The Old Testament book of Nehemiah paints a picture of an inspiring leader. Nehemiah’s story is set half a millennium before the birth of Christ. He was a Jew, but had never lived in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had fallen into the hands of the Babylonians decades before Nehemiah’s story began to unfold. With the changing of empires, as Persia replaced Babylon, some of Judah’s exiles had been allowed to return home but they struggled to rebuild the ruins of their city.
Meantime, some 800 miles away, Nehemiah had risen through the ranks to become the cupbearer to the King of Persia. An influential position, no doubt, but not without its risks. News of Jerusalem came to him from his brother Hanani and some men from Judah who were on a visit to the winter palace at Susa.
In one sense it could have been mere politeness to ask about life in the old city. After all, what Belfast exile living in Sydney would not make a few enquiries about life back in ‘Norn Irn’? But Nehemiah’s enquiry was much more. That’s clear from his reaction to the news that the wall was broken, the gates were burned and the people were ‘in great trouble and shame.’
There was no shrugging of the shoulders (‘Sorry to hear this, I wish there was something I could do to help’) and there was no empty promise that he would be ‘thinking about them’. Nehemiah was devastated.
Didn’t the Jewish exiles sing (Psalm 137) about being in a strange land as they sat ‘by the rivers of Babylon’? Didn’t they vow to lose their skill if they would ever forget their city?
The Babylonians could take the Jews out of Jerusalem, but they could never take Jerusalem out of the Jews.
There is a custom at Jewish weddings where a glass is broken. One of the explanations for this is that it is meant to serve as a reminder, in the middle of celebration, of the ruined temple of Jerusalem. They dare not forget.
Nehemiah is one of several Old Testament characters whose lives demonstrate what it means for a believer in God to live and work in an environment where their faith is not shared. Joseph in Egypt. Daniel in Babylon. Esther, like Nehemiah, in Persia. None of these people was a religious professional. All of them were used by God in a specific way at a specific time to meet a specific need.
Nehemiah’s reaction (weeping, fasting, praying) revealed Nehemiah’s heart. He did not want to forget the city of his ancestors. What was broken there had to be put right. While Nehemiah was living in Persia (and apparently doing quite well), his heart was in Jerusalem.
Is it possible that some of us, unlike Nehemiah, get so caught up in the pursuit of well-being in our own little palace of Susa, that we forget what Jesus said about seeking first the Kingdom of God?