I recently finished teaching through the book of Nehemiah in our Wednesday night service. I have preached through the book before, but this time was an opportunity to slow down a bit more. When I taught through it before, I was serving as an interim pastor for a church plant. My focus during that time was emphasizing the relevancy of the narrative of Nehemiah to the work of starting a church within a community. This time I taught it to a group of people who faithfully attend our Wednesday night prayer service. That changed the focus from starting a church to being the church in a community. Setting aside the obvious practical applications of this book (leadership, importance of prayer, trusting in God’s provision and protection, and so on), I was struck by the connections in this book with Christ and it being some of the last narrative in the OT before the time of Christ. The whole narrative builds to this crescendo, only to have everything unravel in the last chapter.
At the beginning of the book, Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes in the Persian kingdom (1:11). He was aptly placed to facilitate the return to restore Jerusalem, because he was in a place of trust with the king. The king, who had no reason to, allowed Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem. It seems that the Persian kingdom financed Nehemiah’s excursion as well as materials to rebuild the wall (2:7-8). Nehemiah’s plan is accepted and blessed by the locals (2:18). However, just as soon as progress was made, enemies arose (2:19). Everyone joins in the work to rebuild the wall. People from far and near across socioeconomic lines took part in the work (3). Overt and covert opposition continues and threatens the completion of the work, however, God thwarts the plans of the opposition (4,6). Aside from external opposition, internal issues arise that are founded in the people’s disobedience to God’s law (5).
The wall is completed and it leads to a number of ways that the people collectively respond. They begin to look within their ranks to see who is among them by taking a census (7). Ezra, the priest, reads the law to the people as they gather. They respond to the reading of the law by celebrating the Feast of Booths (8). The people then respond with confession and repentance (9). They reconfirm the covenant in some specific ways in which they have lets things slip (10). The leaders then take to the business of distributing people throughout the city to continue to rebuild and reestablish normal life (11). A large worship service is facilitated to dedicate the wall (12). Nehemiah goes back to the king for a time, perhaps about a year, and in that time things fall apart in Jerusalem. He returns to find the people going back to old practices and breaking the covenant that they had just signed and confirmed. One of the key men that were in opposition to the rebuilding of the wall exploited his connection to a priest and had his residence set up in a storeroom that was for tithes and offerings (13:4-5). The people had specifically disobeyed the three key areas that they spelled out in the written confirmation of the covenant (13:10-31).
It is hard to not feel frustrated and disappointed when finishing the book of Nehemiah. It leaves the reader thinking, “Look at all God has done for you, and still you can’t get yourselves together?” The text seems to respond with a resounding, “No!” God had engineered things to degree that he had Nehemiah in a position of trust and prominence with the kingdom under whom his people were exiled. The Persian king basically financed an expedition to help some of his subjects rebuild a city that could later lead to an uprising. Some indigenous people were not happy about what the Jews were doing rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Yet, it was God that they were ultimately opposing, which meant they could not succeed. The wall was rebuilt despite internal and external opposition and the sins of the people. God allows his people to once again hear his law and respond in praise, confession, repentance, and a newly found commitment. God’s man leaves for a short time, and all of that falls apart. Even in Nehemiah’s return to put an end to the disobedience that had arisen, one does not finish the book feeling hopeful for the people.
Clearly something more was needed to bring the people to obedience and keep them there. Like the Israelites that were delivered in the Exodus, God’s wonderful works of deliverance were not enough to keep them in obedience and neither was the giving/reading of the Law. God had given his people the command to be obedient and he had given them examples of obedience, but the command and the examples were not enough to keep them in obedience. The people needed power to keep them; power that would align them with the examples and commands that God had given.
Nehemiah returned to his people to call them back to repentance and obedience as a type of Christ. Christ came to his people in the midst of their disobedience and he called them back to obedience by telling them the truth about themselves (their sin) and telling them the truth about himself (the Gospel). Nehemiah is a shadow of Christ. However, he comes back only with the power to call them back to the promises that they had made through the confirmation of the covenant. He is fallible and susceptible to the same failings as the people, otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked God to spare him in the midst of his rebuke of the people (13:22). It is only Christ that can come to his people and provide them with the power to keep them in obedience. It is also only Christ, that can atone for all the disobedience that had mounted up on the part of his people. If the book of Nehemiah ended on a high note full of hope and promise, there would be no need for Matthew chapter 1 and all that follows it. Nehemiah 13 leaves us hoping for the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” (Matthew 1:1, ESV).
We are bombarded with stories that celebrate the human spirit; stories that tells us about triumph and the overcoming of obstacles. These triumphs are always worked out on the backs of people in the midst of difficult circumstances. The Bible tells us a different story. Even Nehemiah, who was a righteous man from our estimation, was not able to bring about triumph and the overcoming of all obstacles. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, leaves us with a longing, an unfinished sentence, and that longing is satisfied and that sentence is completed in Christ. We are meant to finish Nehemiah with a bit of a groan that leads us to look for something more. Thanks be to God that, that looking ends with Christ! The search is over for the One who can bring true and lasting deliverance.