In a time and culture where Christians often feel in the minority, how can we learn how to persevere and even be fruitful by God’s grace amidst increasing pressure? The book of Nehemiah is a great place to turn in seasons such as our own. Here are four reasons why:
1. It’s a book for exiles.
While Nehemiah serves in the court of King Artaxerxes, he lives in exile from Israel. So do most of the remaining Jewish people, and even those that stayed in Jerusalem did so amidst ruins and exposure to enemies. Everything that Nehemiah does must be done by the permission of the king. This could cause Nehemiah to despair, but instead, it turns him to God in prayer. If Nehemiah’s prayerful plans are to bear any fruit, it must clearly be done by the sovereign power of God rather than by any human work. Nehemiah teaches us that only God can turn the king’s heart (Prov. 21:1).
Nehemiah also gives us a portrait of faithfulness amidst the pangs of exile, whether those pangs are shown in threats or temptation. Prayer is prominent. In Nehemiah’s life; he lays all tasks and petitions before the Lord. And his trust in God’s sovereign will results in wisdom before temptation and courage before threats.
2. It’s a personal account.
Even as Nehemiah recounts various events, he does so as if from his own journal. He describes his heartache concerning a ruined Jerusalem, the fickleness of the people, and the pollution of worship. He welcomes us into the prayer closet with him to hear his cries before the living God. And as he describes events as they unfold, we see him lift up prayers such as, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (Neh. 5:19).
The whole book ends with “Remember me, O my God, for good” (13:31) as a sort of final “amen.” This is not a book of abstractions but of heartfelt piety expressed before the covenantal God. Readers will befriend Nehemiah in these pages as one would a wiser, godlier mentor. But even more, they will be directed to look beyond Nehemiah and his time to something much greater.
3. It points us to a greater city.
As the returning remnant works valiantly to restore the walls of Jerusalem, they are not just exposed to enemies outside their walls, but also to the even greater threat of sin within the walls of every human heart. They often mutter and question the work. Despair lurks around every corner as the people are driven more by the fear of man than of God. They easily make peace with God’s enemies and constantly befoul his worship.
This is what makes the final chapter of Nehemiah particularly stunning. Though the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt, and piety and right worship seem to be restored within those walls, the people fall back into the sins that earned their exile in the first place. They remind us that our forebears forfeited Eden and Israel with their sin—and we are no better. The city we live for is not on earth, but a better country—a heavenly one—a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:16, 10).
4. It points us to a greater intercessor.
The walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt and God’s people are temporarily secured because of Nehemiah’s intercession in the courts of the king. No, not Artaxerxes’s, but the courts of the King of Glory. Nehemiah’s greatest intercession comes in the form of prayer before the God who promises to bring his people back from the exile of sin into the walled city of his perfect salvation. God’s people enjoy blessing because they are borne up by Nehemiah before the living God.
Yet this is all a picture of someone greater. Jesus is not only our great high priest, interceding on our behalf, but the great sacrifice offered up on our behalf. We are saved by his perfect blood and righteousness, and we are sustained by his eternal intercession in Heaven. We set our eyes upon him and see not a throne of judgment, but a throne of grace.
This is the secret to life in exile: We can look to the one who entered our exile, so that we might enjoy his glory. Even today, dear friends, that same one stands on our behalf and is our enduring hope.