As we study the scriptures, we must watch for principles that will guide us in our own quest for excellence and exaltation. The history and doctrine in our books of scripture are fascinating, sometimes even life-changing. The principles hidden in those historical and doctrinal accounts are the repository of the true power of the word of God. Elder Richard G. Scott spoke of this:
“As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle” (Richard G. Scott, “Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, p.86).
Nehemiah is a book filled with life-changing principles, principles we will learn as we study these scriptures. In Nehemiah as in all scriptural texts, “It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle.” Here are some principles I have found.
Principle #1: When You Pray, Expect Answers
Artaxerxes was king of Persia from 463 to 425 BC. He seems to have been a thoughtful, compassionate, caring king who sought the wellbeing of his people more than his own personal welfare.
Nehemiah 1:11 tells us that Nehemiah was King Artaxerxes’ cup-bearer.
“A cup-bearer was an officer of high rank in royal courts, whose duty it was to serve the drinks at the royal table. On account of the constant fear of plots and intrigues, a person must be regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold this position. He must guard against poison in the king’s cup, and was sometimes required to swallow some of the wine before serving it. His confidential relations with the king often gave him a position of great influence. The position of cup-bearer is greatly valued and given to only a select few throughout history” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cup-bearer).
Nehemiah spoke with certain Jews who had arrived from Judea and asked about the people still living there, and about Jerusalem. Their report was heart-breaking:
“The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).
When Nehemiah received this message, he was devastated. He wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed (see Neh. 1:4).
His prayer is of particular interest in this treatise. It prepares us for our first principle from Nehemiah:
Nehemiah 1: 5-11 is a record of Nehemiah’s prayer for the assistance of God in bringing about the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem and elevating the status of the remnant of Israel left in the land of Judea after the Babylonian captivity.
In Nehemiah 2:2, when the cupbearer was asked by the king to explain his “sorrow of heart” (see Nehemiah 2:2), he “prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:5) again and asked the king for permission to return to ‘Judah, unto the city of [his] fathers’ sepulchers,” (Nehemiah 2:5), and rebuild it. “And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me” (Neh. 2:8) and wrote letters commanding people along the way to assist Nehemiah, and sent soldiers to accompany him (Neh. 2:9). Artaxerxes also commanded that the trees of the king’s forest be made available for the construction project (see Nehemiah 2:8). Nehemiah’s prayers were answered.
Principle 2: Seek the Welfare of Israel
When Nehemiah arrived in the land of his fathers, and delivered the king’s letters to the rulers of the land, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, they were unhappy. Their response offers an important insight into what was in Nehemiah’s heart, and what he hoped to accomplish in the Promised Land.
“It grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10).
Nehemiah’s intent was not simply a construction project nor an effort to restore Jerusalem to a portion of her former glory. He had heard about the sorrow and suffering of his brethren in the land and he sought the welfare of Israel.
I believe the Lord will always assist us in our endeavors and respond to our prayers when our desire is to seek the welfare of his people. This would be true in home and visiting teaching and in presiding and in our family history endeavors, and in our efforts to hasten the work of salvation.
Principle 3: Involve Others
After his arrival, Nehemiah spent 3 days surveying the city and contemplating the work that would need to be done. He rode around the city by night but gave no indication to his people of his purposes in Jerusalem until he had a clear understanding of the nature of the work before him.
The king of Persia had made Nehemiah governor over the land of Judea but he knew he could not do the required work alone. He therefore spoke to the priests, the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the remnant (see Neh. 2:16).At the conclusion of those three days
“said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work” (Nehemiah 2:17,18).
There were those who opposed the work, of course, the non-Israelite inhabitants of the land laughed them to scorn and despised them, But the people were not deterred.
“Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:20).
The Israelites were determined to “rise up and build” and so “they strengthened their hands for this good work.”
Principle #4: Do Your Part
For a lot of years of study I considered the 3rd chapter of Nehemiah one of the most boring and uninteresting chapters in the Standard Works. The chapter is a recital of those who helped rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem, beginning at the sheep gate in the northeast corner of the city, moving counter-clockwise around the walls, and ending with the name of those who built next to the sheep gate in the northeast corner.
In early readings of this chapter, my feelings often were that I did not care much who built the tower of the furnaces or who built next to them. But in a conversation several years ago, a close friend pointed out the principle to me. It is a great principle!
The purpose of the walls of the city was to protect Jerusalem from the encroachment of enemies. Thus every section, every wall, indeed every stone was crucial to the safety of those within the walls. What would happen if one portion of the walls was left unbuilt and an enemy attacked? Like the arrow that killed King Ahab in 1 Kings 22:34, a tiny gap might give an implacable enemy all the space needed to enter and destroy.
Chapter 3 teaches us that we must all do our part in building the walls of protection around the people of our wards and stakes, around the people of Israel. The following quote comes from the October 1903 General Conference:
“The Lord our God wants the children of men to do something . . . You cannot build arks and temples, you cannot gather Israel and establish the kingdom of God, on one principle of the Gospel alone. You cannot make a watch or clock go with only one of its wheels. You cannot make the human body active by separating the head or the feet from it. The body as created is perfect, in beautiful symmetry, and it cannot be complete if we take one part of it and reject the rest; it takes the whole to make the perfect man. It is so with the kingdom of God” (Elder John W. Taylor, p. 40).
Primary teachers and stake presidents must do their part to make sure that the wall is complete and the required protection in place.
Principle #5: Expect Opposition
Notice the chapter heading for Nehemiah 4: Their enemies seek to prevent Jews from rebuilding walls of Jerusalem—Nehemiah arms the laborers and keeps the work going forward.
This hostility to the work of building the kingdom is nearly continuous, in Nehemiah’s day, and in ours. The report of this antagonism to the work of Nehemiah’s people is interesting:
Sanballat “spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned? Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall” (Nehemiah 4:2 – 3).
The work continued, of course, and when
Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth” (Nehemiah 4:7).
A fox might not be enough to halt the work after all.
Nehemiah counseled his builders. He
“said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (Nehemiah 4:14).
After that little speech, Nehemiah tells us, “We returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work” (Nehemiah 4:15). But things changed a little:
“And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons . . .” (Nehemiah 4:16).
One other verse explains a wonderful way to confront opposition.
“Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night” (Nehemiah 4:9).
Elder Boyd K. Packer said,
Brethren, set a watch and make a prayer and go about the work of the Lord. Do not be drawn away to respond to enemies. In a word, ignore them (Boyd K. Packer, “Come, All Ye Sons of God,” Ensign, Aug. 1983, 69).
Principle #6: Don’t Come Down
The walls of Jerusalem were completed in an amazing fifty-two days! The final rocks and logs caused a renewed effort from the enemies of Israel.
“Now it came to pass, when aSanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates;) That Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner” (Nehemiah 6:1-4).
All of the disciples of the Lord are doing a great work. Lucifer would love to have us set the work aside and come down for a while, so he could do us a mischief. He would be delighted to have us spend some time in the plain of Ono. Another way to write this principle might be to say, “Stay away from the plain of Oh No!”
The repeated attempts of the enemies of the work to convince Nehemiah to come down must speak to us in our own stewardships. When Lucifer sees us zealously building the walls of our stewardships, he will always try to impede our efforts. He will try to entice us to come down from the walls and engage in less fruitful activities.
A similar event in the Book of Mormon (Alma 47) teaches the consequences of coming down. Amalickiah, the Nephite dissenter, tried four times, as did Nehemiah’s enemies, to get Lehonti to come down from the hill Antipas. Lehonti was the commander of the Lamanite forces who refused to go to battle again against the Nephites. Only about a year had passed since they had been defeated by Moroni and had covenanted never again to come to battle against the Nephites (see Alma 44:19).
But finally, after a fourth invitation, when Lehonti was convinced that he would be safe, he came down a short distance, only to talk, and entered into an agreement with Amalickiah When Amalickiah had Lehonti off the hill (the wall!) he “caused that one of his servants should administer poison by degrees to Lehonti, that he died” (Alma 47:18).
We get a clear perception here of how Lucifer works against the righteous, against those faithful disciples who pray and seek the welfare of Israel, who invite others to work with them, and who resist opposition and fulfill the responsibilities assigned to them. He tries to convince them to stop their work and come down, even a little, and when they do, rather than attack with battalions, bayonets, and bazookas, he poisons them by degrees.
The history contained in the book of Nehemiah is engaging and significant. But for us, building walls and gates is not the most important matter in this book. We must be instructed by the principles in these chapters.
President Marion G. Romney shared his conviction about the importance of scriptural principles:
“One cannot honestly study the scriptures without learning gospel principles because the scriptures have been written to preserve principles for our benefit” (Marion G. Romney, “Records of Great Worth,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, 4).