I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God... I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them... In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys... Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab.
Nehemiah 13:6-7, 10, 15, 23
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a joyous story overall. Yes, there have been struggles along the way; but the temple has been restored, the city walls have been rebuilt, the people have heard the word of God and committed themselves to keeping their covenant with him.
Chapters 11 and 12 of Nehemiah continue to unfold positively in describing the repopulation of Jerusalem (there’s no point having a city rebuilt if there’s no-one living in it), the identification of leaders (it’s one thing for the city to be repopulated, but the people need continuity and purity in leadership too), and the dedication of the walls.
And that would be a great place to end the book! Except... we have chapter 13 to go, and – to be honest – things fall apart, with an ending that’s decidedly downbeat.
Nehemiah had returned to the king who had originally sent him to Jerusalem. We don’t how long he was away, but when he came back, all the old problems had resurfaced. The temple and its staff were being neglected, the sabbath was being dishonoured, and mixed marriages were compromising families and confusing children. The people still needed restoration.
And so the book comes to an end – with a bit of a whimper, truth be told. Renewal had come about, but hadn’t lasted; promises had been made, but had been broken.
Perhaps more significantly, this is where the story of the Old Testament finishes. We’re left wondering when the promises will be fulfilled; we’re left looking forward to the time when there will be full and final restoration. So it is that the book of Nehemiah points beyond itself to a time when there really will be no sin, no sorrow, and no pain, with Jesus and his people dwelling in the new heavens and new earth, the hope of all those who belong to him.
For Christians, hope is not an optimistic belief in our capacity for self-reformation or our ability to change the world. It is God himself who will bring about the new creation. But our hope frees us to live expectantly and confidently, though realistically, in ways that seek to transform the places we inhabit in the here and now in line with what will be – not as an act of self-assertion, but as a response to God’s gracious promise.