Nehemiah

By Peter & Vita Toon

Kingsway Bible Studies

Kingsway Publications, 1980

 

Contents

How to use the studies

Introduction to Nehemiah

Study 1: Bad news from Jerusalem 1:1–2:8

Study 2: Rebuilding begins 2:9–3:32

Study 3: Building under pressure 4:1–23

Study 4: Social justice restored 5:1–19

Study 5: Living under pressure 6:1–7:73a

Study 6: Hearing God’s law 7:73b–8:18

Study 7: Corporate confession 9:1–10:27

Study 8: Accepting the covenant 10:28–12:26

Study 9: Dedicating the walls 12:27–13:3

Study 10: Nehemiah’s reforms 13:4–31

 

How To Use The Studies

      1. Ensure that the aim is first to understand the text and then to make it meaningful and relevant.  (The questions at the end of each study are intended to bring out the relevance for today.)

      2. Begin with a prayer for the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      3. Have various English versions of the Bible available.  At least one translation – e.g. the Revised Version, Revised Standard Version or New International Version – and at least one paraphrase – e.g. the Living Bible or Good News Bible – should be on hand for the group to use.

      4. Choose one person to lead the discussion, preferably a mature Christian.

      5. Encourage everyone to participate in the reading or the discussion.

      6. Try the following method of approach:

            (i) Begin the study by reading the whole passage in translation.

            (ii) Then read each section (as indicated in the notes) from a paraphrase.

            (iii) Also read aloud the notes themselves after each section.

            (iv) Discuss the meaning of the passage.

      This activity will involve several members of the group as readers.

      7. Spend about ten minutes on each question with as many members as possible making a contribution.  At the end of each discussion the leader should summarize the main points that have arisen.

      8. Matters of concern which arise in the reading of the Scripture or in answering the questions could be made topics for prayer.

      9. A balance must be kept between ascertaining what the Bible teaches and what are the opinions of participants.  So the leader should make sure that there is an understanding of the passage before questions are raised.  On some occasions this will mean that not all the questions can be answered.

 

Introduction To Nehemiah

      The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book.  As such they continued the history recorded in the books of Chronicles.  They contain virtually all we know about the history of the Jews from 538 to 430 B.C.

      The author of 1 and 2 Chronicles is probably also the compiler and editor of Ezra and Nehemiah.  He made use of Nehemiah’s Memoirs, of which he had a copy, as well as material from the archives of the Jerusalem Temple.

      To understand the history recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah it has to be remembered that two shattering events had occurred in the eighth century B.C.  First, the northern kingdom of Israel had been taken off the map and its people dispersed in the Assyrian Empire.  Secondly, the southern kingdom had been laid waste, and in 597 Jerusalem fell and many Jews were taken captive to Babylon.  (See the history in 2 Kings 24:18–25:21 and 2 Chronicles 36:11–21.)

      These Jews remained in Babylonia and when the Assyrian Empire fell to that of Persia they became subjects of a new line of kings.  Under Cyrus of Persia the return to Jerusalem and Judah began (Ezra 1), and it continued into the reign of Artaxerxes I, a period of about one hundred years.  Both Ezra and Nehemiah arrived in the reign of Artaxerxes I (Ezra 7 and Nehemiah 2), Ezra probably around 458 and Nehemiah around 445 B.C.

      It was from the Jews who returned to Judah between 538 and 444 that the Jewish nation was reborn and still survives today, despite a dispersion which lasted for many centuries.

      The history of God’s chosen people is important in itself.  There is, however, an aspect to the work of Nehemiah which is particularly attractive and which shines through the history.  He was a man of prayer and one who trusted the promises of his covenant Lord.

 

Helpful books

      A good Bible atlas containing a plan of Jerusalem is nearly indispensable.  There are few reliable, simple commentaries on Ezra-Nehemiah.  See those in the New Bible Commentary (IVP and Eerdmans) and the Wycliffe Commentary (Moody Press).

 

Study 1:  Bad News From Jerusalem

1:1–2:8

      Receiving bad news from his beloved city of Jerusalem, Nehemiah responded as all men of God ought to do.  He brought the whole matter before the LORD, his God, who tested his patience before wonderfully answering.

 

1.  1:1–3        The walls of Jerusalem need rebuilding

      Verse 1:  An extract is being made from the Memoirs of Nehemiah.

      Nehemiah means “The LORD has comforted”.  He is not mentioned in the Old Testament outside this book.  However, in the Apocrypha he is presented as a hero – Ecclesiasticus 49:13; 2 Maccabees 1:18, 20–36; 2:13.  Another Nehemiah who was a companion of Zerubbabel is mentioned in Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7.  Also a further Nehemiah who was a wall-builder is given in Nehemiah 3:16.

      Hacaliah probably means “Wait for the LORD”.

      Chislev was the ninth month of the year, four months before Nisan – see 2:1.

      The twentieth year is that of the reigning king, Artaxerxes I (465–425 B.C.).

      Susa, a city of Elam, was east of Babylon.

      Verse 2:  For Hanani (“the LORD has been gracious”) see Ezra 10:20.  He could have been either a blood-brother or more probably a fellow Jew (brother in the faith).  It is not clear what was the real purpose of the journey of Hanani and his colleagues to Susa – perhaps business.

      Verse 3:  The situation of the walls was apparently due to a recent disaster – possibly that mentioned in Ezra 4:23, which should be read in the context of Ezra 4:8–16.

 

2.  1:4–11      Nehemiah’s prayer

      As a pious Jew, Nehemiah knew the Scriptures of his faith; his prayer echoes ideas as well as phrases from them.  He was a man of prayer – see 2:4; 4:4–5; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31.

      Verse 4:  Nehemiah’s attitude may be compared with that of Ezra (Ezra 8:21; 9:3–4; 10:1).

      Verse 5:  “great and terrible” – see Deuteronomy 7:21; 10:17; “keeps covenant” – see Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Kings 8:23.

      Verses 6–7:  in the way he identifies with his people, Nehemiah may be compared with Moses (Exodus 32:31–32) and Ezra (Ezra 9:6).

      Verses 8–9:  Deuteronomy 30:1–5 appears to have informed his mind here.

      Verse 10:  the idea of redemption was used to describe the deliverance from Egypt which is related in Exodus 1–19.  See Deuteronomy 7:8; 9:26; 13:5; 15:15; 21:8; 24:18.

      The great power and strong hand recall Exodus 32:11.  For similar phrases see Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2.  Verse 11: “this man” is the king Artaxerxes.

      The purpose of a cupbearer was to taste the wine before the king drank it.  If it was poisoned then the servant, not the king, died.  There were probably several such servants but Nehemiah was a favourite.

 

3.  2:1–8        A commission to rebuild

      Nisan was the first month of the year and so four months after Chislev.  Why did he wait so long?  Possibly he knew that favours were granted at the new year celebrations (cf. Genesis 40:20–21; Esther 5:6; Mark 6:21–25).  Or, quite simply, Artaxerxes was not resident in Susa from Chislev until Nisan.

      Nehemiah’s request had a touch of the sentimental – “my fathers’ sepulchers”.  The positive response of the king set aside an earlier order he had given forbidding rebuilding (Ezra 4:21).  As a trusted servant Nehemiah was to be allowed to do what others were not allowed to do.  Also the Queen appeared to trust him (verse 6).  He was appointed governor (Nehemiah 5:14).

      “The king’s forest” (verse 8) could refer to the cedars of Lebanon.  Alternatively it could also be the “Garden of Solomon” about six miles south of Jerusalem.

      The providence of God in the whole interview is affirmed in verse 8b.

 

4.  Questions for discussion

      1. What can we learn of God’s providence from this passage?

      2. What is the precise connection between prayer and fasting?

      3. To what extent can Christians identify with the sins of their church and their country?

      4. Is it still helpful in the context of 20th-century technology to speak of “the strong hand of the Lord”?

 

Study 2:  Rebuilding Begins

2:9–3:32

      Having surveyed the situation and knowing the opposition, Nehemiah challenged the loyal Jews to join him in the rebuilding programme.

 

1.  2:9–10      Sanballat and Tobiah

      Northern Judah and Jerusalem had been under the control of Sanballat and so he had good reason to resent the arrival of a new governor.  Sanballat means “sin gave life” and he was a native of Beth-horon.  Tobiah was an official of the Persian Empire, and his Jewish name meant “the Lord is good”.

 

2.  2:11–16    Inspection by night

      After the traditional three days of waiting (see Ezra 8:15) the inspection of the walls began.  Nehemiah went from the Valley Gate in an anti-clockwise direction.

      Verse 13:  The “Valley Gate” is also mentioned in Nehemiah 2:15 and 3:13, as well as 2 Chronicles 26:9; its location was probably near the northern limits of the west wall of David’s city.  The “Jackal’s Wall” is probably the modern bir-Eyyub (= En Rogel), below the southern end of the southeast hill.  The “Dung Gate” is possibly the Potsherd Gate of Jeremiah 19:2, and at the southwest tip of the southeast hill.

      Verse 14:  The “Fountain Gate” may be described in 2 Kings 25:4, while the “King’s Pool” was the water supply for the king’s garden in the Kidron gorge.  Although we have valuable accounts of the city walls in Nehemiah 2:13–15; 3:1–32 and 12:31–40 it is not possible to be sure of the exact line of the walls at this time.  Consulting a book on Old Testament archaeology would help – e.g. by W. F. Albright, H. T. Frank, J. Gray, K. Kitchen, W. Keller, J. A. Thompson, M. F. Unger or G. E. Wright. K. Kenyon, Jerusalem (1967) is especially helpful.

 

3.  2:17–20    Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem

      Nehemiah shared his plan with the local Jewish officials and they agreed to work with and for him.  This cooperation only served to intensify the hostility of Sanballat and Tobiah who were joined by Geshem.  He could have been the ruler of a large area of Arabia, including Moab and Edom; alternatively he could have been the leader of an Arab tribe which had been forcibly settled in Samaria by the Assyrians or Persians.  Geshem means “stout” or “bulky”.

 

4.  3:1–32      The organization of the builders

      This material probably came from the Temple archives.  It interrupts the Memoirs of Nehemiah which resume at chapter 4.

      The plan involved dividing the wall into forty sections of unequal lengths, and these are listed in an anti-clockwise direction beginning at the Sheep Gate.  Each group of builders took responsibility for one or more sections.  Verses 1–15 describe the rebuilding of the north and west walls.  This part of the work was a straightforward job of rebuilding the walls which existed before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  It is not possible in the light of present knowledge to identify the various landmarks mentioned in verses 1, 3, 6, etc.

      Verses 16–32 describe the building of what was probably a new line for the east wall.  The reduced population of Jerusalem made it possible and preferable to build along the crest of the hill, leaving outside some parts of the former city.  Again, most of the landmarks are no longer identifiable.

      Ezra is not listed as a builder.  Perhaps he had returned to Babylon or perhaps it was decided that it would be best for him not to be involved, in the light of the failure of earlier building operations (Ezra 4).

 

5.  Questions for discussion

      1. On what occasions and in what circumstances should Christians act secretly or inconspicuously?

      2. Do Christian people normally respond positively to a challenge?  Or are they faced with so many challenges that their responses are blunted?

      3. Can Christians today rightly claim of their activities that the God of heaven will make us prosper?

      4. Is Christian work hampered by lack of organization and by being done by different, even competitive groups?

 

Study 3:  Building Under Pressure

4:1–23

      We return here to the Memoirs of Nehemiah.  We learn of further jeering and opposition, as well as of the steps he took to counteract them.

 

1.  4:1–13      More jeering

      Sanballat commanded soldiers and so had a garrison in Samaria.  The basis of his question about offering sacrifice is probably the rule made by King Cyrus many years earlier that Jews were not to offer sacrifices without permission from Persia.  His reference to the stones bearing signs of fire reminds us of the earlier destruction of the wall.

      The lack of reality in Tobiah’s comment is revealed by recent excavations.  These show that this wall was about nine feet wide.

 

2.  4:4–5        Prayer

      The mood of this prayer sounds harsh to Christian ears.  It is, however, in harmony with ideas in the Old Testament.  See for example Psalms 35; 68:22–23; 109; 137:8–9; Jeremiah 51:63–64.

 

3.  4:6–12      Threats from all sides

      The wall was half finished before Sanballat (from the north) was joined by other opponents – Bedouin tribes dwelling south of Jerusalem, Ammonites from the east, and inhabitants of Ashdod in the west.  Probably recalling the earlier interruption of the building of the walls (Ezra 4:23), they plotted to destroy the new defence of Jerusalem.  Nehemiah responded in two ways, both practical – he prayed and set a guard.

      The inhabitants of Judah who were working on the walls were dispirited, demoralized by the effect of threats and rumours spread by enemies.  The nearer they were to the enemies’ territory, the more subject they were to these threats.

 

4.  4:13–23    Building and defending

      Nehemiah did not rely merely on human defenders, or even simply trust in God and do nothing.  He made plans for general vigilance and defence; also he called his people to remember the character of their God and to trust in him.

      Half of his men were armed and ready to fight; they were stationed at strategic points.  Also the labourers on the wall were armed so that they could immediately down tools and become warriors.  And buglers were stationed at regular intervals to sound the alarm.  Finally, all were on duty twenty-four hours a day!

 

5.  Questions for discussion

      1. May a Christian pray as Nehemiah prayed (4:4–5)?

      2. What can we do effectively to prevent the spread of half-truths and rumours both inside and outside the Christian community?

      3. In what ways do prayer and action belong together?

      4. How can we be vigilant for the good of Christ’s cause and church?

 

Study 4:  Social Justice Restored

5:1–19

      The complaints recorded here could have been made either (1) during the rebuilding programme, or (2) after it was completed.  In support of (1) it may be argued that the commitment to building caused economic difficulties – cessation of trade etc.  In support of (2) it may be argued that such injustice would need more than fifty-two days to develop (6:15) and would require some measure of peace to have an assembly of the people (5:7–13).  So the second is to be preferred.

 

1.  5:1–5        The complaints

      Here are three complaints: (a) the lack of food (verse 2); (b) the mortgaging of land and houses to obtain food (verse 3); and (c) the selling of children into slavery to pay the king’s tax (cf. Ezra 6:8) on vineyards and fields (verses 4–5).  What was happening appears to have been within the letter of the law of Moses but hardly according to the spirit of it.  On security of loans see Exodus 22:26 and Deuteronomy 24:10–13; for the spirit of the law see Ezekiel 18:16–17.  On legitimate slavery see Exodus 21:1–6 and Deuteronomy 15:12–18.  To take the children of the poor was hardly to act mercifully!

 

2.  5:6–13      Nehemiah brings justice

      Nehemiah was angry but he did not act in anger.  He carefully considered the matter before facing those who acted unjustly (verse 7).

      The clause “you are exacting interest” (verse 7) is better translated “you are demanding pledges/collateral”, which fits in with the complaints of verses 1–5.  Usury was forbidden between Israelites (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:20), although demanding collateral was legal.

      Nehemiah’s appeal is for action which is for the good of the whole community and which is according to the spirit of the law of Moses.  Internal divisions weakened the Jewish people before their many enemies.

      Verse 11:  “the hundredth of money . . .” may mean 1/100 per month or 12% per annum.

      The priests were called in order both to witness and to administer the oath (verse 12) that the abuses were not to be repeated.

      Verse 13:  The shaking of the lap is an acted parable.  Nehemiah appears to have shaken the fold of his long garment, that is the fold in which he kept various articles, in order to show what would happen to a man who failed to live by the oath.  He would lose the contents of his home and property just as the contents of a pocket are lost when it is shaken.

 

3.  5:14–19    Nehemiah sets an example

      This is not a speech delivered to the assembly but something composed after his twelve years as governor.  His purpose was religious: it was written, as it were, only for God to read (verse 19).

      Verse 14:  He was governor from 444 to 432 B.C.

      Verse 15:  The only other governor whose name we know is Zerubbabel (Ezra 2; see Haggai 1:1; 2:2).  For the value of forty shekels cf. 2 Samuel 24:24.

      Verse 18:  To get the quantity of food into perspective compare it with that recorded in 1 Kings 4:22–23.

 

4. Questions for discussion

      1. What is the difference between “the letter” and “the spirit” of the law?

      2. Is there a place for oaths in modern Christianity or in the modern church?

      3. How important is practising what we preach?

      4. Why did Nehemiah bring to God’s notice his own good works?  How is this connected with Old Testament views of salvation?

 

Study 5:  Living Under Pressure

6:1–7:73a

      Nehemiah 4:6 records that the walls were half completed.  Now, apart from the wooden gates, they are built.  Having failed to prevent the rebuilding programme the enemies of Nehemiah now try more subtle means to bring him into disrepute or ruin.

 

1.  6:1–4        Nehemiah refuses to attend a conference

      The plain of Ono was twenty-seven miles northwest of Jerusalem at the end of the territory of Judah.  Since in times past Samaria, Ashdod and Judah had disputed its ownership it was probably regarded as neutral territory.  The fact that four messages were sent shows the urgency of their desire to lure him out of the city.  On the surface a meeting to discuss the problems caused by Nehemiah’s arrival seemed reasonable.  However, Nehemiah rightly suspected their motives.  And he had a perfect excuse to stay where he was – he was engaged in a great work.

 

2.  6:5–9        Nehemiah is charged with treason

      In order to persuade Nehemiah to attend the conference he was subjected to further sinister and intense pressures.  The accusations were made public and so he had to defend himself before his own people.  His enemies appear not to have believed (or chose not to believe) that he had proper authorization from Persia to mount a large rebuilding programme.  Possibly there were some would-be prophets who were claiming much more for Nehemiah than ever he dreamed of for himself.  (Note that throughout the history of Israel prophets played an important part in the setting up of kings – see especially the books of Kings and Chronicles.)  In fact he was not eligible to be king for he was not of the royal line of David.

      Verse 6:  Why Geshem is particularly mentioned is not clear.  Possibly, being an Arab, he is cited as an impartial witness.

      Naturally Nehemiah denied all these charges.  He had a letter from Artaxerxes in his possession and he knew that the Lord was on his side.  He went on with the task with renewed energy.

 

3.  6:10–14    Nehemiah is tempted to break the law of Moses

      A few Jews in the city did not support Nehemiah.  Shemaiah (= “the Lord has heard”) sought to persuade him that his life was in great danger and that he should seek refuge in the Temple.  In fact only priests were allowed in the sanctuary; if laymen entered the penalty was death (Numbers 18:7).  Nehemiah recognized this as a plot to have him killed by the laws of Judaism!  He refused to go.  The mention of Noadiah (= “the Lord has kept his appointment”) the prophetess with other prophets suggests that there were other attempts, not recorded, to force the ruin of Nehemiah.

 

4.  6:15–7:4  The walls are completed

      Fifty-two days is a very short time – just less than nine weeks, since they did not work on the sabbath.  Nehemiah first heard of the troubles of Jerusalem in the ninth month; four months later (the first month of the new year, 2:1) he asked to return to Jerusalem; now it is Elul, the sixth month, and the walls are completed.  In these six months he made preparation for the journey, made the journey and then rebuilt the walls – an amazing feat.

      But Nehemiah could not relax, for Tobiah, who had connections through marriage with leading citizens of Jerusalem, continued to pressurize him via letters.  He also had to think about organization and defence, as well as the need to increase the sparse population of the city (7:1–4).  Even those whose normal duty was sacred, serving in the Temple, had to assist in the defence.

      It is probable that verse 2 refers to one man, “Hanani, namely Hananiah” (cf. 1:2 and Ezra 10:20, 28) and that the “them” of verse 3 refers to the gatekeepers.  The castle or fortress (verse 2) is mentioned also in 2:8.

      The dedication of the walls is recorded in 12:27–43.

 

5.  Questions for discussion

      1. To what extent and in what circumstances should Christians make judgements about the motives of those who oppose them?

      2. What are the principles for which Christians should be ready to be persecuted, to lose their jobs and even to be martyred?

      3. Why does it seem to be the case that when we are under pressure we are able to do more for the Lord?

      4. Why have so many preachers chosen 6:3 as a text for a sermon?

      Note.  Perhaps after this study each person could read 7:5–73 in preparation for beginning the next study at 8:1.  The long list is set out very helpfully in the Good News Bible.

 

Study 6:  Hearing God’s Law

7:73b–8:18

      Here for the first time Ezra enters the story.  As a priest he had responsibility both to sacrifice in the Temple and to teach the people God’s revelation and will.

 

1.  7:73b–8:8                        The law is solemnly read

      Ezra was the obvious man to read and explain the law of Moses.  See Ezra 7:6.  He had arrived in Jerusalem around 458 B.C. about thirteen years ahead of Nehemiah.

      The meeting on the first day of the seventh month was required by Leviticus 23:23–24 (cf. Numbers 29:1–6).  The water gate was the city gate nearest to the Gihon spring.

      Probably Ezra read from Deuteronomy rather than from all the books of Moses, as it was particularly suitable for this purpose – see Deuteronomy 31:9–13.  The six men on the right and seven on the left may have been representative lay Leaders of the community, but it is possible that they were priests or Levites.  Ezra opened the book (that is, he unrolled the scroll) with dramatic effect.  The drama continued as worship was expressed in both words and actions.  He read in Hebrew, and the Levites translated the words into the local vernacular, Aramaic.

 

2.  8:9–12      Celebration

      Reading the law was a time for joy, for the law was the gift of the gracious covenant Lord.  See Psalm 19:7–10 and Deuteronomy 12:12.

      The “fat” (verse 10) means tasty food or a delicacy.  The wine could have been spiced wine (Proverbs 9:2, 5) or new wine (Joel 1:5; 3:18).  Sending portions was required by the law – Deuteronomy 14:29; 16:10; 26:12.

      The themes of joy and strength are also united in 1 Chronicles 16:27.

 

3.  8:13–18    The Feast of Booths (Tabernacles)

      Details of how this feast was to be kept are found in Leviticus 23:33–43; Numbers 29:12–39 and Deuteronomy 16:13–15.

      Further study of the law of Moses convinced the leaders that they should keep this feast.  So they made known their desire throughout Jerusalem and Judah, believing probably that Leviticus 23:2, 4 required this proclamation.

      Verse 16:  The Gate of Ephraim was a gate which opened towards the traditional homeland of the tribe of Ephraim – the northwest (Joshua 16).  It is not mentioned with the other gates in chapter 3 and could have had an alternative name.

      Verse 17:  This Jeshua (a late Hebrew equivalent of Joshua) is the hero of the book of Joshua, the son of Nun (Joshua 1:1).

      Verse 18:  For the solemn assembly see Numbers 29:35.

      Presumably, according to the law (Leviticus 23:26–32), the Day of Atonement took place on the tenth day, but it was not recorded here.

 

4.  Questions for discussion

      1. Are western Christians too inhibited in worship?  Should they show more emotion as did the Jews of Ezra’s time?

      2. In what way is the public reading of Holy Scripture a means of grace?

      3. How can “the joy of the Lord be our strength”?

      4. What value may modern Christians find in studying the ancient feasts of the Jews?

 

Study 7:  Corporate Confession

9:1–10:27

      Nearly one month has passed since the completion of the wall and so a review of the state of the Jewish people of Judah and Jerusalem was necessary.  The abrupt change from rejoicing to mourning is explained by the change of mood in the two days since the end of the festival.  Revivals of religion include both rejoicing and repentance.

 

1.  9:1–5        The people fast and confess their sins

      Sackcloth was a common sign of mourning over sin (e.g. I Kings 21:27) while earth upon the head symbolized renunciation of evil, self-sacrifice and creatureliness.  The Israelites (that is Jews of the seed of Israel – Genesis 35:10) separated themselves from foreigners; this was probably a preliminary activity preparing for the prohibition of mixed marriages in 13:23–27.  No doubt the reading of the law of Moses caused this positive awareness of being a special people.

      The words of praise (verse 5) are similar to those in Psalm 106:48 and 1 Chronicles 16:36.

 

2.  9:6–37      A prayer

      This prayer with its critical review of the nation’s history is like the prayers in Psalms 78; 105; 106; Lamentations 5; Ezra 9:6–15.

      The major theme of the prayer is that the initiative of love taken by the LORD towards the people of Israel has been met with a response of ingratitude, disobedience and self-assertion.  The grace of God was revealed in creation, the call of Abram, the deliverance from Egypt, the gift of the land of Canaan, the triumph over enemies, the words of the prophets and the faithfulness to his own promises.  The sin of Israel was revealed in constant disobedience to his law, turning to idolatry, the killing of prophets and failure to repent.

      Verses 32–37 are an appeal for mercy from a people in a most difficult situation.  Since the kings of Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and laid waste the southern kingdom of Judah in 701 B.C. the history of the covenant people has been filled with hardship and distress.  Yet it has been a deserved punishment for the sins of the centuries.

 

3.  9:38–10:27          An agreement (covenant) is signed

      It was the right time for a new beginning; but a new beginning meant going back to the original relationship with God.  The actual terms of the agreement are given in 10:29–39.  It may be regarded as a renewal of the original covenant made at Sinai (Exodus 19–24) – cf. Jeremiah 11:1–4.  The document was signed by Nehemiah as governor, Zedekiah as secretary, twenty-one priests, seventeen Levites and forty-four lay leaders on behalf of the total population.

 

4.  Questions for discussion

      1 . Have Christians lost the art of fasting?

      2. What can we learn of the character of God from the prayer of Ezra?

      3. What can we learn about the human heart and condition from the prayer of Ezra?

      4. Is there value in writing out prayers for use in public?

 

Study 8:  Accepting The Covenant

10:28–12:26

      The relation of the LORD to Israel was through a covenant (Exodus 19–24).  Here the human part of this agreement is given.

 

1.  10:28–29  All take the oath

      The leaders had already signed the agreement and they were joined by the rest of the people in this commitment to their God.  To enter into a curse and oath is to vow to live by the law as to accept its penalties – see Deuteronomy 29:18–21.

 

2.  10:30–39  The contents of the covenant

      Verse 30:  The problems of mixed marriages – marriages with Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs etc. – was not easily solved (cf. Ezra 10:10–11; Nehemiah 13:23–28).  The rule forbidding them (Deuteronomy 7:3) was to ensure the purity of religion.

      Verse 31:  There was widespread abuse of the sabbath (13:15–22) and a major cause was trading by non-Jews (13:15–18).  God required the day to be kept holy (Exodus 20:9–10) as he did those special days connected with festivals (e.g. Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23).  Furthermore the sabbath year was to be observed in agriculture (Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 25:2–7) and the rule on the cancelling of debts and pledges was also to be kept (Deuteronomy 15:1–3).

      Verses 32–33:  The duty of supporting the Temple by money and gifts was required by Exodus 30:11–16.  For “showbread” see Exodus 40:23 and Leviticus 24:5–9; for the “cereal offering”, which accompanied the morning and evening sacrifice, see Leviticus 6:14–23; Numbers 28:1–8; and for the regular animal sacrifice known as “burnt offering” see Leviticus 6:8–13.

      The offerings required at sabbaths, new moons and feasts are given in Numbers 28:9–31; 29.  “Holy things” meant the normal voluntary gifts – Numbers 29:39.  For “sin offerings” see Numbers 28:15, 22; Leviticus 4:13–21.

      Verse 34:  Casting lots was common – see Leviticus 16:8–10.  (Wood offerings were needed for the fires of the Temple sacrifices – Leviticus 1:17; 6:12–13.

      Verses 35–36:  “First fruits” fall into several categories; of the ground (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 26:1–10); of trees, etc. (Numbers 18:12–13); of sons (Numbers 18:15; but cf. Exodus 13:13; 34:20) and of herds and flocks (Numbers 18:17; Deuteronomy 12:6).

      Verses 37–39:  For “coarse meal” see Numbers 15:20 and Ezekiel 44:30.  The Levites are given the task of collecting tithes; normally they only received them (Numbers 18:21; cf. Leviticus 27:30; Amos 4:4; Malachi 3:10).

 

3.  11:1–2      A tenth of the people to be moved into Jerusalem

      The theme here continues that of 7:4.  The city needed a larger population in order to survive economically and to defend itself realistically.

      Further examples of casting lots to gain divine guidance are in Joshua 14:2; 18:10 and 1 Samuel 10:20–21.

 

4.  11:3–12:26          Extracts from registers

      (i) 11:3–19  Settlers in Jerusalem.

      (ii) 11:20–24  Further remarks about settlement.

      (iii) 11:25–36  Towns occupied by Jews of Judah and Benjamin tribes.

      (iv) 12:1–9  Priests and Levites who came up with Zerubbabel (cf. Ezra 2).

      (v) 12:10–11  Genealogy of high priests from Joshua to Jaddua.

      (vi) 12:12–21  Heads of priestly families in the time of Joiakim.

      (vii) 12:22–26  Heads of Levitical families.

      (These could be examined individually rather than collectively.)

 

5.  Questions for discussion

      1. Does the new covenant sealed by Christ’s blood have a human commitment?

      2. Why did mixed marriages weaken the Jewish community?  Does the marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian weaken the Christian community?

      3. What can we learn about giving to the LORD from the requirements laid upon the Jews?

      4. Is it right for Christians to cast lots to gain divine guidance?

 

Study 9:  Dedicating The Walls

12:27–13:3

      The building of the wall has been told in chapters 2–6.  Now from the Memoirs of Nehemiah the story of their dedication to God’s glory is told.

 

1.  12:27–30  Preparations for dedication

      There was no division of sacred and secular; the city walls were for God’s glory as were the courts of the Temple.

      Verse 27:  The musicians came from Levitical families.  Harps, stringed musical instruments set in an open frame, and lyres, of a similar design, were used at times of rejoicing before God – see Genesis 31:27; Psalm 108:2; 2 Chronicles 5:12; Isaiah 5:12; 24:8.  Normally the harp was played with the fingers and the lyre with a plectrum.  Cymbals were always in pairs and were clashed together – see 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 16:5; 2 Chronicles 5:11–14.

      Verse 28:  “Sons of the singers” were the members of guilds of singers, trained to sing at festivals, etc.  Netophah is listed in Ezra 2:22; see also 1 Chronicles 9:16.

      Verse 29:  “Beth-gilgal” is probably the same as the familiar “Gilgal”.

      Verse 30:  The purification of people involved the ritual washing of their bodies and clothing as well as abstaining from sexual relations – see Exodus 19:10–15.  The regulations for purifying a house are given in Leviticus 14:48–53 and probably these guided the purifying of the walls.

 

2.  12:31–43  Processions of dedication

      The services of dedication began with a dignified procession along the top of the new, nine-feet-wide walls.  Two large groups went in different directions from the southwest part and joined in the northeast section at the Temple courts.  In this way the whole wall was covered in minimum time.  (Various landmarks mentioned in the narrative cannot be identified with certainty – see the notes in study 2).  Each procession was led by a choir, followed by the lay leaders, the priests and Levites.  Hoshaiah (verse 32) means “the Lord has saved”.

      Verse 43:  The sacrifices were probably “peace offerings” which were then shared by the people as a fellowship meal – cf. Exodus 32:6.  The noun “joy” or the verb “to rejoice” occurs five times in this verse.  Compare the joy expressed at the laying of the foundations of the Temple in Ezra 3:13.

 

3.  12:44–47  Joy among clergy and people

      “On that day” also occurs at 13:1.  It may mean the very day the walls were dedicated or it may refer to a specific day during the governorship of Nehemiah.  The receiving of first-fruits and tithes was regulated wherever there were lands under cultivation (“according to the fields of the towns”).  Such a harmonious procedure presupposes that the people were committed to their Lord and to his law and rejoicing in his promises and his provision within the sanctuary (“Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites . . .”).  But see 13:10.

      Verse 45:  For laws on purification see Leviticus 11–15.  For the organization by David and Solomon see 1 Chronicles 23–26 and 2 Chronicles 8:14.  Asaph was appointed by David (1 Chronicles 16:5); for the organization of the music see 1 Chronicles 6: 31–48.

 

4.  13:1–3      Foreigners excluded

      The passages in the books of Moses which must have been read were Deuteronomy 23:3–6 and Numbers 22–24.  Ammonites and Moabites were to be excluded because of their attitude to Israel before the actual conquest of Canaan.

      For the problems of mixing with foreigners and heathen see Nehemiah 6:17–19; 9:1–2; 13:4–9; 23–30; Ezra 9–10 and Malachi 2:10–12.

 

5.  Questions for discussion

      1. Is the dedication of buildings (churches, colleges, etc.) for religious use necessary today?

      2. Should Christians distinguish between the sacred and the secular?

      3. What part should be given to ritual (processions, drama, etc.) in worship?

      4. “Judah rejoiced over the priests and Levites who ministered.”  In what sense is the Christian church to rejoice over those called to be clergy (ministers)?

 

Study 10:  Nehemiah’s Reforms

13:4–31

      After a period in Persia Nehemiah returned for a further period of office as governor.  He found that reforms were needed, for even religious people can quickly deteriorate in their commitment to God.

 

1.  13:4–9      Tobiah expelled

      The Memoirs of Nehemiah here resume.  After twelve years in Judah (5:14) he returned to his position at the royal court of Artaxerxes I (now at Babylon?).  At an unspecified time he received permission to revisit Jerusalem.  So great was the decay in moral, spiritual and cultural standards that he had to institute reforms.

      One major problem was that Eliashib, a priest who was in charge of the allocation of rooms in the Temple, had given a room to Tobiah.  According to 6:18 Tobiah had powerful connections through marriage with Jews, but he was not a Jew and should never have been given such a privilege.  His taking over a room meant that there was less space to store the tithes and that he had a central position from which to oppose the development of true Jewish worship and commitment.

 

2.  13:10–14  Payment of tithes restored

      Levites needed the tithes of the people in order to live in Jerusalem.  If they ceased they had no means of support.  Technically Levites were not supposed to own fields and property (Numbers 18:20, 23–24; Deuteronomy 14:29; 18:1) but they had been known to possess them (Deuteronomy 18:8).  However, the extraordinary events since the fall of Jerusalem had probably made it necessary for Levitical families to acquire lands in Judah.

      Nehemiah restored the payment of tithes and to prevent dishonesty among the clergy he appointed four faithful men to collect and distribute the tithes.

      The prayer of verse 14 can only be understood in an Old Testament context – see also 4:4 ; 5:19; 13:22; 13:31.

 

3.  13:15–22  The sabbath is kept

      Keeping the sabbath clearly distinguished the Jew from other peoples, and was especially important in this post-exilic period.  For the divine requirement, see Exodus 31:12, 16–17; Ezekiel 20: 12; for the wrath of God against sabbath-breaking, see Jeremiah 17:19–27; Ezekiel 20:13; 23:38.  Again Nehemiah took practical action to implement the law of Moses.

      The difference between the prayers in verses 14 and 22 may be noted – “wipe not out my good deeds” and “spare me according to . . . thy steadfast love”.

 

4.  13:23–29  Marriages with non-Jews forbidden

      The action of Nehemiah recorded in 6:17–19 is to be seen as an earlier response to the existence of mixed marriages.  Further, the covenant response of the people (10:30) included the refusal to take foreign women as wives.

      Nehemiah’s particular concern that the children of such marriages could not speak or read Hebrew and thus read the books of Moses was a religious concern.  The neighbouring peoples were not inferior as races: rather, they were not in the covenant with the LORD.

      Ashdod was a Philistine city, now in the Persian empire.

      For Solomon and his foreign wives, see 1 Kings 11:1–11.

      Nehemiah’s attitude to the priest who had married Sanballat’s daughter makes sense against the background of Sanballat’s opposition to the work of Nehemiah.

      The prayer of verse 29 asks God to punish those who have defiled their sacred ministry by marrying heathen women.

 

5.  13:30–31  Conclusion

      Here is a summary of all the work of Nehemiah and characteristically it ends with a prayer.

 

6.  Questions for discussion

      1. How can we be angry and not sin as we serve the Lord?

      2. What steps can we take both to ensure regular giving to the Lord’s work and a careful use of that which is given?

      3. Should the keeping of the Lord’s Day distinguish Christians from non-Christians as the keeping of the sabbath separated Jews and non-Jews?

      4. Has a church the right to oppose the marriage of one of its members to a non-Christian?  Should a church discipline a member who does marry a non-Christian?

 

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