Nehemiah 1: The Servant Leader’s Intercession

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The singing of William Blake’s poem, immortalised by Sir Hubert Parry’s music, has become a national institution. It is sung every year by tens of thousands of people on the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and simultaneously in the Proms in the Park venues around the country. Since 2004, it has also been the anthem of the England cricket team. And after the Commonwealth Games in 2010, Team England chose it as their victory anthem too. The Commonwealth Games Council conducted a poll to choose an anthem. The three options were “God Save The Queen”, “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory”. Jerusalem was the clear winner with 52% of the vote. It has become the English national hymn.

What many people do not realise is that beneath William Blake’s poem, in the hand written original, which also appears in the preface to his epic Milton a Poem, he added a verse from the Bible: Numbers 11:29, ‘”Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29). The NIV translation reads, “I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).

While it is doubtful Jesus ever visited England as a child, Blake is insisting we have spirit-anointed work to do building the kingdom of God in our country and in our generation. Whether we like it or not, the story of the rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem has become a popular, if misguided paradigm for expressing our national aspirations.

Last week I attended an Army Benevolent Fund concert performed by the RAF Band in the garden of the High Commissioners residence in Nicosia. 450 British expats, living in Northern Cyprus, along with members of the Black Watch serving with the UN, enjoyed a bring and share meal and local beverages. When the band began to play “Jerusalem” everyone stood, waved their Union Jacks energetically and sung it joyfully.

Although some insist that ‘Jerusalem’ is not a hymn and should not be sung in church and while we may be scorn those who sing it at cricket grounds or at the Last Night of the Proms, let me ask you, how many of us have such a grand and all-consuming vision of our destiny as a people?

Such a vision, we are even willing to sing it in public, unashamedly, encouraging others to share it? We have some exciting events planned for the Summer. Carnival Capers is next Saturday. We want you to help us conduct a short community religious survey to assess the spiritual interest of our neighbours.

The July Connection is a very special edition. It contains a clear presentation of the gospel, with the Bridge to Life illustrations, we can share with those interested. It profiles all our church events and activities. It is designed to introduce seekers to Jesus. Please sign up to serve on one of our teams at Carnival Capers today. Check out the Summer programme and get the dates in your diary with the enthusiasm you would if it were the Last Night of the Proms.

Let me ask you again, do you have an all-consuming vision of God’s call in your life? Are you expecting God to do great things? Are you energised? Are you excited to be a part of God’s purposes here in Virginia Water? During the Summer we are going to seek inspiration in the story of Nehemiah. I invite you to read the book and get an overview of the whole story.

What is Nehemiah all about? Nehemiah deals with the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls (Nehemiah 1-6), the renewing of Jerusalem’s worship (Nehemiah 8-10), the repopulation of Jerusalem’s streets (Nehemiah 11-12), and the reform of Jerusalem’s faith (Nehemiah 13). Nehemiah, through God, built walls. God, through Nehemiah built saints.

The rebuilding of physical Jerusalem was heavy work that demanded spiritual vision, unbounded energy and dogged perseverance. There are many spiritual lessons we can re-learn along the way. The story is about laying foundations.

It is about persevering, about not being deflected by temptation or opposition and bringing a task to completion. Above all, it brings a message to shatter our complacency and challenge our priorities: A message that stubbornly refuses to allow Christian service to be relegated to the level of a spare time hobby or individualistic religious exercise. In Chapter 1, Nehemiah weeps over Israel’s predicament, intercedes on Israel’s behalf and volunteers to meet Israel’s needs (1:11).

The chapter divides into three themes.

Israel’s Predicament 1:1-3
Nehemiah’s Prayer 1:4-11
God’s Providence 1:11

  1. Israel’s Predicament

“The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:1-3)

1.1 The Timing (1:1)

The year was 445 BC, almost a 140 years since Jerusalem had been captured by Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonian army. Forty seven years later Babylon had in turn fallen to Cyrus.

Russia today is rather like Babylon was in Nehemiah’s day. Stalin, like Nebuchadnezzar, used forced migration to control his empire. He deported many Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians, for example, to other parts of Russia and repopulated their homes with people from other Soviet States. Cyrus was more like Gorbachov, believing he could control the empire better by allowing national groups to return to their homelands and enjoy a degree of freedom and self-determination. Putin isn’t sure whether he is a Stalin or a Gorbachov and the peoples of Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine are the guinea pigs.

1.2 The Trauma (1:2)

The Jewish people were now a scattered, fragmented community. Many chose to stay in Babylon, and made their home there. Nehemiah was one of them. But around 50.000 did return to Canaan, living in poverty, discouraged, vulnerable. Every so often Nehemiah, like the other émigrés, heard news from visiting relatives. They probably organised charity functions to send relief aid, food and clothing to their friends and family back home. The Timing, the Trauma.

1.3 The Trouble (1:3)

Jerusalem was in a sorry state. They had rebuilt a Temple. But 75 years on the walls of Jerusalem were still lying in ruin. It is hard for us today to imagine how essential walls were to an ancient city.

Walls were a symbol of national identity. They ensured security and protection for its residence. A city without walls was like an army without weapons. Whenever attempts had been made to reconstruct the walls, powerful neighbouring peoples would intimidate them, or persuade the Emperor they were becoming disloyal. No wonder they were demoralised. How could they survive, let alone thrive when they had no walls? Israel’s Predicament inspires,

  1. Nehemiah’s Prayer

2.1 He Dwells on the Greatness of God

“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments.” (Nehemiah 1:4-5)

His contemporaries may have lamented Israel’s condition. They may have criticised the failure to rebuild the walls. But Nehemiah humbled himself before the Lord. His eyes were on God. He addresses the Lord with that characteristic blend of reverent awe before His holiness, and grateful trust in His mercy. Wall building is no problem to a sovereign Creator. That is how the Bible teaches us to love the Lord our God – not by trying to generate warm feelings, but by daily obedience.

We need to feed our minds on the character of God revealed in Scripture. Sometimes we get frustrated and discouraged. Sometimes its because we don’t let the Scriptures shape our view of God. We create a god in our own image. Autumn sermon series (and Summer reading) “Jesus, Mean and Wild” by Mark Dever. Quote John Ortberg. Nehemiah dwelt on the greatness of God.

2.2 He Confessed his People’s Sin

“Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:6-7)

This is always the outcome of real waiting on God. Before Nehemiah was called to build the walls he first had to weep over the ruins. The ruins of his people’s coldness, their selfishness and defiance against God, demonstrated over hundreds of years, before he was even born. Nehemiah had a sense of responsibility which most of us lack.

We seldom feel part of the Church in quite the same way Nehemiah felt part of Judah. We value our individuality, but Nehemiah identified totally with his people. Yet his confession was very personal. Nehemiah identified himself as a sinner among sinners. No excuses are offered. Instead there is the profound recognition of sin as it is – an offence against God. Remember confession leads to forgiveness, and cleansing comes before usefulness. The more we are brought to our knees before God, the more we will be concerned about the spiritual needs of the world, and the less we are likely to want to throw stones. Nehemiah dwelt on the greatness of God which led him to confess the sins of his people.

  • He Claimed the Covenant Promises of God

“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ (Nehemiah 1:8-9)

God in His mercy had anticipated events such as this, and made provision for it. God had warned very clearly in Scripture that exile would inevitably follow unfaithfulness. Israel was now reaping the consequences of her actions. But God had also promised that repentance was the doorway to restoration.
In John Bunyan’s classic, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the two pilgrims, Christian and Hopeful are caught by Giant Despair. They are flung into his dungeon in Doubting Castle. Their spirits are low. But then Christian suddenly remembers a key named “promises” that is in his pocket. Pulling it out he finds that it opens every single door leading them out of Doubting Castle. And Giant Despair dies of apoplexy as he sees the pilgrims escaping. Nehemiah also knew how to use the key of promises to escape from his doubts.

We are no different. If we memorise scripture promises, the Holy Spirit can remind us when we need to claim them. David says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11). Nehemiah dwelt on the greatness of God. He confessed his people’s sins, he claimed the covenant promises of God.

  • He Committed his Next Steps to God

“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man.” (Nehemiah 1:10-11)

The challenge must have looked impossible. Nehemiah did not know how God was going to work things out, but he must have realised that his strategic position in the court of Artaxerxes (pron. Artaxarces) was no coincidence. As we shall see next week Nehemiah continued to pray for that opportunity over four long months before being given his opportunity. And in God’s mercy it was the king who took the initiative. Israel’s predicament and Nehemiah’s prayer. And lastly,

  1. God’s Providence

“I was cupbearer to the king.” (Nehemiah 1:11). In these brief closing words, we are taken up high above the circumstances of Israel’s predicament to see a hint of God’s redemptive plan. For like Joseph the slave who became Prime Minister in Egypt, and like Esther, the immigrant who became Queen in Susa, God raised up Nehemiah to be cupbearer to the King – for such a time as this. The position of wine taster was equivalent to that of a royal body guard.   The safety of the king and the stability of the Persian Empire depended on his integrity, his character, his sharp eyes, his initiative and knowledge of palace intrigue. It could be no coincidence that an exile from one of the provinces should rise to such an influential position of trust without the providence of God at work.

Here is the amazing thing. The project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem had waited a century to complete, rather like the channel tunnel project. While the Frenchman, Albert Mathieu-Favier is credited with the idea in 1802, the Channel Tunnel Company was only founded by British engineer John Hawkshaw, in 1875. Between 1882-1950 a further ten plans were rejected, mostly on the grounds of national security. The channel tunnel eventually took another thirty six years to complete.

Nehemiah had probably been serving the king as cup bearer for many, many years…. But within 52 days of God giving this one man, Nehemiah a burden for Jerusalem, the work had begun. From the divine perspective, God in His sovereignty, chose to use Nehemiah at this time. From a human perspective, Nehemiah simply responded to God’s initiative. Next week we will begin to see how undreamed of advances could be made.

All because one man was close to the Father heart of God. It was only after Nehemiah’s weeping that he began working. God turned his despair into determination. One person, that is all it took after one hundred years of waiting. And God has a plan for each one of us. Nearly two hundred years before Nehemiah, the prophet Jeremiah had been God’s messenger,

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

That promise came true through individuals like Ezra & Nehemiah. Israel’s predicament was caught up in Nehemiah’s prayer, and answered in God’s providence. God’s promise to bless our future also depends upon one person’s willingness to be used by God, and that one person is… you. And it all begins with prayer, so lets pray.

“I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29).

Lord God, king of the universe, give us a vision for Christ Church. Give us a sanctified imagination, to dream dreams, and discover from you the plans you have for Christ Church. Then gives us the vision, the patience, the faith, the tenacity, the perseverance and wisdom we need to fulfil them. For your glory, In Jesus Name. Amen.