Usually, the story of the Old Testament is a story of spiritual failure. However, there are times when God’s people get it right. One of these rare occasions appears in Nehemiah 8. Immediately before this, Nehemiah has led the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and now they have all assembled in a square before the Water Gate to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets. In their conduct, we see three things that we ought to imitate.
They Were Attentive to the Law
This chapter is filled with evidence that the Jews of this day cared about the Law. In Nehemiah 8:1, they tell Ezra that now that they’re assembled, they want to hear him read the Law. According to 8:3, they listen attentively to the reading of the Law from early morning to midday. In 8:5, they stand when the scroll of the Law is opened and bow low in worship. Finally, in 8:8, they listen to those who are explaining the Law until they all understand it.
At this point in Jewish history, most of the people are probably illiterate. Additionally, they likely couldn’t afford to purchase a scroll of the Law even if they could read it. They didn’t have a building in which to assemble to hear the Law; they just stood on the pavement. In every one of these ways, our situation is better than theirs. Our access to God’s word is so much easier. Is our zeal for that word equal to theirs?
They Took the Law to Heart
Nehemiah 8:9-12 reports the reaction of the people to the reading. They weep because they understand how far short they have fallen of God’s expectations. However, a few verses later, we find them rejoicing, taking their strength from their joy in God. For them, hearing God’s word is both a meaningful and an extremely emotional experience.
By contrast, all too many Christians today declare (either openly or by their behavior) that the word of God is borrring. Frankly, that says a lot more about them than it does about the word. We can’t truly have a heart for God unless we also have a heart for His revelation. We too should be moved when we hear or read it. It is no less beautiful, meaningful, and powerful today than it was in Nehemiah’s time. However, if we want to find beauty, meaning, and power in it, we first must invest ourselves in its study.
They Restored the Practice of the Law
In Nehemiah 8:13-18, the people learn from the Law that they’re supposed to be celebrating the Feast of Booths (as set out in Leviticus 23:33-44), so they cut branches, construct booths of them, and live in them through the time of the feast. Nehemiah notes that this festival had not been celebrated correctly since the days of Joshua, nearly a thousand years before.
We too should be zealous to obey every commandment of God, especially those commandments that long have been neglected. We must beware of the danger of accumulating our set of “Church of Christ traditions”, things that we do because we have always done them, not because we are seeking to obey God’s will. Like the Jews of Nehemiah’s time, we must compare our practice to God’s law and unflinchingly obey Him no matter what that demands of us.
Of all the leaders in the Bible, Nehemiah is one of my favorites. He confronts a wide variety of problems, but through them all, he remains steadfast in his purpose, trusts God, and eventually achieves success.
One of Nehemiah’s most revealing actions, though, is something that he does not do. Nehemiah 6:10-13 tells the story. At this point in the book, the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem is nearly completed. The enemies of the Jews, led by Tobiah, Sanballat, and Geshem, have already tried the threat of force, assassination, and a whispering campaign. However, due to Nehemiah’s determination, none of these schemes have worked.
Their next attempt is even subtler. Beginning in v. 10, Nehemiah visits the house of a prophet named Shemaiah. Shemaiah reports that Nehemiah’s enemies are coming to kill him, so in order to save his life, Nehemiah needs to flee into the temple and bar the doors behind him.
Nehemiah reacts with outrage, and he does so for two reasons. First, such cowardice would be exactly the opposite of the example that the people need. Second, Nehemiah isn’t a priest. He knows that he isn’t allowed to enter the temple, into which only the priests can go as part of their daily and yearly service. In Nehemiah’s view, it would be better for him to die outside the temple than to flee into the temple and save his life.
At some point, Nehemiah realizes that Shemaiah has only said these things because Tobiah and Sanballat have paid him to do so. However, whether we are faced with hired liars or not, Nehemiah’s resolution has much to teach us. In our lives too, there are those who encourage disobedience to the law of God because it appears to be expedient. These false counselors will advise us to reject God’s pattern for worship because you need a praise band up on stage in order to draw young people. They’ll tell us that we should use anything from raffles to free food to attract those whom the gospel won’t attract, so that maybe they’ll get a little gospel on the side.
Though such advice appears wise to the world, it can only bring disaster to the kingdom of God. First, it requires us to abandon our conviction that God’s way works. I believe in the power of the gospel to touch hearts and change lives just as it did 2000 years ago. I believe that the simple pattern of the New Testament will still please God and edify men as it did in the first century. Why abandon the perfect wisdom of God for the wisdom of men, which has proven to be anything but perfect?
Even if God’s way isn’t working anymore, even if we are living in a time like the time of Noah, there’s no point in using clever tricks to expose sinners to a powerless gospel. If those who will have no interest in God come for the sake of free food, their interest will continue to be in free food and not in God. They will remain unconverted. Conversely, if the power of God can reach them, the free food is unnecessary.
No matter how threatening the times may seem to be, the example of Nehemiah shows us that the best course is to remain steadfast. What is right always has been right and will continue to be right. The ancient paths will lead us to success, but listening to Shemaiahs can only entice us into failure.
Nehemiah is one of the most determined and resourceful leaders that God’s people ever had, but one of the most impressive things that we see out of him is what he is thinking before he ever does anything. In Nehemiah 1:1-3, he learns that the returned exiles in Jerusalem are in bad shape because the city still doesn’t have walls. In 1:4-11, he entreats God to help him solve the problem.
Notice the pronoun there. Nehemiah doesn’t say, “Lord, help those returned exiles get their act together.” He doesn’t say, “Let my useless brother stop talking about the problem and start solving it.” Instead, he acknowledges that this is a problem he can help with, and he asks God’s blessing on his own plans.
If there is any spirit that ought to be more widespread among the Lord’s people, this is it. As a rule, even the best Christians are more inclined to complain about the problems of the church and others’ inactivity than they are to consider their own ways and ask what they can do about the problem themselves.
What’s more, we’re often so used to exempting ourselves from criticism that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. I’ve had many conversations through the years with brethren who see a weakness in the congregation (example: “We don’t spend enough time with each other outside of worship services.”). When I respond with a suggestion for how they can solve the problem (example: “Why don’t you invite everybody over for a potluck after services sometime?”), with a staggering lack of self-awareness, they invariably begin to offer excuses about why they can’t help (example: “I can’t do that! I’m too busy.”).
It’s the spiritual equivalent of buying a lottery ticket instead of getting a job. You want the good result, but you don’t want to work to get there. This mindset can only lead to a vicious cycle of inactivity and bitterness. Everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else, nobody is doing anything, so everybody just gets angrier and angrier about everybody else’s inactivity.
Rather than looking outward for solutions, all of us need to look inward and upward. OK, so my congregation is imperfect. Every congregation is. What can I personally do about it? What can I do to make assemblies more powerful, or connections between brethren stronger, or lost people more likely to obey the gospel?
None of us can solve every problem a church has, but every one of us can solve some of them. What’s more, just as a spirit of blame is contagious, so is a spirit of selflessness and hard work. Other Christians won’t be motivated to serve by our hypocritical complaints about their uselessness, but they will be by our example of service. The more we work, the more we invite others to work with us (another crucial spiritual skill that Nehemiah mastered), the more the Lord’s work will succeed.
When we see work that needs to be done, then, rather than blameshifting, let’s pray. Like Nehemiah, let’s say, “Lord, show me how I can help, and give me the strength and courage to do it.”
Human beings are rotten at predicting the future. Weather forecasters today have computers crammed with sophisticated mathematical models. They have access to real-time data that their predecessors could only dream about. And yet, with all this plus years or even decades of experience and training, they’re about as likely to get next week’s weather right as I am to sink a half-court three-pointer.
No matter what some might pretend, we have no idea what’s going to happen, and this extends even to predicting the consequences of our own actions. Even the most discerning of us are frequently surprised by how our lives turn out.
We can’t be shrewd, but we can be good. Though doing the right thing doesn’t always benefit us (Exhibit A: Jesus), it frequently does. A godly choice now can have consequences that bless our lives in ways that we didn’t anticipate.
We see this principle at work in the life of Mordecai, cousin and guardian of the Persian queen Esther. Mordecai is a dutiful protector, and after she is taken into the palace, he frequents the king’s gate to see how she’s doing. While there, he learns that two of the king’s doorkeepers are plotting against the king.
This is no business of Mordecai’s. Ahasuerus is not a particularly good or likeable king, and he’s a foreigner besides. It would have been easy for Mordecai to ignore the whole matter with a subway-rider’s nonchalance: “I didn’t see nothin’, man!”
However, he doesn’t. The king is the king, and it’s wrong to plot against the king. Mordecai tells Esther, Esther tells the king in Mordecai’s name, and the two doorkeepers are exposed and executed. Nothing is done for Mordecai, and he continues his sojourn at the gate.
While there, he incurs the enmity of Haman, the second most powerful man in the kingdom, by not kowtowing to him. Haman decides to get his revenge by eradicating the whole Jewish nation, but first of all, he wants to see Mordecai decorating a gallows in his front yard.
He goes to Ahasuerus, desiring permission to kill Mordecai, but the king has something else in mind. Belatedly, he has been reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty, and he has decided that he wants to honor him. Rather than dragging Mordecai to the gallows, Haman ends up praising him in public. If Mordecai hadn’t done the difficult-but-right thing, he would have been executed. As it was, though, his selfless act was the first step of his climb to prominence in the Persian government.
Today, we probably won’t be called upon to disrupt assassination plots, but we are called upon to do good in less dramatic ways. Opportunities to be gracious to others abound in all of our lives. They start with the needy of the church (and sometimes what the needy need is emotional rather than financial support) and go from there.
We should take advantage of these opportunities because it’s the right thing to do. However, we also should not forget, nor be surprised by, the persistence of the effects of doing good. When we seek the Lord first, He will often bless our righteousness in ways we could not have imagined.
Of all the ordinances of God, perhaps the most difficult to apply is Matthew 19:9. Like most preachers, I’ve been in the painful position of having to tell an apparently happy couple that their marriage is unlawful in God’s eyes, and that if they wish to please Him, they will have to separate. I don’t relish these conversations, but I believe that it’s my duty to have them.
Some, however, want to avoid this painful responsibility by claiming that it’s not really what God would want, especially when such marriages have produced children. Isn’t God a pro-family God? Wouldn’t He want the father and mother to remain together when their divorce would inflict such emotional harm on their offspring?
I think that any valid argument that would exempt couples with children from the restrictions of Matthew 19 would quickly win acceptance. Nobody likes being the bearer of family-destroying news. However, the evidence we have points in the opposite direction. God is a pro-family God, but even more than that, He’s a pro-holiness God.
We see this most clearly in the story of the latter half of the book of Ezra. In this account, Ezra, a scribe who has recently returned to Jerusalem from exile in Persia, learns that in the absence of appropriate teaching and oversight, the Jews have begun to practice mixed marriage. Jewish men have joined themselves to the women of the nations around them.
Ezra is appalled. As he points out in Ezra 9:6-15, this is a clear contravention of God’s laws forbidding marriage outside the bounds of God’s people. This kind of sin is what got the Jews exiled in the first place. It’s why they continue under Persian bondage. If they continue in it, God may well remove them from the land forever.
The seriousness of the problem demands a stern remedy. In Ezra 10, Ezra and the people determine that the men in mixed marriages must put away their foreign wives. The Jews set up tribunals and dissolve every such marriage in a matter of months. This was no easy matter. After listing the offenders, Ezra 10:44 observes, “All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.”
People 2500 years ago loved their families and children no less than we do, but they understood that the law of God left them no choice. If they were to remain God’s holy nation, they had to end all unholy marriages, regardless of who suffered as a result.
Today, the same thing is true for us. A Christian who wants to remain faithful cannot remain in a marriage that Jesus forbids, and the church that wants to remain faithful cannot tolerate the unlawfully married who insist on remaining together. If we veto the judgments of the Lord that we don’t like, He is no longer the head of the church. We have set ourselves up as its head instead. Either we are faithful in all things, or we are faithful in nothing. Ezra’s example is a difficult one to follow, but it’s the only path that leads to heaven.