A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 19th August 2018 by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean
(Nehemiah 5.14-19; John 2.13-17)
When we read or hear a text from the Old Testament, it is worth remembering that for the vast majority of their history the Jewish people have lived substantially outside the land their scriptures promised them from God. In 587 BC - 2600 years ago - Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon and a great many people were deported there. Indeed Baghdad, the modern successor city to ancient Babylon, remained a substantially Jewish city into recent decades. So through all these millennia the Jewish community has been both home and away, with all the complications and tensions that can bring. People in exile, pining for a homeland they may never have seen, as expressed so painfully (and horrifically) in Psalm 137; people in exile, clinging devoutly to what they consider a purer version of their traditions than they seem to find if and when they do actually go ‘home’; people in exile, living as minorities and having to define their traditions and relationships with wildly different majority cultures and religions. It is highly likely that great parts of what we receive as the Old Testament came to be written because that kind of crystallisation of the tradition was needed as a secure reference point by people who lived in Exile.
Expats, especially involuntary ones, can feel passionately about their ‘homeland’. The book Nehemiah is an interesting one for a number of reasons, and one is that it comes very explicitly from this experience. It’s easy enough to see that if you look at the index of books of the Bible; it comes towards the end of that long historical sequence including the bigger books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and concluding with ever shorter ones of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. By then the people of God are long into their time as a conquered, subject people, dispersed throughout whichever large empire they currently formed part of. In Nehemiah’s day - and Ezra’s, and Esther’s - this was no longer Babylonian, but Persian; in due course, after the Persians would come Alexander’s Greeks, and then the Romans.
Right at the beginning of this book, we are told that Nehemiah was at the Persians’ capital, and was an important official at the king’s court; the king is named as Artaxerxes, which might be helpful in dating this except that we don’t know whether it was Artaxerxes I or II. Nehemiah hears news from a visitor to Jerusalem that it is in a very decayed state, and he asks the king to let him go there and repair it, to restore the dignity of his ancestral home. The king not only allows this but also subsidises the work of repair, and Nehemiah departs for several years on his mission. It’s worth noting that the Persian monarchs generally get a good press in the Old Testament, not least because their policy was of religious toleration, and whereas in Greek history the Persians were reported as an oppressive threat, the Jews found them on the whole quite good news after the Babylonians.
Now all that is by way of background. What’s striking about this book is that a large part of it is a personal memoir, told in the first person by Nehemiah himself. Just look at the number of times the words ‘I, me, myself, my’ appear in those few verses we heard earlier. This is not dispassionate history, written from a lofty remove; this is a passionate memoir about his completion of his mission. First person accounts are always interesting because the way the story is told tells you at least as much about the narrator as it does the wider story. And in Nehemiah’s case, this is explicitly a work of self-justification before God: the last line in today’s passage was ‘Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.’ He writes things like that several times in the book - helpfully pointing out to God that he, Nehemiah, has done a good job on his behalf. Of course it’s not unique in matters of religion to seek to gain credit in the divine account: the small village church where my wife and I were married has a 19th century monument on its wall on which are listed in acute financial detail a number of donations which a particular local worthy had made for the construction and improvement of the building; and at the end is a biblical text - carefully chosen from Nehemiah, and reminding God of what the man had done.
To cut short a reasonably long story, Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem, he gives its people a kick up the backside and animates them into a concerted repair of the city walls, he ticks them off for drifting into mixed marriages and slackness of religious practice. Not unlike, one might say, St Paul, a Jew from Asia Minor, coming down to the homeland a few centuries later first to purge this dreadful new cult of the Way of Jesus, and then, after his own conversion, to tell Peter and others who had actually known Jesus that they’d misunderstood quite a lot of things about faith in him. Let’s face it, people formed in exile can be pretty overbearing.
Nehemiah reports quite a lot of opposition and obstructionism. But his hotlines both to the king and to God prove helpful and he accomplishes the task. We will never know how fair he is in his reports of those he perceived as his opponents. And we’ll never know how reasonable he is in painting all previous governors at Jerusalem as oppressive and exploitative: it’s very good that he tells us in today’s passage that he fed the workforce at great personal cost, and never taxed them for the purpose - but he might, for example, have had a private source of income and also money directly from the Persian king, which they may not have benefitted from. People are complex, and in justifying himself and his mission, Nehemiah certainly takes it upon himself to run down his predecessors and peers.
This is a book, mostly highly personal, and so from a very specific set of circumstances. Like a lot of Biblical texts, it does not read across in some neat way into our circumstances today. You would be ill-advised in my view to go out from here and do likewise. Nonetheless, it touches on all sorts of issues of enduring concern, and here are some.
What are our motivations in the work we consciously do for God?
Are we simply doing good or trying to ensure our eternal destiny?
Is it important to preserve the purity of the people of faith - should we shun those who don’t share it, as Nehemiah tells the men of Jerusalem to put away their foreign wives? Should there be walls, metaphorical or actual, around our community?
What are our ethics in business and in administration? - do we seek to exploit positions for our own advantage?
And, thinking of King Artaxerxes, do we look for good to come from working with and for those who do not share our faith, including those in power?
And, because I suspect that Nehemiah was perceived by many of his contemporaries as a right pain: how does our behaviour as Christians come across to the people with whom we interact?
This book may not be a laugh a line, and there are several textually rather puzzling chapters in its third quarter; but nonetheless, it is not a redundant part of the scriptures we’ve inherited, and I commend it to your consideration.