Hope Builders & Truth Tellers
by Pastor Steve Schantz
Hope-Builders… Building Leaders
Neh 6:14 – 7
Good afternoon to each of you! I hope you had an enjoyable and safe Independence Day wherever you celebrated. Welcome to the weekly chapter meeting of the Grace Communion Orlando’s Hope- Builders support group! In our text in Nehemiah, we have learned that certain co-opted leaders posing as Nehemiah’s colleagues were really set on tripping him up, subverting his God given mission, and harming him. Though their methods were crafty and deceptive, they failed to take into account the kind of man Nehemiah was: A man on a mission who depended on God for his strength through prayer. As the last brick in the rebuilt wall was set in place, and all the refurbished gates hung on new hinges, the very schemes intended to bring Nehemiah down resounded to God’s glory throughout the region! Please join me in reading from your own Bibles Nehemiah chapter 6, verses 15-16.
6:15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.
Let’s look again at that last part, not with emphasis mine but with emphasis HIS! …because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God…Those on the outside of the project concluded it couldn’t have been done without miraculous help! God’s work can be intimidating as well – for a good purpose and His glory! No matter how well Nehemiah cast vision -found secure financial backing -counted the costs -enlisted the right people – gathered all the right materials, deliberated over each detail, or set goal oriented time-tables for completion- it was God who determined their success! Those who watched it all happening from the outside realized, perhaps for the first time what those on the inside already knew– that God’s hand was in it! It came together so fast and so furious that they knew these results couldn’t be attributed solely to highly motivated people working in concert.
It’s a rare thing in scripture when Israel’s enemies acknowledge how YHVH has triumphed. Sometimes the text doesn’t make it clear whether they are laden with fear or superstition, but other times a measure of understanding is indicated. One hundred sixty years earlier the exiled prophet Daniel witnessed to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon interpreting the dream God had given him. After hearing of Kingdoms to come from the prophet’s lips, Nebuchadnezzar exclaimed, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.” (Dan. 2:46) Some of the surrounding nations would not have forgotten this testimony from the Babylonian King just as in our day sections of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered almost 160 years ago now, still find their place in print as well as oratory.
But even with this amazing acknowledgement among the nations, internal opposition continues. Notice verse 17.
6:17 Also, in those days the nobles of Judah were sending many letters to Tobiah, and replies from Tobiah kept coming to them. 18 For many in Judah were under oath to him, since he was son-in-law to Shekaniah son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah. 19 Moreover, they kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said. And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.
What if this exchange were cast in a modern context with our modes of communication? Emails would be flying, Tweets Tweeting, Facebook pages updated daily and Blog sites being set up in haste by relatives and friends. One sided stories, urban legends, and quotes taken out of context are bandied about. Gossip and innuendo rule and contaminated communication becomes the weapon of choice. Again Nehemiah pushes forward in spite of these attempts to discredit him in writing.
Tobiah’s website might feature quotes from local who’s who among tribal leaders, the legacy of his accomplishments among the people, pictures of handshakes at public policy meetings, and plenty of baby kissing! His slick handlers were delivering a public relations package with all the accolades. As the media arrives local TV news anchor Shekaniah (Tobias’ father-in-law), schedules a live interview on site that may have concluded something like this:
“When asked for comment about Tobiah’s accomplishments, Nehemiah had surprisingly little to say! – Reporting live from the Sheep Gate, this is Shekaniah for channel 13 news.”
And Nehemiah’s web site? Well, perhaps some shared pictures of recent sections of the wall and gates being completed with the names of workers on site and their families identified in alphabetical order. (As we have read their credits listed in previous chapters.) Perhaps “To God Be the Glory” runs across his web page as a moving banner.
Those enemies who tried to harm him in person attempt again to discredit him by misleading and misrepresenting the truth! (Sounds like an average election year doesn’t it?)
You and I live in times where information is everywhere and available to anyone, but finding out the truth about anything requires commitment and God given discernment! So Hope Builders learn to avoid contaminated communication and seek reliable sources.
Some of you may remember the movie Liar, Liar! starring Jim Carrey from a few years ago. In it Carrey played a lawyer smitten by a curse and he was only able to speak the truth to everyone for 24 hours! It got him into all kinds of trouble in part because we live in a world that is not used to hearing the truth – especially from someone like Jim Carrey. Hollywood has had some fun with us over the years playing to our fascination with truth and deception… Remember Tom Poston and Kitty Carlisle from To Tell the Truth? (If you do, then you are surely eligible for the Senior’s Adventures in Learning classes!) Mark Twain wrote, “A Lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
It is common practice for corporations to stretch the truth about their products features, functions, and benefits. Sometimes they deliberately sabotage a competitor’s claims in the process. When doing a web search for a local restaurant in Cape Canaveral on Mother’s Day we read one of two comments at the restaurant’s review site which read: “The food was bad and the kitchen looked even worse!” But friends we trusted who had eaten there told us that the fish was delicious and the water view was great! We went anyway and enjoyed the food, service, atmosphere, and the company. After the experience I wondered if perhaps a competitor had posted those sour comments we read with the hope of discouraging the public from eating there. It is too easy to access opinion without validation in our world. Nehemiah simply didn’t allow himself to get caught up in all the derogatory drama. You and I need the same discernment today because believing everything we hear or everything we read can lead us far from the truth.
Nehemiah’s inspired account is filled with this subplot of discovering who you can trust. Which human resources are authentic and reliable? As we open chapter 7, truth-telling becomes a foundational pre-requisite for selected leaders and successful teamwork.
7:1 After the wall had been rebuilt and I had set the doors in place, the gatekeepers, the musicians and the Levites were appointed. 2 I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most people do.
In stark contrast to the tribal leaders Tobiah surrounded himself with, Nehemiah makes governance appointments in Jerusalem by choosing trustworthy individuals. Those who had proven they value the truth even in the face of brutal facts. Being courageous with the truth fuels vision and hope!
We haven’t heard Hananiah’s name since the opening chapter, but he has been a behind the scenes truth-teller from day one! Remember when he was coming from Judah with others and Nehemiah stopped them to ask about the remnant that survived the exile and the state of Jerusalem?
1: 3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace.
He gave truthful, timely input that was vital to Nehemiah’s holy discontent! Hanani’s claim to fame in this story is simple honesty – willingness to share even brutal facts which Nehemiah would name to all the people. We also can experience good results when leaders are shaped in an environment of trust and where a high premium is placed on the value of truth! Admired leaders are Honest, competent, forward-looking, inspiring, and ultimately, credible. (Leadership Is In the Eye of the Beholder, James Kouzes & Barry Posner) “Honesty is the number one leadership characteristic desired. If a leader behaves in ways consistent with his or her stated values and beliefs, then we can entrust to that person our careers, our security, and ultimately, even our lives.”
While honesty in the workplace may still the number one leadership characteristic desired, it seems harder and harder to come by it in our world, doesn’t it?
In fact, according to Careerbuilder.com, (03/08/06) those caught lying in the workplace averaged 15% – and 85% of the managers polled said that they would be less likely to promote an employee who has lied. (Sounds like a career-destroying move doesn’t it?) And the reasons given for lying on the job? 26 % to appease the customer, 13 % to cover mistakes, and the lie so easily learned childhood when asked, “Why is your brother crying? – The response we utter comes out so naturally, “I don’t know what happened.” (20%). Pleading ignorance is still our preferred excuse!
Yet throughout scripture God rewards Truth-Tellers with greater opportunity – especially when that truth hinges on God’s promises. When Nehemiah’s ancestors were spying out the land God had promised them, only two people (Joshua & Caleb) brought back a faithful, true report to Moses – and all the rest died in a plague! (Numbers 14:38) These two were the only ones from that generation to march for 40 years and enter the promised land! Joshua eventually replaced Moses and cast vision for thousands as they entered the land of milk and honey. In the New Testament, knowing the truth and telling the truth are paramount to being clothed with the spiritual armor we each need for the everyday challenges of Christian living. Truth preserves and protects us from falsehood and spiritual failure.
God’s word speaks to us as individuals. “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place.” (Eph. 6:14) And among spiritual leaders, a more detailed and specific charge is given: “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)
Hananai has been behind the scenes giving faithful reports and truth-telling all along the journey. This foundation of truth telling was building block one in the wall! Our Savior reminds us that “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
As we move into chapter 7 then, we see a highly motivated Nehemiah gathering faithful truth- tellers on a campaign to repopulate the city, family by family. A whole lot of names and numbers are shared here in great detail. (65 verses, verse 8- verse 63 – Including Priests, Levites, Musicians, Gatekeepers, Solomon’s Descendants, and from the Men of Bethlehem listed here alone there are nearly 8,000!) Nehemiah’s God given Holy Discontent shifts gears toward re-establishing a displaced and discouraged people. Family by family – according to the records preserved and the census taken, Nehemiah rediscovers their roots and their stories. Some of them have been in the surrounding area longer than others under hazardous pioneer conditions since the Babylonian invasion. Others have wandered into their homeland or been conscripted there under the Persian rule. They have been governed by strangers for decades.
The power and purpose of God in naming his people family by family in scripture remains a powerful witness of two things: First: He knows his people by name, (if he is able to number the hairs on our head, surely he has no trouble knowing his people even without a social security number prompt!). We’re not just a bunch of numbers, statistical data kept for heaven’s scoreboard. And, Second: Scripture is authoritative and each event has a true historical setting.
Archeologists today continue to unearth sections of the rebuilt wall dating back to Nehemiah and have discovered family seals used to sign documents such as their covenantal agreement coming up two chapters from now. They didn’t just vote by raising hands. They each affixed their seal, just as we would sign a contract with our personal signatures today. It was done publicly, signifying their accountability to their neighbors as well as to God. (Neh. 9:38)
So an inventory of real people in their scattered state is taken here. But there is something else here perhaps not quite so obvious on a first read. This section also carries with it a sense of order, and of setting things right as families begin their ingress to the city.
7:4 Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. 5 So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return…
It seems some of Nehemiah’s thoughts are prompted by an interest in “Who’s been here the longest waiting and enduring this mess and disgrace?” There are brushstrokes of Nehemiah’s concern for justice and an equitable solution to his brothers’ disconnected and impoverished lives painted across this chapter as each family is named and placed. One commentary suggests the reason Nehemiah’s name list differs slightly from Ezra’s, (his contemporary), is that Nehemiah intentionally includes several alienated descendants living in the southern region. Nehemiah has a heart for including those on his list that may not have been as important at another time or for another purpose, but now he holds the banner of living and serving God in this rebuilt city up to all in the region. Having just celebrated our nation’s birthday, we’re reminded every time we pledge allegiance to the flag that one of our bedrock values is this concept of Liberty and Justice for all. Liberty comes from truth! (“The truth will set you free”-Jesus) And justice comes through people who live by the revelation of God’s truth!
So now Nehemiah begins this city building project, 50,000 at a time!
7:66 The whole company numbered 42,360 67 besides their 7,337 male and female slaves; and they also had 245 male and female singers. 68 There were 736 horses, 245 mules, 69 435 camels and 6,720 donkeys.
Like every good leader who has done his home work, Nehemiah knows which facts of history to bring out and when in his campaign to repopulate a deserted city. No one wants to move back before the walls are up and the gates secure. But even in modern times we ask other questions before moving our families to a different locale and different lifestyle, don’t we? Questions like, “How are the schools?” “What is the crime rate?” A teen may ask, “Are there any good malls in the area?” The boy who aspires to be a big league pitcher asks his Dad, “Do they have a good baseball team?” And of course, “What churches are nearby?” But remember, no developed neighborhoods exist in Jerusalem yet, only faithful names and hope-builders! So Nehemiah’s challenge is a big one! Perhaps in our day we might liken it to community leaders and government officials attempting to lure businesses and families back into New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.
Today, when big name corporate or wealthy private individuals support a particular political candidate, they hope their support lends credibility and traction to the candidate’s campaign as well as his/her favorite causes. Nehemiah is careful as he compiles his name list to include families who would benefit the most by re-establishing their homes and families in the rebuilt city. His repopulation and rejuvenation efforts involve taking careful census as he pursues a God given sense of justice. Nehemiah’s hope is to create a groundswell of interest in coming back to Jerusalem to prosper together, worship together, and reclaim their true heritage as the people of God together.
Toward the close of this chapter, he takes time to remind some who believed they were descendants of the priestly line but couldn’t come up with documentation that they would have opportunity to appeal to God through the use of Urim and Thumin as soon as the on-duty priesthood is established. (7:64-65).
Right here, and in Ezra’s account, is the last place these two stones (or sticks) are mentioned in the Bible. Dr. Bruce Waltke, author of Finding the Will of God, writes, “They are one more allowance from God to assist His people at a certain point in history.” (p. 64). Though everything is done decently and in order in this chapter, no jumping ranks or cutting in line, the marginalized are not closed out of the process. Immigration policy can be hot button topic in any civilization in history, but here certain overtones of hope for outsiders being given the opportunity to become insiders is held out! Opportunity to serve and belong in God’s presence, both city & temple, is held out to a newly discovered priesthood eager to serve and respond!
Men, women and children who seek the truth, believe the truth, and live the truth are called upon to lead the way as the invitation goes out to a scattered people – Come home! Build here, live here, worship here – together before your God! We’ll hear more of this in upcoming chapters. But isn’t Nehemiah’s interest and vision our charge as well? To help people who are lost to come home? To help people beaten up by pressing economic times, displaced and disjointed families, lives filled with the frustration of trying to make one lie after another work for them – to find meaning and placement and truth in the promises, protection, and pure love of God? Nehemiah is surely on to something here, and as leaders committed to truth telling -we should be as well!