Does Anybody Really Care?
The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
George Bernard Shaw put those words into the mouth of the Rev. Anthony Anderson in the second act of his play The Devil’s Disciple. The statement certainly summarizes what Jesus taught in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), and it rebukes all those who fold their arms complacently, smile benignly, and say somewhat sarcastically, “Ask me if I care!”
Nehemiah was the kind of person who cared. He cared about the traditions of the past and the needs of the present. He cared about the hopes for the future. He cared about his heritage, his ancestral city, and the glory of his God. He revealed this caring attitude in four different ways.
Nehemiah was a layman, cupbearer to the great “Artaxerxes Longimanus,” who ruled Persia from 464 to 423 BC. He is identified as the son of Hachaliah to distinguish him from other Jews of the same name (Neh. 3:16; Ezra 2:2). Nehemiah means “The Lord has comforted.”
A cupbearer was much more than our modern “butler” (see Gen. 40). It was a position of great responsibility and privilege. At each meal, he tested the king’s wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. A man who stood that close to the king in public had to be handsome, cultured, knowledgeable in court procedures, and able to converse with the king and advise him if asked (see 41:1–13). Because he had access to the king, the cupbearer was a man of great influence, which he could use for good or for evil.
That Nehemiah, a Jew, held such an important position in the palace speaks well of his character and ability (Dan. 1:1–4). For nearly a century, the Jewish remnant had been back in their own land, and Nehemiah could have joined them, but he chose to remain in the palace. It turned out that God had a work for him to do there that he could not have accomplished elsewhere. God put Nehemiah in Susa just as He had put Esther there a generation before, and just as He had put Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon. When God wants to accomplish a work, He always prepares His workers and puts them in the right places at the right time.
The Hebrew month of Chislev runs from mid-November to mid-December on our calendar, and the twentieth year of Artaxerxes was the year 444 BC. Shushan (or Susa) was the capital city of the Persian Empire and the site of the king’s winter palace. No doubt it was just another routine day when Nehemiah met his brother Hanani (see Neh. 7:2), who had just returned from a visit to Jerusalem, but it turned out to be a turning point in Nehemiah’s life.
Like large doors, great life-changing events can swing on very small hinges. It was just another day when Moses went out to care for his sheep, but on that day he heard the Lord’s call and became a prophet (Ex. 3). It was an ordinary day when David was called home from shepherding his flock, but on that day, he was anointed king (1 Sam. 16). It was an ordinary day when Peter, Andrew, James, and John were mending their nets after a night of failure, but that was the day Jesus called them to become fishers of men (Luke 5:1–11). You never know what God has in store, even in a commonplace conversation with a friend or relative, so keep your heart open to God’s providential leading. I attended a birthday party one evening when I was nineteen years old, and a statement made to me there by a friend helped direct my life into the plans God had for me, and I will be forever grateful.
Why would Nehemiah inquire about a struggling remnant of people who lived hundreds of miles away? After all, he was the king’s cupbearer, and he was successfully secure in his own life. Certainly it wasn’t his fault that his ancestors had sinned against the Lord and brought judgment to the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. A century and a half before, the prophet Jeremiah had given this word from the Lord: “For who will have pity on you, O Jerusalem? Or who will bemoan you? Or who will turn aside to ask how you are doing?” (Jer. 15:5 NKJV). Nehemiah was the man God had chosen to do those very things!
Some people prefer not to know what’s going on, because information might bring obligation. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” says the old adage, but is it true? In a letter to a Mrs. Foote, Mark Twain wrote, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.” But what we don’t know could hurt us a great deal! There are people in the cemetery who chose not to know the truth. The slogan for the 1987 AIDS publicity campaign was “Don’t die of ignorance,” and that slogan can be applied to many areas of life besides health.
Nehemiah asked about Jerusalem and the Jews living there because he had a caring heart. When we truly care about people, we want the facts, no matter how painful they may be. “Practical politics consists in ignoring facts,” American historian Henry Adams said, but Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Closing our eyes and ears to the truth could be the first step toward tragedy for ourselves as well as for others.
What did Nehemiah learn about Jerusalem and the Jews? Three words summarize the bad news: remnant, ruin, and reproach. Instead of a land inhabited by a great nation, only a remnant of people lived there, and they were in great affliction and struggling to survive. Instead of a magnificent city, Jerusalem was in shambles, and where there had once been great glory, there was now nothing but great reproach.
Of course, Nehemiah had known all his life that the city of his fathers was in ruins, because the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem’s walls, gates, and temple in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:1–21). Fifty years later, a group of 50,000 Jews had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city. Since the Gentiles had hindered their work, however, the temple was not completed for twenty years (Ezra 1—6), and the gates and walls never were repaired. Perhaps Nehemiah had hoped that the work on the walls had begun again and that the city was now restored. Without walls and gates, the city was open to ridicule and attack. See Psalms 48, 79, 84, and 87 to see how much loyal Jews loved their city.
Are we like Nehemiah, anxious to know the truth even about the worst situations? Is our interest born of concern or idle curiosity? When we read missionary prayer letters, the news in religious periodicals, or even our church’s ministry reports, do we want the facts, and do the facts burden us? Are we the kind of people who care enough to ask?
What makes people laugh or weep is often an indication of character. People who laugh at others’ mistakes or misfortunes, or who weep over trivial personal disappointments, are lacking either in culture or character, and possibly both. Sometimes weeping is a sign of weakness; but with Nehemiah, it was a sign of strength, as it was with Jeremiah (Jer. 9:1), Paul (Acts 20:19), and the Lord Jesus (Luke 19:41). In fact, Nehemiah was like the Lord Jesus in that he willingly shared the burden that was crushing others. “The reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon Me” (Ps. 69:9; Rom. 15:3).
When God puts a burden on your heart, don’t try to escape it, for if you do, you may miss the blessing He has planned for you. The book of Nehemiah begins with “great affliction” (Neh. 1:3), but before it closes, there is great joy (8:12, 17). “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Our tears water the “seeds of providence” that God has planted on our path; and without our tears, those seeds could never grow and produce fruit.
It was customary for the Jews to sit down when they mourned (Ezra 9:1–4; 10:9). Unconsciously, Nehemiah was imitating the grieving Jewish captives who had been exiled in Babylon years before (Ps. 137:1). Like Daniel, Nehemiah probably had a private room where he prayed to God with his face toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10; 1 Kings 8:28–30). Fasting was required of the Jews only once a year, on the annual day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), but Nehemiah spent several days fasting, weeping, and praying. He knew that somebody had to do something to rescue Jerusalem, and he was willing to go.
3. HE CARED ENOUGH TO PRAY (1:5–10)
This prayer is the first of twelve instances of prayer recorded in this book. (See 2:4; 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 9:5ff; 13:14, 22, 29, 31.) The book of Nehemiah opens and closes with prayer. It is obvious that Nehemiah was a man of faith who depended wholly on the Lord to help him accomplish the work He had called him to do. The Scottish novelist George MacDonald said, “In whatever man does without God, he must fail miserably, or succeed more miserably.” Nehemiah succeeded because he depended on God. Speaking about the church’s ministry today, the late Alan Redpath said, “There is too much working before men and too little waiting before God.”
This prayer begins with ascription of praise to God (v. 5). “God of heaven” is the title Cyrus used for the Lord when he announced that the Jews could return to their land (2 Chron. 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–2). The heathen gods were but idols on the earth, but the God of the Jews was Lord in heaven. Ezra often used this divine title (5:11–12; 6:9; 7:12, 21, 23), and it is found four times in Nehemiah (1:4–5; 2:4, 20) and three times in Daniel (2:18–19, 44). Nehemiah began his prayer as we should begin our prayers: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9).
To what kind of a God do we pray when we lift our prayers to “the God of heaven”? We pray to a “great and awesome God” (Neh. 1:5 NKJV; and see 4:14, 8:6, and 9:32), who is worthy of our praise and worship. If you are experiencing great affliction (v. 3) and are about to undertake a great work (4:19; 6:3), then you need the great power (1:10), great goodness (9:25, 35), and great mercy (v. 31) of a great God. Is the God you worship big enough to handle the challenges that you face?
He is also a God who keeps His word (1:5). The Lord had made a covenant with His people Israel, promising to bless them richly if they obeyed His Word, but warning that He would chasten them if they disobeyed (Lev. 26; Deut. 27—30). The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, and the nation was feeble because the people had sinned against the Lord. (See Ezra’s prayer of confession in Ezra 9 and the prayer of the nation in Nehemiah 9.)
The greater part of Nehemiah’s prayer was devoted to confession of sin (vv. 6–9). The God who promised blessing and chastening also promised forgiveness if His people would repent and turn back to Him (Deut. 30; 1 Kings 8:31–53). It was this promise that Nehemiah was claiming as he prayed for himself and the nation. God’s eyes are upon His people and His ears are open to their prayers (1 Kings 8:29; 2 Chron. 7:14). The word remember is a key word in this book (Neh. 1:8; 4:14; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31).
Note that Nehemiah used the pronoun “we” and not “they,” identifying himself with the sins of a generation he didn’t even know. It would have been easy to look back ...