Restoration for God’s People
An important question for all of us to ask is, How does the work of God get done? The book of Nehemiah answers that question. It lays out for us the foundational principles for any work of God.
It is important for us to realize that Nehemiah was, in the words of J. I. Packer, “a church builder.”1 Without the restoration of the walls of the city of Jerusalem, there could have been no normal or healthy city life. But the restoration of the walls was a means to an end—the restoration of the people of God in the city where God had promised to be especially present.
The covenant of grace recorded in the Old Testament often visualizes for us the spiritual principles spelled out in the New Testament. God is a God of consistent covenant (i.e., promise-keeping) grace in how he deals with his people, and the lessons they learned under the old covenant are beneficial to those of us blessed by the new covenant, won for us by the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
A little bit of history to set the scene is necessary at this point. The one date that needs to be remembered more than any other is 586 b.c. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, and took the people into exile. God had warned his people, especially through Isaiah, that their persistent disobedience would bring this upon them. But God, in sheer grace, said that he would restore his people, and in 539 b.c. Cyrus, the Persian king, became God’s instrument to bring this about. The people returned under Cyrus’s decree (2 Chronicles 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–11), but never in the hoped for numbers. After a delay the temple was rebuilt, but it never recaptured the glory of Solomon’s temple.
The year now is 446 b.c. (Nehemiah 1:1), twenty-two years after Ezra returned to Jerusalem. Previous attempts to rebuild the wall and restore the fortunes of Jerusalem had come to nothing (see Ezra 4:12ff.).
How did it come about that Nehemiah rebuilt the walls in record time (Nehemiah 6:15)? How did Nehemiah do what others had failed to do? How did the work of God get done in his generation?
The work of God gets done when there is a good heart for God and his work. It starts in a heart with a deep concern for the glory of God and the health of his church (or people).
Nehemiah met people from a camel train returning from Jerusalem, which included “one of my brothers” (1:2; whether a blood brother or a Judean brother we are not told, but most likely the former). He asked them about the state of things in Jerusalem because he was concerned, and their answer was even worse than he feared (1:3). The place was in ruins. In the words of David Jackman, “the work of God is paralysed and the people of God are demoralised.”2 Furthermore, says Raymond Brown, “broken walls meant frightening insecurity, negligible commercial development and serious economic deprivation, but the depressed people within the city were infinitely more important than its shattered walls.”3 Jerusalem was central to the purposes of God in Old Testament times. God had said he would be especially present in the temple as a reminder that he was in the midst of (that is, with) his covenant people.
Nehemiah was expressing a deep concern for the welfare of the people of God, the church of his day. The state of the church then caused him to weep, mourn, and above all, pray (1:4).
How concerned are you about the welfare of your church? We should be first concerned about the health and well-being of the congregation we are part of. In this day of a growing lack of commitment, when regular attendance at church can mean twice a month rather than twice a week, how committed are you to your church and how prayerful are you about its well-being? As a church warden (lay elder) once said to me, “If we prayed as often for our ministers as we are willing to criticize them, the church would be a much healthier place!”
The work of God gets done when there is a good heart for God and his work.
Nehemiah was not only concerned about the well-being of his own congregation in Susa; he had a wider vision, and so should we. How concerned are you about the health of the church in your city or area? In your country? While we cannot meet the needs of Christians everywhere, we should have a concern to pray and support suffering believers in some particular part of God’s world. Nehemiah wasn’t parochial in vision or concern; he had wide horizons, and that concern drove him not to depression or a fatalistic attitude but to God in prayer.
Richard Lovelace, in his classic book The Dynamics of Spiritual Life,4 describes how there was revival somewhere in the Western world each generation after the Reformation. When the church was in trouble or facing a big challenge, people were called upon to pray. Toward the end of the nineteenth century this experience of revival ceased. Lovelace suggests that the reason is because, at that time when the church was in trouble, a synod was called and meetings organized but the priority of serious prayer was neglected. There is nothing wrong with synods or meetings, but it is in prayer more than anywhere else that we express our dependence on God. We can’t solve spiritual problems without radical dependence on him.
Nehemiah knew that, humanly speaking, the plight of Jerusalem and her people was hopeless. But he also knew that nothing was beyond God’s power to change and help. So he prayed earnestly. It is easy for difficult or seemingly impossible situations to drive us in desperation to our friends, but Nehemiah’s first recourse was to talk to God about it.
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer! —Joseph Scriven5
- J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1995), p. xi.
- David Jackman, teaching at a Proclamation Trust Preachers workshop (London, c. 1995).
- Raymond Brown,The Message of Nehemiah, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 32
- Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), p. 160.
- Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855), www.hymnary.org.
This article is adapted from Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther by Wallace P. Benn.
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