This is a stirring tale indeed, and many of the features of the tremendous task undertaken and completed are reflected in assembly life today. As we consider it and our present activity in the Lord’s service, we do well to remind ourselves that the Lord looks for “that which every joint supplieth”, Eph. 4. 16. We are warned to “let every man take heed how he buildeth”, 1 Cor. 3. 10. Yet we are reminded that, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”, Psa. 127. 1.
Josephus informs us that Nehemiah instructed the rulers to “measure the wall, and part the work of it among the people, according to their villages and cities, as everyone’s ability should require”, Antiquities of the Jews, XI v. 7. From the Biblical record it is clear that the operation was we-planned, carried out with precision, and generally in the atmosphere of willing partnership one with another. When there was discord within, or discouragement from outside, prayer was the resource for renewed power and perseverance to carry the work through to ultimate perfection. The walls and gates were in fact rebuilt and restored in only fifty-two days.
What a hive of activity there was, from quite a surprising team of workers — people who did not consider it beneath their dignity to roll up their sleeves and get on with the job! We should not be too discouraged if the same amount of industry and application is not evident today, for there were slackers even then — those who “put not their necks to the work of their Lord”, Neh. 3. 5.
Was it from this era that the couplet “the sword and the trowel” was coined? It was certainly a case of “watch and pray”, while having a building implement in one hand and a weapon of war in the other. In spite of long hours of activity and constant vigil the need for thorough washing and cleansing was not overlooked. Because of the dispersed nature of the workers, the trumpet sound was designated as a rallying call in the event of threatened attack from the enemy, but the assurance was also given that “our God shall fight for us”, 4. 20.
Thus the work reached its glorious climax —“so the wall was finished”, 6. 15. But before we leave it, notice one more significant feature: apart from the supporting beams obtained from the timber of the king’s forest, to replace those burned in the fire, the walls were reconstructed from the original materials — reviving “the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned”, 4. 2. They cleared away the burnt embers, and rebuilt the original stones on the original foundations. It was not part of Nehemiah’s plan, nor was it necessary, to introduce a new design or new foundations — the fundamental materials were available, they just needed to be carefully put together again.
The perceptive reader will discern many valuable lessons and abiding principles for Christian service in these chapters. Suffice it to say here that our service will receive divine approbation if it is characterized by dependence on God, believing prayer, perseverance in the face of internal problems and external opposition, a God-given strategy in the use of men and materials, and adherence to the unchanging fundamentals of the faith.
After providing for the future security and government of Jerusalem, Nehemiah responded to divine prompting to initiate a census of the population. As a basis for this, he used an old genealogy that he had found, recording the people that had returned under Zerubbabel, contained in Ezra 2. We may not like counting “heads”, but surely we have a responsibility to count the “sheep”. Stock-taking may provide unpleasant shocks, but we dare not employ the terminology of large organizations such as “natural wastage”. Does our “church register” need an overhaul? Do we need to re-establish order among the people of God at this time?
“Lord, send revival” has been the prayer of many of the Lord’s people through the years. But do we know for what we are asking?, do we appreciate, and are we prepared for, all that is involved? Some of the features of this revival through Nehemiah may help us to realize the implications. Three distinct movements are to be observed. There is a return to the Word of God, a renewal of the worship of God, and a powerful experience of the working of God in the hearts and lives of His people.
All the people gathered with unity of purpose “as one man”, 8. 1, and voiced a unanimous plea, “bring the book”. Moreover, they became understanding people, through lengthy attention to the teaching of the Scriptures. The first principle, then, is a hungering after the Word of God, rather than having “itching ears” after something other than sound doctrine, 2 Tim.4.3.
The next event was the reinstitution of the feast of tabernacles, Lev. 23. 33-44, — living away from their own homes for a whole week, virtually under the canopy of heaven. It was a great time of worship, an opportunity to reflect on God’s past redemptive work, and to anticipate His promised rest, when the nation would be regathered and restored in the kingdom age. Are the Lord’s people becoming slipshod today in keeping the feast, finding feeble excuses to miss the remembrance of the Lord in the breaking of bread? A second principle for revival thus appears to be whole-hearted devotion to, and worship of, God, probably at personal sacrifice.
Finally, the Word of God was allowed to have its practical effect, and we notice the working of God in the individual and collective lives of the people. There was self-denial, sorrow, separation, and confession of sins. They entered into a fresh covenant to “walk in God’s law” and “not forsake the house of our God”, 10. 29, 39. One tenth of the population were willing to return and live in Jerusalem, to safeguard it, and to ensure that the functions of the house of God were maintained on a regular and orderly basis. How many of the saints are today willing to live close to the place of gathering?
Revival can be a painful, soul-searching and life-changing process for the saints. It will be time-consuming and costly in earthly relationships and interests. Certainly “judgment must begin at the house of God”, 1 Pet. 4. 17, — our lives will need to be Christ-orientated rather than self-orientated. Are we prepared to accept the basis for revival?
Although careful genealogical records had been kept, the spiritual priesthood of the nation had lapsed into obscurity. Who had failed — the priests and Levites, or the people, or both? Now came a clarion call to service. The people had renewed the pledge to provide a tithe of their produce for the priests’ sustenance. Perhaps somewhat shame-facedly, the spiritual leaders were thus brought again into prominence to lead worship and thanksgiving.
We recognize that the Lord has raised up special gifts among us — those whom He has enlisted for so-called “full-time” service. Are they fading into obscurity for lack of support? We surely have a joint responsibility to ensure that conditions are such as will enable the exercise of these gifts.
What a spectacle Jerusalem witnessed that day! An occasion when everyone, from the priests to the children, rejoiced in a finished work. Little wonder that the sound was heard “afar off”!, 12. 43. What sort of sound do we make, as we rejoice in the finished work of Christ? How great shall be our rejoicing in that day when “all the ransomed church of God is saved to sin no more”?
Having dedicated the wall, it was then appropriate to re-establish the temple worship. There was no lack of ability for all the necessary tasks — it had only been lying dormant! It took the mighty working of God through a consecrated man of God to activate these gifts. May the Risen Christ again raise up dedicated men among us, to stir dying embers, and cause latent gift to function as He intended.
It appears that Nehemiah fulfilled a promise to Artaxerxes and returned to Babylon, after ruling as governor of Judah for about twelve years. The faith of the people was so brittle during his absence, however, that spiritual and moral conditions again suffered a landslide. He was most distressed on his return to find that so much ground had been yielded to their enemies. A grandson of the high priest had married Sanballat’s daughter, and Tobiah had even been accommodated in the temple! Is there a drift today which sees the very enemies of Christ at home among the Lord’s people? Is the unequal yoke being lightly disregarded?, 2 Cor. 6.14.
“The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up”, Psa. 69. 9, was written prophetically of Christ, but here is another servant of whom it was an apt description. With vigour he set about cleansing the temple and renewing the spiritual, legal and moral order of the life of the people. Why do we lose so quickly the benefit of sanctifying, edifying ministry? How is it that the enemy is allowed to come in like a flood? Why are personal lives becoming entangled, and scriptural principles being jettisoned?
Perhaps one of the outstanding lessons that can be gleaned from the book as a whole is that, for the continuance of a spiritual work, there must be a first-hand faith and experience on the part of individual believers. Praise God for the Nehemiahs, through whom God can work wonders and raise His people to great spiritual heights! But if testimonies are to be maintained and God’s work enabled to flourish, His individual saints must have constant personal communion with Him, be genuinely consecrated to Him, and seek to serve Him with the single eye, Matt. 6. 22.
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