The Courage of Nehemiah

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There will be moments in all our lives that demand courage. We will all face situations that are larger than our experience or ability. The great news is that we don’t have to walk through these situations in our own strength, as believers, we have the power of God in us. The Bible is filled with stories of ordinary men and women that reveal how we too can be courageous. This past weekend, Pastor Chris gave a great message on how Job had ‘courage to keep going’ in spite of his circumstances.

Another example of courage is found in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah pushed through adversity and didn’t give into the pressures that surrounded him. His experience shows us how to resist the temptation to compromise and quit.

The story of Nehemiah takes place in 444 BC during the reign of Artaxerxes 1st, King of Persia. Artaxerxes was more than a king. It’s actually better to think of him as an emperor since Persia was the dominant superpower, the largest empire that had EVER existed up until this point in history. It spanned 5.5 million square kilometres.

Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king, essentially, he was a wine taster, somebody who had to make sure that the king’s wine and food had not been poisoned. Apparently, poisoning was such a common practice in the day, that it necessitated a full-time employee who could guarantee the king’s safety. We know that Nehemiah was certainly brave as he was faced with the possibility of dying on the job every single day.

We don’t know if Nehemiah had ever been to Israel. Over a hundred years before this story, the Babylonian empire conquered Israel and destroyed the temple and the city walls of Jerusalem.

At that same time, King Nebuchadnezzar carted off some other famous Bible characters, including Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel.

But Nehemiah’s world was under new management with the Persians in charge, and Nehemiah had direct access to the king and would have likely been someone the king would have regularly conversed with.

One day, Nehemiah received some news about what was going on back in Jerusalem. He was extremely torn up by the state of his city, how terrible things were, and how the walls of the city were broken.

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4)

1. Nehemiah’s courage is rooted in prayer.

After Nehemiah prays, he does a very risky thing. He goes to King Artaxerxes and doesn’t hide his emotions from the King.

The king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” I was very much afraid. (Nehemiah 2:2)

This may not seem like a big deal to us, but it was illegal to be sad in the king’s presence. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for the king to order the execution of anyone who didn’t make him feel good or happy (and you thought your boss was tough).

But I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” The king said to me, “What is it you want?” (Nehemiah 2:3-4)

Nehemiah tells the king that things are bad in his country and that he’d like to go and bring some organization and leadership to his people. Then he asks the king for some time off.

Now, remember, Nehemiah wasn’t an employee of the king. He was a slave, and
slaves don’t get time off… but he asks for a leave of absence. Which turns out to be 12 years, that’s a significant sabbatical.

King Artaxerxes says I’ll do better than that, I will make you the governor of Judea (basically the mayor of Jerusalem) and I will give you whatever you need to help you get your people in shape, but you must eventually come back… you can’t stay away forever.

So, Nehemiah spends a lot of time preparing for this trip. He gets money, necessary resources, and building materials and he heads back to the city of Jerusalem.

It may be hard for us to wrap our minds around the significance of having a broken wall. You see, the people in the city of Jerusalem had been living with a torn-down wall for so long that no one living there had ever seen what the city looked like before it was destroyed. They couldn’t even picture what a safe and secure city looked like. The nation’s security and identity were tied to a city that was basically open season to anybody who wanted to come in.

The surrounding region was led by very strong warlords, and they would regularly steal crops and possessions from the city. The whole city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area was a stomping ground for whoever wanted to come in and do whatever they wanted to do.

There was no national pride.
There was no sense that “God is with us.”

When Nehemiah arrives, he sees the broken-down city and it breaks his heart. He takes an entire day and night to travel around the city. He meets with the people and talks to them, and then he comes to this conclusion: if I don’t get anything else done while I’m here I’ve got to get this wall rebuilt.

2. Courage has a cause

Nehemiah’s compassion for his people ignites his courage to bring change. He calls all the people together who live in the city and from the surrounding area, and he casts this compelling vision of rebuilding the wall.

This was a massive task. The length of the wall is about 4 kilometres, with a height of 12 meters, and an average thickness of 2.5 meters.

Construction started with everyone involved and as they began to make progress the pillaging neighbours noticed, and they were not happy. They would lose the ability to come and take whatever they want, whenever they wanted.

The neighbour most opposed to the wall being rebuilt was a guy named Sanballat. Sanballat had a lot of influence in the region, and he decided he must stop this wall from being built. He was angry that he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of God’s people anymore, and he was terrified that Israel would regain power and control of the area that he himself had controlled.

3. Nehemiah’s focus gave him courage when he experienced opposition.

Sanballat tried many different tactics in order to stop Nehemiah. By criticizing the people (Neh. 4:3), spreading fake news (Neh. 6:12), and through distraction.

“…when the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it, Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” they intended to do me harm. And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:1-4)

Had Nehemiah allowed himself to be distracted, the wall wouldn’t have been rebuilt. I believe one of the greatest challenges for us today is to focus on what’s truly important. The theme for our church this year has been focus. Nehemiah gives us a great example of how to focus under pressure and opposition.

“I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”

What can we learn from this part of Nehemiah’s story?

Don’t let anything distract you from your great work. Don’t compromise your great work. If Nehemiah had listened to Sanballat he would have walked into a trap that would have cost him his life.

“I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”

Nehemiah’s great work was rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem.
What is your great work? What has God entrusted to you?

Doing your job with integrity is a great work.
Doing your best in everything as if you are doing it for the Lord, is a great work.
Doing the right thing when everyone around you is doing the opposite, is a great work.
Loving people who are hard to love, is a great work.
Your marriage is a great work.
Moms and dads, I know that parenting is hard (I have four kids of my own), but in the exhaustion and occasional chaos, you need to tell yourself, “I’m doing a great work.”

All of these things take courage and determination.

Nehemiah’s prayer life, commitment to a great cause, and unwavering focus, gave him the courage to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. He was able to courageously lead his people to accomplish this great work in only 52 days, without any cranes or modern machinery. Incredible!

The same God that helped Nehemiah do extraordinary things, is the same God that will help us to courageously accomplish the great work in front of us.