Stirred by the Sovereignty of God
In 1861 the missionary Hudson Taylor left China. He was ill, and was sent back to the UK to recuperate. As he got better his desire to return to China grew. But he knew he could not reach China by himself. By 1865 he realised he needed to set up his own mission agency, and take 25 missionaries back to China with him. But it weighed him down too. He was worried about setting up his own mission agency. He was worried about sending 25 men and women unprotected into the interior of China. Taylor was overwhelmed with pressure. So much so he felt ill. We'll come back to his story later.
In many ways Taylor was uniquely overwhelmed. But we all at times face periods where we feel overwhelmed with the circumstances we face. How will I provide for my family? What job should I do? How will I cope with this illness? What will the future bring?
God's people face pressure. They do today. They did in 1865. And they did in Nehemiah's day. Nehemiah was a man who knew pressure.
He took on the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem under enemy opposition. As we look at chapter 4 tonight we'll see that despite pressure, Nehemiah is stirred to action by sureness in God's sovereignty.
Nehemiah was a Jew but his nation had been invaded. His people had been scattered. It's capital Jerusalem was on its knees. In fact, Nehemiah himself worked for the Persian king far away from his home. All this had happened because his people had turned their back on God. But one day he heard that a group of Jews had returned to Jerusalem. This intrigued Nehemiah because he knew God's promise to gather his people back to himself if they'd turn back to him. Nehemiah saw this return as God's plan unfolding, and he wanted to play his part. So he prayed, and the king allowed him to go home to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Last week in chapter 3 we saw how Nehemiah gathered a rag tag team to rebuild the walls.
This week we see that the news of what Nehemiah was doing had got out. Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite are unhappy at the Jews moving back into the neighbourhood. Sanballat is probably governor of neighbouring Samaria, and Tobiah another local with influence.
Sanballat has an army but because of the king's protection can't unleash them on Nehemiah and his team. Aware that Sanballat and his army are set against them Nehemiah prays to God to act. God has placed this city on Nehemiah's heart, and Sanballat does not want to see Jersualem flourish again.
Nehemiah prays, and they crack on with the walls infuriating the enemy. Sanballat plots, so again Nehemiah prays and deploys guards to put off the enemy. But with all the rumours of attacks Nehemiah's band find their morale sagging.
So Nehemiah steps up. He deploys his men to guard the lowest points of the wall. He arms them. Then he preaches to them of the sovereign God they serve. As Nehemiah prays, preaches and plans God is at work. Sanballat, knowing the Jews have discovered their plot and are ready to fight, gives up. So we're told in verse 15 that "God had frustrated" Sanballat's plot. So Nehemiah deploys his team to guard and build the wall at the same time.
Despite the pressures he faces, Nehemiah is stirred to action by God's sovereignty: Nehemiah prays under pressure, preaches under pressure and plans under pressure. I want us to consider these three ways we can imitate him:
My first point is Pray under pressure. While Nehemiah rebuilds the wall with a bunch of priests, goldsmiths and families Sanballat mocks the Jews in front of his army. Come with me to verse 2:
"In the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, "What are those feeble Jews doing?"
When he says feeble, it's the same word used elsewhere to describe a dying plant or a people without hope. The Jews are in his eyes losers. When they have a go at the builders they are in effect having a go at the God who has moved Nehemiah to rebuild the wall.
Firstly, we see that just as God is opposed, so his people are opposed. If you're thinking of following Jesus, you've got to expect to be rejected like he was. How do we cope with ridicule or even worse persecution. What does Nehemiah do? He prays under pressure. Look with me at verse 4:
"Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders."
You might feel that's not a very merciful prayer. But before we jump to conclusions we need to firstly remember it's a prayer for justice, for judgment against sin. Secondly, Nehemiah knows it is God's job to judge, not his, so he gives it over to God. Thirdly, these aren't personal enemies but enemies of God.
What does that mean for followers of Jesus? When we are slighted for following Jesus we don't need to fight back and take things into our own hands. Like Nehemiah we look to our sovereign God for vindication. This is a transformative prayer.
Look how the Jews act after praying to their sovereign God for vindication in verse 6:
"So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart."
When the people remember in prayer their God is sovereign, and will ultimately vindicate them their hearts are stirred into action.
We see a similar pattern of prayer followed by action all over Nehemiah. Again in verse 8 the Israelites hear about the plotting of Sanballat, and see what they do in verse 8-9:
"They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat."
They pray, and they act by deploying the guards. Nehemiah is a great prayer, but also a great do-er. But he is no self-relier; he's a God-relier. Sometimes we slip into self-reliance. Perhaps when we hit a really busy week at work we find ourselves squeezing out the times of prayer because frankly we've got too much to do! Yet when Nehemiah was under pressure he prayed because he knew God undergirded all he did. Do you act and not pray? Do you see that your lack of prayer is a functional denial that you rely on God?
We all struggle with this. We all at times lack sureness in God's sovereignty. What do we do when we're in that place? Nehemiah shows us. Nehemiah preaches under pressure. That's my second point: Preach under pressure. The mood of the Israelites is going down hill with the rumours of attacks, and the sheer amount of work to be done. Look with me at verse 10:
"The people in Judah said, "The strength of the labourers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall." Also our enemies said, "Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work."
In effect, this job God has given us is too much and too dangerous. So let's see what Nehemiah does next in verse 13:
"Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and daughters, your wives and your homes."
Nehemiah has a plan, we'll come to that next but I want to focus on the message Nehemiah preaches. He preaches God's sovereignty. He reminds them of who makes the Lord's people strong: the Lord! And the language Nehemiah uses isn't made up. Nehemiah uses the language we find in Exodus and Deuteronomy. He reminds the Jews that all throughout their history, it's God who has made the impossible possible. In Deuteronomy 7, God tells the Israelites to take the Promised Land despite the fearsome enemies that live there. Moses says in Deuteronomy 7:18:
"Remember well what the Lord God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. You saw with your own eyes and the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm, with which the Lord brought you out…Do not be terrified by them, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a great and awesome God."
Nehemiah reminds them of God's faithfulness to his people in the past: God was sovereign over their enemy Pharaoh, and God rescued them from mighty Egypt. Nehemiah reminds us that God is not only sovereign, but he's a rescuer. He's not coldly running history; he runs history to display his mercy through his people. He is for them! He is above them! This God can make the impossible task of rebuilding the wall possible! See how the Jews respond in verse 15:
"When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work."
When Nehemiah reminds them of their sovereign God they get on with the job. The Jews are stirred into action by sureness in God's sovereign mercy.
What does that mean for us? God's people today see God's sovereign mercy even more clearly than Nehemiah did. God's rescue of his people from Egypt was a shadow of God's ultimate rescue of his people from sin. Nehemiah's prayer in verse 4 reminds us there is a high cost to being an enemy of God. The result is judgment. Yet as Sanballat reminds us in verse 2, Jerusalem was a place of sacrifice. God's people could meet God in the temple through sacrifice. There animals bore God's judgment instead of the people. Yet the Jerusalem temple only pointed to the ultimate sacrifice. It's at the cross where we see God's sovereignty and mercy perfectly displayed. It was God's plan for Jesus to go the cross. There Jesus bore the judgment instead of us. It's through trusting in Jesus he rescues us.
If you follow Jesus, and when circumstances overwhelm, we can remind each other we have an awesome God, one is full of sovereign mercy. This is a God that be trusted. The way we do that is by preaching to each other. When I say that I don't mean install a pulpit in your living room, rather be ready to remind each other of your God in your everyday conversation. We like the Jews too easily listen to ourselves and our worries, rather than talking to ourselves our God of sovereign mercy.
Nehemiah wasn't a teacher of the law like Ezra, he was a wine taster, a project manager, a governor, but he knew his Bible and preached it to his people. That should encourage us, speaking about the God of sovereign mercy is a job for all believers, not just the Rods, Dims and Chris' of the world. Husbands, when your wives feel overwhelmed, do you graciously point them to the cross where God demonstrated his costly love? Wives, when your husbands are struggling with circumstances do you send them a text reminding them God has provided for their greatest need in Christ, and he will provide what you need? Parents, do you remind your children of God's promises to remake our broken world when they're afraid? Friends, don't just listen to your friend's fears, but gently remind them God is for them, and not against them because of the cross.
Following Jesus is hard, that's why we need community, and not just on Sundays. Going to home groups, Women's Fellowship and HTG Youth is another opportunity to preach God's sovereign mercy to each other. If you're not involved already, do you see that by not being involved you're missing out on an opportunity to be encouraged, but also on the opportunity to preach to others under pressure?
Nehemiah is stirred to action by sureness in God's sovereignty. Because God is sovereign Nehemiah prays under pressure. Because God is sovereign he preaches under pressure. Lastly, we'll see that Nehemiah plans under pressure. That's my final point: Plan under pressure. When I use the word plan, I mean Nehemiah puts his plans into action. In 2v4 he prays to God, then asks the king if he can have an extended sabbatical to rebuild Jerusalem. We've seen already in 4v6 and 4v8 Nehemiah follows prayer by putting his plans into action.
What happens when Nehemiah prays and plans? God works through Nehemiah and his people to accomplish his merciful purposes. Let's look at verse 15 again. Notice who the narrator attributes the victory too. It's not Nehemiah, it's God:
"When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work."
God uses Nehemiah's plans to frustrate the enemy. The star of Nehemiah isn't Nehemiah, it's not Ezra. It's God who uses his people to achieve his purposes. Nehemiah knew that, that's why he prayed, preached and planned like he did. Nehemiah is stirred to action by sureness in God's sovereignty. What does that mean for me and you?
We too should be encouraged that God uses his people to achieve his sovereign purposes. Let me give you one example. If you're following Jesus it's because God placed people in your life to speak of Jesus. God was at work through his people's work.
We see a similar dynamic at work in Nehemiah. He believed God won the day, but that did not stop Nehemiah grafting hard to frustrate Sanballat: in verse 16 Nehemiah sets aside some permanent guards; in verse 17 some of the load luggers are told to carry weapons; in verse 18 the builders carry swords and finally in verse 18 he rigs up an alarm system.
In verse 22 those living outside the wall are told to stay at night because they need all hands on deck.
In verse 23 we that even Nehemiah sleeps in his clothes ready to spring into action. Yet despite all this graft, Nehemiah's confidence isn't in his planning and spreadsheets. It's in the God that undergirds it all. In verse 20 he tells his people: "Our God will fight for us!"
What can we learn from this? We need to let God's sovereignty stir us to action. We need to pray, and if appropriate act on it. Sometimes we can pray but then be lazy. For example, we can pray for opportunities to speak of Jesus to our friends, but then fail to make time to see them. Nehemiah prayed then acted on it. Sometimes we pray about a task that overwhelms us but then we stop because we're paralysed with fear. Nehemiah faced scary times, so he prayed and then he acted, trusting God with the consequences. Do you see that sometimes our lack of action, comes from fear that God is not sovereign or merciful?
Nehemiah's task was to rebuild the wall. After all, Jerusalem was the place where humans could meet with the living God without being destroyed. Today, Jesus is the person where humans can meet with God without being destroyed.
Today, God dwells among his people by his Spirit. By God's sovereign mercy, he calls us to build his people by proclaiming the gospel. We see that in Matthew 28:18-19 where Jesus says:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations."
Jesus says he is the awesome Lord; he has all authority. Yet Jesus says we are to work under his sovereignty by making disciples. Do you see the dynamic of God sovereignly working through his people? So for example, God could have dropped HTG from the sky. But he doesn't; he works through his people. It required work eight years ago to plant, and still requires work today. And if we are ever to plant again it will require putting plans into action.
Doing the work of the gospel can feel overwhelming: be that in our families, workplace or church. Like Nehemiah we too need to be stirred into action by sureness in God's sovereignty.
Remember Hudson Taylor overwhelmed with the fear of setting up his own mission agency, overwhelmed with the fear of sending 25 men and women into the interior of China? He was feeling so ill he took a holiday in Brighton in June 1865. On Sunday 25th June he left church (and wrote this in his diary):
"unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security, while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out in the sand alone, in great spiritual agony; and there the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for his service. I told him that all responsibility and the consequences must rest with him; that as his servant it was mine to obey and follow him – his to direct, to care for, and to guide me and those who might labour with me."
He wrote down in his Bible: "Prayed for 24 willing, skillful labourers, Brighton June 25th 1865." When he returned to London he opened a bank account for the China Inland Mission. The opening amount was not much, but as Taylor put it, it was "£10 and all the promises of God." Hudson Taylor was stirred to action by sureness in the sovereignty of God. He knew God was for him, and God was above him. Like Nehemiah he prays, then he puts his plans into action.
Let's bring it together. We've seen that Nehemiah was stirred into action by sureness in the sovereignty of God. God called him to rebuild the wall so he prayed, preached and planned with sureness in God's sovereignty. Nehemiah reminded his people that the Lord is awesome. This side of the cross we see his sovereign mercy even more clearly. So if you're trusting in Jesus you too have been called to build the church. So let's pray, preach and plan with a sureness in God's sovereignty.