Rebuilding the walls

Jebusiah was a fool. He was a wild ass. Literally. His parents were both hard workers, but Jebusiah was slothful. He spent all of his energy on pleasure. He saved nothing, nobody owed him any favors, and he despised work. when he was still a very young donkey, he lost everything. His house was repossessed, his cart was sold for scrap just to buy food and his girlfriend left him. Jeb soon began to starve and was forced to sell himself into slavery. His master was cruel to him and beat him regularly.
As time went by, the hand of Jeb's master softened. He began to treat the donkey with kindness, even respect. At the end of seven years, the master sent Jeb home loaded with food, money and supplies. He was surprised to find that the home he'd lost was now once again in his name. The master had bought it for him. "Why did you do this?" asked Jeb. "You used to beat me. Why this kindness?"
"When you first came to me," said the master. "Beating you was the only way to make you work. You have changed, Jebusiah, and you no longer lazy or a sponge. You are my friend, now, and it pleases me to do this for you."
Over the next few months, the master also provided Jeb with a new cart and even introduced him to a lovely filly who became his bride.

This sermon is going to cover two different but close similar eras. The first is the time of Ezra and the second, the time of Nehemiah. In 538 BC, King Cyrus of the Persians allowed the Jews which Nebuchadnezzar had captured to return to Judea. He encouraged them to rebuild their temple. During this time, approximately fifty thousand jews returned to Judea and began rebuilding the temple. Three years later, there was a confrontation with the Samaritans, which caused the construction of the temple to stop.

In 515, the contruction of the temple was completed, thanks largely to King Darius (you probably know him better as Daniel's Boss.) Darius researched the matter and discovered Cyrus' original plan to allow the Jews to rebuild the temple. He therefore ordered that the plan be alowed to proceed not only unhindered, but officially sanctioned and aided.

In 458, another exodus began, approximately one fifth the size of the first. Led by Ezra, about 5,700 Jews returned to Judea, where they rededicated themselves to the Lord.

But there was still a lot of work to be done. Nehemiah would return in 444 to see to the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls.

Throughout human history, there would be five temples. It was solomon's temple that was destroyed. It was Zerubabel's temple which was now being built. (I know, it is not commonly called that, but since Zerubabel was the leader at the time, that is what we will call it for the sake of distinction.) In later years, it would be renovated by Herod, who renovated it "extreme makeover" style, replacing it very quickly with no interruption in worship. The fourth temple will be built during the tribulation and the fifth, of course, is God's own temple. But let's concentrate on the second.

Why did it take so long to build the second temple? twenty-three years is a long time to spend on a construction project. God was not against the Jews. They had endured their punishment and were being restored. Didn't God want them to rebuild the temple? Of course He did. But there were other things to consider.

Remember what God had said when Joshua first went in to conquor Canan? He wouldn't drive the cananites out all at once. If He did, the land would go ferral and quickly become unmanagable. He drove them out a few at a time and allowed the land to be cared for until it was all taken. The number of jews returning to Jerusalem was not a very large number. They would have to increase before Jerusalem could be rebuilt, especially since the Samaritans would be opposing them at every opportunity.

If I haven't mentioned, the Samaritans were the people whom Assyria had moved into Israel in place of the Hebrews. In the next five hundred years, there would be a great deal of intermattiage between these gentiles and the hebrews, resulting in a race of half-hebrews who would become truly hated by Israel. The Samaritans didn't like the Jews either. Most of the samaritans living then had been born in Israel and considered themselves natives. Now suddenly, the old tenants were returning and building a country for themselves.

But there was another reason for the delay. What do you do with a convict who's freshly out of jail? Do you set him up with all the money he needs for the rest of his life? Of course not. He'd just go right back to his old lifestyle and be worse off than before. The struggle of an ex-con to take care of himself is an important part of the rehabilitation process. In this case, the freed Jews were literally building a new life.

Ezra himself provides an excellent example of what I am talking about. The Jews knew that they were not supposed to intermarry with their neighboring countries. That was why they got into idolarty in the first place. When Ezra the priest returns to Jerusalem after the temple is rebuilt, he discovers that a number of the Jews, including princes and elders, have married gentiles and were started right down that same road again. But things were different, now. At the distress of Ezra, the people of Judea made the decision to anull their marriages and divorce their pagan wives.

It was as if Judah were a convict busted for selling coke. The first thing he does when he gets out is go down to visit his buddies at the crackhouse. While there, he looks around and realizes that he should not be here because this is what got him put away in the first place. The moral imperative to stay clean overrides loyalty, just as it should be. Jesus himself said that anyone who does not "hate" his family was not worthy to follow Him. Naturally, he does not mean actual hate, but if there is a choice to be made between Him and anyone else, the Lord must take precedence.

One thing that we must understand about God is that He cares for us. He cares about our physical well being and our mental well being, but more than either of these, He cares about our moral well-being. This is paramount to Him, and He will sacrifice the others to insure our spiritual maturity. Things can be replaced. Emotions can be healed. Bodies can be rejuvenated. Lost family, if they are the Lord's, will be gained again in Heaven. Any of these things can be fixed instantly by God. There are few things that God cannot do, but one of them is instantly make someone spiritually mature. He can help us, encourage us, remind us and teach us, but the change in the spirit must come from within or it is not real.

As I have read through the Kings and Chronicles, I have discovered that there were two things Israel and Judah did which really made God angry. The first was their idolatry. The second was their refusal to come to Him for defense from their enemies. In Ezra, we saw that the Jews were not willing to go back to idolatry. In Nehemiah, Judea's other flaw would be addressed. Fourteen years after Ezra's return, Nehemiah returned with the express purpose of rebuilding the city walls. His work took fifty-two days to complete, but during that time, it was attacked repeatedly. Nehemiah had his share of trolls to deal with. The first attack came in the form of mockery (4:1-6) and then by conspiracy (4:7-23). At this point, each builder had to have a sword in one hand and a tool in the other. The conspiracy failed because the plans of the attackers were revealed to the Jews. When this failed, extortion was the next attack (5:1-19). Nehemiah stopped this attack by confronting the extortioners with God's law. The next attack was an attempt at compromise (6:1-4), which Nehemiah flat refused, recognizing it for what it was: a trap. The next attack was one of slander (6:5-9). Nehemiah fought these lies with truth. He didn't attempt to provide explanation or defend himself. He simply said that the accusations were untrue and left it at that, then he prayed and gave the matter to God. The last attack was an appeal to cowardice (6:10-14). Someone lied to Nehemiah and told him that an attempt would be made on his life, and that he should seal himself inside the temple. Nehemiah refused to be cowardly. He percieved that this man was not from God and so ignored him. He then prayed and turned the matter over to God.

Things were turning around for Judah, now. The temple was back up, Jerusalem had its walls, there was a God-fearing priest and a God fearing governor who encouraged all the people to do right and keep themselves pure.

The coming years would see a slow shift in the opposite direction for Israel, as they drifted into a cold orthodoxy, but for now, they were doing all right.

It is also worth noting here that the Nethinim mentioned in these books are the descendants of the Gibeonites and other Caananites whom Israel had enslaved when they could not be exterminated. While Ammon and Moab, relatives of Israel, were refused any part of Israel by Ezra and Nehemiah, by this time, the Nethinim were no longer considered outsiders. They had become adopted into the family of Israel and no distinction was made between them and the Jews. Praise God! He took a people He had condemned to death and shown mercy on them, grafting them into the nation whom He called to be His bride.

So what have we learned?

God is teacher. He does what is best for us, meaning that He sees first to our spiritual growth, and to all else later. He is holy, and it is imparative that we be holy like Him.

God is protector. Not only does He defend us outright, but if we do as He commands, those who oppose us will have a natural tendency to fail. His ways give us wisdom, knowledge, courage, strength, peace, truth and honor.

God is provider. He gave Judah all that they needed to restore their land.

God is merciful. He shows kindness and acceptance to those who love Him. He forgives His enemies when they repent and makes them His own people.

In terms of history, this was a period of rest for Israel. This is not to say that they never had any problems. Israel is often represented by a tree. Any gardener knows that a tree has a season for growing and a season for pruning. This was a time for Israel to grow. It would not be pruned.

My next message will cover the book of Malachi, and the next, the Macabees.

Today's reading: Nehemiah 1:1-2:8
Neh 1:1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa,
2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
3 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."
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.
5 Then I said: "O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands,
6 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 house, have committed against you.
7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
8 "Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations,
9 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.'
10 "They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.
11 O 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." I was cupbearer to the king.
2:1 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before;
2 so the king asked me, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart." I was very much afraid,
3 but I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?"
4 The king said to me, "What is it you want?" Then I prayed to the God of heaven,
5 and I answered the king, "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it."
6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, "How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?" It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.
7 I also said to him, "If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah?
8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king's forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?" And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.