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Feb 13, 2011


Passage: Nehemiah 4:1-15

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Fresh Beginnings--Nehemiah

Category: Nehemiah--Fresh Beginnings

Keywords: work, rest, party, sabbath, ministry, government, welfare


This message looks at the spiritual practices of work and rest through Nehemiah 4 and 13.



#6 in the Series:  Fresh Beginnings—Nehemiah

February 13, 2011


  • What’s been one of your favorite…or least favorite…jobs in life?  Why?   
  • What do you like best about the weekend?

We’re on our last Sunday in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah today. 

  • Who remembers what the book is all about?  (The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445B.C. under the direction of Nehemiah.)
  • Our 6-week series in Nehemiah has focused on several of the “spiritual practices” that this book deals with as God’s people were rebuilding their lives and city.  We’ve seen how those same spiritual practices can apply to our own spiritual development as people and a church:  vision, financial stewardship, service, prayer, the place of God’s Word.

Today we’re going to look at something that consumes a HUGE part of all of our lives, one way or another.  It’s also something that many of us have great difficulty keeping in balance one way or another.  It’s definitely something our culture has gotten grossly out of balance about.  More and more people are moving to the extreme ends of the spectrum rather than finding a life of blessed balance in the middle. 

This “equilibrium” I’m talking about has to do with a couple of things that may seem very “unspiritual” to most of us.  But the interesting thing is that this book of Nehemiah and the Bible as a whole sees these two polar opposites as extremely significant to the spiritual health of God’s children.  It’s a balance-beam I’d like to call the “Work-Party” balance beam of life.  I chose “party” instead of “rest” because I think it more accurately conveys the emotional sense of what God intended for us.  So let’s see where it shows up in the book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah has come to Jerusalem from Persia with one driving passion in mind:  to rebuild the broken-down walls of Jerusalem so that God’s people no longer have to live in fear and disgrace.  About 50,000 of the Jews had returned from captivity some 90 years prior to the events of Nehemiah but nothing had been done in that entire century about rebuilding the walls.

So Nehemiah has a big job cut out for him.  He’s got to not only motivate the people to get to the work of rebuilding but he has to keep them motivated and engaged in the project despite some pretty hefty and dangerous opposition to it all. 

ILL:  Remember what it is like to move into a new city…or school…or house?  When you first come to town…or walk in a house you might buy, you notice everything that strikes you as “different” or “strange.”  You may say to yourself, “I’d like to repaint that room a different color” or “this city could sure use better signage.”  But then after a few months, you hardly notice what needs changing, updating or improving. 

That’s what had apparently happened to the people of God who moved back to Jerusalem.  I’m sure that their first impressions of the city were, “Wow, this place is a real fixer-upper!  Those folks in Spokane who complain about their roads haven’t seen noth’in.  These walls are a disaster!”

So along come Nehemiah in Nehemiah 2 and decides it’s time to get people motivated to improve the state of the city which God wanted to be a light to the world.  He says this in Neh. 2:17-18:

17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.

   They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.”

Now obviously the people had been “working” during the 90+ years they had been resettling in Israel… or they would have starved to death.  But the “work” that Nehemiah focuses upon is what needed to be done together to make their entire city and nation a better place. 

In today’s world where the people of God are scattered all over the globe in virtually every nation and most cities of the world, it’s not about doing work on some municipal infrastructure like a wall.  The contemporary parallel would probably be something that builds God’s church wherever God has placed you in his family.  That might be putting your shoulder to the work of building some ministry space that blesses God’s family whether that’s a Christian camp or an inner city ministry center.  Or, in our culture where much of our labor gets translated into a paycheck, it might involve dedicating a significant part of our earnings to ministry that builds God’s church right in the city God has placed us or in some distant part of the world.  Our daily jobs, our work, allows us to be generous in our personal support and involvement with building “the city of God”, as St. Augustine called it, here in our own city.

If you and I see our “work” life as an extension of our Kingdom living and calling in Christ, then the challenges faced by God’s people in Nehemiah’s day are not all that different from what you and I face day-to-day in building God’s kingdom here and now.   Whether your “job” pays you a salary or your “job” is doing your level best at being a good student so you can be well equipped for a life of service to God, it’s all “work.” So keep that in mind as we look at the challenges on both sides of this “balance-beam” of work and rest. 

No sooner had God’s people decided to put their shoulder to the task than there were influential and important people who tried to convince them it couldn’t be done.  Neh. 2:19ff—

19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”

 20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”

There will always be naysayers who will loudly proclaim that we cannot do what God has called us to do. 

  • “You can’t change those people’s lives!”
  • “You won’t be able to build a church there!”
  • “You’ll never be able to make a difference in that ministry!” 

Every “good work” (vs. 18) will have its detractors and its enemies.  Whether you are building a business, building a church, building a ministry or building knowledge that will better equip you for a fruitful life in Christ, there will always be opposition.  In fact, the more audacious and faith-filled your attempts and plans, the more you can expect there to be plenty of detractors and naysayers. 

Listen to the seeds of doubt and discouragement they tried to plant in those who were putting their shoulder to the work in Jerusalem. 

Neh. 4:1-3

1 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”  3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”

Any work worth doing will have its detractors.  How many times have you been tempted to quit a job…a ministry…a project?  There are always many voices, sometimes in our own heads, that will call us to QUIT working at something, especially when it looks impossible. 

But work is God’s means for getting done what is worth doing and what He wants done in this world. Don’t let any voice but God tell you when it is time to stop work on something.  Starting a new job or new ministry or new adventure is always the easy part; it’s struggling, sweating, working and toiling it through to the end that measures the metal of a person’s character. 

Neh. 4:6-- So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

What made the difference here between a job half-baked and one actually half-completed?  Working “with all their heart.” 

Is the best worker always the most talented or skilled one?  Not on your life.  But it’s usually the one who puts his/her whole heart into it. 

Is the best student the one with the highest IQ?  Nope.  Ask any teacher who their best students are and they will usually not point out the ones who always get the “A”s.  Instead they will point to some kid who loves learning and goes after the subject with passionate commitment day after day after day. 

Whether it’s ministry in the church, studies at school or work on the job, 9 times out of 10 the degree of our success will parallel the percentage of our passion. 

  • Half-hearted attempts yield half-baked work.
  • 90% passion yields a less than 90% product.
  • 100% whole-hearted commitment and passion produces an admirable product. 

APP:  need a new infusion of passion for your work?  Pray about it.  Ask God to clarify your call in life right now.  If we’re convinced about the “work” God has called us to do right now, it’s a lot easier to put your whole heart into it “as unto the Lord.” 

It may not make the job easier.  In fact, obstacles and opposition may become bigger and louder.  But working at something which may be very difficult but which God has called you to do is far better than comfortably wasting away the day at something God isn’t in. 

Listen to Neh. 4:7-15.

 7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

 10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”

 11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

 12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”

 13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

 15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.

God’s design for life is that every adult is that we would be “fighting for our brothers, our sons, our daughters, our wives and our homes.”  Brothers and sisters, we do that every day that alarm clock goes off and we drag our sorry, sleepy carcasses out of bed to go through the routine of going to work to care for our loved ones.  If you’re single, you do it so you are taking your rightful place in the culture, the society and the church. 

God calls us to “fight” against the enemies of sloth, laziness, lack of productivity and apathy.  WORK is the God-given means by which we spend our lives for the people God has put around us to love. 

Listen to what Paul said about work and ministry in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.

6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

 11 We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

There is a great danger as Americans in the 21st century that we will end up following the culture of our day rather than the commands of our God.  One of the reasons our nation is in such a dire financial mess unlike ANY other time in our history is that a large majority of Americans are living, not from their own labor, but from the government hand-out. 

      Now, before you think I’m getting political on you, remember what Paul said to the Thessalonians“We gave you this rule:  ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”  Paul was able to hold himself up as a model of a godly man partly because he “worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you.” 

      It’s really easy in our  American culture today to develop the mindset that someone else should be taking care of me.  Whether it’s my children’s education, my health insurance or my retirement, it is very difficult not to get sucked into my culture’s way of managing what God says should be coming to me by old fashioned hard work.  Let me give you some cold, hard facts that address what I’m talking about.

In the U.S. today,

  • over 59 million people receive Social Security each year, 13.3 million under the age of 65 (“disability”).  (Yes, we pay into that but many retirees are and will receive far more than they paid in.)  Social Security is an entitlement program that we’ve gown used to considering as a right due us by virtue of being Americans.
  • 40 million people receive food stamps.
  • 50 million people use Medicaid each year.
  • 10 million people are drawing unemployment right now.
  • 8 million are receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income), 1.2 million under age 18.
  • 5.3 million students receive government grants to attend college.

[Found at http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/quickfacts/stat_snapshot/]

Over ½ of all the money spent by our Federal Government each year goes to these programs.    

God’s plan for his kids is not that we become dependant upon our government for our daily bread but that we have surplus with which to bless each other.  In Ephesians 4:28, Paul tells us that God’s people are not to “steal.”  Stealing is simply taking from someone else what is theirs, not mine.  God’s solution to this tendency to take from others what is not mine is very clear:  “He…must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”  God wants us to be working to such a level that we have more than what we “need” so we can share with those in need. 

As God’s people, we are to live differently than our culture.  Like it or not, this is one area where too many of us have too easily slipped into our cultural mindset rather than the biblical mandate.   We’ve come to think that a whole laundry list of things is our “right” just because we live in America.  Think about it.  Do any of us here not take something from the government that we think we have a “right” to?  Social Security, SSI, Food Stamps, College financial aid, state health insurance, public schooling, disability, housing subsidies, etc., etc.  Yes, all of us pay taxes in various forms, some more than others.  But nowhere in the Bible does it lead us to believe that paying our taxes entitles us to any government social program. 

      Work is God’s way of providing for his children.  And when someone in God’s family can’t work, then God’s family is to do what they can to help that person survive.  We are to bear one another’s burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). That same passage tells each child of God to also “carry his own load” (Gal. 6:5).

Why do I harp on this today?  Because our culture is quickly losing the proper understanding of WORK.  Work is a good thing.  It is God’s means of supplying human needs.  It is God’s way of providing us with enough to help others.  God has given us 6 days a week for work.  And REST only has meaning if we are WORKING…just as WORK only has its truest meaning when we take time to REST. 

One of the most damaging trends in our culture is the trend away from work for a large portion of the population.  That ought never to be in God’s family.  We of all people should be working so we can bless others.  We should be setting the pace for our culture.  We should be the best at showing people not only HOW to work (as unto God himself) but how to use work to bless others.  At the same time, we are the ones who need to teach our families and culture what REAL REST…SABBATH RESTS…are all about. 

13 times Nehemiah refers to the Sabbath in this book.  Listen to 12 of them in 8 short verses.

Neh. 10:31—as part of the binding agreement the nation of Israel made with God, this is what they agreed to do about the Sabbath day and year:  31 “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts. 

      They would do NO BUSINESS on the Sabbath day each week and NO FARMING on the Sabbath year every 7th year.  Sounds ridiculous to our ears, doesn’t it…at least the 7th year rest for the land?  But regular resting was a very spiritual activity for the Old Testament saints.

BOTH work and rest call for faith in God, at least when they are in balance.  Too much work OR too much rest betray our tendency to trust in our own perception of reality rather than God’s. 

Nehemiah ends his book in chapter 13 with both descriptions of and prayers about things that were quickly getting off-track for the people of God.  The importance of setting aside the Sabbath as holy to God was one of those things.  Listen to what happened.  Nehemiah 13: 15 In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”

 19 When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. 22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.

   Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.

Now Sabbath keeping for the New Testament believer is no longer a command.  It is the only 1 of the 10 Commandments that is not repeated again in the New Testament.  Paul further clarifies that holy days and Sabbaths are to be something between God and every believer when he says in Romans 14:5, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”

But Jesus also told us in Mark 2:27 that “the Sabbath was made for man….” 

While God ceased from his work on the Sabbath, it wasn’t because he needed a rest. 

Q:  WHY would God say that and then make that part of the weekly rhythm of life for His people? 

[Get answers from people.]

Rest…ceasing from work…a Sabbath…they have all been part of the “spiritual practices” of God’s people for centuries.  They were in Nehemiah’s day and they are in our day.  But REST only has meaning in the context of WORK…and WORK only becomes what it was really meant to be in the framework of REST. 

So put yourself in the sandals of the Jews. 

  • What does setting aside one day in 7 allow you to experience that you might otherwise not have experienced? 
  • What did families do all day when the gates of Jerusalem were locked and no one went in or out?  
  • What happened on the Sabbath that didn’t happen the other 6 days?

Let’s bring it down to where we live.  What does setting aside a day a week to STOP working enable us to experience both with God and people that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise? 

[Get answers from the congregation.]

If we are to be rebuilt, renewed and revived as God’s people, we must continually relearn what it means to mount the “divine balance beam” of work-&-rest. 

We must look critically at our culture and its views on both work and leisure. 

We must let the Spirit of God convict us about either our over-work or our over-leisure. 

We must stop embracing the godlessness of our day that fills our weeks to overflowing with business and activity while at the same time encourages millions of people to empty their lives of meaningful work. 

Which part of this WORK-PARTY continuum do you need to readjust?  Where do you need God’s help to make changes. 


I’d like to ask you to do a little exercise with God this morning.  Over the past few weeks I’ve talked about the black notebooks many of us use from week to week to help us with some of these spiritual practices.  One of the sections is entitled “Rest & Renewal.”  That’s your Sabbath section.  It gives us 4 “R”s to think about:  Review, Renew, Relationships and Refocus

  • Review:  What were some of the BLESSINGS of this past week?  What were some of my TRIALS this week?  Where or how did I sense GOD @ WORK or speaking to me?
  • Renew:  How might God be wanting me to refresh my body, soul and spirit today?
  • Relationships:  How were my relationships with others this past week?
  • Refocus:  What do I need to prepare for spiritually this coming week?  What relationships might need my attention this week?