Stories can have different kinds of endings, and everyone seems to have their own favourite type of ending. I like two types of ending. One is the type of ending when the baddie has been defeated, life is restored to goodness, and there’s a big celebration – think about the end of Return of the Jedi when the whole galaxy is having a party because the evil Empire and the Sith have been destroyed… or so we thought until they started making sequels! Or there’s the type of ending that’s clever. Like Inception; it doesn’t tie everything up and present it to you on a plate. Instead, as it finishes it gives just a hint that everything might not be quite as finished as you think, and just after walking out of the cinema you end up going “Wait, what?” Those kinds of endings can be maddening, though. Because just when you think the story is finished and everything’s happy, things might not be quite as resolved as you want them to be.
If you read to the end of the book of Nehemiah, you’ll find that it’s not a satisfying ending. In chapter 12 we see a list of names that might not mean much to us at first glance, but when you look closer you realise that it shows how the line of the priests and Levites working in the temple had been unbroken since the first exiles returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel 90 years before. Fantastic – God was sustaining His contact with His people through the priests! Then we are brought to the climax of Nehemiah’s work: the dedication of the newly-finished walls round Jerusalem. This is the fulfilment of what God had put into Nehemiah’s heart right in chapter one. It’s awesome! Against all odds, against all opposition, Jerusalem was restored.
Nehemiah could have finished his record there, with the big party, with God’s people in God’s city. With the happy ending. But he doesn’t, and we close the book with the bitter taste of disappointment in our mouths. This evening we’re going to look at why that is and what it points to.
Let’s start by looking at Nehemiah’s finished work.
Nehemiah’s finished work
Imagine the scene: You have slogged it out for 52 days, building relentlessly. You’ve endured jeering and threats from people around you who have hated every brick, every stroke of mortar, every inch this wall has risen. You have lived on constant alert, all-too-aware that until Jerusalem is enclosed you could be ambushed at any second.
But now it is finished! You can see all around you the barrier that will keep you safe, the boundary that will keep your people together, the hours and hours of hard labour that you almost didn’t dare to dream could be finished!
And now comes the party! The streets are packed, everyone is dressed for a celebration. Along the walls advances the greatest celebration you have ever seen. All the nation’s priests and leaders encompass the city in their finery, instruments gleaming in the sun.
And the sound! Singing in every direction, a joy so deafening that miles away people pricked up their ears. And as the Book of Moses is read to the people, you can’t help but feel that surely, this is the day we have waited generations for – God’s people restored in the land, as the prophets have promised! Maybe now is the beginning of a new era. Maybe soon God will free us completely from our Persian masters.
Nehemiah has finished his work. He has achieved what he set out to do. The walls are finished. The exiles have returned. He has made sure that the work of the temple will continue – we see in 12:44-47 how men were appointed to make sure the priests and Levites would be provided for so that they could dedicate their whole time to temple work. The legacy of king David and Asaph has been restored, and their songs will echo off the temple’s walls for years to come. And everything that shouldn’t be among God’s people has been pushed out – on hearing the law that Ammonites and Moabites couldn’t be allowed among God’s people because their nations had been constant enemies of Israel (Nehemiah 13:1-3, referring to Deuteronomy 23:3-6), they separated them out.
Before I continue, it’s important that we see that this isn’t God condoning racism or being unwelcoming to people who aren’t like us. We must remember that people from other nations were welcome in God’s people if they genuinely chose to give up their old nationality to worship God and become a part of His people. Even those from Moab and Ammon. Think about Ruth. Ruth was from Moab, yet God brought her to not only become part of His people, but also an ancestor of Jesus!
And we’ve seen glimpses of Jesus throughout Nehemiah. We saw in the list of the people building the wall hints of His willingness to set aside His status and leave the beauty of heaven to immerse Himself in the mess of earth and be crushed to save us from hell. We saw a glimpse of God’s people really displaying who God is, as Jesus came to do perfectly. We see glimpses of Him in Nehemiah’s prayerfulness and drive to stay faithful to what God has commanded. In his wisdom and leadership. And later in chapter 13 we see in him a non-negotiable passion for holiness that echoes Jesus’ relentless cleansing of the temple in John 2.
But Nehemiah is not Jesus. And, like an unreleased sneeze, as we read the end of the book we are bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
Let’s look at the unfinished work.
The unfinished work
A condition of Artaxerxes allowing Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem back in chapter 2 was that Nehemiah had to report back to him in person (2:6). So before the walls were finished, Nehemiah obediently returned to Babylon for a while. But while he was away, things started to fall apart.
In 13:4-6 we read of how Eliashib the priest, who was in charge of looking after the store rooms in the temple, was using one of the rooms that should have stored supplies for the temple and priests like some kind of self-storage business. Not only that, but it was for someone else’s excess furniture; and worse, he was lending it out to Tobiah! Tobiah, an Ammonite. Tobiah, who had opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem from day one!
And, to make matters worse, Eliashib had also married off one of his grandsons to the daughter of Sanballat! Sanballat, the Horonite, who conspired with Tobiah in trying to sabotage the wall! (v28)
Not only this, but the well-laid plans to provide for those working in the temple had completely gone to pot – the Levites had disappeared to their villages to feed themselves because they weren’t being given the tithes that God had commanded (v10-14).
And then Nehemiah looks around on a Sabbath day and sees people working and trading when they should be resting. They should be spending time enjoying their relationship with God and each other, but instead they are buying and selling and allowing foreigners into the city to peddle their wares – it’s not that the Sabbath rules applied to foreigners, but foreign traders really should not have found business in Israel on a Sabbath! They are violating their relationship with God to gain wealth.
And, worst of all, in 13:23-27 we see that they have married not just with other nations, but with the very nations that God had forbidden from being added into His people – Ammonites and Moabites. And as he looks around, Nehemiah notices that he can’t hear Judah’s language on their children’s lips. He hears the language of Moab and Ammon and Ashdod. His own people are quickly losing their identity, and if nothing is done they will lose their heritage as God’s people too.
As Nehemiah’s people so quickly turn away from the covenant they swore to keep in chapter 10, in absolute horror he sees history repeating itself:
“What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city?” – Nehemiah 13:17-18
“You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women?… Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” Nehemiah 13:25-27
The new temple, the rebuilt Jerusalem, the hours of work put into re-instituting customs and systems to keep God’s people on track – you could even say the last 150 years of captivity, return, rebuilding and re-commitment have done nothing to solve the problem of why God’s people were exiled in the first place.
No amount of new buildings, new structures, or our new promises can solve the problem of a sinful heart.
And Nehemiah is no exception. He greatly reflects Jesus’ passion for holiness. But when he sees how things are falling apart he absolutely loses it, and his raging and violence leave us feeling uncomfortable.
As we see the unresolved problem of sinful hearts, we start searching for the One who can solve it once and for all.
We long to see God’s promise of changing our hearts fulfilled. We long for Jesus, the perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus, the perfecter of our faith
Jesus set aside His status and left the beauty of heaven to be crushed for us, to make us clean, to make us perfect and beautiful and holy (Ephesians 5:25-27). He died on the cross to deal with the problem of our sinful hearts. To take the punishment that sin deserves from God so that we could be considered perfect by Him and so that God’s Spirit could make His home in our hearts to work to make us genuinely perfect. To write God’s law and God’s ways – not just in a book for us to read and forget about – but into the very core of our beings. On our hearts. So that we don’t merely make ourselves do what is right, but genuinely want to. So that we really love to act in a way that pleases God.
In the exile, the temple was destroyed by the enemies of God’s people. Jesus was crucified by God’s enemies and rose to life three days later in order to build a new temple. Not made out of stone, but a living temple made out of people who believe in Jesus and who have God’s Holy Spirit living in them to show His glory to the world.
2 Peter 1:3-7 says:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”
Because God has promised to save us from punishment for sin and count us as perfect if we trust in Jesus, because He has promised to work in us to make us perfect, because He has promised us to make us become like Him in our character and actions, we should make every effort to work at godliness.
Make every effort. Not just half-heartedly have a go every so often and give up because it’s too difficult, or there’s something far more interesting on the telly, or we can’t see how it will ever happen. Make every effort. Work at it – hard! Push for it with a relentless, take-no-prisoners passion. Keep plugging away at it day after day, even though it might seem endless, because it isn’t just you doing this.
Here’s God’s promise in Jeremiah 31:33-34
“…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (emphasis my own)
Because Jesus died for us on the cross, God forgives our sin. All the sin we have already done, all the sin we will do, and even the sins we may be committing in this moment. He doesn’t just forgive it, but he chooses to never think of it again.
And God doesn’t leave it there. He promises to work in our hearts to make us know Him, to make us follow His ways and genuinely want to be holy. This isn’t our job to do alone – it is His job, but the way God works in us is by empowering us to choose to do what is right. As 2 Peter 1 says, His divine power has given us all we need to live in a godly way. To live out our faith and relationship with God.
And not only this, but God also promises to one day bring us to a perfect home where our sin will be a distant memory. Where we will be made completely new, and, as it says in Revelation 21, “…the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Instead of the restoration of a city here on earth, we are promised an eternal, beautiful city where we live in intimacy with God. Where all the pain and grief that we have suffered, and that we have caused, will be wiped away and forgotten.
Where there will be no unhappy endings. No unsatisfying storylines.
And let this be an encouragement to you on the days where it’s hard to do what right, and it feels pointless to keep trying to follow God.
Because although we can’t see the finished product yet, we can celebrate that Jesus has saved us and is changing our hearts. And because God has promised it, it’s as good as done. Our future in heaven, in God’s unbridled presence as God’s perfect people is as certain as if it were in front of our faces. As true for us now as the feel of solid masonry was real to Nehemiah’s feet as he walked over it that day. If you want to hear more about that, my church went through the book of Revelation in our morning services this past academic year. You can find the recordings on our website here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/series/revelation/
And if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, if you don’t know God, this promise is available to you, too. Are there things you wish could be wiped away? Things you long to make right? Or do you get a creeping sense that maybe you aren’t quite as good a person as you want to believe? I’ve felt those things. Do you too?
The truth is that none of us are as good as we’d like to believe. And that can be hard and scary to come to terms with. But God has made available to all of us a way for everything we’ve done wrong to be dealt with. The things people already know about, and the things we’re scared to admit even to ourselves.
Because of Jesus, I know that even though I have done wrong and I still mess up, God doesn’t look at me with anger. He doesn’t turn away in disgust. He doesn’t see me as rubbish to be thrown out, but His masterpiece to restore. To heal cracks, repair ruin, breathe life into decay until His perfect character is formed in me and I shine with His glory.
And He can do that for you, too. The way to know God is wide open, his promise at your fingertips. All you need to do is ask Him to forgive you and be your God.
The story may not yet be finished, but we know how it ends. And one day, if we trust in Jesus, we will see that ending.
This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in June 2019. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/nehemiah-12-13-rejoicing-in-the-present-protecting-the-future/