In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes that the doctrines of Psychoanalysis have given most people the impression…
“…that the sense of Shame is a dangerous and mischievous thing. We have labored to overcome that sense of shrinking, that desire to conceal, which either Nature herself or the tradition of almost all mankind has attached to cowardice, unchastity, falsehood, and envy. We are told to ‘get things out into the open,’ not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the ground that these ‘things’ are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them.
“But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has recognised shamelessness as the nadir of the soul.
“In trying to extirpate shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they broke their walls and pulled the Horse into Troy. I do not know that there is anything to be done but to set about the rebuilding as soon as we can.
It is mad work to remove hypocrisy by removing the temptation to hypocrisy: the ‘frankness’ of people sunk below shame is a very cheap frankness.”
In other words, shame is not such a dirty word that we must do everything we can to remove it from our experience. A sense of shame is the very thing that reveals to us our sinful nature. Attempting to eliminate shame will only leave us with a cheap frankness, resulting in a very low view of piety and holiness.
Nehemiah is not a book about shame, but it begins with an experience of shame that served as the catalyst for restoration. The remnant that had survived the exile were found to be “in great trouble and shame” (Neh 1:3). They were humiliated by their circumstances. And understanding their situation is what stirred up a compassionate Nehemiah to do something about it.
Believers who were exiled from their land and kinsmen experienced a growing sense of shame that could not be alleviated in isolation.
God takes care of his people by raising up compassionate leaders who facilitate holistic restoration.
Read Nehemiah 1:1-3
› In this introduction I want to highlight several of the book’s themes as they are presented in this opening passage. We are going to look at the broader history that led up to Nehemiah (v.1), the quality of leadership that the person Nehemiah represents (v.2), and the longing the exiles felt for worship within the covenant community (v.3).
I. Understanding the Situation (1)
The broader context is important when considering the significance of Israel’s return to Jerusalem. The northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC. Judah survived but found itself surrounded by foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Media. Babylon ceased control of the region and demanded Judah’s loyalty. After a brief rebellion, Babylon invaded and captured Judah in 598/7 BC. Everyone was taken except the poor (2 Kings 24:14-16).
Another rebellion was squelched by Babylon in 587/6 BC. It wasn’t until 539 BC, when the Persians invaded and defeated Babylon, that the possibility for return opened up. Cyrus promoted religious tolerance, which fit nicely with his polytheistic beliefs. Although Persians worshipped Ahura-Mazda, they believed each nation had their own local deities. Why not allow these conquered nations to return to serving their own gods, “and while you’re at it—put in a good word for Ol’ Cyrus.” This policy, found on the ancient Cyrus Cylinder is also recorded in Ezra 1:2-4. It secured the loyalty of tax-paying citizens.
Since the Babylonian captivity was not all that bad for many of the Jews, a relatively small number of them took advantage of the opportunity. Unfortunately, this reveals just how far they had compromised their faith. Some of this history is contained in the book of Daniel (Ben Wanamaker can fill you in on much of the details that I’m passing over).
Cyrus was followed by his son Cambyses II who reigned from 530-522 BC. After the death of Cambyses, one of his officers, Darius I, reigned from 522-486 BC. Xerxes (Ahasuerus), who married Esther, reigned from 486-465 BC. After the assassination of Xerxes, his son, Artaxerxes I, reigned from 464-424 BC. Artaxerxes was king when Ezra returned to Jerusalem.
Later on, Nehemiah served as the cupbearer to Artaxerxes (Neh 1:11). This position would have only been assigned to loyal and trustworthy young men. The primary task of the cupbearer was to taste the wine before it was served to the king, ensuring it contained no poison.
The book of Nehemiah begins in the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes (445 BC).
What we see in Nehemiah is a picture of the “Church Militant”. It’s important to note that does not imply the people of God were rebellious. Politically, Jewish reputation, much like the early church, proved them to be exemplary citizens. They honored just laws without compromising their faith. They honored secular rulers by their obedience and often held prestigious positions because of it (i.e., Joseph, Daniel, Mordecai, Ezra, Nehemiah).
In Esther 4:13-14, Mordecai brilliantly responds to Esther’s hesitation. When she questions risking her life by informing the king of Haman’s wicked scheme to annihilate the Jews, he accuses her of being naive about her own danger. Why did she think she would escape Haman’s decree? On a positive note, he asks, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
The same could be asked of Nehemiah. He arose to his position as cupbearer to Artaxerxes “for such a time as this.” From the perspective of the Persians, the favor Nehemiah had with the king made him the perfect candidate to serve as governor of Jerusalem. But more importantly, Nehemiah’s concern for his fellow Jews, made him the perfect candidate to lead them (more on that later in the service).
We will see some conflict in the book of Nehemiah, but throughout the book we see them seeking to respect and obey their governing authorities. Why is that? Because they understood that God had sovereignly placed them under Persian control. This highlights one of the key themes in Ezra-Nehemiah, that God is working out his sovereign will (Ezra 7:23). That he turns the way of kings in whichever direction he decides.
Ezra 1:1 ESV
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
Ultimately, Cyrus was tolerant of Jewish worship because God directed him to be.
Throughout history this text has served as a reminder of God’s sovereign control for believers who find themselves isolated from God and his people. It is a call for the Church to gather together and strengthen one another to persevere. You may not be able to pinpoint the source of your pain, or maybe you have lost count of the numerous complaints that raise your blood pressure. Whatever your situation, the Bible repeatedly reminds you that God is sovereign over everything. If you are a believer, you can trust that God is at work in and through your present condition for his glory and your good.
Trusting God is easy until our situation becomes desperate. Our theology is tested when nothing goes our way. Our first turn is oftentimes anywhere except God’s means of grace. Instead of reading Scripture, we read the news. Instead of saying a prayer we steam with indignation. Rather than go to church, we convince ourselves that we need to be by ourselves. We cannot despise the very means that God has provided to deepen our trust, and expect a mature response.
On the other hand, despite all of the times we have lacked trust, God has protected us. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful,” (2 Tim 2:13). Nehemiah’s leadership foreshadows the Savior, who also left a royal throne room in order to enter into the suffering circumstances of God’s people. However, Jesus did not merely model how we could bear our own burdens, He took our place and bore them for us!
The cross enables us to trust that God will follow the darkest of nights with new mercies in the morning!
› This next point will appropriately serve as “The Charge to Officers and Congregation.”
II. Compassionate Administration (2)
Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother is mentioned again later on (Neh 7:2). It appears he was sent along with a group to assess the situation in Jerusalem. Upon their return, Nehemiah inquires about their findings.
Outside of this book, we really don’t know anything about Nehemiah or his family. They were clearly scattered during the exile, and somehow Nehemiah got the attention of court officials. It was a distinct honor to serve as the king’s cupbearer (Neh 1:11).
We will see that Nehemiah was a talented administrator. He inspects the walls and makes his plans for the project. He organizes all of the volunteers and leaders ensuring that the work was accomplished in the face of opposition. All the while he is a man who continued to trust in the Lord, frequently coming before him in prayer.
Americans have heard a lot about leadership qualities (or the lack thereof) these past few months. Frankly, questions concerning leadership qualities are perpetually relevant. We are constantly assessing the character and capabilities of our civil authorities.
I’m not sure if there is any quality that is more important than what Nehemiah reveals in verse two. If people know that their authorities are genuinely concerned for their welfare, they will do almost anything for them. On the other hand, if people feel like they are nothing more than pawns in a game of political chess, it doesn’t matter what you say—you won’t have their support.
There are certainly more qualities than this for leaders to consider, but this particular quality is not something that can be learned in a textbook. Compassion is not an exam question you get right or wrong, it involves a heart check you either feel or you don’t. It has less to do with expertise and accuracy, and more to do with inquiry and sympathy. It includes putting the needs of others above your own.
Nehemiah was the man through whom God would show his mercy to his covenant people. The first quality we see is his concern for God’s people. Few foreigners in exile could claim to have it better than Nehemiah, but this did not separate him from God’s people, it set him apart as one particularly qualified to lead them.
The Message of Nehemiah: God’s Servant in a Time of Change 1. Looking out in Compassion (1:1–3)
First, the narrative illustrates Nehemiah’s concern. Although he had a highly responsible job, in a secure environment in a fine Persian city, noted for its opulence and prosperity, magnificent buildings and spacious gardens, he is not remotely preoccupied with himself.
We will come back to this point later on in the service with the charge to officers and congregation.
› Let’s conclude very briefly with a consideration of their…
III. Longing for Restoration (3)
They are in need of something that has been neglected throughout the exile (or radically altered). The returning exiles were in desperate need for restoration to God, his people, and their place.
When the temple was destroyed and the people were scattered, their ability to experience restoration in the context of worship was severely hindered. In Ezra, the first thing they restore is the altar upon which the sacrifices of atonement could be offered once again.
If anyone thinks that the shame they feel can only be relieved in isolation, they should consider meditating on this book very carefully. We must not only acknowledge our need for worship and the worshipping community, but it must become our sincere longing.
It is only through the means that God has established that anyone can experience the holistic restoration that we desire. God has provided the church and her leadership in order to facilitate that restoration. And He invites your participation.
It is utterly foolish to decline God’s offer or to think that restoration can be achieved any other way. Continued isolation will only increase the trouble and shame, but submission to the compassionate leadership of the Savior is the first step in experiencing everlasting joy.
Exported from Logos Bible Software, 12:34 PM September 13, 2021.