Week 3 – Nehemiah 2:11-20
It took about 55 days to travel the 1,100 miles from Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, to Jerusalem, assuming your horses were all walking fine and you didn’t hit any bad weather. For perspective, if you started that journey this week you would get there the week of Christmas. The long trip likely gave Nehemiah plenty of time to think over his plan, come up with contingencies, and, like he’s been doing since chapter 1, pray a whole lot. Finally, in Nehemiah 2:11, he arrived in Jerusalem. It had been something like six months since he first got word of the city’s plight (1:1). So what did he do when he finally got there? He waited three more days.
You figure the man would’ve been itching to get to work, but he waited, and maybe even rested. Then he got out on his horse or donkey in the middle of the night and surveyed the walls, getting a sense for the enormity of his mission. Why all the secrecy? Given the opposition from local rulers (2:10, 19), he was likely trying to keep his enemies in the dark as long as possible. But he specifically didn’t tell his allies either (verse 16). It seems as though Nehemiah was wrapping his head around all the work in front of him, the work of the wall, the work of facing opposition, and the work of rallying the people.
Of those three things, the last one was perhaps the most daunting. With unity among the Israelites, the task of rebuilding the wall was doable, and resisting enemy forces, though scary, was at least plausible. Without unity neither were remotely possible. Interestingly, as much as the first chapters of Nehemiah focus on rebuilding the wall, the overarching priority of Ezra and Nehemiah (which, you’ll remember, are actually one book in two parts) isn’t rebuilding the city of God. It’s rebuilding the people of God.
Just a reminder, Advance Commitment Night is next Tuesday, November 2, and everyone is invited! Get all the details and here → Advance Commitment Night RSVP
This will culminate later in the book with a covenant renewal ceremony in chapters 8-9, which we’ll look at the final week of our series. But this week we see the same priority in Nehemiah’s careful leadership. He gets his plan in order over several days so he knows exactly what he’s calling the city leaders to participate in. He holds a gathering, sets the problem in front of them (2:17), and then encourages them with the story of how God has been blessing this work up until that point (2:18).
Thinking back to his prayer in chapter 1, Nehemiah knew what a blessing it would be for God to gather them and grant them the glories of his presence (1:9b). Can’t you imagine how disappointed Nehemiah might have been if the Israelites rebuilt Jerusalem but refused to live in it together? But more than that, can you imagine if they went through all this work but God was nowhere to be found? There’s no city of God without the people of God, but there’s no people of God without God himself. His glory, his name, and his presence and activity in, through, and with his people are the only goal.
Remember, this isn’t a story about Nehemiah’s strength but God’s, and we get to see how God’s steadfastness produced resolve in Nehemiah. In 2:10 and 2:19, we’re introduced to three enemies who keep showing up in the book: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These are local rulers and officials who didn’t want Jerusalem to be rebuilt because it would undermine their power and control in the region. And their accusation of possible rebellion against Artaxerxes is incredibly serious; years prior, a similar accusation halted the work of rebuilding Jerusalem (Ezra 4:30).
But Nehemiah’s response to their threats is a beautiful statement of faith: “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”(2:20) Rather than appeal to the Persian king’s authority, which he had in official letters, he appealed to the King of Kings. And knowing what God had put into his heart (2:12), Nehemiah was emboldened by God’s faithfulness. And here’s perhaps one relevant point for us: in the face of opposition, God doesn’t comfort Nehemiah by relieving him of the work but by being with him in it, completing and perfecting his efforts and comforting with his presence.
Also, we need to be clear about Nehemiah’s response. He didn’t say “God will do his part if we do our part.” We looked at this last week in our Abound booklet, but to reiterate, when thinking about God’s call on our life it can be tempting to slide into this sort of conditionality, as if our successes or failures could ever interrupt what God intends to do. No, our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases (Psa. 115:3). And thinking back to our salvation series, every step in God’s plan is done either by him, through him, on account of him, or with him.
That being said, we need to emphasize with in that list. For whatever reason, one thing that deeply pleases God is doing things with his people. He could’ve created a sparkling new wall for Jerusalem out of thin air, but instead he had his people build it stone by stone with their hands on their swords (more on that next week). That’s because he was building a people—the wall was incidental. Nehemiah responds to the scary reality of rebuilding Jerusalem with something like, “We’ll swing the hammers, but God will build the city.” Amazingly, when we leverage our lives to seek God’s glory and the world’s good, we get to do so with God himself. Keeping that in mind is an excellent way to head into, or come out of, Advance Commitment Night this week.
Questions for Discussion
Quick reminder everyone: Next Tuesday, November 2, is Advance Commitment Night.
• Would someone read Nehemiah 2:9-20 for us?
• Why do you think Nehemiah waited three days and inspected the walls on his own?
• Look at verses 17-18. What do you think this conversation was like for Nehemiah?
• What stands out to you about Nehemiah’s response in verse 20?
• How do you see God at work in this passage?
• When you think about what God might “put into your heart to do”, what are some of the things that scare you about that?
• How might God comfort you through those fears?
• What’s one way you would like to grow in trusting God’s call on your life?