It’s been a long time since I’ve read chunks of the Bible at once. It’s actually been a long time since I’ve read any of the Bible ever, let alone chunks at once. Two nights ago, I read 26 chapters of Isaiah, and this afternoon I read Ezra and Nehemiah. I’m trying to get all of the notes finished for my Sunday School class I am teaching this fall prior to the start of school, which is this coming Monday. And I happen to be teaching on the entire Old Testament, some of which I’ve never read (such as Ezra and Nehemiah).
The Old Testament is unfortunately arranged. The guys who put together the Bible had no clue what they were doing. It’s disjointed, and when read in order from Genesis to Malachi it makes no sense. Its not even remotely chronological, and the prophets are just voices speaking into the void of the universe when they aren’t situated in history. It’s (like I just said) unfortunate.
Ezra and Nehemiah belong at the end of the Old Testament. They are history books written by two guys who were contemporaries of each other after the exile of Israel/Judah in Babylon/Assyria. They tell the story of what happened when the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem/Israel to rebuild it. Oftentimes, Nehemiah specifically is taught in churches when there is a building campaign going on. Nehemiah was instrumental in re-building Jerusalem, so we allegorize it to make it relevant to our own realities. I think its a terrible misuse of Nehemiah.
The prophets in exile (such as Second Isaiah) prophesied about a New Jerusalem. They described this city as one without walls and whose gates were never closed. They said that all nations would come into the city of God and that God would be its light. They said that there would never be night. They said that people from Egypt and Assyria would be joining God’s people in a celebration banquet, and that there would be no more war. This is the message of hope that the prophets in exile gave to the exiled nation of Israel.
You would think, then, that the people of Israel, when Cyrus (king of Persia) allowed them to return, would keep in mind all of the things that the prophets said about the New Jerusalem. You would think that they would rebuild the city in a new way, without walls, or at least without doors on its gates. You would think that they would be expecting that people from every nation would come to Jerusalem to see what God is doing there, because their God is the God of the universe and he does things differently. And you would be mistaken.
Nehemiah, the book, is Nehemiah, the person’s, account of the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God in Jerusalem. He recounts the trials that the surrounding nations put them through in trying to rebuild it. Nehemiah is pretty certain that God is behind him in this endeavor to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple after it was destroyed and looted by the Egyptians. He even re-tells the story of Israel in a poem in Nehemiah 9, including the blessing given to Abraham to be a blessing to all of the nations, the covenant with Moses and the people of Israel, and their failure to abide by this covenant. He seems to understand the history of Israel.
Out of context, the story of Nehemiah is one of triumph. They rebuilt the city of Jerusalem against all odds. In context, the story is rather disturbing, at least to me.
“Now when the wall was rebuilt and I had set up the doors, and the gatekeepers and the singers and the Levites were appointed, then I put Hanani my brother, and Hananiah the commander of the fortress, in charge of Jerusalem, for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many. Then I said to them, ‘Do not let the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot, and while they are standing guard, let them shut and bolt the doors…'” (Nehemiah 7:1-3).
Does Nehemiah not recall what the prophets said about Jerusalem? Does he not know that they said it was to be a city without walls, whose gates would never be shut? Is he joking?
“On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the the assembly of God, because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel” (Nehemiah 13:1-3).
They excluded all foreigners? Didn’t Isaiah prophesy over and over again that they were to be a light to all the nations, and that all nations would come into Jerusalem to see what was going on in Israel? Didn’t Nehemiah know that?
Nehemiah says over and over again in his account, “Remember me, O my God, for good.” This sounds to me like a plea of a person who doesn’t have any real understanding of the trajectory of God in history. He doesn’t understand what the prophets were getting at. Instead of creating a New Jerusalem and a new temple, Nehemiah simply resorts to rebuilding what once was. That’s not a good ending to the story of the Old Testament. Its just another tragic example of how we continue to not get it when it comes to what God is up to in this world. Because He is FOR everyone, and he is for EVERYONE. Nehemiah didn’t see that. I hope that we can.