Topical Sermon about Nehemiah, Esther and Job
by Maylan Schurch
Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church 6/4/2022
©2022 by Maylan Schurch
Please open your Bibles to Nehemiah chapter 2.
This is still another sermon in a series I’ve been preaching all year, called “Finding the Heart of God.” It follows along with our read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan which you can see mentioned in your bulletin. Each week in that announcement we tell you the following week’s reading plan, in case you’d like to follow along. And the sermons I preach mostly come from somewhere within that week’s reading-range.
This past week’s reading featured three Bible faith heroes – Nehemiah, Esther, and Job. They are so famous that at least Nehemiah and Esther have been used as baby names for centuries, and while fewer people name their sons “Job,” Job is honored as an honest and patient sufferer in the face of horrendous trauma.
Nehemiah, Esther and Job . . . At first I was going to pick just one of these people to do the sermon on, but I decided to include all three.
The reason I decided to do this is that each of these people was a true faith hero. Nehemiah and Esther let their faith take them up to, and through, some very life-threatening challenges. And Job’s faith carried him through maybe the Bible’s worst series of personal tragedies.
So, how did they get that kind of faith? What filled Nehemiah, Esther and Job with the kind of faith that impelled them forward into each new day, trusting God’s heart no matter what they were going through?
This week, as I read their stories, I decided to see if I could find this out. I’ve called this sermon “Three Faith Forges.” A forge is a furnace where metal is heated and shaped. According to an online source, “Since the Industrial Revolution, forged parts are widely used in mechanisms and machines wherever a component requires high strength.” (By the way, this is not the kind of “forging” like forging someone’s signature. This is heating and shaping metal to make it extremely strong.)
Although we don’t think about metal-forging very often, we wouldn’t be able get along without it. The vehicle you rode in to come to church today is full of forged, dependable parts. A couple of time this week Shelley and I did yard work, and the metal in the garden tools we used was forged.
Both the Ukrainian and Russian armies are using forged equipment. Airplane parts, and surgical equipment, and many other things are created using the forging process.
And some Bible people, like the ones we’ll be looking at today, have a faith that’s so strong that it seems to have been powerfully forged. Jesus’ disciples knew that they needed to have this kind of faith, and in Luke 17:5 they urged Him, “Increase our faith.” In Mark 9:24, when child was possessed by a demon, and Jesus challenged the desperate father to have faith, the dad said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
So here’s our chance to look at three “forged faiths.” Not fake faith, like in a forged signature, but faith that is hardened to a toughness and resilience that you and I will be needing in the days ahead. So let’s get started, here in Nehemiah chapter 2. But first we need to do a bit of setup.
Nehemiah was a trusted Jewish court official for Persia’s King Artaxerxes in the mid-400’s BC. I have always found his book really enjoyable to read – you see not only someone who is faithful to God, and someone with splendid entrepreneurial energy, but also someone who braved personal danger–including the threat of assassination–as he encouraged his countrymen to rebuild Jerusalem.
The first thing to do, of course, was to rebuild the city walls, which the Babylonian armies had pulled down many decades earlier. And before that, Nehemiah knew that he had to assess the damage to the wall, to see what kind of work force he would need. But he also needed to do this without attracting attention, because hostile neighboring countries wouldn’t like a strengthened Jerusalem, and they might take action.
Watch what happens. It’s almost like reading a suspense novel.
Nehemiah 2:11 – 20 [NKJV]: So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem; nor was there any animal with me, except the one on which I rode. And I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal under me to pass. So I went up in the night by the valley, and viewed the wall; then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, or the others who did the work. Then I said to them, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, “Let us rise up and build.” Then they set their hands to this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they laughed at us and despised us, and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Will you rebel against the king?” So I answered them, and said to them, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem.”
Do you notice the faith ringing in Nehemiah’s voice? Where do you think he got that faith? I mean, at any point along the way—and he ended up being the nation’s leader in Judah for something like 12 years—he could have given up the struggle and gone back to his secure job as the Persian king’s cupbearer.
In other words, what was Nehemiah’s faith-forger?
Now of course all, of us have many things or people which influence our faith. But I would like to suggest something that must have been Nehemiah’s central “faith forger.” To set the stage, watch what happens starting in Chapter 8. What we’ll be watching is part of a national spiritual revival.
Nehemiah 8:1 – 3 [NKJV]: Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
As the chapter goes along, the people become really convicted and remorseful when they realize how they’ve ignored God’s word all these years. But Nehemiah tells them to not be said, but to rejoice that they have come back to him. In the last part of verse 10 is the memorable quote, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
But it’s in Chapter 9 that I think we have Nehemiah’s most powerful “faith forger.” What we’ll read here will be familiar to you if you’re acquainted with the Old Testament.
But first, let me lay down what I think could be Sermon Point One.
Nehemiah’s faith-forger is The Story.
What do I mean by “The Story”? It’s what we’re just about to read. As I say, you’ll find it familiar. Other Bible national leaders have repeated this Story, and even God repeated it. This is The Story that God told Moses, and insisted that the people remember it, and teach it to their children.
So let’s hear The Story again. As you hear it, try to apply it to yourself. Where do you fit in The Story?
Nehemiah 9:1 – 38: Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God. Then Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani stood on the stairs of the Levites and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord their God. And the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God Forever and ever! “Blessed be Your glorious name, Which is exalted above all blessing and praise! You alone are the Lord; You have made heaven, The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all. The host of heaven worships You.
“You are the Lord God, Who chose Abram, And brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans, And gave him the name Abraham; You found his heart faithful before You, And made a covenant with him To give the land of the Canaanites, The Hittites, the Amorites, The Perizzites, the Jebusites, And the Girgashites— To give it to his descendants. You have performed Your words, For You are righteous.
“You saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt, And heard their cry by the Red Sea. You showed signs and wonders against Pharaoh, Against all his servants, And against all the people of his land. For You knew that they acted proudly against them. So You made a name for Yourself, as it is this day. And You divided the sea before them, So that they went through the midst of the sea on the dry land; And their persecutors You threw into the deep, As a stone into the mighty waters.
Moreover You led them by day with a cloudy pillar, And by night with a pillar of fire, To give them light on the road Which they should travel. “You came down also on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven, And gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, And commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, By the hand of Moses Your servant. You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger, And brought them water out of the rock for their thirst, And told them to go in to possess the land Which You had sworn to give them.
“But they and our fathers acted proudly, Hardened their necks, And did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, And they were not mindful of Your wonders That You did among them. But they hardened their necks, And in their rebellion They appointed a leader To return to their bondage.
But You are God, Ready to pardon, Gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, Abundant in kindness, And did not forsake them. “Even when they made a molded calf for themselves, And said, ‘This is your god That brought you up out of Egypt,’ And worked great provocations, Yet in Your manifold mercies You did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of the cloud did not depart from them by day, To lead them on the road; Nor the pillar of fire by night, To show them light, And the way they should go. You also gave Your good Spirit to instruct them, And did not withhold Your manna from their mouth, And gave them water for their thirst.
Forty years You sustained them in the wilderness; They lacked nothing; Their clothes did not wear out And their feet did not swell. “Moreover You gave them kingdoms and nations, And divided them into districts. So they took possession of the land of Sihon, The land of the king of Heshbon, And the land of Og king of Bashan. You also multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, And brought them into the land Which You had told their fathers To go in and possess.
So the people went in And possessed the land; You subdued before them the inhabitants of the land, The Canaanites, And gave them into their hands, With their kings And the people of the land, That they might do with them as they wished. And they took strong cities and a rich land, And possessed houses full of all goods, Cisterns already dug, vineyards, olive groves, And fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and grew fat, And delighted themselves in Your great goodness.
“Nevertheless they were disobedient And rebelled against You, Cast Your law behind their backs And killed Your prophets, who testified against them To turn them to Yourself; And they worked great provocations. Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their enemies, Who oppressed them;
And in the time of their trouble, When they cried to You, You heard from heaven; And according to Your abundant mercies You gave them deliverers who saved them From the hand of their enemies. “But after they had rest, They again did evil before You. Therefore You left them in the hand of their enemies, So that they had dominion over them; Yet when they returned and cried out to You, You heard from heaven; And many times You delivered them according to Your mercies, And testified against them, That You might bring them back to Your law. Yet they acted proudly, And did not heed Your commandments, But sinned against Your judgments, ‘Which if a man does, he shall live by them.’ And they shrugged their shoulders, Stiffened their necks, And would not hear.
Yet for many years You had patience with them, And testified against them by Your Spirit in Your prophets. Yet they would not listen; Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless in Your great mercy You did not utterly consume them nor forsake them; For You are God, gracious and merciful.
“Now therefore, our God, The great, the mighty, and awesome God, Who keeps covenant and mercy: Do not let all the trouble seem small before You That has come upon us, Our kings and our princes, Our priests and our prophets, Our fathers and on all Your people, From the days of the kings of Assyria until this day. However You are just in all that has befallen us; For You have dealt faithfully, But we have done wickedly. Neither our kings nor our princes, Our priests nor our fathers, Have kept Your law, Nor heeded Your commandments and Your testimonies, With which You testified against them. For they have not served You in their kingdom, Or in the many good things that You gave them, Or in the large and rich land which You set before them; Nor did they turn from their wicked works.
“Here we are, servants today! And the land that You gave to our fathers, To eat its fruit and its bounty, Here we are, servants in it! And it yields much increase to the kings You have set over us, Because of our sins; Also they have dominion over our bodies and our cattle At their pleasure; And we are in great distress. “And because of all this, We make a sure covenant and write it; Our leaders, our Levites, and our priests seal it.”
And that’s The Story. It’s a long one, isn’t it? Why might this story have been a faith-forger for Nehemiah? Mainly because he knew that this was the story God wanted told. He wanted His people to recite it, sing about it, let their hearts be touched and changed by it.
The Story is a long one. It’s painful in spots, and triumphant in others. And its best parts are those where God forgives and forgets, again and again. And maybe the second-best parts are where God allows discomfort to get our attention, and then rescues us when we sincerely repent. It’s the story of the grace of a God who has never stopped loving us, and never will.
And of course it’s obvious why this story can be a faith-forger. For the last few months my retired-pastor brother Chester has been settling down behind his laptop and writing his memories of childhood, and sending them to his siblings. One thing that comes strongly through in these memories is that because Mom and Dad created us, and stayed with us, and nurtured us, all four of us could count on them for love and support and encouragement. That’s because we all lived through their Story, the memories of their love.
As I say, you will hear God’s Story several times in the Bible. Probably the most famous New Testament version is Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. It’s simply a re-telling of how God acted for His chosen people, and Stephen himself told it in the face of danger. One of the most dramatic turning points in his sermon is Acts 7:51, where he seems to sense the rising anger of the mob, and quickly concludes his sermon with a passionate appeal. Sadly, he is immediately stoned to death.
But The Story was heard by a young man named Saul of Tarsus, who after his own dramatic meeting with the risen Jesus, began to spread the story all over Asia.
So what do we do with The Story? Because you’re here this morning, or watching on YouTube, you have heard some portion of the story, and you have believed it. The point is, not to forget it, not to allow its power to fade in your heart. Continue acting out that story as time goes along. Because this story will bring you through to a happy eternity.
The faith-hero of the book which follows Nehemiah is Queen Esther. Like Nehemiah, Esther was also Jewish, and about 30 years before Nehemiah she also faced the threat of death as she worked to prevent a hideous holocaust against the Jews.
It’s a story that has been told on many children’s Sabbath school flannel boards over the years. Esther won a beauty contest, and eventually became Queen of Persia. Then a very dysfunctional man named Haman got a grudge against Esther’s cousin Mordecai, and got the king to sign an order giving permission to murder all the Jews in the land.
The book of Esther is fascinating and even heart-pounding reading, especially if you don’t know how it turns out in the end.
So, what was Esther’s “faith forge”? Nobody repeats The Story anywhere in the book, but at the moment she needs it, Esther’s faith is as firmly forged as Nehemiah is is.
Here comes Sermon Point Two.
If Nehemiah’s faith-forger is The Story, I believe that Esther’s faith-forger is The Cousin.
If you read through the book of Esther this week, you’ll remember that as a child, Esther became an orphan. She was adopted by her Cousin Mordecai, and he was the one who raised her.
And once Esther had become Queen, and once Cousin Mordecai had discovered Haman’s plot against their countrymen, Mordecai got word to Esther that she needed to go to the king – a very dangerous thing to do if the king didn’t happen to feel in the mood to see her – and get him to change the outcome.
You see, Esther’s cousin, all through her young life, had been her faith-forger. His resolute, uncompromising faith came because he knew The Story. (This is why I spent so much time on reading Nehemiah chapter 9 – that story is central to the Bible.)
A century before Mordecai, the prophet Daniel knew the story. In fact, in Daniel chapter 9, Daniel repeats a shortened version of this very same story: God is a great and merciful God, we have sinned against Him, we have ignored the words of His prophets, and we need to be ashamed about that, and we need God to help us.
That was The Story, and the Cousin had taught that story to Esther, and at the moment of crisis, reminded her that she needed to not only remember but become part of that story.
Who was – or is – your “cousin”? Was it a parent? Was it a literal cousin or uncle or aunt? Was it a friend? Remember, this is someone who is supremely faithful to God, even in tough times, knowing God’s Story, following God’s will. How did your figurative “cousin” keep you on the straight and narrow? How did he or she teach you about unflinching faithfulness to God?
Do you not have such an cousin? Well, that is what people of this church is for. The NIV translation of Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Notice that there are two parts – don’t give up meeting together, but do come together to encourage each other. Even though my own parents were my primary spiritual guides, I had several “cousins” and “uncles” and “aunts” in the little Adventist church I attended in Redfield, South Dakota. By their example, these faithful folks taught me how important it was to attend church every Sabbath unless I was sick, and how to willingly get involved in encouraging other people with our talents.
So if Nehemiah’s faith-forger was The Story, and Esther’s faith-forger was The Cousin, what was Job’s faith-forger?
If you haven’t read Job’ story recently, you’ll find it summarized in the book’s first two chapters. The rest of the book, after that, consists mainly of Job’s three friends trying to convince him that the horrific tragedies that happened to him were God’s punishment. Job resisted that idea, earnestly and eloquently.
And all through that heartbreaking story, even though Job suffers blow after blow, and even though his own wife bitterly suggests that he simply curse God and die – even so, Job’s faith remained rock-solid, truly-forged.
So what was Job’s faith-forger? Even though he’s a believer in God, there don’t seem to be any clues in the story that he is connected by geography or lineage with God’s chosen people. We don’t even know when this story happened, though a lot of people think the events happened during the life of Moses, and that Moses might even have been the author of this book.
But whatever the facts are, we can’t find The Story spelled out clearly in the book of Job. There’s no mention of God leading Israel out of Egypt, no mention of Israel rebelling again and again, no mention of God’s specific promises to Israel. It’s almost like Job is on his own.
But he’s not on his own. His faith is well-forged. But how? Where did Job get the incredibly solid faith which could cause him to say, in Job 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
By the way, I discovered, when I looked that verse up last night, that that’s not the only thing this verse says. There are two parts to this first. Let me read you all of Job 13:15: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him.”
Isn’t that fascinating? If you only read the first part of the verse, you get the impression of Job setting his jaw and closing his eyes, bracing himself for what God might choose to do to him. But he doesn’t do that. Instead – though he does trust God entirely with his life — Job also says, “I have faith in God, but I’m also going to get into dialogue with Him about what is happening.”
Job may have known some generic, non-Hebrew version of The Story. But we have no clue as to whether Job had his own righteous cousin or other relative or friend who could help him toward faith.
Let me read you another passage which might suggest where Job’s faith was forged.
Job 12:7 – 10: “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; And the birds of the air, and they will tell you; Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; And the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know That the hand of the LORD has done this, In whose hand is the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind?”
If you read that whole chapter, you will see that Job is talking about how God is powerful enough to do whatever He wants to do. And Job looks to nature for witnesses for this.
In fact, here comes Sermon Point Three.
If Nehemiah’s faith-forger is The Story, and if Esther’s faith-forger is The Cousin, I believe Job’s faith-forger is The Cosmos.
In other words, it seems as though Job understood much of what he did about God by observing what God had created. And I don’t think this is just my idea – I think it’s God’s idea too. Because ‘way over in Job 38, when Job’s three friends finally stopped talking, God takes over.
And it’s a little chilling the way God does it. God doesn’t rush in with words of comfort. Instead, He challenges Job with questions about the cosmos, like these:
Job 38:4 – 7: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
And God goes on and on, in this same theme. What that tells me is that yes, nature is an important way of forging our faith. You can’t just use nature alone, of course, because since Eden, nature in itself has been shot through with sin. But recognizing and studying the wonderful works of nature can strengthen our faith.
Nature is often called God’s Second Book. Are you making a habit of actually allowing yourself to be stunned speechless by the variety of God’s creation? I found this a real faith-forger for me.
Our closing song cries out poetically for more faith. In fact, before we even sing this song, I would like you to turn to number 533 in your hymnal, and read all the verses out loud with me. And then we’ll stand and sing it together.
O, for a faith that will not shrink,
Though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink of poverty,
Of poverty or woe; Of poverty or woe;
That will not murmur or complain
Beneath the chastening rod,
But in the hour of grief or pain, of grief or pain
Can lean upon its God; Can lean upon its God.
A faith that shines more bright and clear
When tempests rage without;
That when in danger knows no fear, knows of no fear,
In darkness feels no doubt; In darkness feels no doubt.
That bears unmoved the world’s dread frown,
Nor heeds its scornful smile;
That sin’s wild ocean cannot drown, no, cannot drown,
Nor its soft arts beguile; Nor its soft arts beguile.
Lord, give me such a faith as this,
And then, whate’er may come
I’ll taste, e’en here the hallowed bliss, the hallowed bliss
Of an eternal home; Of an eternal home.