When God's People Strayed


Rebuild a Wall, Rediscover the Word!

This lesson is the story of Nehemiah. In the last lesson, we touched on Daniel's prophetic vision of the future for Jews.

Nehemiah was not a biblical prophet, but he was a man inspired by God whose inspiration became the catalyst for great things. His account is literally a diary of his days in service for the Lord, and is one of the few examples of biblical 'first person' writing.

In Nehemiah's day, Jerusalem the city lay in ruin. God inspires Nehemiah to rebuild the wall of the city, and thereby inspires a nation to return to the Lord. Most importantly, the wall metaphorically represents the real spiritual protection the people find when they reunite with the Word of God, as they are reunited in their city. It is a true story of courage, community, passion, inspiration and hope.

The story of his passion and courage are worthy in and of themselves as a study in character; however, there is more to the story to understand. The book of Nehemiah records what can happen to God's people when they return to him in repentance. It demonstrates God's anxiousness to forgive and move on; it illustrates what can happen to a people when they return to God and live by his word; it shows how once a people return to God, aware of their past sin, they fear to stray again. It shows what may be a prophetic path for the future of God's church: when they return to him and repentance, adhering to His word, forgiveness will happen and the Kingdom of Zion (typified here by the walls of Jerusalem) will be built.

Here is his story.


Nehemiah is a man sincereity, integrity and passion. Few other men in biblical history depict such open humility.

While in exile with other Jews, he learns the fate of the beloved city Jerusalem. The city lay in ruins, the walls razed.The first chapter records a prayer, in which Nehemiah holds nothing back from God: he confesses that Israel's (i.e. the church's) transgression against God, resulted in their scattering and suffering, and laments the city's decimation. But, relying on the covenants (remember, God is big on covenants), he recalls God's promise to Moses that while evil would cause Israel's scattering, repentance would bring their gathering. He calls on God in beautiful, sincere and mighty prayer that we're blessed to have recorded.

First Nehemiah learns of the fate of Jerusalem:

Nehemiah 1:2 ... Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.

1:3 And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.

Nehemiah's passion for his people and to his God shows through:

1:4 And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,

The prayer of Nehemiah for his and Israel's sin:

1:5 And said, I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments;

1:6 Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee; both I and my father's house have sinned.

1:7 We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.

1:8 Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations;

1:9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.

1:10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.

1:11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name; and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.

Being the king's 'cup bearer' gave Nehemiah some political privilege. In Nehemiah Chapter 2, the Gentile king observes Nehemiah's sad countenance and learns of Jerusalem's fate. The king has compassion on Nehemiah and grants not only a chance for Nehemiah to visit Jerusalem to survey the damage, but provides timber and craftsmen to begin the rebuilding process. Nehemiah appears on the surface to only want to visit the city, internally, he wants to rebuild the city. He keeps that secret to himself for now.

Consider the situation facing Nehemiah: he is fueled only by a fire of the Spirit of God within him. The city of Jerusalem and its walls had formerly been built by thousands of men over decades. Now, armed with only himself, a horse and a couple buddies, he without disuasion, heads to Jerusalem to see if he can fix the problem. This is certainly an amazing man, but more specifically, this illustrates what one person can do when the Spirit of God motivates him to do good works: nothing can get in his way.

Consider the scene as Nehemiah survey's the city for the first time. The homes of his kinsman are smouldering ashes; solid walls that once surrounded the city are now cracked rock piles; stout gates that formerly blocked entrance now lay splintered in the weeds. But with the passion of God burning within, none of this phased Nehemiah:

2:11 So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.

2:12 And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem; neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon.

2:13 And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire.

2:14 Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool; but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass.

2:15 Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned.

2:16 And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.

He reveals his true intent to rebuild the city. And here is the noteworthy lesson: when a people will return to God in word, spirit and deed and say, as did Nehemiah 'Let Us Rise Up and Build' a new day will dawn for the church:

2:17 Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire; come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.

2:18 Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king's words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.

It took people willing to work, as the previous scripture indicates, others 'strengthened their hands for this good work.' but there were scoffers to:

2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?

2:20 Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build; but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.

God of heaven will prosper us in the latter day when we return to Him in repentance. His servants will arise and build.

 

Nehemiah Chapter 3 lists workers who contributed to the cause, based on their skills. People worked on areas of the wall near their homes. It was 'think globally, act locally' in action.

Chapter 4 brings conflict. The scoffer Sanballat doesn't understand that God is behind Nehemiah's passion, and condemns the rebuilding effort as vanity. People of the world will scoff too when God sets forth to restore Israel in the latter days.

4:1 But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.

4:2 And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?

4:3 Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.

But Nehemiah is not dismayed, and petitions the Lord. Notice in the end of this verse 6, the people 'had a mind to work.' Isn't that what the scripture's description of Zion is to be one day: 'They were of One Heart and One Mind.' The people of the last days will have a mind to work also.

4:4 Hear, O our God; for we are despised; and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity;

4:5 And cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee, for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.

4:6 So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof; for the people had a mind to work.

 

Of course, the Jew's determination made the scoffers even more wroth. They sent threats. Nevertheless, the people petitioned God inspired them and he gave them superior intellect in response. There are always Two Paths in response to oppression. See the lesson Two Paths for more comparisons of God's peoples responses:

4:7 But it came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth,

4:8 And conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.

4:9 Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.

4:14 And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them; remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives and your houses.

4:15 And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to naught, that we returned all of us to the wall, everyone unto his work.

The people worked. Families worked. Men guarded women while the women worked. People slept in their clothes to be on guard. A brick was held in one hand with a sword held in the other. The city was alive with energy, dedication and passion for the Lord's work. They were building a community of Christ where He would reign in their hearts.

In the fifth chapter, Nehemiah persuades those rulers who had unjustly put usury (high interest) on the people who had mortgaged their homes to forgive the debts. Nehemiah also recounts that while he worked for the Gentile governor, he never ate the food of the governor, although he could have. Rather, he eat with his people, choosing to suffer with them in their hardship. Isn't that the example Jesus set? Choosing to suffer with us, when he didn't have to?

Chapter Six records that the wall is finished--in Fifty two days! But thrests from outside continue. Nehemiah continues his petition to God to strengthen his faith and his hands for the work.

6:9 For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.

The enemies to God's people are dejected, perceiving that this is truly the work of God and not the work of man:

6:16 And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.

Chapter 7 lists a genealogy. Notice that God put it in Nehemiah's heart to list the people. This was done for several purposes. One of which was because the people's inheritance was dictated by genealogy. But also, notice verses 63 and 64: only those of a certain pure lineage could have priesthood. One who married outside of his appointed lineage was put from the priesthood. God uses types and shadows from the Old Testament to teach of spiritual principles today.

7:5 And my God put into mine heart to gather together the nobles, and the rulers, and the people, that they might be reckoned by genealogy. And I found a register of the genealogy of them which came up at the first, and found written therein.

7:63 And of the priests; the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, the children of Barzillai, which took one of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite to wife, and was called after their name.

7:64 These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but it was not found; therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood.


The city is re-gathered. Thousands now dwelt in harmony where smouldering rubble piles littered the landscape shortly before. But the apex of the story and history occurs in Nehemiah chapter 8.

Consider what is about to happen with this analogy. When soldiers fight for our nation in foreign lands, they fight for our country's freedom, its people, its values, our way of life.

But when they fight, what is the symbol that unites them? Is it not the flag of our nation? Highly symbollic in color and symbol, the flag flies high above the fight. Its presence alone signifies domination; its absence signifies defeat. Troops are motivated for it, they die because of it. They hold it in dear reverence, and snap rigid salutes in its presence, for it embodies the altruistic ideals and memories of the country of our birth. The presence of the flag summons hushed reverance from those who know what sacrifice truly was offerred in its behalf. The flag becomes the purpose for which the fight was waged.

So what is 'the flag' of God's people? Is it not the Word of God? Of course Jesus is our King, but His Word is the banner under which we are all united. He was the Word made Flesh. The Word reminds us of Him, because it is Him. The Word gives us hope, courage, determination. Its presence strikes down the foolish and raises up the reverent. It is the standard by which we live our lives and have hope for the life to come.

Nehemiah had miraculously rebuilt the physical walls to protect the city? But what about its spiritual protection? Nehemiah chapter 8 brings understanding to what happens when a repentant people return to the Lord and His Word.

The people had not only been exiled from the city for a generation, but they were exiled from the Word. Only a short time previously, had Ezra the Priest found a hidden copy of the Word of God, which contained the Law of Moses, Moses' counsel, the creation story and early prophets. Now, for the first time in ages, the people are to be reunited under the flag of the Word of God within the rebuilt walls of Jerusalem.

Ezra the priest brings the Law of Moses (first five books of the bible, the Torah) and all the people are assembled and united to here it.

8:1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.

8:2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.

Have you ever noticed that when our nation's flag is raised, no one needs to tell the soldiers it is time to salute, or its citizens to put their hand on their heart? Everyone knows because of the respect the flag deserves. So what happens when Ezra stands on the pulpit and opens the Word? The people stand in silent reverence.

8:5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up;

He reads for hours as people listen. No one squirms or complains that he is reading for not one or two minutes, but several hours. No one makes a sound.

8:3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.

When he finishes, several hours later, did the people say 'Boy that was long! I'm glad he's done!' No, they blessed God with shouts of Amen in humility. This was their flag The Word was the cause and the banner which united them. The purpose for which they lived. They had it again and they were not going to let go. Nor should we.

8:6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

 

What's more, they caused the people to understand the words. Too much for this lesson, but if they understood that the law of Moses was a type and shadow for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, were not the people blessed with the understanding that Jesus, the God of Heaven and Earth, would ultimately pay the price for their sin? What a revelation! The people now knew they were not keeping a confusing superficial law of sacrifices and ordinanced, but one designed to teach them of their God at every level. The people were ecstatic with understanding they had never before known. It was a great day in the history of God's people. They had come back to a true knowledge of their God because of The Word.

8:8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.

 

The leaders turned the peoples' hearts from mourning to celebration.

8:9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.

8:10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

8:11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.

8:12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.

 

The people of Nehemiah were careful to keep the Word with exactness, realizing the Law called for specific celebration (in this case the feast of Tabernacles or "booths"). The excitement of the people, to be living the word of God again, when it was lost along with their city, goes beyond words.

8:13 And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law.

8:14 And they found written in the law which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month;

8:15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.

8:16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, everyone upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.

8:17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths; for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.

 

The ninth chapter describes a prayer of repentance of the people. The Levites (i.e. priesthood) lead the prayer and set the example with sackcloth and ashes.

9:1 Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.

9:2 And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.

They rightly recount the history of Israel's wanderings and sin before God. The entire chapter should be read, but their prayer is summarized with these words:

9:33 Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly;

9:38 And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.

The people are living in harmony and happiness, united under the word of God. The first-fruits of their labors are offered to God in the coming chapters.

Fast forward to the end of the story. Remember that straying from the Word of God caused God's church to suffer. With that understanding fresh in the minds of the people, observe this one vinette taken from the thirteenth and final chapter of Nehemiah:

Remember that the simple act of keeping the Sabbath 'Holy' was and still is commanded to God's people. One day, after Jeusalem has settled back into their restored way of life, some merchants started working on the sabbath. Nehemiah testifies against them:

13:15 In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine-presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day; and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals.

13:16 There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.

13:17 Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day?

Nehemiah correctly reminds the nobles, "Isn't this exactly how are forefathers messed up? By slipping just a little, by winking at a little sin and letting it go by?"

13:18 Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city; yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.

 

Nehemiah commands the gates to be shut, as we should shut our hearts and minds to the temptation of sin at its first sight (remember the 9 D's of Sin)

13:19 And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath; and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day.

He forces those sellers of wares to remain outside the closed gates. Now picture what happens next. Nehemiah gets on the wall, shouts down to them, surely with clenched fist, threatening them that if they do it again, they will have to deal with him directly. They got the message.

13:20 So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice.

13:21 Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? If ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath.


Could we be so bold as a church to hold the commandments of God in such high regard that we would never break them? Could we hold the God of our fathers with in such supreme awe that we would fear to stray from His word? This was the sentiment of Nehemiah and his people. This is our only hope for future reconciliation with God. Our people must do as Nehemiah's did:

1) Return to God with repentance

2) Dismiss the world's scoffers, do not be persuaded by its culture

3) Resolve to hold God's word in highest regard and live by it.

4) Close our hearts to temptation with determination to never stray again.

 

The next lesson takes us to the America's to find a richly blessed people fallen into the poverty of sin. Read the Nephite's Folly.

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When God's People Strayed...

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