Good morning, church. Hello to everyone at home, those of you who are watching online. And again this week, I want to give a special welcome to all of the children in our gatherings here and in homes across our area. I’m going to ask you guys a favor again this week. Last week, we worked together pretty hard. I asked you to work with me, and I was going to work hard to help you understand Nehemiah. I want you to do the same thing this week. If you’ll work with me, I’ll work as hard as I can to help you understand what we need to know in order to understand Nehemiah.
Here’s a question: Would you like to watch a movie that you’ve never seen but start about two-thirds of the way through? Don’t start at the beginning, start almost near the end. Would you like to do that? I don’t think most people would. Maybe some people aren’t movie people, and they don’t care. But most of us, you do not want to watch a movie that way. You miss the background and the relationships of people and the characters and the drama of it. In a way, jumping into Nehemiah is kind of like that for a lot of reasons.
One, in the Bible there are two books. One’s called Ezra, one’s called Nehemiah. They’re actually one book. It’s one story. And that one story fits into a whole lot of other stories. So, for us to understand Nehemiah, we need a little bit more of the movie. We need to see a little bit more of the past. So, I want us to know three stories so that we can understand Nehemiah — the story of Israel, the story of exile, and the story of the return.
So, here is the story of Israel. And this is a story that begins 1400 years before the story we find in Nehemiah. And it begins with a guy named Abram. God invites a guy named Abram to go on a journey, and Abram, in faith, chooses to obey God and leaves, but he doesn’t really know where he’s going. The purpose of God’s invitation to Abram is really clear. “Abram, I’m going to bless you. I’m going to make you a great nation and the father of nations. I’m going to bless the whole world through you.” God promises to bless Abram and the world through his descendants.
Abram, who later has his name changed to Abraham, has a son named Isaac. God visits Isaac and kind of transfers the promise that he made to Abraham, to Isaac. Isaac’s sons are born, and they’re twins. They’re Jacob and Esau. Now, here’s where we have some family drama. Jacob deceives Esau, and, with his mom’s help, tricks his dad into giving Jacob the blessing. He steals the inheritance of the family away from Esau.
So, Jacob, at this point, doesn’t really live a great life. But in this wild moment where he has a wrestling match with God, Jacob’s life changes. God visits Jacob and blesses him with those same promises that were given to Abraham and to Isaac. God, once again here, does a name change. And Jacob is no longer Jacob. Jacob is now Israel. The story of Israel.
Jacob has 12 sons. One of these sons is named Joseph, who, through continued bizarre family dysfunction, is actually sold into slavery and is sent to Egypt and then ends up in prison. Through some wild dream-interpreting skills, Joseph not only survives being sold into slavery in Egypt, but actually becomes second in charge of the entire nation of Egypt. And God uses Joseph to save the country of Egypt during a famine. Remember that big promise to Abraham? “I’m going to bless nations through you.” Joseph, part of that line, blesses Egypt.
Then Joseph’s brothers show up in Egypt because they don’t have any food, and Egypt does because of Joseph. Joseph and his brothers reunite. And Joseph messes with them a little bit for selling him into slavery, then there’s a big family reunion. Well, in order for the family to survive, Jacob and his sons move to Egypt to be with Joseph. And Jacob, at the end of his life, blesses his sons and Joseph’s two sons. Now, this is where we get a phrase that you might have heard if you’ve been around church called the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes of Israel is a combination of the names of Jacob’s sons and Joseph’s sons. Those would come to make up these twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve groups of people that make up the whole nation of Israel.
Well, some time passes in Egypt, and everybody in Egypt forgets Israel and forgets Joseph and forgets that they were saved and blessed by Israel. And the new pharaoh, who you could think of as like the new king of Egypt, he doesn’t really like Israel anymore because they’re really growing and he’s afraid they’re going to take over Egypt. So, he decides, “I’m going to make Israel slaves.” Well, God visits a new leader at this point, and his name is Moses. And Moses is actually from Israel. He’s an Israelite. And he was adopted into Pharaoh, the king of Egypt’s, house, but Pharaoh didn’t know that he was from Israel. God says to Moses, “I want you to bring my people out of Egypt and take them to that land that I promised Abraham.” God’s big promise to Abraham: I will bless you and give you a land and make you the father of many nations. And now Moses is supposed to take Israel to that promised land. Well, through God’s miracles, Israel is able to leave Egypt, and in the Bible, we call that the Exodus, which is kind of a fancy word for everybody leaving. Well, God supernaturally leads Israel in the day by a cloud and at night by fire. God provides these people with food and water. God gives them victory over people who would hurt them. God even stops them on the way and gives them commandments (or rules) that help them know how they’re supposed to interact with God and how they’re supposed to interact with each other.
And then there’s this moment where God, with Moses, makes another agreement. So, God made a promise to Abraham. And now with Moses God makes this really strong “if-then” agreement. And in the Bible, it’s called a covenant. But it basically means, “If you do this, then I will do this.” God’s big, strong if-then agreement. He makes it with Moses, but it actually extends to everybody who is in Israel. Everybody that’s an Israelite is underneath this “if-then.” If we do what God says, God will bless us. If we don’t do what God says, God will correct us. That was their arrangement. So, Moses takes the people out of Egypt. They head towards the promised land. They’re right at the entrance. They’re right about to go into the place that Abraham was promised, and then everything goes wrong. Everything blows up. Israel sends some spies into the promised land to see what it’s like, and those spies come back terrified. They think everybody in that land is so strong there’s no way they’re going to get the promised land. God looks at them and says, “Guys, I’ve got you. I’ve made a promise. I’ll walk you through the danger. It’s going to be like a dad picking up his boy. You’ll be okay.” But Israel didn’t believe him. They chose to fear the people in the promised land instead of believing God, who gave them the promised land. And so, God in response exiles them into the wilderness. Basically, God says to them, “You didn’t believe. So, instead of having the promised land right now, instead of getting entry, you’re going to have to wait 40 years. And you guys are just going to wander around. And nobody from this group of people who didn’t trust me is going to be allowed to go into the promised land.” Even Moses, the big leader, not allowed to go into the promised land. They had to wander in the wilderness. They were exiled (or sent away) into the wilderness.
Forty years later, finally, Israel enters the promised land. They’re in the place that God had promised Abraham. They’re there. And here Israel obeyed, some. Here, Israel took down false worship to other gods, but left up worship to false gods everywhere. Then, Israel was ruled by people called judges. They guided Israel through this cycle of doing wrong, God speaking to them, doing the right thing, and then they did that over and over and over and over. Then, Israel wanted a king, just like everybody else in the world, and they told God that. And God said, “Alright, I’ll give you a king.” The first king, his name was Saul. And Saul had some pretty good moments and some pretty deep lows. After him was a king named David. Now, if you’ve been around church, you might have heard of King David. He wrote a lot of songs that are in the Bible. But David was a poet, a warrior, a shepherd, a king all at once. And even with all of that, if we read his story, he failed miserably.
David’s son, Solomon, took over for him as king. And Solomon, even though we’re told Solomon was literally the wisest man that ever lived in the history of the world, even with all of that wisdom, Solomon did not keep his heart loyal to God. He chose to follow other gods at the end of his life. And so, God said to Solomon, “You’re going to lose your kingdom. Not now, but in your son’s lifetime.” Solomon has a son. His name is Rehoboam, kind of a weird name, but he was the next king. And under him the unthinkable happens to Israel. Israel is divided. The twelve tribes named after the twelve brothers, these people who received the big promise of God to Abraham and the really strong if-then agreement to Moses, the ones that were supposed to display his love to the entire world, now divide. There are ten nations in the north called Israel, two tribes in the south called Judah. Different regions, different kings. They’re broken. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Judges and the kings — that’s the story of Israel.
Four quick comments about this story to get us into Nehemiah. First, God’s promise to Israel is deeply rooted in the identity of Israel. That big promise he made to Abraham, that if-then agreement with Moses, that actually shapes who the nation of Israel is, who the people of God are. Those promises make them a people.
Second, the failure of God’s people is a constant cycle. God’s people keep doing the wrong thing over and over and over, beginning with Abraham – he did some dumb stuff – all the way down to the kings and Rehoboam.
Third, and this is good news, God keeps his promise to Israel without fail. Without fail, always extending grace and opportunities to change. He provides leaders and prophets, instruction and help, all along the way. Even when God’s people are literally rejecting him, he is still pursuing them.
And fourth (this gets us a little bit towards Nehemiah), Nehemiah is the last story in the life of Israel in the Old Testament. So, if you think in order of time, the last thing that happens in the Old Testament is the book of Nehemiah. When you read the Bible, it’s not at the end of the Old Testament, but the events of it are the very last thing that we hear. And those events take place primarily in that southern kingdom of Judah in the capital of Jerusalem. And that is the story of Israel.
We also have to know the story of exile. Exile. Now, we talked a little bit about exile with the wilderness. This is a different exile. And this is a really hard part of the story. God again exiles Israel and Judah, but not for 40 years and not to wander. God sends them away from their home to other countries like Assyria and Babylon and Persia. Those three countries actually invade Israel and Judah, conquer them, take people captive, and take them back to their other countries. That’s what we mean by that weird word, exile. And I think that’s really hard to take in. Why would God do that? What could cause … what was so dramatic that we had to have exile happen? Well, let me see if we can get an answer from the Bible. The cause of exile is collective and individual disobedience over time to God’s commands. Now, that’s a lot of words, and some of them are bigger ones. “Collective,” what I mean by that is all of Judah and all of Israel. “Individual” means there are a couple of kings who made really bad decisions over time. It wasn’t just a snap of the fingers. This happened over a long time, and God kept telling them what they were supposed to do. So, in 2 Kings 18, we read this about Israel:
“The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to a Assyria … because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed his covenant [that’s that really strong if-then agreement], even all that Moses [we heard about him] the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened nor obeyed.”
Israel’s choices led to exile. What about Judah in the south? Zephaniah warns Judah:
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem … those who bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens [There were people in Judah, God’s people, who were now worshiping the stars on their roof] those who bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom [There were some of God’s people who continued to worship the Lord and worship another God], those who have turned back from following the Lord, who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.”
They didn’t care where God was. Collectively, Israel and Judah’s choices led to exile. We have two examples of individuals leading to exile. The first is a guy named Hezekiah. Hezekiah was a king of Judah. We find his story in 2 Kings 20. Overall, Hezekiah was actually a really bright spot as far as a king. He did some really good things, but Hezekiah was also proud and short-sighted. He didn’t look ahead very well. Here’s what happened. Messengers from Babylon – and Babylon in that day was the known conquering, warlike country that was trying to take over everybody. Everybody knew who Babylon was. They sent messengers to Hezekiah, and Hezekiah took those messengers on a tour of his kingdom, pointing to how good Israel was and how rich they were. Think of it like this. It would be like meeting a thief at the door of your house, taking them into your house, and then pointing at everything expensive in your house to show how much money you have to the thief. That’s what Hezekiah did with the people of God. So, God sends a guy named Isaiah to talk to Hezekiah and say this:
“Hear the word of the Lord: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, [all that good stuff that Hezekiah pointed out] that shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Assyria was going to invade Israel. Babylon was going to invade Judah. Then there’s Hezekiah’s son, and his name is Manasseh. Manasseh was way worse than Hezekiah. No bright spots at all. Anywhere. At all. Zero. Terrible. Really, really, really bad. If there was evil to do, Manasseh did it. If being an evil king, leading people to stop worshiping God was a sport, then Manasseh is the world champ. He was a terrible man who did terrible things. He actually went into the temple. Now the temple for the Israelites was kind of a safe space between God and man. It’s where they could go to worship, where they could go to make sure that they and God were okay. He went into the temple and carved some new images of other gods. Where they offered the lamb in the temple, he went out there and put up two more altars to the sun and the moon. Manasseh ruled for 55 years, and he was so violent that he became known as a person who made the streets run red. Manasseh offered his son in worship as a sacrifice. That’s Manasseh. And God says this about Manasseh:
“Manasseh led [Judah, the southern kingdom] astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.”
Under Manasseh’s leadership, God’s people, who received the big promise from Abraham and the strong if-then agreement from Moses, those people were acting worse than nations that didn’t even believe in God. Manasseh’s leadership and Judah’s choices led to exile. 2 Kings 21,
“Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did [those were people who did not follow God], who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle … [When you hear the story of what’s going to happen to Judah because of Manasseh’s sin and their sin, you get goose bumps.] because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.”
Israel provoked God every day. Now, when we talk about exile, Assyria and Babylon and then Persia [I just had Siri come up, there we go], it’s important to know something here. This disobedience happened over every generation from Abraham all the way till the kings. That disobedience is what caused exile. God wasn’t like a big mean guy who just decided I’m going to do something to Judah and Israel. God’s patience extended for 1,400 years before exile. God gave warning after warning, and still the people would not listen. God was always after his people, yet they persistently disobeyed. That was the cause of exile.
What would be the impact upon people who were exiled? I want to tell you two things about Israel. Two impacts of exile. One is identity crisis and the other is distance worship. Identity crisis. What I mean by that is, they’re now asking, who are we? They’re the people of God supposed to bless the world, and now they’ve been taken into these other countries. They’re not even in the promised land anymore. Who are we? We have this book in the Bible, it’s called Daniel. Daniel was actually in Jerusalem and was taken captive in exile and writes his story, and we have it in the Bible. When he was taken to Babylon, he was put into Babylonian schools, taught Babylonian language, and got a new name. He was renamed. He wasn’t Daniel anymore. He was another person. That is an image of what it was like for Israel. They were completely changed through exile. Who are we? Imagine if America, our country, was invaded – every powerful leader was killed, all the children of powerful leaders were then taken across the ocean to these other countries, put in new schools with new languages and new names. That is exile. Who are we?
Secondly, this impact of exile meant Israel had to distance worship. And what I mean is, they didn’t have access to God. We talked about the temple a little bit, that safe space between God and man. They didn’t have that anymore. And not just because they were in another country, but because when Babylon invaded Judah and Jerusalem, they destroyed the temple all the way to the ground. So, for 70 years, the Israelites had no way to make sure that they were okay with God. They couldn’t offer a lamb. They had to distance worship. And that sounds way worse than having to livestream because of COVID. That’s true distance worship. They were distanced from God. So, when you imagine exile and its impact, think identity crisis. Who are we now? And distance worship. Are we okay with God?
So, at this point, I think we have to ask, what’s the point of exile? Why in the world do that? Is there a point? Is there a goal? A guy named Jeremiah in the Bible tells us the answer, and it’s in God’s words. Jeremiah – you have to imagine him standing there with some fresh figs in his hand, beautiful, fresh figs – and he uses them kind of like a visual aid so that people understand what God is saying.
“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans [which is Babylon]. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”
The goal of exile is for Israel to return with a whole heart. Exile is a scalpel in God’s hand, and God is doing heart surgery on Israel and Judah. He’s using exile to fix their heart so that they follow after him. The hope for return is change — new hearts. And here we reach our final story, which is the story of the return. If they were sent away, how did Israel get back to the promised land? The story of the return is a really interesting one, because we see God move in the hearts of kings that don’t even follow him. And this happens a number of times. I’ll tell you one of these stories. When Persia comes in, they conquer Babylon, and then they just keep Israel as slaves. When Persia takes over, Cyrus, the king of Persia, makes a decision. And his words, his decision is recorded for us in the Bible at the end of 2 Chronicles and at the beginning of Ezra, exact same words. And this is what Cyrus decided:
“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: ‘Thus, says Cyrus king of Persia [this is his declaration]: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. [A house, a temple, the safe space between God and man.] Whoever is among you of all his people, [if you are an Israelite] may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem.’”
The conquering king is now letting exiles go. Not only are the exiles let go, the king says, “Hey, all of you neighbors here in Persia, you guys pay for the Israelites to go back and build the temple.” It’s celebration time now for the Israelites. They have a choice to go home. They can go back to the land where they grew up. That return back to Israel and Judah happens in three stages, and that’s recorded for us in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Stage one of the return is led by a guy with a really cool name, Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel goes back to Jerusalem, and he builds the temple and the altar. Now, remember when they were in exile, remember distance worship. The very first thing they did when they returned was to build the temple and the altar. Why? Because they wanted to be right with God. We can have access to God again. We can make sure that we’re okay with God. That’s what Zerubbabel did. After Cyrus the king, a guy named Darius leads Persia. After Darius is a guy named Xerxes. And we actually learn about Xerxes in another book of the Bible called Esther. Esther is a woman from Israel who becomes Queen of Persia. Esther, she is an amazing woman – amazing! She actually saves all of Israel by becoming queen and saves them from an evil plot against God’s people, Israel. Because Esther is in power as a queen, there are other decisions made about Israel that allow them to return. After Xerxes we have another guy named Artaxerxes. He sends Ezra to go back to Jerusalem and check in with everybody there based on the law of God. This king says, “Hey, Ezra, go check in on Jerusalem, according to all of your laws of God.” And Ezra was an amazing man. He was a priest. We learn of Ezra that “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it.” Not just study it. He studied the law of the Lord and did it and was going “to teach his statutes and rules” to all of Israel. So, he goes back to teach the law. We begin with the temple and altar, then the law.
We have this story of Israel, God’s big promise, big if-then agreement. We have the story of exile where God is trying to give his people a new heart because they’re rejecting him. And we discover that now we’re in the midst of the return as we step into the book of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah chapter 1 we learn a little bit about the actual man, Nehemiah. Nehemiah 1, these are God’s words:
“The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.
“Now it happened in the month of Chislev, as I was in Susa the citadel, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, ‘The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.’
“[When] I heard these words I sat down and mourned and wept for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. [Then] I said, ‘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 that I now pray before you day and night [on behalf of the children] of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, [and the laws and] statutes, and that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you [spoke to] your servant Moses saying, ‘If you are [faithless], 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 [the earth], even from there I will gather them [to a] place that I have chosen, [that] my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, [that] you have redeemed by your great power and by your [mighty] hand … Let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give [your servant success] today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.’ Now I was cupbearer to the king.”
Nehemiah chapter 1. As we hear this huge story of the history of Israel’s exile and return, and now we meet this man, Nehemiah, we’re left with questions. What does it matter that Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king? What will God do with Nehemiah’s prayer? Will the people in Jerusalem finally do their part? Is this the time where everything happens perfectly, and it all works out? What about God’s big promise to Abraham to bless the entire world? How’s that going to happen in Nehemiah? Come back next week and the week after that, and we’ll find out.
Between now and next week, though, here’s what I’d like you to do. What do these stories tell us about God? I didn’t make all of those conclusions for you. I want you to think about it. Talk about it with your family. Talk about it in your life group. What does the story of Israel, exile, and return teach us about who our God is?
And then I’d also like you to consider this question: How am I like Israel, and how am I different? Do we follow their same pattern of life? Isn’t it amazing that we don’t have to have the same type of safe space with God that they did, the temple? We’ll talk more about that in a few minutes right after we sing.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s pray. Father, we ask you for your help. Let your Spirit come and take your Word, implant it into our hearts, and change us through it. We ask this in faith together, amen.