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Monday, October 14, 2013

The Crux of the Matter


Nehemiah 
What is it about humans that, when we do not have someone whom we acknowledge has an impassioned view of God in our midst watching over us, we start walking away from the path of God? That gift of free will leads us astray so very much of our lives.
            God knows the hearts of us humans; He created our hearts. The whole human race is blighted by sin since Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). God had a plan in mind when He created humanity with free will. His plan was to redeem us because He knew then that we would choose to follow our own desires and be disobedient to Him. His plan from the beginning was to provide a savior to save us from the downfall of our wrong choices (sin). This Savior would be His Son, Jesus. His plan from before He created us was to be in a relationship with each of us. Of course, then, He would have a plan to save us from ourselves and our sin. Even when His chosen people, the Hebrews/Israelites sinned, He still had a covenant to them, He would be their God and they would be His people. God told them through Moses in Exodus (chap. 6 vs. 7) this covenant He would have with them. He repeated it in Leviticus 26:12 when they were establishing laws by which to live. He reminded the Israelites eleven times by the prophets (Jeremiah, Ezekial, Isaiah, and Zechariah). It was reiterated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:16 and the writer of Hebrews (chap 8 vs. 10). And finally, by John in his exile on Patmos in Revelation 21:3. God’s covenant relationship of love carries throughout the whole life of the Israelites then includes the believing Gentiles all the way to eternity. His covenant of love provided the redemption we humans needed to be in a relationship with the Holy God.
Since this is the case, we may ask, why did the Israelites forget so often? Why did God have to discipline them with conquering even though He sent so many prophets to remind them of their covenant with Him? The answer plain and simple is that we are sinners. He created us with free will and we have freely willed our own wants and desires from the day Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree.
Let us look at an example. Before Nehemiah came on the scene, Judah had been taken captive by Babylon in 597BC. Two other deportations of captive Jews from the southern kingdom occurred in 587BC and 582BC. In the twelfth year of King Artexerxes reign, 453BC (per Nehemiah 1), Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, received word from messengers from Jerusalem about the condition of Jerusalem. The city walls were falling down and all the gates were burned. As a Jew this meant two things: 1) they were defenseless and a laughing stock by other nations, and 2) their God who had been so strong to bring them out of Egypt and rout all the nations in the Promised Land was being ridiculed as a small God who could not protect His “chosen people.”  Nehemiah heard the news from the messenger with this in mind and he “sat down and wept and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4 [NASB]).
Nehemiah prayed. He did not pray an ordinary prayer thanking God for his food. Nehemiah prayed a prayer acknowledging God’s greatness and awesomeness (1:5). He prayed a prayer of contrition acknowledging the sins of his own people, the Israelites, asking for forgiveness for their hardening of heart and sinfulness (walking away from Yahweh God) (vv. 6-7). He was bold enough to remind God of His promises to the Israelites,
Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ (vv.8-9 [NASB])
He reminded God that the Israelites were “Your servants whom you redeemed (from Egypt) by Your strong hand” (vs. 10). Finally, Nehemiah pleaded with God to be attentive to his prayer, he who delights to revere Yahweh’s name. He begged God be with him as he took his case before King Artexerxes that day and make the King have compassion on him. Nehemiah prayed for all of Israel. What the writer of 2 Chronicles 7:14 stated, “If My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land” [NASB] is what Nehemiah prayed for all Israel. One other thing we need to consider is that Nehemiah was the King’s cupbearer. Nehemiah was close physically to the King every day. He has spoken to the king since the king’s reign began twelve years before. The King trusted him. His proximity to the man with power was similar to Esther’s proximity to King Ahasuerus (Xerxes, the father of Artexerxes).
As we continue to read Nehemiah, we see Artexerxes granted him permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. In chapter 2, Nehemiah rode around the city walls at night not telling those with him what he was doing. After his inspection he gathered the city officials and tells them he sees the walls disrepair. He issues a command, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so we will not be a reproach” (2:17 [NASB]). He has appealed to their civic honor. More than that, he appealed to their religious honor. We know this because Nehemiah next spoke of God’s favor upon himself. What honorable man of religion would want to be seen as not caring whether his God is ridiculed? None. Nehemiah appealed to their religious dignity.
Nehemiah often spoke of the people’s religious life. This is only right as Israel was considered to be Zion for the Israelites and Jerusalem the place of God’s temple, His holy place. (Remember, through the prompting of Ezra, the temple was rebuilt before Nehemiah arrived.) The work to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem began in chapter 3. Chapter 4 starts with the leaders of the neighboring lands ridiculing the people of Jerusalem. They sneered at them and chided them. Sanballat, the leader of the Moabites in the city of Horonaim was furious with the rebuilding of the wall. He chided the Jews for trying to bring the wall back to life. (See chap. 2 vs. 10 and remember the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot’s progeny with his two daughters. Their line was not a part of the chosen people.) Sanballat called the stones dusty rubble and burned/dead. He questioned how they could be of any use for their protection. (God delights in bringing life back to things once dead. Remember Elijah and the valley of dry bones. Remember also that with God’s gift of redemption, He gives new life to us.) Tobiah from Ammon also ridiculed the Jews. Sanballat and Tobiah ridiculed them twice at the start of chapter 4. Nehemiah kept the builders on task and the wall was half built when the ridiculers conspired to fight Jerusalem. Nehemiah heard of their plan and the people grew fearful, but he led the people to pray and to carry a weapon in one hand while the other hand built the wall. Nehemiah called upon their faith in Yahweh again. He appealed to their honor and faith as Jews. Nehemiah gave them a battle cry that has been used in recent years in the movie Braveheart. He said, "Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses" (Nehemiah 4:14 [NASB]). This is their rallying cry and truly is the crux of the matter; will they fight for God and for what He says is right?
 In chapter 5, we see Nehemiah called upon the Israelites faith in Yahweh again. To be able to have food to eat or keep their homes, the Israelites took loans at very high rates from their more wealthy brothers. They also sold their sons and daughters as slaves to pay their taxes and duties. When the common Jews confronted Nehemiah about this, he was outraged that one brother could do this to another. He appealed to their unity and brotherhood as chosen children of God. He told them, "The thing which you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies” (5 :9 [NASB])? Nehemiah urged the wealthy citizens to stop doing these things and to return the people’s land, homes, and family members, as well as to return the interest they charged their brothers. The people who did this promised with an oath to the priests and all the witnesses they would return these. Nehemiah became an example of how to live a simple lifestyle, not gouging the poor to live the life he was allowed by law because it would hurt his brothers.
The people of Jerusalem were appeased for a while, but when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem  the Arab sent messengers to Nehemiah to meet. He knew they were trying to trick him. They did this four times, then Sanballat sent a personal message to Nehemiah using trickery by claiming that Nehemiah had political aspirations. He hoped to trick Nehemiah to defend himself. Nehemiah did not fall for this trick either. Sanballat went so far as to get one of the priests in on his scheme, but Nehemiah understood what was happening was not tricked. These men tried to make the people fearful. That did not work because of Nehemiah’s reminding them of God’s faithfulness. These three men then tried to appeal to Nehemiah’s honor.  That also did not work.
Next, Sanballat and Tobiah stirred up fear in the nations surrounding Jerusalem when the wall around Jerusalem was built in just 52 days. The faithfulness of the Lord to give the people of Jerusalem safety, strength, and endurance as well as the faithfulness of the people of Jerusalem to Yahweh was seen in the speed of its rebuilding  The response of the surrounding nations of people was fear. Nehemiah said in 6:16, “When all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations surrounding us saw it, they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God [NASB]. Tobiah, however, had “spies in the camp.” He was the son-in-law of one of the Jews and the father-in-law of one of the Jewesses. These Jews had done the forbidden and inter-married with the unbelievers from the land, which God gave them as their Promised Land. These “spies” were pouring oil on the fire against Nehemiah and Tobiah sent letters to frighten him (6:19).
After the walls were rebuilt, Nehemiah took a census of the first returned exiles along with their offerings and gifts. Their city’s walls were strong. The people were saved by Yahweh. Ezra, the high priest began the rebuilt life of the citizens with a reading of the Law. People’s eyes were opened. They stood to hear the reading with their hands raised high, their heads bowed to the ground, and said “Amen, Amen” (8:6). The Levitical priests explained the law to the people so they understood the reading. Nehemiah declared the day holy, a great festival was called for, and the Feast of Booths was restored as a part of the people’s religious calendar. This revival among the Israelites continued into public confession of their sins and resulted with a new covenant being made with God and each other, which was written and signed by the leaders of the temple and tribes, including their governor, Nehemiah. The obligations of their covenant with God required returning to Him His portion in offerings of grain, animals, and sons. It also included keeping God’s commandments, statutes, and ordinances, and not marrying people from other nations. This latter was commanded by God before He gave them the Promised Land and was reiterated because the Amorites and Moabites tried to hire a prophet, Balaam, to curse God’s people as they were entering the Promised Land (see Exodus 34:16 and Deuteronomy 7:3).The people were in a good place. They had their safe walls back. They had their honor back. They had their homes back. They were strong in the faith. These things take us to chapter 12 where the wall was dedicated and hymns of thanksgiving were sung. The Levites were assigned their duties in the temple and for God’s service. The people seemed to be living up to their side of the covenant.
Knowing the Israelites as we do in hindsight, we know their faith and obedience will falter. We see the beginnings of it even before the worship and reading of the Law in chapter 8. The people have begun to inter-marry with people of other nations. We have seen in three places where Nehemiah had to bolster their faith to give them courage or conviction to step forward for the Lord. They are like all humanity, each of us make wrong choices and fail God and ourselves. What the people began to do with just Tobiah’s family became a big thing. Many people were intermarrying with unbelievers. The Jews who married into these unbelieving families were being persuaded to consider other gods and ways of life.
This all came to a head in chapter 13. Nehemiah, after 20 years as Governor in Jerusalem, returned to King Artexerxes for a time. We do not know the length of his stay with the king, but it appears not to have been long. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he found that Tobiah the Ammonite had been given a suite of rooms for a living abode within the temple of God in Jerusalem. Eliashib had become a family member of Tobiah’s through marriage. This was most grieving because Eliashib was a high priest and because a non-Israelite was living in God’s house a place in which only a few priests were allowed to live. Nehemiah’s righteous anger in this next part of chapter 13 reminds us of Jesus’ righteous anger when He cleansed the temple in John 2:13-22. The man after Yahweh’s heart, one who is not even a priest, was the one who became God’s beacon for the people of Jerusalem. As we read in 13:4-9, Tobiah and all his belongings were thrown out of the temple. Tobiah was sent packing. The rooms were cleansed and all the utensils of the house of God along with the grain offerings and frankincense were returned to the rooms. Previously Nehemiah appealed to them to honor God and stand up with faith in the face of fear. In this passage, Nehemiah showed them what honoring God meant. It meant not desecrating His house and His people with non-believers. Nehemiah’s fury was a small taste of God’s fury at His command being disobeyed. We read in the book of Ezra that during this time a very severe practice occurred to cleanse the Jewish line. As is said in Ezra 10:3, the people had to “put away all their wives and children according to the counsel of the Lord” [NASB]. All the people of Judah who had married from other nations had to report to Jerusalem within three days or lose all his possessions and the right to assemble with the exiles. Basically, the Jew, if he or she did not divorce their unbelieving spouse, was not given the benefit of being one of the chosen people of God any longer (Ezra 10:7-8). This, cleansing was severe.
Nehemiah returned to the task of getting the people and priests to set things right again in relation to God, His worship, and His house. The tithes were restored. The Sabbath day was restored. Mixed marriages were forbidden. Who was Nehemiah that he had this ability to know God’s heart, inspire man’s faith, know man’s heart, ignore ridicule and slander of his honor, and unite and harmonize a lost and scared people? He was not a priest. He was a faithful chosen child of Yahweh. He was cup bearer to the king, Artexerxes and Yahweh. He knew and was known by King Artexerxes. He also knew and was known by Yahweh. The Heavenly Father/Ruler inspired Nehemiah and gave him a heart for God and His ways. The earthly ruler, Artexerxes, trusted him and gave him from his own physical stores.
Nehemiah did not have some person with a large amount of faith inspiring him and spurring him on for Yahweh like he became for the Israelites in Jerusalem. Nehemiah had an active and committed faith. His faith and love of God made him act, speak, and have the attitude needed for the job to which God called him. His spirit knew God and obeyed in love and reverence for the One True God. Nehemiah was the man for God’s job at that time. The only one inspiring and leading him was God. He had a heart for God and was obedient. With his free will, he chose God.
We go back to our original question: What is it about humans that, when we do not have someone whom we acknowledge has an impassioned view of God in our midst watching over us, we start walking away from the path of God? Do you require someone to watch over you to keep you walking in obedience to God? Maybe it is time to take a walk down your history with God and down His history for you to remember just who He is, faithful and all-powerful God. He is our great and marvelous God who calls us to return and follow Him. Remember His promise, “I will be their God and they will be My people.” The implied promise is He will take care of you for now and forever. It is time to turn/return to our wondrous God. This is the crux of the matter for us.