Nehemiah: The Finished Project

Sermon by on November 9, 2008

Nehemiah 6:15-7:4

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The Lord’s Day

November 9,

Nehemiah 6:15-7:4

“The Finished Project”

Dr. Derek W. H.

Please be seated. Now turn with me once again to the book
of Nehemiah. We come this evening to a transitionary period in the story. The
wall and building project in Jerusalem has now been completed, and we are going
to segue in a week or two’s time into what will be one of the most outstanding
days of blessing and revival, and an extraordinary sense of God’s presence, as
we come to the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. Before that, however, as you can see,
in chapter seven there are more names! But before we read tonight’s section,
which is the end of chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 7, let’s look to God
in prayer. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You that we live in a time when
we can have the Bible in our own hands. We have many versions. Some of us
probably have several copies of the Bible in many different editions in our own
homes, in our car, at the office, on our cell phone or iPod or electronic
gadgets. We are surrounded every day by the potential of being able to hear and
read the Scriptures. Lord, we confess that perhaps we know the Scriptures less
than our forefathers did who barely had one copy of it in their home. And we
pray tonight again as we read the Scripture together, as we study it together,
we want a love for the Bible. We want to love it more than our necessary food.
We want to taste its sweetness, sweeter than the honeycomb. We want to
experience once again the way in which it provides light to our path. We thank
You, Lord, for breathing the Scriptures out, for giving to us a Bible that is
infallible, inerrant, Your word to us; that in every aspect of our lives in our
homes and families, in the way that we respond to the current economic crisis
and everything else in between, there are principles in the Scriptures to help
us. So tonight as we go back more than 2400 years ago to a small community, an
embattled community in Jerusalem, we want to identify with them. They are Your
people and we are Your people. We and they alike need to hear and to do Your
word. Now bless us as we read it together. Help us once again to read, mark,
learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now our reading begins in verse 15 of Nehemiah 6, and
you’ll find it in your pew Bible on page 402:

“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in
fifty-two days. 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. Moreover, in those days the
nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s letters came to them.
For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of
Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of
Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. Also they spoke of his good deeds in
my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me

“Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and
the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my
brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem,
for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many. And I said to them,
‘Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they
are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from
among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front
of their own homes.’ The city was wide and large, but the people within it were
few, and no houses had been rebuilt.”

Amen. May God bless to us that reading from His holy word.

Now the section begins with a date, the twenty-fifth
day of the month Elul, and all we need to know is that that is somewhere around
the beginning of October. You will remember that there was another date way back
at the beginning of chapter 1, and then another one at the beginning of chapter
2. The one in chapter 2 is important because that’s the date when Nehemiah
returns to Jerusalem, and that was somewhere in March-April of the same year,
445 B.C. Six months have gone by. They had been six months of defensive
maneuvers, of inspection, of planning, and recruiting and motivating, and
challenging. And sometimes the work went on, and sometimes the work came to a
stop, especially when Sanballat and Geshem and Tobiah and other enemies of the
people of God were threatening to do them harm.

The wall was finished in 52 days. It’s not clear what
that exactly means. Obviously it doesn’t mean that the entire wall was completed
from beginning to end in 52 days. It looks as though the wall, at least parts of
the construction of the wall, began as soon as they returned, and it may be that
this 52 days is a reference to what occurred from the end of verse 14, when the
plots and schemes and connivings of the previous section that we were looking at
last Sunday evening… once that had been dealt with, another 52 days now
transpired and the wall was finally finished.

This wall, you know, has been found this year, in
2008.1 For many, many
years now unbelieving archeologists and unbelieving Bible commentators have been
having fun with the book of Nehemiah saying of course no such wall exists and
this is just pure fantasy. Now God in His providence has proven them to be the
fools that they are — fools in the Bible sense: he who knows not God is a
fool, in the Bible sense. And this wall has been discovered. You can do an
internet search. Just type in “Nehemiah’s wall”, I guess, and look for the year
2008 and you’ll probably see pictures of it. I’d love to go and see it. It’s not
a great piece of architecture. They’re just stones, really, upon other stones.
There are better walls. There are more beautiful walls. I imagine the wall of
China, the Great Wall of China that you can see from space, is a much greater
piece of architecture than this particular wall of Jerusalem.

That’s not the point, you understand. The point is
that in many respects this was God’s wall.
These were God’s people. This was
God’s city. This was God’s plan. This was God’s purpose that was unfolding
before their eyes. Jerusalem, at least in this period of the history of
redemption, is at the center of all things. That changes of course when we come
into the New Testament where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free.
But in this period of the history of redemption, Jerusalem is the center of all
things. This is where God is present in a way that He wasn’t present anywhere
else in the temple, in the services and worship of the temple. This was what it
was all about.

And God has raised up a leader, Nehemiah. And I
want us to see, as we were seeing last week, and I want to continue thinking
about Nehemiah in particular as a leader. I want us to see three things.

1. Nehemiah’s God-centered

I want us to see first of all the God-centered
nature of his leadership.
Now this wall…you know, this isn’t one of the
great feats of engineering that you might see on a certain channel. On Discovery
Channel there is a certain program about great feats of engineering — I’m
becoming something of an addict! Just the sheer immensity of some of these
projects that seem to last for years…the latest one was digging a tunnel
somewhere in Alaska, I think. Well, this isn’t one of those great projects.
Notice what Nehemiah says in verse 16: that

“When all our enemies heard of it…” [the finishing of this project, the building
of the wall] “…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.”

First of all, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemies.
We’ve seen it now on many occasions: folk who threatened the work; folk who
despised the Jews because of their privileged position as part of the people of
God. Nehemiah must constantly work in the face of trouble and in the face of
opposition. We’ll see tonight that once one opposition dissipates another comes
in its wake. There never seems to be a period when the church of the Old
Testament isn’t troubled in some form or other by enemies and hostility, by
difficulties within and without. It’s no different today. It’s no different for
the church of the twenty-first century. Those of you who are leaders, in
particular those of you who are office bearers, we need to be aware of that.
Every Christian needs to be aware of that, but every church leader especially
needs to be aware of that. Shepherds of the sheep need to be aware that there
are enemies, enemies seeking to undo the work of God, enemies seeking to bring
down the purposes of God.

The second thing here in this section of
God-centered leadership is that there is a turn in this reversal of affairs.

I love this! This is God doing something that’s quite wonderful and quite

What have these enemies been doing? They’ve been
trying to make Nehemiah afraid. They’ve been trying to make the Jews in
Jerusalem afraid. But what has God done? Well, He’s made them afraid.
When these enemies heard that the wall had actually been finished, “all the
nations around us were afraid.” Fear has come upon them. The balloon of their
pride has been pricked. They have “fallen greatly in their own esteem.” There
are always proud and arrogant leaders of nations. Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem…they
were minor figures on the political scene, to be sure, but there are great
princes of the world — Nebuchadnezzar, boasting that he had built this kingdom
by his own power and by his own strength. You only have to turn on the news. In
the last couple of days there have been a couple of world leaders venting their
strength and their spleen and testing the nations, and particularly this one.
There’s nothing new in it. And here we see what God can do. Not what man can do,
you understand; not just what Nehemiah can do; not just what the people of God
can do: but God has done this, and that’s what Nehemiah wants us to see. He
wants us to focus on the fact that “this had been accomplished by the help of
our God,” and even their enemies knew that. They saw that in Jerusalem and with
Nehemiah, and among the people of God, that there was something extraordinary
taking place. God was with them. The God of creation was with them, the God of
the exodus was with them.

That’s a wonderful thing, when unbelievers are
suddenly conscious that among the people of God is the true God. They’re not
believers, understand; they’re not acknowledging this God in any shape, way, or
form; they’re not bowing down to Him, they’re not knocking on the gates of
Jerusalem wanting to know the way of salvation. But they do know that God is,
and that He is among these people. That’s an extraordinary thing, and Nehemiah,
you see, as a leader wants to acknowledge that. He’s writing his memoirs for
posterity. How does he want to be remembered? He wants to be remembered as one
who gave all the glory to God. He wants to be remembered in the future — he’s a
politician, you understand. He’s an ambassador. He’s the governor of Jerusalem.
He’s subject to the king of Persia, but he wants to be remembered as one who
gave all the glory to God, all the honor to God. All that had been done, every
part of it, every aspect of it, all the details of it, all the triumphs of it
were all by the hand of Almighty God. That’s the first thing: this God-centered
leadership of Nehemiah. He’s a man, it seems to me, who was infused with God. He
was God-shaped and God-centered, and his conversation was about the Lord, and
his life and ministry and even his vocation was all about the Lord. And, oh, for
such leadership here, here at First Presbyterian Church, for godly leadership of
that nature.

II. Nehemiah is tested.

The second thing I want us to see is the testing
of his leadership.
This is not just God-centered leadership, but it’s tested

You notice that Nehemiah tells us about Tobiah in
verse 17: “Moreover, in those days….” Actually the sense of it means something a
little stronger than that. Nehemiah is saying just as the wall was finished
something else was also going on. We’ve met Tobiah before. We met him in chapter
2. We met him at the beginning of chapter 6. He’s a cohort with Sanballat and
Geshem. He’s the leader of Ammon, one of the neighboring territories around

Now Tobiah has two things in his armory which some of
you can readily identify with. The first is a good marriage. You know, he’s, as
my mother used to say, “he’s married above his station.” It makes him look
better. He’s married among the nobility of Jerusalem. His wife is part of the
in-crowd, the hoity toity of Jerusalem. And not just him, but his son…oh, we
needn’t go into all of the technicalities of who this looker was that he’d
married —“the daughter of Meshullum the son of Berechiah as his wife.” This is
his son, now, has married somebody among the hoity toity in Jerusalem.

You know, I was at the barber’s the other day — it
was a quick visit for me, you understand! But I always have to wait, so it turns
out sometimes to be a longer visit than it needs to be. And there was one of
these Jackson magazines, you know, with pictures. A lot of you were in it!
I flicked over the pages and I thought, “Oh, there’s So-and-So…
and did he realize that when he was at this function that his picture was going
to be taken?” You may know what I mean. But Tobiah was in that magazine…you
know, whatever that magazine was for Jerusalem, all the big functions among the
nobility – the Welsh word would be Crachach — the hoity toity of
Jerusalem, he would be there. And his son, his family would be there, because he
has connections among the nobility of Jerusalem.

Now hold that thought in your mind for a minute. And
you understand now where all of that is going. Well, you do. Blood is thicker
than water. When Nehemiah is criticizing Tobiah, and criticizing Tobiah Nehemiah
did, the nobility are saying, “What right has he got to criticize one of us? You
know he’s married into the family now, so he’s one of us now.” You understand
all of that.

But there’s a second thing, because in verse 18 it
gets a little more complicated: “For many in Judah were bound by oath to him.”

Now that’s technical speak for the fact that the hoity toity, the big-wigs in
Jerusalem, were actually engaged in business associations with Tobiah. It may be
the loan shark thing that Nehemiah has been criticizing. So there are business
connections and family connections. You understand all of that. You know where
family connections go. It goes like this: Blood is thicker than water. You know
what business connections do: Business is business, right? I mean, ‘Who cares
what this man is? Who cares about his shady past or the fact that he’s been
threatening the people of Israel? Actually, he hasn’t been threatening the
people of Israel at all. He’s just been threatening Nehemiah, and maybe, maybe
Nehemiah deserves to be threatened, because who is he anyway? He’s just a
Johnny-come-lately. You know he’s only been here six months. He’s not really one
of us. He wasn’t born here. He didn’t have a house here. He doesn’t have family
here.’ (Well, maybe he does. He does have Hanani. We’ll come to him in a
minute.) But you understand.

And then there are letters. Oh, letters can be so
hurtful. Letters between Tobiah and the nobility in Jerusalem, and letters
between them and Tobiah, and it looks as though Tobiah (at the end of verse 19)
is sending Nehemiah letters — letters to make him afraid. It sounds, doesn’t it,
like the seeds of a military/political coup, a coup d’йtat, that some of
the nobility of Jerusalem are now giving their allegiance and their affection
and their loyalty to Tobiah and not to Nehemiah. You thought politics was dirty
in 2008? It’s just as dirty here. Politics — and I think there’s a lot of
politics going on here.

The point of course is that leadership is being
Nehemiah is being tested. He’s being shunted off to the side. You
know – ‘The wall is finished now; we don’t need Nehemiah; he was useful to
motivate us to get us to build this wall, but maybe we don’t need him anymore.’
And all of a sudden his leadership, his position in Jerusalem is being tested. I
imagine at the business Rotary lunches in Jerusalem there were whispers of
take-over and of ousting Nehemiah, and a need for new leadership. Leadership is
being tested.

There are 35 officers-elect here tonight who will be
installed in two weeks’ time in the church. Let that be a lesson to you that you
will be tested. You will be tested, and Satan will find a little nook or cranny
in your life to test you, to test your loyalty to Jesus, to test your loyalty to
the word of God, to perhaps bring you into alliances that are less than honoring
to the people of God. It wouldn’t surprise me one little bit. The devil would
just love that. You know, the devil…don’t give him too much power, and certainly
don’t give him too much wisdom. He only has a few strategies in his armory and
he uses them over and over and over again.

III. Shared leadership.

Well, there’s a third thing that I want us to see,
and that is a sharing of leadership.
Not just the God-centeredness of his
leadership and not just the testing of his leadership, but in the first four
verses of chapter 7, the sharing of his leadership. He appoints middle
management, that’s what he’s doing. He has to make wise choices because he can’t
do everything. The wall is now finished, and now attention has to be given…and
there’s a little hint of it at verse 4, that no houses had been rebuilt. Now if
ever there was a sign of discontent and the potential for real trouble and
difficulty for Nehemiah that was it. It was one thing to build a wall, but now
their homes have not been rebuilt. They’re living in sub-standard homes and you
know what that’s going to bring. It’s going to bring grumbling. It’s going to
bring complaint. It’s going to bring charges of unfairness. After all, Nehemiah
was living in the governor’s mansion, paid for by the Persian king. So if ever
there was a sign of trouble to come, there it is. And Nehemiah senses that he
has to share leadership.

Now what does he do? Notice with me what he does. You
know the stories about choirs. Well, if you don’t, I’m not the one who’s going
to tell you. But Nehemiah does something very daring here. He puts the choir to
work. He puts the choir members, the singers, the gatekeepers…now these are the
gatekeepers of the temple, but he’s putting the gatekeepers of the temple now on
duty at the city gates along with the singers and the Levites. It’s a curious

Why would Nehemiah put temple singers, and Levites
who were associated with the singers and helped in temple administration…why
would he put temple folk on duty at the gates of the city? Perhaps to keep them
occupied, but perhaps also to send a signal that not just the temple was holy,
but the whole city was to be holy; that worship wasn’t just to be done at a
certain time in a certain location like 8:30 on a Sunday morning and that’s it;
that worship was to be done in the entirety of the city, day and night, at work
and at play, at home and in the workplace. And how better to send that signal
than to send the temple choristers to guard the city gates, so that as people
(and you know there were houses outside of the city)…as people came in and out
of the city by day, they would perhaps see and perhaps even hear the singers
singing at the gates of the city. What a beautiful thing that would be! What a
little picture that is of the new Jerusalem, where there’s a whole lot of
singing, and where everything is holy unto the Lord!

Then he appoints two people. One is called “Hanani,
my brother” and the other Hananiah. Now we’ve said before, we’ve met Hanani
before. Hanani was the man who made that covert mission to Susa when Nehemiah
was the cupbearer to the king Artaxerxes. He made that four-month journey from
Jerusalem to inform Nehemiah that things weren’t well in Jerusalem. Hanani may
well be his blood brother.

Now, do you see a problem? He’s appointing in charge
of the city in middle management his own brother. You can see the charge of
nepotism coming, can’t you? But Hanani was being rewarded, too. You know none of
this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Hanani. If he hadn’t come in the
first place, none of this would have happened, and Nehemiah is rewarding him.
The other thing of course is that he could trust his brother, and you’ve seen —
at least you should have by now — that there are enough things going on that may
call trust into question, and he needs somebody in middle management that he can

The other person [and I love this] is a Hananiah. And
Hananiah is described as the governor of the castle. Now what castle? Or
citadel? This is where the Persian troops — you understand this is part of the
Persian Empire now — and the Persians would have had troops somewhere in the
city, over which Hananiah was the governor. You know, he’s the chief of police.
He’s the head of military operations in Jerusalem. What a brilliant choice to
look after some middle management that involves safety and security!

It’s not just that. You notice two things, two
essential qualities in leadership that Nehemiah sets down.
“He was a more
faithful and God-fearing man than many.” What do you need for good leadership?
Faithfulness. Loyalty. Trustworthiness. And the quality of being God-fearing.
You know, John Witherspoon, one of the cosignatories to the Declaration of
Independence, wrote “It is only the fear of God that can deliver us from the
fear of man.” Well, there was plenty abroad in Jerusalem to create the fear of
man, and what better person to have in charge than Hananiah, who feared the Lord
more than he feared man?

Now one more thing that they were asked to do…well,
it’s not clear what they were asked to do. On one version of it they were not to
open the gates until the sun had arisen: “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be
opened until the sun is hot.” That’s how the ESV translates that. Now you have
to know that not all translations agree with that translation. The ESV has gone
for that one. If that’s the correct translation, it means the gates were shut in
the morning and somewhere around noon time the gates were opened.

If that’s the right interpretation, what Nehemiah is
saying is keep the world outside in the morning. Why would he want to do that?
Perhaps because one of the things that Nehemiah sees for the community of the
Lord’s people is they need to work on being the Lord’s people. They need to
understand what being the covenant people of God actually means in practice, and
one of the best ways to do that is to keep the world outside for a little time.
And maybe Nehemiah was saying to them, ‘You know, in the morning let’s
concentrate on being the people of God that we ought to be.’

Now there’s another interpretation that says the
exact opposite, and the other interpretation is that what he was actually asking
was to shut the gates at noon. Why would he do that? Because at noon it was hot,
and this was after they’d eaten their lamb for lunch and it would be siesta time
and they would be falling asleep, and there would be a period of perhaps
military danger. So shut the doors at noontime. But let’s go with the ESV
translation, since it’s the one before us: they were to work on being the people
of God.

You know, five days from now — in the story, that is
— the most extraordinary thing is going to happen. You’ve been following Ezra
and Nehemiah now for several months, and you’ve got to get excited about this.
You’ve got to work yourself up to a pitch about it, because it’s coming! It’s
one of the most extraordinary days in the life of Israel, when God comes down.
God breaks into their community in a way that He had rarely done before. They
stood listening to the Bible being read for three or four hours. Now maybe
that’s not such a sign of blessing to you, but that probably says more about
your heart than you’d care to think. God came down in revival and blessed them,
owned this work that Nehemiah was doing. And you know, my prayer…and let’s make
it our prayer that God would come down again, and He would come down and
shake the very foundations of our existence and cause us as He did for a brief
moment of time in the life of Israel at this period in 445 B.C., caused them to
see Him in a fresh way, and with a love and a worship and an adoration for Him
and His word that went beyond the bounds of normality. And, oh, for such days

Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. We thank
You for this passage. We do pray for ourselves, and pray for those in places of
leadership and influence within our own church, tested and tried as they are
going to be and are; we pray that You’d make us a people who love You and serve
You, and follow after You and fear You. We ask it, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

  1. Nehemiah’s wall

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