How God Prepares His Workers for His Work Part 1 (Neh. 1:1-4)
Now that I have a 19 month old who is growing up really fast, I am constantly forced to learn a lot of children’s songs and nursery rhymes. The other day I caught myself in the shower singing “Itsy bitsy spider.” Thankfully I was not doing the motions!
Nursery Rhymes are still pretty popular. Perhaps you have heard of a familiar one called Humpty Dumpty. Some of you may know it by heart:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
The story is about an egg that was sitting on a wall and broke into so many pieces. The fall was so bad that it could not be reassembled at all. At first I thought it was so silly (an egg on a wall?), but actually there is a story behind it. The rhyme first appeared in 1803. According to the person who wrote the rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty was intended to be a symbol of the origin of life and the world of humanity. The rhyme was designed to lament the fact that humanity has fallen and is broken. And not even the most powerful people on earth, the king himself, his army, nor his wisemen, were able to put the broken pieces of life back together again.”
That’s pretty deep don’t you think?! And to think all this time I thought it was a stupid egg on wall. Actually we are all Humpty Dumpty. We are broken. We are in ruins because of sin and death…that is, until the day came when Jesus picked us up and made us whole again! AMEN!
But look back at the dilemma again. There is despair in the rhyme writer (what do you call people who write rhymes?). Humanity is broken. Who can fix it? No one! We are beginning our verse-by-verse study of the book of Nehemiah. This is our third book study! Only 63 books to go! This book is about a broken wall, but more importantly broken people and how God used a broken man to restore them. Not just to restore them, but to get replacing distress with deliverance. Songs of sorrow, with songs of joy! Tragedy turned into triumph! Worry replaced by worship!
If you remember, the theme of the book is about building God’s people for God’s work. I want to look today at how God prepares His workers for His work. Did you know that God places two primary calls on a believer’s life? The first is the call of salvation. The second is the call to service. You are saved to serve. That was the mission statement of Jesus (Mark 10:45).
I don’t know about you, but the older I am getting, the more I am realizing that time is running out. When you are in high school and or college, you feel like you are invincible and you have the world ahead of you. But before you know it, weeks, months and years are flying by. Rev. William Secker once said, “It is lamentable, that we should live so long in the world, and do so little for God, or that we should live so short a time in the world, and do so much for Satan.”
I am thankful God is not done with me yet. I am still sticking around. I woke up again this morning and I notice that you did too. There must be something for you and I to be and to do for the name of the Lord still. And as her uncle once told Esther, “Who knows if you are here in the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14). What he was saying is, you are not here by accident Esther. There is a reason and purpose God put you in this place and this time. And I believe with my whole heart God has placed us here, in this church together, for such a time as this.
I don’t want to just take up space like an old tree. Jesus once told a parable in Luke 13:6-9. A man had planted a tree and came looking for fruit and found none. He told the vinedresser that he’s been looking for fruit on this tree for three years and now wants to cut it down. Then he says this, “Why should it keep using the soil?” I am convicted by this question. I don’t want to be using up God’s soil and eventually die in it. I want to bear fruit!
When God has a man or woman to do a work, He works in them first. Before God can use you, He makes you usable. Obviously God does not need us, but He is glad to have us on His team. Today I want to talk to you about how God prepares His workers for His work from Neh. 1:1-11. Let’s start with this thought that God prepares His workers for His work by first:
I. Birthing a burden in our hearts (Neh. 1:1-3)
Let’s look at how this happened for Nehemiah. We are now going to read Nehemiah’s memoirs or his journal. I am sure he never figured his journal would end up being part of the Word of God! Nehemiah is introduced here as the son of Hacaliah. We do not know much about Hacaliah. If you remember last week, this is why Nehemiah is so great for us. He was not a priest or a ruler, but an ordinary man God used.
He records the year and month these events transpired: in the month of Chislev in the twentieth year. Chislev is either the month of November or December, so it is winter time. The “twentieth year” refers to the 20th year King Artaxerxes has been king of Persia (Neh. 2:1). Artaxerxes, Persia’s sixth king, began reigning in 464 b.c., so this year was 444.
Remember the Babylonians came in 586 BC and destroyed Judah, taking captives back to Babylon. Now 142 years have passed. Babylon is no longer on the scene. The Persians have allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem. Two major returns have taken place. Nehemiah was probably born in Persia. His ancestors were taken to Babylon in the captivity.
He says he is in Susa, the capital. In other words, he was in the Washington D.C. of his day. But Susa in those days was considered the capital of the world. This place was the winter lodging for Persian kings (it is located in modern Iran, not far from the Iraqi border). While he was there, he heard news from one of his brothers, Hanani. He must have been a literal brother of Nehemiah, and not just a fellow Jew (cf. Neh. 7:2).
Hanani and some men had just returned from Judah. We do not know what they were doing there, whether they were doing business or visiting family or if they themselves lived there. Nehemiah starts questioning about his people and the city. It is not clear if he was referring to the Jews who escaped the exile in the first place and were living in Jerusalem or the Jews who returned or both.
Look at Neh. 1:3. Notice their response. “Great trouble” implies distress, misery, calamity, ruin, misfortune, i.e., a state of hardship in some circumstance. This would be the opposite of “shalom” which means wholeness and peace that the Israelites often prayed for Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6). Not only that, they are in “shame.” Other translations say “disgrace” (NIV, NLT) or “reproach” (NASU, KJV). Chuck Swindoll says, “The picture painted by this term portrays someone suffering the lacerations of cutting words.” There were torn apart. The people of God were a laughing stock. Not only that, they have no security as the wall and gates are destroyed by fire. Remember without the walls, there is no identity for the people of God. Enemies can come in and attack easily. The enemies can mock Israel and they can mock Israel’s God.
We have to clarify something here. Remember Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC. It is now 444 or 445 BC. Some 140 years have passed. It would not make sense that Nehemiah would react in Neh. 1:4 like though he is hearing this for the first time. Actually this might be more in reference to Ezra 4:11ff.
If you remember, there were three trips to Jerusalem from Babylon. The second trip was led by this priest and teacher named Ezra. Ezra’s group actually tried to build the walls and the Temple again. However they faced some opposition. Some of their enemies wrote a letter to King Artaxerxes (the same one Nehemiah works for) that they are rebuilding the city and once they do that, they will no longer pay taxes and other costs to the King (Ezra 4:13). The King believed them and ordered the work to stop (Ezra 4:21). Thankfully, the Temple will still built, but the walls were not. It must be this news, that after all these years, the ruined walls were still left ruined, that broke Nehemiah’s heart. But notice the people were mentioned first, then the walls. The walls were just a symbol of how the people were: they were ruined. They were devastated. They were broken.
But already we can tell this man is a man of deep concern. But it does not make sense on the surface. He had a great job. He was surrounded by wealth and lived securely in a nice Persian city. He had power. He had comfort. He had everything you can imagine, especially for a foreigner in this land. Besides, he really was more Persian than Jewish. All he has really known is the life of the Persians. Besides, he lived 800 miles away. He didn’t even create the problems for which the Jews were suffering the consequences. Why care so much about this broken down city, which was probably four times smaller than even the palace where he was staying?
The reason he was so burdened was he had the heart of God. He knew his identity. He was not a Persian or a cupbearer first and foremost. He was a child of God. Because he was a child of God, he was following Him. Because he was following Him, he had God’ heart. He was heartbroken, because God’s heart was also broken. He was burdened, because God was burdened. He longed for the glory of God to shine in Jerusalem again. He wanted the people of God not to look like victims, but victors because God had been faithful to them despite their faithlessness. He wanted the land to be blessed and for God’s name and fame to go throughout the land again.
Look at Jeremiah 15:5. 150 years before Nehemiah, God asked a question. “Who will have pity on you Jerusalem?…Who will ask about your welfare?” That was God’ heart and behold, Nehemiah is the answer to that question! Who cares about my heart? God asks. If we are going to do God’s work, we have to know what concerns Him. Our heart must break for the things that break God’s heart.
The way we live is not asking “God, what do you care about?” But mostly, “Ask me if I care?” Sadly, this is the truth. The only person we care about is ourselves.
Paul has told us that “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15).
We always ask God to fill us. How can God fill us if we are already full—-of ourselves? Self needs to be emptied. The cross is an “I” crossed out. One of the things that jump out right away is that Nehemiah is not consumed with himself. He is taking initiative about others. He is checking on people who are 800 miles away in a place where on the surface, he has no real reason to be concerned about.
One thing we need to ask ourselves if we are going to do the work of God here at EFCC is the question, “Do we care?” Do you care about the person sitting next to you this afternoon? Do you care that you may have friends and loved ones who are totally lost today? And if the answer is “No,” we need to confess that to the Lord. We need to confess our indifference. We need to ask God to help us see what He sees and help us feel what He feels. We cannot move forward until we care. We cannot expect to receive God’s blessing for EFC until we take God’s burden. Donald Campbell wrote in his book Nehemiah: Man in Charge, “A burdened God is at work in the world. He searches for burdened believers through whom He may work.”
The second way God prepares His workers for His work is:
II. Breaking our hearts with the burden (Neh. 1:4)
Look at Nehemiah responds to the news in Neh. 1:4. Now, he could have responded in several ways. Here are six possible ways he could have responded and how most people respond when there is a problem or a great need:
a) The Shrugger: Walls are broken down? People are giving up? Who cares! Out of sight, out of mind!
b) The Blamer: What?! Who blew it? If those dumb Jews hadn’t disobeyed, we wouldn’t be in this mess now would we? Who is heading up the leadership for this?
c) The Pray-er: Wow! That’s bad news! I’ll pray for you. Deeply concerned today, forgotten tomorrow.
d) The Advisor: Ok, here is what you do. Step 1: Take an aerial map of the walls. Step 2…
e) The Shifter: I’m really busy right now. I have three meals to taste for the King today. Why don’t you ask…?
f) The Freezer: Whoa! That’s heavy dude. Ok, I gotta go! This person is overwhelmed by the need and runs away paralyzed, not knowing what to do.
In contrast, look at Nehemiah. He sat down. When you think of a capable leader, you think of one who is quick and decisive. A man of action. There is some truth to that. But here Nehemiah slows down to process and pray.
Do we have time to sit down? Do we have time to contemplate? To process things? I always feel like I am moving to the next thing. I’m running to the next thing on my to-do list. We don’t see Nehemiah running anywhere, even to Jerusalem. Or I am like the freezer. I run away overwhelmed. We must remember that the size of the need should not prevent us from not doing anything at all. If we don’t know what to do, we stop and sit down. We turn off the television and computer. We find a place without any distraction. We have to learn to process. I am not even talking about prayer yet.
We slow up. Look at what Nehemiah did next. He wept. He cried out. This is called heart water. When he didn’t know what to say or what to do, he sat there and wept. This is really remarkable for a leader to have such a tender heart. I like what Alexander Maclaren says here, “The men who have been raised up to do great work for God and men, have always to begin by greatly and sadly feeling the weight of the sins and sorrows which they are destined to remove. No man will do worthy work at rebuilding the walls who has not wept over the ruins.” It is one thing to hear the need, but another to hear it with our hearts. Nehemiah or even Jeremiah was not the only people to truly weep over Jerusalem. Luke 19:41 tells us that Jesus saw the city, He wept over it. John Bunyan once said, “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words than words without heart.”
I want to stop here and talk about prayer next time.
I want to close by us looking at this prayer. Have you ever prayed for God to disturb you?
“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new Earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.” 
 Stephen Davey, Nehemiah: Memoirs of an Ordinary Man, 11 (Greenville, SC: Ambassador, 2005).
Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed., 795 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000).
Mervin Breneman, vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, 167 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1993).
Gene Getz in The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, 1:674 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985).
Mark Roberts and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, vol. 11, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 11 : Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 158 (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1993).
James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament), electronic ed., DBLH 8288, #2 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Chuck Swindoll, 23.
Stephen Davey, 14.
Quoted in Stephen Davey, Nehemiah: Memoirs of an Ordinary Man, 19.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Ne 1:3 (Heritage Educational Systems, 2008; 2008).
http://quotationsbook.com/quote/31918/ accessed 22 May 2009.
 http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/weekly/06-10-30/8103006.html accessed 23 May 2009.