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  • Sunday ,06 February 2011

Contemplations on the life of Nehemiah

Pope Shenouda Article


Sunday ,06 February 2011

Contemplations on the life of Nehemiah

  We know nothing about Nehemiah's past life except his enthusiasm to build the wall of Jerusalem. The lives of some people begin from the time of their attachment to God and to church. Their true lives are briefed in what they did for God, and the rest is only emptiness, not worth to be recorded.

   Nehemia was a captive in Babylon, and held a position in the palace of King Artaxerxes. He was the king’s cupbearer (Neh 1: 11)
   Many of those who were captives held positions, like Daniel the Prophet. King Nebuchadnezzar made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon (Da 2: 48). Daniel also prospered in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian (Da 6: 28).
   The three holy young men likewise, while captives, were promoted in the province of Babylon (Da 3: 30), and Ezekiel the Prophet was a captive by the River Chebar when he prophesied (Ezek 1:1).
   We should not therefore be sad if we are in captivity, for God is in the land of captivity and everywhere else. He was with the three young men in the furnace of fire, and with Daniel in the lions' den, as well as with Ezekiel by the River Chebar. God also was with St. John the Apostle in his exile on the island Patmos, for there he saw a door standing open in heaven (Rev 4: 1) Indeed, when many doors are shut, the door of heaven continues open!
   As for Nehemiah, he was comfortable in the King's palace, and was in a good position and the object of the King's trust, but though in Babylon, his heart was in Jerusalem. On hearing that the wall of Jerusalem was broken down and its gates burned with fire, and the survivors were in great distress and reproach, he became worried (Neh 1: 3), he sat down and wept, and mourned for many days with fasting and prayer (Neh 1: 4).
   Moreover, he interceded before God for his brothers, saying, "These are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand." (Neh 1: 10) He then confessed the sins of the people, which were the cause of captivity, and concluded saying, "Please let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant." He also insisted to take action and intercede with the king, so he prayed God to give him success, saying:
   "Let Your servant prosper this day … and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." (Neh 1: 11)
   When the king inquired why he was sad, he said frankly, "Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?" (Neh 2: 2, 3) He further asked the king to give him stuff for building and letters to the governors. The King responded as Nehemiah said, "The king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me." (Neh 2: 8)
   Nehemiah is a lesson to those who hold high positions but fear to assist their brethren lest they lose their positions.
   Nehemiah on the contrary was bold and did not forget his brothers. He did not lose his position and the king appreciated his nobility and holy zeal.
   Nehemiah also is a lesson to the emigrants who in the luxury of life in foreign countries forget their brethren who may be in great distress and reproach!
   The broken walls of Jerusalem attracted Nehemiah more than the king's palace!  
   He reminds us of Moses the Prophet who refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt" (Heb 11: 24- 26)
   Neither Nehemiah nor Moses were required to do so, for excuses did exist, like the captivity of Nehemiah! But the zeal in the heart could make a way through the rocks, and love knows no hindrances, nor is mere emotions, for the apostle says, "Let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth." (1 Jn 3: 18)
   Nehemiah chose the difficult way, and started his voyage towards the unknown; a voyage of love and zeal.
   He started a long and hard way riding on an animal (Neh 2: 12), arrived in Jerusalem, and handed the letters to the governors. Yet, there was much trouble awaiting him: the hard work he had to do, and the enmity of some, like Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite, for they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of his brethren (Neh 2: 10).
   The wise Nehemiah began investigation secretly. 
   He arose in the night, a few men with him, and told no one what God had put in his heart to do at Jerusalem (Neh 2: 12). He went from one place to another and viewed the broken walls of Jerusalem and the burned gates. The officials did not know where he had gone or what he had done. He had not told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, nor those who did the work (Neh 2: 13- 16).
   Wisdom requires secrecy during the stage of investigation, before taking the decision for work.
   God's hand with him did not mean that he reveals his plan, while enemies were waiting for an opportunity. Many fail when they reveal the matter before time. The investigations having ended, he revealed his intention, and spoke to his brothers about God's good hand upon him, and the king's words. Then he said his famous words, "Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach." (Neh 2: 17) He divided the work among them with prudence and good management.
   Good management is very necessary for God's children and ministers, not only regarding worldly matters, but rather more regarding church affairs.   
   That is why the church requires a bishop or a priest to rule his house well, for "If a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?" (1 Tim 3: 4- 5) The Scripture says about the priests, "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor." (1 Tim 5: 17) Furthermore, "Where there is no counsel, the people fall." (Prov 11: 14)
   Through the good management of Nehemiah, the work went on well, but this vexed his enemies. They arose against him, and mocked their work, saying, "What are these feeble Jews doing? … Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish stones that are burned?” “Whatever they build, if even a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall."
   Nehemiah nevertheless, hearing their mockery and disdain, prayed, saying, "Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their reproach on their own heads." (Neh 4: 1- 4)
   It is not strange that God's children face reproach and disdain, for the Lord Himself suffered them, "He is despised and rejected by men," "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth." (Isa 53: 3- 7) St. Paul the Apostle also says about himself and his co-workers, "… by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report ..." (2 Cor 6: 8)
   Usually those who do no work despise those who work!
   Yet, those who despise the others are troubled within, whereas the despised are not affected by their disdain. When those heard that the wall was being rebuilt, they were furious and very indignant (Neh 1: 4), and they conspired together to attack Jerusalem and create confusion! (Neh 4: 7- 8)
   Seeing the plotting and fighting, Nehemiah arranged for defense and guarding. It is true that "Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain," (Ps 127: 10) but the ministers have to do their duty. David did so when he was keeping his father’s sheep (1 Sam 17: 34, 35), and the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night (Lk 2: 8).    Nehemiah set guards over the work, because the enemies said, "We come into their midst and kill them and cause the work to cease." (Neh 4: 11)
   Strange indeed that enmity reaches such an extent and that God permits enemies to fight in this way!
   Nehemiah did nothing against them, but his success annoyed them, for the devil is always annoyed to see success, and uses his supporters to stop work. However, Nehemiah was not afraid of their conspiracies or of their threats to kill him. He said to the leaders and to the people, "Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome." (Neh 4: 14)
   Nehemiah the man of prayer and faith turned into a strong and firm leader.
   Though setting guards and preparing defense, he was sure that God is the guard to him. David went to fight Goliath with his sling, but in faith said, "This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand … for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands." (1 Sam 17: 46, 47)
   There were intensive preparations and defense, half of his servants worked at construction, while the other half held the spears, the shields, the bows, and wore armor … Every one of the builders had his sword girded at his side as he built. Those who sounded the trumpet were ready all the time. (Neh 4: 16- 20) Yet, in spite of all these preparations, Nehemiah said, "Our God will fight for us." (Neh 4: 20)
   Besides resisting the enemies, Nehemiah did not neglect resisting those who cause the people to feel mean-spirited.
   As a prudent leader Nehemiah had to protect the internal affairs. He resisted strongly and rebuked the rich and the governors who took in mortgage the lands and vineyards of the people, because there was a great outcry of the people (Neh 5: 1- 5). He tried to correct the past by commanding them to restore to the people what they had taken from them and not charge them any money (Neh 5: 11), and urging them to respond to his request. He shook out his garment, saying, "So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied," and all the assembly said, "Amen!" (Neh 5: 13) He set himself as an example to them in purity and honesty, not benefiting from his position as governor.
   He continued as governor for twelve years, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes.
   He did not eat the governor’s provisions, nor laid burdens on the people as the former governors did. At his table he invited many and prepared food and drink for them (Neh 5: 14- 18). So he completed building the wall, and before finishing the doors they wanted to meet him, but he refused, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” They repeated the request five times, but he did not agree to hold discussions with those who only want enmity (Neh 6: 1- 5).
   It was good that he did not respond; because they thought to do him harm (Neh 6: 2). Indeed, discussions will avail nothing if the intention is bad and the hearts not pure!
   The enemies used some false brethren to urge him to flee and seek protection in the temple for fear of killing him, but he refused and said to them, "Should such a man as I flee?" He knew their plot and said, "… that I should be afraid and act that way and sin, so that they might have cause for an evil report, that they might reproach me. (Neh 6: 13)
   Finally, Nehemiah could build the wall, hang the doors, and appoint the doorkeepers and the guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, one at his watch station and another in front of his own house (Neh 7: 1- 3).
   Nehemiah cared about positive work, and ignored any passive acts.
   What was the result? "When all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God." (Neh 6: 16)
   Although Nehemiah was one man, but he was able to change the scene and turn darkness into light by his faith and prayers, by his strength and action, by his management and persistence, by his courage, and by focusing on positive work instead of resisting passive acts and enemies.
   So, the wall was built, and the doors were hung, but what about spiritual edification? This I shall speak about next week, God willing.