Learning from the Past
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Learning from the Past

Nehemiah 1:1–3  (ID: 1713)

In the opening of Nehemiah, we discover that God had a plan for His people and had a man chosen to do His work. Learning from Nehemiah, we can establish building blocks within church ministry to care for God’s people and purposes. While our work is different, we must respond to the urgent work of the Gospel. Alistair Begg teaches that as in Nehemiah’s day, God uses ordinary individuals placed in strategic positions to accomplish His purposes.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 1

God’s Work, God’s Way Nehemiah 1:1–7:3 Series ID: 11601

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you once again to take your Bible and turn with me to the book of Nehemiah.

Now, this morning, we’re going to do a little bit of history. If you want a title, we maybe should call it “Learning from the Past,” or “Back to the Future,” or something like that, because we’re going to do some modern history, first of all, and then some ancient history. For those of you who don’t like history, this is going to be a bad morning. And you might as well just know that up front, and anything that goes better than you’ve expected will be an encouragement to you. But this is largely historical.

Modern History

I’d like to begin by conducting a survey and asking, without embarrassment to anyone: How many of you were present on the ninth of September 1983, back in the old building on Fairmount Boulevard? Put up you hand if you were, please. Put it right up. I want to see, if I may. Okay, once again, thank you very much. As in the first service: not 25 percent, maybe 10 percent of the present congregation were present on that day. There’s good and bad and ugly to all of that. But those are the facts as they represent themselves.

Those of you who were present on that day may recall that we studied the book of Nehemiah together—at least that we began to do so. Frankly, many of you have probably forgotten that, and that’s okay as well. It’s good. It helps to humble me and makes what I’m about to do all the more telling.

Whether you existed pre-1983 or post-’83, you’re probably wondering why it is that, given those as the facts, why we would go back and restudy the book of Nehemiah together. In the previous church in which I served in Scotland, I never repeated, and here, I have not repeated—at least not a series. I may have slipped the odd Sunday on you without you knowing, but by and large, I have not repeated. And I have no intention of repeating.

All of us know these schoolteachers or university teachers who have this big, fat wad of stuff that they have had from time immemorial, and they just regurgitate it class after class after class. They’re on a kind of three- or four-year cycle, they’ve never updated their notes, they haven’t, essentially, read a book for the last forty years, and they just churn it all out. And there is no question but that certain elements of pastoral ministry provide unique opportunities for that. One is cynically tempted to believe that the reason that the average stay in the church on terms of pastoral ministry in America is somewhere around two years or three years is because after three years, the average guy has run out of his series of sermons, and so, rather than actually prepare something new, he moves down the road and does it all over again. And if you think that’s not true, just follow some of us around.

Now, therefore, in the minds of some of you, you’re saying, “I’m getting the picture. Clearly, you’re ten years into it. You’ve done ten years. You figure ten years is a pretty good cycle, so why not recycle, and let’s go back to the beginning and try it all over again.” No, not at all. I’ll tell you why: because I’ve got the whole Bible to work from. I’ve got a very short life, and I’ve worked out how many Sundays I might have on the best of opportunities, and I know that using all my Sundays to go at all of the Bible, there is no way I can come close to preaching my way through the Bible—not probably even through the whole New Testament. So for me to repeat something is to impede my own personal desire for progress in that matter. Therefore, you’ve got to know that it’s purposeful. And the purpose is largely twofold.

First of all, in terms of my own desire to establish clearly, in my own thinking and for the well-being of all of our congregation, the philosophical underpinnings of how I believe ministry ought to work. Now, when I say that, it sounds very self-oriented. I don’t mean that. I mean that it is my responsibility to take the Scriptures and to unfold them in such a way that we share together biblical building blocks for how ministry should take place.

Now, back on Fairmount Boulevard in 1983, I did that. Somewhat naively, I did it. Looking back on it now, I probably shouldn’t. It was premature. Many of the people who were there were unable to grasp or be grasped by this particular whirlwind that came burling through at a rate of knots, charging through the book of Nehemiah. Some have told me since, and some have just carried the pained expression in their face through the years, and I’ve deduced the same to be true. And of the people who heard it, not all of them got it—not as a result of their inability to think but as a result of my own personal ineptitude.

So, those who have tracked us all the way through, I think—myself included—will do well to go on a refresher course. And those who were never part of it, who’ve been wondering, “Well, what are the building blocks upon which this is erected? What are some of the givens around here?” will be able, for the first time perhaps, to see how it is we’ve arrived at this rarified brand of chaos which we call Parkside Church.

Now, that brings me to the second reason why we’re going to study it: because there are unique circumstances which face us as a church right now. I’d never been through a building project before. Neither had many of you. We had no reason to know what it would be like, no reason to know what the outcome would be. I think, if we’re honest and still humble, we’ve got to say God was really good—blessed us, kept us, sustained us, and nobody’s leaving. Everyone says you start a building project, you’re dead by the time it finishes, if not before. Well, that hasn’t happened. And there’s no sense of pride in that. But we’re still together, pastor and people. We’ve elbowed one another in the ribs, we’ve taken spikes in the shins, but we’re still here, and we’re still going forward. May God’s name be praised! Okay?

However, since January 7, when we moved into this building, I’ve observed a number of situations. These are the unique circumstances. The reaction of people to the privilege of this place is multivarious. My perspective, which I now share with you, is simply my perspective. It is a selective list; it is not an exhaustive list. But this is what I have seen taking place from the vantage point that God has given me—a number of reactions to our having arrived here. You may want to write these down, ’cause you’re going to fit one of these more than you fit another.

Reaction number one: what I’ve called relaxation. Relaxation. These are the people who tend to say things like “We did it! We’re here! Let’s sit down. Let’s relax. Let’s not get too steamed up about anything or about anyone. We’re out of the high school. We no longer have to set up and tear down. We got blue seats rather than red seats. We can snuggle up to the people next to us. There are no armrests in between.” And basically, it’s a policy of containment amongst the relaxers. Without being unkind to them in any way, many of these people have reached the limit of their vision to this point. They see nothing beyond here. They’re very content with things as they are. And so, basically, they want to relax. Therefore, anyone who suggests that they shouldn’t be relaxing is a source of jolly nuisance to them—or is a jolly source of nuisance, or whatever. Relaxation.

Secondly, investigation. We have the investigators. From outside they’re coming, all over the place. Some of you are sitting here today, and we welcome every one of you. We’re so glad you’re here to investigate: “Hey, do you see that spire down there at the end of the fairway? What is that place? Let’s go find out!” So they come, so you come, to investigate: “What is it? Who is it? Why is it? What is it doing?” And from inside there’s a lot of investigation going on by people who’ve tracked along with us. And essentially, you’re asking tons and tons of questions, and you’re really saying, “What’s going on here?”

Thirdly, we have agitation. Relaxation, investigation, agitation. These are the people who are always bouncing around. And I include myself with this group. If I have to be somewhere, I’m probably as agitated as anybody is. And so there’s nothing pejorative in the remarks which now follow. But a lot of people have arrived here, and they’re saying, “I’m not sure this is what I expected.” Now, they don’t know what they expected, but they’re just not sure that what they expected is what they got. And they say, “I don’t know if I like it here, and I don’t know if I want to stay here, and I don’t know if this is the place for me, and I don’t know if I fit,” and so on and so on, and they’re agitated. “I don’t know if I like robes. I don’t know if I like organs. I don’t know if I like cellos. I don’t know if I like you. I don’t know if I like this place.” It’s just agitations, all the time. They’re like the tossing of the sea. You talk with them; there’s no stability to them. They don’t know whether they’re coming or going. You don’t know if you’ve got them, you’re losing them, or what you’re doing with them. They’re just agitated.

Fourthly, there are those who are marked by expectation. These are the folks who, when you come to the line that we just sang in the blue sheet there, “past put behind us,”[1] they just sing that really loudly, because yesterday is history. Whatever happened yesterday is gone. These folks have got no time for yesterday. “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death,” they say, and it is “tomorrow, … tomorrow, and tomorrow,” as it “creeps in this petty pace,”[2] that they want to be consumed with.

And so these are the people who are asking, “What are we going to do now? When do we start phase two? Did we buy the property across the street? Should we buy a missionary house on Root Road? Can’t we buy the park? Can’t we put a big road through to the park? Can’t we move to the park? Can’t we do something?” Okay? So in all their minds, it’s always, “This, this, this, this,” on and on and on. So, I’m basically an agitated expecter, or an expectant agitator. I’ve got to be honest and tell you where I am.

Then you have the fifth group, the organizational group. These are the organizers. These are vital people. These people get really freaked out by the agitators and the expecters. If you’re an organizer sitting next to an agitator, you better move your seat. ’Cause the thing they went “Hm!” about you went “Ugh!” about. Okay? The thing that made them rise forward—they said, “Yes!”—made you say, “Oh, no!” Because these people are going around saying, “We better get some of this stuff sorted out. I mean, we don’t know what we’re doing! I mean, this guy says we’re going to get more and more and more people. We can’t even do anything with the people we’ve got. So why would we go and get more and more? Somebody says we’re going to develop this, and we haven’t even developed that.” And so it goes on.

And in the multiplicity of it all, you have all of these people scattered all around this church. Now, what are you going to do with them all?

Now, there are doubtless other categories, and we could go on and list them if we chose. But probably, if you had a baseball hat made out—and this would be good, actually, but some enterprising person can do it. You know, you can make baseball hats that say, “Parkside Church,” and then underneath it can say, “Agitator,” “Expecter,” “Relaxer,” whatever else it is. Then we can all wear ’em on Sundays, and at least we know where we stand with each other. In fact, we could have sections for all the different people, you know: “You want to agitate? Over in the bottom righthand corner,” and so on. Not a good idea.

Now, what are you going to do with these people? Well, in each case, the best that I can discover—and this is why I’m back at the book of Nehemiah—the best place to go is back to the book of Nehemiah. Because there is no other book, in the Old Testament at least, that addresses this variety of circumstance better than Nehemiah. Because the book of Nehemiah stirs the relaxers, it focuses the agitators, it answers the investigators, it guides the expecters, and it structures the organizers. Amen? Ah, thank you! Thank you. I said in the first service that a little run like that is really worthy of a Black church. I mean, I’m going to preach this in a Black church, and I know they’ll get excited by that. You folks, nothing! Stirs the relaxers, focuses the agitators, answers the investigators, guides the expecters, and structures the organizers. Amen! Yes! See? Now we have church! Sorry to wake some of you up. Don’t worry: once I start the history, you’ll be able to go back to sleep all over again—once we go to the ancient stuff.

Now, let me say this: as long as there are people who have neither heard a cogent presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ nor been given a crossroads experience in their lives to which they might respond, there is no mandate in the whole of the Bible for containment. There is no point in the life of a church where you’re able to say, “Us four, no more, shut the door.” Therefore, there can be no standstill. There can ultimately be no relaxation.

So the crying need of the hour, I believe, having thought and prayed this through and talked and listened to my colleagues and to others—the crying need of the hour in Parkside Church is this (you want to write this down): it is for Bible-based, Spirit-led, circumstance-related organization. Bible-based, Spirit-led, circumstance-related organization. Every growing church will have to tool and retool again and again and again. Every growing organism must organize and reorganize and reengineer to meet the challenges of its present configuration and of its opportunities in the marketplace. And when you read the history of the church, you know that that is absolutely true.

The book of Nehemiah stirs the relaxers, it focuses the agitators, it answers the investigators, it guides the expecters, and it structures the organizers.

Turn with me forward, just for a moment, to something in Acts chapter 6 that could so easily become a distraction, but I won’t allow it to become so. Acts chapter 6, and you’ll notice there… Let me give you a four-point sermon here on the opening verses of Acts 6, and then you can make your own sermon up with it later on.

The context are twenty thousand people who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Okay? If you’re going to have organization, point number one, you need to diagnose the problem. Diagnose the problem. The problem in Acts 6 was twofold: growth and grumbling. And in my limited experience, it seems to me that where you have growth, you have grumbling. So they were growing, and they were grumbling. That was the problem. Number one: diagnose the problem.

Number two: determine the priority. Verse 4: “We … will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”[3] If you’re going to determine the priorities of a church, there needs to be discernment, and the discernment was granted to the leaders. In verse 2, they said, “It[’s] not … right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” So you have discernment, and you have devotion: discernment of the issue, devotion to what needs to take place.

Diagnose the problem. Determine the priority. Thirdly, delegate the responsibility. Verse 5: “[The] proposal pleased the whole group,” and they chose out good men, filled with the Spirit, wise, whom God would use to set forward his purposes at that time.

Diagnose the problem, determine the priority, delegate the responsibility, and, verse 7, discover the effect: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

Now, what you have there in Acts chapter 6 is a little glimpse of what is essentially established here by discovering the principles in Nehemiah.

We have to be honest enough to admit this morning, as a church family, that there are missing elements in what we’re doing. Some of them are actually glaring holes. With any sense of history at all, we need to be humble enough to recognize that there were things that we were doing before that we were doing better than we’re doing today. There were areas of ministry that were better staffed, better mobilized, better trained, and better focused than they are today. I don’t think that any of the circumstances in which we find ourselves we are in so much as a result of a design but rather as a result of default, as a result of emphases and focuses in responding to circumstances. And that’s why it is vital for leadership to diagnose the problem, to determine the priorities, to delegate the responsibilities, and to discover the effect. That’s why we’re going to study Nehemiah together. Because this ancient book will help to see that accomplished, provided the people of God approach it correctly. ’Cause, of course, as James says, you know, we can look into the perfect law which gives liberty and remain the same if we are merely hearers of the word and not doers also.[4]

Ancient History

Well, that, then, is the modern history which lies behind our desire to study Nehemiah together. Let us then go to the ancient history.

What is the immediate context that lies behind the opening phrase of the book of Nehemiah? Now, what I’d like to do for you is to take a kind of panoramic view of the history of the people of God. I’ll try and do it as effectively as I can, as briefly as I can. But I think you will find that it is important.

Let’s start—we’ve got to start somewhere—let’s start with the shepherd boy David. You remember wee David? “Only a [lad called] David, only a rippling brook. Only a [lad called] David, [and] five little stones he took.”[5] Why? ’Cause he was going to beef Goliath. Nobody was prepared to do it. He was sent up from the family home by his dad: “Go up and see your brothers. Take them some bread. Take them some cheese.” He shows up on the battlefront, and they say, “What are you doing here, you young whippersnapper?” He says, “That the kind of welcome that I get for bringing you bread and cheese?” They essentially say, “Buzz off!” He says, “Somebody had better deal with Goliath.” They said, “We know that. Clear off!” He said, “I’ll deal with Goliath.” Saul said, “If you’re going to deal with Goliath, wear this.” He said, “This is no good to me. I can’t wear this!” So he took it all off, and he did what he knew what to do—five stones, one sling, use one, keep four, bam! The guy’s down. He chops his head off. And the Philistines of Gath run—for a bath. No, the Philistines just run. They’re gone![6] Okay?

Samuel anoints him king, [7] and the history of the people of God flourishes. Despite all the aberrations of David’s life, he was a man who followed after God—a reminder to us that even in following after God, we’re not free from sin; we’re not free from our own moral perversity. And God exalts his kingdom. And at the end of his forty-year reign, the nation of Israel is strong financially, and militarily, it is immensely powerful. And it is into the care of his son Solomon that he entrusts this unbelievable empire.

Solomon, you’ll remember, was a bright guy—bright to start with, because when he was asked what he would like, he was smart enough to ask for wisdom rather than stuff. Whether he figured he would get stuff because he asked for wisdom we don’t know, but he sure did. And so Solomon takes over from David, and he’s got a really fabulous thing going.

If you doubt that, turn with me to 1 Kings chapter 10. If you don’t know where that is, start going back towards Genesis and you’ll hit it. First Kings chapter 10. You read this whole chapter concerning the visit of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon’s splendor. His gold was big stuff. And in verse 23, probably, is the best summary statement of his condition. First Kings 10:23: “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.” Okay? There wasn’t a guy could touch him. When it came to chariots, he had them. Forces, he had them. Houses, he had them. Nobody had more stuff than Solomon.

Plus, he was really smart. And verse 24 tells us that “the whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom [that] God had put in his heart.” And year after year, when it came time for his birthday, people said, “What do you give to the guy who has everything?” And they just gave him more and more of the same: “silver … gold, robes, weapons … spices … horses and mules.”[8] I mean, if you imagine: if you were his nephew or something, and you went over to his house, it’d be unbelievable! I mean, you think of it: he says, “Go out in the backyard and amuse yourself.” I mean, it would just be fantastic! It’s a children’s dream, you know? All this junk lying around, you know—good quality junk that Uncle Solomon has.

Okay, so he’s wise, he’s powerful, he’s inherited a forty-year established kingdom of the people of God, and basically, he’s all set. But look at 11:1: “King Solomon, however”—that word “however” is important—“loved many foreign women.” I can’t go into all the history, but God said, “You’re not going to love foreign women.” Now, the reason for this was that God’s purpose—his covenant purpose for the people of God—was to be channeled and to be determined by the purity of the people of God in terms of their relationships. It was essential that they did not intermarry with foreign women and thereby dilute the line through which the very Messiah himself would come. So God took it very seriously when people disobeyed his parameters concerning that. “Nevertheless,” the end of verse 2, “Solomon held fast to them in love.” Verse 3: he had tons of them. Verse 4: they messed him up. They “turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” And he started to worship the goddesses of the wives that he married.[9]

Only laments are suitable for the sinning Christian. Sin pays dreadful wages.

Let me tell you something in passing: you cannot play fast and loose in relationships. You cannot take the Word of God in its clear instruction, set it aside, embrace sin, and live without consequences. You cannot walk the wire successfully. Solomon tried it, and he failed miserably. And following his death, this tremendous nation that had been built up under God, under the tutelage of his father, was divided. When you read Old Testament theology, you discover it under the heading “the divided kingdom.”

What happened to it? Well, there were twelve tribes. Ten of them went north, settled in Samaria, and were called Israel. Two of them went south, settled in Jerusalem, and were called Judah. It was civil war. It was like America, but worse. People were fighting themselves. God sent his messengers, calling his people back. They put their fingers in their ears. And in 722, God moves the Assyrians to invade the Northern Kingdom, and the ten tribes were completely decimated. Some of the people from the North slipped down into the South to try and save themselves from the conquest of the Assyrians. And Judah, the two tribes in the South, centered in Jerusalem, manages to hold on for three hundred more years. That’s a long time. That’s a lot of mums and dads, a lot of grans and grandpas. That’s a long time—longer than any one of us will ever live. At least four times longer.

And living in Jerusalem, the people of God had the prophets of God sent to them. And these men would come and say, “Now, listen. God said it, and he said it clearly: ‘If you will walk in this way, I will bless you and I will prosper you. If you choose not to, I will send judgment upon you.’” And they said, “Get out of here! We don’t want to hear bad news from you or from anyone. Go home!” But the fellows who came around with a message of “Peace, peace, and tranquility,”[10] they loved them! In fact, they had big congregations. The guys with the truth had relatively small congregations; the guys with the lies were bursting at the seams. Because, you see, we love the soothing tones of falsehood, because they make us believe that we can continue to disregard God and still be okay. We don’t want to go to a church where the Bible is taught in such a way that there’s any sense of having sat on a pincushion. We like to be soothed. We like to be encouraged. We like to be told it’s okay, even if we know it’s not.

And so the people of God, over a period of three hundred years, are drawing to themselves these proclaimers of falsehood. And then judgment strikes: 722, the North is gone; 586, the problem comes for the South—the invasion of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar, the big guy, shows up, and the people are hammered. Turn with me to 2 Chronicles and to 36, and you’ll see this. Two Chronicles 36:19. Nebuchadnezzar and his cronies come to town, and “they set fire to God’s temple,” and they “broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces,” and they “destroyed everything of value there.” They blitzed the place.

Some of you were present to see the effects of the German bombing on Clydebank in the West of Scotland, or were present to see the decimation of Coventry Cathedral in the Midlands of England, or saw the situation in Berlin, or saw the events of the Blitz on the East End of London. Just destroyed the place! That’s exactly what Jerusalem looked like. The once blessed, encouraged, proud people, unwilling to listen to the voice of God, were carried away in chains eight hundred miles away from their home. Once again, as before in Egypt, they’re dragged away into slavery; they’re under the burden of a foreign power.

And so they reach their position of exile, and they begin to write songs. They’re not now writing songs of joy; they’re writing laments. They’re writing dirges. “By the rivers of Babylon,” they wrote, “we sat down and we wept. Oh, we wept when we remembered Zion.”[11] See, it’s always easier afterwards. God said, “I want you to live in moral purity. Violate that, you may laugh in the evening; you’ll cry in the morning.” God says, “I want you to live in integrity. Violate it at night, you’ll cry in the morning.” God says, “I want you to listen to my Word. Stick your fingers in your ear and laugh, and cry later.” Only laments are suitable for the sinning Christian. Sin pays dreadful wages. And here they sit, manacled, broken, defeated, singing their dreadful dirges.

Is it over? No, it isn’t over! If your Bible is open at 2 Chronicles 36, look at the twentieth verse: “He carried [them] into exile … the remnant, who escaped from the sword”—those were the ones that were carried in—“and they became [the] servants to him and his sons…” Now, notice this little phrase, ’cause here’s the hope: “until the kingdom of Persia came to power.” This didn’t last forever. Because in 539—and that’s the third of three dates you need to know, if you’re interested: 722 for the North, 586 for the South, and then 539. Actually, there’s one more. There’s a fourth. But in 539, the Babylonians got blown out by the Medo-Persian Empire. You say, “Big deal.” It was a big deal. Significant. Phenomenally significant. Because God’s plan and purpose was this: that in taking this Babylonian power and moving it away and setting up these new kings and authorities, he was going to provide the opportunity for the repatriation of his people, for the reconstruction of the wall, which was indicative of their own dreadful circumstances.

Note this, and note it well in passing: we need to learn how to read our newspapers. We need to learn how to read the events of our world. Do you think that the NATO meetings this week are of significance? Absolutely. Do you think that it matters whether NATO is expanded or deleted? Absolutely. Do you think that it is an absolute crime that all of those people can sit and bang their wooden heads together and allow Bosnia to destroy itself? Absolutely. Do you think it is heinous that with all of our ability to alter the affairs of men, we can allow that absolute carnage and destruction of a whole nation? Absolutely. Do you believe that God is sovereign in all these events? Absolutely.

There is no significance, ultimately, that will be explained in terms of the linear progression of human history save that which intersects with and is designed and divined by God himself as it relates to his people. Because if you come from thirty-five thousand feet now, as it were, from the panorama, and you descend where you can see not simply that there is a river and a lake, but it is this river and it is this lake, you begin to understand that God was sovereign in all of the machinations of the events of human history, and he was purposing that at such a time as this, he would raise a man to the authoritative position in whose heart there would be the willingness to see the reestablishment of God’s purposes and God’s glory.

You see, so much of the stuff that we are on the receiving end of makes me feel like this. It suckers me into feeling that I’m the answer to everything; that my telephone call is the key to everything; that my letter is the answer to it all; that somehow or another, that we’re deists—that God took his hand off it all, and we’re supposed it fix it all up ourselves now. No! “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.”[12] The rise of kingdoms, the fall of kingdoms, the exaltation of leaders, the decimation of countries is all under the control of God. And that’s what was becoming apparent here. The Lord determines the history of his own people, but he also fulfills his will through the mighty kings of foreign powers. Now, that is exactly what is made clear in Proverbs chapter 21: “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord, and he guides it the way he guides watercourses and rivers.”[13]

Now, for those of you who are still with me, let me try and bring this up to 1:1. Because, after all, we’re supposed to be studying Nehemiah, and we never even got there yet. So let’s do a little review before my voice gives out completely. We started with David—shepherd, cheese, bread, everything. Goliath? History. King, crown, forty years, Solomon shows up. Solomon has seven hundred wives, too much for any man. And as a result of a few of these girls, he gets completely messed up. As a result of being messed up, the kingdom is divided. Ten in the North blown out, 722. Two in the South go on for three hundred years; 756, kachung! They’re history as well.

The Lord determines the history of his own people, but he also fulfills his will through the mighty kings of foreign powers.

Babylon crashes in. All of the folks are in exile, except for a few left back amongst the rubble. And basically, the people back in the rubble are going, “It’s over,” and the people who are eight hundred miles away are going, “It’s over.” But God is working his purposes out. God has a plan, and God has a man. God always has a plan, and he also has a man. Does he have a woman? Yeah, sometimes—Esther, for example. So God has his man, God has his woman, God has his person.

Ezra chapter 1. You can read it. Six chapters describe the fact that as a result of the Medo-Persian authorities feeling concern for God and for his glory, they are allowed to go back and start building. A few of them go back and start building. They’re into it a wee bit. Another king intervenes and says, “Stop building.” The whole thing comes to a crashing halt all over again, and as a result of that, the word comes back to Nehemiah. And it is of this stopping of the first rebuilding project that we learn in the first two or three verses of chapter 1.

So let me ask, with you, four simple questions with four very simple and brief answers. Look at how the story begins. Number one: Who is involved? The answer is Nehemiah. What do we know about Nehemiah? Well, he’s the “son of Hacaliah.” Do you find that really illuminating? I mean, are you just going, like, “Exclamation point! That explains it!” No, you’re not. ’Cause you ain’t got a clue who Hacaliah was. That’s okay, ’cause nobody does. This is the only time he’s—well, God does—but this is the only time he’s mentioned in the whole Bible. Okay? So, “Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.” Oh, we’re really putting together a profile of this guy. I mean, so far, his resume is looking strong. Name: Nehemiah. Father: Hacaliah. What did he do? Don’t know. What do you do? Don’t know. “Hey, you’re never going to get a job like this, Nehemiah. I mean, we need some kind of credentials.”

Here’s a guy whose name appears nowhere else in the whole of Scripture, reminding us of something, just in passing: pedigree is no big deal. Spiritual enduement matters far more than educational advancement. Spiritual enduement matters far more than background. Spiritual enduement matters far more than any kind of legacy that we might have that is related to status in the minds of people. And yet we are consumed with all of those things: “Oh, I’ll need to be this, and I’ll need to do that, and I’ll need to advance this. I mean, I can’t just go out as an ordinary person and be used for God.”

Isn’t that what some of you feel? Some of you actually feel that way. I know you must. You feel you’ll never be useful to God because you haven’t done this, you haven’t been there, and you haven’t got that. That is bogus! That’s one of the biggest lies of the devil. You are immediately, instantaneously useful to God because he calls you, redeems you by his name, puts his Spirit within you, and gives you a desire to serve him. Immediately useful! Oh, you may not be able to do everything. You may not be able to do a lot of things. But you can do something. And Nehemiah was living proof of that.

Who is it? Nehemiah. When is it? Kislev. “In the month of Kislev.” Now, doesn’t that help you? Yeah! You’re saying, “This is great! Nehemiah, we don’t really know who he was, we don’t know who his dad was, and we don’t know when in the world Kislev was.” Well, I’m going to tell you: it was December. How do I know? I read it. If what I read is wrong, then none of us know! And if we don’t know, it’s ’cause we don’t really need to know. But anyway, it was Kislev. It was winter. It was “the twentieth year” of the king. It was sometime around 445 BC. That’s the fourth date: 445 BC.

Who was it? Nehemiah. When was it? December. Where was it? It was eight hundred miles from the deepest concerns of his heart. It was Susa, a citadel. It was the Washington, DC, of the then-known world. It was where you would always find the CNN cameras on the South Lawn. He was in a strategic place.

What was he doing? The last sentence of the chapter: “I was cupbearer to the king.”[14] He carried cups. That’s a big position! Some of the kids are going, “Oh, I don’t fancy that as a job. Huh! Cupbearer to the king? Looks pretty easy.” Hey, don’t be fooled. This wasn’t just carrying cups; this was drinking what was in the cups and eating what was on the plates. This is probably where you guys got the stuff—eating off one another’s plate came from, probably. Oh, some of you are offended. I beg your pardon. But I mean, you are uniquely capable of sharing your food. It’s a very nice thing. It’s an expression of generosity. But you really shouldn’t eat off one another’s plates. I’m trying to suggest to you that maybe it came as a result of the responsibility. Maybe you come from a long line of cupbearers. See? So your grandfather used to eat off your, you know, your great-grandfather’s plate so that he made sure it wasn’t poisoned or whatever it was.

But that was his job. He went around with the king. Every time someone said, “Would you like a drink?” the king said, “Hit it, Nehemiah.” And he took it. If it had a Mickey Finn in it, goodbye Nehemiah, long live the king. Okay? “Would you like a prime rib?” “Hit it, Nehemiah.” Wait for a moment or two. “Everything okay, Nehemiah?” “Yep! Serve it up.” So that was his job. It’s a good job for a risk-taker who likes food. If you want to live on the edge and eat a lot of good food, this is a wonderful job. And that was his job.

But think about it. There was nobody else closer to the king, apart from his wife, than his cupbearer. Secular history records the fact that these guys who were the cupbearers were often pretty cool, if I might put it that way. I mean, we ought not to think of Nehemiah as some decrepit little guy who’s going around waiting to take his drink. No. We should think of him like Joe Montana yesterday afternoon: able to take it up the field, throw deep, under intense pressure. Because the king wasn’t going to hang around with any little Joe Blow, because the kings like to look good. You don’t want to have this little guy coming along behind you. I mean, you don’t want to appoint this guy as your secretary of state. I mean, you’re going to go, and you come in the chariot, and people are going, “Who in the world is that little creep?” you know. No! You get a Nehemiah. He’s able to stand up and drink up and eat up—and hopefully not drop dead! And that’s exactly what he was.

There was—and listen to this, and listen carefully, ’cause we’re going to stop—there was no one in the whole world more strategically placed to influence the godless king than the cupbearer. And someday all those years ago, when the boots invaded Jerusalem, and when the mothers cried and the fathers beat their breasts, and when the sorry remnant gathered around the desecrated temple area and looked at the broken walls and gates and said, “It’s over,” from heaven God said, “No, it’s not, for I have a man, and I have a plan”—an ordinary guy, with an obedient heart and a genuine desire to be available for God.

God does extraordinary things with ordinary people.

And so verse 2 tells us that his brother showed up. Your brother comes from eight hundred miles away, what are you going to ask him? “Hey, has Mrs. Robinson still got the shop on the corner? Is the building still standing over there?” All those usual things. But you’re also going to ask about the things that matter most. And so does Nehemiah. He says, “I asked about the people of God, and I asked about the place of God.” The things that you and I ask about in casual conversation with our brothers and sisters reveal what’s on our hearts. The casual conversations post three minutes after the end of this worship service are as indicative of what’s on our hearts as any other thing. Don’t let that be a guilt trip to you, but it’s true. ’Cause “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speak[s],”[15] and out of the abundance of the heart, the heart asks. And if we inquire after the spiritual welfare of our brothers and sisters, it’s presumably because we’re concerned about God and his purpose in their lives. And so he was.

So, all of this by way of introduction.

What are we going to find out in studying this book? At least this: one, we’re going to find out the kind of people God uses when he chooses to do a work. And here’s the great, fantastic thing: it’s people like you and people like me. It’s ordinary guys. Ordinary guys. He does extraordinary things with ordinary people. Secondly, we’re going to find out that the principles that need to be adhered to for God’s work to be a lasting work are clearly delineated in this book. We don’t need to make them up. Thirdly, we’re going to discover the organization that is necessary in order to transform vision into reality. We’re going to discover the persistence that is necessary to see things through. And all in all, we’re going to discover what it means to do God’s work God’s way.

Can I ask you: Are you prepared to enlist in the army? Just you. Not even the person next to you. The dying moments of our worship service this morning, ninth of January ’94: Do you believe that God, in all of his plans and purposes, has put you in this place for this time and for this date—that there is something you are able to do that no one else is able to do, because God has planned it for you?

And if you are prepared to do that, let me tell you what it will take as we embark on these studies. Number one: resolve to come to prepare prayerfully for studying this book. Number one: resolve to prepare prayerfully. Two: resolve to attend regularly. Resolve to listen carefully. Resolve to apply in obedience zealously, irrespective of the cost to my preconceived notions, to my personal finances, to my time, to my materials, to my schemes, to my dreams. And under God, humbly, church history would affirm that we might then look to this particular series as being a veritable watershed in our church’s life.

January 9, 1994. Mark it down. Get ready. We’re going.

Let’s pray:

Father, send your Spirit to descend upon our hearts, to fill our minds with your glory. Grant us the spirit of Nehemiah, an ordinary guy who put his hand to the plow, thought big, trusted you, prayed a lot. And that’s the only reason we’ve got the book to read. We’ve read the history. In all humility of heart, we want to tell you that we’d like to make some history, for your glory. So come to each of our lives, just ordinary people going through our ordinary days—back to work, to home life, to the challenges of family, to singleness, to laundry, to the routine. May we hear you say, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” and you hear our response: “Here I am. Send me!”[16]

And may grace and mercy and peace from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who so believe, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Lord, for the Years” (1926).

[2] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.5.

[3] Acts 6:3–4 (NIV 1984).

[4] See James 1:25.

[5] Arthur Arnott, “Only a Boy Named David” (1931).

[6] See 1 Samuel 17:1–51.

[7] See 1 Samuel 16:13.

[8] 1 Kings 10:25 (NIV 1984).

[9] See 1 Kings 11:5.

[10] See Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11.

[11] Psalm 137:1 (paraphrased).

[12] Arthur Campbell Ainger, “God Is Working His Purpose Out” (1894).

[13] Proverbs 21:1 (paraphrased).

[14] Nehemiah 1:11 (NIV 1984).

[15] Matthew 12:34 (KJV).

[16] Isaiah 6:8 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.