But this is a huge mistake. That is, if you want to understand the biblical storyline on its own terms.
Much of the modern Christian tradition hasn’t really known what to do with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Because of the deeply held assumption that the Bible is primarily moral instruction literature (= a divine rule book), the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are usually turned into examples for how to lead a revival (Ezra), or how to create momentum for your next church building project (Nehemiah).
I’m not joking. Here’s a list of book title results from searching “Ezra” and “Nehemiah” on Amazon.com:
Nehemiah: Becoming a Godly Leader
Revive Us Again: A Study of Ezra and Nehemiah
Rebuild the Walls: Lessons in Leadership from Nehemiah
Ezra: A Biblical Model for Restoration
The Nehemiah Factor: 16 Vital Keys to Living Like a Missional Leader
Nehemiah: Becoming a Disciplined Leader
Overcoming Fear and Discouragement with Ezra and Nehemiah
Leadership for Greatness: Leadership Lessons from the Book of Nehemiah
Now, I have lots of sympathy for how this trend has taken place. We really want the Bible to speak a relevant and personal message to us and to our day. And that is indeed what the Bible is for. But the way the Bible goes about doing that is not at all similar to the method of modern self-help literature, even Christian versions. Biblical literature doesn’t communicate by offering simple answers and moral examples. Rather, the characters that populate the biblical stories are deeply flawed, often ambiguous, and a mixed-bag of success and failure.
Kind of like you and me.
The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a realistic story of religious people who are zealous to help others see the world and God in a new way. They are full of passion and love for God, and do everything in their power to lead the Israelites into a new era of devotion to their God … and it doesn’t work. The story ends with Nehemiah in angry tears, beating the Israelites for violating the covenant commands of the Torah (see Nehemiah ch. 13). Does that sound like a pattern of inspirational leadership that you should follow?
It doesn’t, and that’s because these books aren’t offering us a list of tips to successful leadership. That’s actually the opposite of their message. In reality, they offer a sobering story of leaders who cannot bring about the full realization of their hopes and dreams, even when they tried and prayed their hardest. And this theme fulfills a crucial role in the larger biblical storyline, but we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
Let’s first understand the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in terms of their literary design. They are two separate books in modern English Bibles, but that division is not original (it took place later in the history of printed Bibles). These stories are actually one unified whole and were designed to be read as one big story told in three parallel movements with two conclusions, one positive and one negative.
Three Parallel Movements:
Ezra 1-6: Zerubbabel and Joshua lead the first wave of exiles back from Babylon (with mixed results)
Ezra 7-10: Ezra attempts a spiritual revival among the returned exiles (again, with mixed results)
Nehemiah 1-7: Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls (with mixed results)
Two Concluding Movements:
Nehemiah 8-10: Ezra and Nehemiah stage a revival in Jerusalem …
Nehemiah 11-13: … which basically fails and ends with Nehemiah’s anger and disappointment
The first three movements each begin with lots of hope and possibility. Each starts with a Persian king sponsoring an Israelite leader to lead a wave of exiles back to the ruins of Jerusalem to rebuild their life (Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel in Ezra 1-2; Ezra in Ezra ch. 7, Nehemiah in Nehemiah ch. 1). In each case the group returns and makes some attempt at restoration, whether it’s rebuilding the temple (Ezra 3-6), making a commitment to the Torah (Ezra 9-10), or rebuilding the city walls (Nehemiah 2-7). And in each case, they face hostility from without (Ezra 4 and Nehemiah 2-7) and failure from within (Ezra 9-10). After all three of these cycles, the reader should start to clue in and ask: “Why do these great beginnings keep concluding with mixed results?”