Last year, I had the privilege of meeting many of you when I spoke at your Conference. I closed my talk with a challenge from Isaiah: ‘Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings’. This was exactly what Nehemiah did, and it is to the life of Nehemiah that I often turn when I ponder the broken walls of our society that we work to rebuild.
There is much for educators to learn from Nehemiah’s life. He lived his life in exile as an alien, but he worshipped God and stayed true to his faith, in spite of the heathen faiths around him. He rose to an important position—a trusted servant as the King of Syria’s cupbearer. One day, Nehemiah was visited by his brother, and he heard a sorry tale of the suffering of his people. The city walls were broken, and the people were defenceless and defeated.
That is true of our society, too. How often, like Nehemiah, are we reduced to tears about the sin and suffering of our nation? But Nehemiah did two things that perhaps we don’t do. He didn’t cry out to God to take away the suffering of his people—he mourned and wept until the suffering became his. Nor did he tell God about the sin of his people; instead, he confessed it as if it were his own (1:5-7). Nehemiah was a man of faith.
But he was also a man of action, so he decided to return to Jerusalem to help rebuild the walls. That was no easy task—he was a servant, so he couldn’t just up and leave. He needed the King’s permission, but he trusted God so faithfully that when the opportunity arose to ask the King for help, he simply prayed to God and asked (2:5). We don’t know what Nehemiah expected as he set out on his journey, but it became clear over the next few months that he had adopted a particular perspective on what he had to do.
Whatever life threw at him, he just focused on God and got on with the work.
And life threw plenty at him: a legacy of corruption (5:15) and the dirty tricks brigade in the form of Sanballat and Tobiah (2:10, 4:1-3). It escalated to death threats (4:11-12), and the people started to see the rubble instead of the wall. If he was discouraged, Nehemiah didn’t show it. He simply encouraged the people in the Lord (4:14) and got them to work with a weapon in one hand and a trowel in the other. As if that wasn’t enough, he then had to deal with internal conflict (5:6). How often do we look at the rubble instead of the Lord? Or get drawn into conflict?
The wall was finished in just 52 days. Nehemiah had endured opposition, bullying, sneers, threats, intimidation, internal conflict and exhausted workers, and yet he had completed the task God had given him to do. The people looking on were amazed (6:16), and the news spread to surrounding nations like ripples in a pond.
Nehemiah’s motto for life really was: ‘Focus on God and get on with the work’. I have those words in a framed picture which was made for me as a birthday gift last year, and it hangs over my desk. I pray that it will be your motto, too, in all your work and worship.