Many of us were raised on a “great men” view of history. That is, we understood history to be the story of the exploits of famous men–or occasionally a woman–who single-handedly changed the world.
Certainly, that is often how we approach Old Testament narratives, searching for the hero whose life story can inspire and instruct us as we model ourselves after him or her.
When it comes to the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, our gaze might fasten on Nehemiah, who fits our culture’s vision of a strong and decisive leader. If we did that, however, we would completely miss the point. Because this book does not focus on just one individual.
Rather, the book shows us God at work through a variety of leaders and ordinary people, all partially accomplishing the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem after the cataclysm of the Babylonian exile.
The opposition and ups and downs of Ezra-Nehemiah can call to mind the challenges and frustrations of our own lives and ministries—and offers two important lessons for us about faithfulness and failure.
God’s Faithfulness – In Spite of Opposition
The story of Ezra and Nehemiah plays out against a backdrop of ruins. There’s a ruined city, a ruined house of worship, ruined homes—ruined life with God.
And as is often the case with the ruined parts of our own lives, the shame is amplified by the fact that the wreckage is largely the people’s own fault. They and their ancestors acted foolishly, unfaithfully, and godlessly.
The book begins with a focus on the restoration of Jerusalem—rebuilding the city’s walls. In those days, walls were extremely important both for security and to let a governor effectively keep order. Yet, Jerusalem’s walls had been in ruins since the Babylonians destroyed them more than a century earlier.
Restoring Jerusalem was not a simple task. The city had been devastated. The involvement of the entire community was necessary, with those who remained behind in Babylon financially supporting those who returned, helping them to rebuild God’s house.
Still more important, of course, was the support of the Lord Himself. The Lord who had moved the spirit of Cyrus to send the exiles home had to provide the resources necessary for the dangerous journey, and also for the long and challenging task of rebuilding the temple, the city, and the walls of Jerusalem.
In one sense, the return of the exiles accomplished frustratingly little. The temple was eventually rebuilt, but those who had seen the first temple thought it disappointing and lacking in glory. And the restored community suffered from much of the same half-heartedness and sin that their ancestors had struggled with.
Yet in another sense, the return was a glorious demonstration of God’s faithfulness and forgiveness.
Repeatedly in Ezra-Nehemiah, we see the Lord stirring up his people to give and to work, and smoothing out potential obstacles in order to bring his people home from exile and rebuild His city. In the language of Isaiah 40, the God of heaven was lifting up valleys and leveling mountains in order to create a smooth highway for his people to return.
The book details the Lord’s faithfulness in providing for his people through many dangers, toils, and snares.
God’s Faithfulness – In Spite of Our Weakness
But in our own lives and ministries, sometimes it can seem like God doesn’t provide. Maybe He doesn’t open the doors for us in our attempts to serve Him and expand His church. Sometimes we work hard and as faithfully as we can, yet we see very little fruit for our labors.
We may have visions of accomplishing great things for God and yet find ourselves in frustrating circumstances, making only small progress as we wrestle with difficult people and our own hard hearts.
But Ezra-Nehemiah reminds us—don’t miss what God is up to in the midst of the chaos.
The unimpressive temple that was finished in Zerubbabel’s time, and later renovated and expanded, would one day welcome the Messiah—himself in the surprisingly weak form of a little baby.
God’s work is not always accomplished in grandeur. Often, His most important acts begin in weakness.
Even in small ways, He is faithfully at work in and through us in the messiness of life and ministry in this fallen world, in spite of opposition. The frustrations of the present are not the end of the story.
This steadfast love of God is most beautifully seen in Jesus, who died for us who were once His enemies to bring us home to Himself.
After all, Jesus is our ultimate “great man” of history. In Him, we see God entering into the messiness of life with us—to redeem us and give us a glorious inheritance.
Nehemiah models for us how to battle discouragement and opposition by keeping our eyes fixed on the Lord, our great and awesome God. The God who brought His people out of Egypt and into the promised land, and then back to Jerusalem after the exile, is perfectly capable of protecting us in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Sometimes faithful missionaries are martyred or die in accidents, diligent pastors see little fruit from their labors, and obedient Christians struggle in every aspect of life. God doesn’t promise to empower all of us to succeed. When it is his will, He is still able to do so, of course.
However, He often empowers us instead to endure weakness and “failure” along the road to humbling us and making us more like Christ, which is always his ultimate Goal.
Was Nehemiah a success?
Not if you measure success as bringing about lasting change. The book concludes with an ominous chapter in which all the previous achievements are threatened.
While there is certainly great thankfulness to God for what has been accomplished there is also an undercurrent of incompleteness to the fulfillment of God’s great promises.
But through his story we see that “success” is not the measure of our lives or ministries—faithfulness is. Our calling is to obey God in our daily callings – regardless of the outcome.
My own experience of three years trying to plant a church in a lower-income neighborhood brought this lesson powerfully home to me. There is no church there anymore. You can count the conversions we saw on the fingers of a single hand. What impact did we have on the city as a whole? Next to none.
But was our hard work and the hard work of the people who labored alongside us in vain? By no means! We count it an astonishing privilege to hold out the words of life to a community otherwise devoid of the gospel.
God was glorified by our efforts, and those few people we saw converted will shine in his kingdom for all eternity.
Suffering, disappointment, and even failure will never be wasted, for through it we will come to know more deeply our own powerlessness and the all-surpassing grace of God, which is sufficient even for broken sinners like us.
And the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s kingdom, which will certainly come in due season, bringing with it the glory that is ours in Christ. God is faithful and he will do it.
As Ezra and Nehemiah call to mind the challenges and frustrations in your own life and ministry—be encouraged to return to the God who is always faithful. Take all your needs to Jesus who is the one who brings new life where there is overwhelming ruin and decay.