Someone says, "Why study Nehemiah? Can't we study something more relevant to the church today? Can't we find something that relates more to me and my everyday struggles as a child of God?" Friends, Nehemiah is a book that is as relevant today as it has ever been. The book of Nehemiah tells of the people of God at a time when they had a difficult work to do. It tells of the struggles and the opposition they faced. And most importantly it tells how they overcame these difficulties to accomplish the task set before them. Does it sound relevant yet? We live in a time much the same as that of Nehemiah. No, we are not adding bricks to a physical wall, but rather we are seeking to add souls to the spiritual body. And no, our enemy is not Sanballat the Horonite, but Satan has found those equally as obstinate to fight against the Lord's work. And no, our fight is not one with physical swords, but the warfare is much the same.
I'm reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning....." (Romans 15: 4). So what is that we are supposed to learn from the record of Nehemiah. I am convinced that the book of Nehemiah has been divinely preserved for us because it teaches us how to work. It teaches us how to labour and accomplish challenging tasks, even in the face of opposition.
There are 3 factors that led Israel to the successful rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, the Lord, their Leader, and their Labour. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the hand of the Lord was in this effort. When the enemy tried to thwart the building efforts of the Lord's people by threat of attack, Nehemiah said, "we made our prayer unto God..." (Neh. 4:8). When the people became intimidated by the enemies' threats, Nehemiah advised, "Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord...." (vs. 14). And in verse 20, Nehemiah reminded the people, "our God shall fight for us." In addition to the Lord, a second factor that led to the successful completion of the wall was their Leader, Nehemiah. One must never underestimate the value of a good leader. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 444 B.C., the city was in disrepair. Despite the fact that Jews had been in Jerusalem for about 100 years, with exception of the temple, little work had been accomplished. Certainly, with regard to city's walls, it was in shambles. Sanballat, the Horonite questioned the Jew's efforts to rebuild the wall saying, "will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?" (Neh. 4:2). The Jews had attempted to rebuild the wall prior to Nehemiah's arrival, but to no avail. Sanballat's comments about the condition of the wall also point to the enormity and difficulty of the task they faced. Nevertheless, under the godly and capable leadership of Nehemiah, the wall was rebuilt in less than 90 days. Once again, let us not underestimate the value of a good leader. A third factor contributing to the successful rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall was their Labor, and that's where we will spend most of our time. How were the people of God able to turn this rock pile into a wall in less than 90 days. Nehemiah 4:6 says, "So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work" (Emp. - D.B.). Brethren, the Lord will do his part, and certainly good leaders help, but we will not accomplish the mission before us until we have "a mind to work."
Work! That is what we are going to be discussing. I want for us to examine these people and their labours and see what it was that made their work so successful. My assigned text for this lesson is Nehemiah 4:21. It says, "So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared." What a great text! This verse does more than tell us that they worked hard. It tells us how they worked, and I think that if we study this verse together we can learn some things that will help us to accomplish the work that we have to do. These principles helped them to turn the "heaps of rubbish" into a mighty wall in less than 90 days, and I think that they can help us to turn a struggling congregation into a bulwark in less than a generation.
The first point that I want for us to notice about their labour is that they had Participation. Nehemiah said, "So we laboured...." (Emp. - D.B.). The "we" indicates that there was participation in their work. This was not a one-man project, and indeed could only be accomplished when the many combined their efforts. If there is one fact that the Bible attests to, it is the power of unity. Solomon wrote, "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour" (Eccl. 4:9). Even when men engage in evil, there is strength in unity. In Genesis 11, when mankind decided to build the Tower of Babel, the Bible says, "the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech" (vs. 1). In verse 6, the Lord said, "Behold the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they began to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do" (Gen. 11:6 - Emp. - D.B.). The Lord said, "nothing will be restrained from them...". What a powerful testimony to the power of unity! Brethren, if there is one lesson that we need to learn, it is that our task is one that requires the Lord's people to be unified together and jointly participating to get the job done.
The second aspect of their labour that I want for us to notice was their Perspiration. Notice again verse 21. Nehemiah said, "So we laboured in the work...." (Emp. - D.B.). I use the word "perspiration" because the work of rebuilding the wall was hard physical labour. Imagine a day spent in "moving massive piles of rubble, mixing and carrying mortar, and manoeuvring heavy stones into place..." (Clayton Winters, Commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah-Esther [Abilene, TX: Quality Publications], 97. This is the kind of work that would bring sweat to the brow and pain to the back. Brethren, imagine the good that we could do if all Christians worked like that today. If every Christian would put forth that kind of exertion in the service of the Lord, I suspect that the command to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature would be realised in just a short time.
Especially significant though is the fact that the text says that they "laboured," not that they prepared to labour. I'm afraid that all too often we get the two confused. We substitute preparation for performance. We attend training classes, but we don't go out and teach. Now, that's not to say that preparation is bad, because we need to prepare, but preparation not carried out is futile to say the least.
Notice also that the text says, "laboured" and not "talked." Often times, it is the case that there is "...more said than done." It would be interesting to be able to compare the number of hours spent talking about working for the Lord to the number of hours spent in actual work. Some can talk a great talk, but when they get done talking, the work still needs to be done. An indifferent church member once said to Henry Ward Beecher who had presented a good point on human behaviour, "I take my hat off to this idea." Beecher responded, "How about taking off your coat and going to work for it." I think it is very significant that in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, the lord commended the faithful servant by saying, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant..." (vs. 21 - Emp. - D.B.). Notice that he says, "Well done" and not "Well said." There is a poem that says,
Two brothers once lived down this way,
Talk is fine, but as someone well said, "Nothing works like work when it comes to getting the job done."
Thirdly, the text does not say that they "intended" but rather that they "laboured." Many people have "good intentions", but good intentions do not get the job done. I read a poem recently that said:
There's a dusty Bible I mean to read;
Brethren, good intentions simply don't get the job done. Good intentions didn't build the wall around the city of Jerusalem, and good intentions won't get the work done today. Good intentions won't save souls. On the Day of Judgment, the Lord will not accept, "I intended to be baptised." If Nehemiah 4:21 had said, "So we intended to labour in the work", the wall of Jerusalem would still be a heap of rubble today. Good intentions do not build walls!
The third aspect of their work from which we can learn a lesson is their Cooperation. Verse 21 says, "So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears..." (Emp. - D.B.). Verse 16 says, "And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah." These verses tell me that they had a cooperative effort in order to get the job done. "There were servants, builders, rulers, those who bore burdens, those who laded, and the trumpet blower." (J.K. Gossett, "The Work Continues in Spite of Fierce Opposition", Denton Lectureship - Studies in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther [Denton, TX: Valid Publications], 182). Different individuals performed different tasks, but each task was equally important to get the job done. This is similar to a passage in the New Testament. Paul wrote about the early church that the Lord, gave some, apostles; and some prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors and teachers: for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13).
What is this verse teaching except that all of these different functions were required in order to accomplish the task at hand. Still today we need to realise that if the work of the Lord is going to get done, there has to be a division of labour, and we must be cooperating in our various functions to accomplish the set goal. The Apostle Paul, in order to demonstrate the unity and cooperation that should exist in the Lord's church, used the illustration of the human body. He wrote, if the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary (I Corinthians 12:14-22).
For the body to function at its optimal capacity its needs all of its parts working properly and working together. If the eye stops, the body can not see, and will be greatly hindered. If the ears quit, the body can not hear and communication becomes difficult. If the foot ceases to work, the body can not walk and travel ceases. Brethren, the point is whether I am an eye, an ear, or a foot, I am important to the functioning the body, and must be cooperating it if the work is to be accomplished.
The fourth and last aspect of their labour that I want for us to examine is their Dedication. Their dedication can be seen in the end of verse 21. It says, "So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared." (Emp. - D.B.). In other words, they worked from sun up till sun down, from daylight till dark, or as one man put it, "from can till can't." Now friend, that is dedication! They had no time clock to punch. They worked until the end of the day. What an appropriate likeness to the work of a Christian, for we too must work from the beginning until the end. We must work from the daylight of our Christian life until the stars appear, and we can work no more. Christ once said, "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work" (John 9:4). Christ's said, "the night cometh." Samuel Johnson, England's literary genius, had these words engraved upon the face of his pocket watch, "The night cometh." Sir Walter Scott, a great admirer of Johnson had the same words engraved on his sundial which was placed in a prominent position in his garden, "the night cometh." What did the Lord mean when he said, "the night cometh"? He was essentially saying, "I have a lot of work to do, and I have a limited amount of time to do it." Just like a day has a beginning and an end and a limited amount of time, so do our lives. And there is coming a time when we can work no more.
There is a story told of a missionary who stepped into a hallway to shelter himself from the rain, and he saw a seamstress working diligently by the light of a candle. She stopped for a moment to rest, and then looking at her candle, she said, "I must hasten, for my candle is burning low and I have no other." Her words reminded the missionary of these words of Christ in John 9:4. I like this illustration because in it the lady is working diligently because she sees the urgency. She realises that when the light goes out, she can work no longer. Now, isn't that just was Christ was saying? Now this being the case, what does it mean to us? It means that we must "strike while the iron is hot!" It means that we must take advantage of the opportunities we have now while we still have them. Just consider the opportunities you may have passed up in the past that you will never have again. Have you ever had the sickening experience of finally getting around to going to someone that you knew was interested in religion and was concerned about his soul, only to find out that he had joined some denomination? The one thing that will never be found again is lost time. We talk a lot about stewardship of money, but we are also stewards of time, and when the Lord comes, we will have to answer for how we spent it.
The night cometh when no man can work, but in the Lord's kingdom, some people stop working before the night gets here. Some people cease their labours before the candle burn out. But brethren, we need to realise the reason that the wall of Jerusalem was built in less than 90 days was because they worked until the stars appeared, until they could not work any longer. Quitting early would not have brought the same results, and for the child of God today, quitting early is not an option. Quitting early is failure. And so the Lord admonishes us to "not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Gal. 6:9 - Emp. - D.B.).
When I think about how Nehemiah must have felt when he arrived in Jerusalem and saw the once mighty walls of Jerusalem not much more than a rock pile, I share in his despair. But when I imagine that just 3 months later, that wall stood as a fortress against the enemy, I feel inspired to work. The task we have before us is a challenging one, but participation, perspiration, cooperation, and dedication will work for us just like it worked for them. As the song says, "Let us work, for the night is coming." "The night cometh." Samuel Johnson wrote these words on his watch. Walter Scott wrote them on his sundial, may we write them on our hearts. Let us work till the stars appear.