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Heartbreak

Date: Jun. 23, 2013

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Nehemiah 1:1-11

Key Verse: Nehemiah 1:4

“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”

Today, we begin our study of the book of Nehemiah and Nehemiah is a book that is about rebuilding Jerusalem, particularly it’s wall.  The events written in Nehemiah begin in November or December of 445 BC, or nearly 2500 years ago.  It is a story about God redeeming his people, through men and women acting by faith.  It’s actually very interesting to see how God has been leading us in our studies since we started the book of Galatians last summer.  Galatians was about being justified by faith.  From there we studied Romans, which was about becoming righteous by faith alone in Christ alone.  After that, we studied James, which we just finished last week, and that was about acting based on our faith.  The book of Nehemiah is actually a wonderful follow-up to James.  In it we will see one man named Nehemiah who acts and does great things through the faith that he has in God.

Let’s see how this story begins.  The book starts, “The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:” (1) The book of Nehemiah was written by Nehemiah as possibly his memoirs, and it is believed that Ezra, the namesake of the previous book in the Bible, was the one who collected the memoirs and put them into a single book.  Because of that, in early texts, Ezra and Nehemiah were considered to be one book.  Nehemiah, as the end of the chapter says, was cupbearer to the king, but it wasn’t a Jewish king.  The king that Nehemiah served was Artaxerxes, king of the Medo-Persian empire.

Before we get too much further, I think that we might need a history lesson.  The last time we studied the Old Testament was nearly two years ago, before we studied John’s gospel.  We studied 1 and 2 Samuel, which told of the early kingdom of Israel under Saul and then David.  King David died around 970 BC or about 525 years before the beginning of Nehemiah.  David’s son Solomon took over and was king until 930 BC.  After this reign, the kingdom of Israel was split into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah.  The northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC and Jerusalem and Judah fell 136 years later in 586 BC to the Babylonians, who also conquered the Assyrians.  The city was destroyed and it’s walls torn down. 

Those in Jerusalem went into exile under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.  His is a familiar name to the Bible, as he is mentioned a number of times.  After Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC, there were four more kings in Babylon.  The last king Nabonidus, often left rule to his son Belshazzar, another name mentioned in Daniel 5.  Under Belshazzar’s tutelage, Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BC.  The next year, in 538 BC, the first group of Israelites returned to their homeland under Zerubbabel.  After Cyrus died in battle, his son reigned for 7 years and eventually Darius, Cyrus’ son-in-law, became king in 521 BC. In 485, Darius’ son Xerxes became king.  Xerxes would marry Esther as mentioned in the Bible and he was also portrayed in the movie 300 as the invading king.  After 20 years of rule, Xerxes died and his son Artaxerxes began his rule in 465 BC until 424 BC.  Under Artaxerxes, the second group of Israelite exiles returned home under Ezra in 458 BC.  Then we arrive, here, in the year 445 BC, where the beginning of Nehemiah takes place.

That is just a quick rundown of the history leading up to Nehemiah.  There are a lot of dates and names, with a lot more detail than I can give right now.  However, it now leads us to this passage. “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.” (1-2) The month of Kislev is roughly during November and December and the twentieth year refers to Artaxerxes’ twentieth year on the throne.  At that time, Nehemiah was in the citadel of Susa.  Susa was the winter home of the Persian kings and the citadel was the fortified acropolis and palace complex.  Being cupbearer, Nehemiah would need to be close to the king, and since it is winter, he would be in the winter palace.  When he was there at this particular time, his brother returned from Judah.  Nehemiah was curious about how things were going over there.  By this time, the first group of Israelites had been back for 93 years and the second group of exiles returned 13 years prior.  There had been a lot of time to make lots of progress in resettling the region, so Nehemiah asked about it.

Unfortunately, the response was less than desired.  They said, “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.” (3) King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  He tore down the walls and burned the gates.  A city’s power could be seen in the size of its walls.  If a city had no walls, it was defenseless and would rely on a larger city with a wall for protection.  Those in small villages would flee to walled cities when war came to a region.  However, at this time, the importance of the state of the Jerusalem wall was not because of Nebuchadnezzar, but that it was not rebuilt.  You can read in the book of Ezra that the people in Jerusalem had begun work on rebuilding the city.  As you can read in Ezra 4, two guys, Rehum and Shimshai, from Samaria and the Trans-Euphrates wrote a letter to king Artaxerxes calling for an end to the rebuilding of the city.  The king agreed and the building stopped.  It is thought that whatever was built up was actually torn down again and the city was left defenseless once more.  The Jews that were in Judah were under oppression from the other peoples in the region.  The people in the Trans-Euphrates didn’t like the Jewish return and looked to discourage them at any chance.  Hanani wasn’t just talking about what happened 141 years prior, he was talking about what was going on in the region right at that time.

In Nehemiah’s words, he responded, “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (4) When Nehemiah heard about the state of affairs in Jerusalem, he was heartbroken and he was affected deeply.  He had to sit down and weep because he couldn’t take it.  It was like his soul was sucked dry and he had no strength to stand.  Sometimes there are moments like that in our lives, when we feel like our souls are sucked dry and we just have to sit down, and maybe we weep.  I’ve had a few.  The first one was on September 11, 2001.  I was in my senior year at IIT and I was going from one class to another.  My next class was in the auditorium in E1.  When I got in there, CNN video was on the screen, but there was no audio.  They were replaying the video of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, and then there was the live video of the towers crashing to the ground and the tremendous clouds of dust filled the streets as people were trying to get away.  The world changed that day, and I just remember being beside myself, sucked dry at the images that I saw.  The other two times are more personal.  In September 2008, my dad almost died.  He had two blood clots that affected major blood vessels, one was 95% blocked and the other was 99% blocked.  This wouldn’t have caused a heart attack or stroke.  They would have caused death.  I was shocked.  I had to sit down and I cried.  The same thing happened a few months after that in January, when my grandmother died.  It was just so overwhelming.  I couldn’t stop myself from breaking down.

Do you remember the last time you were like that?  When was the last time you were shocked and heartbroken over something or someone?  When was the last time your strength gave out and a dam burst forth from your eyes?  Think about what it was that caused your heartbreak.  Was it a death of someone close?  Was it a tragedy that changed lives?  Was it your own failure to succeed?  When we see something or hear about something that disturbs our souls, our hearts break, and that is what was happening to Nehemiah.  He heard what was going on in Jerusalem and his heart was broken and it affected him deeply.  Nehemiah wasn’t heartbroken because of a family death or his own failure; he was disturbed because of the condition of God’s people.  Nehemiah heard that God’s people were in danger and had no protection in the region.  He was weeping because God’s people were shamed in their predicament. It wasn’t merely a physical issue.  The problem was also one of the spirit.

In his heartbreak, Nehemiah didn’t allow himself to sit frozen and despair.  He writes in the second part of verse 4, “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”  Nehemiah took his heartbreak to God.  Nehemiah means “the Lord comforts” and he sought the Lord for comfort.  He mourned like there was a death of someone close to him.  He fasted to bring himself closer to God and he prayed to open his heart to God.  Nehemiah wrote that he did this for some days, but when you look at the dates mentioned in the Bible that he heard about what had happened in Jerusalem in November/December of 445 and the next date that was mentioned corresponds to March/April of 444 where Nehemiah actually goes before the king. (Nehemiah 2) This means that Nehemiah’s “for some days” was actually about four months.  After hearing about the devastation in Jerusalem and the spiritual condition of the people, Nehemiah mourned, fasted, and prayed over the course of four months.  You can see that his heartbreak was not something that was superficial.

We have a tendency to not be so devoted in our spiritual lives.  In our heartbreak, we either despair, pray and forget, or allow our heartbreak to become anger and take rash action.  Despair would be a natural response to hearing about Jerusalem’s walls and shame.  What could one man do in the face of such destruction?  Nehemiah was over a thousand miles away, it would seem like that there was nothing that he could do, and he was just one man, one insignificant man.  Yet, Nehemiah didn’t despair.

A lot of times, when we pray for something, we pray once and forget to pray again, unless it is something we really want.  We are not persistent in our prayer, but we allow our lives to distract us from what broke our heart.  We become busy with work or distracted by movies, television, Facebook or YouTube.  But Nehemiah didn’t lose sight of what was going on.  He didn’t allow his life to hamper his prayer.  He didn’t waste time with TV or seeing what he friends were doing on Facebook.  He could have just gone on with his life as the cupbearer to the king, a trusted and important position in those days, and forgotten about the hardship his fellow Jews were experiencing in Jerusalem, but he didn’t.  Nehemiah mourned, fasted and prayed for four months.

There are also times after we hear of something that is terrible or a tragedy that our blood just boils and we want to do something right away.  We want to seek vengeance for what has happened.  After the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, a lot of Americans wanted vengeance for what happened.  Thousands of people died on that day and we wanted to find the one responsible and make them pay.  We found out that the leaders of Al Qaeda were in Afghanistan, so we went to war against Afghanistan to get them, but we’re still there nearly twelve years later.  Sometimes, we need to have a quick response to something, but other times, it is good to take the time to pray about what to do and craft a plan in God, not in anger.  Nehemiah, again, took four months to mourn, fast and pray about Jerusalem.  He didn’t go off half-cocked like some rookie hotshot cop.  Nehemiah was deliberate in his heartbreak and it was all directed at God.

In the midst of all this, I have a question for you.  When was the last time you were heartbroken for someone’s spiritual condition?  What it someone who was close to you or far away?  Nehemiah was concerned for the people of Judah and Jerusalem, who were thousands of miles away from where he was.  He prayed for four months about the city and its people, what have you done?  Our mission field is the area that includes IIT, Vandercook, Shimer College, the College of Optometry, Bridgeport, and Bronzeville.  Have you prayed for all these areas earnestly?  You might be thinking that you don’t feel any direct tie to this area, but do you for where your heart is?  Who here has family that does not believe?  I do.  My parent’s and sister do not believe and neither does any of my wife’s family.  Do you have a broken heart for them?  Do you pray for them earnestly and consistently?  Do you mourn for them?  I don’t.  I pray about it a little bit, but honestly, I really don’t feel a great sense of concern, and that is just wrong. 

Maybe all of your family believes, then where do you spend most of your time?  Do you pray for that place, either your school, work or the neighborhood where you live?  I work in Evanston at Northwestern University, and I can tell you that I have not once prayed Evanston or Northwestern.  Do you pray for the city you live in or the state or our nation?  These have to be places that God has put into your heart because he has placed you there physically.  We should be persistent in our prayer and have a sense of urgency in the spiritual condition for the places and people that God has put in our hearts.  God placed the city of Chicago in my heart.  He showed me something great and I wanted to carry it out.  I heard about great things that were going on in other parts of the country, and I wondered what was going on in Chicago.  Chicago is the third largest city in the nation, and the banner of Christ should be raised high in the city, not just the western suburbs.  It wouldn’t have to be done by one large church in the city, but by bringing a number of churches together.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to have 20,000 Christians worshipping on Easter in United Center or even better 60,000 worshipping Jesus in Soldier Field?  That is a huge goal.  I prayed for this for some months, but eventually, my busy schedule pushed that prayer out, and any plans that I may have had have dried up.  As you can tell, I am not a model Christian on this.  I’m probably in league with most of you.

So, why are we like this?  Last week, Bob mentioned that when we see someone in physical distress, we rush to help, but we don’t really see it like that spiritually.  Why are we so apathetic and distracted?  Nehemiah was focused.  What was so different?  We don’t know everything that Nehemiah prayed, but he does record one final prayer.  At the end of his period of mourning, fasting and prayer, on the day that he goes back to work for the king, he starts a prayer that we see in verses 5-11.  They say, “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. 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.  Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.  Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” (5-11)

Nehemiah’s prayer is very humble.  He doesn’t specifically ask anything but success in speaking to the king.  His prayer is based on God’s covenant with his people.  Nehemiah reminds God of his covenant with the people who love him and obey his commandments.  Nehemiah begins with praising God and then repenting of his sins.  He knew the reason the Israelites were exiled were because they failed to walk in the ways of God.  They turned their back on God and worshiped idols.  What is amazing, though, is that Nehemiah includes himself with those who transgressed God.  The exile began 141 years prior to when Nehemiah prayed and I don’t think that Nehemiah is older than 141 years, so his sin couldn’t have directly cause the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its people, but he took responsibility and recognized that his sins are the same sins that caused the exile.  He was not haughty, but humble.

Then, Nehemiah’s prayer turns to words that God gave Moses, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.” (8-9) God promised that if the people left him, he would scatter them, but if they return, he would gather them again, no matter where they were.  Nehemiah was one man who was returning back to God and he sought to be gathered to God again.

Nehemiah knows that God is a redeemer.  He buys back those that were sold into slavery to sin.  He redeemed them by bringing them up out of Egypt, by returning them from exile, and by sending his one and only Son Jesus to redeem us from our sins through the shedding of his blood.  God does these things for the good of his people, but more than that, he does it for his glory.  He redeems to show the world who he is.  We have all had an idea of who God is, but most of those are wrong.  Some people see God as if he strict disciplinarian.  He’ll beat you if you do anything wrong.  However, God is above all a redeemer and deliverer.  He takes what is dead and makes it alive.  He takes what is useless and makes it precious.  That is the nature of God.  He is all-powerful, all-knowing, loving, just, and everywhere.

When we come to God in prayer, we can pray all the right things, but with the wrong motive.  We can sound all humble and caring, but we are out for ourselves.  We want to bring people to Christ so we can be praised, but Nehemiah again shows us a different idea.  “ Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.” (11) God listens to those who delight in revering God’s name.  Nehemiah wants God to listen to his prayer for God’s glory not his own.  He prays so that God may be glorified, and we will find out throughout the rest of the book that God answered his prayer, and Nehemiah’s time and prayer were not for nothing.

There are a few interesting things to see in this passage.  To me, the most obvious thing is Nehemiah’s broken heart for the people in Judah and Jerusalem.  It is amazing for him to react like this.  It really shows that he has compassion for his people.  He didn’t let his cushy lifestyle get in the way of his heart.  Also, Nehemiah’s humility is also amazing.  Nehemiah is a sinner, he said so himself, but he recognized his position before God and sought to glorify God through his actions.  How about you?  Do you have a heart for the people around you?  Do you cry out in prayer for others and take their sin and condition as your own?  Do you call on God to give you strength?  God is gracious and the best time to come to him and repent and pray is now.

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