Learning From Nehemiah

I appreciated Jeff’s recent sermons on Nehemiah. It stimulated my interest in what I have learned from Nehemiah. There is a clay cylinder in the British Museum that contains the royal edict of Cyrus, King of Persia, indicating his humane policy extended to all exiles in his empire. Unlike his predecessors, including the Babylonians whom he had conquered in 539 B.C., Cyrus chose to leave his captive peoples in their own land, and to restore displaced minorities to their own land.

This of course included the Jews who had been in Babylon since 587 B.C., once Nebuchadnezzar had sacked Jerusalem and brought them to Babylon as captives. In 537 B.C. Cyrus issued an edict to the effect that the Jews could return to their homeland, and he even financed the migration and provided security for the journey.

Cyrus’ edict is recorded both in 2 Chronicles 36:23 and Ezra 1:2. Both accounts say that this was to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah (29:10) that after seventy years of captivity the Lord would return them to their homeland. The seventy years can be taken as a round number if the captivity is dated from 587 B.C., making only fifty years since the return was in 537 B.C. This is the way it is usually understood since that is when the Temple and the city were destroyed, and the time of the major deportation. But the seventy years can be made literal by dating its beginning in the reign of Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.) when Nebuchadnezzar first invaded Judah and made it subject to Babylon (2 Chronicles 24:1).

Second Isaiah – modern scholarship is virtually unanimous that this was a prophet who was with the exiles in captivity – taught the captives that it was God who raised up the Persian king to be their deliverer, referring to him as, “Cyrus, my shepherd.” He goes on to say, “He will perform my entire will, saying to Jerusalem, ‘You will be rebuilt,’ and to the Temple, ‘You will be refounded’” (Isaiah 44:28).

The prophet even says that Cyrus is “the Lord’s anointed” (messiah) and that the Lord loves him (Isaiah 48:4; 45:1). He also says the Lord called Cyrus by name, and that he was using the king without him even knowing it (45:6). He also encouraged the people to prepare for their deliverance, that “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on eagles wings” and be borne to their homeland (Isaiah 40:31).

But Nehemiah was not among the returnees in 537 B.C. He was not even born then! We are to remember that some Jews did not return at the time of Cyrus’ edict. Several generations of Jews were yet to live and die in Babylon and finally Persia. While exact dates are hard to come by it appears certain that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in 445 B.C., so he must have been born around 480 B.C., son of Hacaliah, who himself would have been born in Babylonian captivity (Nehemiah 1:1). At the urging of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the Temple had finally been finished in 515 B.C., after some two decades of delay. But another seventy years passed and the walls of Jerusalem still lay in ruins. This was to be Nehemiah’s task, to rebuild the walls. Hence Jeff’s sermons’ theme.

Walls around a major ancient city was part of its essence. It was not only for security but it defined its character. A city with its walls in ruins was less than a city. This is what grieved Nehemiah when fellow Jews came from Judah to Susa, the Persian capital where Nehemiah was serving in the king’s court as cupbearer and keeper of his wine cellar, and informed him that the Jews in Jerusalem were in dire circumstance, the walls were in ruins and its gates burned.

This is our first lesson from Nehemiah. He loved his heritage as a Jew, and while he had never seen Jerusalem, it’s Temple, or its walls, he had heard of their former glory from his parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. He could join those who mourned the city of their ancestors in Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Nehemiah was willing to leave the comforts of his royal position and go to the troubled city of his ancestors – the city of David and the city of God – and risk his life in the hope of making things better. We have a glorious heritage in the Stone-Campbell Movement, born of a passion to unite all believers in Christ. Like Nehemiah I grieve over our failures to be all should be, but also like Nehemiah I’m not leaving. I’m staying to the end to help rebuild our ruined walls.

We also learn from Nehemiah’s perspicuity. Once the king, now Artaxerxes, saw his cupbearer uncharacteristically downhearted and inquired as to what ailed him. Nehemiah said to him, “Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my father’s tombs lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire.” Like others of us, the king was touched by Nehemiah’s love for his heritage. This led to the king granting his aide a leave of absence to go to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls, along with papers of authority and access to the king’s forests for the lumber needed for his task.

The king asked him how long he would be gone. Nehemiah told him, but it is not revealed to the reader. We can infer from Nehemiah 13:6 that he was gone at least twelve years. At that time he returned to Persia to report to the king, and after an undisclosed time returned to his mission in Jerusalem. His wisdom is especially evident in the way he began his dangerous work once in Jerusalem. He told no one what he was up to, not even the Jewish officials and nobles who ruled over the city. With but a few men and no animals except the one on which he rode, he went out after dark to case the extent of the ruins and get some measure of the task before him. He told no one of his clandestine reconnaissance.

Once he had done his homework, he called together the leaders of the city and told them how both the king and their God had commissioned him for his mission, and he detailed to them the magnitude of the task. He then gave us one of the great verses of the Bible, “Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach” (Nehemiah 2:17).

So this humble, versatile reformer also teaches us principles of leadership. First, he knew what he was talking about and he was transparent about the facts. And he didn’t say, “Now this is what you are to do,” but rather “Let us build a wall.” That kind of leadership garnered results. The people responded, “Let us rise up and build” and it goes on to say, “Then they set their hands to this good work.”

As Jeff noted there are other lessons in this thrilling story. Unlike many of us in today’s church who fuss and feud among ourselves, Nehemiah knew who the enemy was. The Samaritans, who feared a renewed Judaism, had been an obstacle to the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the city. They were determined to prevent the building of the walls. They first ridiculed the project and laughed at the effort, “What are these feeble Jews doing” (4:2)? But Nehemiah was unperturbed, turning the ridicule over to God. The work continued and the walls were now half done, for “the people had a mind to work” (4:6).

Nehemiah’s versatility served to make him a military general once the need arose. When the Samaritans turned to violence in an effort to impede the work on the wall, he armed the workers with swords and spears. They worked in shifts, with half of them serving as guards and the other half working on the wall. And the workers on the wall had swords strapped to their side (4:10-11).

The Samaritans had to withdraw their military effort, but they persisted in being a problem, now using trickery and intrigue to distract Nehemiah, inviting him to private conferences. He resisted such ploys by sending word that he was warned of an assassination attempt and that he should take refuge in the Temple, he did not budge. The work went on, and the wall was finished in two months (6:1-11).

With the wall finished and the city better secured, Nehemiah, as governor, could attend to administrative matters. He helped the people in a financial crisis by forfeiting his own salary as governor. He put a stop to usury and slavery (5:1-19). He prepared a register of the exiles from Babylon (7:6-73). He worked side by side with Ezra the scribe in the task of giving Judaism a new birth after generations of captivity. Nothing advanced this cause as much as Ezra’s reading of the Torah in public convocation. The Temple was now rebuilt and its sacrifices restored, the walls stood as a sentinel around Jerusalem, and the city was revived. But without the Law there was no Judaism. With the Law now re-instituted Judaism had a new birth, and they could once again be a holy nation, the people of God. The work of Nehemiah and Ezra was now practically finished (8:1-6).

But devotion to Torah had its price. It gave birth to the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom our Lord had to confront due to their debilitating legalism. An apartheid society was created, with Israel becoming radically exclusive, and a self-righteousness that made them scored by other nations. While Nehemiah was not as radical as Ezra, who was willing to break up families for the sake of racial purity, they both promoted apartheid and separatism. In modern parlance they were rigid racists. But such exclusivism may have been necessary at the time to preserve God’s chosen people for the future he had planned for them.

That makes the books of Ruth and Jonah, which emerged about this time, all the more significant with their more inclusive emphasis. One of them even finds an outsider, a despised Moabite, part of the Davidic dynasty, and within the genealogy of the Messiah!