The Bible in a Year – 8 September

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

8 September. Nehemiah chapters 4-6

The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem may have been good news for the Jews, but it aroused strong opposition from the people of many other national groups who had come to live in the area following the removal of the Jewish leaders a century earlier.  The basis of nationalism – that one particular group of humans identified by ties of blood, political or religious allegiance, “owns” part of the planet – has been the cause of most conflicts down the centuries, and persists today in many places, not least in Israel/Palestine.

As I suggested yesterday, a “prayer/work balance” is a good thing.  And so the response of the Jews to the threats for the Arabs and others is “we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9).  The working men were also divided, half as builders and half as guards.

In chapter 5, Nehemiah confronts the leaders in Jerusalem who were taking tithes from, and lending money at interest to, the poor people on the surrounding countryside who had remained during the time of the exile.   He challenges them with their attitude of being superior to these common and hard-working people, and forces them to stop these practices and recognise all the Jewish people inside and outside the city as one community.

After that, Nehemiah calls himself Governor, and emphasises that he did not want to use that position to profit from or dominate the people, but only to lead them. It is not clear whether that was an official appointment by the emperor in distance Persia, but possibly not, as his enemies including Tobiah use it to threaten to report him to the emperor as leading a rebellion. Nehemiah has to emphasise that his intent is not to rebel, simply to restore Jerusalem as a working city and place of worship.

The completion of the rebuilding of the wall (but not its gates) in 52 days, using reclaimed stone and volunteer labour, was quite a triumph, enough to silence their enemies, at least for the time being.

The Bible in a Year – 7 September

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

7 September. Nehemiah chapters 1-3

Whereas the book of Ezra (which I have just read and commented on) focuses on the rebuilding of the Temple, Nehemiah was more concerned with the rebuilding of the walls and gates (i.e. the defences) of the city.  In the Jewish tradition they form a single “writing” so they are certainly not to be regarded as distinct books.

Both approaches (rebuilding of the walls and the Temple) were needed; the work of the two men was complementary.   It’s difficult to say whether they were working at the same time, or if not, which came first: a Wikipedia article suggests that either could have come first, given that there were two kings called Artaxerxes.  From a practical viewpoint, it would have been more logical to repair the walls first as Nehemiah seems to have wanted, while from a religious viewpoint the restoration of sacrifice was what mattered most (to Ezra).

Although Nehemiah seems to have been an effective “project manager” in his organisation of financing, materials and labour, it is interesting to note that it is he, and not Ezra, who is recorded as praying extensively both before and during the work.  This attitude that “work is prayer and prayer is work” informed the later Christian monastic movements, and is a good approach for anyone to take who believes that God is interested in the practicalities of our lives as well as the state of our souls.

 

The Bible in a Year – 22 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

22 August. Ecclesiastes chapters 1-4

If the book of Lamentations (the readings for the last two days) was the story of unalleviated suffering in Jerusalem at a time of disaster, Ecclesiastes is a story – or rather a reflection – on unalleviated boredom in Jerusalem in a time of peace. Traditionally identified with Solomon (like much of the other wisdom literature), it was clearly written later by someone else who either had received Solomon’s words passed down orally, or wrote what he thought Solomon might have taught.

The text is written so negatively – everything is vain, nothing brings satisfaction, everyone’s achievements will be forgotten – that it is hard to find anything positive in it.  Even when the writer sets up what seems like a way of achieving satisfaction (becoming wise in human terms in chapter 1, riches and pleasure in chapter 2, living the simple life of working and eating as any ‘ordinary’ person would in chapter 3), he then goes on to regret it as ‘vanity’.  For whatever you or I achieve in this life will be forgotten by future generations as we forget nearly all of those who went before us, and humans, like animals, will all die and be recycled by nature as the wind and water go round in their natural cycles.

Vanity, of course, is not the same as sin or error. The ‘preacher’ Ecclesiastes does not suggest that it is wrong to work hard, or to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life such as food and drink, indeed it is God’s will that we should do so (3:13). Nor is it wrong to possess wealth, or to have friends. Indeed friendship is one of the few things that are noted as being of lasting value in these chapters (4:9-10).  The most positive statement is reserved for those who “please God” (by keeping his commandments and loving their neighbours) and thereby receive “wisdom, knowledge and joy” (2:26) – yet even those God-given gifts are ultimately futile for they are earthly virtues that only last as long as we live.

What, then, can we do?  The answer must be to regard this life as but a preparation for the next, and live according to your station in life.  If you have riches, spend them wisely; if you are poor, be content with what you have; if you are intelligent, use it to enhance your appreciation of the world; if you have friends, enjoy their company.

All this sounds to us very pre-modern. Advice that might be useful to barons and serfs, monks and troubadors in a feudal society, but is it really applicable to the 21st century world of commerce, Wikipedia and social media?  It is, because these things are but new versions of the old.  What Ecclesiastes wrote is still true: that what happens now happened before, and will happen again.   So enjoy life as much as you can, please God by the way you do it, but don’t think too deeply about the future, for that is in God’s hands.