The book following Ezra, in the Old Testament, is also named for and written by a man who was central to the restoration of the temple and its and priesthood, but also Jerusalem, the holy city itself. His name was Nehemiah. Not a great deal is known about his background other than he was most likely from Judah and a Jew by birth. We also know that Nehemiah served in the court of Artaxerxes, King of Persia, as his cup-bearer. So what exactly is a cup-bearer, well in the vernacular of today, we would call him a bartender! However, the job of a cup-bearer was more than just serving drinks to the king and his guests. It also required him to test the wine before being served, not so much for its quality, but for what might have been added to it, namely poison. It was the job of Nehemiah, the cup-bearer, to be willing to give his life for his king. I’m sure that there is a similar role for someone in the US Secret Service, which protects the life of our President. It is no surprise then that the relationship between a king and his cup-bearer would be one of trust, devotion and a level familiarity. The close personal relationship between Artaxerxes and Nehemiah is highlighted in chapter two, verse two, when the king asks Nehemiah, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of the heart.”
Nehemiah told the king that his observation was correct, that he was sad and that it was the first time that Nehemiah had ever been so in the king’s presence. Nehemiah told his king that his sadness was not for himself but for the city of Jerusalem, the city where his “fathers were buried.” Although the temple was being rebuilt, the city itself was still in ruins and more to the point, the city walls and its gates were nothing but rubble. This meant that the exiles that had returned decades before, to make a new life for themselves, were vulnerable to attack by their neighbors. In the ancient world, every major city had formidable walls to prevent or at least slow down their enemies in the event of an invasion. Also, it was where those who lived in the country outside the city would flee and seek refuge from their enemies.
The king then inquired of Nehemiah, “What is it you want?” Nehemiah’s response to the king’s offer was that he be allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls and its gates. After answering a few other questions, Nehemiah was given letters of travel to insure his safe passage home and was given the resources to complete his mission. In fact, Artaxerxes not only allowed him to return to Jerusalem to commence the rebuilding of the city walls, but made him Governor of Judah, with all the rights and privileges that go with the title. His mission was clear and he told the king precisely when he would return to once again serve him in the court of the king. The subsequent chapters of the book of Nehemiah are an account of the rebuilding process and the other issues he would face upon his return.
Nehemiah’s book is said to be significant and important for us to read because of his demonstrated faithfulness to God in prayer, but there is another significant issue that is addressed. Nehemiah’s message is a story about independence, freedom and national security; a subject that is as timely today as it was 2400 years ago. This being the Fourth of July weekend, it is the subject we will explore today.
Independence, freedom and security are inextricably linked in both Ezra and Nehemiah. The Jews had been granted something that was unheard of in the ancient world. Slaves had been set free before, but to gain the right to worship freely and have their center of worship paid for, if only in part, by their owner or master, is truly remarkable. Its one thing to be gain independence but it’s quite another to be granted freedom and protection as well. To be independent implies that we are free to make our own choices and decisions without interference or coercion.
A slave is free to suffer the consequences of a bad decision or a disobedient act, but is prohibited from enjoying the full benefit of having done what is right, because it only benefits his master. A free man will enjoy either the penalty or the reward based on the ethics of his decision and actions. This “right of enjoyment” for a free man comes with an additional burden or expectation, which is to act responsibly or be held accountable if he does not. Many Americans often give voice and quite loudly, to the fact that they have rights, but are silent when it comes to the responsibilities that accompany those rights. When their rights are taken away it is usually because they have acted irresponsibly which leads to either even louder cries of having been treated unjustly, or a simple denial of guilt.
The foundation and guarantee of our security lies not in our independence or freedom, but in whether or not we use that independence and freedom, responsibly. God created us to be responsible and free men, but free to do what? Often when we share the gospel of Christ with people we tell them that they have a choice to either accept His free gift of grace or not, and that the choice is theirs to make. However, this is not altogether true, ever since the time Adam and Eve chose to side with the serpent instead of God. Much like an umpire calling balls and strikes in a baseball game who does not have the option to say, “I’m not sure, I’ll let you know.” For us, a no call or no decision regarding accepting Christ as Savior changes nothing since we are already condemned to be slaves to sin and suffer the consequences both here on earth and in eternity. Only by making a decision for Christ can and will anything change. Once that decision has been made, only then will things change but the fight for survival has only begun. The good news is that your struggle is not futile and you are guaranteed victory in the end for having chosen Christ as the Lord of your life.
When we first become believers in Christ we are much like the returning exiles in Ezra and Nehemiah, in that, like them, we now have an acceptable altar and temple and are free to worship God and enjoy him fully. The fullness of our enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how responsible we choose to be in exercising our freedom of worship and living out our faith in Christ. And just as the exiles did, we too have another central concern, which is building ethical walls around ourselves, our families and our faith. For the next few days we will consider what God has to teach us in Nehemiah on the subject of walls and gates and what we need to build in order to insure our safety and security in Christ.
Tool #279 If we replaced all the time we waste tearing each other down with building up instead, imagine what could be accomplished…imagine what your marriage might look like…just imagine. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)