Remember. Remembering is one of the most fundamental things we do as people. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent much time thinking about how your memories make you who you are. Perhaps the easiest way to see how important they are, is to imagine what life would be if you had no memories, if you suffered from amnesia or something similar. Our memories are so important to who we are that the prospect of losing them is quite distressing. Loose your memory and you forget who you are. It’s the same with a nation – we have days of memorial for significant events in the history of the nation, when we remember the people and events that shaped the nation, because we need to remember the things that made us who we are.
In Nehemiah remembering is one of the main themes. The people of Israel have been given remarkable promises by God: promises that he would bless them and make them a great nation, and that they would govern other nations and be mastered by none … if only they will remember the covenant God made with them and behave accordingly. Well, of course, long before Nehemiah’s time they stopped remembering God and instead of blessings they received curses from God. Instead of a great nation, mastered by none, they had become a byword for disgrace, the lowest of the low; they were barely a people, let alone a nation. By now Babylon has been conquered by Persia, but Nehemiah, like so many other Israelites, remains in exile, far from the Promised Land. And the few who have gone back live in a place that is a mere shadow of its former glory, a city with no walls and no gates. The lack of walls and gates was just the tip of the iceberg – the people were in disgrace. They were back in the land but there was no sign of the blessing of God over them.
Last week we considered Nehemiah’s prayer, a prayer in which he remembered before God all of Israel’s rebellion, a prayer of confession and repentance. But also a prayer which recalled, which remembered and acted on, what God had promised. In Deuteronomy 30 God said that after exile would come renewed blessing if they would confess their sin and repent of it. And so Nehemiah confessed the sin of his family and his nation and even his own sin, and he repented. As he did so he called on God to remember what he had promised: to remember his covenant of love with Abraham and his descendants, to remember his commitment to Jerusalem. The prayer of the prayer, the request that Nehemiah wanted answered, was that God would grant him favour in the presence of the King. Behind that request lay the far larger prayer that God would again restore Jerusalem and take away their disgrace.
Well this week we see the dramatic answer to Nehemiah’s prayer as he gains favour with the King and as God begins to take away the disgrace of his people. You could sum up the action in this chapter by saying that God remembers his covenant people and sends Nehemiah as a saviour to take away their disgrace. Nehemiah has structured the action in this chapter into two separate scenes, one in the capital Susa and one in Jerusalem, and both ending with the response of the enemies of the project. We’ll look at the two scenes in turn. If you’re taking notes they form the basis for my two points:
Scene One: God remembers his covenant people; and
Scene Two: God sends a saviour to take away their disgrace.
Lets begin with Scene One where God remembers his covenant people
Have a look at Nehemiah 2: 1-5:
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 fathers 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 favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it."
There’s a lot going on in here that would be obvious to ancient Jews or Persians, but that’s not so obvious to us. For starters the date that Nehemiah gives, the month of Nissan, was three months after the month of Kislev, the month when he first heard about the state of affairs in Jerusalem. That means that he prepared for this conversation for three whole months, praying to the Lord for success.
One reason for the delay may have been that he was taking a huge risk in seeking this conversation with King Artaxerxes. Merely to appear to be sad in the King’s presence was an offence punishable by death. Artaxerxes was known as the ‘King of Kings’. Persian culture was profoundly conscious of honour; the king of kings was to be honoured above all else. That meant that his servants were expected to be constantly delighted to see him. Any sign of unhappiness was a slight on his honour, as if it weren’t pure joy to be in his presence. We can only assume that Nehemiah has been keeping up the pretence of a happy exterior since he first heard the news about the disgrace in Jerusalem. But now he lets his sorrow show and the King immediately picks up on it.
So Nehemiah risked death in order to create a situation where he might be able to raise the issue of Jerusalem with the King. But worse than that, this King Artaxerxes is the same King who had demanded that Ezra stop rebuilding Jerusalem, as we read in Ezra chapter 4:19. Artaxerxes declared that Jerusalem was a city with
‘a long history of revolt against kings … a place of rebellion and sedition’.
So not only was Nehemiah endangering himself by looking like he was dishonouring the King, he was publicly aligning himself with a city that the same king had declared to be seditious, and asking the King to rebuild that city. It is no wonder that in verse 2 Nehemiah says he was very much afraid. He was literally risking his life to restore the honour of Jerusalem.
The great risk involved might explain why Nehemiah avoids mentioning the city right out, introducing it as the city where his fathers are buried. When the King asks what he wants Nehemiah is quick to pray before he answers the King. He is reminding his readers that although King Artaxerxes has power over both his life and the successful rebuilding of Jerusalem, God is has power far greater than King Artaxerxes. So he prays. And it is clear from what follows that Nehemiah considers the success of his request a direct answer to his prayers. Have look at verses 6 – 9:
Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, "How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. I also said to him, "If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king's forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?" And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king's letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.
The answer to Nehemiah’s prayer is completely remarkable. The same king, who insisted that the building of Jerusalem should be stopped, completely reverses his decision. He doesn’t just allow his cup bearer to take some leave without pay to go and attend to his national affairs; he gives him everything he needs to get the city up and running again. You can almost imagine the scene as Nehemiah tries his luck further and further with each successive request – “well if you’ll let me go, how about granting me safe conduct, oh, ah, alright, if you’re OK with that, how about the wood for the rebuilding – Oh yeah, not just for the walls but for the gates, and for my house too. Oh, that’s alright is it, well, what about say, a detachment of soldiers just to complete the picture?” In fact it almost sounds like the King volunteered the soldiers without Nehemiah even having to ask! So Nehemiah heads off to Jerusalem to rebuild the city with his King’s complete support.
What was going on here? Nehemiah really stuck his neck out. He could have lost his job, maybe even his life. He didn’t just ask the King to ignore a slight on his honour, he also asked him to rethink his whole Middle Eastern policy. But King Artaxerxes did it; he completely reversed his previous decision. How could this be? The key to understanding all of this is the last bit of verse eight:
And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests
The King did all this because God was answering Nehemiah’s prayer, God was remembering his people.
Remember chapter 1 verses 8 & 9 – Nehemiah asked God to remember his instruction to Moses:
if you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.
Nehemiah is remembering God’s words in Deuteronomy 30:4 and 5, where God promised that he would return them to their land and restore their fortunes. Well they were back in the land but the truth was that their fortunes had hardly been restored. They remained in disgrace, with all the visible signs that they were still under the judgement of God. But now God is acting to remove their disgrace by sending Nehemiah to rebuild the walls.
What are we to learn from this – well it is plain that Nehemiah wants us to see the great faithfulness and power of God. He promised and what he promised he makes good. He is totally dependable. He doesn’t leave his people in distress but he hears their prayers and reaches out to answer them.
It is also clear that Nehemiah wants to remind us of God’s power even over the Kings of the earth. He is the God who holds the nations in his hand. Just as he was able to bring Israel low when they were filled with pride, so he was able to lift them up when they humbled themselves before him. Just as he led foreign nations to invade and exile his people, so he moved to lead foreign kings to restore them to the land again. So Nehemiah writes to reassure God’s people that God has the power to act in all the circumstances of our lives – and he is not so big that he fails to notice the state of his servants, rather he cares intimately for us. Now we can take comfort from the assurance that the same God who was faithful to his promises to Israel all those years ago has promised us that he will never leave or forsake us. He is not unaware of our circumstances nor is he uninvolved in our lives. Rather he governs each and every thing that happens to us, and he works in all of them to grow us into his likeness.
Coming back to Nehemiah, Jerusalem had been brought low, but God hadn’t forgotten them, he remembered his promises to them, which brings us to scene two:
Scene Two: God sends a saviour to take away his people’s disgrace
For this second scene Nehemiah skips over his long journey from the Persian sea to Palestine and takes us straight to Jerusalem. Have a look at vv11–16. He tells us:
I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate.
Well I can’t imagine what the people of Jerusalem thought of Nehemiah for those first three days. He arrives from the King’s court complete with army officers and cavalry, but tells no one what he plans to do. What on earth was he up to? Well he leaves them in suspense while he assesses the lie of the land.
And what is his impression as he explores the city? As a second or third generation exile he had probably never been to Jerusalem before. But he was well versed in the Old Testament scriptures. He would have known of the reputation Jerusalem had before David captured it, that it was impenetrable, so well protected by its wall that even the blind and the lame could defend it. He would have known of the ways in which David and Solomon reinforced and expanded the walls in keeping with the great wealth and influence of Jerusalem. He would have sung Psalms which told of its glory and might, like Psalm 48 which speaks of the ramparts of Jerusalem, so mighty that advancing kings fled in terror. As an exile he would have longed to return to see the city in its glory, to stand inside those strong walls and have the sense of the protection that the Psalms spoke of.
But instead of a great city and a strong fortress we read in verse 13 that he finds piles of rubble, walls torn down, gates burned by fire – a mockery of the cities former glory. In verse 14, where there should be fountains and pools fit for a King, he finds rubble so dense that he can’t even get by on his horse or mule. The fortress that the psalmists describe is no more. The great walls that protected the city, those walls that were strengthened and expanded by David and Solomon, the walls which were symbols of Jerusalem’s power and influence, have been reduced to charred ruins. Fortified gates which once defied kings and empires are now tumbledown openings. He rides in and out through the wall with his men, passing three separate gates in the middle of the night without anyone even noticing!
Think how vulnerable the city is: they lay exposed before their enemies, easy pickings for anyone to overpower, any one can come and go as they like, can do as they please with Jerusalem; once they ruled nations, now they were little better than slaves to a foreign power. And we see in this chapter that they were actively oppressed by those around about them – we meet the enemies Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. These powerful opponents will feature more and more as the story progresses, but here they serve to remind us that Jerusalem was so vulnerable it was easily exploited by outsiders.
So as Nehemiah inspects the walls we can only imagine his overwhelming emotions at seeing the state of the once proud Jerusalem. Nehemiah, who sat down and wept when he heard that the walls remained broken down, now sees for himself the problems that have overtaken his people and his city.
They had been disgraced.
Their broken walls screamed out their disgrace. For however long they had no walls they remained in disgrace, because they were subject to the rule of foreign powers, unable to defend themselves, just another conquered people.
Now this theme of the disgrace of God’s people, this vulnerability to foreign powers continues throughout the bible. Ultimately the problem goes deeper than the walls of Jerusalem, deeper even than the state of the nation of Israel. The problem that leads to the exile and the breaking down of the walls was that God’s people were always subject to the foreign powers of sin and the devil. The whole saga of Israel their whole history highlights just how helpless we are. We’re supposed to look at Israel and understand our own vulnerability to sin, our own disgrace. The world may revel in sin, but it is our disgrace, just as the broken down walls were the disgrace of Israel.
If we could see ourselves as God sees us we would be like Nehemiah inspecting the damage. Like the remains of a once great city we would see people made for relationship with God reduced to slaves to the foreign powers of sin and the devil.
We see it ultimately through the eyes of Jesus Christ as he looks at the crowds and sees them harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He sees a people who have been invaded by a foreign power; they are exposed to the devil, enslaved by the alien power of sin. He sees a people in disgrace; a people in need of a saviour.
See how this helps us to understand our world? In some places it’s easy to see that sin has taken people captive, that they’ve been overtaken by hostile powers. In the news just this week we’ve seen reports of the effects of alcohol abuse on young people. It’s easy to see things like that as a disgrace to those caught up in them. But some sin is more subtle, like the quiet pride that looks down on others, or the fierce determination to do things our own way and never to give in to anyone else. But the irony of sin is that while it makes us think we are in control, actually it controls us. It is disgraceful, it shames us because it makes us so pitiful – like a city without walls, sin makes us weak and vulnerable and enslaves us to a foreign power.
So to sum up so far in scene two we’ve seen that God’s people are disgraced. And when Nehemiah has finished surveying the full extent of the damage he finally reveals to the people of Jerusalem why he has come – have a look at verse 17:
"You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace." I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, "Let us start rebuilding."
So they began this good work. You see Nehemiah had come because God sent him as a saviour to take away his people’s disgrace. Nehemiah would rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And remarkably the people agree to Nehemiah’s wall building plan, and get to work.
So with the work begun the stage is set for the real action of the book, the rebuilding of the wall which we’ll hear more about in the coming weeks. But for now we end the chapter with this first glimpse of Nehemiah as God’s saviour sent to do this very concrete work. We’ll see how this salvation pans out in the rest of the book.
And here as he arrives in Jerusalem and experiences his people’s disgrace Nehemiah points us forward to Jesus. He points us to Jesus, who, like Nehemiah, came to take away the disgrace of God’s people. Disgrace suffered, not at the hands of besieging armies tearing holes in their walls, but worse, by the destructive and enslaving work of sin and the devil. Jesus conquered these powers at the cross, and in his resurrected body he has rebuilt God’s people into a city that will never be destroyed or besieged. When he returns we will be built into the new Jerusalem, the eternal city, because God remembered his people and sent a saviour to end our disgrace.
Lets praise him for the saviour.