Nehemiah 2

Nehemiah 2

SERIES: Godly Leadership

Do You Have a Plan?

Introduction:  I want to talk to you today about broken-down walls.  The particular broken walls that generated this message are the walls of Jerusalem, but each of us has walls in our own lives that need repair.  They may be walls in our emotional life or family or career or finances or personal habits or ministry.  These walls are structures needed to support, protect, defend, and strengthen our character and relationships.

If you are hurting today because of some broken walls, what are you doing about it?  Are you crying yourself to sleep at night?  Are you withdrawing from family and friends?  Are you burying yourself in work or some other form of busyness in an effort to cover up the pain?  Are you angry?  Those are natural responses, but frankly, friends, they rarely result in the rubble being cleared or the walls reconstructed?  Rebuilding rarely takes place without a plan.  Do you have a plan today?

In 586 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had destroyed the walls and burned the gates of Jerusalem, along with the great temple of Solomon and virtually every house in the city.  The Scriptures tell us that not one stone was left upon another.  Seventy years later a group of 50,000 Jewish exiles under Zerubbabel returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.  Sixty years after that a remarkable spiritual leader named Ezra led 5,000 more exiles back and started a spiritual revival.  Yet still the physical walls of Jerusalem lay in ruins, resulting in a weak and vulnerable community of God’s people.  The rubble remained until the year 444 B.C. when a man named Nehemiah is motivated to leave his high-ranking position in the court of King Artaxerxes, the Persian monarch, and travel some 900 miles to Jerusalem to tackle the rebuilding project.  

I want us to examine some steps Nehemiah took to resolve the problem of the broken walls of Jerusalem.  They are sufficiently transferable that I believe each one of these seven steps can be applied to our lives as we seek to tackle any overwhelming issue that may be confronting us.  

Step one:  recognize the need. (1:3)

This may seem so obvious as to be unnecessary to mention, but frankly, there are a lot of people who don’t even notice the rubble piling up around them.  They get so used to broken walls they assume it’s normal or at least inevitable.  Apparently that was the case for many of the Jews living in Jerusalem and the surrounding territory.  Those piles of stones had been lying there for so long that they forgot what a walled city would look like. 

I think the same is true for many of us—we fail to even recognize the rubble.  I have had the experience on several occasions of hearing a person say, “My spouse just told me he or she wants a divorce, and I didn’t even know there was a problem.”  In fairness, there are rare occasions when something like that will come out of the clear blue, particularly when a third party enters the relationship, but in most cases, there was plenty of evidence the marriage was in trouble if the person had just opened his eyes.  Another example may be the person who has a major drinking problem but refuses to admit it, or his spending is out of control relative to income, but he won’t accept godly financial advice.  

Nehemiah, on the other hand, recognizes the problem and the need for rebuilding, even though it certainly isn’t right under his nose.  As Jerry pointed out in his excellent message last Sunday, Nehemiah heard about Jerusalem’s walls from his brother Hanani and asked questions until he understood the significance of the problem.  But there is a second step that is an essential partner with the first: 

Step two:  accept responsibility.  (1:4; 2:1-3; 2:17)

There are those who recognize the crumbling walls around them, but they develop a victim mentality.  Simply defined, this is the outlook which says, “My life is essentially at the mercy of vast powerful forces out there and beyond my control.  Therefore, I am the victim of and at the mercy of my genes, my IQ, my parents, my teachers, my husband, my boss, the society, the economy, the rich, the Devil, etc.”  The Victim Mentality ultimately discharges you from any responsibility for your life, since clearly what is happening to you is not your fault.  

Now, to be sure, there is a sense in which we are victims in our culture.  We often are at the mercy of forces over which we have no control.  Just ask the Harrises, whose house was struck by lightning two weeks ago.  Particularly is this true of minorities, the poor, and the downtrodden who are at the mercy of peculiar powerful forces like discrimination, racism, sexism, and uncaring bureaucrats.  Nonetheless, there is a vast difference between being a victim (which we all are, in some areas of our life) and having the Victim Mentality, which says, “What’s the use?  Why even try?”  

Friends, no matter how much of our life we perceive to be controlled by someone or something else, there is always that part that is under our own control, and that we can work on to change.  A counselor told of a man who was going through a very difficult time with his wife and was thinking very seriously about divorce.  “Tell me,” said the counselor to the husband, “what kind of problems are bothering you.”  “Well,” replied the husband, “to put it quite simply, my wife is an angry nag.  The other night, for example, she wanted to go out to a meeting, so I offered to stay home and put the kids to bed.  I did that, and in addition, I did all the dishes left over from earlier in the day.  When she got home, do you think she thanked me?  No, she looked in the kitchen and saw that there was one pan I had forgotten to wash.  And all she said was, “Why didn’t you do that pan?”  

“Very interesting,” said the counselor.  “Incidentally, why didn’t you do that pan?”  In the days following, the husband thought about that question; and a revelation came to him.  He realized that every time his wife asked him to do something, he would always leave one little tiny part of it undone.  He hadn’t created her anger; she had it before they had ever met.  But he did “play into it,” and in that sense, he had some control over the situation.  He knew how to trigger it by leaving one part of any task undone.  In other words, he had more power over the situation with his wife than he had acknowledged.  He was not so much a victim as he pretended.

I believe some of the Jews living in and around Jerusalem had developed a Victim Mentality. Whenever they made an attempt to rebuild their walls, the enemies tore them down, so they just quit and resigned themselves to living without walls.  Their focus came to be on coping and surviving rather than living and thriving. 

Friends, it’s not until we are willing to accept personal responsibility for our broken walls that any rebuilding can take place.  In other words, the need must be translated into a personal conviction that God wants me to do something about it.  Nehemiah developed just such a conviction—perhaps it could even be called an obsession—that Jerusalem’s walls were his problem, not someone else’s.  In verse 4 of chapter 1, after hearing about the sad conditions in Jerusalem, he sat down and wept.  In fact, for days he mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.  

Four months later the sense of responsibility to do something had become such a conviction that it was deeply affecting his work.  The way this is brought to our attention is through the notice at the end of chapter 1 that Nehemiah was “cupbearer to the king.”  As Jerry pointed out, a cupbearer was more than a wine-taster to keep the king from being poisoned.  Because kings ate and drank a lot, the cupbearer was always with him and quite naturally became his trusted adviser.  If you recall the movie Patton, you remember that General Patton’s relationship with his personal valet was similar.  

The question the king addresses to his cupbearer Nehemiah in verse 2 of chapter 2 can be misunderstood if we fail to grasp the nuances of a Persian court.  He asks, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?  This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”  This is not a mere observation; there is an edge to the king’s voice, an edge that causes Nehemiah to be very much afraid, as is noted in the same verse.  Why? Because people weren’t allowed to show negative emotions in the king’s presence.  Not only were court jesters hired to make the king laugh, but anyone who came into the throne room was expected to play the game of keeping the king’s spirits high.  Those who were melancholic in his presence could be eliminated for “raining on his parade.”

But despite court conventions Nehemiah’s deep conviction of personal responsibility for the walls of Jerusalem has gotten to him and his sadness shows through.  He responds to the king’s question, “‘May the king live forever!  Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’  The king said, ‘What do you want?’  Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.”  And that brings us to step three.

Step three:  pray.  (1:5-11; 2:4)

Before making any personal efforts to resolve this problem, before even complaining about it, Nehemiah takes the matter to God.  Jerry referred to this as an arrow prayer last Sunday because all Nehemiah had time for was to shoot a prayer up to heaven, but I wonder if in our modern technological society a more appropriate term wouldn’t be a fax prayer.  Get in a tight spot and fax a prayer to God.  But I reiterate a most important point from last Sunday, namely that fax prayers aren’t worth the paper they’re transmitted on if the person doing the praying doesn’t have a solid relationship with God built during non-crisis times.  It’s because Nehemiah had mourned and fasted and prayed for many days that he could effectively shoot a split-second prayer to his heavenly Father in a time of crisis.

Allow me to add one other thought here—no extra charge.  I think a lot of Christians use the fax prayer but on the wrong occasions.  “Lord, make that light change to green before I get to the intersection.”  “God, please open up a parking space right in front of the stadium.”  Be honest now! Do you ever pray like that?  Do you really think such pseudo-crises deserve the attention of our prayer efforts?  Do you really think God is in the business of changing the time sequences in traffic lights so we can avoid waiting at Manchester and 270?  I doubt it.  But when a genuine crisis occurs, the one who is prayed up on his knees finds it the most natural thing in the world to breathe a quick prayer appealing to the Father for help or wisdom.

I suspect Nehemiah’s prayer was simply, “Lord, change the king’s heart.”  Hudson Taylor once said, “It is possible to move men through God by prayer alone.”  Sometimes we come to places where those in authority over us are beyond our power to change, but not beyond God’s.  Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like an aqueduct wherever he pleases.”  What is true of the king is true of the irregular person in your life, too.  

Step four:  Establish a preliminary plan.  (2:6-8)

During the four months he was focused on the broken walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah wasn’t just stewing or even just praying; he was also planning.  The way we know that is after he told the king he wanted to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the king asked, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?”, Nehemiah had a specific timetable to offer.  Furthermore, he knew exactly what he wanted in terms of safe-conduct papers and supplies to build the gates, the walls, and even his own residence.  Obviously, he had spent many hours formulating a blueprint for action in case he was ever given the opportunity.  

In his best-selling book, The Three Boxes of Life, Richard Bolles speaks of the importance of “pre-developing pictures in one’s mind”[i] to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.  Thoreau advocated something similar.  He said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.”[ii]

But imagine the result had Nehemiah failed to establish a preliminary plan.  The king asks, “How long will you be gone, Nehemiah?”  “Who knows? A few months, maybe a few years.”  “Well, what do you need?”  “Beats me, I’ve never been there before.  How about just giving me a few blank checks?”  Do you think the king would have been receptive to that kind of response?

We too need to plan.  Should God allow us to rebuild the broken walls in our lives, what will it take?  What resources will we need and where will we go to find them?  What sort of timetable will it take?  Who can we find to help us?  Suppose, for example, you feel stuck in your job and very dissatisfied with your career.  Well, using your sanctified imagination, what would you really like to do?  Are you qualified to do it?  If not, what courses could you be taking right now to get qualified so that if God opens the door, you’ll be able to step through.  Suppose the broken wall is an important relationship.  What caused it to break down in the first place?  What changes need to take place in order for it to be repaired?  Do I need counseling?  Is there any way I can persuade the other person to go with me?  

You see, looking into the future is critical—not daydreaming but planning.  I remember learning to drive shortly before my 16th birthday.  We lived in Clayton just off Wydown near Skinker, and my dad would take me out on Wydown to practice.  I guess he felt safe there because, as you know, Wydown is a boulevard with a wide median between you and the oncoming traffic.  But there were cars parked on the boulevard and my dad noticed me sort of measuring the distance between us and the parked cars.  He said, “Don’t look at those cars; look as far down the road as you can see.”  “But Dad,” I said, “I don’t want to hit these cars.” And he responded, “The further down the road you focus your eyes, the less likelihood you will hit something up close.”  I think Nehemiah knew that lesson.  The further ahead he planned, the less likelihood he would crash.

Now please note that I have called Nehemiah’s plan “preliminary.”  It’s very important not to put a plan into concrete before one gets all the facts.  It would have been impossible for Nehemiah to know exactly how long he’d be gone or to know everything he needed before arriving in Jerusalem, and that’s why step five is important:

Step five:  Set aside time for reflection and confirmation.  (2:11)

Look at verse 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.”  He then takes a night-time reconnaissance tour around the city walls.  I think Nehemiah is doing two things here.  First, he is taking time for meditation and evaluation.  God is rarely in a hurry.  When He needed a great leader to bring His people out of Egypt, He sent him into the desert first for 40 years to get a little seasoning.  When He needed a great missionary to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, He sent him to Arabia for 14 years for a little training in the school of hard knocks.  Nehemiah, exhausted from his trip, needs a few days to gather his wits about him, and God doesn’t begrudge it.  After all, these walls have been in a state of rubble for almost 150 years and a few more days aren’t going to make or break the situation.  

The other thing I think Nehemiah is doing is seeking confirmation of his preliminary plan. Undoubtedly his estimate of the resources needed is itself in need of correction.  A careful strategy for the building process is also necessary, and this could only be obtained by personal examination.  Better to take the time to get the facts and make an objective appraisal than go off half-cocked and make some serious, irremediable mistakes.

After all, he is about to make an appeal for a major commitment from the people of Judah.  He needs to have his homework done.  He needs to be able to tell them, “I have seen the broken walls, I have inspected the crumbling gates, and I have a plan to rebuild them.”

Take time to reflect and to seek confirmation.  I’ve been so impressed with the way our building committee has carried on the building process at Carman and Weidman.  “Deliberate” is a term that describes them well.  I’ve never gotten the sense that they were in a state of panic, calling emergency meetings to handle new contingencies.  I think it’s because they have built in check and balances along with plenty of time for reflection and confirmation.  The sixth step Nehemiah took in rebuilding the walls was to enlist a support team, and like all the others, this step is critical.  

Step six:  Enlist a support team.  (2:17-18)

There are very few problems in life that we are capable of handling alone.  That’s why God put us into families; that’s why He gave us the church; that’s why He put gifted people into our lives.  Nothing saddens me more than to occasionally come across people whose lives are in ruins—broken walls all over the place–but they refuse to seek help or even respond positively to help that is offered.  Somehow they have developed the notion that it’s a lack of faith to ask for help, or maybe they’re embarrassed, or perhaps they have the strange notion that a mature Christian should be able to solve any problem with prayer alone.  

Let me ask you, how fast do you think the walls of Jerusalem would have been rebuilt if all Nehemiah had done was to pray?  Do you think God would have built them for him?  I’m not suggesting He couldn’t; I’m just saying He wouldn’t.  That’s not how God operates.  He doesn’t do for us what He has equipped us to do for ourselves, but He wants us to do it while leaning and trusting in Him.  Nehemiah understood this and set about to enlist a support team.  Look at verse 17:  “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.”  

I notice several facts about Nehemiah’s ability to share his vision and motivate people to join him.  First, like Ezra, he speaks in the first person, not the second.  He doesn’t say, “You guys have allowed Jerusalem to lie in ruins; its about time you got off your duffs and began to build these walls.” Instead he says, “You see the trouble we are in….  Come, let us rebuild.”  

Secondly, he appeals to inner motivation rather than external motivation.  He could have used the fear tactic (“if you don’t get this wall built the enemy will come and wipe us out”), but instead appeals to the disgrace of living in a city without a wall.  External motivation may work well at first, but inner motivation is best for the long term.  Thirdly, he gives all the glory to God.  Verse 18:  “I told them about the gracious hand of my God.”  The leader who takes personal credit may gather a personal following, but if people are to be motivated to do God’s work, God must be given the credit.  

And it worked.  They joined in enthusiastically.  The world would say Nehemiah was lucky—he was in the right place at the right time with the right people.  But an anonymous wag once wrote, “Luck is a crossroad where preparation and opportunity meet.”

Whatever your broken walls are, you need to enlist a support team.  You may need just one very special trusted friend to confide in.  You may need a small support group.  You may need professional counseling.  You may need a discipler to keep you accountable.  Whatever the need, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Nehemiah would have gotten nowhere if he had tried to build the walls himself; and you will get nowhere if you try to whip a drug habit, or pull yourself out of depression, or get control of your personal finances, or rebuild your marriage, unless you are willing to accept help from people God has made available to you.  Finally, there is the crucial step of perseverance in the face of opposition.

Step seven:  Persevere in the face of opposition.  (2:19-20)

Immediately after we are informed that the people began this good work, we read in verse 19, “But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab hear about it, they mocked and ridiculed us.  ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked.  ‘Are you rebelling against the king?'”  Throughout these twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah we have found and will continue to find opposition to the work of God rearing its ugly head.  It doesn’t matter whether the issue is laying the temple foundation, the discipline of sinning leaders, or the building of the wall, there is antagonism and resistance from within and without.  That is something God’s people have to learn to live with and accept.  In fact, Ray Stedman often in his sermons defined a Christian as one who is “completely fearless, continually cheerful, and constantly in trouble!”

Here the opposition is from three individuals whom we will meet further in chapters 4 & 6—people from the territory around Jerusalem who have a vested interest in keeping the city defenseless.  They try two tactics—first mocking and ridicule and when that doesn’t work, veiled threats.  But Nehemiah refuses to give in to their intimidation.  He responds, “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.”  

Whenever you walk by faith and seek to lead, you will encounter the hostility of people who walk by sight.  They are rebuked by the life of faith.  They are especially rebuked because they don’t have your vision.  

Conclusion:  Sometimes Christian people react negatively to planning, thinking somehow that it is incompatible with a life lived by the Spirit of God.  Chuck Swindoll writes, “I weary of people who call it ‘faith’ when they can’t tell you their plans.  Have you ever heard an individual say, ‘No, we’re not going to think this through.  We’re just going by “faith.”  God will lead us.'”[iii]  Let me say as clearly as possible:  Faith is not antithetical to planning; rather it demands it.  But our plans must begin with God, progress with God, and end with God.  They must be in keeping with His will and His ways.  

You know, it’s not by accident that we speak of the plan of salvation.  God, in His omniscience, saw the broken walls that sin would cause to the human race, and before the foundation of the earth, He established a plan whereby He sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sin and to offer us the free gift of eternal life with Him.  

Now what are we going to do about our broken-down walls and our burned-up gates?  Let me urge you to begin here this morning by identifying one major project in your life, and then begin this week to take the other six steps to repair and rebuild.  But you can’t do it alone; you need Christ living in you, to motivate you, encourage you, strengthen you.  If your whole life is broken, come to Jesus for a new life!

DATE: June 28, 1992






[i] Richard Bolles, The Three Boxes of Life, page number lost.

[ii] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, page number lost. 

[iii] Charles Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, 49.