A fabulous example of holy leadership as Nehemiah goes from cupbearer to the King to governor of Jerusalem in charge of rebuilding the wall. A golden time of community achievement and celebration.
He is idealistic, he is practical, he mucks in, he is fair. Great role model for leadership.
But at the end of it all, the people have not changed, and the sealed off racially separate ideal does not match the prophets’ promise of a new Jerusalem where all nations gather, where the lamb/servant king takes away the sins of the world. The people don’t return on a highway with crocuses blooming in the desert, its anti-climactic.
I learn much about the focus and practicality of good leadership, but there is something off, out of kilter. We know now of course that the last stories of the old testament are not the end of the biblical story… but so did they, prophetically, when they wrote them. You could not imagine a better leader than Nehemiah, or a people with more good will. Yet they could not create the kingdom of God for more than a year or so. There has to be a better way…
Man with a mission
1 Nehemiah is cupbearer to the King, but hearing of the return of some Jews to a broken Jerusalem, he knows it is his fate to do something, and he fasts and prays
2 Stepping into a politically charged climate, quietly inspecting the state of the walls, he is a model leader, driven by idealism and mission, yet canny as a fox.
Building the wall, great leader, great task
3 Recording who built what of the wall, a great communal task, a shared labour of love of God
4 Under threat of attack from those who oppose the wall, Nehemiah is a model of encouragement and good sense. Doesn’t so much as change clothes til its done.
5 Made Governor of Jerusalem, Nehemiah is an admirable example, sharing the benefits of his position generously, and shaming the greedy.
6 Nehemiah has various untrustworthy voices, but gets focus by listening to God first.
Celebration time, rediscovering identity
7 Wall finished, people rejoice. A simple, unesoteric concrete task well done. The poetry and the prophets follow this section, confusing everything with messianic talk…
8 Reading of the law leads to a spontaneous festival, and a rediscovery of identity. My identity is in the word of God.
9 Celebrations continue with confession and remembering history
10 Promise to follow the law, incl. racial purity, year of Jubilee and tithing. The chosen people thing is undercut by the prophets who spoke of all nations and a new Jerusalem.
11 List of residents of Jerusalem 2.0
12 Arrangements for supporting holy workers, including villiages of musicians. The dedication ceremony for the wall involved 2 choirs at opposite ends marching to meet in the middle – pure theatre!
It doesn’t last…
13 Negative note to end, when life settles down, all the corrupt practices return, the law is not followed. Distraught, Nehemiah can only say to God “I did my best”. Begging the rest of the biblical story…
The freeze frame blurs. Nehemiah goes away for a while and then returns to find things have fallen apart. Everything has reverted along the lines of pragmatic greed, treating the worship of the unseen deity as redundant.
The tithing system that supported full time temple workers failed, so they were back in the fields. Commerce did not cease for the Sabbath. People intermarried with non Israelites, children lost the culture. Time, money and romance: the battlegrounds of distraction from God.
This note of failure to end, this imperfection, I’ve been looking for it. You will never get a better christian leader than Nehemiah. He had a great task that inspired the people, but in the end the people reverted to type.
He uses his authority and leadership to fix the problems he finds. His refrain:
- “Remember me for this, my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services”
- Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.
- “Remember me with favour, my God.”
Effectively “I did my best, I did the right thing”. He knows he can only account to God for his own behaviour, he can’t save the world.
So the book that has been relentlessly positive and about the God’s people returning to him with deep joy and obedience ends with the search for lasting salvation still active. And the reputation of the OT of raising more questions than it answers is in tact. Christ is the answer.
Another list chapter largely. 11 and 12 are examples of practical ministry. Everyone is involved, all part of the team. We get the full time religious workers here, and the tin tacks of how they will be supported.
Interestingly the musicians are very important. They are recalled from surrounding lands to Jerusalem and build themselves villages (must have been the cool part of town).
The theatre of the wall dedication involved two huge choirs, starting standing on opposite parts of the wall and moving to meet at the house of God. That must have been something.
Everyone is mucking in and doing their bit. God is at the centre of the culture and everyone’s core life. It’s actually a gripping picture of Christian community.
I’m going to make a new tag for great list chapters of the bible. This is certainly one of them. It’s a very special honor to be one of the inaugural residents of Jerusalem 2.0. The honor roll is this chapter.
The people, priests, leaders, make a promise to follow the law. High in the list is racial purity, they won’t let their children marry outside the race. Also tything and the year of jubilee, cancellation of debt every 7 years.
Turning over a new leaf, new year’s resolutions. In middle age is tempting to be cynical about the prospect of change, because you have done it and failed so often by then.
I’m fairly deep in cynicism this week because I am facing up to disappointment in the direction the new minister is taking our church, and our domestic arrangements feel stuck on the tread mill.
There are lots of things we need to change but reasons why so many cannot. Frustration everywhere. And the daily grind turns unyieldingly on.
Nehemiah is a depressing book if you are feeling like that because you know it doesn’t work. They don’t keep the law, Jerusalem falls again.
But what they are doing is pleasing to God. I’m working on a song based on Psalm 24, which talks at one stage about the high standards required for meeting God: clean hands, pure heart, no idols. But then it switches and says God blesses those who seek him.
That’s what the Israelites are doing here, seeking God. Responding. That makes it about the moments, the journey, not the destination. Seek.
The celebrations of the return to Jerusalem of exiles continues with a vast confession prayer. Part of it is remembering god’s goodness, and many significant moments in Israel’s history are recited. Then the related failure of the people to obey God, and his constant mercy.
They are aware that God has blessed them even in exile, and are clear that they are to blame for it by ignoring and killing the prophets. They do bring the fact that the city is still under foreign rule to him, and set the stage for a deal, a promise that will be made in chapter 10.
The history of Israel is one of God’s mercy and their failure.
I am feeling depressed at the moment, a bit stuck on the treadmill, sad about church because I am disappointed with our minister at the moment. Not really connecting with this right now, but I shall carry on in faith and pray for mercy.
The celebration of the finishing of the wall creates various overwhelming emotions in the people. They are rediscovering their identity, having been away from Jerusalem and Jewish culture.
They start to weep as the law is read by Ezra the priest. Other priests are on hand to explain it. I like that detail, its no meaningless ritual. It’s like the spiritual version is an adopted child meeting their birth parents, they are overwhelmed.
They need to be reminded that it’s a celebration, a festival. That unleashes 7 days of joy. They pick up on a tradition of sleeping in makeshift houses, and all do that.
Every day more of the law is read, it’s a major love affair with their identity as god’s chosen people, with the word of God.
This is a timely word for me. I wax and wane on my personal devotion to reading the word here. It’s a good reminder to treasure it. It is my identity, loved by God, given his word.
It’s a freeze frame, a snapshot in the family photo album. Everyone is listed by tribe, who was there in Jerusalem at the completion of the walls, when Jerusalem is again God’s city, for the Jews with its own identity defined by walls to keep it strong.
It sets the scene for 8 where Ezra will read the law, an act of rededication.
Problem is that life goes on. There is precious little in the wonderful task-oriented focus and clarity of Nehemiah (so far at least) to talk about the eventual fall of the physical Jerusalem, once again, and the future destruction of the temple.
Let alone the glorious doctrine of the temple of God being each believers body, or the eternal new Jerusalem, built by the blood of the lamb who is god made flesh and populated by people of all nations.
The last book I read was Daniel. It was shot through with all that. He was always in a state of deep disturbance about his apocalyptic visions. He experienced the saving power dramatically and concretely, but it came with visions that said all the here and now is ultimately to be overwritten by much larger plans of God, part if which will involve hardship.
Still for the people who were there on the auspicious day of the completion of the wall, they got the joy of knowing they had done god’s will, completed his unambiguous mission here on earth. It happens sometimes, and it is to be enjoyed.
I keep returning to the word “focus” when reading Nehemiah. This chapter is about opposition, and it’s all psychological: intimidation and lies to try and break N’s confidence. The things that opposers suggest appear logical: come and meet with the neighboring countries and discuss your plans, hide in the temple because your life is in danger.
N is wary of the motives of others, fully aware of their interests and connections. But above all his mission is between him and God, and that gives him supreme confidence and focus.
His default position is to reject others taking control of what his mission means or his next step. He cannot be spooked by fear for his own safety or his political survival. He trusts that God wants him to do what he sent him to do, and won’t be distracted. Safety and politics will fall into place.
Focus, from listening to God first.
Reeling as we are at the moment with revelations about the betrayal of children by religious leaders, and the ascendency of a brutish egomaniac like Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget what truly inspiring leadership looks like. Unless you read Nehemiah 5. He sets the example. When he eventually made governor, he shares the perks of office liberally with the poor. He shames the business operators who are trying to profit from their community in a way that weakens it. They have nothing to say, they fall into line. And it is all inspired by his personal love of God. Looking at cultivating a sense of mission in life, this is most inspiring.