September 18, 2012

Standing Together

Bible history has left us its fair share of odd pairs: Jonathan, royal heir, and soul brother David, the singing sheep-minder; hairy-chested Elijah, man of confrontation, and his calculatingly unobtrusive servant Elisha; Barnabas, the son of consolation, and his personal recruit, Saul, turned Paul, a soul of sometimes surprisingly intemperate rhetoric. 

Perhaps the oddest of these odd biblical pairs are two characters from Jerusalem’s reconstruction period during the second half of the fifth century B.C. Both were descendants of Abraham who returned to Judean patrimony from their homes in the exile—on radically different bases, with astonishingly different strategies, and strongly contrasting temperaments, to accomplish the same thing together for God.

Nehemiah and the King
Ezra was a gentleman and a scholar (Ezra 7:6). Nehemiah was a well-placed political operative with top security clearance. Persian king Artaxerxes I (465-426 B.C.) had placed his life in Nehemiah’s hand (Neh. 1:11) and his ear at Nehemiah’s disposal.

2012 1525CalledTogether INBOXThirteen years before him Ezra too had reached the king’s ear. But some things that Nehemiah thought crucial to mention in royal audience Ezra thought of as a lack of faith. Nehemiah thought of the king’s confidence as access to every possible logistical, material, or other resource needed for God’s service. Jerusalem’s walls needed rebuilding, God’s work needed finishing, and royal provisions would make that happen—royally provided lumber and other construction materials; royally provided military protection to safely get materials to the building site; royally provided authority to require whatever Nehemiah willed at the hands of his majesty’s functionaries in the across-the-river province where God’s work waited. Nehemiah begged God to guide him (Neh. 1:5-11; 2:4). For he knew that the king’s response depended on God’s moving on the king’s heart. And God did move. The king granted Nehemiah time—12 years initially (444-432 B.C.)—and letters to forest reserve officers, letters to regional governors, and military support (Neh. 2:6-9).

Ezra and the King
Ezra too knew what to request of the king. The Temple articles, the freewill offerings of silver and gold—these the king could and should provide for Jerusalem. But Ezra was convinced that his God could do everything for him without human military support. He was going up to Jerusalem because God had said he should. Others had gone before, and now, more than 80 years since Cyrus’ initial decree in 539 B.C., and more than 60 years since Darius’ second instruction, there was more work to do in Jerusalem. But it would be an insult, a shame to his God to rely on the protection of the king’s soldiers, horses, and weapons (Ezra 8:22). 

Ezra was remarkably assertive on the point, responding negatively to the king’s proffered escort. Artaxerxes, after all, did not want highway brigands to frustrate his generosity by making off with the silver and gold he had made available to the God of heaven, and His Temple in Jerusalem. But Ezra was immovable on the matter. Artaxerxes’ authorizing decree described Ezra as being “sent by the king and his seven counselors” (Ezra 7:14).* In Ezra’s contrasting view, king notwithstanding, this was God’s business. He would have his majesty understand that “the hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him” (Ezra 8:22). Implicit in that message to Artaxerxes I was serious advice. The king would do much better for himself by cooperating with God than by ignoring or resisting His divine purposes.

So, rather than embarrassing his God by seeking the vain help of human armies (Ps. 60:11; 108:12), Ezra called a fast to humbly seek God’s guidance and protection for adults, children, and the treasures they were transporting (Ezra 8:21-23). God had “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” to decree, permit, and urge His people to go up to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1). Ezra knew he was going with God.

Nehemiah knew that as well, though he stayed behind. Still, he maintained ongoing communication with his people. Words from one of his brothers, traveling from Judah, about the state of things in Judah, moved him, 13 years after Ezra’s departure, to take leave of his royal duties. He himself went up to Jerusalem to work with Ezra on the physical and governmental restoration of Judah and Jerusalem (Neh. 1). 

2012 1526 page14Ezra’s four-month journey from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:9), and the Lord’s protection of that company of men and women, children and valuables, “from the hand of the enemy and of the ambushes by the way” (Ezra 8:31) certainly made for excited conversation at the time, and inspiring memories through the ensuing years. The way Ezra tells the story supports belief that they continued to recall and pronounce upon it as a remarkable accomplishment. The literary unit of Ezra 8:21-36 may be simply labeled “Return Journey.” In context of the genealogies and historic royal decrees that fill the first eight chapters of Ezra, and in contrast with the prayers and revival of chapters 9 and 10, this report is noteworthy for the density of its narrative detail. This passage, particularly from verse 24 onward, contains a greater concentration of careful action and separate actions than does any other of equivalent length in the book.

The detailed documentation includes a proclamation of the fast (verse 21); an explanation of the reason for fasting, namely, their speech of rejection to the king (verse 22); a repetition of the fast announcement (verse 23); the appointment of financial caretakers (verse 24); a description of their responsibilities (verses 26-29); the priests’ acceptance of their charge (verse 30); and the group’s departure date (verse 31). 

The four-month journey itself receives attention in this passage mostly in relation to a declaration of God’s protection (verse 31). For it is not so much the length of their sojourn, as the totality of their trust, and its reward, that is the burden of the passage. Climactically, Ezra reports the delivery of their cargo to the Temple authorities in Jerusalem (verses 33, 34). Arriving there, the pilgrims weighed all the silver, gold, and other articles in the presence of witnesses. It was all there (verses 33, 34). And it had arrived, not simply without military assistance, but at the explicit rejection of any armed protection. This is cause for worshipful rejoicing, including sacrifices to the Lord (verse 35). The king’s decrees are also delivered, ensuring the support of his administrators in the God-blessed activities that have brought these exiles back home (verse 36).

Which Is Right?
When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem a dozen years later, it was to exercise political authority that Ezra did not possess. Ezra had come to teach the Torah (Ezra 7:6; Neh. 8:1-8). Nehemiah had come to be governor (Neh. 5:14). Jews in Jerusalem and the lands of exile would have certainly commented on the difference between the governor’s faith in the right to wield arms (Neh. 4:13-18), and the Torah teacher’s faith in a God who needed no bows and arrows. 

Believers were also forced to deal with other awkward differences between the two leaders, as relating to sin in the camp. News of apostate intermarriage in Judah moved Ezra to mourning: “I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled” (Ezra 9:3). Nehemiah took the opposite approach. When he learned of the practice and its tragic spiritual consequences to his people, he “contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves’ ” (Neh. 13:23-25). 

Ezra’s private mourning stands over against Nehemiah’s corporal punishment. Ezra’s chagrin that moved him to tear his hair compares with Nehemiah’s spiritual rage that impels him to rip out someone else’s. And where Ezra sits down appalled and dismayed, Nehemiah strikes out at the offenders.

Could the rank and file simultaneously follow two such leaders? How realistic would it be to see them both as right? How much more likely that they choose between the humble, pacific, and respectful Ezra, and the zealot governor who stood behind the sword of the state and tolerated no compromise with the truth! Where in their polar contrasts of conduct would anyone find evidence that these leaders were both on the same side—God’s side—doing the same thing?

The answer shouldn’t be pursued in abstract discussions of meekness versus hostility or pacifism versus militarism.It offers itself simply in Ezra and Nehemiah themselves. Whatever the contrasts in their convictions, temperaments, and actual behaviors, people knew that they were working together, because that is what they did. Their commitment to  unity did not diminish their differences, but it overrode and withstood any difference, however blatant, in their understanding of how God’s work was to be done. They knew that it needed to be done, and that God could use either of them—as well as both of them—to get it done. Both could work for God’s ends without both working in the identical manner. 

Jew and Gentile saw no confusion in this, for Ezra and Nehemiah, each working in his own way, gave them no cause to doubt that they were united in their ministry for God. Together they dedicated the completed wall (Neh. 12:36, 40), and together they led out in revival and reformation (Neh. 8:9). Ezra was part of Nehemiah’s celebration, and Nehemiah was part of covenant renewal (Neh. 10:1).

Ezra may have been primarily a man of the Word. But he shared Nehemiah’s interest in building the wall. Nehemiah may have been a politician. But just as Ezra, he was also a man of fervent prayer (Neh. 1:5-11; 4:4, 5). Nehemiah may have relied on the weaponry of physical defense, but he fasted, too, just as Ezra did (Neh. 1:4). The spiritual lives of these giants did not depend on their differences. They knew they could both be what God wanted them to be and do what God needed done while functioning—even at the same task—in the way each was persuaded God wanted him to. Because of this, Ezra could welcome Nehemiah’s arrival as a source of spiritual reinforcement. And Nehemiah could celebrate with Ezra as a fellow builder of Jerusalem.

Standing Together
For us today, what Bible characters Jonathan and David, or Elijah and Elisha, or Barnabas and Saul, or Ezra and Nehemiah have in common is neither temperament nor modus operandi. What they have in common is faith and standing. They believed together and stood together. Some may think that Barnabas and Paul did not. But the ministry of those stalwarts unquestionably testifies to their shared commitment to a common purpose that kept them both doing the same thing, whether with each other or with John Mark and Silas. What we most regret about their conflict is not the subsequent ministry of both Silas and John Mark, nor the emergence, through their disagreement, of some heretical theology. It is the harshness of their separation. But the strength of opposing convictions disqualified neither one from being God’s servant.

Disagreement didn’t deprive them of their function and authority as God’s spokespersons. Paul and Silas in Macedonia were still God’s indomitable witnesses, baptizing the miracle-converted Philippian jailer in midnight water that either stung or soothed their own wounds of persecution as they lowered him into the pool. The unjust beating and imprisonment they had received distracted them no more than had separation from Barnabas. They were neither against each other nor against Jesus when they adopted different stands based on differing convictions.

Radical contrast doesn’t by itself constitute proof that either side is of heaven or of the devil. Nor is it necessarily an argument establishing that either party has rejected the other’s alternative. An Acts 15 separation between Barnabas and Paul may involve more than first meets the eye, more than the wilted spirit of a willing John Mark whose ambition has not yet found its sterner stuff. It may also be that John Mark, the Palestinian Jew, would have been unable to inspire the fear of God in heathen cowards and force the compromised Philippian magistrates to freeze in their tracks—as Silas could. Operational differences were not indicators that Paul or Barnabas had rejected the other’s ministry or that their ministries were incompatible. 

In summary, differences in perspective—however radical; contrasts in strategy—however extreme; variations in operating methods—however wide, do not prove that the disputants are on opposite sides of the cosmic conflict. Stern—even vigorous—disagreement qualifies no one to label any other as “of the enemy,” or as “in rebellion,” or as “incompatible with the rest.” 

What God’s children must seek instead, with keen desire and humbled hearts, is the will to know God’s will, to cultivate His presence and guidance.  Whether they stand on common ground or exhibit clashing and contrasting behavior, each one may be living with a conscience void of offense toward God and our sisters and brothers (Acts 24:16).

God’s people, engaged in God’s work, need a common, mutual, and respectful faith in who we are and what we all do. This approach doesn’t alter our fundamental commitments to Christ, nor does it disqualify us from what we’re doing. Standing together and working together in the Spirit with Ezra and Nehemiah, we may show how saints of radically different and contrasting mind-sets, temperaments, and methods can finish God’s assignment together and celebrate at last—together—on the walls of the New Jerusalem. 

* Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review. This article was published September 20, 2012.