Over the years, we have all seen it happen. We have all seen that preacher, author, project, ministry, church, or most anything that is similar begin with an explosion on the horizon, taking off with great expectations; and then just fizzle to nothing, or, even worse, crash and burn. If you are like me, you wonder “why” it happened? It may have even been an individual, who began the Christian life on “fire” for the Lord; and gradually the flame just died. What is the reason(s) behind such collapses and failures? What went wrong?
I was surprised to find “an” answer, probably not “the” answer, in the book of Nehemiah. The reason I say it is not “the” answer, is I know that not every situation is the same; so there is not one answer that will fit all situations. Nehemiah, the man, is such a remarkable man; and the book (which reads like a journal that he kept) which bears his name, is just extraordinary for the lessons that we can learn. But, to be perfectly honest, this is not the lesson that I expected to find when I read through the book.
You recall the story, Nehemiah had gone back to his homeland to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He did this with the blessings of King Artaxerxes, and his material and financial support. The job that Nehemiah did in leading the people through this monumental task was outstanding, and has provided many lessons on leadership through the generations. The wall was completed in an amazingly short period of time, in spite of all the opposition. Read what Nehemiah has to say about the completion:
The wall was completed in fifty-two days, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul. When all our enemies heard this, all the surrounding nations were intimidated and lost their confidence, for they realized that this task had been accomplished by our God. (Nehemiah 6:15-16, CSB)
When the wall was completed, the people settled in their own homes and towns. But on the first day of the 7th month, they gathered for a reading of the Law.
On the first day of the seventh month, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding. While he was facing the square in front of the Water Gate, he read out of it from daybreak until noon before the men, the women, and those who could understand. All the people listened attentively to the book of the law. (Nehemiah 8:2-3, CSB)
This was followed by the 7 day “Festival of Booths,” and another day when the people listened to another reading of the law, confessed their sin, and worshiped. Nehemiah 9 contains a long song of praise of what God has done, confession of wrong; and, closes with a plea for God’s help because of the distress that they are in. How could anything be better than this? How could anything go wrong, with such a remarkable story in the background? Especially, when what happens next takes place:
In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement in writing on a sealed document containing the names of our leaders, Levites, and priests. (Nehemiah 9:38, CSB)
This “binding agreement” is laid out and explained in Nehemiah 10:30-39, and it seems to be an agreement among the people to do everything they were supposed to. After the listing of the leaders who had their seals on the document, this remarkable statement is found:
The rest of the people — the priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, and temple servants, along with their wives, sons, and daughters, everyone who is able to understand and who has separated themselves from the surrounding peoples to obey the law of God — join with their noble brothers and commit themselves with a sworn oath to follow the law of God given through God’s servant Moses and to obey carefully all the commands, ordinances, and statutes of the Lord our Lord. (Nehemiah 10:28-29, CSB)
Don’t you know that there was much rejoicing and celebration taking place among the people that night. They were back on the right path, God would be blessing them over and over again — what could go wrong?
But something did go wrong! Terribly wrong! Nehemiah 13 details that Nehemiah returned to Susa and the service of King Artaxerxes; and when he left, the people had begun to break every one of the things that they had agreed on. They were not back where there forefathers were before, completely; but they were headed that way in a hurry. When Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem, he got things straightened out (by whatever means were necessary to accomplish the task). But we are still left with the question, “what went wrong”, when everything seemed to be going so well?
Let me make three observations:
#1. Satan is strong, and sin is seductive. The text does not say that, but we know that from other Biblical stories, and our own experiences.
#2. Their agreement was based on their ability to keep the commands. This is the same mistake that the previous generations made. They committed themselves to do all the right things, but never got right on the inside. So many of the prophets chastised the people because of this failure, and the people in Jerusalem during the days of Nehemiah made the same mistake.
#3. They failed to pray about it. This was the one that surprised me, because Nehemiah is often cited as a great example of leadership, because of his prayer life. I tried to read Nehemiah very carefully, and found 13 references to the prayers of Nehemiah. From what I saw, there is a break in the prayers of Nehemiah from Nehemiah 6:14 to Nehemiah 13:14. You would think that as important as this “binding agreement” could have, and should have, been — it would have almost demanded prayer. That shows how easy it is for us to get caught up in the excitement of a moment and forget to bring God into our plans and actions.
When we attempt great things, or even small things, let’s remember to not make the mistakes others have made. Let’s examine what went wrong, even with the Biblical stories, and determine not to repeat their failures. Peace.