“The Gracious Hand of Our God”
September 6, 2009
You’ll gain strength for this crisis by remembering how God was at work in the last one.
I. The Crisis of the King’s Permission (Nehemiah 2:1-8)
II. The Crisis of the Walls (Nehemiah 2:9-16)
III. The Crisis of the Opposition (Nehemiah 2:17-20)
One of the joys of working for the last couple of years on my Doctor of Ministry has been getting to know the professors at Dallas Theological Seminary. They’re good folks, gifted teachers. But the thing that has struck me most has been their faithfulness to God even in difficult circumstances.
I haven’t had a class with Dr. Howard Hendricks, but I hope to. ‘Prof’ has been teaching at Dallas fifty eight years. He’s struggled with a tumor in his eye and other health problems, but he continues faithful, doesn’t want to slow down. This is Dr. Timothy Warren. I took a course with him and we prayed for his wife, who was completing chemotherapy, apparently successfully, after surgery and radiation. Dr. Warren’s open, faithful attitude was notable.
But the story I’ve been most intrigued by is of Dr. John Reed, who was director of the Doctor of Ministry program when I started. He’d come out of retirement again to take that job. Several things have happened in Dr. Reed’s life and family that have shown God’s gracious hand in difficult trials.
The first was his daughter’s brain tumor. John and his wife Erris have two daughters, Beth and Becky. A few years back Becky was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away after a long struggle. Dr. Reed’s faculty page at the Dallas website was written during that time, and ends with: “Becky has been fighting a brain tumor for 3 months. Dr. Reed now has a favorite quote that gets him through days when Becky isn’t doing as well. “From the fall of a raindrop, to the fall of an empire, all is under the providential care of God.”
This morning we’re looking at the Nehemiah chapter 2. Now I’ve seen this chapter preached for leadership principles, the virtues of planning and preparation. And those are good things, and Nehemiah does them. But God is the hero of this book, and it’s to God Nehemiah looks in time of crisis and need.
That’s where this chapter touches our lives. You and I aren’t cup bearers to a king, not responsible for the reconstruction of a city. But Nehemiah’s God is our God, and is just as graciously involved in the circumstances and needs of our lives as he was in the life of Nehemiah. If you look around the room I’m sure you’re aware of people in ongoing needs. You’ve prayed about the losses, medical situations, financial crises, the ongoing relational issues. And you and I don’t know all of them. That person next to you may be going through these same kinds of crises. Maybe they don’t want it to be known, maybe it just isn’t known - but it’s just as real.
Then there’s your crisis, the burden of your heart, the issues you’re coping with. You may not call it a crisis, but it’s what’s on your mind, consuming your thoughts, crying out for God’s care. And the question we want to look at today is, how do you remain faithful in this circumstance, this present moment? How do you walk through difficulties and continue to serve God?
Chapter 2 of Nehemiah helps us answer that question. When we last left our story, Nehemiah was praying. Chapter 1 shows his careful, Biblically rich prayer, in which he told God what God had already said in Scripture and poured out his praise, his confession and his petition.
The circumstance that gripped Nehemiah’s heart was the destitution of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s people, the Jews, had been in exile for over a century. Though some had been allowed to return to rebuild the temple, and some under Ezra to repopulate the city, there was still widespread ruin and poverty. The walls of Jerusalem were broken, burned by fire. Nehemiah was so gripped by this crisis he spent four months asking God to intervene, to rescue. He prays: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man."
I. The Crisis of the King’s Permission (Nehemiah 2:1-8)
Chapter 2 is the beginning of God’s answer: In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; 2so 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, 3but I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?" 4The king said to me, "What is it you want?" Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5and I answered the king, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it."
6Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, "How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?" It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. 7I also said to him, "If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? 8And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king's forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?" And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.
After four months of praying, Nehemiah, cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, asks God to grant favor as he reveals the concern of his heart to his boss. That day the king is at a banquet. As Nehemiah serves the wine he allows his face to show some of the concern that gripped his heart. He says “I hadn’t looked sad in his presence before.” And he gets the king’s attention: “Why does your face look so sad?” Many commentators note that it’s dangerous not to put on a happy face in the presence of a dictator who can just as easily have you killed as commended. That may be why Nehemiah is frightened.
He probably also knows that he’s about to ask Artaxerxes to reverse a policy he’d established early in his reign, against rebuilding Jerusalem: “the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” Diplomatically, Nehemiah doesn’t mention Jerusalem by name, nor re- building it, yet, but he does mention the graves of his ancestors, which would probably earn sympathy in a culture which highly revered ancestors.
So the king says “What is it you want?” and Nehemiah prays the great spontaneous prayer and in the same breath politely but now very plainly answers “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it."
There’s a good chance that what Artaxerxes said at that point was ‘let me think about it’ or ‘let’s go talk about it.’ Verse six has evidence of a scene change: “Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, "How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?" No women would normally be present at a public meal in the Middle East. So it may be the king went with Nehemiah to his private living space, where the queen joined them.
Let me hasten to say that this queen could not have been Esther: different king, different place, different time. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t have been sympathetic with the Jews and thus spoken a word on Nehemiah’s behalf.
For whatever human reason, and against all human odds, the king agrees to let his cupbearer go on this mission for the specified time. I suspect Nehemiah didn’t say ‘twelve years’ which is what it turned out to be. He probably named a shorter time sufficient for the project. If so, when he returned to the king, he was then made governor of Judea for the rest of those twelve years.
Nehemiah now asks the king for some help to accomplish this task. First, letters of safe passage. The governors of the surrounding regions were not likely to be real supportive of renewed work at Jerusalem. But if the king explicitly permitted Nehemiah this mission, it would disarm the opposition.
Second, building materials. He especially mentions wood, which was scarce in Judea, but would be need for the construction gates, framing of windows and doors for the buildings in the temple area and construction of Nehemiah’s own residence, possibly an ancient family home he knew had damage.
Nehemiah asks a lot. Even a king inclined to be generous might balk at these uses of his royal resources and decrees. But this is God at work. The end of verse 8: ‘And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.’ This is more literally, translated ‘the good hand of my God’ but it’s God’s hand providing unearned, unexpected good.
So, Nehemiah is in need, this is the crisis of the King’s permission. And God shows up: the king grants this request. Nehemiah saw this very real, very concrete provision as coming from the hand of the invisible God in whom he believed, not from the schemes or interests or even the goodwill of men.
But what about our lives? I doubt anybody here ever received an answer to prayer by way of an all powerful dictator. That doesn’t mean you never receive this kind of outward answer. God may have cured, God has probably provided, God even rescues us at times. But I believe our normal experience of God’s gracious hand is a bit different. As I’ve watched God work among his people these forty years I’ve been most struck by the way he keeps his inward Scriptural promises of comfort, of strength, of peace, of joy and of hope.
He is the God of comfort and rest. Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
He is the God who strengthens. Isaiah 40: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”
He is the God of peace. Philippians 4:6-7 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
He is the giver of joy and hope. Later in Nehemiah we’ll read: “This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." Romans 15:13 “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
I’m sure Dr. John Reed held on to these promises when he had his own accident some years ago. He was walking down his front steps on an icy morning. He slipped and hit his head. He had some of us to his house for dessert and showed us the wrought iron railing he’d later added as a safety feature. A few days later he became confused: “I found I’d forgotten how to shave.”
His daughter Beth came and took him to the hospital, where they found extensive brain bleeding and swelling. He had to have surgery. They were concerned for a long time that he’d never wake or have permanent damage. Yet when I met him there was no indication this senior professor had been through such a scaring experience. I’m willing to bet that if Dr. Reed was studying Nehemiah 2 he’d say ‘the gracious hand of God was upon me.”
In our lives, when we go through our own crises or watch others go through theirs, we see God’s hand. Sometimes he raises up or heals or rescues. Sometimes he comforts and gives strength and hope. Often he does some of both. Either way the thing we cling to is the gracious hand of our God. But that’s only a partial answer to our question: how do you remain faithful in your present need? I think Nehemiah has a great insight for us, not from the crisis that was resolved, but from the one he’s still working, the Crisis of the Walls.
II. The Crisis of the Walls (Nehemiah 2:9-16)
Let’s walk through the story a little at a time. Nehemiah 2:9 So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king's letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. 10When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.
The scene changes abruptly from the King’s palace to the provinces of the Middle East, hundreds of miles away. Nehemiah arrives in the region and gives his letters to the local governors. Despite the presence of the king’s officers and mounted soldiers, two of these locals are upset by Nehemiah’s mission.
Get to know these two: they’re the opposition in this book. The first is Sanballat the Horonite, a high official in nearby Samaria: there is historical record of him as governor there thirty years later. By the way, though no one is sure what the term Horonite means – it’s only used here, we know from those records that this man with a Babylonian name gave his sons Hebrew names.
The other opponent is Tobiah the Ammonite. His name is Jewish but he comes from Amon, one of the traditional enemies of Israel. These two are ‘very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.’ They had a vested interest in keeping the returnees from gaining political, economic or military clout, which would reduce their own power.
Having met the opposition, Nehemiah completes his return Verse 11: I went to Jerusalem, and after staying three days 12I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.
Nehemiah arrives. He probably introduces himself to the local leaders, but doesn’t say much to reveal his mission. Maybe he quietly and subtly inspects the city from the inside. Then after three days he inspects the exterior of the walls and gates. He’s keeping things secret except from a trusted few, so he goes out at night, mounted probably on a sure-footed donkey and begins to inspect the south side of the city, where the steep descents into the Kidron valley would make the walls and gates difficult to rebuild.
The historical detail is impressive. Verse 13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate.
We don’t know all the locations mentioned. The Valley gate, on the west side, and the Dung Gate at the south point of the city are pretty clear, but the rest of the details are a bit lost in the mists of time. It’s obvious the destruction was bad, so bad that somewhere on the east side Nehemiah couldn’t continue.
But he’d seen enough to speak with authority. Verse 16: The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. 17Then I said to them, "You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace."
Imagine you’d been living in this mess. Because of Artaxerxes edict, you’re scared to put one stone on another. The ruins are dangerous. You’re at the mercy of any gang that wants to rip you off. Moreover you’re ashamed of the city of your fathers; the ruins are a reproach against any joy in being a Jew, any celebration of return from exile, any standing in the eyes of the nations.
So Nehemiah issues this clarion call, but your response is something like ‘Yeah, right, we’re going to rebuild this! Hasn’t anyone told you we’re not allowed to?’ This is the crisis of the walls: not the destruction and ruin Nehemiah found outside, but the fear and hesitation he must’ve found inside.
How do we deal with our crisis? How do we walk through trials and continue serving God? Verse 18 is Nehemiah’s answer, and ours: I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, "Let us start rebuilding." So they began this good work.
Nehemiah gets it! ‘The gracious hand of my God upon me.’ ‘You won’t believe what happened in Susa. God was amazing. When I talked to the king, he was all for it. I’ve got letters; I’ve got material work orders; I’ve got plans. God did it! And I know the good hand of God will be with us now.’ That was good enough for the Jews of Jerusalem. Once freed from most of the fear of official oppression, they were all for the rebuilding. I suspect they had a huge pent-up desire to better themselves: “So they began this good work.”
You too will gain strength for this crisis by remembering how God was at work in the last one. Did God heal, did God restore, did God provide? Well praise God he’s likely to do it again. Did God comfort, did God strengthen, did he give peace and joy and hope? Well praise God he’ll continue to do so.
And the memory of God’s gracious hand has been sufficient for John Reed. I found a clip on Youtube of him saying this:
Now, looking back on God’s gracious hand at work in those other circumstances, he’s finding grace to care for his wife who has severe dementia. When Dr. Reed invited us to his house he said, ‘you’ll love my sweet wife Erris, but be aware she may not always track the conversation or respond appropriately.’ And she didn’t, but she had a sweet spirit, and God was clearly giving Dr. Reed the comfort and strength to peacefully care for her.
Don’t miss this. It’s the answer to our question. How do you and I cope with the present crisis, the present need, no matter how difficult? By remembering how a faithful God has dealt graciously with us in the past. He was gracious to rescue us, gracious to provide, gracious to comfort and strengthen us.
III. The Crisis of the Opposition (Nehemiah 2:17-20)
This is the lesson Nehemiah is teaching even after the Jews get onboard the project. He doesn’t want us to think there won’t be ongoing opposition even to God’s gracious hand. Verses 19-20: But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. "What is this you are doing?" they asked. "Are you rebelling against the king?" 20I answered them by saying, "The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it."
A third opponent, mentioned less often than the others, is now named, Geshem the Arab. He may have been a powerful regional governor, more influential than Sanballat, recruited to provide some muscle to the opposition. These opponents raise questions about Nehemiah’s intentions, and imply that by this plan he is rebelling against Artaxerses, which we know he isn’t.
But Nehemiah responds by expressing confidence in God: “The God of Heaven” – you remember this is how he addressed God in chapter 1 – that God “will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding.” He attributes the success to God, and denies that his opponents have any claim or right to say what goes on in Jerusalem. We’ll rely on God, the gracious hand of our God.
So what have we seen? We’ve seen the gracious hand of God at work, and we’ve seen how to have confidence in God’s work. We gain strength for this crisis by remembering how God was at work in the last one.
For John Reed, who has gone from crisis to crisis, this means that even with the decline of his wife, he is able to trust a God whose gracious hand he has known in tragedy and his own sickness. Last time I talked to him this man in his mid-eighties was full of ideas about what he was going to do with his third retirement, including writing a series of novels about D. L. Moody and his wife Emma. Dr. Reed fully expects the gracious hand of his God to be with him as he continues to serve.
How about you and me? I want to challenge us the way I believe God challenged me as I prepared. I kinda felt I didn’t have much in common with Nehemiah. I hadn’t seen the things he’d seen; I didn’t have the confidence he had.
But then God asked me if I’d ever seen his gracious hand at work, in provisions and rescues, in comfort and strength, peace and joy and hope. And I have. So as I face whatever the next crisis for me is going to be, even the day to day crises of normal life, I walk into it with a God who has shown himself faithful, who has been gracious to me in all the important ways!
Do you walk with the same God? Nehemiah’s God? I think you do. You’ll gain strength for today by remembering all the good ways God has worked.