Today’s selected reading is found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, which essentially is part two of a narrative that describes the return of the people of God from seventy years of captivity in the land of the Chaldeans. More specifically, today’s passage is found in the first five chapters of this Old Testament book. `When you come to this particular portion of Scripture you will encounter what would be the second phase of the return of the Jewish people to the land which was promised unto their forefathers and patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If and as you read the words which are written and contained within the Old Testament you will quickly encounter and come face to face with the reality that in the layout of the books which appear in the Old Testament—the Old Testament book of Ezra appears before the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Please note that this isn’t to say or even to suggest that the book of Ezra and its content is any more vital or critical than that which is found within the book of Nehemiah. In all reality, I would dare say that what we find in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah are essentially two distinct phases which are found in the return of the Jewish people to the land. On the one hand, and perhaps even the first phase we find in the midst of the return of God’s people to the land is the return under Cyrus king of Persia in order that the people of God might return to the land and rebuild the Temple of the LORD. If and as you study the narrative of the Jewish people returning under the reign and during the days of Cyrus king of Persia you will find that at the very heart of their return to the land was the great necessity and responsibility to rebuild the sanctuary of the living God, for it was the very heart and spirit of Cyrus that was stirred within him to build a sanctuary and house for the living God. It would be during the days of Cyrus king of Persia that a decree would be issued—not only permitting the Jewish people to return to their own land, but to also rebuild a Temple and sanctuary unto the LORD their God. For seventy years the land of Israel lie fallow and was at rest and peace in the midst of the earth, and the walls of the city were broken down, the gates had been destroyed, and the house of the LORD lie in ruins within the sacred city of Jerusalem. For seventy years the people of God were not only without the Temple of the LORD, but they were also without and apart from the altar of the LORD whereby they might worship before the LORD their God. We dare not and must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely tremendous and incredible reality, for when you speak to their return to the land—not only do you find freedom to return, but you also find freedom to build, freedom to rebuild, and freedom to worship the God of their ancestors and forefathers.
THE FREEDOM TO BUILD! THE FREEDOM TO REBUILD! THE FREEDOM TO WORSHIP! I happen to find it absolutely and incredibly remarkable to read the words which are written and recorded in the Old Testament book of Ezra, for within this book—not only do we find the people of God returning to the land, but we also find them returning to the land to rebuild the sanctuary and house of the LORD. With that being said, however, it is absolutely necessary and imperative that we recognize and understand that in their returning to the land, they were doing so more much than returning to the land and a physical and geographical location in the midst of the earth. When and as the Jewish people returned to the land of Israel—to the land given unto Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—they were in all reality returning to the LORD, as well as the Law of the LORD their God. Within the return to the land was something so much deeper and something so much greater than merely returning to the land of their ancestors and forefathers that they might rebuild houses, plant vineyards, and sow fields in the land once more. If we are truly going to understand the return of the people of God to the land of Israel we must recognize and acknowledge the fact that the return was not so much about them, nor the houses they would rebuild, nor the vineyards they would plant, nor the fields they would sow within. Their return to the land was about a return to something much greater than a piece of real estate in the midst of the earth, for their return would indeed and would in fact be a return to the house of the LORD—a return to worshipping before the LORD God in His holy sanctuary and before His holy altar. Once more the people of God would be able to come to the sanctuary of the living God with their gifts, their sacrifices and their offerings, and once more would they be able to worship before the altar of the LORD as that which they brought before and unto the LORD would be an offering of sweet savor made by fire before the LORD their God. It is absolutely necessary that we recognize and understand this truly remarkable and powerful reality when considering the return of the people of God to the land, for their return to the land had at the very heart and core of it a return to the Law, a return to the altar, a return to the sanctuary, and a return to the LORD their God.
In all reality, I would dare say that we cannot truly understand the Old Testament book of Ezra without the book of Nehemiah, and we cannot truly understand the book of Nehemiah without understanding the book of Ezra. I fully and completely believe that the Old Testament book of Ezra and Nehemiah present us with what could essentially be considered a two-phase process of the Jewish people returning to the land that was promised unto their forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and given unto their ancestors. Through these two Old Testament books we encounter and come face to face with the absolutely tremendous reality of the return of the people of God to the land of their inheritance and possession, for first came the return that was directly and completely linked to the rebuilding of the Temple and sanctuary of the living God, and second would come the rebuilding of the wall and the repairing of the gates. What I find to be so absolutely astonishing about the words that are found in both of these Old Testament books is that not only was there opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple and sanctuary of the living God, but so also would there be opposition to the rebuilding of walls of the city, and opposition to the repairing of the ancient gates. Pause for a moment and consider what a tremendous threat a rebuild Temple and rebuilt walls actually were to the people of the nations round about the land of Judaea, and how the enemies and adversaries of the Jewish people sought to oppose and hinder them every step of the way. It’s worth noting that there was never any opposition to the people of God returning to the land, but the opposition would come the minute they started rebuilding. The opposition would without a doubt come the minute the people of God began to rebuild that which had lie in ruins for seven decades. The time, however, would come when the people of God would return to the land, and their return would not be without a call to rebuild the sanctuary, and without a call to rebuild the altar of the living God. Moreover, the return of the people of God to the land would also necessitate the rebuilding of the walls which the enemy had broken down and broken through, as well as the repairing of the gates of the city. Please don’t miss and lose sight of the tremendous truths which are found within these books, for essentially phase one was all about rebuilding the Temple and repairing the altar of the LORD, while phase two was all about rebuilding the walls and repairing the gates. In all reality, I would dare say the first phase would be entirely and altogether about rebuilding—and that of rebuilding the sanctuary and Temple of the living God—while the second phase would be that of repairing. The return of the people of God to the land would undoubtedly be about the people of God returning—not merely to inhabit and dwell in the midst of the land, but to dwell in safety, security, peace and rest, and to worship the LORD their God.
THE ASSAULT ON REST AND PEACE! THE ASSAULT ON WORSHIP AND PRAYER! I sit here today and I can’t help but be directly confronted with the reality that when you read each of these Old Testament books, and when you encounter these two phases of the people of God returning to the land, you will find that their return to the land would be a tremendous call to return to prayer and worship before the LORD, as well as a powerful call to rest and peace in the midst of the land. If you truly take a look at what is written and contained within these passages of Scripture you will come face to face with the undeniable reality that the return of the Jewish people to the land was not only a call to prayer and worship, but it was also a call to rest and peace in the midst of the land. I would dare say that while the people of God lived as captives and exiles in the midst of the land of the Chaldeans—not only were they absent a certain peace and rest that their fathers would know in the midst of the land of Israel, but the freedom and ability to worship the LORD at His holy altar and at His holy sanctuary would be taken away from them. Stop for a moment and consider the fact that it was because of the sin of the people of God that their freedom and their ability to worship before the altar of the LORD, and their freedom to worship at the sanctuary of the LORD was effectively removed from them as they were cut off from the altar and the sanctuary. We dare not miss and lose sight of this absolutely tremendous reality, for not only did the living and eternal God cut the people of God off from the sanctuary and house of the LORD, but the living God also cut them off from the altar of the living God where they would worship before Him with their offerings and sacrifices. Moreover, the living and eternal God would allow that sanctuary and Temple to be destroyed by enemies and adversaries of Israel, and would allow it to remain in ruins for seventy years. Stop and think about the fact that the LORD could have cast the people out of the land, and the LORD could have cut off the people from the sanctuary and altar that was present in the midst of the land, and allowed the Temple and sanctuary to remain standing in the midst of the land. The truth of the matter, however, is that the living and eternal God not only cut the people off from the sanctuary and house of the LORD, but the LORD also allowed that sanctuary and Temple to be destroyed by the enemy, and to lie in ruins for seven decades. It is absolutely vital that we recognize and understand this, for I am convinced that it has direct application to that which is taking place within our culture, within our society, and within our world today. As church buildings were closed and shut down for nearly three months men and women were effectively and essentially cut off from church buildings and from houses of worship. [As a side note, it is absolutely astonishing to consider just how dependent men and women were and still are to a church building, and how dependent ministers and leaders alike have made them on church buildings which stand among us in our midst.]
As I write these words today I can’t help but be absolutely gripped and captivated with the fact that for nearly three months men and women have been cut off from church buildings, and have been cut off from pews, pulpits, and platforms alike. For nearly three months men and women have been cut off from houses of worship and from sanctuaries where they once freely worshipped, and yet perhaps one of the greatest realities is that during this time there has been absolutely no one who has been cut off from the church. There have been countless individuals who have protested, who have fought, who have resisted, who have been defiant, and who have spoken out against church buildings being closed and shut down, and have even protested the fact that their rights—even their amendments have been violated. If we are being honest with ourselves—even with the living God—we must emphatically admit that not only have we not and never have been cut off from the house of the LORD, but neither have we been cut off from the body of Christ. Oh it is true that we might be cut off from being physically near and in proximity with others, yet we must recognize and understand that that has never defined, nor must it ever define the body of Christ. The body of Christ has never been defined by church buildings, by pews, by fancy platforms, by fancy podiums, and by buildings with steeples and signs. Perhaps one of the greatest realities we must recognize and understand during this time is that although we might have been cut off from the church buildings and from houses of worship, we have never been cut off from the church as we know and understand it as being the body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. During this time our rights have not been violated, nor our amendments violated, for we have been able to freely worship in our homes, whether through engaging in small groups, or virtual services, or other avenues which have been used such as drive in services. Have we ever stopped to think that maybe during this time the Spirit of the living God sought and still is seeking to get the true church which is not and has not been made with human hands out of the building and into the streets and into the homes before and all around us? What if instead of being confined to the four walls of a church building, and rather than being confined to pews and chairs, we are being called and sent out into the streets in order that the true church which has always been a spiritual reality made without human hands might fulfill that which it has been called to the entire time? Have you ever stopped to think that perhaps we have become and grown too comfortable within the four walls of our churches and within our pews and our chairs, and the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD desires to get us out of the pews and into the streets and into homes? You must notice that Jesus never sent His disciples, nor even the seventy others into the synagogues, nor even into the Temple, but rather, He sent them into the streets, into the towns and villages into which He would come, and even into homes within those places He would visit.
What if during this time Jesus desires to raise up His true church and His true body to prepare the way for Him to come and for Him to enter in, and He is sending His disciples ahead of Him into the streets, into towns, into villages, into cities, and even into homes in order that the way might be made for Him to enter in? It is absolutely necessary and imperative that we recognize this, for during the days and generation prior to the return of Jesus the Christ there will be a prophetic ministry similar to that of John the Baptist in which men and women will go before the face of Christ as forerunners that they might prepare the way for the King of glory to enter in and to return. There is not a doubt in my mind that during these times there is a great need for the presence of Jesus the Christ to enter into homes—and not only to enter into homes, but to establish altars within homes. For too long we have been so caught up and consumed with the physical altars of our churches and we have neglected the personal and private altar within our homes. What if during this time the Spirit of the LORD cut us off from the altars within churches in order that He might establish physical altars within our homes—altars which cannot be touched with and by human hands. Oh it is true that the altars in our churches might have been restricted during this period of time, but there is absolutely no government on the face of the earth that can ever restrict, nor even cut us off from the personal and private altars within our homes. What’s more, is I would dare say there were, and there still are a number of men and women who have been entirely and altogether dependent on the church building, on the worship team and worship band, and even the pastor and minister for their relationship with the LORD, and during this time they have found themselves having to grow up and mature in their walk and relationship with the LORD. Oh, I would dare say that if you need the pastor and/or minister, if you need the church building, and if you need the worship team, and the place of the altar within a physical building for your relationship with the living God—there is, and there has perhaps been something completely and utterly wrong. We have never been called to be dependent on pastors and ministers, on church buildings, on pews and chairs, on worship teams and worship bands, on altars in sanctuaries and house of worship for our relationship with the true and living God. What if during this time the Spirit of the LORD is seeking to expose and reveal just how dependent we have become on these external realities and manifestations, and He desires to bring us into a deeper level in and before Him?
The more I think and the more I consider the words which are written and recorded in these two Old Testament books, the more I come face to face with the tremendous reality that the people of God were cut off from the sanctuary of the living God, and they were cut off from the altar of the LORD because of their sins, because of their transgressions, because of their iniquities, and because of their idolatries and rebellion before the LORD. We dare not and must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely incredible reality, for the people of God were indeed and were in fact cut off from the altar of the LORD, and they were in fact cut off from the physical building of the Temple of the LORD, and the entire reason and purpose for it was their transgression, their iniquities, and their idolatry before the living God. While I fully realize that men and women have been cut off from the house of the LORD to stop the spread of the novel Coronavirus, I can’t help but think to myself and wonder if there isn’t something much deeper and much greater that is taking place here. I can’t help but wonder if during this time—even the people of God themselves have been cut off from the house of God because of the iniquities, the transgression, and the rebellion of the nation. During the days of Nebuchadnezzar—not only was their famine, pestilence and the sword, but there was also captivity and exile as men and women were forced to be cut off from that which they knew and that which they had experienced all their lives. What’s more, is there were undoubtedly children that were born in the midst of that captivity, and even grew up in the midst of the captivity without ever knowing the land of Israel, nor even the Temple and altar of the LORD. Oh, I can’t help but be absolutely and completely gripped and captivated by the fact that the people of God were in fact cut off from the sanctuary of the LORD, and were in fact cut off from the altar of the LORD because of their iniquity, because of their immorality, and because of their idolatry. I can’t help but be reminded of the words which are found and recorded in the seventy-fourth and seventy-ninth chapters of the Old Testament book of Psalms. Consider if you will the words which are found within these two chapters beginning with the words of the seventy-fourth chapter:
“O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy Pastore? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt. Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary. Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their Ennis gets for sings. A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees. But now they break down the carved work thereof at once with axes and hammers. They have cast fire into thy sanctuary, they have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy name to the ground. They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long. O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? Shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever? Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? Pluck it out of thy Boston. For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers. The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun. Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter. Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O LORD, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy name. O Deliver not the soul of thy turtle dove unto the multitude of the wicked: forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever. Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty. O Let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name. Arise, O God, please thine own cause: remember how the foolish men reproacheth thee daily. Forget not the voice of thine enemies: the tumult of those that riseth up against thee increaseth continually” (Psalm 74:1-23).
“O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem; and there was none to bury them. We are become a reproach to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to them that are round about us. How long, LORD? Wilt thou be angry for ever? Shall thy jealousy burn like fire? Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known thee, and upon the kingdom that have not called upon thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place. O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us: for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge away our sins, for thy name’s sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God? Let him be known among the heathen in our sight by the reverting of the blood of thy servants which is shed. Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die; and render unto our neighbours sevenfold into their bosom their reproach, wherewith they have reproached thee, O LORD. So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture will give thee thanks for ever: we will shew forth thy praise to all generations” (Psalm 79:1-13).
When we read the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah we must recognize and understand that the return of the people of God essentially had and was characterized by two phases. The first phase of their return to the land would be the responsibility, the assignment and the task of rebuilding the Temple of the LORD with the altar for burnt offering and sacrifice unto the God of Abraham, God and Jacob. The second phase of their return to the land would come later during the days of Artaxerxes king of Persia. The first of the two phases would indeed be the return to the land and the rebuilding of the Temple and sanctuary of the living God with the altar therein, while the second phase would be the repairing of the wall of the city of Jerusalem, as well as the gates of the city. For seventy years the wall of Jerusalem had been in disrepair, and had been broken down because of the breach the enemy and adversary had made all those years earlier. What’s more, is that the gates of the city—those access points in and out of the city—had been destroyed and had been in ruins since the early days of the captivity. The time would come when not only must the Temple and altar of the LORD be rebuilt, but so also must the wall of the city with its gates be rebuilt and repaired. We dare not and must not miss and lose sight of this absolutely incredible and astonishing reality, for this reality is at the very heart of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. It is what we find in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah that essentially describes the second of these two phases to the people of God returning to the land, and yet it’s worth noting that this second phase would come as a direct result of a report that was brought to Nehemiah while he was serving in the king’s palace. If you read and study the life of Nehemiah you will find that Nehemiah was the cup bearer of the king, and it was while he was serving in the court of the king that he would receive report of the great distress and anguish the people of God faced in the midst of the land. It was true that the people of God had returned to the land, and it was true the people of God had indeed rebuilt the Temple and altar of the LORD, but even though the sanctuary of the LORD their God was present once more among them—there was still distress and anguish because of the walls and gates of the city which still lie in disrepair. It would be during the days of Ezra the priest, as well as the prophets Haggai and Zechariah that the Temple and altar of the living God would be rebuilt, and it would be during the days of Nehemiah that the walls of the city would be rebuilt together with its gates. Consider if you will how the Old Testament book of Nehemiah begins and opens in the first chapter starting with the first verse:
“The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace, that Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there int eh province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven, and said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandest they servant Moses. Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandest thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: but if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the utter most part of the heaven, yet will I gather then from thence, and will bring them them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy greater power, and by thy strong hand. O LORD, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cup bearer” (Nehemiah 1:1-11).
A WORK BORN OUT OF REPORT! A WORK BORN OUT OF ANGUISH AND SORROW! A WORK BORN OF FASTING AND PRAYER! A WORK BORN OUT OF DISTRESS AND AFFLICTION! As I sit here today and consider that which is written and recorded in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, I can’t help but think about and consider the fact that the work of rebuilding the wall was not something that Nehemiah had thought about—much less actually set out to fulfill and accomplish of his own volition and his own accord. Upon reading the words which are written and recorded in this passage of Scripture you will encounter the tremendous reality that it was while Nehemiah was in the palace of the king that one of his brethren came—together with certain men of Judah—and Nehemiah asked them concerning the Jews which had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. It’s interesting and worth noting that in response to the question which Nehemiah asked, Hanani and the men of Judah who were with him spoke unto Nehemiah and declared that the remnant which were left of the captivity and were in the province were in great affliction and reproach, for the wall of Jerusalem was broken down, and the gates thereof were burned with fire. AFFLICTION AND REPROACH! THE WALL BROKEN DOWN, THE GATES BURNED WITH FIRE! It’s quite interesting to read the first chapter of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, for what you find within this book is a truly powerful moment of transformation that would take place in the midst of the land of Judah and within the city of Jerusalem, as the work of rebuilding the wall of the city of Jerusalem, as well as the work of repairing and setting up the gates was born out of a burden of prayer, a burden of fasting, a burden of weeping, and a burden of mourning before the LORD. Can I be bold right now and emphatically declared that most—if not all of the true great works of the LORD were born out of a burden of prayer, a burden of fasting, a burden of weeping and mourning. When you think about and consider the work, the assignment, the task of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, you must recognize and understand that despite the report which Nehemiah heard, and despite the fact that the report which he heard utterly and completely captivated his heart and soul—he would not engage in the work hastily. As you read the words found in this passage of Scripture you will find that although Nehemiah was indeed in anguish over the condition of the people of God—that anguish and captivity wouldn’t be enough. WHEN PRAYER MEETS ANGUISH! WHEN FASTING MEETS ANGUISH! I am completely and absolutely convinced that anguish of heart and anguish of soul wasn’t enough for Nehemiah to set out to engage himself in this great work of rebuilding the wall of the city of Jerusalem, nor repairing its gates, for anguish alone wasn’t and wouldn’t be enough.
If there is one thing I so absolutely love about the words which are written and contained within the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, it’s that even after Nehemiah heard the report of of the wall of the city of Jerusalem being broken down and the gates burned with fire, he would not immediately rush to engage himself in the work. I feel a tremendous need to pause right here and ask myself how many men and women have thrust themselves hastily into a great work before the LORD simply because of the need, and simply because of the report which they heard. How many men and women have hastily rushed into a work—perhaps even a work that was and would be ordained by God—and yet they did so rashly and hastily without taking the time to prostrate themselves before the living God. Upon reading the words which are written and recorded in this Old Testament book you will find that after Nehemiah heard the report which his brethren brought unto him, he would sit down and weep, and would mourn, and fast, and pray before the God of heaven “certain days.” Scripture isn’t clear how many days passed as Nehemiah fasted, as he wept and mourned, and as he prayed before the Lord his God concerning the affliction and reproach of the people of God. It’s worth noting that Nehemiah’s prayer, his fasting, and even his mourning and weeping did not negate, nor did it minimize the need that was before him. It would be incredibly easy to think that Nehemiah taking the time to pray, to fast, and to mourn before the God of heaven somehow diminished and minimized the need that was before him. There are and there would be those who would think that as soon as we hear about a certain need, and as soon as we receive a specific report, we are to immediately rush into stepping up to meet that need and engage in that work. The truth of the matter is that even though there is a need in front of us—even if that need is very great—that doesn’t mean we have the green light and the go ahead to immediately rush into the work. I absolutely love how even though Nehemiah heard the report of affliction and reproach, and even though his heart and soul were moved within him—he didn’t immediately rush into the work, but took time to seek the face of the living God of heaven. Pause for a moment and consider how many works have been undertaken throughout the history of the people of God, and how many great undertakings have been engaged in without and apart from prayer and a seeking of the face of God. Think about how many great works are and have been before and in front of us during our own days and generation, and consider how many of them were actually born out of prayer, fasting, weeping and mourning. What I can’t help but be absolutely captivated with when reading these words is the fact that as “essential” and as “necessary” as the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and repairing the gates of the city truly was—Nehemiah would and could not hastily, speedily or hurriedly rush into it.
I can’t help but see a wonderful and powerful prophetic application that is found in the first and opening chapter of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah for the current times and generation in which were are living. Over the past three months church buildings and houses of worship have been shut down in an attempt to prevent gatherings of people to hopefully slow the spread of the Coronavirus. During this time there have been countless pastors, ministers and leaders who have not only defied state and government orders, but have also threatened to sue state and local governments. There have been church leaders that have drafted and signed a “petition of essentiality” which was sent to the governor of California. This past week the governor of Massachusetts declared that churches and houses of worship could open as early as Monday, yet needed to meet certain guidelines, and were going to be capped at 40% capacity. The very next day the President of the United States “deemed” and “declared” churches and houses of worship as being essential and necessary in the midst of culture and society. The declaration of the President—which coincidentally would come on the eve of a major holiday weekend—would undoubtedly embolden countless churches to reopen their doors. Now of course there would be some that would adhere to the guidelines set forth by the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, however, there would be other churches that would defy recommendations and decrees by state and government officials. I sit here today and can’t help but think about the fact that despite how “necessary” and despite how “essential” church buildings and houses of worship truly are—what if before we acted hastily and rushed to open the doors of church buildings, we actually took the time as Nehemiah did to pray, to fast, and to weep before the LORD. There is no doubt that there is great affliction and reproach in the midst of the land during theses days, and that people are hurting, people are suffering, and people are in great distress. There is absolutely no doubt and no denying the fact that there are a lot of people who right now are struggling and need a strong infusion of confidence, trust, hope, encouragement and faith during this current pandemic and crisis. The truth of the matter, however, is that we cannot allow ourselves to be so quick to “meet the needs” of men and women by opening up the doors of our churches without consulting with the God of heaven in prayer with fasting, with weeping and with mourning. Nehemiah was undoubtedly well aware of the great distress, the great affliction, the great need, and the great reproach the returned and escaped captives were during those days, and yet despite how great and how awesome that need truly was—Nehemiah would not immediately rush into the work of rebuilding the wall and repairing the gates.
I have to admit that I absolutely love what I find and what I read within this passage of Scripture, for despite how great the work of rebuilding the wall and repairing the gates truly was, you will notice that Nehemiah essentially took three distinct steps before actually engaging in the work. In the first and opening chapter you will find Nehemiah receiving report of the affliction and reproach of the escaped captives in the midst of the land, and how Nehemiah immediately fasted, wept, mourned and prayed before the God of heaven for many days. In the second day you will find that Nehemiah actually presented his petition and request before the king of Persia in his presence as he gave the king his wine. It would be in the presence of the king (in the presence of government) that Nehemiah would make known to the king the reason and purpose for his sorrow—and not only the reason behind his sorrow and anguish, but also the reason for his despair. What’s more, is Nehemiah would in the presence of the king ask for permission and for authority to return to the land of Judah in order that he might engage in the work of rebuilding the wall and repairing the gates of the city. What’s more, is that in the second chapter of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah—not only will you find Nehemiah making the king aware of the great need that was present back in the land of Judah, but even after Nehemiah return to the land of Judah, he wouldn’t immediately set forth to engage himself in the work. As you read the words which are found in the second chapter you will find that when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem he was there three days, and in the night during those three days he would go out by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof that were consumed with fire. Oh please don’t miss this absolutely tremendous and incredible reality, for not only did the return of the people of God take place in two phases—rebuilding the altar and sanctuary of the LORD, and repairing the walls and gates of the city—but so also did the second phase of repairing the walls and gates of the city itself have three distinct phases to it. The first step and phase of engaging in the work of rebuilding and repairing the wall and gates of the city of Jerusalem would be prayer, fasting, weeping and mourning before the LORD, while the second phase would be expressing and revealing to the king the great need, the great affliction, and the great trouble that was present in the midst of the land of Judah. The third phase would not be actually engaging in the work—despite and regardless of how “essential” and “necessary” it might be—was going out by night without anyone else knowing what was in the heart of Nehemiah, and surveying the damage, surveying the ruin, and surveying the need that was before him. Consider if you will the words which are found in the second chapter of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah—before Nehemiah would even voice to the burden to the priests, to the Jews, to the rulers, to the nobles, and to all those who were present in the land:
“And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been before time sad in his presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, and said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be said, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favor in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? And when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me. Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobaih the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days. And I arise in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king’s pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned. And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work. Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that were are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobias the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? Will ye rebel against the king? Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:1-20).
The more you read the narrative of Nehemiah and the great burden of rebuilding the wall of the city and repairing the gate, the more you will encounter and come face to face with the fact that despite how “essential,” despite how “necessary,” and despite how “great” the work was before him, he would not immediately, nor would he hastily set out to do the work. Perhaps one of the greatest realities you will find within this book is that concerning the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem together with its gates, Nehemiah held himself accountable on three levels. First, Nehemiah held himself accountable to the God of heaven through prayer, through fasting, through weeping, and through mourning. Second, Nehemiah would hold himself accountable to the king of Persia, as he would make known to the king his request after praying before the LORD his God in the presence of the king. Third, Nehemiah would hold himself accountable to the priests, to the nobles, to the rulers, and to all those which were present in the midst of the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah realized and recognized that he could not set out to do this work, nor would or could this work be accomplished without the strength and hand of the living God, without the oversight of the king of Persia, and without the support of the people which dwelt in the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. We dare not and must not miss and lose sight of this, for during these days when the language of “essential” and “necessary” are being tossed around, it is absolutely necessary that we recognize that there is a great need for us as the people of God to hold ourselves accountable in the decisions we make as did Nehemiah the king’s cupbearer. Despite how “essential” and despite how “necessary” returning to the church buildings and houses of worship truly is, we dare not, we cannot, we must not attempt to do so without and apart from holding ourselves accountable on all three levels the very same way Nehemiah the cupbearer of the king did. There is a great and present danger for those church leaders, those ministers, and those pastors and teachers who would attempt to hurry and rush back into the church buildings without at all holding themselves accountable to the God of heaven, without holding themselves accountable to the authority that is set in place on a state and national level, and without even holding themselves accountable to the people who in the past attended in the future will be attending the worship services.
I find this narrative of Nehemiah to be absolutely wonderful and remarkable, for despite how great and despite how pressing the need before him in the land of Judah truly was—he would and could not allow himself to engage in the work without holding himself accountable on three different fronts. What’s more, is that Nehemiah wouldn’t even present the work, nor even the need itself to the people of Judah and Jerusalem without first surveying the damage, surveying the ruins, and surveying the destruction and devastation. What’s more, is that I love that before Nehemiah would hold himself accountable to the king of Persia, he would first hold himself accountable to the God of heaven and earth through fasting, through, weeping, through mourning and prayer. Before Nehemiah would hold himself accountable to the people of Judah and Jerusalem he would not only hold himself accountable to the God of heaven, but also to the king of Persia. ACCOUNTABLE TO THE GOVERNMENT OF HEAVEN, ACCOUNTABLE TO THE GOVERNMENT IN THE EARTH! Oh how absolutely wonderful and remarkable it is to read the words found in this Old Testament book, for despite the fact that the work of rebuilding and repairing the wall and gates of the city of Jerusalem was both essential and necessary, Nehemiah would hold himself to the government and authority of heaven, as well as to the government and authority of and in the earth. Despite the fact that the affliction, despite the fact that the sorrow, despite the fact that the anguish, despite the fact that the reproach, despite the fact that the need before him was so great, Nehemiah would and could not engage in that need without holding himself accountable on a spiritual level, as well as on a physical level. During these days and during these times we must follow the same steps and the same path Nehemiah himself engaged in, for just as Nehemiah held himself accountable to the God of heaven and earth, he also held himself accountable to the king which sat upon the throne. I fear for the countless pastors and church leaders who might very well declare that they are accountable to the God of heaven, and yet they are completely unwilling to hold themselves accountable to those in positions of authority during this time. There is a great and present need during this time for church leaders, for pastors, for ministers, and for those responsible for the care of the sheep to not defy and rebel against the authority which God has set up in an attempt to obey the living God, and in an attempt be essential and necessary during these days. Heaven help those church leaders and those pastors who would attempt to understate this work of being “essential” and “necessary” during this time without the oversight of heaven, and without the oversight of those whom the living God has placed in authority and leadership within state and federal governments.
I cannot help but be absolutely captivated by the fact that during these times there is a great need for us to hold ourselves accountable before the God of heaven, before the government in the earth, and before the people before us, and we dare not and ought not attempt to undertake and engage in any work without ensuring that we have done absolutely everything we have needed to to be men and women who are accountable. What’s more, is that we dare not listen to, nor believe the lie which church leaders would attempt to use when they state whether or not it’s better to obey God or to obey men. Such leaders and ministers would quote the words of the apostles Peter and John in the book of Acts when they stood before the Sanhedrin, and yet they fail to recognize that the command they were given was to cease preaching. They weren’t commanded, nor were they instructed to stop meeting in church buildings, nor were they instructed to stay at home and remain in their houses, but simply to stop preaching the gospel. It would be a great error and a great disservice to Scripture to attempt to use the narrative of the apostles, and the narrative of speaking unto the Sanhedrin concerning which would be greater—to obey the God of heaven and earth, or to obey man. During this time we must be absolutely and incredibly mindful of the fact that we have a great need for accountability as we attempt to undertake the work and ministry of being “essential” and “necessary,” and we dare not and must not make any attempt to engage in the work before us without understanding the steps which are necessary. The narrative of Nehemiah brings us face to face with the fact that the first thing he did—even before he acted, and even before he journeyed to the land of Judah—was to humble himself before the God of heaven and earth through fasting, through weeping, through morning, and through prayer. What’s more, is that you will also find Nehemiah humbling himself before the king who sat upon the throne, and even before he responded to the king’s question, he prayed to the God of heaven and earth. Please don’t miss and lose sight of this absolutely remarkable and astonishing reality, for before Nehemiah ever called the Jewish people—the priests, the nobles, the rulers, and the people themselves—to the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and repairing the gates, he would completely saturate the work in both prayer and accountability. Oh that during this time we would absolutely and without a doubt recognize that whatever we set out to do, and whatever we set our hearts to do—we must recognize and understand that we have a great need to clothe and bathe the work in prayer before and unto the God of heaven, in accountability to the authority in heaven and on earth, and in partnership with those who will be a part of the work. No successful work has ever taken place without clothing the work in prayer before the God of heaven, without clothing the work in accountability to the government and authority of heaven and earth, and clothing it in partnership with the people who will help in and with the work. Oh that we would recognize and understand during this time the tremendous responsibility we have in accountability, in prayer, and in partnership with the true and living God that the work will be carried out exactly as the living God designed and intended it on being carried out. OH that we would not attempt to rush ahead of and rush out before God, and that we would not hastily rush to engage in any work and any task—regardless of how great the need might be—without recognizing the need for prayer, the need for accountability, and the need for partnership with those who will help the work. Moreover, it is absolutely necessary that we recognize and understand the powerful dynamic that exists in the partnership of Nehemiah and the the living God (the hand of my God which was good upon me,” the partnership between Nehemiah and the king of Persia (and gave them the king’s letters), and the partnership between Nehemiah and the people of God (Let us rise up and build).