J.I. Packer: Nehemiah's God


What makes a man of God is first and foremost his vision of God, and it will help us to know Nehemiah better if at this point we look at his beliefs about God, as his book reveals them. . . . So what did Nehemiah believe about the one whom ten times over, six times in transcribed prayers, he calls “my God”? 

[T]he God of Nehemiah is the transcendent Creator, the God “of heaven” ([Nehemiah] 1:4-5; 2:4, 20), self-sustaining, self-energizing, and eternal (“from everlasting to everlasting,” 9:5). . . . God was to Nehemiah the sublimest, most permanent, most pervasive, most intimate, most humbling, exalting and commanding of all realities. 

[T]he God of Nehemiah is Yahweh, “the LORD,” the covenant making, covenant-keeping, promise-fulfilling, faithful God of Israel (9:8, 32, 33). . . . The prayerful dependence on God that sustained Nehemiah throughout his leadership career, and that he so often verbalizes as his book goes along, was an expression in his faith in God’s covenantal commitment to him and to those he led, just as was his declaration as he arranged Jerusalem’s defenses, “Our God will fight for us!” (4:20). Nor was his faith in God’s faithfulness disappointed. Nehemiah’s God showed himself to be a faithful covenanter who did not let his servant down. 

[T]he God of Nehemiah is a God whose words of revelation are true and trustworthy. . . . God had told his people who he was, what he wanted from them, how he would react should they rebel, and what he would do should they come to their senses and repent after rebelling. 

“Remember,” prayed Nehemiah, “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” (1:8, alluding to Lev. 26, especially verse 33; Dt. 28:64 and 30:1-10, especially verse 4). . . . 

The Law that God gave his covenant people to show them how to please him was, for Nehemiah, the unchanging standard of righteousness, just as God’s promises were, for him, the unchanging basis of future hope and present confidence. 

These three convictions about God were most certainly the making of Nehemiah. Without them, he would never have cared enough about God’s honor in Jerusalem to pray that the city be restored, nor would he have sought the taxing and terrifying role of being the leader in that restoration, nor would he have had what it took to keep going in the face of all the apathy and animosity that his leadership encountered.

J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah, pp. 37, 39-42 (emphasis mine) 

Lessons from Nehemiah 8: Anger


Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.


Nehemiah’s final reforms are found in the  final chapter of this great book. Nehemiah had returned to King Artaxerxes 12 years after having left to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. After some time, possibly years, he asked to return to Jerusalem. Upon his return, he was welcomed by a most troubling situation: The people had once again intermarried with the surrounding nations, and many of their children could not even speak the Hebrew language—their entire religious culture was being lost. To compound the situation further, Tobiah, Nehemiah’s old foe, had been given the chamber where “they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.” (v. 5). Tobiah was living in the court of the temple! He saw that the people of Judah were working on the Sabbath, treading winepresses. The Levites were neglected and had fled to their own fields to take care of themselves, and the house of God was forsaken.

What was Nehemiah’s response?

He got angry. He got really, really angry.

He had Tobiah and all his furniture thrown out of the chamber, and had it cleansed & returned to its proper use.

He confronted the officials and demanded that they not forsake the house of God—he brought everyone together, appointed reliable treasurers over the storehouses, and the people gave their offerings.

He shut down all commerce on the Sabbath day, commanding that the doors of the gates be closed until after it had passed. He saw merchants and sellers camped outside Jerusalem, waiting for the doors to open, but he told them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” And in case you were wondering, “laying hands” is a euphemism for “beat down.” And they left.

He confronted the men who had intermarried with the surrounding nations and he shamed them—He cursed them, pulled their hair and beat some of them! He even chased off the son of Elishiab the high priest, who had married into Sanballat’s family.

And after all this, Nehemiah prays, “Remember me, O my God, for good” (v. 31).

Nehemiah, in this final chapter, shows us the importance of righteous anger.

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Lessons from Nehemiah 7: Obedience


Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.


Nehemiah chapters 11-12 presents a list naming the people who would live in Jerusalem, those who would remain in the surrounding villages, & the dedication of the wall; this passage serves as a conclusion to the story of the repopulation of Jerusalem.

The dedication ceremony described is the culmination of everything that’s taken place over the course of the book; the wall is complete, the people have repented and turned to God, their Savior. There is much celebration and rejoicing. But as I was reading, I was left with a question…

Why are the lists of names important? Why would the Holy Spirit inspire them to be written, not just here, but throughout Scripture?

Now, we could potentially over-spiritualize it and say that these lists are representative of the Book of Life (Philippians 4:3; Revelations 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27), in which the names of all God’s people, past, present & future, are found.

And maybe that’s the reason… but maybe there’s another, practical reason for the existence of lists like we find in Nehemiah 11 & 12.

They serve to show us the fruit of obedience.

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Lessons from Nehemiah 6: Repentance


Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.


In Nehemiah chapters 9-10, the people of Judea come together and confess their sins. They read from the Book of the Law; they name all of their sins publicly; they proclaim the history of creation and salvation—That God created the heavens and the earth and made everything good. God chose Abram & brought him out of Ur, to make for Himself a people. They tell of the Exodus, where God redeemed the Israelites from the hands of Pharaoh, and made them to be a witness to all the nations of the earth. But they rebelled. They chased after the gods of the surrounding nations which were no gods at all, and  rejected great gifts God had given them. And God chastened them; He sent them into exile for their disobedience. Because they had disobeyed His covenant and paid no attention to His Law, God made them slaves.

Now the people come before the Lord to confess their sins and to renew the covenant which they have broken.

In these chapters, we see the people of Judea repent of their sins.

What we learn from this passage is the need for repentance.
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Lessons from Nehemiah 5: Preaching and Bible Study

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

Nehemiah chapter eight opens on the first day of the seventh month with Ezra the Priest preaching a sermon—and it’s a good one, lasting from early morning to midday. He preaches through the Law of Moses, and the people begin to feel the weight of their sin and mourn. Ezra admonishes them not to grieve, itself a positive response to the reality of sin, but to rejoice “for this day [the Day of Atonement] is holy to the Lord.” The people rejoiced and celebrated, because they understood the words proclaimed to them.

The next day, the leaders of the people came together to study the Law, where they found that they were commanded to celebrate the Feast of Booths, remembering their time as sojourners in the wilderness. And they obeyed, and there was much rejoicing. Ezra read from the Book of the Law in the presence of the people each day of the celebration, which lasted seven days.

Here’s the big idea that we learn from this passage of Scripture: A passion for Jesus and Scripture  is created and fueled by the right preaching of the Bible. If the Bible is not preached in our churches, people will not be brought to repentance.

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Lessons from Nehemiah 4: Perseverance

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

In Nehemiah chapters 6 and 7, opposition continues, with a desperate attempt to discredit Nehemiah and assassinate him. Sanballat and Geshem sent four letters to Nehemiah, asking him to come for a meeting at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono. Nehemiah declined their invitation, preferring not to get murdered—besides, he had some important work to do, namely get the walls finished and the doors put up. A fifth letter was sent in a final attempt to scare him, spreading the rumor that the Jews were planning on rebelling against Artaxerxes.

But Nehemiah persevered.

He then is given a false prophecy, saying that assassins are coming to kill Nehemiah, so he should go hide out in the temple, where he’d be safe. But Nehemiah recognized it as false, and refuses to act cowardly. If he’s going to die, he’s going to die like a man.

And Nehemiah persevered.

After 52 days, the wall was completed—an amazing feet, accomplished only by a miracle of God! And there was more conspiring against Nehemiah. Because the hand of God was obviously upon the people of Judah, what was to stop them from becoming a mighty nation once more? The nobles of Judah conspired with Tobiah the Ammonite, because many of them were bound to him by marriage, and Tobiah sent letters to Nehemiah to make him afraid.

Still, Nehemiah persevered.

These chapters remind us again of the need for perseverence in the face of great opposition.

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Lessons from Nehemiah 3: Reputation and Generosity


Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.


In Nehemiah chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that the returned exiles are being taken advantage of by their own people.The people mortgaged their fields, vineyards and homes to get food to eat. They borrowed money against their fields and vineyards to pay their taxes. They were forced to sell their sons and daughters into slavery in order to service there debt, because “other men have [their] fields and vineyards” (v. 5). Nehemiah accused the officials of oppressing the people for their own gain and demanded an end to the exacting of interest (a practice explicitly forbidden in Deut 23:19-20). “Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them,” Nehemiah commanded (v. 11).  He made them swear an oath under threat of judgement from God (v 13), and the people agreed.

Nehemiah then leads by example in modeling generosity. Rather than taking the food allowance that were his right as governor of Judea, he forsook his rights; he did not take his daily ration of forty shekels of silver, as the previous governors had. He and his servants did not lord their position over the people, but worked with them on the rebuilding of the wall, and accumulated for themselves no land.  He even hosted large dinner parties at his home nightly for in excess of 150 people, with all food provided at his own expense.

What do we learn from this chapter? We learn how we ought to treat others— we learn the importance of true generosity.

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Lessons from Nehemiah 2: Planning and Perseverance

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

This morning continues our look at the great book of Nehemiah.This wonderful Old Testament work has a lot to teach us about our lives as Christians and how we pursue relationship with Jesus.

Nehemiah spent three days in Jerusalem, before going out in the night to walk around the city and inspect the walls for himself. After he had completed his inspection, reveals his mission to rebuild the walls and bring dignity back to the city. The people are on board, and prepare for the work ahead. Three men, Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite & Geshem the Arab, jeered and mocked the people of Jerusalem.

The people worked diligently, they and their families rebuilding sections near their homes and districts. When Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem heard that work was going forward they plotted to fight against Jerusalem.

When reading Nehemiah 2:9-4:23, two big ideas stand out: Planning and perseverance in the face of opposition.

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he told no one of his mission. Instead, he began to inspect the city and the walls. He began to make preparations—he began to plan.

As Christians, we need to make plans (and realistic plans at that). Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that this is something many Christians don’t do well, as if our plans would somehow hinder God’s sovereignty and ability to work in the world. At best, prayer is the extent of much of our planning:

“God, I want to do XYZ… and Lord God, I just pray that a door to XYZ would be opened.”

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Lessons from Nehemiah 1: Humility

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

This morning I began reading the great book of Nehemiah, the “sequel” to Ezra and one of my favorite books in the Bible. So this week, I’ll be sharing a few lessons from Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia, and a very trusted part of the king’s court. His job was to make sure no one was poisoning the king’s wine; this would often include swallowing some of the wine before serving it. Nehemiah regularly put his life on the line for the king.

He was also one of the Jewish exiles, sent into captivity because of Israel’s apostasy.

When his brother Hanani arrived to bring him news of Jerusalem, his heart broke, and he wept and mourned for the destroyed city of of his fathers. After much mourning, Nehemiah prayed for the mercy of the Lord to fall on him and the exiles, that they might rebuild the walls of the city and that the king would have mercy on him when he would ask to do this very thing.

Four months later, he approached the king. He had not been sad in the king’s presence (since part of his job was to be uplifting and encouraging), but now he could not hide the condition of his heart. And he was afraid. Asking to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls could be seen as disloyalty to the king—the punishment for this: Death. And Nehemiah prayed to God, then made his request. Mercifully, God softened Artaxerxes’ heart, and Nehemiah was permitted to return to the city of his fathers to rebuild the walls.

From the first chapter and a half of Nehemiah, we learn about character; and more specifically, humility.

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