“Remember Me”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
One of the most comical characters in the Bible, from a modern perspective, is Nehemiah. The parts of the story that we usually remember aren’t so much comical as exemplary—we think of his deep love for the Lord, and willingness to leave his cushy position as cupbearer to the King, in order to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and bring God’s holy city back into repair as a safe citadel, impervious to the inevitable attacks from the surrounding Gentiles. We think of his dedication to building the walls even under constant threat, and how “each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other” (Ne 4.17). That only gets us up through chapter 4, though. There are nine more chapters to follow.
It starts out pretty somber—Nehemiah was functioning as governor of Judah (5.14), and it was brought to his attention that the wealthy Jews of the area had been oppressing the poor ones, lending out money at interest contrary to the Law, and then taking away their fields and vineyards, and even enslaving them as payment for the debt. Nehemiah “was very angry” (5.6) about this, and confronted the nobles and officials who were enriching themselves unscrupulously at their brothers’ expense. They quickly agreed to shape up, but that didn’t stop Nehemiah from making a somewhat silly-looking display of his frustration: “I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied’” (5.13). After detailing other ways he helped the poor during his tenure as governor, he closes out the section with a written prayer, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5.19).
Following this and some further external strife, the wall is finished, the people celebrate, Ezra the scribe teaches the people about the Law, and things generally look like they’re headed in the right direction in most ways, with the people even keeping the Feast of Booths as prescribed—something that hadn’t been done properly since the time of Joshua (8.17)! They make a blanket, nationwide confession and apology for all the ways Israel had continually transgressed God’s commandments over the generations, and renew the nation’s covenant with him, with much attending pomp and circumstance.
Yet, affairs are not all moving in as positive a direction as it would seem. There’s more to be done, and the final chapter of the book chronicles several changes Nehemiah effected later on. Here’s where it gets really good. After his term as governor is up and he has returned to Artaxerxes’ court for a while, he takes a trip to check on things back in Jerusalem. On finding another way in which the Jews had been ignoring God’s Law in his absence (this time the priests were allowing an Ammonite into the Temple complex, contrary to De 23.3), he says, “I was very angry and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chambers.” I’m sure it looked less comical in reality than I tend to imagine, but the picture of this respected, dignified wordsmith hurling a mattress out the door…well, it makes me chuckle. After addressing a second oversight, he repeats again what we saw before: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service” (13.14).
He’s not done. When he sees the people failing to keep the Sabbath, he tells them their fault, and then simply locks the doors of the city, preventing commerce one day a week, and even threatening the merchants that if they don't stop trying to desecrate the Sabbath, “I will lay hands you” (13.21). Having succeeded in this endeavor as well, he repeats, “Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (13.22).
The best is saved for last. He notices a number of Jews who have transgressed the Law by recklessly marrying Gentile women (contrary to De 7.3-4). Here is the most entertaining of Nehemiah’s reactions: “And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” (13.25). This man was on speaking terms with the most powerful man in the world, had been governor of his home province, and was a respected leader of his community—and here he is, beating the snot out of other respected members of society and pulling out their hair. When he discovers that one of the priests had married the daughter of Sanballat, the Moabite leader who’d done so much to disrupt the building of the wall years before, he says, “I chased him from me.” It sounds almost like an extended playground squabble, not rational interaction between adults. This would not be acceptable in just about any other context; I’m not certain it was completely acceptable when Nehemiah did it, even. And yet, he closes out the topic, and the book, by repeating the refrain once more: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (13.31).
We could nitpick and detract from the way Nehemiah went about correcting these problems. We could certainly point to the different between Old and New Testament to find our own guidance from God for our conflicts in the present time. But that should not detract from the spirit in which Nehemiah undertook all of these actions. Can anyone question his love for the Lord? Can anyone cast doubt on his devotion to God, and to God’s Law?
Here was a man who didn’t care (clearly) about damaging his own reputation; who didn’t care about looking silly, or receiving blowback, or hurting feelings, or any such thing. Here was a man who cared passionately for his God, for his people, and for the relationship between the two. While we should be cautious of the exact methods he used, we would do well to imitate Nehemiah’s devotion to God; and God will remember us, too.