Nehemiah Was Not a Success

Iain DuguidBy Iain Duguid9 Minutes

Nehemiah has never been short of admirers, as a man and as a leader. Consider these representative quotes from those who have studied his story:

  • From the book of Nehemiah, I learned how to plan my work, organize my time and resources, integrate my duties into the total operation of the company, motivate others, and measure the results. I learned the importance of setting realistic goals and found out what to do before I reached my objectives.
  • We seem unable to find a single fault to counterbalance [Nehemiah]’s many and great virtues. . . . Nehemiah’s character appears to be faultless. Patriotism, piety, prudence, perseverance, courage, and fairness in his administration of affairs were some of his sterling qualities. . . . He looked to God for guidance and protection and used his methods with careful discrimination. He pursued his course unflinchingly and met the enemy within and without with equal firmness and success.

Indeed, there is much to admire in Nehemiah. He was single-minded in his commitment to the calling God gave him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem—and heaven help anyone who stood in his way! He accomplished the wall-building task in record time and reformed the administration of Jerusalem in a similarly dramatic fashion. He also participated in the rededication of the city walls in a grand and joyful ceremony that recalled the dedication of the temple under Solomon. But was he a success? That isn’t the way the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story.

The first thing to notice about Nehemiah’s story is that it is part of a larger narrative—found in Ezra and Nehemiah in Scripture (originally considered as one book in Bible times). That book recounts three successive returns of God’s people to the land of Judah, each of which involves a rebuilding project:

1) the temple (Ezra 1–6)

2) the religious community (Ezra 7–10);

3) the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1–7:73).

The final part of Nehemiah is a celebration of what has been accomplished (Nehemiah 8-12)—but then there is a final chapter, Nehemiah 13, in which every single one of Nehemiah’s reforms is thrown into doubt as soon as he leaves Jerusalem for a brief trip back to Babylon. There we learn that a foreigner, Tobiah, had been allowed to live in a part of the temple that should have been reserved for sacred gifts, the priests and Levites had not received their proper allowances, which led to them abandoning their duties, and the Sabbath laws were not being observed. Indeed, each of the three returns to Judah combines some successes—great obstacles that are overcome with divine help—alongside fierce opposition from within and outside the community of faith. Nothing is ever easy in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, even when divinely chosen men are faithfully pursuing the work to which God has called them. And the book’s ending leaves us wondering what will happen to all of Nehemiah’s reforms when he is no longer there to supervise things.

Success Versus Faithfulness

This is, of course, the vital message the book of Ezra-Nehemiah had for its original readers, and alongside them, for us: “success” is not the measure of a ministry—faithfulness is. God remains faithfully at work in and through us in the messiness of life and ministry in this fallen world, and small triumphs should be celebrated even when so much sin and brokenness continue to be evident in our lives and our churches. But our calling is to obey God in our daily callings, regardless of the outcome.

Was Nehemiah a success? Not if you measure success as bringing about lasting change. To be sure, the walls he established lasted for many years, but the ominous cracks in the community evident in Nehemiah 13 continued to widen after his death. Bricks and stones turned out to be far easier to marshal into shape than people. Is Nehemiah’s lack of achieving lasting results a problem, though? On the last day, Nehemiah was not hoping to hear the Lord say to him, “Well done good and successful servant,” but rather “Well done, good and faithful servant” (see Matthew 25:21). The two are not identical by any means.

We live in a culture that idolizes success. Our Christian sub-culture is not free from that pressure. We all want to be effective for God in whatever ministries he has called us to. If our work is judged successful, we may get invited to teach seminars and write books on the subject. We want to establish churches that grow and last, impacting our culture and changing our cities and even the world for Christ.

A Different Sort of Calling

But what if that isn’t our calling? What if God is calling us to do something real and meaningful that impacts our own hearts and the lives of some people around us for a short period of time, but isn’t likely to be remembered long after we are gone? Isn’t that in fact what most Christian lives and ministries actually look like, no matter how hard we try?

In Nehemiah’s story it was okay for him to be faithful but not necessarily lastingly successful, because his story wasn’t really about him—it was about whetting the people’s appetite for the leader of God’s people who was yet to come—Jesus! Nehemiah couldn’t bring in the kingdom of God; he couldn’t transform the hearts and lives of God’s people. All he could do was simply be faithful in doing what he could, trusting God that in due time he would send a true hero who would change people’s hearts in a way that Nehemiah never could.

The same is true for us. If we think God’s calling is for us to be a success in our work, in our marriages, in our families, and in our ministries, we will be endlessly frustrated because everything we build (or rebuild) has a way of falling apart again. We are ruined people living in a ruined world, and our ministries constantly have to grapple with that reality. However, our true calling is simply to be faithful to God and trust that in due time Jesus will rebuild everything that is ruined—in our own lives, as well as in the lives of those around us. Sometimes we will see God at work in remarkable ways, demonstrating his power. Sometimes we may struggle in our own weakness and failure, discovering that in our brokenness God’s strength is enough.

What we labor long and hard to rebuild may not succeed or last. That’s okay. The house and city that God is building will last forever, and his kingdom can never fail. So set to work and learn what you can from Nehemiah’s faithfulness and skillful leadership. Be thankful to God for his gifting and his faithful service. But don’t forget that Nehemiah was not a success, and you don’t have to be one either. The story is about God’s triumph, not yours.