Life Lessons from Nehemiah
Study Guide, January 12, 2020
Pastor Clay Olsen
Are you ready for an adventure? We are about to embark on a journey through Nehemiah. And if you have been using our Bible Reading calendar you just recently read through the book of Nehemiah on December 22nd – 27th. So you are all primed and prepared and ready to roll, right? And what’s interesting about having just read Nehemiah is that in the order of the Old Testament, Nehemiah comes even before you get to the book of Job, which may have even been written before Moses recorded the first five books of the Old Testament. But the calendar readings are laid out in chronological order, for the most part, and so chronologically the events of Nehemiah and Esther and Malachi are the last events of the Old Testament. The order of the Old Testament was determined by category rather than chronology, as in the books of Law, History, Poetry, and then the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets.
What we are about to explore are lessons that speak to all of us as we look into things like leadership, and the rebuilding of people while the people rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and lessons in dealing with resistance from a hostile culture. Can you relate to that? Also we see the sovereignty of God at work, which reminds us that we, too, are secure in the hands of God who is always working in our lives and in our world. It’s like Jesus reminded us that the Father is always working, and the Son is working with Him, and the Spirit is working through it all. And that’s a reminder to us to pray and to look for where God is working and to listen to what God is working on, and to then join Him in the work. Remember, God is the Master Builder. He is always building something. It’s just like while the people were working on building the wall, God was working on building them. Guess what? He is doing the same with us.
That’s one of the amazing lessons we are always to be aware of, that, for the follower of Christ, every project is actually two projects; the project ‘itself’ and the project ‘yourself’. In every work, there is the work ‘itself’ and there is also the work ‘yourself’; or the work that God is doing in you while you are doing the work itself. In other words, in everything that you are building, God is using it to build you. And that is a theme that we are going to see throughout this wonderous book of Nehemiah; God working on the workers while the workers do the work. Plus, if you will inject that understanding into everything that you are working on, from your vocational life to your family life to your social life, it will profoundly affect your whole attitude toward all of it, and it will change your whole life in the process of it.
Did you know that in the Hebrew Bible the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are together, as in one book? A Christian scholar by the name of Origen, in the 3rd century, divided them into two books. But you can see why they were considered together since the scribe, Ezra, wrote them both. Plus, the combined work of rebuilding the temple and then of rebuilding the walls was the fulfillment of one of the most amazing prophecies that God gave to the people through the prophet Jeremiah. Take a look: Jer 25:11-12- “This entire land will become a desolate wasteland. Israel and her neighboring lands will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years. Then, after the seventy years of captivity are over, I will punish the king of Babylon and his people for their sins,” says the Lord.” NLT And then God goes on to tell them about their return.
So, over a hundred years earlier the prophet Jeremiah prophesied that after God would return the people to their homeland from their exile in Babylon following this judgment upon them from turning away from following God. And catch this, over a hundred years before Jeremiah gives this prophecy, the prophet Isaiah records this for us: Isa 44:28-45:1- “He says to Cyrus, “You are My shepherd. You will do what I want. You will say to Jerusalem, ‘You will be rebuilt!’ You will tell the Temple, ‘Your foundations will be put in place!’ “This is what the Lord said to Cyrus, His chosen king: “I took you by your right hand to help you defeat nations, to strip other kings of their power, and to open city gates that will not be closed again.” 4- “I do this for My servant, Jacob. I do it for My chosen people, Israel. Cyrus, I am calling you by name. You don’t know Me, but I know you.” ERV
This prophecy was given through Isaiah about 150 years before Cyrus was even born! Talk about a specific prophecy! God even named this Persian King. And don’t you love it where God says to Cyrus: “You don’t know Me, but I know you.” Can you imagine Cyrus learning about this prophecy and finding out that God had even called him by name before he was even born? Fantastic! Plus, this prophecy, along with the exact number of 70 years that the people would be in captivity, is so specific and so detailed that anyone who has any doubt about the historical reliability and accuracy of the Scriptures can become completely convinced of it by just this one prophecy about the return of the people and the rebuilding of the temple, let alone the other hundreds of prophecies.
But the thing is, the reason that people don’t accept the Bible as the absolute words of God is not because they have honestly examined the Bible. No, the reason they don’t accept the Bible as the absolute words of God is because the Bible examines them, and honestly, they don’t want to become accountable to what God’s words are telling them to do about this examination. Remember, it’s not until people become willing to let God be their God, and to yield to God as their God, that they find that God’s words are not only absolutely true, but they find that God’s words are also everything they have always needed and everything their souls have always longed for.
So God fulfills this prophecy of the people returning to the land after 70 years and under Ezra’s leadership rebuilds the temple in Jerusalem. But God’s presence, as symbolized by the temple, now needs God’s protection, as symbolized by the wall. The problem is, the wall was in shambles. Which brings us to this: Neh 1:1-10- “These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem. They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps His covenant of unfailing love with those who love Him and obey His commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for Your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to Me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to Me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for My name to be honored.’ “The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. O Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring You. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me.” In those days I was the king’s cup-bearer.” NLT
What a magnificent prayer. We could develop a series on prayer from just this! But before we get to that, think about what magnificent builders these people were. Some of you that have been to Jerusalem and went down under the Western Wall remember the guides talking about the wonders of how these people could make such massive stones and then build such massive buildings and walls with them. Archaeologists tunneling along the Western Wall in Jerusalem have discovered 5 enormous building stones that helped form the foundation of the temple that stood during Jesus’ time. The largest is 44 1/2 feet long, 11 feet high and 14 feet wide, and weighs 570 tons. That’s one gigantic stone! How they did this is one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world. Even today’s cranes can only lift about 250 tons. But again, the walls were also massive because they protected the temple, which was itself majestic. But the majesty of the temple pointed to the majesty of God.
Do you ever think about, or often think about how wondrous it is that the temple of God is now not a building of stones, but a building of bones? God’s temple is now made up of God’s people…you and me and every born again person in the world. 1 Cor 6:19-20- “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” NLT
We are God’s temple on Earth today. What are the implications of that? Imagine you could go back to Ezra and Nehemiah’s day and were able to go through the walls of the city and then on into the temple. How would you conduct yourself inside the temple, inside the holy place and then inside the holy of holies, where the Ark of the Covenant once stood before the captivity, with the Cherubim on either side covering the Mercy Seat, which was on the top of the Ark, which all symbolized the very presence of God? Would you be careful of what you did in this temple, and give second thoughts about what you said in this temple, or be, let’s say, on your best behavior while in the temple? Well guess what? Like Paul reminded us: You and I are always in the temple, because the presence of God moved out of that temple of stones and moved into our temple of bones. So yes, we are always in God’s temple. And therefore, everything we do and say, we do and say in the very presence of God, who shares the temple of our body with us. And our temple is not a duplex…with God living on one side with walls and a door between, with us on the other side. No, when you invited Jesus into your heart and life, Jesus moved into the very center of your house, your temple. In fact, as Paul also reminded us; not only did the Spirit of Christ move into your body with you…He bought it! Jesus owns your body. He purchased your body and made it His temple. You and I now live in our bodies not by ownership, but by stewardship. The master of your body is not you; it’s Jesus. You are the steward of it, the manager…or…you are the priest that lives in the temple along with the Lord, your Savior and Owner of your temple…Owner of your body.
And so what are the implications of that? Like a priest in the temple of God, we, too, are to now honor our God in whatever we do in our temple and in whatever we say in our temple, as well as then carry out our priestly duties of offering sacrifices of praise and service and thanksgiving to God in and through our temple. That’s another series right there, but back to Nehemiah’s prayer.
“O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps His covenant of unfailing love with those who love Him and obey His commands, listen to my prayer!” To rightly pray to God, you must include abundant praise to God. Before you talk to God about any problem, it needs to be preceded by praise when you come into God’s presence. How often do we just start with “Lord, I need this…or, can you do that…or, would you work out such and such?” Yes, we can ask and expect great things from God, but be careful of your expectations of God. And remember, God always deserves our praise before we ask Him to deal with our problems.
Next, although Nehemiah was not a priest officially, he prayed priestly prayers. He prays for himself and also intercedes for others. How remarkable that we, too, are to pray priestly prayers. That’s one of our duties as New Testament priests. And we are to realize that it’s through the power of prayer that we change the course of our own lives, and we impact the well-being of our families, and we influence the works of even those in our country. As Paul reminded us here:
1 Tim 2:1-4- “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth.” NLT
Have you been praying priestly prayers? This adds a whole new dimension to our praying when we understand that God is particularly pleased when we stand in the gap for others and carry out our responsibilities as priests of God, interceding for those around us. What a great honor God has given us. Why, God even uses our prayers to put ideas and intentions into the hearts of people we pray for, like Nehemiah asking God for favor with the King and putting it in his heart to be kind to him.
Nehemiah was praying through the work and praying over the work before he ever went to work on this great mission. That’s another great example of priestly praying and even priestly thinking. To pray like a New Testament priest, we have to practice thinking like New Testament priests. And next time, we’ll see one powerful way to do that, as we go further in our journey through Nehemiah.