NEHEMIAH 1:1 – 3:32 and ACTS 21:1–40
We now come to another prominent restorer who goes by the name of Nehemiah. Just like Ezra he portrays many insights to the manner of leadership that needs to be seen in our day. Nehemiah was not a priest but was in a position of authority due to his position as a cupbearer to the king. He also held the title of a Tirshatha. We can liken him to a modern day secular leader; a person who also knew the heart and burden of the Lord and was able to convey it to the people. Just like Ezra there is a price to pay to come into that level of relationship with God. At a set time he came to know of the condition of the city of Jerusalem. He heard of the walls that were broken down and the city that had been laid waste. There were some initial restorers that had already returned to build the house of the Lord but the city was still in a broken down condition. In verse 4 we see Nehemiah coming into a place of deep heaviness as he identified with the heart of God for His beloved city. It is here where we can say that he is beginning to carry the burden of the Lord. He can feel God’s heart and it apprehends him and becomes all that he can think about. Nehemiah also used this opportunity to fast and pray unto the Lord during this period.
The remaining verses of 5-11 are critical for us to understand because there are many vital truths that can be extracted from them. In his period of prayer and fasting he begins to pray and speak to the Lord. He speaks of His covenant keeping ability to those who love Him and keep His commandments (vs 5). One gets the sense that Nehemiah was well acquainted with God’s laws and the blessings of keeping them as well as the consequences that come about when they are violated. Though he was not a priest he acknowledged the sins of Israel while including himself and his father’s house in this group. He was confessing and praying on behalf of the sins of the people. This is one of the true hallmarks of leadership. Ezra the priest prayed in this manner as did Daniel the prophet (Dan 9). It was the Lord who allowed Himself to become sin so that we could be restored to the Father. This is so important when looking at the message of restoration. The work of restoration required a true leader; a leader who would not point the finger of blame at others but rather assume responsibility and bring it before God. Nehemiah was mindful that they had violated God’s Law and commandments as given by his servant Moses. In fact Nehemiah is now going to go back to the time of Moses to make his next appeal. This suggests a few things to us:
1) Nehemiah had a very good understanding of the Word of God as it was known at that time. He referenced what God had said to Moses regarding what would happen when the children of Israel would transgress the Laws of God. He recalled how God had said that they would be scattered. This surely happened as they were brought away into Babylonian captivity. He also knew what God had said if such a people would turn from their evil ways and embrace the commandments of God and do them (Deu 4:24-30). He knew that God had a plan of Restoration in bringing them back to their home place. It is for this reason that Nehemiah is in deep contrition as he sees the sins and disobedience of the people. He recognizes that this is the appointed time.
2) Nehemiah came to know his identity and his calling. He saw this as being God’s time for the restoration of the city; he saw that these were the people that were referred to at the time when God spoke to Moses. Nehemiah understood his role as being the leader who would lead the work of Restoration in Jerusalem. This indicates the importance of understanding God, knowing His Word and allowing God to define who we are in Him. He came to know his destiny by having a good understanding of Biblical History and by maintaining a close and harmonic walk with God. He came to know that this was the time and the window of opportunity that was before him was a narrow one. He did not want to miss this visitation of the Lord.
This was one of the primary laments of the Lord as He was drawing nearer to the cross. He wept openly over Jerusalem because they were missing their divine appointment (Luke 19:41, 44). God the Son was in their midst but they missed it for various self-absorbed reasons. We cannot allow for something like that to happen in our day. The Spirit of the Lord is crying out for us to be vigilant but who is hearing? Are we hearing what the Spirit of the Lord is saying to the churches today? Is it any wonder that the Lord while speaking to the 7 churches always ended by saying “He who has ears to hear…”? So many today can speak about Issachar who had the quality of knowing the times and seasons but how many are properly discerning them (1 Chr 12:32)? Nehemiah seized the initiative and pleaded with God to show Him mercy as He contemplated his next step. He ends by saying that he was the king’s cupbearer which indicates a potential open door to the one who could accommodate the burden of the Lord that was now upon him.
An opportunity presented itself to Nehemiah in being able to come before the king. He did not have to force his way or assert himself in an unnatural way. At the same time when opportunity did open up he discerned that it was time to act. We will also see something similar when we look at the time of Queen Esther. It seems that in the period of Restoration, timing is everything. Nehemiah came before the king with a very heavy countenance. Such an approach could result in a death sentence because one’s disposition would be seen as reflecting their assessment of the king’s rule. In other words you do not enter before the king with a sad countenance. In Nehemiah’s case he could not help it due to being consumed with God’s burden for his native Jerusalem. The king immediately picked up on his demeanour as being that of a sorrowful heart and he had to give an immediate explanation. It better be a good one! In verse 3 Nehemiah makes clear that he cannot help but be of a sorrowful heart given the condition of the city of his fathers that is lying in waste while the gates were consumed with fire. This is a make or break moment for Nehemiah. It is very similar to when Esther made an approach unto the king in a very risky manner (Est 5). It is a time when such leaders are willing to lose their lives because of the overwhelming burden that they carry. How did the king respond in this instance to Nehemiah?
In verse 4 the King asks Nehemiah a profound question; what is your request? It is obvious that Nehemiah has the favour of God upon his life. The Lord would not give such a privilege and honour to just any man. It is given to those who know his heart, to those who will faithfully carry out his burden and directives and to those who have no self-interest of their own. How often do we see priests and leaders in the church who abuse their positions for personal gain? We saw this bestowed upon Ezra in chapter 7 of Ezra. He was a man who came up out of Babylon, knew the Law of God, did the Law of God and taught the Law of God. Nehemiah has many of the same attributes as Ezra; one of the differences being he was not a priest. What did Nehemiah do when given this opportunity of answering the king’s question? He did a very wise thing in seeking the Lord. This is wisdom; how important it is to seek the Lord at all times. I am finding in my later years that the Lord is well pleased when we bring him into our daily affairs. He delights when we ask Him about our work, relationships or our calling. The tendency in many is to react quickly in the flesh without bringing God more into our personal equations. So how did Nehemiah answer the king? He asked largely after spending time with God in prayer. There is the danger of asking nominally in these key moments. We sometimes think that we do not want to over extend the benefit of such a request. I am calling to mind the word of the Lord given to Joash, King of Israel when Elisha told him to smite the arrow upon the ground (2 Kings 13:14-19). He limited what God ultimately wanted to do and we run the danger of doing the same thing. Nehemiah did not make this mistake. He knew the burden and heart of God and was able to make his request in reference to it.
He requested to be allowed to go back to Jerusalem and begin the process of rebuilding the city and the gates. The king, with the queen alongside asked the question as to how long he would be about this work and when would he return. Nehemiah set him an agreeable time and the king sent him forth with his blessing. Nehemiah could have just said thank you and began his journey but he added to his request by having letters written that would enable him to have such passage into the land of Judah (vs 7). He went further to request timber from Asaph, the keeper of the forest to make beams for the gates that would be needed for the work. The king agreed to everything Nehemiah requested of him; he did so because the favour of God was upon Nehemiah. The king even went further in sending captains of the army and horsemen with him to assist and ensure his safe passage.
In verse 10 we are introduced to an adversary by the name of Sanballat. He is accompanied by two other men who went by the names of Geshom and Tobiah. These men only now come into the picture due to someone taking interest in the restoration of the city of Jerusalem. We said earlier that the enemy hates the message of restoration. He leaves people alone when he is not really under any threat. In Jerusalem, the city and its walls had been broken down for many years. The enemy had full sway in its environment without anyone being in a position to threaten them. It is now about to change with Nehemiah undertaking the burden of the Lord in seeking to restore that which was broken down. What we are about to see is a picture of the message of Restoration where Christ comes to earth to restore that which was broken between God and man due to sin. All of hell was gathered at Gethsemane in the garden in seeking to get Jesus from fulfilling His role as the Lamb of God becoming sin upon the cross (Luke 22:42). The enemy’s domain was under threat and he did all he could do to try and keep Jesus from hitting His appointed mark that was decreed from the foundations of the world (Rev 13:8). What is taking place now in Nehemiah 2 is a picture of this and there are many truths that can be brought forth from this event.
One of the key components of the Lord’s Prayer is “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” (Math 6:10) Nehemiah is now looking to re-establish God’s Kingdom in Jerusalem as part of God’s eternal plan. This is why we are now seeing opposition beginning to develop against this effort. Satan is inspiring Sanballat and his cohorts to stop the work. There was no opposition until someone (Nehemiah) stepped forward to begin this huge undertaking. We will now see some other outstanding qualities of this great man.
In verse 12-16 we have a beautiful picture of how a prayer walk should look like. Nehemiah, in the quiet of the night went about the city and surveyed the situation. He told no man, did not make any kind of public display but rather surveyed the land and the work that would be undertaken. The condition though dire did not deter him; he had experienced tremendous favour to date and he came to know that God was indeed with him. In verses 17-18 Nehemiah communicated that which God had put in his heart to do to the workers alongside him. He shared how he had come to see God’s favour with the king and was able to inspire those with him to begin the work. He effectively communicates the vision to those with him. This is a picture of a true leader; it’s an example of the well-known verse in Habakkuk 2:2 “Write the vision and make it plain” The men willingly gave themselves to the work.
The battle is now underway as the enemy makes a mockery of their attempts to go about the work of restoring the city. They seek to intimidate them and try to strike fear in accusing them of rebelling against the king. The enemy in his initial attempt to stop a work will intimidate as a roaring lion. This tactic is often all he needs to employ because of its effectiveness. It paralyzes people and stops them from taking steps forward. Sanballat and company aggressively attack but is quickly rebuffed by Nehemiah. He knows his God and makes it known that the God of heaven will prosper them; His servants will arise and build but “you (Sanballat and likeminded enemies) will have no part or memorial in Jerusalem”. Their days of inhabiting the city are about to come to an end. We need Nehemiah’s today to arise. They represent men and women who know the heart of God; know His burden and know their identity and what they are called to do. It does not just happen but is the result of a process of seeking God and allowing him to work deep in one’s life. Do we truly hear what the Spirit is saying unto the churches and to our lives today
The Book of Nehemiah is rich in content and it is difficult to narrow down summaries due to how applicable they are to our day. Chapter 3 is no different. There are 10 different gates that surround the city of Jerusalem that will need to be restored. Each gate has a different name which in turn has a different meaning. Each of these gates represents something that needed to be restored in Nehemiah’s day and it speaks of areas that need attention today. The first gate mentioned is the Sheep Gate. (vs 1) What is its meaning? Let’s consider a few verses:
Joh 10:7 Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.
Joh 10:14 I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
The Lord is the Good Shepherd; the one who looks after the sheep as part of His flock. The restoration of the sheep gate speaks of the need in restoring the Pastoral ministry. The Good Shepherd knows and cares for His sheep. In return, the sheep know the voice of the shepherd. In today’s fast paced life this quality can go missing. People become numbers resulting in their uniqueness giving way to mass herding as opposed to individual pastoral care. This is an area where the mending of nets must be strong (Math 4:21, John 21:11). Each of the gates that Nehemiah went about restoring could be looked at in similar detail but that would be a bit of information overload. There are several other ways of looking at this chapter. Let’s look at these gates around the city as gates around our homes or individual lives. There are many entrances into the soul of a man or a home. The enemy only needs to find one port of access. If he cannot get in the main door he will try some other means; this is why all gates must be restored and secured. Once this is accomplished the enemy no longer has free access to roam about and do his work. Up until now Jerusalem was an open haven for Sanballat and friends. There was no one taking time to even think about restoring and securing the port of entries to the city.
When we look at restoring these gates we also have to talk about securing them. What is the use of restoring something that is broken down if we do not ensure they are fortified and strong from future attacks? The message of Restoration is not just about fixing that which has been broken; it is about securing, strengthening and fortifying those areas. Jesus did not die upon the cross just to save us; the work of the Cross gives us the ability to become more like the Lord, to grow in the fruits of the Spirit. This is how our bodily temples become strong and filled with His glory. There are some keys we can glean in this chapter to help shed further light on the subject. Do you notice similarities in these verses from chapter 3? (3, 6, 13, 14, 15) Each of these 5 verses contains the following 3 words. (Locks, Beams and Bars) These terms speak of the reinforcing elements to the respective gates. Each of them have a meaning and can prove instructive for us.
1) Beams-These beams were made of wood which speaks of humanity. It speaks of how God seeks to work with man in His work of Restoration. You may recall the wood that was used in the construction of the Ark (Exo 25:10). The Shittim wood was overlaid with gold. This spoke of God’s relationship with man. God has designed His creation in a way where man can choose to work in a cooperative way with Him. It is God’s plan and things must be done His way but we have the choice as to whether we will participate in His plan. In the message of Restoration we have the choice to work with God in helping to ensure the gates in our lives, our homes and our churches are properly fortified.
2) Locks-The locks speak of authority. To gain an entrance to a simple home or an ornate castle one must have keys. One of the Revelations of the Lord to the Seven Churches of Revelation (Philadelphia) was that he held the Key of David (Rev 3:7). This Key can shut a door that no man can open and it can open doors that man in his own strength is unable to access. God is looking for “Eliakims” (Isa 22:20-22) who can be given the authority to be gatekeepers in the kingdom of God; whether it be our own personal lives, homes or churches.
3) Bars-This speaks of the Law. In the keeping of God’s Commandments and Laws there is great strength and safety. How easily the churches of today dismiss the pertinence of God’s Law. We will see later on in Nehemiah when Ezra the priest and Nehemiah come together. (Nehemiah 8) It will be here where the Law of God is elevated and where true repentance and lament for sin is employed. It is also because of the Law where the Joy of the Lord will be realized in a whole new way. The ministry of the teaching priest is an absolute must for the last day church. True Restoration must have the three ingredients that marked the doors of entrance to these particular gates. The truth of God working in a cooperative way with man on God’s terms, understanding the authority that God has given man and the magnification and upholding of God’s Law. The message of Restoration is not just to restore but it is also to secure that which was broken down and lost.
Paul was continuing in his journey back to Jerusalem. He sailed to Syria and eventually landed at Tyre. The ship he was on unloaded its goods so they stayed on for several days. Paul was able to connect with some disciples and they shared with him their concern about his return to Jerusalem. It was certainly filled with many risks due to the stir that Paul was causing amongst the Jews in every part of the known world. It was an emotional send-off seeing how Paul and his men connected with the people, which included children. They continued their journey ending up in Caesarea in the house of Philip the evangelist; whom we saw earlier in chapter 8. Philip had a family that was heavily engaged in ministry seeing he had four daughters, all virgins who prophesied. Philip must have been a man of good reputation. While at the house of Philip a known prophet by the name of Agabus who was rather demonstrative in his method of prophesying. This was not unusual since there are many other examples we can take from scripture. Agabus took Paul’s girdle and bound his own hands and feet making the point that this is what would happen to Paul if he continued on to Jerusalem. He went on to add that Paul would then be turned over to the Gentiles. This was a confirmation of what others have been sensing as well so there was great pressure on Paul to not go to Jerusalem. Paul’s response was bold and to the point! I am ready to be bound and even die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. There was discussion back and forth but Paul would not be deterred. Their response was then sensible in saying that the will of the Lord be done (vs 14).
Paul returned to Jerusalem and was received warmly as he shared the testimony of all that God had done. There was the concern that his being with them would quickly become known. He was able to conceal himself for a number of days before the Jews of Asia discovered him in the temple. They laid hands on him and charged him with the polluting of the sanctuary by bringing Greeks into the sanctuary (vs 28). They were intent on killing him. There was a national uproar taking place which caught the attention of the chief captain of the band. This captain came to the place of the uproar and took charge. The ones who were beating Paul quickly dispersed. The chief captain took Paul and bound him. This captain sought to know who he was and what he had done. There was a great tumult amongst the people due to the rabble rousing of the Jews. They were certainly good at stirring up trouble.
As Paul was being led away he asked the captain if he could speak to him. He appealed for an opportunity to speak unto the people. He knew he had protection from the captain so he could share his heart to the gathered people without fear of their reprisal. The captain gave him the opportunity to do so and so he prepared himself, silenced the crowd and began to speak unto them in the Hebrew tongue. It was a typical tactic of Paul. He knew how to gain advantage in difficult situations. It did not matter how dire his situations were; he availed every opportunity. Most people would have given up saying that they tried but could not break-through; not Paul, he pressed in at every opportunity. He adjusted his tactics to fit the situation. It is true the Jews wanted to kill him but he can now speak freely to them under the cover of the attending guard. He did not let prison captivity stop him; he used his captivity to write many letters which we are beneficiaries of today. There was a mind-set about Paul we need to seek to adopt; He made every excuse to do something; even in times of great difficulty. Many of us make every excuse not to do something. The excuses can be pretty good and I am sure we are all guilty of this to some degree. It is a mind-set and we do well to learn from Paul’s example.
The question arises; should Paul have listened to those who felt it best not to return to Jerusalem? Were people like Agabus and the other disciples wrong in their concern for Paul? Is it possible that both groups were right; Paul and those who had concern for him? I would say yes to the latter. Paul indeed was apprehended and bound and he probably needed to hear the expressed concern of the brethren. Still, I do feel the will of the Lord was done. In fact this was the prayer of those who had concern for Paul when they saw they would not change his mind. God had a higher purpose in having Paul return to Jerusalem. He would have access to people of influence and also the ability to strongly witness to the Jews under the cover of protection from the Captain of the Guard. In my mind both groups were functioning with the light they had. In the end it was God’s will for Paul to be in Jerusalem for reasons we shall soon see.