If you've never studied the book of Nehemiah, here is some background:
The people of Israel had divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel, made up of 10 tribes, broke away under Jeroboam during the civil war during the reign of Rehoboam, son of King Solomon; the southern kingdom of Judah, made up of 2 tribes, remained under the heirs of King David. The northern kingdom of Israel immediately rejected the LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and eventually was taken captive by the king of Assyria. The kingdom of Judah thought they would never be that bad, but they continually flip-flopped between obeying God for the most part and utterly rejecting Him.
After decades of warning, God finally allowed the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, to defeat Judah, burn down the Temple of Solomon, tear down the walls of Jerusalem, and take most of the inhabitants of Judah into captivity back in Babylon. To fulfill the prophecy spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, the people of Judah were in captivity for 70 years, until King Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon. Cyrus issued a declaration that God had put it on his heart to rebuild the temple to the LORD, God of Israel, and allowed any Jew who wished to return to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the Temple. This happened under the management of a scribe named Ezra. Around 40 years later, an Israelite who was serving as the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, named Nehemiah, heard about how disgraceful Jerusalem was without its defensive walls, and how the people of Israel suffered there. He prayed for months until, finally, he asked for permission to rebuild the walls. The king granted his request, and the book of Nehemiah recounts how Nehemiah - with God's blessing - organized the people, rebuilt the walls, re-instituted the Law of God, and defended the city and its people from their enemies.
On the face of it, Nehemiah reads like an administrative book, recounting the names of those involved in each part of the rebuilding. But it has so many gems of wisdom if you look closely. Here are the most important things God has taught me over the past 6 weeks:
1) I am terrible at waiting on God.
I could have told you this already. I was the kid who, knowing someone was due to arrive at our house, would spend an hour in the living room looking out the bay windows in anticipation, playing piano to keep myself busy but constantly glancing outside to see if I could catch a glimpse. Even as an adult, I get terribly antsy when I am waiting on someone. So it's no surprise that I, naturally and in my own power, am almost incapable of waiting on God and His timing. I tend to rush into things, dreaming big and planning fast to make something happen.
But here's what God revealed: Nehemiah prayed for over 4 months about the condition of Jerusalem and about his desire for God to bring the city back out of disgrace. For months, his heart broke over the slavery of his people, the utter vulnerability of the city that once held the very Temple of the LORD God is Israel. But he prayed.
God kept telling me: "You are not like Nehemiah. You rush forward without me, then wonder why I close doors and why you endure hardship meant to bring you back where I wanted you in the first place. This time, pray. And if I don't answer, pray some more. And if you still don't know what I want of you, pray some more. Eventually, in my timing, I will show you what I want of you."
I wrote before about all the closed doors and the "No" answers I've been getting. I am still struggling with this idea of patience and waiting, but I am committing to pray and asking God for help in the waiting. For someone who likes to be actively involved, it's hard to remember that you can be just as faithful while waiting on God as you can be while moving with Him. But I'm trying.
2) There can be no obedience without repentance.
Nehemiah started by confessing to God how the people of Israel, his own family, and he himself had failed to live up to God's standards. And when the walls were finally rebuilt, and the singers were proclaiming God's goodness, the entire population of Jerusalem stood for hours and confessed their corporate sin.
Would the walls have been rebuilt if Nehemiah had not returned to the LORD and brought his people with him? Possibly. But what blessings those people would have missed. They would not have been part of the rebuilding project. They might have been left on the outside, only hearing about what God was doing rather than experiencing it firsthand.
I don't know about you, but I generally think of myself as a good person. I don't do anything "horrible," I try not to intentionally break most rules, and I try to care for others. On the days when my pride tells me these lies, I don't necessarily feel the need to confess and repent (return to God). But they are lies. God tells us,
- If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. ~James 2:8-11
The good news is this: God, in His mercy, has provided a way for us to meet the requirements of the law. It is through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the law and accepted punishment for all sin in His death, burial, and resurrection.
3) Sometimes, the most important thing is to be willing - willing to serve, and willing to be broken.
Nehemiah was the leader God chose to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem because, ultimately, he was open to brokenness and open to being used. He felt compassion for those in disgrace. He felt broken for the disgrace the Name of the LORD endured because of the disgrace of Israel and Jerusalem. And He was willing to do whatever necessary - even to transform a cupbearer to the King, with all the privileges of a high, trusted political position, into a wall builder, defender of the powerless, and enforcer of the Law of God.
I still don't know what God has planned for me and my husband in the future. I don't know if anything will come of the three or four places we have contacted in the hopes of trying to meet some of the physical needs of the poor in our city. I don't know if anything will come of the attempt I made to reach out to the leaders of the women's ministry at our church because I have some ideas and leads on things in which I hoped others might be interested. I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to work in a job where I make an actual living wage - you know, one that earns more than a kid working minimum wage.
But what I do know is this: I want to be willing. I want to be open to whatever God has for me. I want to say with Isaiah, "Here I am, Lord, send me." I want to lay down at the feet of my Lord and offer myself for whatever He has planned - even if it's not at all what I would choose for myself.
The book of Nehemiah is so rich in pearls of wisdom. I encourage you, if you have never read it before, to delve into this book and see what God will show you.