Nehemiah – Asking the Right Questions in a Time of Spiritual Conflict

In 1955 I was invited to attend a youth festival in Warsaw, Poland. About 30,000 foreigners had flocked into the country to see for themselves how the communists had rebuilt Warsaw after the World War II devastation of the Nazis. I went to try and make contact with the Polish Christians.

Almost everyone I spoke to was very impressed with this ”workers’ paradise” as they went on guided tours of the new schools, factories, and high-rise apartments. Hans, a communist from Amsterdam, told me one day how enthusiastic he was about what he had seen and heard. He couldn’t understand why I was not.

“Why don’t you skip tomorrow’s guided tour and take a little walk on your own?” I asked. Then I suggested that he follow a route I had found that within a few short blocks would get him behind the facade and dump him into the rubble and bombed-out basements in which thousands still Lived. “Talk to some of those people,” I suggested, “and see what they think of the progress.”

To his credit, he went and asked his questions. And that evening when I saw Hans, he looked pale and frightened. ‘Andrew,” he said, “I’m leaving tonight on the midnight train. I’m scared stiff by what I’ve seen and heard today.”

The value of being nosy and asking the right questions can turn up some disturbing conditions in any modern city. For instance, if you leave JFK Airport in New York and head into the Bronx, you might encounter circumstances that would cause you either to run away or to get involved in ministry to those needs as David Wilkerson did with Teen Challenge. The same is true in Calcutta, London, or Amsterdam.

Having to face reality may cause many to run. Indeed, aspiring to change the world when we’ve seen its sad reality may seem far too grandiose for the average person, and that’s as it should be if we are operating in our own strength. Anyone who thinks otherwise has delusions of grandeur. However, God uses ordinary people who are willing to ask those hard questions about how things really are.

There’s someone in Scripture who illustrates this very clearly: Nehemiah. In my opinion, the Bible is a book about ordinary people who became extraordinary by asking the right questions and then by letting God into their lives. This change from ordinary to extraordinary comes to pass at the moment when we respond to the call of God. And that call of God comes to you.

The Call of an Ordinary Man

Let’s look at the life of a fairly average man, Nehemiah. The Book of Nehemiah is the story of a nation in exile. Its message is very up-to-date because today’s world has more refugees than ever before. 

The whole United States was really founded by the inflow of refugees and immigrants. Many who came were forced to do so by persecution, lack of liberty, or because of desperate need. In the world today, this is a greater problem than ever before.

Twenty-six centuries ago, Israel was in exile. We don’t have to study much to find out why. Every time things really went wrong for Israel, it was because of sin. God’s power and love are great enough to protect people who walk according to his will and precepts, but the Book of

Nehemiah opens with God’s people far away from where they should or could have lived:

“The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the capital, that Hanani, one of my brethren, came with certain men out of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that survived, who had escaped exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped exile are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.’”

Nehemiah 1:1-3

Ordinary People in a World at War

From the very first pages of the Bible, we find that God and Satan are involved in the ultimate holy war over the souls of men and women. Satan seems to have taken the first round by seducing the human race into sin, but God set in motion a counterattack –  a plan for the redemption of all men and women.

Of course the devil fought back. God had already provided for the problem of sin. But Satan tried to destroy God’s plan even though the Bible says that the Lamb, Jesus Christ, was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8 KJV). All that was needed was time to fulfill God’s plan, and people-heroes of the faith-to carry out his purposes.

Every effort of Satan’s which is recorded throughout the Old Testament was an attempt to disrupt that plan. Of particular intensity were his attempts to prevent Jesus from being born in Bethlehem. Satan failed to prevent Christ’s birth or to obstruct his ministry, particularly his

redemptive sacrifice on the cross, so his total attentions today are focused on discrediting the Body of Christ and hindering the spread of the gospel. If you remember these underlying objectives of Satan’s as you study the Bible and observe world events, you will gain a great deal of insight and understanding into what has happened and really is happening. It will give you a new perspective as you see how God has called people, sometimes at great personal cost, to thwart the purposes of Satan.

Nehemiah’s Comfort Disrupted

If we consider Nehemiah in the context of this cosmic struggle, we will gain a new appreciation for him as a hero of the faith. He enjoyed quite a comfortable life. Nehemiah lived in Susa, the capital of Persia or present day Iran. As far as we know, he had no major personal problems. It’s true that he still lived in exile himself, but the conditions were pleasant-at least a lot better than

back home in Judah. He had a good job as the cupbearer to the king (cf. Nehemiah 2:1). It was a terrific job – palatial working environment, fantastic fringe benefits, tremendous prestige. What else could he want?

Then one day Nehemiah met someone who had just come from Judah, and he asked him two questions: “How are those who escaped being exiled?” and “What has happened to Jerusalem, our beloved city?” Because of those two questions, Nehemiah was never the same again.

Ask and You Will Learn

I guarantee that, like Nehemiah, if you ask the right questions, you will never be the same again. Several years ago the director of our Open Doors ministry in Asia asked the right question when he met some Chinese believers. The result was millions of Bibles sent into

China-one million in a single night time beach landing. He didn’t ask, “How are the living conditions? Do you need food? Do you need medicine or money?” He didn’t ask about the remnants of any pre-war mission agency or even whether the people needed Bibles. What he asked was, “How is the Body of Christ?”

That question gave those believers from China such confidence in our ministry that they risked accepting our help. Because they opened up as individual believers, all of China opened up to our ministry. All this was because our director asked the right question.

Ask about the Suffering Church

“How are the Jews doing that survived the captivity?” Nehemiah asked. He was asking about the suffering church.

Over thirty years ago God told me to “strengthen what remains.” To what was he referring? The remains after the captivity, the remains after the exile, the remains after the persecution, the remains after the Holocaust, the remains after all the massacres, the remains after all that has taken place where the devil has tried to annihilate the church of Jesus Christ.

Recently when such terrible famine was ravaging Ethiopia, were we asking the right questions? In one province in Ethiopia the government closed 748 churches in a two-month period. But no one mentioned that. You didn’t see it in your newspaper or on TV. We were overwhelmed by the shocking reports of all those dying children, and well we should have been. But who was asking about God’s people? Did we ask the questions that could make a strategic difference in the future of that nation? Did we ask questions that elevated us above the level of being exploited to do no more than give handouts to people? Don’t we believe that if Ethiopia is going to return to health as a country, the church will have to play a vital role? Is the economic and military power of Western governments the only way we can imagine to rescue a country like Ethiopia from the cruel grip of Marxism which organizes mass famines to subdue its tribes?

Ask about the Strategic Opportunities

“How are those who escaped being exiled?” and “What has happened to Jerusalem, our beloved city?” I think those were the right questions for Nehemiah to ask. One was people oriented, and the other was strategy oriented. Both had God’s plan for his people at heart.

God had promised a Messiah. But before he could come there had to be a people to receive him and a place for his mission. There had to be a family, a lineage, a heritage. There had to be a people who knew God so that some, at least, would welcome him as the Messiah. One day he would go to the temple-the same temple that had been destroyed by Babylon. One day he would teach the descendants of those who had been scattered in exile and gathered again. One day he would die on a cross and rise from the borrowed tomb of a rich man. There had to be a place.

God has always called upon people to carry out his plan, no matter what the devil tries to do to stop it. This should make us feel good even in the midst of great conflict. If God has enough confidence in you to call you to participate in his plan, then you qualify to be a hero of the faith. The only requirement is that you decide to do the will of God.

Response to the Information

It has been said many times that pastors only answer questions that no one is asking. But I think it is worse. I think people are not asking questions any more, at least not with an openness to receiving and acting upon the answers. We need to ask what we can do, and we need to be ready to respond to the answer.

For instance, why was the apostle Paul so successful? There are many reasons, but one of them was his propensity to action. He was a fighter. Before his conversion he was even fighting against Jesus. That’s why Jesus took such a special interest in him. He knew that when Paul understood that he had been resisting God, his conversion would redirect him to fight for the gospel. Paul used the metaphor of being a captive to Jesus Christ. How can you ever be a captive if you are not conscious of having been part of the opposition?

Identifying the Specific Problem

When Nehemiah asked about the condition of Jerusalem, he was told that the wall was broken down and that its gates were destroyed by fire. What was the significance of this report, other than the fact that things were in great disrepair? It basically described one problem: there was no protection for the people. And if the people were not protected, there was no way they could really live the life of God. The psalmist said, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). This suggests that even God’s people can do nothing if there is no protection.

That protection does not necessarily or fundamentally come from the government, even in a free country. It is not a protection that automatically comes just by being a child of God. It is important to realize that the temple had already been rebuilt at this time. But even with the temple, the focus of religious practice, life was very tenuous because community – standing together as a people – was not possible without the protection of a wall.

We have churches everywhere and believers who frequent them often. But we’ll only have the protection that fosters the dynamic life of God when we repair the wall of Christian community-the caring and unity that should characterize the Body of Christ.

Grasping the Immensity of the Need

Nehemiah was determined to be a vital part of God’s people. When he got the word that his people were in great distress and reproach, something happened within him. He could have said, “It’s too far from my bed; I’ll probably never get there anyway. I’ve taken pretty good care of myself; my future is secure; my pension is all settled, and I live a good life. No one can blame me.” But he did not do that. He did what every hero of faith should do and will do when we grasp the immensity of the need. This is what happened:

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days; and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive, and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant which I now pray before you day and night for the people of lsrael.”

Nehemiah 1:4-6

If we really want to become heroes of the faith, if we want to be men and women of God, we cannot have any other reaction than great grief when we hear that our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world arc in great distress.

Confession Begins at Home

Nehemiah’s next response is a touching prayer of confession, not on behalf of those who are persecuted, as though their plight was their fault, but on behalf of himself and his family, living in comfort and ease.

“… we have sinned against thee. Yes, I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances which you commanded your servant Moses.”

Nehemiah 1:6, 7

It is because we have not kept God’s commandments that there is so much need in the world. I am convinced that our sins of omission are far greater than our sins of commission. We can behave politely, morally, even religiously, and yet never do anything valuable for Jesus.

Many of us have never even bothered to do the will of God. But all of that can change by asking the right question: “How are my brethren doing?” This question made Nehemiah into an instrument of God, and it can do the same for you.

Ready for Action

It was with this preparation-having asked the right questions, having grasped the enormity of the need, and having made a confession of past sin – that Nehemiah was prepared for action. God blessed his actions mightily, too. He received the king’s full cooperation and assistance as well as God’s blessing when he returned to Jerusalem. The mission was blessed, but it was not easy.

During the rebuilding of the walls, Nehemiah suffered mocking taunts, plots to disrupt the work, attacks from enemies, false rumors spread about his motives, and threats against his life. Yet in the midst of all these obstacles, Nehemiah did not lose sight of the vision to complete his task.

I have a friend who asked many questions about Siberia. He knew that the Lord was calling him to be a missionary in that bleak corner of the earth, but how could it come about?

“The only way you can become a missionary to Siberia,” he was told by a Russian Christian, “is to get arrested in Russia, and then you will be sent there.”

What an answer to his question! What was his response? He did just that and spent twenty-four years in Siberian prison camps living under terrible conditions. There was a great deal of violence, murder, and forced labor in sub-zero temperatures. But every day, during that whole time, he was a missionary for Jesus, sharing his faith with others in the camps. Many came to know Christ through his unselfish ministry.

When he was finally released (he was exchanged for two Russian spies who were caught in New York), I met him. “Andrew,” he said, “Not once during those twenty-four years was I sick, not even for a day. God kept his hand on me during the whole time.”

God keeps his hand on all those who, after asking the right questions, are willing to pay the price. Are you asking the right questions? Are you willing to pay the price?

This excerpt is adapted from A Time for Heroes, Chapter 7, by Brother Andrew with Dave and Neta Jackson, published by Servant Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA, © copyright 1988 by Open Doors International.

Top image credit: Scene from the time of Nehemiah when Jerusalem was besieged and set on fire and many of its inhabitants were sent into exiles as prisoners, illustrated by James Tissot. Image in the public domain. 

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