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Introduction to Nehemiah

June 2, 2024 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Nehemiah

Topic: Expository Passage: Nehemiah 1:1-3

 

Introduction

(Read Text) Everyone loves having a hero. So, small children pretend they are Superman, Cinderella, or a policeman. You’ve probably stopped dressing up like your heroes, but I’d love to know if your husband walks around the house in a Batman costume, or if your wife pretends she is Wonder Woman.

But adults still have heroes. You revere certain people, you want to be like them, and you imitate them. That’s good. The Bible is filled with heroes. They make godliness real, and they inspire us to pursue it.

One of the very best biblical heroes you should embrace is Nehemiah. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know this man, and I am amazed at every turn. We know him best because he rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls in 52 days (6:15)!

But he was much more than a great contractor. He was a great leader. And he was godly. Nehemiah was a prayer warrior, he had strong faith and great passion for God’s purpose. He was wise and generous. He loved righteousness and despised wickedness.

So, I’m excited to get to know this man together over the next few months. You’ll be instructed, convicted and inspired. But God is the ultimate hero in Nehemiah. We’re going to come away with greater faith in God and greater passion for his purpose.

To do all that, we need a good foundation. So, today, I want to introduce the book and get you oriented for the study. All my sermons are kind of nerdy, but this one will be especially nerdy. But hang with me because we’ve going to lay an essential foundation. And we’ll get to some important application at the end. But before all that, I want to rehearse a couple important principles that we must remember whenever we study biblical stories.

I.  Reminders about OT Narrative

The Bible is packed with great stories, including some of the greatest stories ever told.

But sometimes we struggle to apply them. Afterall, most stories never say “The moral of the story is…” So, we need a good strategy for recognizing what God is trying to say. First, be sure to…

Look at the pieces in light of the big picture. So often we immediately get caught up in details. We want to know about every town or city. We want to know why a character did this instead of that. And our only application question is, “What actions should I imitate or reject?”

For example, Esther 1 tells a fascinating story of how Queen Vashti lost her throne. It’s filled with greed, drunkenness, lust, and pride. And it is a sober warning about the consequences of sin. But if that’s all you see, you have missed the forest for the trees. In particular, you have missed God’s mighty hand of providence that undergirds everything else in Esther. That would be so tragic. You could make the same mistake with Nehemiah.

So, stay focused on the big picture. Who was the audience? What is God telling them? What does this story tell us about God and his will? Step back and remember the big picture. Otherwise, you will often miss the primary point. Second…

Look at the big picture in light of God’s eternal purpose. The biblical story is not ultimately about us. It is about God’s pursuit of his purpose. Specifically, “Through Him (Christ) (God is seeking) to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:20).

God is undoing the effects of sin. He is building a kingdom of saints. They will live in a perfect creation and enjoy his presence for all eternity. And the cross is the center of this story. You must see each part of the biblical story through this purpose.

Yes, Nehemiah is a great story about a great man. But we must do better than enjoying a great story or grabbing a bunch of practical applications about leadership and building projects. We must see God, and we must see how Nehemiah fits in God’s ultimate, biggest story of redemption. To do that, we must understand Nehemiah’s historical context.

II.  Historical Context

The first verse tells us Nehemiah’s story begins “in Susa the capital,” “in the month Chislev, in the 20th” You’re probably not thinking, “Oh yeah, I got that.” But that little note is important. In particular, Nehemiah’s story takes place during the last stage of OT history, a period we often call, “Captivity and Return.” Understanding this time is vital for understanding Nehemiah.

Brice designed this timeline for me a few years ago that is very helpful for keeping this period straight. It includes major world events, biblical events, and where books of the Bible fit with these things.

No event is more foundational to this period or to Nehemiah than the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar killed the last Davidic king, and he leveled Jerusalem. He destroyed its walls, every major building, and most importantly, the temple. Then he took every skilled citizen into captivity. He only left the poorest and weakest people in the land.

Israel deserved it for their rebellion, but it was still a devastating blow to the faithful remnant. Afterall, Israel’s hopes depended on the Davidic kings and the land of Israel. But now David’s heirs were in captivity, and they had no land and no temple.

But Israel was not without hope. Jeremiah prophesied that God would bring them home after 70 years. “This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. ‘Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the Lord, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation” (Jer 25:11–13).

This prophecy sounded absurd. Babylon seemed invincible. But God’s word came true. The Persians conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., and year later Cyrus did the unthinkable. He made a decree allowing the Jews to return home. He even paid for them to rebuild the temple.

1st Return: 2.5 years ago, we walked through the book of Ezra which tells the story of the 1st If you weren’t around yet, I’d encourage you to listen to that series because Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book. They tell one big story. You can access them at sermonaudio.com.

That said, Ezra 1–7 tell the story of the 1st return which began in 538 B.C. The book is called Ezra, but he wasn’t even born yet. Rather Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, let the first return.

It was a huge deal considering the devastation Israel and Jerusalem had endured. God kept his promise, and he brought the Jews home against seemingly impossible odds.

But the romance ended quickly because the returnees walked into a terrible mess. For one, this map illustrates the fact that Israel’s territory was only a fragment of what it had once been. It was only 25 miles north to south and 32 miles east to west. San Bernardino County is roughly 25xs bigger than Judah’s territory!

As a result, the returnees had only a fraction of the financial and military resources Israel once enjoyed. And their enemies were closer than ever.

All of that is important to the story of Nehemiah. His enemies will be really close. And staying separate from those nations and being holy to the Lord will be challenging because Israel was so small that they had no choice but to trade and interact heavily with their pagan neighbors.

So, while Zerubbabel brought 42,000 Jews home, and they successfully rebuilt the temple, they were a long way from the great and holy nation God had promised. But they limped along until God inspired the…

2nd Return: Ezra 8–10 record Ezra’s story. He was a descendant of the last high priest, and he was also trained as a scribe. He knew the Law, and he was passionate about making religious reforms.

So, he led a 2nd return in 458 B.C., or about 80 years after the first return. And he immediately began teaching the Law and calling Israel to obey it. God used him to lay a spiritual foundation for Israel that continued into NT times. Ezra is still a monumental figure in Judaism.

But he was not a political leader. He did a lot to fix Israel’s religious issues, but they were still poor and weak. So, just 13 years later God inspired…

3rd Return (Neh 1:1–3): For a variety of reasons, everyone agrees that the “20th year” is the 20th year of Artaxerxes’ reign. At this time, we meet the man Nehemiah. Verse 11 tells us that he has the important job. He is the king’s cupbearer.

We might think that simply means that he was the king’s tasting dummy, that all he did was try the king’s food first and the king would wait to see if he died before he ate. But ancient records indicate that the cupbearer was much more than that. He helped choose the royal menu. He was usually good-looking and well-trained in royal etiquette. He spent a lot of time around the king and would be familiar with political conversation. Often, he was a close confidant of the king. The cupbearer was a well-trained, important figure.

So, God prepared Nehemiah in some unusual and incredible ways. He was almost certainly a good-looking leader who knew his way around politicians. He knew how leaders talk, and he knew how to communicate with them. And he had the ear of the most powerful man in the world.

None of that is coincidental. God is the real hero of this book. He put a Jewish exile with all sorts of natural ability in the perfect spot to become a pivotal leader. There are no accidents with God. He is sovereign and wise. Sometimes you feel like God is doing nothing, but he is always working his perfect plan. You can trust him even when you can’t see what he’s doing.

So, the story begins with Nehemiah faithfully serving the king. Then Hanani, his brother visits from Judah. Since Nehemiah is a passionate Jew, he wants to know what is going on in Jerusalem. Sadly, Hanani brings distressing news, and Nehemiah is crushed (v. 3–4).

By this time, the walls of Jerusalem had been in ruins for 140 years, so it would be odd for Nehemiah to be so distressed by 140-year-old news. Something more is going on. Most scholars believe Hanani probably told Nehemiah about the events described in Ezra 4:7–23.

The text says that during Artaxerxes’ reign several of Israel’s enemies sent a letter to the king complaining about their building projects (Ezra 4:11–13). Very likely, after Ezra arrived, the people were inspired to rebuild the walls and began working. These enemies didn’t like it, and they sent this letter to Artaxerxes. It got his attention because in 456 B.C., he had to put down a major revolt not far from Israel in the land of Egypt. So, he commanded Israel to stop building.

It had to crushing to receive that letter, and it makes good sense that news of that letter is what grieved Nehemiah. Satan thought he had foiled Israel’s efforts. But God had different plans. He used that letter to move the man he had prepared to rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah grieved, then he prayed, and then he pleaded with the king.

Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channelsof water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” God turned Artaxerxes’ heart, and he commissioned Nehemiah to lead the 3rd return in 445 B.C.

Israel’s foes got more than they bargained for with Nehemiah. He was a strong, charismatic leader with a massive heart for God. Much of Nehemiah is his personal memoirs, and his personality bleeds through it all.

The book and Nehemiah’s work divides neatly into two sections. First, Nehemiah 1–7 describe his political reforms. In just a few months during the spring and summer of 445 B.C., Nehemiah rebuilt the entire wall, foiled a foreign invasion, and solved a financial crisis. It’s pretty incredible.

Then, Nehemiah 8–13 describe his religious reforms. This section doesn’t get the same attention, but it is just as incredible if not more. Nehemiah and Ezra work together, and God inspires a radical revival, the momentum of which, carries all the way over to the NT. All this incredible story is recorded for us in Ezra-Nehemiah.

III.  Introduction to Ezra-Nehemiah

One Work: I’m saying it this way because even though our Bibles split them into two books, they were originally one book. The ancient Jewish sources all treat them as one book, and they are one book in our oldest Hebrew MSS. In fact, the first record we have of them being separated is not until the church father Origen who wrote in the 3rd century A.D.! So, we should assume they were originally a single book with a mostly unified message. Next, let’s talk about…

Authorship: Much of Ezra-Nehemiah is 1st-person accounts of both Ezra and Nehemiah, but there are several 3rd person accounts mixed in. This back and forth has inspired a lot of debate about who produced the final version of the book. The ancient Jewish Talmud says that Ezra is the final editor. It makes sense because he was a well-educated scribe who cared about teaching the people.

But if Ezra was the final editor, it’s hard to see why he would talk about himself in the 3rd Therefore, most conservative scholars believe that shortly after the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah concluded, a close disciple used their personal memoirs and other sources to compile the book we hold.

Date (by 400 B.C.): And we should assume for the sake of accuracy that he finished the book relatively close to the events, probably by 400 B.C.

So, even though Ezra-Nehemiah is in the middle of our OT, it tells the final story of the OT before the 400 silent years. And Ezra-Nehemiah is one of the last OT books to be completed, quite possibly the last. Therefore, this story is very important in setting the stage for the NT. Finally, what does Nehemiah have to say to us?

IV.  Major Themes

Going back to where we began today, it is very important that we keep our eye on the major themes of the book as we look at its story. I’d like to highlight 4 of them.

God’s Covenant Purpose: This theme is crucial to book. Nehemiah includes many fascinating stories. But this is not just a story about building buildings, national defense, and church revival.

No, God’s promises to Israel tie all of it together. That’s because Israel is not just any nation. They are the chosen people of God, and God gave them many important promises. These promises are very important to us because Jesus and his death for sin are central to all of them. If there’s no nation of Israel living in the Promised Land, Jesus doesn’t come and provide us salvation.

This hope hangs over everything in Nehemiah. And Nehemiah understood that (1:8–9). You must keep the same perspective through our study. See every challenge and every blessing in this book through the lens of gospel hope. So, when God works, it’s never just about walls and economics; it’s about the gospel. And every act of faithfulness testifies to the fact that God will also keep his gospel promises to you. You can trust the Lord to keep your soul. You can trust him bring you to heaven. God is faithful.

Godly Ambition: Again, Nehemiah is an impressive leader. We just saw in chapter 1 that he knew God’s promises, and he was passionate about God’s people. But what’s so impressive about Nehemiah is that he didn’t sit on his hands. He had a vision for God’s purpose, and he was a man of action. He didn’t make excuses about how hard it was or how scary it was. Instead, he worked for Israel and for the Lord. He built the wall. He confronted sin. He led a revival. He did it all at great personal risk and with great personal sacrifice.

He reminds me a lot of Ehud and Caleb, two other men of great godly ambition we studied earlier this year. A big reason why I chose Nehemiah is because he exemplifies our theme so well. Imitate Nehemiah. Don’t let fear, laziness, and personal comfort get in the way of what God wants to do. Get passionate about God’s purpose. Have a vision for what God can do and go after it.

Faith: The foundation of Nehemiah’s ambition was his faith. His faith drove him to pray a lot. Every time Nehemiah faced a big challenge, he prayed. Nehemiah is full of quick little prayers he voices when challenges arise.

Then Nehemiah acted on his faith. Notice his response when his enemies threatened to invade (4:14, 20). Nehemiah didn’t compromise with the enemy. He trusted God to defend his people, and he acted on that faith.

He sets such a good example for us. I hope your faith is real and that it makes a real difference in how you live. You live like someone who believes God is sovereign, good, and worthy of your absolute devotion. God wants you to build strong, life-transforming faith.

Holiness: Nehemiah understood that more than Israel needed walls and economic strategies, they needed to be right with God. He demanded that Israel know God’s law and commit to obeying it.

Therefore, the second half of Nehemiah is devoted to his work to bring spiritual revival. It’s an incredible story. Ezra read the law. The Spirit convicted. Israel put away sin, and they obeyed God’s will. God did a radical work.

Nehemiah is going to teach us how to pursue both personal and church revival. He’s going to challenge you, “Love the Word, eradicate sin from your life, and please the Lord at any cost.” So often we fear the world’s hatred, and we long for their acceptance. Nehemiah said, “No way. We are going to trust God and be radically different. We will be holy to the Lord.”

That must be your passion too. Yearn for the smile of God. Then ask, “What sins am I tolerating? Maybe you are justifying some kind of secret sin. “I need this to cope with my worries.” Maybe your heart is full of anger or worry, but you write it off as no big deal. Be holy as God is holy.

Conclusion

I’m excited to spend the next few months learning from Nehemiah. I pray that God will use his example to inspire great passion, great faith, and great holiness. Don’t sit on the couch. Get zealous for God’s purpose. Go after God’s purpose. Enjoy his grace. Make an impact for eternity.

More in Nehemiah

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Go Make a Difference

June 30, 2024

God’s Good Hand

June 9, 2024

Desperate Times, Desperate Prayer