Nehemiah: Inspection

Sermon by on August 17, 2008

Nehemiah 2:9-20

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

August 17, 2008

Nehemiah 2:9-20

“Inspection”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Please be seated. Now we return this evening to our study
of the book of Nehemiah. We’ve been following his return to Jerusalem. The year
is 445 BC. The Persians and the Persian Empire now dominate the then known
world, stretching from the Aegean all the way to the other side of what we would
now today call India. Nehemiah has returned as the cupbearer to the Persian
king, Artaxerxes. Some friends, possibly his blood brother, Hanani, have
returned from Jerusalem, given him news that distressed him. Seemingly between
the book of Ezra and the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, a space of about
twelve or thirteen years, work had begun on the rebuilding of the walls of
Jerusalem, but evidently Artaxerxes, the Persian king, had put a stop to it.
Well, we’ve watched Nehemiah in prayer, persevering in prayer for upwards of
three, possibly five months, praying over and over and over that God would give
him strength at the right moment and the God-given opportunity to speak to the
king that he might be granted to return. And last week we came to the point when
Nehemiah made that request. We watched him as he sent up that arrow-like prayer
that the king would be gracious to him, and so we pick up the reading tonight in
verse 9…Nehemiah 2:9.

Before we read the passage together, let’s look to
God in prayer.

Lord, this is Your word. It is written by the
finger of God; every jot and tittle given by inspiration, and profitable for
doctrine and reproof, and instruction and correction in the way of
righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good
work. Now grant Your blessing as we read it together. We ask that in Jesus’
name. Amen.

Now Nehemiah has returned to Jerusalem. It’s taken
him four months. (We know that from the length of time it took Ezra to return to
Jerusalem.)

Verse 9:

“Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the
king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen.
But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it
displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people
of Israel.

“So I went to Jerusalem and was there three days. Then I arose in
the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into
my heart to do for Jerusalem. There was no animal with me but the one on which I
rode. I went out by night by the Valley Gate to the Dragon Spring and to the
Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its
gates that had been destroyed by fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and
to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal that was under me to
pass. Then I went up in the night by the valley and inspected the wall, and I
turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. And the officials
did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, and I had not yet told the
Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the
work.

“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem
lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem,
that we may no longer suffer derision. And I told them of the hand of my God
that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken
to me. And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their
hands for the good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite
servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and
said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the
king?’ Then I replied to them, ‘The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we
His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in
Jerusalem.’”

Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His holy
and inerrant word.

Now in one sense, civil engineers amongst us — I
guess graduates of Mississippi State rather than Ole Miss? — will be just
bursting with joy at this particular passage of Scripture. It’s all about civil
engineering, after all! It’s all about building walls. You may be wondering what
in the world are we doing tonight studying a piece of civil engineering two and
a half thousand years ago…what possible interest except for those who are
addicts of the History channel or the Discovery channel…what possible interest
is that to us?

I. Great leaders count the
cost.

Well, of course there is a principle at work here.
This is God’s work. Jerusalem is God’s city. God’s redemptive purposes still
hang in the balance from a human point of view. They’re never in the balance,
of course, from a divine point of view.
There’s a principle here that God’s
people are facing opposition once again, and fear. George May mentioned in the
prayer tonight the fear possibly of his own heart, and undoubtedly of all of our
hearts, about leaving our loved ones, our children, away at college. And we
trust the Lord, and we trust God with the task that He has given to us. That’s
what this passage is really about.

I’ve just returned from London. I’m still a bit jet
lagged. I’ve done in the last few days what I often do when I’m across the pond:
I catch up with things British. I was fascinated in the papers to read of the
equivalent of our History channel here–there’s a history channel there, too–of a
series of programs on The Fifty Most Important Events in British History. Of
course there was to be 1066, and the Battle of Hastings. Of course there would
be the execution of Charles I in 1649. There would be Lord Nelson’s famous
victory at Trafalgar in 1805…The Soccer Rule Book, in 1863! Monty Python
humor in the late twentieth century. But no mention of Francis Drake, no mention
of Captain Cook, no mention of Florence Nightingale, and no mention of Winston
Churchill. Yes. It shocked a lot of folk in Britain, too, how quickly we forget.

Winston Churchill was one of the great leaders–I say
that as a Brit, to be sure, but he was one of history’s great leaders, by any
standards. In 1940, when Hitler had invaded Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg
and France, and Britain had withdrawn in almost a miraculous way 338,000
soldiers from the beaches from the beaches of Dunkirk, it was Britain’s darkest
hour. And on June 14, Paris fell, and four days later Winston Churchill spoke to
the House of Commons his famous “This will be our finest hour” speech:

“Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the
British Empire lasts a thousand years, men will still say this was their finest
hour.”

Well, like Winston Churchill, and Alexander the
Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte, and General Douglas MacArthur, and General George
Patton, they were all great leaders–leaders of men. They knew how to inspire men
in times of great difficulty.

Now Nehemiah is hardly on a par with those giants of
history; I’m not about to say that. But he was a great leader, and he knew how
to speak. He knew how to give a good speech. He knew how to inspire men with a
sense of confidence — not worldly confidence, but confidence in God in the time
of great need.

Nehemiah has returned to Jerusalem. He’s gone, first
of all, to the Persian satraps with his letters and documentation of authority
from King Artaxerxes, and then having met some opposition (which we’ll talk
about later), he goes to Jerusalem. Just a few days later he begins a survey.
Great leaders need to know how to plan well. If you’re going to present
something — a document, a plan, a proposition of some kind that’s going to
involve costs in manpower, in financial outlay, with possible repercussions and
opposition, and possible death — as there was in this case — you need to speak
well, and you need to plan ahead. And so three days after Nehemiah gets to
Jerusalem (effectively as Jerusalem’s chief Persian administrator), he makes an
unannounced nighttime expedition with just a few chosen men, and one — was it a
horse or a mule? — some beast of burden.

And we have to imagine now…and we don’t believe in
overhead projectors here at First Pres, so we don’t have a picture of old
Jerusalem…some of you may have one in the back of your Bibles. And probably you
don’t, so you need to consult a dictionary or go online on the internet to look
at the city walls. We’ll have occasion to talk about these again, but he makes
this expedition around the fallen walls of old Jerusalem going from one gate to
another, finding at one point that it was impossible for the horse or the mule
or whatever it was he was riding to pass through, and he has to go down into the
valley and up again to inspect another gate. He effectively goes half way round
the old city of Jerusalem. It was enough for him to get a picture of what the
state of things was like.

Why the secrecy? Well, he didn’t know who his friends
were. He didn’t know who his enemies were. He didn’t know who could be trusted,
who was in the hands of Sanballat or Tobiah or Geshem. Had he announced
beforehand his plans to rebuild the city walls (the folk in Jerusalem did not
know this yet), they might have stopped the necessary supplies, for example,
that would have been needed to engage in such an enterprise. He needed
first-hand knowledge. When he first spoke to the Jews, the priests, those in
authority, those who would be responsible for putting this plan into operation,
he would need to know his facts. It wouldn’t do for him to present a case
that was half-baked, without knowledge, without real statistics as to manpower,
what would be needed. He’s counting the cost.

Jesus speaks about counting the cost. No one, He
says, goes and builds a tower without first of all counting the cost. We did
that here with this building we’re sitting in tonight. I remember as some of you
do several years ago, and there were estimations of the cost. You wanted to
know, and rightly so, how much was this going to cost. God had told him, God had
put it into his heart, but the details he had to work out for himself. He had to
employ his wisdom. He had to wait upon the Lord; he had to engage in all of the
necessary stratagems in order to effectively work out what it is that they would
need. Careful planning in everything that you do…in Christian work you need
careful planning. Every aspect of church life, every aspect of ministry needs
careful planning. You’d be amazed how many meetings take place in the course of
a week in this church in all the various departments. I couldn’t even begin to
tell you how many there would be…all the meetings that take place at lunch time
and early in the morning, and emails…all of it engaged in this process of
careful planning.

II. Great leaders can inspire
and motivate.

But then, powerful motivations…powerful
motivations.
Leaders like Nehemiah know how to inspire people, how to
motivate people. Jerusalem was filled with deadbeats. This wall should have been
constructed a long time ago! It had taken eighty years for Ezra to come and
engage in religious reform and reinstitute certain ritual ceremonial practices.
When Ezra had first returned, it had taken a long time before the temple was
rebuilt. Nehemiah needs to motivate.

And you notice how he identifies with the people.
When he comes, he says to them after he has done his survey, “You see the
trouble [verse 17] we are in.” That’s first person plural–“the trouble we
are in.” You know, he doesn’t come as the great official from Susa, the winter
capital of the Persian Empire, and say, ‘You bunch of deadbeats, don’t you see
the trouble that you’re in? Now listen to me, because I can help you!’ No,
that’s not motivation. That’s not inspiring. He puts himself among the
people.
It’s [verse 17]

“‘…The trouble that we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates
burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer
suffer derision.’”

What’s he doing? He’s motivating by appealing to a
sense of national and ethnic pride, to be sure. They were Jews, they were the
people of God. They had a history, they had traditions…God-given history,
God-given traditions. And they were a laughingstock. They were held in
derision–not by the Persians so much; the Persians had a very tolerant policy
about ethnic groups, even about their religions. When Cyrus was marching west
into Greece and Macedonia expanding his kingdom with phenomenal speed, he passed
by the razed cities and temples that the Assyrians centuries before him had
demolished, but Cyrus left those cities intact. And the Persians had a tolerant
policy. It’s not the Persians that Nehemiah is speaking of. After all, he’s an
ambassador of Persia. It’s the Sanballats, it’s the Tobiahs, it’s the Geshems
representative of surrounding territories of Jerusalem. They were the enemies.
And he’s appealing to the sense of disgrace, the sense of derision that they’re
held in. ‘Remember who you are,’ is what he’s saying. ‘We are the people of God.
We are the Lord’s covenant people.’ Isn’t that what you find over and over again
in the New Testament as a motivation for action? ‘Remember who you are. Remember
that you are the blood-bought people of God; that we are children of God; that
we are heirs of God; that we are joint heirs with Jesus Christ.’

And he’s actually using — isn’t it interesting? —
he’s actually using the motivation of shame
. Now in our therapeutic culture
there’s a great deal of disdain about the motivation of shame, but Nehemiah has
no problems with the motivation of shame. ‘If you don’t do anything here, you
should be ashamed. We’re held in disgrace. We are held in derision. We need to
fly the banner of the covenant of God. We need to fly the banner of the gospel.
We need to declare to the world who we are,’ is what Nehemiah is saying. Like
all great leaders, he’s motivating. Remember your identity, remember your past,
remember who you are. All great leaders have done that. We talked about
Churchill earlier. Some of you will remember, of course, those famous lines from
Shakespeare’s Henry V, at the Battle of Agincourt:

“Once more unto the breach, dear
friends, once more,

Or close up the wall with our
English dead.

In peace there’s nothing but so
becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility;

But when a blast of war blows in
our ears,

Then imitate the action of a
tiger;

Stiffen the sinews; summon up the
blood….”

He’s motivating by reminding them of who they are.

Notice, too, in verses 12 and 18…he says in verse 18,
“I told them of the hand of my God….” That’s not just the motivation of ethnic
pride. It’s not just the motivation of who they are. It’s not just the
motivation of their wonderful history. It’s the motivation that this is God’s
work. This is God’s plan. This is what God wants to do. This is the Lord’s
doing. And Nehemiah’s greatness, do you see, as a leader is different from the
greatness of so many leaders of world history. He’s not in fact drawing
attention to himself, he’s drawing attention to God. This is God’s plan. This is
the Lord’s doing. This is God’s work that you’re involved in. And so much was
the motivation that in verse 18, we read at the end, “So they strengthened their
hands for the good work.” There was an immediate response. There was a sign of
God’s blessing.

III. Great leaders face
persecution.

But there’s of course the ever-present
persecution.
There is Sanballat — a Babylonian

name ; a Horonite, according to Nehemiah, from the house of
Beth Horon, which is about eighteen miles or so northwest of Jerusalem. And
according to an ancient Elephantine papyrus he was the governor of the kingdom
of Samaria. Suspicious, then, of what was going on in Jerusalem. There’s Tobiah
— Tobiah, an Ammonite servant, governor of Ammon, another territory surrounding
Jerusalem. You perhaps don’t remember, but in Ezra there was a Tobiah…in Ezra 6.
And you remember there were certain folk who wanted to return to Jerusalem, but
they couldn’t provide the necessary documentation to prove their ancestry? Well,
Tobiah was one of those. They did return, but they weren’t allowed to
participate in many of the features of life in Jerusalem until a verdict was
given by the Urim and Thummin. Presumably the verdict had gone sour on Tobiah,
and the family of the Tobiahs had grown in resentment over the years. And
there’s Geshem, a chieftain from Arabia who had been given power over kingdoms
like Edom and Moab and territories of Judah that lay in the direction of Egypt.

Now these three, Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem,
they had nothing in common. But as is often the case…and we see it in the time
of Jesus with the Pharisees and the Sadducees…they had nothing in common. The
Pharisees and Sadducees had nothing in common, but they united together in
opposition to Jesus. And three men here, Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem, they
had nothing in common. But they unite together in opposition to Nehemiah.

What is this passage about? That the work of God,
no matter what it is, will often suffer opposition; that persecution is often a
facet of the advancement of the kingdom of God.

And what Nehemiah is doing here is providing the
powerful motivation that we need not be afraid.

I spent two weeks with a two-year-old who loves to
sing, “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty…” [I’ll spare you the hand
motions!] “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing that He
cannot do.”

My friends, that’s not a song for a two-year-old.
That’s a song for you and me. The theology of that song is about the invincible
power of God. He is [verse 20] the God of heaven. He’s the God of heaven. He’s
the only God there is. He’s the creator and sustainer and provider. You’re not
building a wall (maybe you are…I wish you well), but maybe there is a project in
your life that God has laid upon your heart, but you are afraid…but you are
afraid. What did the choir sing this morning from Mendelssohn’s Elijah?
“Be not afraid. Be not afraid.” Trust in the Lord. Trust in this almighty,
sovereign God.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You that Your word is quick and
powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword. Hide it now within our hearts,
that we might not sin against You. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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