Nehemiah was liked and respected by the king and others. Certainly, all of his needs for what could be considered a “happy” life were met.
Nehemiah was Judean by descent and his ancestral family probably had come from Jerusalem, but as far as we know, Nehemiah himself had never been there. He was born in exile in Babylon, and then later moved to Susa. At the time of our introduction to him in the Old Testament, he had sufficiently ascended in favor with the foreign rulers to give him his distinguished position with the king.
From all outward circumstances, Nehemiah should have felt very fulfilled in his life. But that is not how we find him in the opening of the book that bears his name—the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Here is his own account of his mental and emotional state at the time:
In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, arrived with men from Judah. So I questioned them about the remnant of the Jews who had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
And they told me, “The remnant who survived the exile are there in the province, in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”
When I heard these words, I sat down and wept. I mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:1-4 BSB)
Despite a secure life in Susa, when Nehemiah heard of the difficulties of the people who were in the land of Judah and about the continuing destruction of Jerusalem, all joy was taken from him. His heartbroken state was not a fleeting feeling. When he wrote those words about himself, it was in the month of Chislev, which is during our November or December. Although Nehemiah tried hard not to appear sad before the king, it was in the month of Nisan (March or April), when the king finally asked him about his demeanor.
The king said to him, “Why is your face sad, though you are not ill? This could only be sadness of the heart.”
It actually frightened Nehemiah that the king was able to detect his sadness, since it was a great offense for him to appear that way before the king and to bring to the king a depressing thought. “I was overwhelmed with fear,” Nehemiah said of himself.
However, once his feelings were discovered, Nehemiah opened up to the king to tell him what had been happening in the country of his people. The king could see that Nehemiah would not rest until he took action.
“What is your request?” the king asked him.
Nehemiah had obviously already put much thought into what he could do about the situation if the opportunity should arise. Once asked about his request, he did not hesitate in laying out a well-thought-out strategy of action.
Nehemiah proposed his plan to the king, even making requests of the king to help. Nehemiah must have been a very loyal member of the court and much respected by the king, because the king helped him in every way that he could to carry out his plan.
The Compassionate Heart
What was it that prompted Nehemiah to feel the way that he did about Jerusalem and the people there? It is true that he had a connection with the city in that it was the homeland of his ancestors, but he himself had never lived there. Nevertheless, when he heard of the suffering of the people, his heart was moved to take action.
The answer is found in a single word—compassion. He felt compassion for the people of Jerusalem. Although Nehemiah himself was far from Jerusalem and perhaps personally knew only a few people from that city, the fact that he had learned of their hardship caused him to also feel that hardship, even though his own situation in the city of Susa was secure and comfortable.
We get our word for compassion from a Latin, meaning “co-suffering,” or “feeling the suffering of another.” It is that feeling that comes from deep within, as if it is emanating from the very center of one’s being. When the Bible speaks of compassion, it uses a Greek word that I will not even try to pronounce, but which means “to be moved in the inward parts.”
Compassion is a fully human emotion, but it is one which emanates from God. It is an emotion which comes from the fact that we as humans have been created in the image of God. God is a compassionate God, and because he has created us in his image, he has also instilled within us that same potential for compassion.
Jesus was often moved by compassion. At one point in his life, Jesus was in a town called Nain. As he approached the town gate, he saw a dead man being carried out. This man was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. In those days, a widow who was left without a son was almost certainly destined to a life of severe hardship and poverty, since there was no one to care for her. When Jesus saw her, he felt compassion for her.
He said to her, “Do not weep.” He went up and touched the coffin and said, “Young man, I tell you, get up!” At once the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. (Luke 7:11-16)
It was compassion that moved Jesus to act. This was not a miracle that Jesus did to teach something. Certainly, many people witnessed it, but Jesus nevertheless did not turn the event into a “teaching moment.” He simply was moved out of a compassionate feeling for the widowed woman. His only intention in raising her son from the dead was to relieve her of her agony.
It was the same at the feeding of the five thousand. This was not an organized event. It was not planned in advance. Jesus was actually seeking a “solitary place,” a place where he could get away for a short time, just to be renewed. To do so, he put out to sail on the Sea of Galilee, otherwise called “Lake of Gennesaret.” Jesus intended to go to another shore of that rather large lake just to be alone.
However, when he stepped ashore, he saw a very large crowd had assembled there and was waiting for him. Instead of being perturbed that his quiet time had been ruined, he felt compassion for the crowd, because he said, they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The disciples wanted to send all of those people away, but because of the compassion that Jesus felt toward them, he could not. Despite the fact that the disciples had no food, Jesus told them to feed this five thousand people. It was then that Jesus performed the miracle of feeding this huge crowd by multiplying the lunch of a small boy, which consisted of five small barley loaves and two fish (Mark 6:30-44).
It was the same at the feeding of the four thousand. Jesus said to the disciples, “I have compassion for this crowd, because they have already been with Me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way. For some of them have come a great distance” (Mark 8:2-3 BSB).
A Lesson in Compassion
But the disciples saw only difficulty in this for themselves. They did have a few small loaves of bread—seven actually, and a few small fish as before, but what was that in the face of four thousand people? But also as before in the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus instructed the disciples to have the people sit on the grass in an orderly manner. He then blessed the food, and the disciples distributed it to the people until all had enough to eat, enough to give them strength for the journeys to their homes.
These should have been significant lessons for the disciples. When Jesus was moved by compassion, the needs of the people were fulfilled.
But it is questionable how well the disciples learned this lesson. It was the very next day, or possibly the day after when the subject of bread came up again in a conversation that Jesus was having with the disciples. It was not in connection to feeding a multitude this time, and actually, Jesus was not even talking about literal bread.
The disciples nevertheless took it that he was referring to the fact that they had not brought any bread with them on the journey. They were discussing this matter among themselves.
Jesus overheard their conversation, and I can almost detect the exasperation in his voice when he asked them, “Why are you debating about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Do you have such hard hearts? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?” (Mark 8:17-18)
The Antonym of Compassion
With this question of Jesus, we see the antonym of compassion—the opposite of a heart that is moved by compassion. It is the hardened heart.
I have mentioned that compassion arises from God and that the reason that we feel compassion toward another is that we have been created in the image of God. Interestingly, every human has the capacity for feeling compassion toward another. One does not have to be a Christian to feel compassion. It comes by virtue that God has put that capacity in us.
But compassion does not necessarily remain as part of our emotional and spiritual makeup. It can be corrupted. It can be diminished. Our hearts can become hardened.
How does this happen? How does compassion disappear and our hearts become hardened?
John tells us: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17 ESV)
A hardened heart comes about because one continually withholds his compassion. He turns his head and looks away from the need. He closes his heart.
God spoke of this way back in the book of Deuteronomy, saying to the people: “If there is a poor man among your brothers…then you are not to harden your heart or shut your hand from your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8 BSB).
A Heart Hardened Against God
A heart that has become hardened affects not only one’s view of others; it affects also one’s view of God. We saw this principle even with the disciples when they did not understand the power of God in the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. When they saw the thousands of hungry people, they knew that they were powerless to do anything.
Their only response to the situation was, “Where in this desolate place could we find enough bread to feed such a large crowd?”
Because they failed to put themselves in the position of the hungry people, the lesson of the ability of Jesus to meet any need escaped them completely.
And it was not only their ability to understand the power of Jesus. Even the ability to know who Jesus is will be affected. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus stayed on shore while the disciples left in the boat. This was the incident when Jesus later came walking on the water. When the disciples saw Jesus, they did not recognize him. They thought that they were seeing a ghost.
They did not recognize him, the gospel writer Mark says, because “they had not understood about the loaves, and their hearts had become hardened” (Mark 6:52).
A heart that has been hardened will not even be able to know Jesus.
Thankfully for the disciples, they continued to learn, but if one persists in turning away, the heart becomes calloused and hardened. Jesus had earlier spoken of this condition of not recognizing the power of God when he said concerning those who see with unseeing eyes and hear without listening: “In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has grown callous; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.’” (Matthew 13:14-15 ESV)
"Their hearts have grown callous. Their hearts have become hardened."
Once someone’s heart has become hardened, they cannot see God working and they cannot not hear God’s voice speaking to them. All that they can hear is the noise of the world. As Paul put it, “They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them. This has come about because of the hardness of their hearts” (Ephesians 4:18).
But Paul tells us additionally that we “have been raised with Christ.” Thus, we ought to “strive for the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” We are to set our minds on things above, and not on earthly things.
“Therefore, as those chosen of God, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with hearts of compassion, and with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:1-2, 12)
More than Five Thousand Needy Ones
“But,” you reply, “there are so many needy, so many who need help. How can I answer them all?”
I understand this dilemma, for I have felt it myself. I can understand the predicament that the disciples felt when they saw thousands of hungry people and asked where would they ever find enough bread to feed them all.
“What can I do? I am but one person and not a wealthy person.”
I hesitate to tell this story because I fear that it might be misinterpreted by some as a boast or a form of self-glorification. But I tell it because it is what I have learned personally, and in the end, it shows the greatness of God. “As it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’”
It comes from my involvement with the orphanage in Kenya. When I went and saw the children with very little food, sleeping on muddy floors and dressed in ragged clothing, I may have felt compassion toward them, but like the disciples, I thought, “what can I do?”
But I did have the lunch of a small boy (figuratively speaking). I had three little barley loaves and a couple of fish. I decided I must give what I had.
Jesus did not multiply my small lunch in the same way that he multiplied the lunch of the boy in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, but in even a more wonderful way, he multiplied that small beginning. Jesus used that small beginning to move in other hearts of compassion.
First one person asked if they could also help, then another. After a time and from many parts of the country, compassionate hearts who were accustomed to seeing with the eyes of the Lord and hearing his voice speaking to them began to ask how they could also help. I made no appeal to anyone for assistance. I sent out no flyers in the mail and approached no one for help. But people just asked me how they could do their part. They asked because their hearts were moved by compassion.
Of course, it is not only those who help out with this particular orphanage who are the compassionate ones. God calls each one of us to the works that he has intended for us. One to this need and another to another need. There are needs all around. God directs those of a compassionate heart where they are to be involved.
It has been now about five years since we began the orphanage, and amazing things have been accomplished. God has provided food and clothing for the forty-nine children of the orphanage. God has supplied the funding so that they all could attend school for these years. We have built a dormitory for them, as well as a kitchen and dining area. We have begun a garden which is irrigated by a water collection system coming from the roofs of all the buildings and stored in large water tanks.
I could go on. Much more has been done. Through the five or so years since we began the orphanage, we have been able to send well over $350,000 to meet the needs of the children. It all has gone for their needs. Nothing has been used for other purposes other than the cost of the money transfers.
Every donation has been recorded in our books at the church. From Kenya, the receipts from every expenditure have been sent to me. I know of those who have donated, but I prefer to look at all of it as coming from God. I know those who donate, and I know that this is how they also would prefer it. We are all simply servants of our Lord.
Your Lunch Bucket
Returning now to our original story of Nehemiah, when he acted on the compassion that he felt about the people of his homeland, God allowed him to be involved with a work much greater than himself.
When the small boy gave his lunch, God multiplied it in ways that were far beyond what the few resources would have otherwise provided. I have wondered what went through that boy's mind when he saw all the people who had been fed from his small gift. I do not know what went through his mind, but as I look at what has been done in our orphanage, makes me simply feel so thankful.
What is in your lunch bucket? You may think that there is little that you can do, but a heart that acts from compassion will see that what he or she does is multiplied by the hand of God.
Therefore, as those chosen of God, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with hearts of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with one another and forgive any complaint you may have against someone else. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love, which is the bond of perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, for to this you were called as members of one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)
 Strong’s 4697—splagchnizomai