Nehemiah 2:9-3:23.
Organizing God's Task

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

One of the main emphases in the well-known course, "Experiencing God"[1] is that God is always at work around us and that He invites us to take part in that work.  Often we make the mistake of presuming that the programs and plans that we desire to implement, seeming to be godly and appropriate, will be blessed by God, and He will be impressed by us and join us in our wonderful enterprise.  When we look at any biblical examples of God's calling people to a task it has always been God initiating the call to a need that God sought to meet through a faithful believer.  Knowing and doing the will of God involves the determination of what God is doing around us, and then after prayer and discernment, follow Him in that portion of the work that He calls us to.

Though there are many biblical examples of those who have jumped into action with the assumption that God would join them and bless them, one New Testament example is particularly instructive.  After the ascension of Christ, the disciples found eleven in their number since Judas Iscariot had died.  Assuming that the appropriate number of working Apostles was twelve, the remaining eleven set about replacing Judas:

Acts 1:21-26.  Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. 23And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen, 25That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. 26And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Assuming that it was up to them to immediately replace Judas, the eleven Apostles chose two faithful desciples for submission to a lottery election.  Their folly is evident in that the only mechanism where they included God in their plan was the assumption that through the drawing of lots, the LORD would guide their draw, and by so doing would make the final decision.  The idea of drawing lots in this manner was a common pagan practice, utilized by those who thought their mythical gods could affect the outcome.  Even if they believed that God would make the choice, it is rather obvious that they already made two errors:  first, they assumed that the LORD wanted them to replace Judas and second, they appointed the two candidates themselves.

We have no idea of what happened to Matthias, since he is never again mentioned in scripture, and there is no record of any apostolic ministry by Matthias in early Christian historical literature.  Some would probably argue that the LORD did, indeed, choose a twelfth, and that was Saul of Tarsus.

The error in judgment demonstrated by the disciples is commonly found in our efforts to engage in ministry today, as we establish the groundwork for that ministry and call upon God to bless it.  However, God has called us into His work, not ours.  God has a plan for each of his faithful believers, and there is a work of ministry for all of us.  We can discern much of the will of God by dedicating ourselves to the learning of scripture, and through engagement in a sincere and productive prayerlife so we have the tools to discern the still small voice of the Holy Spirit as He illumines our understanding. 

If everyone was faithful to the task that God called them to, people would only have to complete the tasks to which they were specifically called.  It would not be necessary for 80% of the work of ministry to be done by 20% of the church membership.  This statistic indicates that, on the average, 75% of the work done by faithful church members is work to which they have not been called.  They often find themselves overengaged in activities that are not fully consistent with their set of skills, talents, and gifts, and find frustration and exhaustion in the difficulties they find in the work.  It is these that often burn out when the tasks become overwhelming.  Meanwhile, others who have been given those gifts for ministry stand on the sidelines, making no substitive contribution to the work, and are often critical of those who are engaged in the work.  When this happens, many, if not most, of the people in the fellowship are working outside the areas of their giftedness, they are not experiencing the full blessing of the experience of service, and the effectiveness of God’s work is diminished.

The following passage explores the process that Nehemiah used to rebuild the walls that would serve to surround and protect the city of Jerusalem.  Efforts to rebuild the wall date back almost seventy years, shortly after the walls were destroyed.  Such efforts, led by the logical argument that the rebuild would be blessed by the LORD, never succeeded.  Meanwhile, the city stood without defense, subject to continual harassment and looting by marauding neighbors who sought to destroy them.

The need for rebuilding the walls was real.  The task certainly would seem to the Jews to be something that God would desire and bless.  However, God had an eternal purpose for the Jews when the remnant of faithful were protected as a community for seventy years in Babylonian exile, a purpose that would not have been fully revealed had the walls been rebuilt.  However, after the remnant of Israel had been exiled for about seventy years, the time had come to repair the walls.

Nehemiah came to hear of this desperate need when his brother, who had visited Jerusalem, brought the message to him.  Nehemiah clearly and sincerely understood that the walls needed to be restored, but rather than form a committee, or a task force, or give instructions to his brother, Nehemiah went to the LORD in fasting and prayer, seeking God’s will in this situation.  Nehemiah surrendered his own life to God concerning the issue and awaited God's leading.[2] 

This demonstrates some important truths about the situation.

1.    It was now in God’s plan to have the walls rebuilt.

2.    Nehemiah was ideally placed and ideally skilled to carry on the task of rebuilding.

3.    God put into Nehemiah’s heart a grave concern for the city, and a deep desire to see the walls rebuilt.

4.    Nehemiah was so sincerely concerned about this need, he turned from the distractions of life to pray.  Note that when the LORD inspires us to pray about a specific situation it is likely that He is communicating to us that His will is for us to be a part of the solution of the events that bring us to our knees.

Up to this time, the opportunity to rebuild the walls had not been realized.  The prohibition against rebuilding that was put in place by King Cyrus was still in effect.  The only person in the kingdom who could reverse that decree was King Artaxerxes.  Consequently, Nehemiah would have little hope that the King would entertain any discussion on the subject.  Rather than approach the king, Nehemiah waited patiently for God to respond to his prayers, illuminating his understanding and putting in place the circumstances that would enable the task.

Nehemiah’s sincerity in prayer led him to approach King Artaxerxes at the right time, in the right setting, and with the right attitude and words.  God finally provided the opportunity to restore the walls of Jerusalem when King Artaxerxes listened and responded to his trusted servant, and commissioned Nehemiah to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.  Following that commission, Nehemiah organized the task of preparation, procuring materials and workers, and bringing them to the city of Jerusalem.

Analyze the Need

Nehemiah 2:9-11.  Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. 10When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. 11So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.

The natives of Canaan had no interest in the strengthening of the Judean Hebrew community.  They had already experienced, though two generations prior, the existence of Israel and the dominion that their kings exercised in the region.  We are introduced to two of the pagan leaders who had influence in the region surrounding Jerusalem: Sanballat, and Tobiah.  We find that, even before the work is begun, those who will resist that work are identified.  Nehemiah knew the history of Israel, and fully understood the resistance that would be raised by these two leaders, and others like him.  When confronting Sanballot, Nehemiah made no mention of the purpose of his visit to Jerusalem, though it is evident that Sanballot clearly understood that the visit was meant to “seek the welfare” of Israel.  Sanballat would like to have turned Nehemiah back, but was inhibited by the presence of Nehemiah’s escort:  Artaxerxes’ military.  This would serve only to further frustrate Sanballot, knowing that the visit was sanctioned by the king.

The beginning of any task that God has called us to requires a clear understanding of two things:

(1) the actual needs God seeks to meet, and

(2) the specific task to which God has called us. 

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he did not immediately set to work on the walls.  Nor did he reveal the purpose of his coming to anyone, including those who accompanied him.  Instead he spent three days in preparation.  Though there is not a record of his specific activities during this period, it is likely that Nehemiah would have been engaged in some means of introduction to the people, as his presence (particularly as a high-ranking emissary of the King) and the threatening presence of the King’s military would not go unnoticed. 

It is evident that Nehemiah spent a great deal of energy in obtaining a clear understanding of what the task was that stood before him.  At the same time he did nothing to bring unnecessary attention to himself or the task for which he came. 

Nehemiah 2:9-11.  And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. 13And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. 14Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king’s pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. 15Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned. 16And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.

After three days Nehemiah took a few trusted men and slipped out, under the cover of darkness, through what was once the Valley Gate, and did a little reconnaissance work.  He wanted to learn first-hand the condition of the wall without bringing any attention to himself.  He first went out and studied the southern tip of the remnant of the wall, that part that is most exposed.  The northern and northwestern walls were surrounded by buildings and less open to frontal attack.  The southern tip entered into a public plaza, so it was the highest priority.

Just as Nehemiah demonstrated patience when he prayed for four months prior to approaching King Artexerxes, he also demonstrated patience as he took the time and resources necessary to fully discern and analyze the scope and context of the work to which he had been called.

Enlist Others

Nehemiah 2:17-18a.  Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. 18Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me.

Upon his completion of the inspection, Nehemiah gathered together those who accompanied him and revealed to them for the first time the nature and purpose of their visit to Jerusalem.  Because of the sensitivity of the task at hand, Nehemiah would have brought with him those who were the most trusted and capable.  Nehemiah fully understood that this was not a project that he could do by himself, so he put together a small group who could serve as the catalyst for what would soon become a larger-than-life enterprise. 

Often, when we come to discern a need, we take inventory of our own capabilities and attempt to determine how we will affect the solution of a problem.  There is something in modern culture, particularly western culture, that causes us to define who we are by what we accomplish on our own.  We cherish independence and freedom, and tend to honor those who demonstrate great personal accomplishments.  However, we can never live up to the false ideals that we perceive in those “heroes,” and when we consider a difficult or seemingly impossible task we can become overwhelmed by its scope, or our perceived inability to accomplish it, and we become frustrated and discouraged.  We will not often look around us and invite others to take part in the task.  Rather than go forward himself, Nehemia immediately worked to recruit others who could share the load with him.  By doing so, he would be surrounding himself with a company of unique and gifted people that, properly engaged in the work, could serve with a wide range of skills, gifts, and talents.

The first thing that Nehemiah did with his new “recruits” was to openly show them the task at hand, but did so by illustrating the same concerns that led him to this point so that they would share with him the same concerns.  Their trip around the southern edge of the city revealed at least three important facts to them:

1.    The trip, even taken at night, was not a safe one.  Describing it as the “distress we are in,” the danger that faced them on this night is one that is faced by the citizens of the city every day and night.

2.    They saw how the city lies in waste.  Nehemiah earlier noted the difficulty that his horse had when traversing the area around the king’s pool, a place that had once been a plaza full of people.

3.    They saw how the gates were broken down and burned, leaving the city exposed.

Furthermore, when we involve others we are allowing them to follow God’s call as well, spreading the joy of accomplishment with them.  There are many examples in scripture of sincere and gifted leaders who were called to a task that was completed only when others were included.  We might consider Moses’ appointment of the Levites, Gideon’s selection of an army, or even Paul’s admonition to call deacons to assist the pastors in ministry. 

What happens if we fail to involve others when God's plan was not for us to "go it alone?"  We can become disillusioned when problems are encountered, frustrated, overworked, and burned out.  When one is willing to share the task, often the first word that enters the mind is, "delegate."  Rather than asking "How am I supposed to get this job done?"  the better question is "Who are the people who are the most likely to successfully contribute to the task?" 

It is quite evident that Nehemiah found answers to these questions as he prepared to leave Susa for Jerusalem.  He brought to the king a comprehensive and well-thought out plan that included the procurement of materials, personnel, and safe travel.  As an influential member of the king’s court, he would have been able to select those who would accompany him.  He knew that he could depend upon those he chose.

Make a Commitment

Nehemiah 2:18b.  And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.

Once the task has been determined, and the people have been both enlisted and completely informed, a commitment is made between themselves to press on towards the completion of the task.  We may observe a very important characteristic of this commitment, one that can make or break a project:  those who are joining Nehemiah took “ownership” of the task.  Note that “they said, let us rise up.”  Many leaders fail because they lead a group into a project without giving them ownership.  A good leader leads by jumping in front of those he leads as they move toward the goal, as opposed to pulling them through it from the front, or pushing them through it from behind. 

How does one transfer ownership of the project to the group?  Consider the following true illustration.  A growing urban church was given the opportunity to hold two worship services on a Sunday morning, and the music director felt that the new service could be more contemporary in its format.  A musical worship team was performed and found great success in leading worship with amplified vocals, a piano, keyboard, string bass, and guitar.  However, he felt that drums were needed to provide better rhythm, a move that was extremely controversial for this very traditional congregation.  Assuming the task, a drum set was purchased in put on the stage with the band, but no drummer was recruited.  The church murmured concerning the drums, insisting that they were unnecessary and inappropriate.  After six months, the murmuring stopped and a drummer was recruited but given very explicit instructions:  “make sure that nobody in the congregation can hear you.”  His light tapping on the drums encouraged the praise band as the beat was easier to follow.  After a couple of weeks people in the congregation started complaining that they could not hear the drums. 

Had we started the praise band with a loud drummer, the entire program would have failed, as the change was too dramatic for a congregation that believed that they did not want drums.  However, a wise process was used that empowered the congregation to make the choice, and by doing so, the congregation was given ownership of the decision.   We then asked the drummer to pick up the volume a little, but not too much, and the worship that followed was lively, balanced, and enjoyed by all.

Only after ownership of the task was appropriately distributed was a commitment to the task made, and because of that transfer, all were included in the commitment.  Consider what would happen if the leader, having a sincere call, completes the analysis and organization, commits him/herself to the task, but does not include others in the commitment to its completion.  People may start out excited about the ministry, but when the novelty wears off, and the real work gets underway, the people will tend to wander away, or even murmur when difficulties are encountered.  The experience of Israel during the Exodus is an excellent example of this phenomena.  The mountaintop experience of leaving Egypt was replaced with grumbling and rejection of God’s leadership when they experienced difficulty along the way.  The commitment to the task must be shared by all who are engaged in its completion.

After making the commitment, they as a group “strengthened their hands” for the work.  This is an idiom that refers to their working together to put in place the resources to commence the work.  They did not make a shallow or faux commitment and then return to their beds.  They began to lay the foundation for the work.

Of course, whenever one attempts to do a God-centered work of any significance, one can expect opposition.  The commitment to the task is not shared by everyone.  There will always be those who will resist the work.  These are those who have no ownership of the project, and are usually not well-informed of the details of the work.  Certainly the lord of death, satan himself, will work in the hearts of those whom he can influence to diminish the success of any godly work, so such resistance can be expected.

Have confidence in God

Nehemiah 2:19-20.  But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? 20Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.

Sanballot, Tobia, and Geshem were leaders of neighboring Persian provinces of Horon, Ammon, and Aram, respectively.  As administrators for King Artaxerxes each thought he had authority over Jerusalem.  Nehemiah's action threatened their supposed authority.  Without authority for military action, they resorted to ridicule and scorn.  They sought to demoralize Nehemiah and his workers by debating some arguments that, though uninformed, had some part of truth in them.  At this point in history all would perceive any attempt to rebuild the walls as rebelling against the king.   Recall Ezra's experience:  just the rumor that the walls were to be rebuilt brought the King's quick action to stop all construction.  This could confuse and even frighten those who were committed to work with Nehemiah, for these others were also emmisaries of the king.  The detractors did not know that the King had given Nehemiah both the permission and the resources to rebuild the walls.  However, the Persian leadership were not interested in the truth.  They only wanted to stand in the way of Nehemiah’s work.

The unholy one will always hit us in subtle places of weakness, often veiling the lies using hints of truth.  We can respond to his attacks from a position of doubt, or from a position of confident faith.  When we respond from doubt, we often will rely on our own abilities, and when attacked we tend to first defend ourselves.  If we get into such a debate we will probably become quite frustrated.  Rather than enter a debate, Nehemiah responded in confident faith, stating that it was not his own actions that would bring success, but rather it would be through God alone that the work would be done.

It is interesting that this particular conflict has been the most pervasive point in Jerusalem's history.  Even now the Jewish and Palestinian leadership are squabbling over who controls Jerusalem.  The Jews, Palestinians, and Arabs all vie for control of the city.  Note that it is the same three forces vieing for the same city in the same way during Nehemiah's time over 2400 years ago.  However, Nehemiah's faith was in God, so his advice to the Palestinians and the Arabs was clear and concise:  they would have no part in Jerusalem, nor do they have any claim to it.

Currently the leadership in and around Jerusalem is still trying to find a way to share claim to it, since the Jews never succeeded in fully claiming it for themselves.  The latest idea on the table, as recent as the end of October 1998 was to make Jerusalem an international city, like the Vatican in Rome, with complete self-rule.  Such a polity will still fail, because the content of the city is still made up of Jews, Palestinians, and Arabs who have no interest in sharing the city with each other.

Note, still, that Nehemiah's response when confronted with conflict was to put his confidence in God, not in his own wisdom or ability.  We could learn much from this.

Organize for the work

Nehemiah 3:1-23.  Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests, and they builded the sheep gate; they sanctified it, and set up the doors of it; even unto the tower of Meah they sanctified it, unto the tower of Hananeel. 2And next unto him builded the men of Jericho. And next to them builded Zaccur the son of Imri. 3But the fish gate did the sons of Hassenaah build, who also laid the beams thereof, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof. 4And next unto them repaired Meremoth the son of Urijah, the son of Koz. And next unto them repaired Meshullam the son of Berechiah, the son of Meshezabeel. And next unto them repaired Zadok the son of Baana. 5And next unto them the Tekoites repaired; but their nobles put not their necks to the work of their Lord. 6Moreover the old gate repaired Jehoiada the son of Paseah, and Meshullam the son of Besodeiah; they laid the beams thereof, and set up the doors thereof, and the locks thereof, and the bars thereof. 7And next unto them repaired Melatiah the Gibeonite, and Jadon the Meronothite, the men of Gibeon, and of Mizpah, unto the throne of the governor on this side the river. 8Next unto him repaired Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, of the goldsmiths. Next unto him also repaired Hananiah the son of one of the apothecaries, and they fortified Jerusalem unto the broad wall. 9And next unto them repaired Rephaiah the son of Hur, the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem. 10And next unto them repaired Jedaiah the son of Harumaph, even over against his house. And next unto him repaired Hattush the son of Hashabniah. 11Malchijah the son of Harim, and Hashub the son of Pahathmoab, repaired the other piece, and the tower of the furnaces. 12And next unto him repaired Shallum the son of Halohesh, the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem, he and his daughters. 13The valley gate repaired Hanun, and the inhabitants of Zanoah; they built it, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof, and a thousand cubits on the wall unto the dung gate. 14But the dung gate repaired Malchiah the son of Rechab, the ruler of part of Bethhaccerem; he built it, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof. 15But the gate of the fountain repaired Shallun the son of Colhozeh, the ruler of part of Mizpah; he built it, and covered it, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof, and the wall of the pool of Siloah by the king’s garden, and unto the stairs that go down from the city of David. 16After him repaired Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, the ruler of the half part of Bethzur, unto the place over against the sepulchres of David, and to the pool that was made, and unto the house of the mighty. 17After him repaired the Levites, Rehum the son of Bani. Next unto him repaired Hashabiah, the ruler of the half part of Keilah, in his part. 18After him repaired their brethren, Bavai the son of Henadad, the ruler of the half part of Keilah. 19And next to him repaired Ezer the son of Jeshua, the ruler of Mizpah, another piece over against the going up to the armoury at the turning of the wall. 20After him Baruch the son of Zabbai earnestly repaired the other piece, from the turning of the wall unto the door of the house of Eliashib the high priest. 21After him repaired Meremoth the son of Urijah the son of Koz another piece, from the door of the house of Eliashib even to the end of the house of Eliashib. 22And after him repaired the priests, the men of the plain. 23After him repaired Benjamin and Hashub over against their house. After him repaired Azariah the son of Maaseiah the son of Ananiah by his house. 

The third chapter of Nehemiah records how the prople of Jerusalem began to rebuild Jerusalem's wall and gates.  There is a great deal of detail here that provides us with archeological information describing the city and its walls during this time.  Many of the landmarks described here have not yet been identified.  It is quite evident that the task was divided up among all who would work.  The north and west walls and gates (bordering on residential/commercial construction) were repaired, probably because of property ownership.  The walls to the south and east were new construction.   

Obviously, there was significant organization and planning.  Apparently each section was assigned to those who had an interest in it, in most cases involving those who lived closest to a section.  It appears that once work began, the entire Jewish community came out and helped, just as might take place during a modern catastrophe.  A good example is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when people from all over the United States came to assist in the cleanup.

It is evident that the walls went up quickly because their enemies were caught by surprise.[3]  The work started and ended at the Sheep Gate, the northern gate that was closest to the Temple and most used by the people.  Responsibility for this most important gate was given to the high priest, Eliashib, the grandson of the one who with Zerubbabel led the initial return of the Jews from Babylon.    It is quite likely that Eliashib did not support Nehemiah's work, noted in other scriptural evidence, but his part in it provides an indication of the overwhelming public support of this task.  We also see that Jews came from the surrounding region to take part in the rebuilding, as many surrounding villages and cities, including Mizpah and Jericho, are mentioned.  As “suburbs” of Jerusalem they would also fall under the protection of the city if it were successfully fortified since they could retreat their during periods of invasion.

There are two points here:  First, the assignments were made in manageable parts.  No group was assigned more than they could accomplish, and they were each able to accomplish more than any one person or group of persons could accomplish alone.

Nehemiah demonstrated a wise approach to his God-given assignment.  Having determined the basic need, he broke it down into manageable parts (a problem-solving methodology common for a typical engineer), enlisted the support of others, and gave them assignments designed to motivate them in completing their specific tasks.  his example can help us in approaching those tasks God has assigned to us.

·       Before beginning to work on any God-given task, we should analyze the need we are seeking to meet.

·       When such tasks are large or complex, we should enlist others to join us in doing them.

·       Our enlistment of others in sharing our labors should involve giving them ownership of the task.

·       Once ownership is properly established it is necessary to make a firm and well-informed commitment to the task.

·       The entire process ought to be undergirded by our confidence and reliance on God, who has assigned the task to us.

·       Before actually beginning to work at any God-given task, we should organize our resources in a manner appropriate for its solution.

Though the work finds its purpose in the heart of God, the LORD uses His faithful people to accomplish much of His work.  This experience of Nehemiah illustrates how the LORD can use the gifts, talents, interests, and skills of faithful people, led by faithful servants, to complete a tremendous work.  This is an organizational model that can be considered any time we find ourselves called by God to a significant mission.

[1] Henry Blackaby and Claude King.  Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God.  Nashville, TN:  Broadman and Holman Books.  Rev. 2008.

[2] Nehemiah, Chapter 1.

[3] Nehemiah 4:1-2.