Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength. (Nehemiah 8.10)
A trio of Old Testament books, Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah, tend to get lost in the stacks, squeezed between the epic chronicle of Israel’s formation and the Bible's staggering poetic works. These three slender tales are like summer TV series—great stories in search of an audience. It’s really a shame, too, because they portray three intrepid exiles who take enormous risks to save thousands of people in jeopardy. Ezra becomes the catalyst behind a vast pilgrimage of exiled Jews returning to their homes. Esther rises from obscurity as a Hebrew exile to become Queen of Persia and foils a plot to exterminate her people. Nehemiah, another Jew living in Persia, also attains a prominent place at court, where his service as the king’s butler secures him great favor.
Nehemiah’s story begins with bad news from home telling him Jerusalem’s been ransacked. It sits defenseless, its famous walls in shambles and its citizens starving to death under an oppressive regime. The butler’s sorrow troubles the Persian king, who asks how he can help. Nehemiah requests permission to return to Jerusalem and oversee its reconstruction. Without pause, the king appoints Nehemiah as Judea’s governor, equips him with an entourage, and writes letters of passage to safeguard his travels. Rather than taking charge straightaway and ruffling the city’s occupiers and religious establishment (both woefully corrupt), what Nehemiah does is most clever. He surveys the damage under cover of night and quietly forges an alliance of concerned priests and citizens who share his determination to restore Jerusalem. When the powers that be hear what he’s up to, it’s too late. The plan is place. The people are organized and ready to work. And Nehemiah’s authority under the Persian king protects him from typical power plays used by illegitimate governments and wayward leaders.
Knowing All Along
Subtle details in the Biblical narrative lead many to conclude Nehemiah is a eunuch—not in the euphemistic sense often used for gay people, but in its strictest definition as a castrated servant. Assuming this is correct makes his story all the more astonishing and exceedingly poignant. Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem and wrests its people from their oppressors knowing all along Hebrew law categorically states, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23.1) Once the city regains stability and resumes its way of life, he’ll govern Judea by Persian authority. Yet persona non grata status as a Jew will never permit him to join his nation’s community of faith.
What’s more, Nehemiah labors on Jerusalem’s behalf knowing all along he’ll have no children to enjoy what he’s built and carry on his name. The reconstructed walls will stand firm for centuries because of his concern. Generations will gather in the temple because of him. While his work remains, however, in all likelihood Nehemiah will gradually vanish from memory until he is no more. In light of these circumstances, we feel a lump in our throats as we listen to his prayer in Nehemiah 5.19: “Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.” His prayer is honored and, happily, his amazing story remains intact to this day.
Here’s what’s most impressive about Nehemiah: he won’t be confined by arbitrary limitations. He keeps in touch with his roots despite his exile. He communes with God despite religious discrimination. He builds a monument to his faith despite the prospect he’ll be forgot. In spite of these hurdles, he persists. How does he do this? Coming home restores his joy. He resurges with fresh optimism and energy. After he rebuilds the walls, other exiles start coming home. Having not seen the ruins, they can’t appreciate what’s been done. Since there’s more yet to do, what they find distresses them. Nehemiah calls an assembly to address them as their governor. He tells them it’s a sacred day—a time to rejoice in progress to date, not to mourn over how much further there is to go. “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength,” he says. (Nehemiah 8.10) Strength in joy—that’s Nehemiah’s secret.
Looking at damages done to the institutional church by corrupt impostors and wayward leaders, our hearts break with sorrow. Yet we can’t permit dismay to weaken us. Nor can we be confined by arbitrary limitations and worries our work won't be noticed or remembered. Exiles are needed at home. Residents are needed to welcome exiles. There’s damage to assess—under cover of night, if need be—and alliances to forge. We return fully supported and authorized by our King, Who urges us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Ecclesiastes 9.10) Our strength rests in the joy we gain by doing God’s work. As we work together, other exiles will return. We’ll teach them not to worry about problems yet to be fixed. We’ll teach them to find strength in joy. Isaiah 51.11 promises, “The ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” This is not a day for sadness. It’s a sacred day, a time of joy, a time of strength, a time to work.
Damage to the institutional church grieves many of us. Working together to restore what’s been lost turns grief to joy. Joy becomes strength.
Marion, a longtime Straight-Friendly subscriber, sent the link to this video of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” one of her favorite hymns. “Nothing like the English singing it in the Abbey… gave me goosebumps! I’m sure your readership would love it, too,” she wrote. Marion’s an English ex-pat; but it had the same effect on me, a Southern-born, Midwestern kid. I’m delighted to share it with you on this Lord’s Day.
As I watched it, I thought how delightful it would be to feature videos of other favorite hymns from time to time. I invite everyone to pass along suggestions. If you’ve found a video you especially like, send the link. Otherwise, the title will do; I’ll track something down to share. Don’t be shy, now. It takes all of 30 seconds to type a title in the comments section (and only a bit longer to say why you love the hymn). Given the diversity of S-F’s readership, I have no doubt we’ll all be enriched and inspired by the suggestions.
Thanks, Marion, for the link—and the inspiration!