The small book of Nehemiah (just 13 chapters) contains some terrific lessons on doing the work of God. Spiritual nuggets abound, so here I simply offer a very brief look at some of the spiritual truths to be found in it. At least four such truths are worth mentioning:
1. We need God’s heart on this
The book of Nehemiah is of course about the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem upon the Israelite’s return from exile. Ezra and Nehemiah lead the people in this task. The first step is to see things from God’s perspective, and to get his broken heart about the situation.
Consider what we find in Neh. 1:3-4:
They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
And more of the same is found in Neh. 2:2-3:
The king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
Of course this great concern for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is found elsewhere, notably in Psalm 137:1-4; Lamentations 1:1-3, 12; and Ezekiel 3:14-15. I speak about those passages in more detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/05/25/squandered-heritage-wasted-opportunities/
To do God’s work, we need to get God’s perspective on things. And that often means getting his broken heart over what is going on, and aligning ourselves with his heartbeat and purposes. We need to grieve with godly grief over all that remains undone.
2. There is a need for repentance
There are a number of prayers recorded in this book, with the most important ones being prayers of confession and repentance. Two lengthy prayers of repentance are found in Neh. 1:5-11, and Neh. 9:5-37. This must always be the foundation of doing the work of God.
Having a humble and broken heart before God is the only way we can expect to see him move on our behalf. So living a life of repentance is vital to seeing his Kingdom work accomplished. And notice something very interesting in Neh. 1:6-7:
Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Notice the inclusive nature of this prayer. ‘We have sinned.’ Nehemiah includes himself in this prayer of confession. And all the Israelites are included as well. I sometimes get chewed out by other Christians when I share the need for us to repent, or get our act together, or to press on with the Lord, etc.
They get quite offended that I use such inclusive language. They think I am being judgmental and over the top: ‘You can’t say we are all like that!’ Well, Nehemiah and so many others in Scripture had absolutely no problem in calling everyone out, and saying we all are in need of repentance and renewal. I will follow their example.
3. Expect opposition
Throughout this book we find those opposed to the work of God raising their ugly heads, determined to stop the rebuilding. We find the work of building of the walls opposed in chapters four and six. But of course this is to be utterly expected. There will always be opposition when we seek to do a work for God.
Just as God has purposes and plans for us, and expects us to cooperate with him in achieving these things, so too there is a very real devil who is utterly opposed to God and his work. So we can expect his full fury to be poured out on any believer who takes seriously his work of extending God’s kingdom.
And guess what, often the biggest opposition will come from fellow Christians. They will seek to deter you, discourage you, demonise you, and discredit you. Happens all the time, so get used to it. We need to ignore these critics and get on with the work God has called us to do.
4. We must both pray and work
The work of God must be done in practical terms (we must do something) but it also must be buttressed by prayer and spiritual warfare. Either one without the other will not get us very far. Working like mad without prayer cover is futile, but simply praying while doing nothing won’t get us very far either. We see this clearly spelled out of course in Neh. 4:16-23:
From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me. Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!” So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. At that time I also said to the people, “Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and as workers by day.” 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.
There will always be opposition to God’s work, and ultimately this is spiritual opposition. So spiritual warfare must always be part of any efforts we expend on the Kingdom. We must do spiritual battles against the principalities and powers that seek to disrupt and stop our work.
One of course can come up with other vital spiritual themes that radiate through this book. For example, the vital role of godly leadership certainly is a major emphasis in this book. James Montgomery Boice lists four key leadership characteristics which Nehemiah had:
-His submission to God
-His ability to focus on the right goals
-His wisdom in handling complex situations
-His courage to act decisively
Suffice it to say that there are plenty of solid spiritual truths to be found in this book, and if you have not yet read it, you owe it to yourself to do so.