2013: Your Best Year Yet!
The first Friday Magazine in the Gulf News 2013 was full of encouragements to make this a better year. In fact, flashed across the cover was “2013: Why it will be your best year yet!” Inside the magazine there were articles on people who achieved great things in 2012, like conquering a shopping and hoarding addiction, giving up binge eating, quitting smoking and losing 52 KGs.
As inspirational as those stories are, studying the book of Nehemiah is perfect for the beginning of a new year. Nehemiah is a man who accomplished great things and the book is the story of a new beginning for his people, the people of Israel. While the book doesn’t end on a triumphant note, we can be encouraged by God’s mercy and kindness towards his people, and Nehemiah’s faithfulness to his God. Before we decide what will make 2013 our best year yet, we should consider what this short book has to teach us about being the people of God.
Nehemiah begins where Ezra leaves off. In Ezra, the people have gone back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple after being exiled for a time to Babylon. (I and II Chronicles and Ezra give the biblical-historical context for Nehemiah.) The temple is rebuilt, but the walls around Jerusalem are broken down. God’s temple and God’s people are completely unprotected. Enter Nehemiah. Nehemiah is an Israelite who works for the king of Persia, Artaxerxes. This cupbearer to the king undertakes to lead Israel in rebuilding the protective wall around Jerusalem.
The book of Nehemiah shows us three things that should be central to the church—both individuals in the church and the local body of believers: The centrality of prayer; the centrality of the Word; and the centrality of God.
The Centrality of Prayer
The book of Nehemiah opens with prayer. Nehemiah hears the walls of Jerusalem are broken down, and he sits down and weeps and prays for days. In his prayer, he praises God’s character, confesses his sin and the sin of the people, and petitions the Lord to hear and answer his prayer.
Nehemiah begins, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant.” (Neh 1:5-6.) Nehemiah clearly acknowledges who God is and who he is in this prayer. Then he confesses sin: “I now pray before you…for the people…confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you.” (Neh 1:6.) He then reminds God of his promise to his people and asks him to keep his promise: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand...give success to your servant today.” (Neh 1:8-11.)
This is a great model prayer for us. Our prayers should be filled with expressions of praise for God’s character. We can appeal to him based on who he is and what he has done. It is good for us to acknowledge that we rely on a supremely great God who is in control of the universe and whose will will be done for good in our lives.
We should also confess sin. We should confess that we are not deserving of any good gift from our God against whom we have rebelled. We have not kept his commandments and have been unfaithful. It is only because of his grace and forgiveness that we can come before him and present our requests. We are his people only because he has redeemed us by his great power and strong hand.
Nehemiah’s prayer has a lot about God in it. How do you pray? Are your prayers simply a laundry list of your perceived needs? Or are you lifting up the name and character of your God so they are fragrant offerings to the Lord?
And how often do you pray? Nehemiah prayed often. A good example is in chapter 2. Nehemiah wants to ask King Artaxerxes if he can go back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. God gives him the opportunity. Nehemiah prays and asks: “In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, ‘Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ Then the king said to me, ‘What are you requesting?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.’” (Neh 2:1-5.)
Did you notice how Nehemiah’s prayer was almost like he was taking a deep breath? It was an automatic response to the opportunity before him. Nehemiah prays because he well knows that while he stands before the most powerful king on earth, the God of heaven holds the king’s heart in his hands. He only is sovereign. The king gives Nehemiah permission to go and here’s Nehemiah’s interpretation of the event: “And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.” (Neh 2:8.) (UCCD is planting a church in Ras Al Khaimah. The church prayed and asked the Sheikh for land to build a church. The Sheikh granted what the church asked, for the good hand of our God was upon us.)
God’s sovereignty should give us much incentive to pray and should give us hope in prayer. It is truly amazing that we can approach our sovereign Lord, knowing that he holds the king’s, our husbands’, our children’s hearts in his hands. Some men in our church met with the Sheikh of RAK, but they could not approach him at will. They could only meet with him when he gave them the time. We can approach and meet with the King of the Universe anytime, anyplace. This is a precious privilege granted to us from our Lord. What is your first response in situations? Are you going to God in prayer?
We see the centrality of prayer in Nehemiah, and we also see the centrality of God’s Word.
The Centrality of the Word
Nehemiah is granted permission to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the protective wall, and he does just that. He organizes the people, resists enemies and continues to build until the work is done. When the work is done the people gather around the reading of God’s Word. Chapter 8 is the high point of the book of Nehemiah. Ezra the priest reads the Book of the Law of Moses. Verse 1 begins: “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard….And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” (Neh 8:1-3.) Notice the people gather in unity around the Word of God. They were “as one man.” No one was left out, men and women and children who could understand were all present. And they were attentive. It is as if they are hanging on every word. They want to hear and understand. And we see in verses 7 and 8, the Levites “helped the people to understand the law….They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Neh 8:7-8.) (Apparently, this wasn’t light-hearted jokes and sentimental stories; there was expositional preaching and teaching going on.) The Word was central in this gathering, and it was central to the feast of booths they celebrated later. During the feast they read the Book of the Law for seven days. “And day by day, from the first day to the last day, [Ezra] read from the Book of the Law of God.” (Neh 8:17.)
We should take note of the people’s response to the word being read and understood. “And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” (Neh 8:6.) The people responded in humble submission, in worship of the Lord. They also responded in repentance. Nehemiah and the other leaders have to tell the people, “’This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” (Neh 8:9.) When the law was read, the people realized how far short of its standard they had fallen. The law reminded them that God had redeemed them for a purpose, and that they were to live with him as his people. They had forgotten the Lord and his law and lived for themselves in whatever way they saw fit. So they were grieved and wept.
But they also rejoiced. Nehemiah told the people, “’Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’… And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (Neh 8:10-12.) The Word of God gave the people an understanding of who their God was and what he had done for them. They responded to this knowledge with joy. “And there was very great rejoicing.” (Neh 8:17.)
I wonder if you can identify with any of this? Is God’s Word central to your life? Do you prioritize your quiet time, the preaching of God’s Word and Bible study? Is God’s Word central to the life of your family and church? Are you pointing others to it?
And what is your response to God’s Word? Does it move your heart? Does listening to a sermon cause you to praise God and worship him? Do you ever weep over your sin during your quiet time? Does reading the Bible bring you joy?
God’s Word is central to the people of God. Prayer is central to the people of God. And God himself is at the center of the people of God.
The centrality of God
The Temple was an ever present reminder to Israel that God dwelt with them in their midst. It was the largest building in Jerusalem and stood up on a mount for everyone in the city to see. The people’s lives and festivals revolved around the temple. It was a constant reminder that God was to be at the center of their lives.
And the wall was a reminder that God was to be central in their lives. When the wall was broken down, the people and the temple were vulnerable. That wall kept the enemy out. It kept God’s people safe. It was a visible reminder that they were a distinct people with the temple in the center—God dwelling with them. God’s people were to live a certain way because God dwelt among them. They were to be specifically committed to God and to one another. They were to be distinct—distinguishable from the people surrounding them. The wall that Nehemiah rebuilt signified this distinctness.
After the wall was built and the Word of God was read, the people entered into a covenant with God to preserve their distinctness. In chapter 10 beginning in verse 28 we read, “The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his statutes.” (Neh 10:28-29.)
They then made three specific commitments: To not intermarry with other nations; To keep the Sabbath day holy; And to give regular tithes and offerings to the temple and not neglect the house of the Lord. (Neh 10:30-39.) These commitments were aimed at keeping the people of God distinct from other peoples and keeping God at the center of their lives.
As the people of God today, do we live distinct lives with God at the center? We have no visible walls to erect, but we do face opposition. We must fight against the devil, the world and, worst of all, our own flesh. Our wall is Jesus. Ongoing repentance and faith in him is our only protection and hope. We can strive through Christ to live distinct lives, keeping God at the center. We can identify with God’s people and live like God’s people. By this, the world will know we are the people of God.
Nehemiah is the last book of Old Testament history, and (I’m sorry to ruin the punch line for you.) it doesn’t end on a good note. The people once again forsake God. They break their promises and become just like all the other nations of idolaters. Thus Old Testament history ends, incomplete, leaning forward into the future, awaiting the coming King who would deliver his people once and for all. This King would deliver them from their sin and grant them the Holy Spirit, so that all of them, from the least to the greatest, would live obedient lives for God’s glory.
Thank God the Bible doesn’t stop here at Nehemiah. Redemptive history moves on with the arrival of God’s Son, Jesus, to die in the place of any idolater from any nation to make a people for himself from every nation. We are just like the people in Nehemiah. Apart from Christ, we will forsake God. We need his righteousness. We cannot do it on our own.
How will you live in 2013? Will you be a woman of prayer? Will you delight in the Word of God? Will you live distinctly with God at the center of your life? I pray so, because I think that will make 2013 your best year yet!
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