December 22, 2015.
Daily Reading: Nehemiah 1-7.
Background: Until the third century AD, the book of Nehemiah was combined with the book of Ezra in a work that was referred to as either Ezra or Ezra-Nehemiah (see intro to Ezra). The book is a record of history continuing on after the temple was rebuilt under the oversight of Ezra, Joshua and Zerubabbel. The book is set c. 450-430 BC. The key players in the book of Nehemiah are Nehemiah, originally the cup-bearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes and then the governor of Judah for Persia, Ezra the scribe and priest, and the two main opponents of the Jews, Sanballat and Tobiah. Nehemiah is commissioned to return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem that still laid in ruin. He returns to Jerusalem with a group of exiles and begins rebuilding the wall, meeting opposition along the way. This opposition doesn’t stop the children of Israel, as they work with weapons in hand. The wall is finished and Nehemiah returns to the king for a while, only to come back to Jerusalem and find apostasy again. He then spends time to purify the people and reestablish proper worship to the Lord their God.
Concepts and Connections.
Trouble in Jerusalem: The story of Nehemiah opens with a word of distress that comes to Nehemiah, cup-bearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes, from his brother Hanani who had returned to Jerusalem some years earlier with a group of exiles, telling him that the remnant of the children of Israel who had returned were in great trouble because the wall of Jerusalem laid in ruin, leaving them vulnerable to their enemies. When Nehemiah hears of this distress, he goes immediately into prayer and fasting before the Lord. Note here that this is Nehemiah’s first reaction to bad news, as he knows that they must rely on God to deliver them. In his prayer, he confesses the sin of Israel and humbles himself before the Lord, for they had not kept the commands, statutes and rules of the Lord through Moses. In his prayer, he remembers the curse that Moses put before the people that the Lord would scatter them among the peoples if they were unfaithful to Him (see Leviticus 26:33 and Deuteronomy 28:64). But he also remembers what the Lord said if the exiles remember and return to the Lord their God, that He would gather them and bring them back (see the verses following those mentioned above). It is important to note that Nehemiah relies heavily on scripture in His prayer, praying in accordance with will of God as He had spoken in the past. He prays for success for those who delight and fear the name of the Lord, to give him mercy in the sight of the king.
Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem: After his prayer and fasting seen in the previous chapter, the king notices that Nehemiah has a sad countenance in his presence, for this was not Nehemiah’s normal state. When he inquires of Nehemiah why he is sad, Nehemiah explains to him the distress of his people and how they are exposed and vulnerable to their enemies. When the king asks him what he is requesting, he asks to return to Jerusalem, the city of his fathers, that he might oversee the rebuilding of the wall. The Lord gives Nehemiah favor in the sight of the king, for he grants his request and sends with him letters to pass through the provinces to get to Jerusalem, and also to supply the timber from the king’s forest to make the beams for the gates and the walls.
Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem, but notices that the enemies of the children of Israel, specifically Sanballat and Tobiah, were displeased that anyone had returned to seek the welfare of the Jews. Because of this, Nehemiah keeps his mission secret at first, not even telling the Jews his purpose in returning at the beginning, but rather going out and inspecting the walls of Jerusalem by night. After he completes his inspection, he calls the people of Jerusalem together and reveals his purpose for coming and inspires them to rise up and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. When the enemies of the people recognized what was happening, they came to them and accused them, asking what was this thing that they were doing and if they were rebelling against the king. Nehemiah holds them off for the time being, telling them that they have no right or portion in Jerusalem.
Rebuilding the wall: In this chapter we see that the rebuilding of the wall is in full force. This is the record of the organization of the work, recording which families repaired and rebuilt which sections of the wall. Notice that everyone was working side by side in an organized fashion, resulting in a great combined effort and unified push to see the project to completion. We can almost sense the camaraderie and unity among the Jews here as they worked to protect their city.
Opposition: In this chapter we truly see the commitment and dedication that the people had to rebuilding the wall. As the work was going in full force, the enemies of the Jews were enraged and began to threaten them in their work. But the people turned to prayer and trust in the Lord, and continued on with the work. Then the enemies were again very angry, but the people of God prayed to Him, set up a guard day and night, and continued working. Their enemies had set up plans of ambush and confusion, but the Jews were tipped off to the plan, for the Lord had frustrated their efforts. The people of God were strengthened, and they worked with one hand had had their weapons of war ready in the other in case of attack. The builders had their swords strapped to their side as they worked. They made plans to rally at the sound of the trumpet when the workers were spread farther apart. It is important to note that we see in this chapter that the people truly had a mind to work, and they were committed to seeing the project to completion. The Lord was with them in the work, and they trusted in him. As the work continued on, each worker kept his weapon as his right hand.
Fighting oppression: As the work to rebuild the wall continued, a cry of oppression and affliction of the poor of the land came to the ears of Nehemiah. The poor were being oppressed by their brothers, for they were selling everything they had, even their sons and daughters into slavery, in order to pay the interest and the king’s tax. They barely had enough to get grain to stay alive. When Nehemiah heard this, he was very angry and called the nobles and officials together to rebuke them. They were charging their brothers interest, which was specifically condemned in the law (see Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:36) and were taking their very brethren, whom they had brought out of captivity from the other nations, into their own captivity! The assembly couldn’t find even a word to say to Nehemiah, for they knew what they were doing was not good. Nehemiah charged them to abandon the practice of charging interest and told them to return their fields, vineyards and all that they had taken from them. The assembly agreed with Nehemiah and said they would do so, taking an oath to carry out what they promised. After this, the assembly praised the Lord and did what they had promised. The Nehemiah records his own generosity, not willing to take the governor’s food allowance and laying heavy burdens on the people as former governors had. He did this out of his fear of the Lord, and he and his brothers were there to carry out the work to rebuild the temple.
Conspiracy and Completion: As the rebuilding of the wall was nearing completion, the enemies of the Jews rose up to conspire against Nehemiah to kill him. They sent for him to meet with them on multiple occasions, but each time Nehemiah refused because of the work that he was doing. When they found that they could not kill him this way, they set up a rumor about him, saying that the Jews were planning to rebel against the king once their wall was finished, and Nehemiah planned on being their king. They claimed that he had set up prophets to prophesy for him, telling the people that there was a king in Judah. They used this to attempt to scare Nehemiah, telling him that the king would certainly hear of the reports, and told him to come take counsel with them, likely again trying to kill him. But Nehemiah was not frightened, but told them that what they were saying was not true and that they had made it all up. He prayed to God to strengthen his hand. Then the enemies hired Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, to trick Nehemiah into entering into the temple and sin before God (for he was not a priest or of the tribe of Levi), acting like his enemies were coming to kill him. Nehemiah recognized the plan, however, for he knew that God had not sent this prophet, and again prayed to the Lord to remember how Tobiah and Sanballat had been against him. So, the wall of Jerusalem was completed in 52 days, and the enemies of the Jews were greatly afraid when they saw its completion, for they recognized that it had been done through the help of God. Even still, however, Tobiah sent letters to Nehemiah to make him afraid.
After the wall was finished: After completion of the project that had lasted for 52 days, Nehemiah gave Hanani and Hananiah charge over Jerusalem, instructing them to not open the gates of Jerusalem until the sun was hot. He set up protective measures because the city was large, but the people were few and no houses had been rebuilt yet. Then Nehemiah, by the charge of God, assembled the people to be enrolled by genealogy. When he did this he found the book of genealogy of the returned exiles who came up originally to rebuild the temple. This genealogy is found in Ezra 2 (see notes on Ezra 2).
Tomorrow’s Reading: Psalm 139-141.
Trust in the Lord.