Comments On The Book Of Nehemiah
The Book of Ezra records the return to Jerusalem of Zerubbabel with a company of the Jews in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia (Ezra 1:1 and 3:1); then of Ezra himself leading another group back to Jerusalem in the reign of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:1 and 8:31). This was in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:8), so that it was 13 years later that Nehemiah was commissioned by King Artaxerxes to go to Judah (Neh. 2:1-8).
Ezra, being a priest, was particularly concerned about the house of God in Jerusalem, while Nehemiah was concerned about the wall of the city. Thus, the prophecy of Haggai connects especially with the work of Ezra and the prophecy of Zechariah has much in common with the work of Nehemiah, for the city is specially prominent in this case. How vitally important are both of these, for the temple speaks of the relationship of the people to God, while the wall indicates their separation from the world.
The name Nehemiah means "comforted of Jah," and he needed this comfort in the face of the much opposition he encountered, for a wall of separation being built between the people of God and the world is certainly not appreciated by the world, and sometimes even resisted by the Lord's people themselves, Thus, Nehemiah found opposition from both without and within. But his energy of faith and decisive action is remarkable. We are surely impressed by his spontaneous prayers as he worked. Nehemiah was not fitted for the work Ezra did, but neither was Ezra competent to do the work Nehemiah was called to do. God furnished each with the capacity for his special work.
MOVED BY THE REPORTED CONDITION OF JERUSALEM
Though verse 1 makes it clear that this whole book records "the words of Nehemiah," it may be that Nehemiah spoke these words to another person, who wrote them down, -- possibly Ezra, who was a scribe. It was in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (see ch. 2:1) that Nehemiah received news of Jerusalem from Hanani, who had come to Shushan the palace, where Nehemiah was employed. "Shushan (or Susa) was originally the capital of Elam; afterwards it was incorporated into the kingdom of Babylon, and finally, on the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, it passed into the possession of Persia, of which it seems, at the time of Nehemiah, to have been the metropolis" (Nehemiah by Edward Dennett -- ch. 1, footnote). Thus Nehemiah did not go from Babylon to Jerusalem, as Ezra did, but from Shushan.
Nehemiah, deeply concerned of conditions in Jerusalem, inquired about this matter (v. 2), and was told, "The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire" (v. 3).
Hearing such news, Nehemiah sat down, wept and mourned for many days, with fasting and prayer. Likely this exercise was interrupted by his daily work, but it was certainly the most important matter that engaged his thoughts. Notice his mention of "praying before the God of heaven." He does not say "the God of heaven and earth" (v. 4), for Israel's earthly possession had been badly desolated, and there remained little clear evidence that God was caring for His people. Yet God was still in heaven and His power could be relied on to intervene in some blessing for Israel in spite of the low spiritual condition that had caused their current distress.
Nehemiah then in prayer appealed to the God of heaven as "the great and awesome God," and the One who keeps his covenant and mercy, though Israel had badly broken that covenant. He adds the words, "and mercy " for certainly Israel desperately needed mercy (v. 5). However, he says, God keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him and observe His commandments. Those who do not do this have forfeited all claim to His covenant, and can hardly expect His mercy. Nehemiah does not go so far as to say, "keep his commandments," but "observe," for he had no doubt learned that to absolutely keep all God's commandments is too hard for man, but it was still necessary to respect and honor them.
He entreats God to hear his prayer for the children of Israel and to hear his confession of the sins of the children of Israel. Notice, he is not only confessing his own part in these sins, but confessing Israel's sins as though they had been his own sins, and adding, "both my father's house and I have sinned" (v. 6). But he goes further, saying, "We have acted very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses" (v. 7).
Nehemiah then proceeded to ask God to remember the words He had spoken to Moses that if Israel was unfaithful He would scatter them among the nations (v.8), but if returning to Him to keep His commandments, God would still gather them back (at least some of them) and bring them to the place where He had set His name (v. 9). These things were plainly spoken by God to Moses in Deuteronomy 4:25-31.
In this prayer of Nehemiah he fully acknowledged and appreciated the fact that God had kept His word in bringing back the remnant of the Jews to Jerusalem; but he feared that the Jews were lapsing again into an unfaithful state, even after God had redeemed them by His great power. But Nehemiah intended to act: he would not only pray and leave it there, nor did he pray that God would send someone to Jerusalem to help the suffering remnant. Since he knew and felt the sorrow of their condition, he considered he was the man to go. He did solicit the approval and help of others, but simply asked God to give him favor "in the sight of this man" (v. 11). Though Artaxerxes was king, yet Nehemiah considered him simply a man in whose heart God could work as easily as in any man. "For," he says, "I was the king's cupbearer." This was an honored and trusted position, and the more trusted, the less likely would the king be to give him a long leave of absence.
This exercise of Nehemiah continued for four months following the information he received, and finally came to a head in the month Nisan (corresponding to March or April), when Nehemiah was serving wine to the king and the king observed that his face was sad (v. 1). When the king asked him why he was sad, he became dreadfully afraid, for one to appear to be sad in the presence of the king might be considered a mortal offense, and a proud king may have condemned to death such a person.
However, Artaxerxes was not so arrogant a men, but kindly considerate, and when Nehemiah told him, "Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' tombs lies waste, and its gates burned with fire?" (v. 3), this immediately awakened the king's sympathies. He knew well what Nehemiah was talking about, for he himself had authorized Ezra to go to Jerusalem with the object of furnishing the temple. More than this, God was answering the prayer of Nehemiah, though he had waited for some time for the answer. We too may have to wait for answers, but waiting on God is an exercise necessary to strengthen our faith.
It must have been a surprise to Nehemiah to have the king ask him, "What do you request?" (v. 4). Immediately Nehemiah prayed a short, involuntary prayer (of course not audibly), and made his request, "If it please the king and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to he city of my fathers' tombs, that I may rebuild it" (v. 5). The king made no objection to this, though he asked how long Nehemiah would require for this project, for he wanted him to return. Nehemiah set him a time, though we are not told what it was, nor does Nehemiah record anything of his later return to Shushan. The wall was rebuilt in the short space of 52 days, however (ch. 6:15). How long after this Nehemiah remained in Jerusalem we are not told.
When Nehemiah saw that the king was favorable to him, he was emboldened to ask that the king would give him letters to the authorities in the territories through which he would pass, and also "a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy" (v. 8). It is good to see that Nehemiah realized that the king's approval of this was due to "the good hand of my God upon me."
The king also sent an escort of army captains and horsemen with Nehemiah (v. 9). It is not recorded that Nehemiah asked for this. Ezra before him says, "I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, 'The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him'" (Ezra 8:22). But since Nehemiah was given this escort without requesting it, then it would have been unseemly for him to refuse it. No doubt he regarded this as connected with the Lord's promise for his protection. Likely he took less time for his journey than Ezra did, who had a large company with him; also the soldiers and horsemen would be able to travel more swiftly.
Immediately Nehemiah arrived at Jerusalem, however, there was a threat of opposition, for we read that Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official "were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel" (v. 10). These enemies of God were anxious to keep Israel in a state of misery, just as Satan desires to keep believers from enjoying the blessing of the Lord.
NEHEMIAH INSPECTS THE WALLS (vv. 11-16)
It was three days before Nehemiah began the labor he had come for. He would require some rest after so long a journey, and it is important for us too to cultivate a restful spirit before embarking on any service for the Lord. Also, he did not begin publicly. By night he took only a few men with him to view the walls and gates of the city, not telling any of the officials of the city what he was doing (vv. 12-16). But he was concerned to find precisely what would be necessary in the project before him.
In Nehemiah's inspection of the walls and gates of Jerusalem, he found that the report he had heard was correct: the walls were broken down and the gates burned with fire. What a picture of the wall of separation between believers and unbelievers being broken down, and the principles of truth such as are seen in the gates (to allow in what should be in and to keep out what should be out) burned, that is, willfully destroyed! Do we see such things in professing Christendom today? Sadly, it is true practically everywhere! Can we repair these walls and gates? Certainly not in all of Christendom; but we can do so in whatever small sphere of responsibility the Lord may give to us.
ENCOURAGED AND RESPONSIVE (vv. 17-20).
Receiving the knowledge he had, Nehemiah did not delay to urge the city officials that the walls should be immediately rebuilt. They knew the conditions that existed, and he encouraged them by telling them, "Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem." He would be fully with them in this worthy endeavor. He told them also of God's good hand upon him in the concern God had put in his heart, and also in the favorable words of the king to him encouraging this work. The Lord had also prepared the officials, for they responded, "Let us rise up and build" (v. 18), and "set their hands to this good work." How good it is when the saints of God are prepared to act upon God's word delivered by a true servant of God.
However, this spirit of obedience to God awakened further enmity in the forces of Satan. Sanballat and Tobiah were joined by another man, Geshem the Arab, this time not only expressing feigned sorrow, but mocking and despising the Jews for doing work like this (v. 19). They even accused them of rebelling against the king, a totally false accusation, for the king had encouraged the building of the wall. But Satan will resort to every kind of falsehood to gain his own ends.
Nehemiah did not, however, appeal to the fact of the king's approval, but went higher than the king to answer them, "The God of heaven Himself will prosper us: therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem" (v. 20). Thus the enemy was put to silence for the time being.
THE BUILDING WELL BEGUN (vv. 1-32)
Eliashib the high priest is mentioned first in the building, not because he was the most devoted builder, but because of his position, for chapter 13:4 tells us that he had been allied with Tobiah, and also (ch. 13:28) that one of his sons was married to the daughter of Sanballat. Besides this, though Eliashib and his brethren built the sheepgate, it was a different man, Meremoth, who repaired the wall "from the door of the house of Eliashib to the end of the house of Eliashib" (v. 21). What a lesson is seen here! A man may be concerned to repair in measure the public character of Christianity, but have little concern for the wall of separation in his family life!
More than this, though it is said they "built the sheep gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors" (v. 1), yet no mention is made of including "its bolts and bars", as is the case with others who built gates (vv. 3,6,13,14,15). Does this not indicate that Eliashib was not so careful about full separation from the world, but would allow some measure of laxity in this matter? When a leader is like this, how sadly this can affect the entire testimony of God! Nevertheless, scripture credits Eliashib with what good he actually did.
All those who labored in this good work are listed by name, just as in Romans l6 the Lord takes pleasure in recording the faith and labor of many individuals, such as Priscilla and Aquila who risked their own necks for Paul's life (vv. 3-4), "Mary, who labored much" (v. 6), "Persis who labored much in the Lord" (v. 12). Thus, some stood out specially, others only recorded, but all recognized. The judgment seat of Christ will reveal the work of all believers, and some will be rewarded more than others.
In verse 5 the Tekoites are mentioned as making repairs, but "their nobles did not put their shoulders to the work of the Lord." Did they consider such work to be beneath their dignity? In contrast to this, one of the goldsmiths and one of the perfumers did this manual labor to which they were not accustomed. How good it is that the Lord takes full account of all these things! Verse 12 tells us that not only Shallum, a leader of the half district of Jerusalem, worked in repairing, but also his daughters. Does this not remind us of Paul's words concerning "the women who labored with me in the Gospel" (Phil. 4:3)? The word of God too takes note of Baruch who "carefully" repaired another section. No doubt some were not as careful as others in the work, but the Lord values true diligence in whatever He give us to do, as is surely indicated in Colossians 3:23, "Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men." If the Lord Jesus is the Object in whatever work we are called upon to do, would we think of being anything less than wholehearted?
A number of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are said to have made repairs in front of their own houses (vv. 23,28,29,30). This is a reminder of 1 Timothy 3:5, "For if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God? It is true, on the other hand, that some Christians are concerned only for their personal and their family responsibilities, and ignore the proper welfare of the church of God. We have noticed, in contrast to this, that Eliashib repaired the sheep gate, but did not make repairs at his own house. How important it is for us to have a well balanced concern for the spiritual blessing of our own families and at the same time for the true prospering of the assembly of God!
In verse 31 we read again of a goldsmith working, and in verse 32 of both goldsmiths and merchants taking part in the work. Often it is the poor who engage in the work of the Lord (James 2:5), so that it is the more refreshing when those of means are willing to labor for the Lord.
DECISION IN THE FACE OF OPPOSITION (vv. 1-23)
The diligent labor of the Jews drew out more bitter anger on the part of the enemy. Sanballat was furious and resorted to the moral weakness of mockery, speaking contemptuously of "these feeble Jews" (vv. 1-2). "Will they fortify themselves?" he asked. His very attitude showed that it was necessary for them to fortify themselves against him! Also, "Will they offer sacrifices?" In other words, he did not want them to honor God by sacrificing to Him. "Will they complete it in a day?" He feared the energy with which they were working. "Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish?" Can they possibly repair the wall after its being so demolished by the enemy? If Sanballat thought this was too ambitious a project, he would soon find out the answer. All these questions are too frequently asked by opposers of the work of God when believers seek to return to God's principles of truth in connection with the church of God.
Tobiah continued the same hateful ridicule by say, "Whatever they build, if even a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall." Very well: Tobiah was a fox: Let him try to break down the wall! But how good it is to hear the involuntary prayer of Nehemiah, "Hear, O God, for we are despised; turn their reproach on their own heads, and give them as plunder to a land of captivity!" (v. 4). He added, "Do not let their sin be blotted out from before You, for they have provoked You to anger before the builders: (v.5). Where there is true repentance before God, sins will be blotted out (Isa. 43:25), just as Israel will learn at the end of their Great Tribulation, but these men knew nothing of repentance, for they instead provoked the Lord to anger by their persecution of His servants. Nehemiah did not speak of how badly he himself felt, but of how God had been provoked to anger.
God's answer to this short prayer is seen in verse 6, "So we built the wall." Opposition did not stop the work: in fact, "the people had mind to work." May we too be stirred to continue in the work of the Lord in spite of whatever opposition. At such times too God gives special grace.
When the wall had been joined together up to half its height, Sanballat and Tobiah, together with Arabs, Ammonites and Ashdodites became very angry (v. 9). They had tried mockery and ridicule, but were frustrated in this. Therefore they conspired to attack Jerusalem in order to spread confusion among the builders (v. 8). But the Jews were aware of this determined conspiracy, and first prayed to God, then set a watch against them day and night (v. 9). This was certainly the right order of action. They did not panic and think of attacking the enemy, but rather depended on God and were watchful against the enemy, and God protected them.
However, not only was the opposition of the enemy a trial to them, but their labor was hindered by the fact of much rubbish being in their way. This was no doubt caused by the residue of the former broken down wall. The strength of the laborers was failing in the face of so monumental a task of clearing away the rubbish. In Christian profession today, there is much rubbish too, the rubbish of much false teaching, and it is no easy task to remove such rubbish so that people may be freed from weary confusion. Though some are truly burden bearers, the labor of this becomes so heavy as to take away strength. Well indeed do we need the exhortation, "let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Gal. 6:9).
Nehemiah also knew that their enemies were plotting, "They will neither know nor see anything, till be come into the midst and kill them and cause the work to cease" (v. 11). Nehemiah had Jewish informers who lived near these adversaries, who warned Nehemiah ten times that these enemies intended to attack them in spite of their precautions (v. 12). Therefore Nehemiah positioned men with armaments behind the lower parts of the wall and at the openings. These were prepared for conflict with swords, spears and bows (v. 13). May we be willing laborers in the work of God, and at the same time prepared for spiritual conflict.
In the Church of God today we also ought to be prepared for conflict, but "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4-5). If we are prepared with such weapons which involve obedience to the Word of God, we may find the battle is already won, as did the workers on the wall.
For Nehemiah had spoken plainly, "Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses" (v. 14). Having the Lord with them, though being prepared to fight, they were not required to do so. Believers today may well experience the same thing. If they are prepared through study of scripture to watch against the subtleties of the enemy, Satan will be afraid to attack, for he would find himself facing the Lord rather than facing a weak believer. Satan wants to catch us off guard, not having our confidence firmly in the Lord: otherwise he knows he can do no damage. When the adversaries found that the Jews knew of their plotting, they could do nothing (v. 15). If we are ignorant of Satan's devices he will take advantage of us, but if we are on proper guard against those devices we shall be protected by the Lord (2 Cor. 2:11).
Special plans had been made at that time, with half of Nehemiah's servants working on the wall and half being armed with spears, shields and bows, also having armor (v. 16). The leaders are mentioned as being "behind all the house of Judah," possibly to back up and encourage the work and the watchfulness of the guard. Both the builders and the burden bearers are said to have worked with one hand and carried a weapon in the other (v. 17). This is perhaps further explained in verse 18 as not literally always carrying the sword in the hand, but having it girded on his side, where he could easily use it if necessary.
Beside Nehemiah was one who sounded the trumpet. It was priests who did this service (Num. 10:8). If warfare impended, they were to sound an alarm (Num. 10:9). In this case it would be Nehemiah who gave orders to the trumpeter, for Nehemiah is a type of Christ, the Leader. He gave the reason for having the trumpeter with him, "The work is great and extensive, and we are separated far from one another on the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us" (vv. 19-20). How good that he insists on this confidence in God!
Thus, the opposition did not succeed in hindering the work of God. The laborers continued their work from the break of day until the stars appeared at night (v. 21). This is a reminder of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 16:9, "For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries." He does not say, "but there are many adversaries," as though this might excuse him from persisting in the work, but simply "and there are many adversaries," therefore it was the more important to have his whole heart in the service of God.
Nehemiah gave orders too that the workers and servants were to stay at night inside the walls of Jerusalem, thereby serving the purpose of guard duty at night as well as working by day (v. 22). This concerted concentration on the work of the Lord continued till the wall was built. What an example for believers today, who might take to heart the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 15:58, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
As to Nehemiah himself and his special servants and the men of the guard who attended him (not all the workers), they did not take off their clothes even for sleeping, though the one exception was for when they washed themselves. However busy we may be in the Lord's work, we must never neglect "the washing of water by the Word," for occupation with the work itself will cause some defilement which must be washed away by the application of the Word of God.
THE GREED OF RULERS REBUKED (vv. 1-13)
At a time when many were laboring unselfishly for the Lord, it is distressing to hear that others, and in fact those who were nobles and rulers, were guilty of oppressing the poor. This was brought to Nehemiah's attention by a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren (v. 1). There were many who had been reduced to poverty to the point of hunger for food (v. 2). Some also had mortgaged their lands and vineyards and houses in order to buy grain (v. 3). Others had borrowed money to pay tax on their lands and vineyards. It is evident too that the mortgages and borrowed money were subject to interest. This was plain disobedience to the law of God, which said, "If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him: you shall not charge him interest" (Ex. 22:25).
If the Jews under law were forbidden to charge interest in lending to another poor Israelite, now that we are under grace, should we ignore such instruction? Rather, under grace we might go much further, by giving instead of lending.
These oppressed people made a perfectly right appeal, "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and our vineyards" (v. 5). How dreadfully pathetic a situation! The rich were taking advantage of the poverty of others, to make them sink deeper into poverty. Does this ever occur in Christian civilization? Sadly, yes! There are those who so set their minds on wealth that they do not hesitate to make others suffer. The very suggestion of greed (accompanied by deceit) was solemnly judged at the beginning of the dispensation of grace, when Ananias and Saphira were put to death by God for this sin (Acts 5:1-10), even though this was not the sin of oppressing others. Let us judge our selfish motives in the light of the cross of Christ, where He has in total unselfishness given Himself for us!
Nehemiah was righteously very angry in hearing this cry of oppression (v. 6), but there was no one whose help he could enlist in combating the evil because the nobles and rulers themselves were the offenders. He therefore, in the energy of personal faith in the Lord, firmly rebuked the nobles and rulers, telling them they were guilty of exacting interest from their own brethren. He called a great assembly, to have these matters publicly faced (v. 7).
In speaking to the whole gathering Nehemiah reminded them that, according to the ability God had granted them, they had redeemed their Jewish brethren out of bondage to the nations. This involved proper care and grace toward their brethren. "Now indeed," he demanded, "will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?" Should the rich in Israel now be content to see those sold back into slavery whom they had before been gracious enough to redeem from slavery?
These words of Nehemiah may remind us of Paul's words publicly to Peter when Peter and other leaders had shown partiality to Jewish believers in contrast to Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11-16). Paul did not first seek someone else to agree with him, but spoke directly to Peter before all, for he was a true prophet, speaking on God's behalf. Just as Peter could not reply to Paul, so the nobles and rulers in Jerusalem had nothing to say in answer to Nehemiah's faithful words (v. 8).
There was another reason for them to consider that their actions were not good. Their enemies were watching them, and for them to see that the poor of Israel were oppressed by the rich would give cause for their reproach and ridicule (v. 9). Are we also not concerned about what the world around us sees in our testimony? Timothy was told not only to separate from a mixture of believers and unbelievers, but to "flee also youthful lusts" (2 Tim. 2:21-22), which surely includes the greed for monetary gain. Unbelievers will certainly be watching to see what our attitude is in this matter. Nehemiah added that he also and his servants were lending the people money, and though he certainly was not charging interest, he linked himself with all the money-lenders in urging, "Please, let us stop this usury!" (v. 10).
Not only did he urge them to cease charging interest, but to make this matter retroactive, that is, to restore immediately the vineyards, olive groves and houses and the 100th part of the money and grain, wine and oil that they had charged the people. What could the nobles and rulers do but respond as they did, "We will restore it, and will require nothing from them: we will do as you say" (v. 12). If they had not responded this way, they would be guilty of defying the law of God. But Nehemiah was not going to drop the matter there. He called the priests and in their presence required an oath from the nobles and rulers that they would do as they promised. Nehemiah knew that even a ruler could adroitly slip out of a promise if he is not held to it. Thus the priests were witnesses to this oath and authorized to see that it was kept.
Then Nehemiah shook out the fold of his garments and said, "So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise" (v. 13). At this, all the assembly responded, "Amen!" and praised the Lord. Then it is simply said, "The people did according to this promise." How long the process of restoring took we are not told, but the decisive action of Nehemiah was affective.
THE EXAMPLE OF NEHEMIAH (vv. 14-19)
In contrast to the way the nobles and rulers had acted, these last verses of chapter 5 show the unselfish attitude of Nehemiah for the 12 years he had been appointed governor. We may think his words sound a little too much like pride of his own character, but we must remember that this is scripture: God required him to write as he did. Compare 2 Corinthians 11.
Nehemiah writes that for 12 years neither he nor his brothers accepted provisions that were generally given to governors, though the former governors had required from the people bread and wine and money. In fact, even the servants of the governors considered themselves entitled to the support of the people. But Nehemiah writes that he did not do this "because of the fear of God" (v. 15). This reminds us of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:14-15, "Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me." This thorough unselfishness for Christ's sake is beautiful to witness.
Also neither Nehemiah or his servants bought any land by which to make a profit, though this would have been fully within their rights. They solely occupied themselves with the work of the Lord (v. 16). However, Nehemiah must have been a man of substantial means, for he provided food for 150 Jews and rulers as well as for visitors who came from the nations around them! (v. 17). Having been the king's cup bearer, his salary would have been large, of course, but to minister a household provision of one ox and six sheep every day for 12 years, plus fowl and abundance of wine, seems nothing short of amazing (v. 18). We might wonder, was the king continuing to pay Nehemiah his salary all this length of time?
He tells us that the reason he did not demand the provisions due to his governor's position was that the bondage was heavy on the Jews. He desired to ease this as he could. We must remember too that Nehemiah was still under law, when he wrote, "Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people" (v. 19). Under grace Paul does not ask to be remembered, for God has remembered all believers in saving them for eternity, and we may have full confidence that He will not forget any work that has been done for Him. Therefore Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not to me only but also to all who love His appearing."
FURTHER SUBTLE OPPOSITION (vv. 1-14)
Chapter 5 has been practically a parenthesis in this book, for Nehemiah had to delay the building of the wall in order to deal with serious problems inside. However, this did not take a protracted period of time, for Nehemiah was firm and decisive in acting promptly for the Lord.
Since the enemy had been repulsed in their efforts to stop the work of the Lord, they resorted to a more deceitful way of accomplishing their ends. They were alarmed by the fact of the wall having been rebuilt, though at that time the doors in the gates had not been hung (v. 1). Sanballat and Gesham sent a message (purporting to be friendly) to Nehemiah asking him to meet with them outside the city in one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But Nehemiah was discerning enough to realize they wanted to draw him away from his own territory to do him harm. He replied, "O, no!" --sending messengers back to them to tell them he had important work to do and would not leave that work to have a useless interview with God's enemies (v. 3).
But the enemies of God were persistent: they sent the same message four times, and four times Nehemiah answered them in the same way. The fifth time they sent an open letter (open because they wanted this to become a public issue), saying "It is reported among the nations, and Gesham says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel: therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, 'There is a king in Judah!' Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together" (vv. 6-7).
Nehemiah was certainly not deceived by this. In fact, if such charges were true, what reason would there be for consulting together? Sanballat in this case should report the matter to the king, presenting a clear witness to the truth of his charge, but he had no such witness. The answer from Nehemiah was therefore precise and clear, "No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart" (v. 8). Thus Nehemiah refused to be enticed by these men. Satan's method is always to draw us off the basis of faith in the living God. In this case Nehemiah realized their object was to make the people of God afraid of possible recriminations by the authorities, but fear is not faith. If Sanballat could entice Nehemiah to consult with him, even the Jews would conclude that Nehemiah was afraid, and their confidence in a man of faith would be shaken. Let us not fear any kind of threat if we are doing what the Lord has sent us to do. In contrast to having their hands weakened in the work, Nehemiah made another short, involuntary prayer, "Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands" (v. 9). Thus, the opposition served to drive Nehemiah into the presence of the Lord to find additional strength.
Now another subtle snare was laid for Nehemiah, though it was not apparent as such at first, as of course no snare is. He went to visit Shemiah, who was "shut up," evidently confined for some reason (NASB). Speaking to Nehemiah as though in friendship, he urged him to go with him to the house of God and close the doors, warning him that "they" were coming to kill Nehemiah. Whom did he mean by "they"?
However, faith is the victory that overcomes the world" (1 Jn. 5:4), and faith is foremost in Nehemiah's reply, "Should such a man as I flee? And who is there such as I who would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!" (v. 11). David shows the same faith in Psalm 11:1, "In the Lord I put my trust; how can you say to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?"
Immediately, when Nehemiah expressed this firmness of faith, the Lord gave him discernment to perceive that Shemiah's message was not from God, but rather that Tobiah and Sanballat had hired Shemiah to seek to frighten Nehemiah (vv. 12-13). Such was their wickedness that they wanted to be able to report to the people that Nehemiah was fearful of imagined danger, and therefore was unfit to be a leader. But Nehemiah had "the shield of faith" which always quenches the fiery darts of the wicked one (Eph. 6:16).
Another brief prayer of Nehemiah is recorded in verse 14, "My God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat, according to their works, and the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who would have made me afraid." Tobiah and Sanballat had evidently employed Noahdiah a prophetess and other prophets to help in their evil work, by giving advice that was satanic. How terrible is the deceit that claims to be speaking for God while giving messages from Satan! Are there such prophets today? Sad to say, Yes! They can speak in the most subtle way, though not realizing how deceitful they are, for Satan deludes them into thinking they are wise.
THE WALL COMPLETED (vv. 15-19)
The faith of Nehemiah was wonderfully rewarded in the fact that the building of the wall was completed in 52 days. The determined opposition of the enemies was totally defeated, so that they could not but realize that this work was done by God (v. 16). Why were they disheartened then? Because they were enemies of God, though they would not have said they were. If God does a work, every creature of God ought to be thankful for it: if not, they declare themselves as His enemies.
At the same time, however, Nehemiah had cause for deep distress because the nobles of Judah wanted to maintain friendly relations with Tobiah in frequent correspondence. Why did they do this? Evidently Tobiah had a strong, persuasive character, and by marriage had identified himself with some in Jerusalem who therefore felt favorable toward him. He was an Ammonite, so that the Word of God allowed him no part in Israel whatever, but he apparently wanted to worm his way into the politics of Judah, and the nobles were far too compromising in the matter. They also reported Tobiah's good deeds to Nehemiah and reported Nehemiah's words to Tobiah. How sad it is that they were so deceived as to not recognize Tobiah as the enemy that he was! But similar things happen among the saints of God today. How important it is that we take to heart the words of Ephesians 6:11, "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." Tobiah continued to send letters to Nehemiah with the object of putting him in fear. Did the nobles think these were good deeds?
APPOINTMENTS MADE IN THE CITY (vv. 1-3)
The wall of separation having been built and the doors hung in the gates, then appointments consistent with this separation were made (v. 1). Gatekeepers are first mentioned, a seriously responsible occupation, for they must receive in all who should be in and keep out all who should be out. They should therefore be able to discern between those who made deceitful claims and those who were true. ln the Church of God today we surely need such gatekeepers, but the Church has no authority to appoint them. Rather, since the Spirit of God dwells in the Church, He will exercise godly men to willingly do their necessary work without the need of appointment. They have the Word of God to guide them in this, for the Spirit of God always works by means of that Word.
Singers were also appointed in Jerusalem, those who by singing expressed praise to the God of Israel. Surely in the Church of God praise should be prominent, and even more overflowing than in Judaism, for we praise the Lord as the One who has accomplished a full redemption for us by means of the sufferings of the cross, and has been raised in glory to the right hand of God. Do we need appointments in order to offer such praise? Certainly not. The Spirit of God draws forth the praise and thanksgiving of our hearts in voluntary worship.
As well as gatekeepers and singers being appointed, Levites were appointed to their particular work. They were of the tribe of Levi, servants to occupy themselves with the service of the temple. They are typical of of those today who are given service to do by the Lord. Thus special gifts are given by the Spirit of God. These too are not put in their place by appointment in the Church of God, but rather are given gifts which will be recognized without any appointment where the work of the Spirit of God is submitted to. Though not appointed, some labor much, others not so much. But though Nehemiah was governor of Judah, he appointed Hanani, his brother, and with him Hananiah to have charge of the city of Jerusalem (v. 2). The wording here seems rather unclear as to which is referred to as "a faithful man" who "feared God more than many." Perhaps Hananiah is meant, since we read of him also in chapter 1:2, but Nehemiah addressed both of them in verse 3. He gives the instructions that the gates were not to be opened until the sun was well up, and then even while guards were present the doors were to remain shut and barred, except, no doubt, when they must be opened for those who were allowed to go in and out. Thus, instructions came from the governor (a type of Christ) and were to be carried out by Hanani and Hananiah, typical of a two-fold work of the Spirit of God in regard to admission or refusal, for the grace of God is shown in admission, but firm government of God in refusal. The Spirit of God ministers both of these.
THE RECORD OF THE FIRST RETURNED CAPTIVES (vv. 4-73)
Verse 4 tells us that "the city was large and spacious, but the people in it were few, and the houses were not rebuilt." Before this the Lord had reproved the people for saying, "The time has not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built" (Hag. 1:2), and he asked them, "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins? (v. 4). At that time the people neglected the house of God and concentrated on their own houses, Now the reverse was true. How sadly unbalanced we so easily become! Surely we should have true concern for the truth of the house of God, but in doing so, should we neglect our own house? Well does Paul remind Timothy that "if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). How tragic was the condition of things in Judah at the time Isaiah wrote, "You number the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses you broke down to fortify the wall" (Isa. 22:10). Do we do anything similar? Because we want to fortify the wall of separation from the world, do we sacrifice the proper welfare of our own families for this cause? Can we be surprised that the enemy reproaches us for such inconsistency?
At this time God put into Nehemiah's heart the desire to gather the nobles, rulers and the people with the object of registering the people by genealogy (v. 5). This was consistent with the desire that the houses should be built, for it emphasizes the fact that every individual believer is precious to God, therefore all should have houses, a sphere of family responsibility that emphasizes unity in diversity.
Nehemiah then found a register of those who had come to Judah in the first group, before either Ezra or he had returned. This list is given in verses 6 to 63. There were some, however, who claimed to be priests whose names were not found in the register (v. 64). Since these claims were questionable, they were excluded from the priesthood as being defiled. Could this possibly be reversed? There was only one possibility that the governor suggested, that is, if a priest who had the urim and thummim were to be present (v. 65). This was unlikely, because the urim and thummim are never recorded as having been used after Abiathar the priest used the ephod to enquire of God for David (1 Sam. 23:9-12). The urim and thummim (meaning "lights and perfections") were the 12 precious stones placed in the ephod. They indicate the unity of the 12 tribes of Israel and were used to inquire of God, for God answers all questions concerning Israel from the viewpoint of recognizing all Israel.
But there have been tragic divisions and separations in Israel, and the urim and thummim will never be regained until Christ, God's anointed priest stands up to reunite all the tribes of Israel at the end of the Great Tribulation. Similarly, in the Church today, priestly discernment in many cases is lacking, and we are shut up to waiting upon God to show His own will in His own time. If a person's title is clear there is no question. In questionable cases, we can only bow to the Word of God which says, "The Lord knows those who are His" (2 Tim 2:19). If we have no proof that one is a believer, we cannot accept him as such. If he claims to be a believer, yet associates with those who hold evil doctrine, then his case is certainly questionable, for the rest of the above verse says, "Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity."
The total number of those who had returned from the captivity was 42,360 (v. 66), besides their male and female servants who numbered 7,337. Their singers are mentioned too, and also animals, horses, mules, camels and donkeys (vv. 67-69). This number included all those in the various cities of Judah as well as Jerusalem (v. 73).
It is good to read that some of the heads of the fathers' houses contributed to the work of the Lord (v. 70). The governor (though Nehemiah does not say, "I") gave 1000 gold drachmas and 2,200 silver minas. This was no small amount! The rest of the people gave 20,000 gold drachmas, 2,200 silver minas and 67 priestly garments. Nehemiah, instead of "receiving" as he had a right to do, was a liberal giver. Of course, such is true of the Lord Jesus, whose giving is beyond our computation.
The work of rebuilding the temple and the wall being completed, then we are told that the people were settled in their respective cities. Since their special needs had been met, now it was time to live lives consistent with the blessing God had given. This settling was completed in the seventh month.
THE READING OF THE LAW (vv. 1-12)
We have seen at the end of chapter 6 the wall was completed, and in chapter 7 appointments were made for the proper order to be maintained in the city. Now another matter of greatest importance is set before the people of Judah. Just as in any revival, the Word of God must be given the foremost place, so it is in chapter 8. For the first time in this book Ezra the scribe is mentioned. This man shows a lovely spirit. Though his ministry was absolutely essential for the returned remnant, he did not put himself forward until the work of rebuilding was finished, and even then it was not he who asked for such a place of prominence. Rather, when the people gathered "as one man" in the open square in front of the water gate, Ezra was "told to being the book of the Law of Moses" (v. 1).
God was working most manifestly in the people being unitedly gathered as they were, and the time had come when they would spontaneously recognize the value of the Word of God. This took place on the first day of the seventh month (v. 2), which Leviticus 23:23-25 indicates as "a memorial of blowing of trumpets," a time of great rejoicing. Yet here in Nehemiah there is no mention of trumpets. Why is this the case? Is it not because true joy could not be restored to Israel apart from their hearing the Word of God? Thus, at this time God would occupy them with hearing His Word apart from the trumpets.
This was no 20 minute sermon, but the reading of God's Word from morning until midday, with all the people being attentive to hear what the Book of the Law said (v. 3). This took place in front of the water gate, for water is a symbol of the Word of God (Eph. 5:26), a necessity every day of our lives, both for drinking and for cleansing.
Ezra stood on a wooden platform, made for this purpose, to be visible to all the people and his voice more easily heard. Six men stood at his right hand (making 7 with Ezra himself), and seven at his left, thus symbolizing completeness of fellowship, for 14 is 7x2, 7 being the complete number and two speaking of testimony or fellowship.
When Ezra opened the book of the Law, all the people stood up spontaneously. This was God's doing, and thus there was seen a willing response for God's Word. Then "Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God" (v. 6). What is implied in this blessing? Mark 14:22 and Luke 22:19, compared together, make this clear, for Mark says, "Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it," while Luke, referring to the same occasion, says, "He took bread and gave thanks and broke it." Thus it is clear that Ezra's blessing was a prayer of thanksgiving. How right it was then for all the people to respond, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands and bowing their heads in worship.
A number of men are mentioned then who were able to help the people to understand what Ezra was reading (v. 7). Having been captives in Babylon for years, the people no doubt learned the language of their captors and the Jewish language would not be well known by many, therefore they would require help in understanding it. In the Church of God today there are many who have difficulty understanding the Word of God because accustomed to think in different terms than those expressed in scripture, and they need the help of teachers who are well acquainted with the truth of God.
At the end of verse 9 we are told that "all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law." Why so? No doubt because the law exposed the failure of the people. Yet Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites told the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep." Why not weep on account of their failure? Because the Word of God has a higher object than to expose sin: it declares His grace to sinners.
Rather than weeping, the people were told to "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (v. 10). This is not mere natural joy, but the joy of the Lord, which is strength for doing good, such as providing for others who do not have the same advantages as we.
The Word of God having been given to them, with the faithful advice of their leaders, the people responded with great joy, feasting and sending portions to the poor, "because they understood the words that were declared to them" (v. 12). When God is given His place, the result will always be great joy and blessing.
THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES (vv. 13-18)
The heads of the fathers' houses, with the priests and Levites, were evidently so impressed by the Word of God as to realize how little they knew about it, so that on the second day they gathered to learn more from Ezra (v. 13). The feasts of Israel should have been well known to the Jews, but though three of these particular occasions were prescribed for the seventh month, they were evidently totally ignorant of this. Now they learn from Ezra's reading of scripture that there was a "Feast of Tabernacles" ordained for seven days, beginning with the 15th day of the month (Lev. 23:33-39). They had missed the feast of trumpets, which was the first day of the seventh month, for Ezra had only begun reading scripture to them on that day. But why they missed the Day of Atonement on the tenth day (Lev. 23:27) seems questionable.
They found that during the week of the Feast of Tabernacles Israel was to dwell in booths, which were to be made with branches of olive trees, other oil trees, myrtle trees, palm branches and branches of leafy trees. Therefore the people went out and gathered the necessary branches and made booths, some on top of their houses, some in their courtyards or the courts of the temple, or in open squares in the city (v. 16). No doubt they did not realize the significance of what they did, but being obedient to the Word of God they had "very great gladness." However, this occasion signifies the blessing God will give Israel in the millennium, when they are brought back from their centuries of sinful departure from God. Actually, the Great Day of Atonement will prepare them for this, for on that day Israel was commanded to afflict their souls in repentance and self-judgment, as will be true when they "look upon Me whom they pierced (Zech. 12:10-14), as the Lord says, and in brokenness of heart receive Him as their Messiah.
All will be changed for them. Their living in booths signifies the blessing coming to them then, even the weather always being favorable, so that no storms, rain or snow or wind will disturb their comfort even in such dwellings. There will be no fear of thieves or robbers either, no fear of violence or of unwelcome harassment, but all the people living in peace and harmony.
Though the Lord had commanded that this feast should be kept every year, verse 17 tells us that Israel had not kept this feast by dwelling in booths since the days of Joshua. Does it not seem strange to us that all through the history of the book of Judges, through Samuel's time and through the history of all the kings, this feast had been ignored? We do read of Passovers being kept, specially in Hezekiah's day (2 Chron. 30) and during Josiah's reign (2 Chron. 35:1-19), but why not the Feast of Tabernacles? Surely this compares with the history of the Church, for the Feast of Tabernacles symbolizes the great blessing in store for Israel, while the truth of the coming of the Lord tells us of the great blessing in store for the Church. This truth of the Lord's coming was virtually forgotten until the 19th century, though it should have been kept fresh in the minds of believers at all times. The Rapture of the Church of God will introduce us into the unspeakable blessing of peace perfectly accomplished, never to be disturbed for eternity; indeed high above the blessing in Israel of which the dwelling booths symbolizes. When the Church began to be awakened as to the value of prophecy, it was not long till the Lord made clear that the Rapture of the Church should take place at least seven years before the Lord will return in power and glory to set up His earthly kingdom.
Every day of the seven days of the feast Ezra read from the Word of God to the assembled people of Judah. Today also, as the truth of the Lord's coming is impressed on us, there has been a revived interest in searching the Word of God on the part of many. Sadly, some have searched it merely from an intellectual point of view, with no real heart to obey the Lord, but to further their own selfish interests. Yet others have a true desire to honor Christ and to serve Him acceptably with reverence and godly fear.
On the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, an assembly of special character, for number 8 speaks of a new beginning. Number 7 indicates completeness, so that both numbers have an application to the same thing, that is, our future destiny will be the completion of God's counsels for us, but in another way it speaks of a new beginning.
ISRAEL'S GUILT CONFESSED TO THEIR CREATOR (vv. 1-6)
The Great Day of Atonement was on the first day of the seventh month, followed by the Feast of Tabernacles beginning the 15th day; but what should have been done on the first day was not done until the 24th day of the month (v. 1). This surely indicates that the people were not as sensitive to the seriousness of their sin as they ought to have been. However, when this was impressed on them, there was some real exercise of soul awakened, to face the guilt of their condition before God. In Ezra 10:9 we read of the Jews being gathered on the 20th day of the ninth month for the purpose of united self-judgment. It may be that this occasion required two months to complete, for likely Ezra and Nehemiah refer to the same occasion.
The gathering was with fasting and sackcloth, and even dust on their heads. At this time those who were Israelites separated from foreigners, confessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. Ezra emphasized the guilt of the Jews having mixed themselves by marriage with foreign people and having shared in their idolatrous worship (Ez. 9:1-2).
The standard by which they were to judge was the Book of the Law of the Lord God, therefore for one fourth part of the day they confessed their sins and worshiped the Lord (v. 3). Then eight Levites stood on the stairs and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord, evidently in intercession for the people (v. 4). After thus addressing the Lord, they then addressed the people, encouraging them to "Stand up and bless the Lord your God forever and ever! Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise!" How appropriate it is to first of all give the Lord the place of Highest preeminence, for He alone is Lord, and has made heaven and the heaven of heavens with all their hosts of heavenly bodies, as well as the earth and everything in it, the sea with all its inhabitants. Having made all these things, God also preserves them. Also all the hosts of heaven worship Him.
GOD'S CHOICE OF ABRAHAM (vv. 7-8)
Verse 6 has insisted that God is Creator, which is a very real reason for Israel judging their sins before Him; but verses 7 and 8 give an additional serious reason. God had chosen their father Abram, and called him from Ur of the Chaldees, changing his name to Abraham, to be the father of a special nation, this favored nation Israel. When God had called him out from a land of idol worshipers, then certainly any measure of return to idols on Israel's part was an insult to God.
In fact, God had found Abraham's heart faithful and made a covenant with him (v. 8). Notice, this covenant was not conditional on Abraham's future faithfulness, but on the basis that Abraham had already proven faithful, so that the promise was unconditional. This should have spoken deeply to the hearts and consciences of Israel to produce within them true concern for the honor of the Lord, a willing faithfulness rather than obedience forced by the regulations of law.
This covenant involved God's giving to Israel the land that was held by the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jubusites and Girgashites. God had proven true to His Word, "for," as the Jews now say, "You are righteous." Such blessing being given to Israel, this was certainly a good reason for their being obedient, and now a reason for their humble confession of having been disobedient.
ISRAEL DELIVERED FROM EGYPT (vv. 9-12)
Another reason for Israel's proper self-judgment is given now in these verses. God in great mercy had observed the affliction of their fathers in Egypt. After leading them out, when they came to the Red Sea He heard their cry of distress (v. 4). In fact, He had shown signs before this against Pharaoh and his servants, by inflicting them with ten plagues (v. 10) to break down the stubborn resistance of Egypt, so that God's name was exalted and the pride of Egypt brought down.
When Israel cried to God, He divided the Red Sea to make a path of dry ground for them to pass through unharmed. Then He overthrew their enemies by the return of the sea to its accustomed condition, drowning them as though they had been a stone thrown into the waters (v. 11).
Besides this, both before and after the Red Sea experience, God led Israel by day in a pillar of cloud and by night in a pillar of fire. Such miraculous intervention of God surely ought to have greatly impressed Israel. Believers today also are no less cared for by God's miraculous power, for they are indwelt by the Spirit of God who leads always in the best way possible whether by day or night.
A RIGHTEOUS LAW GIVEN THEM (vv. 13-15)
Here is another reason Israel ought to have kept from evil, or when having disobeyed, to turn back to God in genuine repentance. After His marvelous grace in delivering Israel from bondage, God gave them a law that was perfectly righteous in contrast to the laws of other nations. In doing so, it was transparently clear that God Himself was speaking.
Israel's consciences could well bear witness to the fact that God's law for them was perfectly righteous, and not only this, for He provided the Sabbath day to be kept not only for God's honor, but for Israel's blessing, to at least relieve the people of hard labor for one day per week, for it is always true that when God's name is honored the people will be blessed (v. 14). These commandments were given by the mediatorship of Moses, whom Israel has always revered, at least since his death! Thus, in the law itself God had shown wonderful kindness to Israel.
Added to this were God's miracles of giving Israel bread from heaven (the manna) and water from the rock (v. 15), just before the law was given, so that Israel was provided for all through their wilderness journey. Thus, Israel was given every reason for thankfulness and devoted obedience to God.
GOD STILL GRACIOUS WHEN ISRAEL SINNED (vv. 16-21)
After being blessed so greatly, we are told, "they and our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey" (vv. 16-17). This was simply cold-hearted rebellion, ignoring the great wonders God had done among them for their welfare, going so far as to appoint a leader in opposition to Moses with the object of returning to the bondage of Egypt. Of course, God would not allow any such thing. Yet, He is a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them." The patience of God with them is practically amazing. Even when they made a golden calf, worshiping it as the god who brought them out of Egypt, God still bore with their evil in His manifold mercy (vv. 18-19). He continued to lead them by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. There was no lack of testimony that God was sustaining them and leading them through a wilderness that would have swallowed them up if they had not been kept by divine power.
More that this, God give them His Spirit to instruct them by the instrumentality of Moses and Aaron, a wonderful provision of grace, though Israel showed little appreciation of it at the time. Looking back, these Levites in Nehemiah's time could clearly discern this. At this time too the Lord did not at all withhold the manna from them, and supplied water as they needed it. This continued for the entire wilderness journey (forty years), so that they lacked nothing. Think of the many occasions very recently of thousands of people fleeing as refugees and dying for lack of food and water! Yet between two and three million Israelites were sustained by God for 40 years of wilderness wandering! In that time too their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell. Were they so insensible as to not appreciate this?
GOD'S GREAT BLESSING IN THE LAND (vv. 22-25)
The Levites then recounted the grace of God in having given Israel the victory over various enemies, whose land God had before decided was to belong to Israel. Before entering the land of Canaan, they took possession of the land of Sihon king of the Amorites and that of Og king of Bashan (v. 22). God multiplied the nation greatly and brought them into the land He had promised (v. 23), subduing the inhabitants of the land before Israel, so that Israel could take possession of this. When the power and grace of God in this was so manifest, Israel certainly had further cause for fully obeying God, and no excuse for disobeying.
"And they took strong cities and a rich land, and possessed houses full of all goods, cisterns already dug, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and grew fat, and delighted themselves in Your great goodness" (v. 25).
FURTHER GUILT; GOD'S CHASTENING AND GRACE (vv. 26-31)
Again, after Israel had been so marvelously blessed by God, they became thoroughly disobedient, rebelling and despising the law He had so graciously given them. God sent prophets to testify against their evil with the object of turning them back to Him, but they not only refused to listen: they went as far as to kill such faithful messengers (v. 26). Provocations like this moved God to deliver them into the hand of their enemies who oppressed them. This is seen in the Book of Judges and during the history of the kings.
Yet when they found themselves in such deep trouble as to cry out to God for His mercy, God did respond in compassionate goodness, as the Levites here declare, "You heard from heaven; and according to Your abundant mercies You gave them deliverers who saved them from the hand of their enemies (v. 27).
Yet, after being given relief, they again turned to evil, so that they were left some time under the domination of their enemies until they returned to God, crying to Him for deliverance. This was not only two or three times, but "many times You delivered them according to Your mercies" (v. 28). The very reading of such a history of failure, then restoration, then further failure and further grace from God, followed again by failure, becomes wearying to a reader. How much more wearying to God!
Though it is wearying to read of Israel's continually repeated disobedience, this history surely impresses us with the marvel of the patience of God! "They shrugged their shoulders, stiffened their necks, and would not hear" (v. 29). This went on for many years, with the Spirit of God moving prophets to stir their consciences, then using enemy nations to chastise them (v. 30).
"Nevertheless," the Levites added, "in Your great mercy You did not utterly consume them nor forsake them" (v. 31). Why not? "For You are God, gracious and merciful." This remains true for us today, when Israel, because of the enormous guilt of having rejected and crucified God's Son, has been for centuries in a rebellious state and suffering for it. But God is still God, and He knows how to deliver and restore His people, as He will after they suffer the horrors of the Great Tribulation, and cry out to Him in humble repentance and faith (Hosea 14:4-9).
PRAYER FOR GOD'S MERCY (vv. 32-38)
After having acknowledged Israel's many failures of the past, the Levites seek the face of God in earnest prayer, calling Him "the great and mighty and awesome God," who was not like Israel in their breaking the covenant of law, but who may be depended on to perfectly keep His covenant (v. 32). They ask that God will not consider the trouble small that had come on their kings, princes, priests, prophets, their fathers and all the people, from the time of Assyria's oppression "until this day."
But the trouble was not small because Israel's disobedience was not small. They confess this in verse 33, saying that God was just in what He had allowed: their suffering was no more than they deserved. God had dealt faithfully in contrast to Israel's unfaithfulness, which they confess as wickedness on the part of all the people from the greatest to the least (v. 34). Thus they laid their hearts bare in the sight of God, making no excuses, but judging themselves unsparingly for their guilt (v. 35).
In verses 36-37 they speak of the results that they were then suffering because of their disobedience: they were servants to a foreign king, so that the fruit of their land was enjoyed by the kings who had taken them captive. These kings had dominion even over their bodies and their possessions, and could do as they pleased with the Jews. Thus they were in great distress. We must remember though, that God had shown great mercy to Nehemiah by disposing King Artaxerxes to act in unusual kindness to him and to Israel. Yet they were still in bondage, and they had to learn to bow to God's sovereign government in allowing this unpleasant situation.
Their prayer was accompanied by their decision to "make a sure covenant." This was of course a renewal of the covenant of law given by Moses (ch. 10:29), for Israel was then still under law. Would they succeed any better than they had before? Certainly not! But God used this occasion with the intention of making Israel more fully realize that, not only did they fail in practice, but that they had a sinful nature that could not cease from sin, and therefore that they must be born again. But we are all slow learners. Why? Because of our own selfish pride.
THE NAMES OF THOSE WHO SEALED (vv. 1-27)
Nehemiah is first mentioned as having endorsed the covenant, then 22 priests listed along with him (vv. 1-8). Then 17 Levites are listed (vv. 9-13), followed by 44 leaders of the people (vv. 14-27). We may wonder if some of them did not have doubts about their ability to keep the covenant, or of the likelihood that they would. No doubt they wanted to express their desire to obey the Lord at least. The Lord did not say at this time what He thought of it, but the New Testament makes His thoughts very clear, as for instance Romans 3:19, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God."
THE TERMS OF THE COVENANT (vv. 28-39)
All the people who had separated themselves from the nations in the land, with a desire of obeying the law of God, joined with their leaders in making an oath, with a curse attached for any infraction, to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord, His ordinances and statutes. Of course this was a repetition of their promise to keep the law at the time it was given. The special sin at the time was emphasized in verse 30. Though they had done so, now they promise not to give their daughters as wives to the people of the land, nor take their daughters for Israelitish sons (v. 30).
Secondly, they agree not to buy anything from the inhabitants of the land on the Sabbath day or on any other holy day. Thirdly, they promise to release every debt in the seventh year (v. 31). Fourthly, they made an ordinance to exact from themselves one-third of a shekel for the service of the house of God and the regular rituals connected with this (v. 32). A fifth action taken was to cast lots among priests, Levites and the people to decide who would bring the wood offering at the proper time year by year (v. 34).
A sixth decision was made at this time to bring the firstfruits of the ground and the firstfruits of all the fruit of the trees, each year, to the house of the Lord (v. 35). It is too great a temptation to people to first make sure that their own needs are met before considering giving to the Lord. But faith will consider Him first. In fact, this is only true wisdom, for if He is honored, He will make sure that the needs of His people will be properly met. If we agree to this fact, do we act on it?
The same was decided as regards bringing to the Lord the firstborn of their sons and of their cattle, to the priests as offerings (v. 36). Other offerings also were included in this, even dough, fruit, wine and oil. The tithes of the land also were included in this covenant, tithes to be given to the Levites (v. 37). It was agreed too that the priests would see to it that the Levites would give one tenth of the tithes to the storehouse of the temple (v. 38). Thus they promised to observe all these laws, saying, "We will not neglect the house of our God" (v. 39).
These were good intentions. But it was not long before the Book of Malachi was written, in which God asks Israel, "Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, In what way have we robbed You? In tithes and offerings" (Mal. 3:8). Thus Malachi shows the great departure of Israel from this covenant made in Nehemiah's time, not only in withholding tithes and offerings, but in many other ways, so that there were only few remaining who really feared the Lord (Mal. 3:16).
THE INHABITANTS OF JERUSALEM AND OTHER CITIES (vv. 1-25)
Jerusalem being God's center, the leaders of the people lived there, but the people evidently preferred other places, so that the proposal was made to cast lots as to who should live in Jerusalem. One out of ten were required to live there (v. 1). However, there were some who willingly offered to live there, and the people blessed these for their faith in doing so. There is a spiritual lesson in this. Do we want to live as near as we can to the Lord? -- for Jerusalem was His place of residence among the people. In the Church today the Lord Jesus Himself is the Center of gathering, and how good it is if we delight in keeping close to Him.
Verse 3 indicates a list of the heads of the provinces who lived in Jerusalem, but not including those who lived in their own possessions in their cities. There were evidently some priests, Levites and Nethinim who did not live in Jerusalem, though others did (v. 3). Not only those of the tribe of Levi lived in Jerusalem, but some people from Judah and from Benjamin. Those from Judah are listed in verse 4-6, then those from Benjamin in verses 7-9. The list of the priests follows in verses 10-14, and the Levites in verses 15-18, their total being 184, which was much lower than the number of the priests. The number of the gatekeepers was 172 (v. 19). The Nethinim (temple servants) lived in Ophel, which was in close proximity to Jerusalem (v. 21).
In the city the overseer of the Levites was Uzzi, he being evidently connected with the sons of Asaph, the singers in the house of the Lord (v. 22). All was well organized. We do not find such appointments in the New Testament. But we do find the Spirit of God present, who can order everything in a better and more orderly way than by having people appointed for each kind of service. The singers picture the kind of ministry that encourages the joy of the saints of God, to cause the worship of the Lord to overflow from hearts wrought upon by the Spirit of God. Thus, even at the hour of the Lord's anticipating the unspeakable sorrow of the cross, it is said concerning Him and His apostles, "And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives" (Mk. 14:26).
As regards the details of the people's needs, Pethahiah was appointed to care for this; but in the Church of God such work should be done by shepherds (or pastors) who need no appointment whatever, but gladly serve because of genuine affection for the Lord and concern for the souls of saints. 1 Peter 5:2 encourages elders among the saints to "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion, but willingly, not for dishonest gain, but eagerly ; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."
Verses 25-36 list the cities outside of Jerusalem with their nearby villages, some being in the area of Judah and some in Benjamin (vv. 25,36), for Jerusalem was virtually on the border of these two tribes. But we are shown here that God is vitally concerned as to where people live, and takes full account of this. Too frequently saints of God consider only the advantages to themselves in deciding where they should live, whether their employment in a certain place promises a high salary, whether a location is near to friends or relatives, or whether it is in an apparently pleasant neighborhood. If such things have too strong an attraction for us, ought we not to stop and consider that the Lord has a vital interest in this matter? Do we consider His interests first? What about being near to an assembly where we can be a blessing to others?
PRIESTS AND LEVITES (vv. 1-26)
In these verses God sees fit to list the names of the priests and Levites who came to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in the first return for the rebuilding of the city. Ezra refers to these in chapter 2 of his book, but God is concerned to express His own approval of every individual who is exercised to help in recovery of the testimony of His truth in times when failure has resulted in general apathy. The priests are listed first (vv. 10-7) and the Levites in verses 8-26. At least we can learn from this that God values the worship of devoted hearts, as is illustrated by the priests; and asks the service of those devoted to Him as is pictured in the Levites. There is no reason why both of these characteristics should not be seen in every believer today.
THE DEDICATION OF THE WALL (vv. 27-43)
We might naturally think that the dedication of the wall would immediately follow the report of its being completed (ch. 6:5), but we have seen many things intervene, things that had to be taken care of that were inconsistent with the truth the wall emphasizes, that is, godly separation from all that would bring dishonor to the name of the Lord. Therefore only when these things had been faced and judged as before God was it time to dedicate the wall. How could the people really rejoice before God (as the dedication required) when they were acting badly?
The dedication then was an occasion "to celebrate with gladness, both with thanksgiving and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps' (v. 27). The Levites were gathered from the surrounding area and the sons of the singers also, who had built villages for themselves all around Jerusalem (v. 29). At least, though these did not live in Jerusalem itself, yet they are found "all around Jerusalem," recognizing Jerusalem as God's center. Thus, though they are not seen in closest proximity to the Lord, they typically regard Him as their Center. No doubt there are many like them in the Church of God today.
The priests and Levites purified themselves, the people, the gates and the wall (v. 30). Of course this was by a formal ritual, which is only symbolic of the moral self-judgment that believers today should practice continually, not only at special times. Thus Nehemiah brought the leaders of Judah up on the wall, where he appointed two large "thanksgiving choirs." One of these groups marched to the right hand on the wall, half of the leaders being with them (vv. 31-32), and some of the priests' sons with trumpets, others with different musical instruments. Ezra took the lead before this group (v. 36).
"The other thanksgiving choir went the opposite way, and I (Nehemiah) was behind them" (v. 38). Evidently the two groups met by the gate of the prison (v. 39). The various gates of the city are mentioned, for they illustrate truths of serious importance for us today, for instance, "the Refuse Gate" (v. 1), which speaks of the putting ways of the filth of the flesh; the Fountain Gate (v. 37), symbolizing the refreshment of the Word of God by the living power of the Spirit; the Water Gate, also insisting on the value of the Word of God; the gate of Ephraim (v. 39), speaking of fruitfulness in the believer's life; the Old Gate (v. 39), indicating the importance of maintaining "the old paths," not being enticed away by new suggestions; the Sheep Gate" (v. 39), reminding us of care for the sheep as well as of the sacrifice of Christ; then the Gate of the Prison (v. 39), with its solemn message that God does not allow evil to go unchecked. This was where the two groups stopped, for the lesson of God's judgment of evil was specially needed after Israel had recognized how evil their history had been.
Still, the trumpets and other musical instruments were employed in praise and thanksgiving to God, and the day was one of great rejoicing. The two thanksgiving choirs eventually "stood in the house of God" (v. 40), the priests with trumpets and the singers singing loudly. Also, evidently afterwards, they offered great sacrifices, and their joy was so great the noise of it was heard far from Jerusalem (v. 43).
FURTHER APPOINTMENTS FOR SERVICE (vv. 44-47)
At this same time appointments were made for keeping the rooms of the storehouse, which would call for faithful men to take care of offerings and tithes and to to see that there was proper disbursement to the priests and Levites, for Judah had reason to be thankful to have the priests and Levites ministering in their places (v. 44). Singers and gatekeepers were put in their places too, with David's example to encourage them. Now in the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah all Israel contributed to the support of these singers and gatekeepers. Similarly today, we should be thankful to have those among the saints who will devote themselves to encouraging the joy of the people, and those who are concerned as gatekeepers to see that those who ought to be allowed in are welcomed, and that those who should not be in are kept out. This is not the easiest job, but it is important, and we should always back up what is truly done for the Lord.
SEPARATION FROM MIXTURE (vv. 1-3)
At this same time, of which chapter 12:27-47 speaks, they read in the Book of Moses that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God, because of their hostility against Israel at the first (Deut. 23:3-4). They had even hired Balaam to curse Israel, which curse God changed into a blessing. However, the Jews now acted on this instruction and separated themselves from the mixed multitude. Mixtures of believers and unbelievers are also forbidden in the New Testament (2 Cor. 6:14-18). Though much had been done before in seeking to correct the wrongs that had filtered in amongst the people, and though the building of the wall had indicated God's clear principle of separation from evil, yet evil has a way of intruding itself persistently among the people of God, and must be faced, as it was at this time, when "the mixed multitude was separated from Israel. When there is freshness of faith there will be faithfulness in action, though when faith becomes weak or lax, then evil will re-assert itself.
MORE FAILURE NEEDING CORRECTION (vv. 4-30)
It appears most difficult to discern the chronological order of the events in chapters 12 and 13, for verse 4 speaks of what had taken place "before this," and verse 6 tells us that Nehemiah was not in Jerusalem during this time, since he had returned to the king. It may be that the dedication of the wall did not take place until Nehemiah's return. But we do not need to know the exact order in which events took place, but to seek rather to discern the moral lessons in the order that is given us.
At least it was before the time spoken of in verses 1 to 4 that Eliashib the high priest had prepared housing for Tobiah in a large room that had been used for storing the offerings etc. (v. 5). But Tobiah was an Ammonite (ch. 2:19) who should have been totally excluded from the congregation of Israel (v. 1). How easily it seems people make friends with the enemies of God because they show a nice, friendly attitude! Satan himself knows how to deceive believers by such means.
Nehemiah had at first spent 12 years in Jerusalem before returning to the king. During that time Eliashib should have learned by experience the deceitful character of Tobiah, but like many believers today, he likely thought he was being large-hearted and kind in showing favoritism to Tobiah, possibly thinking that Tobiah would be drawn by this to fully favor Israel. However, when Nehemiah, in returning to Jerusalem, found that Eliashib had so befriended Tobiah, he acted immediately, throwing out all the household goods of Tobiah and giving command to the priests to clean the rooms (vv. 8-9). This was godly, decisive action, reminding us of the prompt action of the Lord Jesus when he found in the temple those who sold oxen, sheep and doves, as well as money-changers. He drove them all out of the temple (Jn. 2:14-15).
Then Nehemiah brought back into the rooms the articles that rightly belonged there, with the grain offerings and frankincense. He found also that this indifference as regards the storing of the offerings had led to the neglect of distributing to the Levites the portions that ought to have been given them. Perhaps Tobiah had been appropriating some of this! The Levites had gone back to their own fields for support (v. 10).
Nehemiah strongly censured the rulers for allowing such a state of things. "Why is the house of God forsaken?" he asked them. He did not confine this to one or two leaders, but gathered them together to face this serious matter (v. 11). He spoke with such authority that no one could oppose him, but all Judah was required to bring the tithe of the grain, the new wine and the oil to the storehouse (v. 12. This may well remind us of Paul's words to the Corinthians after they had promised a year earlier to send monetary help to the poor saints in Jerusalem, but had not done it. He told them, "now you also must complete the doing of it" (2 Cor. 8:11). Judah had been negligent and the rulers had not enforced the law. Nehemiah then appointed as treasurers of the storehouse one priest, one scribe and two Levites, for they were considered to be faithful men (v. 13). All of this surely indicates that God is concerned to have His servants properly cared for, though in the Church of God it is not scriptural to make human appointments for the distribution of support for God's servants. God Himself, by the power of the Spirit of God, will exercise the individuals He chooses to be concerned about doing such work. He will not fail in caring for His servants, though Israel failed in this responsibility. In verse 14 Nehemiah prayed that God would remember him concerning the good he had done for the house of God. We do not read of New Testament leaders praying in this way, though Paul tells Timothy, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only, but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Tim. 4:6-7). He does not ask God to remember him, but declares that God will reward him.
Though Nehemiah asks God to remember him because of the good deeds he had done for the house of God, Paul did not ask for such a remembrance, but rather declares that God will reward him. He had fought the good fight, had finished the race and had kept the faith. (2 Tim. 4:6-7). Paul writes as one who had learned deeply the true grace of God, while Nehemiah writes from the viewpoint of being under law.
"In those days" (not denoting the exact time), Nehemiah saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath, bringing in sheaves, loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs and many kinds of burdens, bringing them into Jerusalem. Of course this was contrary to God's law, and Nehemiah warned them against such abuses (v. 15). Also men of Tyre who lived in the area were bringing in fish and other goods to sell to the people of Judah on the Sabbath (v. 16).
Nehemiah rightly blamed the nobles for allowing these things (v. 17). He told them they were bringing added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath (v. 18). They were under law: why were they not keeping the law? Under grace today we have no such obligation, for the Sabbath is not given to us. Rather, the Lord's Day, the first day of the week, is a special day in some sense. It was the day on which the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead, and the day on which the disciples gathered to break bread (Acts 20:7). Our governments give the Lord's Day some recognition, so that we are generally freed from usual employment, to use the day specially for the Lord. No law demands it, but surely we should be thankful for this opportunity and seek to give the Lord every honor we can apart from any law to require it.
Nehemiah did not stop with merely protesting, however. He commanded that the gates of the city be shut at dusk and not opened till the Sabbath was past. Some servants were also posted at the gates to guard against anyone entering with a burden (v. 19). The merchants were determined to sell their goods as soon as possible and they came and lodged outside the walls overnight. When this happened once or twice, Nehemiah threatened them with arrest if they came again. Thus, they did not attempt this on the Sabbath again (v. 21). Then Nehemiah commanded the Levites to cleanse themselves and to guard the gates on the Sabbath day (v. 22). He was not only dealing with that question on the one occasion, but realized there would have to be constant vigilance to suppress the greed of people. For a second time Nehemiah entreated that God would remember him and spare him according to the greatness of His mercy (v. 22).
Another great distress to Nehemiah was that he saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab, resulting in a mixture in the language of the children. Such marriages were forbidden by law, but just as people are today, the people of Judah were more influenced by their feelings than by principles of truth (v. 24).
Nehemiah reacted by cursing them, striking some of them and pulling out their hair. If one did that today he would likely be faced with a two million dollar lawsuit! He also made them swear by God that they would not give their daughters as wives to the sons of foreigners nor take their daughters as wives for the sons of Israelites (v. 25). It is questionable that making such an oath would make any difference in their subsequent actions, but Nehemiah was concerned that Israel should keep the law. He reminded them that Solomon king of Israel had done just as they were doing, in fact marrying many wives of foreign nationality. They may have used this as an excuse, as though it was fully permissible for them to follow Solomon's example, but Nehemiah allowed no such excuse, insisting that pagan women caused Solomon to sin. If they claimed to be believers, he says Solomon was a believer, beloved by God, and that fact made it the more shocking that he should sin as he did. He and they should be ashamed of such sin, which Nehemiah calls "this great evil" (v. 27).
Nehemiah then pleaded that God would remember them, but not for their blessing, rather that they would be repaid according to their works. In the case of the sons of Eliashib, they had corrupted the priesthood and God's covenant concerning it. This was abominable evil in God's sight.
Thus, Nehemiah cleansed Judah from everything pagan, that is, of foreign influence. This was negative work, but he replaced the evil with what was positive good. He assigned proper duties to the priests and Levites, including bringing the wood offerings and the firstfruits to the house of God at the appointed times (vv. 30-31).
Though Nehemiah had been used by God in a good measure of recovery for the remnant of Israel, yet we see in this last chapter there remained many things calling for correction, and these were signs that the condition of the people was in a state of deterioration. The same is true in the history of the Church publicly. Whatever measure of recovery God allows at any time, it only leads to eventual failure, telling us that the coming of the Lord Jesus is the only real remedy. May we look for this with earnest anticipation. At that time Nehemiah will have the full answer to his final prayer, "Remember me, O my God, for good."
L. M. GRANT