The other day I was having a conversation with someone I know that goes to a church where the teaching is bottom-of-the-barrel-Southern-Baptist-purpose-driven-seeker-sensitivity. I normally catch up with this person every Monday and Thursday to find out what the teaching was like the day before in order to do some damage control. Last week, they told me that the pastor spoke about Nehemiah. Before they continued, I said something along the lines of, “Let me guess. The sermon was about how God has called us to do something great the way He called Nehemiah to rebuild the temple. And because this is a calling from God, we will undoubtedly run into times of difficulty the way that Nehemiah did. But if we persevere, we can get the results the way Nehemiah did.” When I saw the pastor’s notes, it was like I had been sitting in the church that Sunday. It was exactly as I had guessed. I’m not great or clairvoyant. This is just the standard junk you get at most churches in America. A text is ripped out of the Bible, and your name is slapped on to the pages.
It’s as though the pastor is soooo afraid to keep people there and interested that application must be forced on to every text. Now, I DO believe that a historical narrative text like the account of Nehemiah does demand application. And it’s very simple. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s consider Nehemiah. It’s a shame, really, that this book, and many like it, are treated this way. As I mentioned before, it’s a historical narrative. That’s a fancy term that simply means, “An account of something that happened in history.” And that’s how this story should be told. In fact, this text is really robust. Back in 2011, I wrote an article called The Complete Guide to Daniel’s 70 Weeks. In it, I detail a timeline that God gave the prophet Daniel about events that would happen after Daniel’s time leading up to the coming of Christ. In fact, supplement that article with the articles Daniel 2 – Nebuchadnezzar and the Kingdom of God and Daniel 8 – Foreseeing Medo/Persia and Greece. In the timeline given to Daniel, who lived long before Nehemiah, God tells Daniel that the temple would be rebuilt during times of trouble. We know that is the case when we look at Nehemiah’s book. God even tells Daniel how long it will take. If pastors took the time to explain these things, the focus of the text of Nehemiah would be on God. It would show the congregants that God foretold these things and right here in Nehemiah we are seeing God keep His promises. And it doesn’t stop there. The underlying truth to all of this is that God is keeping His promise to Abraham about the Messiah who would bless the nations – and Adam in the protoevangelion found in Genesis 3:15.
This all points back to Christ. God is bringing His people back to the land so that the Messiah can be born in the appointed place at the appointed time. All of this is lost, unfortunately, when pastor’s turn the text into a passage about how you need to persevere in times of trouble. Don’t get me wrong. There are passages in the New Testament where Christians are warned about trouble that might befall them because of their testimony for Christ. Go there for that. But don’t empty rich passages in the Old Testament of their beauty and depth. What’s worse is that when these passages are used in this way, imagery is often taken too far and the pastor ends up appealing to personal experiences instead of biblical clarity to fill in those gaps. Truth is, and it’s depressing to think, many pastors are totally ignorant of the Old Testament. If you told them that old seminary joke, “Turn to the book of Hezekiah,” they’d probably fall for it.
A book like Nehemiah is a historical narrative, and must be read and understood that way. There are many types of writing styles in the Bible that must be understood in their proper context. As i mentioned earlier in this article, the book of Nehemiah does ‘demand’ obedience from you. It does require application. It’s just not attractive enough, perhaps, for many people. Instead of believing that the Holy Spirit thousands of years ago inspired the book of Nehemiah to be written as a guide for how you ought to live in the face of difficulty while doing the will of God, read the story as it was intended to be read and simply believe it. That’s all. As a child who hears a story about something that happened in the past – simply believe it.