I’m reading and teaching through Nehemiah these days. I love it. Its a book about rebuilding, about slow recovery, about the drudging work of God’s people in moving forward after a setback. Some things I’m learning:
1) The first half of the book focuses more on the physical rebuilding of the walls (chapters 1-6); the second half focuses more on what I call covenant renewal; that is, the spiritual rebuilding that had to occur in the peoples’ hearts after the spiritual disruption of exile (chapters 7-13). It is significant that the book doesn’t end at 6:15: “so the wall was finished.” One might have thought it would end there. But the rebuilding of physical walls is only one piece of a larger work God was doing among his people during this time. Just as the greatest sting of the exile wasn’t the actual physical relocation and destruction of the city, but rather the divine disfavor that these events represented, so the greatest work of Nehemiah was spiritual new beginning the walls represented.
I think this teaches us to always look for the deeper, invisible, spiritual dynamics at play in our churches and ministries. Some events are obvious, like exile or rebuilding walls. Everybody can see it. But the most important events that happen are invisible, and only wise people can see them. Exile would never have happened if idolatry had not happened first in the hearts of the people. And the rebuilding of the walls would never have happened without covenant renewal—the preaching of God’s Word (chapter 8), confession of sin (chapter 9), sealing of the covenant (chapter 10), etc. It is always the unseen, spiritual dynamic that affects the fate or a church or ministry.
This makes me constantly ask: what are the spiritual dynamics that are shaping our future? Are we marked by things like prayer and responsiveness to the Lord? What is the invisible spiritual rudder that is steering our ship? Where are we going?
2) One thing that is striking about Nehemiah is the amount and intensity of opposition to the rebuilding effort. Oppositions develops right from the beginning and only intensifies more and more throughout the work, including psychological opposition in the form of mockery/jeering (4:2-3), character assassination (6:6-9), and false prophecies (6:12-13). At one point the opposition is so intense that the people are building with a shovel in one hand and fighting with a weapon in the other (4:17)! How easy it would have been to get discouraged and give up! But they kept going.
One of the most difficult aspects of the rebuilding effort must have been the shame involved. The sheer mockery and contempt poured upon them is intense. At one point the opponents say, “what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” (4:4). You can just hear the jeering: “remember the good old days? remember how it used to be? this is pathetic! What a joke!” It would have been hard to keep rebuilding with those voices floating all around you. I think that would have been harder than the outright persecution, in some ways.
But as dismal, shameful, sad, and dreary as this season was, it was an important season in the life of God’s people. God was there, it was ultimately his work: and it is this reality that encourages Nehemiah and the people to persevere (2:20, 4:14, 6:9).
From this I draw the application: we should not devalue seasons of rebuilding in our churches and denominations and personal lives. Sometimes the work of God is fast and bright, like a flash of lightning. But so many other times, looking at my Bible and church history, it is slow and plodding, like the way a tree grows.
We’d all like to see revival, of course. And we should pray and long for it. But even revival isn’t possible unless the conditions are set (for instance, revival is often preceded by long stretches of persistent prayer by some person or persons). So if you are in a season of rebuilding, don’t give into the shame or grow discouraged. God is in those seasons. They have value and dignity in his sight.
The rebuilding of those walls (slow and shameful as it must have sometimes felt) paved the way for the coming of Christ. It was an important work in God’s eyes. And without it history would have been far different.
3) A favorite passage in Nehemiah is 8:9-10. They are reading the Law to the people, and the people start to weep. And so they say. “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep … go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
You might expect that the process of repentance after the exile would be a somber and sad one. And yet here covenant renewal seems to be a joyful and even celebratory matter. Today we often associate “holiness” with “seriousness.” I think we need to consider Nehemiah’s association of holiness with “eat the fat and drink sweet wine.” Of course, this could be abused. But it gives us an important emphasis. And this passage reminds me that as dismal and sad as slow works of rebuilding can be, they can also be full of joy, celebration, laughter. The opposition may be real, but as long as God is there, nothing can take away our joy. There is no reason why even challenging and difficult seasons cannot be fun. This joy is what overcomes the shame.
4) One of my favorite things about Nehemiah is that he is still working for reform even at the very end of the book (chapter 13). Even at the very end, even after covenant renewal, even after enduring through the opposition, there is still more reform to be done. The work of reformation and cleansing and pruning continues on. From this I draw this application: reformations need continual reforming, revivals need continual reviving, and renewals need continual renewing. That means that the leaders of renewal efforts must always check their hearts, and always be open to the Lord’s redirection and correction. If we ever plateau, we are in danger of simply replacing one dysfunctional state for a new one.