One person can make a big difference in this world, if that person knows God and really trusts in Him. Because faith makes a difference, we can make a difference in our world to the glory of God.”Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace,” said Martin Luther. “It is so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” The promise is that “all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23, NKJV). Jesus said living faith can move mountains! (Matt. 17:20)
This chapter describes three evidences of Nehemiah’s faith. As we study these evidences of faith, we must examine our own hearts to see whether or not we are really walking and working by faith.
1. He had the faith to wait. (Neh. 2:1-3)
Since the Jewish month of Nisan would be our mid-March to mid-April, it would indicate that four months have passed since Nehemiah received the bad news about the plight of Jerusalem. As every believer should, Nehemiah patiently waited on the Lord for directions; because it is “through faith and patience” that we inherit the promises (Heb. 6:12). “He that believeth shall not make haste” (Isa. 28:16). True faith in God brings a calmness to the heart that keeps us from rushing about and trying to do in our own strength what only God can do. We must know not only how to weep and pray, but also how to wait and pray.
Three statements in Scripture have a calming effect on me whenever I get nervous and want to rush ahead of the Lord: “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Ex. 14:13); “Sit still … until you know how the matter will turn out” (Ruth 3:18, NKJV); “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). When you wait on the Lord in prayer, you are not wasting your time; you are investing it. God is preparing both you and your circumstances so that His purposes will be accomplished. However, when the right time arrives for us to act by faith, we dare not delay.
Eastern monarchs were sheltered from anything that might bring them unhappiness (Es. 4:1-2); but on that particular day, Nehemiah could not hide his sorrow. “By sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13), and Psalm 102 certainly describes Nehemiah’s feelings about Jerusalem. Perhaps each morning, Nehemiah prayed, “Lord, if today is the day I speak to the king about our plans, then open the way for me.”
The king noticed that his cupbearer was carrying a burden. Had Artaxerxes been in a bad mood, he might have banished Nehemiah or even ordered him killed; but instead, the king inquired why his servant was so sad. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water He turns it whichever way He will” (Prov. 21:1). World leaders are only God’s servants, whether they know it or not. “O Lord God of our fathers, are You not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in Your hand, and no one can withstand You” (2 Chron. 20:6, NIV).
2. He had the faith to ask. (Neh. 2:4-8)
The king asked him, “What is it you want?” What an opportunity for Nehemiah! All the power and wealth of the kingdom were wrapped up in that question!
As he was accustomed to do, Nehemiah sent one of his quick “telegraph prayers” to the Lord (4:4; 5:9; 6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31). But keep in mind that these “emergency prayers” were backed up by four months of fasting and praying. If Nehemiah had not been diligent to pray in private, his “telegraph prayers” might have gone unanswered. “He had only an instant for that prayer,” wrote George Morrison. “Silence would have been misinterpreted. Had he closed his eyes and lingered in devotion, the king immediately would have suspected treason.”
It encourages my prayer life when I contrast the earthly throne of Artaxerxes with the throne of grace in heaven. Nehemiah had to wait for an invitation before he could share his burden with the king, but we can come to the throne of grace at any time with any need (Heb. 4:14-16). Artaxerxes saw the sorrow on Nehemiah’s face, but our Lord sees our hearts and not only knows our sorrows but also feels them with us. People approaching the throne of Persia had to be very careful what they said, lest they anger the king; but God’s people can tell Him whatever burdens them. (The word boldly in Heb. 4:16 means “freedom of speech.”) You are never sure of the mood of a human leader, but you can always be sure of God’s loving welcome.
Jewish rabbis often answer a question with a question, and Nehemiah followed that example. Instead of telling the king what he planned to do, he aroused the king’s sympathy and interest with a question regarding how he should feel about the sad plight of his ancestral city and the graves of his forefathers. It was good psychology, and God used Nehemiah’s reply to get the king’s sympathetic attention (Luke 21:14-15). A pagan monarch would probably not sorrow over the ruins of Jerusalem, but he would certainly show respect for the dead.
Nehemiah was a true patriot whose dreams for the future were motivated by the values of the past. He did not try to duplicate the past, for that was impossible; rather, he built on the past so that Israel would have a future. To Nehemiah, the past was a rudder to guide him and not an anchor to hold him back.
Not only had Nehemiah prayed for this opportunity, but he had also planned for it and had his answer ready. During those four months of waiting, he had thought the matter through and knew exactly how he would approach the project. His reply to the king can be summarized in two requests: “Send me!” (Neh. 2:4-6) and “Give me!” (vv. 7-10)
Nehemiah could not leave his post without the approval of the king, nor could he work in Jerusalem without the authority of the king. Pressure from local officials had stopped the work once before (Ezra 4), and Nehemiah didn’t want history to repeat itself. He asked Artaxerxes to appoint him governor of Judah and to give him the authority he needed to rebuild the city walls. He told the king when he expected to return, but we don’t know what that date was. According to Nehemiah 5:14, Nehemiah spent twelve years as governor. He went back to Persia briefly to report to the king, but then returned to Jerusalem to correct the abuses that appeared during his absence (13:6-7).
But Nehemiah asked for even more. He needed letters of introduction that would guarantee safe travel and hospitality between Susa and Jerusalem. He also requested letters of authority that would provide the materials needed for the construction of buildings and walls. (Nehemiah had done his research well. He even knew the name of the keeper of the king’s forest!) Artaxerxes gave him what he asked, but it was the good hand of God that made the king so cooperative (see 2:18; and Ezra 7:6, 9, 28).
When Jesus sent His disciples out to minister, He first gave them the authority they needed to do the job; and He promised to meet their every need (Matt. 10:1-15). As we go forth to serve the Lord, we have behind us all authority in heaven and on earth (28:18); so we don’t have to be afraid. The important thing is that we go where He sends us and that we do the work He has called us to do.
Nehemiah is a good example of how believers should relate to unsaved officials as they seek to do the work of God. Nehemiah respected the king and sought to work within the lines of authority that existed in the empire. He didn’t say, “I have a commission from the Lord to go to Jerusalem, and I’m going whether you like it or not!” When it comes to matters of conscience, we must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29); but even then, we must show respect for authority (see Rom. 13 and 1 Peter 2:11-25). Daniel and his friends took the same approach as did Nehemiah, and God honored them as well (Dan. 1).
The king’s response is evidence of the sovereignty of God in the affairs of nations. We expect God to be able to work through a dedicated believer like Nehemiah, but we forget that God can also work through unbelievers to accomplish His will. He used Pharaoh to display His power in Egypt (Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:17) and Cyrus to deliver His people from Babylon (Isa. 44:28; 45:1; Ezra 1:1-2). Caesar issued the decree that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7), and two different Roman centurions— Claudius Lysias and Julius—saved Paul’s life (Acts 21:26-40; 23:25-30; 27:1, 42-44). While it may be helpful to have believing officials like Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah, we must remember that God is not required to use only believers.
Moses and Nehemiah made similar decisions of faith and similar sacrifices (Heb. 11:24-26). As the representative of the deliverer of the Jews, would he be welcomed by the Gentile officials? Nehemiah performed no signs or wonders, nor did he deliver any prophecies; but he faithfully did his work and prepared a city for the coming Messiah (Dan. 9:24-27).
3. He had the faith to challenge others.(Neh. 2:11-18a)
Traveling (Neh. 2:9-10). No description is given of the trip from Susa to Jerusalem, a journey of at least two months’ time. As a testimony to the faithfulness of God, Ezra had refused military protection for his journey (Ezra 8:21-23); but since Nehemiah was a governor on official business, he had a military escort. Nehemiah had just as much faith as Ezra; but as the king’s officer, he could not travel without his retinue. For one thing, he would not oppose the will of the king; and he could not force his faith upon others.
When the official caravan arrived, it was bound to attract attention, particularly among those who hated the Jews and wanted to keep them from fortifying their city. Three special enemies are named: Sanballat, from Beth Horan, about twelve miles from Jerusalem; Tobiah, an Ammonite; and Geshem, an Arabian (Neh. 2:19), also called “Gashmu” (6:6). Sanballat was Nehemiah’s chief enemy, and the fact that he had some kind of official position in Samaria only made him that much more dangerous (4:1-3).
Being an Ammonite, Tobiah was an avowed enemy of the Jews (Deut. 23:3-4). He was related by marriage to some of Nehemiah’s co-laborers and had many friends among the Jews (Neh. 6:17-19). In fact, he was “near of kin” (“allied”) to Eliashib the priest (13:4-7). If Sanballat was in charge of the army, then Tobiah was director of the intelligence division of their operation. It was he who gathered “inside information” from his Jewish friends and passed it along to Sanballat and Geshem. Nehemiah would soon discover that his biggest problem was not the enemy on the outside but the compromisers on the inside, a problem the church still faces today.
Investigating (Neh. 2:11-16). After his long difficult journey, Nehemiah took time to rest; for leaders must take care of themselves if they are going to be able to serve the Lord (Mark 6:31). He also took time to get “the lay of the land” without arousing the concern of the enemy. A good leader doesn’t rush into his work but patiently gathers the facts firsthand and then plans his strategy (Prov. 18:13). We must be “wise as serpents” because the enemy is always watching and waiting to attack.
Leaders are often awake when others are asleep, and working when others are resting. Nehemiah didn’t want the enemy to know what he was doing, so he investigated the ruins by night. By keeping his counsel to himself, Nehemiah prevented Tobiah’s friends from getting information they could pass along to Sanballat. A wise leader knows when to plan, when to speak, and when to work.
As he surveyed the situation, he moved from west to south to east, concentrating on the southern section of the city. It was just as his brother had reported: The walls were broken down and the gates were burned (Neh. 2:13; 1:3). Leaders must not live in a dream world. They must face facts honestly and accept the bad news as well as the good news. Nehemiah saw more at night than the residents saw in the daylight, for he saw the potential as well as the problems. That’s what makes a leader!
Challenging (Neh. 2:17-20). Nehemiah’s appeal was positive; he focused on the glory and greatness of the Lord. He had been in the city only a few days, but he spoke of “we” and “us” and not “you” and “them.” As he did in his prayer (1:6-7), he identified with the people and their needs. The city was a reproach to the Lord (1:3; 4:4; 5:9), but the hand of the Lord was with them; and He would enable them to do the work. God had already proved His power by working in the heart of the king, and the king had promised to meet the needs. It was Nehemiah’s personal burden for Jerusalem and his experience with the Lord that convinced the Jews that the time was right to build.
It is to the credit of the Jewish nobles that they accepted the challenge immediately and said, “Let us rise up and build!” They were not so accustomed to their situation that they took it for granted and decided that nothing could be changed. Nor did they remind Nehemiah that the Jews had once tried to repair the walls and were stopped (Ezra 4). “We tried that once and it didn’t work. Why try again?”
Christian leaders today face these same two obstacles as they seek to lead God’s people into new conquests for the Lord. How often we hear, “We’re content the way things are; don’t rock the boat by trying to change things.” Or, “We tried that before and it didn’t work!”
The good hand of God was upon the leader, and the followers “strengthened their hands” for the work (Neh. 2:8, 18). It takes both the hands of leadership and the hands of partnership to accomplish the work of the Lord. Leaders can’t do the job by themselves, and workers can’t accomplish much without leadership.
Someone has defined leadership as “the art of getting people to do what they ought to do because they want to do it.” If that definition is true, then Nehemiah certainly was a leader! Most of the people united behind him and risked their lives to get the work done.
Nehemiah was not only able to challenge his own people, but he was also able to stand up against the enemy and deal effectively with their opposition. Just as soon as God’s people step out by faith to do His will, the enemy shows up and tries to discourage them. Sanballat and Tobiah heard about the enterprise (v. 10) and enlisted Geshem to join them in opposing the Jews. In chapters 4-7, Nehemiah will describe the different weapons the enemy used and how the Lord enabled him to defeat them.
They started off with ridicule, a device somebody has called “the weapon of those who have no other.” They laughed at the Jews and belittled both their resources and their plans. They even suggested that the Jews were rebelling against the king. That weapon had worked once before (see Ezra 4).
Whether in the area of science, exploration, invention, business, government, or Christian ministry, just about everyone who has ever accomplished anything has faced ridicule. Our Lord was ridiculed during His life and mocked while He was hanging on the cross. He was “despised and rejected of men” (Isa. 53:3). On the Day of Pentecost, some of the Jews in the crowd said that the Christians were drunk (Acts 2:13). The Greek philosophers called Paul a “babbler” (17:18, NIV), and Festus told Paul he was out of his mind (26:24).
Nehemiah could have dealt with their ridicule in several ways. He might have ignored it, and sometimes that’s the wisest thing to do (Prov. 26:4). But at the beginning of an enterprise, it’s important that leaders encourage their people and let them know that God has everything in control. Had Nehemiah ignored these three men who were important in the community, he might have weakened his own position among the Jews. After all, he was the official governor, and he was doing official business.
Or, Nehemiah might have debated with the three enemy leaders and tried to convince them that their position was false. But that approach would only have given “official promotion” to the three men along with opportunity for them to say more. Why should Nehemiah give the enemy opportunity to make speeches against the God whom he served?
Of course, Nehemiah would not ask them to join the project and work with the Jews, although Sanballat and his friends would have welcomed the invitation (Neh. 6:1-4). In his reply, Nehemiah made three things dear: Rebuilding the wall was God’s work; the Jews were God’s servants; and Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem had no part in the matter. Sometimes leaders have to negotiate, but there are times when leaders must draw a line and defend it. Unfortunately, not everybody in Jerusalem agreed with their leader; for some of them cooperated with Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem and added to Nehemiah’s burdens.
The stage is now set and the drama is about to begin.
But before we join the workers on the wall, let’s ask ourselves whether we are the kind of leaders and followers God wants us to be. Like Nehemiah, do we have a burden in our hearts for the work God has called us to do? (2:12) Are we willing to sacrifice to see His will accomplished? Are we patient in gathering facts and in planning our work? Do we enlist the help of others or try to do everything ourselves? Do we motivate people on the basis of the spiritual—what God is doing—or simply on the basis of the personal? Are they following us or the Lord as He leads us?
As followers, do we listen to what our leaders say as they share their burdens? Do we cling to the past or desire to see God do something new? Do we put our hands and necks to the work? (v. 18; 3:5) Are we cooperating in any way with the enemy and thus weakening the work? Have we found the job God wants us to complete?
Anyone can go through life as a destroyer; God has called His people to be builders. What an example Nehemiah is to us! Trace his “so” statements and see how God used him: “So I prayed” (2:4); “So I came to Jerusalem” (v. 11); “So they strengthened their hands for this good work” (v. 18); “So built we the wall” (4:6); “So we labored in the work” (v. 21); “So the wall was finished” (6:15).
Were it not for the dedication and determination that came from his faith in a great God, Nehemiah never would have accepted the challenge or finished the work. He had never seen the verse, but what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:58 was what kept him going: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (NKJV).
No matter how difficult the task, or how strong the opposition, Be Determined! As Dr. V. Raymond Edman used to say, “It is always too soon to quit.”
For more about the series, Making a Difference go to www.RidgeFellowship.com
Source: Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – Old Testament