“Babylon is fallen – we told you so”. This seems to be the theme of today’s reading. The announcement is made as though it has already occurred, and it echoes the prophetic announcements made in Isaiah and Jeremiah. But there is a future sense that the ‘Babylon of today’ will fall, even though it appears not to have yet. Perhaps the licentiousness of the West will be eclipsed by a fundamentalist Islamic regime? Perhaps another world empire will emerge that no longer requires the temptations of the flesh and a ‘flabby’ lifestyle to distract Christians from their true calling? No-one knows, except God.
But verse 3 makes it clear that all those nations who have set their heart on luxury, indulgence and adultery will fall, along with the spiritual ‘Babylon’ that invoked their perverted behaviour.
A voice from heaven warns believers to come out of Babylon – to distance themselves from the indulgent values of the world and not to imitate its sordid deeds. Punishment is imminent because of those deeds – as surely as it came upon Sodom and Gomorrah! This warning relates not only to the end times, but to any time during the gospel age. Babylon will receive from God “double for what she had done” – which probably does not mean twice the punishment deserved, but rather the ‘double’ – i.e., the mirror image punishment that fits the crime.
In the next section – verses 9 to 20 – there is a three-fold lamentation of the kings of the earth, those who trade with the ‘city’, and those who sail the ships that move goods back and forth from the city. All regret their involvement with Babylon and regret that their reigns have ended, their businesses are ruined, and their vessels are redundant.
The final paragraph begins with a strong angel who picks up a giant millstone and hurls it into the sea. This is an illustration of how Babylon will be thrown down and destroyed. Most people of the earth will mourn, but some will rejoice – the righteous. No longer will this spiritual prostitute be responsible for spilling the blood of the righteous and slaughtering God’s holy people. It has been swept away – forever!
NEHEMIAH 4, 5 and 6
A good sign that you have heard God correctly and are moving in the right direction is… you get a lot of opposition! Nehemiah certainly experienced this to the max. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria and Tobiah was probably governor of Transjordan, acting under Persian authority. Both these men were clearly threatened by Nehemiah, despite the letter of approval from the emperor himself. They determined to make life as difficult as possible for the wall-building project.
The task was immense in any case, and hugely physically demanding. Everything had to be done by hand (since they couldn’t wait for the invention of the mechanical digger!). Fatigue makes you more prone to mood swings and to fear and depression; Sanballat, Tobiah and ‘friends’ decided to apply a bit of psychological warfare first. Before the building work started, they had mocked and ridiculed the builders, suggesting also that they were rebelling against the King of Persia. (See chapter two.) But now that work was well under way, they realised that God’s people were deadly serious and they became angry, stepping up the level of ridicule.
This reaction often occurs in unbelievers today; they are content to gently belittle the work of Christ and to point out all the things that the church is not doing; but once the church becomes active, these unbelievers often react with anger, and they take offence. Nehemiah responded in exactly the right way by ignoring their threats and channeling his concerns directly into prayer.
Later still, when the great wall was starting to become secure again, with the biggest gaps being completely closed, Nehemiah’s enemies became extremely angry and began to plot to attack the defenders with weapons. Again, Nehemiah met this threat first with prayer – he was both a man of action and a man of prayer – and then he posted a 24-hour guard to deal with the new threat. There is no contradiction in our praying and in our ‘doing’; prayer both assists our actions, and it goes beyond the human capabilities of our actions too. So ‘prayer’ and ‘action’ are complementary.
The enemies began a campaign of whispers and rumours, with threats to attack at any point in the day or the night. Nehemiah – in addition to relying on God, as before – changed the working practices by having half the people doing the building whilst the other half stood armed and defended them; then after a while everyone swapped around. In this way, the work still went on for 12 hours, but every worker was protected. The other problem was that the relatively small numbers of people were spread very thinly around the perimeter of the city wall and were not concentrated at any point of enemy attack. The solution was to employ a trumpeter to sound his instrument as a warning of attack and for all citizens to gather where the trumpet had sounded. We too learn that when united we can stand up to the Enemy’s forces; church leadership has a God-given responsibility to sound a warning ‘trumpet’ to God’s people to alert them to impending dangers.
Just like the Apostle Paul, Nehemiah was a great leader who had a great concern for the poor and needy amongst God’s people. In Nehemiah’s situation, the wealthier Jews had set up a payday loan racket and charged their Jewish brothers interest on everything that they borrowed in order for them to buy food. Proper farming was still not possible, particularly with every man being needed to repair the city walls, and there was still a time of drought and famine that inevitably hit the poorest first – just as an economic recession does in our day. Furthermore, the heavy taxes imposed by the Persian rulers also made huge demands on the poorest. Given that the charging of interest to one’s Jewish brothers was strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses, these wealthy landowners were sinning. (Notice that, by our standards, the rate of interest was not exactly extortionate, at one percent.) God has forbidden his people to take advantage of one another by lending money at interest in order to make a profit out of your fellow believer’s misfortune.
Repentance duly followed and the interest was paid back, and lands returned. Those poor people who had sold their children into slavery had them returned to them too. Nehemiah himself did not use his position of authority to take advantage of his people; indeed, he denied himself many of the privileges of his position that were due to him, to avoid being an additional burden. He shows himself to be a made of great compassion.
Further opposition to the wall building continued and a plan of deception was hatched by Sanballat and Geshem. Nehemiah tells them to stop wasting his time: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop…?” (6:3). And Nehemiah continued to pray. I believe that this lifestyle method of prayer is what the Apostle Paul means when he encourages us to “Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), rather than having perpetual corporate prayer meetings! As we work and pray, the Lord will continue to meet with us intimately in our daily lives, meeting our needs and causing us to grow increasingly like him. Extended exclusive times of prayer are useful on occasion but are not intended to be the normal pattern of Christian daily life – any more than a good marriage would consist of a succession of candle-lit dinners and nothing else!
We arrive at verses 15 and 16 of chapter 6: “So the wall was completed… in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God”. So we have learned a few valuable lessons today: when we hear from God and begin a good work, it makes our enemies mad; when we complete that task, it makes them sad. We must make every effort to finish the works that God gives us; too many Christians make a promising start and then fizzle out and end poorly, if at all. We worship a Lord who “…has begun a good work in us and will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). We should therefore emulate our Master!