Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering at appointed times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me, O my God, for good. - Nehemiah 13:30–31 (ESV)

The Book of Nehemiah is set in the time of the return of Judah from exile in Babylon. It recounts the trials, travails, and triumphs of Nehemiah, the Persian king's cupbearer-turned-governor of Judah who does his best to put things in order in Jerusalem. The special emphasis is on the repair and rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem.

The Big Idea of Nehemiah

The Big Idea of Nehemiah can be expressed this way: God is faithful even when his people are not (cf. 2 Tim. 2:13). Over and over again in Nehemiah, the people's faithfulness wanes and corruption and/or complacency takes root. Nehemiah's faithfulness is a clear demonstration of God's preservation of his people, not only in returning them to the land from their exile but also in providing Moses-like leadership to establish them in it.

An Outline of Nehemiah

1-6: Restoration of the Wall

The Book of Nehemiah begins in Persia. It is a story told in the first person, making it one of the very few autobiographical books of the Bible. It begins with bad news. Nehemiah learns that the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are destroyed. In response, Nehemiah weeps, mourns, and confesses sins to God in prayer.

We learn that Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king of Persia. Seeing his downcast countenance, the king asks Nehemiah what the matter is. Nehemiah tells him, and in response, the king grants all of Nehemiah's requests and more.

So far, so good. But very quickly we meet Sanballat and Tobiah, two men highly opposed to the Jews' welfare and well-positioned to hinder progress.

After inspecting the wall by night, Nehemiah rallies the people to rebuild the wall. Chapter three describes the work. In chapter four Sanballat and Tobiah do what they can to discourage the work. When words fail, they plan an attack. But the people arm themselves and make good progress.

In chapter five, Nehemiah becomes aware of complaints from some Jews that they are being forced into servitude for debts to their fellow Jews. Nehemiah becomes angry and formally rebukes the nobles and officials for charging interest and taking the people's inheritance from them, which is prohibited by the Law of Moses (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:36-37; Deut. 23:19-20).

We learn that Nehemiah serves as governor during this time. During a twelve-year span, Nehemiah claims that he leads with integrity and fairness. More than that, he relinquishes some of his claims on the people to lighten their burden. Nehemiah concludes this note, and chapter five with it, with a plea to God to remember the good that he has done for the people.

In chapter six, Tobiah and Sanballat make another concerted effort to stop the rebuilding project. They gradually escalate their misinformation campaign from lures to open threats and lies. Nehemiah does not give in, but even his own countrymen seek to lead him astray with false prophecies. Nehemiah is beset by enemies from without and within who want to discredit him and make him afraid. Nevertheless, Nehemiah perseveres and the wall is finished. As a result, it is the enemies who fear. Yet still, all the time Tobiah continues to send letters and send his cronies to wheedle at Nehemiah and cajole him into approving of Tobiah. This is in many ways a study in how a godly person may engage in the political process and what he or she might expect in it.

7-13: Restoration of Worship

In chapter seven, Nehemiah transfers the power of governorship to other men and records a genealogy at God's prompting. Following this, in chapter eight Ezra the scribe reads and teaches the Law to all the people. The people recognize their disobedience and are grieved. Many leaders come on the second day for Ezra to teach them more from the Law. When they read about the Feast of Booths, they immediately began observing it for seven days. At the end, some Levite leaders offer a prayer of confession and repentance, reaffirming the covenant with God at the end of chapter nine. Chapters ten and eleven record various practical arrangements regarding the service of the priests and the distribution of the people between Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. In chapter twelve, Nehemiah leads a ceremony of dedication for the wall of Jerusalem complete with more teaching from the Law, choirs, sacrifices, and celebrations.

Nehemiah concludes in chapter thirteen with a flurry of events. When the people learn of the prohibition against foreign marriages in the Law during the dedication of the wall, they separate from the foreigners among them. Meanwhile, Nehemiah, who had been absent from Jerusalem to serve the Persian king, learns that Tobiah, who is related to the high priest, has managed to have a large chamber in the Temple allotted for his personal use. Nehemiah also learns that the Levites have not been provided for in order to serve in the Temple and so have returned to provide for themselves from the land. Not only that, but Nehemiah also learns that the people are working on the Sabbath instead of resting and that the people have again begun to intermarry with foreigners. In other words, the covenant that they only recently affirmed and celebrated has been broken in spectacular fashion. In response to all this, Nehemiah sets everything right again, including chasing Tobiah away, and concludes with a simple plea to God to remember him for his good.

The Benefits of Nehemiah

Nehemiah is a striking read. Its flow and story arc become easier to see when larger portions are read in fewer sittings. There are few first-person autobiographical works like this in Scripture. The insight into Nehemiah's heart is full of lessons for us.

How should leaders handle the frustrations that so often characterize the position? Nehemiah is a case study in how godly leaders can and should respond in faithfulness to the kinds of challenges that so often arise. Nehemiah leads in many arenas. He is a politician, an ambassador, a religious leader, and a project manager, among other things. Nehemiah is consistently met with opposition from wily and unscrupulous enemies. He also has to battle the complacency of a people who allow immoral leaders to worm their way into positions of power. His succession plan fails miserably. Yet Nehemiah is surely not a failed leader. At least, he is not in his own eyes. He sees himself as fighting a losing battle, but one worth fighting.

Nehemiah also serves as an illustration of our need for a divine-human king. As faithful and competent as Nehemiah is, he cannot make the people into what he knows they are called to be. Much of Nehemiah's leadership is an exercise in vanity. Apart from the wall remaining standing at the end of the book, most other aspects of his leadership are undone at least once and have to be redone. Mortar and stone do not rebel and just decide to work against their design. But people do. If ever there was a story in the Bible that shows us that we cannot effect the change in people's hearts that we all so desperately need, it is Nehemiah. We need a divine-human king who can lead in ways that no merely human leader can. And that leader is coming, as Scripture makes clear, when Jesus Christ returns in power and glory to rule the whole earth.

A final major benefit of reading Nehemiah is the reminder that behavior modification is no substitute for internal transformation. It has been said that you can remove the people from Egypt, but you cannot remove Egypt from the people. Nehemiah illustrates the wisdom of this. Nehemiah does what he can to alter the politics and practices of the people from the societal to the individual level. Nehemiah performs a yeoman's job of setting up the people for all manner of success from an overall social systemic standpoint to personal private practice. But it remains external for the people. By and large, many people's hearts are still disposed to corruption and complacency. As a result, all of Nehemiah's work tends to come to naught. The difference between Nehemiah and the wider people must come down to the disposition of the heart. Nehemiah seeks to live for God in all that he does. The notion of serving Yahweh and remaining faithful to him is uppermost in Nehemiah's heart. This is not so for the people. They are willing to have their behavior modified, but that modification makes no particular and necessary difference to the internal disposition of their heart. "Egypt" remains in their hearts.

Nehemiah's task thus becomes something like the myth of Sysiphus, who was tasked with the punishment of rolling a stone up a hill only for the stone to roll back to the bottom after reaching the top. Nehemiah's heart is disposed and able to work uphill. The people are like the rock, willing enough to be propelled upward, but without any internal power or desire to propel themselves. For Nehemiah, his desire is not so much fulfilled whenever he is able to move the rock to the top again. His desire would only be fulfilled if he could live to see the rock transformed from a lifeless pile of dead weight into a people as determined to live for God as zealously as he does. This is the need, but it only happens when God works in hearts to make them alive to him (cf. Eph. 2:1-5). Until or unless God makes people able to live for him by causing them to be born again by the Spirit, faithful leaders work in vain to modify external behavior to mimic it. Yet Nehemiah does not teach us that all leadership is pointless; instead, Nehemiah helps us to set our sights more on faithfulness to God than on control over what happens with those whom we are tasked to lead.

On Nehemiah and Living for God Through Christ