Nehemiah, chapters 1–13

This week is the conclusion of our three-week survey of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, recounting the third return of the Israelites exiles under the leadership of Nehemiah. After the first two weeks, we are primed not to be fooled by the high expectations set at the beginning of the story.

Nehemiah, chs. 1–13

Once again, the story starts by the declaration of a Persian king encouraging the return of Israelites to the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah led this third return in 445 B.C., about 13 years after the second group led by Ezra. Nehemiah’s project as governor of the city is to rebuild its walls, but he faced similar opposition to what Zerubbabel had faced almost 100 years earlier when he rebuilt the temple. And Nehemiah responded the same way Zerubbabel had responded, saying, “You have no part in Jerusalem.”

And once again, that’s a disappointing response. Nehemiah certainly had in his hand the recent prophecies of Zechariah, who said that the new Jerusalem of God’s kingdom would be a city without walls for the people of all nations, surrounded by God’s protecting presence (Zechariah 2:4-5). Nehemiah seemed to be operating with the opposite vision. He posted armed guards and did successfully rebuild the walls, but we’re left wondering if the conflict could have been handled differently.

Ezra, the expert in the law, was still in town, and he worked with Nehemiah to start a spiritual renewal among the people. They gathered all the people for a great festival, where they read and taught God’s Word to the people for seven days. They celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the feasts God commanded in the Old Testament to remind them of God’s faithfulness in the Exodus story from 1,000 years earlier. It all ended with the peoples’ vow to renew their covenant with God and to follow all the commands of the Torah. And then they had a great dedication celebration for the completed walls.

And again, that’s a great start, but the downer ending is coming. Nehemiah went back to Persia on a business trip for a few years, and when he came back to Jerusalem he found that the whole spiritual renewal had fallen apart. The author had mentioned five specific promises the people made, and then goes down the list telling that each was broken. Nehemiah responded violently, throwing people and things out of the temple storerooms, beating people and pulling out their hair, and yelling that they have to obey the commands of the Torah. The last sentence of the book is his prayer, asking that God remember him with favor, at least he tried…

Many books on Amazon try to draw lessons for leadership from Nehemiah, but I’m guessing that last bit never makes it into those books. The Holy Spirit is not offering the book of Nehemiah to us as a model for successful leadership. Rather, his experience is telling the truth about the human condition. It’s a realistic story about religious leaders who are unable to realize their dreams because of the impossible paradox of the human condition. The stories in Ezra-Nehemiah don’t mean that God isn’t faithful or good for not fulfilling his promises at that point in history. They show that we’re flawed human beings.

The story of Nehemiah paves the way for the story about the one human being without flaw, Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Way and the Gate into God’s kingdom. Nehemiah prayed to be remembered on the basis of his works. But the criminal on the cross next to Jesus prayed to be remembered on the basis of Christ’s work. And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”