March 6, 1994
In Nehemiah 6, the project of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem reached its completion. Enemies that once intimidated and mocked God’s people now recognized that the work of God’s people reached its fulfillment because of God’s presence and provision. Alistair Begg reminds us that the mission of the Church is to do God’s work in such a way that outsiders will see God’s glory. Our calling is meaningful, and God is working behind the scenes to accomplish His purposes.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn to Nehemiah and to the sixth chapter.
Let’s ask God’s help before we study this passage of Scripture together:
Father, we pray that the Spirit of God will be our teacher so that we may not simply listen to the voice of a man but that beyond the sacred page and beyond a human voice we may hear you speak. This fills us with a sense of expectation. Meet us, Lord, as we wait upon you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
We resume our studies at 6:15, having hastened through the end of chapter 6 a wee bit quickly last week, I feel. And so, in order to do justice to the text, we need to go back to it.
One day, when you meet Nehemiah in heaven, you can ask him the question, “Do you know where you were on 21 September, 444 BC?” And without missing a beat, I know he’ll be able to tell you, “Yes, I was in Jerusalem, and that was the day when we completed the wall.” For that is exactly what we’re told in this historical note in 6:15. The project that many thought should never have been undertaken and could never be completed was actually done. It hadn’t been undertaken without opposition—an opposition that had come externally and internally. And yet, despite all of the onslaught against Nehemiah and his friends, they had been unable to divert him, and they couldn’t defeat him.
Less of an individual, one who was not depending upon God in the way that he has so clearly done, would probably have packed it up somewhere around the halfway mark. After all, it really was a dreadful situation to be in, and the responsibilities and opportunities left behind in the Persian capital must have seemed distinctly alluring on many a day. But the work which had been started on August 1 was now completed, as we’re told, fifty-two days later, testifying to the concerted action, the number of people involved, and the skillful direction of the project.
What I’d like to do this morning is just gather up these concluding verses of chapter 6 and the opening verses of chapter 7. I’ll give you three headings, if they’re helpful to you. The overall heading, perhaps, I should give you: I would call this study, “Consolidation, Preparation, Delegation.” “Consolidation, Preparation, Delegation.” Those are not the three main points; it’s just the heading.
The first main point, in verses 15 and 16, we can consider under the heading mission accomplished. Mission accomplished. And we’re going to note two things: first of all, how the enemies reacted, and then what the enemies realized.
Now, their reaction here in verse 16 is so very different from the way they’d been before. They’ve done an amazing about-turn. There’s a change of face. If you doubt that, you should turn for a moment back to chapter 4 and the opening verses. Because there we have them in full flight, in all their bombastic antagonism—angry, ridiculing, vilifying, discouraging, seeking to use sarcasm to suggest to Nehemiah that he has engaged in a project that is really quite ridiculous, and it is impossible for him to think of bringing it to completion.
And what did Nehemiah do on that occasion? What he did on just about every occasion: he turned to prayer. He encouraged the people who were working along with him to be vigilant in verse 9—“we prayed to our God,” “we … posted a guard”—and to be diligent. And that is why “the people worked with all [of] their heart.” But their vigilance and their diligence was underpinned by prayerfulness.
It’s a simple reminder to us, and yet one that’s important. Because we’ll never do God’s work in God’s way without being opposed—whatever that work is. And as we walk through our days—in and out of our offices, and in factories, and in hospital corridors, and in wards and laboratories and school classrooms—there will be plenty of occasion for us to retreat in prayer. We’ll find ourselves saying, “Do [my] friends despise, forsake [me]?” “Is there trouble anywhere?” And the answer to that, of course, many a week, many a day, is yes. And then, “We should never be discouraged” but “take it to the Lord in prayer.”
Or, as Pilgrim in the great story of Bunyan, described in the hymn written by Bunyan in somewhat archaic language—I wonder if you can pick it up—in the second verse, he says of his pilgrim, “Who so beset him round with dismal stories” (whoever surrounded him and just told him bad news all the time), those individuals, says Bunyan, “do but themselves confound,” because
His strength the more is;
No foes shall stay his might,
Though he with giants fight;
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.
And Nehemiah stands across the corridors of time as an illustration of an individual who, having put his hand to the plow, refused to look back. The guys who will put their hand to it and look back and look around and buzz off are ten a penny. The men, the women of courage and fortitude and discipline and conviction and commitment who will take the task and see it through are few. That’s why we remember their names. That’s why they rise from the pages of Holy Scripture.
So, the mission is accomplished, and the enemies react with fear and a loss of self-confidence. That’s, we’re told, how they reacted. They no longer were as smug as they’d been, and frankly, they were afraid. Now, why was this? What was it that the enemies realized? Well, we’re told. The reason that they “were afraid and lost their self-confidence” was “because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.”
Now, let us not miss this foundational principle. Throughout all the pages of Scripture and throughout all of the history of the church, the challenge has always remained for the people of God so to do the work of God that those who are outsiders to the work will not be able to explain what has happened in purely human terminology. And the degree to which the work of God can be, if you like, explained away in human terms is probably the degree to which men and women seek to do God’s work our way.
Now, I can’t belabor this point this morning, but let me give you a couple of wonderful stories to read for homework. One of them you’ll find in 1 Samuel 17. It’s the story of David and Goliath. When you get to that story and read it, you will find that the people of God needed to discover the same principle. They were tyrannized and they were neutralized on account of this big giant Goliath, who was marching up and down in front of the armies of Israel. And they couldn’t see beyond this character. And since there was nobody big enough to go out and fight him, they decided they were just going to have to let him come out every morning and shout in the way that he did.
You see, the people of God had it all wrong. They were looking for somebody big enough; God was looking for somebody small enough. They were looking for somebody who could take him on at his own game; God was looking for somebody who would be so in touch with him that he might be able to confront this Philistine, despite all of his size and magnificence, and yet slay him in a way that would render the response “God did that.” And that’s exactly what happened. David, refusing the armor of Saul, takes what is familiar to him, fires a stone, dings the guy right in the middle of the head, chops his head off, and the whole Philistine army flee. Why? Because of the same principle: the enemies realized, “God is here.”
Now, if you want to go somewhere else, to another fascinating story, you go to 1 Kings 18 and the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. They got a big sacrifice, burn-off event going. And basically, the deal is that they’re going to see whose God can make their sacrifice burn. The prophets of Baal—there are 450 of them—they’re all in their finery, presumably. They’re all dressed. They all look very prophetlike, and they’re all in their grandeur. And they come up, and they’re going to make their plea to their gods to send fire and consume their sacrifice. There’s one other character who is not, apparently, dignified as are the prophets of Baal. He’s got a kind of threadbare, old camel coat, and he doesn’t look like much. He’s the only one left, and it’s him against the 450.
Who do you think you would have stood beside if you’d been in 1 Kings 18? After all, if anything looked like power and might, if there was any evidence of dramatic things taking place, if there were any words of prophecy being given, they were all being given over here with the 450. Goodness gracious! What could we ever expect from the old threadbare fellow?
And so they slashed themselves, and they danced around from morning until night. They couldn’t get a spark out of the thing. And over comes Elijah. He says to his boys, “Set it up.” They set it up. He says, “Dig a trench around it.” They dig a trench around it. He says, “Get four big jugs of water, fill them up, pour them on the wood and on the offering.” They pour it on. They must have been looking at one another and saying, “Man, this is hard enough without this.” And then he said to them, “Fill the jugs a second time and pour it on.” They poured it on. We’ve now got eight huge jugs of water swimming all over the wood and the sacrifice. He then said to them a third time, “Take the jugs, fill them, pour them all on.” And as a result of that, it flowed all over the sacrifice and down, and we’re told in 1 Kings 18 that it filled the trench round about. From any human perspective, it was an absolute impossibility that you could get a spark out of that, let alone a flame, let alone consume what was on the altar. And that is exactly what happened.
And back here on the wall, with the enemy saying it can’t be done, Nehemiah acts in such a way that the people say, “God has helped them in this.”
Loved ones, that’s how it’s supposed to be in church. That’s what’s supposed to happen in this church. Our neighbors and our friends are not supposed to be able to sit down with a balance sheet and work out who we are and what we’ve got and what we’ve done, nor sit down with the sort of trends of late twentieth-century America, and the interest in family life, and the concern for stability, and the interest in religion, and sit down with all of those factors, and then lay them as a paradigm over Parkside Church, and say, “Oh, that’s easy! I understand what that’s about. That’s a group of people. Many of them were in the ’60s. They got their heads kind of smashed around in the ’60s. They came around, they got a pinstriped suit, a garage-door opener, a bunch of taxes, four kids, and now they’re going crazy. And so,” somebody said, “you know, if you want to have a nice…” And so the people go around, and they say, “Oh, I can understand it all.”
But that’s exactly what people will say, unless there is a God dimension about us. Unless there is a God dimension about my life, my enemies will never be forced to conclude that God’s involved. They’ll just conclude, “He’s religious.” When they come into worship and they hear us sing, they’ll never fall down on their faces and exclaim, “God is in this place!” à la 1 Corinthians 14:25, to which we’ll come in the evenings—unless the people of God are living on the edge with God, doing things for God, with the help of God, so that when the outsider comes in, they can only exclaim, “God is in this place!”
Surely this has got something to do with what Paul has to say about we could be involved in apparently very successful ministries, and yet on the day that we stand before God and we offer up our work to him, most of it is burned up. Indeed, we go into heaven singed in the seat of our pants, because what we thought was really powerful was actually wood and hay and stubble rather than gold and silver and precious stones.
Will you pray for our church? Do you pray for our church? Will you pray for the projects that we have begun to undertake, the things that we’ve begun to do, believing that God is in them? Will you pray that there will be such a dimension of the Spirit of God amongst the people of God in this place that the outsider, the enemy, will lose all their confidence in themselves, will come to fear, because they realize, “This is God.”
Well, that’s the accomplishment of the mission.
Secondly, notice what happens when we go behind the scenes. Notice what happens when we go behind the scenes.
We go behind the scenes in verses 17–19. Behind the scenes, people were writing letters. A guy called Tobiah was a real pain in the neck. He was a pain in the neck at the beginning of the story. You’ll find, as we conclude, that he’s a pain in the neck at the end of the story. It’s almost like God raised him up just to be a pain in the neck. He kept sending letters, and people were replying to the letters. And in verse 19, they kept coming to Nehemiah and saying, “Tobiah is a really nice man,” and telling all his good deeds and waiting to see how Nehemiah would respond. And then they’d buzz back to Tobiah, and then they told Tobiah what Nehemiah had said.
Now, the interesting thing is, in verse 14, Nehemiah had been talking about Tobiah. To whom? To God. That’s the best person to talk to your enemies about, incidentally. Don’t talk to your friends about your enemies, because then your enemies might become your friend’s enemies, and that would be a shame, because then everyone’s got enemies. So if you’ve got an enemy—you know somebody doesn’t like you—then just talk to the Lord about it. And that’s exactly what was happening here.
Tobiah is a pain in the neck to Nehemiah. Nehemiah tells God about it. Verse 14: “Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God. Remember them because of what they’ve done to me. They’re a jolly nuisance to me!” So the wall was completed. The project is done. Verse 19: “And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.” I mean, you can’t go forward for going back. Just when you think you’ve got it buttoned down, just when you think you did it, still the undercurrent is there. And the undercurrent was clearly there.
The problem in the Tobiah factor, if we may refer to it in that way, was simply this: that Tobiah was not an outsider; he was a Jew, like Nehemiah. Secondly, he was financially involved with some of the wealthy families in Judah. That’s the significance of the statement here concerning “many [of] Judah” who “were under oath to him,” in verse 18. And also, as we see in verse 18, he was related to the wealthy families in Judah through marriage.
Now, cast your mind back to chapter 5. Who did Nehemiah stick it to for oppressing the poor? The wealthy families of Judah. So he had a problem with the wealthy families of Judah, and Tobiah had an undercurrent going with these same families. And the apparently inconsequential correspondence which was flowing between them was probably a thin disguise for the fact that they were all waiting for the day when Nehemiah would go, and then they could get things back on track—when Nehemiah would take his hands off it, and they would once again have the upper hand in Judah.
Anybody who’s been involved in leadership at all knows just what a telling illustration this is, what a fact it is—the undercurrents that are always present, no matter how apparently successful the projects, no matter how completed the walls may be, no matter what the desires and hopes for the future. Nobody will ever sustain leadership in the people of God unless God makes their shoulders broad enough, their mind expansive enough, their heart strong enough to deal with this kind of undercurrent. And frankly, it’s so close to what is true of many churches as to make saying it, for many pastors, an absolute liability. Indeed, many a pastor has walked the plank for being prepared to confront this kind of mutiny in the midst of bounty.
As I told you other Sundays ago, there are many churches—I visit them as I travel around; I go different places—where it is clear. The guys take me to golf. I go and play golf with them, and then within four holes, I know that there’s two or three families have this church in their pocket. Oh, they don’t say, “We got the church in our pocket.” They don’t need to say it in that way; I just know that they do. And so the pastor is now tyrannized by whoever these characters are. And to the degree that he is prepared to challenge them, he’s in deep trouble. Thank God that has never been the case in my experience here, and God grant that it never will be the case. Okay?
Mission accomplished: 15 and 16. Behind the scenes: 17–19. And finally, verses 1–3: going forward. Going forward.
There’s no record of Nehemiah asking for his name to be etched in stone, no flavor of his retirement emerging here. Nobody’s suggesting that he should take a rocking chair and go sit over at the Water Gate: “Why don’t you go over there, Nehemiah? You’ve done a great job. We’ll put your name up on the wall, and you can go sit over by it and look at it and just preen your feathers and congratulate yourself.” No, none of that! Because the servant of God knew that the work of God was far bigger than him.
That’s very, very important when we’re tempted to think that there’s nobody else in the world could ever do this—you know, “If I don’t play this organ, no one will play it,” “If I don’t do this Sunday school class, no one will do it,” “If I don’t preach, no one can preach,” and so on and so on. We have to write across our mirrors in our bathrooms: “The kingdom of God can go on very well without you, Alistair Begg, thank you very much.” And that keeps us with a right sense of perspective.
That is not to say that our part is insignificant. It can never be insignificant if God gives it. So he gave him a very significant part, but it didn’t have significance beyond the part that God had given him.
And so his mind is already on the future. He’s not taking time to memorialize his achievements. He’s thinking future. There’s almost a breathlessness about the description here. It makes me want to stand on my toes and look over the wall and see what’s going to happen next. With Paul, he’s the kind of guy who’s forgetting the things that are behind, and he’s pressing on to the goal to win the prize for which God has called him—Philippians 3:14.
Indeed, the three words that I suggested would be the title of the whole study help to summarize this. Let me just give them to you.
First of all, what is happening here in verses 1–3 is consolidation. He is consolidating what has already taken place. He’s asking, in chapter 7, this question: “Who is available to populate and revitalize the city?” Or, if you like, “Who do we have, and how can we use them?” That’s what chapter 7’s about. He borrows a list from Ezra chapter 2, and he repeats it here in Nehemiah chapter 7. And what they’re doing is they’re laying down, conducting a census, and saying, “Who do we have?”
And the people of God must always do that. That’s the significance of membership. It is that and, in many ways, not a great deal more than that—for the key thing is that we’re attached to Christ, we’re therefore made members of his invisible body, and we become identified with a local body, so that the leadership can look out and say, “Who do we have, and how can we use them?” It lays a burden on the leadership to use them. It lays a burden and responsibility on those who are present to offer themselves in service.
The people were perhaps tempted to believe that once the wall was up, that was it; or to believe that once community had been established, that was it. But neither the wall nor the community was the end. Neither the building nor the gathering of the church is the end. We don’t exist for ourselves. We exist for those who as yet have never heard. And that has to constantly be sounded out for a congregation. ’Cause we’re so tempted to say, “We did it! We arrived! We’re here! Now what we’re going to do is scratch each other’s backs and keep each other accountable and have a little time to ourselves.” That is all well and good, but that’s not the objective. The objective is that God would be glorified. How is God glorified? “In this is my Father glorified, that you bring forth fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” So, the work of consolidation.
The work of preparation. The whole tenor of these opening verses here has to do with the fact that he was looking forward. There were unique opportunities; there were peculiar demands. And he’s preparing for the future. He knows the part he’s played. He knows what his role has been. He knows now that his role is going to be different in going forward. There’s a change here in the organizational chart taking place.
That brings us to the third and final word; it’s the word delegation. Up until this point, all the lines, if you like, had come back to Nehemiah himself. He was the guy in whose heart God had put to do these things. He was the guy who did the reconnaissance. He was the fellow who came around and said, “Look, I think we can do this.” He was the point man for so much. But he’s reached a point along the journey where he says, “If we’re going to go forward from here, I can no longer be this person.”
And so he decides to make these delegations. He delegates to gatekeepers—very, very important. I’m going to preach a sermon called “The Gatekeepers” sometime. I can’t do it this morning, but I think there’s a wealth in this whole idea of gatekeepers. I haven’t fully thought it through. But the elders are the gatekeepers of the church, for sure. Acts chapter 20: “After I depart, people will come to draw away followers after them. But you, guard the flock of God that’s in your charge.” And Nehemiah knew that if he was going to put guys in the gate, they needed to be loyal; they needed to understand the objectives; they needed to understand and be committed to where the thing was going. You’re not going to put yo-yos up on the gates. After all, there’s all the treachery of the Tobiah factor, and these men need to understand that—hence the call to forsake cluelessness, from last Sunday.
Also, when God moves amongst his people, they sing. And the worshippers were there. And the servants were there, the Levites. And then he makes these two key appointments. Loyal, able, responsible supervision for the project was needed. So he takes his brother Hanani, whom we met in chapter 1, ’cause he was the character who had come the nine hundred miles to Susa to tell Nehemiah, “The gates are burned with fire. The walls are crumbling down. The people of God are in deep trouble.” Hanani was a man who had the big picture in view, who cared for what was going on. And so he turns to him and he says, “Hanani, you’re going to take charge of Jerusalem. And there’s going to be another fellow work with you. His name is Hananiah. You know the one. He’s the commander of the citadel.” (We’ve read of him before.) “And I want him to have a strategic role in this because of his professional competence and his devotion to God.”
Notice that: “because he was a man of integrity,” verse 2, “and he feared God more than most men do.” That’s what you look for when you look for leadership in the church: men of integrity who fear God more than most. Not just run-of-the-mill! People who fear God more than most. “Twelve men went to spy on Canaan; ten were bad, two were good.” What was the difference? The difference was that Joshua and Caleb feared God more than most, more than the other ten. They stood out from the twelve because of their integrity and their fear of God.
And Nehemiah knew that if the project was to go on beyond simply the building of a wall—if it was going to mean the establishing of the community of God’s people, if it was going to have all the dimensions that God intended—then there would need to be loyal, able, responsible supervision to take care of all the details of government and presumably to prepare for the day when he departed for Susa. Because after all, when he had left, the king had asked him, in 2:6, “How long will your journey take, and when [are] you [going to come] back?”
Now, are you making the application to our church this morning? It’s so obvious, it’s like standing on the end of a rake, and it comes up and hits you on the nose. Without any sense of contrivance, we arrive at 7:1–3 on the morning that we make mention of the appointment to our church leadership of one of the key positions, under God, as we understand it.
At our staff meeting last Monday, we said to one another, “Now, look, we’ve got the welcome of new members”—not realizing how much fun it was really going to be. “We’ve got Communion. We’ve got a number of things. There’s no way in the world that we’re going to preach from Nehemiah. Why don’t we just do something on the church, or the body life of the church, or whatever it is?” So I said, “Well, let’s just read the Scriptures together. Let’s just look at Nehemiah 7,” because I hadn’t done any prior study on it.
When I opened up Nehemiah 7 and I found that what you have here is Nehemiah having reached a strategic point, and then he turns around and says, “You know, if this project’s going to go forward, we’re going to have to do it differently. There’s going to have to be other people involved in this.” And so he finds and he lays hands on these men, who are better than him, presumably, at many of the details that need taken care of. Then I said to myself, “You know, if we had decided to go and find a section in the Old Testament to try and convince our people that we had a biblical precedent for doing what we were doing in relationship to the appointment of Jeff Mills, we would have been hard-pressed to find Nehemiah chapter 7.” And here it is, in the course of systematic, expository studies that we planned long ago but that God planned from all of eternity, that I believe that we would reach Nehemiah 7:1–3 on this particular Sunday, because he knew that that would be the Sunday after Arthur Andersen released the memo to his complete company, stating the fact that Mills was ready to do the job. If you don’t like the application or it seems self-seeking in any way, then I apologize. But I, for one, believe it with all my heart.
Let me give you this, and we’ll conclude—because I want you to understand something of this. About three years ago, a few elders and myself sat down to ask the question, “What’s going to happen here in this church, at the leadership level and everything else?” I can’t go through all the details with you, but one of the questions was in relationship to the whole development of the pastoral team and to bring gifting to bear upon our church structure that was not represented in the configuration of members that we had, not least of all in myself. It was clear that I limp very heavily on one side in relationship to the instruction and teaching and preaching and that I had very little interest and ability in a lot of the administrative, developmental elements of things. That’s a real problem, because you can get fired for something like that, especially if they want you to do both. And I said, “Guys, I don’t think I can do it.” So they said, “Well, let’s think about it, pray about it.” We thought about it, discussed. We had all kinds of people poke their nose into things. And eventually, an outside, objective source, having met with us, listened to us, and gone through a whole bunch of stuff and having assessed everything, sent back this recommendation. And this is how it read—and with this I’m going to conclude this morning.
It says that since I do what I do, then, it says, we need another staff member—not a “normal” type of person found in the “traditional church” but a person who would meet these considerations. Number one, “a person who would assume the role of chief of staff,” it says here. (But we just called it director of ministries.) Number two, “a person who would have a very strong trust bond with Mr. Begg, having been personally selected by him and affirmed by the board.” Number three, “a person who should have proven himself in a prior executive or managerial role.” Number four, “a person who should have no ambition or prior experience as a preacher or public speaker; a person who would have authority over all church operations, including existing church staff, second only to the senior pastor,” and that “the senior pastor should be accountable to the church board for the performance of this individual and for himself.”
Then the person writes,
There will be a delicate balance between this individual, Mr. Begg, and the elders, which will have to be carefully monitored. The balance will be built on mutual trust. In no way is this to be viewed as a precarious balance, but it is a different arrangement, not necessarily typical for traditional churches.
And then it says,
Since this unique arrangement, that of the director of ministries, is being considered, it will become obvious to all those concerned that Mr. Begg’s longevity with his present church will be further enhanced, since there will not appear to be other churches willing to go to this extent to negotiate with him for such an ideal job relationship.
Well, if that was the kind of thing that kept us all in the ministry, none of us would be in the ministry. But it is an interesting insight, and certainly it is the commitment of our hearts.
Let’s bow in prayer, shall we?
Father, I pray that you will take our studies in Nehemiah, take our church as it is this morning, take our lives, and let them be consecrated to you. I pray that even as we break bread now in these final moments, as we crown our morning worship, that you will knit our hearts together in the bonds of the gospel. Pour out upon us a spirit of praise. Give to us a spirit of expectancy. Bless us, not because we deserve it but because we long for it and really need it. For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.
 Nehemiah 4:6 (NIV 1984).
 Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855).
 John Bunyan, “He Who Would Be Valiant.”
 See 1 Kings 18:16–40.
 See 1 Corinthians 3:12–13.
 John 15:8 (paraphrased).
 Acts 20:28–29 (paraphrased).
 Nehemiah 1:3 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.