EZRA-NEHEMIAH: Building for God's Kingdom When It Seems Futile
Israel and Judah had rebelled against the Lord, so he exiled them to slavery in Babylon. But the prophets had promised that one day their slavery among the nations would end. God would cause a new exodus and gather his people from the nations to rebuild Jerusalem. God would give his people new hearts and restore Israel under the Davidic king God had always promised.
The time had now come for God to fulfill his promises. Sort of. The exodus God accomplished at Egypt was a monumental event that sent tremors throughout the ancient world. But the Lord promised that one day he would accomplish a new exodus that would be even more grand than the first. God would set free and unite scattered slaves to rebuild a city on their own land. The book of Ezra-Nehemiah was crafted to show how God stirred up many people’s hearts to bring about the first installment of this new exodus. But troubles abounded and sin still lurked nearby.
Many clues throughout Ezra-Nehemiah show us that this is not the final installment of the new age God had planned for his people. It was only the first step. We find ourselves in a similar situation to these people. God has accomplished the next installment of this exodus in releasing us from our bondage to sin. And yet, like these redeemed Israelites, we are still slaves needing a final exodus, a final temple, a final transformation, and a final city. The first installment of this exodus in Ezra-Nehemiah is meant to give us hope that God will overcome all odds and use many people to build his new temple in the New Jerusalem. This hope is meant to motivate God’s people to unparalleled holiness and to work harder than ever before at rebuilding God’s temple and God’s city - even when it all seems futile.
In Ezra-Nehemiah, God’s people let persecutions instill fear in their hearts and let the unholiness around them influence and defile them. As we labor towards the time when God will accomplish the final installment of his plan, it is easy to let persecutions and unholiness cause the same in us. We can tend to fear people, become distracted, or accept unholiness. We will let the intense zeal of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah show us the holiness God desires and what it means to put the Lord’s work first. But the fact that their work was anticlimactic is meant to build our hope in God’s Spirit to change our hearts and in God’s Messiah to lead us into the new age - something Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah couldn’t do.
Why was Ezra-Nehemiah written?
Nehemiah 13 ends in a somewhat unexpected and discouraging note. Once the walls, temple, law, people, and worship seemed to be restored, the people undid a lot of it. The walls were disregarded, the temple was inhabited by a foreign enemy, and the law was ignored. All the vows the people made in Nehemiah 10 were broken. Clearly, the message of this book is not “with good leadership, God’s people can do anything.” Much of what the remnant’s leaders worked for continually fell apart. So why did the Holy Spirit breath out this book and preserve it for us?
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 can’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. But God still worked through the people in Ezra and Nehemiah’s days and gave them temporary tastes of what the future restoration and return back to God would look like. The faithlessness that 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. 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, 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 the promises of God. 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 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 the day God had set aside to send his Christ. We simply don’t know what God will do with the labor we do for his glory in generations to come. So, keep reading your Bible and doing what it says and hoping in God’s promises. Raise your kids to know the Lord. Fight sin in yourself. 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 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.”