The Third Way: Lessons from Nehemiah

March 16, 2023

Hindsight is 20/20, or so the saying goes.

It’s easy to look back and see more clearly the impact – good or bad – of a moment’s decision, action, or possibly inaction. What feels in the moment inconsequential, may have been very consequential when we look back. 

The same holds true in God’s kingdom story. What might feel small in the moment – a single act of courage or obedience – can leave an impact we might never fully realize. 

I believe that the arc of God’s story is always longer than our individual contribution.  

Nehemiah's Story

Nehemiah is one of the most intriguing and oddest stories in the Bible. His story jumps almost immediately to a bold cupbearer asking what must have felt like an outrageous request to King Artaxerxes: to return to Jerusalem and rebuild this foreign and rebellious city. Oh yeah, and he would like the king’s financing on the project.

So, here's the question I think we're meant to be asking: "Why in the world, would Artaxerxes agree to this outrageous request?”

I think I read past this – or I saw it as a 'miracle story.'  Wow, Nehemiah prayed, and look what God did!  Clearly, God's fingerprints are all over this, but what I want to suggest is that his fingerprints are over this in more ways than are maybe immediately visible. 

And to do that, I want to pick up on two quick historical realities that should help to provide color to what might be going on here. 

First, it was helpful for me to remember that the way the books of the Bible are ordered in our Bibles is not necessarily chronological. So while the book of Esther comes after Nehemiah, her story actually comes before. This is super important and beautiful.

Esther’s Story

So step into this for a minute.  We read in chapter 1 that the setting where Nehemiah finds himself is the palace of Susa. This is the same place where Esther is forced to take part in a beauty pageant; the same place where she eventually becomes queen.

In fact, there's so much continuity that most scholars believe that Arataxerxes was the son of Esther's husband, Xerxes – probably from one of Xerxes' other wives.

There are some Jewish commentators that wonder if the Queen sitting beside the King in Nehemiah 2:6 IS Esther.  

While that's unlikely, what's indisputable is Esther's legacy. Her witness, influence, and integrity would have been burning bright in the memories and hearts of both Nehemiah and the King.

The story of Nehemiah rides very much on the coattails of the story of Esther.  

That may be especially something to celebrate if you've experienced Nehemiah's story to be male-centric. 

The unquestionable reality, however, is that his success is directly dependent on the success and reputation of Esther. So we see in these two stories, joined at the hip, the multi-generational plan of God.

But I want us to skip back even a little further.  You see, where did the mentality that characterizes both Esther and Nehemiah come from? How did these two heroes exhibit so many of the same characteristics? 

A Third Way

In 587 BC, the city of Jerusalem is sacked by Babylon, resulting in thousands of Israelites being taken and relocated around a foreign kingdom. So now, they're a minority in a new culture with new gods.

This was a first. How were they to respond?

  1. Some Israelites chose to resist Babylon by revolting and becoming guerilla fighters.
  2. Others gave in and adopted the Babylonian way of life and accepted new gods as their own.

In some ways, we can empathize. It must've felt like these are the only two options. You either fight, or you give in.

But enter Jeremiah who tells them to do something totally different and surprising…

Jeremiah tells them to settle in, build houses, plant gardens, grow families, and perhaps most surprisingly, seek the well-being of Babylon and pray to the Lord on its behalf.

What he's proposing is a 'third way.'  It's not compromise or revolt.  Not giving in, and not military action. And it's this third way that shapes the stories of God's people during centuries of exile.

Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah

The story of Daniel and his friends, like Esther and Nehemiah, is a story of choosing to take Jeremiah's advice. They would serve their kings and take on new clothing and names, as they became educated and worked hard. 

I think of how much trust Nehemiah must have earned over decades of service, to be entrusted with a job like the king's cupbearer – a cabinet-level position – with the daily reality of possible assassination.  The king's life was in his hand. 

They would also critique Babylon's pride, injustice, and arrogance, but they do it not through violent means.  But rather in ways that were winsome, honoring, and generous.

They would serve Babylon, or Persia, they would seek it's well-being, but their loyalty was always to God. This was the Third Way. No compromise, no revolt.

It was unprecedented in the history of nations. No nation had ever taken this approach. No God had ever asked this of its people.

It was a lifestyle that characterized Daniel, Esther, ....and Nehemiah.

Nehemiah’s Request

So why did the king agree to Nehemiah's preposterous request?  

I believe Nehemiah, standing on the shoulders of Esther's legacy, won the heart of the king through a lifetime of service. 

Both had proven their intention to bless a foreign kingdom, to be agents of good in a place of darkness.  They were no threat to the king!  He knew and trusted these people. And in turn, he blessed them and Jerusalem, paving the way for God's messiah.

Jesus takes up this third way of subversive loyalty.  To a people again subjugated by a foreign, pagan power he says, 

Put away the sword. Instead, blessed are the peacemakers. You are a city on a hill!  Shine, be light, be salt.  Turn a cheek; go the extra mile because you know you will inherit the earth.

No compromise. No armed revolt. Peaceful subversion. A kingdom way of living.

Finding Our Third Way

So, what does all this mean for us, the modern-day Jesus follower? 

First of all, the arc of God's story is always longer than our contribution.  (I don't about you but that makes me very excited!)

God's time horizons have little relation to ours.  We can be sure that we will not see the fullness of what God does through a 'long obedience in the same direction.'  That is the story of history.

Can we live with that?  We tend to be impatient.  For the people that awaken to participate in God's mission, can we anticipate the long arc of God's work through their faithful presence in Tashkent, Riyadh, or Hanoi?  Are we looking for results tomorrow, when God's got a much more expansive view of what their lives represent?

I think it’s possible that by some modern measurements of success, Daniel's life, Nehemiah's life, and Esther's would have been judged unremarkable for years.

Secondly, a life well lived is what changes our world. We cannot read these stories and not see this. 

Programs are good, initiatives are good, but they can never compete with the power of a life well lived! 

As People of the Third Way

In a sense, you and I are exiles. 

As people of the third way, We live as new creation representatives in the dark places of our world. We simply never know, what it is that we touch that will alter the course of history.  What act, what word, what small kindness, or unselfish response will soften the heart of the king?  

Written by Global Contributor Jonathan Thiessen – Co-founder of Scatter Global.

JONATHAN THIESSEN – is President and Co-founder of Scatter Global. His family of 5 share passports from Canada, Australia, and the UK and they've spent 6 years in Siberia. Beekeeping, Tolkien, hiking, and all things Russian bring him deep joy. He's inspired daily by seeing how God is using Jesus followers living vibrant, redemptive, kingdom-centered lives in everyday spaces to transform our world.

Tagged as: Spiritual Life  

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