The Perfumed Butler and the Wisdom of Civil Obedience

The seemingly humdrum parts of the Bible often hide overlooked wisdom. Take, for example, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their stories aren’t exactly the most gripping or memorable. They are far less concrete than, say, the story of the Exodus. No one in Ezra is stricken blind or devoured by heavenly fire. We may even be tempted to skim these books when we’re trying to catch up on our “Bible in a Year” New Year’s resolution.

In some ways, however, Ezra and Nehemiah have more in common with us in 21st-century America than Elijah or David. We should take time to slow down and pay attention. There are lessons for us in all their lists and letters.

In our day and age (especially for young people like me, I think), it’s tempting to believe that Christians should have nothing to do with the government. After all, the people who preside over these fruited plains do not fear God. They pretend they have the right to reorder what God has ordered. They celebrate doctors and businessmen who dissect and sell dead babies and they do cartwheels while sinners careen toward hell. The amount of systemic corruption in our government is truly frightening. Does it really make sense to trust those who work in Washington to control the law of the land without trusting them to determine right and wrong? Or to put it another way, if the president isn’t a Christian, or doesn’t act like one, can Christians still proudly call themselves Americans?

Few Christians, I think, are tempted to anarchy, but there are many who lean heavily libertarian, and even more who view everything with a government label on it with suspicion. Public schools, public healthcare, social services, building codes, food service requirements, the TSA. At best, so annoying. At worst, dangerous. Can’t we just do away with all of them and get on with our Christian lives?

On the other hand, there are Christians who see the corruption in the government and want to shake the president out of the White House so they can replace him with someone who’s really born-again, a true Jesus-follower. Then, and only then, will God tabernacle among His American people.

The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah speak to both of these impulses. But first, a little backstory.

When God called Israel out of Egypt, they were reborn as His infant people. God gave them lists of the most basic rules, printed in large, round letters on big laminated cards. Don’t touch. No eating. On this day, do not work. These rules weren’t meant to be a burden. They were designed to bring the children of Israel into maturity, to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Fast forward eleven hundred years. The Jews are just leaving Babylon (Persia, by now). The return from exile smacks of similarities to the Exodus, with a few key differences. Instead of hard-hearted Pharaoh, we have the benevolent King Cyrus. Rather than plundering the Egyptians, the Jews receive gifts of gold and silver from the king’s own treasury. Oh, and there are no plagues.

To Jews who followed Zerubbabel (a son of David!) and Joshua (a descendant of Aaron!) back to Judea, the return felt like a new beginning, full of second chances. Kingdoms would be conquered and wonders witnessed. But when the foundation of the new temple was laid, the old folks didn’t rejoice. They cried because they remembered how glorious Solomon’s temple had been. They remembered the former things and they knew that, in fact, the former things were better than these. They wanted miracles, and got none. In fact, a little while after the initial return, the enemies of the Jews complained to the Persian government and put a stop to the whole project. Zerubbabel and Joshua were disappointing failures. Instead of parting the Red Sea, they got tangled up in miles of red tape.

Even when Ezra and Nehemiah arrived, they hardly looked like the Bible heroes of ages past. They didn’t rage against kings or call down holy fire. Ezra was a scribe, an educated man, highly respected in Persia and Judea. He came to Jerusalem with the specific purpose of training the people in the law of God. His work was fully backed by the king of Persia, with letters of recommendation and a significant endowment. He even secured a tax-exempt status so that he could work without interference from the local governor.

Nehemiah’s story is a little more familiar to Sunday schoolers. Nehemiah’s job in Susa (the capital) was to refill the king’s wineglass. Thanks to Daniel and his friends, not to mention Queen Esther, the Jews enjoyed a large measure of acceptance in the Persian courts, but surely Nehemiah dressed and acted like the king’s other courtiers. He probably wore sumptuous clothing. His ears were adorned with jewelry and he probably perfumed his beard. (Hence the title.)

Nehemiah returned to Judea to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Because of his station, he too arrived with letters from the king, giving him the authority and resources to carry out the work as he saw fit. Before he got started, Nehemiah made sure he had all his passports and permits in order.

During their work, both Ezra and Nehemiah ran into various snarls. Most of these snarls were bureaucratic complaints from the people in the land who didn’t want the temple to be rebuilt. At least once, Nehemiah’s men were threatened physically and had to work with their weapons close at hand. In several of these crises, the Jews asked the king back in Persia for help. We follow the discussion back and forth, like reading an old email chain. Clerks track down documents and follow parchment-trails to piece together the truth and advise the king how to act. If the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were combined and turned into a movie, it would look less like Raiders of the Lost Ark and more like All the President’s Men.

In many ways, the Christian life is simple. Rather than a series of capricious masters, we have one Master. But often, out of fear, we try to apply restrictions where there are none. Don’t drink that. Don’t smoke that. Don’t vote for him. Don’t work for her. We want the world to be neatly divided into Yes and No. It’s so much easier that way.

As long as wisdom means searching out the truth of a matter rather than picking a quick and easy solution, we, like the children of Israel, resist maturity. We want to stay in the Garden and fight dragons. At least they’re scaly and breathe fire. That makes them easy targets. It’s much harder to hear both sides of an issue before determining who’s right. It’s much harder to live in the world but not of the world. It’s much harder to write a letter to an unbelieving congresswoman or run for a seat on a secular and God-hating city council.

Dragons are real and dangerous, but rarely do they appear in the form of Gentile kings or secular heads of state. As Paul says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Got that? We wrestle against spiritual forces. God won’t let us be infants. Like it or not, we have to eat solid food and act like grown-ups.

We face a future in which the United States makes less and less of a pretense of godliness. Our leaders pretend to worship God while turning their backs on Him. What can we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah that will help us navigate this tricky world of spiritual adulthood in America? Somehow, we have to submit to the governing authorities while insisting that they are subject to a higher King. How do we do that?

Here’s one example. For the church today, building God’s kingdom may involve using government positions, resources, and money. Ezra had no qualms about taking liberally from the king’s treasury to finish what Zerubbabel had started. He and Nehemiah used their positions in the Persian court to get what they needed to finish the Lord’s work. What resources does our American government offer that Christians can take advantage of?

Too many Christians are suspicious of government relief organizations, child protective services, and state or federal programs to reduce poverty. If we saw these things as resources, rather than dangers to our freedom, what kind of work could we do for the Kingdom of God? Pastors and congregations can work with the government to minister to the poor, the immigrant, and the outcast. If a Christian man finds himself in a position to run for city council, he shouldn’t dismiss it as the Devil’s work. He should embrace the opportunity and pray that God would use his influence mightily to enact real change in people’s lives.

I’m sure some Christians are reading this while waving pom-poms and going, “Rah, rah!” They love the idea of getting into public office. “Take the White House for Jesus!” they say. “With Christians in power, we can finally set the world right.” Well, Ezra and Nehemiah have something to say to these people, too. God could have set up Zerubbabel as king over a newly restored nation of Israel. He could have set a son of David on that throne in Jerusalem and given him enough power to spread Jewish culture across the globe. But He didn’t. Instead, Ezra and Nehemiah and Zerubbabel all served Gentile kings, not rebelliously, but faithfully. They were given positions of authority, but they didn’t plan a coup d’etat. They were dutiful civic servants of the Persian empire.

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)

Fear God. Honor the emperor. Of course, at no point should we compromise, either in worship or in our day-to-day obedience. There may come a day (and maybe it’s already here) when civil disobedience is not just a good idea, it’s our duty. When King Darius outlawed prayer in Persia, Daniel immediately went to his room and got down on his knees before God. The early Christians refused to worship Caesar and suffered for it, and they have their reward in heaven.

Political debates are important. Some policies are better than others for all kinds of economic, social, and diplomatic reasons. Basic human rights do exist, such as privacy, and Christians can fight for these rights as vigorously as anyone, and in many cases, we should. But even when these rights are jeopardized, we are never called to turn our backs on the government and pretend it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist. The government is just like any other mission field – full of sinners in need of repentance.

Christians should see those in government as tools for the kingdom and remember, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He will” (Proverbs 21:1). Like Ezra and Nehemiah, we can in good conscience be faithful servants of our earthly leaders because we serve a higher King who rules over every nation under heaven, and His kingdom will never fail.

Christian Leithart is a free-lance writer living in South Bend, Indiana.

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