It takes a few weeks to build a wall. It takes a lifetime to build a community. Churches can be planted quickly, but real churches – living, authentic and sacrificial communities of Christians, take years and years to build. That work takes skill, patience, a willingness to press on through failure, setbacks through disloyalty and disinterest, and in it all, it takes the ever-present power of God’s grace.
And real communities are built on honesty and integrity. The years have moved on, and Nehemiah has had to be away from the community. What he unearths when he gets back is far from encouraging. Yes, the people have listened to God’s word, and have made big decisions about being serious in obeying it (vv.1–3). By the way, don’t mishear the command as sanctioned racism, that that community should be one of Israelites only – God purposed back then a people who would be true to Him in their marrying within their people, before He would send one who would be the Saviour of people of all races. If our first steps in obedience are not purposeful, what hope do we have that He will build in and through our own lines?
Nehemiah discovers that there is compromise in the community. Eliashib was best buddies with Tobiah, and allowed this pagan enemy of God to have all that he wanted in the temple (vv.4–5). Then Nehemiah steps in, and deals with this decisively (vv. 8–9). But that is not all that he discovers. The Levites and singers were unpaid, so understandably went off to earn their living (v.10). Nehemiah establishes new officials, and can only hope that these problems are solved (v.13).
If only. The sabbath is being desecrated, and Nehemiah has to get involved, ensuring that business stops for the sacred day (vv.15-22). The strain is, unsurprisingly, showing. When Nehemiah can see that some of the men in the community are raising children who speak in a pagan language, he explodes with rage (vv.23-28). Model leadership behaviour? Not by modern standards, and probably not by ancient standards, either. But just as Nehemiah drives one of these disobedient men away from him (v.28), we could say that their behaviour drives their leader to this rage. Authentic spiritual leadership can be exhausting, and lonely. Nehemiah is only human. And the community, after all, are only a bunch of sinners. Why should be expect any more from them?
A man would come, though, who would lead the people of God. He would provide them with walls of salvation. He would serve them to the extent of being driven to the cross, His beard pulled out. He would suffer and die on that cross, not to win one ethnic people, but people from all the nations on earth. Now today Jesus fills us with His Spirit, empowers to be dead to sin and alive to righteous, godly living. We will fail. We will let Him and each other down. He will lift us up again, and privilege us with the calling to build with Him for His community.
A Prayer to pray
Father, thankyou for Nehemiah. Thankyou for the strength, faith, courage and lvoe which You gave to Your servant. Thankyou, too, that he makes me look up to Jesus, the true Builder of God’s people. Help me to serve my community, to be humble, patient, faithful hardworking. And build a dwelling-place for Your glory in our church, Lord. Amen.