Today’s Passage: Nehemiah 7:73 – 8:12
Last week, we saw how the exiles from Judah were allowed to return home to Jerusalem by King Cyrus to rebuild the temple. We saw them prioritising God in their lives, and celebrating His goodness to them as they laid the foundations for the temple. But there was a lot of opposition to rebuilding the temple – with it stopping and starting. But eventually, it was built.
At some point after this, an influential Jew working for the then king, Artaxerxes, asked some travellers about the condition of Jerusalem. Hearing about it’s broken walls and burnt gates, Nehemiah spent a week in prayer and fasting. Nehemiah recognised how he and his people had sinned against Yahweh – and how the exile had been God’s disciplining of them. But He also remembered God’s promise to re-gather His people if they returned to Him and obeyed His commands. Nehemiah knew that God had promised to bring His people back to the place that He had chosen as a dwelling for His name: the city of Jerusalem. But a broken city was not honourable enough for the God of all creation.
So Nehemiah risked his life and asked the king for permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And God answered his prayers. Nehemiah was made governor, and set out on the long journey (something lie 1547.3km on today’s roads!) to Jerusalem.
And soon, work on the walls kicked off. But, like when the temple was being rebuilt, there was a lot of opposition. Including from people one might have expected to be for God. Judah’s enemies had friends/agents among the returned exiles. At one point, it looked like things would come to battle. Nehemiah prayed – and armed the workers. But they kept on working!
They worked until the wall and gates of Jerusalem were completed.
Completing that wall was a God thing. God was with His people. God had provided for them all along. He’d made King Artaxerxes well-disposed to do all that Nehemiah asked of Him. God had provided for them. God had kept them safe from their enemies. This wall was only built because God was on their side.
And Nehemiah: he was a man after God’s heart. He was constantly praying. He cared for the people of Judah. He says in chapter 5:14ff that:
…from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.
Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.
As a leader, Nehemiah was an example to his people of someone who loved God, and whose love of God changed the way that he acted.
Given all that, I’m not surprised that a few days after the wall was finished, on the first day of the new year (the 7th month of the year!), a massive crowd gathered together. They had come because they wanted to hear God’s Word. They told Ezra the priest to read from the Book of the Law of Moses, which Yahweh had commanded for Israel. As Ezra praised God, they shouted “Amen! Amen!” This was right. This was so right: God was their God. He had rescued them. He had saved them from their exile. The temple was built because of Him. Jerusalem had a wall and gates because of Him. God was good! They fell down and worshipped him.
And then they listened. This was a church service that went for hours – probably about 6 hours! God’s Word was read and explained to all who could understand it.
And as they listened, they wept.
On this day of celebration, as they came together to get to know their God better for themselves… they wept. Why?
Surely it had something to do with hearing about God’s goodness towards them as Ezra read. And also to do with, as they listened, coming face to face with their own sin and rebelliousness. They realised how unfaithful they had been to God, despite all of His continued faithfulness and love. They were convicted. They were ashamed. The walls were rebuilt, but the people realised how broken they were.
But Nehemiah’s response that day might not be the one we would have expected. There was a need for confession. That would come in Nehemiah 9. But what this people needed to know first and foremost, was something of God’s joy.
Why God’s joy? And what makes God joyful? And what about us? Where does our story link in with the story of these Jews from so long ago?