by Shane Scott
When I began preaching at my first full-time work, I was super excited (as young preachers usually are!). I wanted to do some lessons to motivate the good people where I was ministering, and I felt like the Book of Nehemiah would be the perfect place to start. The church I was a part of had gone through some tough times, and the brothers and sisters were in need of a spiritual reboot. So, I began to read through Nehemiah’s work as he led the Jews in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, and then I wrote up some lessons for our spiritual rebuilding (it is so funny – thirty years later, I vividly remember the little electronic typewriter I used to write those lessons!).
And thus I preached my very first series, working from the initial message of catastrophe in Nehemiah 1 to the completion of the walls in Nehemiah 6. And that’s where I stopped. My series on Nehemiah didn’t even cover half of the book! It is a testimony to my inexperience that I assumed the most relevant part of the Book of Nehemiah was the first half’s description of the rebuilding of the walls. But as you know if you have studied Nehemiah, the more relevant (and challenging) passages in Nehemiah are found in chapters 7-13 as Nehemiah labored to spiritually renew the people and to reaffirm their faithfulness to God’s covenant.
This isn’t to say that the completion of the walls was an insignificant achievement. To the contrary! That the people were able to accomplish this work so quickly, despite being outmanned and overworked, all while surrounded by enemies, is a moving testimony to their commitment, to Nehemiah’s leadership, and to God’s providence. It was a stunning achievement worthy of the celebration described in Nehemiah 12:27-43.
However, there was more work to be done once the walls were finished – work that involved hearts and minds rather than bricks and mortar. The completion of the walls of the city was merely a means to an end, the much greater purpose of reestablishing the city of Jerusalem as the city of God for the temple of God and the people of God. Nehemiah knew that the work of restoration is never done, and that it was vital to maintain progress in the work of God.
This is vividly illustrated in the final chapters of Nehemiah. After the completion of the walls, Ezra read the Law to the people, who responded in obedience and repentance (see Nehemiah 8). Three weeks later, the people assembled with their leaders and prayed one of the most contrite and penitent prayers of confession found anywhere in Scripture (Nehemiah 9). This caused the people to commit in writing to the specific features of the Mosaic covenant they had neglected, refraining from mixed marriages (10:30); Sabbath observance (10:31); and providing for the house of God (10:32-39). This covenant renewal was followed by the reorganization of the city (Nehemiah 11) and the aforementioned dedicatory celebration (Nehemiah 12).
What a revival! What a transformation! Surely at this point Nehemiah could rest on his accomplishments! Remember those three covenant commitments the people made in chapter 10? Well, the people didn’t! In 13:1-14, Nehemiah has to clean out the temple storehouses so that the supplies for the Levites and their work could be collected and used. In Nehemiah 13:15-22, Nehemiah has to reprimand the people for violating the Sabbath by working themselves and doing business with foreign traders. And in Nehemiah 13:23-29, Nehemiah has to rebuke the Jews who married foreign women.
And what is most interesting to me is that, at the very end of the book, Nehemiah doesn’t ask to be remembered for his heroic leadership in the reconstruction of the walls. But three times (Nehemiah 13:14, 22, 31) Nehemiah does ask God to remember him for the work he did in calling the people to correction in this final chapter. Nehemiah understood that the work of restoration was never complete, and that the only way forward was to point the people back to the Law.
This very much hits home to me right now because our congregation is about to complete a construction project for a new place to assemble. The work on the new building has lasted right at a year, and we are all very excited to move into the new building. But I am also a little nervous, because it will be very easy for us to lapse into the mindset that says, “The walls are finished and our work is complete.”
For that reason, we studied Nehemiah together this year. And hopefully we have learned that God’s work in the lives of people is only finished when the day of eternity arrives. Until then, the work of restoration is always before us, whether in making disciples or in developing disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). And the way for us to maintain progress in this work is to do what Nehemiah did. Keep the word of God before the loved ones we lead, remind them of their commitments to God, and call them to repentance and restoration when needed.