This past Wednesday, I was asked to fill in for the pastor at the small church I attend. Being such a small church—our average Sunday morning attendance is about forty—the pastor works another job, and he had a rare business trip. I suppose he figured he could do worse than asking a high school history teacher to fill in for him.
Fortunately, the lesson was fairly straightforward: he sent me a handout on Nehemiah 1:1-11, and the focus of the lesson was on the idea of spiritual renewal.
For the biblically illiterate—a shocking number of Americans today, I’m finding (I once had a class full of philosophy students who had never heard the story of the Tower of Babel, which is pretty much Sunday School 101)—the story of Nehemiah is simple: after an extended period of exile in Babylon, the Israelites were sent back, under the auspices of the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great, to Jerusalem. Cyrus sponsored the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, but the city itself, as well as its walls, remained in a state of disrepair.
There were two waves of Israelite resettlement over the span of a century, but many Israelites remained in Babylon or other parts of the Persian Empire, such as the imperial capital. Nehemiah was one of those, and would be part of a third wave of resettlement. He served as cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, the Persian emperor at the time. The position of cup-bearer was an important and trusted one: he handled the emperor’s food and drink, ensuring it was not poisoned.
Beyond serving as the royal taste tester, the office carried with it important administrative duties, and gave incredible access to the emperor. In short, it was a position of great influence, power, and prestige, which positioned Nehemiah nicely for what was to come.
Nehemiah spoke to a fellow Israelite who was visiting the imperial capital, and was distraught to hear of the poor condition of the city and its walls. He fell to his knees, weeping and crying out to the Lord. Nehemiah 1 details his prayer to God, calling out in adoration; confessing his and his people’s sins; thanking God for His mercy and gifts; and supplicating God for His Will to be accomplished through Nehemiah.
Specifically, Nehemiah asked God to be used to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. As cup-bearer, Nehemiah was able to present his petition to the emperor, who agreed to send Nehemiah to oversee the construction project. In addition, Artaxerxes provided lumber from the royal forest, as well as funds to bankroll the endeavor. He also sent letters with Nehemiah detailing his endorsement of the project.
Nehemiah’s work was not finished there, and it was anything but easy. Initially, surrounding tribes criticized and mocked Nehemiah, questioning his loyalty to Artaxerxes, and saying that rebuilding the walls was a silly waste of time and effort.
However, once the wall reached half its height, his critics began plotting violence. The plot to attack the workers reached Nehemiah, so he divided the work crews into those building the wall, and those defending their fellow workers from attack.
Having failed to stage an attack on the workers, Nehemiah’s enemies realized that the man himself was the target—cut off the head, kill the snake. Again, God revealed this plot against Nehemiah, and he was able to avoid assassination.
Finally, the wall was rebuilt in an astonishing fifty-two days, an incredible feat of organization, ingenuity, and faithfulness. The naysayers were humiliated, and Nehemiah instituted a period of national and spiritual renewal among the Israelites. His reforms purified the nation spiritually and even ethnically, as old debts were forgiven and marriages to pagan women were dissolved.
It’s a powerful story—indeed, a powerful bit of history—about trusting in God in the face of extremely difficult odds. But Nehemiah is also a story about national renewal, and the spiritual revival that came with it.
The wall around Jerusalem served a practical purpose—defending the city and its inhabitants from attack (even though the city was under the protection of the Persian Empire, the ancient Near East was, then as now, notoriously tribal, and the collapse of an empire would lead to dozens of ethnic conflicts)—but it was also a symbol of the Israelite nation.
Indeed, the author of the handout I used Wednesday evening writes that the “enemies of Israel could say, ‘What kind of God do you serve? Look at the mess of your Holy City?’ It was a terrible witness and was cause for reproach from non-believers.” The poor condition of the Jerusalem and its fortifications reflected the spiritual decay and corruption of the Israelites—they had intermarried with pagan women, adopting their false gods; they were living in rubble; and their reduced condition suggested that their God—the One True God—was not Who He made Himself out to Be.
It’s a bit on the nose, but I can’t help but recognize the parallels between the United States today and Jerusalem then—and between President Trump and Nehemiah (although I think Trump is closer to Cyrus the Great in terms of his spirituality and outlook).
I’m not suggesting Nehemiah was clubbing with Eastern European supermodels. But like Trump, he faced overwhelming resistance from other nations to his wall project. The rest of the ancient Near East feared a strong, renewed Israel. Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, and the reconstruction of the wall, led to a period of national revival, as the people regained their identity, expelled the corrosive foreign influence in their midst, and renewed their commitment to God.
America is, spiritually and culturally, in similarly dire straits today. President Trump has presented himself as a modern-day Nehemiah, come to control our borders, enforce our immigration laws, and restore America’s greatness on the world stage. While he has made great strides in these areas, he meets resistance, duplicity, and mockery at every turn.
The story of Nehemiah tells us, however, that the struggle is worth the slings and arrows our enemies, both foreign and domestic, will lob at us. To President Trump, I would urge the following: stay the course, ignore the haters, take it to God, and BUILD THE WALL!