The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. [Nehemiah 2:6 (NSRV)]
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” is what’s known as Parkinson’s Law. Writing those words in 1955, Parkinson wasn’t talking about deadlines; he was taking aim at the British Civil Service and government bureaucracies that become less efficient as they increase in size. Nevertheless, later studies have shown that without strict time constraints, we tend to waste time and work takes longer than necessary to complete.
When this pandemic began, all sorts of obligations were cleared from my calendar and, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, I was sure lots of writing would get done. How wrong I was! Like others who found themselves with excess time and no deadlines or sense of urgency, instead of getting more done, I’m accomplishing less.
When Jerusalem fell to Babylon, the Temple was destroyed and the city left in shambles. After Zerubabbel led the first group of exiles back, it took twenty years to rebuild the Temple. Seventy years after its completion, however, the city walls were still in ruins. When Nehemiah asked King Artaxerxes permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, the King asked how long he would be gone. Given Nehemiah’s weighty responsibilities in court, it’s logical to assume that the king would not agree to a lengthy absence. As the king’s cup-bearer, Nehemiah’s presence was essential to the king. His duties included being the chief financial officer and bearer of his signet ring. As the king’s wine taster, his job was to sample royal beverages to test for poison.
Before making his request, Nehemiah must have carefully considered both the amount of time necessary for such a task and the length of time the king would allow his absence. Although we don’t know Nehemiah’s answer, the king found it reasonable and the men agreed upon a time frame. With no target date, the wall hadn’t been repaired in over ninety years; with a deadline, the project was completed in a record 52 days!
Although Scripture mentions Nehemiah returning to Babylon twelve years later, it’s difficult to think the king would have agreed to be without his cup-bearer for that length of time. It’s more likely that a specific deadline, perhaps as brief as two months, had been set and Nehemiah returned promptly after the wall’s completion. Having shown his excellent leadership qualities, it probably was then that Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah Judah’s governor and sent him back to Jerusalem. If the King originally had agreed to a twelve year absence, I suspect the wall may have taken nearly that long to complete!
Deadlines motivate us; they keep us from growing lethargic or unconcerned. Let us never forget that we all live with two deadlines: our own personal expiration date and the world’s. Although we know that both cutoff dates will occur, we don’t know when. Let us never grow lax and apathetic or lose a sense of urgency about doing the Lord’s work. Viewing every day as a gift, we must use our time wisely and enthusiastically to glorify God and bring about His Kingdom. Let us live this day to the fullest as if it were our last. After all, it very well could be!