Something greater is needed…

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We’ve reached the end of the Nehemiah study with SheReadsTruth and the challenge today is to consider the way that the book of Nehemiah ends. The city of Jerusalem and its walls have been rebuilt, the temple has been rededicated and the people have worshipped God enthusiastically and vowed to keep his law again.

Nehemiah returns to his old job in the service of the king in Babylon. Some time later he discovers that all is not well in Jerusalem. The people have been neglecting their offerings to the Levites, so the priests have been forced to abandon their work and return to their fields; the Sabbath has become just another regular working and trading day; the men of Judah had married foreign wives from the surrounding pagan nations, and their children couldn’t even understand Hebrew (so they would have no chance of being able to understand the word of God). Tobiah (him again!) has been given a room in the temple by one of the priests (a relative) and he’s using it to store his household furniture!

Nehemiah is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some hair pulling!

Even at the end of the book, when he’s reclaimed the temple back for God and reinstated the priests, the reader is left with the feeling that things are unlikely to continue to go well…

So why does the book end in this way?

I’ve considered three possible reasons:

1) God wants to show us that this pattern of enthusiasm followed by complacency and backsliding will always be a risk for his people whilst they live in a fallen world. Whilst we’re sin-prone humans, we will continue to mess up. We easily forget, we look away from God’s face, we get distracted by the shiny things in the world around us.

2) God wants to show us our need for Nehemiah-types. We need people who will stand up against wrongdoing and complacency in the church and get angry and pull some hair! We need to be called back by prophetic voices and shaken up when we’re wandering in the wrong direction.

3) Most of all, I think the message of Nehemiah is like the message of all the other books in the Old Testament. It’s the recurring story of all the heroes of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Kings. We need something greater. We need a greater Moses, a greater Joshua, a greater Joseph, a greater David, a greater Nehemiah.

We need somebody greater.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem before the Passover, he enters the courts of the temple and finds them to be full of people trading, swindling and robbing the poor in the name of religious effort (John 2:13-22).

Jesus is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some whip cracking!

Jesus promised to rebuild the temple of his body in three days when it was destroyed. This claim was misquoted against him in his trial before his crucifixion. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. He came to finish the work, to remove the yoke of atonement-by-law-keeping from his people. When he died, it was finished.

The message echoing through the pages of the Old Testament is the need for a permanent solution to the perpetual problem of sin. Jesus comes to provide this permanent solution.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Romans 3:19-25a

Remembrance

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been following a study series on the book of Nehemiah from SheReadsTruth. In the last two days we’ve reached the section where Nehemiah and his fellow workers have successfully rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and they have gathered together in order to hear God’s word read aloud. In chapter 8, Ezra reads God’s law to the people, standing on a wooden platform they have built for him. A group of Levites go amongst the people, helping them to understand what the words mean. The people listen attentively for several hours and then respond whole-heartedly to what they hear with weeping and mourning. They are convicted of the ways they have broken God’s laws and rebelled against him. However, Ezra and Nehemiah assure the people that the focus of the day is on renewal and celebration, not mourning:

“Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

In chapter 9, the Levites pray to God on behalf of the people and their prayer is preserved for us in Nehemiah 9:1-37. This prayer contains a description of the ways that God has dealt faithfully with his people and the ways that they have acted wickedly in return. The thing that strikes me as I read this section is just how many times God patiently and mercifully forgave his people and how generously he provided for them. Their repeated acts of rebellion and sin stand in stark contrast to the way God dealt with them.

This made me think about the way I feel when someone appears ungrateful or rude when I’ve tried to be helpful or kind. It’s a strong emotion that is provoked. As a sinful human, the emotion I feel is always tinged with some self-righteous selfishness and pride, which I do not have the right to feel. But our holy God is perfectly righteous and it is altogether appropriate for him to feel anger at our sin and holy jealousy for his own name and honour. His sorrow is pure and untainted and his heart is grieved.

I once heard it described in this way: God’s people have treated him in the same way as a child who sits on the father’s lap and slaps him in the face. A shameful image. And yet God is so patient and merciful with his people. He is so patient and merciful with us.

Jesus was subjected to humiliation and shameful abuse when he went to the cross for us. He died in order to provide a permanent solution to our fatal sin problem. I think it is so helpful to reflect, like the Israelites did, on where we have come from and what God has done for us. A sober evaluation of the ways we have sinned and rebelled against God can be an antidote to pride. Only when we have a correct understanding of just how far we were from God and what it cost him to save us, can we fully understand the joy that is ours.

“For you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.” Nehemiah 9:33

“Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.” Nehemiah 9:5