The story of Nehemiah is a thrilling example of what can be achieved for God in the most adverse of circumstances. One man and a demoralized remnant of Jews in the city of Jerusalem faced with what appeared to be an impossible task. The difficulties that confronted them would have suggested that his call for action, 2. 17, was ill-advised and, therefore, the desired goal could never be reached. Yet, remarkably, the task was accomplished; therefore, it would be difficult to disagree with those who believe that his ‘finest hour’ is encapsulated in the brief and simple statement in his memoirs, ‘So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days’, 6. 15. He achieved in fifty-two days what most of us would have found hard, if not impossible, to accomplish in fifty-two weeks!
It is important to begin a work for the Lord, but it is also vital to finish it. The life of the believer can all too easily be marked by impatience; therefore, it becomes littered with unfinished work for the Lord. It was Nehemiah’s vision of the greatness of God and His work that motivated him to pursue his task of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem with patience, perseverance, and determination. It prevented him from being distracted by the devious actions of his enemies to draw him away from the task. His response to them displayed a confidence that we need to cultivate today if we are to achieve great things for God: ‘The God of heaven, he will prosper us … I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down’, 2. 20; 6. 3.
Some will, no doubt, point to the end of the book to identify Nehemiah’s ‘finest hour’, i.e., the dedication of the wall on its completion, 12. 27-47. Once again, it would be hard to disagree with their choice. For Nehemiah, this event was the climax of the entire work of restoration in Jerusalem, and it would have left an indelible mark upon those who were present. The spiritual atmosphere that was generated lifted them to a level of worship that they had not experienced in exile. So many features that should characterize a vibrant worshipping community were seen on this landmark occasion. Glory to God, gathering together, gladness, gathering in purity, giving thanks, godly order, great sacrifices, great joy, generous giving, and God’s word read and obeyed combined to produce a scene with limitless potential for God. Indeed, ‘the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off’, v. 43. Not everyone would have been present on that day, but none, including the enemies of Jerusalem, were left in any doubt as to what a worshipping community sounded like. It is a challenge to believers in local assemblies today as to whether the neighbourhood in which they meet is aware that a worshipping community is among them.
These two occasions, along with many others, highlight the difficulty in selecting Nehemiah’s ‘finest hour’. However, I suggest that this accolade should be reserved for a critical point during his time in Jerusalem that could have marked the end of the work if he had not acted decisively to deal with it. This critical point was reached when the wall was half-built, 4. 6. This was, indeed, a remarkable feat in such a short period of time. It was a testimony to the outstanding leadership of Nehemiah and to the fact that the people’s hearts were in the work. However, there is a danger in reaching the halfway point in a work for the Lord. Alan Redpath writes, ‘The halfway stage is the toughest of all. When the initial enthusiasm for some project has departed … you are more and more conscious, not so much of what has already been done, but of what is yet to be done; you are increasingly impressed with the magnitude of the unfinished task. Just then it is the toughest bit of all’. Certainly, it got tougher for Nehemiah’s workforce in Jerusalem. Their enemies joined forces and increased the pressure by surrounding them and threatening them with violence, vv. 7-11; therefore, they were in great danger. However, they had learned from their leader, and they joined him in prayer. In times of adversity and uncertainty, the Lord’s people can gain great strength through praying together. Once they had expressed their faith in God through prayer, they put their faith into practice and ‘set a watch against them day and night’, v. 9. Watchfulness and prayer are two vital ingredients for believers in the battle against their adversaries.
However, it was inevitable that at some stage discouragement would begin to set in. It was to be expected that the surrounding enemies would try every tactic to discourage the builders; however, it was particularly disappointing that discouragement also came from within. It was the men of Judah who approached Nehemiah with a pessimistic report: ‘The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish’, v. 10. This was, no doubt, a statement of fact; however, it was their conclusion that was unhelpful and untrue: ‘we are not able to build the wall’, v. 10. Conditions are never too difficult to ‘build’ for the Lord. Discouragement often comes from the most unlikely of sources, including those who ought to know better. Judah was the largest, most powerful and kingly tribe, Gen. 49. 8-12. Of all the workers, the men of Judah ought to have had a vision that lifted them above the adverse circumstances and enabled them to focus on the glorious possibilities. However, later events revealed that they were more interested in forging links with their enemies than in remaining distinct from them, Neh. 6. 18. They were even guilty of profaning the Sabbath day, 13. 15-18.
The great need of the hour, therefore, was for wise and decisive leadership, and Nehemiah was not found wanting. Indeed, this was arguably his ‘finest hour’. He was not insensitive to people’s feelings, but he had no intention of allowing them to capitulate at every sign of pressure. He introduced a fresh approach to the work that arrested the decline in morale and rekindled the builders’ enthusiasm. Sometimes, local assemblies can become bound by tradition and thereby lack flexibility in the way in which they respond to developing needs; nevertheless, changes must always be prayerfully considered in the light of the word of God. Although events moved swiftly, there was no indication of panic decisions; every move Nehemiah made was carefully considered. Clearly, there had to be a temporary cessation of the work to allow the new defence strategies to be put in place and to preserve what had already been achieved. Spiritual leaders in local assemblies need to be sensitive to the times when it is necessary for them to take similar action, thereby ensuring that current activities do not become ends in themselves and new opportunities are not missed.
First, Nehemiah records, ‘Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people’, 4. 13. Although it is not easy to understand the Hebrew of the first part of this verse, the main thought conveyed appears to be that he placed guards at the most exposed and vulnerable parts of the wall.
Second, he ‘set the people after their families with their swords, their spears and their bows’, v. 13. They required weapons to defend the city but they also needed an incentive to engage in warfare against their adversaries. Nehemiah gave them both! With their families and houses nearby they had every reason to fight for the preservation of the things that were most precious to them. Indeed, the unity of the family was the basis for the wider unity of Jerusalem. It is important for the Lord’s people to remember that the quality of a local assembly will rarely rise above the spirituality of its families.
Third, Nehemiah addressed the crisis of faith and genuine fear that gripped the people’s hearts at this time. It is clear that he understood the effect that the constant rumours and gossip around the city were having on the workforce, v. 12. He did not share their fear and therefore he was morally qualified to say to them, ‘Be not ye afraid of them’, v. 14. This might have appeared to be a glib thing to say, but he went on to reveal that he had the antidote to their fear: ‘remember the Lord, which is great and terrible [dreadful, fearful]’, v. 14. When the people of God lose sight of His power and majesty they become afraid of men; a reverential awe of Him will garrison them against fear.
Fourth, Nehemiah commanded them to ‘fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses’, v. 14. It is so easy for the Lord’s servants to become blinkered and to focus only on the short-term goals of what they are involved in. Nehemiah widened the people’s vision. He opened their eyes to look beyond their immediate circumstances and to appreciate that they were defending something that was vital for the future welfare of their sons and daughters. He teaches us that the next generation is always important as far as the preservation of truth is concerned.
The resolve of the people could have been dealt a fatal blow at the mid-point of the building of the wall, but Nehemiah’s leadership guaranteed that this did not happen. Far from them coming out of the encounter bruised and defeated, the adversaries themselves were demoralized, v. 15. A ‘new-look’ workforce returned to the wall with renewed confidence, vigour and enthusiasm. He adapted the way in which the people worked in order to combat the changed tactics of their enemies, vv. 16-20. Half of them worked, while the other half kept watch. He valued all the workers and ensured that they were suitably prepared for both working and defending. He was also aware of the dangers of a growing work; therefore, the blowing of the trumpet ensured that they did not become isolated and lose the sense of unity. However, he knew that it was not structures alone that were going to win the day. At the very heart of his confidence was the knowledge that God was for them: ‘our God shall fight for us’. It was a cry that at the same time encouraged the workers and struck fear into the heart of the enemy. Such leadership called for commitment and sacrifice from the workers, and they rose to the challenge, vv. 20-23. Nehemiah led the way and they followed, v. 23. Inspirational leadership and committed workers remain key aspects of any fruitful work for the Lord. Let us rise to the challenge!
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