Oftentimes Nehemiah is the book that gets preached through when a church-building campaign comes around. Or Nehemiah is used as an example of a prayerful, strategic, and effective leader for a series on leadership. But is seeing and teaching the book of Nehemiah through the lens of wall-builder or inspiring leader the best way to approach the book?
Aaron Messner, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests there is more. The building language of the book of Nehemiah is showing us something about the building up of God’s covenant people, the church, which is being built with living stones led by One greater than Nehemiah.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
Recommended Audio Resources
- Sermon series on Ezra, Haggai, and Nehemiah by Aaron Messner
- Sermon series on Nehemiah by Alistair Begg
- Sermon series on Nehemiah by Derek Thomas
Recommended Print Resources
- Nehemiah: Rebuilt and Rebuilding by Kathleen Buswell Nielson
- Ezra and Nehemiah: A 12-Week Study by Kathleen Buswell Nielson
- Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah by James Hamilton Jr.
Aaron Messner: All of us, if we’re studying the Bible and trying to teach the Bible, it’s because we’re convinced that the Bible is for us. If we didn’t believe that, at some level, we wouldn’t even be bothering to try. Dick Lucas had this great line that says, “The Bible is for us, but it’s not always immediately about us.” So we want to be very careful about very quickly trying to insert ourselves into Nehemiah’s situation and flattening out all the historical distinctive so that we can kind of spiritualize Nehemiah and make him as much like us as possible.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of the Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I’m in the office of Reverend Aaron Messner, who is senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Aaron, thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Messner: Yeah. It’s great to see you again, Nancy, and an honor to be with you.
Guthrie: Well, I saw you a few months ago. And we talked through the book that precedes the book we’re going to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the Book of Nehemiah. Last time we were together, we talked about the Book of Ezra. We had actually hoped to talk about both books in one episode, and you just had too much good stuff on Ezra. So I said, “Okay, well, we’ll meet up again.” And so that’s what we’re doing. And I can hardly believe now that I thought we would do that all in one episode because even as I looked through Nehemiah this morning, I just thought, there is so much good stuff here to talk about. So I appreciate you being willing to do that. And I think we’ll just dive right in because there is so much good stuff here.
So maybe the best thing, though, is for you to help set the scene because Nehemiah doesn’t just drop out of the sky, although maybe sometimes when we’ve heard it taught it did. But if we’re going to understand it right, we really have to understand where this is happening in history. Maybe we even need to understand a little bit of geography, and maybe we even need to review a little of Ezra to understand what’s going on here in Nehemiah.
Messner: I think we have to go back even a little further than that because I think what we have to understand is going all the way back to the Kingdom of Israel and understanding how because of the sin of Solomon, God actually divides the Kingdom of Israel into two kingdoms, the northern and southern kingdoms, and Israel being the northern kingdom, Judah being the southern kingdom. We see that the kingdom of Israel is a terribly wicked kingdom. They never have a single good king, and they’re eventually overrun and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. And there’s a small remnant from Israel that kind of flees down to the southern kingdom so that Judah really does kind of appropriately become all of Israel at that point. And they have this ebb and flow of good kings and bad kings. But eventually, the wickedness of that kingdom catches up with it.
And God warns through multiple prophets that he is going to send the Babylonians to destroy that kingdom, and they don’t listen, the kings. And yet, even in that prophecy of destruction, there’s also a prophecy of exile and a prophecy of ultimate restoration, so that…
Guthrie: And return.
Messner: And return. So even before Jerusalem has been destroyed, Jeremiah is already prophesying the rebuilding of the city. But Judah, the kings of Judah do not listen so the Babylonians come just as God has said. They destroy the city. And even before they destroy the city, we have to go back, they already gathered kind of the best and brightest of Jerusalem society and carry them off to exile. So Daniel is in that group. So even before Jerusalem is destroyed, there’s already a group living in exile in Babylon. And then, finally, the city is put under siege. It’s destroyed. The wall is knocked down. The whole city, the temple…the whole city is razed to the ground and burned with fire. There’s another wave that’s carried off into exile, and all that remains in Jerusalem is this little group of the poorest of the poor. It’s basically a pile of rubble, and it sits that way throughout the entire time of the exile.
So then we skip ahead. Cyrus, the Persian king, conquers the empire of Babylon. And as part of his royal rule, he allows the people to return to their homeland so they don’t have to remain in exile. And so, he gives the freedom for the Jews to go, gives them a blessing, gives them material backing so that this group goes back.
Guthrie: So that’s where we were in Ezra, “You can go back.”
Messner: And so they’ve now rebuilt the temple, and we say, “Woohoo, yeah, it’s great.” Except, what we then learn is the temple is rebuilt in about 515, but then there’s this extended period where nothing else seems to be happening. And so eventually then, Ezra in the 460s goes back in order to teach the law and to bring restoration to the people. And now we’re 20 years past that, so we’re in around 445, so here’s Nehemiah. He is a cupbearer to the king, a very prominent position, and someone comes back from Jerusalem and gives this report. And it says that Nehemiah, that he hears that the people of Jerusalem are in great distress. Great shame is on the city, things are in a dire way. And Nehemiah is devastated. This is new news to him. So why is that? Obviously, Nehemiah knows about the exile. He knows about the return. But I think Nehemiah expects that, “Hey, this group has gone back and rebuilt the temple. And Ezra has gone, and he’s been teaching the law.” So he’s expecting to say things are on the upswing, things are positive. But now here, 20 years after that, it turns out that the city is still abandoned, there’s no wall, the people are in…I mean, it’s just a situation of social, spiritual, physical still degradation, and Nehemiah is devastated by that. So this whole process that people have been going back and people have been seeking restoration, it seems to have amounted to very little.
Guthrie: So if we were trying to draw a mental picture of this for our people, if we were teaching them, maybe we would try to help them imagine that they were seeing this on the big screen, if we were a film director. You’d see this mountainous city of Jerusalem, and you’d see this rebuilt temple. Certainly it’s not as glorious as it was in Solomon’s day, but it’s there. But everything around it would be pretty much devastated.
Messner: I mean, as we find out later in Nehemiah, there’s no homes rebuilt in the city. There’s basically nobody living in the city. I think Nehemiah is hoping for this vision of Jerusalem in the process of being restored, and he finds out that despite all these efforts, there’s very little to show for it. There’s a temple and a city with no people, and no wall, and nobody’s living there. And it just grieves him to think here we are now 100 years basically after Cyrus has said, “You can go home.” And there’s very little to show for that.
Guthrie: So is Nehemiah’s sadness that we read about in Chapter 1, I suppose you could look at that and see just like mirror nationalism, like Jerusalem should be this strong, gleaming city. But when you read his prayer, you quickly discover his sorrow. There’s something about the broken down-ness of the city that’s saying something about the people that breaks his heart. What’s going on there?
Messner: In the Old Testament, God enters into a covenant with Israel. They’re his chosen people. And God gives to Israel, all kinds of promises, in which promises of land, promises ultimately of the City of Jerusalem in which God’s glory and God’s relationship to His people is connected in that this whole nexus of being in the Promised Land, and having the temple, and the City of Jerusalem being a place that is showing forth the honor and glory of God. So going back again to Jeremiah 31, there’s this promise that the city will be rebuilt, and it will be a place that is the City of God, that is giving glory and honor to God. And so it’s clear that Nehemiah’s grief is not just bummer, “Jerusalem was such a cool place, and I would have liked to have gone on vacation there.” He knows that Jerusalem is not just any city. Jerusalem is the city of our God, that is the centerpiece of God’s covenant promises to His people.
So part of the distress and shame of the City of Jerusalem is it speaks against…I mean, God’s name should be glorified in this city, and to have the city continue to be in rubble, the promises of Jeremiah 31 are not fulfilled. So there’s all kinds of angst connected to the glory of God and the welfare of his people, which is necessarily tied up then to the welfare of this city.
Guthrie: So here’s Nehemiah, and you mentioned he’s a cupbearer to the king, so the king of Persia at this time, Artaxerxes. How would you explain, if you’re teaching this, maybe how he got to that position, what that means? First question might be why wasn’t he one of those people, who at the beginning of Ezra we read that all those whom the spirit stirred up their hearts to return to Jerusalem, they went back, and we see that those are people who really have a love for and a longing for the city? So that’s one of the first questions maybe we have about Nehemiah, why hasn’t he gone back already? So I wonder if you can answer those questions, but also answer them in terms of when you’re teaching this, I mean, how much weight and time…how important is this?
Messner: When the original group of exiles return, it’s a small percentage of the Jews who are living throughout the Empire. And so that is celebrated and championed. And we don’t know why all the different folk. I mean, we don’t wanna say every person who didn’t go and went back was selfish and unfaithful. But, clearly, there was an opportunity to go back. And so, obviously, Nehemiah wasn’t of age to make that original trip back, but he probably was in terms of being able to go back with Ezra, maybe 20 years earlier, we don’t… So we don’t want to speculate too much about why Nehemiah doesn’t go back. What we do know is when we hear Nehemiah confess his sins, he confesses the historic sins of his people.
Guthrie: He strongly identifies with his people.
Messner: He identifies with them, but he also in a personal way, “I and my father’s house.” So we don’t want to read too much into that and say…but there’s some sense in which Nehemiah isn’t just saying, “Some people before me were sinful,” but he recognizes that he is indicted in that, that he and his father’s house have guilt. So there’s some sense in which Nehemiah recognizes that. So he could have gone back. He hadn’t gone back. I don’t think we want to spend too much time speculating, psychoanalyzing why because what we do want to say though is when he hears this report, maybe he didn’t think he was needed before. Maybe he thought everything was fine. When he hears this report, everything changes. And I think that’s what we want to focus on.
Guthrie: I think most often when I’ve heard Nehemiah taught, then a lot of time is put into this strategizing, not only the prayer, but his strategy of going before the king to ask the king’s permission, and then also to ask for materials. And I suppose a lot of that has been in the context of the way I’ve mostly heard Nehemiah taught, which would center on two things. Number one, you pretty much can expect a sermon series on Nehemiah when there’s a church building program. And then the other way I’ve heard Nehemiah taught was in a study I was in that was all about leadership. And so it used Nehemiah, set him up as an example of a leader, and certainly there are some things to follow there in terms of his prayer. And he does seem to have a good strategy all the way along here. But how do we keep from doing those things, or do we?
Messner: I think all of us, if we’re studying the Bible and trying to teach the Bible, it’s because we’re convinced that the Bible is for us. The Bible is God’s word that is for our benefit. If we didn’t believe that at some level, we wouldn’t even be bothering to try. Dick Lucas had this great line that says, “The Bible is for us, but it’s not always immediately about us.” So we want to be very careful about very quickly trying to insert ourselves into Nehemiah’s situation and flattening out all the historical distinctive so that we can kind of spiritualize Nehemiah and make him as much like us as possible. Instead, we want to say what is the role of this story in the story of redemption?
And so this is a story about God’s people in God’s place pursuing God’s glory in the context of His covenantal promises. So now we can say, “Okay, so how does that kind of a story relate to us?” And I think what the New Testament tells us again and again is that the stories of Israel are first and foremost to be applied to the life of the church, the spiritual Israel. So before we abstract Nehemiah as civic leader, business advocate, we want to say, “This is a story about the people of God, who are pursuing the covenantal promises of God in order for God to be glorified and His people to be built up.” And so then when we seek to apply it, we want to say, “This is first and foremost then a story for the church because we’re the people of God, we’re now living in such a way that we’re pursuing the covenant promises of God, and trying to live in light of them and pursue what he’s calling the church to do.” And I think even then, the building language of Nehemiah, the kind of building language that the New Testament uses is always about building up the church, building up the people of God. So the metaphors of living stones, which is the people being built up into a living house, or Jesus saying, “On this rock, your confession, Peter, I’m going to build my Church.”
So we want to think about this not first and foremost as just generic principles of human leadership but as the story of the people of God that is meant to be applied to the people of God as the people of God. It’s for the church. And so I do think there are a lot of things we can learn about church leadership, principles of how the church deals with persecution, and hostility, and embracing a sense of mission and what actually fuels the church’s activity. There’s a lot there. And I think you can say as a church leader, there’s a lot to be gleaned from Nehemiah, but then ultimately, church leadership is meant to point us to the great church leader, which is Jesus Christ, who is the head, and Lord, and shepherd of the church. And all church leadership is simply under-shepherds trying to execute His leadership.
Guthrie: On Chapter 2, Nehemiah makes the trip to Jerusalem. He’s out there in the middle of the night. Once again, to me, it’s a movie scene. You know, he’s on this horse, and he is going around amongst these broken-down ruins. And he goes, and he looks at all of the gates, and he sees this pile of burned stones, broken down burned stones, but these are the stones that he’s going to use to rebuild the city of God in a sense. And to me, that’s actually a beautiful opportunity if you’ve done exactly what you were talking about. If we look at this in terms of, “Okay, this is the people of God, this is the City of God,” and we understand that in the New Testament, it’s going to be about living stones and that’s us. I think the Chapter 2 in Nehemiah immediately gives us an opportunity to say, “What kinds of stones is he building his church out of?” And it’s not the perfect ones. It’s not the ones who’ve never been touched by hardship, who’ve never been burned, who’ve never been broken, but that he’s actually building his church out of ruined stones, which is good news for us as people.
Messner: Yeah. It’s majestic. And I think even going back to saying, “Okay, so here’s Nehemiah, who’s got this great grief and shame about the state of Jerusalem,” what’s in application there? Even to be able to say from the very beginning to say…and I think asking the question, “Do we mourn the broken state of the church? Does the affliction of the church throughout the world, does the faithlessness of the church here at home, does that grieve us? Does that drive us to pray where we’re now praying to God, ‘Use me for to contribute to the welfare of the church?'” And then to be able to say, “Okay,” and then that prayer, that empowerment by God because that’s a prayer he wants to answer and bless. He wants His church to be built up, and He’s using His people to that end, and then to be able to come and say, “Okay, now I’m going,” and to be able to say, “I think we can learn some things about the way Nehemiah actually approaches the work.” He doesn’t just show up in a kind of triumphalist way to say, “I’m here to rebuild the city,” you know, which we often see in the church, like “We’re taking this city for Jesus and we’re going to eliminate poverty, and we’re going to evangelize the whole world in the next 10 years.” Okay, well, he comes, he evaluates, he sees what’s going on, and he begins to move forward in action even before he moves forward in pronouncement.
I think there’s some wisdom to be gleaned there. And then ultimately, yes. What is the work he’s doing? Well, he’s rebuilding the wall using broken stones, burned stones, useless stones, and to be able to say, “That’s the very work that God is doing now through Christ, through the church, gathering up broken stones and building living stones.” And so I think that’s the kind of trajectory we want to see ourselves on is to say this is fundamentally a story about God’s people, pursuing God’s promises and God’s commands to be the people of God, and to live out corporately the life that he’s called us to live.
Guthrie: So in Chapter 3, he begins rebuilding the wall, and you’ve got this long list of the people who are basically going out to their section of town and rebuilding the wall. Maybe just a short word to us. Let’s say you’re doing a study of Nehemiah, you got to figure out how you’re going to break this up. I mean, this is one of many chapters in here that in many ways you can just look at and say, “Well, this is just a long list of detail. How am I going to go through all this? Give all these names and tell what part of the wall they rebuilt?” I mean, what would you do with that?
Messner: Well, I would say this, at Westminster, we always read the Scripture and we read it all. So I’ve read through…I mean, I think you can read through all these…
Guthrie: You must have to practice this chapter to get these names right.
Messner: Yes. Ezra and Nehemiah, some of these are the only times where the reading I was more nervous than the sermon. But I think as much as we can, we want to try to hone in to say…because this is not just true about Nehemiah. When the Bible gives us lists, genealogies, it does so for a purpose in the context of a story. It’s never just saying, “Now, let’s take a hiatus from the point, from the narrative, and let’s just give a meaningless list of names.” And so I think the question we want to ask is how is this serving the narrative? And I think this is a dynamic list. When you start to break down the details of this list and just start to say, “Okay. So who are these people?” Well, you have all kinds of religious leaders and, you know, professional religious folk, who are manning the wall, and they’re at work, and you have a list of people who are just people. Doesn’t seem to be anything distinct about them other than that they’re engaging their section. And what’s interesting, then you also have this list of some people, their vocation is listed. And their vocations don’t have anything to do with this wall building. One of them is a perfumer. Like, why mention that?
Some of them, it says, are actually focusing on the part of the wall that is, for some reason, nearest and dearest to them. It has the most direct impact on them in their life. Some people it says have come from various places to build a piece of the wall that seems to have no correlation to any immediate need of theirs. You start to put all those pieces together and say, “What do you have here?” You even have a guy who’s there with his daughters. So what do you have? Religious leadership, lay people, people who are operating way outside their areas of gifting and expertise, men and women all pitching together to serve for a common purpose. That sounds an awful lot like 1st Corinthians 12 or Ephesians 4, where you talk about all these various roles in the body, who are each…I mean, you could spend weeks on that to be able to say, “Sometimes God calls you to do things totally in your wheelhouse of gifting.” And sometimes he asks perfumers to go pick up stones because that’s what needs to be done in the life of the church. And they all do that. It’s not just religious leaders who are doing it. It’s not just…you know, it’s some people.
Sometimes, we’re going to do the work of the church in ways that are most immediately connected. We’re going to have parents who serve in the nursery because they have kids there. And sometimes, we’re going to have people who do work that is totally unrelated to personal interest, but yet they do it for the glory of God because they love the church more than they care about their personal interest. And to see the way all of that is now working together, I mean, what a beautiful tapestry of the way God is at work in His people to accomplish His purposes. And so I think, again, if you just think about this is a leadership principle, try to get people involved, but there’s something far richer with a connection between God’s people and God’s work, and God’s calling here and what he’s calling us to do and how he’s accomplishing that purpose.
Guthrie: When we get to Chapter 4, we get this opposition to the work. And these names are probably familiar to people, Sanballat and Tobiah, but maybe you can give us a little insight into what motivates them and where they came from because you began our conversation by giving us a little history of both the northern and southern kingdom, and it seems to me this is one place where understanding that comes in, but also understanding a little bit of geography around Jerusalem to understand what’s driving these people. Why are they opposed to this?
Messner: Well, I think two things. What’s interesting is God’s people and God’s place, from the beginning of the story, always face opposition. So the world in various capacities has never really been super excited to see God’s people flourishing and fine. So as a general principle, it’s not like this is an outlier in Scripture to say, “Here is one particularly odd instance where God’s people face opposition.” I mean, this is the story. So, at some level, you’ve got historic animosity between peoples. You’ve got Tobiah the Ammonite. You can go back and look at the people of Ammon and historic opposition between the Ammonites and the Israelites and the land and lingering hostilities and kind of, “Hey, the destruction of Jerusalem, that seemed like we won.” And now they’re coming back. But then, it’s even more complex than that because later in the book, we see that Tobiah is actually married into a prominent Jewish family. And so now, Jewish people who have kind of some vestige of power are now threatened by…
So there’s just personal pettiness involved, like even though it’s been terrible, we’ve kind of been in charge of the terribleness and now Nehemiah is coming in and he’s kind of exerting power. So now, you see these Jewish families, going to Nehemiah and saying, “Hey, you should support Tobiah. He’s a good guy,” and then going to Tobiah with all these negative reports. So, on everything from kind of historic rivalries between the Ammonites and the Israelites going back for centuries and just the personal pettiness of if you start doing well, that comes at the expense of our power and authority, all of that is wrapped up in this.
Guthrie: Well, this seems to be another beautiful place to bring in a picture of Christ. You were talking about how this has always been the case, the hostility against people. And a couple passages come to mind to me, and I wonder if maybe you have a couple that come to mind to you if you are teaching this and trying to draw out that larger picture. Like I think of Psalm 2, and here is this king in Psalm 2 and the nations are gathered around him and are raging against him. And similarly, Psalm 22, here’s this figure that they’re gathered around him. And then of course, if we go forward, we’ve got a person who is lifted up not on a wall working, accomplishing a great work for God, but instead lifted up on a cross. And just like we’re going to see in Chapter 4 that these enemies are saying, “Just come down. Come down from the wall. Stop your work.” It’s such an incredible picture, isn’t it? A foreshadowing of these enemies really who are around the cross and they’re challenging Jesus to come down.
Messner: Part of what you see in Chapter 4, and Chapter 5, and Chapter 6. It’s like these waves of trial, opposition. You have non-Israelites who hate the historic work of God in Israel. They’re Gentiles. They’re pagans. And then you have the people of God conspiring from within because they feel like their own personal authority is being threatened. You have attempts to pick off Nehemiah’s associates. And so, of course, then you get to Jesus. And so you’ve got the Romans, who ultimately execute him but because they’re actually serving the request of his own people who would rather see the Jewish Messiah executed than seeing their own power compromised, he’s betrayed by his own disciples. And so this internal and external persecution, yes, it points to the reality of Christ, and then it’s also a call to say, “Church, this is what you can expect,” because what’s happened to Jesus, he says, “That’s going to happen to you.” You can expect the world to hate you and conspire against you all the time. And after you overcome one trial, then the next trial comes, and you can expect trials to come from within.
If you’re in church leadership, I’m willing to hazard to guess much of your own personal trial actually comes from people working against you in the church. And you see that in the life of Jesus, and then you see that in the life of Paul. Paul spends a whole letter of 2 Timothy talking to Timothy about persecution all coming from within the church. So that’s where the story kind of applies on so many levels. So it’s the story of Israel pointing us to the story of the church, which is ultimately found in the story of Jesus. But then it works back out to say, “As we follow Jesus, these are the realities that we’re going to face.” And then I think we can also say, “And here are principles that we can begin to glean in wisdom to how to deal with those things.” It’s pointing us to Jesus and then the knowledge of who Jesus is is then instructing us how we are to live in the church in our day.
Guthrie: When we get to the middle of Chapter 6, it’s a relief to read these words in verse 15, “So the wall was finished on the 25th day of the month of Elul in 52 days, and when our enemies heard of it all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” That seems to me like a very key verse in this book.
Messner: This is a work that they said couldn’t be done. And as Eric Alexander pointed out, and I kind of, “Wow,” he’s an old Scottish preacher, that Nehemiah actually spends more time praying in Chapter 1 than it actually takes to rebuild the wall. He actually prays and fasts for a longer season than the actual wall. I mean, that’s how dramatic and amazing the wall completion is, so that everyone knows there’s only one way that could happen. It’s the Lord. It’s the Lord. Not only does the people of God recognize this, but even the enemies, but it causes them to fear. And so that’s part of the amazing character of this story that even in application, things that we are called to do as the church, the discipleship and sanctification of broken vessels. When you think about difficult people in your church who are struggling with sin, and you’re trying to lead them to repentance, and faith, and new obedience, and you throw up your hands and say, “I can’t even bring about the life reformation of one believer.” And then you look in the mirror and you say, “I can’t even do it for myself,” and on top of that, we’re supposed to go into all the nations and preach the gospel to all the nations and that God’s going to save a people for Himself from every tongue, tribe, nation, you say, “That can’t be done.”
And at the end of all history, we’re going to stand and go, “Wow, only God could have done that.” And he did it. And he actually used us to accomplish it. I mean, that’s the beauty of it. So they pray for the work, but they roll up their sleeves and they stand guard all through the night, and they work, and they work, and they work. And yet, at the end of the day, the conclusion of their work is only God could have done that. And that’s beautiful. I mean, that just summarizes the whole path of Christian ministry. We recognize how impossible the work is, we pray, we’re utterly dependent on God, and what does that dependence lead us to do? Work, give ourselves to the work, and then when the work bears fruit, we recognize only God could do that. Most people’s knowledge of Nehemiah is what is Nehemiah about? The building of the wall. And here we are in Chapter 6 and the wall is done.
Nancy: And there’s a lot more left in Nehemiah.
Messner: There’s a lot more book. So obviously, the book has a larger agenda than just that.
Guthrie: So we get to Chapter 7 after this because, okay, the wall is rebuilt and so there’s a big question, who’s going to live here? Who’s going to live here? And that’s where we come upon another one of these chapters that’s a long chapter of lists. They go back to a previous list, they pull out that list from Ezra, who are those people who came back when at first Cyrus said, “All those whom God has stirred up their hearts to go back.” So they start there. They want Jerusalem to be inhabited by people who love God, who want to live by His covenant and want to be in His presence, in His city. So what do you do with this long list of names of people?
Messner: So, this is one of those where the context is really important because the wall’s finished, but we get a clearer sense later in the book of what the problem is. So this is one of those examples where if you’re just teaching through the book verse by verse and you don’t actually know what comes next, then often you don’t even have the tools that the book is giving you to make sense of what you’re dealing with. So we complete the wall in 6, and it becomes very evident later in the book that the new challenge is we got to get people living in the city, building homes. Nehemiah’s mission was not to build the wall. Nehemiah’s mission was to see Jeremiah 31 fulfilled and to see the city rebuilt for the glory of God according to His Word.
So what’s interesting here now is, putting that in context, everything now begins to make sense because what Nehemiah, having built the wall, is doing is building to a place where people will say, “I’ll move into the city,” and everything that’s happening in 7 and 8 is moving forward to have a people whose heart is warmed and burning with that zeal to do that. So even before the list of names, there’s just this brief little verse about how he’s appointed the Levites and the temple musicians, and you think, “Well, that’s interesting. So why weren’t they already there?” So at some level, it seems like the temple has been built, but full-orbed worship has not been taking place. And so he starts to say, “We got to rebuild worship.” And as part of that rebuilding worship, in order to inflame a people for God’s glory so they will do what God commands, he gives this list of names. Why? Well, in context, I think it actually starts to become clear that what he’s going to do in a few chapters is he’s going to call on people to say, “I need you to leave your more comfortable existence in the outskirts of Judea. And we need people who will move into the city, who will start from scratch, who will rebuild a home, who will begin to live in this city for the glory of God. We need people to do that.”
So in that context, it says, “Hey…” and when we call you to do that, we’re just building on the work that was done before. I’m asking you to move 10 miles, to move into the city. This list of brothers and sisters, they moved 1000 miles. They came back here when there was nothing. There was no wall. They came back, and to be able to celebrate, this is what God’s people have done. We’re a part of this glorious train. We’re continuing the story and so to be inspired by the work of God’s faithfulness of what has gone on before. And this is something the scripture does. The scripture often provokes the faithfulness of God’s people by calling them to remember the faithfulness of God’s people who have gone before and to say God was at work, and God did something with them, and we’re not just…that was an episodic cool story, but we’re a part of that same story. So we’re carrying forward that legacy. And we do this all the time. We not only see it in the Scriptures, that’s why we read Christian history to say, “We’re a part of that story. We’re inspired by those stories.” And so I think that’s what’s happening here. I mean, he could say, “Yeah, it’s the same list with some small discrepancies as Ezra 2. So why do it again?” Because it’s serving a different purpose. In Ezra 2 it’s saying, “Hey, these are the folks who came.” Now it’s saying, “Look back, remember, celebrate and participate in that.” And so he’s stirring them to then make that call, which is coming up to say, “Now I need you to do the same.”
Guthrie: When we get to Chapter 8, it’s another scene in which we wish we had a movie maker skill. We read, “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate, and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses so that the Lord had commanded Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard and on the first day of the seventh month. And he read it facing the square,” and it’s this incredible picture of him reading the book of the law, and then we get to verse 6, “And Ezra, bless the Lord, the great God and all the people answered, ‘Amen. Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and they worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” And then you’ve got these Levites who seem to be running around, explaining, helping the people to understand.
So he pulls out Deuteronomy, perhaps, and he begins to read it. But if you think about Deuteronomy, maybe we’re gonna need some people to explain to us what some of those things mean, or how am I going to apply that to my life today and the Levite seem to be doing this with the people. And it’s an incredible picture of how they respond to God’s word being read to them. They want to obey.
Messner: So it’s not accidental that there’s this definite need. There’s an action that needs to take place in the people of God. People are gonna have to move into the city and begin to live in a particular way for God’s glory. How does he begin to bring that about? He appoints in, 7, Levites to restore…temple musicians to begin a full-orbed restoration of worship, and then we read the Word of God, the blessings, the curses, the challenges, the promises. We read the Word of God, we explain the Word of God, there’s reverent listening to the Word of God, and it’s the Word of God that then is the primary catalyst to bring about God’s people doing the work that he’s called them to do. As we’ll see in Chapter 9, that’s going to lead the people into confession, and ultimately, it’s going to lead them into commitment and action.
There is tremendous profundity in terms of application for the church. In the church today, we often…pastors, church leaders can settle in on things we would like to see the church accomplish. And so we say, “Well, how do you get the church to do what they’re supposed to do?” “Well, you tell them what they need to do. We need to call these people to action, and we need to create some programs, and call for volunteers,” and there’s this relentless pursuit of the outworking of Christian activity. And often, that is done at the great neglect of the ministry of the word and prayer, because we say, “Wait, wait, wait, we know, we need Bible and prayer, but what we need is action.” Where does Christian action come from? Real obedience. We know it comes from love. We obey because we love God. And why do we love God? Because we know God’s love for us in His story of redemption, and His grace and His mercy. And where do we hear any of that? It’s from the Word of God. It’s the Word of God that calls us, tells us who God is, it’s the context then of worship where the Word of God is read, and explained, and preached, in which we hear who God is, and what God has done for us, and all the ways that we failed Him, and we’re led to confession, and we know that there’s forgiveness, and a pardon, and joy, and then out of that we say, “We want to commit ourselves to the Lord’s purposes,” and then they do what the Lord has called them to do.
It’s not a random progression. And so I think there’s just incredible wisdom for the church. And in some ways, this is the centerpiece, all the activity of God is fueled by God’s people taking in the Word of God. The reverent reading, the reverent listening, and the diligent explanation is what produces this response.
Guthrie: And it’s not begrudging obedience because when we continue here, it says, “This day is holy to the Lord, your God. Do not mourn or weep,” because their initial instinct is to mourn over their sin, but then we see they have incredible joy for the joy of the Lord is your strength. It’s going to be this joy in the Lord that’s going to give them what they need to obey.
Messner: What do they do? They celebrate the Feast of Booths, which we tend to go, “Okay, whatever.” But what is that? It is a response to the Word of God in which they’re now celebrating that God was with us. He sustained us in the wilderness. He brought us out of Egypt so we’re not here alone. And so we want to go back to that story. We want to live in that story. That story is our story, worship producing obedience. Let’s celebrate the story of redemption. And I’m pretty confident that when the living active word of God is read, and heard, and explained, that is the catalyst that God is pleased to use, to change the heart, to warm it, to motivate it, to drive it into action. And often, we neglect the source because we’re so interested in the end product.
Guthrie: In Chapter 9, if we wanted a chapter of the Bible that gave us, in some ways, a summary of the history of the Old Testament, this is kind of it. Why does it fall here? What’s its purpose of being included in this Nehemiah narrative?
Messner: The Nehemiah narrative is a chapter in the great story. And Nehemiah recognizes that. He recognizes, “Hey, we’re not on some chronological island to ourselves just working out our own issues. We’re a part of a people. We’re a part of a story. There is generational consequence to sin, which has affected us and we’ve contributed to it.” And so to recognize and what God has begun, I mean, again, Nehemiah is not just trying to make his present-day as nice as he can. He is self-consciously participating in God’s story where he wants to see God’s glory revealed in God’s place. And so he knows. For generations, we haven’t done what we’re supposed to do. The right hearing of the word of God leads us to worship, but part of that worship is we confess our sins and we recognize that we are part of a people of God and we are affected by those sins, we’ve contributed to those sins, and our only hope is in God’s forgiveness and grace.
I think this is challenging because this is something I think that the contemporary church should wrestle with. As Americans, we don’t want to have any part of identification with anybody else’s sins but ours, “That was me. I didn’t do it,” but to be able to say, “I’m a part of a church that’s affected by the things that have gone on before, and that’s my story and those are my people.” Nehemiah doesn’t say, “Well, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there back in the wilderness. I don’t want it.” No, he says, “That’s my people. That’s our story,” in the same way that I have just gotten through celebrating the faithfulness in that list of names and to say their faithfulness blesses us today. We’re continuing that on. Part of the story is, “Hey, and we’re also caught up in that sin and God’s grace is sufficient for all, for the whole people throughout all of history. So we come before you, we confess that sin.”
Guthrie: And they make some determinations about how they’re going to live. They’ve heard that word, they’re going to be keeping the Sabbath, they’re going to marry, or they’re going to refuse to marry pagans who bring their pagan gods into that marriage rather than forsaking those gods. And just because our time is short, I want to jump forward to Nehemiah 13 because it’s been some years. Nehemiah has left Jerusalem for a while, maybe gone back to serve the king. Then, he comes back to Jerusalem. When he gets back, he’s thoroughly disappointed about what he sees.
Messner: If you’re hoping that Nehemiah is the grand crescendo of the story and say, “Yay…”
Guthrie: It all worked out.
Messner: “We rebuilt the temple. We rebuilt the wall. We got people living in the city and now, you know, the glory of God is fully on display now and forever.” You’re sorely disappointed. There’s some harsh action that’s taken here and part of that is harsh words. Sometimes we get hung up on this in our day and age because we think this is somehow like ethnic animosity, who are trying to maintain ethnic purity in these marriages. But the reality is it’s spiritual purity. We are a distinct people. And we know from history that one of the great ways that the people of God have been theologically compromised, warned not to but have done it anyway and have been theologically compromised is through intermarriage with other peoples who have other gods. And in many ways, that puts the whole identity of the people of God at stake going forward. And so Nehemiah has got to come in and say, “This cannot happen.”
Guthrie: So in Chapter 13 verse 23, it says, “In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab.” So he comes back, and, you know, previously, they had confessed their sin and they said, “We’re going to obey God,” and they’re saying they’re not going to do this, but he comes back and time has passed and they are marrying these foreign wives, and the verse 24, “And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod and they could not speak the language of Judah but only the language of each people.” So he comes back into Jerusalem, the city he left in such a glorious state and discovers that now it’s becoming once again filled with the worship of false gods. And it’s not just that they’re intermarrying, there’s this huge offense…you mentioned earlier Tobiah, this foreigner who had married into the family. And here, after they’ve rebuilt the temple, he comes back and what have they done? They’ve like made an office, given Tobiah a place in the temple of the Holy God…
Messner: Yeah, verse 28, one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib, the high priest was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. So here you have Sanballat, who his children are now married with the children of the high priest. I mean, so it’s like compromised at the highest and deepest level. I think there’s a couple things. One is as you go through the story of Nehemiah, there’s plenty of places where you want to say, “Yay, we won.” And that kind of momentary victory just gives way to the next challenge. And that can be really discouraging. A lot of times as Christians, we want to say, “Hey, we’ve crossed this hump, and now it’s…” Until Jesus comes back in glory, the battle continues. There’s a never-ending spiritual battle for the welfare of the church. That victories are just met with new challenges. And so I think you see that in Nehemiah where you have the victory of the wall being built and it just turns right into the next challenge, the opposition comes right back, and then you withstand certain oppositions and then boom, there’s another one. And then you finally get everything completed, and you get ready for this next challenge, and you have these exciting moments and then bang, you’re beset by this.
So there’s a lesson for the church in that, but also there’s a sense in which these…you get to the end of Nehemiah and you don’t know how things really turn out. Nehemiah just says, “Hey, remember me? Oh my God for my good, bring judgment and justice on what’s going on here and remember me for my good, because I don’t know if the people are gonna remember me. I don’t really know how this story works out so I’m just gonna have to entrust myself to the Lord.” And you get to the end of Nehemiah and, you know, this is really the last kind of historical moment in the Old Testament and you just say, “This can’t be the end of the story. It can’t be the end.” I mean, so there’s just…and I think that’s intentional. There’s got to be someone who can come along because as great as Nehemiah is, he doesn’t bring lasting, eternal blessing, and cleansing to the people of God. So you’re just saying, “Someone else has got to do that.” I mean this is the last historical moment in the Old Testament and you’re just saying, “Please, please, don’t let the story end this way,” and thanks be to God the story doesn’t end this way because this great need is ultimately satisfied by the one who comes and who does cleanse the temple, and who does bring full atonement for all the sins of God’s people, past, present, and future. This is the one who then is risen incorruptible and gives us an inheritance that is undefiled, and imperishable, and kept in heaven for you. And he does and will sanctify all the people completely. And, of course, this is the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so Nehemiah is ultimately a dreadful story if this is the end of the Old Testament, which historically it is. And you just say, “I don’t even want to read this…I hate this story. It can’t end this way. This is a terrible ending.” And it just creates this, “Please God, please make the story right.” I mean, that’s Nehemiah’s plea at the end, and he does make it right. He does make it right. So our hope is in the one that Nehemiah is pointing to, the Lord Jesus Christ, the builder, the one who is laboring, the architect and builder of the heavenly city and the people of God is God, and it’s the Lord Jesus Christ, and he’s the one who will, has and does and will begin and complete this glorious work of salvation for a people of every tongue, tribe, and nation in the New Jerusalem. And that’s the trajectory we’re on. And we get to be a part of this story, and this story now is our story, and we don’t have to serve with any kind of ambiguity about the ultimate end. We know it, we know it, and that gives us the labor to worship, to be fed and fueled by the word so that we too can be called to take on the obligations of the covenant, to serve faithfully and being used by God to do the work of building up the people of God across the nations. And it’s exciting.
Guthrie: So when we finish Nehemiah, and we’re teaching it, it seems to me like you couldn’t end just right here at the end of Nehemiah because of this disappointment. But that actually in a teaching series of Nehemiah, you would want to end in Revelation 21 and 22, which is a story of a city with walls that are built and that’s the city that’s populated by these people who are pure, and who have taken hold of the covenant from the heart and they are safe and they’re enjoying the presence of God in their midst like never before.
Messner: Yeah. Forever.
Guthrie: Well, why don’t you end this way, if you would, Aaron, would you just speak directly to the person who might be preparing to teach Nehemiah and give them a word of challenge, encouragement in their preparation for teaching?
Messner: So one is to say, it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure I can catch all the historical references, you know. The likelihood that I’m going to faithfully overturn every little rock, and every little people group, and every little quirk of every little list,” [vocalization] you know, and you might say, “I’ll never get it all so I won’t even try.” But to be able to say, “There is a very clear, coherent message in which we can clearly see God through His chosen servant is doing a work, building up the people of God in God’s place in the pursuit of and in light of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.” And we can then learn from that and see a pretty clear application to that’s what we’re called to today. We’re called to be the people of God who are laboring to fulfill God’s purposes. And we can think about some of the particulars and how that might affect, but that grand story I think is pretty clear.
And I think that there’s real hope that I can sit down and read this book, and I don’t have to be an unbelievable scholar on the ancient Near East and understand all. But I can see this story of how God is working in His people here, and this is written for our instruction so that we may be the faithful people of God in our time, in our place, in light of the fact that we know Jesus has come. He’s accomplished this great work and it’s in light of what Jesus has accomplished that he’s now setting us for it to do the work of laboring to be used by him for the building of his church. And that’s a work that can’t fail. The gates of hell can’t prevail against the onward march of the church. The church will be built, it will be established, and he can use the teaching of Nehemiah to aid us in that process.
Guthrie: Thank you so much, Aaron.
Messner: You’re very welcome.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition, sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracts including, “Ezra and Nehemiah: A 12-week study” by Kathleen Nielson that may help you if you’re wanting to lead a small group through the study of Ezra and Nehemiah. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.