God's position doesn't isolate Him.
When I was growing up, Bette Midler’s song From a Distance was popular on the radio. Perhaps you remember the last line of the chorus: God is watching us from a distance. I think this is how a lot of people see God—as some sort of distant, unengaged Deity who doesn’t really care about the day-to-day lives of His creatures. He may be up there, and He may be running things, but He certainly doesn’t have time for the “little people.”
And I suppose that’s why Scripture so often portrays God differently. Many times, the Bible portrays God as directly involved, very directly involved. The Old Testament is chock full of stories that depict God as not only close, but up close and personal. It pictures Him as an almost in-your-face kinda guy who really cares about the decisions you make and, if necessary, will do all He can to motivate you to make the right ones! At other times, Scripture indirectly portrays God as involved by highlighting the actions and attitudes of one of His ambassadors (in this case, Nehemiah).
This chapter is all about Nehemiah’s response to the state of things in Jerusalem. And it all began with a question: “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.” (vs 2)
He is so distressed at what he hears that he wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed, trying to think of a way to help remedy the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem. And then, right at the end of the chapter, a little kicker: “I was cupbearer to the king.” (vs 11)
Wow. Here was a man who had returned from exile and had had great success in his career path. Instead of ending up as a peasant tending to a small plot of land, he was the king’s cupbearer. He lived in the palace and enjoyed the royal life. And that’s why it impressed me so much that he remembered the “little people” in Jerusalem. And not only did he remember them, but he was very emotionally invested in their living conditions. His position in the palace didn’t render him incapable of caring.
I think that’s just what God is like. It is true that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present. He has every resource at His disposal. He is King of the Universe; nobody can oppose Him. He is over all and above all. Yet, He has made Himself the lowest of the low. His position doesn’t isolate Him from us. In fact, just the opposite. He uses the advantage of His position for our benefit. He takes the time to be intimately involved in our lives, down to the very smallest detail.
So, with all due respect to Bette Midler, God is indeed watching us, but it’s never from a distance. He who sits on the Heaven’s throne is still nearer to us than our closest friend. His exalted position never gets in the way of His care and concern for us.
God gets His hands dirty.
This chapter, for me, held another stunning example of what God is like, as observed in the actions of His ambassador Nehemiah. After hearing about the state of things in Jerusalem, Nehemiah had prayed to God that restoration would come to that great Israelite city. He determined that, at some time, he would have the opportunity to speak to the king about what was on his heart.
And some months later, his opportunity arrived. The king noticed that his cupbearer looked out of sorts and asked him what was wrong. Nehemiah replied, “Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (vs 3)
Then, the king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. Now, just consider this for a moment. It’s the time you’ve been waiting for. Because of your position in the royal court, you have the king’s attention on a matter that is so important to you, and he asks you what you want—thereby implying that he will do whatever he can to help. And this was Nehemiah’s response: “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (vs 5)
Did that strike you? I found that incredible. At that moment, Nehemiah seemingly had the resources of the nation within his reach, and what did he ask for? He asked to be able to go and rebuild the city gates himself. It’s not as if the king didn’t have legions of laborers at his disposal. Nehemiah could have asked for an army of carpenters and masons to descend upon Jerusalem and get the job done. But, for Nehemiah, it was personal. He wanted to go himself.
That immediately reminded me of what Paul says about God in Romans: “God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.” (Rom 8:3)
What do we learn about God from this? He gets His hands dirty. When sin entered His universe and He was faced with the biggest crisis His government had ever known, God didn’t just sit back and let someone else handle the mess. No, He said, I’ll go. Jesus said, Send me. He personally waded right into the middle of the mess and set about restoring things.
Just as we saw yesterday, God is never distant and remote. Where His creation is involved—especially when it’s in trouble!—He is right there in the middle of it all, working to bring healing and restoration. He doesn’t think about the cost. He doesn’t consider the sacrifice. He just does whatever needs to be done, and He does it Himself. Instead of expecting someone else to do the job, He says, Here I am. I’ll go.
God is a team leader.
Several times in our journey so far through the Old Testament, we have witnessed God’s love of community. Since love is relational, it is always seeking community. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that the type of community God wants is only found in the mutual unity of a group of individuals. (These days, when some think of community, they tend to think of a community as a single organism that is more important than an individual. But true community begins with the individual.)
This chapter holds another great example of the kind of community God is after. There was a repetitive phrase that ran all the way through this chapter, with no less than 15 occurrences! Did you catch it? It is next to him. As Nehemiah describes the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall, he works his way around the city, chronicling the names of those who restored each section, one next to the other, one right after the other.
For me, what this clearly indicated was that the wall of Jerusalem could never have been rebuilt by one person. Or even two, three, or ten people. It was definitely a team effort. It required a community of individuals coming together to focus on and complete their part of the project. When everyone put their energies into the small section they were in charge of, the whole wall was completed.
I don’t know about you, but I have often fallen into the trap of trying to do things all by myself. Sometimes it’s because I think I can. Other times, it’s because I think it is easier to just do something I can do rather than trying to rely on somebody else to do it—especially if I think it may not get done in the way I would prefer to have it done.
But God doesn’t even function like that. And if there is anybody who could, it’s Him! He can do absolutely anything, yet He chooses to be a team leader. He chooses to share the responsibility (and the glory) of things with us, because He is more concerned about community than He is about making sure everything is done perfectly. He prefers to involve us rather than leave us out.
In the body of Christ, every part—no matter how big or small—is important. From the largest organ (the skin) all the way down to the tiniest bone (the stirrup bone in the ear), if one part is missing, the whole body suffers. Just as in Nehemiah’s day: If one person had failed to finish their job, there would have been a whole in the wall.
God wants you. He needs you. In His grand plan, you—yes, you!—are vitally important. With God, there are no “little people.” As we work with God and “next to” each other, we’ll find that, together, we can accomplish much more than we ever could on our own.
God dissolves fear.
Well, some people just didn’t want that Jerusalem wall rebuilt! “When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry.” (vs 7) First, they had tried to intimidate the people with insults and threats. When that didn’t stop the work, they plotted to attack the people who were rebuilding the wall.
Of course, this made the people very nervous. They posted a guard at the wall day and night to respond to any threats that came up. Later, Nehemiah stationed some of the people with swords, spears, and bows at the weakest points along the wall. Still, tensions were high, and many people were afraid.
That’s when Nehemiah “stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.’” (vs 14)
Did you notice the two things that are linked in that verse? Don’t be afraid and Remember the Lord. The reason those two things are linked is because they go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. If you are afraid, it’s because you’ve forgotten the Lord, “who is great and awesome.” And if you remember the Lord, there is truly no place for fear.
God dissolves fear. Seriously. Take a moment to think about it. No matter what you’re facing, how can fear, worry, and anxiety grip your heart when you remember the Lord and who He is? He is the one who created the heavens and the earth. He is the one who has complete control over nature. He is the one who has performed every possible miracle—healing disease, calming storms, multiplying food, and even resurrecting people from the grave. Nothing is too hard for Him. Nothing is impossible with Him.
When you know that this God is on your side, and when you know there are no limits on what He can do when it is the best and right thing to do, how can you be afraid? As Paul said in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” No one can oppose you. No one can snatch you out of His hand. And any hard thing that comes to you in life is not a surprise to Him. He has seen it coming, and if He allows it to unfold in your life, He must know that—for whatever reason—it is for the best, for He is working all things together for your good.
So, the next time you’re afraid, take Nehemiah’s advice. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome. He is bigger than anyone and anything we will encounter in this life. And His plan for you is right on target and right on time.
God values responsibilities over rights.
It is an interesting trend in our culture that we value rights over responsibilities. Just ask yourself how often you hear language such as “It’s my right!” as opposed to “That’s my responsibility.” In fact, we even like to use the smokescreen of “rights” to shirk responsibility. But this is the opposite of what God is like. He values responsibilities over rights.
Think of that for a moment. God had every “right” to abandon us in our predicament. Yet, He took the responsibility upon Himself to help us—even though that responsibility came at great personal cost. He did not think of Himself, but rather, He thought of us. He abandoned His rights to take up the mantle of responsibility.
Nehemiah did the same thing in this chapter: “Moreover, 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.” (vs 14-16)
As governor, it was Nehemiah’s “right” to enjoy the amenities of the position. The food and wine, the salary, and acquired land . . . if Nehemiah had accepted any or all of these things, nobody would have blamed him. He was entitled to them. They were his “right.” But instead of taking advantage of these entitlements, Nehemiah chose the path of responsibility in order to benefit the people. He did what God would have done.
Think now of Jesus’s life and ministry. How often did He speak of rights? How often did He talk of responsibility? Maybe we ought to take that lesson to heart. Instead of worrying about our rights and whether they’re being respected or not, perhaps we ought to consider how we could shoulder more responsibility. That’s what God would do.
God sometimes says no.
I was recently engaged in a conversation about whether God really answers our prayers. A question had come up regarding the passage where Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mk 11:23-24) and we were discussing the merits of “name it and claim it” theology.
The person I was talking with had been asking God for something specific for more than 10 years—to no avail. God still hadn’t given him what he had asked for, although he was quite sure that his faith wasn’t to blame. Thus, he was confused over why he was getting nowhere with his prayers, when God so often says that “because of your faith, it has been granted to you.” (See Lk 18)
When I have discussions like these, my first inclination is always to want to remind people that “no” is just as valid an answer as “yes.” We often hear someone talk about not having their prayers answered if they didn’t get the answer they wanted. The fact is, God ALWAYS answers prayers, while the hard reality is, He often answers them in a way we don’t expect or like. Which always leads me to my second inclination, which is to remember all the things I’ve begged God for in my life . . . and then to shudder at the prospect of what my life would look like if He had actually said yes. Thank God He says no! And thank God He says no more often than He says yes.
Having said that, let’s ask now what this has to do with Nehemiah 6. Nehemiah spent this chapter saying no. Throughout the chapter, Nehemiah’s enemies were trying to set him up in a bad situation. They kept sending him invitations to meet them, and he kept saying no. He didn’t care if he was seen as being impolite or rude. He knew what they were up to, and he knew it was best if he didn’t play into their hands.
Finally, his enemies had exhausted the route of polite invitations, and one of them sent Nehemiah a sealed letter filled with rumors and veiled (or not-so-veiled) threats about what would happen if he didn’t acquiesce to their demands. Was Nehemiah then intimidated? Nope. I love his straightforward response: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” ( vs 8 )
Nehemiah spent this entire chapter saying no because it was the best thing to do for all parties involved. I believe God does the same thing with us. I’m not saying that our prayers are filled with requests to God that we know are evil or that we have bad motives. Actually, the more dangerous fact is, we don’t even know our motives, because we don’t know our own hearts. We are often unaware of the evil that lurks in our hearts, but God is wise to it, and—like Nehemiah—He is not going to do anything that wouldn’t be in our best interests. When He knows it is right to do so, He will say no, and He won’t have any heartburn about it.
So, while we think it’s bad news that God sometimes declines our requests, the truth is that it’s very good news! God knows just what we truly need, and He is working in and through all of life’s circumstances to actually do what is best and right for each one of us. And when you think about it, that’s what you really want, isn’t it? Would you want Him to give you everything you ask for (just because you asked for it), even if He knows it will hurt you? Of course not, and those of you who are parents know that you do the very same thing when it comes to your own children.
God does what is best for us—even when what is best temporarily disappoints us. That is cause for rejoicing! And I would encourage you to remember that the next time you’re frustrated because God seems to be saying no. By declining whatever it is you’re asking for, He’s really paving the way for something better.
God likes corroboration.
So, I began reading this chapter of Nehemiah, and it didn’t take very long for a wave of deja vu to wash over me. Haven’t I heard this somewhere before? I thought. Sure enough. Fifteen days ago, when we studied Ezra chapter 2. The information contained in both chapters is nearly verbatim.
Of course, this isn’t the only place in the Bible where there are parallel stories, facts, and information. But with two chapters in such close proximity to each other, I had to wonder, why is all of this stuff in here twice? Why would the Spirit inspire both of these authors to write down nearly the same thing?
I suppose a great deal of the answer to that question lies in how you view the topic of inspiration. Some people believe that inspiration works like dictation; sort of like the Spirit has a list of things that need to be written down, and He doles the information out to different people by whispering in the ear. But I don’t think inspiration works quite that way. I think God inspires people, not material.
Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries. While Nehemiah was overseeing the reconstruction of the Jerusalem wall, Ezra was concerned with bringing the spiritual law back to Israel. They both lived and worked in the same time period. But it’s not known whether they compared notes when they wrote their memoirs. They probably didn’t. And they both ended up using some of the same significant facts and figures in their stories. I guess some people could look at that and complain that God is wasting space in the Bible. After all, if a chronicled list of all the exiles who returned from Babylon is in the Bible once, does it really need to be there twice? For what purpose?
Well, I believe that one of the reasons it’s “in there” is because God values corroboration. It is precisely because He doesn’t work on the “dictation” method of inspiration that we find these sorts of duplicate passages in Scripture. They were written by separate people with separate perspectives; thus, they act as corroborating witnesses.
Ironically, it sometimes works the opposite way in Scripture: Authors who relate the same story in different passages, but end up with different details. For instance, none of the four Gospel writers agree about how many people went to Jesus’s tomb on Easter Sunday morning. That’s an example of how small details get changed over the course of time and with differing perspectives, yet the witness about the larger point of the story is consistent.
God likes corroboration. He never asks us to “take His word for it.” And often, He doesn’t even ask us to take the word of only one other person for it. In Scripture, God provides a wealth of evidence from a variety of sources to make His case and help us make an informed decision. He will never ask us to make a choice without providing the evidence!
God brings us joy through the law.
Ah, the law. The one topic that is the time-honored whipping boy of Christianity. Is the law still in effect? Was it nailed to the cross? Done away with? Is there a difference between law and grace? And what does “law” mean? Are we talking about the Ten Commandments? The Mosaic Law? The Law of Love as defined by Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40?
Regardless of the answers to those questions (which I’ll leave you to figure out on your own), there was an awfully intriguing exchange regarding the law in today’s chapter: “[The priests] read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” (vs 8-10)
When the people reacted with sadness at the reading of the law, they were rebuked by the priests! (That was part of their education about the law.) Apparently, God never intended the law to be something that would bring sadness to us, but something that would cause us to celebrate and have a feast.
I bet you never thought about linking the law with a celebration (unless you’re one of those folks who believe Jesus destroyed the law and you’re happy about that). But the more I thought about it, the more I saw how true and profound this idea really is.
First of all, let’s start with the Ten Commandments. Was this law cause for celebration? I should say so! Do you realize that the Israelites had not only come out of 400 years of slavery in a heathen nation, but they were also surrounded by heathen nations on all sides? Let’s ask ourselves a couple of questions about this. What was the hallmark of a heathen nation? Idol worship. And what is the hallmark of idol worship? Trying to worship something that doesn’t exist. It is putting your faith and trust in a god who can’t help you or even communicate with you.
Contrast that with the Israelites who were brought out of Egypt by a God they didn’t call on. He found them, not the other way around. And instead of the usual frustrating process of trying to find out what the false god required of you so you could appease him, the God of the Israelites sat them down around the mountain and made an actual covenant with them. He came to them and told them who He was, what He wanted, and what He promised to do for them. He was real. Actual. Tangible. He showed up. He talked. He acted. Cause for celebration indeed!
How about the Mosaic Law? Dozens of laws regarding the regulation of Israelite society. Was this cause for celebration? Absolutely! Because of these laws, the Israelites were light-years ahead of their heathen neighbors in terms of health and hygiene, humane treatment of women and slaves, matters of justice, and so forth. The Bible says that when other nations and leaders became acquainted with the laws of the God of Heaven, they marveled at the wisdom they contained. They certainly recognized those laws as cause for celebration!
And what about the Law of Love? When Jesus expanded the understanding of the Ten Commandments by saying things such as, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28), was this cause for celebration? Absolutely! God was helping us understand that He has the power to not only help us to stop doing bad behavior, but to help us stop even wanting to do it. With God, we can be restored to complete health and wholeness—on the inside as well as the outside.
I have experienced this in another way in my life recently. As I have gone through pregnancy with our first child, I have realized that God has set up laws that govern my pregnant body and the development of my child. I’m not doing anything to make these changes happen; they’re just happening. And whenever I go in for an ultrasound or talk to the doctor about what’s happening with the baby’s development, I marvel. The laws God has put in place to regulate this process are incredible. I seldom leave a doctor’s appointment without having the occasion to think, God, You’re cool.
When the law of God is revealed to us, we discover that it is, first and foremost, a revelation about Him. And it is the revelation of Him that leads us to this joy and celebration. He is wonderful! He is awesome! His ways are too marvelous for words! No wonder David calls His law a delight. We should too.
God always has a but.
Yes, before you get too worked up, observe the spelling of the word “but” in the title. It’s a part of speech, not a part of the body! And it illustrates something wonderful about God—that He is always eager to give us another chance and that He is always willing to forgive, forget, and move on.
In this chapter, as the Israelite exiles recounted the history of God and their nation, there were a lot of buts flying around:
“You told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands.” (vs 15-16)
“They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them.” (vs 17)
“You warned them in order to turn them back to your law, but they became arrogant and disobeyed your commands.” (vs 29)
“By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (vs 30-31)
Especially in passages like this, the word but is always a game-changer. God was faithful and kind to the Israelites, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with Him. The Israelites were stubborn in their rebellion, but God treated them with mercy and grace.
Just like the Israelites, we are still veering off-course today. Sometimes it’s conscious. Sometimes it’s not. Either way, God always has another but up His sleeve. When we’ve thrown a but (like a wrench) into the middle of the situation and messed everything up, God comes right back to us with His own game-changer.
We expect punishment, but God practices forgiveness. We expect to be given up on, but God is faithful until the very end. He doesn’t let our but determine the final outcome. If we veer off-course, He is there to meet us with a new revelation of grace. But is definitely one of the biggest words in God’s vocabulary!
God gives us strength.
So, the people had returned from exile. They had rebuilt the temple and the Jerusalem wall. They had heard the law proclaimed from the temple steps and been appalled that they had fallen so far from God’s ideal. They resolved to do better. And so they entered into a covenant, a signed contract with God. They promised to obey everything God had asked them to do:
“The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand—all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.” (vs 28-29)
I thought the italicized phrase in that Scripture passage was interesting. To me, it almost evoked the idea of, We will do this . . . or else. And now many of us haven’t, at one time or another, approached a goal that way? Whether it’s losing weight, exercising more, learning an instrument, or keeping a cleaner house, we’ve all had the experience of trying to “white-knuckle” it when it comes to something we know we should do, but maybe don’t want to.
So, we bind ourselves with curses and oaths. We swear to punish ourselves if we fail. Or we swear to reward ourselves if we succeed. Does that sound familiar? How has your success rate been with that sort of system? Do you typically find yourself reaching the goals you set? Or do you find yourself failing and starting over time and time again? (I fall into the latter category.)
Not to spoil what’s to come, but the Israelites are also going to find themselves again in the latter category. This signed covenant isn’t going to help them adhere to their promises, and they will once again veer off-course.
I wonder if that’s because the Israelites were still trying to “white-knuckle” it. They were still trying to bind themselves with curses and oaths instead of coming to God and admitting that they were helpless to change. Some time later, it seems Paul had gotten the message loud and clear, because he wrote, “I can (only) do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13)
Yes, I added the “only.” But it’s true. The more we try to do something in our strength, the more we will fail. It’s when we cry out to God and admit that we don’t have what it takes to change ourselves that He is enabled to work in us to effect the change we so desperately need. Until we are willing to humble ourselves in this way, however, we will continue to find ourselves chained to the cycle of curses and oaths.
God doesn’t want us to be chained up! He wants us to be free! And today, He has all the strength you need to accomplish whatever it is you’re running after. So, don’t go the route of the white knuckles. Don’t be determined to find success on your own. Go to your source of strength. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you!
God makes personal sacrifices.
Once the temple and the walls had been rebuilt, Jerusalem was in need of a population. But it seems like there weren’t too many people eager to live there. The beginning of chapter 11 tells us how the city was settled: “Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.” (vs 1-2)
So, here we see that the leaders settled in Jerusalem. That only made sense, since the temple was there; thus, they were under a necessary obligation to live there. Then, there were people who were obligated to live there because they had been selected during the process of casting lots. But there was also a third category. Verse two says the people commended those who volunteered to live there. That makes it sound like a remarkable thing that anybody would want to live in Jerusalem. Why was it such an unpopular idea?
1. It would require something akin to starting a new business venture. Family fortunes in Israel were passed down through land. If you were going to pack up and move to Jerusalem, you’d have to sell your family’s land and start all over in Jerusalem. That might or might not work out.
2. Connected to the first reason you might not want to move to Jerusalem was the fact that it wasn’t an ideal place to start over. It had been deserted for seventy years, and even though the temple and walls had been rebuilt, things were still in a very fragile state. There was still a lot of work to be done to make Jerusalem a functioning place to live.
3. Just like any kind of move, packing up and moving to Jerusalem would require you to leave friends and possibly family behind. It would require a re-ordering of your social priorities, forcing you to leave your comfort zone and build a new social structure. For most people, that’s a daunting prospect.
4. After all the animosity and opposition to the rebuilding of the temple and the city walls, people living in Jerusalem had to know that they were targets for those who hated Israel. Armies from surrounding nations were likely to want to make an example out of Jerusalem and destroy all the restoration that had been made.
So, at the very least, moving to Jerusalem would require people to sacrifice in a material way, a social way, and possibly a physical way. Yet there were some who were apparently willing to make such sacrifices. And, when you think about it, that’s also what God is like.
God makes personal sacrifices for our benefit. For those families who volunteered to inhabit a place like Jerusalem for their fellow Israelites can be compared to our God, who volunteered to inhabit a dismal place like this world for us. His actions involved the same kind of material, social, and physical sacrifice—including becoming a target for the enemy.
So, whenever we engage in self-sacrifice, we are near to the heart of God. Everything He has done, is doing, and will do for His creation involves self-sacrifice on His part. He never has to be forced to take action. He always volunteers!
God's giving inspires our giving.
When all the people came together to dedicate the temple, it was a day of great pomp and celebration. There was feasting and music, with dozens of instruments and two huge choirs. Nehemiah says the “sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.” (vs 43) When these Israelites threw a party, they apparently made sure everyone knew about it!
What stuck out to me, though, was the rest of verse 43: “On that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy.” Their day of celebration included a great deal of sacrifices and offerings, all of which were precipitated by God’s great giving to them. This is the cycle of giving in God’s great circle of life: He gives to us, and we, in turn, give back to Him with hearts full of thanksgiving and praise.
It is God’s giving that inspires us to give—both to Him and to others. God’s generosity always comes first. And when we recognize how generous He is, it can’t help but inspire us to want to be more like Him. And the more we give, the more we receive. With God, the blessings never stop. As James wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (Jam 1:17)
It’s only when we close our fist and stop the flow of blessings that the cycle is interrupted. Unfortunately, that sometimes happens. But God never closes His fist. His hands are always open, and He is always seeking to pour out blessings on us. And when we recognize His generosity, may we be willing to open our hands in return and give to others as He has given to us.
God wants us to surrender.
For Nehemiah, this must have been a shocking end to his story. He had devoted his life to overseeing the rebuilding of the Jerusalem walls and ushering in a new era of spiritual revival for the Israelites. The dramatic rebuilding of the wall—which had survived numerous attacks and intended detours by political enemies—had been topped off by a spiritual celebration in the temple, culminating in a signed covenant made by the people.
In particular, they promised three things: Not to intermarry with the heathen people around them; not to buy or sell on the Sabbath; and to care for the temple by providing tithes and offerings for the Levites. Imagine Nehemiah’s surprise, then, when he showed up about ten years later and found that the Israelites had: Intermarried with the heathen people around them; started buying and selling on the Sabbath; and neglected to provide for the temple, causing the Levites to abandon their duties and return home to their fields.
Nehemiah was surprised by these turn of events, but God was not. I find that so interesting. When the people made their signed covenant with God, promising to obey all the things He had asked them to do, He knew they weren’t going to follow through. He knew that ten years down the road, they would be back to their old ways. He knew they would break their covenant.
This is why I believe that God wants us to surrender. What does that mean? I think He wants us to forget about trying to behave and humbly admit to Him that we don’t have the first clue about how to change our evil hearts. You see, the bad behavior is just a symptom of the disease. Sin is the problem, and it is not cured by controlling behavior. (Look no further than the Pharisees for proof of that!)
God wants to heal us of our sin problem, but we are so often preoccupied with our behavior problem that we totally ignore God and what He wants to do in our lives. Because while it’s true that controlling our outward behavior can save us from a lot of unsavory consequences in life, it doesn’t address our internal sin problem.
Consider this from Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:27-28) Wow! Here, Jesus takes something that has been considered an external behavior problem and identified its root in the heart. Adultery begins on the inside, where we can’t see it. Thus, we are less concerned with regulating it.
However, God wants to attack sin at its root. And as long as we are preoccupied with just getting our behavior right, we will likely keep God at arm’s length when it comes to the real problem of sin in our lives. That’s why God wants us to surrender. That’s why He wants us to stop trying to fix ourselves and instead look to Him and trust Him to fix us. He knows how to do it, but He can’t do it without our cooperation.