Grinding out godliness and remembering to rejoice - Nehemiah 6-7
This is the Sagrada Familia, it's a church in Barcelona, which they began building in 1883.
And last November they announced some exciting news, … it's almost finished!
After 133 years, the cathedral is entering its final phase of construction,
…and should be finished in 2026, …roughly! (although they think it may take another 6 years just to put all the finishing touches on!)
Antoni Gaudi who designed it died in 1926. If he had any children, then presumably they too have died, and perhaps even his grandchildren.
So, how do you do that? How do you work on something, and commit your life to something that you, and your kids and perhaps even grandkids, will never see completed? How do you keep going when you know you'll never see the end, and that after you've gone, others will take it on and they'll probably never see the end either?
Well, I don't know, because I've never built a cathedral! But my guess is, you keep going, and you keep working, by reminding yourself of what it will look like, one day. You remind yourself that one day, it's going to look like this… And you remind yourself that one day, what you're doing in your lifetime, will be a part of that.
Now, why do I mention that to you this evening, as we look together at Nehemiah 6-7?
Well, because I think these chapters in Nehemiah are about the hard, long and slow slog of Christian living.
They remind us that faithfully following our God is not easy, and it's not quick. It's a marathon, and not a sprint. But they also point us to how we can keep going when it's hard.
I think these two chapters are about… Grinding out Godliness and Remembering to Rejoice
The first thing we see in chapter 6 is that
Obeying God can be Hard 6v1-14
Look at 6 vv 1-2..
Now the last we heard about the progress of the wall was back in 4v6 when we were told that it had reached half its height. So you would expect the fact that the wall had now reached full height would be big news,
…but Nehemiah mentions it almost in passing!
That's not what he's worried about here, instead he wants to tell us what else was going on, v2-4…
Since Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, back in chapter 2, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem have been trying to stop the work.
It started in 2v19 with ridicule and rumours. Then at the beginning of chapter 4 the insults got more serious,
…until eventually, in 4v8, we were told that these three rulers and their armies planned to come together to attack the Jews.
But, by God's grace, and through the wisdom and leadership that he gave to Nehemiah, so far their plans have failed. And so now, with the end in sight, the old enemies try once more to derail the work. This time by attacking Nehemiah himself.
And the first way that do that, in vv 2-4, was by trying to lure Nehemiah away from Jerusalem so that they can physically attack him.
But Nehemiah is wise to their schemes. So in vv 5-9 they try a different approach. v5-7…
Sanballat claims, with the help of Geshem, that people were saying that Nehemiah was about to crown himself king of Jerusalem, and that he had hired prophets to make it happen. Now of course that is nonsense.
As Nehemiah says in v8
It is a lie.
But did you notice that very important detail at the end of v5? The letter that Sanballat sent was an unsealed letter. In other words, Sanballat sent a letter that he knew anyone could, and would read.
It's like when you're on holiday and you send someone a postcard. Whatever you write, you know the postman is going to read! Well in the same way Sanballat sent his letter unsealed so that what he was claiming would be read and whispered and gossiped.
There were no reports about Nehemiah wanting to be king, or him hiring prophets to proclaim him king. But now that doesn't matter. The rumour had begun. And again, in v9, we're told that Nehemiah knew what they were doing, He knew they were trying to frighten him, trying to slander his name and discredit him.
So he called on the Lord for strength. And then in v10-14 the attack takes a different form. Look at v10
Now we're not told much about Shemaiah. We're told that he was "shut in at his home" in v10, and in v12 Nehemiah tells us that he was a prophet.
So perhaps that meant that, on the outside at least, Shemaiah looked like he was being persecuted just as Nehemiah was? Perhaps that explains why Nehemiah was willing to go and visit him?
And, if that is the case, then Shemaiah's suggestion that he and Nehemiah hide in the temple, would have come across as a kind of 'we're in this together' plan. But again, Nehemiah realises that this is a trap.
You see, any of the Israelites were allowed to go into the courtyard outside the temple, But only the priests were allowed inside the temple. What Shemaiah was suggesting was that they break God's law.
And so, Nehemiah says, v11-13…("Should…
Sanballat and Tobiah had hired a prophet to try to draw Nehemiah into sin and scandal.
And in v14 we're told that a prophetess, Noadiah, and others were also on Tobiah and Sanballat's payrole, trying to trip up Nehemiah and intimidate him.
Can you imagine the strain and stress that Nehemiah was under? Not only was he project managing the work on the wall, and leading the people, and co-ordinating the defences.
He was also facing threats to his own life, malicious rumours, and people trying to deliberately lead him astray. Obeying God can be hard.
And not just for Nehemiah. In John 15 Jesus said …
"If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you."
In 2 Timothy 3 Paul said
"…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,"
And in 1 Peter (which we'll be studying in the evening service next term) Peter said …
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you."
Obeying God can be hard. Secondly,
Obeying God Can be Long, 6v15 – 7v3
The wall, we're told in v15 was completed incredibly quickly. Just 6 months after Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem, and just 52 days after they started the project, it was finished. The danger and disgrace that had faced God's people and God's name had been taken away. Look at v16
Once the walls were finished and the gates were in place, It meant that Nehemiah could begin to return law and order to the city of Jerusalem. That's what we see in chapter 7 vv 1-3. Gatekeepers being given their orders to man the gates,Hanani and Hananiah being put in charge of the civil duties, and singers and Levites being reassigned to the temple worship. Order was being restored.
But again, even though there are reasons to rejoice in this passage, there's not the celebration we might expect. In fact we have to wait until we get to chapter 12 to find the Israelites celebrating the completion of the wall.
Instead, Nehemiah tells us that even though the wall had been finished, the opposition against him didn't stop.
Look at vv 17-19. Even when the wall was completed and the gates are in place, Tobiah kept on dripping poison into the ears of the nobles.
Or to be more precise he drips honey into the nobles' ears, so that they keep coming to Nehemiah and telling him what a great guys Tobiah is. And at the same time he drips poison into Nehemiah's ears, sending him letters to intimidate him. If we are obeying God, and doing his work, "seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness" as Matthew 6 says, well then we can expect to face opposition that is hard, but also that is long.
Some people just hate Christians. And as long as you are being a Christian and promoting Christ, they will make it their ambition to make your life hard. The church I used to work for in Essex was a church of about 500 people in a village of about 3000. So as you can imagine it had a big impact on the community. And whilst many people in the village loved the church and were part of the church, there were others who hated what we did. And one of them was the editor of the village newspaper. I have no idea why he hated us so much. As far as I know my boss, the pastor, did everything he could to talk to the man and be kind to him. But every month in the newspaper he would find some way of attacking the church or accusing us of wrong. Some people just hate Christians.
And so, obeying God can be hard, and it can be long, and, finally, it can be…
Obeying God can be Slow, 7v4-73
There is a problem. The walls have been rebuilt, and the gates are in place, which is great. But the city is still almost empty. So in v5 Nehemiah calls all the people together. And over the next few weeks in chapters 8-10 we'll see what he says to them. And when we get to chapter 11 we'll see Nehemiah's plan to repopulate the city. But before all of that, we have 68 verses of the names and numbers of all the people who had returned to Jerusalem originally with Jeshua and Zerrubabbel, taken from Ezra 2.
Now, why is that? Why do we get this slightly awkward list from Ezra 2, repeated for us all over again in Nehemiah 7? And why, before Nehemiah takes a register of all the people who are with him in Judah and Jerusalem now, does he go back to look at the register of the people 90 years ago?
Well, I think the idea is to show us. that whilst the temple has been rebuilt, (Ezra 1-6) and the teaching of the law has been reintroduced, (Ezra 7-10) and the wall has been restored (Nehemiah 1-6), the people still haven't returned.
The population still hasn't recovered. In other words, the work is slow. Sometimes obeying God can be slow. Yes, we should pray for our God to do great things. And yes, we believe, and know, that He can do all things. But we should also not be surprised if the work of obeying him is hard and long and slow. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, godliness is a grind. It is a day by day, month by month, year by year…grind. Sometimes it's hard, the problems seem to drag on for a long time and the progress seems slow.
So how do we keep going? Well, I think it's by remembering to rejoice. Because the work was going on. It had taken 90 years, but the temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt, and the law of God was being taught rightly again, and the walls had been restored. And that's important to remember.
The progress that we're making might feel slow sometimes, but don't forget, just 9 years ago HTG didn't even exist! We might feel discouraged some weeks that church is not better, and bigger, I know I am at times, but every week about 100 adults and about 60 kids are hearing God speak His truth to them through His Word.
We might still feel small, with not much to show for our efforts, but I can think of 3 or 4 people who became
Christians through HTG last year.
Obeying God can be hard and long and slow. And we might not see much change in our lives, or in our church. But change is happening. And like the builders and architects who, after 133 years, are still working on the Sagrada Familia, I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what it will look like when it's finished, to inspire us to keep going in the work.
So I want to finish our time together this evening by reading to you from Revelation chapter 7.
It is a picture of heaven. It's a picture of where those of us who trust in Jesus will be one day.
And it's a picture of what God's church will look like one day.
Obeying God can be hard and long and slow work sometimes. But one day, God's church will look like that. And what we've done for God and His kingdom, in this life, will be part of it.
So don't stop.
Keep on grinding out godliness, and remember to rejoice.