When the church is paganized there is no need for walls or gates in the city of God. Then the church doesn’t need to worry about singing the Lord’s song—it can sing the songs of the pagan culture because there is no longer a strange and foreign land.
In exile the people of Israel faced the question: “How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land?” The question is similar to that faced by contemporary American Christians. Ours is a spiritual exile as we confront a culture and government increasingly hostile to Christianity.
We look to Nehemiah for clues to guide our own pilgrimage in difficult times. Nehemiah was grief-stricken by the news of the condition of Jerusalem. The walls were broken down and its gates burned with fire. His first emotion over the sad loss of his heritage was grief. It was not bitterness or anger. Nehemiah wept and mourned as Jesus would later weep over the same city.
In his grief, Nehemiah moved to the next step, prayer and fasting. His prayer was first of all a prayer of adoration for the majestic awe of God and for His faithfulness to His people: “O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments.”
Even in exile, Nehemiah praised God for His covenant faithfulness. Then the focus of his prayer turned to repentance, pleading with God to forgive the sins of his own people, acknowledging that they had brought exile upon themselves.
Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king. He served in a pagan government as a believer in God. His vocation was that of a servant. He was humble and respectful to the king, but proper fear of his king did not stop him from acting to save his people. He prayed to God and made a request of the king, asking for permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it. He also asked for letters that he might present to lesser governors for safe conduct and even a grant for building materials.
Not all the pagan governors were sanguine toward Nehemiah and his plans. Indeed, some were fiercely resistant to them. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of it, they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel (Neh. 2:10). But there is nothing unusual about this as it is a common pagan reaction to the mission of the church in any age.
When Nehemiah set about the task of rebuilding his enemies laughed at him and despised him. Nehemiah, though, did not let his critics determine his agenda. He was polite but firm in his response to them.
When Nehemiah’s pagan enemies received word that he had rebuilt the walls (but the doors were not yet hung on the gates), they invited him to meet with them in a special “audience.” Nehemiah had no time for this sort of thing, knowing the plans of the enemy were evil. He replied to Sanballat and his cronies, “Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” Sanballat then sent an open letter accusing Nehemiah of a seditious attempt to become a king and other false charges. Nehemiah sent back a message denying the allegations, noting that the charges were but a thinly veiled form of intimidation.