Strong leadership can be a great blessing – but also a curse. That’s a crucial lesson illustrated by the last chapter of Nehemiah. The early chapters of Ezra and Nehemiah document the stunning results of Nehemiah’s strong-arm tactics in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. After the city and its temple had been leveled by the Babylonians in 586/587 BCE, some 140 years passed before Humpty Dumpty was put back together again. Nehemiah did the honors, rebuilding the city walls (in 444 BCE) in just 52 days! (Neh 6:15).
But the first task of restoration was rebuilding the temple, and the early chapters of Ezra describe how the Lord made it happen: “The Lord stirred up the Spirit of King Cyrus of Persia” to issue a restoration edict “in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished” (Ezra 1:1).
Cyrus credits divine inspiration for his three priorities. Building the temple was first. Then he told the Jewish exiles to go back home and get the job done. Finally, he asked their non-Jewish neighbors to help them financially: “Let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:4). Furthermore, Cyrus himself primed the pump by returning to the exiles a total of 5,400 gold and silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had hauled off to Babylon when he destroyed Jerusalem (Ezra 1:11).
The effect of the king’s edict and example was magical: “All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered” (Ezra 1:6).
With all that wealth tucked into their baggage, the returned exiles were eager to get started. In fact, the first glimpse of the ruined temple so shocked them that they took an offering on the spot: “They gave all they could, and it came to a total of 1,030 pounds of gold, 5,740 pounds of silver, and 100 robes for the priests” (Ezra 2:69, CEV).
Initially, the returned exiles were highly motivated to re-establish a structured worship service. Even without a temple, when the seventh month came, they built an altar for the morning and evening burnt offerings, kept the festival of booths, and began to offer all the sacrifices prescribed by the law of Moses. They began to celebrate all the sacred festivals and, dipping into their over-stuffed pocketbooks, they hired masons and carpenters, and paid the Sidonians and Tyrians for cedars from Lebanon. They would rebuild their temple!
By the second month of their second year they were laying the foundation and had appointed Levites to fulfill their traditional duties. They were on a roll! And the completed foundation called for a real celebration: priests in vestments, trumpets, cymbals, and responsive singing to the Lord: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel” (Ezra 3:10-11).
But for all the jubilation, a poignant sadness haunted this holy party. As described in Ezra 3:11-14, the old-timers, remembering the glorious first temple, wept at the sight of this puny second edition even as others “shouted aloud for joy.” On balance? “The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard from afar.”
But from that high point, their dreams quickly began to fade. Ezra 4 talks about their “adversaries” coming to them with an offer to help them build the temple. After all, they said, we have been worshiping the same God you do ever since the king of Assyria brought us here. A fascinating tale lurks in that request. The Persians, represented here by Cyrus and Darius, were the most gracious of ancient conquering powers while the Assyrians were the most brutal. It was their transplant and resettlement policies that had brought these “adversaries” into the picture. The story is told in 2 Kings 17. In short, they worshiped Yahweh, but kept their own pagan gods.
Zerubbabel & Co. wanted nothing to do with their mixed blood and mixed religion.
The result of Zerubbabel’s rebuff, summarized in Ezra 4:4-5, is perhaps understandable: “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.”
Here the structure of Ezra 4 is misleading, for our author inserts a parenthesis (4:6-23), summarizing all the examples of opposition to Jewish restoration in the 80 odd years between Zerubbabel and Ezra/Nehemiah, resuming the Cyrus/Darius narrative in 4:24: “At that time the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.”
In short, Nehemiah illustrates the joys and hazards of strong leadership. Without that leadership, nothing happened. And that “nothing” continued until God sent two more prophetic voices, Haggai and Zechariah, to help them pick up the ball they had dropped for some 15 years. The returned exiles got back on track and finished building the temple in 515.
But Jerusalem still had no walls. The city was at risk.
Nearly sixty years later, the Lord tried again, touching the heart of a Jewish scribe (Ezra) and a Persian ruler (Artaxerxes). Ezra 7 includes a copy of Artaxerxes’ decree, in many ways almost a carbon copy of Cyrus’ decree eighty years earlier. Go back home, he urged the exiles. Take the king’s silver and gold, the temple vessels, the free-will offerings. Go worship your God!
Artaxerxes doesn’t quite give Ezra a blank check, but it’s close. Note these specific instructions to the treasurers of the province: “They will be allowed to give as much as 7,500 pounds of silver, 500 bushels of wheat, 550 gallons of wine, 550 gallons of olive oil, and all the salt you need. They must provide whatever the God of heaven demands for his temple, so that he won’t be angry with me and with the kings who rule after me” (Ezra 7:22-23, CEV).
A couple of questions intrigue me: What happened to the bountiful gifts (including temple vessels) which Cyrus had sent? And why is the emperor only interested in the practice of the Jewish religion, not in the status of the city? From a religious point of view, Ezra’s work was no doubt crucial. But it didn’t build the city walls!
Enter Nehemiah. The first six chapters of the book that carries his name throb with energy and emotion. Nehemiah was cupbearer to the same emperor who had sent Ezra on his way some 15 years before with money, gifts, and mandates to enhance the worship in the temple. But the city itself was still a mess. A delegation from Judah reported the crisis to Nehemiah: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh. 1:3).
Nehemiah went into “private” mourning. But the king noticed anyway. Soon Nehemiah was heading for Jerusalem, with money, letters of introduction, and an armed cavalry. He was not shy about asking for help. And again, the Persian king gave him very nearly a blank check.
Only three days after his arrival, he set out by night to inspect the city walls. He took a few men with him, but only one animal, the one he was riding. He kept the whole thing secret: “The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work” (Neh. 2:16).
After decades of inaction, Nehemiah electrifies us with his report of what happened next. When he met with the people, he said: “‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building!’ So, they committed themselves to the common good” (Neh. 2:17-18).
For three chapters (Neh. 3-6), Nehemiah takes us on a wild ride. The walls arise out of the rubble, the gates are set in place, alarmed adversaries plot their revenge, Nehemiah arms the workers. And when the adversaries invite him to join them for consultation, he retorts with one of the most famous “activist” lines in Scripture: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3).
After a wait of nearly 80 years, the wall was finished in 52 days. Heady stuff, that.
So, what happens when this strong leader leaves the stage?
That’s the sobering tale of Nehemiah 13.
Returning after an absence of some 12 years, Nehemiah discovered that his 52-day miracle had almost completely unraveled. A catalogue of five near catastrophes tell the tale. The official study guide uses the word “backsliding.” That’s not far from the mark:
1. Allowing Ammonites and Moabites to be part of the “assembly of God,” contrary to the law of Moses. (13:1-3).
2. Allowing Tobiah (an Ammonite, according to Nehemiah 2:10), an enemy of the people, to set up housekeeping in the temple precincts (13:4-9).
3. Abandoning the Levites without financial support (13:10-14).
4. Allowing buying and selling in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (13:15-22).
5. Allowing intermarriage with foreigners (13:23-31).
Note that all of these items focus on boundary protection. If one takes Jesus as our guide, one would likely come to quite a different list of priorities. What has happened to grace? What has happened to the “weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith”? (Matt. 23:23).
But let us be patient. The New Testament and the story of Jesus is still some 500 years away, and in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, even minor matters could loom large. After all, it was during their day that an alternative Jewish temple had sprung up among the Jews living on Elephantine Island in the Nile River. In that temple, Yahweh had a wife, a female consort just like the old Canaanite God Baal!
God has given us these “illustrations,” not because they apply for all time and to all people but because they illustrate how God has reacted to the needs of his people in particular times and places.
Closer to our own day, Ellen White articulates an all-encompassing principle, even though it originally applied to the introduction of “beneficial” health practices:
We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. . . . If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people.” – Testimonies, 3:20-21 (1872).
We shall discuss this issue further in connection with next week’s lesson when we focus more closely on the fifth issue above, namely, the challenge of mixed marriages. But here it is important to recognize the great strength and the great weakness of strong leadership, as represented in the person of Nehemiah.
In short, this strong-willed, iron-fisted man did a great and necessary work for God’s people; he built a wall that protected the city and the temple. But once he stepped off-stage, the people were as weak as water. And here we can focus on God’s ideal for his children today. The ideal is for us to stand firm for principle at all times and in all situations, whether a strong leader is on stage or not.
C. S. Lewis made the point in his comments to Wormwood in his infamous little book, Screwtape Letters:
He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. – C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 39
Ideals are wonderful, and when they fail, a strong-armed Nehemiah can step in and do a crucial work. But the long-term hazards posed by that kind of leadership are sobering.
. Unless otherwise indicated biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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