I’m preaching on Nehemiah at the moment, and I’ve been thinking about two questions. First, what impact does the ‘first person’ nature of the book have on the way we understand it. What I mean is, all the events in Nehemiah are mediated to us through the perspective of Nehemiah himself. This is different from other Old Testament Narratives, where you often get the divinely inspired narrator giving us direct access into what God is doing in a particular set of events. However in Nehemiah there is no narrator, and so it is entirely his opinion about what God is doing and what is happening in general.
In my mind, the first person nature of the book (technically bits of the book are known as the Nehemiah Memoirs) draws us in to identify very strongly with Nehemiah. You can’t stand back from his decisions and choices and feelings and analyse what God is doing objectively. You really enter into his world. I think this means that you can’t avoid but read Nehemiah as a godly role model.
Which leads me onto my second question: What Biblical Theological theme does Nehemiah fit into. I think often, because he is such an effective leader, we tend to place him in the leader/King theme of Biblical theology, and see him as a type of Jesus our King. However in Nehemiah 6 it is made very clear that Nehemiah is NOT a king. He is not from the Davidic line and he is not presented as God’s annointed leader. I want to suggest that a better Biblical theological theme in which to place Nehemiah is the faithful Israelite.
Right from the start of the Book Nehemiah, where Nehemiah is the repentant Israelite confessing his sins and praying for the return of the exile, through his wholehearted love for his neighbours (Neh 5), his respect for the temple (Neh 6), and his continual request for God to look favourably on him. Nehemiah seems to present himself, in contrast to the other Jews, as the faithful Israelite living the life of wholehearted obedience that Deuteronomy 30 called for.
As such, Nehemiah is not a type of Jesus our King, but a type of Jesus the true Israelite who is able to do what Nehemiah couldn’t do – live on behalf of his people, deal with their sin and send his holy spirit to give them new hearts.
As a faithful Isrealite, Nehemiah is also, again more naturally an example for us. He is not an annointed King. He is not a Prophet. He is not a priest. He is a faithful follower of God seeking to serve him with all his heart and live according to his plans. He perhaps lack the confidence in God’s grace that we have through Christ. But He stands as a great role model of someone who was absolutely serious about God’s plans.