Nehemiah 13 is about Nehemiah cleansing “everything foreign” from the nation of Israel. He focuses his work in three areas – the temple, the Sabbath, and the people. After describing his work of clearing out the foreign things, Nehemiah prayed to God (Nehemiah 13;14, 22, 29). He asked God to “remember” the work that had been done in God’s name.
And then at the end of the chapter, at the end of the book, Nehemiah offers this prayer – “Remember me, O my God, for good.”
Before we look at that short prayer, it’s worth looking at Nehemiah. In this chapter, he comes across a crusader for the holiness of God’s people. He came back to Jerusalem from a visit with the Persian king and was like Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, only to find the people worshiping a golden calf. Or maybe he was like Jesus coming into the temple to find people buying and selling in the courts there.
There’s no question Nehemiah left a mess outside the temple, with all of Tobiah’s belongings strewn on the ground. But Nehemiah was striving for holiness among the people of God. The temple was a sacred place. The people were no longer seeing it in that light. The temple was becoming something to be used for political purposes, rather than a place where the people could find communion with God.
During the Sabbath, too, Nehemiah was a crusader. Just as the temple was a holy place, so the Sabbath was a holy day. And yet, the people were treating it like any other day. They were doing work and buying and selling on the Sabbath – a day God had given the people for rest. For the people, it had become just another day of commerce. The people began to take for themselves something (a day) that was supposed to be devoted to God. Nehemiah was fierce in setting things straight. He locked the gates.
And just as the temple was a holy place and the Sabbath was a holy day, so the Israelites were a holy people. And again, they were falling away from God. And again, Nehemiah was fierce in setting things straight. Remember, this is a problem the people of Israel had time and again in their history. Time and again, intermarriage led the people astray from the worship of the One True God. Nehemiah reminded the people of this.
And so Nehemiah reformed these three crucial aspects of Israelite life. His concern was holy things should remain holy. To cleanse “everything foreign” was to restore purity. The people’s attention was being drawn away, bit by bit, from God. And Nehemiah was the crusader. He was going to bring them back, or die trying.
And he said, “Remember me, O my God, for good.”
In our lives as Christians, there should be a certain pursuit of holiness. To me, that means our lives should be aimed at becoming more and more Christlike. Think about the last year of your life. Has anything come into your life that draws you deeper into Christlikeness? Nurture that thing. Has anything come into your life that makes you LESS like Christ? Cut it off.
I don’t think we drift off course in our spiritual lives all at once. At least not usually. Usually, we drift away an inch at a time. Just an inch here or there. But before long, we no longer can see the land. We’re far gone.
Nehemiah’s example is a pretty stark one. When it becomes evident that we are off course, our action should be swift and sure – dramatic even. Like throwing Tobiah’s belongings into the street, or physically shutting and locking the doors, or plucking beards.
Nehemiah wasn’t far off from Jesus’ course of action. Remember Jesus driving out the merchants in the temple, and dumping over the tables of the money-changers (Matthew 21:12). And remember Jesus saying, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. …” (Matthew 5:30).
Maybe the idea is we should take holiness seriously. As Christians, we are temples of the Holy Spirit. And so we ought not to have any part in sin. We are to be a holy people. Immediate course corrections, even drastic ones, might need to have a steady place in our lives.
What I found interesting, though, was Nehemiah’s plea at the end. “Remember me, O God, for good.”
Why would Nehemiah need to pray that prayer? After all, he had worked hard for the Lord. He had energized the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He had been courageous in the face of opposition. He had stood firm in the face of a weak-willed people who wanted to inch away from God. God would remember Nehemiah, surely.
And yet Nehemiah prayed, “Remember me, O God, for good.” It’s not all that different of a prayer than what the criminal on the cross asked of Jesus. You recall that story. One criminal, hanging on a cross next to the one bearing Jesus, mocked Jesus. But the second criminal answered the first one. “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And that criminal then turned to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:39-43).
Remember me. Unlike Nehemiah, the criminal hadn’t done anything we would consider righteous. And yet Jesus promised the man paradise!
Salvation is a matter of grace.
This makes Nehemiah’s final “reforms” in Jerusalem a picture of the Christian life – even though Nehemiah was living 400 years before the time of Christ. A Christian is supposed to strive for holiness. We are never to give up striving. The apostle Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).
We press on. We throw out the greed and the lust and the habits that so easily drag us away from God. We cut them out of our lives. We press on toward holiness. We do this because Christ Jesus has made us his own.
We press on, and yet we recognize that all of it is God’s doing, not ours. We remember that every good thing comes from God. The return of the exiled Israelites – that was God’s work. The reconstruction of the temple – that was God’s work. The rebuilt walls – that was God’s work. Any semblance of holiness in any human being – that is God’s work.
And Nehemiah’s final prayer, the closing words of this book, was a humble recognition of God’s work. Salvation only comes from God – not us. We press on toward holiness because that’s who we’ve been called to be in Christ. But all of this – our lives, our redemption, our hope, our future – all of it is because of God, not us. It was God who set us free from sin and death through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).
Nehemiah knew this. If he were to look around Jerusalem at the Israelites residing in the holy city, going in and out of the temple, and in and out of the city gates, he knew what “all this” was about. And we do, too. And so we ought to press on toward holiness and, at the same time, press on in our prayers – “Remember me.”