God’s People, part 110: Nehemiah

Read Nehemiah 2:1-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“I was not in Jerusalem at that time, for I had returned to King Artaxerxes of Babylon in the thirty-second year of his reign, though I later asked his permission to return.” (Nehemiah 13:6 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

img_1170Part 110: Nehemiah. Sitting beside me I have a book by Joseph W. Daniels Jr. entitled, Walking with Nehemiah. In it, the author focuses on the different stages in Nehemiah’s work as governor. The author walks us through Nehemiah’s leadership style and the success that was a result of his ability to hold onto the vision. For those who are not familiar with the story of Nehemiah, he was a cup-bearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes. Upon hearing how the walls of Jerusalem were crumbling and the city was disarray, he petitioned the king to allow him to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls.

Indeed, the king not only gave him permission, but sent him back to Jerusalem as governor with the charge to see this project through. Thus, Nehemah arrived back in Jerusalem with the full blessing of the Persian King to rebuild the walls and refortify Jerusalem. Still, such a blessing did not go unopposed by those who did not want to see such a project happen. The same bad actors who opposed Zechariah and Zerubbabel in the rebuilding of the Temple. As has been discussed in past deovtions, the Samaritans (aka “the people of the land”) were among those who had wanted envovlement in the rebuilding of the temple and, when they weren’t given what they wanted, had undermined and stalled the rebuilding efforts.

These same opponents also tried to undermine Nehemiah in his quest to fortify and rebuild Jerusalem. Anticipating this, Nehemiah ignored them. Instead of wasting his efforts on those whe would never outmaneuver, Nehemiah focused his efforts on building up grassroots support for the rebuilding campaign. Once he did that, there was no stopping him from accomplishing it and the city was refortified.

Years following the success of the campaign, Nehemiah stepped down from his governorship and returned back to Persia. During that time away from Jerusalem, God’s people fell back into sin, and were turning away from the reforms that had led them back to being a people of God. Thus, Nehemiah returned once again to straighten things up and set God’s people back on the path to righteousness.

Nehemiah’s push for Jewish purity, which included the exclusion of intermingling with non-Jewish people (in marriage, in business, and certainly religiously), may seem odd to those of us in the 21st century who embrace diversity and multiculturalism; however, the reality is that the Jews were fighting to remain God’s people, distinct from the rest of the world. It was not about the “race” or “ethnicity” of non-Jewish people; rather, it was about the gods they worshiped and would, ultimately, invite the Jews to worship as well.

For us, there are two things we can pull from Nehemiah and the people he led. First, in terms of Nehemiah, the work of God’s people is NEVER, EVER, finished. Nehemiah went back to Susa thinking his job was done, only to have to return and continue the work on. Second, the push toward purity in order to avoid sin can lead us back into sin. Nehemiah’s push to keep the Jews within Jerusalem separate from non-Jews, eventually went on to counter God’s ultimate plan for the Jews to be a witness to the nations of the one true God. In Nehemiah’s circumstances, separation was needed as people were purchasing all sorts of items (idols included, no doubt) and they were doing so on the Sabbath, the day that Jews were supposed to rest and worship God.

Thus, the push for a return to purity was needed; however, out of this push for purity, a couple of centuries later, rose a group of Jews known as the Pharisees. This group’s very name means “separate” and they called on Jews to adhere strictly to the Torah in order to not further provoke God’s wrath. It is this group that would later go on to be challenged by Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, whose teachings reminded people of their call to be witnesses fo God to the nations. The confrontation between Jesus, the Pharisees, and other religious leaders would lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate catalyst in God’s redemption plan.

Let us be challenged by this. With the world becoming more divided, with our leaders and culture pushing toward more isolation and separation, we are called to be witnesses of God’s redemption plan. With countries flexing their political muscles to show superiority, we are called to witness to the radical equality we share with all humanity. Let us be challegned to never see our job as witnesses as being over. The job will never be over until that day when all humans join hand-in-hand as brothers and sisters in the divine family of our Lord Jesus Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die.” —Ted Kennedy

PRAYER

Lord, let me never lose sight of my role as a witness to your love and your kingdom. Amen.

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