Musings in Nehemiah: A History Lesson and a Sermon

 “It is a trap of history to believe that eyewitnesses remember accurately what they have lived through.

    —Theodore White

Three “books” or “stories” round out the history of Israel’s early captivity. In order, they are Esther (the Lady comes first; the men could not do their work without her), then Ezra, and, finally, Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah may be the same person. Esther is not the same person as either of them, or both of them, or each of them. Ezra has some access to the throne, Nehemiah tastes the King’s meal. Esther is the Queen of the land. Her presence in Nehemiah 2 bolsters a sad, scared servant, thus to make him able to ask an Old King to let him go home, of course, to a home Nehemiah has not previously seen.

Nehemiah’s scroll misidentifies the King as Ataxerxes, which means “Great King.” Elsewhere he has another title that means the “Venerable King.” The two titles, not names, taken together, indicate he is a Great, Old King. Twenty something years into his reign, he has the look and feel of a United States President after a first term. Check the pictures; responsibility ages these servants beyond their years.

The King titled the “Great, Old King” is often called Darius, the Mede, though only the geographical appellation is accurate and that only to name his lineage, not so much to identify him. In fact, he is named by so many titles and so few names, secular history early on decides Darius never actually exists, not by any title or name, as a real person. He is a point in history where Persia and Media come together to conquer Babylon. His “nephew” Cyrus the Persian, is supposed to be real, actual and a conqueror, to boot, but not so much for Darius.

Biblical history has Darius, or Ataxerxes or Whatshisname as a real person, a King with a Kingdom, Conqueror of Babylon. He is a Biblical King with a Kingdom. He is a King with a Queen.

His Queen is Esther. Esther is a Jewish maiden whom God raises up to be chosen for a wife by the Persian King. When Nehemiah mentions his sadness and fear in Nehemiah One and Two, he also tells us all this is settled in a  moment before the King and Queen. A depressed and shaken man, Nehemiah, dares to ask for the Keys to a Kingdom because the Queen sits there in sympathy, listening to his plight. aside her King, Darius, the Great, Old Man.

Nehemiah does not tell us of a meeting with the Queen prior to his hour before Darius to plead for Jerusalem, but one need not exercise prescience to imagine such a meeting. There must have been such a trust. Queen Esther must have told him, “Show my husband your heart. Ask for his help this way. Don’t leave out anything I say.”

This is high drama. A maiden Jewess marries a multi-titled Old King. Her husband employees a Hebrew cupbearer to protect and advise. The Hebrew adviser wants to rebuild a city’s walls, so honor his God. The Queen whispers in her King’s ear and directs the scared cup-bearer. In so doing, she changes history, without a word of praise.

We have to wonder how all this plays out in the eyes of the people who live through it. Nehemiah does not recount a secret meeting with the Queen, but I argue for it here. Nehemiah never even mentions a word uttered by Esther in the climactic meeting, but he does take time to mention her presence in the throne room and on the throne where God places her. The men Ezra-Nehemiah (or the one man by two names) has the courage to ask for his own freedom and his nation’s revival, so to honor God, because a sympathetic woman sits on the Queenly Throne. Neither mentions Esther’s contribution but the sacred history puts her there.

We can surmise this lesson; it is easier to speak Truth to Power if God goes ahead to put a loving ear near the throne. You might be that loving ear, so do not fear power or shirk influence.

If the American Presidential election of 2016 proves anything, it is this; we need good people in the public arena. You might be that good person going forward.

 

 

Nothing is inevitable until it happens.

—Bruce Catton, Historian

 

Flesh and blood dream the dreams that become reality. Flesh and blood is a trite-ism used to describe actual humanity. As ever, the trite-ism shorts the reality. Flesh can be savaged and blood shed, to be sure, but the human state of being is other than just flesh and more than simple blood. The walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt. Sinew and oxygenated hemoglobin combine to stack the bricks, yet their parents are sadness and fear, which must be overcome before a trowel does any good.

Anyone who reads Nehemiah sees the first two chapters writ large in the first person singular. Nehemiah is the “I.” The history of the rebuilt walls is vividly personal. As with any “building” first, or “rebuilding” after, there must be a champion, a heroine, an advocate, a helper. Nehemiah (or someone) writes the third chapter in the third person plural. The “I” gives way to the “We,” the ‘They,” the “Us.” There are personal names, more likely titles, and the writer takes care to be certain to identify the We by leader, lineage and labor.

Inevitability, be it the defeat of fascism, the end of African slavery in the Americas or the fall of Russian Communism, is not some numerological determinism. The Right, the Good, the Meek, the Kind, are not fated to prevail in any particular generation. What is Right, Good, Meek, Kind, will finally win, but the operative word is finally, not daily.

Jerusalem’s walls rise again because Esther sits on the Throne, quiet, serene, powerful. If Esther has a word with Nehemiah before he pleads his case, it is equally likely she whispers to Darius, “Let your servant go do his God’s work.”

Jerusalem has  a civic boundary anew because Nehemiah, flesh and blood, feels sadness and fear. In the midst of all his personal pain, he advocates for Jerusalem, and for her God.

Nehemiah starts alone, full of “I.” When the work gets done, it is because the “We” rise with the walls.

Inevitability might say, “There are too many steps between you and what you want. You are alone. Stop here.”

Virtue builds a consensus for good.

Inevitability is a curse, if one lets it be. Inevitability wallows in sadness, escapes into fear. Inevitability pulls your heart back down to the pit. Humans feel the pain of loss much more than victory’s joy.

Things are not going to just get better. Slave masters do not give up slaves. Walls do not build themselves. Nothing is inevitable until it happens. Nothing really happens until you and I insist it happens.

History favors those who act.

—Every history I have ever read.

—And I am getting old, so there.

 

Sadness and fear are the attributes of Nehemiah. Serenity and strength describe Esther. All the people who will, working all the work they will work, accomplish the great tasks.

The fellow who waits for things to work out oft finds nothing ever works out. We have to do in order to get something done.

Evil loves authority. What is required, that evil persons prevail, other than the Burkian rule, that good persons do nothing?

A bully does not surrenders caste easily. Let a bully get on top.  A bully will not do what Lincoln said, “Let him up easy.” A bully will stay on top to rub your nose in it.

The status quo is not merciful.  It is just that which insists upon itself.

When Jerusalem’s walls go up again other authority recedes. Little wonder that rulers around Jerusalem prefer the Hebrews have smaller walls, or none at all.

What can you do to raise the walls again?

Run for President Of the United States of America. Adopt a dog from  a shelter. Go before a University Board of Regents from a prayer meeting, of all things, to finally make them hear young girls cry.

Insist on serious leaders; enough of clowns, buffoons, job seekers, pocket stuffers. If a leader shows you he/she will break the law do not trust that leader to keep the law later.

Act. Rebel. Demand. Inspect the burned walls by night, the better to build them up by day. Sift through your sadness, open up your fears, conspire with the Queen to invoke the pity of the King.

Act.

History demands it.

 

 

 

 

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