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Nehemiah—Rebuilding the Wall
Originally united with the book of Ezra in the Hebrew Scriptures, Nehemiah became a separate unit when the Bible was translated into Latin [Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, p. 159]. For this reason, scholars believe it was compiled by Ezra the scribe, along with the book bearing his name, as well as I and II Chronicles. Since the first verse of Nehemiah claims it was “The words of Nehemiah, the son of Hachiliah,” it is likely that this account was either written by Nehemiah and then edited by Ezra, or else it was a biographical account ‘as told by’ Nehemiah to Ezra.
Nehemiah identified himself as a cup bearer to the king (Neh. 1:11). Due to the king’s attentiveness to his Hebrew employee and his willingness to entrust so much authority to him later on, it is apparent that Nehemiah was more than a mere butler. Apparently Artaxerxes Longimanus relied on him as something of a personal adviser, as well. The fact that he has no wife or children mentioned is a good indicator that Nehemiah was a eunuch, as was common in ancient royal courts.
While the focus of Ezra was on the first and second wave of returnees after the exile, Nehemiah involves the third group, which came in 444 B.C. [Nelson’s, p. 161]. He served as governor of Judah for twelve years (Neh. 5:14), and then returned to Babylon (13:6). He served a second term, probably still during the reign of Artaxerxes I, who died in 424 B.C. The book of Ezra highlights the rebuilding of the temple and the reestablishment of the Jewish religion; while Nehemiah’s focus is on the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem and its reestablishment as the seat of government over the Jews.
Nehemiah Chapter 1
Nehemiah’s account began thirteen years after Ezra went to Jerusalem, as he entertained relatives who came to visit him in Susa after having been in the holy city (Neh. 1:1-2). When he asked how things were going in the fatherland, Nehemiah was shocked to hear of the distress and reproach of the survivors of the captivity and how the city walls were still in ruin from Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion (v. 3).
For days, Nehemiah sat mourning, weeping, fasting and praying about this awful news (4). He acknowledged the greatness of YHWH and His faithfulness. Perhaps with Deuteronomy 7:9 in mind, he prayed, “…You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments,” and asked God to hear the prayer he was repeating day and night on behalf of the children of Israel (Neh. 1:5-6a).
Although we have no biblical record of him doing any wrong, Nehemiah confessed personal and ancestral sins (v. 6b). He said they had all “acted very corruptly against” the Lord, failing to keep His commandments (7). He remembered the warning of YHWH in Leviticus 26:33, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations,” which the Lord had carried out over 70 years before (Neh. 1:8). He also reminded God of His promise in Deuteronomy 30:2-5 to bring the people back, if they returned to Him and started doing what He told them to (Neh. 1:9). He concluded his prayer by reminding the Lord of how He had redeemed Israel in the past and asked Him to help as Nehemiah prepared to approach the king with a request for help (vv. 10-11).
Nehemiah Chapter 2
About four or five months later, Nehemiah was especially burdened about Israel, while he was carrying out his duties as Artexerxes’ cup-bearer (Neh. 2:1). Since the Hebrew servant “had never been sad in his presence before,” the king took notice and asked what was the matter (v. 2). Now anyone employed at the palace can easily lose his head for being a downer around his royal highness, so naturally this observation made Nehemiah more than a little nervous!
However, Nehemiah played it cool and said, “Why shouldn’t I look sad when…the place where my ancestors are buried, is in ruins and its gates are burned down?” (Neh 2:3, God’s Word translation). When the king offered to help, Nehemiah shot a quick prayer heavenward, and then requested that the king send him to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls (vv. 4-5). The two of them agreed on a time period to complete this task (6). Nehemiah further requested letters of transit authorizing him to pass uninhibited through the king’s territories beyond the Euphrates River and ordering “the keeper of the king’s forest” to supply timber for the construction projects he would need to undertake (7-8). Amazingly, Artexerxes was amenable to each of these requests, “and the king granted them to me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.”
With a military escort provided by the king, Nehemiah traveled to the land of Judah and presented his papers to the local officials (9). Two in particular were not happy with this: Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite “were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel” (10).
For three days after his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah said nothing about his plan to anyone (11 & 16). Then he got up one night and rode out with a few men to inspect the city walls (12-15). No one had a clue where he had been or why, until Nehemiah related all that had transpired in the Persian capital and urged the men of Judah to help him rebuild the wall (16-18).
The Jews were happy and “set their hands to the good work.” But Sanballat, Tobiah and an Arab named Geshem all laughed and accused them of rebelling against the king (19). Nehemiah calmly replied, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore His servants will arise and build” (20). He made it clear that these foreign officials were not welcome to take part in this work they so despised.
Nehemiah Chapter 3
The 32 verses of this chapter detail the reconstruction of the wall and who did the work on each section. It is interesting to note the diversity of the people who performed the labor: There were priests, craftsmen, district leaders, temple workers, merchants, and even women who replaced stones, mortar, gates, awnings, bars and other hardware. Some worked on the sections adjoining their houses; others came from Judean and Benjaminite towns to help out. Only the nobles of Tekoa refused to contribute (Neh. 3:5).
All of this was in fulfillment of Isaiah 58:12, which says:
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings (NIV).
Nehemiah Chapter 4
The schemers against the Hebrews were at it again. In Nehemiah 4:1-3, we read that Sanballat called the Jews feeble and indicated it was unrealistic for them to reconstruct their wall out of the rubble of the old city. His buddy Tobiah added that the structure would surely topple, if so much as a fox were to jump on it. Of course, it’s easy to laugh and push someone around, when you are backed up by the entire Samaritan army!
Nehemiah asked God to “turn their reproach on their own heads, and give them as plunder to a land of captivity” (Neh. 4:4). He felt that their ridicule was unforgivable, since they had not only insulted the workers, but had also incited the Lord (v. 5).
When the construction brought the wall to half its original height, Sanballot, Tobiah and the other Gentiles were mad enough to organize themselves to fight the Jews at Jerusalem (6-8). However, God’s people prayed and organized a twenty-four hour watch against any attack (9). Eventually, they felt overwhelmed by the amount of work required to remove the unusable stones and rubbish to rebuild the wall, as well as the threat of a sneak attack by their enemies (10-11). Not only that, but the Hebrews living close to the conspirators said, “From whatever place you turn, they will be upon us” (12).
Nehemiah gathered the leaders and the people for a pep talk. “Do not be afraid of them,” he said, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Neh 4:14, ESV). After refocusing their attention on their great God, he had everyone arm themselves and positioned men behind the lower sections of the wall and the openings (v. 13).
With the evil plot foiled, everyone got back to work. From then on, at any given time, half of the Israelites stood armed and ready to defend Jerusalem, while the other half did the masonry work (15-16). Every man carried a weapon and was prepared to rally at a moment’s notice to the sound of Nehemiah’s trumpet (17-21). Not only that, but Nehemiah ordered every available man to spend the night in Jerusalem, in case of attack (22). This meant they were ready to get to work quicker, too. They wouldn’t even take their clothes off, except to bathe and do laundry (23)! It’s a good thing this was only a temporary necessity.
Nehemiah Chapter 5
In the midst of the construction, it was brought to Nehemiah’s attention that the wealthy were exploiting the poor by charging interest for loans, confiscating property and selling them as slaves to the Gentiles. The ‘average Joe’ was to poor and hungry to redeem his children or property (Neh. 5:1-5).
When Nehemiah heard it, he was incensed (v. 6). The next verse says, “After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers…” He challenged the offenders, “Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations?” (Neh. 5:9, NLT). He and his servants managed to redeem some of the unfortunate (v. 8). But he ordered the rich to stop charging interest, restore people’s property and give back the percentage they had charged for debts, so Nehemiah and others wouldn’t have to keep bailing them out (10-11). When the citizens agreed, Nehemiah called the priests to put them under oath to do what he said, and then he uttered a curse against anyone who failed to keep his word (12-13).
Hmm, makes me wonder if that’s not the sort of thing that needs to be done in our country. If the rich and powerful would stop taking advantage of those less fortunate, maybe there wouldn’t be so many Americans homeless or hopelessly in debt!
Nehemiah was a very conscientious ruler. During the twelve years he served as governor of Judah, he never once required the people to provide what normally was expected (14). Previous administrators had “had laid heavy burdens on the people, demanding a daily ration of food and wine, besides forty pieces of silver,” and allowed their servants to rule harshly (Neh. 5:15a, NLT). Out of respect for the Lord, Nehemiah worked hard to provide for himself and his guests without adding to the people’s hardships (vv. 15b-18). He asked God to remember and reward his good deeds (19).
Nehemiah Chapter 6
By the time this dispute was resolved, the wall was very near completion. When they realized that ridicule and intimidation had failed, Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem and the others decided to try some new tactics to disrupt the building project.
First, they sent multiple messages inviting Nehemiah to meet with them at the plains of Ono (Neh. 6:1-2). This rendezvous was supposed to take place at a location 25 miles from Jerusalem near the border of Samaria. Not only would it take the governor a long way from his construction project, but it would also make him vulnerable to attack so far from a fortified city. Nehemiah wisely and politely declined the invitation all four times, saying his work was too pressing and too important to interrupt (vv. 3-4).
Next, the trouble-makers sent an open letter—one anybody could read—accusing the governor of insurrection against the king (5). They claimed to have heard Nehemiah was planning to have himself coronated as sovereign of Judah as soon as the wall was finished. Unless he met with them to refute this matter, they threatened to report it to Artexerxes (6-7). Nehemiah saw through this scheme, as well, and said they were just making things up to discourage the people (8-9).
Finally, Nehemiah was invited to the home of one of his own people, who was secretly communicating with the bad guys. This fellow, Shemaiah, suggested that the two of them meet at the temple, close the doors and hide inside, since assassins were coming that night to kill them (10). Nehemiah knew that only priests were allowed in the temple. Although we are not given his tribal affiliation, he obviously knew better than to venture inside the Holy Place for any reason. Therefore, he replied, “Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!” (Neh. 6:11, NIV). He immediately recognized that this so-called prophet was no real man of God, but a stooge of Sanballat and Tobiah, hired to frighten Nehemiah into doing something wrong, so they could discredit him (v. 12-13).
In response to these thwarted schemes, Nehemiah asked God to strengthen him, rather than allowing his enemies to weaken the Jews (9). He also prayed that the Lord would punish the people who tried to make him afraid and side-track him (14).
In spite of all this interference, the wall was completed a mere 52 days after Nehemiah and his countrymen started the project, around October 2 (15). So astonishing was this feat of reconstructing the wall in less than two months, that all the surrounding people knew it was only the grace of God that accomplished it. Therefore, the enemies of the Jews were utterly dismayed and discouraged (16). Despite all their correspondence and collusion with the leading men of Israel, their efforts to sabotage what God was doing had failed. Nevertheless, the Gentiles still tried to intimidate Nehemiah and to influence his opinion of them through those Jews who were related to them by marriage (17-19). These spies in the Hebrew ranks also reported everything the governor said or did to them.
Nehemiah Chapter 7
Once the city was fortified, Nehemiah hung the gates and doors and appointed watchmen to guard them (Neh. 7:1). He put his brother Hanani in charge of the city—along with another man named Hananiah, who had proven himself faithful and more God-fearing than most Israelites (v. 2). He ordered the gate-keepers to wait “until the sun is hot” to open the entryways to Jerusalem (3). Other men were appointed to stand guard throughout the city, since it was sparsely populated.
He called for genealogical records to find out who was currently inhabiting the area (4-5). The rest of this chapter lists the names recorded in the first return to Jerusalem, with a few variations of spellings between Nehemiah 7:6 and following and Ezra 2:3 and following.
Nehemiah Chapter 8
A few days after the wall was completed [which happened to be the Feast of Trumpets], all the people of Israel who were old enough to understand—including women and children—gathered in Jerusalem to hear Ezra the priest read the word of God (Neh. 8:1-2; c.f.—Lev. 23:24, Num. 29:1-6 & Deut. 31:10-12). They built a platform for him to stand on, so that all the people could see and hear him and the other men who apparently interpreted the text so that all could understand (Neh. 8:4 & 8).
You can tell that the people by this time had learned to respect God’s Law. As soon as Ezra unrolled the scroll, everyone stood up (v. 5). When he blessed YHWH, everyone said, “Amen, amen!” Not only that, but they raised their hands to heaven and then bowed with their faces to the ground (6). Ezra read from morning until afternoon, and the people stood and listened attentively all that time (3)! You won’t find that kind of dedication or discipline in many modern assemblies.
As they heard the book of the Law of God and understood what it said, the people began to weep (8-9). Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites tried to console them, reminding everyone that the day was holy (9-11). Nehemiah urged them to go eat and drink and share their food with others, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10, NIV). So everyone went and feasted, rejoicing that they comprehended God’s Law (v. 12).
The next day, the leaders got together for a second look at the Law (13). They came across the passages that describe the feast of tabernacles (Lev. 23:15-21 & Deut. 16:13-15), so they ordered everyone to gather branches from leafy trees to build booths on their rooftops, courtyards, etc., and to live in them for seven days (Neh. 8:14-16). Amazingly enough, even though this was one of three annual feasts God required every male in Israel to observe, the Hebrews had not celebrated this way “since the days of Joshua the son of Nun” (v. 17)! Each day that week, the people listened to the Word, and on the eighth day they help the sacred assembly prescribed by law (18).
Nehemiah Chapter 9
A couple days after the feast, the people gathered yet again. They had been so convicted by the Scripture that was read to them that they fasted, wore sackcloth and threw dust on their heads to show their grief for their sin (Neh. 9:1). The Hebrews separated themselves from non-Jews. For 1/4 of the day [That’s three or six hours!], they stood to hear the Law read. Then for another several hours they confessed their sins and worshiped YHWH (vv. 2-3).
The leaders “cried out with a loud voice to the Lord their God” (4). Then the Levites recited a psalm recounting the history of the Jews, confessing the errors of their nation’s ways, and praising God for His power and continued mercy and faithfulness in spite of their sin (vv. 5ff).
In verse 36, they concluded, “Here we are, servants today!” These people lived in their own land, but their produce, their livestock and even their own lives were under the dominion of the Persian kings, and they were distressed because of their sin (37).
“And because of all this,
We make a sure covenant, and write it;
Our leaders, our Levites, and our priests seal it” (38).
Nehemiah Chapter 10
Verses 1-27 list the names of those who signed the covenant. Everyone old enough to know what they were doing “entered into a curse and an oath” to whole-heartedly obey the Lord and His word (Neh. 10:28-29). The terms of this agreement were:
- They would not intermarry with non-Jews (v. 30).
- They would honor both the weekly and seven-year Sabbaths, by not engaging in commerce and releasing debts (31).
- They imposed on themselves an annual 1/3 shekel [1/8 of an ounce] of silver tax to cover the expenses of the temple (32-33).
- They set up a schedule for people to provide fuel for the fires for temple sacrifices (34).
- They agreed to bring their first fruits, their firstborn and the tithes to the temple, as prescribed by Law (35-39).
So, unlike their ancestors, these people responded favorably to God’s Word and took action to assure His laws were kept. They committed themselves and were able to hold one another accountable to keep it.
Nehemiah Chapter 11
It was determined that 10% of the Jews, plus all their leaders, should dwell in Jerusalem—while the other 90% of the general population would occupy the rest of the towns and villages of Judah and Benjamin (Neh. 11:1). They drew lots to discern who should live where, and then “The people blessed those who volunteered to live in Jerusalem” (Neh. 11:2, NCV).
The bulk of the chapter gives us a roster of names of the leaders and the number of people from each group they represented who agreed to stay in Jerusalem (vv. 3-24). It’s interesting that in verse 23, the writer of Nehemiah noted that the king had given special orders concerning the musicians at the temple and that he had included an allowance for them. Verse 24 tells us there was a man of Judah “at the king’s hand” to advise him in all matters Hebrew (KJV).
The last eleven verses name the cities in which the remaining Israelites lived (25-36). Verses 25-30 name seventeen major towns “from Beersheba to the Valley of Hinnom” that were occupied by the men of Judah. Verses 31-36 list fourteen Benjaminite towns.
The rest of the chapter describes the dedication of the reconstructed wall. Nehemiah rounded up all the singers from their villages around Jerusalem (Neh. 12:27-29). “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall” (Neh. 12:30, NIV). Two choirs and two sets of leaders climbed up on the wall and marched in opposite directions to the other side of the city: One group followed Ezra the scribe to the right; the other went with Nehemiah to the left (vv. 31-39). Everyone gathered and sang together at the house of God (40-42). Men, women and children from the territories of Judah and Benjamin offered many sacrifices and celebrated with joy. The sound of their exuberant worship could be heard a long distance from the holy city (43).
I’ll bet Sanballat and Tobiah were not happy with that. The fact that their shenanigans are not mentioned is probably a good indicator that they were no longer a threat to the Jews.
Nehemiah and the other leaders appointed men to collect and distribute the tithes and offerings designated for the ministers at the temple, “for Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites” (44). [Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing, if church-goers today were so enthusiastic about the full-time ministers who labor in our behalf?] The singers and gatekeepers fulfilled their duties (45-46). The people gave what was ordained for the Levites, who in turn gave their 10% to the descendants of Aaron, as prescribed in Numbers 18:8-32 (Neh. 12:47).
Nehemiah Chapter 13
The next order of business was to read from the Law. As the priests recited Deuteronomy 23:3-6, the people realized that no Ammonite or Moabite was allowed at the temple, since those nations opposed Israel when they first came into the Promised Land from Egypt (Neh. 13:1-2). “When this passage of the Law was read, all those of foreign descent were immediately excluded from the assembly” (Neh. 13:3, NLT).
As previously arranged, Nehemiah had to return to King Artexerxes (v. 6). During the year or so that he was gone, the Jews got lazy about keeping the Law of YHWH. So, when Nehemiah returned, he had his hands full restoring proper order in Israel.
For one thing, he discovered Eliashib, the priest who was in charge of the temple storerooms, had let Tobiah the Ammonite set up housekeeping in a large room previously reserved for donations for the priests and Levites (4-5). When Nehemiah got back to Jerusalem and learned of this offense, he promptly ordered the removal of Tobiah’s stuff and had the place physically and spiritually cleansed to be used for its intended purpose (7-9).
Next, he learned the Levites had abandoned their posts, because the people stopped bringing their tithes (10). So he rebuked the leaders and had the people resume their prescribed allotments (11-12). He designated faithful men to serve as treasurers over the storehouse, to see that the Levites and priests each got their share of whatever came in (13).
Nehemiah also noticed that folks were working and bringing wares to sell at Jerusalem on the Sabbath (15-16). He confronted the offenders and their leaders, reminding them it was this same disregard for the seventh day that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in the first place (17-18). Then he ordered the gatekeepers to lock the city down and posted his own men to see to it that the Sabbath was enforced (19 & 22). At first, the merchants camped outside the gates, hoping to catch some buyers or gain access to the city (20). But when Nehemiah threatened to arrest them, they learned it was no use coming that day of the week to do business (21).
When he found out some Jewish men had married women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, and that half of their children couldn’t even speak Hebrew (23-24), Nehemiah really lost it! Rather than tear out his own hair and beard in grief, as their scribe had (Ezra 9:1-4), the governor tore at the offenders’ hair, smacked them, shouted and cursed at them in outrage (Neh. 13:25). He reminded them how Solomon—one of God’s most beloved and blessed kings—was led astray by the pagan women he married, and said these men had no business transgressing against God in the same way (vv. 26-27). It turned out that one of the grandsons of Eliashib (the high priest who’d set up the apartment for Tobiah) “was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite,” so Nehemiah expelled him from the city (28).
“Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan,” Nehemiah 13:30 says. He got the priests and Levites back on task and got the Israelites to bring their firewood and produce on schedule. For all his zeal to apply God’s word, he asked the Lord to remember him for good (vv. 14, 22 & 31).
When God lays a need on your heart, He intends to equip you with everything you need to take care of it. Fasting and prayer is our way of acquiring that favor. The person who will confess and identify with the sins of his/her ancestors, is the one God is most likely to use to set things right. He will protect and reward the man or woman who is zealous for Him.
Whenever we undertake a project for the Lord, we will meet with opposition. The more important the project, the greater the resistance. As we stay on task and maintain our integrity and commitment, the Lord will uphold our cause and bring the project to completion in a way that gives Him maximum glory.
God’s Law was intended to guide our conduct. When we apply His word to our lives and government, things go smoothly. When we disregard His principles and do our own thing, chaos reigns. Compromisers hurt not only themselves, but others.
Finally, as Jesus taught in Luke 16:10, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones” (NLT). Because Nehemiah was trustworthy in handling his responsibility as the king’s cupbearer, he was gladly given even greater responsibility as the governor of Israel. Because he acted wisely under the king’s authority and God’s, he was respected and obeyed. Is God calling you to something great? Be trustworthy in the little things you have been given to do, so that you will be ready when a bigger opportunity comes along!
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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