Posted: 10 Jan 2011 11:00 PM PST
IN THE COMPLEX HISTORY OF THE postexilic community in Judah, Nehemiah plays a singular role. He was not part of the original party that returned to Judah, but before long he was sent there by the emperor himself. In two separate expeditions, Nehemiah served as de facto governor of the remnant community and was largely responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem's walls, not to mention other reforms. His work overlapped that of Ezra.
The book of Nehemiah is often treated as a manual on godly leadership. I wonder if this does justice to the book. Did Nehemiah intend to write a manual on leadership? Is the book included in the canon for that purpose—as if we turn, say, to Acts to discover the history of the early church and to Nehemiah to discover the principles of leadership?
This is not to say that there is nothing about leadership to be learned from Nehemiah—or, for that matter, from Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. Yet a reading of this book that focuses on the theme of leadership is bound to be skewed; it is in line neither with authorial intent nor with canonical priorities.
Nehemiah is a book about God's faithfulness and about the agents God used in reestablishing his covenant people in the Promised Land at the end of the exile—about the first steps taken to secure their protection and identity as God's people and to assure their covenantal faithfulness. Canonically, this part of the Bible's story-line establishes chunks of postexilic history that take us on to the Lord Jesus himself.
But perhaps we can profitably focus on one or two elements of Nehemiah 1, trailing on to Nehemiah 2.
Early reports of the sorry condition of the returned remnant community in Judah (1:3) elicit from Nehemiah profound grief and fervent intercession (1:4). The substance of his prayer occupies most of the first chapter (1:5–11). Nehemiah addresses the "great and awesome God" in terms of the covenant. God had promised to send his people into exile if they were persistent in their disobedience; but he had also promised, if they repented and returned to him, to gather them again to the place he had chosen as a dwelling for his name (1:8–9; see Deut. 30:4–5). Yet Nehemiah is not praying for others while avoiding any role for himself. He prays that he might find favor in the eyes of the emperor, whom he serves as cupbearer (1:11), when he approaches him about this great burden. Even Nehemiah's "bullet prayer" in the next chapter (2:4) is the outcropping of sustained intercessory prayer in secret.
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