God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant
“Nehemiah was a godly and wise leader”, “Nehemiah was building a city within a city” are some obvious, true and helpful points that we can deduce from the study of Nehemiah 2:11 – 3:32. However, some pressing questions like ‘what’s the connection between walls and reproach or what is God doing through Nehemiah?’ and ‘how does it apply to us today?’ need answering!
What is God doing through Nehemiah?
Nehemiah 2:17 is foundational in helping us construct a theology of restoration.
Then I said to them, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.”
We must ask ourselves this question…. Why did the Jews still consider themselves to be a reproach? We know that God Himself made them a reproach, derision among the nations by sending them into exile and destroying their land as a judgment for their unfaithfulness, but God had brought them back into their land, the temple was rebuilt and they could worship Him again according to His rules. Why, even the law of God was being taught and kept, under the godly leadership of Ezra. Why then did they still feel disgraced? And how can a physical structure like restored walls and gates remove that reproach? To understand this, first, we need to know the nature of their reproach.
In 2 Chronicles 7 God warns Solomon that if he forsook His commandments and worshipped other gods, He would send him into exile and destroy the land and the house i.e. the temple and then He says,
2 Chronicles 7:21-22: "And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.”
The exile came to pass and so did the reproach! The taunts of the nations and passersby continually reminded the Jews of their unfaithfulness to Yahweh! The Israelites were bearing the reproach for their own sin of idolatry and this was why they were distressed about the state of Jerusalem as a whole.
But… the people had hope because of God’s words in Ezekiel 36. Ezekiel prophesied to those in exile that the Lord would take away their reproach. God would cause the land to be blessed and inhabited. He would cause the waste places to be rebuilt so that Gods people would know that He was their God!
Ezekiel 36:10, 15 - "And I will multiply people on you, the whole house of Israel, all of it. The cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt…….And I will not let you hear anymore the reproach of the nations, and you shall no longer bear the disgrace of the peoples and no longer cause your nation to stumble, declares the Lord GOD.”
God was going to fulfill this promise through Nehemiah…not because they deserved it but for the sake of His great name. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations i.e. a witness to the saving work of Yahweh, instead….
Ezekiel 36: 20-23 - But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name….
So God began the process of restoration by bringing them back to their land and rebuilding the temple during Zerubbabel and Ezra’s time, followed by rebuilding the city and its walls through Nehemiah.
But one question still remains...how mere rebuilt walls can take away their disgrace, especially in light of the fact that their disgrace was connected to their idolatry and God’s judgment. When we read Ezekiel 36 more closely we realize that through the rebuilding of the city and its walls, God intends to point us to a greater and more glorious fulfillment.
Ezekiel 36:24-28, 36 - I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God…..
Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.
Did you see that? God was going to vindicate His holy name not merely through city renovation but through the spiritual rebirth of His people. Well God doesn’t stop there. In Ezekiel 37 we see Gods ultimate goal behind the renovated city with spiritually born again people!
Ezekiel 37: 21-24 - Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. (Emphasis mine)
God’s goal behind rebuilt city with walls around and born again people within was to establish His kingdom through that One King! And how is he going to establish this kingdom through that King? Not by war and taking them captive by force but… Ezekiel 37:26 I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them.
God’s kingdom through Gods covenant of peace!
Through all these political events and building projects, God was preparing a way for the forever king from the line of David to come and establish His kingdom through a covenant of peace. So if you took a step back and saw these promises of God that we just went through, you would definitely see the part of rebuilding the temple and walls and say, ‘I know what’s going to happen next! The promised King will come and establish His Kingdom through the new covenant and there will be peace forever!”
So we can safely say that this is what Nehemiah effectively asked of God "let your kingdom come!" when he prayed that prayer in chapter 1 and he was acting in faith on this promise of God by leading the rebuilding and renovation! In the latter chapters of Nehemiah we see that when the city was rebuilt and the people repented and recommitted themselves to the law, their reproach was taken away, nonetheless, temporarily because they soon fell into sin! Why is that? Because the spiritual rebirth hadn't happened and the promised One King hadn't come yet. Israel was still under the rule of foreign kings waiting for that one king to come and make a new covenant with them and restore the kingdom to Israel. A few years after Nehemiah, God reminded the Israelites of his promise through his prophet Malachi.
Malachi 3:1 Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Emphasis mine)
This is why when Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God they expected the restoration of an earthly kingdom to Israel and were disappointed when He died, not because Jesus was not the promised King but because the Israelites were blind to understand the eternal purposes of God!
So, in light of this grand purpose and promise of God behind Nehemiah building the walls to take away the shame of their sin and reproach, how are we, in 2013, to view this event? Truth is, God stands over us too, in judgment and reproaches us for our sins! God’s reproach or rebuke results in condemnation! So how is His reproach taken away?
Well, Scripture says that all the promises of God are yes in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:16). Everything in the Old Testament pointed to Christ and was fulfilled by Christ! He is the serpent - crusher, the descendent of Judah from whom the scepter will not depart, the one despised and rejected, one from the line of David, the prince of peace, almighty God, the forever King who would bring Gods kingdom. He came preaching " the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe", He said that we have to born again to enter the kingdom of God (the very thing explained in Ezekiel about being given a new heart and new spirit), He is the Lord who became man and suddenly entered the temple as Malachi prophesied, He kept the law of God perfectly which Israel did not and thus became a blessing to all the nations when He bore God’s reproach for our sins upon himself and died in our place on that cross so that whoever believes in His substitutionary death, may be wiped clean of their reproach and not be condemned but inherit the kingdom of God. This is good news!
Well you might say, but we are not Israelites to whom God promised this kingdom and we are not in Jerusalem, a walled city ruled by King Jesus where everyone is sinless and obeying Him perfectly! That's true but Israel in the old covenant pointed to the church, which God would gather from all nations under the new covenant, the covenant of peace that He spoke of in Ezekiel. And the rebuilt Jerusalem city points to new Jerusalem where indeed King Jesus will rule over His kingdom consisting of his church from all the nations of all times dwelling in perfect righteousness, perfect peace and total joy! We read of that in Revelation 21:9-12,
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed.
Later in the same chapter, John says that there will not be any temple because God himself who is the temple will dwell amidst us and there will be no sun because God himself will be our light, but surprisingly makes mention of the walls being there. We are not sure if this is literal but surely it shows that within the walls is the kingdom of God with God’s people in it and there is an outside where the unbelievers will be! (Revelation 22: 14-15)
We, His people, Christians live in such time called the already but not yet, which means, the kingdom of God is already here…. but not yet fully and so we await that heavenly city eagerly where there will be no sin and we will see God face to face and live with Him forever! When we gather as a church on Friday morning, we faintly represent or see the preview of that heavenly Kingdom of God that awaits us.
So, as ones whose reproach is taken away and as ones who have been brought into the kingdom of light from the kingdom of darkness, as ones who have been made citizens of the kingdom of God and aliens in this world through the gospel, how are we to live our day to day lives as exiles? Does Nehemiah teach us that? This brings us to our other question,
How does it apply to us today?
1. Proclaim this Gospel of the Kingdom of God to people we come across because there is no other way we can escape Gods reproach and His wrath that looms large on us, except through the cross of Christ! And there is no way we can obey God apart from the Gospel!
2. Live holy lives. This is a new covenant reality. As we read in Ezekiel, Gods Spirit in us helps us to obey as we trust in God’s promises like Nehemiah did, waiting for our blessed hope, the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
3. Acknowledge God. Nehemiah’s life is a portrayal of humility, a willingness to acknowledge God and His sovereign good hand in everything.
Nehemiah 2:12b, 18 - And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem…And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, (Emphasis mine)
We ought to be humble too, and not boast in anything that we have. Every good gift comes from the father of lights even if it is a good desire or a burden to do a good work, or for that matter even praying! If God hadn't regenerated us, we would have no desire to do any of the godly things that we do today! If God hadn't softened our hearts we would never repent. So acknowledge God in everything!
4. Gods work is good work!
Nehemiah 2:18 - So they strengthened their hands for the good work.
Kingdom work is good work. Tekoite nobles considered it beneath themselves to build the wall! If only they knew the significance of it and what it was pointing to, they would have joyfully endeavored in this task of God! Every work in the kingdom of God, in the Church is ‘good work’ and important in the sight of God, not just preaching, teaching, leading bible study groups but things that go unnoticed by people like baby sitting, taking meals to needy mothers, or bringing meals to church for our evening gatherings, one on one discipleship, helping a sick mom with her chores, or just doing your own task like parenting which is done within four walls or motherhood or home making...everything if done to the glory of God is important and considered good work by God!
5. Bear the reproach of Christ!
Nehemiah sought to take away one kind of reproach but bore another reproach boldly.
In Nehemiah 2:19, enter the bad boys, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem, this time with mockery and derision. However Nehemiah was not moved. He feared God more than man. He stood firm in his faith despite opposition. One thing we learn here is that when God explicitly commissions us, He does not rule out obstacles or trials from our path of obedience! Through these trials God tests our faith and teaches us to persevere (James 1)
So, like Nehemiah let us strive to be above reproach concerning sin but, in following and obeying Jesus let us boldly face the reproach of the world, as it says in Hebrews 11: 25-26 of Moses who chose
....rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
During difficult times instead of running away from Christ, let us run to Him and cling to His cross, the gospel so that Jesus who not only authored our faith in Him when we began our journey as a pilgrim, may also perfect it and take us home!
6. Know that God knows you and is for you.
From the detailed account of the building of the walls in chapter 3 with the name of every person involved, shows that no one goes unnoticed in the sight of God, be it great or small! By including the different professions of the people, God is saying that He can not only give His people the will and the strength to do the task which He had called them to do but also the skill! This means that I might consider myself not ready for motherhood or even as a non-mother material but if God has called me to be a mother He will give me the grace I need to be one! I might consider myself not gifted in evangelism but since He has called every Christian to preach the gospel, He will give me the grace to do it if I humbly submit to His commands because He said that He gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud!
7. Pursue unity and love
One thing for sure that we cannot miss noticing in chapter 3 of Nehemiah is the unity of the people! They were all united in following the lead of Nehemiah under the authority of God! Indeed how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity (Psalm 133:1)
One other thing we will find in this chapter 3, vs. 19, 27 and 30 is, a bunch of people who, after finishing their portion of work, instead of sitting back and relaxing they go to the other unfinished sections to help them out! Isn't that wonderful? Now that is called love, where they not only looked to their own interests but the interests of others.
The Gospel of love and grace should drive us to pursue unity, be one in spirit and mind with our brothers and sisters and love them, as Philippians 2:1 and 2 say
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
To sum it all up - in the grand scheme of redemptive history where every little event is a link in a chain leading up to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s death and resurrection and thereafter in His second coming, Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls is a necessary event of covenantal significance that points us to the consummation of Gods kingdom! Let us pray for His kingdom to come.
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