Everyone looks at the world in a different way. Each has his own perspective. The close up things seem large, and the far away things seem small. Only God sees everything in its true light. The bible reveals the character of God and his plan for saving and sanctifying human beings from their fallen state. Part of that fallenness is our blindness: our lack of perspective. Part of our sanctification is the fact that we will learn to see things properly: differently from how we used to see them.
Thinking about perspective, then, I want to start with a wide-angle shot. See the universe in its entirety, countless billions of light years across, all created by a God who holds it in the palm of his hand. Now, focus on the tiny planet orbiting a slightly less tiny sun. In the course of the history of this planet, we come to the period of around 450 B.C. Related to the present, this a mere two and a half centuries ago. Human culture has developed advanced social structures: great empires ebb and swell across the map. In the centre of the map, we find the great Persian empire, spreading like an inkblot over all the great empires around it. It covers what we would call modern-day Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Babylonia (Iraq) and Egypt are consumed. The Medes to the north (Syria), and Lydia (Turkey) to the west are likewise under Persian rule. The Persian empire has the Aral, Caspian, and Black sea, the Persian Gulf and much of the Mediterranean. And the small place we’ve been calling the promised land, Jordan, Israel, Judah, where biblical history has been running its course? Now this whole strip of land is simply called “beyond the river”. The river is the great Euphrates, and from the perspective of the Great King of Persia, this area was of little consequence.
It is little wonder that the book of Ezra starts with the statement: “In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia”. Cyrus is the one around whom the calendar revolves. But immediately, we are given a striking reminder of our perspective: “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus”. God is in charge. He conducts the affairs of continents, and is sovereign over much more than we can imagine.
The book of Ezra documents the return of the exiles to their homeland. Ezra is the scribe, one of the great leaders of the sorry nation now called the Jews. His purpose was to remind the people of Israel that the exile was by no means the end of the story for the people of God. It was not the end of their calling to bring light to the world.
Nehemiah is another great leader of the people in this time. Placed, providentially, in a key position in the court of the king of Persia (now Artaxerxes), he burns with concern for the purpose and people of God, and this is manifested in his desire to see Jerusalem’s walls restored.
These two books of the bible take us towards the final significant events in the old testament concerning God’s covenant people. We will soon be moving forward from the sweep of historical narrative and accounts and genealogies will be replaced with poetry, prophecies, “snapshot” stories, wisdom literature and extended parables. (The historical narrative will resume about half a century later, in the gospels.)
As you read Nehemiah, try to take hold of God’s “macro” perspective. This is the lesson that God’s people were to learn from this book. Nehemiah is a heroic figure, burning with a passion for the God he serves. His passion comes from the perspective and insight that God has given him. In chapter 3, When Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem, Nehemiah’s fellow politicians hear of his plan, they ridicule him for it. They misunderstand his motives, and cannot see past their own perspectives. But Nehemiah is resolute. He knows what God has done in the past, and trusts what God will do in the future. His attitude is one of humble obedience before God, and God rewards this faith with a greater perspective, and grants Nehemiah the honour of participating in God’s unstoppable plan.