They said to me, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its [fortified] gates have been burned (destroyed) by fire.” Now it came about when I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying [constantly] before the God of heaven.
Most of us spend our lives trying to project an image of beauty and competence. Certainly we want others to think highly of us, but one of the things I respect most about people is their ruthless honest- about themselves and their situations. Nehemiah had a plum job. He was working closely with the king, and he lived a life of luxury. His heart, though, beat in unison with God’s heart. He cared about the things God cares about, and when he heard that the people in Jerusalem were suffering, his heart broke. He didn’t minimize the problem, and he didn’t fly into a panic of mindless activity. Instead, he let the brutal truth sink in, and he responded appropriately. He sat down and wept.
Nehemiah had a courageous conversation with the messenger, then he had a courageous conversation with God. Only courageous people are known for their honesty. It’s a lot easier to look the other way when we see needs in our lives or in the lives of people around us. We can give this excuse that we’ve tried as hard as we can or that we don’t have time to help a person in need. But excuses don’t cut it. Like Nehemiah, we need to let the truth sink into our hearts so we can respond with genuine compassion.
This is just part of Nehemiah’s story. He then took bold action to gather resources, inspire people, and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Successful action, though, starts with ruthless honesty about the need.
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.- Winston Churchill
It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the world today is unaware of the crisis we are in. Yet, amazingly enough there are those who put their head into the sand and ignore any information that does not fit their notions about how life should be. Many live in regret, somehow stuck in the place of thinking, “If only I had/hadn’t done that, I would be in a better situation.” Others look for a scape goat, someone or something on which to place the blame. Let’s look closely at the story of Nehemiah and see what we can learn.
First of all we find Nehemiah concerned about the people of God for we read that he inquired about their condition when his brother and others visited him in the palace. Nehemiah was in a very good place. Although he had been captured by the Babylonians and carried to Babylon, God had placed him in an influential place. He could have stayed in that place of comfort just like we who are the children of God can rest in our place. He could have decided that life was about him and that it was designed to provide his needs, desires and preferences. You see, there are many, even in the church, that have decided that it’s all about them and their wishes. Without being anything more than honest, let me say we live in a world that majors in believing that we are the only ones that matter and everything ought to work toward providing us what we deserve and what is our right to have. It’s easy for us to feel because we work hard, we give, we serve, we are members of society, that it’s only fair for us to have it our way. We want to make life the Burger King life where we can “have it your way.” Nehemiah could have said to his brother, “I’m sorry you all are suffering, but don’t ask me to get involved. I have responsibilities to the king, this is a good job, and since God put me here, I ought to enjoy it.”
This brings it to us. Are we really so self-centered that as long as everything is going to suit us we can ignore those around us? Can we as Christians live with our hope of eternity with God and ignore those around us who don’t know Christ? Can we get so involved with our church activities designed to benefit us solely that we can overlook those who are dying in their sins without Christ? Can we make church so much about us that when things don’t go our way we check out, stay home, complain? Let’s look again at Nehemiah and his story. He was so concerned for others that when he was visited by his brother, his first question was about the welfare of those left in Jerusalem. We, too, must become more concerned about those who are lost, hurting, confused, and in bondage to sin than we are over whether things are going our way.
The second thing we find with Nehemiah was that he wanted to know the brutal truth. He didn’t stop at asking the surface questions but he dug deep into the actual reality. We must face the realities of our world today. We cannot look away, hide our faces, and continue as though nothing has changed. We are familiar with the phrase, “Nero played while Rome burned.” This phrase says that it is possible to pretend that everything is well when in truth it’s not. The beginning of a solution to any problem is an accurate analysis that is based on facts rather than subjective perception. Nehemiah, wanted to believe that things were well with those left in Jerusalem but when he heard the facts, he did not meet them with denial but with tears. The actual condition of his people was heart breaking and he could no longer push it aside and enjoy the benefits of the palace.
Nehemiah didn’t wring his hands. He didn’t call a committee meeting to decide what, if anything to do. There were no lengthy meetings that took place over and over with nothing being decided and he didn’t kick the can down the road hoping someone else would have to deal with it. When he faced the honest assessment, he immediately went to God with the facts. From his deep concern- “when I heard those words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying constantly before the Gods of heaven,” Nehemiah was so moved by the situation that it began to show to others. His boss, the king noticed.
So the king said to me, “Why do you look sad when you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very frightened,
But God gave Nehemiah the courage to share his burden with his boss. As a servant, he had no ability to address the situation, but the king did and the king was so moved by the concern of Nehemiah that he granted permission to go and access the situation.
From there we find Nehemiah taking action to bring about a change. He was unwilling for it to remain the same. He left the privilege of the palace and went to where his people were in need and became one of them. He gave up his preferences so that his people could have relief from their enemies and could live in safety. This must be us as the church. We can not afford to linger in our safe buildings and major in activities designed to benefit us solely. We dare not keep having round table discussions that talk around the subject with no action plan. We dare not keep talking about what should be done without doing anything. We must cease decrying the situation and mourning over the losses of our remembered past and move forward with viable actions that actually address the situation. We cannot throw our hands up in despair, but we must seek God for His wisdom and direction. To be sure the situation is difficult. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he found the walls torn down, the gates burned, and the people in great distress. He could have just went back to the palace and said, “This is hopeless.” But instead he rolled up his sleeves, and began rebuilding the wall. This work was not without challenges and neither will ours. As the enemies saw that they were losing their access to the people of God they threatened them and tried to put them under the bondage of fear so they would not move forward in the work. This is true for us today. No person, no church will ever move toward the God-planned future without having to deal with those who will try to pressure them to cease moving and to remain in that place of distress. You see, the devil doesn’t mind if we just talk about the need for change as long as we don’t actually take any action to bring it about. He is perfectly willing for us to die in distress, kick the can down the road, wait for some magical moment, and hold on to our dreams as long as we don’t try to throw off our captivity. Nehemiah and the wall builders wound up having a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. What this says to us is that we must build toward the future, build a wall that keeps the darkness at bay, a wall of defense against the destruction of the devil. While we are building the wall we must be aware that we will face opposition. This is why, like Nehemiah, we must first go to God for His blueprints of our future and once we have them we build toward them and let nothing deter us from their completion.
Let us rise and build!
Dr. John Thompson