Well, this is the side of Nehemiah I remember really not liking.
Today’s chapters start slowly with a chapter and a half of names, then have their moment of celebration with the dedication of the new wall, with processions, prayers and music. Nehemiah tells us that ‘the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.’ (12:43). Nehemiah then reestablishes the proper working of the Temple, before heading back to the royal court, presumably to take up at least for a while his old duties as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes.
When things go wrong, then, he is keen to point out that ‘I was not in Jerusalem’. Perhaps one of the flaws in Nehemiah’s leadership was that it all depended on him – when he was no longer there, standards (at least, the standards he had set) began to slide.
So Nehemiah again asks leave from the king and comes back to sort people out, with threats of violence, beatings and hair-pulling (which sounds more like a playground complaint than an adult argument, but perhaps things have changed.) And the issues are some of those things which were so key to Judaism by Jesus’ day – the sabbath and mixed marriages, two of the key things which mark the boundaries of Israel, and keep her distinct from the gentiles.
Perhaps Nehemiah’s enthusiasm for building the wall around Jerusalem was not merely a matter of practicality and defence. For his actions here seem to show an equal enthusiasm for wall-building in matters of life and marriage, forming the returned exiles into a new, pure Israel.
I can’t help but feel some sadness that while the rededication of the Temple – the house of prayer for all nations – was greeted with a mixture of rejoicing and tears, the great celebration which was heard far away was saved for when Nehemiah had built a wall to keep people away from the Temple.
I recognise the part that all of this plays in the history of our salvation, and that the ‘what if?s’ are not going to get us anywhere. But what if…Nehemiah had chosen different parts of the Law to make a priority? What if…his efforts to spread freedom and justice had been spread from Jerusalem to all who wanted to come to the Temple? What if…the gates had been left open to the world?
We’ll never know. But I think it might have been good.