The first chapter of the Book of Nehemiah introduces the book bearing his name as a resident of Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire. When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem were still broken down more than a half-century after the completion of the rebuilding of the temple, he “sat down and wept,” fasting and praying before God (Neh. 1:4). Implicitly, he was formulating a plan to remedy the situation in Jerusalem.
The connection between the temple and the wall is significant for the theology of work. The temple might seem to be a religious institution, while the walls are a secular one. But God led Nehemiah to work on the walls, no less than he led Ezra to work on the temple. Both the sacred and the secular were necessary to fulfill God’s plan to restore the nation of Israel. If the walls were unfinished, the temple was unfinished too. The work was of a single piece. The reason for this is easy to understand. Without a wall, no city in the ancient Near East was safe from bandits, gangs and wild animals, even though the empire might be at peace. The more economically and culturally developed a city was, the greater the value of things in the city, and the greater the need for the wall. The temple, with its rich decorations, would have been particularly at risk. Practically speaking, no wall means no city, and no city means no temple.
Conversely, the city and its wall depend on the temple as the source of God’s provision for law, government, security and prosperity. Even on strictly military terms, the temple and the wall are mutually dependent. The wall is an integral part of the city’s protection, yet so is the temple wherein dwells the Lord (Ezra 1:3) who brings to nothing the violent plans of the city’s enemies (Neh. 4:15). Likewise with government and justice. The gates of the wall are where lawsuits are tried (Deuteronomy 21:19, Isaiah 29:21), while at the same time the Lord from his temple “executes justice for the orphan and the widow” (Deut. 10:18). No temple means no presence of God, and no presence of God means no military strength, no justice, no civilization and no need for walls. The temple and the walls are united in a society founded on God’s “covenant and steadfast love” (Neh. 1:5). This at least is the ideal towards which Nehemiah is fasting, praying and working.
The last line of Nehemiah 1 identifies him as “cupbearer to the king” (Neh. 1:11). This means not only that he had immediate access to the king as the one who tested and served his beverages, but also that Nehemiah was a trusted advisor and high-ranking Persian official.He would use his professional experience and position to great advantage as he embarked upon the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem.
When the king granted him permission to oversee the rebuilding project, Nehemiah asked for letters to the governors through whose territory he would pass on his trip to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:7). In Nehemiah’s view, the king granted this request “for the gracious hand of my God was upon me” (Neh. 2:8). Apparently, Nehemiah did not believe that trusting God meant he should not seek the king’s protection for his journey. Moreover, he was pleased to have “officers of the army and cavalry” escort him safely to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:9).
The text of Nehemiah does not suggest there was anything wrong with Nehemiah’s decision to seek and accept the king’s protection. In fact, it claims that God’s blessing accounted for this bit of royal assistance. It is striking to note how different Nehemiah’s approach to this issue was from Ezra’s. Whereas Ezra believed that trusting God meant he should not ask for royal protection, Nehemiah saw the offer of such protection as evidence of God’s gracious hand of blessing. This disagreement demonstrates how easy it is for godly people to come to different conclusions about what it means to trust God in their work. Perhaps each was simply doing what he was most familiar with. Ezra was a priest, familiar with the habitation of the Lord’s presence. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king, familiar with the exercise of royal power. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were seeking to be faithful in their labors. Both were godly, prayerful leaders. But they understood trusting God for protection differently. For Ezra, it meant journeying without the king’s guard. For Nehemiah, it meant accepting the offer of royal help as evidence of God’s own blessing.
We find signs in several places that Nehemiah was what we could call a “pragmatic believer.” In Nehemiah 2, for example, Nehemiah secretly surveyed the rubble of the former wall before even announcing his plans to the residents of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:11-17). Apparently he wanted to know the size and scope of the work he was taking on before he publicly committed to doing it. Yet, after explaining the purpose of his coming to Jerusalem and pointing to God’s gracious hand upon him, when some local officials mocked and accused him, Nehemiah answered, “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success” (Neh. 2:20). God would give this success, in part, through Nehemiah’s clever and well-informed leadership. The fact that success came from the Lord did not mean Nehemiah could sit back and relax. Quite to the contrary, Nehemiah was about to commence an arduous and demanding task.
His leadership involved delegation of parts of the wall-building project to a wide variety of people, including “Eliashib, the high priest, [and] his fellow-priests” (Neh. 3:1), “the Tekoites,” minus their nobles who didn’t want to submit to the supervisors (Neh. 3:5), “Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths” and “Hananiah, one of the perfumers” (Neh. 3:8), “Shallum, …ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, [and] his daughters” (Neh. 3:12), and many others. Nehemiah was able to inspire collegiality and to organize the project effectively.
But then, just as in the story of the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra, opposition arose. Leaders of local peoples attempted to hinder the Jewish effort through ridicule, but “the people had a mind to work” (Neh. 4:6). When their words did not stop the wall from being rebuilt, the local leaders “all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (Neh. 4:8).
So what did Nehemiah lead his people to do? Pray and trust God? Or arm themselves for battle? Predictably, the pragmatic believer led them to do both: “We prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (Neh. 4:9). In fact, when threats against the wall-builders mounted, Nehemiah also stationed guards at key positions. He encouraged his people not to lose heart because of their opponents: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your kin, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Neh. 4:14). Because of their faith, the people were to fight. Then, not long thereafter, Nehemiah added a further word of encouragement, “Our God will fight for us!” (Neh. 4:20). Yet this was not an invitation to the Jews to put down their weapons and focus on building, trusting in supernatural protection alone. Rather, God would fight for his people by assisting them in battle. He would be at work in and through his people as they worked.
We Christians sometimes seem to act as if there were a rigid wall between actively pursuing our own agenda and passively waiting for God to act. We are aware that this is a false duality, which is why, for example, orthodox/historic Christian theology rejects the Christian Science premise that medical treatments are acts of unfaithfulness to God. Yet, at moments, we are tempted to become passive while waiting for God to act. If you are unemployed, yes, God wants you to have a job. To get the job God wants you to have, you have to write a resume, conduct a search, apply for positions, interview, and get rejected dozens of times before finding that job, just as everyone else has to do. If you are a parent, yes, God wants you to have enjoyment in raising your children. But you will still have to set and enforce limits, be available at times when it’s inconvenient, discuss difficult topics with them, cry and suffer with them through bumps, broken bones, and broken hearts, do homework with them, ask their forgiveness when you are wrong, and offer them forgiveness when they fail. You don’t get time off as a reward for good behavior such as taking your kids to church. Nehemiah and company’s arduous work warns us that trusting God does not equate with sitting on our hands waiting for magical solutions for our difficulties.
“Nehemiah (person)” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
Nehemiah’s wall-building project was threatened, not just from the outside, but also from the inside. Certain wealthy Jewish nobles and officials were taking advantage of economically difficult times to line their own pockets (Nehemiah 5). They were loaning money to fellow Jews, expecting interest to be paid on the loans, even though this was prohibited in the Jewish Law (for example, Exodus 22:25). When the debtors couldn’t repay the loans, they lost their land and were even forced to sell their children into slavery (Neh. 5:5). Nehemiah responded by demanding that the wealthy stop charging interest on loans and give back whatever they had taken from their debtors.
In contrast to the selfishness of those who had been taking advantage of their fellow Jews, Nehemiah did not use his leadership position to enhance his personal fortune. “Because of the fear of God,” he even refused to tax the people to pay for his personal expenses, unlike his predecessors (Neh. 5:14-16). Instead, he generously invited many to eat at his table, paying from this expense from his personal savings without taxing the people (Neh. 5:17-18).
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In a sense, the nobles and officials were guilty of the same kind of dualism we have just discussed. In their case, they were not waiting passively for God to solve their problems. Instead, they were actively pursuing their own gain as if economic life had nothing to do with God. But Nehemiah tells them that their economic lives are of utmost importance to God, because God cares about all of society, not just its religious aspects: “Should you not walk in the fear of our God, to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies [to whom the nobles had forced the sale of Jewish debtors as slaves]?” (Neh. 5:9). Nehemiah connects an economic issue (usury) with the fear of God.
The issues of Nehemiah 5, though emerging from a legal and cultural setting distant from our own, challenge us to consider how much we should profit personally from our position and privilege, even from our work. Should we put our money in banks that make loans with interest? Should we take advantage of perks made available to us in our workplace, even if these come at considerable cost to others? Nehemiah’s specific commands (don’t charge interest, don’t foreclose on collateral, don’t force the sale of people into slavery) may apply differently in our time, but underlying his commands is a prayer that still applies: “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (Neh. 5:19). As it was to Nehemiah, God’s call to today’s workers is to do everything we can for our people. In practice, that means we each owe God the duty of caring for the cloud of persons who depend on our work: employers, co-workers, customers, family, the public and many others. Nehemiah may not tell us exactly how to handle today’s workplace situations, but he tells us how to orient our minds as we decide. Put people first.
The question of whether the Bible prohibits lending money at interest has a long and contentious history in Christian theology. See Theology of Work Project's article, Finance Overview at www.theologyofwork.org.
The external and internal problems facing Nehemiah did not halt work on the wall, which was completed in only fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15). The enemies of Judah “were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (Neh. 6:16). Even though Nehemiah had exercised his considerable leadership to inspire and organize the builders, and even though they had worked tirelessly, and even though Nehemiah’s wisdom enabled him to fend off attacks and distractions, nevertheless he saw all of this as work done with God’s help. God worked through him and his people, using their gifts and labor to accomplish God’s own purposes.
After the wall surrounding Jerusalem was completed, the Israelites gathered in Jerusalem in order to renew their covenant with God. Ezra reappeared at this point in order to read the Law to the people (Neh. 8:2-5). As they heard the Law, they wept (Neh. 8:9). Yet Nehemiah rebuked them for their sorrow, adding, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord” (Neh. 8:10). However central work might be to serving God, so is celebration. On holy days, people are to enjoy the fruits of their labors as well as sharing them with those who lack such delights.
Yet, as Nehemiah chapter 9 demonstrates, there was also a time for godly sorrow as the people confessed their sins to God (Neh. 9:2). Their confession came in the context of an extensive recital of all the things God had done, beginning with creation itself (Neh. 9:6) and continuing through the crucial events of the Old Testament. The failure of Israel to be faithful to the Lord explained, among other things, why God’s chosen people were “slaves” to foreign kings and why those kings enjoyed the fruits of Israelite labors (Neh. 9:36-37).
Among the promises made by the people as they renewed their covenant with the Lord was a commitment to honor the Sabbath (Neh. 10:31). In particular, they promised not to do business on the Sabbath with “the peoples of the land” who worked on this day. The Israelites also promised to fulfill their responsibility to support the temple and its workers (Neh. 10:31-39). They would do so by giving to the temple and its staff a percentage of the fruit of their own work. Now, as then, the commitment to give a percentage of our income to support the “service of the house of our God” (Ezra 10:32) is both a necessary means of financing the work of worship and a reminder that everything we have comes from God’s hand.
After completing his task of building the wall in Jerusalem and overseeing the restoration of society there, Nehemiah returned to serve King Artaxerxes (Neh. 13:6). Later, he came back to Jerusalem, where he discovered that some of the reforms he had initiated were thriving, while others had been neglected. For example, he observed some people working on the Sabbath (Neh. 13:15). Jewish officials had been letting Gentile traders bring their goods into Jerusalem for sale on the day of rest (Neh. 13:16). So Nehemiah rebuked those who had failed to honor the Sabbath (Neh. 13:7-18). Moreover, in his typically pragmatic approach, he closed the city gates before the Sabbath began, keeping them shut until the day of rest had passed. He also stationed some of his servants at the gates so that they might tell potential sellers to leave (Neh. 13:19).
The question of whether and/or how Christians ought to keep the Sabbath cannot be answered from Nehemiah. A much broader theological conversation is necessary. Nevertheless, this book reminds us of the centrality of Sabbath-keeping to God’s first covenant people and the threat posed by economic interaction with those who do not honor the Sabbath. In our own context, it was certainly easier for Christians to keep the Sabbath when the malls were closed on the Lord’s Day. However, our contemporary culture of round-the-clock commerce puts us in Nehemiah’s situation, in which a conscious — and potentially costly — decision about Sabbath-keeping is required.