May 11

The Tragedy of Nehemiah

“Why do American movies always end happy?” When I was in Romania 11 years ago, one of the college students we were helping teach English to asked us this question. I’d honestly never really thought about it.

“And they all lived happily ever after.” That’s how stories ended. That’s what was supposed to happen.

I found out, however, that this is not a view held by everybody. Many films have tragic endings. The hero doesn’t save the day. The threat isn’t neutralized. The love remains unrequited. According to my friend in Romania—this is the way most films should end because it’s more like “real life.”

Regardless of how you want your movie going experience to be—I was reminded of this exchange when I read through the remainder of Nehemiah this week. In the past few weeks we learned Nehemiah was personally living out the reversal of the very acts that got Israel exiled to Babylon in the first place: ignoring God and neglecting their neighbor. Nehemiah 8 and following continues this theme, ultimately bringing Nehemiah to a tragic conclusion.

The final 6 chapters bring into clear focus Nehemiah’s entire purpose for his work in Jerusalem: to bring the people back to God. He didn’t take credit for it (he gave that to God), and we see at the start of chapter 8 and following that he didn’t pursue glory because of it either. He used his influence as an opportunity to point others not to himself, but to Yahweh.

For a while it seems to have worked. The people listen to the reading of the law for hours, agree to abide by its precepts, and dedicate themselves to the Lord’s service in the city of Jerusalem. However, what comes after this in his memoir is what astounds me even more.

It ends in tragedy. The people return to their old ways and we’re left with Nehemiah struggling to keep the people going in the right direction. They’re back where they started. Ignoring the law. Desecrating the temple. Defiling the office of the priesthood. The reader watches all of Nehemiah’s hard work crumble as he’s being ignored by the people around him. It seems all Nehemiah has left is to ask the Lord to remember him because he stayed faithful.

If this were about making a great name for Nehemiah, the book would have ended on a much different note than that. Instead, the story of Nehemiah is a stark reminder to not only Israel, but the people of God everywhere to remain faithful to Him. Even if everybody else capitulates: remain faithful to the Lord. Because, as He showed 440 years later, God does remember. He does stay faithful to His promises. He brings redemption.

For Further Conversation

1.) What are some ways that you have tried to make a name for yourself?  Have you been successful?

2.) What do you think it was that caused the people’s hearts to turn back to God?

3.) Have you ever experienced something similar in your own life?

4.) When you think about God’s desire to receive all the praise and glory for what happens in your life, how do you feel about that?  What is the source of that?

5.) Who is someone that has been an example of highlighting God’s name above their own?  What can you learn from them?

6.) What are some ways that we can give credit to God for the success we experience?  Why is this so counter-cultural?


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