Nehemiah was a pretty cool guy, and some actually call him a type of Christ. He was a fervent leader who had a big heart for his people (the Jews) and for God. He led fearlessly and efficiently and in a calm and collected manner in spite of fear. He was patient and gracious toward the people he led, though they tended to be counterproductive.
He was probably born and raised in the courts of King Artaxerxes of Persia in the fifth century BC. He was the cupbearer to the king, which was a privileged position back then, and meant that he must have earned the respect of the people he served. When news reached him that his people were in distress and in disgrace, the year was around 445 BC, and Nehemiah was distraught.
When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
But Nehemiah waited on God even though he was distressed. He didn’t take things into his own hands, but continued praying and seeking God. In fact, the news was brought to him in “the month of Chislev” (which is November/December) and did absolutely nothing except pray and mourn and fast until the month of Nisan of the following year (March/April).
One of the characteristics of Nehemiah that I liked so much was his opposition to fear. Fear is our greatest enemy and lies to us to keep us from doing the will of God. But Nehemiah handled fear so well throughout his life. When the king first called him out on his sadness in the month of Nisan after the terrible news had reached him, Nehemiah was overcome with fear, perhaps because he was afraid of how the King of Persia would react:
So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid.
But despite his fear, he was honest and open to the king about everything he had been sad about. As a result, the king granted Nehemiah permission to go home and rebuild! This was the king’s trusted cupbearer and probably someone that would be hard to just let go! Had Nehemiah given in to fear and not have confessed, his purpose would have been left unfulfilled.
I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.
Then I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.”
The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date.
Nehemiah also faced a ton of opposition and intimidation rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem. Even the people he led were stricken into a panic. But Nehemiah kept calm throughout the opposition, recognizing the enemy’s voice for what it was. He implemented a strategy that would keep them safe, encouraged the people, and returned to work, as if the army of those who wanted to murder him and his people didn’t phase him:
And our enemies said, “They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work.”
When the Jews who lived near them came, they said to us ten times, “From all the places where they live they will come up against us.” So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.
After I looked these things over, I stood up and said to the nobles and the officials and the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”
When our enemies heard that their plot was known to us, and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.
I love this about Nehemiah! He just didn’t give into the big voice of fear that spoke to him. He was convinced it was God’s will to rebuild, and anything that opposed that he considered his enemy and something not to give in to. He always kept God in the equation, prayed for His help, and then moved forward toward the goal.
There are SO many great characteristics of Nehemiah I could talk about! It’s an excellent book to study if you want a great example of godly leadership. The only other characteristic of Nehemiah I’ll mention was his graciousness and patience toward His people.
After Nehemiah completed and dedicated the wall, the people were on fire for God and wanted to wholeheartedly obey Him. They renewed the covenant with God and vowed to keep separate from the foreign nations so as to keep holy and clean as God’s people:
The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites…and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to adhere to the law of God…enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord…
But as soon as Nehemiah left to return to the King of Persia, the people lost their original fervency and started backsliding.
After sometime, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and found that the people were not continuing in the reforms they had made. Eliashib the priest made a room for their enemy, Tobiah, who had opposed the rebuilding of the wall, in the temple of God! The people had stopped tithing so that the priests had to work in the fields for money (when they were supposed to be teaching the law), they were violating the sabbath, and they continued to marry foreign women.
You can imagine how angry Nehemiah probably was with the people:
And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons…”
But Nehemiah didn’t lose all patience and just give up on them and return to Persia. He rebuked them but stood by them and helped them get back to where they were.
Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering, at appointed times, and for the first fruits.
It is such a beautiful picture of the graciousness that God shows His followers today. He is slow to anger, and though we are rebuked and corrected, it is usually with great gentleness, as He’s not quick to grow weary. He is so zealous for us that He continues to give us strength and opportunities to obey Him. This is the picture of a good shepherd!
After Nehemiah, we studied the Book of Malachi, the last recorded prophetic activity before Jesus came! Malachi probably ministered some time after Nehemiah and Ezra’s ministry in the fifth century BC. Malachi dealt with similar but different problems than Nehemiah had after the Jews had returned from captivity.
Malachi was probably one of my favorite prophetic books because it basically shows how man is unable to love God the way He ought to be without His help.
The priests, who were supposed to represent God’s holiness, teach the people the law, and lead the people into sincere worship, had turned corrupt. They themselves had stopped fearing God and thus were disqualified from the priesthood:
When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor?
…you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi…
The priests had neglected their sole purpose and as a result lost favor with God. And God told them that in the end, all nations would worship Him, with or without their help:
I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts…For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations…
Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations.
It’s not that God wanted the people to suffer in their sacrifices, but He wanted them to trust Him completely for their sustenance, not in their own wealth and alliances with man. The sacrifices were to point toward His worth, but they were “offering polluted food” that did not reflect the worth due to Him.
The bottom line was that the priests were unable to fear God the way God wanted all of mankind to fear Him.
But really, no matter who was in the position of the priest, no man apart from the help of His spirit would ever be able to meet His standards. The entire story of the Old Testament pretty much proves that.
Just listen to what God required of the priests, and ultimately, mankind:
My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being, which I gave him; this called for reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.
He was supposed to fear God, teach truth, never be wrong, turn people away from their sin, and walk in complete integrity. I mean who can seriously do that apart from God!? Even when Christians do receive His Spirit, our hearts don’t look that way, at least not for the majority of our lives.
But that’s what makes Jesus so amazing. Instead of giving us wrath, He decided to send His son, who was the perfect fulfillment of the priesthood that God required for the cleansing of His people.
Studying the Old Testament has given me such a greater understanding of why Jesus was needed. Before it seemed a little bit weird and mystical, but everything makes so much more sense in light of the history of God’s people. I’m more in awe of what God did, and what He could have done but chose to do instead.
I’ll never forget the quote from the prophet Zechariah, which might be one of my favorite passages from the prophetic books:
But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts…Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing…Just as I purposed to bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors provoked me to wrath…so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem…
The entire nation was supposed to be a blessing to the other nations; that was their only purpose, and it began with the priests. This is why Malachi came down on them so harshly, because they were leading people away from fulfilling their purpose and pleasing to God.
I learned from Malachi that the only way to live the best life is to serve God. Before this school, I never really had God’s heart for justice, mercy, generosity, discipleship, etc. I knew these were good things, but I still wasn’t fully committed to these.
But now my purpose has been shifting around loving the things God loves, like justice, mercy, and worship. I know I don’t have to be perfect or have a “missionary-like” vocation, but it does require devotion to Him, no matter what season and job God calls me to.
After reading the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, I just came to this conviction that in the end, it’s all about God and His heart for this world, so why would I want to do my own thing? I want to be a part of His ultimate goal for this world because that’s truly what matters the most. I don’t want to miss the purpose of my life like the priests had from the Old Testament. I know that it sounds elementary, but this conviction has steered my heart more on course with what God has in mind for me. What exactly that looks like, whether I return to the corporate world or stay in YWAM, I just have to take it step by step, with God at my side.