“Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.”
(Nehemiah 13:22 ESV)
The book of Nehemiah is a story of reformation. God’s people return home to the once-great-but-now-destroyed city of Jerusalem. Under God’s protection and Nehemiah’s leadership, they rebuild its broken walls, reconstruct the old temple, and reorient their hearts under God’s holy law. The first twelve chapters unfold an epic story of how God redeems, revives, and renews His church.
But then there’s that last (13th) chapter. It lands like a sucker punch.
After twelve chapters of God’s people growing in their faith and trust in their covenant God, this thirteenth chapter begins with a dramatic contrast of failure after failure. The Israelites disobey the very laws of God that they had recommitted themselves to. We expect a sunny picture of national holiness but instead we get clouds of sin. Even Nehemiah goes nuts, throwing people out of the temple, cursing them, and yanking out their hair (Neh 13:25). The great nation of Israel had reverted to their old rebellious ways. The great leader Nehemiah had become a disgruntled old man. It is certainly not the storybook ending we prefer, but it is no mistake that God ends the book this way. God uses Israel’s setback to teach us a valuable lesson.
The experience of revival and reformation doesn’t mean we get to go on cruise control.
Nehemiah 8-12 is without a doubt the most positive portion of the book. Revival broke out. Reformation happened. The Spirit was moving among the people in the most powerful ways. They gathered together as “one man” to listen to the Word preached for hours at a time. There was public confession of sins, repentance, weeping, and worship.
Yet, here is that same bunch in Nehemiah 13, less than twenty years later, and the effects of that reformation seem distant. The once passionate Israelites went on spiritual cruise control and drifted off the course of sanctification.
I think it’s safe to admit the same thing can happen in our churches today.
In his commentary on Philippians, biblical scholar D.A. Carson tells the story of a small Mennonite community that experienced this drift: “One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel… The next generation assumed the gospel… The following generation denied the gospel.” He laments that most of the Western church today has drifted into the second category with some already drifting toward the third. Why is that?
“Semper reformanda.” Because churches tend to drift over time.
Nehemiah discovered many areas of unfaithfulness among God’s people. The same is true today. That is why the reformers contended for a culture of “semper reformanda”—or always reforming. We cannot take a passive approach when it comes to remaining in God’s Word and on God’s mission. Knowing this, Paul contending for the constant and active “renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2). There is in each of us, even as followers of Jesus, a type of drifting that can take place if we are not careful. If you scan the story of humanity as it unfolds from Genesis to Revelation, you’ll quickly notice that God’s people have always struggled with the temptation to drift from the truth of the Word and the lordship of God.
How does Nehemiah respond to the madness?
In the midst of all their sin, Nehemiah’s chief desire is to be remembered. He pleads for this four times in the chapter:
“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.” (Nehemiah 13:14 ESV)
“Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.” (Nehemiah 13:22 ESV)
“Remember them, O my God…” (Nehemiah 13:29 ESV)
“Remember me, O my God, for good.” (Nehemiah 13:31 ESV)
In the Old Testament, when people ask to be remembered by God, they are essentially saying, Lord, please don’t leave me hanging. Don’t leave me in the dust. Save me.
There was another man who came to Jerusalem. He, too, came to bring hope to a broken people. That man is Jesus Christ. When He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the people cried, “Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save us!”
In the middle of the mess that is Nehemiah 13, great hope is found in God’s covenant love for His people.
“Spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.”
(Nehemiah 13:22 ESV)
Even crazy old Nehemiah knew his only sure hope was God’s faithful love—a love that finds its fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we read Nehemiah, we are brought to reflect on and hope in the greatness of God’s holy love, secured for us by Jesus Christ.
And that’s the good news out of Nehemiah 13: the story isn’t finished!
Let the disappointing close to Nehemiah’s story remind us of the frailty of human efforts. After all, it leaves us wanting. There has got to be more to this story… And there is!
Nehemiah rebuilt the city and its walls. Jesus builds His church, and He is the Chief Cornerstone. He is the the full embodiment of that “steadfast love” of God.
Indeed, still today, our nations need revival. Our churches need reform. Our hearts need restoration.
But what humanity truly needs is far more than the hope of a good leader. We need the hope of a Savior, someone to rescue us and redeem us. That someone is the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us rejoice in His steadfast love!