Character Produces Caring

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I hope you have been enjoying this series on Nehemiah. There are so many applications that can be made from this Old Testament leader. If you have not been reading previous posts, go to my website and look for the first title (When Hearing Produced Action) posted on June 5, 2019.

 

Through the long 900-mile trek from Susa to Jerusalem and surveying of the broken down walls of the city, Nehemiah has been stalwart in his mission to restore the walls of the city to protect the few residents left there. Only his consistent prayers exceed his skill in assessing the task ahead and the strategy for dividing the people in teams to do the work. They remind us of what he sees as foundational to complete his mission. They are even more important when the workers are taunted and discouraged by the story’s two major antagonists, Tobiah and Sanballat, who seek to tear apart Nehemiah’s character and reputation when they fail to deter the workers.

 

So far we have seen three key things about Nehemiah’s leadership:

  •   A godly leader prays
  •   A godly leader acts
  •   A godly leader faces opposition             

 

Nehemiah sees there is more to be done than rebuild the walls. In the absence of godly leadership and the taunts of their enemies, the Jews who were there were not unified or for one another. The difficult conditions for the largely poor people who were trying to have hope for the land of their fathers was worsened by the lack of good harvests to provide food for themselves or revenue from selling their excess. And in addition to the lack of good resources of any kind, they were still expected to pay taxes to the Persian government. That challenge provided opportunity for those who were richer to see the possibility for gain for themselves.

 

To comply with the relentless demands of the taxes by the Persians, the poorest among them had no choice but to give up or give over whatever lands and homes they had to their richer Jewish brothers to get the needed money for their taxes. They were even forced to sell their children as slaves to those who should have been helping them—members of their own culture and faith.

 

It can be easy for us to be critical of how these people were responding to one another, but perhaps we should be cautious and consider how we as believers treat one another in the body of Christ today. We may not need to turn over lands and houses or sell our children as slaves, but do we show support and care for those among us who are struggling in any and all ways?  We are called to not only pray for such people, but also to act in kindness and show care for them.

 

Nehemiah had observed the wealthier citizens were abusing the poorest of those living in Jerusalem. As a result, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.

 

Not only does Nehemiah notice this, once again he acts. He sees a wrong and sets about to service-roundup-cu040423-002-480call the people into account for their choices and behaviors. His challenge to them shows how effective accountability can be in pulling back those who are sinning from their decisions. He demonstrates godly leadership and how do those he challenges respond?

 

We will give it back…and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” Neh. 5:12

 

Having heard their pledge, Nehemiah does not stop there. He was probably aware they had been behaving this way for a long time so he adds an additional admonition. He shakes the folds of his own robe that would have had little pockets in it where personal things could be saved. He tells those who have pledged to stop their abusive behavior that God would shake them out of His pockets if they did not follow through on their pledge.

 

What we now add to the list of qualities evident in a godly leader is this: a godly leader cares.

 

And it is not merely a passive caring. He doesn’t simply hug them, pat them, and pray for these people, he confronts those who are harming them. He was in charge and he could have expected and received privileges of any number of kinds from these people and taken advantage of his position, but Nehemiah did the exact opposite. He was a humble servant-leader who took no honor or privilege for himself.

 

What a powerful picture of Christlikeness we see here in the midst of the Old Testament in the person of Nehemiah!

 

How easy it can be for power to seduce the best of leaders in our churches or government who started as servant-leaders, but then accepted accolades and privileges that set them above and apart from the people they are to serve.

 

To remain godly and humble as a leader requires those around the leader to love that leader enough to have the courage to confront him or her when evidences of abuse of power begin to appear. Accountability with love is how we all grow and mature in our character. It is also how we demonstrate we are Christ’s.

 

A godly leader cares and it shows!

 

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Enemies Scoff and Hurl Insults

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With a plan and a purpose, a vision and a hope, Nehemiah has challenged and exhorted the people living in Jerusalem to clear the rubble of their broken down city and begin to rebuild. The work area has been divided in sections and assignments given. The timber has been supplied by the favor of the king for whom Nehemiah had been a faithful cupbearer. It was not going to be easy, but now these people who had already lived within the shame and intimidation of their situation now face insults and shouts of contempt from two key individuals: Tobiah and Sanballat.

 

I can’t help but wonder if these two had not been bullies all along for the people living there. If that was true, the arrival of Nehemiah had been the first threat to the power structure that existed in that place after the majority of the Jews had been taken away into exile.

 

Bible scholars point to the likelihood that these were two men of the Samaritan community and Samaritans had always been at odds with the Jews. They would have come from what was the Northern Kingdom of Israel and were comprised of a mix of Jewish and pagan ancestry. Even though they worshipped Yahweh, their worship was not mainstream Judaism. Their temple was on Mt. Gerazim instead of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Some authors suggest that Sanballat was a Moabite and Tobiah an Ammonite.

 

Whatever their origin, they had no desire to see Nehemiah’s plans prosper. Even though Nehemiah would certainly not have laid out his plans to them, they were aware of his purpose to rebuild. Tobiah’s wife had apparently been a Jewess and therefore he knew about the commitment of the Jews to their holy site and God’s covenant with them.

 

Imagine you are one of those tasked with and trying to rebuild the city walls. It’s hard work that will be done by hand. Then you hear the taunts, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” It wasn’t pretty!

 

Even so, they continued and each day the opposition to their efforts increased. So what does Nehemiah do in response? He prays. By now we have little doubt about the source of Nehemiah’s faith and confidence. In any and all situations, his first response is prayer. I wish I could say that is always my first response, my first step of an action plan.

 

It may not be unusual for a believer to decide to pray, but too often we can pray and then LORDS PRAYER 21 AMEN.jpgnever consider if we may be called to also act as well. Nehemiah knew that. He consistently shows he is a man of prayer AND action.

 

As he considers the situation and the discouragement of the citizens of Jerusalem rebuilding, he also posts guards. He strategically has half the men working while the other half are equipped with spears, shields, bows, and armor.

 

Talk about brothers having your back in a bad situation—Nehemiah had the right combination as he exhorted the people not to be afraid. He gave them unseen and seen support.

 

How much stronger the body of Christ might be if we used the same principles and strategies Nehemiah used!

 

How do we support one another in challenging times? Do we say we will pray or even do so on the spot and then simply walk away or do we offer prayer and then some step of action as well? For the person in grief, do we pray and offer a meal or babysitting? For the person with a job loss, do we pray and also put gas in his or her car to be able to keep looking for work?

 

Nehemiah was an exemplary leader and when he stepped up his game, so did his opponents who had been insulting and discouraging the people of the city. This time the attacks were on him as they sought to slander and intimidate him.

 

The attacks of the enemy can and do hit at anyone and everyone, but the point of the spear will always be directed at the leader. If the leader can be discredited and manipulated, then the people will become disorganized, confused, and ineffective. When that happens, victory is assured for the enemy.

 

f19d67f40d9e79188d3713b57a10ffb5The apostle Paul understood that well as a leader. It is no wonder that in his second letter to Timothy, he offers this principle:

 

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” 2 Timothy 2:1-2

 

A quick check of Bible verses on this topic will point to other verses that set out the same principle.

 

It can be so much easier to complain, condemn, and criticize a leader, whether he or she is a pastor or ministry leader, than it is to pray for him or her. And the passages on this topic don’t stop there. It includes those who govern us—mayors, governors, and the president. I don’t see that happening very often either.

 

Often it is only in the worst of times when tragedy has struck that we set aside our differences and come together to pray as we realize we are incapable of resolving the tragic. Should we not do so before a tragedy strikes?

 

Opposition should not surprise us. Jesus suffered opposition and we are called to follow Him, represent Him until He returns.

 

Be clear on this: a godly leader will face opposition.

 

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The Mission: To Provide Safety

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As Nehemiah was making his 900-mile trek to Jerusalem, scripture says officers of the army and horsemen accompanied him. It sounds as if the king suspected there could be trouble for his servant. One thing I think we can safely assume is that he would have been praying along the way, even as he had when he first heard the news about some of the surviving exiles living in Jerusalem without walls or gates. He would likely pray for safety on the trip, but also for discernment and wisdom for the task ahead. It would not be easy under the best of circumstances.

 

During that period of history, city walls were of extreme importance. Without such walls, residents of the city were at the mercy of any and all marauders who might be in or come through the area. There would be no way for the city to be in control of their affairs. The people of Israel were still surrounded by ‘heathen’ cultures that did not believe in the God of Israel. Beyond gaining plunder, their belief system alone could trigger attacks against them.

 

At the outset of this series I noted that hearing of the news led to action. For Nehemiah the first action was prayer and fasting. Now as he finally arrived at his destination, he presents his letters of approval for the task to the governors of that province and the response he gets is not at all positive. So after three days, he chooses to get up during the night alone except for his mount and inspect the walls and gates to determine what would need to be done. He is so skilled that no one knows he has gone or what he is doing. As yet he had not even revealed who was going to do the work or the extent of his mission.

 

(Does the Lord call us to survey the condition we find ourselves in, what has broken down our relationship with Him or others?  Doing so is a process best done alone with Him, for He alone can give us the accurate assessment of our condition.)

 

Now that he has completed his reconnaissance he tells exiles, priests, and nobles what he has come to do. He also makes clear how God had given him favor with the king and then puts it out there for them: “Let us rise up and build.” Once again we see that this godly leader acts, but this time the action will be beyond prayer and fasting.

 

(How do we act on what the Lord shows us? Do we move or ignore His guidance?)

 

When the governors heard the news, they were none to happy and accused Nehemiah of rebelling against the king. Nehemiah, however, knows the mission God has sent him on and makes clear to them that the Lord is going to make this a successful mission and that they have no rightful portion or place in Jerusalem. That sounds pretty gutsy to me on a human level, but it also sounds like this is a man who is sure of God’s call and provision and so he stands.

 

As I read this, I am challenged to consider how much I pursue the Lord’s leading, how certain I am about His calling, and if I am willing to be so certain that I will and do stand in the midst of opposition to that call and leading. What about you?

 

Nehemiah has collected all the facts. The city is no longer as large as it was before the exile. Historians suggest the circumference of the city was possibly a mile and a half and encompassed 80 or 90 acres. That sounds pretty small, but please keep in mind there was rubble everywhere and no backhoes or other equipment we could commonly employ today to get this task done.

 

One other quality of Nehemiah becomes evident as they prepare to rebuild is how well thought out his plan is. He lets everyone know he has divided up the work between various groups with attention to where the groups lived so they could work nearest to where their own homes were located. That certainly was effective to get ‘buy-in’ for the task at hand and scripture catches us up with a picture of how zealously the people began to work. Clearly, he had communicated his mission and now had an organized team setting about the task.

 

Consider this. This was a small city and likely there were not a lot of people living there. Certainly it would have been to their benefit to start this project long before now to assure their security, but nothing happened until Nehemiah arrived on the scene.

 

What a perfect example of why we need a godly leader whose prayers and faith have equipped him or her for the up building of the Kingdom through whatever ministry or place each of us has been called. He or she is needed to protect God’s people.

 

Make no mistake about it. A godly leader acts.

 

Next time I want to look at what happens when a godly leader faces opposition. I hope you will join me as we spend a little more time in the book of Nehemiah.

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The Long Road Home

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When we stopped in the story in my last post, Nehemiah had just received permission and favor from the king whom he served as cupbearer while in exile to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and city. He was granted a letter of safe passage and timber from the king’s own forests to rebuild the gates.

 

As we read the text in the Bible, the next scene is his arrival in his home city of Jerusalem. The thing I pause to consider is what the text does not include. How far was the journey and how long would it have taken him? It can be so easy for us today to give little thought to the distances from one place to another in the Bible and how long it would likely have taken them.

 

We would not have been talking highways, speed trains, buses, or planes. Even a roadway would have been primitive by our standards. If a person had the means, he might be blessed to ride on a donkey or perhaps a camel. Most of the time, the travel would be on foot for many of the people of that day.

 

We know Nehemiah was traveling from Susa, which was in Persia (modern day Iran) to Jerusalem. Historians tell us that he would have most likely taken the long overland route on what was known as the Persian Royal Road into northern Mesopotamia. He would then have needed to head west into Syro-Palestine to Jerusalem. The distance was about 900 miles and would have taken about four months.

 

The distance and difficulty of such a lengthy trip increases our understanding of why Nehemiah would have needed letters of safe passage through so many regions. Not all of the areas may have been friendly or at peace.

 

And where was the king’s forest he was permitted to harvest timber from for the gates? Again we look to historians for their guess. It is suspected that the forest was likely in Lebanon, which had been overtaken by the Persians in the sixth century B.C. There were also some areas of the coastal plain of Palestine that may have provided some of the timber needed. During those times the walls would have been made primarily of stone and mud brick, but timber was needed to stabilize the walls and for the gateways into and out of the city.

 

When I consider the trip, its length, danger, and requirements, I am impacted by the courage, tenacity, passion, and faith of Nehemiah. Prior to his role as a cupbearer, servant/slave of the king, there is no indication of his background. Yet because of his concern for his homeland, his name goes down in history and we hear of him.

 

How like God to choose an ordinary man whose heart was His to fulfill His purposes!

 

Today we can be tempted to look for the high profile persons among us for important roles or tasks. Very often these same people seek them for the added prestige it brings them, but not so with God. Time and time again, He demonstrates throughout the Bible that He chooses the youngest, the smallest, the weakest, the most lowly in station.

 

Clearly God had chosen Nehemiah for the task and the journey. It reminds me of the humbling His choice of any one of us truly is. It also takes my mind to God’s choice of David that we read about in 1 Samuel. Samuel was certain he would find the next king among Jesse’s sons when he arrived at his home. God reminded him in 1 Samuel 16:7 ESV of a characteristic of His election we should all remember:

 

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

 

You may doubt your value or usefulness to the Lord for any number of reasons, but look anywhere from Genesis to Revelation and you will discover the truth of God’s words to Samuel.

 

Join me again next time as we look at another characteristic of Nehemiah as he arrives in Jerusalem.

 

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When Hearing Produced Action

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Today in much of the world we are bombarded constantly with new information and news. It comes in ways and forms unheard of not that many years ago. Many of our grandfathers relied on newspapers and radios to hear the news. Then came the television and news magazines that added to and sped up how quickly we learned of something. And now we see many things in real time on computers, phones, iPads, and more. In the cacophony of it all, I wonder what we really hear. Has it all become background noise where we pay little attention? Does it come so quickly that we have knee-jerk reactions rather than more reasoned consideration as we did when newspapers were the only source?

 

It can be hard for us who are adults to imagine what it would have been like before these things were common in our daily life. Imagine the difference of waiting for the news even 50 years ago. That one is not hard for me. When my husband served in the military in Vietnam, our communication was initially limited to letters that took at least a week to arrive. Then we had small reel-to-reel tape recorders to send audio messages back and forth (We were not quite at the point of cassette tape recorders.) and those still took a week.

 

If we go back even farther in history and time, we can readily see how long someone needed to wait to hear the news of what was happening. When it was heard, it was often incomplete. The waiting must have been very hard, but perhaps it netted more thoughtful and reasoned responses.

 

I want to invite you to look back to the Middle East in the fifth century B.C. with me to a story that has much we can learn from today. Lack of faithfulness to God had resulted in the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (known also as Ephraim) and exile of the Jewish people of the southern kingdom (known as Judah) to Babylon. The sacred city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the city trampled with walls broken down.

 

One of the exiles, Nehemiah, serves as the cupbearer to the king in the Persian city of Susa in the area we now know as Iran. Each day it meant Nehemiah’s life was put on the line, as he tasted the wine to assure there was no poison within it meant to destroy the king’s life. As a cupbearer, Nehemiah would have been one of the king’s most trusted servants and he would have spent much time in the king’s presence. Even so, he was a slave.

 

It is unlikely we would have heard of Nehemiah had it not been for one primary thing. He heard news of his homeland and the condition of the city of Jerusalem. Scripture tells us f17c06a65ab6651a3b115bdcdf0465e8that he wept, fasted and prayed. The news saddened him to such a degree that scripture says his face showed such sadness that the king noticed. The king, Artaxerxes I, must have been quite observant to notice his servant’s face and ask him about his expression. Such an observation created fear in the heart of Nehemiah because he knew his fate lay in the king’s hands and he had never sought to displease him. The king could have believed Nehemiah was involved in some plot to cause him damage and perhaps order his execution.

 

Let’s not skip the key to this man’s life. When he heard the bad news, he wept, fasted, and prayed.

 

It seems likely that because Nehemiah had fasted and prayed at the news, he chose to risk being honest with the king and told him that his sad expression was due to the poor state of affairs in Jerusalem and that he wanted to return there to rebuild the walls of the city so those few inhabitants there could live in safety.

 

How unusual it must have been that this servant and slave received favor from the king! He was not only given permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, but he also received letters from the king giving him safe passage through the areas he would need to travel and to obtain the timber from the king’s own forest for the gates and walls of Jerusalem.

 

It seems evident that Nehemiah was a godly man because of how he responded to the news. He heard. His emotional response was to weep from the sadness he felt. His decisional response was to fast and pray. The scripture account does not indicate he began to wring his hands, start telling everyone, or criticize those who had destroyed his homeland and most holy city.

 

What is our response to news that grieves our hearts?

 

An initial emotional response is normal and healthy, but do we stop there or act from that place of reactive emotion?

 

This ancient story of Nehemiah tucked in the Old Testament has much to offer us for our lives today. I want to spend several posts sharing some of the applications we can see from this story. I hope you will join me.

 

Nehemiah shows us that a godly leader prays.

 

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