In the Gap
What Happens When God’s People Stand Strong
by Wilfredo De Jesús
This article is adapted from the book, In The Gap, by Wilfredo De Jesús (Influence Resources, 2014.) In The Gap explores nine biblical and current-day examples of courageous men and women who recognize gap situations and trusted God to use them to make a difference. This adaptation is from chapter one which centers on the story of Nehemiah, who worked hard to restore the city of Jerusalem—physically and spiritually. Quite often, though, God wants us to build a new culture and a new hope instead of city walls. Consider what God may be saying to you through the story of Nehemiah in the words that follow.
A gap, by definition, represents a place of weakness, vulnerability, and danger. It is a defenseless location of exposure and limitation, a point where people face real threats. Gaps exist in our countries, our communities, and at home with our families.
When the Babylonians defeated Judah in 586 B.C., they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took most of the captured people back to Babylon. The physical and emotional pain was excruciating, but the destruction of the temple broke their hearts. For centuries, God’s people had worshipped there in the presence of God. His Shekinah glory dwelled in the Holy of Holies in the innermost part of the temple. Miracles happened every day. Now that was gone. Foreign invaders destroyed Jerusalem. They tore down and looted the temple, and about 50,000 inhabitants stumbled into exile in Babylon.
After many years, God’s people started returning to their homeland. Zerubbabel and Ezra led the first group. They restored the altar, sacrifices, and worship of God. About 20 years later, the Jewish people built and dedicated a new temple. During this period, the Persians conquered Babylon. Nehemiah was a Jewish man who had remained in Persia. His story begins 141 years after the fall of Jerusalem.
Yesterday and Today
Before we continue with Nehemiah’s story of courage, we need to understand something about ancient culture and biblical truth from the Old and New Testaments. The temple was the place where heaven and earth met — where God dwelled in His awesome glory. The wall around the city protected the temple.
At the moment Jesus died on the cross, the heavy veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple ripped apart from top to bottom. The curtain no longer separated the people from God. Because of Christ’s supreme sacrifice, God’s presence and glory no longer reside in a building. They reside in His people. One of the amazing truths of the New Testament is that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). We are the place where heaven and earth meet! And we need to build walls of protection to defend and cherish God’s glory in us — walls of integrity, obedience, faith, hope, and love.
All around us, the enemy attacks people, but some are too absorbed with doubt, greed, and fear to fight back. Their temple is ransacked and their walls, torn down. Sometimes it’s not just our family members, friends, or co-workers who are devastated. Sometimes it’s us.
God is always looking for someone to stand in the gap. About 141 years after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, God’s people were still in distress. They were victims of injustice and racial hatred. At this moment, Nehemiah answered God’s call.
Nehemiah had a dream job. He was the king’s righthand man — trusted, important, and respected by everyone in the kingdom. The Jews had made a home in Babylon and Persia, and at least a few of them had positions of prominence.
One day Nehemiah saw Hanani, one of his brothers, who had just returned from Judah, 766 miles away. Nehemiah asked what was going on back in their homeland. Hanani reported that outsiders harassed the citizens, raped the women, and stole from the people — and no one could do anything about it.
With revelation comes responsibility, and hearing this news broke Nehemiah’s heart. Yet he didn’t jump to conclusions or act impulsively. Nehemiah’s heart was shattered, but he knew he needed to prepare before he acted.
For days, he wept, fasted, and prayed. The condition of God’s people in their homeland was unacceptable to him. God gave Nehemiah a holy discontent, a fire in his bones to make a difference. Though Nehemiah was hundreds of miles away, he identified with the suffering. His prayer in Nehemiah 1:5–11 teaches us three steps to humbly make a request of God.
- He acknowledged God (praise).
- He reminded himself — and God — of the covenant promises.
- He confessed his sins and the sins of the people.
Nehemiah shows us another important principle: When the pain others feel breaks your heart, don’t act impulsively. We can follow Nehemiah’s example by spending time getting the Father’s perspective through persistent prayer.
For Nehemiah, prayer was preparation for action. Every pastor, leader, teacher, and disciple has calls to action. At specific times and places, we need to move past our fears toward what God is calling us to do.
Nehemiah prayed, and his prayer led to his plan. He knew King Artaxerxes could provide the resources to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. A few days later, as Nehemiah was serving him, the king noticed that he was preoccupied. The king had never seen his trusted servant like this, so he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Nehemiah realized the moment of truth had come. He was terrified, but his fear didn’t stop him. He replied with respect and boldness: “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:3).
Artaxerxes had absolute power over his nation and his people. Any hint of disappointment in the king might mean instant death! Nehemiah took a real risk by voicing his concerns. To his great relief, the king answered, “What is it you want?”
Instead of blurting out his request, Nehemiah prayed silently. He then told the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it” (Nehemiah 2:5).
The king gave Nehemiah everything he needed: letters of safe conduct to travel, timber for the beams of the gates, and time away to get the job done. He never lost sight of the fact that even the most powerful people on the planet are tools in the hands of Almighty God.
Nehemiah understood a profound truth: If you’re experiencing a great difficulty, and you’re ready to undertake a great work, then you need the power of a great God.
Nehemiah exemplified the “gap person trait” of being able to identify a problem, and then craft a plan to meet it. Nehemiah felt the weight of the responsibility to rebuild the devastated walls of the capital of his ancient homeland. During his days of prayer and fasting, God gave him direction to ask the king for all the resources. Nehemiah risked his life, and if he failed, God’s people would continue to suffer from attacks and injustice in Jerusalem.
King Artaxerxes must have loved and trusted Nehemiah. He not only gave his cupbearer all the resources he needed to rebuild the crumbled walls, but he also sent his cavalry with Nehemiah as an escort to protect him.
Nehemiah didn’t tell anyone about his vision or plans. Under cover of night, he inspected the city and the remains of the walls.
Finally, after three nights of reconnaissance, he called Jerusalem’s priests, nobles, officials, and people together (Nehemiah 2:16,17). He told them the whole story of Hanani’s report, his prayer, his request of the king, and the king’s gracious answer. He wanted them to know this wasn’t just something he had dreamed up. It was God’s idea, and he was God’s messenger and servant. Nehemiah invited them to join him in a great work.
They replied, “Let us start rebuilding” (Nehemiah 2:18).
They put on their tool belts, grabbed their work gloves, and looked to Nehemiah to give them directions.
Immediately Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab mocked Nehemiah and his fellow workers. These men had a vested interest in keeping God’s people weak and vulnerable.
They made the most serious accusation against Nehemiah, one that might have made the workers shudder. They asked, “Are you rebelling against the king?”
Treason was punishable by death — often a long, slow, painful death. Nehemiah didn’t back down an inch. He claimed a higher authority: “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it” (Nehemiah 2:20).
Nehemiah met the first test with courage, persuading the people he had the authority to lead them.
Standing in the gap involves difficulties and invites opposition. When you reach out to help a prodigal child, an addict, or a homeless person, things often get messy. When you confront gangs and racial injustice in your community, you can expect opposition and real danger. The three men who accused Nehemiah of treason illustrate three different challenges.
Sanballat’s name means “may sin come to life.” He was the governor of Samaria, a region north of Jerusalem. When the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., some Jews stayed behind in Samaria. They intermarried with their pagan conquerors and formed a new life. When Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah came back from Babylon to restore the nation, the Samaritans, including Sanballat, felt threatened. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans started then, and it continued during the time of Jesus.
The Samaritans had bent their lives, standards, and faith to accommodate the pagans among them. It may have begun gradually, but after a few years, the Jews there had lost their distinctive faith and culture. Today, the world is still trying to bend us to their way of life. They insist, “It’s no big deal. Everybody’s doing it.”
So we make tiny, incremental choices to bend God’s best for sex, truth, money, time, and relationships. Like the frog in a kettle, we don’t notice the heat gradually rising — until we’re boiled in sin!
When Sanballat attacked Nehemiah, he asked sarcastic, demeaning questions, and he brought an army. In both ways, he tried to intimidate Nehemiah and his workers. (See Nehemiah 4:1,2.)
Our task is to hold tenaciously to Christ, to trust Him for wisdom and strength, and to stand strong against the temptation to compromise our ethics, the truth, and the vision God has given us.
Tobiah was an Ammonite, a pagan. Yet his name means “God is good.” Though his name suggests he would support Nehemiah, he opposed him. Everywhere he went, Tobiah caused resentment, confusion, and division.
Tobiah governed the area around Jerusalem. Nehemiah was rebuilding God’s city right under his nose! His reaction was to create doubt and sow discord between the people and Nehemiah. Tobiah shouted so the workers could hear him, “What they are building — even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (Nehemiah 4:3).
When work on the walls proceeded and success was in sight, opposition intensified. Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, and the Ammonites were furious. They plotted to attack Nehemiah and his men. Nehemiah responded as a great leader: He prayed and posted guards to protect the city. From that time forward, half the workers built the walls while the other half stood guard with spears, shields, bows, and armor.
For us, division comes in two forms: internal and external. Our enemy tries to create a divided heart, to tempt us to pursue things that aren’t God’s best. The enemy also wants to create division between people. Conflict isn’t the problem; unresolved conflict is. When people are honest with one another — when they forgive and restore — relationships grow stronger.
When we try to stand in the gap to help those in need, we can expect the threats of division — in our hearts and in our relationships. Winston Churchill once observed, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”1
Geshem’s name means “storms,” the kind of heavy rains that drench the ground in the fall and winter in that region of the world. Storms blow up unexpectedly and can cause devastating erosion.
Nehemiah and the workers finished the walls with incredible speed, but before they could build and hang the gates, Sanballat and Geshem again tried to stop them. They used threats, intimidation, and distraction, but Nehemiah saw through all their deceptions.
Geshem and his allies weren’t playing games. Storms are destructive. We may see hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis featured on The Weather Channel, but other kinds of storms — addiction, abuse, abandonment, poverty, depression, sex slavery, prostitution, loneliness, shame, and hopelessness — destroy individuals, families, and whole communities. For Nehemiah and for us, a half-completed wall isn’t enough protection. We need to finish the work, no matter what it takes.
I don’t know how many times Nehemiah got discouraged, but he continually looked to God for hope and strength. I don’t know how many lies swirled around him, but he trusted God with his reputation. The storms were fierce. God didn’t protect him from experiencing these tempests, but He gave Nehemiah and his men courage to weather the storms. Nehemiah closed his ears to gossip and criticism, and he opened his heart to God and to his calling to stand in the gap.
Sometimes we stand in the gap for a cause or a person for a short time, and then our role is over. More often, however, God wants us to keep standing in the gap for a long, long time. When Nehemiah finished rebuilding the city walls, he stayed in Jerusalem for 12 years. He knew opposition wouldn’t stop when they placed the final stone and hung the last gate. The temptation to compromise, the threats of division, and the storms of his adversaries would continue, so he stayed to protect the walls and care for the people. He wasn’t just a builder; he was a believer. With Ezra, Nehemiah worked hard to restore the city — physically and spiritually.
When Elizabeth and I wanted to build a home, some people advised us to move out to the suburbs and travel back to the city every day.
I said, “No, we’re going to live in the ’hood. We want to live with our people. We want to share their hopes and their fears.”
Of course, our community isn’t as safe as the suburbs. We’ve been robbed, and I’ve even received a death threat. I briefly feared we made the wrong choice. But then I remembered how important it is to live in the neighborhood we serve. Our people face threats of crime and violence every day. How can they know we understand them if we don’t live in their world? Like Nehemiah, Elizabeth and I want to live, lead, and do life together with the people God has entrusted to our care.
Let the love of Jesus move your heart. When that happens, you will see the wonder of His incredible grace, and your heart will break over the empty lives around you. Both wonder and sorrow are evidences of a person who finds the courage to identify a problem and dive in to solve it — a person who stands in the gap like Nehemiah.
1. Richard Langworth, ed., Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (Perseus Book Group: New York, 2008), 573.