We said last time that Ezra and Nehemiah tell complimentary stories about the rebuilding of the physical and spiritual life of the returned exiles. Nehemiah is still a part of the Priestly source: there is still the liturgical concern and the lists of names, as well as a lot of architectural details, but it is also a rattling good story. Nehemiah, who is an important official in the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes, hears from Jerusalem from the first wave of returned exiles, and is dismayed to discover that the walls of the city, so vital for its defence, have not yet been rebuilt. After weeping, fasting and prayer he plucks up his courage and pleads with his boss the king to be allowed to return to oversee the rebuilding. He is given permission, and soon mobilises the workers.
However it is no time before opposition hits his efforts. Sanballat, who seems to head up the opposition, begins with mockery and discouragement, then intrigue and intimidation, and finally the outright threat of violence. But Nehemiah is steadfast and undaunted, praying for God’s vengeance on his enemies. Finally the walls are completed, a list of names is complied, and Ezra steps onto the stage. In a massive public festival he reads the Law, and the Israelites respond with profound emotion. We have the text of a long prayer of penitence, and the rededication both of the new walls and the people. Finally Nehemiah carries out some social reforms, reinstituting the Sabbath and beating up and scalping some men who had intermarried with foreign wives.
The book is driven by zeal, and at times what we might see as excessive zeal, but the link between the social and the religious life of the community is made clear. Physical bricks and mortar and penitence and prayer go hand in hand, when so often in the church we separate the two. I even knew churches where the PCC was responsible for the practical stuff while a team of ‘elders’ looked after the spiritual life of the church. Nehemiah does not see it like this at all.
The book also gives us a highly true-to-life account of the kinds of opposition which those trying to rebuild spirituality can often face. Without being tempted to read the book merely as a parable for contemporary church renewal we can nevertheless learn much from understanding the tactics of those who oppose renewal, and their motivations in bringing it. Nehemiah responds to the threat of violence by posting armed guards alongside the builders, and even armed some of the builders, which must have made it difficult for them. There is a real appreciation of the battle involved in seeking rebuilding and renewal, and nothing much has changed today, other than our will to fight.
The sections involving the ministry of Ezra are significant, too. The reading of the Law is met with a great variety of responses, from joyful praise, to weeping, to feasting to penitence. As a teacher one of my big beefs with the church is that we seldom teach God’s word as we should, and rarely if ever expect any response from the people. I love the idea that a team of people both read the Law and explained it in a way which helped people to understand it and respond to it. And they come back for more, every day for a week! A bit of a far cry from the preaching ministry in many churches today.
The fact that the book ends not with the highspot of teaching, prayer and response but with the need to beat up those who are still sinning is a tragic commentary on life. We’re going to see before too long the next phase of the story, albeit from a different point of view from that of the Priestly writers, but we have a few books, and a whole new strand of writing, to explore before we get there. But first one extra book, a bit of an oddity, as we turn next week to Esther.