Nehemiah’s chest was still heaving, spittle still stuck in his beard. He had chased the half-breed infidels off. Bits of their hair were still stuck between his knuckles. For the third time, as he watches his life’s work unraveling before his eyes, Nehemiah lifts his head to the roof with tears in his eyes and yells, “Remember me, O God! Remember me for the good I tried to do!”
This is how the return from exile ends. When a dream dies, it kills part of us with it. The collective story of Ezra-Nehemiah (originally one story written on one scroll) reminds us of the limits of reform. Three leaders, political, religious, and private sector, respectively, set out to lead their people out of exile and, by sheer force of will and religious zeal, bring God back to their nation. It doesn’t work.
Exile had always been “a death to make way for a rebirth” (1). Whether Adam and Eve stumbling away from Eden, or the Hebrews crying for rescue in Egypt, the story of exile has always been learning hard lessons while hoping for a new future. Yet now, a group of God’s people are allowed to return to their Promised Land, fewer in number than ever.
The stories of Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah started off great. As prophesied by Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22), the kings in power were now legislating and even funding Israel’s return to Jerusalem. To control their empire and promote peace through a kind of religious liberty, the Persians allowed conquered nations like Egypt, Greece, and Israel to restore their religious practices (2). It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement they must have felt. Finally, God was back on their side!
Zerubabbel leads the people back and rebuilds the temple. Ezra teaches the people God’s word and sees fruit. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall. Yet, despite God’s promises that all nations would worship him in Jerusalem, outsiders are chased off (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh 13:8), families are split apart (Ezra 10:10-11:44; Neh 13:23-25), and, unlike before, God’s Spirit does not return to dwell in the rebuilt temple (Ezra 3:11-13). In fact, one of these interracial, Samaritan families built their own temple to worship Yahweh (John 4:20-22) in this period after they were marginalized by Nehemiah and company. This is their new normal.
Even after all the foretold blessings and curses had come. Even after they had been returned to their Promised Land. Nothing had changed the condition of the human heart. Still, they were waiting on something no legislation, no amount of funding, not even limitless moral effort could provide . . . a heart not bent on self-centeredness and self-destruction, a heart able to follow God.
- Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 15.
- Kidner, 21.
Listen: Nehemiah 9-10, 13