Ezra-Nehemiah: Building for God's Kingdom When It Seems FutileSeries: Overviewing the Bible
Do you remember the last time you were working hard for something and came to a point when you realized everything you had done was in vain? Maybe a project or a relationship. As we saw in Isaiah and 2 Corinthians last week, Jesus has had those moments where everything seemed vain. Paul had those moments too. Ezra-Nehemiah steps deep into the problem of work and futility. I want to look at the big picture message of this book because it’s perspective on futility has encouraged me.
Before Ezra-Nehemiah (History)
- God set Israel free from Egypt to build a holy nation which was distinct from all peoples. They wouldn’t do work, relationships, worship, or anything like the nations. They would be holy as God is holy.
- But they did not destroy the idolatrous nations in their land as God commanded them to. They lived among the idolaters. It didn’t take long for Israel and Judah to look just like the people. So God sent them away to Assyria and Babylon in the East. Jerusalem was in ruins.
Before Ezra-Nehemiah (Prophecy)
- Over 800 years before, God worked wonders against Egypt and parted the seas to set his people free from Egypt. Now, God began proclaiming that he would do the same thing to set Israel free from the East in a new, bigger Exodus.
- Nations would no longer fight Israel, they would actually help the returnees rebuild the walls at Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 60-61).
- There would be a new temple that was bigger and better than the first (cf. Ez. 40ff).
- God’s Spirit would work in people’s hearts - causing them to obey the Lord (cf. Ez. 36).
- God would be their king, lawgiver, and judge (cf. Isa. 33:22).
- The dead of Israel and Judah would be raised and they would be united under a king like David (cf. Ez. 37).
- Their enemies would be crushed. Zion would be filled with joy, song, prosperity, peace, and righteousness.
Ezra-Nehemiah Narrative Overview
Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of how God began this restoration and gave them a small taste of the future Zion. This book tells us about three stages of this exodus from the East.
- Ezra 1-6 (539-515 BC). Cyrus King of Persia conquered Babylon and declared that the Lord had charged him to build a house/temple in Jerusalem. The captives were free to go home. So 50,000 people, including Zerubbabel and Jeshua, returned to rebuild the temple. Prophets like Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people by prophesying of the future God had promised them, if only they would keep working and stay faithful.
- Ezra 7-10 (458 BC ff). Fifty-five years later, Ezra had set his heart to study, do, and teach the Law of Moses. He asked King Artaxerxes if he could return to Jerusalem to beautify the temple and teach the Law. The Lord was with Ezra and King Artaxerxes not only allowed it, he and his officers contributed sizably to the project and commanded that it happen. So, Ezra led a crew of about 2,000 back to Jerusalem.
- Nehemiah 1-6 (446BC ff). Twelve years later, Nehemiah was a Jewish cupbearer to the king of Persia. But he heard the walls of Jerusalem were still in rubble nearly 100 years after everyone had returned. He was distraught. So, he prayed, made a plan, and asked the king for help. The king not only allowed Nehemiah’s plan, he ordered that both materials and protection for the journey be provided for him. Few if any were living in Jerusalem, so Nehemiah encouraged the returnees outside Jerusalem to rise up and rebuild the wall.
But none of this work was easy. The returnees and their leaders faced serious challenges.
- External Challenges. The idolatrous Samaritans living near Jerusalem acted like they wanted to serve the Lord with Israel. They even said they wanted to help with the temple. But they only wanted to see Jerusalem fail. They did everything they could to stop the work on the temple and the wall. They sent letters to the King of Persia. They bribed workers. They tried to cause Nehemiah to disobey the Law of Moses. They tried to kill Nehemiah. The prophets said the nations would help them rebuild and would grab hold of the Jews and genuinely want to come worship with them. Some foreigners cleansed themselves to worship with Israel, but this opposition was unexpected.
- Internal Challenges. When Ezra taught the Law of Moses, it was clear the people were not living in alignment with it in two major ways. First, they discovered that the people, priests, and Levites had intermarried with the idolatrous people of the land - something God had commanded against so the Israel didn’t become like the nations. Second, Nehemiah discovered that the leaders and the rich among the returnees were taking advantage of their poor brothers and sisters. They were charging them interest and taking their fields and children when they couldn’t repay their debts. The prophets had said that God would put his Spirit in the people and they would obey God’s commands. They had said a king like David would execute justice and appoint shepherds who cared about the people. They tasted some of these things, but this was not the restoration they hoped for.
These challenges were extremely discouraging. Though there was a time when the work on the temple stopped, on the whole, the leaders and the prophets prayed, worked, and encouraged the people tirelessly. “Lord, help us!” “Don’t stop working on the temple. Don’t stop working on the wall. Correct these sins.” With the Lord’s help, they finished the temple, they beautified it, they repented of sin, and they completed the walls in just 52 days. Nehemiah 6 tells us that the nations around them were afraid because they knew God was with Jerusalem.
But the very next sentence starts preparing us for a depressing finish to this book. Even after the walls were finished, many in Judah - especially the nobles - were keeping the enemy of Jerusalem, Tobiah, apprised of everything going on inside the city. The walls were meant to separate Jerusalem from the nations and give them safety, but their purpose was ignored.
On the surface, Nehemiah 7-12 is encouraging. Nehemiah counts the people to make sure they are all of Israel - not posers. They celebrate the Feast of Booths like never before. Ezra and others read the law. The people discover more sin and they weep and mourn over it. They call out to God and confess their sin. But they don’t stop there - they actually detail everything they are doing wrong and they sign a new covenant with the Lord. They promise:
- To keep the Law of Moses (10:28-29)
- To not intermarry (10:30)
- To not buy on the Sabbath (10:31)
- To forego crops and free debtors every 7th year (10:31)
- To contribute and work to ensure the house of God isn’t neglected (10:32-39)
- They separated from Ammonites and Moabites (13:1-3)
Yet, Nehemiah tells us in chapter 13 that after he left and returned to Jerusalem years later, he found that the people had completely failed to keep their new covenant with the Lord.
- Tobiah, the enemy who opposed rebuilding, was living in the temple storehouse where contributions were supposed to be kept (13:4-9).
- The Levites had left the work in the temple to do secular work because they couldn’t survive since the people were no longer contributing to help their work (13:10-14).
- The people were carrying on with work as usual on the Sabbath - treading winepresses, buying and selling all kinds of goods with foreigners (13:15-22).
- There were people who had married again to the people of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab and had children with them. Their children couldn’t even speak Hebrew!
For 100 years they had done all this work to rebuild the temple, teach the Law, and rebuild the wall; yet, the temple was defiled and forsaken, the Law was broken, and the wall was ignored. The book ends telling us how Nehemiah dealt with each of these situations and “cleansed them from everything foreign,” but that doesn’t remove our suspicion that Nehemiah’s reforms probably didn’t last. This conclusion is unexpected and depressing.
Why Was Ezra-Nehemiah Written?
If you search for books on Ezra and Nehemiah, you will find many books declaring “secret to good leadership.” “With the good leadership and the right approach, God’s people can accomplish anything!” Clearly, books, sermons, and classes like these are misled. These kinds of approaches to Ezra-Nehemiah - and really the whole Bible - have to be so frustrating to God. Take his carefully crafted word, reinterpret it with a lens that seems more relevant, smooth over the odd bits that don’t fit our theme, and write a book, teach a class, preach a sermon as if the narrative of the Bible is source-material for self-help lessons. When we do that, we miss the God-inspired lessons that enter into the human condition in a deeper way and wrestle with our struggles in more profound ways. So, why was Ezra-Nehemiah written? Let's consider three practical big picture lessons that jump from the page as we consider the whole book.
1. Ezra-Nehemiah builds our messianic hopes. Prophets spoke of how the restoration and transformation of Israel would happen through a Davidic king and the Holy Spirit. No matter how hard-working Ezra, Nehemiah, and others were, they couldn’t circumcise people’s hearts and cause obedience like the Spirit can. They can’t restore justice to God’s city like the Messiah can. God still worked through the people in these days and gave them tastes of what the future restoration and return back to God would look like. But the faithlessness Nehemiah has to correct at the end of this book reminds us that the restoration hasn’t been completed yet. It teaches us to rely on God’s king and Spirit to restore what humans alone cannot restore. If people will not submit to Jesus as King and to God’s Spirit, they aren’t going to submit to us. God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but the time for restoring all things will not come until Jesus comes from heaven. Nehemiah couldn’t restore Israel and we cannot restore God’s kingdom alone, but we can hope in the king.
2. Ezra-Nehemiah motivates us to keep laboring toward the promises of God when it seems futile. God made promises. God is sovereign. God was certainly at work, but his promises seemed to be failing. That didn’t cause Ezra, Nehemiah, or others to give up. They worked tirelessly towards the fulfillment of God’s promises. And God responded by working through them for the betterment of God’s people and city. They still hoped in the ideal God promised and labored toward it. God makes the same grand promises to us and he has certainly begun fulfilling those promises and blessed us in tremendous ways. Yet, we still long for the day when he defeats Satan, lives among us, ends injustice, and conquers death. We are still longing to be fully set free from sin and death. Some days it doesn’t feel like this is the end God is working toward. Some days it seems we all take one step forward and two steps back. Some days it seems like the kingdoms of the world will overcome the kingdom of God. The examples in this book can motivate us to keep working while it seems in futile.
3. Ezra-Nehemiah shows us our labor alongside God is not in vain. The Jews in Jesus’ day weren’t perfect; yet, with all the foreigners surrounding Jerusalem, it is a wonder that the Jews remained a distinct people until the coming of Jesus. Considering all the turmoil and oppression they experienced, it is also a wonder that there were any messianic hopes left in God’s people when Jesus did come. The work of the people to rebuild a temple and wall that would later be destroyed and their recommitment to a law that would later be completed seems vain, but it wasn’t at all. Their work alongside God helped the Jews remain distinct and hopeful until Christ came. We simply don’t know what God will do with the labor we do today for his glory in the generations to come. So, keep reading your Bible and doing what it says and hoping in God’s promises. Fight sin in yourself. Raise your kids to know the Lord. Seek to eliminate injustice and lawlessness around you. Tell people about Jesus. Serve. Visit the orphan and widow in their distress. Encourage souls who are faint and brokenhearted. Build buildings that will serve God’s people. And when it all seems to be undone, pray to God for strength, and keep praying, reading, hoping, and laboring alongside the Lord. Ezra 8:22, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.”
Acts 14:22 tells us that Paul - after being stoned at Lystra - began teaching that it is “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”