Thursday, May 24, 2007

Nehemiah, Part 1: "It Only Takes a Spark" (Neh 1)

William J. Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues” tells of how England’s King Richard III lost his kingdom in the late 15th century. King Richard III had sent his groom to the blacksmith to ready a horse for battle; however, the blacksmith had no more iron after supplying the king’s whole army for the last few days. Fortunately, the blacksmith found a bar of iron enough to make four horseshoes but, unfortunately, after nailing on three shoes, he was short.

When the blacksmith informed the groom that he was short one or two more nails, the groom exclaimed, “I told you I can’t wait. I hear the trumpets now. Can’t you just use what you’ve got?” The blacksmith repeatedly warned the groom that the last shoe was not as dependable as the others. Nevertheless, the groom urged the blacksmith to hurry and finish the job or suffer the king’s wrath. As the battle raged on, one of the horseshoes fell off the horse of King Richard as he was riding to his solders’ aid. Of course, the frightened animal fell, and then ran away.

When all was almost lost, the frantic king waved his sword in the air and shouted his known last words: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” The battle inspired a famous saying:
“For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!”
(Adapted, The Book of Virtues 198-200, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993)

It’s been said, “One is the magic number” as well as “One is the loneliest number.”

About 145 years after Jerusalem’s captivity in 586 B.C., midway through King Artaxerxes’ reign (464-423 B.C.) and four and a half centuries before Jesus was born, a promising civil servant in the king’s court caught the vision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He was not the first man to lead the exiles back to Jerusalem; Zerubbabel the prince led the first group after seventy years of exile (Ezra 3:8) and Ezra the priest (Ezra 7:1) the next group. What was unique about Nehemiah was that he was not a prince or a priest; he was a professional, a volunteer and a layman, in the loose sense of the word. He was a high-ranking official in the king’s court, so he did not have the luxury to leave work, drop everything and travel abroad. Further, life outside of Babylon was a blur to him; he was born and raised in Persia. In other words, he is like your typical American-born Chinese, Asian-American, or 1.5 generation. All that changed one day. Before that day, he was merely educated, informed and privileged; now he was empowered, inspired and practical.

What can one person do? What has to happen before God can use a brave, able and willing individual?

Replace Indifference with Genuine Compassion
1:1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. 3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Neh 1:1-4)

Frank Layden, who coached Utah Jazz for eight seasons in the eighties, had his hands full with a talented basketball player he had difficulty motivating. Finally, in exasperation with the player’s performance, attitude and progress, he summoned the unmotivated player to his office for a heart to heart talk. The coach looked the player in the eye, and asked, “Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?” The listless player replied, “Coach, I don't know and I don't care.” (Sports Illustrated “They Said it!” 1990 Oxmoor House 26)

What is indifference? To be indifferent is to feel nothing, to value nothing and to heed nothing.

In England, a graffiti question scrawled on a wall poses this question: “What is apathy?” Next to it was the graffiti answer: “Who cares?”

Indifference is Nero’s response while much of Rome was burning in A. D. 64, pretending nothing is happening while the city was on fire for nine days, and ten of Rome's fourteen districts were in ruin. While two thirds of Rome was leveled, Nero was playing his fiddle miles away in a cool coastal resort. Historians suggest Nero, hoping to build an elaborate series of palaces in its place, set the city on fire and placed the blame on Christians.

How do you respond when you hear of God’s work faltering, people’s conditions worsening and needed resources lacking? Nehemiah shed tears of compassion for people in faraway Jerusalem even though he was in distant Babylon (v 4). He cared for people he did not know, those he had not seen or met. They were far from his presence but close to his heart; he felt for them and cared for them. His heart hurt and beat for them. We call this compassion. Compassion is from the words: com + passion, or joint feelings. This is the only record of “great trouble and disgrace” and even “great disgrace” in the Bible. Worse, it is “great evil” in Hebrew, not merely “great trouble.” Trouble is the setback and disgrace is the shame.

Compassion makes a person uneasy when others around are uncomfortable, ache when others agonize, torn when they are troubled. Nehemiah was dismayed, distressed, and disturbed. He was shaken up, reduced to tears and grieved in his heart, feeling the pain of his people. They were outnumbered and bullied by their neighbors, marginalized and despised as a people, forgotten and ignored by the world. The Jewish remnant was practically helpless, defenseless and powerless (v 3). They were picked on, laughed at and tore apart by their enemies, but one person - Nehemiah - recognized, sensed and cared that the Jews’ future were in jeopardy. They had no protection, sympathy or backing from others. Funds, resources and personnel that were needed to rebuild were scarce; extending a loan to the Jews, in any day’s terms, would be bad and risky business, financial and political suicide.

What did Nehemiah offer? He had money, prestige and connections but those were nothing compared to what he had to offer - a heart of compassion, a heart of gold, a heart of flesh and blood, and not a heart of stone, ice or steel.

Compassion is imperative but insufficient by itself.

Replace Ignorance with Genuine Confession
5 Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. 8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 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.' 10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. (Neh 1:5-10)

A mother of a teenager once complained to me about the five possible answers her teenage son would say to her in their version of conversation. He was becoming more economical and sparing with his words and their conversation became less engaging and challenging. The teenager’s answers were: (1) “I don't know,” (2) “I guess,” (3) “It's OK,” (4) “Maybe,” and (5) “Huh?”

One time in frustration she countered, “Son, are those five words the extent of your vocabulary?” To her dismay, she discovered one more as the boy replied, “No.”

An Arab proverb tells of four groups of people:
He who knows and knows that he knows; he is a wise man- follow him!
He who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep - wake him!
He who knows not and knows that he knows not; he is simple - teach him.
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool - shun him! (7,700 Illustration # 7371)

Nehemiah acknowledged his ignorance to God in three great confessions. His confession was riveting and revealing, given today’s political climate, inclusive world and vague terms or meaningless rhetoric. Nehemiah’s first confession is in verse 7 - “We have acted very wickedly toward You” – the only person to use the phrase “very wickedly” in the Bible. In Hebrew one way of emphasizing or punctuating one’s words is to restate a word twice. This is the only confession that uses the Hebrew words for “wicked” or “corrupt” twice to admit the seriousness of one’s deeds. In Hebrew it is “We acted corrupt, corrupt against You.” Note that Nehemiah used the personal pronoun “we,” not “they.” He wrestled with the past, identified with the people and regarded himself as guilty even though he wasn’t born at the time of the exile. That’s the kind of attitude God hears, welcomes and accepts.

The second confession is in verse 9: “But if you return to Me and obey My commands…” Nehemiah claimed God’s promise that His people can return to Him no matter where they were, what they had done and how helpless they were. Confession is not beating or tearing up oneself over what was done in the past, but reminding oneself what can be done in the present. Previously, Nehemiah, confessed, in negative terms, who caused wrongdoing, what was done and who was offended (v 6: “the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you”), but presently he claimed, in positive language, how amends can be made, where it can be made and who had the power to make it (v 9: “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.”)

Finally, Nehemiah appealed to God’s willingness to forgive, redeem and embrace His people - “They are Your Servants and Your People, Whom You Redeemed” (v 10). God forgives Israel because of His relationship to Israel as their Savior, Soveriegn and Shepherd. No one cares more for God’s people more than God himself.

Replace Inaction with Genuine Commitment
11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” I was cupbearer to the king. (Neh 1:11)

A rich man asked his minister, “Why is it that everybody calls me stingy when everyone knows that when I die I'm going to leave everything I have to this church?”

The minister said, “Let me tell you a story of the pig and the cow. The pig was unpopular and the cow was beloved. This puzzled the pig. The pig said to the cow, ‘People speak warmly of your gentle nature and your soulful eyes. They think you're gorgeous because each day you give them milk and cream. But what about me? I give them everything I have. I give bacon and ham. I provide bristles for brushes. They even pickle my feet. Yet no one likes me. Why is that?'“

The minister continued: “Do you know what the cow answered? She said, ‘Perhaps it's because I give while I'm still living.’” (Speaker’s Library of Business)

Nehemiah had been indifferent and ignorant far too long and now he had woke from his deep slumber. His commitment is outlined by his last line in verse 11: “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Nehemiah seemed to be praying for others and he was really praying for himself. He did not pray for success of God’s servants – plural, but servant- singular. The singular “servant” is not for the Jewish remnant but himself. He wasn’t praying for prophets, priests and sages to appear, rise or develop. Nehemiah was eager to see God’s work begin with him, not without him. He did not pray for others but himself to have success that same day in the presence of the king (v 11).

Martin Luther the great Protestant reformer said, “Pray as if everything depends on God, then work as if everything depends on you.”

Prayer was not an intellectual exercise or an emotional outpouring for Nehemiah; it was practical workout. Nehemiah was a busy and important man. He was cupbearer to the king, a trusted servant of and a close advisor to the king. At times, he saw no way of getting away and setting foot outside the palace. As someone once said, “If it’s got to be, it’s up to me.” Do you know how long Nehemiah was involved in his short and long term endeavor? The short answer was 52 days (Neh 6:15), and the long commitment was can be found comparing Nehemiah 1:1, the first recorded date when he began (in the twentieth year), and Nehemiah 13:6, the last recorded travel – the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes.

Conclusion: Confession is good only if it is healthy and biblical; confession need not be grandiose, extreme or overstated for it to be effective. Are you still in a deep sleep or a spiritual stupor? Are you a fellow partner or sleeping partner in the church? Are you aware that what the Lord is doing around the world? Are you aware that people need the Lord? Do you know what He can do with you when you are completely yielded to Him? Do you know that one person can make a difference? Not all is lost because our Lord is a stirring, sending and saving Lord.


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