Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 11:1-21, Deuteronomy 7:9, Hebrews 11:13-16
Two summers ago, one of my best friends went to Greece. He didn’t go to see the Acropolis or the Parthenon, or to eat feta and olives by the handful. Instead, he spent several months on the island of Lesbos tending to thousands of refugees who had flooded there from war-ravaged Syria.
He sent pictures of little children, of lines of people waiting for blankets and clothes, of tents, of towers made of life jackets used to keep people afloat after their lifeboats sank. And he sent one picture of a fence post with these words scribbled across it, a holy graffiti: On earth as it is in heaven.
Every text, every story, every picture made me catch my breath and whisper a prayer. If you search online for his camp, you see headlines with words like “trapped” and “welcome to prison,” “horrific” and “languishing.” A few months after he left, his camp burned to ground. Tears flow as I write this, just thinking about it.
The people of God were hardly strangers to displacement. I hesitate to pull a direct parallel to the refugees from Syria, because in reading Nehemiah 11 we see a cautious return to their forsaken home. The Syrian refugees haven’t had that yet (and may not), and it feels odd to use them as an illustration here without being able to do something to ease the tragedy of their situation. But I believe we have to sit in that together, and feel the unease and discomfort.
We know that God’s people felt the pain of being dispersed during the exile. They were torn apart from their families, and they watched their cities burn. But now, at the end of Nehemiah, Jerusalem was ready. The walls were strong again. And yet, the people didn’t come willingly.
Nehemiah 11:1-2 tells us that they had to cast lots to decide who had to live in Jerusalem. They blessed the people who volunteered to live there. Why? Because Jerusalem would be the target of all of Israel’s enemies. John Wesley described the situation so poetically in his commentary on Nehemiah, saying, “This city was the butt of all the malicious plots of their enemies.” The return to David’s holy city wasn’t marked by a parade, by triumphant singing, or by celebration. It was marked by trepidation, a slow and careful entrance into the city that God had given them once again.
I can imagine the Israelites were tired, limping across a finish line that still didn’t seem ideal. They were home, but they still had only the Lord to keep them safe. They knew the walls of Jerusalem had been burned once, and they could be burned again.
Like the Israelites, we are still seeking a safe haven, a homeland. We, too, serve a God who is preparing a city for us—a heavenly city, where there will be no need for walls to protect us because we will dwell with God in perfect peace forever (Hebrews 11:16).
These promises from God remind me of the hymn “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.” It is the mournful cry of a pilgrim people who know that one day, we will be home.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside.
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Land me safe on Canaan’s side,
bid my anxious fears,
bid my anxious fears goodbye.
Melanie Rainer is a bookworm from birth who makes her days writing, editing and reading in Nashville, where she also joyfully serves as the editor of Kids Read Truth. She has an M.A. in Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary, spends as much time as she can in the kitchen, and can’t wait until her two daughters are old enough to read Anne of Green Gables.