PAPER PRESENTED AT 2021 JOINT CLERGY WORKSHOP OF THE DIOCESES IN LAGOS ON WEDNESDAY 20TH JANUARY, 2021.
MAIN THEME: PRAGMATIC MINISTRY IN CHANGING TIMES AND SEASONS
SUB-THEME: NEHEMIAH – THRIVING IN CHALLENGING TIMES
When Babylon’s soldiers marched out of Jerusalem in 586 BC, they left a desolate city behind them. Its magnificent temple, built by Solomon four hundred years earlier, was reduced to heaps of fallen masonry and charred timber. The city’s gates and all its important buildings were enveloped in flames, and its strong walls demolished to ensure that the impoverished citizens could not organize another revolt such as the one recently attempted by the hapless Zedekiah. Only the poorest of Jerusalem’s people were left behind, the rest were led off as captives to distance Babylon.
As the despondent exiles tramped the thousand kilometres of desert highway, their steps were heavy; a burning city was behind them and an unknown future lay ahead. Worst of all were the tormenting thoughts that their present desolation, frequently threatened by the sensitive and courageous Jeremiah, was nothing than the chastising hand of God (Jer.1:14-16;2:16-30). The punishment inflicted by Nebuchadnezzar was dwarfed by the intensity of their guilt and despair. If God was against them who them could be for them?
Yet, all was not lost. The time would come when Isaiah’s prophetic word would come true; “Their iniquity pardoned, they would emerge from exile as people refined by suffering” (Isa.40:1-2). Across the centuries, Israel had been led by great people,although costly. Abraham obeyed God and a new race was born, overcoming adversity, Joseph saved not only his own people but other nations as well. Moses, another imperiled by hardship, led the Israelites to freedom. Other great leaders had followed in their steps.
But to the despondent exiles such echoes of the past seemed but taunting memories of a remote story. Their blinded king, shackled and humiliated, was alongside with them as they trudged the long road to an alien land. But God prepares new leaders for fresh challenges. In distance Babylon they were not alone; men and women were equipped for crucial service. Ezekiel’s ministry confronted the exiles with higher standard and unfailing resources. In a pagan environment, the stories of Daniel and his companions recalled enduring values. Challenged by new prophets, God’s people would think again about noble things. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi brought persuasive truths to the returned people. In God strength, Zerubabbelorganized the rebuilding of the temple. Ezra proclaimed the centrality of God’s word, and Nehemiah made possible the rebuilding of those broken walls. In every generation God equips trusted servants for affective leadership.
WHO IS NEHEMIAH?
Nehemiah must surely be regarded as one of the most inventive and resilient personalities in the rich tapestry of Old Testament biography. He was called to serve God at a time when the Israelites were emerging from their traumatic years in exile. Under Babylonian then Persian domination, they lived as a subject people, without their Davidic king and his embodiment of national security and spiritual ideals. The exile had been without land and temple. Now that many were back in Judah, it was important for them to have a sense of continuity with the people of God in their days. Nehemiah was not a king but his work reminds the people of great legal enterprises, not a prophet, but speaks an acts in a manner reminiscent of the best of them. He does not belong to the priesthood, but supports the priests with enthusiasm and manifest priestly characteristics in everyday life. He was a visible reminder that the great days of Israel’s life and witness are not locked away in a distant past.
Nehemiah, as said, was not a prophet in the usual sense of the term, but his recollection of how he was called to serve in Jerusalem begins with a literary formula, there are times he functions as a prophet, boldly declaring what God had said and how people are to bring a like obedience to a divine call. (2:12,17-18). In outspoken confrontation with oppressively materialistic Judeans, he addresses social question with the same directness and determination as the great 8th century prophets and confirmed the seriousness of his intentions by a symbolic acts (5:13). Like some of the great Old Testament prophetic figures, he too was harassed by the deceitful message of false prophets. 6:10-14.
Neither is Nehemiah a priest, but he encouraged the ministry of the priests, participated with them and their Levitical colleagues in public occasions of spiritual renewal (5:12; 8:2, 9;12:27-47) and promotion of ideals of holiness, exemplary priesthood 7:65;12:1-26; 13:4-9, 28, 30-31). Nehemiah is a visible reminder to the Israelites of the unchanging mercy of God. Life has changed for them and some of their treasured institutions were no more, but the Lord was with them, raising up new people to refine and invigorate the vulnerable community. A trusted wine steward in a pagan palace becomes God’s instruments for Israel’s renewal.
NEHEMIAH’S DOCTRINE OF GOD
Throughout his memoirs, Nehemiah emphasized both objective truth and subjective experience, a balance not always maintained throughout Christian history. We live in a period when the subjective awareness of God’s immanence is more prominent than the objective reality of His transcendence. David F. Wells maintains that the Church’s identity vanishes when transduce melts into immanence and when theocentric faith becomes anthropocentric faith.
Nehemiah contemporaries need to know of the reality of God’s uniqueness. In the post-exilic period, there was an understandable sense of wistfulness. Judah has lost their political freedom and could no longer pledge her allegiance to her own king. Although, recently rebuilt the temple but still lack the impressiveness of Solomon’s magnificent construction (Hagg. 2:1-3). Things were certainly not the same, but Nehemiah emphasizes the continuity of the great realities still at the heart of Israel’s faith, that God was still on their side. He had not changed. His message on the identity of God has been from generation to generation even till today.
- GOD IS UNIVERSALLY SOVEREIGN: The ‘God of heaven’ (1:5;2:4,20) was a divine title in person religion but Nehemiah used it as dramatic apologetic: the Lord Yahweh, he alone (9:6) is God of heavens, not Ahura-Mazda, the non-existent ‘god’, Nehemiah heard of Jerusalem’s distress whilst living in distant Susa, but God is in control of the entire world and is shaping the destiny of His people where they are, guiding an unknown cupbearer into his sovereign purposes.
In His sovereignty, He can not only clear the way for those who honour him, but also frustrate the designs of those who opposed Him (4:15). He alone can turn a cruel curse into an immeasurable blessing (13:2).
- GOD IS TOTALY RELIABLE: The God who keeps His covenant of love with those who loved Him and obey His commands (1:5;9:32) He is true to His promises (9:8). The events that led to the threatened exile were a stark illustration of Israel’s disloyalty. They had not honoured their Covenant obligations but, as Isaiah’s message assured them, they were only been disciplined but not abandoned. His unfailing love would not be shaken nor would His “covenant of peace be removed” (Isa.54:4-17).This formed Nehemiah’s confidence.
- GOD IS UTTERLY HOLY: The first word of those who are burdened with grief (1:3-4) is to acknowledge that their greatest need is not immediate relief from present trouble but eternal forgiveness. Nehemiah confesses that he is a sinner whose personal life is set in the wider context of human rebellion, past and present. Once forgiven, God’s people do not shape their moral standards by contemporary, variable ethical norms. They lived not to win human approval but according to the pattern of God’s holiness. They must be holy because God is holy (Lev. 19:1, 1 Pet. 1:14-17). Nehemiah was determined to do everything in life out of reverence for God (5:15).
- GOD IS COMPASSIONATELY MERCIFUL: When he entered into a covenant with them God knew his people would fail Him, He therefore warned them of the serious consequences of their inevitable transgressions. They would be “exiled … at the farthest horizon” but if they returned to Him in penitence, he would bring them back to the land he had given them as a token of His mercy (1:8-9). Time without number, they grieved Him but he pardoned them and restored them (9:16-19).
- GOD IS UNIQUELY POWERFUL: The God who created the universe (9:6) who enabled childless Abraham to become the ‘father of a multitude’ (9:7) and ‘redeemed’ (1:10) His oppressed people from Egyptian slavery by His ‘great strength’ and ‘mighty hand’ (Exodus language) could certainly bring the exile home. God’s deliverances are into restricted to the outstanding events of their history but are markedly evident in every life when His people are threatened by powers too strong for them. Days when they felt totally overwhelmed by their enemies, their God would fight for them (4:20). Finding their true joy in their spiritual resources (8:12,17) their physical strength would be perpetually renewed (8:10).
- GOD IS INFINITELY GRACIOUS: Nehemiah’s project was given royal approval. Not because he was in the right place at the right time, but because ‘the graciousness’ of his God (2:8,18) was upon him. He does not deal with individuals or communities as they deserve but desires and designs things for their highest good.
- GOD IS INTIMATELY NEAR: The transcendent ‘God of heaven’ is not detached and distant: He draws close to His dependent people and keep on putting (2:12) the right and best things into their hearts. When they are in danger, he makes them sensitive to His promptings (6:12) and when they are uncertain of the way ahead he reveals His will to them (7:5). Nehemiah’s life was totally devoted to such a God. He found ‘delight’ (1:11) in seeking God’s face (1:4) revering God’s name (1:11) pursuing God’s will (2:4-5) acknowledging God’s goodness (2:8,18) serving God’s people 2:12;17, trusting God’s power (2:20) confessing God’s holiness (4:14; 5:9,15) sharing God’s word (8:9) showing God’s love (8:10) remembering God’s generousity 8:13-18, recalling God’s faithfulness 9:5-37’ Obeying God’s commands (10:29) and encouraging God’s servants (10:37-39;13:10-13).
NEHEMIAH PASSION FOR THE SCRIPTURE
One of the most fascinating aspects of the post-exilic literature is the manner in which these later biblical writers reflect on what God has said and done in earlier days. They treasure his unique revelation in scripture and the story it unfolds of his saving work in the life of the nation, and seek to interpret its message afresh to their contemporaries. At the heart of Nehemiah’s narrative is the story of a unique Bible Reading in the centre of Jerusalem. It was not a temple gathering, thereby restricting attendance either to religious officials or to those privy ledged few who might gain entry to a restricted area. It was held in the city’s main square and everybody, young and old, men and women alike, were eager to attend. Although Ezra leads this occasion (Ezek.16:49) it is Nehemiah who joins with Ezra in encouraging the people’s response to Scripture (8:9-11). Nehemiah was inspired, taught and fashioned by God’s word.
Nehemiah was inspired by scripture. The story of how God has called, equipped and used men and women over the centuries never ceased to encourage him. The personalities of the Old testament study enabled and challenged him, Abraham believed God’s promise (9:7-8;23), Moses shared God’s Word (1:7-8,8:1, 14; 9:14;10:29; 13:1), Aaron entered God’s service (10:38; 12:47), David (12:24; 36-37, 45-46) and Asaph 12:46) encouraged God’s praise and, more recently, Zerubbabel (7:7; 21:1, 47) built God’s temple. But Nehemiah has also taken to heart the warning stories of Scripture – Solomon forgot God’s holiness (13:26) and ignored God’s warning, with disastrous consequences (1 Kings 11:1-13).
Nehemiah was taught by Scripture. It was not only the characters of Scripture which attracted him. From his youth onwards, the uplifting language of God’s Word, its enriching truths, clear warnings and dependable promises took possession of his receptive mind. Some of the great books of the Old Testament became special to him.
Nehemiah was fashioned by Scripture. Obedience to Scripture was life’s highest priority. From his youngest days, Nehemiah will have become increasingly aware of its authority, persuasiveness, power and relevance.
NEHEMIAH’S EXPERIENCE OF PRAYER
Great prayer-passages are found throughout the entire book. It begins with prayer in Persia (1:4) and closes with prayer in Jerusalem (13:31). The story reminds us of the great dimensions of prayer: adoration (8:6; 9:3,5), thanksgiving (12:24, 27, 31, 40, 46), confession (1:4-7; 9:33-34), petition (1:11; 2:4) and intercession (1:6). There are prayers of anguish (4:4-5; 6:14; 13:29) and prayers of joy (12:43), prayers for protection (4:9), and prayers of dependence (6:9) and commitment (13:14,22,31). It is a story of compassionate (1:4) persistent (1:4), personal (1:6) and corporate (1:7). Prayer provides Nehemiah with perspective (1:11, ‘this man’)’ it widens his horizons (2:4, ‘God of heaven), share his present griefs (1:4), confess his past failures (1:6-7) and discover his future work (1:11).
LOOKING UP IN DEPENDENCE (1:4-6a)
Nehemiah’s immediate reaction to the news of his people’s troubles was to go into the presence of God. Throughout the book this gifted leader is vividly portrayed as a man of earnest prayer, and this, the first of his nine recorded prayers, offers several perspectives on the quality of Nehemiah’s prayer-life.
He was committed to prayer. For Nehemiah, prayer was natural, immediate and spontaneous. He turned instinctively to God.
In Nehemiah’s life, far from being a conventional religious exercise, prayer was a vital daily experience. Nothing mattered more than entering the Lord’s presence to express his anguish about his people’s needs, confess his inadequacy, reflect on his personal response to the news from Jerusalem, and seek for guidance about what might and must be done.
Nehemiah was genuine in prayer. Deeply grieved to learn such distressing news, he identifies with the dejection of Jerusalem’s citizens. Though separated from them by a vast desert, their needs were close to his heart. He was not the last person to weep over Jerusalem’s troubles. During the last week of his earthly ministry, Jesus looked out over the rebellious city and found it impossible to hold back the tears. Like Nehemiah, he too was infinitely more concerned about the people’s welfare than his own.
Nehemiah was sacrificial in prayer. He believed there was nothing better he could do for his people than pray for them so, in order to give undisturbed time to his intercessions, he denied himself food for several days. When he mourned and fasted (Lk.19:41) he was engaging in a practice with notable biblical precedents. (Judges 20:26).
Nehemiah was persistent in prayer. For some days (4) he continued to seek God; day and night (6) he poured out his soul to the Lord. Like the importunate friend in Luke’s parable, (Luke 11:5-10) Nehemiah knocked repeatedly at God’s door because there was no-one else to whom he could turn for help. Prayer is the most eloquent expression of our priorities, it confesses our total reliance upon God, exercises our personal faith and demonstrated our love for others. As he approaches God, Nehemiah divests himself of every distracting thought so that he can concentrate his mind entirely on the one who has promised to listen to everyone who calls upon him.
Nehemiah was encouraged in prayer. Dependent believers of earlier generations have entered the holy place before him, and phrases and themes from their prayers inspire, inform and shape his own, His prayer deliberately echoes the petitions of Moses, Solomon, David, Jehoshaphat, Daniel, and his contemporary, Ezra. If by prayer these intercessors had received cleansing, found peace, obtained strength and gained confidence, so could Nehemiah. He is not simply inspired by their example, his prayer is enriched by their language. The words they used, preserved in Scripture, became the inspiration of his heart and mind as he entered the divine presence. The great prayers of Scripture ought to be incentives and models for our own.
He was confident in prayer, as Nehemiah exalts God, he focuses on eight highly relevant aspects of God’s nature. The prayer becomes an adoring octave of divine omnipotence. Although Jerusalem’s need has driven him into the presence of God, the city’s problem is soon dwarfed by an awesome sense of God’s majestic glory. Within moments he is exalting a God who is sovereign, mighty, holy, loving, faithful, vocal, attentive and merciful.
With a sense of submissive awe, Nehemiah approaches his sovereign God. He prayed before the God of heaven and said, “O LORD, God of heaven”. He was in Susa and his problem was in far-off Jerusalem, but both cities – one rich the other poor, one strong the other weak, one proud the other broken – were like tiny specks of dust under the vast canopy of God’s heaven.
Nehemiah also enters the presence of an awesome God, believing that he is not only powerful but holy. Nehemiah is specially conscious of the divine holiness and comes before God with adoring reverence. Like Moses in the desert, he hides his face, metaphorically removing the shoes from his soiled feet. Like Isaiah in the temple, he confesses his need before an awesome God. Like Job, his encounter with an awesome God ushers him into the place of repentance.
Nehemiah rejoices that his holy God is also compassionate. He identifies his needs in the presence of a God of infinite grace who has made a covenant of love with his people. As he prays, Nehemiah draws especially on the rich teaching of both Deuteronomy and Daniel.
This compassionate self-revealing God did not only speak; he listened. Israel’s God was not like the deaf idols of other nations. Throughout their history his people heard his voice, and he loved to hear theirs. Nehemiah asks that his Lord’s ear will be attentive and his eyes open to hear the prayer his servant was praying… day and night. Nehemiah knew that, whatever the problem which lay ahead, the way of prayer was always open and, as he prayed, help certainly came.
Nehemiah offered this prayer knowing that he was addressing a merciful God. His own sins and those of both his rebellious forefathers and disobedient contemporaries must be acknowledged and forgiven before he could embark on any enterprise for God.
Nehemiah gives himself to prolonged petition and intercession; day and night he poured out his soul to God. Since he heard of Jerusalem’s distress, he had been haunted by the recollection of the people’s failure to honour God and, scarcely able to think of anything else, spent every moment of available time in god’s presence.
The glaring iniquities, the things done that offended God had to be confessed, but the many things they had failed to do were equally offensive to a holy God. In the teaching of Jesus the servant who ‘does not do what his master wants’ is deservedly condemned. The early Christians were reminded that ‘anyone…who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. (Luke 12:47; James 4:7) Nehemiah knew that to do nothing when he had heard of such a crying need would be a serious transgression.
There was an urgency about Nehemiah’s confession. It was vital to seek God’s face, for in Scripture’s commands, decrees and laws he had been taught that sin is not merely a stubborn refusal to obey certain rules which hard the life of an individual or community.
When David committed adultery he came to realize that he had not only transgressed against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah; he had also sinned against God. The remorseful offender cried out for help.
LOOKING FORWARD WITH CONFIDENCE (1:11)
Nehemiah’s prayer moved from the recollection of what God had said and done to the contemplation of what he will say and do in a new situation. Encouraged by the Lord’s former mercies he is assured of present grace. We can reflect with gratitude on the mercies of the past but, as Augustine once said, ‘it is the present that bites most sharply’.
NEHEMIAH’S EXAMPLE IN LEADERSHIP
Nehemiah’s memoirs preserve his indelible character. The fact that such a wide variety of gifts, expertise and achievement are crowded into the narrow compass of one life is ample evidence of Nehemiah’s qualities as one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders. His leadership qualities are as necessary and relevant today as in the fifth century.
Nehemiah was a leader with infinite compassion. On hearing of his people’s needs he ‘sat down and wept … mourned and fasted and prayed’(1:4) Love matters most in leadership. The loveless thousand achieves little of significance. Jerusalem’s plight was a thousand kilometers from Susa’s palace but, because he loved them, the anguish of his people reduced everything else in his life to items of lesser importance.
Nehemiah was a leader under greater authority. Bewildered as to the right and best course of action in crises, he sought God for direction (1:5-11). Leaders must be led in his daily work.Nehemiah was used to receiving the orders of a Persian king, but his greatest priority was to stand as a submissive servant in the audience chamber of God. He recognized that it was more important patiently to discern God’s will than to rush to the help of God’s people.
Nehemiah was a leader of transparent integrity. Coming before God’s throne, he speedily recognized his iniquities and longed to confess them. He did not merely acknowledge the nation’s sins, he lingered in God’s presence to identify his own (1:6). He was not only honest before God but also toward others, When Judah’s deprived people complained of injustice, he did not act as a man totally detached and free from blame. However innocently, he had participated in money-lending (5:10) along with others and did nothing to conceal his personal involvement in an issue which must be put right.
Nehemiah was a leader aware of his own vulnerability. Leaders are not perfect; they all have some point of weakness at which they are on the threshold of possible danger. Sensitive, dependent, honest and venturesome, Nehemiah discovered his potential for crippling fear (2:2). Good leaders do not allow themselves to become so enamoured with their assignments that they forget their temptations. Many a good work has been damaged if not ruined because the leaders have been so busy instructing others that they have ignored a primary leadership obligations, ‘Keep watch over yourselves’ (Acts 20:28).
Nehemiah was a leader with a vision for something great. Believers with vision have ‘a deep dissatisfaction with what is and a clear grasp of what could be’. God planted within this leader’s heart (2:12) a strategy which could transform Jerusalem’s destiny, relieving its people of ignominy (1:3), insecurity and poverty. Nehemiah became indignant about the city’s appalling degradation and could not be at peace until an alternative prospect began to form in his mind.
Nehemiah was a leader with the ability to inspire others. The rebuilding of demolished walls could not be attempted without galvanizing a unified team, so the task must be begin with effective recruitment. As a good leader. Nehemiah spoke realistically of the problems, convincingly of the answer and confidently of the resources (2:17,20).
Nehemiah was a leader who recognized the necessity and advantages of delegation. He could oversee the project but was totally incapable of executing it himself. He made sure the responsibility for each section of the wall was entrusted to responsible co-workers (3:1-22), and they in turn recruited their partners who, under agreed leadership, ‘worked with all their heart’ (4:6).
Nehemiah was a leader who did not baulk at a adversities. He knew the necessity of perseverance. Difficulties were bound to arise and, within a very short time, external hostility was matched by internal pessimism (4:1-12).
Nehemiah was a leader with sensitive adaptability. Things do not always go as well as we hope. When problems arise, the effective leader regards them not as intimidating deterrents but as creative opportunities. After hearing the complaints of despondent and endangered workers, undaunted Nehemiah emerged with a five-point plan. He mustered local protection squads (4:13), reminded them of their spiritual defenses (4:14), divided the team into builders and protectors (4:15-18), organized a plan whereby a mobile brigade of troops could be rapidly dispatched to any vulnerable part of the wall (4:19-20) and ensured that everyone in the city was guaranteed twenty-four hour protection (4:21-22).
Nehemiah was a leader prepared to make personal sacrifices. He had surrendered his luxurious lifestyle and personal safety on leaving Persia; once in Jerusalem he had to forfeit the comfort of necessary relaxation and undisturbed sleep (4:23), he continued to be harassed by known enemies with insidious schemes to destroy him (6:1-9), treacherous friends who valued money more than loyalty (6:10-13), corrupt religious leaders intent on misusing spiritual gifts (6:14), and community leaders whose allegiance to their governor was neither wholehearted nor sincere (6:17-19). Like the apostle Paul centuries later he was “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed … persecuted, but not abandoned” (2 Cor.4:8-9)
Nehemiah was a leader with the ability to enlist dependable colleagues. Once the wall was rebuilt, practical arrangements must be made for the oversight of its spiritual, social and military needs (7:1-2) The governor chose partners with moral ‘integrity’ and spiritual commitment. In the work of community administration he wanted people alongside him who were utterly ‘trustworthy’ (13:12) and not corrupted by materialistic ambitions.
Nehemiah was a leader who anticipated the next challenge. Any achievement for the Lord will be promptly tested in one way or another. The governor knew that the newly secured city must be adequately defended and quickly populated (7:3-5;11:1-24). His reliable colleagues were required to implement arrangements for the protection of the residents: guards must be appointed at the main points of access and detailed instructions given about appropriate times for opening and closing the gates. He quickly made imaginative plans for recruiting new citizens to take up residence in Jerusalem. Good leaders have the ability to think ahead to identify areas of difficulty and be alert enough to develop fresh opportunities for expansion and progress.
Nehemiah was a leader blessed with enviable tenacity. He overcame many daunting discouragements which might have ruined another man, but God enabled him to endure even when things seemed at their worst. He coped with a precarious employer (2:1-3), hostile neighbours (2:10,19), insulting colleagues (4:10), terrified partners (4:11-12), loveless officials (5:1-13), persistent enemies (6:1-11), false prophets (6:12-14), disloyal priests (13:4-9, 28), avaricious traders (13:15-22), and disobedient believers (13:23-27). During a period when he went back to Persia, standards rapidly declined and spiritual and ethical principles were gradually abandoned. On his return to Jerusalem, Nehemiah had to take up the task again with firm resolution to bring a wayward people back into the will of God. Buffeted by trials, committed leaders may be temporarily disillusioned but, following the teaching and example of the perfect leaders, they put their ‘hand to the plough’ and refuse to ‘look back’ (Luke 9:61-62).
Although we are separated from Nehemiah by two and a half thousand years, the problems he faced are not peculiar to the world of antiquity. In contemporary society, human problems may appear in a different guise but they were found in ancient communities no less than in ours.
Ours is a constantly changing society. The past few decades have witnessed unprecedented changes: collapsing political structures, astonishing technological developments, economic pressures (serious unemployment in many countries), and religious tensions (with the greater degree of pluralism in Western society, the rise of Islamic militancy, the increasing attractiveness of eastern religions, and the proliferation of new religions.
Individuals and families are seriously affected by them. Social patterns have changed. Work no longer offers the stability and security it often did; compulsory redundancy is a cruel spectre on the employment horizon.
Nehemiah had to face the problem of change. Obedience to God involved him in vocational, geographical, cultural and social change. When the Lord put it into his heart what he must do for Jerusalem (2:12), it meant moving from one part of the ancient world to another. He had to leave his secure home surroundings for an existence more tentative and uncertain. It involved a change of job from dignified palace steward to building-site manager, leaving a safe and affluent milieu in Persia for a less secure one in Judah. Friends had to be left in Susa, probably forsaking wider family ties as well. It meant exchanging the totally familiar for the largely unknown.
Nehemiah coped with the challenge of dramatic change in work, location and lifestyle. First, he depended upon God, so vividly expressed in his earnest prayers (1:5-7). Secondly, he was conscious that others before him had proved the Lord’s generosity in times of geographical, cultural and social change, notably Abraham (9:7-8) and Moses at the exodus (1:10). Thirdly, he faced the future with the deepened assurance that the Lord’s ‘gracious hand’ was also upon him (2:8,18) and would crown his venture with success (2:20).
Modern society is crippled by selfish individualism. The sense of community concern has disappeared from many contexts in contemporary life. The ruthless pursuit of personal satisfaction has left many of our contemporaries with little time for projects which may benefit others. ‘Our computers are starting to talk to us while our neighbours are becoming more distant and anonymous. (Heb.11:5;8-9,33) Voluntary agencies find it impossible to recruit enough people to staff local ventures to help others. Sick, disadvantaged, elderly, immobile, disabled, deprived people in modern communities are denied the practical support they deserve.
The narrative has compelling things to say about God first, about living unselfishly in the contemporary world, and about the joy and satisfaction of serving others. Modern society is becoming increasingly violent. Tragically, aggression and hostility, both personal and corporate, are familiar television scenes all over the world. The elderly are no longer safe and children are especially vulnerable. Minorities are in grave danger in many parts of the world and thousands of twenty first-century Christians have suffered for their faith. Nehemiah’s story is also set within a context of social antagonism, verbal onslaughts, persistent ridicule and continuing attempts at physical brutality, not only directed at Nehemiah personally (6:1-14) but also toward all who identified with his work for God (2:19; 4:1-3, 7-12). His memoirs are particularly relevant to those who have to endure persecution in any form because of their love for Christ.
The success of Nehemiah’s building enterprise was seriously imperiled by heartless Judean nobles enterprise was seriously imperiled by heartless Judean nobles and officials who were making by exploiting the poor, causing widespread poverty, hunger, family disruption and slavery (5:1-5). Nehemiah was a man ready to champion the cause of the needy, and the manner in which he handled this crisis is strikingly relevant in the modern world. He opposed evil practice (5:6-13) and demonstrated by his own lifestyle (5:14-19) that the needs of others will never be far from the believer’s mind.
Contemporary society is grossly materialistic. Those Judean nobles were not the last individuals to price money more than people. Materialistic ambitions and economic interests probably figured more prominently than other factors in the opposition of Nehemiah’s enemies.
But, as we have seen, there were materials in Judah as well as Samaria and Ammon. Israelites who had plenty were also greedy for more. Materialistic gain was a recurrent temptation to Nehemiah’s contemporaries.
Our society is becoming more and more pluralistic, Christian ideals are constantly disputed and the distinctive dimensions of biblical faith seriously questioned. It is reliably estimated that within ten years there will be more committed Muslims than committed Anglicans in Nigeria. Contemporary religious education encourages the notion that all the major world religions are of equal value and that there is nothing unique about Christian faith. Jesus is widely regarded as one religious leader among many, and the New Testament’s uncompromising assertion of his deity is dismissed as intolerant religious prejudice.
Nehemiah’s determination to reach the homes and families of his people is an example of one man’s attempt to rectify spiritual ignorance and encourage the regular communication of God’s truth to his contemporaries.
Like ourselves, Nehemiah lived heroically on the frontier between two worlds: human life as God intended it to be and as people have chosen to make it. In everyday conduct he was confronted, as we are, with the constant tension between life’s crucial alternatives: God or self, holiness or sin, love or indifference, courage or weakness, generosity or greed. The temptations he faced and the transgression he exposed are still rife in our more sophisticated but no less sinful society. His compassionate concern, disciplined prayerfulness, spiritual confidence, resourceful service, moral integrity, resilient faith, biblical principles and exemplary lifestyle continue to be relevant in our different but perilously needy world.
Thanks for your patience.
The Rt. Rev’d J. Akin Atere, Ph.D
Bishop, Diocese of Awori & Lecturer