hand. You are forgiven! Let the celebration begin! All Heaven bursts with applause – one which was lost is found! God removes darkness, and re-opens the heart to celebration. Don’t you want that? The gift is waiting for you.

An Enduring Legacy: “Back to Life” – Nehemiah 8:1-18

Lifeguard_jumpingThe whistles were blowing as the lifeguard charged from his perch with a swift, flowing and practiced movement. In one swoop his right arm took hold of the small life preserver that hung beside him on his station, as his feet plunged into the sand. Bouncing forward, he barely touched down on each stride as he charged ahead with his eyes fixed on the horizon. He lunged with four pronouncedly large paces into a few feet of depth in the water, and then dove headlong into the sea, as he began a fast-paced swim to the little body that was bobbing face down in the water. He approached the child, pulled their limp body upward, and slung what appeared to be a lifeless pale blue body on his side – swiftly pulling the child back to the beach. It was an unmistakably nightmare for a parent that was nearby and missed the clues that their child was in life-threatening trouble. When the lifeguard put the child down on the beach, other emergency personnel moved in and began forcing the crowd back, trying to give the guard room to work on the child. The site of a blue-skinned little boy shocked people. He was clearly not breathing, and it looked hopeless – to everyone EXCEPT the trained personnel that worked on his skinny little body. They breathed air into his lungs; they pressed upon his chest. In what seemed like an hour, but was more like a minute or two, the child choked, and then turned him aside to expel the contents of his stomach and his lungs. In short order, the boy was breathing and his color returned. A little one who was walking a path to eternity was invited back to the land of the breathing – right before our eyes. Some onlookers cried, some clapped for the rescuers, and two very fearful parents learned a lesson that day they will never forget: Sometimes life has been so squeezed from us that we need someone else to pump new life into our fading heart. Today, some of us need to hear this lesson, not because we are drowning in water… but because we are drowning in LIFE.

This passage, taken from Nehemiah 8, is all about spiritual revival. It is about new breath in old lungs. It is a story of those long ago, but it is also a story about you and I. Here is the principle…

Key Principle: God has given us the means to revive a cold heart and a breathless spiritual life and restore our passion for Him.

Before we move ahead, take a step back and look at the book from which we are taking our lessons. This is an ancient diary of a wine steward who trusted God, and was sent on a mission to restore a city and lay a foundation for the rebuilding of its people. Nehemiah was a man God brought from obscurity to prominence. He never would have thought that would happen… but God uses those who desire to be used of Him.

The lessons are broken in the book between three distinct stages:

Accepting the call of God through a burden (chapter one). Here we saw that God’s call to a man or woman who is ready will be both painful and uncertain at times – but it will lead a believer to a more intimate experience – trusting God to provide where He guides.

Completing the work of God in the face of opposition (chapters 2-6). We walked through this section of the journal, and recalled that any time we attempt to do what God has laid on our heart, we face the testing of fire by God’s enemy, as he stirs opposition. Because we have a spiritual foe that is set to stir up trouble, we learned of his familiar methods, so that we would be able to recognize them. In the journal, the enemy began with criticism of the work by men who were positioned to offer discouragement – but that didn’t stop the work. The criticism morphed into planted stories of gossip in the ranks of Nehemiah’s followers – but that test was overcome by a direct answer of the leader. Nehemiah was then challenged by the draining of his energy through the complaints of mishandled people involved in the work, and even faced personal temptation in the lure of gain as his spiritual enemy dangled benefits in his face. By the time we reached the story in chapter six, Nehemiah faced a trio of very personal troubles – slander, private intimidation and public threats – all meant to produce FEAR in the leader and get him to make mistakes from which he could not recover. In the end – the wall got completed in fifty-two days. The leader and the people he oversaw could celebrate the completion, and God’s protection.

Organizing the people of God to become a blessing for God (7-13). Chapter seven began the process of getting the people right before God, and pressing on their journey to become a testimony of God’s goodness. Nehemiah installed long term leaders, organized the city’s gates and guards, and then went for a search of records to repopulate the city with those who belonged a part of what God wanted to do in the revived city of Jerusalem. That got the people of God into the walls – but not the passion for God into their hearts… that is our story for today!

The people saw God through their leader – and that is important – but not enough. Nehemiah was an example to them – but he was not always going to be with them. He could not help them in the days ahead… so they needed to be attached to God and capable to make decisions. They needed to know God’s Word, and follow God’s leading. How could they learn to do that after so long depending on others to lead them? They needed to hear directly from God. At the time – just the right time – God brought into the story the older priestly leader who again visited the people – Ezra. He was a master expositor of Scripture, and he could lead the people to carefully study of God’s Holy Word. It would become the pattern of learning that would hold the Jewish people together long after the newly rebuilt Temple and the re-erected walls of their capital lay in ruins. It became the pattern we are following this very day as we open the Word together. God had BIG PLANS for this small group of people – but ONLY if they would follow Him.

First, the story opens with the request of the people (7:73-8:1).

Drop your eyes on the last words of Nehemiah 7:73: “…When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…that appears to be the beginning of the sentence and should precede the beginning of chapter eight…keep reading…Nehemiah 8:1 And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.

The people needed more than walls and leaders, administration and posted gate closing hours – they needed God’s direction for their spiritual transformation. Can you see that they SENSED the need for God’s Word in their request?

Maybe they sensed their need because they had just been through a tremendous time of testing… Dr. David Osborn at Denver Seminary said: “Too often we try to use God to change our circumstances, while He is using our circumstances to change us.” (Compass, April 2003)

The fact is that one of the benefits of sustained testing and trouble in our lives is that it refines us to see what is truly important, and moves us to hunger for God. One writer noted:

You see, God is right now in the process of making us like Christ. Think of the process of refining maple syrup. Maple trees are tapped with buckets hung under the taps, and out drips a sap which is thin and clear, like water. On a good day, 50 trees will yield 30-40 gallons of sap, but it is essentially useless at this point with only a hint of sweetness. Then as the buckets fill, they are emptied into large bins that sit over an open fire. The sap comes to a slow boil; and as it boils, its water content is reduced and its sugars are concentrated. Hours later, it has developed a rich flavor and golden-brown color, but it must be strained several times to remove impurities before being reheated, bottled, and graded for quality. In the end, those 30-40 gallons of sap are reduced to one gallon of pure, delicious maple syrup, which is far better than the cheap, imitation, colored sugar-water that passes for maple syrup in the grocery store. So it is when we come to faith in Christ. We start like raw, unfinished sap, which could have been tossed aside as worthless. But God knew what he could make of us. He sought and found us, and his skillful hands are transforming us into something precious, sweet and useful. The long and often painful refining process brings forth a pure, genuine disciple easily distinguished from cheap imitations.” (Michele Straubel, Red Lake, Minnesota. From a sermon by C. Philip Green, Our Living Hope, 4/26/2011). Perhaps their troubles refined their taste buds for God. In any case…

In the simple request to have Ezra bring the Word, we see two important truths:

First, they GATHERED and they ASKED for the Law to be opened to them. They didn’t have a copy at home – this was the only way they could get the truth! Revival starts with the HUNGER by believers to hear God. They draw together people in the name and of the Lord and the pursuit of His will – not because they were afraid of the world, nor because they wanted to preserve some cultural “Bible belt” practices of yesteryear out of some nostalgia – but because they HUNGERED FOR GOD.

Second, the people asked someone with both knowledge of the text and a passion for God to explain revival to them. Ezra brought more than an old dusty scroll – he brought a warm and vibrant passion we will encounter between each line of the story. He knew that respect for Scripture is valueless unless it springs from awe of the God of Scripture and leads to obedience of its words. The walls built, the people recognized what their leaders already knew – the walls were a MEANS to the END of WORSHIP and TESTIMONY in Jerusalem!

How did they know to call on Ezra? It is worth noting this is the first mention of Ezra in this book – even though we know he was a leader from about a dozen years before of a group of returnees. Some scholars surmise that after Ezra 10 and the reforms he made in the people, he left them to return to Artaxerxes the King, and was now revisiting years later. His exposition of the Word was known from the decade before, and people wanted to hear it again.

A renewed passion for God comes, then, from a HUNGER to hear God and be changed by God. It can be found in His Word, but should be communicated by those with a passion to follow God and believe what He said. This is the beginning of a revival of our heart.

Second, we can observe the reading of the Word (8:2-4).

Nehemiah 8:2 Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who [could] listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah [and] Meshullam on his left hand.

Watch closely as you observe the scene where hearts were changed by God:

• The Word was brought in to the people of God as the holy seventh month commenced.

• The people were assembled – but not all were an equal part of the proceedings. Note the phrase in verse repeated in both verse two and three “those who could understand”. The reading of the Word was in Hebrew – but many of the people were no longer capable of recognizing the ancient words, because they spoke Aramaic. Some families carried on teaching the old language of God’s Word to their children, and those families could grasp what God’s Word taught more readily. Note they didn’t DUMB DOWN the teaching for effect – but rather pressed ahead with a reading only understood by some – and then took time to explain it to the rest in verse eight. My point: In a world where many were not versed in the things of God from their home, the meeting didn’t ignore those who DID know the Word and understand its teaching. Far too many meetings today, in an effort to win the new ones, ignore the ones who need more. People are spiritually starving in many a church that has its whole design to reach the new believer.

• Also note that careful attention to the Word of God preceded great revival. It was not merely the stirring and impassioned pleas of a crafted preacher, or the pulsing tones of the skilled band members – it was the timeless truth of the Word that changed lives! Leaders PLANNED the event and erected a platform and stood in attendance. Great moves of the Spirit are often preceded by a planned time in the Word!

• Look carefully at the list of names. Most of them are not terribly familiar sounding to you, but that isn’t the point. The text reveals one reader, but fourteen leaders. All were part of the pulpit team – even though only ONE was speaking. This wasn’t an opportunity to venerate Ezra – but rather the reflection of TEAM MINISTRY right from the start. The leaders were public, present and picked from the people. Good leadership was part of the scene of revival – it usually is.

Third, we begin to notice the reaction of the people (8:5-6).

Nehemiah 8:5 Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with [their] faces to the ground.

Don’t be misled by reading of the respect the people had for the Word. They stood, not simply because of the words written on the vellum, but because of the Author of those words. This was God’s Holy Word – from the Creator’s own magnificent hand! The focus of their response in worship was clear in the text – not on the Word or the service, but on the Lord! Their first reaction was to stand out of respect for the Word; then in focus on the Lord of this Word! As the book was opened, the people showed: hunger for the Word (i.e. Amen); the opening of the palms to call on God to meet with them and sincere humility before God.

We have seen that revival comes from hunger and should be communicated by one who is passionate to follow God. We have seen the move of God was planned by leaders – not to become a celebrity show, but a team effort. We have seen respect for the Word and humility of heart – accompanied the pattern of renewal.

God’s Word is a powerful source of transformation. That is why we gather to study it together! The Word of God is a controlled release of truth and power. Ten gallons of gasoline can be lit with a match and release great power and show a dramatic and immediate impact. Yet, that is not the best use of such a fuel. On the other hand, if you fill the fuel tank of an automobile, the well-designed engine will use ten gallons of gasoline to take a person 300 miles or more. Explosions are spectacular, but controlled and consistent application of fuel has staying power. You don’t want to be a flash in the pan, but a sustainable and moving host to God’s hand and work. Regular application of God’s Word is not dramatic, but it moves you to where God wants to put you!

Fourth, we observe the careful rendering of the Word (8:7-8).

Nehemiah 8:7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people [remained] in their place. 8 They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.

We cannot stress enough the simple point of these two verses…It isn’t just hearing the Word of God that changes people; understanding the Word is required for change! Careful, systematic instruction of the Word of God sown into the hearts of the people of God will bring about transformation. Careless handling of the Word will bring disaster! Who hasn’t seen the Bible used on the internet or television in a way that communicated the very OPPOSITE of the intended truths of God? People need more than just a hearing of the words – they require explanation and application of the principles of the Word.

Not to get distracted here, but we need to make a distinction between the systematic teaching of the Word and the bullet point teaching of systematic theology. Many a believer engages a theological presentation, but seldom encounters the story of the Bible in its setting. Remember this, theology is philosophy erected over the Word of God to help you see it cohesively. If your theology is wrong, it will affect the way you read the text. Let the text speak BEFORE you decide what it MUST MEAN to fit your theological and philosophical bend.

Pastor Bobby Scobey from Memphis insightfully wrote: “For 2,000 years the Bible, often unaided by any human intervention, has transformed the lives of those who read it, many times dramatically so. St. Augustine is a good example. For most of his life he was a famed academic in the Roman Empire. He was very successful in rhetoric, a noble profession. But he lived a thoroughly dissolute, self-indulgent, immoral life. The time came when he began to consider the claims of Christianity. He was alone in a garden one day when he heard a child singing out a line from a game: “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” He turned to his copy of the Scriptures, which was opened to Roman. 13. His eyes were drawn to the following words: “Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Rom. 13:13-14). Deeply convicted, he surrendered to Christ, and the Roman rhetorician went on to become the Christian bishop of Hippo, the greatest theologian after Paul, and one of the most formidable intellects of Western civilization.” (

Fifth, we encounter the response of the leaders (8:9-11).

Nehemiah 8:9 Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest [and] scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”

When the people heard what God told them they were to do and to be, they were stunned by their own sin. The power of conviction overcame them – and the tears flowed like rain. Yet, that wasn’t what God wanted. God wanted them to change and feel released from the grip of the troubles. God wanted a time of sweet restoration!

How different our times! We stand before a hardened generation – often unwilling to even acknowledge sin in their lives when the results are devastating! What can we do! We can lovingly, passionately but clearly articulate the words of the Creator.

The other things we notice is that people need to be directed even in conviction. The people responded to the Word with tears, but the teachers offered more instruction. Who instructed? The teachers were Nehemiah (the Tirshata); Ezra (the scribe/reader) and Levites (explainers). They called to the people to cease mourning and proclaim the HOLY DAY! (9), to feast and rejoice and take care of the needy. Why? Because in addition to the conviction of the Word, God provided mature teachers that could direct the response to be in accordance with God’s greater purposes. Also, don’t neglect to note: God takes care of needy through those sensitive to HIS leading.

Sixth, we enjoy watching the right responses of the people (8:12-18).

It included celebration! (8:12)

Nehemiah 8:12 All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.

The strange mix of pain and trust are hard to understand, but it is part of the transformation process – and it is played out differently in each life. In 1993 Gerald Sittser, a professor at Whitworth College was driving home from a family outing. In the car was his mother, wife of 20 years and four children. A drunk driver swerved across the center line and hit them head on. In an instant he lost his wife, his two year old daughter and his mother. In his book, A Grace Disguised, Sittser shares some insights from his painful journey: “The accident itself bewilders me today as much as it did three years ago. Much good has come out of it, but all the good in the world will never make the accident itself good. It remains a horrible, tragic and evil event to me. Yet the grief I feet is sweet as well as bitter. I still have a sorrowful soul; yet I wake up each morning joyful, eager for what the new day will bring. Never have I felt as much pain as I have in the last three years; yet never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive … never have I felt so broken; yet never have I felt so whole . . . Never have I been so aware of my weaknesses and vulnerability; yet never have I been so content and felt so strong … Above all, I have become aware of the power of God’s grace and my need for it. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. God has been present in my life these past three years. God will continue to be present to the end of my life and through all eternity. God is growing my soul, making it bigger and filling it with himself. My life is being transformed.”

The truth is that when we HEAR the Word of God, and we UNDERSTAND the Word, we must be willing to conform our ACTIONS to His Will! Emotions must be made subject to God’s direction. He doesn’t convict us to CRUSH us – but to CLEANSE US. God called the people to CELEBRATE their walk, not wallow in their conviction.

It included even greater hunger for truth (13).

Good food makes me hungry for good food. Pallets are trained… and so are congregations. Look at what the people did in response to hearing the MEAT of God’s Word…

Nehemiah 8:13 Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ [households] of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law.

Truth fires the mind and heart to gain a better understanding. Lies dull the mind, and leave us in befuddled complexity. Billy Graham said years ago: “We’re suffering from only one disease in the world. Our basic problem is not a race problem. Our basic problem is not a poverty problem. Our basic problem is not a war problem. Our basic problem is a heart problem. We need to get the heart changed, the heart transformed.”

I love that in this example God began His renewal work in the heads of families – the leaders in the family! Their hearing brought them greater hunger, and their hunger pulled them to engage in learning.

It included the ready obedience of the families (8:14-18).

God’s Word is incredibly practical. They listened intently:

Nehemiah 8:14 They found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. 15 So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of [other] leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought [them] and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing. 18 He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day [there was] a solemn assembly according to the ordinance.

The Feast of Tabernacles has always been a feast of thanksgiving for the deliverance of God from bondage and a celebration of the fruits of the harvest by His good hand! Here the harvest abounded in the fruits of gladness (17b) – not in the good THINGS God gave, but JOY in the OPPORTUNITY to obey him and “delight in the Lord”.

God has given us the means to revive a cold heart and a breathless spiritual life and restore our passion for Him.

Respect for Scripture is valueless unless it springs from awe of the God of Scripture and leads to obedience of the Scripture. It is not what we HEAR that helps us, it is what CHANGES US that helps us. Francis Chan said it well: “The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do. The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be. This often incredibly painful process strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear. For a powerful example of this, read in C. S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader about the boy, Eustace, who becomes a dragon. In order to become a little boy again, he must undergo a tremendous amount of pain as the dragon skin is peeled away and torn from him. Only after he endures this painful process is he truly transformed from a dragon back into a boy. Sometimes the sin we take on becomes such a part of us that it requires this same kind of ripping and tearing to free us. The Holy Spirit does not seek to hurt us, but He does seek to make us Christlike, and this can be painful.” (Francis Chan. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (pp. 50-51). Kindle Edition.)

An Enduring Legacy: “The Restart Button” – Nehemiah 7

restart-windowsThe problem with home repairs is that, though I enjoy doing them, it is often a long time between when I begin a project, and when I can complete it. Sometimes that causes me trouble. I am nearing the completion of an upstairs bathroom at my house. I tore it out a long time ago, because it was hideously ugly, and my wife wanted something new. I only get a few hours a week, on a good week, to work on it, and the project has dragged on much longer than I wanted it to – but that is just the way it is. Since it has been out of the way, we were able to manage the mess and keep the project going, and now it is nearing its finish. There is a problem… I have to restart the work to finish the wiring in the attic, and I cannot remember what my careful markings on the wires all mean. I had a code… but now I don’t remember what it was…It is going to take some work.

Did you ever put together something complicated? Have you ever found yourself walking away from the mess because you are lost between step 412 and 413, and can’t figure out how the dumb thing fits together? I have often said: “There is very little dogged determination cannot overcome.” It is true. The issue is we have to overcome the defeat in our MIND before we overcome the defeat in the PROBLEM. Let me show you an illustration of how to get to the heart of a project for God, and get beyond being befuddled by the complexity of our problems…It begins by recognizing a truth about any work God places in our heart to accomplish for Him:

Key Principle: The real work of God is not simply about building up assets, it is about changing people.

Before we can explain, let’s look at the people we are talking about in the story…We have been following the ancient journal of a wine steward of Persia, as he followed God’s burden and secured his king’s permission to go back and rebuild and re-secure his home town, and the capitol of his people, Jerusalem. He was not the first to arrive to do this project. In fact, two other groups over the last century had returned to face this challenge, but no one had completed the tasks until Nehemiah got there in the middle 440’s BCE. When he arrived, Nehemiah inherited leadership over three distinct groups of returnees to the land:

• The returnees from 536-516 BCE, who lived and worked under Zerubbabel the governor, and were chastised by Haggai the prophet to get the work finished.

• The returnees from 458 BCE, who came to the land from Babylon with Ezra, the revivalist.

• The returnees that arrived in about 448 BCE with Nehemiah, the group most invested in following the leader of our story.

Add to that, each group of returnees found some Judeans who did not leave in the exile, as well as facing a number of men of other ethnicities that had no vested interested in seeing Jerusalem become strong and vital again – and the contest began.

Let me say it clearer: Nehemiah had a team, but more were against him that were for him. That didn’t stop him, because God called him, and God enabled him. That shouldn’t imply that it was EASY or UNHASSLED – it clearly was NOT – based on the record he left us. In fact, Nehemiah (like many who do a work for God) faced more days of TROUBLE, than he did of VICTORY. He faced deliberately set traps and contests by other locals.

The truth is that any time we attempt to do what God has laid on our heart, we face the testing of fire by God’s enemy, as he stirs opposition. Part of the purpose of this journal, preserved in the archives of God’s Word, was to let every believer KNOW THIS – we have a spiritual foe that is set to stir up trouble. Look at his methods, you will need to be able to recognize them. He began with criticism of the work by men who were positioned to offer discouragement – but that didn’t stop the work. The criticism morphed into planted stories of gossip in the ranks of Nehemiah’s followers – but that test was overcome by a direct answer of the leader. Nehemiah was then challenged by the draining of his energy through the complaints of mishandled people involved in the work, and even faced personal temptation in the lure of gain as his spiritual enemy dangled benefits in his face. By the time we opened the story in chapter six, Nehemiah faced a trio of very personal troubles – slander, private intimidation and public threats all meant to produce FEAR in the leader and get him to make mistakes from which he could not recover. In the end – the wall got completed in fifty-two days. The leader, and the people he oversaw could celebrate the completion, and God’s protection.

For some that is the most memorable part of the journal, but it is good to recognize there are still chapters seven through thirteen to navigate – and they offer a window into a different set of leadership problems. Let me use the words of another Pastor that explain:

Pastor Jerry Shirley wrote: “Nehemiah is all about building a wall around Jerusalem right? No, only chapters 1-6 are about that. The people existed for the wall in those first few chapters. They gave their time, talents, and treasures to make it happen. But the remaining chapters show the wall existing for the people. It’s not about the wall, but about what goes on inside the wall. The city was in ruins. They had a wall to prevent invasion, but inside was rubble, and they were supposed to live and worship there. But they had a grand vision of what it could be once again for the glory of God!” (sermon central illustrations).

Remember: The real work of God is not simply about building up assets, it is about changing people.

Assets make things possible, but people make ministry happen. We may meet comfortably in a building, but the building is not the work – only the place the work is designed to be planned, and some of the work is executed. Look at how the real work began…

Passing the command: A leader focused on setting key players to move forward (7:1).

Nehemiah 7:1 After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers, the musicians and the Levites were appointed.

The point of organizing the work isn’t for THE LEADER to be the “end all and be all of the work” – but to train others to assume duties as God has gifted them. Note the leader was installed after the crowning purpose of the work became functional – the worship at God’s Temple. The purpose of the work was never the walls, it was WORSHIP at Jerusalem, and this is nowhere clearer than in this verse. Nehemiah STARTED with Temple assignments, because the heart of the city was to restart the worship pattern and replant the high calling of following God!

Until a man or woman recognizes the place of WORSHIP in their life, they struggle to pull the priorities of God in line. Most of us begin our lives as toddlers, patterned by our parents and family. We move to the school phase, and unless we are a part of a vibrant Christian family, we won’t be challenged to place WORSHIP at the center of our life. School won’t teach us that in these United States. We graduate, and even the Christian’s around us will seem to say more to us about furthering our education and our career, than anyone will mention our walk with God. Marriage is often next, and many young people focus on that after school and first career steps. What I am saying is this: Many of our very own Christian kids don’t get challenged to think about how their walk with God informs their other choices until they are married and perhaps on their first or second child. Sadly, half of life has passed before many place WORSHIP in the center of their life. If my life was given BY GOD to SERVE GOD through my other choices, doesn’t that pattern seem wrong?

Nehemiah STARTED by appointing those who were Divinely enabled to carry out the worship at the Temple. Levites were enabled and appointed based on birth. Musicians were enabled by skills and then augmented by endless hours of practice. Gatekeepers were trusted men of known integrity who were given the keys to the city, and the charge to keep everyone safe against the long list of enemies we have seen grow in the last six chapters. Say it this way: Safety and Security Personnel, Sound people and singer to lead public worship and Servants to provide the services of worship – each were appointed as the restart began.

Placing the pattern: A leader installed long term leaders and recognized them (7:2).

Nehemaih 7:2 I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most people do.

In my tenure at the church where I serve we must have echoed one thousand times these words: “Everything rises or falls on leadership!” Nehemiah lived this truth, and he passed this truth to the long term inhabitants of Jerusalem. No work of God is done by the headless. Look at how he evaluated the potential of men in choosing the leaders of the people… He chose a BROTHER – someone he knew intimately well in life, and he chose a man he observed over time to be God-fearing and an authentic example of integrity. He chose men who were properly fearful and enduringly faithful.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the grave of John Knox (reformer of the C16th century), you will notice the inscription of the man who stared down his queen (known as “Bloody Mary”) with a message he held in his heart from God. The simple inscription says it all: “He feared man so little because he feared God so much.”

Men and women: fear is a part of our lives. As we grow wiser, we know that no matter how strong we are – there is one stronger who can hurt us. No matter how capable we are – there are others much more clever that can hoodwink us. No matter how much we have prepared – there are always emergencies that can take more from us than we could ever prepare for…and so we learn to FEAR. We dread that we cannot control life much at all. We dread, but we are not wrong. Solomon made clear that as age increases, so do our fears.

David Harrell wrote a book telling the story of his father, Edgar Harrell. Edgar was one of the 300 survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the last US ship sunk by enemy contact in WW2. 600 of the 900 men who survived the ship’s sinking were stranded in the water for five days – many with only a life vest – all facing thirst, hunger, injuries, dehydration and sharks. They all came face to face with fear and their own mortality. Edgar testifies of those days alone in the ocean, “Clearly there were no atheists in the water that day. Gone was that damnable attitude of pride that deceives men into thinking that there is no God, or if there is, they don’t need Him. When a man is confronted with death, it is the face of Almighty God he sees, not his own. We were all acutely aware of our Creator during those days and nights.” (David Harrell, “Out of the Depths,” Xulon Press, 2005, 112-113).

Let me be clear: Atheists in university armchairs don’t impress me – atheists in foxholes do. It is easy to treat life in the theoretical when your life is full, and your strength is fill and health is fine. Walk the cancer ward and look for the atheist evangelists… you won’t find them. That wouldn’t be a place they would find a following. When men and women graphically face their mortality, they yearn for more than the days they have left, because, as Solomon reminds: “God set eternity in their hearts”.

I am again impressed that Nehemiah chose men with deeply reverent character – for a leader who is seeking God is powerful and purposeful. The heart of the work is the leader, and the heart of the leader must be GOD’S – for the work to be all it was meant to become. Nehemiah was the leader to get the wall built, but not the leader to carry the work long term – that was left to another. Isn’t it interesting that in all of Nehemiah’s labors, he never forgot the success of the mission was not ultimately judged by what HE could accomplish, but by how much he depended upon God, and how competent he left the generation to follow him! He was a man who knew the two secrets of long term success: DEPENDENCE and DISCIPLE MAKING.

Protection of the city: A leader set procedures that protected the people (7:3).

After turning his attention from worship and leadership, he focused on policies that would offer the basic protections necessary to get the people to thrive in the city. He wrote:

Nehemiah 7:3 I said to them, “The gates of Jerusalem are not to be opened until the sun is hot. While the gatekeepers are still on duty, have them shut the doors and bar them. Also appoint residents of Jerusalem as guards, some at their posts and some near their own houses.

We all have gifts and personalities. Personally, I like to create, but I don’t like to maintain. I am not a technocrat, nor a train conductor. Pastor Matt keeps the clocks wound and the chairs set in this ministry – that is NOT something I would be particularly good at. I prefer designing the train, not keeping it running it on a schedule. For me, policies would not be as fun to put together as the physical component of the walls, yet they were every bit as essential to the success of the venture!

One of the works of a leader must be to address policy development, and give time to making the expectations and rules known and clear. Note the care with which Nehemiah made sure the specific people who were responsible were instructed in specific work – gatekeepers bar doors before they leave their post. Further, he made sure the security forces were increased in size to take on the task of guarding the city properly.

There are all kinds of issues in a work created from God’s burden and built amidst the enemy’s opposition – not the least of which is securing the work long term. In a church, that includes making clear who is responsible for what area of ministry, and placing careful parameters on the instructors and instruction of God’s Word. Some will want to be approved as teachers that simply should not be, and some will insert teachings in their respective groups that should not be there. That is why we have a statement of faith around which we gather. We are not trying to say that everyone in the world need agree with our view – but rather that we have honestly come to some conclusions about what God’s Word teaches in some areas – and we have made them clear to keep parameters around our work. That isn’t legalism – it is the proper work of policy making. Though our list of teachings isn’t infallible – since we aren’t and we made it – it does reflect our best current understanding of many things from the Word.

In the case of Nehemiah, it was right and proper for him to establish the WHO, the WHAT and the HOW of protection – in order to get the restart of the city secured.

Problem of the city: A leader renewed evaluation of the difficulties ahead (7:4).

Facing the problems that come with the task are part of the leader’s lot. He had to take a serious look at what he had to work with. He wrote:

Nehemiah 7:4 Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.

It occurs to me that each phase of the work’s growth required a new evaluation of problems and challenges to help plan the next step. Flexible planning and careful evaluation are essential leadership tools! In his case, the city lacked the number of people for it to regain strength and become vital to the Jewish people yet again. For every leader that can decide to build the broken walls, we need ten who can be flexible enough to re-evaluate periodically and make decisions based on new priorities.

It is worth noting that Nehemiah recognized the need for the community to be vibrant in order for his mission to rebuild the city to be maintained. Hermits may live out purity, but they don’t produce a believing community until they embrace others. Caves of solitude don’t engender community and strength. God works through interconnected relationships. He described His work in our day as through a BODY that was joined together. Building a wall got Nehemiah a fortress; building a community would get his people a future.

Plan of the new settlement: A leader didn’t just note problems – he plotted solutions (7:5-6).

Once again we see a familiar phrase in the journal…

Nehemiah 7:5 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: 6 These are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town,

Look at the components of the plan of Nehemiah. First, he felt God moving him toward the assembly of people and a new census to ascertain facts about WHERE THEY TRULY WERE. Next, he searched to find a record of the past groups of returnees, so that he would have FACTS about who owned what – and not be led by emotions and manipulations. While is it clear that God’s Spirit continued to lead the project, it is also true that God’s leader accumulated the relevant FACTS to lead. Emotions aren’t the basis of good decision making – facts and documentation are. Since the basis for participation in the Temple and even living in Jerusalem was the purity of the bloodline (as Scripture would have it), he needed to determine by the records what met the standard of the Word of God! The strong standard of purity cannot simply be left to the compassionate feelings of the leaders, it must square with the Word. Failure to take a strong stand in relation to those who were allowed by God to locate their families in the city would lead to the work’s destruction. Nehemiah could not OUT OF LOVE OR TOLERANCE change God’s Word and then expect God’s blessings – and he knew that. The solution lay first in the documented facts, and then comparing them to the Scripture.

People under restriction: A leader couldn’t make those who didn’t fit the parameters happy at the expense of the work (7:7-65).

Scripture taught that the inhabitants of the city and the workers of the Temple had to have a certain pedigree. It wasn’t Nehemiah’s job to convince God that His Word wasn’t fair, but rather to fit into what God wrote. His journal recorded the careful procedures of gathering and gaining a census of the people:

Nehemiah 7:7 in company with Zerubbabel, Joshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum and Baanah): The list of the men of Israel: 8 the descendants of …26 the men of Bethlehem and Netophah…39 The priests… 43 The Levites…44 The musicians:..45 The gatekeepers…46 The temple servants…57 The descendants of the servants of Solomon…60 The temple servants and the descendants of the servants of Solomon…61 The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel…63 And from among the priests: the descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai (a man who had married a daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by that name). 64 These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. 65 The governor, therefore, ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there should be a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim.

Nehemiah followed the form that showed a knowledge of the earlier record. The people were listed (as in Ezra 2 from generations before) as follows: Leaders (7); By families (8-24); By cities (25-38); By priests (39-42); Levites (43); Singers (44); Porters (45); Temple servants (46-56); Solomonic servants (57-60); Returnees without pure descent records (61-65).

In order to help focus the group on the future, it is important for them to carefully review the past, and link their next steps with what God had already done with them. The path forward is a continuation of something begun before them, and something that is bigger than them. People need a compelling reminder of the past and their linkage to it to see the broader scope of decisions. Would the people see their present and future challenges in light of their heritage? That was the main burden of the rest of the book of Nehemiah!

We live in a generation so purely interested in their own happiness, they deficit spend wildly out of their children’s pockets. We seem to have little negative reaction to the notion that our radical social experiments that depart from centuries of societal convention in areas of marriage and family may have devastating effects on our children. Our society doesn’t care. We want constant entertainment, constant prosperity and a never ending indulgence of self – children be damned. I don’t think that is too harsh – I think it fits the facts of what we are doing as a society. Here is my question: Is sufficient study being presented to show that our new definitions will not terribly disrupt the lives of our children?

Let me say it another way. If we could prove that NO FAULT DIVORCE led to easy ways to walk away from commitments, and we could PROVE that a generation of children were badly wounded by that, would America be ready to return to a legally binding and arduous form of divorce? I don’t think so. We want what we want – even if it kills our future.

Why am I taking the time to say that? Because that is EXACTLY what leaders do. They don’t go with the flow of the popular if the popular will destroy the future. They plot a course that is healthy and survivable. Let me offer one. As believers and followers of Jesus – reject the world’s definition of marriage as a civil contract. Look at it Biblically, as a sacred covenant made before God. Grab the hand of your spouse, look into their eyes and tell them that you will be there until you die – not because they are so cute – but because God wrote your names together in His book above. You cannot keep the other person in the marriage if they choose to act like the world – but you can choose not to act like the world in front of your spouse during your marriage. If enough believers do this – the world will see a difference in what we mean by MARRIAGE. That is a practical solution that considers the Biblical definition – and we should do no less.

Precision of Records: A leader keeps a proper account (7:66-69).

All through this journal, you have to admire the care with which Nehemiah kept track of things. He wrote:

Nehemiah 7:66 The whole company numbered 42,360, 67 besides their 7,337 male and female slaves; and they also had 245 male and female singers. 68 There were 736 horses, 245 mules,a 69435 camels and 6,720 donkeys.

His record revealed three important components of the work:

• Number of core group: 42,360 people
• Number of servants: 7,337; choir: 245
• Number of livestock- horses: 736; mules: 245; camels: 435; asses: 6,720

I am not completely sure why it is, but I have discovered in ministry that some individuals and even churches fear records. Of course, records can reflect a lack of growth or an uncomfortable decline at times. At the same time, I agree with Carl Rogers famous quote: “The facts are always friendly, every bit of evidence one can acquire, in any area, leads one that much closer to what is true.” Good leaders have mechanisms to “keep track” and they pay attention to what they are tracking.

No work will ever be properly organized without an accounting of people and assets – that is just common sense. At the same time – numbers aren’t the whole story. God started the church with some grand scale of conversions, from Acts two and the three thousand. At the same time, only a handful of people went out to start the majority of the churches across Asia Minor, Bithynia, Pontus, Macedonia, Achaia, etc. Numbers help give us a sense of support, but they don’t make the work progress. A few with a passion to participate will quickly exceed the work of a stadium of spectators. Don’t forget that a small group of highly committed people was the beginning point for most every great work in human history!

Price of the new settlement (7:70-73)

How is it that the people involved in the work, after hours and hours of labor, would now be called upon to GIVE to the support of the work? The answer is SIMPLE- they knew they had what they had because GOD GAVE IT TO THEM. Look at the journal:

Nehemiah 7:70 Some of the heads of the families contributed to the work. The governor gave to the treasury 1,000 darics of gold, 50 bowls and 530 garments for priests. 71 Some of the heads of the families gave to the treasury for the work 20,000 darics of gold and 2,200 minas of silver. 72 The total given by the rest of the people was 20,000 darics of gold, 2,000 minas of silver and 67 garments for priests. 73 The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the musicians and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns.

Three things you will notice right away:

• The governor got out front: good leaders give first!
• The chiefs of families got on board: Key families signaled acceptance!
• The rest of people got involved – because no one felt exempt.

The key to enthusiastic stewardship is thankful recognition that God has blessed us! Great leaders have a great capacity to show thankfulness:

In a speech made in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

He wasn’t the only leader like they that we have had. When George Washington was about 20 years old he wrote this in his prayer journal:

O most Glorious God, in Jesus Christ my merciful and loving father, I acknowledge and confess my guilt, in the weak and imperfect performance of the duties of this day. I have called on thee for pardon and forgiveness of sins, but so coldly and carelessly, that my prayers are become my sin and stand in need of pardon. I have heard thy holy word, but with such deadness of spirit that I have been an unprofitable and forgetful hearer, so that, O Lord, tho’ I have done thy work, yet it hath been so negligently that I may rather expect a curse than a blessing from thee.” [George Washington’s Prayer Journal From William J. Johnson George Washington, the Christian (New York: The Abingdon Press, New York & Cincinnati, 1919), pp. 24-35. From a sermon by David Scudder, Prayer is Seeking Our Father, 9/11/2011]

Great leaders get that way because they understand WHO they work for – God and His people. The work isn’t just about the accomplishment followed by the accolades – but about the people themselves.

The real work of God is not simply about building up assets, it is about changing people.

The churches of our day cannot simply content themselves with full buildings and nice things…we are in the invitation to transformation by God business –and our self-evaluations must be based on how effectively THAT OBJECTIVE is being met.

An Enduring Legacy: “Fear Mongering” – Nehemiah 6

I want to ask you a personal question as we begin this lesson: What are you most AFRAID of? fear 1In the world of psychological disorders, there are literally hundreds of phobias that are both named and have a diagnosis standard, with most offering a treatment regimen. Grab any medical dictionary and you will be amazed at the number of fears we have added to life over the centuries. Here are just a few from that list that should make you think about how unsafe life on this planet must really be!

• Ablutophobia – fear of bathing, washing, or cleaning
• Acrophobia – fear of heights
• Agrizoophobia – fear of wild animals
• Astraphobia – fear of thunder and lightning
• Autophobia – fear of being alone or isolated or of one’s self
• Barophobia – fear of gravity
• Frigophobia – fear of becoming too cold
• Gamophobia – fear of marriage
• Gerontophobia – fear of growing old
• Globophobia – fear of balloons, or balloons popping
• Hemophobia, haemophobia – fear of blood
• Ichthyophobia – fear of fish
• Melissophobia – fear of bees
• Mysophobia – fear of germs, contamination or dirt

Some I just never thought about:

Omphalophobia – fear of navels
• Ophthalmophobia – fear of being stared at
• Papaphobia – fear of the Pope

And, of course, my favorite phobia:

Phobophobia – fear of having a phobia!

It seems like many of us live in FEAR, and some of us are AFRAID that we might someday be AFRAID! I mention this short sample list, because FEAR is the essential subject of Nehemiah 6. Reduce the chapter down, and that is what the whole thing is about: planting fear, manipulating by producing fear, and distracting God’s servants doing God’s work through fear…First, let’s set the chapter before we get ahead of ourselves…We have been looking at the ancient journal of a Jewish wine steward who grew up in the exile of the Persian Empire about four hundred and fifty years before Jesus, and following God’s work in his life over these past lessons. As we followed the adventure from God’s burden on his heart to the journey into Jerusalem to do God’s bidding, we noted this is really a journal of leadership. In fact, there is perhaps no better place in the Bible to see a leader work from the call of God to the construction of God’s work.

The truth is that any time you attempt to do what God has laid on your heart, you will run face to face into God’s enemy, and he will stir up opposition. Every believer needs to KNOW THIS and reckon it into the plan of the work. In this journal, we have seen that spiritual foe stir up trouble in the form of testing against the leader and his workers. It began with criticism of the work, and morphed into planted stories of gossip in the ranks of Nehemiah’s followers. It was further challenged by the draining of his energy through the complaints of abused and battered people involved in the work, and then the lure of gain in the heart of the leader himself. By the time we open chapter six, we see the four previous attacks have been increased in severity, as Nehemiah now faced a trio of very personal troubles – slander, private intimidation and public threats. These all had one thing in common: they were meant to produce FEAR.

How do I know? If you skim the chapter, you will see the words in 6:9 “to frighten us”, and in 6:14 “to frighten me” and again in the close of the chapter in 6:19 “to frighten me”. Nehemiah made no mistake about what the enemy was trying to do. He wanted to stop the progress by bringing fear. He used unsealed letters, unpublished threats and a constant undercurrent of evil men speaking evil words…

Key Principle: Any fear that is greater than the awesome reverence of God acts as an idol of ungodly distraction to God’s people.

The Hebrew word that is used in different forms is the word “Yiraw”. It is used in two different senses in the Bible – depending on WHO is fearing. The very same “fear of the Lord” that anticipates with dread facing a Creator from within the heart of the unbeliever, is in us as we follow the Lord – not as dread, but as an awestruck wonder of the Creator’s magnificence. What is dread for one is reverence for the other. God’s love casts out the dread when we kneel before Him, and replaces it with awe.

Let’s look at the “terrible trio” of potentially fear producing problems with a special eye toward God’s leader – and how he handles each issue, beginning with SLANDER…

Test #5: “Enduring Slander” (Nehemiah 6:1-9)

6:1 When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates— 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.” But they were scheming to harm me; 3 so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” 4 Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. 5 Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6 in which was written: “It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7 and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.” 8 I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” 9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.

The Setting of Opposition (6:1,2)

Look in the opening two verses (6:1,2) at the setting of the opposition. Three items are revealed:

1. Wall breaches stopped – every gap was closed with the exception of the gateless doorways.

2. The constructed and fortified gates were not in place (so they were still vulnerable).

3. A conference was called by the opponents of the work.

The simple truth was this: Since God’s declared objective was the completion of the work, Satan’s objective was distracting from the work’s completion, by slowing or (if possible) stopping the work for a time – in the hopes of eventually destroying both the work AND the workers. The fact that Nehemiah included in his journal the setting of the call to a conference was a specific indicator that he looked with discernment to recognize the enemy’s objectives – and thereby avoided falling into them or feeding them! This is the first truth of the passage – a believer must recognize the enemy’s strategy. Everything that crosses your path during your mission from God will either be the Holy One’s direction or the enemy’s distraction. Every problem will either be a platform to show God’s work in and through you, or it will require you to avoid it altogether. A mature believer must discern the ORIGIN of a test by discerning the PURPOSE of the test.

Remember the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian church regarding the goal of maturity in this regard? He wrote in Ephesians 4:11 “And He [Jesus] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…”

If you look closely at the words of the Apostle, they are a warning to recognize strategies, and discern truth. Nehemiah saw through the plan, and that maturity allowed the work to continue unabated. Notice the simple end to verse two: “But they were scheming to harm me.” Often God provides an inner sense of danger or caution that a mature believer can heed. The call is not to overreact, nor under react, but walk circumspectly! You have an enemy, and you must not think that evil distractions arrived at your door by mere coincidence.

The Sounds of Distraction (6:3,4)

Notice verse three the sounds of distraction in the repeated requests that became as annoying as a gnat flying around your face doing yard work. (6:3,4) The fact is that we cannot effectively ignore the problem because the enemy is too persistent at the task of interruption, but we would be wise to keep the priority on obedience to the Word and fervor in the work. A second leadership challenge, behind looking with discernment is to effectively and consistently measure the critical nature of our time and be prepared to choose God’s priorities.

The Slander of the Opposition (6:5-7a)

Look for a moment at the slander of the Opposition (6:5-7a). It included an open letter that cited a false motivation – a lust for power – and included open lies about the work. Here is one of the tell-tale signs of the enemy’s work…LIES. When the Father of Lies touches a work, he will leave a trail of lies behind. It is wise to know the content of what is alleged and by whom, before we take much leadership time to try to and answer lies and objections.

Let me offer you a secret that has helped me decide what to answer and how to answer it as a matter of leadership. If someone questions something we are doing, I look at that as an opportunity to offer counsel and instruction. If they criticize it, I look at that as positive feedback and try to figure out what we can learn from it. If they LIE about what is happening, I evaluate that as an attack from the enemy using a weak brother or sister – and I gauge response accordingly. Sometimes I simply don’t respond at all. Sometimes I make boundaries clear.

Recently a man came to me and asked why I don’t use the “actual Word of God” – by which he meant his preferred version. I took a few minutes and explored two things: His knowledge of the subject for which he had such a strong opinion, and why he felt he needed to confront me in it. When I saw the spirit of the man seems utterly unteachable, I made clear that I was not going to be silent if he lobbied the hallways and made trouble. He disappeared a week later. If he was truly interested in instruction, or wanted to offer helpful ways to help us grow, that would be fine. I believe he was a weak brother under the influence of the enemy to distract believers from the work we have been called to do in this place – which is “make disciples that make disciples”. His initial approach to me signaled that there was no real desire to learn about the subject he brought up. He knew what he thought, and he felt the right of the prophet to stand and pronounce us wrong, but he was not interested enough to involve himself in the process of building anything. There are many self-proclaimed prophets that distract the work of God today, and no good leader can afford to let them run roughshod over the people of God and slow down the call of that people.

The Summons of the Opposition (6:7b)

Look at the summons of the opposition for a moment and consider the sheer “chutzpah” (guts) of someone asking, “In spite of the fact that I have spread lies and rumors about you, let’s sit down privately and “discuss” your mission!” Seriously? Here is the truth: We need not feed the fire of the opposition by communicating more with those who are clearly trying to ensnare us! If a person is open to God’s work, then there is little we should be unwilling to do to make it plain to him. If, on the other hand, they show themselves to be people setting a trap for the unsuspecting, don’t waste time placating them.

The Sure Response of the Leader (6:8-9)

I love that our text offers the sure response of the leader (6:8-9). I call it a SURE RESPONSE because it was delivered without a shaky voice. Nehemiah flatly denied the false charge openly, because the charge was made openly. He returned lies promptly to their place of origin, and then turned to God with a response of his heart. Look closely at the two elements of his “breath of fresh prayer”:

• He acknowledged the objective was to promote fear and discouragement.
• He made clear there was a choice – do the work or slow the work.

Don’t neglect to spot some of the ways the enemy uses intimidation as they are revealed in the text:

1. He cites “cloudy” sources (6:6) “It is reported..”

2. He uses exaggeration and inaccuracy surrounded by baseless rumors.

The point was simple: a GOOD LEADER will never respond at the expense of the work, nor will he respond ONLY to the accuser, the issue isn’t over until you’ve laid it to rest in God’s hands! The last verse (6:9) may not be clear – so let us make it clear – IT WAS A PRAYER. He was talking to God in his journal. He knew how to get peace – it was by taking the complaints and problems to the ONE Who was able to help him get settled and stay with the work.

That opened the door to the next test…

Test #6: “Facing a Personal Threat” (Nehemiah 6:10-14)

This time, the test was fired directly at Nehemiah’s personal sense of safety…

6:10 When I entered the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined at home, he said, “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, and they are coming to kill you at night.” 11 But I said, “Should a man like me flee? And could one such as I go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.” 12 Then I perceived that surely God had not sent him, but he uttered [his] prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 He was hired for this reason: that I might become frightened and act accordingly and sin, so that they might have an evil report in order that they could reproach me. 14 Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were [trying] to frighten me.

Let’s break the narrative into five points that will help us unravel the problem:

The Disturbance Point (6:10a).

First, let’s look at the disturbance point (6:9). It is clear in reading the whole chapter that fear is the objective, and that spying (as in 6:18-19) and lying (6:6-7) were the methods employed to throw Nehemiah off his planned execution of God’s work. Look carefully at what seems WRONG IN verse 10. Nehemiah went to see a man who was CONFINED AT HOME, but the man called for a conference OUTSIDE HIS HOME because of the word of impending danger to Nehemiah. The situation just didn’t look right on the surface. A good leader cannot let the emotion of the danger blind his senses and force his actions.

The Deception Attempt (6:10b)

The tenth verse continues with the key request that was a rouse. “Let us meet together” was not the point of the proposition. The idea was to get Nehemiah to do SOMETHING GOD DIDN’T ALLOW, so that he could be blamed and defamed. To pull off the deception, Nehemiah’s enemies paid off a “prophet for hire” and gave him the words of a death threat. Note the “religious” nature of the deception. The enemy often uses the “religious sounding words” to mask the “right thing to do”. The issue was not complicated, but the enemy counted on the emotion to throw off Nehemiah. When you cut through it, the issue is this: Will I follow God’s Word to do God’s plan and trust God’s protection? If I believe that I must violate God’s stated Word – in this case the violation of a civil ruler entering the holy space of the Temple – then I close God’s chief source of direction and revelation goes “dark”. How can I follow God forward if I ignore what He already told me to do?

You want to build a big building to house your ministry. A man offers money, but you know the source is from a shady business deal. Do you do wrong to do right? God’s clear answer is no.

The Decision Explained (6:11)

Nehemiah answered directly, “Should a man that represents God by doing the work He called me to do run for my life and in the process break the Law of God? Of course not!” He knew exactly what to do personally – he set the question before the revealed Word of God, and that was enough to get a straight answer. His simple question was this: “Am I allowed to do this?” If not, the choice is wrong no matter how tempting it is! This is the logic the modern church needs to recognize. The answer to what we do will not be found in the badly formed moral conscience of the populous. We shouldn’t look to the polls to figure out right and wrong ways forward – the answers that light the path are found from the same lamp that lit the way generations ago – the Word of God.

The Discredited Prophet (6:12-13)

When the standard is the Word of God, and it has been carefully considered, the messenger’s integrity can be easily measured. Look at the perception of God’s leader. He said: “The man was not from God, he was the source of the so-called prophetic words, he was hired by enemies, he was trying to get me to be afraid, he wanted me to SIN to discredit me…” He seems to have seen all the way through the issue and made a thorough assessment. God gave us the Word to judge the events and the Spirit of offer inner cautions to slow us from danger, but we must choose a path of spiritual sensitivity. Fear is a terrible motivator for right decision making, so it is one that our enemy often chooses to move us in the wrong direction. In the life of a leader, the fear can be for the future of his family, for the stability of his economic safety, for the personal perils that come with opposing spiritual forces, and the like.

The Discussion with God (14)

Nehemiah AGAIN took his troubles, as well as his frustrations to God in prayer – an example to every believer. The fact is that God’s work will always suffer attacks. Leaders serving God have available equipment from the Word to work in the midst of attack if they will stay at the task, allowing God to handle the attacks! They also can’t get caught in the blame game. We have to learn to leave retaliation to God and get on with the work!

Test #7: Answering “Under-miners” (Nehemiah 6:15-19)

The third and final test of this chapter was to confront the situation of spies that were undermining the work from within the camp:

6:15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of [the month] Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 When all our enemies heard [of it], and all the nations surrounding us saw [it], they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. 17 Also in those days many letters went from the nobles of Judah to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s [letters] came to them. 18 For many in Judah were bound by oath to him because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah. 19 Moreover, they were speaking about his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. Then Tobiah sent letters to frighten me.

The Work Accomplished (6:15)

Finally, the fifty-two day wall project was completed. The work was accomplished (15). It was a tough job, and Nehemiah took it on and got it done, in spite of the distractions of testing and trouble. The man or woman who stays with it until the task is done may collapse, but they will do so with the reward of finished labor. At the same time, every step forward should be met with the anticipation of another level of attack.

The Wicked Astonished (6:16).

Those who boasted that such a project could not be completed were confounded at God’s success. Evil often boasts as though God is their equal competitor – it is bluster. God has no equal. He will finish what He chooses when He chooses – and there is none in Heaven or earth that can stop God. Armies can march against Him, Chiefs can curse Him, whole populations can spurn Him – but He marches on. The people around Judah could see that He was helping the Jewish migrants get the work done… and it frustrates them and robbed them of confidence.

The Workers Anxious (17-19).

While the nations about Judah were flustered, the people in the work camp were not as confident as they should have been. Other leaders attempted to coax Nehemiah into peace at all cost. They cried for Nehemiah to be more TOLERANT and UNDERSTANDING to those who tried every distraction to shut the work of God down. They tried intimidation, undermining, and alas – they were down to “buttering him up”. Nehemiah didn’t like the slippery sensation of being lathered in butter. He turned and saw right through yet another ploy. How did he do it?
First, he carefully discerned the real purpose of the undermining – to create fear in him (Nehemiah 6:19). Next, he recognized the ties that bound people together, and connected the loyalties to figure out what was truly going on. He was not looking for fault, but rather trying to make sense out of the issues. He took the time to observe the results of each offender’s life carefully, in order to make true statements with real substance. He even appeared to understand the loyalites and marriage ties, and simply took them into account in examining the situation.

The bottom line is that he didn’t let fear of men determine his actions, but reverence of God and loyalty to God’s Word. A successful life is not an easy life. It is a life built upon specific character qualities: sacrifice, loyalty, integrity, authenticity. Listen to the words of a wise Pastor of decades gone by:

The present position of Christ in the gospel churches may be likened to that of a king in a limited constitutional monarchy. The king is in such a country no more than a traditional rallying point, a pleasant symbol of unity and loyalty much like a flag or a national anthem. He is lauded, feted, and supported, but his real authority is small. Nominally he is head over all, but in every crisis someone else makes the decisions. On formal occasions he appears in his royal attire to deliver the tame, colorless speech put into his mouth by the real rulers of the country. The whole thing may be no more than good-natured make-believe, but it is rooted in antiquity, it is a lot of fun, and no one wants to give it up. — A.W. Tozer (cited from a sermon by Stephen Sheane, The Kingdom of Heaven, Sermon central – 8/24/2011)

The church of our day needs a renewed vision of God. We need a renewed fear of HIM, a new reverence, a renewed sense of our beginning days. In the ninth chapter of Acts, where the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion was first unfolded, you see a church facing waves of persecution, followed by times of peace and rest. This was our beginning:

Acts 9:26 When he [Paul] came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them…31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

Afraid of a man and his reputation of persecution, the church would have turned a deaf ear to the voice of the Apostle that, in the end, wrote most of the Christian Scriptures! Fearing God, they grew into listenersAny fear that is greater than the awesome reverence of God acts as an idol of ungodly distraction to God’s people.

Maybe you don’t think it cannot happen. Maybe physical threat seems too powerful and spiritual reverence too abstract. It may be because we haven’t suffered much yet: One of the most powerful prayers in the midst of suffering I have read was uncovered from the horrors of Ravensbruck concentration camp. Ravensbruck was a concentration camp built in 1939 for women. Over 90,000 women and children perished in Ravensbruck, murdered by the Nazis. Corrie Ten Boom, who wrote The Hiding Place, was imprisoned there too. The prayer, found in the clothing of a dead child, says: O Lord, remember not only the men and woman of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: Instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering, our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. (Quoted from Pastor Victor Yap, Sermon central illustrations).

An Enduring Legacy: “Handling Exploitation and Greed” – Nehemiah 5

target-2013Target is taking aim to fight back against those who have been hacking their credit card information, and trying to hold on to weather the storm of disgruntled shoppers. On the one hand, shoppers know that Target took security seriously, and it wasn’t some flagrant mishandling of information that caused the problem. On the other, people are hassled knowing the credit card information of upwards of seventy million people is now in the hands of people who will attempt theft in some way. Watch your cards. Watch for charges of between eight and nine dollars – small ones that will erode your pocket slowly and over a long period of time.

Have you ever gotten ripped off in a business deal? Have you ever come home with buyer’s remorse after you felt pressured into buying something you didn’t really need or really want? You may have felt “hustled” by someone in the marketplace….How about the other direction…Have you ever been in a situation where you felt your heart being tugged by the desire for something you didn’t really earn – but greed and temptation swelled within you?

I faced this many years ago, and I remember feeling the ugliness of it. I was guiding groups in a country where guides typically get a substantial portion of the amount of shopping their clients do, because the store pays a percentage to the stable of guides that uses their store. It is a mutual agreement that works in many countries and sights. In those days, I made my primary income from guiding, and the rate was small, so the shopping was essential to a good paycheck. People would approach me and ask which ring looked better on their finger, and all I could do was think, “Which is more expensive?” As soon as I started my own business in that field, I cut shopping to a minimum, and refused to accept any money from shops. I increased my per day salary to compensate, and told people what I tell them to this day: “Buy anything you want. I don’t accept percentages, and I ask the stores to lower your price to give your money more buying power. It costs them nothing, so they are usually willing to do it.” I did what I did because I hated how accepting that money made me feel. I know it is part of a system, and I begrudge no one else for operating in it, but I couldn’t. I teach Bible on site, and I don’t want that conflict in my heart and mind over money. It doesn’t feel clean to me.

What is clear to me now, is that temptation is a part of life we all have to face on some level. Sometimes we are taking advantage of others, and sometimes they are taking advantage of us. If any of these problems have been in your life, the set of tests from the journal of an ancient leader of Nehemiah chapter five will help you identify and deal with the issues of exploitation and greed!

Key Principle: We are physical beings that can be broken by another taking advantage – but we also have to admit we are sometimes tempted to take advantage ourselves.

Test #3 Handling Broken Spirits (Nehemiah 5:1-13)

When enemies could not blast the leader from his work, when gossip and criticism did not stop the work (as we noted in Nehemiah 4), the tempter loaded Nehemiah’s path with broken hearted “high needs” people, and followed up with temptation to lure the leader into accepting perks…with the promise of gain! Both of these problems is very real for a leader, and we will look at each separately – to take each seriously…Let’s look first at the broken spirited that came before him.

To be clear, a “broken spirit” is one who has been crushed under the load of discouragement, and is, perhaps slowly, becoming ineffective in the work they were assigned.

Reasons people’s spirits become broken: (1-5)

Why do people get discouraged in the work that God gave them to perform? Let me offer four reasons from the text. First, look at the first five verses of the story:

Nehemiah 5:1 Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” 3 There were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” 4 Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 “Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.”

People can be pressed downward in four ways, according to this story:

Exploitation by someone trusted (1). In this case, land holding Jewish relatives that were in Judah before the rebuilders came with Nehemiah were taking advantage of those who returned from Babylon to rebuild the walls with Nehemiah. The painful part was not the economics of borrowing – that was common. The painful part was the coldness and lack of compassion from people who were kin. How could they not understand that the returnees were building, not simply for their own benefit, but for the nation’s benefit? I am sure they felt the way some of our veterans have felt when they didn’t get proper benefits after service of our country. They were hurt, and but today’s hurt becomes tomorrow’s anger, and the third day’s bitterness. If you have ever been exploited by people in the family, when you honestly were working to help the many – and not yourself – you know how these abused relatives felt.

Defense of someone close (2). Along the same line as exploitation by one that was trusted, there is a second issue – the extreme sensitivity we have for those we hold dear – like our children. If you are a normal parent, you know what I mean when I say that “You can hurt me, and I will ‘get over it’, but if you hurt my child, I may struggle to EVER get past it.” When we are protecting others, any pain that comes to them hurts us greatly. As a child, I never believed what my father said until I was one: “It is going to hurt me more than it hurts you!” I believe him now, because I am a dad. Defense of someone close has its own brand it leaves on your hurt heart.

Defense of things (3). Others in the text simply said: , “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” Any day I call the health insurance provider for my family I feel this level of pain and injustice. One of my children say a doctor for minutes in the hospital and was billed $1118.00. No particular services were rendered, and the insurance decline to pay any of it. The doctor’s office took forty percent off the bill if we agreed to pay immediately. How did we feel? We felt that no one living in our community, regardless of their knowledge, should be able to outlandishly bill a fellow citizen at such an alarming rate, simply because they could. We feel ripped off. They got paid, because I am a local Pastor and cannot leave all of us open to accusation in the way I pay my bills, but I feel ripped off – and I get frustrated trying to fight to hang on to both the things God gave me to steward, and deal in a way that doesn’t harm my testimony. If you have felt this, you know what the people who were facing a famine felt. They were working harder and going backwards…and that is a burden to negotiate in the heart, as well as the wallet.

Stress of excessive burdens (4). Still others complained: “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards.” Who cannot understand the frustration of having to stretch to make end’s meet so that government can so wisely spend our collective funds?

CNS News reported last month: “The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is planning to spend $3.35 million to ‘improve the quality of media content and strengthen the media’s capacity to meet professional standards.’” The kicker is that this is to improve media quality, not in America, but in Armenia! “No American media organizations are eligible for the grant, but ‘government controlled and government owned organizations’ in Armenia are encouraged to apply.” Doesn’t that warm your heart? Just knowing that Armenians will get better news coverage is worth a few extra pennies out of this week’s check, isn’t it?

The author Michael Snyder has made a career out of cataloging the strange a ridiculous wonder that is our US national budget. He wrote long lists of the things we are spending federal dollars on. I won’t drag out the pain, but a few are just too good to pass up:

• The U.S. government is spending $750,000 on a new soccer field for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

• If you can believe it, the U.S. government has spent $175,587 “to determine if cocaine makes Japanese quail engage in sexually risky behavior”.

• The federal government once spent 30 million dollars on a program that was designed to help Pakistani farmers produce more mangos.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture once gave researchers at the University of New Hampshire $700,000 to study methane gas emissions from dairy cows.

• A total of $615,000 was given to the University of California at Santa Cruz to digitize photos, T-shirts and concert tickets belonging to the Grateful Dead.

• China lends us more money than any other foreign nation, but that didn’t stop our government from spending 17.8 million dollars on social and environmental programs for China.

• The U.S. government once spent 2.6 million dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly… (source: Michael Snyder).

We could go on and on… but I think this is enough to produce the groan that is called for to feel the pain of the people in Nehemiah 5:4. We all believe government can do and does do important things that help us stay safe. I want someone checking our food chain and water supply, and holding companies responsible for polluting them and endangering our children. At the same time, I will not personally sleep better at night knowing that Chinese prostitutes are drinking under their legal limits. I admit it: that is a problem I just cannot bring myself to care much about. I wonder what that says about me as a person? Perhaps I have the sense to know they have bigger problems to worry about.

The point is, there are broken spirits that leaders must face. They feel abused, and often have good reason to feel that way. What can a good leader do?

Reactions to a broken spirit (6,7).

Read the next two verses, and you will see the three recorded responses of the leader. Nehemiah 5:6 Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. 7 I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, “You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a great assembly against them.

• First, he faced the fact that the problem left him with anger inside that had to be dealt with (5:6). A good leader understands and monitors his emotions – not to be self-focused, but to be self-controlled.

• Second, he took a step back from the situation and considered it before responding. Pondering is a good reaction, because it allowed him to think before he acted! (5:7). How often I WISHED that had been my course of action!

• Third, the leader took the problem to the source in a direct confrontation (5:7). Sometimes that is the only way to right the wrong. Matthew 18 reminds that it is the proper thing to do in cases between believers where one offends another – sin or not.

Reaching out to a broken spirit (7b-13).

The leader did not try to look as though he did not take a side. That is popular among leaders today – but is inappropriate when one has taken advantage of another. Listen to his words:

Nehemiah 5: 7b “…Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. 8 I said to them, “We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?” Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? 10 “And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. 11 “Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.” 12 Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. 13 I also shook out the front of my garment and said, “Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” And they praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise.

Brush by the seven parts of what we just read. We don’t want to get lost in the detail, but the steps offer a pattern worthy of a moment:

• He brought the sides together – and called a forum of two sides (public only when public sin) 5:7b. He didn’t try to solve the issue without all the players together – a very effective method.

• He made absolutely clear the violation as he saw it – in an attempt to lay the sin bare (5:8-9). There were no flowery words and long speeches – just clarity about the events and their meaning.

• He allowed a response time, but there wasn’t one (5:8). Agreement is about everyone getting on the same page with both the problems and the solution, but we must allow time for the other party to answer charges if they can.

• He set clear measurable conditions for reconciliation (5:10-11). There is no sense in trying to decide by committee or in debate what will resolve the issue. That should be decided before the meeting.

• He accepted reconciliation when conditions were met according to the standards of the Word of God (5:12). Interest was wrong, and they were in violation of God’s stated policy. When they admitted that, the conditions for reconciliation became crystal clear: get back into conformity with God’s Word.

• He committed ultimate judgment to God, who sees the hearts of men (5:13). He didn’t try to exact a pound of flesh beyond reconciliation. Either the meeting was to resolve the situation, or to punish people and satisfy the hurting emotions. He chose reconciliation – the right choice.

• He publicly praised God with everyone else because reconciliation was available to all! (5:13).

God called the leader to size up and confront the situation, and reconcile the parties to GOD’S STANDARD – not to feed the emotional need for revenge. This is the path to healing for broken spirits who have experience exploitation.

Yet, there is another side of exploitation the enemy can, and does, work within leaders. It is the danger of accepting the perks of the office…the rest of the chapter is about this problem…

Test #4: The Lure of Gain (Nehemiah 5:14-19)

People get exploited because of the basic GREED in human nature. Yet, it isn’t only something we encounter in OTHERS – it is something with which we must wrestle within as well….

The Privileges of Promotion (15)

The leader had an opportunity to live with four great benefits, in spite of the struggles of those around him.

Nehemiah 5:15 But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God.

• First, Nehemiah was entitled to tax those under his care, like the other governors. He was entitled to a forty shekel salary stipend. By law, he was allowed – but by conscience he couldn’t do it.

• Second, he was entitled to use the other barter taxes to live well – in bread and wine.

• Third, he was entitled to operate a collection system that allowed for his servants to force the people into submission, and offer him budgets for entertainment, etc.

• Fourth, he was allowed to personally elevate the status of those close to him – to serve his household.

A good leader may not take all that he is allowed to take – because it would present undue hardship on the people he or she leads. Yet, the temptation will be presented to take advantage of people – and that has to be monitored both within and without.

The Policy of the Promoted (14,16)

Nehemiah wasn’t simply self-justifying his practices in this journal – he was explaining what he believed Godly leadership was all about. Look again at his journal:

Nehemiah 5:14 Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor’s food allowance… 16 I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.

• He said he did not take rightful salary, because he didn’t require it and thought it burdensome on the people.

• He claimed that he did not withdraw involvement in the work – but labored with the people.

• He stated that he did not take advantage of “perks”, at the expense of people (such as real estate, etc.).

• He made clear that he kept those about him in the work– not as lords, but as leaders!

As a leader, Nehemiah identified WITH the people, not ABOVE the people. He made one law for himself and his house as with them. Dangers lurk when leaders do not see themselves as PART of the work. Even in the work of the ministry, I want people to observe that I give my best to the tasks I am assigned to do – and that I am diligent in even the details. The better the living example, the better the student can see how the model of work should flesh out. If we lack discipline as leaders, we can expect even worse from followers – that comes with the stewardship of the leader’s life.

The Personality of the Promoted (17,18)

Notice how personal and personable Nehemiah was in his leadership. He wrote:

Nehemiah 5:17 Moreover, there were at my table one hundred and fifty Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Now that which was prepared for each day was one ox and six choice sheep, also birds were prepared for me; and once in ten days all sorts of wine were furnished in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the governor’s food allowance, because the servitude was heavy on this people.

• Good leaders are aggressively and deliberately generous people (5:17). I am continually amazed at how stingy some people are with their time, talent and treasure. Some of the most influential believers I have known make a regular practice of being generous in every area – and people love them for it.

• Good leaders are comfortable and hospitable (5:17). Awkward people don’t lead well. We need to recognize one of the great needs in leadership is not only character – but comfortable atmosphere. If a man or woman is awkward with people, they will lead poorly.

• Good leaders are careful stewards of what God entrusts to them – both in people and in goods. Notice he counted all that were served (5:18) and could account for all the wealth spent properly.

• Good leaders are sensitive to the needs of people (5:18). If the leader doesn’t understand how the people are feeling, he or she will make critical errors in assumption.

I think this is one of the problems of our day in America. People don’t trust the government and they don’t like the aggressive stance on social change that is being shoved on us. It makes us suspicious of every change in school curriculum or NSA search. We don’t know what they are up to, but we don’t really trust their agenda. When that happens, bad blood poisons good intentions. A good leader moves to make clear what he or she is doing, and why. They know the people they lead – and what is important to them. Yet, even if all that is true – a good leader MUST have ONE MORE ESSENTIAL COMPONENT… Trust in God. Good leaders depend on God. Look at the way the passage ends

The Prayer of the Promoted (19)

Nehemiah 5:19 Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.

• He remembered the secret of his success is not found in him or his abilities.

• He recognized the object of his labor was “for this people”, not for personal fame or building a personal power base. God blesses unselfish labor.

The problem is this: leaders DO get perks. It is FUN to lead if that is what God called you to do. While that is true, it is also true that a leader can be tempted to take advantage of the perks and not serve diligently or steward wisely. Thomas Carlyle was right: “Adversity is hard on a man; but for every man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.”

We are physical beings that can be broken by another taking advantage – but we also have to admit we are sometimes tempted to take advantage ourselves.

Let me close this story of two tests by thanking God for the direction given in His Word on practical troubles…During Superbowl XXXVII, FedEx ran a commercial that spoofed the movie Castaway, in which Tom Hanks played a FedEx worker whose company plane went down, stranding him on a desert island for years. Looking like the bedraggled Hanks in the movie, the FedEx employee in the commercial goes up to the door of a suburban home, package in hand. When the lady comes to the door, he explains that he survived five years on a deserted island, and during that whole time he kept this package in order to deliver it to her. She gives a simple, “Thank you.” But he is curious about what is in the package that he has been protecting for years. He says, “If I may ask, what was in that package after all?” She opens it and shows him the contents, saying, “Oh, nothing really. Just a satellite telephone, a global positioning device, a compass, a water purifier, and some seeds.” Like the contents in this package, the resources for growth and strength are available for every Christian who will take advantage of them. (Observation from A. Todd Coget, Sermon Central illustrations).

The Word provides the necessary means to navigate life well – but it takes the effort of one to open the package…

An Enduring Legacy: “Facing the Tests of Criticism and Gossip” – Nehemiah 4

criticism and gossip 1Did you ever really work hard on something and have to listen to biting criticism about the work you performed? Often the most severe critic is one who has put no time or effort into solving the problem you worked on, but they feel qualified to judge your attempt to solve the issue. You bit your lip, but inside it was painful to hear their caustic comments. You put your best effort forward, and you tried your best to accomplish something, and now you were having to endure it being picked apart by people who put virtually no effort into understanding how hard your accomplishment was, and how much it took to face the challenge in the first place.

Consider the challenge of a football game, and the millions of “self-qualified critics” across the USA today. Someone has described an NFL football team as “fifty-three twenty-five year old muscular and powerfully shaped bodies, led by fifteen middle aged assistant coaches and one fifty-something head coach – all being evaluated weekly by five million swollen and lethargic fans.” For some franchises, the opponent isn’t so much the guy who enters the field wearing the other jersey – his true opponent is in the grandstands and on the local radio talk shows of the city for which they ostensibly is playing the game.

It is undeniable: criticism is everywhere in the modern world. Politicians are either deafened to it, or they will find themselves disabled by it. We live in a time of “politics of personal destruction” where we get to criticize in the harshest term without a modicum of respect – those who are elected by us. Even worse, with the advent of the “mythical anonymity” of the internet, people offer words harsher than ever – believing they are somehow never going to be recognized in the crowd and delivered at lightning speed around the world.

Let me ask you something: How do you handle your critics? I don’t mean the people who mean to help you improve… I mean the mean-spirited, jealous, back-biters at work, or across the shop floor? Do you have in your life people who won’t face you with their disagreement, but they will gossip about you? God’s Word has some words for dealing with people who criticize and gossip – and this is the passage for you…

Key Principle: Opposition can be a point of discouragement, or a point for us to refocus and recommit to the Master and His purpose!

Let’s drop back into our story to “set the scene”:

Nehemiah got a burden from God while serving in Babylon. The burden was about his people and their condition back in Jerusalem. That burden and the requests which followed it are recorded in chapter one of this ancient, thirteen chapter journal.

• By the second chapter of the journal, the plan was placed in front of the king, and provisions were made for the journey to rebuild walls and renew the hopes of the Jewish people in then broken Judah. Nehemiah took a team of men and embarked on the journey inspecting the damages and planning the work in Jerusalem. He was “on the clock” and couldn’t waste personal time – he had a job to do.

Chapter three outlined the “people work” principles that we learned from reading the work report diary included in the journal.

• As chapter four opened, a series of “leadership tests” ensue that are covered in the center of the journal. This helps a Bible student recognize the PURPOSE for the narrative. This journal is ALL ABOUT the testing of one who would be a proper leader.

What better place to begin than to pick up the weak attempt from the end of chapter two. Do you recall the “insinuation” test against Nehemiah. It was so weak, we barely brushed into it – but it was a WARNING SHOT.

No sooner had Nehemiah gotten the people “on board” with the work that God laid on his heart in Nehemiah 2:17, the critics started their queries. Look at the record:

Nehemiah 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.” 18 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.

“So far so good”, you say… “The people seem to be following, and the work is about to ‘get off the ground’”. It was at that very point, the opposition stuck its head up out of the hole in which it lived…

Nehemiah 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?

Nehemiah replied with poise, and without undue emotion. He projected well, and did not wobble in his answer:

Nehemiah 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.

I seem pretty hard on Sanballat and Tobias – right from the beginning. Why? Perhaps they were nice men, and they aren’t sure what was truly going on? Why be so hard?

The fact is that when forward progress begins on a project that was called for from Heaven – God’s work is in play. It may LOOK like a small group of people trying to organize a local church, or a handful of believers trying to organize a children’s Sunday School – it may not LOOK like a very important work according to human standards. The actual work is MASKED by its physical smallness – yet it is a work GOD has called, planned and burdened a man or woman to accomplish. It is the KING’S WORK. What is tremendously important for any fellowship of believers to ascertain in the beginning is this: “Is the proposal from a real Heavenly burden?” If it is, it must be handled with CARE. In that case it is God’s work, regardless of how small, or how trivial the work may appear. Remember, every GREAT WORK of God began in a small place, by a small person.

We also should expect opposition – because God’s opponent doesn’t sleep. We must get on the right side of the work, or we will be used to provide opposition instead of help. With a new work, we should seek clarification and explanation – but we should primarily be seeking prayerfully to understand the truth: “Is this a work order from Heaven?” That is the task of leaders to define. If it is deemed so, leaders must offer it provision and quickly stand at its defense in the place of attack – because the attack will come.

What form will the attack come in? How will we recognize it? That is the BULK of this journal’s purpose – to record the attacks and responses… and it began with criticism:

Test #1: Facing Unjust and Destructive Criticism (4:1-6)

Nehemiah 4:1 Now it came about that when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews. 2 He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy [men] of Samaria and said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore [it] for themselves? Can they offer sacrifices? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?” 3 Now Tobiah the Ammonite [was] near him and he said, “Even what they are building– if a fox should jump on [it], he would break their stone wall down!” 4 Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders. 6 So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its [height], for the people had a mind to work.

The motivation of the critic was explored in the opening of the chapter (4:1). When a work for God gets underway, we should expect forward movement to be the stirring influence to get the opposition moving. Intimidation by criticism and sarcasm is often their first line of attack. It takes little to prepare and costs little if unsuccessful. It may, if not properly evaluated, slow or stop the progress – and that is the point of it. There are three details you should focus upon to understand this attack ploy:

• Sanballat HEARD about the wall…. He didn’t go and see it – that is an important detail.
• He was ANGERED by what he heard – it got under his skin emotionally, not rationally.
• He MOCKED what he heard about – what he said wasn’t based on any fact at all.

The critic is often driven by hearsay, and seldom has done careful research on the fullness of the thing they criticize. Don’t forget that. It is EASY to sound intelligent with sarcasm – but it covers a lack of knowledge in the area critiqued. In addition, the critic is often driven by an emotional stresser – not by the logical consideration of the facts. Trying to explain the facts will often tire you – but usually will not move them – because they didn’t hold their position because of the facts – they held them out of an emotional attachment to someone or something. The mocking is the sign that they don’t have serious issues to present. When someone uses sarcasm and comedy to make the point – they seek to overwhelm their opposition with stinging points that may lack foundation, but will seem substantial.

I have watched Jon Stewart do this countless times. He claims to be a comedian, but many Americans get a liberal translation of the news by watching his show. He uses foul language, is openly blasphemous, and does it all in the name of comedy. Yet, if you listen, he is an apologist for a very specific liberal agenda in modern America. He can be hilarious, but his comedy is a mask for a political and moral agenda. It has been very effective, and many would argue in support of him simply because he makes them laugh – even if they cannot see what he is doing.

Be careful about criticism without facts, offered for emotional reasons in sarcastic tones. You won’t find truth without proper examination and research. You may find comedy, but find yourself laughing along with those attacking the work set out by a Heavenly work order. How tragic the time when you meet the Master and recognize you supported His enemy against His own work – all the while claiming to be one of the Savior’s loyal servants!

Next, note the place of the critic: He did his boasting at a lodge meeting where those in attendance were already in agreement.

Finally, the text offers the logic of the critic: Sanballat was surrounded by other critics and ‘PILED ON’ one question after another. He asked five questions in front of a group that had NO ANSWERS:

1. What are these feeble Jews doing?
2. Are they going to restore [it] for themselves?
3. Can they offer sacrifices?
4. Can they finish in a day?
5. Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?”

Sanballat used five strategic questions that are classic attacks – we must not be ignorant of any of them:

Character assassination (ad hominem): What are these feeble Jews doing? Ignoring the issue and attacking the people involved is another common strategy (i.e. Can weak Jews build a strong wall?). This attack seeks to minimize the WORK by using ad hominem attack – if you cannot speak about the IDEA, speak about the weakness of the PERSON offering the idea.

Scramble attack: Are they going to restore [it] for themselves? Do you remember “pig pen” in the Peanuts character roster? Things were never clear around him. The scramble attack is an attempt to make what is painfully clear somehow unclear – as though it cloaks some vast agenda. What the Jews were doing was building a wall. They were not arming and army against the king. They were not making some alternative taxation system to deprive the crown of its revenues. They were not doing anything complex. They were building a wall, plain and simple. Yet, an effective attack strategy seems to be to employ the question as though the facts are not plain – to suggest a deeper agenda where there may be none. It is done in questions, not conclusions – so the attacker cannot be “tagged” with an actual accusation.

Taunting of values: Can they offer sacrifices? This attack attempts to draw the focus from success (i.e. Can you pray the wall into place?), to flanking it with the obvious comedy of the opponents value system. An example: “What do these pro-lifers want, more kids for their Sunday School?” By moving the discussion to something that reveals a different underlying value system, the opponent has the opportunity to poke fun at the foundational values without penalty – and it distracts the hearers from recognizing the argument has nothing to do with the wall at all. It has to do with the fact that Sanballat doesn’t believe in the value of Temple sacrifice to Yahweh.

Poisoning the Well: Sanballat asked: Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones? This argument is the planting of doubts in “apparent progress” (Your stones are not good enough) that distracts from the truth – it doesn’t have to be FAST nor EASY to be APPROPRIATE. If the opponent can distract people with the complexity of the problem, he can manage to draw energy from the project in spite of the fact that it may be totally legitimate.

Sarcastic redirection: Tobiah the Ammonite joined into the sarcastic attack and offered yet another form of distraction. He said: “Even what they are building– if a fox should jump on [it], he would break their stone wall down!” When all else fails simply use sound bites and comical absurdities! (i.e. “if a fox jumps up”).

Note that the men HADN’T SEEN THE WALL. They didn’t do an inspection. They weren’t qualified in architecture, and probably had little background building amongst themselves… what they had was a STRONG OPINION driven by an underlying set of values and emotions. God’s people have to be able to pick out REAL CONCERN from fluffy distracting opposition.

The point of the passage isn’t just to examine the method of attack, however, it is to offer a leadership defense in the attack. How did God’s chosen leader handle the distracting criticism? The record is found in Nehemiah 4:4-6:

Nehemiah 4:4 Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders. 6 So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its [height], for the people had a mind to work.

First, we recognize the leader didn’t answer the MEN, he turned the frustration to prayer. He was open before God concerning the opposition (4:4,5). Criticism should first be met with honest prayer! Don’t act like what hurts you DOESN’T – take the hurt to God. You are not wrong for POURING OUT FRUSTRATION on your knees. You can tell God ANYTHING, because He already knows what is in your heart. Tell Him if you want to punch them in the nose or flatten their white-walled tires. He will correct your heart, but I urge you NOT TO HIDE. Intimacy with God is about honesty before God. Prettying up prayer because you think “He cannot handle the truth” inside you is both inaccurate and ineffective. Look at the details of the prayer of the leader:

• First, he asked God to hear the thing that hurt the people.
• Second, he asked God to turn their criticism and sarcasm on them, and make them vulnerable to attack, while he closed the breaches of the wall for his own people.
• Third, he asked God not to let them get away with what they were doing – but make them pay for the pain they caused.
• Fourth, he acknowledged the effect of the attack (“we feel despised” 4a, “they have demoralized” 5b).
• Fifth, he kept the people working. The prayer wasn’t INSTEAD of the work – it was DURING the work.

If the point of God sending Nehemiah to Jerusalem was to GET THE WORK DONE, he needed to stay at the work, no matter what temptation could be presented to cease it. Don’t forget the end of the prayer… it had a positive statement: “the people had a mind to work.” It is easy to overlook the praise the leader picked out at the end. In the end, the work got done, regardless of how the leader and the people felt about it.

I cannot say it more clearly: God’s people must push PAST their emotions and stick to the job God called them to do. “I don’t feel like it is making a difference” is something that you can take to the Lord in prayer, but not a reason to stop working on what God told you to do. Most of us feel that way at sometime in the project God has assigned for us – but feelings are not the basis of our work – God’s call is!

Nehemiah and his people faced the distraction of criticism that somehow reached the ears of the people of Jerusalem. They kept working… but the attacks had just begun. External attacks are not nearly as effective as INTERNAL attacks of the enemy on the troops – and gossip is the next way the enemy attacked. He lobbed a gossip grenade into the command center of Jerusalem’s “God Squad” – people attempting great things from God who were assigned by Heavenly burden…

Test #2: Facing Discouraging Winds of Gossip (4:7-23)

Gossip is not a physical attack, but rather the “conspiring words” (v.8) and the “rumors” (v. 11) that are designed to distract, discourage and destroy the work of God. It isn’t about KILLING, it is about STOPPING:

Nehemiah 4:7 Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, [and] that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. 8 All of them conspired together to come [and] fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. 9 But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night. 10 Thus in Judah it was said, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, Yet there is much rubbish; And we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.” 11 Our enemies said, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” 12 When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, “They will come up against us from every place where you may turn,” 13 then I stationed [men] in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows. 14 When I saw [their fear], I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.”15 When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work. 16 From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains [were] behind the whole house of Judah. 17 Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took [their] load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon. 18 As for the builders, each [wore] his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter [stood] near me. 19 I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. 20 “At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” 21 So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared. 22 At that time I also said to the people, “Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.” 23 So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each [took] his weapon [even to] the water.

None of God’s Word is “extra” – and these are not dead words of a fight long ago. They are an example, a pattern to help us discern how the opponent of God foments in the spiritual world to keep up the fire of the opposition in the physical world. With that in mind, look closely at the method of attack in gossip and the rumor mill – it is not unique to Nehemiah’s time. Look at the attack of “words” spread among God’s people:

How Discouraging Gossip derails a project:

If you take apart the text, there are four attack points for gossip and intimidating speech that can cause the work to stop.

First, there is the temptation to succumb to a focus on the intimidation rather than the project at hand. 8 All of them conspired together to come [and] fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. Just the knowledge that someone is planning an attack – or claims to be planning an attack – is distracting. We can focus on the threat (and to some extent the leaders are forced to do so), or we can keep working while those in the leadership face the need for defense. It is the DISTRACTION the words were intended for. This wasn’t an attack – it was the RUMOR of an attack. Preparation for the real problem is even distracted by panic over the perceived possibilities. Keeping focus on the work and its protection is not the same and spreading panic.

Second, there was an emerging focus on our weakness and the “undone” part of the project. “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, Yet there is much rubbish; And we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.” When that came up, don’t you wonder why no one thought about this ONE SIMPLE TRUTH? There is LESS to do now than when we started, and NOW we are realizing the size of the job? Here is the truth: they job didn’t grow, the energy was being sapped by panic and threat. A half-finished wall left them in greater peril, but it was easier to panic than keep working on the wall. Leaders have to sniff this out and keep people re-directed.

Third, there was too much attention and credit given to unseen enemies. Look at verse 11 Our enemies said, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” Can you see the slide into fear of failure? We are going to get killed, and won’t even know it is about to happen. The conspiracy of vast unseen strength is always a winner when used by the opponent of God. He SEEMS so powerful, and evil seems so strong. How could good have survived so long in its face if it were half as powerful as it claimed?

Finally, the people of God are susceptible to the attack point of “ganging” by people who never believed in the work to begin with. 12 When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times… Can you hear the steady drum beat of the detractors. Ten times they kept saying it.

Remember this: God’s enemy won’t win in the end. If God called you to do something, better to die trying than defect. At the end of this life, He won’t forget faithfulness. He won’t overlook honesty. He won’t neglect the one abused for His name and His call. Don’t get lost in the words of the detractors – follow God’s Word for your life. Let the others look like they are winning. They may gain this whole world – but it will be small consolation in the next world.

How Discouraging Gossip is defeated:

If I am to take a stand in what God called me to do, how can I defeat the power gossip has over me and those I lead? The text offered four answers in Nehemiah’s example:

First, I should refocus myself, and those on my team in the project, on the Divine perspective through prayers of supplication (4:9) and thanksgiving (4:15).

Keep a sharp eye on how Nehemiah responded. 4:9 But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night. Nehemiah’s work was quickly under the threat of physical attack by outsiders. The men building the wall were facing the threat of assault by a stealth army. As a leader, he acted in defense and included with it a short and sincere prayer. The Heavenly petition wasn’t INSTEAD of action, but was PART of the action. That prayer had an added effect. When the enemy was thwarted, the leader made clear it was not simply because of the physical preparation – but the spiritual one as well. He said: ‘When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work.’ Prayer and work together acknowledge the truth that two worlds are in conflict– not just one. We cannot reduce a battle of two worlds to a battle in the flesh alone, and expect to gain victories. God’s people must see the world for ALL it is – a reflection of a spiritual battle.

Second, we must continue to focus on the task at hand and pull the team together in spite of the temptation to panic. The text continued 4:13 then I stationed [men] in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows. Instead of STOPPING the project, they added security to keep it going.

Third, we must recall the Divine purpose and reestablish the power of God in the project (4:14). The problem didn’t change God’s original call. 14 When I saw [their fear], I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Either God told them to build it, or He didn’t. If He did, then any departure from that would have been disobedience.

Fourth, they needed to define the rallying time and point (4:19-20) keeping the “hard targets” in front, while making sure people knew the team wasn’t just WHAT THEY COULD SEE! He said: 20 “At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”

Nehemiah didn’t get where he was alone. God got him in that place. God stirred him. God pushed him to act. God gave him favor with the king. God got him to Jerusalem safely. Now God was going to see him through to the end… or he would die trying. That is what God was looking for. Nehemiah got the lesson:

Opposition can be a point of discouragement, or a point for us to refocus and recommit to the Master and His purpose!

Kyle Idleman wrote the book, Not a Fan. It is a stirring call to commitment, written to a generation that may not have grasped the truth of the Gospel message. He wrote:

So in case some left it out or forgot to mention it when they explained what it meant to be a Christian, let me be clear: There is no forgiveness without repentance. There is no salvation without surrender. There is no life without death. There is no believing without committing. Kyle Idleman, “Not a Fan” (p. 35)

I would simply add these words: “Even when the enemy attempts to distract you – complete the mission that only commitment can empower.

An Enduring Legacy: "Team Building 101" – Nehemiah 3

team buildingToday, I want to walk through a passage with you that explains how people work together to form an effective team and accomplish something God told them to do. It is a tale of leadership, but it is more – it is a tale about living together, sharing the planet, and learning to play well with one another in the sandbox of life. Any work that will endure will need more than one mind, one set of hands, one brain. It will require a team…I believe that. Not only that, but any group that is going to accomplish great things will need to have some understanding of what life is all about. To introduce our story from Nehemiah 3, I will begin with a publicly lauded instructor of leaders of our day…

John Maxwell is a sort of “go to guru” on leadership in Christian circles. He has made a living for many years sharing principles of management, leadership and development. As we look into Nehemiah, our Spirit directed ancient journal of a leader, I thought sharing this anecdote about the “meaning of life” from John would be appropriate, to help you smile for a few moments. At a recent meeting, John shared:

I turned sixty-five this year and my dad just turned 91. With this reflective time, I want to offer something that explains life a little better. We all ask questions about life, and how we fit in, and what our purpose is…Here is my explanation…”

“On the first day, God created the dog. God said: “Sit all day at the door of your house and bark at anybody that comes by. I will give you a lifespan of twenty years.” The dog replied: “That is too long to be barking! Give me ten years and I will give you back ten of those years!” and God agreed.

On the second day, God created a monkey. God said: “Entertain people, do monkey tricks. I will give you a twenty year lifespan.” The monkey replied: “How boring! I am to do monkey tricks for twenty years? The dog gave you back ten years, so I think I would like to use only ten years, and give you back the other ten.” God agreed.

On the third day God created a cow. He said: “You must go out in the field, stand in the hot sun, bear calves and give milk to help the farmer… I am going to give you a lifespan of sixty years.” The cow, picking up on the dog and the monkey, said to the Lord: “That’s kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years… let me have twenty, and I will give you back the other forty.” God agreed.

On the fourth day, God created man. He said: “You are to eat, sleep, play, marry, and enjoy your life. I will give you twenty years!” The man replied: “What? Only twenty years? I will tell you what…I will take the ten years the dog gave you back, and the ten years the monkey gave you back and the forty years the cow gave you back… that makes eighty years. The Lord said, “Ok, ok… you’ve got a deal!”

That, my friends, is why the first twenty years of our lives, we eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy our lives. For the next forty years we stand in the sun, and support the family around us. The next ten years, we grab the grandchildren and do monkey tricks to make them laugh, and the last ten years we sit on the front porch of our homes and bark at everyone that goes by!

That is the explanation of life.

I laughed at John’s explanation when I heard it. I laughed, not only because it was humorous, but because it contained some truth… and that is why I am deliberately focusing on positive subjects in a crowd like ours in days like ours. I sometimes fear that we as modern Christians collectively bark too much and accomplish too little of what God told us to do.

As we move from the frivolous to the foundational truth of life – the Word of God, I want to make an observation. In recent years, the constant flow of articles and books on the fascinating subject of leading and managing people seems to have grown exponentially. Yet, I came to a conclusion about many of the books I read – and maybe some of you have as well. Over the years of reading it seems like many people’s “insights” were actually little more than re-statements of earlier writings. In the area of management and leadership, Solomon’s warnings from Ecclesiastes about “nothing being new under the sun” certainly seem to apply.

Are there good Biblical texts about building the rabble you work with into a team of high performers? Sure there are. Today we are treated to one – but it will take you a few minutes of adjustment to see it because of the “work log” nature of the text.

We have heard it over and over…We can all readily understand that high performing companies have high performance teams – and there is no such thing as random organization when it comes to leading people. We know that the best teams start with the sincere agreement to a core set of principles. Because that is true, it is essential that the vision, the values and the mission of any team must be communicated clearly and team members must “buy in” to become an effective part of the team. We know that leaders will emerge on a team, but leadership is a skill that must be honed. We know that work teams are about collaboration, and productive collaboration is ultimately about effective communication. These are common principles that most any manager has been schooled to recognize and work through.

In more recent days, we have learned that the best teams are those who know how to recover from trouble. Even on the best teams, people make mistakes. One crucial need is to have a process for identifying, analyzing and reducing errors. Another is the ability to focus on the solution, not the blame. When people learn to do these two things well, the team advances from defeat much more quickly. Nothing slows recovery more than a team caught up pointing fingers instead of fixing problems.

Though all these insights are readily available, you may have missed some important truths found in the pages of ancient Scripture on leadership, teamwork and accomplishing a God-given, Spirit-directed task… God hasn’t been silent on team building and people work – since His work IS people work! Consider this principle for the work log of Nehemiah 3:

Key Principle: The key to progress is consistently doing the right things the right way. The definition of “right way” is explained in the Words of the Creator.

Looking back: Principles of Preparation

Since some may not have been following our lessons on Nehemiah, let’s quickly note that we have been moving through his journal for a few lessons, and have discovered Nehemiah to be both sensitive and shrewd. We discovered in previous lessons that:

1. A ministry project prescribed by God often begins with a burden in the heart of a man or woman of God – a deep, throbbing kind of urging within that presses action without. (Nehemiah 1).
2. We recognized that faith is NOT a synonym for disorder or substitute for careful planning – and that sustainable ministry has to be prayerfully and carefully planned, as well as artfully presented (Nehemiah 2).
3. We also noted that in any endeavor of the work of God, opposition should be expected (Nehemiah 2:19). It isn’t strange – it is normal to fight to succeed for God in a fallen world.

As we open the work log of the journal, I want you to recognize as we read the passage together, the close detail and familiarity Nehemiah had with each leader, and each team member. The list is FULL of names. Why do I point this out? Because as Howard Hendricks once said, “You can impress people from a distance, but you can really impact them up close.” Real ministry, impacting and life changing ministry isn’t about buildings, budgets and bands… it is ALWAYS about people. There is no greater way to impact them than in intentionally established and carefully maintained relationships.

Read through the record of the work on the wall in Nehemiah 3…If you aren’t familiar with Hebrew names, this may be one of the longest readings of your life! Yet, if you take the time, you will find in the journal some ancient and inspired..


First, it is essential that leadership invest FIRST before people join. In the case of the work of God, leadership starts with God’s ordained leaders.

Nehemiah 3:1 Then ELYASHIV 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 CHANANAIL.

In the detail of the verse is the teaching, and this verse is RICH! Observe some truths that ooze out of the words of Nehemiah 3:1:

The first thing we notice that “sweat” and “godliness” go hand in hand! Work should begin with the godly leadership that is willing to work hard to accomplish what God has called the team to do (3:1a). They are not the whole team – but they are PART of the team. They are not ABOVE the team. That doesn’t mean they will always be found doing the wall work. These guys were PRIESTS – so they built because that was what the team was doing, and then they went back to being priests.

Beyond the fact that God’s call entails work – we should also remember that work is part of worship! The initial focus of the wall work was directed at the place adjacent to the Temple. The intention was to begin with what kept the vital relationship with God open (3:1b; cp. “sheep gate” adjacent to Temple area). Here is the point: if people are working well and accomplishing much, but aren’t growing in their attachment and daily dependence on God – ministry isn’t happening the way God intended.

Churches can swell in numbers, but the size only matters if people are in the Word and on their knees – growing in dependence and surrender before our Awesome God. Don’t get too impressed by big meetings. Both Matthew and Mark remind us that Jesus repeated Isaiah’s words of old: “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” It is painfully clear that God has never been impressed with “hearts astray in rooms a-full”. Attendance is the BEGINNING of being challenged and drawn to God – not the end goal of the ministry. We may be too easily impressed with the external statistics, and too little concerned with carefully looking for the marks of inner spiritual growth. An effective team focuses on reproduction, not simply of bodies, but hearts on fire for God’s communicated mission held in their hands. The Temple may have been full the day the elderly widow quietly offered her nearly worthless coin, but she may have been one of only a handful truly worshiping.

• Take a moment and notice the second part of verse one: 3:1b “they consecrated it and hung its doors.” That isn’t an idle phrase. They KNEW the work they did was HOLY. They knew it needed to be especially, deliberately and Biblically set aside for God’s purposes alone.

I am concerned sometimes with the familiarity we all have in doing God’s work. It’s just “our kids” and “our little buildings” – and we forget the magnificent God we are serving, and the wonder of the task to which we were assigned!

The children of this work are the heritage of the Lord for the future of our nation. The students God brings to this place, whether local high school age youth invited by a friend, or college students that give a year to study God’s Word at our Bible Institute – they are a holy stewardship of the Lord. The hurting woman in the hospital is a precious soul entrusted to our flock. The widow or widower who aches from loss is our holy charge. I will keep saying it as long as I have voice – ministry is a holy thing. People are forever, and we cannot neglect them – nor are you to feel that you have hired “us” to do that for the body – that isn’t Biblical. We are to equip the saints TO DO THE WORK OF MINISTRY.

We should see all our work as part of what God is doing through us! The work was seen immediately as part of something God was doing, not simply a good idea of a neat leader! We demean the work of God when we see it only in human terms. It was a WALL and GATES – but it was a passageway to worship and a protection to the people of God.

• A third observation: They did the most important thing first! The work began on the “most vulnerable part” of the project (3:1b; “northern wall”) and the most critical to get done well. 3:1b “They consecrated the wall to the Tower of the Hundred [and] the Tower of Hananel.” Jerusalem is most vulnerable on the northern side, and that is exactly where they began.

Let me ask you something: What is the most important thing that we should be focusing on in today’s work of God? If you have spent any amount of time with me, you know my answer – it is training the next generation to face the tsunami of paganism coming to a state near you. Is that YOUR value? Maybe God has a different burden on your heart that our work needs to hear about. Fall before the Lord and ask Him for your burden – then let us know what God is telling you to do. Don’t ask US to do it for you. Nehemiah planned the journey and took the expedition on at great personal sacrifice – and that is what I am telling you a real burden properly grasped will look like in your life.

After leaders have invested and acknowledge the holy work and call of God, what else should mark a team accomplishing the work of God?

Second, the people of God must be led by God to get on board and DO the work.

Look at the next few verses:

2 Next to him the men of Jericho built, and next to them ZAKKUR the son of Imri built. 3 Now the sons of HASENA-AH built the Fish Gate; they laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and bars. 4 Next to them MRAYMOT the son of ORYAH the son of HAKOTZ made repairs. And next to him Meshullam the son of Berechiah the son of M’SHAYZABAIL made repairs. And next to him TZADOK the son of Ba’ana also made repairs. 5 Moreover, next to him the Tekoites made repairs…

Did you notice some recurring phrases? You saw the words “next to them” over and over. You also saw the names of people – but in two cases you observe the names of OTHER TOWNS in Judah – Jericho in the Judean Wilderness east of Jerusalem, and Tekoa, southeast of Bethlehem in the Judean Wilderness. Why mention these?

  • First, we have to remember that having a burden is the beginning of a ministry, but building a TEAM is a vital prerequisite to get that ministry rolling. We have to get the team on board to distribute the work! Those who understood the need to validate the project as God’s holy purpose got busy first! (cp. “Men of Jericho” in 3:2). 2 Next to him the men of Jericho built…
  • Second, there is a detail in all that “next to them was so and so” writing. We know where many of the places they were building can be located archaeologically today. There is stone and mortar evidence of this story that is irrefutable. I have worked on that wall, sat on that wall, and cleaned an ancient floor of a home in the shadow of that wall in my few brief brushes with archaeological study. Here is what I know: NOT EVERYONE GOT THE SAME SIZE PROJECT. In fact, the Tekoites were given work in verse 4, but again in verse 27! They worked double duty!! The teams were given different distances to cover. We aren’t completely sure HOW the locations were chosen, but we are certain that Nehemiah had a hand in the selection and oversight – which is obvious from the passage we are reading.

Effective team work necessitates people getting over the unfairness that workloads are NOT EVENLY DISTRIBUTED! Some will always carry inordinate loads of work (3:2b-4), and it is right that they be specifically recognized for doing so! Some got more prominent towers to build, while others walled the edges of the public latrines. I don’t think I have to make a point about how vital the latrines were to the society – but it is worth recalling that many duties of the work are not glamorous. If you are a very public leader that cannot take time to join a private prayer circle of some kind, you may need to re-think why you do what you do. Just take a moment and really let the Spirit challenge your motives, as I have to do the same.

Third, it is essential to recall that not everyone will be convinced of the cause and willing to “pull their own weight” – though later they will want to full benefits the work creates.

Don’t miss the little “nugget” in the end of verse five: 5b “…but their nobles did not support the work of their masters. The truth is that some people think they are too good to follow leaders – and they miss the blessing of God for their labors. Forever settled in Heaven is this – the eternal Word of the Immortal God – concerning a small handful of stiff-necked Tekoite nobles who couldn’t get on board.

Why do you suppose those men didn’t join in the work? All you need to do is read the record slowly to feel what Nehemiah is trying to say. They were NOBLES and what they couldn’t do was SUPPORT THE WORK OF THEIR MASTERS. Can you see the attitude dripping from the words? If you have ever worked with people like these NOBLES, you know exactly what he meant. They were too good to do what they were told – and they shall ever be remembered thus.

I am in many places where leaders are trained, and I respect a great many leaders. I don’t respect contentious men, and I don’t think they lead well. We need to be men of peace, patience and purpose. Unfortunately, I get tired when I don’t manage myself well, and then I lose my peace, followed by my patience, and finally I can’t recall my real purpose. It is essential that we work as a team to protect one another from going too far without remembering our own frailty.

Let me say one other thing about NOBLES. When the work is done, they will feel equal ownership, even if they didn’t DO the work to get the wall in place. Get over justice, if you want to lead them. God will teach them through life lessons that you may not see. Rest in that, and don’t feel you need to fix people who aren’t asking you to try.

Fourth, the best team leaders can match causes to build coalitions.

Look at the next part of Nehemiah 3:6 YEHOIADA the son of PASAYACH and Meshullam the son of BESODYAH repaired the Old Gate; they laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and its bars. 7 Next to them MELATYA 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.

Some work can be done in conjunction with others and their objectives without buying into all of their ideas. Did you notice that men from Gibeon and Mizpah, suburbs of Jerusalem, worked on repairs that ALSO related to a governor’s palace from the other side of the Jordan River? These men worked on the wall but had another objective beside the one that Nehemiah brought. They saw themselves as working for more than just one end.

As a history buff, I could point to General Robert E. Lee, and recall with you how he kept the army of Northern Virginia together with the armies of Louisiana, Mississippi, and the other confederate states. It was no easy job building a confederation – but it can be tremendously effective.

If you walk into a local restaurant and see me sitting with a Catholic priest working – it is probably about the pro-life cause that we both support. I don’t have to agree with everything in someone’s life to work on a limited agenda with them for a solidly Biblical purpose. I am not joining their church, nor they mine – but we agree on life and its preservation – so we can work together. This is what Nehemiah was doing collaborating with Gibeonites and Mizpahites.

Fifth, people who have gotten used to the old way things were will be newly inspired when things start happening!

Look for a moment at the wording of Nehemiah 3:9 “Next to them Rephaiah the son of CHUR, the official of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs.” Tucked into the middle of the list was Rephaiah, son of Hur (whose name incidentally is “Ben Hur” for old movie fans). Look at his old job. He has been the official of the half district of Jerusalem. Barring any evidence that he was new to the post, I suspect he was on the job when Nehemiah arrived, and he had let the tumbled walls and humbled streets become normal in his eyes. Nehemiah got the people whipped up, the supplies rolling out – and old Rephaiah saw Jerusalem with NEW POTENTIAL.

Good leadership allows people to feel the future is something to look forward to – and that the mission ahead is both important and attainable. Rephaiah settled for a period in his life – and then he saw things could be different. People like him don’t believe until they see – but later they can be avid fans and strong helpers.

Sixth, the team is made up of the people who SHOW UP and WORK, not the people who think they should have a voice in everything because they have knowledge in that area.

Now go back to verse eight, and continue to verses ten through thirteen. Look at the list of people that came to help and their occupations:

Nehemiah 3:8 Next to him Uzziel the son of CHARCHAYAH 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. …10 Next to them YEDAYAH the son of CHARUMAF made repairs opposite his house. And next to him CHATTUSH the son of CHASHABNIYAH made repairs. 11 MALKIYA the son of CHARIM and CHASHUV the son of PACHAT-MOAV repaired another section and the Tower of Furnaces. 12 Next to him ShallOOm the son of HALOCHESH, the official of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs, he and his daughters. 13 CHANUN and the inhabitants of ZANOACH 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.

The work is done by those who “show up”! It shouldn’t matter what “class of people” they are; all worked – and followed the directions given! They included priests, goldsmiths and perfumers district rulers and daughters (12) If you keep reading, you will catch a glimpse of some Levites (17) and even some shop keepers (32).

Do you think it mattered that perfumers didn’t know how to build walls, and goldsmiths weren’t particularly good at architecture? Not really. There were people to lead, instruct and check – as in every good team.

We don’t have time to look at everything this great passage on leadership offers. I CAN say a few quick sentences that may help for the passage…

Seventh, not everyone gets to build the glamorous parts of the work.

In verse 14 I see someone got the REFUSE GATE called today DUNG GATE. What does that tell you? some people work on the parts that are more pungent – because some of the most essential parts aren’t the pretty ones.

Eighth, we can never assume that people are working for the right reason.

Look carefully into verse 10 and verse 23. I spotted a few guys who only repaired the part next to their own house. What does that tell you? Don’t assume that because someone does a great deal, they are doing for the right reasons. Some work for personal benefit – but God uses them! (3:10,23).

Finally, let me end on a positive note… in our principles.

Ninth, count on God to supply some people who do it with such fervency that your heart is stirred!

Look at Nehemiah 3:20 After him Baruch the son of Zabbai zealously repaired another section, from the Angle to the doorway of the house of ELYAHSIV the high priest.

Baruch means BLESSING- and the guy lived up to his name. He didn’t just WORK, he WORKED ZEALOUSLY. The Hebrew term khaw-raw’ is normally “with heat or great anger” – but in this case it meant “furiously” in all the best meanings of the word. The guy was a force of nature, a stoneworker on fire for God. They bless me whenever I see them.

I started this lesson with words of John Maxwell on leadership to make you smile. Let me finish with a concept of that same man as I close – not to make the lesson about him, but to help us apply the text about team building. John talks about a “law of five” in some of his works. Simply, the law of five is this: If you want to cut a tree down in your yard, and you get an axe and hit that tree five times every day, what will eventually happen? The tree will fall. The bigger the tree, the longer it will take you to fell it – but it will come down. Now take the lesson. Whatever goal God has put within you to accomplish – take an axe to that tree in daily, consistent, not exhaustive but powerful swings. Chop at it. Our goal is to build a team. Nehemiah’s was to secure a city and worship center and get home on time. It won’t happen quickly, but here is what I KNOW WILL HAPPEN. If we consistently, patiently, diligently chop away – five times each day – a team will be built. A ministry WILL be established. Lives WILL be changed. How can I be sure?

Because, the key to progress is consistently doing the right things the right way, and the definition of “right way” is explained in the Words of the Creator’s Holy Word.