As we come to the end of Nehemiah – and in just a bit, the Old Testament – I am struck by the question: “How do you get people to be obedient to God?”
Ezra seems to have been a reticent fellow, but highly respected. When he heard about Israel’s intermarriage with the Canaanites, he pulled the hair from his own head and beard, tore his clothes, sat down appalled and prayed. His actions had only moderate success, for the people were at least embarrassed and repented.
Their repentance however was not whole-hearted. A generation later, they were guilty of the same things again – and even more. They used the temple of the lord as a storage rental facility, refused to support the Levites so that the work of worship in the temple could be carried on, and once again intermarried with non-Israelites. Nehemiah was not inclined to do himself harm to get people to change, so he pulled out the hair from the heads and beards of the offenders. But it didn’t change things.
You can make people sit in the broiling sun outside the city gate to force them to keep the Sabbath, but that won’t make them Sabbath observers. In the end, the only way to effect real change is to change people’s hearts. God will attempt to do this by sending Jesus to die in behalf of mankind, but it will not be a rousing success. In the end though, that’s the secret. When you change people’s hearts, you change their lives. It’s really the only way.