When Ordinary Men and Women do Extraordinary Work

Part 1

A deeper dive into Nehemiah's story with a focus on his method of inspiring his followers.
Class by:

The title of this chapter is, "When ordinary men do extraordinary work," and is a study of Nehemiah's efforts at rebuilding the defensive wall around Jerusalem. – Taken from Alan Redpath's book entitled, Victorious Christian Service.

I think a more exact title would be, "When ordinary people do extraordinary work" because the Bible is filled with examples of men and women, old and young, from different cultures, who despite their "ordinariness," managed to achieve great things.

  • From Abraham, the nobody in UR…
  • To Moses, the disgraced orphan son of a queen.
  • From David, the least of Jesse's 8 sons…
  • To Esther, the adopted child of a man living in exile.

It seems that God has a fondness for those who are small in the eyes of men, those who are not considered great – even by the standards of this fallen world – to exercise His will and purpose through their small lives in order to bring honor and glory to Himself and bless with "extraordinariness" the lives of ordinary people.

And so it was with Nehemiah. Oh, yes, he was a "cupbearer" to the king, a counselor of sorts. Perhaps this had a measure of importance in the world. But the reality of the situation was that he was enslaved, part of the exiles who had been removed from Judah by the Babylonian army after the destruction of Jerusalem. Some scholars believe he may have even been a eunuch because there is no mention of his family and the easy proximity he had to the king.

His story demonstrates so well how God can use powerless, and yes even damaged people to do great things in His name.

In addition to this, and what's more pertinent for us here today, Nehemiah's experience teaches us what to expect from God when He calls on us to rise beyond our ordinary circumstances and build in His name.

Note that we will re-trace some material we've already covered to go more deeply into Nehemiah's experience.

I. Nehemiah – Background

Before we begin, let's summarize some of what we've been studying about this period. We know that the Jewish people had been taken into Babylonian captivity for 70 years. In approximately 538 B.C. the power of the Babylonian empire was broken by Persia and upon assuming supremacy, the king of Persia encouraged the Jewish remnant to return to their own country. Some 50,00 did return and they set about the immense task of rebuilding their city and their temple which was the center of Jewish life. They faced opposition from their neighbors and after laying its foundation, they were forced to stop rebuilding the temple.

It lay unfinished for almost twenty years until God raised up prophets to encourage the people to rise up and finish the building of the temple and reinstate worship. Sixty more years passed, and another group of exiles returned with Ezra, the priest. This man, who could trace his priestly lineage to Aaron, set about re-establishing the moral and spiritual life of the people that had fallen into a neglected state.

In 445 B.C., twelve years after Ezra had returned to Jerusalem to minister to the people, God raised up another servant to match the need of the hour. God called Nehemiah to come and rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah lived and served in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes I. He obtained permission and supplies from the king in order to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its protective wall and gates.

We read in his book that he encountered much opposition from the enemies of the Jews but that in a remarkably short time the wall was built. The rest of his memoire recounts how he had to return to the city later on in order to re-instate religious order among the leaders and people.

In studying Nehemiah's calling we can learn much about the way that God's servants respond and work once they are called.

II. Cupbearer to Fortress Builder – Nehemiah 1-2

Please open your Bibles to Nehemiah chapter 1 and let's see how one goes from being an enslaved cupbearer to a successful fortress builder!

1The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3They said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire."
- Nehemiah 1:1-3

Nehemiah's brother and others visit him with news of home. The problem of broken walls and burned gates was twofold:

  1. A safety issue – They were quite vulnerable to attack from their unfriendly neighbors as well as roaming bandits and thieves.
  2. An honor issue – Their city and society were ashamed because of the condition of their wall, the first thing the people saw when they approached the city.
When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
- Nehemiah 1:4

Nehemiah is touched by this report. The condition of the wall symbolizes the discouragement and fear of the people. They were as broken as the wall. He is troubled by this news that he goes to bed in fasting and prayer. We learn that later in his prayers he is asking God what can be done about this situation.

5I said, "I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 6let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned. 7We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. 8Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.' 10They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.
- Nehemiah 1:5-10

In his prayer he acknowledges that the condition of the wall and of the people are due to their sins and disobedience. He also appeals to God to fulfill His promise to bless and restore His people.

O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man." Now I was the cupbearer to the king.
- Nehemiah 1:11

At the end of the prayer we see that Nehemiah has a specific request in mind – something he wants to do to resolve the problem, but he needs God's help to do it. We're not sure what this is until the very last line where he mentions what his role is. In normal circumstances one would put this information at the very beginning to describe who the author is and his position.

  • He's a Jew first, then a cupbearer. This is how his priorities lie for his life and identity.
  • He also uses this condition to reveal what his ultimate plan is – to appeal to the king for help.
  • He's asking God to turn the king's heart toward him in a favorable way.
1And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2So the king said to me, "Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart." Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, "Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers' tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?" 4Then the king said to me, "What would you request?" So I prayed to the God of heaven.
- Nehemiah 2:1-4

Note that four long months have passed since Nehemiah received the news of the walls and made his initial prayer. In the meantime, he has continued in his usual duties before the king. Nehemiah has probably continued to pray and by this time is beginning to wonder if God has really called him or if his prayers have been in vain.

It seems like the stress and anxiety has begun to show on his face. Now, we need to understand that Nehemiah wasn't "acting" sad to get the king's attention, he wasn't trying to "make something happen." Being sad or engrossed in your own problems, or distracted in the presence of the king was a capital offense! Cupbearers were expendable! The king wasn't Oprah!

Nehemiah had good reason to be afraid. Instead of the subject coming up during the discussion of politics or in some normal way, the king was asking him a personal question and he was being forced to respond. So, Nehemiah tells the truth (if you're going to die, you might as well tell the truth). He reveals the condition of his city. The king responds by allowing Nehemiah to make a request of him. Note before Nehemiah does this, he makes another prayer.

Nehemiah was not allowed to approach this king, but God was, and did on Nehemiah's behalf and answered his prayer at the proper time.

5I said to the king, "If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' tombs, that I may rebuild it." 6Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, "How long will your journey be, and when will you return?" So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time. 7And I said to the king, "If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, 8and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go." And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me. 9Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.
- Nehemiah 2:5-10

Nehemiah requests permission to return to Jerusalem to personally supervise the rebuilding of the walls. He also asks for royal permission to travel with protection and letters to governors authorizing his work. To top it all off he requests that the king provide the materials for the project.

The king agrees and sends him on his way with the condition that he return at a certain time. After all, Nehemiah was still a slave. Once Nehemiah arrives, he is greeted by neighboring leaders who question his mission and begin immediately to oppose him.

11So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. 12And I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding. 13So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon's Well and on to the Refuse Gate, inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were consumed by fire. 14Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. 15So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned. 16The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work.
- Nehemiah 2:11-16

Once in Jerusalem he quietly surveys the work that needs to be done, quietly or secretly because he does not want to provoke an attack from his enemies, or opposition from the people before he has a chance to speak to them.

17Then I said to them, "You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate, and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach." 18I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king's words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, "Let us arise and build." So they put their hands to the good work. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, "What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?" 20So I answered them and said to them, "The God of heaven will give us success; therefore, we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem."
- Nehemiah 2:17-20

Note in this passage Nehemiah's method of inspiring his followers:

1. He shares his vision.

They who live next to the ruined walls are too close or too burned out to see the situation clearly. Nehemiah conveys the true meaning of what has happened – they are a reproach (a disgrace) in the eyes of others because of their condition. The wall's condition reflected the people's condition, and it was a shameful thing for God's people to be this way.

Most times people don't see themselves; they are so used to their weakness, sins, and reproaches that they just ignore them and learn to live with them. Nehemiah's vision was not of the future (he was not a prophet) his was a clear vision of what was actually happening.

He doesn't berate or rebuke the people; he simply shares the clarity of his vision and offers the natural solution – Let's rebuild! People are more likely to respond to an action plan for fixing a problem than continual harping and complaining about the problem at hand.

The second step in Nehemiah's method to inspire the people…

2. He provides motivation.

Now if he were a modern motivational speaker, he would've said things like:

  • Just do it!
  • Believe in yourself and all things are possible.
  • Buy these tapes and books and I'll motivate you to do it.

But, of course, he didn't. He was God's servant and God's servants are motivated by God – not themselves or other men. "Why do this?" Nehemiah asked.

  • Because this is no ordinary wall – this is God's wall.
  • Because this is no ordinary work – this is God's work.
  • Because you are not just ordinary people – you are God's people!

When it comes to building anything for God let's remember that it's the Spirit of God that moves men to action – not slogans or surveys.

3. Nehemiah Provided a Response to Opposition

Remember a few chapters back I said that any project has stages?

  • Stage 1 – Beginning
  • Stage 2 – Obstacles

Godly vision and motivation are no guarantee that there will be no obstacles! On the contrary – Godly vision and motivation guarantee that there will be opposition.

In every generation Satan opposes the people and the plans of God – especially when they are motivated to put those plans into action. Once the people were up to build, the opposition was immediate and could have killed their movement before it began. Their threat was that they would report their plan to the king as being an act of rebellion. That was the previous ploy that had stopped the temple rebuilding for 20 years. But it didn't work this time because Nehemiah had a ready answer.

So I answered them and said to them, "The God of heaven will give us success; therefore, we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem."
-Nehemiah 2:20

Note that he doesn't rely on his decree from the king or letters to the governor giving him permission. He appeals to a higher authority – the Lord! This is the Lord's work that we are doing, and no one can stop his servants from carrying it out. So many good works are never finished because the leaders don't expect opposition or do not respond firmly to it when it comes.

Of course, we know the end of this part of the story. An incredible construction feat, to build a wall as high as a house with a thickness that would enable a person to walk on it, a complete a series of massive doors, all surrounding a city – completed in 52 days! God called Nehemiah to perform a task and from his experience we not only see how Nehemiah responded and worked, we also see what God can provide to those He calls upon for service.