The Eleventh in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
Along with Ezra, Nehemiah is one of the great figures from that period in Israel’s history after the exile (second temple Judaism). Nehemiah is a remarkable leader–serving for a time as governor of Judah–a Godly man as seen in his prayers and desire for his people return to the proper worship of YHWH. At the same time, he is a trusted member of the Persian royal court. Nehemiah stands as one of Israel’s greatest Reformers, and a man from whom there is much to learn.
We return to our series on Ezra-Nehemiah–picking up where we left several months ago, with opening chapter of the Book of Nehemiah. Frankly, it is hard to make sense of Nehemiah, without some knowledge of the Book of Ezra–which is why I felt it important to tackle both books together, not just the Book of Nehemiah as many preachers do. The two books of Ezra-Nehemiah circulated together in the Jewish canon for a reason–they are clearly connected and depict the return of the Jews from exile and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple from two different perspectives. If Ezra is the more fact-based narrative utilizing a number of official Persian government documents, Nehemiah is a much more personal book–more than half of which is the author’s journal and which is described by one commentator as “some of the most lively writing in the Bible.” Ezra, he says, was more reserved, while Nehemiah “leaps out of the pages at us.” A practical and emotional man, in this book we are snooping in Nehemiah’s personal journal, written during a time of great difficulty for the people of God.
As we proceed this time, we’ll begin by answering the questions, “who, what, where, and when,” before we turn to our text, the opening chapter of Nehemiah, which includes “Nehemiah’s prayer.” As for the “who” question, in the opening verses the author introduces himself as Nehemiah the son of Ha-cal-iah. The name “Nehemiah” means “the Lord comforts” which is certainly an appropriate name for a man who appears on the scene during a very difficult period in Israel’s history. The author introduces himself to us as the “cupbearer” of the Persian king Artaxerxes I, who ruled over the vast Persian empire from 464 until 424 BC. The book opens with Nehemiah pleading with the king to be sent to Judah (the land of his people, the Jews) to help them rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which were in great need of repair so as to protect the now-returned Jewish exiles from attack from their neighbors–who, as we have seen, are angered that the returning exiles will not embrace the pagan rituals of the Canaanites, most Israelites choosing instead to remain loyal to the religion of their fathers. Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah, and quickly comes to the realization that his people (the Jews) are in great need of reformation–a reformation of their own hearts.
I have long felt that some of the poorest preaching I have ever heard has been on the Book of Nehemiah. I say poor not because the preachers of whom I am thinking were bad communicators, or that they were not men of faith. Quite the contrary, I’ve heard good preachers do remarkable, spell-binding things with the text of this book. But they do so at the price of missing the whole point. Nehemiah’s purpose really is as mundane as describing how the city and its defenses were rebuilt because his people were in real danger of attack. In our day, the temptation is great to see this book as an allegory which applies to modern readers. Because Nehemiah demonstrates passion and capable leadership, sermons on the book of Nehemiah are often framed as a series of principles for successful “leadership.” The image of rebuilding the walls far-too often and far-too easily becomes an illustration to us as to how we can rebuild our own fallen lives and go from ruin to recovery. Even worse, the wall-builder motif has been shamelessly invoked by churches as “biblical” support for fund raising during various church building projects. Be a Nehemiah– “Help us build the walls of our new church.”
To read the rest of this sermon, Click Here