The Good Hand of God

The first wave of returning exiles was led by Zerubbabel in 538 BC with a purpose of rebuilding the temple. The second wave was led by Ezra eighty years later in 458 to preach, teach the law, refine worship, and purify the priesthood. The third wave came thirteen years later in 445 led by Nehemiah, the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, for the purpose of rebuilding the wall. This event highlights God’s remarkable answer to Nehemiah’s prayer.

I. Context of Nehemiah’s request and journey

A.  Chapter 1:1-3 – Nehemiah learns of the condition of the “remnant,” that they have great trouble and shame, for though they have returned, the city is in shambles.

B. Nehemiah’s response to the report is prayer – 1:4-11. Note elements of Nehemiah’s prayer

1. Exaltation of the character of God (5) – God is not a god of the mountains, or the sea, or the rivers, or the thunder, but of heaven, the place from which all earthly elements and events are known and controlled. He is great and awesome—he is not diminutive, nor is he less than anything else in all reality but he is “great;” to contemplate his attributes inspires awe and wonder for even our attribution to Him of all infinite excellencies falls short of the reality. He is “greater than that which can be thought” (Anselm, Proslogion).

2. Conscious recognition that we come to God, not as an intrinsic right, but only as a result of his gracious covenantal arrangement. Our covenant is the “eternal covenant” established by the redeeming blood of Christ (Hebrews 13:20).

3. Confession of sin

Confessions for the nation – 6a

Confession for self – 6b

Delineation of the ways in which they have sinned in light of God’s commands

4. Remembrance of both the threats and the promises of God (8, 9) – God has shown his faithfulness by executing his threats upon a disobedient people; now would he hear a prayer for grace to fulfill the promises?

5. (10) As Moses did, he pleads in light of God’s having redeemed the people by his power and strong hand. Since he took initiative and made these people his own by his  own decree and execution of power, would he now take action to restore them in accord with his original intent in making them his?

6. Knowing that many necessary means must fall in place for his plan to come into effect, Nehemiah prays for success with the king.

II. An Audience before the King – This occurred four months later

A. the months of mourning, periodic fasting, and serious contemplation has made a facial difference in Nehemiah. The king recognizes this. This recognition, though in the custom of the time, could be dangerous for Nehemiah, in the providence of God provides the open door for which Nehemiah prayed in 1:11.

1. The king discerned that Nehemiah had a deep concern that weighed heavy on his heart.

2. He asked Nehemiah why he was sad.

B. How did Nehemiah respond? This obviously was an opportunity opening before him and he knew that he had a responsibility to handle it in a way that showed respect to the king and embraced in faith God’s providential intervention.

1. Knowing two important facts, that the protocol of the cupbearer has been breached, and that he now had before him the opportunity for which he had prayed, he was afraid. But his fear did not enervate him, but rather gave him the right edge of responsible language.

2. He addressed the king with the expected cultural respect.

3. He followed the king’s question with a question of his own that also contained the content of his provocation to sadness. In asking the question gave the king a list of conditions that called for serious action.

C. The King’s second question. Since so much information has been given as the cause of the cupbearer’s sadness, the king asked, “What are you requesting?” (4)

1. Nehemiah had asked the great King of heaven for guidance and for favor with the king on earth.

2. By the secret operations of the King of heaven, he has gained access to the ear of the king on earth.

3. Note order involved in the response of Nehemiah

Recognizing divine guidance and arrangement, and acknowledging his continuing reliance on the favor of God Nehemiah prays for wisdom, courage and forthrightness with the king  (4b).

He made requests of the king commensurate with the true needs that he had with firm faith that this was the means that God had provided for the task. His first request was permission to go (5). He was asked how long he would be gone. Evidently he told the king twelve years, for that is how long he stayed and then returned to serve the king (5:14; 13:6)

When permission to go was granted, Nehemiah asked for more things

Letters that would guarantee safe passage.

Grants for timber from the king’s forests for the temple and the walls of the city.

He also wanted materials to build a house for his own dwelling, knowing that this would be a long term project.

4. Again note Nehemiah’s emphasis on the divine superintendence of earthly events as well as the necessity of earthly events to accomplish the divine decree.

The king granted all that Nehemiah requested

“The good hand of my God was upon me.”

III. The Arrival in Jerusalem and the beginning of the Work

A. (9, 10) Even though he arrived safely under the accompaniment of officers and horsemen from the king, Sanballat and Tobiah indicate their displeasure.

B. After three days, Nehemiah inspected the gates and the walls by night. In this dark journey, he saw for himself the distressing condition of the walls. His “walk about Zion” did not reveal strength and beauty and the favor of God.

IV. Nehemiah reveals his plan (2:17

A. After pointing out to them what they already knew, he suggested that they take action which they had never had the energy or encouragement to pursue. .Jews looked upon the condition of Jerusalem as a mark of God’s presence with them. See Psalm 48. The state of Jerusalem was shameful and led to derision.

1. Psalm 48:1 says, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth.” The city and its symmetry and beauty represented the awesomeness of God and his praiseworthiness.

2. Psalm 48:3 says, “Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.” The walls and towers represented God’s protection of them and his pleasure in them for their good.

3. Psalm 48:9 says, “We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple;” the temple represented God’s propitious stance toward this sinful people and his covenant of special love toward them.

4. Psalm 48:12-14 pictures a walk around Jerusalem in observation of the “number of her towers” a consideration of “her ramparts,” and an enjoyment of “her citadels.” All this inspired witness and worship to “the next generation” that this God of Jerusalem is “forever and ever. He will guide us forever.”

5. To Nehemiah, on the other hand, the observation revealed divine anger. God abandoned a generation to punitive action, and subjugated the people to foreign powers that had no knowledge of the covenant promises to Israel or the special place they were to have for the manifestation of the glory of God among the nations.

B. He saw the hand of God on him for good. We know that all events of the created order are arranged by providence. Some events, however, have peculiar marks of divine mercy in them. Nehemiah is convinced that he is the subject of a merciful providence of God. “the hand of my God had been upon me for good” (18).

C. Also he told them the words of the king, how he had secured safe passage for Nehemiah in his journey and what he had promised to provide in the way of building materials. When God is working to effect merciful decrees, fitting means always will be employed.

D. Nehemiah’s confidence and vision took root in the souls of others who agreed to accomplish the work that he proposed (18b).

1. As to Nehemiah himself, they rightly saw him as a man of great personal courage, a depth of perception concerning the status of Jerusalem as a witness to the covenant arrangements of God with Israel, and a man of administrative plan and determination for a transcendent cause. They were willing to put their strength behind his vision.

2. They recognized that mere subjection to the circumstances would accomplish nothing. They could remain in a distressed condition, worthy of derision, or they could “rise up and build.” They embraced the redemptive outlook.

3. “They strengthened their hands for the good work.” This does not mean that they decided to do hand exercises (not a bad idea in light of the kind of labor that was before them), but that they satisfied their minds with the conviction that indolence was wrong, leaving the city in shambles was disgraceful, refusal to seek the well-being of Zion was faithless. They set their minds and their hearts to bring Jerusalem to a state of glory. One of the Psalms that came from the captivity was Psalm 137. Verse 5 and 6 read: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”

V. A Canonical Reflection – Jerusalem and the Temple were types of the final glory of the appearance of God to dwell eternally with his people (Revelation 21:9-27). Even as the sacrificial system was to be honored in accordance with obedience to the instructions given by God, so the maintenance of these types during the time before their fulfillment showed a faith that went beyond the type to the reality. The time was coming when Jerusalem would be unimportant as the center of the worship of God’s people (John 4:21-24), the temple would be destroyed (Matthew 24:1,2), the only true temple worship would be indissolubly connected with the death of Christ (John 2:18-21), the redeemed people would be considered the temple in this world (Ephesians 2:19-22), and the beauty of Jerusalem as a fortress and stronghold and holy habitation would give way to the perfection and beauty of the “holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” That its reconstruction should be done only by those that have “portion or right or claim” in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:20) is fulfilled in the status of its future inhabitants: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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