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A study of Nehemiah: A culture in “great trouble”

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Nehemiah 1:3

The “gates” of Israel

The year is 444 B.C. Nehemiah is “cupbearer” to the Persian king Artaxerxes, his close personal advisor. A group has come to Susa, the winter palace of the king, with this report: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).

The Babylonians had destroyed the city and walls of Jerusalem 142 years earlier, in 586 B.C. After the Persians liberated the Jews in 538, a group had returned to rebuild the city and nation. They had attempted to rebuild the walls earlier in the reign of Artaxerxes, but the king had ordered them to stop the project.

Enemies of the Jews had written to the king, protesting the rebuilding project and claiming that the Jews would only rebel against Persia once their city was reestablished.

The king sent them this reply:

“The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?” (Ezra 4:18-22).

With the result that the project was halted and the people left defenseless (vs. 23):

“As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshal the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.”

Now Nehemiah finds himself working for the man who would not allow his people to rebuild their nation. His first act must be to win royal permission to begin the project again; his second must be to rebuild the walls. Only then will the people be safe.

Why were walls and gates so critical in the ancient world? Cities were established wherever they could find water and defenses. Thus the ancient Jebusites had built their capital city at the top of Mt. Moriah, near the Gihon spring. David captured their citadel and made it his own, establishing “Jerusalem” as the capital of his empire. The name means “legacy of peace,” from salem or shalom.

Solomon built the first Temple and royal palace atop Mt. Moriah, at the very spot where Abraham had offered Isaac a thousand years earlier. This was the center of the Jewish world until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 586 B.C.

Nehemiah would rebuild the walls; the people would eventually rebuild their temple as well. It would be further modified until Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) set out to recreate it as the most magnificent building in the world. He created the Temple of Jesus’ day, a structure destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Jesus had predicted the very catastrophe: “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).

The walls made the Temple possible and safe. The “Old City” of Jerusalem stands approximately where the city was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. Its walls today, built by Sulieman the Magnificent in AD 1538, stand at the same places as the walls of Nehemiah. There are 11 gates today; 7 are in operation. The gates are essential for allowing the commerce and people into the city, and for keeping enemies out. A tour of the walls and gates is a tour of the history of Israel.

If the “gates are burned with fire,” the nation is defenseless. So it was in the time of Nehemiah. So it may be in our day as well.

The “gates” of America

When I planned to study Nehemiah with you, I had no idea that I would also be surveying the crises facing America on Wednesday nights. Last night we looked at the moral crisis. Today that discussion is vital to our understanding of our “culture in crisis” and our “burned gates,” so I’ll summarize what we discussed together.

Beginning and ending of life

More than 48 million abortions have been performed in America since 1973. Every year, approximately 40,000 people die on American highways. Every ten days, that many abortions are performed in America. Doctors conduct 1.5 million abortions every year in the United States, more than the total of all America’s war dead across our history. Depending on the year, an abortion occurs for every three or four live births in our country. If you believe that the Bible teaches that life begins at conception, as I do, then you must be troubled by America’s position on abortion.

Genetic engineering can be used to determine gender, eye color, and capabilities of children, and to clone humans as well. Euthanasia is supported by 72% of Americans. It is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

Sexuality

Sixty-five percent of Americans see nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage. According to a recent survey by the age of 20, 75% of respondents had had premarital sex; by age 44, 81% had had premarital sex.

42% of Internet users have viewed online pornography. A person is first exposed to pornography in America at the age of 11. 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn online, most while doing their homework.

Same-sex marriage is becoming more accepted than ever before in America. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages were then recognized in Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (2005), Massachusetts (2004), South Africa (2006), and Norway (2008). California recognized them in 2008, before Proposition 8 repealed this position.

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Genesis 19: sin of Sodom

Leviticus 18:22: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”

Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

Romans 1:26-27: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

1 Corinthians 6.9-10: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

1Timothy 1:8-10: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

Lisa Miller, writing the cover story for Newsweek, December 15, 2008, calls the Levitical prohibitions “throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world” (30). She claims that “the Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours (30). Her conclusion: “to deny access to any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color—and no serious (or even semiserious) person would argue that” (31).

Class relationships

Racism continues to plague American culture. Sex discrimination is still a problem in America’s workplace (women make 77% as much as men for the same jobs).

Creation and the environment

We are now in the third climate change period of the last 2,000 years, and by far the most significant. Beyond dispute, the Earth’s temperature is climbing. The eight warmest years on record since 1850 have all occurred since 1998; the warmest was 2005. Temperatures at many individual locations were higher in the last 25 years than at any period of comparable length since AD 900.

Time reported recently that global warming will lead to enormous food shortages in the future, with less rain and greater heat.

What will happen to nature?

The Pine Bark Beetle, once controlled by cold winter temperatures, is killing entire Christmas tree forests in British Columbia.

Rising water temperatures could cause rainbow trout to disappear from the Appalachian mountains over the next century.

Indonesia estimates that 2,000 of its tropical islands could disappear by 2030 due to rising sea levels.

Giant squids are invading the hotter waters off California and even Alaska.

In Antarctica, an ice shelf larger than Rhode Island collapsed into the sea in 2002. An ice chunk the size of Manhattan broke off a Canadian ice shelf in 2005.

Since 1850, the number of glaciers in Glacier National Park dropped has dropped from 150 to 26. Within the next 25 to 30 years, it is likely that none will be left.

The Mediterranean Sea is becoming much more salty and stagnant, due to faster evaporation and rising temperatures. Many of the sea’s plant and animal species are in jeopardy, as is the fishing industry in this part of the world.

The Great Barrier Reef will disappear within decades as warmer, more acidic seas bleach coral.

Sea levels will rise. There are 5,773,000 cubic miles of water in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow. If all glaciers melted today, the seas would rise 230 feet.

Global warming will increase significantly if the ice caps melt. They reflect sunlight into space, further cooling the earth. If they are gone, the Earth will absorb more heat and warm more quickly.

Over the past century, the number of hurricanes which strike each year has more than doubled.

What will happen to our health?

The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are killed every year by climate-change-related issues.

Canadian doctors say smog-related deaths could rise by 80% over the next 20 years.

Heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems are expected to rise, as atherosclerosis develops much more quickly in a warmer environment.

A Harvard study in 2004 showed that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to higher rates of asthma attacks, especially in children.

The World Health Organization has identified more than 30 new or resurgent diseases in the last decades, fueled by global climate change. As northern countries warm, disease carrying insects migrate north, bringing disease and plague. Known as the “deadly dozen,” these diseases include yellow fever, Lyme disease, plague, avian influenza (bird flue), babesia, cholera, Ebola, intestinal and external parasites, red tides, Rift Valley fever, sleeping sickness, and tuberculosis.

What does God think about the moral health of our nation? The answer lies in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” The solution is to pray for awakening.