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The Restoration Builder
Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 2: Prophets of Restoration
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 18, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Nehemiah 2:11-20
Key Verse: Nehemiah 2:17
- Summarize the results of Nehemiah’s nighttime excursion around Jerusalem.
- Explain why faith in the Lord and careful planning are not necessarily contradictory.
- Prepare a testimony of how God’s hand has been at work in his or her life.
While the book of Ezra focuses on the rebuilding of the temple, the book of Nehemiah provides an account of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Who was Nehemiah? We are told that he was cupbearer to Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:11), king of the Persians, who ruled from 465 to 425 BC. Nehemiah was a devout Jew who was the chief assistant to the king.
Nehemiah became interested in renovating an “ugly city,” the once great city of Jerusalem. He wanted to address a condition of disrepair and confusion in Jerusalem, but his deeper motives and his leadership skill in so doing still have much to teach us today.
Jerusalem had been a distinguished city, the political and spiritual capital of the nation of Israel under David’s leadership (1 Chronicles 11:4-9; 15). Solomon added to its greatness by the magnificent temple he built there (2 Chronicles 3). But following the division of the nation and the rise of ungodly kings who allowed idolatry and accompanying abhorrent practices to flourish in the land, Jerusalem became filled with such wickedness and evil that the judgment of God fell on it. Thus, in 586 BC the Babylonians finally breached the city walls, following a siege of 18 months. The city’s state of massive disrepair still existed in the time of Nehemiah, some 140 years later.
The Persians had conquered the Babylonians in 539 BC. Cyrus, ruler of the Persians at the time, had permitted any of the Jews who desired to do so to return to their home. We are told that approximately 50,000 did (Ezra 2:64-65), but there were those, such as members of Nehemiah’s family, who chose to remain in Persia.
Nehemiah 1 describes what happened in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, which would have been 445 BC. Nehemiah received news from his brother, Hanani, of the sad state of affairs back home in Jerusalem:
“Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).
Repeating, the people were in great distress, and the city was in disgrace. Life in Jerusalem was not safe, and the pitiful situation of the people was an embarrassment to God’s honor.
Almost needless to say, this news about Jerusalem hurt Nehemiah deeply. He went off by himself for a few days and cried before God in fasting and fervent prayer. He confessed his own sins and the sins of his fellow Jews and begged the Lord to honor his promise to bless his people if they turned from their sinful ways (1:5-10).
Nehemiah then asked God that he might receive favor from the king. That involved Artaxerxes’s granting permission to Nehemiah to travel to his homeland of Judah and lead an effort to repair the wall and the gates of his beloved city of Jerusalem (2:1-9).
Nehemiah’s request included protection for the journey and also provision of supplies needed for the projects that were planned. While the king did indeed grant Nehemiah’s request, Nehemiah knew that any favor he had been shown had come from the Lord to whom he had prayed (2:4) and whose “gracious hand” (2:8) would be seen time and time again in the upcoming endeavors.
When Nehemiah arrived, he gave the territory administrators the letters provided by King Artaxerxes verifying the king’s support for the project. In addition, the letters also confirmed the king’s allocation of the resources needed for the rebuilding efforts (2:7-9).
Surveying the City
The journey from Susa, the capital city of the Persian Empire, to Jerusalem was nearly 1,100 miles. It is reported that a daylight walking pace of two miles per hour for six days per week (resting on the Sabbath) means a trip of about three months’ duration. The “three days” therefore provided some needed rest for Nehemiah after such a long journey. The break also gave him the opportunity to plan his strategy, always the mark of an effective leader.
Now, Nehemiah was aware that not everyone in the territory was on board with what he was planning to do (Nehemiah 2:16). Thus, under the cover of darkness, Nehemiah makes a secret inspection of the walls of Jerusalem to assess what needed to be done. And Nehemiah is accompanied by only a few men whom he has not informed of his mission but who presumably can provide information about Jerusalem and its defenses. Nehemiah alone rides on an unidentified animal, probably not a horse or a mule, lest it raise suspicion or concern that he was politically ambitious, as his opponents later charge (6:6-7).
So Nehemiah was secretive about his intention to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gates. Disclosing his plans too early could put the entire enterprise in jeopardy, so Nehemiah bided his time to gather information. Nehemiah’s sense of appropriate timing was a quality that made him a capable leader.
We are informed that it appears that Nehemiah did not make a complete circuit of Jerusalem in his investigation but only of the southern area (see Nehemiah 2:14-15). At the same time, locating precisely some of the places cited is difficult. The “Valley Gate” appears to have been at the southwestern side of Jerusalem. Second Chronicles 26:9 records that King Uzziah of Judah built a town there. Nehemiah 3:13 notes the repairs done to the gate itself and this section of the walls and includes the details that it covered “a thousand cubits,” or 1,500 feet.
The location of the “Jackal Wall” is disputed, though it is often identified with the Pool of Siloam on Jerusalem’s southern side. The “Dung Gate” may describe the gate leading to the trash dump in the Hinnom Valley, to the south of Jerusalem. This also required repair (Nehemiah 3:14).
The scene before Nehemiah was very much in keeping with what his brother Hanani had described to him (Nehemiah 1:3). Nehemiah’s survey of the walls had to have disturbed him. It’s one thing to hear a report of destruction and quite another to see it firsthand.
While serving as pastor of St. Luke in Columbus, Georgia, a tornado ripped through a section of our community. Of course, like everybody else, I heard about the damage it had caused. But when I saw the damage firsthand on homes and property the impression was much stronger.
Moving on in verse 14, the “Fountain Gate” was possibly situated in the southeastern wall of Jerusalem. The “King’s Pool” may have been a part of King Hezekiah’s project to bring water into the city to improve its odds of survival in a prolonged siege. And the rubble at the pool was so excessive that the “mount” Nehemiah was riding could not get through. This detail emphasizes the terrible devastation Nehemiah found in Jerusalem.
“The Valley” mentioned in verse 15 is probably the Kidron, a name also attached to the accompanying brook east of Jerusalem. Nehemiah then retraced his path, going “back to the Valley Gate” where he started (Nehemiah 2:13).
As yet, the “officials” (or “administrators”) of the city did not know what Nehemiah was up to, nor had he told the Jews in general or their authorities (priests, nobles, and officials) his plans. “Jews” in verse 16 may refer to a wealthy elite who had returned from Babylon (Nehemiah 5:1, 17).
So Nehemiah’s first step toward rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls was assessing the damage caused by the Babylonian siege many decades earlier. The Bible also encourages us—by example and command—to regularly assess our personal spiritual condition (see Romans 12:1-3).
Someone stated that there are three marks of a Christian: a self to live with, a faith to live by, and a love to live out. A good assessment of our spiritual condition could hinge on how we are doing in those marks.
Summoning the Leaders
Nehemiah then brought together the leaders of the people and, having told them of the impression the moonlit sight had made upon him, urged them to unite in a great effort to put the city in proper repair. One reason for doing so was that the condition of the wall left Jerusalem vulnerable to attack.
In addition, there was an important emotional reason to have strong walls in a city. The city was an object of derision and mockery (a disgrace) in its current state (compare 2 Chronicles 7:19-22; Psalm 14:13-14). Jerusalem was the holy city, the site of God’s temple. It needed to be maintained in a way appropriate to this distinction. Thus, Nehemiah described the decrepit state of Jerusalem as something that was not only troubling to the residents of the city but also disdainful to outsiders. Rebuilding the wall offered protection as well as went a long way toward rehabilitating the feeling that Jerusalem itself was in ruins. Three considerations determined where ancient cities were built: (1) access to water, (2) access to trade routes, and (3) defensibility. A great city needed all three.
Evidently, Nehemiah was speaking to people who had become rather skeptical concerning God’s plan and purpose for them and for the city of Jerusalem. We are told that over the years since the return of the exiles from captivity in Babylon, various attempts to rebuild Jerusalem had been thwarted (see Ezra 4).
At first, Nehemiah’s proposal may have sounded like just another failed plan that would add to the people’s disillusionment. But when Nehemiah spoke of “the gracious hand of my God on me,” he offered reason for new hope of success. Throughout the Old Testament, the mention of God’s hand represents the work that God does in the world (Exodus 6:1; Joshua 4:24; Isaiah 41:17-20).
When Nehemiah came to the Lord in prayer after hearing of the sad condition of Jerusalem, he noted how the Lord had redeemed the covenant people, of whom Nehemiah was a part, with his “mighty hand” (Nehemiah 1:10). Nehemiah was able to provide evidence that God’s hand was at work on his people’s behalf. In the past, rebuilding had been stymied by opposition. But this time Artaxerxes had given his approval to the work in Jerusalem, but even more, the true King of Kings was the one in ultimate control of his people’s welfare.
Nehemiah was so convincing that the people committed themselves to the common good. Now, the fact of God’s powerful hand leading and blessing does not eliminate the need for human hands to do their part. God seems to prefer to work through people instead of just accomplishing his purposes all on his own (Isaiah 6:8; Ezekiel 22:30).
A second lesson of Nehemiah’s leadership is that he realized he needed “buy-in” from Jerusalem’s leaders if he was to have success rebuilding the city’s walls. Church leaders who forget this will be in for a rude awakening. A ministry or program will succeed only with the congregation’s support. And what does all this say about prayer practices to get God’s buy-in?
Scorning the Critics
Sanballat (San-bal-ut) the Horonite and Tobiah (Toe-bye-uh) the Ammonite official have already been introduced as villains (see Nehemiah 2:10). Any worthwhile undertaking for God is bound to encounter opposition of some kind. Consensus is always desirable but not always achieved.
So Sanballat, Tobiah, and their new colleague Geshem still tried to thwart Nehemiah’s mission, even resorting to political propaganda. They charged that this project was an act of rebellion against the king of Persia.
An accusation of rebellion against the king had succeeded in halting an earlier rebuilding effort (Ezra 4). But Nehemiah had the full backing of the king, and he knew that the claims of his critics were baseless.
Interestingly, there is no record of Nehemiah’s mentioning King Artaxerxes in his reply to the scoffing of his enemies. Instead, he appealed to a higher court: “the God of heaven.” Since God had guided Nehemiah to this point, Nehemiah knew that God was not going to abandon him or the people who had committed themselves to start rebuilding.
Verse 20b says, “but as for you [the scoffers], you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” The Hebrew word translated “share” is used to refer to God’s division of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel (examples: Joshua 14:4; 18:5; 19:9). Any portion Sanballat had as an Israelite was revoked when God sent the 10 northern tribes into exile for their faithlessness (2 Kings 17:6-23; compare Ezra 4:3; Acts 8:21).
Speaking of the idea of “historic right,” the opponents did not have the historical ties to the city that Nehemiah and his coworkers did. They had absolutely no legal claim to interfere with what Nehemiah was doing. Thus, Nehemiah did not underestimate the evil that was present in his three opponents, but he did make the decision not to compromise and not to negotiate.
There is a third and fourth lesson in Nehemiah’s leadership. Lesson number three is that a great or noble purpose will enable us to face and overcome criticism.
However, Nehemiah’s lesson number four is the most important. That is, there is great wisdom in asking for help when a task is too big for us at any time.
There is a story about a father who watched through the kitchen window as his small son tried to move a large rock in the yard. The boy couldn’t get quite enough leverage to tip the rock over.
At one point the father came outside and asked the boy, “Can’t you lift the rock?”
“No, Dad, I just can’t do it.”
“Are you using all the strength you have?”
The boy responded, “Yes, but I just can’t move it.”
The father replied “No, you’re not using all the strength you have because you haven’t asked me to help.”
Nehemiah would have many rocks and rubble to move in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, but heavenly and earthly hands would provide him with more than enough help.
Resources for this lesson
- What factors should cause you to determine that a strategic, multi-day delay on a project is not merely procrastination?
- What kinds of ministries may need to be conducted with a level of secrecy at first?
- How does your review of God’s past guidance encourage you about the guidance you now seek?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 281-288.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume III,” pages 758-762.
- “The Abingdon Bible Commentary,” Robert W. Rogers, pages 469-470.