Why was he surprised?

nehemiah-praysI’ve re-read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah recently, trying to get the timelines straight in my mind.

It started with curiosity about disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant. Exactly when did it vanish (about 587 BC), I wondered, and what was going on at that time? (Babylonian conquest, exile, etc.)

This post isn’t about that, though.

Sermons I’ve heard in the past have mentioned the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra’s project) or the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah’s project), though usually not in the same sermon.

Reading these books now, I realize that completion of the rebuilt Temple and restoration of the city wall were only 13 years apart. The people involved knew each other. Ezra and Nehemiah knew about each other’s work and they eventually worked together.

Why, then, was Nehemiah surprised?

“The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

They said to me, ‘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.’

When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (Neh. 1:1-4)

It had only been a few years since the Temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt, with the sacrifices and worship restored. A great deal of money and materials had been donated (and spent) to achieve this, but it was only the first step toward rebuilding the great city.

Surely 13 years later, all the work was finished – including repairing the wall – and the city well on its way back to prosperity, flourishing even. But it wasn’t.

Several generations had come and gone since Cyrus first allowed the Jews to return to their land. Most recently Ezra had led a large group back, had instructed them in the law, then led them in prayers of repentance and vows of obedience.

But people have short memories, don’t they? The same sins that had got them killed, captured, exiled and enslaved in the first place, were besetting them again.

Disobeying the plainly stated words of God, they thumbed their noses at the Lord like unruly children. It was like laughing in his face, shouting “na na na na na na” and not expecting that he would really respond. Inviting judgment.

What about all those past disasters? “Mere coincidences, nothing to do with us.” Sounds a lot like some folks today.

Nehemiah had expected good news from Jerusalem, news of wall-building, house-building, job-building, family-building, faith and worship and prosperity. He shouldn’t have been surprised to hear just the opposite, but he was. The bad news broke his heart. He was grief-stricken.

So he did then what the church should be doing today. He wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed. Okay, some in the church have been doing those things…

But then Nehemiah went a step further. He confessed HIS sins, HIS wicked actions. He confessed for himself, for his family and for the nation.

“…I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” (Neh. 1:6-7)

Had he been an unrighteous, ungodly, unrepentant infidel? Most of us would say no, surely not. What exactly had he done wrong? Well, what had the Israelites been doing wrong?

Compromising the word of God.

Nehemiah took the situation personally. His failure to speak earlier, failure to act, failure to pray, had made him part of the problem too. Even if he himself had not married an idol-worshiper or worshiped a false god, he was guilty.

In those moments he recognized the enormity of Israel’s ongoing rebellion, and recognized the enormity of the consequences they were risking. He acknowledged it, took the guilt upon himself and confessed it. He followed that up with action.

Why is the church surprised by the state of society in America today? Entire denominations have compromised the word of God, risking enormous consequences as a result. Risking judgment.

“If you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve been getting.”

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