Men of the Spirit

Men of the Spirit

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 9

Nehemiah gives us an example of a national spiritual movement, one which saved a nation on the brink of collapse. What they did, God is calling us to do.

The most important lesson I have learned in 36 years of Christian faith is that God wants an intimate relationship with me before he wants anything else from me. My first priority is to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Before he wants me to write, or teach, or preach, or do anything else, he wants me to love him. He wants me to seek him passionately and personally.

He wants the same from you. He has led me to tell two stories—our text, alongside my personal spiritual revival. Then we will see if these stories relate to your story today.

Choose to seek God

The story begins with the decision to seek God. “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads” (v. 1).

The people have completed the Feast of Tabernacles (15th to 22nd day) and the national assembly which followed (23rd day). Now they “gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.” Fasting was required only on the Day of Atonement, but here they entered into a fast in their desire to know God more intimately. They were “wearing sackcloth,” a dark coarse cloth made from goats’ hair, used for mourning. They had “dust on their heads,” another sign of mourning and grief.

“Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners” (v. 2a). They had intermarried with the people they found in the land, but now they returned to the purity God intended for them. “They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” (v. 2b). This was public repentance for the national spiritual crisis before them.

“They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God” (v. 3). They stood for three hours, listening to the word of God; then they spent another three hours in confession and worship.

Here’s my story: The Ignatius House is a Jesuit Catholic retreat center on the Chattahoochee River, north of Atlanta. When I was pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, our ministry staff spent two days there in a “silent retreat.”

We’d taken planning retreats before, but this was our first spiritual trip together, a program for nothing but solitude with God. From Monday noon to Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. we weren’t allowed to speak. I went to see if such a miracle could actually occur, not the least in my own life.

Our retreat director gave us a series of essays to read at various times. I’d like to read to you from the essay which he gave us at the very beginning of the retreat. It’s by Mike Yaconelli, a well-known writer and one of my favorite Christian columnists.

I lost my soul.

I mean, I didn’t know I had one.

What I really mean is, I knew I had one, but I had never come in contact with it.

I came from a tradition where souls were a theological reality, not a faith reality. Souls were for saving, not for communing. Souls were for converting and, once they were converted, they were to be left alone. Souls were too mystical, too subjective, too ambiguous, too risky, too . . . well, you know–New Age-ish.

I came from a wonderful evangelical tradition that has always lifted up the integrity of the Word of God, the significance of the Church, the centrality of salvation. But that same tradition, in the past few years, has seen an epidemic of moral failure. In a tradition that has always placed a high value on morality, moral failure has become a common occurrence. There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of defections from the faith. More and more of my friends are dropping out, giving up, or just placing their faith on the shelf for awhile.

Why?

We have lost touch with our souls. We have been nourishing our minds, our relational skills, our theological knowledge, our psychological well-being, our physiological health . . . but we have abandoned our souls.

Our souls have been lost.

Up until a few months ago, I had no idea I had lost my soul somewhere. In the busyness and clutter of my life, as I traveled all over the world serving God, I thought my soul was just fine, thank you. But my soul wasn’t fine. I spent hours every day doing God’s work, but not one second doing soul work. I was consumed by the external and oblivious to the internal. In the darkness of my soul, I was stumbling around and bumping into the symptoms of my soullessness–I was busy, superficial, friendless, afraid, and cynical—but I didn’t know where all these negative parts of my life were coming from.

What happened to him, happened to me. Has it happened to you?

Enter his presence with praise and thanksgiving

The Bible says that we “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). How do we step into further intimacy with God? We find help in Nehemiah:

Choose to praise God (vs. 4-5).

Exalt him for who he is (v. 6) (note that God is the subject of every sentence from verse 6 to 150.

Honor him for all he has done for you (vs. 7-15)

At the retreat in Atlanta, I realized that I had lost touch with my soul, like Yaconelli. Let’s look at Nehemiah, then I’d like to tell you how the risen Christ helped me find my soul again. It’s just possible that some of you need to find yours again, too.


Men of the Word

Men of the Word

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 8

Our subject during this study has been “A Culture in Crisis.” The crisis continues, as you know. GM is actively considering bankruptcy; global climate change is accelerating; the Muslim advance in Western Europe continues; the war with Radical Islam is going better in Iraq but worse in Afghanistan; political changes in Israel and Palestine have escalated tensions in the Holy Land.

What in the world is going on? What does God want us to do? I am convinced that the only answer is Awakening, and that God is marching in just this way in these very days. What does he ask of us?

Nehemiah came to the leadership of his nation in a time of similar crisis. Their capital city was in ruins, their people defenseless against their enemies. The king had refused to allow the city to be rebuilt, and Nehemiah was the only man who could change his mind and lead the effort. His wisdom, courage, and compassion led the Jewish people to reconstruct their city and resurrect their nation.

Now they have a physical nation again, but not a spiritual one. In this session we will learn the secret of renewal, spiritual movement, Awakening in our time. It starts with you, and the book you brought to Bible study today.

Value the word (Neh. 7:53-8:2)

Our text begins: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns (Nehemiah 7:53). “The seventh month” was our September-October. It was the New Year’s Day on the Jewish civil calendar, and the first month of the seventh year of the religious clendar.

This was the most sacred month of the Jewish year. The Feast of Trumpets was celebrated on the first day, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Tabernacles from the 15th to the 21st days, followed by a national assembly on the 22nd day.

Now, “all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel” (v. 1). “All the people assembled as one man,” as it was the seventh month. From Neh. 7 we know that this crowd numbered as many as 50,000 people. “People” occurs 13 times in this chapter, showing the collective experience and transformation of the nation upon hearing and understanding the word of God.

They gathered “in the square before the Water Gate.” This was on the east wall of the city. “Square” translates rehob, “court.” It was a large area situated between the eastern gate of the temple and the city wall, where the Water Gate had been constructed.

Through this gate, water was brought into the city; there was a large area in front of it.

“They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” Ezra was a scribe and a priest, descended from Eleazar, Aaron’s third son. He had returned to Jerusalem from Persia in 458 B.C., 14 years before Nehemiah, also with the blessing of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7). His primary purpose was to rebuild the nation spiritually, as Nehemiah would rebuild it physically. He did this by teaching the law of God to the people of God.

Ezra 7:10 gives us the passion of his life: “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”

Now the people told him “to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.” He had been teaching them God’s word for 14 years; during the two-month interlude while the walls were rebuilt, this ministry apparently was stopped. Now the people asked that Ezra begin teaching them again.

This reading of the complete Law every seven years was prescribed by Moses: “Moses commanded them: At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess'” (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).

This was the Pentateuch, or the Torah. At this time the Law was a massive scroll, stored by the priests for safety and brought out only for public reading. Such reading was the ministry of the priest: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 2:7). Would that it were so today.

With this result: “So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand” (v. 2). “Men and women and all who were able to understand” includes children and youth as well.

This is an event similar to the Jewish synagogue service: the people assembled; the Torah was requested and opened; the people stood; praise was given to God; the people responded; the sermon instructed them; the Law was read and applied; and the people departed.

This movement would lead to the greatest awakening the Jewish people had experienced in generations. And it all started when they valued the word of God.

Many years ago, a shipwreck off the Japanese islands resulted in a small New Testament being washed ashore. A man walking on the beach found the tiny volume, and judged its paper just the right dimensions and weight for cigarettes. As he tore a page from the book to roll a cigarette, he would read what was printed on it. And so he came to trust in Christ, and to start a church in his village. Years later, when missionaries first visited his island, they found a thriving community of faith awaiting their arrival.