ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: LESSONS OF NEHEMIAH

By James M. Decker

Nehemiah is one of my favorite leaders in the Bible, for several reasons. If you aren’t familiar, Nehemiah was a Jewish exile who was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. The king controlled the areas that formerly belonged to the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah after they collapsed. Nehemiah earned the trust of the king, who permitted him to journey back to Jerusalem to aid the residents who were suffering and to rebuild the walls of the city.

I previously wrote an essay last year, “Walls to Build,” that discussed Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He did it without any experience and in something less than a safe environment. Neighboring tribes were threatening to overrun the city and did not want to see the walls rebuilt to their former strength. The Book of Nehemiah speaks of the workers undertaking the job with a shovel in one hand and a sword in the other. I encouraged each of us to take inspiration from Nehemiah’s wall-building to rebuild the proverbial walls of rural America. 

As magnificent as Nehemiah’s wall-building project was, it wasn’t ALL he did to rejuvenate Jerusalem. It had been many generations since the people had heard the Laws given by God to Moses, so Nehemiah worked with the priest Ezra to restore the peoples’ knowledge of the Law and to restore their covenant with God.

Late in the Book of Nehemiah, the people made a covenant with God to deliver to the temple their first fruits as a tithe to God—the best of their grain, livestock, wine, olive oil, and so on. This was given for several reasons. First, it was a sign of obedience to God, to give your first fruits to him, and be blessed for your faithfulness, rather than selfishly keep them for yourself. Second, these supplies would sustain the priests who served the people in the temple and would provide for the widows and orphans as a social safety net.

Our community-wide Easter service this year included a message out of Nehemiah 10 and it was an inspiring message that has had my mind working ever since. The speaker, a local youth minister who had not grown up in Texas, observed that he wasn’t from a farm family. He didn’t have livestock or crops to give. But giving livestock and crops as a tithe to God signified giving the best things that the people had—the rewards of their time, effort, and energy. In those days, the temple was the center of the community. Life — social, spiritual, and otherwise — revolved around the temple. God called the Jewish people to give the best of their time, effort, and energy to the temple. But by that same token, he was calling the people to give the best of their time, effort, and energy for the betterment of their community and the people within it.

And today, we can do the same. Where do we focus our time, effort, and energy? Where we do that, our priorities lie. We may SAY we have different priorities, and honestly, we may say that in hopes of convincing ourselves to do better, but our actual priorities are where we spend the best of us — our time, our effort, and our energy.

Just like the people of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, the city walls of rural American need rebuilding. A city wall signifies security and prosperity. A crumbling wall signifies a crumbling society, particularly with regard to its future security and prosperity. It’s no secret, if you read my essays regularly, that rural America needs to rebuild its own walls.

But rural America could also take a lesson or two from Nehemiah 10. What if we recalibrated our time, effort, and energy to the right places? What if we focused that on the betterment of our community and the people within it? What if our priorities—individually, in our families, in our businesses and organizations—centered around giving of ourselves to improve our community? What could each of us accomplish? What could we accomplish together?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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