We Need Christ, Not More Men Like Nehemiah

I just finished preaching on the book of Nehemiah. It was a timely series for us for a variety of reasons, including a church building project at TCBC, some times of opposition, and our constant need to remember  the importance of biblically-driven worship. One disappointment, however, was that most of the resources I used (listed at the end of this post) concluded by commending the leadership and character of Nehemiah and wishing that the Lord would raise up such men in our own day—as if that’s the main lesson the book teaches!

“So, the next time you feel like quitting, remember Nehemiah and stay on the job until the work is finished to the glory of God. Be determined!” (Wiersbe, 160)

“[Perseverance] is a quality of all great leaders. Is it true of us?” (Boice, 141)

“After a careful study of his book, we are left with a vivid impression of Nehemiah as a man of strong convictions and of forceful character… Pervading every atom of his being was a flaming zeal for the Lord and for His work. Even among those who have a real love for God and His Word such men are not often found. Oh, that God might raise up even a few in our own day, for once again the ‘walls’ are crumbling and the foe is attacking!” (Luck, 125)

Now, I’d be glad to see the Lord raise up godly men. Absolutely. I’m thankful for a number of godly leaders at TCBC, and I pray that the Lord will raise up more, both here and elsewhere. However, that is emphatically not the point of the book of Nehemiah. The leadership of Nehemiah, though valuable, ultimately didn’t get it done. Neither did the leadership of other admirable judges, kings, prophets, and priests before him.

Nehemiah led in the rebuilding not only of Jerusalem’s walls (ch. 1-6), but of the Jewish people (ch. 7-13). He led them back to the Scriptures, inspiring repentance and worship. In chapter 10, the Jews responded to the Scriptures by making vows to God—they promised not to defile the Sabbath, not to withhold tithes and offerings, and not to intermarry with the heathen. Very good. They probably even threw sticks in the proverbial campfire. Amen!

The problem? As soon as Nehemiah left the city and returned to King Artaxerxes for a time, the Jews broke each of those vows! In chapter 13, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and corrects them for defiling the Temple, breaking the Sabbath, intermarrying with pagans, and neglecting to support worship through tithes and offerings. So what is the message the book concludes with? Disappointment. Frustration. Failure. Sin. The sense that we need something better. Indeed, we need someone better—someone who doesn’t just encourage obedience to God’s Law, but who first accomplishes obedience on our behalf, then enables it. Nehemiah, like the rest of the OT, serves as a teacher pointing us to Christ! It’s not about Nehemiah at all. Miss that and you’ve missed the main point of the book.

What the Jews needed—and what we need—is a Savior. Praise God that following Nehemiah 13 and 400 silent years, God’s next message to the Jews and the world was that that great need had finally been met: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” (Luke 2:11). What the entire Old Testament had prepared for had finally come to pass. That’s the point.


Note: If you’re interested in considering that point further, this message on Nehemiah 13 (part of our 13-message series on Nehemiah) will be helpful to you, I think.


Finally, here are the resources which I used:

  • James Montgomery Boice’s commentary, Nehemiah, was quite helpful. It wasn’t particularly technical or theological, but it was useful as I worked to understand the text and prepare sermons.
  • Warren Wiersbe’s commentary on Nehemiah, Be Determined, was a typical Wiersbe “Be” book. Not deep, but helpful, especially for preaching emphases, etc.
  • Chuck Swindoll’s Hand Me Another Brick is okay. I’d not recommend spending anything on it, frankly, but I’ve owned it for 15-plus years. Swindoll (who I think has done some nice work on biographical studies) essentially uses Nehemiah as a springboard for a book on leadership.
  • Derek Kidner’s commentary on Ezra & Nehemiah, though only 174 pages, was probably the most helpful resource. Whereas the first 3 (as you’d expect from popular preachers) focused more on preaching points and illustrations, Kidner focuses more on facts and interpretation.
  • G. Coleman Luck’s commentary on Ezra & Nehemiah is similarly brief (125 pages), but it doesn’t provide nearly the help Kidner’s does. You can pass on this one.
  • I supplemented these (admittedly light) commentaries with a few commentary sets, including the Pulpit Commentary and Expositor’s Bible Commentary (by Edwin Yamauchi). I used these far less frequently, however. Were I to start the series over, I’d refer to Pulpit more often.
  • Finally, the preaching series by Pastor Drew Conley of Hampton Park Baptist Church (which starts here) was quite helpful. I also listened to several messages from Mark Driscoll’s series on Nehemiah. (Yeah, I know, I should duck.) There were some helpful ideas and applications there, but Driscoll (in addition to his consistent error of being irreverent and trying too hard to be clever) tends to make too many direct connections between what happened in the book of Nehemiah and what is happening at Mars Hill—an error we’re probably all prone to, but which I thought was especially blatant in those messages. Anyway, if you’re going to listen to someone on Nehemiah, spend your time on Conley’s series.

Note: There is a more “substantial” list of commentaries on Nehemiah available from Ligonier Ministries here.The commentaries I used were fine, but there are better.


9 Responses

  1. So, what textual clues do you see that the writer of Nehemiah was thinking about Jesus, and/or that he meant his readers to think about Jesus?

  2. Hey, Dan. Thanks for asking, pal. Here’s a quick answer…

    First, if our hermeneutic limits us to preaching OT passages with only their immediate contexts in mind (contrary to examples of preaching throughout the NT), we might very well approach a passage like Neh 13 just like an orthodox Jew would. That would be a mistake. I think the NT warrants—and even requires—a Christocentric hermeneutic through passages such as John 5:39, 46 and Luke 24:45-47 and through the examples of NT preaching (including passages like Acts 3:24; 10:43; 13:27). That’s not to say that we should look for strange allusions to Christ in every hook of the Tabernacle (some of which must have been intended merely to hold the curtains up!) or that we allegorize historical narratives, but it does require that we notice a theme of expectancy and disappointment and longing in the biblical texts even when Christ isn’t directly mentioned.

    If that’s not satisfactory (and i think it should be), I’d say that the presence of sin in Neh 13 requires that we preach the ultimate solution for sin, though that solution was not entirely understood by the original readers (at least not to the degree that we understand Him now). The pathos of the entire book (and OT) very intentionally ends on a “down note,” and as a Christian pastor, that provides me with an opportunity/responsibility to point to the solution to the glaring sin problem of Neh 13 (and the OT).

    I’ve also noted (as another example of this sort of thing) that the very idea of repopulating Jerusalem has implications beyond what the Jews would have understood, as indicated by passages like Luke 13:33. So beyond showing the need for a greater leader—a Savior—the book is preserving the race and repopulating the city in preparation for the coming sacrifice of Christ. And I absolutely believe that’s how we must preach the OT.

    Hope that helps! :)

    FWIW, I’ve mentioned these ideas here and here, as well.

  3. Thanks for such a substantive, thoughtful reply. I appreciate your saying that we should “notice a theme of expectancy and disappointment and longing in the biblical texts even when Christ isn’t directly mentioned.”

    Here are some of my reservations.

    Though I’ve heard it often, and it has some substance, my goal is not to not preach like a Jew in every particular. After all, I read that God spoke to the fathers by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). He didn’t speak past them to us instead, or over their heads. They were able to understand what He said. If I preach something that no Jew could have understood in (say) Nehemiah’s day, then I am not preaching what God said to them>; I’m preaching something else.

    Nor did the apostles take every verse and “make a beeline to the cross.” Paul didn’t look at Deuteronomy 25:4 and say “Ah, the treading ox speaks of Christ’s work on the cross.” He saw a perfectly horizontal principle that applies to paying preachers (1 Corinthians 9:9).

    I am concerned about Christless preaching. But I’m no less concerned about Gnostic, or Docetist hermeneutics. Note: I am NOT accusing you of that! I’m a big fan! We’re conversing; right?

    A young fellow became infatuated with Reformed big-names and, like lots of young guys, threw over dispensationalism for decoder-ring hermeneutics. When I took him to task, he expostulated, “Dan probably doesn’t think Job is about Jesus!”

    Well… guilty! I don’t think Job is about Jesus. Silly me, I think Job is about (drumroll) Job! Hence the name!

    Do I think you can preach Jesus from Job? Yep. It isn’t an either-or.

    So about Nehemiah, I think it’s about (drumroll) Nehemiah, and what God led and enabled him to do. Hence the name. I think it teaches us a lot about wise, decisive, godly leadership (see chapters 1 to 13).

    And you can preach Jesus from it.

  4. PS – I did read all your links. I try to practice Golden Rule as a commenter.


  5. What we have here is an example of citation, not promotion. The distinction between the two is quite pronounced and is the substance of my complaints.

    Regarding the substance of this post, I like the post itself better than your explanation of your method. I agree that many commentators, especially modern commentators, miss the point of the Nehemiah. The book is not about leadership, it is about bringing the story of ‘pre-redemption’ to a close. I agree with you that the last chapter points of failure of religion as an end in itself to bring about any true heart change. (See Romans 2.17-29 for Paul’s assessment of that failure.)

    I would suggest however that Malachi comes after Nehemiah, but it has very much similar theme.

    As far as the anti-dispensational elements of finding Christ in every Old Testament passage, I find myself in agreement with Dan here. It just ain’t so. It seems to be a weakening of a grammatical-historical approach to Bible interpretation.

    [Composed with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, as I am a one-handed typist for the next day and a half.]

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  6. Of course I’m not massing forces to gang up on Chris, of whom (as I said) I’m a big fan. I’m sure I’ll blog on this more fully when God changes my situation.

    But at the risk of sounding pomo, there is a “tension” here. To run squealing off into Amillville and find Christ not only under every rock, but as every rock, is hermeneutically nuts, and makes nonsense of Hebrews 1:1 and many other lines of data. But on the other hand, preaching indistinguishable from a modern, apostate Jew’s preaching mustn’t be our model, either.

    My simplest model is that we know know the story turns out, in ways the participants didn’t. That necessarily sheds light on how we read the ancient texts. But it can’t transform them into gags or cheats. That is, reading a prophetic promise to Israel, if I say, “Ha ha, fooled you, that wasn’t for you at all!” I make God a cheat. But if I can’t preach the mystery of Christ, I pretend I don’t know how the story turns out.

    So the challenge is finding the way to Christ legitimately, while still respecting the Author who was indeed communicating through an ancient writer to ancient hearers.

  7. Sorry to drop the conversational ball here, fellas.

    I don’t disagree with the need to determine authorial intent. I’m not advocating turning OT texts into silly puddy. But I do think that we need to preach the OT Scriptures as those who do know the final answers. Nehemiah confronted sin by calling people to repentance, but also by insisting that people re-establish Temple worship and sacrifices, the feast of booths, etc. I don’t doubt that that was at least part of the author’s intent, but as a Christian preacher, while I’ll explain that in its historical context, I sometimes have to move beyond what the author didn’t yet know (at least with the clarity we do) at least by way of final application. So I preach Christ, even from Nehemiah and Job, not by torturing the text, but by demonstrating that he’s the answer to mankind’s spiritual needs—even if the OT author didn’t mention Him.

    Ironically, I argued from your side in a very long discussion over here, and I stand by the points I made there. So I understand your concerns. But I also stand by the points I made here. :)

    Don, my study of Nehemiah 13 indicated that Malachi was a contemporary, and may very well have ministered in Jerusalem during the absence of Nehemiah (e.g. between ch. 12-13). I’m not sure we can determine the exact timing conclusively either way. But the books deal with essentially the same time and essentially the same problems. Read Neh 13 and Malachi in one sitting. Their similarities are uncanny.

  8. Thanks.

    Yikes, that thread is 8234058 comments long! I’ll have to look at it, though – at least the part where we agreed!


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