NEHEMIAH 2 – Risking an Honest Answer
At work one day, a dear friend came over to my desk to say “Hi”. She’d lost her husband the previous year so I feel an affiliation with her, having lost our son. I also knew that the standard answer to my question: “How are you?” may not be entirely truthful. So, when she responded: “Fine!”, I pressed a bit more with, “Really? Are you really fine?” Her second answer was thoughtful but, in this case, she confirmed that she was actually fine – it was a “up” day for her.
When someone asks: “Are you alright?”, why is the standard answer: “Fine”? Are we not trusting the one asking – enough to risk an honest answer? We don’t want to be the one who drags down the atmosphere. So we walk around buoyant, even though we’re dying inside.
In today’s chapter, Nehemiah had about five months of deep upset hidden away in his heart. In the month of Kislev (in yesterday’s Breadcrumb), Nehemiah heard harrowing news of the plight of his countrymen back in Jerusalem.[a] That was “the month of dreams” but in exile (and as slaves returning to piles of rubble), their life experience was little more than shattered dreams. Now it’s the month of Nissan [v1] five months later, and apparently the “month of Happiness”. But nothing could be farthest from the truth in Nehemiah’s heart as he pulled on his uniform to serve this foreign king.
Yet deep in his upbringing, Nehemiah knew that we can’t place diplomacy above honesty as a framework for justifying our answers. After careful planning and lots of prayer, Nehemiah set his sights on seeing His Maker at work bringing good outcomes to his concerns.[b]
Unable to hide his now overwhelming distress in front of the most powerful man on earth, the “cat got out of the bag” and Nehemiah came face-to-face with what could certainly have been the end of his life. [v1-2] Although still incredibly afraid, Nehemiah quickly shot up a prayer to heaven then risked everything with honesty. He blurted out everything that had been building up to breaking point in his heart. [v3-5]
With unbelievably unnatural favour (that could only be described as “supernatural”), the Persian Emperor releases his slave to return to one of those previously overthrown troublesome countries. The purpose: rebuilding the fortress! Although Cyrus, King of Persia, had initiated work on the Jewish Temple decades earlier, no king in their right mind would allow this. Not even the Queen raised a question! [v6] The only logical explanation that Nehemiah could come up with, was answered prayer: “the good hand of my God was on me”. [v8]
But when Nehemiah showed up with his cavalry, seeking the welfare of the children of Israel, the local Governors weren’t at all happy. [v9-10] However, if we rule out racial hatred as the reason for this negativity, my guess is that, in a multi-cultural-multi-faith society, no one group is allowed special privileges – not even the original faith-system of the country. No government assistance, over-above other faith groups, should be allowed when equality is the order of the day.
Now realising that his government letters were likely not to protect him at “ground zero” – especially once his cavalry returned home. Nehemiah’s ownership over the plight of his nation, and this sudden turn of events after assuming responsibility, wasn’t at all easy. Going against the grain in a hostile world, he decided to keep a low profile. [v11-16]
Once again, it’s worth noting that here, in today’s chapter, we have a section of what looks like more trivia detail. This is clearly Nehemiah’s diaries: “For what it’s worth, Reader, this is my story. This is what happened to me when I put my trust in the Creator God.” In a book that’s now gone global, why explain exactly where he went that night? Putting this level of detail in, is not unusual for someone telling his story. What’s incredibly surprising, is that the Creator God kept Nehemiah’s personal story, with all its detail, for us to read today. But why?
Logic tells me that Father God wants us to know that HIStory isn’t a fairy tale. What Nehemiah explained in today’s chapter, can be plotted out on a map around the old city of Jerusalem even today. I stood in these places in 2012. Looking up at the gate that’s still there today, I thought of Nehemiah on his horse with his heart pounding in the dead of night, picking his way quietly passed exactly that same spot. What you now hold in your hands is about real people with real experiences who, after relying on their Maker, had found that He was real too.
Deeply unhinged with the situation, Nehemiah had wept, fasted and prayed for months. He waited on an answer to prayer for how to move forward. When an opportunity came, he spoke up. Then, with no-one else standing in the gap (and with God’s clear and unprecedented help through an otherwise tyrannical king), Nehemiah assumed that what he witnessed that night on horseback, had certainly fallen to him.
As everyone knows, though, no project is easy. Even a simple house renovation presents problems before we can even get started. In the same way, working for the Creator God – doing something that He’d approve of – doesn’t automatically mean a smooth ride. At times, it can even feel like the wind, rain, and searing heat (everything that He created) seem to join forces against us.
So, having approached the leadership, and told them his story, Nehemiah assumed responsibility by mobilizing the people from the top down to begin this good work. [v17-18] Yet even with all the puzzle pieces fitting together to confirm that this was in fact the appropriate course of action to take, those familiar negative voices began again [v19] and Nehemiah risked one more honest answer: “The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you (negative voices over this project) have no portion, right or memorial here.” [v20]
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[a] Nehemiah 1:1-3
[b] Nehemiah 1:11