We’ve spent a number of weeks on the book of Ezra and on how the Lord enabled his people to return to the Promised Land and to the city of Jerusalem to rebuild the temple which has been destroyed many years before, when the Lord — in his anger — sent his rebellious and sinful people into exile. But then, he brought them back to the Promised Land. And he enabled them to overcome their enemies who opposed them. And Ezra his prophet enabled them to repent of their sins.
As we studied the book of Ezra, we saw how it speaks to us of the good news of the gospel and of God’s great covenant of grace by which he promises to deliver his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this present, evil age and to bring at last into his presence in the new heaven and earth. Delivering his people from exile speaks of how he delivers us from our sin and misery. Bringing the people to Jerusalem — and to the temple, the place where God dwelt among his people in those days — speaks of he will bring his people into his presence in the world to come. And, of course, the trouble they faced speaks to us of the trouble the church faces in every generation from an unbelieving world and because of our own sinfulness. So, through the events recorded in the book of Ezra, God was revealing the good news of the gospel and of his great covenant of grace to save his people and to give us everlasting life in his presence.
And, of course, the way to be delivered from your sin and misery in this present, evil age is by believing in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who became one of us; and who died on the cross in order to bring us to God. On the cross, he laid down his life as the ransom to set us free from the condemnation we deserve; and on the cross, he shed his blood to cleanse us from the guilt of our sin. And whoever believes in him receives, not only forgiveness, but also the hope of everlasting life in the presence of God. So, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Confess yours sin and disobedience to God. Ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And ask him to give you the free gift of eternal life, so that you too will be gathered, not to the earthly Jerusalem, but to the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the church in glory, where God promises to dwell with his people forever and to give them perfect peace and rest.
And saying that again helps us to orient ourselves to the book of Nehemiah, which tells the story of how this man, Nehemiah, returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city, which, like the temple, had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar many years before at the start of the exile. Often preachers will preach from Nehemiah to motivate a congregation when it’s facing a building project. Or they will mine the book of Nehemiah for advice on being a leader. And while that kind of thing might be helpful, the book of Nehemiah — like the book of Ezra and like the rest of the Bible — is God’s revelation to us of what he has done to redeem his people by his Son in order to give them everlasting life in his presence. And so, that’s what we need to look for as we turn to this book.
And in verses 1 to 4 of chapter 1, we have the introduction to the book, which sets the scene for what will happen.
Nehemiah himself tells us that in the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while he was in Susa, one of his brothers and some other men came from the land of Judah. Well, when he refers to the twentieth year, it’s likely he means the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes. At least, that’s what he tells us in chapter 2. Susa was the winter residence of the Persian kings and the month of Kislev was one of the months at the end of the year.
Now, when his brother and these other men came, Nehemiah wanted to know how things were going for the Jewish remnant who had survived the exile. He’s referring to those Jews who had returned from exile and which we read about in the book of Ezra. How are they getting on? And tell me about Jerusalem?
The news was not good. According to verse 3, they reported that the exiles who returned are in great trouble and disgrace; the walls of the city were broken down; and the gates had been burned with fire. The city which David had built, and which his son, Solomon, had beautified, was lying in ruins. And without walls and gates in place, it was insecure and anyone could enter it.
Well, when Nehemiah heard this distressing news about God’s holy city, he sat down and wept. And he tells us that for some days he mourned and fasted and he prayed.
And the kind of thing he prayed for appears in verses 5 to 11. And in his prayer, he refers to God as the God of heaven. So, he’s praying to the mighty God who rules and reigns over all from his throne in heaven. And he also refers to God as the LORD in capital letters. Do you see that, right at the beginning of the prayer? And you’ll perhaps remember that Lord in capital letters is God’s special covenant name. It’s the name he revealed to Moses at the burning bush; and it speaks of his commitment to his people. So, Nehemiah is not calling on a God who is indifferent to the fate of the Israelites. He’s calling on the one who has bound himself by an oath to these people.
And Nehemiah goes on to refer to the way the Lord keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commandments. Well, when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt in the days of Moses, rescuing from their slavery to the Egyptians, he gathered them before him at Mount Sinai; and he entered into a covenant with them. And a covenant, you might remember, was a binding agreement, a relationship based on a promise. And according to this covenant, the Lord promised that if the people obeyed him and kept the terms of his covenant, he would regard them as his special people, his treasured possession. And so, in his prayer Nehemiah now refers to that covenant and to the Lord’s commitment to the people of Israel. He’s appealing to the Lord to listen to him as he prays to him about his treasured possession.
And then he confesses their sins. Do you see that in verse 6? He said:
I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.
And, of course, he was right to confess their sins, because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord in many, many ways. Though the Lord had called on them to love and obey him, they had acted very wickedly towards the Lord; and they had not obeyed the commandments and decrees and laws which the Lord had given them through Moses. That’s why they had been sent into exile. The Lord had been patient with them and had put up with their sin and rebellion for years and years. But eventually he decreed that they should go into exile; and he sent their enemies into the land to capture them and take them away. Just as Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed the word of the Lord, so the Israelites were sent out of the Promised Land. because their disobeyed the word of the Lord.
However, in Nehemiah’s prayer, he went on to refer to the Lord’s promise. Hadn’t the Lord promised to gather his scattered people and to bring them back to the city of Jerusalem? Hadn’t he said that if they returned to God in repentance and obeyed his commands once again, then he could bring his exiled people back? Hadn’t he said that he would bring them back to Jerusalem, the place he had chosen as a dwelling place for his holy name?
Well, the Lord had promised all of those things. And so, Nehemiah asks the Lord to listen to his prayer for God’s people, the people he redeemed from Egypt all those years ago; and the people he had bound himself to with an oath; and the people he had promised to forgive; and the people he had promised would live in his presence in Jerusalem.
But what specifically does Nehemiah have in mind? What is it he wants the Lord to do for him and for his people? Well, he says in verse 11:
Give me success today by granting me favour in the presence of this man.
And the first time you read that, you wonder which man is he talking about? Favour with whom? And it’s only then that we discover that Nehemiah is the king’s cupbearer. And that was a very important and influential position, because the cupbearer was the one who select wine for the king to drink; and who ensured the wine was not poisoned; and who brought it before the king. And that meant he was someone who had access to the king, because everyday he was in the king’s presence. And on the day when Nehemiah prayed this prayer, he was hoping he would have the chance to say something to the king about Jerusalem.
And so, in the third part of today’s reading, we read how Nehemiah brought some wine to the king. And the king noticed that Nehemiah was looking sad, and not cheerful. Normally, everyone had to be cheerful in the company of the king. So, why are you so sad, Nehemiah? And Nehemiah answered that he was sad because Jerusalem was in ruins.
Perhaps he said more than is recorded here, because it was clear to the king that Nehemiah was looking for help. And so, in verse 4, the king asked him:
What is it you want?
And Nehemiah once again appealed to God in prayer before appealing to the king for help. And he asked Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He also asked for letters to the governors, so that he would be able to travel in safety. And he also asked for a letter to this man, Asaph, who was the keeper of the king’s forest, so that he could get all the timber he needed.
So, he wanted permission to go. He wanted safe passage. He wanted timber. And because the gracious hand of God was on him, the king granted his requests. The Lord our God is sovereign and he rules over all his creatures and all their actions. As the Proverbs says, even the heart of the king is in his hands; and he’s able to direct it whichever way he wants. And so, we ought to praise the Lord, because he rules over all. The rulers of the nations are in his hands; and the Lord our God is able to guide and direct them to accomplish his purposes on the world. Nothing is too hard for him. And so, we ought to fall down before him and worship him, because he alone is God, the Lord Almighty. And instead of being afraid, we should rejoice, because we can trust in the Lord to hear and answer our prayers and to help us according to his will.
In the fourth part of today’s passage we read how Nehemiah went to Jerusalem. Shortly after he arrived, he went at night to inspect the walls. And after doing so, he spoke to the people and invited them to come and to rebuild the wall, so that they will no longer be in disgrace. And he told them about the ways the Lord had already helped him and how he had the support of the king. And the people agreed; and, as we read at the end of verse 18, they began this good work.
But, of course, just as the returning exiles whom we read about in the book of Ezra faced trouble, so Nehemiah faced trouble. In verse 10 we read that when these men, Sanballat and Tobiah, heard about his plans to go to Jerusalem, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites. And then in verse 19, we read that when Sanballat and Tobiah — and there’s now a third man called Gesham the Arab — heard that the people were going to rebuild the walls, they mocked and ridiculed them. ‘What are you doing?’ they wanted to know. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?’ they wanted to know. But Nehemiah was not put off. Their enemies might mock them and ridicule them and even make false allegations against them, but Nehemiah was trusting in the God of heaven to help them. Nehemiah and those with him were God’s servants; but Sanballat and those with him had no share in Jerusalem. In other words, they were not part of God’s people. And as we’ll see in later chapters, they did not oppose Nehemiah once only, but again and again. They were relentless in their opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
And so, Nehemiah had come to rebuild Jerusalem; but when he came, he faced enemies who stood in his way and tried to stop him.
That’s the passage. But what has it got to do with us? What is the Lord revealing to us through these events? Well, as I said before, the whole of the Bible is God’s revelation to us of what he has done to redeem his people by his Son in order to give them everlasting life in his presence. And so, through this book, the Lord was revealing what he would do for us by his Son. Nehemiah, you see, pictures for us what God’s Son was going to do for his people.
Just as Nehemiah left the court of the king in order to rescue God’s people from their great trouble and disgrace, so the Lord Jesus left the glory of heaven to come to earth in order to rescue God’s people from our great trouble and disgrace. We’re in trouble and disgrace, because all of us have sinned; and we’ve fallen short of God’s glory; and we’re liable to God’s wrath and curse for our sins and disobedience.
And whenever Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he summoned the people together and called on them to build the walls of the city. And when the Lord Jesus began his public ministry, he summoned the disciples to help him with his work.
And in time he revealed that the work he had come to do was to build his church here on earth. That was his task, a task which he began whenever he began to preach and to call on sinners to repent and to believe the good news. And it’s the task he is continuing to do from his throne in heaven, because now he sends his preachers out into all the world to call on sinners to repent and to believe the good news. And whoever repents and believes the good news is added to church, which he is building and extending throughout the world.
But, just as Nehemiah and those with him faced opposition from Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem, who mocked them and ridiculed them and made false allegations against them, so the Lord Jesus faced opposition from all kinds of sinful men who made false allegations against him and who plotted together how to kill him and who had him arrested and beaten and crucified. And on the cross, the mocked and ridiculed him and called on him to come down from the cross. But he did not listen to them; and he did not let anything they said or did stop him from doing the work he had come to earth to do. And so, he died on the cross to redeem us from our sin and misery and to bring us to God.
And still today, there are those who oppose the Lord’s work and who mock and ridicule and persecute his church and those he has sent to preach the good news. An unbelieving world continues to do whatever it can to prevent the church from being built throughout the world. But the Lord has promised — hasn’t he? — that he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail. Satan has been bound; and the Lord Jesus is able to rescue sinners from Satan’s grip and bring them into his church. And nothing will stop him from building his church, despite all the wicked schemes of the Devil and despite the hatred and persecution of an unbelieving world.
And the end is certain, isn’t it? The end is certain, because at the end of the Bible we read how John the Apostle was allowed to see into the future. And what did he see? Well, he was taken to a high mountain and he was able to see what he calls the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. This is the city which the Lord Jesus came to build.
We don’t have time to go into the details, but three things stand out about the city which John saw. First of all, it was surrounded by a strong wall. Nehemiah wanted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem because they had broken down and the city was unsafe. But the new Jerusalem to come has a strong, high wall. Angels stand guard at the gates to prevent any intruders from getting in. It’s a strong city.
And it’s also a glorious city. Nehemiah spoke of the disgrace of Jerusalem in his day, because it lay in ruins. But the new Jerusalem to come is a glorious city, because it shone with the glory of God. It’s a glorious city.
And the third thing to mention about the new Jerusalem is that it’s not really a city. It’s not really a city. It’s the church in glory. John’s vision of this strong, glorious city to come was really a vision of the church in glory. It’s all of God’s people: everyone whose name is written in the Lamb’s book of life and who have been washed and cleansed and pardoned by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
John saw the new Jerusalem; and it’s the church in glory. It was built by Christ, because whoever repents and believes in him is added to his church, which is growing and growing and growing throughout the world; and one day the church will appear in glory.
By sending Nehemiah to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls to make the city secure and glorious once again, the Lord God Almighty was revealing how he was going to send his one and only Son to build, not an earthly city — because every earthly city is destined to perish — but a heavenly city, which is the church of Jesus Christ. And just as Nehemiah was not going to let anything stop him from rebuilding the city, so the Lord Jesus will not let anything or anyone stop him from building his church on the earth, a church which will one day appear before him as a strong and glorious city.
If ever you’re tempted to despair and to weep like Nehemiah, who wept because Jerusalem was in ruins, if ever you’re tempted to despair because so few people respond to the preaching of God’s word and they will not pay attention to the good news about Jesus Christ, you can encourage yourself and comfort yourself with the knowledge that our God is a great God, and he will do all that he has promised. He will build his church on the earth; and nothing can stop him.
And, of course, since Christ builds his church through the preaching of his word, then we ought to pray for the preaching of his word, asking God to make it effective so that those who hear will repent and believe and be added to his church.
And to any who have not yet repented or believed, then I say to you once again that you need to repent and believe, because the only way to enter Christ’s church and the only way to find forgiveness and the only way to receive eternal life in the new Jerusalem to come, is by turning from your sins in repentance and trusting in Christ as the only Saviour of the world. And so, confess your sins before the Lord. Ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And ask him to give you eternal life, so that when this strong and glorious city appears, you will not be shut out, but will be part of it; and will enjoy everlasting peace and rest in the presence of the Lord.