I recall our home group discussing this revelatory chapter from the ancient post-exilic autobiography of Nehemiah. This Jewish cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes was born in exile and later managed to secure a temporary leave of work in Persia to take on the role of construction manager in Jerusalem. With the king’s blessing, financial support, and minor military escort, Nehemiah found himself at the entrance of a dilapidated city-state where his task was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
He is faced with the level of destruction the city had endured under the wrath of a now-defunct Babylonian empire. That which he had heard from his parents in tales and stories he now sees with his own eyes. The land that was promised to his forefathers lay in ruins, stones and the remaining citizens within, shattered and scattered.
His first opposition arose from the wanton efforts of foreign rulers and leaders who had settled in and around the crumbled city of God, their might on full display as their intentions were laid bare before Nehemiah.
If you think you’re going to rebuild this city, dear boy, you are wrong. We won’t allow it. We’ll take your life if we have to.
And Nehemiah, unafraid of the taunts of a physical and present threat, reverberates opprobrium so harsh the malefactors disappear from the scene for some time. His rebuttal was divinely backed, morally sound, and characteristically prophetic.
Nehemiah then encourages the local Jerusalemites to rebuild the walls of the city and manages to convince local cities and minor-states to join this effort. The construction is underway and we now know that it comes to completion in a record-breaking fifty-two days.
But what we miss out on is what takes place in the middle of this building process. In the fifth chapter of this thirteen chapter autobiography, Nehemiah faces troubles from within the walls.
He is presented with a social and moral dilemma where a famine sweeps through the land, Jerusalem’s enemies encircle their trading routes, and interrupting and disrupting their much-needed logistics to supply food and military defense. To further complicate this national disaster, the wealthy within the city begin to demand interest from the poor, hold their fields hostage against them, take their daughters as slaves as collateral for their debt, and mistreat the less fortunate as if they were dung.
Nehemiah hears of these issues from the outcry of the people and his response is heroically commendable.
“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.”
He set off to produce a case against his fellow countrymen before the general congregation of Jerusalemites. He demanded their immediate compliance, demanding they liberate those taken in as slaves, return the fields and livelihoods of those who were robbed of them, and repent of their avarice in the face of a national financial crisis.
Nehemiah does not allow injustice on a local scale; the secondary and possibly tertiary issues of the time, to prolong its stay in the hearts and minds of the Jews. He set off to immediately correct the wrongs his people faced and to restore and restabilize something that had lost its equilibrium within his society.
Wrongs were righted. Injustice lost its play to justice. Morale was restored. The poor cared for. The slave set free. And the reconstruction project for this great city was finished in less than two months’ time.
Murder Trial: Justice Delayed
What we can take from Nehemiah’s troubles in light of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial is that when presented with evil and wrongs our resolve is to demonstrate a posture of righteousness (doing the right thing and being just). This does not involve self-righteousness (gloating over one’s perceived good behavior) but one’s proclivity toward righting wrongs fairly and expeditiously.
We’re presented with a complex situation where a white police officer, sworn to serve and protect his community, is being charged with killing an unarmed, non-threatening, non-combative, hand-cuffed black man.
The world watched as George Floyd, the victim of this case, was brought out of a grocery store, hand-cuffed, manhandled into the back of a police car, and then pulled from it by four police officers and here cellphone cameras capture the moment where Derek Chauvin places George Floyd on pavement and places his knee behind Geroge’s neck and there it stays for the total of eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
The world watched and re-watched this grueling scene as George gasped for oxygen, begged for a moment of reprieve so that he might breathe through the arrest and his calls for help and statements of lack of oxygen went unheard and ignored by the four arresting officers.
What is of great import is that Derek Chauvin has been arrested for the senseless and unnecessary death of a man in handcuffs. What is of greater import is that Derek Chauvin faces a fair and just court system that will right this wrong.
Our expression should mimic that of Nehemiah in the face of a wrong or as we have seen numerous times within the United States policing system, systemic and systematic wrongs that have yet to be reckoned with.
Our expression should not be retaliatory but redemptive. In hope of restoring everyone’s humanity, that of the person whose dignity was violated and that of the violaters who degraded and denigrate their own humanity by progressing through their evil actions and later covering it all up.
Independent of the verdict that is given at the end of this trial our resolve should not alter. We are instructed by our Creator to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We’re not factious zealots who are ready, at a moment’s notice, to take up arms, torches, and bombs to bring buildings down in the name of a good cause.
Nehemiah assembled a people who knew of the Laws of God, called upon their memory and conscience to consider the fear of the Lord (respect and reverence of God), and to consider the weight of their wrongs compared to the weight of God’s justice should they fail to rectify the wrongs committed against their fellow countrymen.
Our contemporaries function upon a secular and all-too pluralistic system but that does not stop us, nor them, from seeking justice. And should they fail to live up to the laws, morals, ethics, and systems we have all built together, that is not a case nor an opportunity for us to forsake our peacemaking efforts to riot and destroy in the name of love.
There are cases where we are called to act upon these things but this case is not it.
Nehemiah called for restitution, invoked God and priests to the public square to make sure every wrong was righted, and should the malefactors fail to correspond to the promise of reconciliation then there would be spiritual and social consequences.
Let our resolve be unique in a face of a world that seeks to crucify anyone who does wrong. Our Christ was crucified not only that we could seek justice and offer mercy and forgiveness, but also that no one else need be crucified in the wake of riotous fervor and rage.
This will be best demonstrated after Chauvin is convicted, as I believe he will be convicted, if not for murder then possibly manslaughter, and his sentencing of lesser consequence and weight than that of a tax-evader or say, a mom who lies about her address so her child can attend a better school in a different district.
Our nation is ready to erupt at the slightest mention of injustice but our resolve is to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with and before our God. Meaning, again, independent of the verdict and sentence, we will not stop rebuilding nor will we stop loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul; nor will we stop loving and fighting for our neighbor, whose justice was denied. Namely, the late George Floyd.
And to conclude, should the question be asked of us in light of this delicate and all-too painful situation, How Should We Behave? I hope we follow in the footsteps of the great and humble cupbearer, Nehemiah:
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Ch.1 v.4
Then I prayed to the God of heaven. Ch. 2 v. 4
To which he found a response from God and a response for his issues:
The God of heaven will give us success. Ch. 2 v. 20
And should our efforts as followers and children of the God of heaven mirror that of Nehemiah then rest assured that no matter what happens our contemporaries will know that we are children of the Light and Truth.
Your legacy will be one of divine favor.
“Remember me with favor, my God.” Nehemiah 13:31