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  1. 1. Nehemiah – FNG June 7, 2013 Scripture reading Romans 5:1-5, James 1:2-5 So here we are in the book of Nehemiah. In many ways the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are intertwined, as they were both leaders in Judah around the same time. These two books and the book of Esther, which we will look at in August, bring us to the end of the historical narrative of the Old Testament. This is why I’ve given you the paper with the timeline on it, because after these books, the rest of the books of the Old Testament, with the exception of Job, fit somewhere into this timeline. So we will be revisiting some of these historical periods in the coming months. Just as a little recap, Judah was carried off into exile into Babylon and after about 70 years a small group returned to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest around 536 BC. Spurred on by prophets Haggai and Zechariah they eventually finished and dedicated the temple around 515 BC. And that’s where we left off last month when we looked at the book of Ezra. Ezra who recorded the history did not, however, arrive in Jerusalem until 457 BC, almost 60 years after the completion of the temple, and he was followed by Nehemiah in 444 BC. This month we will look at the period of time when those two gentlemen were leaders in Judah, because it was under the leadership of these two that Judah would start heading in a radically new direction. You may, or may not, remember me saying last month that God seemed to sending Judah leaders in pairs and often pairs who were complete opposites. Ezra and Nehemiah were certainly a formidable pair. Ezra the priest was a teacher, Nehemiah the administrator was the enforcer. When people strayed Ezra would pull out his own hair and lament aloud in front of the temple. Nehemiah would pull out other people’s hair and cuss them out. And that is why I wanted to devote a month specifically looking at this period, since we are looking at some unorthodox leadership, that would certainly raise some eyebrows in 21st century America. If you have read the book of Ezra you may have noticed that last month I covered the warmer, fuzzier half of the book. Because the second half of the book describes how Ezra discovered that people were marrying foreign women and after a lot of lamenting the people agreed to actually go through the process of sending those foreign wives away. In a melting pot that is America, where people come from so many different backgrounds, it is difficult to understand that there would be something wrong with marrying a foreigner? In our minds – that is what constitutes our nation: people from all different nationalities gathering together to create a new and better nation. And in a culture where for the most part we try and do whatever we can to help keep families together, to deliberately set out to break up families is completely counter-intuitive to us. But that was Ezra, and he at least seemed to do things in cooperation with the people. But then Nehemiah comes along. What do you think of this? “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your
  2. 2. daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.” (Nehemiah 13:23-25) And I just love how Nehemiah ends his accounts of this kind of commando leadership. “Remember me with favor for this, my God” What do you make of that? Can you imagine doing church discipline like that? Can you imagine governing a city like that? And this was not an isolated incident. When people were having difficulty keeping the Sabbath, Nehemiah closed the gates of the city, posted a guard and told the traders gathered around the wall to buzz off or he would lay hands on them! What a charming guy! But the big question is would God use these kinds of methods to effect change and get compliance? After all, this stuff is in the Bible. Now, granted, neither in Ezra nor in Nehemiah do we encounter a voice from heaven praising nor condemning what they were doing. But it does appear that they were trying to follow God’s laws and doing it all before God. Nehemiah certainly makes no secret of wanting to earn God’s favor by his actions. Can God condone this kind of management? As we try to unpack this, let us step back a little bit. As the Israelites came out of Egypt and were contemplating moving into Canaan, part of the advice from God contained this: “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.” (Exodus 34:15,16) And sure enough, over time the Israelites did try out the pagan religions of the Canaanites and nations that subsequently arose around them and as time went on they seemed to have more and more trouble with it. We have already seen a lot of the havoc that descent into idolatry had produced among the Israelites. As we get into the prophets there will be a whole lot more of those typical messages that prophets give: stop it, put that down, leave it alone. And occasionally a king would rise who would listen and reverse the trend. But for the most part they kept going headlong into idolatry and all the nasty stuff that this entailed. It was eventually the cause of their downfall. It was the reason why they were taken away into captivity. First the 10 tribes of Israel to Assyria and then Judah into Babylon. After 70 years there was a remnant that cared enough to come back and rebuild the temple, but they were not exactly saints. By the time Ezra came to Jerusalem, they were back to their old vices. They were heading down the very same path that brought their downfall. Ezra recognized this. This is part of his prayer in Ezra 9: “From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today. But now, for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem. But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands.” (Ezra 9:7-10)
  3. 3. You have heard the saying “Those who forget history are bound to repeat it”? Well, if anyone remembered the history of Israel – it was Ezra. A priest and a teacher it is believed that he was the one who wrote 1 & 2 Chronicles. And so he realizes that even though there is a remnant that returned, and God has blessed them and helped them to rebuild the temple, they were headed for ruin by doing the same things that led to their exile. And so Ezra leads an intervention on the people of Judah. And even though the people fully cooperated, it was not pretty. It seems the only way to fix things was to break up families and send away wives of foreign origin and their children. That seems so cruel! Just because they had different origin and beliefs their entire lives were turned upside down. Could they not maybe organize a huge tent meeting and bring in their equivalent of Billy Graham to run a huge evangelistic campaign and convert them? Truth be told, conversion under duress does not bring anything good. It creates a situation where people are driven to pretend they are something they are not. It is no way to create a healthy society, since so many have never truly bought into the way of life they proclaim, and are likely to look for ways to subvert it and return to their old habits. Worst of all it creates resentment. So they decided to make the tough choice and break up those families. They organized a panel and so one by one those who had married foreign women appeared before this panel along with their community leaders and decided what to do on an individual basis. This is certainly not an ideal situation. But this was an intervention. Because what was the alternative? To let things continue as they were and for the entire nation to perish? You may ask: was this a realistic fear? I mean, was it so bad to be married to a foreigner of a pagan faith? Was the situation truly that dire? Ironically, it is Nehemiah, the guy who looked at the law, and applied it with real physical force, who took the time to provide the rationale for this. “Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?” (Nehemiah 13:26,27) If the great and wise king Solomon was lead away by these same temptations, do you honestly think you will be better and be able to overcome them? He certainly makes a compelling argument, because if you look back, it really was with Solomon that the trouble started. He wondered all over the place during his life, and while he had managed to keep the kingdom in tact, his son was very much influenced by his wonderings. He managed to break up the kingdom within a year of his accession to the throne, and from then on Israel and Judah were constantly struggling with idolatry. So was Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s solution ideal? We often look at the Bible as a guide on how to do things. But I’m going to suggest to you that more than anything, the Bible is a book of evidence. We get to see how things work out when people listen to God and the mess it can be when they don’t. And the fact of the matter is that once you head down the road of sin and rebellion, getting untangled from it will be messy. There is no good, painless way to undo what was done. That is why God warns us in advance not to even go down that road. From Solomon onwards we get to see through the history of Israel what happens when we go against God’s council. When the returning remnant seemed destined to repeat history, Ezra and Nehemiah do an intervention that turned Judah around. Fixing the damage caused by sin is a painful and messy process. It can be done, and God shows us that it can be done, but it is always much harder and more painful to straighten things out after you have already started down that road than if you had never even gone there in the first place.
  4. 4. You may wonder if the methods that Ezra and especially Nehemiah used were the right thing to do. It seems that in that situation they were. Because following this radical intervention the Israelites never, ever again went back to idolatry. Ezra and Nehemiah helped them to see that the exile was a direct consequence of their abandonment of God and His laws. They radically cured them from idolatry, and turned them around to look to God and His laws for guidance. With Ezra teaching and Nehemiah enforcing they were able to get this turnaround to stick. From this time on the Israelites devoted themselves to study of the law and strict obedience to it. This did take them in a different direction, because 400 years later when Jesus showed up, the problem that He had with the Jews was not idolatry, but a runaway system of laws ostensibly based on the Bible. If you are at all acquainted with the Gospels you know that by that time they certainly kept their Sabbath – and then some. And they also kept themselves separate and pure. You may remember the attitude they had in the days of Jesus: “Ewww, Samaritans, they’ve got cooties.” What about those poor wives and children that got sent away? What happened to them? Are they just collateral damage while God cleans house among “His people”. This is where going through the Bible helps us since it gives us opportunities to compare similar circumstances and see how God acts. And so we look at another messy situation sinful humans have created. We look at the case of Abraham and Sarah, trying so hard to make God’s promise of a son come true. You may remember Sarah giving her servant Hagar to Abraham to bear him a son. And Hagar did bear him a son – Ishmael. Not withstanding the mess that this fabulous idea created to this very day, it did cause serious friction in Abraham’s household. It got so bad that after Isaac was born it was God who counseled Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham did send them away with some provisions, but Genesis 21 records that it was God who took care of the Hagar and Ishmael in the long term. And while the Bible does not reveal the fate of the wives and kids that were sent away, I would like to believe that God looked after them in the same way that He look after Hagar and Ishmael. Just like with Hagar and Ishmael, it was important for the good of the family that there be separation between them. But that did not mean that they were throwaways. God still counted them as His children and took care of them. What encourages me is that God is not afraid of providing tough leadership when it is needed. He didn’t merely discipline the Israelites through exile. He gave them another chance to have a go at it, and through tough leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah, He gave them the tools to succeed. It was tough, painful and messy, but the Israelites got another start with God and they were able to take off in a whole new direction. God will do the same for us today. We may have had a bad start to life, made poor choices in the past, got into bad situations, and seem doomed to continue repeating history. But as we can see, God will not stand idly by as we destroy ourselves. He will send us guidance to help us turn our lives around and begin again. It may be painful, it may be messy, but hang in there. God has the long view in mind. He wants to give you the best possible foundation for your new start and that may mean addressing some issues where you do not want to go. As uncomfortable as it may be, I’d encourage you to follow His lead, since the evidence of the Bible shows us that He does know what He is doing.