Introduction to Nehemiah 1:1- 2:8
There is a whole book in our Old Testament called Nehemiah and it tells the story of his mission to rebuild the wall around the city of Jerusalem. It’s a bit of a strange story to have in the Bible so let me fill in some background.
The book of Nehemiah is closely linked with the book of Ezra and probably originally they were one book. We’ll hear about Ezra in a minute. For those of you who like dates we are talking about 450BCE. The land of Israel has been occupied for over 100 years. First it was the Babylonians who ransacked Jerusalem in 586BCE, destroyed the great Temple, and carted off many of the leaders and others as slaves in Babylon in what is known as the Exile. It was a crushing defeat of a proud people and it caused much soul searching. How could their God let this happen?
The hard answer proclaimed by the prophets in the Old Testament was that the people had abandoned God. They no longer kept the laws, and the worship of God had become a meaningless ritual. Great disparities of wealth and a lack of respect for neighbour and life ensued. Dishonesty, greed, and self seeking prevailed, and Israel lost its distinctiveness as a nation. The defeat by the Babylonians was God’s judgment said the prophets. The people had been unfaithful and this was the consequence. But the Babylonians didn’t last either. The great Persian King Cyrus had conquered his own grandfathers Median Empire (modern day Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan) and had moved north and west and conquered what we call Turkey. Finally he moved south and conquered the Babylonian Empire.
What was astonishing is that everywhere he conquered he brought a firm humane rule that respected those conquered. He created new rules and a term which lasts into our own time – the laws of the Medes and Persians – laws which stand the test of time. The defeat of the city of Babylon was a staggering event. Cyrus diverted the river Euphrates which ran though the city and marched in on the dry riverbed with the city walls intact. There was little killing, no marching off of captives, no demolition of the religious symbols as the Babylonians themselves would have. Cyrus was an emperor who thought in terms of commonwealth with everyone benefiting from peaceful trade and shared knowledge. The vanquished were treated humanely rather than as slaves. Cyrus looked at all the various people in Babylon, captives from many lands that the Babylonians had brought there and said, “if you want you can go back home. I’ll even provide assistance to help you.”
The Jewish population were not sure. They had been there 50 years and some had prospered as Jews often do. What had changed though was that they had drawn closer to their God. The hard times had caused them to turn back to God and their soul searching had led to a re-valuing of their faith. God hadn’t abandoned them as they thought, but they had abandoned God.
A new dream began to emerge and that was God’s Holy Temple must be rebuilt in David’s city, in Jerusalem. So a contingent of exiles was formed with a mission to rebuild the Temple. Cyrus was generous. He gave the Jews all the vast treasure of gold and silver that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple when the Babylonians had destroyed it. You can read about their mission under the leader Zerubbabel in the opening six chapters of Ezra. You’ll also read there that there was a rift between the returning exiles and those who had remained in Jerusalem. The locals had intermarried with others and the exiles saw them as being second rate Jews who had acquiesced to the values and customs of the foreigners and others who lived around Jerusalem. They were seen to be like chameleon lizards who adapt in appearance to whatever environment they are in. When these locals offered to help rebuild the Temple they were rejected. It all caused strife and delayed things somewhat and the rebuild appears to have run out of steam. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah weighed in with support to get the job completed. Cyrus dies but his successor was also a man of tolerance…Darius. You may remember he learnt something about the Jewish God when he consigned Daniel to the lions. It was under Darius that the Temple was finally finished and it seemed a new age had dawned. There were wonderful celebrations, but in reality the completion of the Temple wasn’t a magic bullet for the struggling Jewish community. There is a lesson for us….our mission to repair a fine building is not the missions.
The next chapter of the story belongs to Ezra the priest. Ezra was a rather pious man who would be labelled a religious fanatic in our time. He lived in Babylon about 50 years after the Temple was complete. There was by then a new king Artaxerxes. Ezra could see that the distinctive Jewish way of life was in danger of being lost back in Jerusalem and while there had been a turning back to God with the building project it hadn’t lasted. The people of God there had no cutting edge, no distinctiveness. They were Jews in name only, they had a chameleon religion.
He nagged Artaxerxes with a message…”there are a number of good Jews living in Babylon who would like to return to the land of their ancestors.” Eventually the King said go and Ezra went with about 1700 others and sort things out in the homeland. Ezra wasn’t pleased with all the backsliding he found back in Jerusalem and set about teaching the locals about the laws of Moses. Ezra was particularly keen to re-establish the Sabbath, to impose a tax to pay for the proper running of the Temple, and to stop intermarriage with Canaanites and other races. At the core of his mission was a desire to establish Jewish identity that had been watered down with all the mixing of religion that had been going on. He even went as far as annulling all the mixed marriages from the past and wanted to send the women and children involved off out of Israel. In the book of Ezra you can even read a long list of the marriages that were dissolved! As you can imagine there was opposition and poor old Ezra ended up minus quite a bit of hair which he pulled out in frustration. Restoring the soul of the people wasn’t as easy as just passing laws to protect purity, and ranting and raving about how bad they all were.
Reading…Nehemiah 1:1 – 2:8
Enter Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a cup bearer of King Artaxerxes Cup bearers sound a strange profession but they were very trusted individuals in charge of what the King drank. Not only did they have to be a good chooser of wines, but they had to ensure no-one poisoned the wine because that was a common way of getting rid of kings. Nehemiah was a confidant of the King. Nehemiah was also concerned about Jewish identity and the need to re-establish a new sense of Jewish distinctiveness. The Temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem the spiritual home of the people but Jerusalem was a city in ruins without a city wall. Nehemiah heard God’s saying that he needed to go back and rebuild the wall. King Artaxerxes liked his cup bearer very much and could see he was not sick in the physical sense but that he was suffering from a sadness of the heart. “As long as you come back you can go”, he said, and even provided an armed escort and a promise to provide all the timber necessary for the job.
When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he could see there was much to be done but also he was going to find opposition in the form the local governor who didn’t appreciate Nehemiah arriving on the scene with his connections with Artaxerxes. The surrounding inhabitants of the land also didn’t want a strong Jerusalem, so Nehemiah took control of the city. He seems to have been a great organiser of people and got the locals with money organised to each take a section of wall to repair. No more just looking after your own interests, but Nehemiah talked about the common good. “We can work together to do something we could never manage by ourselves.” I guess today we might say Nehemiah was a great team builder. There was opposition but Nehemiah was determined. It started with jeering, but developed into armed clashes, so Nehemiah organised armed guards and a system to signal to everyone when trouble was brewing. The work will continue said Nehemiah but every builder and labourer will be protected. In one hand a tool and in the other a weapon. If you go to Israel today you’ll see nothing has changed.
The people, reassured, protected, and with a will that believed God wanted the work done had the task completed in 52 days. There was a great ceremony and Ezra the priest read the Torah to all the thousands of Israelites gathered in the Temple precincts. Many gathered had never read or heard the law being read before so Nehemiah and the Levites moved amongst the people to explain what was read. There was great consternation among the people as they heard the teaching and saw they had failed to keep these laws. But Ezra and the other leaders also affirmed the people with the message, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” In a great revival the people re-covenanted with God to keep the laws, to keep the Sabbath, and to tithe their income to support the upkeep of the Temple.
But the story ends on a downer. Nehemiah eventually heads back to Babylon and sometime later comes back to Jerusalem to see how things are going. He tours the city and finds the Temple staff and leaders are not keeping the tenets of the Torah. The priests are not being paid because people have stopped tithing. Out on the streets the Sabbath is not being kept, and the corruption the reformers had fought to erase is back. The transformation Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah all longed for had only partially taken root. Nehemiah’s story ends with an angry man going on a rampage telling the people to keep the Torah and saying to himself and to God, “at least I tried!”
What do we make of it all. Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, all diagnosed an issue with their religious community. That issue was that their religion has lost its saltiness. The laws which brought life were forgotten. It had lost its cutting edge. The people of Jerusalem had become chameleon Jews who fitted uncritically into the patterns of the world around them. Seeking wealth, possessions, and comfort. God was no longer a living presence but a distant and dead reality. Later religious leaders would recognise that building temples or walls doesn’t change hearts. Stories like Ruth and Jonah were needed to remind people that God is much bigger than one select group. I’m surprised that our dear friend Donald hasn’t championed Nehemiah the wall builder, but I want to champion the idea that God can be found in all people, and in all places and fine buildings and fences and walls aren’t particularly fancied by God.
If Nehemiah were around today I would suggest that instead of rebuilding walls he would rebuild spiritual practices. Instead of putting stones on top of one another to build a wall we need to build spiritual practices into our lives that nurture the Way of Jesus within our lives. We need to build lives that are not built on the foundation of consumerism and acquiring more, but on building a relationship with God and participating in the mission of Jesus to discover life in all its fullness. Keeping the Sabbath as a day to re-orientate in God, building and participating in a community of faith, finding prayer practices that work for you, asking more often what is God saying to me, making space to reflect and listen to the inner places, nurturing spiritual companions for the journey, meeting to study scripture together, reading good spiritual literature, practicing hospitality…. These are some of the building blocks that will build lives that are changed from the inside out.
Listen to what Nehemiah is saying to you!