Nehemiah 1:1–4; 2:1-5 (NIV) 1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. 1 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
Everything was great when my children were in kindergarten. Dad looks pretty smart when he can confirm that the teacher was right about 2+2 being 4. First and second grade math were a breeze too. Then came fifth & sixth grade. Suddenly, dad’s limitations were exposed. No longer counting on his amazing math knowledge my children advised each other, “Don’t ask dad. He doesn’t know how to do fractions. Just ask mom!” In order to help with more advanced math and science and...well, just about anything school related, this dad would need some serious review to get up to speed.
That’s how I felt this week prepping for our series on Nehemiah. I know Genesis and Exodus. I can walk you through the trials Joseph endured and the miracles Moses performed. I know the gospels. I have studied Jesus’ parables and can quote the 7 words from the cross. I have taught the journeys of Paul to 11th graders. Getting into Nehemiah, though, is like trying to work through mixed fractions in 6th grade math. It’s a confusing time in Israel’s history involving distant lands, unbelieving kings, and stretches of time when Israel’s future was in doubt. What a privilege to study it, though, in preparation for preaching. What a joy to gather around this little-known book of the Bible and dig into it under the theme, “Rebuilding with God.”
In order to understand the book of Nehemiah, we first have to travel back about 2300 years ago. David and Solomon were dead. Israel had been fractured into two parts—the Northern Kingdom (which kept the name “Israel”) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom abandoned worshiping the LORD and turned to idols. In 722 B.C. Assyria attacked them and carried them into captivity, never to return home again. Judah was spared defeat, but only for a little over a hundred years. In 605 B.C. the Babylonians overwhelmed Judah and deported them to their new homes 1,000 miles away. Jerusalem lay in ruins; the temple, destroyed. God’s people would be exiled for 70 years, until the Persians—who conquered the Babylonians—allowed a remnant to return home. What the Jewish refugees found upon their return was not pretty. “In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire’” (Nehemiah 1:1-3). Jerusalem was still there, but it was vulnerable to attack. The Babylonians had knocked down the walls and burned the gates. The refugees needed to rebuild the walls, but how?
Enter Nehemiah, the Israelite cupbearer to Persia’s King. “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). Nehemiah had likely never been to Jerusalem, only hearing stories of what this great city had been like. The stories were incredible—stories of a magnificent palace and a glorious, gold encrusted temple. Stories about God Almighty’s power that had rescued the city from countless attacks. Stories of kings like David and Solomon through whom He made Israel a world power and kept alive the promise of the Messiah. Hearing about Jerusalem’s plight saddened Nehemiah’s heart. In addition to the tears, compassion filled him. He knew that something needed to be done.
What’s the condition of your spiritual home right now? Where is your trouble or distress? Is your relationship with the Lord thriving, or is it just a hobby when convenient? The number of young people once active in worship of their God, but who now have no relationship with Him is staggering. There are multitudes who have no perceived need for a Savior. Even within Christian churches, getting involved is something reserved for when there’s nothing else going on or it doesn’t adversely our free time. Does Nehemiah’s description of Jerusalem paint a picture of our lives too? “The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). How often isn’t our spiritual home “broken down” as well, desperately needing a restoration project, one we are not capable of carrying out on our own?
That’s why studying Nehemiah is worth our time. Not only did Nehemiah understand the situation. He also knew where to turn. He prayed, “Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6–7 NIV). Nehemiah approached the LORD with his sins and the sins of his people on full display. He made no excuses. Today we join him in repenting of the sins that distance us from a sinless God.
Nehemiah also trusted that God was the one Source of all goodness who could make things better, “They are Your servants and Your people, whom You redeemed by Your great strength and Your mighty hand. Lord, let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of this Your servant and to the prayer of Your servants who delight in revering Your Name” (Nehemiah 1:10-11). “Rebuilding with God” flowed from Nehemiah’s compassion—a compassion for God’s people that came from the LORD himself! Isn’t that what salvation by grace alone is all about? The Apostle John wrote, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). That’s not fifth grade math or college calculus. That’s God’s love and compassion poured out on us through Christ Jesus our Savior. The situation was dire in Old Testament Israel, so Nehemiah turned to the only One he knew who could make things right. Our situation is just as dire—thanks to our thoughts, words, and actions. We turn to the same God Nehemiah did—the One who not only can, but does make things right through the blood of His Son; the One who rebuilds in us what is in need of repair.
Our text concludes with the springboard for the rest of the book. “In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’ I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it’” (Nehemiah 2:1-5).
As we seek to “Rebuild with God”, we not only see the compassion which drives our relationships with God and others. We also witness the tool this same God has given us to approach Him in every circumstance. In our text, Nehemiah has already approached the Lord after hearing the conditions of his homeland. Nehemiah prayed again before acting on what needed to be done. “Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it’” (Nehemiah 2:4-5). Nehemiah was a cupbearer for Persia’s King. This servant was about to ask the most powerful person in the world for permission to travel 1,000 miles back home to oversee the reconstruction of a city he had never been to. Before daring to ask the king, Nehemiah spoke with the Almighty King, “Then I prayed to the God of heaven.” Then, miracle of miracles, Artaxerxes said, “Yes!”
You know those times in life we’ve thrown up our hands and thought, “I’ve got nowhere to turn”? We do! And it’s not just a friend, co-worker, or family member. It’s God Almighty. Studying Nehemiah together is worth it to pause, even in the busiest, most difficult times in our lives, so we can talk to the God of heaven. God promises that those who trust in him can talk to him anytime, ask for anything, and know that he will always hear and answer.
Sometimes in a sermon on prayer the preacher asks “What’s going on in your life that you need to pray about?” Today, though, let’s not focus on self. What “rebuilding” projects do those around us need help with that our compassionate hearts can go to God and ask for help and guidance? Who do we know is struggling at home? Who do we know that is struggling financially and just can’t seem to get ahead? Whose marriage do we see falling apart? Who desperately needs a “victory” in life to go along with all the “defeats”? Don’t just think about praying for them. Don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you.” Stop right there and pray with them! Make a list and then during the week pray for them! Be filled with compassion for everyone around us! The apostle Paul encouraged us to spend less time concerned about “me, myself, and I” when he wrote, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, and therefore all died. And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). We are alive in Christ. We live for Christ. We spend time “Rebuilding with God” by being people of Compassion and Prayer. When we see the compassion God has poured out on us and turn to him in prayer, we are living for him.
We’re just getting started in our study of Nehemiah, this little-known book which teaches us some some of God’s incredible truths. We are going to hear some unfamiliar names like Babylon, Persia, Sanballat and more. We’re also going to focus on things like Mercy, Love, Goodness, and Grace—all which come from our God—the One who fills us with his spirit of compassion; the One who loves us and calls us His own. Amen.
Sermon edited from materials shared by Pastor John Boggs, Divine Savior Lutheran Church, West Palm Beach, FL