Willing Workers – Nehemiah 2
In 587 BC, the last homeland of the Hebrew people, the kingdom of Judah, was obliterated by the armies of Babylon. Over 80% of its cities and villages were razed and the population of Jerusalem decreased from 40,000 to 1,500 according to some estimates. The Babylonians gathered up all of the Jews who had useful skills and carried them off to Babylon leaving behind those with the least ability to care for the land. Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel were among those who were forced to serve Babylonian masters. Babylon attempted to transform the Hebrews into Babylonians. The one Hebrew God was to be replaced by many Babylonian gods. Hebrew culture was to become Babylonian culture. Even the Hebrew language was to be exchanged for Babylonian Aramaic. This was partially successful. There the Hebrew people remained for a generation and it must have seemed as if this was the final destiny for a Jewish people who had survived Egypt, Assyria, and their own instability, but God sent them an unlikely rescuer. In 539 BC, King Cyrus of Persia soundly defeated the Babylonians and inherited the Jewish people. The Persians had a different approach to rule in that they respected other religions and allowed the people under their control to worship as they pleased with relatively few restrictions, but would they allow the Jews to return to their homeland and perhaps even rebuild it? Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the king of Persia, was bold enough to ask and he was given permission. The task was daunting. He could not have known what the city would be like after so many years of abandonment. Decades before, the Babylonians had utterly destroyed Jerusalem and time would not have improved its situation. Think of the choice which Nehemiah and his companions had to make: stay in a land where you are slaves but comfortable or go to the home of your ancestors—one which you have never personally known—and build it anew. Nehemiah and a few followers chose the difficult path and traveled to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding. Imagine the despair felt by Nehemiah’s company as they neared the city. Roads had become rough, barely recognizable trails. The once-mighty walls were shattered. The gates were burned and useless. The glorious temple that Solomon had built was now a pile of broken stones. All was ruined. The natural response would be to return to the safety of a benevolent but pagan Persia, but in the coming weeks you will see how Nehemiah actually responded. What would you do in his place?