The Book of Nehemiah

I think anyone who seriously contemplates the health of any nation realizes that there is an interwoven relationship between civics and morality. I am convinced, as was Edward Gibbon, the author of The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire, that there can be effective physical infrastructure (roads, aqueducts, buildings, etc) but moral weakness will eventually bring the demise of any empire. I notice the very same environment in our country. America is arguably the strongest nation on earth when things such as military, communication, and technology are considered. But we are becoming weaker by the decade simply because our moral infrastructure is crumbling! Both are essential in order for a nation to prosper.

Nation building following the exile is another example, although in the case of the returning Jews, the situation is reversed. Under the capable leadership of Ezra, the spiritual condition of the residents of Israel was progressing in the right direction. But there was no physical and civil infrastructure. Enter Nehemiah. Under his leadership, the physical walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and a basic civil culture was erected, a feat that might be compared to the establishment of civil and physical infrastructure in a modern nation. With this project accomplished, the story of the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem is complete.

It may be helpful to review the chronology of the events during this period of the Bible story. Ezra Chapters 1-6 record the return of 50k Jews to Jerusalem and describe the re-construction of the Temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Haggai, and Zechariah. Little is known about life in Jerusalem for the next 58 years, but the story of Esther records that God continued to be faithful to his people in Persia. Eventually, Ezra the scribe leads a second group of returning Jews to Jerusalem and spiritual reformation continues as recorded in Ezra Chapters 7-10. But the walls of the city are in ruins and there is little protection for anyone living there, which leaves both the people and the practice of their religion vulnerable to outside interference and even attack. Thirteen years later, Nehemiah, the cup-bearer to King Artexerxes I, is moved by God to make the journey to Jerusalem. Under his leadership, the walls are re-constructed. The civil and spiritual restoration of the culture in Jerusalem is complete.

The book of Nehemiah opens with Nehemiah living in Susa, serving the king. Word came from Jerusalem that the walls of the city were in ruins. After three months of prayer and fasting, Nehemiah approached the king with a request to return to Jerusalem to repair them.

“If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time. I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. (Neh 2:5-8 NIV)

Chapters 2:9-7:73 record the complicated and difficult process of building a culture where there is harmony between moral and civil interests. Nehemiah begins to address the civil needs by leading the effort to rebuild the wall around the city. In the face of opposition, mockery, and conspiracy from neighboring communities, Nehemiah organizes a workforce where half are put on military guard and the other half on construction duty. But outside opposition is not the only problem facing Nehemiah. The wealthier Jews abuse and oppress their own people by taking advantage of the opportunity to pad their pocketbooks at the expense of the workers, who cannot work because they are building the wall, by forcing them to mortgage their homes, and even sell their children into servanthood. Immediately Nehemiah addresses the moral issue by calling a public assembly and persuading the offenders to return the money they took and to cancel additional interest payments. Leading by example, he then refused to take his own salary as governor and invited 150 Jews and officials to be his table guests without charge. Both he and his servants gave sacrificially from their resources to help the needy in Jerusalem. In spite of all these difficulties, the wall was completed in 52 days and the surrounding nations were compelled to acknowledge that it was because of the good hand of the Lord that the task was accomplished.

When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. (Neh 6:16 NIV)

So what makes a strong nation? Israel’s enemies felt superior until the wall was complete. But the wall would have never been completed had there not been decisive leadership that called the people to moral accountability. Both are needed to establish a strong nation and both are needed to preserve a strong nation. Are we listening, America?

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