Love Came Down with Reform

The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire[1]

IMG_0911Acculturation: cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact [2].

For the Jew, who was to be set apart from all other nations, acculturation meant the end of their culture, their values and their faith.

Nehemiah lived not as a free Jew, but as a slave.  He served as cup-bearer to the ruling emperor, King Artaxerxes, in the lavish citadel of Susa.  When Nehemiah was informed by his brother that Jerusalem, the historic heart of God Almighty, was a broken down city inhabited by powerless disenfranchised people, he grieved and prayed for many days.

Decades earlier, King Cyrus had miraculously awarded the Jews their freedom and resources to return to Jerusalem:

All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!

Look at the timeline:

  • In 587, Babylon invaded and dispersed the remaining Jews to Babylon
  • In 538,  forty-three thousand Jews migrated back to the city of Jerusalem in 536 BC at Cyrus’s order, led by Zerubbabel [3].
  • In 516,  the temple was rebuilt and the people celebrated  worship in Jerusalem.
  • The days of Esther fall somewhere in this time, between 536 and 455 BC.
  • In 455 BC, Ezra returned to Jerusalem to bring holiness back to Jerusalem.
  • Around 444 BC, Nehemiah heard a report from his brother, that despite the favor of kings, the wall of Jerusalem remained in shambles as did the city [4]

IMG_0797A praying man, Nehemiah sought God for mercy for Jerusalem.  Then he fearfully broke court protocol and revealed his deep grief before his king and queen.  With courage, Nehemiah sough permission for the resources and authority to restore Jerusalem.

Mercifully, Nehemiah was not executed for his impudence.  Instead the slave was promoted to governor.  Loaded with resources and the authority of his king, he journeyed back to his ancestral city.

In Jerusalem, Nehemiah grimly reviewed the burnt gates and broken down walls of Jerusalem and assessed how the city was rampaged by moral and social breaches. The problem was deeper than mortar and stone.

Rich Jewish nobility mercilessly prospered on the backs of their poor Jewish brothers, as they leveraged their wealth to exact interest and indentured slavery from their less fortunate relatives.

The Jewish priesthood was consumed with power.  Like the days of Christ, the priesthood had become a political machine, as alignments through marriage and trade with the pagan power brokers maintained a framework of oppression against the people of Judah by their nobility and priesthood.  Eliashib, the high priest, had married his daughter to Sanballat.  Despite the building project,  Sanballat and Tobiah operated with full access to Jerusalem and sought to kill Nehemiah throughout his time in Jerusalem.

IMG_1113Despite enemies within and enemies without, Nehemiah began the construction with the people of Jerusalem.  Despite espionage, attempted assassination, false prophesies, usury, bribery and extortion, Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem continued without a break.  Crops lay unharvested, shops stayed closed and the markets stayed empty as God’s people, with intention and unity, assembled around the perimeter of Jerusalem with pick and axe and sword.  To the amazement of the surrounding jealous nations, in just 52 days, in April of 445 BC, Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt.

Side by side, nobles, priests, warriors and perfumers had rebuilt the crushed wall of the city, with swords strapped to their sides and a trumpet, their only alert of invasion by the jealous pagans in Judah.  Fathers and daughters worked alongside priests and soldiers until the wall was rebuilt.  Despite numerous threats by Sanballat the Horonite (think hornet) and Tobiah the Ammonite (think mafia), the people were undeterred.  God mercifully empowered His people until Jerusalem stood as a fortress once more.

On day fifty-three, Nehemiah could have packed his saddlebags and returned to the palace without looking back. With the wall in place, Nehemiah would have been commended by his king for a job well done  ahead of schedule. Yet Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem, despite huge personal risk, to address the broken boundaries of his people who had forgotten the ways of their merciful God.

Nehemiah understood that his nation was distinct not just for their worship but also by their heart for God.  The restored walls gave the Jews physical security from their enemies but their social boundaries had to be addressed for true freedom to remain.  In great fear of the Lord, Nehemiah sought God to restore his people and not just the city.

First, Nehemiah confronted the nobility’s extortion of their poorer brethren to restore the brotherhood of the Jews:

What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?  I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop this usury! Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them.” [5]

IMG_0798In direct contrast, Nehemiah, rather than exacting taxes from the people for his governance, daily provided from his own table for over a hundred and fifty Jews.  He would not profit from his position but in fact used his resources to profit his people.

Next, came restoration of the faith of the Jews.  On the first day of the seventh month, the Jews gathered together and heard the Law from the lips of Ezra.  Stricken by their own iniquities, the people wept, but were admonished to rejoice instead, for the “joy of the Lord is your strength.”  After eight days of celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, remembering with joy that they were uniquely God’s own people, the people re-assembled again on the twenty-fourth to atone for the sins of their nation.  After great repentance, the people recommitted, at all levels of leadership, their covenant to obey God and live according to His commands (Nehemiah 9).

From this place of renewal, the purification of the Levites and worship was re-established in the temple.  As the voices of the temple worshipers once again rang out and sacrifices were made on a daily routine, Israel’s distinct culture and dignity was further restored.  As God’s people, the Jews worshiped God in distinct prescribed form and function at His holy temple. Restoring worship was crucial for the stability and identity of the nation.

IMG_0816On his first trip to Jerusalem, Nehemiah had appointed Hanani as governor over Jerusalem, stating “he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” [6] .  When Nehemiah returned a second time to Jerusalem, he found the priesthood had left and sacrifice in the temple had been replaced with commerce.  The high priest, Eliashib,  had established Tobiah with prominence by giving the pagan his own room in the temple courts and awarding  him the tithes of the Levites.

In response, the Levites had returned to their fields, wageless, disgusted, disgraced and dis-enheartened.  Sabbath worship was replaced with a market, as merchants from Samaria and Tyre pedaled their wares and Judeans worked their wine presses instead of worshiping God.

In response, Nehemiah shut the gates to the merchants on the Sabbath, and challenged the Levites to resume their responsibilities, saying “ go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day”. He tossed Tobiah’s household goods out of the holy courts and established treasurers to administer proper wages to the Levites.

Finally,  the issue of marriage had to be addressed.  Nehemiah forecast a Jewish demise with pagan marriage, citing Solomon’s apostasy as proof:

“You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin.  Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?” [7]

IMG_0802Whole families suffered as men of faith married pagan women and vice versa.  For the society to be restored, the families had to choose God above all else.  It was  brutal problem.

Nehemiah, in his final notation stated “Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan” [8].

Today, I wonder how we could ever by cleansed of everything pagan. Our mindsets, our entertainment, our commerce, our social structure all speak to the culture we live in, where God is not feared nor obeyed.  May our hearts be restored once more and may the boundaries of our lives bring safety and truth, as we embrace God’s ways for the sake of our nation.

Let’s pray:  Father God, may we fear You above all else!  Holy Spirit of God, like Nehemiah, see the breaches in our walls and lead us in reform.  Lord Jesus, feed us from Your table, that from that place of strength, we may build and restore the areas that have broken under compromise and sin and culture.  O God, reform us, renew us, have mercy on us this day.  Raise up the Nehemiahs for the nations, to bring truth and freedom to Your people, that all who call on Your Name may rise from our apathy and walk distinct and holy before our Holy God.  Amen.

Study Questions:

  1. Do you have boundaries that need repair in your life?
  2. Do you have a Nehemiah who can help you restore what is broken or missing?
  3. How is Christ’s daily bread crucial to this process?
  4. How did fear of the enemy lead to societal breakdown in Jerusalem ?
  5. How does fear affect your choices to live as a Christian?

This Week Reading: Nehemiah 9 – Esther 3

Next Week’s Reading:  Esther 4 – Job 7

[1]The New King James Version. 1982 (Ne 1:3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[2] www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/acculturation

[3]http://www.foundationsforfreedom.net/References/OT/Historical/Nehemiah/Nehemiah00HistorIntro.html

[4]https://www.ivpress.com/bible/neh

[5]The New King James Version. 1982 (Ne 5:9-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[6]The New King James Version. 1982 (Ne 7:2). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7]The New King James Version. 1982 (Ne 13:25-27). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[8] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ne 13:30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.