Prioritize

| Nehemiah 6:1-16; 8:1-8 | August 12, 2018

Week of August 19, 2018

The Point:  God’s word must be central to our lives to truly serve Him.

Conspiracy Against Nehemiah:  Nehemiah 6:1-16.

[1] Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), [2] Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm. [3] And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” [4] And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner. [5] In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. [6] In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. [7] And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” [8] Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” [9] For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen my hands. [10] Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.” [11] But I said, “Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” [12] And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. [13] For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. [14] Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid. [15] So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. [16] And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.   [ESV]

“A Plot to Kidnap Him [6:1-4].  The opponents saw that there was little hope of destroying Nehemiah’s work but there was still time to bring him down personally. By now they realized that he had not just come to Jerusalem to tackle an important building assignment. He was determined to establish the community as well as secure the city. God had raised up an influential spiritual leader. So his enemies set their hearts on destroying him, and the only way to get at such a well-protected citizen was to lure him from his colleagues and on to enemy territory. Once kidnapped, they could easily dispose of him. In order to satisfy the Persian king, a plausible story could be easily fabricated attributing his death to the sudden attack of robbers. But Nehemiah saw the evil intentions of their invitation to meet: but they intended to do me harm [2]. The governor was discerning, resolute and inflexible. He was a man of prayer and unlikely to receive an invitation of this sort without taking it into God’s presence.

A Plot to Malign Him [6:5-9].  When Nehemiah refused the invitation for the fourth time, Sanballat knew that he must change his tactics. In an open letter, Sanballat accused the governor of dishonorable intentions and corrupt motives in building the wall and seriously questioned his integrity as a leader [6-7]. It was a subtle and treacherous ploy. The accusation that he was organizing a revolt, however untrue, could issue in his immediate recall to Susa. Sanballat and his menacing colleagues had only to make that kind of report to the Persian authorities and the damage was done. But Nehemiah had the wisdom to discern that their allegations had no basis in fact and, far from being reported among the nations, had been voiced by nobody but themselves. Once again, this spiritually alert leader knows exactly how to respond to an accusation of that sort [8-9]. In this particular trouble, Nehemiah found his strength in realism, prayer and Scripture. He was realistic, knowing that verbal assault of this kind was inevitable. It was part of the enemy’s intimidation campaign [9]. Nehemiah was helped as he prayed: But now, O God, strengthen my hands [9]. The strength came as well as the discernment, reliance and confidence he needed to overcome the intimidation of his enemies.

A Plot to Intimidate Him [6:10-16].  The attacks became more malevolent as time went by. That is often the way with adversity. Nehemiah’s troubles became more sinister in form and more menacing in intensity. He visited a friend, one of Jerusalem’s prophets, and had every reason to feel safe with a professed man of God. But the old friend became a new enemy. Shemaiah had been paid to initiate this next destructive plot [10]. It was another attempt to destroy Nehemiah’s character. The plan to do so on the grounds that he was a subversive revolutionary had failed miserably. The governor had seen right through it, exposed the lie, and treated it with the contempt it deserved. When they could not accuse him of being a political rebel, they tried to make him a religious transgressor. Nehemiah was not a priest, and here was this false prophet suggesting that he should go into the temple as a victim seeking asylum, misusing God’s house, and violating the temple’s prohibitions which forbade access to the holy places by anyone other than priests. Once more, Nehemiah was sensitive to danger [11-13]. Nehemiah’s moral integrity was above reproach and his conduct in Jerusalem had been impeccable. He realized that this plot to vilify him before his family, friends and colleagues was aimed at destroying his influence in Jerusalem. He had confidence in a God who is sovereign [1:5; 2:4,20], wise [2:12], powerful [4:14,20], merciful [9:17], compassionate [9:19], generous [9:20,25] and patient [9:30], a Lord determined to deliver His trusting servant from the worst of dangers. Once again, help is mediated through prayer [14]. Nehemiah is determined that the righteous God shall be the judge, not Jerusalem’s governor. The Lord knows the hearts of his enemies, their unworthy allegiance, corrupt motives and damaging intentions, and He will deal with them all. They imagine they are devising imminent destruction for him; in reality, they are preparing a grim destiny for themselves. Despite these repeated and concerted attempts at Nehemiah’s downfall, the project was brought to a highly successful conclusion [15-16]. Here was yet another testimony to the providence and protection of God.”  [Brown, pp. 100-106].

Ezra Reads the Law:  Nehemiah 8:1-8.

[1] And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. [2] So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. [3] And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. [4] And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. [5] And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. [6] And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. [7] Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. [8] They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.   [ESV]

“Nehemiah’s ambition was not simply to reconstruct the city’s defenses but to revitalize a spiritual community. He soon discovered that reforming a community is a more exacting task than restoring its walls. As soon as the building work came to an end, an unusual event took place which was to prove dramatically influential in the spiritual life of God’s people. A few days after the work on the walls was completed, there was a public holiday known as the Feast of Trumpets [Lev. 23:23-25]. So, only a few days after the completion of the rebuilding project, hundreds of men, women and children gathered in Jerusalem for a new year celebration in which God’s written Word played a central part. An outdoor public meeting was devoted entirely to hearing the reading and interpretation of Scripture. The distinctive characteristics of this meeting for biblical exposition are strikingly relevant in our current world. Western materialistic culture has become increasingly indifferent to the Bible. Even within the church the number of regular churchgoers who read the Bible on a daily basis is declining year by year. Committed Christians who neglect the privilege and discipline of daily Bible reading are severing their links with vital spiritual resources. God speaks uniquely to us through His Word, and if we close our ears to this daily conversation we cannot hope to develop into mature believers. Those who attended this Jerusalem Bible study meeting led by Ezra and Nehemiah have important things to say to us. They were wholehearted Bible students.

(1)  The people were single-minded.  Although these people were from different homes within Jerusalem’s walls and beyond, they were driven by a common desire to hear the Word of God uniquely recorded in Scripture. They assembled as one man in that large public square. However diverse their individual likes and dislikes, this common desire to listen to the message of Scripture took precedence over everything else. In our own day, we may not explain every biblical verse in exactly the same way, but a common desire to honor, apply and obey God’s Word will draw us closer together rather than separate us sharply from one another. It is part of the devil’s strategy to magnify our differences and minimize those immense Spirit-inspired doctrines which honor God, exalt Christ, and enrich our witness. A passion to study these central themes of Scripture ought to draw God’s people closer to one another. An insatiable appetite for the faithful and relevant interpretation of Scripture is a powerful unifying force within the life of God’s people.

(2)  The people were enthusiastic.  The most remarkable feature about the demand for Scripture at this outdoor meeting was that it appears to have been initiated by the people rather than their leaders. They told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel [1]. They craved for God’s Word as hungry people long for food. This passionate quest for biblical truth is something more than mere human desire; it is a gift from God. Throughout biblical and Christian history, one of the characteristics of genuine revival has been the sovereign initiative of God in giving men and women a longing for spiritual things. It is not artificially promoted by religious leaders but initiated by God Himself. The people yearn for God’s truth and cannot have enough of it. As the psalmist said, it is sweeter than honey to their taste, a lamp for their feet, the joy of their hearts, and infinitely more valuable than gold; they long for it as a person short of oxygen gasps for breath [Psalm 119:103,105,111,127,131]. It was that kind of craving which drove this vast crowd of people into the square by Jerusalem’s Water Gate to hear the public reading of Scripture.

(3)  The people were attentive.  Once they came together, nothing was going to distract them from the immense blessing they could receive from God’s Word. Every eye was fixed on the wooden platform which had been specially constructed in the city square [4]. From there, Ezra and his colleagues were both visible and audible, and the eager listeners hung on every word: And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law [3]. This Jerusalem congregation clearly expected God to speak directly through the Word He had given to Moses centuries before. There was a vitality and urgency about their listening. Our daily reading of Scripture will only be of minimal worth if it becomes a mere habit, undertaken hurriedly, mechanically, or half-heartedly. If we are to derive help from it, this life-imparting exercise takes time. Throughout history, Christian devotional writers have frequently emphasized the importance of meditation as one means of quietly, patiently and sensitively imbibing the message of a Scripture passage. We need to allow time for it to penetrate the mind, stir the heart and direct the will. Similarly, merely listening to the public exposition of Scripture may not achieve what it might if we do not give our deepest attention to what we have heard. Christian preaching must be eagerly received and constantly applied.

(4)  The people were responsive.  From the beginning of their meeting, this eager congregation recognized that they were not listening to the words of Ezra but to the voice of God. What Moses had reverently and reliably written centuries before was God’s unique Word to them so, when Ezra opened the book [5], the people, convinced of its authority, rose to their feet. It was an outward expression of their immense reverence for the message of Scripture, a practice still maintained in synagogues and by some churches when the congregation rises for the reading of a biblical passage. Moreover, they made a vocal as well as a physical response. Ezra gave thanks to God for the book in his hand, and, as he blessed the Lord, the great God, the congregation lifting up their hands and answered, Amen, Amen [6] to the words of the preacher. They made their own affirmation of commitment and loyalty audible by saying, ‘Yes, may it be so’. Ezra could lead them in worship, but his words would remain as a solitary expression of his personal devotion unless the people identified themselves with what he was saying on their behalf. In this meeting, the people made no distinction between the exposition of Scripture and the offering of worship. Exposition and adoration belonged together, each flowing naturally into the other. At Ezra’s meeting, their reading from the book led directly to the opening of their hearts and mouths in praise and penitence. Lively, relevant, biblical exposition ought to promote genuine adoration, just as inspired singing can create a longing for more of the truth we have been exalting. Neither must be allowed to become an end in itself.

(5)  The people were submissive.  The Jerusalem worshippers not only rose to their feet but fell to their knees. They bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground [6]. Recognizing that by His Word the living God was present among them, they had no greater desire than to fall before Him humbly, gratefully and adoringly. Seeking His face meant covering their own. It was the kneeling posture of a suppliant in desperate need of help, an indebted beggar gratefully acknowledging an undeserved gift, a servant who waits obediently in the presence of a beloved master. The people honored the uniqueness of the Book; it was natural to stand, and then to kneel before the God who was communicating with them directly through His Word. We do not worship the Book, but we adore the God of the Book who addresses us uniquely through it. Moreover, we need to come to the Bible submissively, not solely because the Lord is its unique source but because He is its only effective interpreter. Those who recognize this book’s origin constantly acknowledge their dependence on the Holy Spirit who communicated it in the first place.

(6)  The people were teachable.  These people knew that the word of God given to Moses was not only applicable to the people to whom it was originally given. God’s Word is always contemporary and relevant. Every part of it has something appropriately meaningful for every generation. We may not always have the patience or discernment to identify that message, but that does not mean that it is not there. At this Jerusalem outdoor meeting the Levites were the appointed interpreters of God’s unique Word. They gathered the congregation into smaller groups, reading from the book clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading [8]. Their work may indicate either that they were linguistic translators, or that they were biblical interpreters. The Old Testament Scriptures were written in Hebrew and the Levites may have translated Scripture into the everyday language of Aramaic, certainly a later feature of synagogue worship. Doubtless, as the people gathered in smaller groups, the Levites also served as biblical interpreters, making the reading clear by explaining how the passage related to the issues of their own day. This aspect of the Levites’ ministry was done so effectively that, within a short time, people’s consciences were smitten and they could not help shedding tears. The relevant application of Scripture is of paramount importance. It is not a book which simply describes life in the world of antiquity; it is a message for today, vibrant with meaningful up-to-date applications in today’s society. Perhaps the application of Scripture is the hardest aspect of both personal Bible study and Christian preaching but, in both cases, personal reader and public preacher must struggle hard to bridge the gap between what we have read and what we must do.”  [Brown, pp. 127-133].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What new problems confronted Nehemiah in chapter 6? How did he handle these problems? What do we learn in this chapter about Nehemiah as a leader?
  2. Describe how Ezra and the other leaders handled the Book of the Law. What did the leaders do in addition to reading the book?
  3. How did the people respond to the reading of the book? Why did the people stand, lift their hands, and then bow down in worship to God when they heard God’s Word read and explained? Why don’t believers today respond in the same way to the reading and teaching of God’s Word?
  4. What six things does Brown say we can learn from these people? Attempt to put these into practice when you hear God’s Word read and taught.

References:

Ezra, Nehemiah Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, B & H Publishing.

The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

Ezra & Nehemiah, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.