Why Jesus is My Hero #10 of 52
As I sat down to try and decide which Bible passage to blog about this week, I thought it was about time I did another Old Testament passage. What sprang to mind was Nehemiah 6:1-19, since I’ve recently had to preach on it, but I realised how similar it was to the previous Old Testament passage I used, in “The King Who Fears God“, since Nehemiah 6 is also about the importance of the fear of God. But if the fear of God is such a common theme in the Old Testament, then who am I to differ?
Fear is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, partly with the assistance of the excellent book “Running Scared” by Ed Welch. It’s so easy to be controlled by fear – indeed, we live in a scary world, and sometimes that fear is well justified. Fear of what people will think about us; fear of what people might do to us; fear of what the future will hold; fear of how we’ll have enough money to get by; fear of what will happen to our family; fear of what will happen if this thing I’m working on isn’t as good as I want it to be; fear of what I’ll do wrong next.
Nehemiah lived in a time when fear was well justified too. He’d just returned from exile in Babylon to oversee the other Jewish people who had returned to Jerusalem to help rebuild the city walls, destroyed decades earlier by King Nebuchadnezzar’s invading army. The people of Judah were a laughing stock amongst the surrounding nations – they were a tiny remnant of the people they’d once been, they were intensely vulnerable should anybody wish to attack them, and it must have been so hard for Nehemiah and his countrymen to persevere instead of being crippled by fear. The enemies of God are represented in the book of Nehemiah by Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. They’ve tried to stop the rebuilding effort earlier in the book through intimidation tactics, but under Nehemiah’s able leadership the people of Jerusalem rose to the challenge and struggled on. As we reach Chapter 6, the miserable threesome try a different tactic: they’ve realised that in order to halt the building work, they’re going to have to take out Nehemiah. As long as he’s around to keep the people focussed, they’re always going to struggle. But if they can disable Nehemiah then the building effort is sure to fall to pieces. So they try to kidnap him and they try to discredit his name with a false rumour. Their goal is the same in each case: “They all wanted to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hand will drop from the work, and it will not be done.'” (Nehemiah 6:9) But each time they are thwarted.
Finally, they try one more thing: they try to intimidate Nehemiah to the point where he sins against God to protect himself. If they can’t discredit his name through a false rumour, maybe they can generate a rumour with some actual merit to it. So they hire an inside man to tell Nehemiah that his life is in danger, and to encourage him to seek safe-haven inside the temple. This is Nehemiah’s reponse:
“‘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.” (Nehemiah 6:11-13)
It’s not exactly clear why, but Nehemiah sees that for him to hide inside the temple would be a grave sin against God. It’s possible he’s referring to the inner sanctum of the temple, the Holy of Holies, where only the priests were allowed to enter. It’s also conceivable that having worked as cup-bearer to the King of Babylon, Nehemiah may have been made a eunuch, making it a sin to enter anywhere into the temple grounds. But whatever the reason, Nehemiah recognises it as a sin, and rather than fearing Tobiah and Sanballat, he makes a choice to fear God instead. His fear of what man might do to him was driven out by a greater fear of what God might do to him.
The result is striking: a great reversal takes place, as the people persevere to complete the rebuilding of the city walls, and it becomes their enemy’s turn to fear: “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.” (Nehemiah 6:16)
It’s a great object lesson in the importance of fearing God instead of man. As Jesus told his disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” But fear isn’t always entirely rational, and so often we find ourselves intensely afraid of those who could kill the body (or our reputation, or our job prospects, or whatever it might be). The great encouragement of Nehemiah 6 to me was the way that it points us to Jesus: God’s enemies knew that they couldn’t stop the people building the city walls until they took out their leader, and his resolute devotion to fearing God meant that ultimately they failed. Likewise for us, all kinds of enemies, both physical and spiritual, might wish to assail us, but as long as our leader, Jesus, stands firm on our behalf, ultimately they will not prevail. We need look no further than his forty days of temptation in the wilderness, remembered by many at this time of lent, to see in Jesus the perfect fear of God that we so desperately need. It doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen – according to Jesus, our enemies do have the power to kill the body, and for some of our brothers and sisters around the world, refusing to sin against God may well cost them their very lives – but ultimately we can trust God to preserve our souls to eternal life, so long as Jesus stands to make intercession for me before the throne of heaven.
That’s why Jesus is my hero, and why I need not be afraid any longer.