If the book of Nehemiah had only twelve chapters, it would be a story of almost unequaled renewal and spiritual power. It would tell of Nehemiah’s prayerful determination to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Holy City. It would detail the reconstruction of the city wall, in spite of opposition. It would describe the city-wide revival that took place as the people heard God’s Law proclaimed, repented of their sins, and rededicated themselves to walking in God’s ways.
But alas, Nehemiah doesn’t end at chapter twelve; and this book — like so many others in scripture — knows us too well to leave this important part of Israel’s history without holding up a mirror that gives us an all-too-honest look into the condition of our hearts.
When we turn to Nehemiah 13 and today’s reading (13:4-22), the warm glow of spiritual fire is still glowing among the people of Jerusalem as they change their lives in obedience to God’s Law. But then, it becomes all-too-clear that old habits of disobedience and apathy are hard to break. One of the priests is renting out rooms in the Temple for the rich, powerful and connected to store their stuff. The offerings that are supposed to support the Temple workers aren’t being collected and distributed. The people are conducting business on the Sabbath, because — “Hey, there’s money to be made!” — which forces Nehemiah to rebuke them for doing the same things that had led God to punish their ancestors in the first place (see 13:18).
Three times in this chapter (verses 14, 22 and 30), Nehemiah prays: “Remember me, my God.” And while the Bible doesn’t tells us this explicitly, these sound to me like prayers of desperation: “Lord, please don’t let all my work amount to nothing; please don’t allow your people to settled into the same old ruts that have destroyed them in the past.”
I identify with those prayers — not because the people with whom I work are particularly prone to wander from God (quite the opposite) — but because I see the power of the ruts we keep revisiting. I see it in our tendency to judge rather than to offer others the same grace and forgiveness that we’ve received. I see it in our penchant for looking to our own interests rather than the interests of others. I see it in me…and in my own frustrating ability to allow stubborn habits of distraction and weariness and sin to extinguish the flames of passion for my Lord that at times have burned so brightly.
What are the ruts that you’re stuck in today? May we be eager to acknowledge our faults, to confess our sins, and to set out again in the Way of the Master, who renews us from within and leads us into life.