Monday, 16 June 2014

(168) June 17: Nehemiah 1-2 & Acts 2:1-13

Ask God to open your mind, heart and will to understand, delight in and obey what you read.

To discover:­­
As you read note Nehemiah’s qualities.

To ponder:
These events take place thirteen years after the return under Ezra (445BC, 1v1, 2v1, Ez 7v7). Nehemiah is in Susa (located in modern Iran) and “cupbearer” to the Persian king Artaxerxes. He therefore has a providential opportunity to influence. The destruction of Jerusalem occurred 140 years previously. Nehemiah’s sudden concern at the report about the exiles could therefore be over the fact that the exiles had still not rebuilt the city, or that having tried to, Artaxerxes had stopped them (see Ez 4v21). Perhaps the little that had been done had been destroyed.
            As with Ezra, the mourning, fasting and praying of Nehemiah challenges our complacency over the spiritual ruin of the church. Nehemiah’s prayer displays a liturgical introduction (1v5, see Dan 9v4). It affirms the LORD as “God of heaven” – a reminder of his supremacy over all in a world of many nations claiming the power of many gods. It also relies on God’s particular covenant-relationship with Israel in which he acts for those who love and obey him (Deut 28v1-14). On this basis Nehemiah prays “day and night.” In confessing Israel’s sins, he acknowledges he himself is not without fault. He then appeals to God’s covenant promise to bring the people back to Jerusalem if they return to him (Deut 30v1-10), reminding him they are his servants and people whom he redeemed from Egypt with his “mighty hand.” Here Nehemiah may be acknowledging that those now in Jerusalem must have previously returned to God. In which case he is asking God to continue blessing them by aiding his petition to the king on their behalf (1v11). However, he may have in mind his own desire to return, asking God to fulfil his promise for him, even though Nehemiah is in the very palace of the Persian king and one the king relies heavily upon! In this case, he is exercising great faith, asking God to act mightily, knowing that no earthly power can thwart him.
            There is much here to build our faith. But the prayer also models how to appeal to God on the basis of his character, might and word.
            It seems Nehemiah prayed for four months before an opportunity came (Nisan is four months after Kislev, 2v1, 1v1), which he took although “very much afraid.” This encourages us to wait upon the LORD, but to take opportunities in faith when they come, even though fearful. Artaxerxes asked why Nehemiah looked sad, and Nehemiah tested the water not with a request but an explanation, respectfully addressing the king and explaining his grief over Jerusalem. When asked what he wanted, Nehemiah prayed again, no doubt seeing this as the God-given opportunity he had longed for. He then asked to return to rebuild the city, agreed to come back when the work was completed, and had courage even to request a safe passage and timber for the work! The reason his requests were granted was that “the gracious hand” of his God was “upon him.” Nothing is too much for him to grant. So Nehemiah travelled to Trans-Euphrates (the province of the Empire containing Jerusalem) with a military escort and gave its governors the king’s letters. Here we are introduced to the enemies who will feature much in the book (2v10). They were probably “disturbed” because as members of the other nations inhabiting the area, they would not want the Israelites to fortify their city.
            The number three often denotes a period building anticipation before a significant action or event. So Nehemiah begins to consider the rebuilding after three days (also Ez 9v32-33). Although he acknowledged God had put this desire “in his heart,” he exercised caution, not telling anyone his plans, and examining the walls and gates at night with “a few good men.” Confidence that God is with us doesn’t absolve the need for shrewdness.
            When Nehemiah did tell the Jewish leaders he explained how God’s hand had been on him with Artaxerxes, probably to persuade them God was behind his plans. Their “trouble” would have been their vulnerability without any defences to Jerusalem, and their “disgrace,” the shame of inhabiting a ruined city as the people of God (see 1v3). And so they began the work. However Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem mocked them, and tried to put them off by suggesting their work would get them into trouble with the king. Nehamiah’s response is bold. He trusts God to give them success as his servants, and affirms these opponents have no share or right to Jerusalem, presumably because the land and so city had been given to the Jews.
            The act of beginning Jerusalem is significant because we have seen that alongside the existence of the temple, Jerusalem’s security was the other key factor necessary for the kingdom to be “established.” Nehemiah’s work would therefore be seen as another key step towards the fulfilment of God’s promise to David and the arrival of the Christ (1 Chr 17v11-14).
Praying it home:
Praise God that nothing can hinder him answering our prayers for his church and kingdom. Pray for your own prayer life, and your readiness to be God’s means perhaps of answering your own prayers.

Thinking further:
To read the NIV Study Bible introduction to Nehemiah, click here.
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