5 Reasons You Should Preach through Nehemiah
Part chronicle and part unvarnished prayer journal, the book of Nehemiah is a reformer’s memoir. As we enter into the account, we can almost smell the smoking ruins of Jerusalem’s broken walls.
The central image of the book is a common laborer on the wall, working diligently with one hand while clutching a weapon with the other (c.f. 4:17). It’s a picture of grit and vigilance in the Lord’s work, and it’s instructive for us in this day when both the church and the truth seem under attack from every side.
Nehemiah has been used and abused for every kind of building project and capital campaign known to church. But the main point of Nehemiah is that in the face of opposition to the gospel, we should put our trust in God because he is unwaveringly committed to his glory and his people.
Here are five reasons to preach the book of Nehemiah:
1. Nehemiah teaches us to confess our sins to God.
Sanballat, Tobiah and the godless nations surrounding Jerusalem seem to be the greatest enemies of God’s people. But far worse are Judah’s own sins against God. In chapter 1, after hearing of the trouble in Jerusalem, Nehemiah doesn’t pray for God to destroy the nations. He prays for God to forgive his people and rescue them from their own rebellion against him. After all, it was their sins that had moved God to send the Babylonians to Jerusalem and lead them into captivity in the first place.
Our tendency as sinners is to look away from ourselves and condemn the sins of the world, even though the world cannot destroy us. But do you know what can destroy us? Our own sins when they’re left unchecked. They will destroy us quickly.
Nehemiah teaches us that our greatest enemy doesn’t lie outside the walls of the church, but within. And so our greatest need is to confess our sins to God. True reformation begins and ends with confession before our holy God. In fact, Nehemiah bookends rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem with both his and God’s people’s confession of sin.
Pleading with our people to confess their sins to God won’t exactly tickle the ears. It’s not part of any popular church growth strategy. In fact, our number may thin out a bit if our preaching is seasoned and flavored with confession. But it’s far better to have a white-hot remnant than a lukewarm lot. Pastors, preach Nehemiah because it teaches us to confess our sins to God.
2. Nehemiah teaches us to contend for the gospel.
As we think about how to apply Nehemiah to our own day, we remember that fortifying Jerusalem—with the Temple and God’s people inside—established the witness of God amid a desert of pagan worship. And so, Nehemiah teaches us how to contend for the gospel.
It was Oliver Cromwell who once said, “Trust God and keep your powder dry.” It’s a useful, wartime phrase that calls for both faith and vigilance in the heat of spiritual battle. It’s easy for God’s people to try and contend for the gospel in our own strength, as though the outcome depends on us. And it’s just as easy when the battle gets hot to sit on our hands and bend the sovereignty of God to our own fears and laziness. But in Nehemiah 4:20, while the opposition is at its hottest, Nehemiah declares to the people: “Our God will fight for us.”
We see a complete reliance on God as they build and defend. We see the people of God’s tenacity to defend and rebuild the walls of the holy city. In 4:23, the laborers and everyone involved in the project are pulling double and triple shifts! Nehemiah journals, “So, neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his side.”
Preaching through Nehemiah offers us an unusual opportunity to call our people to trust God and labor doggedly for the gospel. As we contend, we’re encouraged to know that it is God’s strong arm that fights for us.
3. Nehemiah teaches us to lead sacrificially.
The church need pastors and leaders who sacrifice for God’s people, not take advantage of them. We see in Nehemiah an unusually humble leader that serves others at great cost to himself.
A few examples that pepper the book:
- Nehemiah leaves the comfortable refuge of Susa, a winter retreat for Persian kings, out of concern for God’s people.
- He also confronts the wealthy and influential citizens of Jerusalem and calls them to account for exacting interest from the common people. They were even taking some of their fellow Judahites’ children as slaves for the repayment of outstanding debts. Risking his own influence as leader, he brings the heat and protects the vulnerable in the community.
- In Nehemiah 5, Nehemiah the governor hosts hundreds of people for daily meals at his home—on his own dime. Out of compassion for the people, he didn’t demand the governor’s food allowance.
The gospel shines brightest when those who proclaim it advocate for the vulnerable among them. Nehemiah teaches us what sacrificial, Christ-like leadership looks like.
4. Nehemiah teaches us to keep preaching the “main thing.”
Paired with Ezra, Nehemiah may be the most fertile ground in all the Bible to demonstrate the toil and fruit of reformation. At first glance, it appears to be a reformation of brick and mortar. But by the Spirit of God, a more significant reformation was taking place in the hearts of God’s people at the preaching of God’s Word.
In Nehemiah 8, when Ezra stands on the wooden platform to read the Word of God and give the “sense” of it, he’s preaching to God’s people. In exile, they’d wandered far from God. But at the hearing of his Word, they start to weep as they’re convicted by God’s holy law. Ezra was a good kind of pragmatist. He did the only thing that would work. He read and explained the Word of God to the people of God. And what we see is a people freshly moved to obedience.
What lies beneath much of the opposition to church reform is a rejection of the sufficiency of Scripture. The key to reformation in any local church is a reverence for God’s Word. Therefore, we’ll see lasting fruit when and only when the Word of God remains preeminent in the life of the church.
5. Nehemiah teaches us to be patient with struggling saints.
The book of Nehemiah doesn’t end with a walk into the sunset. After God’s strong arm had delivered Jerusalem from her enemies in just 52 days, and after God’s people responded to the Word by signing a covenant to obey him, the people returned to the same sins that had marked them before the exile.
The final chapter of Nehemiah functions as a kind of post-reformation case study. We see how the church will always struggle with the old man of sin until Jesus thunders down to earth to receive her. Nonetheless, we must preach to our congregation that God’s people are holy.
And yet, when the church fails to be the holy, we must learn to be patient. There will always be a segment of our people who seem to stray often. Thankfully, there are also those who by God’s grace are more mature. The latter will be tempted to despise the former, but what we all need is charity and a robust doctrine of sanctification—one that demands holiness but leaves room for our failures and God’s unfathomable grace.
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The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, by Charles Fensham. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. A useful, technical, and exegetical commentary on both Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ezra and Nehemiah, by Derek Kidner. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. My favorite Nehemiah commentary. Kidner’s introductory volume avoids the cumbersome weeds of controversy and highlights important pastoral implications of the text.
Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ezra, by J.G. McConville. McConville’s work, like Kindner’s is also an introductory volume that offers keen observations and insights that prove useful in sermon preparation.
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You can read the rest of the articles in this series here.