We just started a new series from the book of Nehemiah. To put it plainly this is an amazing story of a covenant making, promise keeping, loving and gracious God!
Last week we were reminded about three truths about God:
- God’s promises are bigger than our circumstances: When your circumstances trouble you and overwhelm you, know that even in those moments God’s promises are as sure and firm as a solid rock! You can bank your life on the certain and sure promises of God.
- God’s faithfulness is bigger than our rebellion: That’s the assurance for sinners like you and me. Our destiny lies in the hands of an unchanging God. 1 John 1:9 says…if you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive you from all your unrighteousness. Our forgiveness is based upon the faithfulness of an unchanging God.
- The cycle of failing to keep God’s law is always broken by grace and provision of God: We all struggle to keep God’s law. We know that’s impossible for us in our flesh to obey God’s law perfectly as he demands. So God shows grace and provides a way through His Son by which that cycle can be broken. And that’s how He’s always operated right through history!!
And today we’ll be taking a closer look at the first four verses and look to apply those truths in our lives.
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” 4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah1:1-4)
In the first verse we are introduced to this character called Nehemiah. And the setting is in the king’s palace because he was a cup-bearer to the king. It was an important position because it meant that he worked very closely with the King. That’s where Hanani, his brother and some other men from Judah come to meet him. And you see him inquire and question them about the Jews who survived the exile and the condition of Jerusalem.
Right away you understand that he’s concerned about his people. Even though he’s in a culture and a lifestyle that’s distant from the Israelites, he still retains his identity which is why he would want to know how things were back home. Another way of putting the question: these are the people of God…my people…how are they doing?
However, the fact that he would actually ask it showed that he was disconnected from what was taking place in Jerusalem. This was their answer:
And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” V3
What are they referring to? In 2 Kings 25 it tells us how Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house and the great houses of Jerusalem and the army broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And all of Judah were taken captive and brought out as prisoners of war!
By the time we reach the book of Ezra, we see that the people have returned back to Jerusalem and Judah and start the rebuilding process. Some of the enemy leaders of the province wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Persian King requesting him to stop the work that is taking place. They made it seem like something wicked was being plotted by the Israelites as they were rebuilding the walls. The King listens to them and writes back telling them to stop the work until another decree made by the King approves of that. The rebuilding work stopped soon after it began and the work was made to halt for another 15 years.
As a result, Jerusalem and the people are left open and defenseless against their enemies because they don’t have a city wall. So it’s not just for decorative purposes that they needed a city wall. It was absolutely necessary for protection! A lack of a city wall clearly brought trouble and shame to the Israelites as described by Hanani and the other men.
And this is how Nehemiah responds to the news. As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (v4)
He understood the plight of his people. He began to feel the weight of the trouble and the shame that his people were going through. This was his wake up call! One thing we can infer from this text is that Nehemiah probably was going through a season of comfortability. He was working in the palace, he had a dignified position and a place in society, was man of influence. How do we know if he was being too comfortable and needed a wakeup call?
Look at his response…v6 and 7. He’s confessing the sins of his people and his own sins. How did that happen? He realized that what was happening to the remnant was not because of anything else but because they forsook God. The parallel of the city walls with the condition of the Israelites hearts is very evident. When the city walls were broken and torn down, it was also a reflection of the spiritual decline that had taken place. They were spiritually in ruins!
The brokenness of the people exposed and made him aware of his spiritual need for God. Immediately you see him turn to God in repentance. He got his wake up call!
Let’s just pause and think for a moment.
When you look at the moral and spiritual condition of the people around you…your family, your neighbors, your colleagues, your college friends and the 23 million people in the city, does it break your heart and move you to weep for them? Does it prompt you to pray for them because you realize they’ve forsaken God? When was the last time you wept and prayed for someone?
What would it take for us to be awakened to the reality of spiritual decline all around us?
It is a convicting question when we take a closer look at our comfortability and apathy. It is convicting to realize that we need to be awakened from our state of slumber. We need to be reminded that there is hope in the grace and provision of God!
Firstly, I want us to be encouraged by this truth. It’s never too late to turn back to God.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13)
“Yet even now”…It wasn’t too late for Nehemiah and it isn’t too late for us! All of us realize that we’re not where we should be. Our burden and brokenness for our own sins and the lost in the world is not where it should be. We struggle with the same issue of comfortability and apathy just as Nehemiah did. However, let’s be encouraged by the fact that it’s not too late and God wants us to repent.
Secondly, his timing is perfect.
One would think that the people’s disobedience and Nehemiah’s apathy could ruin God’s plan but it’s not the case. God is still in firm control of everything as He has planned. He will redeem His people as He has ordained. After this prayer of repentance we see how Nehemiah’s position as a cupbearer to the King was carefully used by God to accomplish His purposes. Does that encourage you to know that even though we fail and mess up, everything is still on time on God’s watch?
Thirdly, God uses our failures for His glory.
God gave Nehemiah such fervor for God’s glory and concern for people that now Nehemiah is the man whom God uses to restore the people back to God!!! Who would’ve expected a person who is a public servant, disconnected from His people to be the leader appointed to complete the task of restoring the city walls and likewise the people’s hearts to God? And that’s the encouragement. If you feel today like you’ve failed in your service toward God, know that God can still use you as a powerful vehicle to display His glory if you repent and turn to Him. The reason for that is He is God! He delights in the humble submission of His people: People who seem to be ordinary and unworthy and failures by worldly standards but used in extraordinary ways for His glory.
What God calls us to is repentance and humble dependence on Him. Being transformed and used for the purposes of God is purely His doing. That’s a common pattern that you see in the Bible. People encounter a Holy God, their sin is revealed, they respond in repentance and humble dependence and it’s God who then commissions them. Let’s look at one of those passages in the Bible:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah’s Commission from the Lord
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Again in v7 see a provision made from God to remove our sin and guilt. That could only be removed by a sacrifice on our behalf. We need to remember that our repentance is only made effectual by the death of Jesus on the cross. Apart from Jesus, there is no forgiveness, no cleansing and no service that will be acceptable to God. Jesus died in our place, purchased our freedom and now sends us to go and proclaim His glory!
And how do we respond to him? In humble dependence! Many times it’s our own sin that prevents us from seeing the brokenness around us. Let’s turn to the Lord in repentance – repenting of our sin, comfortability and apathy. Let’s ask God to break our hearts for the lost around us so that it moves us to weep and pray for them. All he requires from us is humble dependence on Him!
Related Sermons from the Nehemiah series: