I have a tendency to get stuck in time. It was true when I was single; it has been true of my days as a parent; it is true when my back flares up or when I am sick. I believe — falsely — that whatever is going on at the moment is insurmountable and eternal. The sleepless haze of new motherhood, the sleepless haze of eleven o’clock teen curfews, whatever the obstacle, my default reaction seems to be obtuse tunnel vision.
This was not the case with Nehemiah. When he learned that the walls around Jerusalem were, once again, demolished, he reacted emotionally (“I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days . . ” 1:4), but then he began decisive action. He was able to act effectively because he understood his present situation (and that of Jerusalem) in light of the bigger story arc which encompasses all the lesser stories of the Bible: God redeeming his people and restoring His world. In her excellent book Women of the Word, Jen Wilkin refers to this as the metanarrative: “the comprehensive explanation or guiding theme that illumines all other themes in a text. A metanarrative is essentially a story about stories, encompassing and explaining the ‘little stories’ it overarches.”
How much of God’s metanarrative of creation-fall-redemption-restoration did Nehemiah comprehend as he fasted and prayed for guidance in Shushan? Enough to turn God’s promises to the Israelites into a trajectory of prayer that lasted around 16 weeks (from the Hebrew calendar’s month of Chislev to the month of Nisan). Enough to interpret his present problem in light of the bigger problem. Although Nehemiah was a Jew, he was, in all probability, born in Persia and had lived his days in the shadow of King Artaxerxe’s citadel. His display of grief over the destruction of Jerusalem would not have been because he had fond boyhood memories of Israel’s kingdom days, but, instead, because he had tender heart toward God’s agenda. The promise of God to restore the nation of Israel (Jeremiah 25:11,2; 29:10-14) was being thwarted once again. The building project had been halted because of the political ax-grinding of evil men.
Hearing of this crisis in Jerusalem, Nehemiah chose to risk his safe position as the king’s trusted servant (1:11)and to leave the comfort of the palace in Shushan for a thousand mile journey and a new life in a war-zone. Like Joseph and Esther before him, he recognized that he was in his present position for “such a time as this.” Because he had interpreted events in light of the main theme, he would have realized that the walls around Jerusalem were necessary in order for there to be a distinct people of God. It is doubtful that he would have known that God had an individual in mind, an individual who would be raised as a Jew so that he could become the ultimate Priest and King over Israel. The restoration of Jerusalem as a political entity was just part of the great story arc (metanarrative) which would climax with the coming of Messiah.
With this in mind, I am challenged to interpret my own circumstances in light of a bigger picture. What presents itself to me minute by minute is rarely my deepest, truest need. Recognizing that God has complete freedom to do his big-picture plan, we can join Nehemiah in his God-centered prayer.
“Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments, lease let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open, that You may hear the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You now, day and night . . .”
And so, the real story begins.
(For further study, refer to Kelly Minter’s Nehemiah study guide, Kathy Keller’s address to the Gospel Coalition conference 2014 . . . or join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)