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.


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.

Confess your sins with humble honesty

From Nehemiah, we are admonished:

Admit your sins against God’s grace (vs. 16-25)

Admit your sins against God’s people (vs. 26-28)

Admit your sins against God’s word (vs. 29-31)

Yaconelli continues:

For months I’d known something was wrong with me. I was filled with longings I could not identify, yearnings I could not express, and an emptiness that seemed to be expanding. I was desperate even though I could not articulate my desperation.

I decided to spend a week at L’Arche, a community for the mentally and physically challenged in Toronto. I don’t know why, really, I just knew I needed to do something. To be honest, I expected to be inspired by Henri Nouwen and touched by the mentally and physically disabled people who lived there. . . .

Within a few days, I became aware that my whole life was consumed with doing rather than being. I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus, I did not know what it meant to be with Jesus. I knew how to talk about Jesus, I did not know how to sit still long enough to let Jesus talk to me. I found it easy to do the work of God, but I had no idea how to let God work in me. I understood soul-saving, but I was clueless about soul-making. I knew how to be busy, but I did not know how to be still. I could talk about God, I just couldn’t listen to God. I felt comfortable with God’s people, but I was uncomfortable alone with God. I was acquainted with the God “out-there,” but I was a complete stranger to the God “in-here.” I could meet God anywhere . . . except in my heart, in my soul, in my being.

I went on our retreat that week despite myself. If there was any way not to go, I would have taken it. An Easter sermon to write, Holy Week to prepare, a book due at the publishers, and I was just gone recently.

So, I brought my laptop and books, and set up shop in my room. I read Mike’s article, then put it aside and spent three hours on the Easter sermon. From the magazine cover, “Does Heaven Exist?” I was going to use the fact of Easter to prove that it does, and that it’s important. I got the first draft done Monday afternoon.

Then I decided to take a break. I walked from the lodge down to the Chattahoochee River, along the nature trail, finally arriving at the waterfall. I sat down on a deck overlooking the waterfall and stream. And in that place of quiet and rest, God spoke to me. God spoke to my soul.

He reminded me of Mike’s story, and showed me that it is mine. He reminded me that my soul is real. As real as these trees, this clear blue sky. I thought about the radio and television waves filling the air, airplanes and satellites high above, and the stars, the moon, even the Hale-Bopp comet, beyond them. Just because I happen not to see them doesn’t make them any less real.

So it is with my soul. It is real, and malnourished. I realized. In all my hustle and hurry for God, I spent far too little time with God. I know him, but I seldom feel him. I talk to him, but I seldom listen to him. I know about him, and somehow I believe that’s enough. But it’s not.

Seek his forgiving grace

More help from Nehemiah:

Admit your need of his grace (vs. 32-35).

Admit your need of his mercy (vs. 36-37).

Yaconelli continues:

It only took a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking. It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover that I wasn’t alone. God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, “Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.” I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me.

Here’s how it happened for me. Sitting by the waterfall, I read Psalm 139:17 in a translation I had never thought about before: “How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.” To think that God’s thoughts about me are more numerous than the grains of sand, and precious. That he loves me that much.

Later, sitting on a deck overlooking the Chattahoochee, I began reading one of Henri Nouwen’s books. I was directed to Mark 1: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place where he prayed.” The result: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (vs. 35, 38). Jesus found God’s word and will from time alone with him.

And to John 5: “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does…By myself I can do nothing…for I seek not to please myself, but him who sent me” (vs. 19-20, 30).

I realized that if Jesus can do nothing without his Father, I can do even less. If Jesus needed time alone for his soul, solitude to hear God and follow God, I do even more. It dawned on me as I was sitting on that deck that spirituality is not part of my work, it is my work. Time with God is not a resource for my life, but is my life itself.

Our lives have the same purpose as Jesus’: to know the Father. To be with him. To walk with him. To learn what he is doing, and join him. To find his word and work and will together.

And then everything we do is the expression of our life with God. We still work hard; we’re still busy. The question is not “what” we do, but “why” we do it. I am to do my work with God, not for him. Out of my love for him, and his overwhelming love for me. Together.

I discovered not only that I have a soul—I am a soul.


“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it” (v. 38).

May I ask you this question: Have you misplaced your soul? Is Jesus just a fact of history for you, or a real living person in your life? How long has it been since he spoke to you in his word, his creation, his church, your heart? Do you have the symptoms of soullessness? Is your life always hurried? Noisy? Frustrated by a lack of purpose? Do you have “calendar fatigue”—whenever you’re in one place, you should be in two others?

How long has it been since you made real time for Jesus in your life? When’s the last time you “got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place” where you prayed? How long since you listened to God? How long since you fed your soul? How long since you realized that you are a soul?

Mike Yaconelli’s article started all this for me. Here’s how it closes:

What does all this mean?

I don’t know . . . and to be quite blunt, that is the wrong question. I only know that at certain times in all our lives, we make an adjustment in the course of our lives. This was one of those times for me. If you were to look at a map of my life, you would not be aware of any noticeable difference other than a very slight change in direction. I can only tell you that it feels very different now. There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before. I can only tell you that for the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day, “Michael, I love you. You are beloved.” And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.


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.

God’s word changes human hearts.

My good friend and fellow partner in the ministry, Abraham Sarker, came to the United States as a Muslim, seeking to convert college students to Islam. Before leaving for the States, he had a vision of himself in hell and then heard the words, “Read the Bible.”

He came to his assigned college campus and asked the librarian for a Bible. She didn’t know where one was, but sent him to the Baptist Student Ministries building down the street. There he was handed a copy of the New Testament translated into his native Bengali language by William Carey. Reading the Scriptures and talking with Christians on that campus, he came to faith in Christ. He eventually came to Dallas Baptist University, where he received two degrees and now serves on the board of trustees.

His father disowned him back home in Bangladesh, and put out a warrant for his arrest should he ever return. Several years ago, Abraham and his wife Aimee went back anyway, and Abraham led his father to Christ. Now his entire family has come to saving faith. I have been to Bangladesh with Abraham and have witnessed the more than 200 Muslims who have come to Christ through his ministry there. His organization, Gospel For Muslims, is one of the most effective in the world.

God’s word changes human hearts. Do you value the word of God?

Read the word

The text continues: “He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law” (v. 3). “He read it” is literally, “He read in it,” suggesting that he picked sections to read.

Ezra did this “from daybreak till noon,” from 6 a.m. to noon, six hours of continuous reading. This was not enough time for the entire Torah to be read; most likely, Ezra read from the Book of Deuteronomy, as it summarizes the law and history of the Jewish nation, and selected other sections as they supplemented it.

Two weeks later, as the people gathered to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, Ezra read the Law to them for an entire week: “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly” (v. 18). Here he likely read the rest of the Torah to the nation.

Now “all the people listened attentively.” There is no Hebrew word for “attentive”—the text literally says, “the ears of all the people were to the book.”

How did he do this? Verse 4: “Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.”

He “stood on a high wooden platform.” Jewish rabbis typically sat to teach, while the people stood to listen. Thus Jesus “went up on a mountainside and sat down” to preach the Sermon on the Mount. But here, so many had gathered that Ezra’s voice could not reach them all if he sat while they stood. So a special platform was built for this one occasion. It was able to hold 14 people, as verses 4 and 7 indicate.

This may be the origin of the “pulpit” (as the KJV translates the word “platform”). However, it says that he “stood upon a pulpit of wood”—most preachers would be reluctant to follow this example.

Now “Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up” (v. 5). It was customary for them to stand to hear the rabbi’s teaching. Here they stood in the mere presence and reading of God’s word, as though they were standing in the very presence of God himself.

Such should always be our attitude: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Here may have originated the liturgical practice of standing whenever the Bible is read. We have done this is some of the churches I pastured as well.

He began: “Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (v. 6). “Amen! Amen!” means “It is true” or “let it be.” Repetition was the Jewish way of emphasizing a statement (cf. Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).

Then they “bowed down” in Oriental submission, “with their faces to the ground.” Muslims do this today.

When do you read the word of God? John Stott, the great British pastor and expositor, once remarked that he needs an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year in shabbath with the Father. What do you need? What’s your strategy for this week? This year?

Interpret the word

It is not enough to value and read the word—we must interpret its meaning for our lives. Verse 7: “The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.” After Ezra read from the Law, they applied it to the lives of the people, either taking turns before the multitude or teaching in smaller groups within the large crowd.

How? “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read” (v. 8). “Making it clear” translates pares, “to break up.” They translated and interpreted the word of God for the people of God.

This is still vital today. How do we interpret God’s word for ourselves?

Ask introductory questions: who, what, when, where, why?

Discover the meaning of the words: grammar, syntax

Learn the historical context of the text: geography, culture, economics, events

Discern the intended theological truths of the text

Apply this intended meaning to your life today.

Use good resources. Keep a journal and make an appointment to meet God in his word every day.

Apply the word

We can value, read, and interpret the Bible, but if we do not apply it to our lives, it has not completed its intended work. Here’s how the Bible was applied at this time in Israel’s history:

The people were convicted of their sins (v. 9-12). Dwight L. Moody: “Either this book will separate you from your sins, or your sins will separate you from this book.”

They gathered to learn more from God’s word (v. 13). These were the heads of the clans and tribes of Israel; they were responsible for the spiritual instruction of their families. Here Ezra taught the word to the leaders and influencers as well as to the crowds.

They applied God’s word to their time and situation (vs. 14-18) “The Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month” refers to the Feast of Tabernacles prescribed in Leviticus 23:37-43. During these seven days, the people lived in booths made of branches, usually built on the flat roofs of their houses.

They remembered their 40 years of wilderness wanderings, remembered the harvest blessings of God, and thanked him for his provision for their families and nation. So they went out to gather branches for this very purpose (vs. 15-16), and held the most joyous celebration of the feast since the time of Joshua.

All during this time, “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly” (v. 18).

Now Ezra finished reading the Torah, as the people celebrated. They did even more than the Scriptures required.

Does this model speak to your life? Your family? Make an appointment with God, starting today. And the Awakening will come to your spirit and life.