Tag Archive: rebuilding


Rebuilding the Walls (Bible Study)

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Chapter 21 Recap-

It’s no surprise that the Hebrew people were homesick after 70 years of foreign captivity. At this point, it had been 80 years since King Cyrus first gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem.  Zerubbabel was among the first to go.  Fifty thousand former slaves packed their bags and joined him on the trek back to the holy city in 537 B.C.  But many remained beyond the borders of God’s promise.

Ezra had earned the favor of Persia’s King Artaxerxes during his time in Babylon.  The king authorized Ezra to take a second contingent of Israelites back home.  Ezra was a faithful scribe and teacher, and he was given permission not only to teach God’s law but also a mandate to appoint judges and a bottomless expense account to finance his journey.

Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa as the favored cupbearer of the Persian king. He was dismayed to hear that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem.  His first order of business was to assess the condition of the walls and the people.  He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild.

Sanballat and Tobiah were none too pleased. As leaders of nearby nations, they were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation and made repeated attempts to out-maneuver Nehemiah and his rebuilding project, but Nehemiah was undeterred.  He encouraged his leaders and armed his people.  Some worked while others stood guard.  Some carried supplies with one hand and a weapon in the other, but the threats continued.  Even when Israel’s enemies enlisted an Israelite as a false prophet to undermine the progress, Nehemiah was not shaken.  He refused to entertain empty lies, and the wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!

As Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, Ezra set out to rebuild God’s people.  He began by teaching them the Scriptures for the next 13 years. The people gathered to hear Ezra read, and other priests joined in to teach as well.  At last, they got it! They grasped the reality of God’s great story and celebrated the Feasts of Booths as Moses had written of so long before.  The people and the priests hungered to worship God, and God’s people were restored in the Land of Promise.

Yet old habits die-hard, and the people’s fervor soon dwindled. The priests and the people became apathetic, so God commissioned the prophet, Malachi, to speak His words of divine warning.  The priests had begun to dishonor God with sacrifices that were less than the best.  They treated their wives poorly and wondered why God was not pleased with their worship. They withheld their offerings, and the whole community began to again turn away from God.

Malachi prophesied the return of the prophet Elijah as sign of things to come.  God had restored His people and protected His faithful remnant.  He had protected Judah’s royal line in keeping with his promise to David.  He spoke His final words of warning and promise through Malachi, and then God was silent. God’s people would not hear from Him again until the promised Elijah would step forth as God’s new messenger. God’s redemptive story, for now, was quietly marching toward history’s climactic event.

What’s the most extensive remodeling or construction project you have been involved in? How would it match up to the rebuilding of the city walls?

Leadership Discoveries from Nehemiah

I want to first challenge you to read through the book of Nehemiah and generate a list of leadership lessons you see from observing Nehemiah. Once compiled, what strengths are used and what can be learned for lessons today. Are there any weaknesses you see? What can be learned from that?

I will now outline a few of the lessons I learned to see if they match up.

Leadership Lessons from Nehemiah

During the French Revolution, a man was seen running down the street chasing a mob, moving quickly toward the danger.  Somebody yelled at him, “Stop! Stop!  Don’t’ follow that mob!”  Without missing a step, he called back, “I have to follow them!  I’m their leader!”

Nehemiah was not afraid of danger, but he was a much wiser leader than this man.  The world, our country, and our local communities could use more leaders like Nehemiah.  Like the situation he faced, every place that is broken down, needs rebuilding and suffers from hopelessness or apathy is an opportunity for a Christian leader today.  God’s work has never been easy, and has met resistance from His enemies since the Garden.  But the same God who parted the Red Sea, who gave Solomon wisdom and who gave Nehemiah favor in the eyes of King Artaxerxes is the same God who will enable us to accomplish the work He calls us to do.

Nehemiah stands out as one of the best and most effective leaders in the Bible.  He should surely be grouped with Moses, Joshua and David.  But because his story is deep within the Old Testament historical books that are lesser known, the practical life lessons that he provides can go largely neglected.  Therefore, we will dig deeper into the life of Nehemiah to discover L.E.A.D.E.R.S.H.I.P. principles that are just as relevant today as they were 1565 (or so) years ago.

I.    Leave:  Move!  Change!  Step out!  You cannot lead from a position of inertia.

A. Nehemiah was the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes.  This prestigious job reveals that Nehemiah was among the king’s most trusted servants.  He enjoyed an influential post and comfortable lifestyle.  Four months had passed since Nehemiah had received that bad news from his brother.  During that time, he spent a considerable amount of time in prayer, waiting patiently until the LORD presented him with a good opportunity to request permission from the king to leave his post to pursue the LORD’s work.  Nehemiah had every earthly excuse to stay right where he was—important job, good pay, too inconvenient to leave, too far to go, etc. Yet he could not accomplish the mission of rebuilding the walls from a distance city.  But instead, with permission from the king, he chose to leave Susa and journey to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and restore the people’s identity as God’s covenant remnant.

B. An inert situation requires a fresh leader to progress.  The walls needed rebuilt and God could have easily chosen a man already in Jerusalem to lead the charge.  But he instead called Nehemiah who brought with him fresh ideas for change.

C. A good leader has to leave his comfort zone, take a risk and get involved for a cause bigger than himself/herself.

II.     Evaluation:  Although he rightly believed that he was in the will of God to rebuild the walls, Nehemiah evaluated each situation carefully.

A. First, he knew he needed the king’s approval and documentation to verify his travel and mission (Neh. 2:5-8).  He did not rush to secure these things.  He patiently waited four months until he knew the timing was right.

B. Just three days after arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah secretly surveyed the damage to the walls under the cloak of darkness (p. 243).  It was crucial that he have an accurate, firsthand assessment of the mission that lay ahead.  By concealing himself at night, Israel’s enemies could not stir up the people to revolt against his leadership.  By concealing his intentions, Nehemiah had adequate time to evaluate the task and formulate a plan before the Jews could garner arguments why they should or could not rebuild the walls. (After all, they had failed to rebuild the walls up until now, so their excuses were many.) Praying and trusting God does not mean that proper research and planning are unnecessary.

C. A good leader gets a realistic evaluation of the situation before acting.

III.    Action:  Nehemiah had to turn his vision for rebuilding the walls into a reality.

A. He challenged the local leaders to recognize the need to act.  “You see the trouble we are in:  Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned with fire,” (p. 243).

B. He presented his well-researched vision and plan to the people.  “Come, let us rebuild together the walls of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace,” (p. 244).

C. He motivated the leaders by identifying himself with them.  He used “we” and “us.” Finally, he understood that it was God working through him that would give the Jews the ability to do what had to be done.  His personal testimony encouraged them to trust the LORD’s plan rather than their own weaknesses.

D. Almost immediately they began the work.  This leader did not waste precious time tying up people and resources in endless committee meetings.

E. When rumors of an impending attack circulated, Nehemiah took action.  He staged armed guards around the workers to who stood ready to defend their families and their city (p. 245).  He took action, and like him, good leaders do not stall because of “paralysis by analysis.”

F. Good leaders act.

IV.    Discernment:  Nehemiah faced both external and internal threats to the work of rebuilding.

A. His wisdom and discernment alerted him to the very real threat of an enemy attack.  He discerned that what had initially begun as mocking and ridicule had escalated into a unified plot to strike them.

B. External threats can create more problems from within, and Nehemiah knew it.  While their enemies seemingly gained strength, the workers seemed to lose it.  Nehemiah discerned that their physical exhaustion compounded their discouragement.  They said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall,” (p. 244).  So he prayed and prepared a defense against would-be attackers.

C. After the walls were finished, Nehemiah discerned the ill intentions of Sanballat’s and Tobiah’s scheming letters (p. 245-246).  Since their other attempts to halt the work had failed, they turned to more subtle methods to undermine the final phase of the gates.  By asking him to meet them “on the plain of Ono,” which was a day’s travel from Jerusalem, he discerned that they intended to do him personal harm (p. 245).  He tested his theory by sending a message that he was too busy to meet (p. 246).

D. Finally, Nehemiah’s keen discernment alerted him to the false “insider” Jewish prophet Shemaiah who suggested he hide inside the temple to protect himself from death threats.  He discerned two problems with Shemaiah’s so-called prophecy.  First, God would not ask him to run and hide when to do so would demonstrate a lack of trust in God and would undermine the confidence of the people in his leadership.  Second, no true prophet would deliberately influence someone to violate God’s Law that only allowed priests in the sanctuary (Num. 18:7).  If Nehemiah had complied, he would have disobeyed God, desecrated the temple, and discredited himself as God’s appointed leader.  Nehemiah discerned this prophet-for-hire was a fraud.

E. Good leaders develop discernment. 

V.    Encourager:  Nehemiah was an encourager.

A. Nehemiah used his personal testimony to encourage the local leaders to rebuilding the walls.  “I also told them about the gracious hand of God on me and what the king had said to me,” (p. 244).  By assuring these city leaders that both their heavenly King and their earthly king were supportive of the vision, they gained enough courage to buy into it.  Only the encouraged are able to “work with all their heart,” (p. 244).

B. Nehemiah encouraged the workers when they were physically exhausted and emotionally weary.  “When the strength of the laborers” was giving out, he discerned that the threat of attack had worn them too thin.  He was not a harsh taskmaster, and he knew full well that he alone could not accomplish the mission.  Instead, he encouraged them with a new plan to continue the process of rebuilding with some building and others standing guard (p. 245).  It is easier to be negative under difficult circumstances than to be both realistic and encouraging.  But Nehemiah’s encouragement was rooted in knowing his God.  “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there.  Our God will fight for us!” (p. 245, Neh. 4:20)  That they did not give up and finished in a swift 52 days (p. 246) testifies to his fresh encouragement.

C. Good leaders encourage their team. 

VI.    Respect:  Nehemiah respected God, authorities and his subordinates.

A. Nehemiah never failed to give God full credit and glory in the process of rebuilding the walls.  From the very beginning, he prayed and acknowledged that the “hand of God” was upon him (Neh. 2:8, 18) and that it was “what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem,” (p. 243).  When they feared an attack, he reminded them of their God.  “Don’t be afraid of them.  Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your people, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes,” (p. 245, Neh. 4:14).  Nehemiah showed the ultimate respect for God when he defied the false prophet’s suggestion that he hide in the temple to protect himself (p. 246).  He refused to consider defiling the temple to save his skin!

B. Nehemiah respected the rightful king’s authority.  Although he always knew that the mission was from God, he respected the authority of the king by requesting a leave of absence and garnered the king’s documented support.   A godly leader will respect his or her earthly authorities (Rom. 13:1-2).  He also respected the authority of the local Jerusalem priests and nobles.  He presented his plan to rebuild to the local leaders who then enlisted the support of the people.  He called upon Ezra to lead the worship (p. 246-247) after the walls were rebuilt.

C. Nehemiah respected the needs of his subordinates.  When they were weary, he met their need for protection.  Moreover, he worked right alongside all the other laborers, perhaps working even longer hours toward the mission.  “Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water,” (p. 245).  The king endowed him with the authority of a governor but he refused to use the governor’s food allowance because he did not want to burden the people with the taxes (Neh. 5:14-18).

D. Good leaders respect God, government and those they lead.

VII.    Selfless servant:  Nehemiah was a selfless servant who put the just needs of the people first.

A. Nehemiah was outraged by the immoral and unethical, not to mention unlawful, behavior of some of the wealthy Jews.  Evidently there was a food shortage and the people needed grain.  Some people had to mortgages their fields and homes to purchase food (Neh. 5:1-3).  Some people had to borrow money just to pay their taxes and their Jewish brethren were charging high interest rates.  This act was worsened when some people had to sell their children as slaves to their creditors (Neh. 5:5).  Nehemiah was rightfully outraged and rebuked the community nobles and rulers who were oppressing their poor brethren (Neh. 5:6-7).  This behavior was absolutely unacceptable by the community leaders because it gave God a bad name.  “And I said to them, ‘You are exacting usury, each from his brother!…The thing which 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?’” (Neh. 5:7b, 9)

B. In stark contrast to the other community leaders, Governor Nehemiah gave up his right to enjoy the governor’s benefits.  For twelve years he did not use the governor’s food allowance because of the tax burden it put upon the people (Neh. 5:14).  Former governors had not only taxed the people, but had also taken their food allowance of bread and wine from them.  The former governors’ servants had oppressed the people to demand the payments (Neh. 5:14-15).  Nehemiah still provided for 150 Jews and officials, as well as foreign dignitaries, on a regular basis, but he did it out of his own pocket because he was a selfless servant to the people he governed (Neh. 5:17-18).  His selflessness for the welfare of the community is a great example for any leader.  It demonstrates the heart of God for the welfare of His people.

C. Good leaders show compassion for those they lead by setting an example of selfless servant-hood.

VIII.    Hard-working:  Nehemiah was a hard-worker, and inspired others to work hard also.

A. When faced with opposition, Nehemiah and the builders worked from early morning till nighttime.  “So we continued the work with half of them holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out,” (p. 245, Neh. 4:21).  Those living outside of Jerusalem did not return to their homes at night, but some stood guard each night to protect their city and the people.  Nehemiah set the example for the whole community.  He stayed on the job and was on guard at all times (Neh. 4:23, p. 245).  He also made sure his own servants were doing the work of rebuilding rather than serving him personally (Neh. 5:16).

B. He did not permit himself to be distracted.  He stayed focused on his mission and fully devoted himself to the work.

C. Good leaders set the example of hard work.

IX.    Integrity:  Nehemiah was a trustworthy man who boldly confronted injustice.

A. His integrity is apparent from his position as cupbearer to the king.  The office of cupbearer in the Persian court was a position second only to the king.  He would have been the chief treasurer and the keeper of the king’s signet ring.  This gave him great authority and influence.  The king would have had great trust in this man who tasted the king’s food to ensure that it was not poisoned.  He had the complete confidence of the king.

B. As noted before, Nehemiah was careful not to personally profit from his leadership position.  He did not exercise the privilege of the food allowance, but used his own resources (Neh. 5:14, 18).  Good leaders go above and beyond those they lead.

C. A man of integrity, Nehemiah was not afraid to confront those who were wrong.  He confronted the leaders who were charging interest and oppressing their fellow Jews (Neh. 5:7-11).  He reprimanded those who had not handled the money for the temple correctly (Neh. 13:10-13).  He reprimanded those who profaned the Sabbath (Neh. 13:17) and who married foreigners because they violated the Law (Neh. 13:23-28).

D. With integrity comes a clear conscience.  Those who lack integrity lead a double life that gets them into trouble.  A man of integrity has nothing to hide because he only serves one Master.

E. Good leaders show personal integrity and refuse to tolerate the injustices of others.

X.    Prayer:  Nehemiah undergirded everything with prayer.

A. According to Robert D. Bell’s, “The Theology of Nehemiah,” in Biblical Viewpoint (Nov. 1986), of the 406 verses in the book, prayers fill 46 verses (or 11%).

B. He prayed at every crucial time and depended upon God’s help.  He prayed as a first response rather than a last resort.  He often sent up quick “flare prayers” and sandwiched them within the stories of his book.  A man of prayer humbly acknowledges his own insufficiency and trusts God to accomplish more than he ever could in his own strength.

C. Prayer was a way of life for Nehemiah.  He paired long periods of prayer with fasting.  “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept.  For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven,” (Neh. 1:4, p. 242).  He had a disciplined prayer life that was borne out of deep reverence for the LORD.

D. Prayer is a way of life for a godly leader.

XI.    Applications and Implications

A. Nehemiah was one of the godliest leaders in the Bible.  He served the LORD with his willingness to be lead in a strategic government position, both in the Persian King’s court and as governor of Judah.  Most of us will never enter vocational ministry.  And that is good!  Christian leadership should be evident well beyond the walls of the church.  What better way to make an impact in the dark places of the world than by encouraging and supporting Christians toward key posts in the secular world.  Nehemiah gives us a blueprint for godly leadership beyond the priesthood.

B. All work can and should be for the glory of God.

C. I do not have to be in vocational ministry to still be doing Christian service.

D. God puts people in strategic places to represent Him.

E. Believers should strive to use that position of authority to make an impact.

F. Prayer and action should combine to accomplish goals, defend one’s self, and/or discern one’s enemies.

G. I can integrate any of these leadership traits to become more effective right now.

The Deserted Wife

We will take some time to talk about a Prophet that is not well represented in “The Story;” Malachi. The people have a hard time remaining faithful to God.

As we come to the close of the Old Testament story of God’s love, we see that “love” is still a problem for the Jews—a misplaced love.  They have seen God rescue them miraculously and restore them to their land.  With God’s help they rebuilt their temple and the walls of Jerusalem. Throughout the story, their unholy self-love brought about destruction in two areas:  in their own hearts, and in their families.  Once again God raised up a prophet, Malachi, to call them out, because after all this they continued to love themselves more than they loved God.

I.  The root of the problem: The Priests no longer taught God’s Will.  Malachi 2:1-9

1.  Why does God say he will send a curse instead of blessing upon the people? (v.2)

2.  What was it about Levi, the priests’ ancestor, that God said was lacking in the priests of Malachi’s time? (v. 5-6)

3. God told Malachi two important things honorable priests should do. Note them. (v. 7)

II.  God calls it Detestable: Breaking covenant breaks God’s followers.  Malachi 2:10-14

The headings and verse notations in some versions interrupt the flow of thought in this passage.  The logical transition in Malachi chapter two, when not interrupted, shows the reader that the problem of unfaithful priests has resulted in unfaithful people.  The first nine verses of Malachi seem to be leading up to what God really hates. God has some strong language for those who break covenant.

1.  What specifically profaned the covenant God had made with the Israelites? (v.10)

2.  What does God call detestable? (v. 11-12)

3.  God pointed out that he knew they were disillusioned with their worship and offerings.  Instead of blessing they mourned.  They felt the distance from God and they felt that He did not see them. However the astonishing fact is that they were so blind to their own wickedness.

Why had God rejected their worship? (v. 14)

III. The nature of the marriage covenant: two become one.  Malachi 2:15-16

This short passage is the clear and consistent demand from God for faithfulness to the marriage covenant because it is based on God’s nature, and upon their covenant with Him. While thousands of books have been written about the subject, the bottom line is found in these two verses.

1.  God had already alluded to His right to instruct man because He is the creator.  Re-read the creation of man and God’s instruction to Adam and Eve regarding their union in Genesis 2:23-24.

Then fill in the following blanks from Malachi chapter two:

“Have we not all _____________ Father?  Did not ___________ God create us?”  Malachi 2:10

“ Has not the Lord made them ______________.  In  _______________ and _____________ they are

his.  And why ______________?  Because he was seeking ________________  ______________.”

Malachi 2:15

Why does the marriage covenant reflect the nature of God?

2.  What was Malachi’s advice to the Jews on how to protect themselves in the spirit (the relationship with God)? (v. 15b)

3.  What does God hate? (v. 16)

4.  It seems that God is equating divorce with violence in verse 16.  How can divorce and violence be the same thing? (Consider the meaning of the word “one”.)

5.  Once again God gives a reminder about how to have spiritual health.  What is it? (v. 16b)

6.  What was God’s original complaint against Judah?  (v. 11)

Once again a break is made in the train of thought by the verse notations and headings in some versions.  Read Malachi 2:15-17 together.  God seems to be saying this discussion was tiring. Adultery was one of the abiding sins of his people.  The consequences of divorce cause a ‘domino effect’ of misery that simply could not be denied.  God simply says “Can there be any good in a sin?  No!  I am a just God.”  In God’s eyes the marriage union can’t be broken any more than He can be divided against Himself.

From Genesis to Malachi, we have seen a story of true love.  God remained faithful to His covenant with His people, in spite of their rebellion and rejection.  God loved them first, and he always loved them.

IV.  The Message for Today

  • The marriage covenant provides for and protects men and women.

1.  According to Malachi 2:14, what are the two benefits of marriage?  Are these benefits applicable to men and women?  (Remember to whom Malachi is speaking.)

2.  What things does Paul write in Ephesians 5: 25-33 that mirror Malachi’s message? (Compare Matthew 19;1-8; and Mark 10:1-12.)

  • Godly people, men and women, have the leadership responsibility in the home and in the church to teach God’s plan for marriage.

3.  From Malachi 2:1-9, what are the important principles about marriage that any leader should teach and live?

4.  We know that part of the reason God detested the unfaithfulness of the Israelite men toward the wives of their youth was because of his plan to send the Savior through the lineage of Judah.  But in Malachi 2:16 He simply states that He wanted them to raise godly children. What does faithfulness in marriage teach the children?

5.  Titus 2:1-5 gives a responsibility to women.  How does that responsibility compare to the ministry of the priests in the Old Testament?

6.  What does God hate and detest—sinful actions or sinful people?

Charles A. Kollar, in Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling, writes: “ What we believe we become.  (The Bible) is given to teach us to be tenacious about the things of God and to develop a mature hope in his intention (Romans 15:4).”  We simply cannot separate God from his word.

  • Godly men and women who experience desertion and divorce must trust in God’s faithfulness.

That some men haven’t changed since Malachi’s time is proven by the fact that the term “trophy wife” is common and well-understood in our society. In Formerly A Wife, Welby Obrien says this about divorce: “Each of us is hurting over…the death of a relationship.  We know first-hand why God hates divorce—not with a head knowledge of theological assent, but with the pain of personal experience.  God knows what divorce does to its victims” (8-9).

9.  Who testified on behalf of the deserted wife? Malachi 2:14

10.  David was God’s chosen king but he spent years running for his life alone, rejected, and sometimes bitter.  David’s Psalms are a message that God placed in his heart to share with His followers.  From Psalm 73:21-28, what comfort is available to the spouse who must endure desertion?

When we love God, life is doable.  When we love ourselves more than we love God, the first result is to turn away from The Word. However, when we love ourselves more than we love God, we destroy ourselves, and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the marriage relationship.

Key question:  How do you try to separate God from His Word?  What will you do to change that?

Who are Ezra and Nehemiah?

Ezra-Nehemiah

Ezra and Nehemiah are books that most people skip over to get to the New Testament. Let’s take a moment to learn about these books, so that we may stop, take a look at their importance and their message, and we will find that they too can give us great hope.

According to Hebrew tradition, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book.  The two books have historical unity and therefore are still considered together even though we separate them in our contemporary Bibles.  Nehemiah roughly covers the twelve-year period that he served as governor in Judah, from 445 B.C. to 431 B.C., or perhaps a few years after that.  It was in 445 B.C. that Nehemiah received the news that the Jerusalem walls were in such dreadful shape.  He arrived in Jerusalem in 444 and got right to work.  His was the third group to return to the Land.  Zerubbabel led the first group in 536 B.C.  Ezra led the second group back from captivity in 457 B.C. and finally Nehemiah’s return was in 444 B.C.

Remember that the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire and changed the organizational structure and philosophy.  Under King Darius I, the Persian Empire was divided into twenty satrapies.  We might compare these “satrapies” to our own fifty states.  Each one was governed by a Persian “Satrap” or commissioner.  Perhaps we’d compare him to a state’s governor.  These satrapies were quite independent and their governor’s wielded a lot of autonomous power.  They had the authority to levy taxation and to organize troops.  Each satrapy was then further divided into provinces, which we might compare to our own counties.  These provinces were managed by a local governor who was usually a descendant of the local noble family similar to a mayor today.  Judah belonged to the satrapy “Beyond the River,” which was essentially everything west of the Euphrates.  Zerubbabel and Nehemiah were governors of the province of Judah within “Beyond the River.”  Their enemies were also their neighboring provinces which were all part of the same satrapy.  The province of Samaria was governed by Sanballat while the province of Ammon-Gilead was governed by Tobiah.  Geshem governed the province of Arabia-Idumea.  These characters show up in our Story chapter as the antagonists that Nehemiah faced.  They were not particularly opposed to the reestablishment of the religious life of Judah, but were concerned that Judah would become a more powerful political threat to their own provinces.

The most important purpose for the books of Ezra-Nehemiah was the survival of the remnant community that God restored from the Babylonian exile.  The promise made to King David that his royal descendants and nation would never end was at stake.  Essentially, the promise-keeping ability of God was at stake.  The nation who had gone into exile for her consistent disobedience returned to their Land to rebuild the temple and restore their people to a relationship with God.  But they were easily discouraged and their work stalled.  Ezra and Nehemiah were reformers who were determined not to allow this re-emerging but fledgling nation to fall back into her old ways.  Their stories and subsequently these books were written to encourage joy in returning to a relationship with God to a fearful, discouraged, needy group of Israelites who were no longer sure of their own identity.  Therefore, Nehemiah concentrated on first rebuilding the city walls and then rebuilding the broken people.  High Priest Ezra led the spiritual reformation that culminated on what had to be an all-out revival. These people listened to the Word from sunup to noon as they listened attentively. They wanted and needed to hear the Word once again.

Sadly these two Old Testament books tend to be the dustiest, least used books in the Bible.  Perhaps by bringing Ezra and Nehemiah to life, we will see the need for all Christians to embrace key and strategic leadership positions in every sector of our own communities. God can breathe new life into us as we read and take to heart the message of hope found in these books.

What was your biggest take away from reading Ezra, Nehemiah or chapter 21 of “The Story?”

A-New-Day-Is-Coming-Screen-One

Perspective 1- Barb Miles

The Israelites are moving back to Jerusalem, the temple is rebuilt and the walls are being reconstructed.

Can’t you see generations of Israelite families sharing their lower stories of their wandering, good times and bad times, hunger or having plenty of food to eat?  Several weeks ago public television had a series of programs on the Dust Bowl.  The Dust Bowl lasted 8 – 10 years through which time they also experienced periods of the unknown, when would they have clean air to breathe, how to keep their food clean, not knowing when the wind would stop blowing.  Through this period of the unknown they went also through periods of faith and periods of disbelief, as the Israelites.

When Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem, the lives of  God’s people were also rebuilt.  When the Dust Bowl finally lifted, people had to rebuild their lives.  The span of time was different in each case, but in both Lower Stories people wondered when God’s promise of bringing them back to their land or reestablishing the land for growing crops would happen.  Would God would see them through this terrible dust storm?

God is faithful!

Perspective 2- Pastor Phil

As I was reading this chapter one spot made me stop and think. The temple was back up and it was the first day they gathered for worship. The people wanted to hear the Law of Moses or the Torah. This is what happened:

“So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.”

Did you catch all that? Daybreak till noon…and all the people listened attentively. No sporting event to worry about, no choir, dance recital to make sure they were out of church on time. In that moment they were ready and hungry to hear the Word proclaimed.

Have we become desensitized to the hearing of God’s Word? Are we really at the place in our worship lives that anything over an hour is too much? What would it look like if we were to sit all morning till noon and attentively listen to the Word?

May God rejuvenate a hunger for His Word in people today that drives people to the Word instead of the temporary trappings of the world.

Perspective 3- Dan Petrak

Perspective 4-Heather Robarge

“The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”  This sentence made me chuckle a bit because I am absolutely one of the Jews in this passage.  Again, I identified with them, “Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us’.”  I get so worked up when I am overwhelmed, scared, or unsure of the future that I forget who is ultimately in charge!  Thank goodness for the calm steady voice, like that of Nehemiah, who reminds me who I belong to and who is the boss.  It’s as if Nehemiah, jumps in and says, “Hey everybody, chill out!  We have nothing to worry about; remember who’s in charge?”

I get frustrated that I need to be reminded of something that I already know, but I am so glad that I have awesome people in my life (My Nehemiah and Ezra’s) that are willing to give me a God smack every once in a while.  When that smack comes and I snap out of it, the relief is overwhelming.

The Return Home (Bible Study)

A-New-Day-Is-Coming-Screen-One

Chp 19 Recap-

After generations of idolatry, God’s people had been defeated by the empires that controlled the ancient world.  The Assyrians had conquered the Northern kingdom, deported the people, and re-populated the land with exiles from other countries.  Their practice was to redistribute people from conquered nations throughout their vast empire.  The foreigners who were resettled in northern Israel intermarried with the few remaining Jews and became the mixed-race Samaritans.

The Babylonians were next on the world scene.  After each of their three conquests of the Southern Kingdom, the Babylonians deported Jewish captives to enclaves in Babylon and sought to assimilate them into their culture. Now, 70 years of captivity had elapsed. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall; world empires come and go.

The next world power, Persia, was more benevolent.  They preferred the benefits of high taxation and the favor of the various gods.  So King Cyrus issued a decree to repatriate all aliens to their homelands while allowing them some degree of self-rule.  And thus the people of Israel began their journey home.

 Under the guidance of the Hebrew leader, Zerubbabel, nearly 50,000 Jews returned to Jerusalem. They were intent on rebuilding, and the temple was the first priority.  They rebuilt the altar and prepared sacrifices in accordance with the Law of Moses.  Fifty years had passed since the temple had been torn down by the Babylonians, and at last God’s people were again able to worship as God had instructed.  The foundation of this humble temple could not compare to the magnificence of its predecessor, but the process had begun, and God was leading the way.

The locals didn’t necessarily roll out the welcome wagon for the repatriated Judeans.  They made a backhanded offer of help as an attempt to sabotage the temple rebuilding project.  Zerubbabel didn’t fall for their scheme, but the Jews were intimidated and construction halted.

Sixteen years later the prophet, Haggai, spoke on God’s behalf. He twice urged his people, “Give careful thought to your ways.”  He reminded them that the temple had to be built as a place of honor and glory for God.  The LORD encouraged His people and they returned to their work.  Though the new temple would not have the splendor of the old one, God promised that His unsurpassed glory would return.  Zechariah agreed; Jerusalem would again teem with life and prosperity because the people would live righteously.  God promised to shower Jerusalem and Judah with His goodness and make Israel a blessing to the world.

When the building resumed, a new antagonist, Tattenai, wrote to King Darius hoping to obstruct progress.  Darius searched the royal archives and discovered that his predecessor, King Cyrus, had given his royal thumbs up to the rebuilding of God’s temple.  In a fitting twist of events, Darius penned a letter back to Tattenai charging him with responsibility for funding the temple reconstruction.  The plot backfired, and in 516 B.C., the temple was completed.

It had been 70 years since the people were first taken captive.  This long and painful season of discipline brought much needed change to the hearts of God’s people.  In the Lower Story, God brought them out of captivity again.  He returned them to the Land of Promise where they rebuilt His temple and their lives.

But the Upper Story once again rings with echoes of delivery from bondage.  The LORD had redeemed His people from foreign captivity as God’s great, over-arching plan continued unabated.   This story of liberation and restoration is a poignant reminder that this world is not our home. Like Israel, we wait in joyful anticipation of our journey to a land of eternal promise (Heb. 11:16) where all things are new and home will be forever.

Give Careful Thought to Your Ways

In the recent hit movie Marley and Me, the real-life struggles of John and Jenny Grogan resonate with every American family.  The crazy, unruly, and unpredictable golden Labrador serves as a metaphor for all the crazy, unruly and unpredictable messiness of family life.  Like each of us, this couple struggles to make career choices, housing choices and family decisions.  The film genuinely captures the reality of setting priorities.  John Grogan has to make different career choices than his single friend who he envies just a bit.  Jenny Grogan struggled to balance work with a new baby.  The crime rate of his neighborhood drove John Grogan to seek a new neighborhood for his family.  Together they had to figure out how to make ends meet and meet the needs of their growing family.  After realizing she was not doing her work or her parenting to the best of her ability, Jenny said, “If I have to give up something, it’s not going to be this.”  In the end, John says to Jenny, “None of this was part of the plan.”  Jenny replied, “No.  But it’s so much better.”  Oftentimes, the right priorities have hard, self-sacrificing consequences.  They made real-life choices based on the priorities of family and responsibility rather than self-centered and empty wants.

A priority is done first.  It is the most urgent or most critical for success.  It is the driving force of our thinking and our actions.  It is not the same as a response to immediate demands around us.  Sadly, many of us fail to analyze what is controlling our choices.  We confuse the tyranny of the urgent with what is most important for reaching our goals.  The prophet Haggai challenged the leaders and the people of Jerusalem to reset their priorities.  He challenges us today to “give careful thought to our ways” as we juggle our daily Lower Story responsibilities with the Upper Story priorities of serving and honoring God.

I.    The People’s Problem:  Misplaced Priorities

A. Misplaced priorities sent them into exile in the first place.  For years the Israelites failed to honor YHWH as the only true God.  They worshiped idols and trampled on the Law.  So God disciplined them using a foreign power and expelled them from His Promised Land.  Throughout the 70 year captivity in Babylon, the Israelites had become comfortable in their new home.  By that time, most exiles had actually been born in Babylon and had only the stories of the Promised Land passed down from their grandparents.  Then in 539 B.C., Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylonian King Belshazzar and changed the foreign policy for all exiles.  A year later he issued a decree that allowed all ex-patriots to return to their homelands (which were now within the Persian empire), restore their gods, and enjoy a good deal of autonomy—but don’t forget to pay your taxes and pray to your gods for the king!

B. Misplaced priorities allowed many Judeans to stay in Babylon instead of returning to Jerusalem.   Many of the exiles knew nothing of their Promised Land.  Their only experience was life in Babylon.  When King Cyrus gave them the freedom to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple, only about 50,000 chose to do so.  Why would God’s people not return to their Promised Land?  Though the Bible does not specifically state their reasons, perhaps a few ideas come to mind.

  1. Comfort.  Life in Babylon was pretty good.  People had jobs and homes, families and friends.  If it’s not broken, why fix it?
  2. Fear of the unknown.  They only knew Babylon; why leave the known for the unknown?
  3. Too much work.  Jerusalem had been destroyed.  The temple had been razed.  Those who returned would have to overcome so much.  Daily living would be difficult.
  4. Spiritual apathy.  Some exiles failed to learn from their past mistakes.  They continued to undervalue those things that God values, like the Promised Land and the temple.

C. Misplaced priorities distracted the discouraged temple builders.  When the exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel, they began by taking care of their essential needs.  The city was in ruins, so they took several months to prepare appropriate housing for themselves.  Then they began their temple rebuilding project.  So far, so good.  But when the local people—most likely Samaritans who were a mixed people between the Northern Israelites and their Assyrian captors—discouraged and frightened them, their building project stalled.  There were so many other pressing needs that the people were vulnerable to paralyzing fear.  Their fields were overgrown from years of disuse; their roads, buildings and houses needed repairs.  Their original priority of worshiping God in a rebuilt temple quickly took a backseat to the struggles of daily life.  The altar and foundation were laid but the remaining work went undone for sixteen years.

II.       The Prophet’s Prompt:  Reconsider Your Priorities

A. The prophet prompted them to set a new priority:  to please God and honor Him (Hag. 1:8)  After sixteen years of unfinished temple work, the LORD raised up the prophet Haggai to speak to Zerubbabel and the people of Jerusalem.  The people procrastinated temple building presumably because they lacked the financial resources and the drought had caused further hardship (p. 220, or Hag. 1:7-11).  They had wrongfully concluded that these were legitimate reasons to forego the work of the LORD.

B. However, the prophet told them that these were precisely the reasons that they should rebuild the temple.  Realigning their priorities to reflect God’s priorities would result in pleasing God and giving Him glory.  The drought and the financial struggles were divine consequences for their misplaced priorities.  GOD was behind their poor harvest and their dwindling livestock population.

  1. God spelled out His reason for wanting the temple built:  “so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored.”  (p. 220, Hag. 1:8) To do God’s will and His work in spite of opposition, fear and struggles is an act of faith.  And without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).
  2. These Jews were still living under the covenant of the Law.  They were to understand the divine blessings and consequences of obedience and disobedience.

If you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:…the LORD will strike you with…scorching heat and drought and…the LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.” Deut. 28:15, 22-24

You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little because locusts will devour it.  You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them.  You will have olive tress throughout your country but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off.” Deut. 28:38-40

III.       The Proper Perspective:  Response and Realignment

A. The people responded by faith—they believed the Word of the LORD from the mouth of Haggai.  They obeyed because they feared the LORD–they had reverential awe of Him.  Unlike their forefathers who largely ignored and disbelieved the prophets, this generation of returning exiles listened to the prophet and believed him.

B. They realigned their priorities based upon God’s will and Word.  They acted upon the prophet’s prompt and within three short weeks, the temple construction was back under way.  They did not just say they believed him; their actual actions demonstrated their inward priorities (p. 220).

C. By prompting the people toward new priorities, Haggai motivated them to action that secured the believers’ religious identity, strengthened leadership and most importantly glorified God.

D. The LORD, not the prophet, was responsible for stirring the hearts of the leaders Zerubbabel and Joshua as well as the spirits of the people.  The prophet brought the message but only God can change hearts!

E. Once again the people were disappointed with the results of their efforts.  The artistry, size and glory of this temple could not compare to the grandeur of Solomon’s gold-covered masterpiece.  Once again the people were ready to quit in discouragement.  But God’s word through Haggai encouraged them to continue on in obedience and to work (p. 221, Hag. 2:4).  The people struggled to see the Upper Story.  They were focused on the Lower Story.  But God had a plan to glorify His temple by displaying His sovereignty over the foreign powers.  All the earth’s wealth is the LORD’s.  He filled His house with gold and silver when King Darius ordered governor Tattenai to do so (p. 224-225, Ezra 6).

F. The Lord reminded them of His presence, just like when they came out of Egypt.  His presence should alleviate their fears.  Their responsibility was to respond by faith and realign their priorities to His.

G. We, like the returning exiles, are to “give careful thought to” our ways.

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90:12

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.”  Eph. 5:15-16

IV.       Implications and Applications

A. It would be nice if the Bible gave us a list or an order of priorities so that we could follow a cookbook plan.  But it does not.  It gives us principles that we have to then apply individually.  It is easy to become too legalistic, to simplistic or too lackadaisical in our approach to prioritizing our lives.  As the seasons in our lives change, the outworking of our priorities may look different but the core principles should remain aligned to the will of God.

  1. The Bible makes clear that our relationship with the LORD should be our first priority.  However, how does that play out in our daily lives?  How much Bible study time or prayer time or service time demonstrates that God comes first?
  2. Some people have suggested that our checkbooks and our calendars reveal our true priorities.  But the same outward result could be motivated by very different causes.  For example, the man who works two jobs or long hours could either be avoiding his wife and children, driven by greed for material wealth, or providing for the legitimate needs of his family so that his wife can be a stay-home mother.  Nevertheless, the checkbook and calendar/day-planner do provide a tangible tool to help us really assess where we put our resources.
  3. Priorities begin with the motivation of the heart.  The man who spends every Saturday and Sunday on the golf course instead of with his family and in worship, and the woman who continues to max out her credit cards and blow the family budget have self-centered priorities that are out of line with God’s clear principles in His Word.  Self-centeredness is always contradictory to God.
  4. Circumstances and life changes affect our priorities.  The addition of a newborn baby changes that way our checkbooks and calendars look.  The chronic illness or death of a loved one changes our calendars and checkbooks.  Life happens and the practical results of our inward priorities are constantly fluid.  Every believer struggles to balance the Upper Story priorities with the Lower Story of our daily lives.

B. We should discourage comparisons when doing the Lord’s work.  The key is to stop listening to ourselves and to listen to the Lord.  He is responsible to take our “fishes and loaves” and to multiply them to His glory.

C. I should not procrastinate doing the Lord’s work.  But if I do, I should get back to work quickly when I realize my mistake.

D. Those who plan to give to God once they have enough for themselves will never actually get there.

E. I should expect opposition, obstacles and struggles when I serve the LORD.  The LORD’s enemies are always at work against Him and me.  I should persevere anyway.

F. We should align our priorities to the Lord’s will when we hear and know it.

G. What we do with our time reveals what we value (with the cautions noted above).

H. How we spend our money reveals what we value (with the cautions noted above).

I. Good things can become the worst enemy of the best things.  The Israelites’ personal wants superseded the best thing—doing the will of God.

J. The Word of God and other believers can help us keep a proper perspective on priorities if we allow ourselves to be accountable.

K. Unbelievers have a different value system and are therefore not good accountability partners for godly priorities.

L. It is wise to prayerfully ask the LORD if your problems might be the cause or the result of misplaced priorities.  Then listen for His answer and respond appropriately.

M. Like Haggai, we have a responsibility to lovingly question another believer’s actions if they appear to be harmful to his or her relationship with the LORD or others.

Redeemed and Reconciled

Today we will do something a little bit different. You will still need to open your Bible and look things up. What will be different is we are going to go back to the Hosea and Gomer story to talk about a story of reconciliation and redemption. It is fitting and right because the people have experienced the consequences for their actions, but now what’s next? They need to be reconciled back to their God. This story should help us to see the Upper Story of God’s work a little bit more. If you have questions please let me know.

The soap opera-like story of God’s people takes a turn for the better as they finally rebuild the temple.  God inspired two Persian kings, Cyrus and Darius to support the project that took 150 years to complete.  In THE STORY, chapter 19, we read that the dedication of this new temple moved the people of Judah to weeping, mixed with shouts of joy as they were overcome with emotion (Ezra 6).  Years before God had given His people a sneak preview of this scene in their scandalous story when he sent Hosea to show them His version of reality TV.

I.  Hosea takes a wife.  Hosea 1—2:1

God had tried to head his people away from their destructive path through the judges, the various prophets and even their own history.  Apparently God knew that sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  He attempted to grab their attention through the bizarre. The prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer, publicly lived out a steamy love story, filled with all the betrayal and bad behavior that had typified the relationship between the Israelites and their God.

1.  Who did God tell Hosea to marry? (Hosea 1:2-3)

2.  God named each of Hosea and Gomer’s children.  Note the meaning of each name from the passage, and tell why you think he chose each name.

Jezreel- (1:4)

Lo-Ruhamah-(1:6)

Lo-Ammi-(1:8)

3.  How do we know that Jezreel was probably Hosea’s son? (1:3)

4.  What indicated that the other two children were not fathered by Hosea? (1:6, 7; 2:4)

5.  What was the promise that anticipates God’s reconciliation with His people? (1:10-11)

6.  How do we know that God had always loved his people? (2:1)

 

II. Gomer’s downward spiral.  Hosea 2:2-8

In this passage the words Hosea wrote were from his own heart as well as from God’s heart.  Simply put, “A worthy woman is her husband’s crown; but she who acts disgracefully is like rottenness in his bones” (Proverbs 12:4). Study the various emotions that are expressed by the betrayed husband.  Remember mankind has been created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)“So this was how God felt about his own people—bitterly betrayed, cut to the heart, disgusted, outraged.  His tender love, his every gift meant nothing to a people enamored with Canaanite gods” (Spangler & Syswerda 277).  God was revealing his heart through the things a man would feel. Answer the following questions with Hosea and God in mind.

1.  Why did he want to rebuke his wife? (2:2)

2.  How did he feel about the children and why? (2:4-5a)

3.  What were Gomer’s (Israel’s) desires?  (2:5b)

4.  Hosea said he wanted to “block Gomer’s path with thornbushes”, and to “wall her in”.  Were these desires kind or unkind?  Explain your answer. (2:6-7, consider 2:22)

5.    Who actually had showered her with gifts? (2:8)

III. Redemption and reconciliation for Israel.  Hosea 3:1-5

Again Hosea’s story and God’s story are intermingled in the account of Hosea’s rescue of his adulterous wife.  Although the account is succinct, the brevity of the words somehow underscores the sentiment.  Take a look at the following scenes:

Redemption:

1.  What was her situation at this point? Describe the Israelite’s situation when they completely rejected God. (3:2)

2.  What did God order Hosea to do? How does this compare to God’s relationship with His people? (3:1)

Reconciliation:

3. Who invited the reconciliation between Hosea and his wife?  Who invited the reconciliation between God and his people?

4. How would the Israelites come back to God? How would a broken and victimized woman react to a second chance at life and love? (3:5)

IV. Redemption and reconciliation for you and me.  Colossians 1:15-23; 2:9-15

This reality show was not just for the Israelites.  The running theme throughout God’s word is the redemption and reconciliation that is available to us because of His love.  God’s plan was that all people would make Him the center of their lives and that He would love and care for them as a husband loves and cares for his wife (cf. Revelation 21:3-4).

1.  According to Colossians 1:15-18, who is the Lord Jesus Christ?

2.  What is our status without Christ, and what caused that status?  (Colossians 1:21)

3.  Exactly what did God have to do to make us alive with Christ? (Colossians 1:22; 2:13-15)

4.  When do we “put off the old nature”? (Colossians 2:11-12)

5.  We may come to the Lord with trembling, but how are we to live after we have received Christ’s redemption and reconciliation? (Colossians 1:23)

Key question:  What is your next step on the path to redemption and reconciliation?  Will you take it?

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