“Why are you here in this auditorium this morning?” Or, why, instead of gardening or working on your vehicle are you sitting in front of a screen watching this broadcast of our church service? The simple answer is that the sovereign God ordained that it be so. And in either case the Lord put it in your heart to participate. But beyond that He gave our church the money to buy this building and then supplied the experts and equipment to make this all happen. God has a purpose in presenting today’s message to you. The question is – “What will you make of that opportunity?” Mis-applying the words of Paul to a small degree – “despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” It is a part of the goodness of God which has brought us together today.
Now, let me modify my first question just slightly – “Why or how is it that you are the person you are?” Why did you become a school teacher? An auto mechanic? A housewife? A butcher? Whatever? Was it your desire from the time of your earliest memories? Was it accidental? Or thrust upon you? For most people my age, looking back we can see throughout our lives, a combination of good choices and bad choices; changing circumstances and sometimes the miraculous hand of God. The truth is: in every case, the hand of God has been there the whole time, sometimes pushing and sometimes ameliorating the problems our bad decisions have made. You have skilled hands, a sharp mind, a green thumb, a loving heart, or any of a number of other things because God ordained them and supplied you with them.
And with these things in mind, I further ask: “What is the Lord’s ultimate purpose for you?” The future? Do you think that young Lieutenant in the French and Indian War ever expected to become the first president of the United States? Surveying the life of George Washington, I can see the Lord’s hand. We just spent time, a few minutes ago, looking at the life of Cyrus, King of the Medes and Persians. I don’t know about you, but I see the leadership of Jehovah throughout his life. I see it also in Paul the Apostle – from his birthplace, to his Pharisaism, to his move to Jerusalem and then to his conversion. If you haven’t noticed it, Bro. Fulton is showing us the hand of God in the life of David. Sometimes the Lord pushed, sometimes He chastened, sometimes He had to fix mistakes and sins. We might describe these “riches of God’s goodness” with the word “providence.”
There are at least two books in the Bible where the primary lesson is God’s sovereign providence. A year ago, we looked at the Book of Philemon in just that way. The runaway slave, Onesimus, “accidentally” bumped into the Apostle Paul while hiding out in Rome. How they came together so he could once again hear the gospel of grace is a miracle of divine providence and grace. And the Old Testament Book of Esther is another example of God’s sovereign leadership. This morning I want to begin with Nehemiah, but since we have so little information about his past, we’ll also consider Esther, wife of Ahasuerus, one of the kings of the Medes and Persians. And for those of you keeping score, the date next to Esther 1 is 521 BC – it comes between the emigrations of Zerubbabel and Ezra.
Think about this: God places His agents in fitting spots, sometimes perfect spots, to do His will.
One of the few things we know about Nehemiah is that he was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. It is Esther who tells us that it was nearly impossible to get an audience with the king of Persia. Not even she, his queen, could walk in to his oval office without an invitation, or she’d risk death. Even if Nehemiah had been an important public official, it was unlikely he would have been able to present the needs of Jerusalem to the king. But, by the providence of God, he was the king’s trusted cupbearer.
How did that come about? How did he get that job? We might collect ideas and various guesses for an hour, but we couldn’t prove any of them. But we can say with assurance – Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer because it was God’s will. And somehow the providence of God – the sovereign goodness of God – put him in that position.
Again I ask you, why are you in the pew, in the position, even in your particular personality today? Paul was in Roman incarceration in order, among other things, to meet Onesimus and lead him to Christ. Esther was miraculously made queen of Persia in order to stop the genocide of Israel. And Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer so that he could lead a spiritual revival in Judah. Why are you who you are and where you are?
As I hope you remember Esther was not the first queen, or first wife, of Ahasuerus. And it is quite an interesting story to see how she became queen. Vashti had been queen before her, but she offended her husband and she was removed from her position. The petulant king then ordered a beauty pageant in order to find a new wife. Out of hundreds of young beauties, amazingly, Esther was chosen – providentially chosen. And interestingly, highly interestingly, she was not a Babylonian, Mede or Persian, but a Jewess. Later, when an attack was planned against her people, she was in a place to intervene on their behalf. The details I have not mentioned are fascinating, and in them we see several minor miracles.
In Esther we have the divine hand moving people into positions enabling God to display His power. The Lord could have stopped Satan, or Haman or King Ahasuerus in a variety of ways, but He didn’t. The providence of God, took an insignificant Jewess and made her queen of the greatest empire in world. It’s the feminine version of Joseph, who years before, had been humbled, elevated, humbled and elevated, until he became the Prime Minister of Egypt. I’m sure Nehemiah’s story was not as spectacular, but God placed him in the right spot at the right time.
Despite the circumstances, it must be noticed that God didn’t force anyone do anything against will. Certainly not either of the kings of Babylon or Egypt. Although God could – and has the right – His sovereignty doesn’t usually work that way. Every character in each of these events acted under the direction of his own heart. It’s an illustration of salvation. You who are Christians…… Why did you turn to God for salvation? I would guess that it was because you wanted to. And why did you want to? Because the Holy Spirit taught your heart to see the need that it had. Everyone who has ever been saved from sin has been like Lydia. After God first opened her heart, she joyfully, and willingly, turned to Him. And than after that, the Lord places souls where they can serve Him. But most of the time, He does so by leading them – not by coercion. Only rarely does God actually force their feet to go in a certain direction. Did Jonah willingly preach to the people of Ninevah? Yes, but after God softened him up just a bit. Did Esau kindly receive his wicked brother Jacob? Did Saul of Tarsus become a blessing to God’s churches? Yes, but after he was given a new heart.
There are exceptions, but Jehovah usually alters peoples’ actions by turning their hearts and minds. Are you going to imagine Nehemiah using bribes and deceit to become cupbearer? I’m not. Artaxerxes knew a man who knew a man who had a son, and perhaps that man did something outstanding. The king or one of his servants interviewed the man’s son and was impressed. When Artaxerxes’ old cupbearer retired, this servant remembered the man and his son. Each piece of the puzzle fell together until Nehemiah had become Artaxerxes’ new cupbearer.
If you and I yield to God, seeking His face and doing His will, then I guarantee, He has a job for us to do. I was listening to a reading of Esther 4 last week and I was moved as the Lord brought several verses down on my heart in ways they hadn’t come to me in a long time. Mordecai sent a note to his niece – the queen of Babylon – describing some problems and God’s providence. And then he concluded with the words – “Who knoweth whether thou art come to Kingdom for such a time as this?” Her reply drove God’s knife into me more deeply, “Pray for me, and I’ll go into unto the king.” “And so will I go into unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.” There are many parallels between Esther and Nehemiah in their positions, responsibilities, personal sacrifices and God’s leadership in their lives.
You may not always have a key task to perform, but you will always have a task. Mordecai had one of service, Luke was a penman, and the boy with seven loaves had a task to perform. Nehemiah was a cupbearer, but he was destined to bear the blessing of God back to Israel.
It is Providence when God restrain His enemies.
Again we can clearly see this in the Book of Esther. The pre-nazi, Haman, filled with hatred against an entire race of people, was being used by God’s enemies to destroy Israel and the lineage of the coming Messiah. Another example is when Satan approached God seeking to touch Job. God said, “You may pester my servant Job up to point, but I limit your actions.” Jeremiah 5:22 – God sets limits on sea, and that is why tsunamis are so terrible when they come. They are apparently sent with the permission and purpose of Jehovah. Acts 17:26 even says that God sets bounds upon humanity generally. As we continue in Nehemiah we are going to see God’s enemy threaten the service of the Lord. But despite their words, I think you’ll be impressed with their utter impotency.
You say that you have a thorn in flesh. How did it get there? I know that there are things which come into my life which vex me; David and Moses had them too. Paul had a nasty thorn, and he asked God to take it away. But the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” “I’ve placed limits on the pain that thorn can produce.” When Paul realized that it was from the Lord, he honestly said, “Well then, I’ll take it,” in order “that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
When problems come, they may be from our spiritual enemies, or they may be from our loving Heavenly Father, but no matter what the source, the Lord has promised us some sort of victory. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” And “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” God has even permitted the destruction of our flesh while guaranteeing the safety of our souls. It is a truth: “If God be for us no one can be against us.” “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
A victorious Christian life is well within grasp of everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. Because we possess – and we are possessed – by the all powerful Holy Spirit of God. And because each and every enemy is limited by God’s omnipotence as to what he can do to us. We are providentially blessed, and they are providentially hindered. Praise the Lord!
But it may also be a part of the Providence of Lord to put His people to the test.
I wish there was a pat answer to the question, “Why has God permitted this terrible thing to happen to me?” If there was easy answer to all the problems of life, it would make my work almost expendable. But the plans of God are often deeply hidden – and thus they bring glory to the Lord and not to us. Yet there are some things which we can say about pains, thorns and difficulties.
For example, sometimes God sends incidents into lives to remind us of Him. Sometimes the Lord provides things to strengthen us. Sometimes those things refine and purify us. Psalms 30:5 reminds us after a night weeping – there is often a day of joy. We can look at trouble as we do the ant carrying heavy burden to be later used as a bridge. We can examine our trial to see how weak and insignificant we are and to turn us to the Lord. Difficulties descended on Job and the end result was a special kind of glory to God. I am sure that there are others, but here six reasons that God providentially permits afflictions.
Why did God break the heart of Nehemiah? Because there was work to be done. Nehemiah was put into a position where he could be a great blessing to Judah – He was the king’s cupbearer. But like Esther who couldn’t enter her husband’s quarters without risking her life… Nehemiah was not supposed to show any emotion in the king’s presence, and yet – his heart was breaking.
Nehemiah 2 – “And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it.” Notice Nehemiah’s tiny ejactulatory prayer – “Help, Lord.” Nehemiah was risking his job and perhaps his life, but it was a worthy risk, and it was worthy of God’s blessing. “Help, Lord.”
The Lord does know what He is doing. So when troubles or trials like this hit, we can thank God. James 1:2-5 – “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. If any of you lack wisdom (in regard to the troubles of life), let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
I Peter 1:6-7 – “…ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”
I Peter 4:12-13 – “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”
Thank God for His provision of trials. Study them to see best way to joy and victory.
There is one other thing when it comes to providence – Ultimately God will have His perfect way.
Despite the momentary pain, the end result is good to those who love God. In the Book of Esther, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, was hurt in several ways, but at last he was exalted. Esther was threatened, and the whole Jewish nation came close to extinction, but the end result was salvation from the one who hated them. And Joseph, too, suffered in Egypt until he was 30 years old, but then things changed. As we are going to see, the life of Nehemiah was not easy. He would have been far better off staying in Shushan and feeding the royal couple. But, no, he stuck his neck out and let God’s enemies pull their swords.
What do the scriptures say about afflictions? “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
Let us all rejoice because we have a Nehemiah at right hand of the Father interceding for us. Every Jew in Shushan and Babylon had hope because a Jewess was Queen. And every Christian can have hope too because our Saviour is also the sovereign God. If the Father sent him to be our Redeemer, ”how shall he not with him freely give us all things?” So, “let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Don’t be frightened at thoughts of the providence of God. Rather, be thankful that He is still on the throne.
And again, I ask you, what has been God’s purpose in bringing you under the influence of this message? Are you like Onesimus? Is it God’s will that you humble yourself before the Lord and trust Jesus Christ as your Saviour?