Jan 01 - What Is Necessary To Start Positive Change?

What Is Necessary To Start Positive Change

January 01, 2017

Nehemiah 1


What Is Necessary To Start Positive Change?

January 1, 2017

Nehemiah 1


We are starting into a series on Nehemiah, so to begin with I will give you some of the historic background to the book. 


This overhead is about the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem. 


The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian empire, and many of its people deported in 722 BC, on the overhead just off the chart on the left. 


Those who were left behind continued to worship YHWH, but they only accepted the Law of Moses, the Pentateuch, as authoritative, while those returning from Babylonian exile also accepted the historic and some of the prophetic books that are contained in our OT.


Those who had remained, also did not recognize Jerusalem as the only place where the temple to worship YHWH was to be located, while the returning exiles were convinced that it was only there that they were told by God to worship and sacrifice ... at the city they called Zion.


This created quite a bit of animosity between the two groups, even though they worshipped the same God. 


The group that had remained in the land would eventually become known as the Samaritans, and they still existed as a people group 500 years afterwards during the time of Jesus.


The animosity between the two groups continued as well and that is the basis of why the story of the Good Samaritan was so powerful when Jesus told it in his time.  But that was a long, long, time after the events that we’ll look at today.


The Assyrian empire came to an end in 605 BC when Nebuchadnezzar, the new King of Babylon, defeats Egypt and Assyria.  After his victory, he besieged Jerusalem and the king and its inhabitants capitulated. 


The result was that some of the artifacts in the temple and some of the ruling class were taken to Babylon while the King of Judah ended up paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 1:1-4).[1]


This was the First deportation (prophet Daniel).  Four years later, in 601 BC - Nebuchadnezzar loses a battle against Egypt.


As a result the king of Judah rebelled by not sending tribute to Babylon any longer.  However, this backfires and Nebuchanezzar ends up exacting revenge.  He again lays siege to the city but this time captured it in 597 BC.


The city is captured, the temple is looted completely.  This is when the Ark of the Covenant was removed from the temple along with all of the remaining artifacts. While some of those artifacts would eventually return, the Ark is lost forever.


As with the first defeat, this one also resulted in the deportation of the many of the ruling class, including King Jeconiah of Judah and the prophet Ezekiel.


This was the second deportation, but on a scale much more extensive than the first.  In fact, this is often when the Babylonian exile is said to have begun. 


And Judah went back to paying tribute to Babylon.  However, 10 years later, the king of Judah, who was put in power by Nebuchadnezzar, ends up making an alliance with Egypt and stops the payments to Babylon again - and again with devastating results.


Nebuchadnezzar first defeats Egypt and then lays siege to Jerusalem again. The city fell in 587 or 586 BC

The city wall and the temple that had originally been built in Solomon’s reign were destroyed. 


This also resulted in a third deportation, which included King Zedekiah of Judah.  There may have been a fourth deportation 4 or 5 years later (582/581 BC).


Jeremiah, the prophet who was active in Jerusalem during the reign of the last King, King Zedekiah.  He was forced to accompany a Judean governor by the name of Johanan, but fled to Egypt, never to return. 


In any case, Jeremiah not only prophesied about the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, he also foretold that there would be 70 years of exile.


All of those who were taken by Nebuchadnezzar were transported back to Babylonia, to a region near the two rivers (Mesopotamia, means between the rivers), the Tigris and the Euphrates, on which shores was the capital city of Babylon.


Just as there were a number of deportations, so there were a number of returns from Babylon to Judah.


The return was made possible because the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the Persians in 539 BC:  The Persian Empire would last for about 200 years, eventually falling to Alexander the Great.


A year after defeating the Babylonians, the Persian King Cyrus the Great allowed the first return. 538 BC - First return - in fact a very large number of people, the children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of those who had been exiled. 


The 70 years of exile prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah were the exact number of years between the first major deportation and the first major return (597 BC to 538 BC). 


In that first return came Zerubbabel.  The Israelites called him “the prince of Judah” because he was a descendant of King David.[2]  Also along was the priest Joshua, who was a descendant of Zadok, believed to be the only ones eligible for the high priesthood.


Three years later, in 535 BC the returnees started laying the foundation for the second temple in Jerusalem, but their work was soon halted because of the opposition from the Samaritans.


521 BC - second return took place, this time under the reign of the Persian King Darius I - At that time Zerubbabel was appointed governor of Judah and Josiah was the high priest (even though the temple wasn’t completed yet - Hag 1:1).


If you read the book of the prophet Haggai, he gives Zerubbabel and Joshua what-for, because they lived in nice (paneled) homes while the temple was still not rebuilt.


At Haggai’s, as well as the prophet Zechariah’s, insistence, work on the second temple was resumed despite opposition and it was completed within 5 years, by 516 BC.[3]


From the destruction of Solomon’s temple to the completion of the second temple there is also a time period of 70 years (586 BC to 516 BC)


457 BC - third return - This happened under the Persian King Artaxerxes I.  Part of the returning party was a priest and scribe by the name of Ezra who, like Josiah, was a descendant of Zadok


This brings us to the book of Nehemiah, which begins with events that took place 13 years after the final return from Babylon to Judah. 


In 444 BC, Nehemiah, a Jew who was part of the royal court of Artaxerxes I, was appointed the governor of Judah, so he returned with the permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, something he accomplished in record time despite substantial opposition, again from the Samaritans.  He returned to Persia after being governor for 12 years, in 432 BC.  Three years later, in 429 BC Nehemiah’s returns for a visit, which then brings the book of Nehemiah to an end. 


The book of Nehemiah is the last historic section of the OT.  The Rabbis believed that the time for the prophets also ceased at that time, so that prophet Malachi, whose prophesies are recorded in the very the last book in the OT, prophesied around the time of Nehemiah’s visit. 


Take a note where Susa is, from where Nehemiah starts off, and where Babylon is - the vicinity of where many Jews were exiled to.  So let’s turn to Nehemiah chapter 1 and have a brief look at it.


The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev [that’s around November/December] in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”   Nehemiah 1:1-3


Nehemiah is in the capital city of Susa. It originally was a major Babylonian stronghold but was conquered by Cyrus the Great.  Nehemiah calls it a citadel because it is on a raised area with a palace complex that was originally built by King Darius.


It wasn’t a very big city.  At its widest point it was only about 800 meters (2400 feet).  If you measure from the corner down here, Central Saanich and Mt. Newton, all the way to the 4-way stop signs at East Saanich Road, that’s 1 km, already 200 meters more than the widest part of the citadel of Susa.[4]


The most impressive buildings consisted of the palace compound which Darius had built. However, he didn’t use Susa as his capital.  But his son Xerxes and grandson Artaxerxes did.  In fact it remained the capital until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, 100 years after Nehemiah’s last visit to Jerusalem. 


So Nehemiah receives news that, while the temple was rebuilt within Jerusalem, the walls that were to protect the inhabitants of the city were “broken down”.  The gates no longer existed.  For Nehemiah, this was devastatingly bad news.  He desperately wanted things to change, although it wasn’t at all clear what he himself could do to bring about the change that he desired.  So what DID he do?


When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For days I mourned and fasted and prayed to the God of heaven.

                                                                        Nehemiah 1:4


Nehemiah was upset to the point where he cried bitterly.  And then he fasted and prayed for days.  Let me expand on Nehemiah’s actions by going down a bit of a rabbit trail.


Have you ever heard the expression “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”?  What I take from this saying is that we will not do something to bring about change for the better in our lives unless we really are sick and tired of the status quo. 


Put another way, we never really change unless we are not only convicted about the need for change, but when we also have a strong desire change, we are actually emotionally invested in changing.


For example, I have heard of alcoholics who went for years of treatment without conquering their addiction.  They had achieved “insight” into their condition because of the therapy, but their drinking continued.  They knew more about recovery programs than anyone else, but were more susceptible to relapse than an addict who knew nothing at all. 


They might lose their jobs, the people most important in their lives, and their health.  But they still won’t stop drinking ... until they die. 


One of the reasons for this is that drinking alcohol elicits a physical and emotional response that cannot simply be overcome by a desire to quit.  There is a hidden value to all addictions, and unconsciously that is what is craved.  In other words, alcohol does something that is valued more than anything else. 


And I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.


Just like food or sex or shopping or gambling or pot or, in the case of the overhead, nicotine, all of these things can release a flood of dopamine into the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is that part of the human brain that gives us a sense of pleasure.  So all of these things make people feel good despite whatever else may be going wrong in their lives. 


In other words, people can acknowledge mentally that alcohol or nicotine is bad for them, but, because the pleasure center in their brains is stimulated, their feelings tell them otherwise.  So while they may intellectually say something is bad for them and that they want to quit, the reality is that their feelings about the pleasure they receive haven’t changed. They are still emotionally invested in the sensation ... which is what addiction is all about.  As a friend of mine recently said, “I quit smoking every evening and start up again every morning.”


For us to bring about positive change in our lives, we not only have to think differently about what we want and what we don’t want in our lives ... we actually have to feel differently about it. 


I believe that for us to let go of something negative that may have a hold on us, we need to get to the point of feeling so repulsed by it that, despite its hidden benefits, we get rid of it and learn to embrace something else that is more positive.


To get back to Nehemiah, he felt distraught about the situation back in Jerusalem to the point that it moved him to tears.  But for most of us, that is where it would have ended.  Because even though we might have thought to do something about what was going on in Jerusalem, we would have found 100 reasons why we just can’t


Why do we find the excuses for not bringing about change?  Because deep down we would NOT really feel like doing anything about it.  We don’t feel like jeopardizing our comfort, our ability to feel secure and safe, and have the pleasures and comforts that we would normally enjoy. 


I’m just one person. There is nothing I can do by myself.  The situation is outside of my sphere of influence.  I am so busy currently and my employer the king is so dependent on me.  I have too much to lose, living here in the king’s court.  There are also the amenities to be found in the capital city, doctors, schools and shopping. Jerusalem is too far away and just out in the middle of nowhere.  I would be taking a huge risk by trying to get personally involved in doing something about this


Let me ask you a question?  When was the last time that you were so invested in wanting to bring about positive change in your own or someone else’s life, that you mourned and fasted and prayed for days on end


And I mean simply not eating and yet continuing on with regular life.  Fasting and praying while going to work, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, doing chores, studying, or fulfilling whatever other responsibilities you might have.  For days on end. My guess would be that the vast majority of us have never done this. 


Fasting is a spiritual discipline that simply has fallen out of favour in our world of instant and constant gratification.  Yet the benefits can be profound. 


Health benefits:  Studies have shown that intermittent fasting can help weight loss, the absorption of sugar, speeds up metabolism, reset the “full” signal in the brain, improve eating patterns, brain function, the immune system.  Fasting rests the digestive system, allows the body to detox, increases energy. Overall it is supposed to help a person live longer. 


But, when it is combined with a spiritual discipline, and ONLY if it is combined with a spiritual disciple, can it also have a host of spiritual benefits.


With no food in the body, the mind is more focused and clear because there is a lot more energy available to pray and meditate. There is a greater inner stillness, and a much greater ability to heal emotional patterns that are “stuck.”  Some believers speak of a greater sensitivity to discerning God’s will, a new desire for God, and a deeper level of praise and thankfulness.  In essence, it is incredibly helpful when it comes to helping us change the way we think and feel about something.  .


So what did Nehemiah pray about for days on end as he fasted and mourned?  In the verses that follow, Nehemiah gives an example of what that was.


I pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.  I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.                                   Nehemiah 1:6-7


What a weird prayer.  Why in the world is he praying for forgiveness?  It wasn’t his fault that the nation went into Babylonian exile.  It wasn’t his fault that the city walls had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.  Yes, it had been his ancestor who had been king and who had rebelled against the Babylonians despite the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings not to do so.  But Nehemiah hadn’t even born!  Why in the world is he praying a prayer of confession? 


And yet he is including himself with those who had disobeyed God and had acted against his will, likely because he was aware of his own failings and short-comings.


Reminds me of a man by the name of Patrick Reynolds, an actor and author, who is the grandson of the founder of the tobacco company RJReynolds.


Patrick is an outspoken anti-smoking activist who recognizes that his family business has killed millions, including his own father.  He himself had smoked for 17 years himself, the last 10 of those he was trying to quit.  He is the founder of The Foundation for a Smokefree America.


Patrick didn’t start the company or promoted it, but he repented publicly for what his family had done - and he dedicated his life to doing something about it.


So we need to understand, that for Nehemiah, this was much more than just saying “sorry.”  We can apologize to others or to God, without any intentions of doing anything about it or changing.  Nehemiah’s prayer continues.


Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

                                                                        Nehemiah 1:8-9


So God is to remember his promise that was recorded in the Law of Moses, in Deut 30:2-4 to be precise, [5]  that the people in exile would return from exile if they turned back to God with all of their heart and soul.


But wait a minute. This had already happened! The exiles in fact had been gathered and brought back to Judah and back to Jerusalem. 


So Nehemiah wants God to remember his promise to Israel for restoration ... but why exactly?  Or maybe, he is praising God for having remembered his promise in Deuteronomy and already having brought about the restoration of Israel.  But in Nehemiah’s eyes, that restoration wasn’t complete, was it? 


Maybe he had prayed for all those days that God would fulfill this promise even more so by raising up and sending those to the city who would repair the walls.


But as he prayed, a new conviction had begun to take hold of his heart. Look carefully at the next verse to see what he is actually asking for.  Because whatever else these days of fasting and prayer did for Nehemiah, I don’t believe that he simply had doing nothing as an option any longer.   


O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant [Nehemiah] and to the prayer of your servants [the Israelites] who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man [King Artaxerxes].  Nehemiah 1:11


It seems that the people of Israel are once again obeying God. Just like Nehemiah, they delight in honouring God’s name (lit. fearing his name, therefore), that is obeying God’s will.  Based on the actual change of attitude and action that has taken place in their lives with regard to God, Nehemiah then makes his ultimate request: Give me success in MY attempt to bring about the change that I so desire.”


This was much more than simply saying that he’s sorry.  It’s much more than an apology.  It’s much more than remorse. It is repentance in its most basic form.  In the NT, the Gk word for repentance is metanoia


metanoia = meta (after/beyond) + nous (mind)

Meaning in Greek:  “changing one’s mind”

                                    “transforming one’s heart”

Translation in the NT:  “repenting”

Modern use: “the journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life.” 


When Jesus said, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near,” he meant, “You’re going in the wrong direction.  If you want to make it into the coming Kingdom of God, you need to transform your life for the better.” 


And Jesus knew that this would only come about as a result of a new way of thinking and feeling about something - a rewiring of the brain, if you will, into thinking along different categories.


So Calvin had called Susie some names and obviously had hurt her feelings.  He felt bad about it, and, at the encouragement of Hobbes, decides to apologize to her. 


If you look at the last panel of this cartoon, why does Calvin slap himself in the forehead?  Because he called her another name.  He realized that there is more to an apology than saying sorry, you also have to make some changes so as not to repeat the offense.  


Nehemiah ends up rewiring his brain to the point that he is personally taking action to bring about the change he most wants to see. 


The title of this sermon is “the beginning of change.”  The beginning of change is a change, not only how we think about something, but much deeper, to deal with the way we feel about something - so that the hidden benefit of continuing on as we are - is overcome


And part of that journey can be fasting and prayer.  So I want to challenge us, you and me, with regard to two things:




Do I feel convicted enough, that we will commit ourselves to a time of fasting and prayer?





[1] According to Dan 1:1 this took place in the 3rd year of the reign of Jehoiakim.

[2] This title was actually given to a man by the name of Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:8,11), who may be none other than Zerubbabel himself (the other possibility being that it was Zerubbabel’s uncle.

[3] Malachi may have been penned later than Haggai and Zechariah because the existence of the temple is assumed (cf. Mal 1:10; 3:1,10).  The abuses Malachi mentions closely correspond to those which Nehemiah found on his visit to Jerusalem after he had returned to Persia once his governorship of Judah was over.

[4] Susa was destroyed in AD 638 by Muslims who advanced into Persia for the first time.  Over the last 1,400 years the site likely eroded somewhat.

[5] Note the verbal overlap between what Nehemiah says and Deut 30:2-4 - And you return to YHWH your God and listen to (= obey) his voice with all your heart and soul, ... the YHWH your God will restore you from captivity ... and will gather you again from all the peoples ... from the ends of the earth YHWH your God will gather you and from there he will bring you back.