“The moment one life impinges on another, politics begin.”
Well said, Eugene Peterson (as usual), and certainly Nehemiah learned this lesson repeatedly in his quest to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. There is no avoiding politics because there is no avoiding power and its use and misuse. In Nehemiah’s time, the minor officials of the lands surrounding Jerusalem had pulled their strings and ground their axes and the result was a smoking pile of rubble and the loss of all the progress the Israelites had made since King Cyrus had given permission for the first wave of rebuilding to begin.
Sometimes, however, political shenanigans work to positive ends. Unbeknownst to Nehemiah, letters had been flying back and forth between tattle-tale governors and King Artaxerxes. When someone finally asked the Israelites on whose authority they were rebuilding their city, their reply was clear and bold: “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth. We disobeyed Him and were punished with the destruction of our city. King Cyrus has given us permission to return and rebuild. Go and search the records, and see for yourself!”
Thus began a scrambling in the royal archives for a certain piece of paper, which, in the providence of God had been preserved. Not only had Cyrus granted permission for the city of Jerusalem to be reconstituted, but had also set forth the punishment for those who resisted or interfered: they were to be impaled on a beam from their own house. Ouch.
Meanwhile, Nehemiah was preparing for his role in God’s redemptive plan by praying for four months, blissfully unaware of the political machinations that were paving the way for a successful meeting with King Artaxerxes, the misguided monarch who had initially issued the stop-work edict. Thus, the exchange between cup-bearer and king show the pre-work of prayer and politics, working hand-in-hand to bring about the design of God.
In this season of Advent, we celebrate the outcome of Nehemiah’s efforts: the birth of a Savior, the “Ultimate Nehemiah” who will, one day, preside over the New Jerusalem for all eternity. The fact that He was raised within an intact Israelite culture is, in part, because of politics. (Without walls, the people would have been absorbed into surrounding cultures.) The fact that His message was able to travel quickly and safely over Roman roads in a time of relative peace is also, in part, political.
Kathy Keller has summed up this partnership of politics and grace in a single statement:
“God’s people do not need to be powerful culturally or in power politically to be obedient to Him and accomplish His purposes in the world. All we need to do to join the great sweep of redemptive history is to be faithful to the One who has called us by His own name.”
Amen and Merry Christmas.
(For further study, read Ezra 4:8-21 and 6:2-12 . . . or join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)