A failure of leadership
Nehemiah 13: I was angry, really angry.
Having accomplished his mission of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and having had a unanimous agreement from the Jews there to live according to God’s Law, it’s time for Nehemiah to return to Babylon. He leaves things in the hands of those who are to keep things organized and on track. However, Nehemiah’s heart is now in Jerusalem, so he once again asks Artaxerxes for permission to return there. When he arrives he’s greeted with all kinds of bad news. One man has made a deal with one of the old enemies of the Jews, Tobiah, who he’s allowed to use the Temple storerooms. The worship leaders were left unpaid and have had to leave the Temple to earn a living. The civic leaders have forgotten the Sabbath and are allowing that day to be a time when business as usual is being conducted. And, the Jews are again intermarrying with the idol worshiping people of the area. Nehemiah is “really angry” about all this and immediately goes to work repairing all this damage. I can’t help but wonder where all those declaration signers are, or even more, where Ezra the priest of God is at this time. That’s a mystery the Bible doesn’t solve for us. However, the rest of it is pretty easy to understand. Nehemiah’s a strong leader and when he leaves it creates a void that no one steps in to fill. One of the dynamics of the human race is that people, even well-meaning people, need leaders who not only cast a vision and oversee the pursuit of that vision, but, even after the fact, provide a compass that keeps things moving in the right direction. This doesn’t excuse those civic and other leaders for their failure, in fact, they should have provided some of that “God-centered” energy themselves. Reading this story is a real life lesson in leadership. It also reminds me of the importance of my staying focused, even when the biggest part of the project has already been done.
Take Away: Even when the biggest part of the work is done there remains the danger of losing focus and giving up gains that have been made.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.
Can you keep it down over there?
Nehemiah 12: Jerusalem’s jubilation was heard far and wide.
It’s a lavish celebration of praise and worship. The erection of the wall of Jerusalem symbolizes the dawning of a new day for the people of Israel. No longer are they a scattered, defeated people. Now, they’re once again the assembled people of God. Their holy city is now a city again and their Temple is a prepared place of worship. Getting to this place hasn’t been easy. God’s grace has worked in their lives and called them out of distant lands to return to this Promised Land. The rebuilding of the Temple was a years-long effort. The rebuilding of the wall brought unexpected challenges in addition to great labor. Now it’s finished and it’s time for celebration. No doubt, there’s danger in celebrating when there’s still work to be done. However, there’s also danger in never taking time out for celebration. God is good to us. While it’s true that he calls us to work in his fields, he also invites us to rejoice with him when significant victories are won. As his people we’re a people of hope and joy. Even those who live in the settlements distant from Jerusalem hear the sound of jubilation. In the same way, those on the “outside” of our fellowship ought to know that we rejoice in the Lord who has done great things for us.
Take Away: We’re blessed and we ought to act like it.
Spiritually deciding things in practical ways
Nehemiah 11: The people drew lots to get one out of ten to move to Jerusalem.
When the Jews return to the vicinity of Jerusalem to rebuild the city and reestablish worship there they find a city in ruins. They also find small settlements of the descendants of the remnant of Jews who had been left behind a generation earlier. Many, apparently, opt to live in those settlements rather than in the rubble of Jerusalem. That makes good sense; after all, this is an agrarian society in need of open land for their livestock and for growing food. Now, though, the wall project is complete and worship has been reestablished in their holy city. I’m impressed that the leaders have already led the way back by making their homes in Jerusalem. Now, the decision is made to draw lots to decide who else will join them. It’s an interesting mixture of spiritual and practical decision making. As God’s people they want to have a real presence in this City of David. However, they’re practical about it too. Not everyone can immediately relocate to this broken city. Instead, one tenth of them will, and to be fair, it’s decided by drawing lots. To me, this all embodies the balance the Lord wants us to have in our lives. Some would have us live mystical lives in which God opens parking spaces at the mall for us and in which we just flip our Bibles open to a random passage to find “God’s will” for us in big decisions. Others want us to keep our feet planted firmly on planet earth. “If it’s to be it’s up to me” is their motto. They plan their lives and operate the Church as though they’re putting on a performance for God, who sits off at a distance being impressed by it all. In the middle is the balanced life. Living with an eye toward God, seeking his direction and relying on his strength while at the same time using the brains he gave us, applying our experiences, intelligence, and gifts to all we do. As I watch these Jews lining up to draw lots, I’m impressed by their desire to walk with God even if it means the inconvenience of moving to the destroyed city. I’m also impressed by their practical way of working through who will do what.
Take Away: The people of the Lord are to live between the extremes; both trusting God and, at the same time, using all the capability he has given us.
Nehemiah 10: We will not neglect The Temple of our God.
Part of the pledge that’s signed by the civil, religious, an family leaders (and then ratified by the people) is a commitment to pay attention to the support of the Temple. The “not neglecting” part isn’t about attendance at worship services. Instead, it concerns their physical support of their place of worship. While it’s clear that our meeting houses are a far cry from the Temple in everything from architecture to national significance to actual worship practices there’s still the “House of Worship” connection. The Temple is where they worship and our churches are where we worship. In fact, the issue at hand presents a pretty strong connection between Temple and church. The people of Nehemiah’s day pledge themselves to proper support of their Temple. They’ll see to it that every resource necessary for its operation is provided. Today, I thank God for those who support the church like that. Because of their faithfulness the energy of the church can focus on doing the ministry it’s called to do rather than on endless fundraising that the bills might be paid and the maintenance might be done.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for faithful supporters of his work.
Hard to pronounce names
Nehemiah 10: The sealed document bore these signatures.
The Book of God has been read and a song of invitation has been given. Now, the civil, religious, and family leaders line up to put their names on the dotted line. Once they finish, the people join in a binding oath to obey the Laws of God. It’s these signers who draw my attention today. I doubt they ever imagined that almost 2500 years later I’d be sitting here looking at their names: Mica, Bigvai, Hasshub; an entire page of names that mean only one thing to me: these are people who committed themselves to obey God. I don’t know what Adin or Beninu did for a living and I don’t know what became of their family tree. Hariph and Nebai might have built big businesses or designed impressive architecture but 2000+ years later that’s all lost to me. It’s their relationship to God that still resonates across the centuries. If the Lord tarries for 2500 more years I will, no doubt, be forgotten too and that’s okay. I’ll add my name to the only list that really matters and join these remembered people as a committed follower of the Lord.
Take Away: In the long run it’s your relationship to the Lord that matters the most.
Nehemiah 9: In your great compassion you heard and helped them again.
One result of the reading and study of God’s Word is a powerful reconnection by the returned exiles to their history. Nehemiah 9 is made up mostly of a song written to tell this story. In it, God’s grace and mercy is highlighted. The Lord is good to them, from Abram of Ur to the day when they occupied the Promised Land. However, there’s great spiritual failure as their ancestors reject God and his Law. There’s a lot of repentance in this song, but there’s also great hope. God is still their God and they rely on him to deliver them from their enemies and re-establish them in this place that was promised to Abraham so long ago. This song is not only a song of history but is a hymn of invitation as well. As it ends, the heads of the families are challenged to come forward to sign a binding pledge. From this moment forward they’ll be a faithful people of God. They’re sure of God’s grace, now they commit themselves to that grace. It’s a powerful moment. Without it, the story of Nehemiah is just about rebuilding a wall. With it, we have a story about God rebuilding a people.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his patient, merciful, transforming grace.
Nehemiah 8: This is a day holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!
Many of those listening to Ezra read and explain the Scripture this day left the land of their birth to return to this land of their ancestors. They left family and friends, security and comfort to go to an unsecured city that wasn’t a city at all; rather, it was a pile of rubble. They made the hazardous journey to Jerusalem and then braved real opposition as they labored to rebuild the wall and prepared to re-occupy the City of David. As this task is completed, a holy event is planned. Governor Nehemiah and Priest Ezra organize an event centered on the Word of the Lord. However, something unexpected happens as Ezra reads and explains the Scripture to them. These good people begin to weep and wail. The sense of celebration is replaced with a feeling of failure and fear. The leaders have to act quickly or this holy day will turn in to a day of mourning. Why is it that the people react as they do? I think it’s because they begin to grasp the enormity of their sins and that of their forefathers. Generations earlier, King Josiah responds in the same way when the Book of God is found in the Temple. As he hears it read he’s alarmed and responds in humble fear of God. There’s a place for this kind of response to God’s Word. In fact, I need to be fearful and heartbroken when I realize my sin. However, the story must never end here. The Word of God is not intended to condemn me. Instead, it’s to be for me a wonderful message of hope. I’ve failed God and should stand condemned but God is gracious and offers me hope. The bad news is that I’ve sinned against God. The good news is that he’s the God of Second Chances graciously offering me and you hope and restoration.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Please stand for the reading of God’s Word
Nehemiah 8: He read it…from early dawn until noon…and all the people listened.
With the Temple rebuilt and the walls providing security to the city a special gathering is scheduled. Ezra the priest stands on a specially constructed platform to read the Word of God. For three hours he reads as the people stand in honor of the Sacred Word. As Ezra reads, something powerful is happening in the lives of his listeners. In some church traditions time is set aside every service for the reading of and hearing of the Word. This isn’t the same as listening to a sermon, even if it’s well preached and faithful to the meaning of the passage being considered. This is hearing the Word simply as the Word and letting God minister his grace through it. There is, I believe, a place for the reading and hearing of Scripture in every church. We might have to shorten the singing a bit (or just lengthen the service) to make more room for Scripture. Most of us church folks claim to be “people of the Word.” Perhaps we should practice what we preach and give the reading of and listening to God’s Word a more prominent place in our services.
Take Away: The Word of the Lord is powerful – life changing – and we need to spend a significant amount of time letting it be drawn deeply into our lives.
Don’t fence me in
Nehemiah 7: The city was large and spacious with only a few people in it and the houses not yet rebuilt.
Security issues aren’t solved once the walls and gates of Jerusalem are rebuilt. The enemies of the returning Jews are still their enemies and the area is still partly untamed. Because of that Nehemiah has to create a national guard to oversee security within the walls of Jerusalem. Seeing the statement that this ancient Jerusalem “was large and spacious with only a few people in it” makes me think of the coming New Jerusalem. Leaving end days theology out of it, we still have a picture of a huge city, the city of God. This heavenly Jerusalem is even more spacious than the city Nehemiah defended. I pray that the population will not be only “a few people” but instead will be, to borrow from John the Revelator, “a vast number, more than anyone can count.”
Take Away: There’s enough room in the plans of the Lord for all of us.