Dear Friends and fellow-workers,
Last month I wrote about fellowship and how important it is that we learn from and are encouraged by each other. I want to develop that theme a little further this month by considering the subject of cooperation – operating or working together.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah can be so easily lost in the middle of the Old Testament and yet they have invaluable information and lessons for the people of God in every generation. In a thumb nail they record the return and re-establishment of God’s people after the exile. Ezra gives us the details of the rebuilding of the Temple and the re-establishment of Temple worship, while Nehemiah having heard about the state of the city of Jerusalem tells us how he headed up the project of rebuilding the city.
God had sent His people into exile in various stages, using the Assyrian and the Babylonian nations. They went, knowing that the exile and the judgement that it was accomplishing was for a set time, in fact 70 years. This represents 2 generations of people. There would have been very few alive who could still remember life in ‘the home country.’ The children born in that period would have grown up as outsiders in a strange land. They would have been like modern day missionary children, growing up in a culture different from their parents’ but able to identify with the host culture far more easily than what in theory was their home culture. The majority of returning exiles had no real memory of ‘the good old days.’
God had planned the return and even moved the king to fulfil His purposes, but when they got back there was work to do. Ezra concentrated on rebuilding the Temple and re-establishing worship whereas Nehemiah returned to rebuild the city. When he was told ‘The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire… (he) sat down and wept and mourned for days, and … continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.’ (Neh. 1:3-4
With royal approval he returned did a survey and set about encouraging people in the task of rebuilding. It was not a one man job, nor was it a specialist job. So great was the need that Nehemiah managed to get all types of people involved. A quick survey of Nehemiah 3 shows the huge number of individuals who were prepared to roll up their sleeves – “Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, … goldsmiths, … one of the perfumers, … ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, … he and his daughters. … ruler of the district of Mizpah, … ruler of half the district of Beth-zur, …the Levites repaired … their brothers … the priests, the men of the surrounding area, … the priests repaired, … one of the goldsmiths, … the goldsmiths and the merchants repaired.” Obviously some groups are repeated for a reason.
It seemed that none stood on ceremony; none felt that they were above the work and none claimed their rights and privileges. It is important to note that Ezra precedes Nehemiah in the order of Bible books. The Temple and ceremony had been re-established, but neither the priests, the high priest or the Levites placed themselves above others when faced with such a demand. Similarly goldsmiths and perfumers, whose work must have been very specialised and probably needed to make sure their hands were cared for and protected, did not refuse to get involved. We need to note too that “Shallum … ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, … and his daughters” also got involved. There are times when we can go beyond Scripture in the separation of responsibilities.
It is also possible at times to feel overwhelmed by the extent of the work, but there is a really important statement repeated in this chapter, ‘Zadok … repaired opposite his own house.’ He and others measured the amount that they felt able to cope with. We must be responsible and realistic in what we ask of people.
Nehemiah was obviously passionate about the state of ‘God’s city’ and he managed to motivate and encourage people at every level to get involved with the work. There is however another perspective on this story, ‘their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord.’ This is an incredibly sad, but revealing statement. There are those who feel that it is beneath them to get involved in manual labour, and yet Nehemiah puts it into perspective. They were not simply refusing to cooperate with fellow-citizens and fellow-believers, but they were refusing ‘to serve their Lord.’
What are we to learn from this story? Nehemiah was overwhelmed when he realised the condition of the city of God. Are we today, at all concerned about the state of the church in our country? Are we driven to tears and prepared to risk our jobs or lives for the honour of God? When he had made a full assessment and in the face of horrible opposition he motivated and encouraged other people to get involved. We, as Christians, each have a responsibility within the work of God and we are to be ready to take up that responsibility. We do it together and help each other in the face of opposition, whether that is feelings of personal inadequacy, official resistance to Biblical principles or the realities of spiritual attack.
The final point that we need to grasp in this story is that Nehemiah did not attempt to do the work himself, but actually encouraged people who probably underestimated themselves after two generations in exile. God has chosen, redeemed and filled each believer in order that we might take our responsibility in the church for His glory and the building up of His people.
May it be said of our generation as it was of Nehemiah’s that ‘the people had a mind to work’ (4:6).
Bernard Lewis February 2012