January 30, 1994
Nehemiah exhorted God’s people to see the disgrace of Jerusalem to which they had grown accustomed, but as his vision began to take root in their hearts, they shared his desire to accomplish God’s work. Alistair Begg shows us that Nehemiah stood out because he had a radical desire to impact his generation for God’s glory and a firm commitment to God’s work. As we trust God, we can respond to what God has put in our hearts to do for our generation.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn once again to the book of Nehemiah 2:11.
“I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.
“By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward[s] the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then I moved on toward[s] the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’ I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.
“They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.
“But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you[’re] doing?’ they asked. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?’
“I answered them by saying, ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.’”
Let’s bow together in a moment’s prayer:
Our God and our Father, we pray that with our Bibles open before us, you will grant to us concentration, freedom from all unhelpful distraction, the sense that we are taught by the Spirit of God. We look to you to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and in us what you know we so desperately need. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In turning to the second half here of Nehemiah chapter 2, we pick up the story where Nehemiah has been successful not only in securing from the king sufficient provision and materials for him to make the journey, the right kind of documentation, but also, he has been successful in seeing the king reverse a previously hard-and-fast held decision—a quite dramatic intervention that God has overruled in. And when we come to the eleventh verse, we have arrived at the point where, after these months of prayer and agonizing over the situation some miles from him, Nehemiah has arrived in Jerusalem.
Now, the way in which I’d like to study this this morning is to provide for us eight words upon which to hang our thoughts. All of these words have the same suffix. The suffix is a-t-i-o-n. They all end in -ation. And that may be a helpful tool for recollection, and if it is, then we will both be glad.
The first word is the word relaxation. We mentioned it some weeks ago in a different context, and we return to it now. You’ll find this point in the eleventh verse—a simple sentence which we may be tempted to overlook: “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days…” Why “three days”? After all, wasn’t Nehemiah chomping at the bit, as it were, to get on with the task at hand? Had he not been anticipating this journey and the opportunity for work over a period of months now? And surely somebody possessed of such vision and keen to be active would waste no time at all in, as it were, washing up after the journey and immediately embarking on the task. Well, in actual fact, he didn’t do that, but he had this relaxation period of three days. If you doubt that it had to do with relaxation and rest, you can cross-reference this in Ezra 8:15, 32, and there you will find that it actually states that the three days had to do with rest.
Now, this is something that we do well to ponder for a moment or two. Because by and large, business and industry, in the world in which many of you men live, is very slow to acknowledge what is an essential element in the conducting of every task—namely, the absolute necessity of rest and relaxation. The models which young men tend to follow—and young women, too—who are in the marketplace of business and industry tend to be those of the kind of dramatic individuals who appear on the front covers of magazines, seen getting off one plane and charging onto another, with their laptop open in front of them, grabbing for cellular telephones, making great deals and wheels as they go along, and eventually getting off the plane and charging straight into a meeting, where they conduct this amazing business transaction and then continue on their journey to the next major event. Well, all of that comes with cost. The cost is often to the family. The cost is often seen on the front pages of the magazine, but it is felt in many other ways. And the hard-driving leader that we tend to emulate needs to be poured through the grid of the Scriptures.
And I suggest to you this morning that Nehemiah, in this simple sentence, provides a necessary antidote for many of our frenetic and frantic existences. He had made a journey which, had he gone across the desert, would have been five hundred miles. Having gone by way of the Fertile Crescent, it was between eight hundred and nine hundred miles—a long and tedious journey, very demanding despite the fact that he was given these soldiers and officials to journey with him. Suffice it to say that upon arrival in Jerusalem, if there was one thing he needed, it was rest. The task to which he had been called was crucial. It was going to be demanding. It was very, very important that he went at it full strength. And because he was a wise man, and because, presumably, he paid attention to the Sabbath—’cause I would imagine the Sabbath was one of these three days, although that is conjecture—he takes the time to retune.
Now, think about it this morning. Some of us are here, and we’re overtired. When we are overtired, we usually don’t know we’re overtired. Usually, the people around us know we are tired. We don’t know we’re tired, ’cause we’re so busy going. When we’re overtired, our judgment is off; our efficiency is diminished. And that kind of fatigue syndrome, which gives you an adrenaline rush, is something that we ought to be really careful of buying into, especially in the work of the church.
Some of us in the church feel that we’re only effective when we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off—when we’re going from one task to the next. We haven’t found our security in God alone. We haven’t found that we can rest in his love and in his provision. We’re somehow trying justify our existence by doing all these unbelievable things and showing that we never have to stop, we never have to rest, we never have to relax; we can do it all. Well, we can’t.
And when we reach that point where it suddenly hits us in the face, there are a number of things we need to do. When we are overtired, you should avoid at least this. Let me tell you: If you are overtired, one, avoid making important decisions. Avoid writing important letters. Avoid the launching of new projects. Avoid the tendency to quit your job—or to quit anything, for that matter. Avoid assessing your spiritual condition, and avoid assessing the spiritual condition of people around you. Because the fact is that when the battery runs down that low, then it starts to impact dramatically every facet of our existence.
So a wise man or woman, no matter how dramatic their conviction regarding the project in front of them, no matter how consumed they are with the vision, no matter how tempted they are to charge ahead at the first available opportunity, we ought to learn from Nehemiah this simple sentence, the beginning of verse 11: “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I [started].” There will be a lot of nudging going on, I’m sure, that I can’t see—husbands to wives and so on. So be it. A good nudge may be the very prompting of God. Relaxation.
The second word: motivation. Motivation. Can we read these verses and find out what makes Nehemiah tick? That’s what I’m always asking. I want to know what makes someone tick. Don’t you? “Why are you involved in this? Why are you even in Jerusalem? Why did you show up, Nehemiah? Didn’t you have a good job in Susa? Were you bored? Why did you leave? Do you like long journeys?” And all these kind of questions we may have plagued him with.
And from the outside, we might have been tempted to decide that we knew what the motivation of his heart was. We might have looked on and made all kinds of wrong judgments. We might have looked at the man arrive and said, “Oh, here he comes, the empire builder. He’s only here because he wants to see an empire built.” Somebody else might say, “Yeah, I think it’s kind of that. I think it’s probably more that he just wants to make a name for himself.”
Every time you have effective leadership where there are people following—and that’s how you know you have leadership. You know if you’re a leader if anyone follows you. It’s a very simple thing. That’s the essential definition of leadership. A leader is someone whom people follow. If there’s no one following, you don’t have to sit around and have some kind of psychological testing about whether you’re a leader or not. But every time you have a leader with people following, the leaders must face the fact that people will second-guess their motivations.
And leaders must be prepared to allow folks to assume certain things without it completely disheartening them—whether it is Old Testament leadership, in terms of Nehemiah, or whether it is New Testament leadership as effective as that which was represented in the life of the apostle Paul. Paul, responding to the criticisms and judgments that are made of him as a leader, says in 1 Corinthians 4:3,
I care very little if I[’m] judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s [heart]. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
Think how much nervous energy you have spent and I have spent this week seeking to decide why somebody did what they did and whether it was a good reason or a bad reason—constantly judging the motives of other people’s hearts, especially those who are in leadership.
Now, we know why Nehemiah was there, because he tells us. Verse 12: “I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone”—and here’s the phrase—“what God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.” That’s the explanation of his motives. He’s not a founder member of the Bright Ideas Club. He’s not a member of the Susa Architectural Society. He’s not a member of Restorations of Old Buildings. He’s not a member of the Conservation Society. He can only be explained in light of the fact that God did something in his heart. He was just going about his business as usual. He had a good job, and he was in a good spot. But God began to move in his heart in a way that he wasn’t moving in the hearts of others or in a dimension that was unique to him. And when you ask Nehemiah, “What are you doing making this journey? Why are you here?” he says, “Well, actually, it’s because what God put in my heart to do.”
Can I ask you this morning: What has God put in your heart to do? Can we say, any of us, honestly say, “Then I told the people what God had put in my heart to do for Cleveland. I have a burning, driving, compassionate ambition for Cleveland that is not simply moved by externals but is as a result of what God puts in our hearts to do.” We need to ask him for that! We need to ask him for that as individuals. Because we’re in Cleveland. So it would make sense that since we’re here, there is something we’re supposed to do here. And we are not here by chance, but we’re here by divine appointment.
Many of us are a long way from home. We’re not here on a fool’s errand. We have not been brought together as a big group of people to sit around and slap one another on the back. We need to ask God to put a burning vision in our hearts, as a church, for what we are to do in Cleveland. And when that comes into the passion and the heart of leadership, then people will follow.
Paul explains it himself in 2 Corinthians 5. Writing of his ministry, he says, “For Christ’s love compels us.” He was compelled by the love of Christ. People say, “Well, what are you doing here with the church?” I can tell you in two words what I’m doing with this church, under God—the two words with which I began, the two words with which I continue, and the two words with which I will end. And they are edify, multiply. You’ll find them in Acts 9:31, where it says, “And then the church throughout Judea and Samaria and the rest of the place enjoyed a time of rest and was edified,” or built up, “and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, [was] multiplied.” Edified, multiplied.
“What are you doing?” We are evangelizing the lost so that they may come to know Jesus Christ. We are edifying the saved so that being built up, they may be multiplied. “And what are you doing next Sunday?” The exact same. “And the Sunday after that, any change of plans?” None at all. “So what will you be doing?” Edifying, multiplying. That’s it. That’s all of it.
So every time I teach the Bible, it is either that you would be built up in your faith or that you would come to faith. And being built up in faith, you would realize that you didn’t come to listen to this book simply for your head to expand with knowledge but that you came to be inspired by the Spirit of God to go out and reproduce yourself. It’s simple! Why? ’Cause God put it in my heart to do. And that’s why I’m in Cleveland, and that’s why I stay in Cleveland.
Thirdly, examination. Examination. He was clear in his mind about what needed to be done. During all these months of praying, he presumably had been thinking about how he would tackle the project. He had something of the mind of an engineer, I think, which many of us would love to have and do not have. Many of us would have been confronted by this rubble and made it twice as bad within a very short period of time. But this man had some insight. And now he arrives in Jerusalem, and he conducts a feasibility study to determine whether what he thought could be done could actually be done.
How does he do it? How does he go about the examination? Let me give you three words to explain his process of examination.
First of all, he goes about it quietly. That’s the explanation for the final sentence of verse 12: “There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.” He knew this was no time to take a circus on the feasibility study, no time to take a bunch of horses. The commentators say that he probably rode on a mule, which is different from a horse, so they tell me—which shows my ignorance of four-legged creatures. And seemingly, horses get skittish and fall over and neigh a lot, whereas mules are more down-to-earth types. If you have a mule, you’ll know, and if you have a horse, you can probably identify with that. But anyway, he decided he wasn’t going to take a lot. He wasn’t going to go riding around: “no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.” There’s a time to be silent. There’s a time to speak. No time for fuss and bother. No time for people to be charging in saying, “Nehemiah is coming to town.” So his examination is conducted quietly.
Secondly, it’s conducted secretly. Three times—you’ll find it in verse  and verse 13 and verse 15—he mentions the fact that he went on this reconnaissance mission “by night.” It was clear that he wanted to keep things to himself for the time being. He probably had good reason for that. You’ll notice in verse 16, he hadn’t been telling anybody what was going on. He didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag too soon. If he did, some people would be immediately discouraged and start saying, “It can’t be done.” Other people who were on his side, who weren’t really keen on it, would leak the information to his enemies, and if his enemies found out, they may try and shut the project down before it even began. There is a time for silence. There is a time for reconnaissance. There is a time for prayerful examination.
Quietly, secretly, and thirdly, his examination was conducted methodically. And this comes through in verses 13–15, where we have this wonderful description of him going around the perimeter of the walls, such as they were. All of the silence and all of the secrecy, without methodology, would have yielded nothing. And so we have this detailed description of what was going on and where he was.
Any of you who have had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem will know that the King’s Pool, to which he refers here, is the same as is referred to in the New Testament. It is the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus told the blind man to go and wash after he had put the gravel and the dust of the ground on his eyes. It is also true that in Hezekiah’s day, he built a tunnel from the Pool of Siloam right in underneath the walls of Jerusalem, or through the walls of Jerusalem, into the city, so that if there came a time of siege, the people in the city would not be bereft of water. Again, if you’ve been to Jerusalem, you may have walked like this in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. It’s still there. It’s a remarkable thing to do, and it’s a thrilling thing. Maybe we’ll go there someday together, and we’ll stand there at that pool, and we’ll say, “This is Nehemiah chapter 2.” It’s a wonderful privilege.
The wall had fallen down—down the steep crevices of the terraced hillsides. He can’t ride his mule all the way. He gets off. He walks part of the way. He finally comes back around. And during this time, he’s obviously building a picture of what’s going to happen, thinking of the kind of people that he’s going to need to involve. But he wanted to be sure of the concept before he introduced the project.
Incidentally, for many of you who are troubled by the fact that he was the only one who was riding on a mule, let me just give you an insight from the Orient. At the time of this description, it was customary for a person who was in a position of leadership to be clearly identified as being in leadership. It’s inconceivable that Nehemiah was riding on this mule because he was too proud to walk. He probably was doing so in order to be identified from the group and with the group as the leader of the group, in the context of Oriental custom.
So, he puts together the project in his mind so that he can then share it with the people. That brings us to our fourth word, which is the word exhortation. He’s had his relaxation, and he’s now completed this investigation or examination, and he is now at the point of exhortation: “Then I said to them,” verse 17, “‘You see the trouble we are in.’”
Now, pause there for a moment. Because the fact of the matter is, they didn’t. The people who had taken the night journey with him had seen nothing new. They just saw what they’d seen before. They’d become so accustomed to this stuff that it really never struck them in the way that it was obviously striking Nehemiah.
And this is a very important principle: good leaders will always see what other people miss. And in every generation, both biblically and historically, God raises up leaders who are given, if you like, a prophetic insight into what’s going on—in the sense that they are able to bring the Scriptures to bear upon the context of the day in a way that both understands the day and understands the Bible. I’m not talking about any kind of dramatic displays of telling the future—simply the ability to speak “Thus saith the Lord” to a generation in a way that identifies the trouble we are in.
For example, by and large, people are going in and out of churches today, and they think
because there is a fairly good attendance at church that we’re really in no trouble at all. But loved ones, the problem is that on multiple levels, we’re in deep trouble—tremendous crisis of confidence about the authority of this book: Is it really true? And if it’s true, does it really matter? Check with the average child coming through a church organization to see whether they hold any convictions at all about the nature of the gospel, about the authority of the Bible, and you’ll find that many people regard that as a kind of special interest for certain kinds of people, but not really foundational to anything.
It is absolutely foundational. It will only take one generation for the total degeneration of the church in the West and in this country, and we’re looking at it straight in the face. Things that have been happening outside of the church—and we understand why—in the pagan world are now being welcomed inside the church.
Kevorkian is “preaching” at a church in Detroit even as I speak to you this morning. In the church! Listen to him on Larry King Live responding to the questions this week. Someone calls up and says, “We shouldn’t do this.” And he says, “Why?” She says, “Because of religious convictions.” He goes, “That’s fine. You’re religious. Don’t come to me. Keep the stuff to yourself. But the people in the real world, they’ll come to me. You religious people, you stay over in the corner.” Do you see the trouble we are in? Because the answer to that is: “Listen, Mr. Kevorkian, with all due respect, you are under the almighty, inscrutable eye of God himself, who made you and who gives you breath to breathe. And you will stand and name the name of Christ on the judgment day. You will fall on your face and declare, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ to the glory of God the Father. And you should know that, Doc. So don’t stick me in a corner!”
Now, by and large, the church, it just goes right past the average person—unless God raises up somebody to say, “Do you see the trouble we are in?” And so he says it. But they don’t, until he points it out.
You see, they were so familiar with the circumstances. They can’t consider it in this way. Rex Harrison sings, “I’ve grown accustomed to [your] face”—where, you know, the girl, whatever her name was. And these people were essentially singing, “I’ve grown accustomed to disgrace.” Because as long as you live with disgrace… I mean, if your bedroom is full of clutter, the first day it gets full of clutter, it’s like, “Oh, my bedroom is full of clutter.” The second day, it’s full of a wee bit more clutter. And eventually, at the end of the week, it’s not a bedroom anymore; it’s a wasteland. And someone comes in and says, “I can’t believe the state of this room!” And the person says, “This room is good! This is a nice room! What’s wrong with this room?” I’ll tell you what’s wrong: you’ve grown accustomed to disgrace. You’ve grown accustomed to disgrace.
And that’s what had happened to these dear people. They were planting flowers in the broken-down walls. They were having picnics on the site. And Nehemiah comes around and says, “We’ve got a major problem here.” The interesting thing is, he didn’t just say, “You’ve got a problem”; he said, “We’ve got a problem. And not only do we have a problem, but I’ve got a solution, under God.” And that’s the real test of leadership.
It’s no great victory for people to come around pointing out all the problems in the world: “We’ve got a problem here, and we have a problem there, and we have a problem there, and we have a problem there.” You take your car into the garage, and the guy runs through all that stuff, writes it all on a sheet. Fine! What are you going to do about it? “Oh, this is not a garage for solving anything. We just list the problems. Now let me help you push your car back out to the lot.” I mean, nobody would go there. That’s ridiculous! So the task of the church is not simply to stand around in the world and shout, “We’ve got a problem!” but it is to point out the way in which the solution may be exercised.
Now, if you think for a moment that this was an easy challenge facing Nehemiah, or if I think that, I’m really at odds with the understanding of it. Because Nehemiah was confronted by insurmountable odds. Can you begin to imagine how big these stones were that the wall was built with? Have you ever been to Jerusalem and seen the foundations for the Temple of David? I mean, these things are unbelievable! Even with your JVCs and your CIAs or whatever you’ve got, to move these things is an awesome task. But to think of none of that earthmoving equipment and then to put the wall back together—it’s incredible!
Nobody on a whim and a fancy would suggest this. That’s why he wasn’t on a whim and a fancy. And he was confronted by a group of people who were presumably thinking along all kinds of different lines. There were doubtless some in the group who were saying, “You know what? This is out of our league. We can’t do this.” Every time the leadership leads, there will always be a group of people that say, “We can’t do this. This is out of our league.”
Now, this is not a series of studies because we’re going to start building physical plant again. But God willing, we will build physical plant again. And when the plans come out, as they came out for the first time, and they’re showed to the congregation, we recognize that some people will immediately say, “This is out of our league.” And the task of leadership is to show how we may, under God, make progress there. Some of them were saying, “We tried this before, and it didn’t work,” because that was exactly what had happened. And there are always people like this: “Oh, we tried it once. You can’t do that.”
Or, perhaps most debilitating of all, to send the word around: “This is how I feel, and a great number of people feel the same way as me.” You never know who these people are, incidentally. It’s always “A great number of people feel as I do.” And you look over the shoulder of the person to see where they are; they’re nonexistent! It’s the imaginary friend of the seven-year-old girl, multiplied to the nth. But anyway… “And the problem is,” they say, “now, we’re just not excited about this. And until we get excited about this, we would really like simply to maintain the status quo.”
The status quo? What is status quo? What is status quo when there are people up this Pettibone Road that don’t even know about Jesus? What is status quo when we’re surrounded by communities that think religion is an esoteric interest and have no notion of standing before the benchmark of the holiness of God? We know not status quo! There is only forward or backwards. There is no standstill. And Nehemiah, in exercising leadership, faced the challenge that comes with that.
Now, clearly, think it out. Somebody says, “This is out of our league.” Somebody says, “We tried it, and it didn’t work.” Somebody says, “We’re not excited.” Ask yourself the question. You’ve just come up to Jerusalem. You’ve come nine hundred miles. You’ve been praying for four months about coming, and this is what you get. Do you not think he had sufficient reason to hightail it back to Susa? “Goodness gracious! Working for the king was easy compared to this. I’m out of here!” Why did he stay? Because God had put it in his heart to do.
Why did David Brainerd stay all these years amongst the American Indians? Because God put it in his heart to do. How did Carey labor for eighteen years in India without seeing a convert? Because God had put it in his heart to do. Why did Gladys Aylward, four foot nine or ten inches tall, take a train all the way to London into mainland China and bury herself as “the little woman” amongst the children of China? Because God had put it in her heart to do.
And I ask you again: What is it that you are doing, and you’re doing it because God put it in your heart? Are you in this world to do something? Or are you in this world for something to do?
Now, all of that exhortation is a chronicle of despair unless you have some solid information to back it up. And, of course, he did. Verse 17: “Come on,” he says. “Let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. We won’t be disgraceful anymore.” Sensing the response of some, he then adds quickly this piece of information—verse 18: “I told them about the authority of heaven that was attending the project”—“the gracious hand of my God”—“and I told them about the authority of earth”: “what the king had said to me,” and doubtless what he had given to him. He hadn’t shown up in Jerusalem to say, “You’ve got a problem.” He’d shown up in Jerusalem to say, “Hey, we’ve got a project!”
God had moved the heart of the king. That’s what we discovered last time in verses 7–9. The king had given his blessing to it all. He had helped in the most practical of ways. As he began to share this with the people, it began to inspire confidence in them. They began to think, “Oh, well, you know, maybe you’re not as crazy as we thought at first, Nehemiah. Oh, that’s interesting. We didn’t know that.” And suddenly, the word begins to take root in their hearts, and God is sowing and planting a vision within them: “Oh, I never thought of it like that before! Oh, I never conceived of our being able to do that! You know, it never occurred to me that we could reach out with the gospel in that way! You know, I never saw myself as an individual in that way before!”
What changed? Exhortation plus information leads to application. It’s the sixth word. There was going to have to be careful planning of the tasks; specific delegation, as we are going to see. But the interesting thing is that in verse 18b, they replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” And “so they began [the] good work.” In other words, they went straight into action. There was plenty of rubble to clear up, and so they started.
Now, loved ones, this morning, as we transition ourselves in the leadership of this church, we recognize this to our shame: that there is so much more that can be done and needs to be done in terms of making the link between the obvious, willing response of you as a congregation and the places into which you may be placed for service. We know that. We value your prayers, and we’re trying to work on that. But I need to say this: please don’t use that as an alibi for noninvolvement. ’Cause there’s enough rubble lying around to go pick some up. There is enough stuff to be done, if you have eyes to see.
For example, every Sunday school teacher could use a substitute and an assistant at their right hand. Everyone in every nursery could have someone as their volunteer to immediately turn to. Every painstaking car-park attendant, with their frozen visage as a result of weeks out in this snow—if you don’t think they’d love from you a coffee and, better still, for you to put their boots on and their jacket on, you’re not thinking, and neither am I.
Think about the person next to you. There’s enough rubble in all of our lives for each other to say, “Is there anything I can carry for you this week, brother?” “Is there anything I can enter into your experience regarding this week, sister?” “Is there something I can do for you practically?” There’s enough rubble all around for us all to immediately be involved. Yes, there needs to be specific delegation. We’re coming to that in chapter 3. But for now, at the grassroots level, where exhortation stands up and leads, the people follow. It’s true in all leadership, in the Bible and beyond.
I brought one of my favorite leaders in the world with me this morning. Here he is. You have to stand up close so you can see. I’ll give you his profile. It’s a cigar that is sticking out of the front of his mouth. Churchill! Insurmountable problem: 1940. Gets on that little microphone in a dungeon in London. He was born with a stammer, born with a severe lisp—the lousiest natural speaker that ever hit the streets of his city. Takes hold of the microphone and says, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. What is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of terror. Victory, no matter what we face.” And suddenly, down at the grassroots level, people are saying to one another, “You know what? I think Churchill thinks we can knock these Germans back. Do you know that? Do you know he’s actually suggesting that when you come home from your work, we could get a little deal going, and out on the South Coast, we could get some sticks and shovels and implements of destruction”—which is a quote from “Alice’s Restaurant”—“and we could stand against the possible onslaught.” So at the highest level, from Parliament’s level, the leader speaks: “You want it in one word? Victory!” And at the grassroots level, they start to sing.
Now, I’m not going to sing for you. I wish I could bring someone up who could sing it. This is what they started to sing, in a Cockney accent:
Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Hitler,
If you say old England’s done?
We are the lads who will stop your little game;
We are the boys who will make you think again.
Mr. Brown goes off to town on the eight thirty-one;
Half past three he’s home for tea and ready with his gun.
Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr. Hitler,
If you say old England’s done?
Now, what was that? That was leadership! These people had no concept of what was facing them. But the man with conviction and information and readiness stirred a nation to stand against the onslaught they would face.
Do we need leadership like that in our days? Loved ones, it is such a crying need on every front. Nehemiah—what an illustration! “For without victory,” says Churchill, “there will be no survival.” “Without victory,” says Nehemiah, “there will be no wall. There will be only disgrace. There will be shame. There will be scoffing.”
And that’s exactly what there was. ’Cause the second-last word is the word opposition. Opposition. As soon as they begin the good work, we come to the unholy trinity in verse 19: Sanballat, Tobiah. and Geshem. All of these folks had a vested interest in making sure this didn’t happen. Reminder, here’s the principle: whenever God’s work is being done in God’s way, opposition is inevitable. Leadership must always learn how to face and deal with the accompanying criticism and discouragement which will always attend the work of the gospel.
You need to be prepared to suffer abuse and scorn and mocking and ridicule: “You’ve got to be crazy. You actually believe that the pivotal event of world history was the death of a Galilean carpenter called Jesus of Nazareth?”
“That is exactly what I believe.”
“You actually believe that there is a triune God and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, he redeems people’s lives from destruction and makes them see what otherwise they couldn’t see?”
“That’s exactly what I believe.”
“You’re really telling me that that book is inerrant, and it is all-powerful and authoritative for all of life?”
“That’s exactly what I believe.”
“You’ve got to be totally crazy. It’ll never happen. We’ll knock your wall down. We will be here long after you’re gone.”
You see, the task of the gospel is no place for the fainthearted. The challenge of living for Jesus as a high-school teenager is not for the weak and the namby-pamby. It’s for the tough. It’s for the strong. It’s for the brave. It’s for the true. It’s for the person who can stand against the tide. This is the great need in our day, loved ones—not a lot of back-clapping, happy-Charlie junk, pumping one another up with vague platitudes, but a realistic understanding of the world in which we live, an honest dependence upon the power of God, a complete commitment to the Scriptures, and a radical desire to make an impact for God and his glory. There is no time left for casual soldiers. It is all committed infantry. And only the committed may apply, and only the committed may sustain it in the battle.
For the opposition is intense and increasing. Without a major turn in the tide in this country, it is only a matter of time before churches such as ours will be forced to make radical decisions that are of public import concerning the way in which we do ministry. I am convinced of it. There will be on the part of government the means to deny places their tax-exempt status if they will not comply with this or with that. And I guarantee where it will come first: it will come in the matter of human sexuality. And we will live to see it, without a turn in the tide. So if you’re thinking at all about being involved and being committed, understand this: the leadership knows that when God’s work is done God’s way, that all hell will let loose to pull down the walls in the moments of construction.
The final word is the word affirmation. Affirmation. “Finish on a positive note,” and so we do. They came and mocked and said, “You’re rebelling against the king,” and Nehemiah declares his dependence. He says, “Listen, the God of heaven will give us success.” In other words, “If you think that this motley crew that’s forming around me here is the key to the future of Jerusalem, you’ve got another thing coming.” And that’s the thing we must always remember. ’Cause we look around at one another, and we say, “What? With this group, we’re going to take on the world? Look at these people!”
Well, you see, the thing is that God does extraordinary things through ordinary folks who are prepared to trust him. That’s the exciting thing! “Not many of you mighty. Not many of you noble. Not many of you particularly well educated. Not many of you phenomenally wealthy. Because God has chosen that which is small to bring down the mighty, that which is weak to compound the strong, that which is foolish to show the wise how daft they really are.”
So he declares his dependence, and he illustrates with this great distinction. He says, “Listen, guys, you don’t have any place in Jerusalem. You don’t have any share in it. You don’t have any right to it. You don’t have any historic claim to it. Get out of here!” Oh, can you imagine how the little people must have felt when they heard him saying that stuff? ’Cause they’d been all around here all this time. They thought they were going to live and die with all this rubble. They thought this was as good as it was going to get. And Geshem and Tobiah and Sanballat, these folks were the influential. And they came up, and they said, “We’re going to shut this down.” And Nehemiah stands up to them, says, “Hey, boys, out! On your way! You’ve nothing to say in here.” Okay? “You can say what you like about your state, but don’t you come telling me about our church. ’Cause this is church. We actually have something to say to your state, but your state ain’t got nothing to say to our church. You have no historic claim. You have no right. You have no place in these things.”
Some of you were around in, what, May 1940? I won’t ask you to put up your hands. One or two are willing to. That’s fine. Okay. May 1940: the German troops break through the French resistance, they skirt around the Maginot Line—those of you who are historians of the Second World War—they get around the Maginot Line, they break down the French resistance, and they drive the troops out onto the beaches at Dunkirk. They’ve got them. In the mind of the German, it is over. All they need to do now is blitz those people on the beaches, hundreds of thousands of them, and they will vanquish them, and they will be able to proceed directly across the Channel. But they didn’t! And the British Air Force fought at an odds of five to one against the German Luftwaffe and the bombers, and engaged them in the air for long enough for three hundred thousand British and French troops to be evacuated across the English Channel—an amazing intervention in history, in the providence of God, without question.
June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill stands up in Parliament to explain the evacuation of Dunkirk. He makes this amazing speech—and those of you who have read his speeches will recall part of it, I think. Because he concludes with these words: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall keep on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight in seas and oceans. We shall fight with increasing confidence and strength in the air. We shall do whatever it takes to preserve our island.”
Now, people are listening to this with the threat of intervention across a stretch of water that is so small. And then you have these momentous words: “We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender. And even if,” he said, “which I do not for a moment believe, this island, or a large part of it, were subjugated and starving, then our empires from across the sea would carry on the task, armed and guided by the British fleet, until such time as the New World would rise to the rescue and liberation of the Old.” And a nation rose to its feet and said, “Let’s go for it!”
It was one week after Italy had declared its part in the war that Churchill made that speech. And it was one week, seven days, after June 4 that Franklin D. Roosevelt committed the United States, materially and man-powerly, to the task of the Allied forces in the Second World War. And what was the key? Under God, one funny little guy smoking cigars in a basement in London. And what was the key to the building of the wall? Some little guy called Nehemiah, crazy enough to believe that he could do unbelievable things with God.
Can I ask you in conclusion this morning: As an individual, what are you trusting God for in your life that is so unbelievable in its magnitude that when it happens, it will be really clear that only God did it? And what about our church?
Do you have any rivers you think are uncrossable?
You got any mountains you can’t tunnel through?
God specializes in things thought impossible.
He can do just what no other can do.
He is Nehemiah’s God. He is our God. Let us serve him.
Let us pray:
Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees,
A need that, undiminished,
Rebukes our slothful ease.
We, who [profess] to know [him]
[Declare] before [his] throne
The solemn pledge we owe [him]
To go and make [him] known.
Fill our hearts, Lord, with the same kind of dependency that Nehemiah showed, the same kind of humility, the same kind of vision, the same kind of drive and initiative. Grant that the overwhelming forces of evil and the unbelievable challenge that we face might be responded to in the power of the Spirit, in confidence upon the Scriptures, uniting for victory.
Hear us this day as we commend one another to your care. Go with us in the hours of the day, that we might live to please you in our casual conversation and in our comings and goings. And grant that as we gather on the Lord’s Day evening to sing your praise and to understand that all of these principles need to be permeated by the characteristics of Christian love, balance our diet; fill our souls; lead us in the paths of righteousness.
And may grace and mercy and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 2 Corinthians 5:14 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 9:31 (paraphrased).
 Acts 9:31 (KJV).
 See John 9:7.
 See Philippians 2:10–11.
 Alan Jay Lerner, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (1956).
 Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (1967).
 Jim Perry, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?” (1968). Lyrics lightly altered.
 1 Corinthians 1:26–28 (paraphrased).
 Oscar C. Eliason, “Got Any Rivers?” (1945). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Frank Houghton, “Facing a Task Unfinished” (1931).
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.