NEHEMIAH BROKE DOWN and wept when he found out that the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruins from when the Babylonians had pulled them down over a century earlier. The Persians had replaced the Babylonians as the number-one superpower by then, and, as luck would have it, Nehemiah was one of the king of Persia's right-hand men. So, waiting till the king was in a mellow mood after his second planter's punch, he went and asked for permission to go home to Jerusalem and supervise its refortification. The king said not to stay too long, but gave him the go-ahead anyway. To strengthen his hand when he got to Jerusalem, he even had him made governor.

It took Nehemiah twelve years to get the job done, and it was tough sledding all the way. The Samaritans thought he was rebuilding the walls to keep them out and so did their friends. Others made a fuss because they were suspicious of a Jewish governor who worked for Persia. A man named Tobiah said that any wall Nehemiah was likely to build would fall to pieces the first time a fox stubbed his toe on it (Nehemiah 4:3). The construction crews threatened to walk off the job because back on the farm what the weeds hadn't taken over, the neighbors had. The Jerusalem Jews tended to be freer and easier about religion than Nehemiah was, so they objected to him as a narrow-minded, holier-than-thou Puritan prude. And so on. But after twelve years the walls somehow got put back in working order anyway, Nehemiah threw a big celebration, and then he went back to Persia.

After another twelve years, he showed up in Jerusalem to see how things had been getting on and almost had a heart attack. The walls were strong as ever, but inside the walls everything had gone to pot. Tobiah, the man who'd made the remark about the fox, was living like a king in the Temple, while a lot of priests were out on the street corners selling apples. Everybody went to work on the Sabbath just like any other day, and all the big stores were open, not to mention the bars, and if people bothered to go to religious services at all, they could hardly hear a word over the spiel of the Tyrian fish peddlers. Worst of all in Nehemiah's eyes, there were a lot of Jewish boys who'd not only married foreign girls, but had picked up their foreign ways to such an extent that most of their kids didn't even know Hebrew.

Once again Nehemiah rose to the occasion. He tossed Tobiah out on his ear and had the place fumigated. He took the priests off the streets. He reinstated the Blue Laws with a vengeance. He sent the fish peddlers packing. He had the city gates locked from Saturday night till Monday morning. As for the boys who'd married wrong, he reminded them how even the great Solomon had gotten into trouble over his taste for imported cheesecake, and to make sure they wouldn't forget, he "contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair" (Nehemiah 13:25). By the time he was through, he had Jerusalem looking like a convention of hard-shell Baptists.

The ones who called Nehemiah a blue-nosed Puritan weren't entirely off base, of course, but you can't help admiring him anyway. It's too bad that one of his favorite prayers had to be "Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people" (Nehemiah 5:19; compare 13:14,31). It would be nice to think he'd done it all for love. But even when he went wrong, he went wrong for the right reasons mostly, and when his time finally came, it's at least ten to one that God didn't fail to remember.

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

To receive daily Quote of the Day emails, sign up here.