The LIFE TRANSFORMING Lesson I Discovered While Reading a List of Names in the Bible!

Have you ever caught yourself reading through the Bible and you come to a long list of names and you think, “Do I still get credit if I skip these? There are a few passages in the scripture that can make you pause and wonder if there is really anything to be gained by reading a particular list of hard to pronounce biblical names? (Before you comment… I know all about the genealogy of Jesus and the four women mentioned there as well as characters of biblical  significance.) I’m talking about the lists in the Old Testament where someone’s name is mentioned once and never seen or heard from again! Places where we have NO history other than a name thrown in among dozens if not hundreds of other names. To be honest, I never doubted that these lists were scripture and were profitable some way, but I figured that I didn’t have the biblical chops to know exactly who Nephishesim was and why his name was in the bible. But then I messed up…

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I told a bunch of students that we would go chapter by chapter through the book of Nehemiah! I had read Nehemiah dozens of times, but I always skipped the long list of names, therefore I forgot that Nehemiah chapter seven actually contains a long list of names! (It takes up over two whole pages and four columns in my bible!) So there I was, stuck with a commitment to go through this book chapter by chapter and I came to chapter seven and I had to prepare a message for our students or eat crow and explain that I had forgotten about this chapter or worse, I would have to admit that I was in over my head. I firmly held then (and even more so now)  that ALL Scripture is, “God-Breathed and useful” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)but this put it to the test.

I stared blankly at the text. I begged God. I looked up name meanings realizing that perhaps this was a stretch. I asked “Why?” a whole lot. When I was about to give up… He Spoke through the names!

They were there, because they mattered! I know, simple right? These people were listed because they were there! In this instance, they were there building a wall with Nehemiah. Then it hit me, the book might have Nehemiah’s name as the title, but it was just as much about the faithful who responded to his leadership. These folks weren’t only witnesses, they were participants.

I realized a two things:

  1. God cares about people.
  2. It’s incredibly good leadership take time to recognize and remember the work of the people you lead.

I still can’t pronounce half the names on that list, but I know this, seeing their name has impacted me and changed the way I lead. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to tell them that God used a list with their name on it to bless me! Until then, I write thank you notes, applaud and do my best to encourage everyone who participates in the life of our church. After all, these people belong to God! I may be the leader up front at our church, but I am not the only one serving God.

So today I am thankful for a long list of names in the bible because it helps me really see the people around me.

3 Things To Do When A Pastor Leaves: an Open Letter

Dear Church,

When a pastor answers the call to go to another church there can be lots of thoughts and emotions. I want to address three of those thoughts. Please know that as much as I love you, my biggest desire is still to see you complete in Christ (Philippians 1:6, Colossians 1:28). So here are three things I think you should do in light of one of your pastors answering a call to go to another church.

3 Things to Do When a Pastor Leaves

  1. Remember: God has called you to the local body, not the man (Romans 12).

You were called to be a part of the body of Christ, not to the Pastor (Romans 12). Don’t get me wrong. I love you. But your calling, just like my calling is to a local church. Sometimes when a pastor leaves, we can be tempted to think that maybe we need to leave and explore other churches too. I want to encourage you, that we all play a part in the body of Christ. I’ve been asked a lot lately from those both inside and outside our church about why I was able to stay for nearly a decade as a student pastor at not only one, but two different churches (a rarity). My answer was simple. “I love the church.” I love the church so much so that I would rather suffer than see her suffer and so I stayed during seasons when it cost me personally but was a benefit for the congregation as a whole.  The only reason I’m leaving now is to answer a crystal clear calling. I don’t think it’s healthy to move otherwise.  When you leave a church, you don’t leave a pastor (or lack of a pastor in a certain position) so much as you leave all the other people.  There will be moments where it feels easy to leave, but I want to encourage you to stay with your local church unless you are sure God is calling you somewhere else. We all need to fulfill our calling in the local body.

2. Find your place and serve (1 Corinthians 12:4-27).

To that end, I want to encourage you to find your place and serve. If ever there were a time for you to discover how you benefit the church, today is the day. It is an all hands on deck opportunity. Often when God calls a pastor to another church it is so the church can grow by having individuals step up and fill the void. You have people in your midst who will be able to exercise their gifts and calling in my absence in a way that they would be unable to do if I were present. I rejoice at this! I earnestly desire that the church grow spiritually, numerically, and in influence in the community in my absence! My feelings won’t be hurt if the church does greater things than they did when I was there. I will be first in line to boast in what God is doing in your midst!

3. Trust your next shepherd (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Finally I want to acknowledge that you will call someone to replace me and IDEALLY they will conduct ministry differently than I have while I was with you. This is a VERY GOOD thing! So if you catch yourself thinking negatively, “this isn’t how Pastor Jonathan would have done it.” I want you, for the sake of the glory of God, rebuke that thought and think about this same phrase positively. Give him the benefit of the doubt (Philippians 2:1-11),  even if he were to speak negatively of me and how I did things (Philippians 1:14-17). Consider me his biggest fan.

I hope this helps you understand my heart for the Glory of God in the midst of this transition for both of us. I love you because of Christ. Please pray for me and my family as we transition to answer God’s call in our next church.

Your Partner in the Gospel,

Pastor Jonathan

 

Citizenship in the Royal city (Nehemiah 7:4-6)

Citizenship in the Royal city (Nehemiah 7:4-6)

One of my favorite books is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. One of my favorite scenes is when Christian sees the Celestial City from a distance. He is excited and ready with anticipation to enter the city and see his King, yet on this last leg of the journey he meets an old friend who came in by a different way and as they approach the gate he sees that his friend doesn’t get to enter the city because he didn’t come through the wicket gate like Christian did. This last bit is sobering and it reminds me that many can put on a good front, but only those who are qualified in Christ get to enter into Heaven and those who reject him have rejected his Kingdom as well.

Today in Nehemiah we see something similar as Nehemiah seeks out qualified people to fill the city of Jerusalem. The key word there is qualified. You had to be from the city and from the people of Judah to live in the city. It was a big deal. The right credentials got you a city address. The wrong credentials got you kicked out of the city… it mattered.

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The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt. Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first, and I found written in it: These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. (Nehemiah 7:4-6 ESV)

The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addon, and Immer, but they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 642. Also, of the priests: the sons of Hobaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. (Nehemiah 7:61-64 ESV)

We don’t place much emphasis on land these days but generations ago people were tied to geography. It mattered where you came from, even if you weren’t born there, it was “home.” Such was the case for Jerusalem. Many of the people who had come back weren’t born in Jerusalem. They didn’t have memories of growing up in Jerusalem. At best they may have had some old stories shared by their parents or grandparents about what life was like in Jerusalem before an invading army had come in and carried the people off into captivity. They were told to pray for the peace of the city where they found themselves (Jeremiah 29:7), but they never forgot that they really belonged back in Jerusalem. So when the time came and they were free to go back, many did!

I think the image of having a home that you have never seen is a beautiful image of what heaven is like for the Christian. We know that we live this life as aliens and exiles (Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:13-16) from the one true city that we have yet to see. We are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. We haven’t seen it yet, but we have heard about it and we can’t wait to get there. Unlike Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem will already have walls and gates (Revelation 21:12), but just like in the day of Nehemiah this New Jerusalem is incomplete without its people.

Just like in Nehemiah’s day, you had to belong to the city before you could become a resident. There will be many who think they belong in Heaven but find out at the last moment that they were never citizens to begin with (Matthew 7:19-21). Jesus told us that the only way to get to God the Father and by consequence the Celestial City in which he reigns was to come through Him (John 14:6).

Do You Belong Here? (Nehemiah 7:4-6)

Do You Belong Here? (Nehemiah 7:4-6)

I was out to eat a Cracker Barrel as a young teenager. I had to use the restroom and so I excused myself and went in what I thought was the “men’s room” it was on the left just like the “men’s room” at the Cracker Barrel back home. If I had looked around I would have found it odd that there were no urinals, but I had to go! After I finished business I was washing my hands and a woman came in the restroom. Feeling slightly embarrassed for her I said, “excuse me, I think you are in the wrong restroom.” She did a double take stepped back out, came back in and said, “No, You are in the wrong restroom!” Horrified I looked at the wall and where the urinals should have been, there was a mirror! I sheepishly tried to escape the bathroom without anyone noticing that I had gone in the wrong restroom but I couldn’t help but feel like everyone was staring at me. I had gone to the wrong restroom!

I don’t know if that has ever happened to you, but I can let you know that it’s a life scarring event that you will need to blog about or seek therapy for later. As bad as it was though, can you imagine what it would be like to be cheering on the rebuilding of a city only to find out that you don’t belong there? It comes time to fill the city of Jerusalem and only those who meet the qualifications can live there.

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The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt. Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first, and I found written in it: These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. (Nehemiah 7:4-6 ESV)

The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addon, and Immer, but they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 642. Also, of the priests: the sons of Hobaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. (Nehemiah 7:61-64 ESV)

There was a shortage of people in Jerusalem. This was a problem because if the city came under attack it would need able bodied people to defend the city. Rather than putting out a call all over the land to allow anyone to live in the city. Nehemiah goes back to the records to determine who had the right to live there. It was important that those who lived in the city had a genealogical right to live there. If they allowed anyone in, they may as well have not built the wall because the enemy would be living inside with them. It was important to know who your ancestors were.

In the New Testament Jesus sets up a different standard for the Kingdom of God. He tells a man named Nicodemus that genealogical pedigree doesn’t matter as much as if he has ever been “born again.” Jesus issued a new standard: Not, who were your parents? But, who is your Savior? To be part of the kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have to recognize that his Jewishness wasn’t enough, that he had to come by faith in what Jesus could and would do for him on the cross.

Like Nicodemus we will be judged not on our birth, but on what we have done with Jesus. Like Nehemiah we will or won’t be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven based up on our qualifications. Either we will try and enter on our own merit or we will plead that Jesus is all the merit we need.

Who or what are you depending on getting you to Heaven today?

Do You Stand on Guard? (Nehemiah 7:4)

Do You Stand on Guard? (Nehemiah 7:4)

You never know when the enemy will attack. That is why fortresses keep soldiers on guard. The moment you send the guards home, the enemy will come in and pillage everything you were supposed to be protecting.  Sometimes the simple presence of a guard is enough to detour those who would want to break in and take something from you. The guard stands as a first line of defense. He often detours trouble before it starts. When trouble walks through the door he cuts it off before it becomes bigger. When the trouble is too much for one guard he sounds the alarm to save the city. Being a guard is an important job.

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And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.” The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.(Nehemiah 7:3-4 ESV)

Can you imagine the state of the city if Nehemiah hadn’t appointed guards? The walls would be relatively useless because ill meaning folks would be devising ways to ruin the city. By posting a guard Nehemiah was allowing the new wall to have its fullest effect as an enemy detourant. Anyone who wanted to breach the city would have to do it with their full force, subterfuge wouldn’t be possible.

We all have things in our lives where we are weak. Places that if we are not careful we will stumble and fall into temptation and sin. It is important that we place a guard in our lives especially around these areas to keep us from the things we know will hurt us the most. If you struggle with giving, then maybe giving should be the first thing you do out of your checkbook instead of the last. This can become a guard for you so that you don’t make decisions based on what’s left, but based on what’s right. If you are tempted to view online pornography, in addition to your repentance an internet filter that you don’t have the pass key too or even the elimination of your internet capable devices would be a good step towards placing a guard in your life. Ideally, you want these behaviors to come truly from the heart, but your heart won’t grow strong in these areas (and others) until you guard it from the sin that it is so prone too. Where are you tempted? How can you place a guard in your life in these areas?

Who Controls the Gates? (Nehemiah 7:3)

Who Controls the Gates?  (Nehemiah 7:3)

I used to have an old college professor who said, “There is nothing good that comes on TV after 10 o’clock anyway, you might as well go to bed and get up early.” In his estimation it was a waste of time to stay up late watching TV, playing video games, etc. He knew he was speaking to a bunch of young men and women who were used to having someone else set the rules for everything including bed time. Now that we were on our own it was up to us to decide how we would manage our time. Would we waste our lives on the trivial things like late night talk shows and video games or would we discipline ourselves so that we could make the most of our time.

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And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.” The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt.(Nehemiah 7:3-4 ESV)

Nehemiah challenges the gate keepers to open and close the gates at certain times of the day. Keeping up with a gate schedule was important for the city of Jerusalem. They hadn’t had gates and walls for quite some time so getting adjusted to a new routine was a big deal. But more than the routine, the gate schedule would allow the guards and gate keepers to be diligent about seeing and inspecting anyone who came in and out of the city.

Gates are ultimately a good thing. They serve as an access point to the city. The city needed the gates in order for food, people, and commerce to come into the walls. But they also needed gates to keep out the enemy when they came knocking. The trick is that the enemy doesn’t always come dressed up as the enemy. The devil looks more like an angel than a red monster with a jet black beard, horns and a pitchfork (2 Corinthians 11:14).  The gate times would control the access to the city and limit the enemy from weakening the people from the inside. The high sun would make sure that every thing was exposed to the light and swords and other weapons of war would be easier to spot.

We all have access points into our lives. We allow what other people say, or things we see on television, or hear on the radio to effect us and how we live. Who and what has access to your life? Are you letting the enemy through the gates of your mind or are you keeping Him out?

Appointing Faithful Leaders (Nehemiah 7:1-2)

Appointing Faithful Leaders (Nehemiah 7:1-2)

We all have mountaintop and valley experiences in life. When it comes to spiritual matters I’ve learned that shortly after the mountaintop moment there will be a time of temptation. I have to be more aware than ever after camps, conferences, or even weekly preaching where I have been sharing or learning life transforming truth from God’s Word. It will be those moments in which I think something great has been accomplished that I will find myself challenged.  It usually begins with the temptation to coast. We usually justify coasting because of everything we have been through or our tiredness after an event. I’ve learned though that this is the exact time I don’t need to coast and no matter how tired I am, I need to keep the routine that has drawn me near to God.

It is normal to experience a mountaintop moment like camp and think your world has changed and maybe your world has changed, but it won’t be different for long without some intentionality to help you get through the valley that follows the mountaintop.

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Now when the wall had been built and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers, the singers, and the Levites had been appointed, I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.(Nehemiah 7:1-2 ESV)

Nehemiah understood that once the wall was built, the work wasn’t over.  There was still more to do. Leaders needed to be appointed. The people were feeling good about themselves and the work that God had accomplished through them. However, Nehemiah realized that without Godly leadership in place, even a city with walls could fall prey to its surrounding enemies.

He makes appointments to watch and guard strategic places along the wall and in the city. Most importantly he places his brother, as someone he can trust, in charge of the city. This is both someone who will be a Godly leader and someone who won’t give in to the pressures of people like Sanballat and Tobiah.  Nehemiah knows that he has to leave and go back to the king. He had already made that promise.

Disappointment from the Inside (Nehemiah 6:15-19)

Disappointment from the Inside (Nehemiah 6:15-19)

Leadership is more of a burden than a reward most days. Somebody has got to do something and so you stand up to lead. You have a vision of things should be and how to get there. You spend your days and nights in earnest labor, rallying the troops, lifting spirits, encouraging people to do the right thing and then finally you see success is on the horizon. Yet, even in the midst of success there are often moments of disappointment.

Sometimes it is the people inside our circle that can disappoint us the most. We’ve trusted them, leaned on them and counted them as friends. Yet, we find they have a propensity to tolerate the untolerable and it is not because they are more inclusive than we are, it is simply for something as petty as an economic or social advantage.

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So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s letters came to them. For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid. (Nehemiah 6:15-19 ESV)

 

Even Nehemiah faced the discouragement of betrayal among some of his leaders. He had to listen to folks talk about how good Tobiah was even while Tobiah was busy trying to tear down Jerusalem’s walls. He also had them constantly running off and telling Tobiah everything he said and did. Despite this seeming incongruity with his people, Nehemiah was able to lead his people to rebuild the wall in only 52 days!

It amazes me how little people have changed over the thousands of years since the events of Nehemiah occurred. In our churches today we have those who come in as wolves in sheep’s clothing who would love nothing more than for the church to run according to their style and preferences and we have those in the church who tolerate them. Many churches are little different than a country club operating on the “good-ole-boy” system and many truly godly leaders have been run out because they couldn’t endorse ungodliness in their midst.

 

Who Gives You Advice? (Nehemiah 6:10-14)

Who Gives You Advice?  (Nehemiah 6:10-14)

One of my favorite things I get to do as a youth pastor is train volunteers to help lead in our ministry. We have an extensive handbook with policies, procedures, etc. I interview folks to get their background, their testimony and their reason for wanting to serve in student ministry. We really do try hard to make sure the people we put forward as leaders offer sound advice.

It wouldn’t go well for youth leaders to listen to students and share terrible advice like, “You should dishonor your parents.” (a HUGE NO-NO in our Student ministry because of… well the BIBLE). You couldn’t be a youth leader very long at our church sharing these types of opinions because not only are they just opinions but they actually contradict what we know to be true from God’s word.

This scenario brings up a great question; what do you do when someone who is in a spiritual leadership position suggests you do something that you know is wrong? You wouldn’t think it would happen, but it happens more often than you would think. I tell our students all the time, “Don’t take my word for it, read your bible, and know for yourself.”

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Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.” But I said, “Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid (Nehemiah 6:10-14 ESV)

Nehemiah goes to visit a man by the name of Shemaiah who it appears is a prophet. This man has the credibility of speaking for God. He has respect in the community. He is someone that Nehemiah should be able to trust for good advice. We all need advice from time to time, especially leaders. Nehemiah listens to what Shemaiah has to say and immediately drawn back because Shemaiah advises him to do something that would break one of God’s laws.

Shemaiah wants Nehemiah to go hide in the temple. Not only would this be a cowardly thing to do, it would be a violation of God’s law! Only priests were supposed to be in the temple in such a way as was suggested. Shemaiah had been hired to give Nehemiah bad advice. If Nehemiah went in the temple not only would he have sinned against God, but he would have discredited himself as a leader.   Fortunately Nehemiah has a heart to honor God more than to save his own neck and so he rejects the advice of this false prophet.

I wish the church didn’t have any Shemaiah’s in it today, but the truth is that there are a lot of hucksters on TV and other places that are willing to take money in exchange for lying to you. They will give you all sorts of advice that sounds great on the outside, but will ultimately destroy you. The only way to protect yourself from listening to bad advice is to know God’s will by knowing God’s word.

Gossip (Nehemiah 6:4-9)

Gossip (Nehemiah 6:4-9)

Gossip is cruel. It is what people who lack the physical strength or capacity to enforce their will resort to when all else fails. It’s what middle school girls do when they try and shame someone into conformity or to make themselves look better. It’s what boys do when they display their own insecurities in their words. They make idle threats through supposition and mindless chatter about someone else’s business. They assign their own motive, thoughts and emotions to the actions of another and call them into account.

 In reality gossip is just hot air designed to look and feel like fire. If you are not careful you will feel the brunt of it and think you were really burned, when the truth is, it has no power over you. It’s just idle breath and it says more about those who breath out such musings than those that are being spoken about. Sure in the moment it may seem like all eyes are on you, but know this that there will come a day when God will review every idle word that has ever been spoken (Matthew 12:36) and those who are guilty of gossip will give a full account.

Nehemiah was not above being gossiped about. When all else failed Sanballat resorted to gossip. He sent an open letter (meaning anyone could read the contents) to Nehemiah. In the letter he slander’s Nehemiah’s character and asks again for a meeting.

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And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner. In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen my hands. (Nehemiah 6:4-9 ESV)

So what is especially ironic about this letter is that Sanballat accuses Nehemiah of conspiring against the king. Then he asks for a meeting saying, “come let us take counsel together.” This was incredibly stupid on Sanballat’s part for the simple reason that if word ever got back to the king of this letter, it looks like Sanballat is wanting to make a plan with Nehemiah to rebel against the king. Indeed what was intended as slander for Nehemiah could very well be taken and used as evidence to convict Sanballat of treason! But don’t miss the point, that is what gossip does… in attempting to malign the character of someone else, it reveals the corrupt character of the one who is speaking, texting, writing, sharing!

So how does Nehemiah handle gossip? He prays, asks for God’s strength, and goes back to work. This takes incredible strength and trust on his part to know that God will take up his defense. Nehemiah knows he doesn’t need to waste his breath defending himself against lies.

Sometimes when we take up for ourselves, even though we are in the right, we look like we are in the wrong. Nehemiah gets that. He trusts God to sort this out. God will judge what has been said, God will handle those who have said it. In the mean times he has a wall to build.