Day 414: Nehemiah 1
1-3: The story of Nehemiah is set in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, or about 445 BC. Ezra had gone to Jerusalem from Babylon, a provincial capital in the Persian Empire, in the 7th year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:7). Nehemiah is in the Persian capital city of Susa, and serves in the royal household (2:1). He receives news from his brother who has visited Judah that Jerusalem is in dire straits.
4-11: Nehemiah is grief-stricken over the state of Jerusalem, and enters a time of fasting and praying. He pours out his distress in a prayer that acknowledges that the current state of Jerusalem is a result of the people’s sinfulness. He confesses his own family’s part in not living up to the covenant, a touching admission. He recalls the promise God made through Moses (Deuteronomy 30:1-4) that if the people repent and return to the covenant and obey the Law of God, God will bring them back to the land and restore their fortunes. It is not clear exactly what success Nehemiah is asking for in the last verse of the chapter. That will unfold as the tale is told.
Day 415: Nehemiah 2
1-8: Nehemiah is the cupbearer for Artaxerxes I. He has a close relationship with the king, and the king sees that he is distressed over something. Nehemiah shares the news he has heard about the state of Jerusalem. The king asks him what he wants to do, and Nehemiah takes a deep breath and asks for permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls and gates of the city. He is asked how long a leave he will need, and his request is granted. He then has the courage to ask further for orders to the keeper of the king’s forests to supply the necessary lumber, and that request is granted as well. We know from other sources that Egypt has recently made noises on Persia’s southern frontier, and Artaxerxes likely sees this as an opportunity to establish a stronghold near the Egyptian border.
9-10: He heads toward Jerusalem with a cavalry escort (protection Ezra had declined – see Ezra 8:22) and official letters in hand. We meet two of the villains of the story, Sanballat and Tobiah. They are officials in the Province Beyond the River (the territories west of the Euphrates). They are not happy that Nehemiah intends to repair the walls of Jerusalem. This encounter with Nehemiah probably takes place in Damascus, the provincial capital. Sanballat, we learn later, has some important connections in Jerusalem (6:10-14), and his daughter is married into the high priest’s family (13:28). Tobiah is likely the governor of Ammon. The Ammonites are historically enemies of Israel.
11-16: Having arrived in Jerusalem, Nehemiah takes a few days to get settled, and then one night rides out to inspect the walls and gates. The walls are in such a state that at one point he is not able to proceed and has to ride around the area of the King’s Pool. He has not yet reported to anyone in Jerusalem.
17-20: Nehemiah finally presents his plans to the city’s officials, showing them the letter giving Artaxerxes’ permission. They give him their support. Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab accuse them of rebellion. Sanballat is the satrap of Samaria. “Horonite” may refer to his hometown, perhaps Beth-horon between Jerusalem and Samaria. Tobiah is an “Ammonite” and Geshem an “Arab.” They, too, may have been minor satraps, and those designations may be intended simply to show that they are not part of the LORD’s people.
Day 416: Nehemiah 3
1-2: A list is given of who is responsible for repairing each gate and section of the walls. The priests repair the Sheep Gate (located in the northeast corner of the wall near the temple), and rebuild the walls that protect the northern approaches to the city.
3-5: Another group repairs the Fish Gate on the northwestern corner, and a portion of the upper part of the western walls. The VIPs don’t lift a finger to help. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
6-12: The Old Gate is unidentifiable, but if the list is in order counterclockwise around the city (as appears to be the case in most instances), it must have been part of a rather lengthy portion of the upper western wall.
13: The Valley Gate is about halfway down the western side, and the Zanoahites repair it and the walls from there down to the southern tip of the walled city, about 500 yards (1000 cubits).
14: The Dung Gate, located at the southern tip of the walled city, is repaired by somebody named Malchijah. Surely he had some other people helping him even though he is the only one whose name is given. On the other hand the gate’s name might indicate that it is the least popular place to be.
15-27: Shallum and others repair the section of the walls and the gates near the Pool of Shelah. This pool, and the Lower Pool, were important sources of water for the whole city, and were located where the two valleys, Tyropean and Kidron, converge at the southern end of the walls. Another Nehemiah is in charge of a section along the southeastern wall beside the royal cemeteries. The Levites are responsible for repairs of the long section northward from there to the Horse Gate, about 100 yards from the northeastern corner of the walls.
28-32: Finally, the priests repair the section that protects their little residential community between the temple compound and the city walls at the northeastern corner of the walled city.
The list is tedious to read, and I suggest strongly that you have before you a map of Jerusalem from the time of Nehemiah. (One source is The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume III, page 760.) The extent of the work is impressive. Even more impressive is the condition of Jerusalem that makes such extensive repairs necessary.
Day 417: Nehemiah 4
1-5: In chapter 4 we return to the first person perspective of the first 2 chapters. Nehemiah receives word that Sanballat and Tobiah are ridiculing their rebuilding efforts.
6: Meanwhile they are making progress and the wall is rising.
7-9: He receives word that Sanballat and the others are actually planning to intervene in their efforts, and he sets guards around the clock to protect them from a surprise attack.
10-14: The work begins to falter as the laborers encounter more rubbish than they are able to clear. Meanwhile Nehemiah is getting regular reports from people coming in from the countryside that an attack is imminent. He tells the people to keep their weapons handy and to camp adjacent to the walls day and night.
15-20: The attack is delayed when their enemies get word that Nehemiah has made preparations for the defense of the city. So Nehemiah orders the construction to continue, but only in shifts so that half the people will constantly be on guard duty. He sets up an alarm system so that they can respond quickly should any part of the wall come under attack.
21-23: The whole city remains in a state of constant vigilance as the work to rebuild the walls slowly progresses.
Day 418: Nehemiah 5
1-5: The common people are being woefully mistreated by the nobility. They are being forced to sell their lands and even their children. The oppression is so wicked that their daughters are even being assaulted and there is no justice for them.
6-13: Nehemiah calls a public assembly and accuses the nobles and officials of violating the covenant Law. He demands that they correct their injustices against the common people, and they quite readily agree to do so. Nehemiah sets the penalty high – loss of home and property – and that may have something to do with their quick condescension.
14-19: Nehemiah makes an accounting of his own behavior and treatment of the people over the twelve years of his governorship. He behaves admirably, of course. (He’s the one writing the account, after all.)
Day 419: Nehemiah 6
1-9: Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem resume their efforts to thwart the rebuilding of Jerusalem. They invite Nehemiah to a powwow, but he smells a rat and refuses to go. After four abortive attempts to lure him out of the city they threaten him with a dangerous accusation of treason, but Nehemiah stands firm and refuses to go out to meet with them.
10-14: Nehemiah is warned by one Shemaiah (who is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible) that his enemies are coming to kill him that very night and advises him to take refuge in the temple behind closed doors. Nehemiah sees that this is a plot to damage his integrity before the people: for a lay person like him to enter the temple in such a way is a violation of the holiness code which forbids all but the priests to enter the temple.
15-19: We learn that Tobiah is married into a prominent priestly family in Jerusalem and thus has allies among the nobles of Jerusalem who have been keeping him informed of Nehemiah’s plans and actions. The plot becomes much more complicated.
Day 420: Nehemiah 7
1-4: Nehemiah appoints his brother Hanani mayor of Jerusalem. Hanani, you remember, was the one who brought the initial report to Nehemiah that caused him to petition the emperor to let him come to Jerusalem (1:2). He orders that the gates be closed until well after sunrise each day and that they be guarded at all times. We learn in verse 4 that the city is sparsely populated and people are apparently living among the rubble in tents.
5-7: Nehemiah finds the record of the first group that had returned to Jerusalem, the group that had come with Sheshbazzar (Zerubbabel) as recorded in Ezra 2.
8-38: The list here is very like the one given in Ezra 2:3-35, but with slight differences in numbers and names. Someday I will take the time to add each list and see how well the totals match.
39-42: Significantly, the priestly census matches exactly the record in Ezra 2:36-39.
43-45: The Levites total 360 individuals, whereas the list in Ezra 2:40-42 has a total of 341.
46-60: The temple servants, including the Solomonic additions, totals 392, the same as in Ezra 2:43-58. The names have a few slight differences.
61-65: An additional listing is given of those who claim Israelite descent but cannot prove it. This list is nearly the same as Ezra 2: 59-63.
66-69: The numbers included here match the totals in Ezra 2:64-67 reasonably well, including the great batch of donkeys.
70-73: Nehemiah includes the notation of gifts provided by the nobles and other officials (Ezra 2:68-70).
Day 421: Nehemiah 8
1-8: Ezra the scribe makes his first appearance in the book of Nehemiah. Ezra has probably been in Jerusalem for some years now, although the chronology given in Ezra 7 is hard to match with that given in Nehemiah 1. The seventh month is the big festival month in the Jewish calendar, with the Festival of Trumpets, Yom Kippur and Succoth all grouped closely together (see Leviticus 23). There is a huge gathering in Jerusalem on the first day of the month for the Festival of Trumpets. A large platform has been raised, and Ezra stands on it along with 13 other priests and 14 Levites. He and the other priests read from the Torah all morning long while the Levites interpret what they are reading to the people. The crowd, significantly, includes both men and women as well as children who are old enough to understand.
9-12: The people are stung by the words they hear and have to be comforted by Nehemiah and Ezra, who encourage them to share the sacrificial meat and wine with those who have nothing.
13-18: The next day the people gather and receive instructions about the observance of the Festival of Booths, or Succoth. The festival has apparently not been kept since the time of Joshua. They construct canopies all over the city and stay in them during the seven day festival, gathering each day to hear Ezra read from the Torah. It is a great gathering of national education.
Day 422: Nehemiah 9
1-5: The Festival of Booths with Ezra’s daily reading of the Law has ended. It is now the 24th of the month, two days after the Festival, and the people have spontaneously begun to fast with sackcloth. This is a surprise, since the people were rejoicing during the festival (8:17). Apparently on the 8th day of the festival, a day of “solemn assembly,” the people’s attitude turned from joy to penitence, an attitude more appropriate to Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement. So the 24th is a sort of delayed Yom Kippur. The reading of the Law seems to have in the end hit them pretty hard. The Israelites separate themselves from all the foreigners in the city. They spend another 3 hours listening to the Law being read and then for 3 hours confess their sins. A spontaneous worship service erupts, led by Jeshua and the other priests.
6-8: Ezra prays, recalling their history as the descendants of Abraham, and praising God for his faithfulness.
9-15: Ezra continues reciting their history: their slavery in Egypt; the plagues God sent against Pharaoh; the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army; the pillars of cloud and fire that guided them; God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law to Moses; how God fed them with manna and miraculously brought water from the rock to quench their thirst.
16-25: The recitation continues, remembering how the people rebelled and made a golden calf to worship; how God was faithful and did not forsake them but provided for them; their victory over Heshbon and Bashan; how their numbers grew; how they entered into and settled the land and took possession of a fertile and productive territory.
26-31: Ezra continues, reminding them of how their ancestors turned away from God time and time again. He remembers the time of the judges and kings and how Israel alternately turned away from God and came back to God until God’s patience finally was exhausted and he “handed them over” to their enemies.
32-37: Ezra ends his prayer by asking God to be merciful and consider all their suffering. It has all been because of their sins, he says, but now they have surely suffered enough. They are still slaves, he says, slaves in the very land that God has given them.
38: A written statement has been devised renewing the people’s covenant with God, and Ezra invites them to sign the agreement.
Day 423: Nehemiah 10
1-27: It is a curious thing to me that this covenant document is not reproduced, especially considering that both Ezra and Nehemiah have gone to such pains to preserve transcripts of several letters from Babylonian and Persian rulers. Instead, a list is given of the names of those who sign it, 74 in all, including representatives from the priests, the Levites and their servants, and the leaders of the people.
28-31: All the people who are of Israelite descent and who have separated themselves from the mixed population enter into the covenant. Nehemiah is making an effort to resume the Law that Moses had given centuries before, including the bans on intermarrying with other peoples, buying and selling on the Sabbath, and observing the seventh year of rest for the fields.
32-39: A tax is levied for the maintenance of the temple and the priests and for the things that are needed for worship.
Day 424: Nehemiah 11
1-2: The country is organized so that one tenth of the population will reside in the capital city of Jerusalem.
3-6: Before the exile, the nation of Judah consisted of the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin. Leaders of the tribe of Judah are named here.
7-9: Leaders of the tribe of Benjamin are listed in these verses.
10-14: The leaders of the priests are named in this paragraph.
15-18: The names are given of the leaders of the Levites.
19-21: The gatekeepers are listed next. The other 90% of the priests, Levites, etc. live in the towns and villages of Judah, according to their ancestral heritage. The temple servants live in a separate community within the walls of Jerusalem, Ophel, so that they can be readily available for service (see 3:26-27).
22-24: Singing has become an essential part of the temple worship, and the Levites who are singers are particularly taken care of.
25-36: A list of cities and their outlying villages is given.
Day 425: Nehemiah 12
1-7: Nehemiah lists the priests who had returned with Zerubbabel. Many of the names in this chapter appear in earlier lists. It is the same with our own heritage; we are likely to know or to learn the names of our ancestors for generations past, but know little or nothing else about them, so that the names are all that is left of the history.
8-11: The Levites who had returned with Zerubbabel are listed.
12-21: Some of the names are traced back to the time of Joiakim, who was the son of Jeshua, who had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel.
22-26: Levites are also listed. It is obviously important for Nehemiah to go to great pains to establish the “pedigree” of all who are leaders in the religious establishment.
27-30: When the wall is completed Nehemiah calls for a great gathering to dedicate the wall with lavish ceremonies. Levites and singers are summoned from all over the country to take part.
31-37: Nehemiah brings the leaders and officials up onto the wall and divides them into two parties. A great procession around the wall is made, with the first group going clockwise on the wall around the city.
38-43: The other party marches counterclockwise, with Nehemiah following them. The two parties process on the wall, singing and shouting as they go, until they meet at the temple compound where sacrifices are made and great rejoicing is heard far into the countryside from all the people, men, women and children.
44-47: Nehemiah is careful to tell us that the priests and Levites, especially the singers and musicians, receive their just compensation from all the people.
Day 426: Nehemiah 13:
1-3: Again they read from the Torah, and discover that Ammonites and Moabites are to be excluded from the religious assemblies of God’s people Israel, so they take steps – probably another census – to see to it that foreigners are left out. They are more concerned with holiness than with inclusiveness.
4-9: Perhaps we learn in these verses what precipitated the purge recorded above. Nehemiah, having been in Jerusalem the allotted 12 years, had gone back to King Artaxerxes’ court. While there the priest Eliashib allowed Tobiah (remember him from 4:7-9?) to make an apartment among the storerooms in the temple compound. Upon his return, Nehemiah summarily evicts him and has the temple accoutrements brought back.
10-14: Nehemiah also discovers that his instructions concerning compensation for the Levites have not been kept and the Levites have had to return to their fields to provide for themselves. He orders that the tithes be brought in, and appoints four men – a priest, a scribe, a Levite and an assistant – to be in charge of it all. Eliashib, needless to say, isn’t one of them.
15-18: Nehemiah is incensed by the trade going on in the city on the Sabbath, and declares that that’s why God exiled them in the first place.
19-22: He takes steps to return to the observance of the Sabbath requirements: the gates are closed at sundown on Friday and not reopened until after the Sabbath is passed. In verse 22 we are reminded again that Nehemiah is writing this record as an account of his faithfulness, and so he sprinkles it with prayers asking God to remember him for it.
23-27: Nehemiah discovers that a number of Jews (by the way, the word “Jew” does not occur in the Bible until we get to the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah) have married women from Ammon and Moab as well as Ashdod (part of the Philistine nation). He avers that that is the reason Solomon strayed from the Lord and started Israel on the way to destruction, and commands the people not to allow their sons and daughters to intermarry with those people. Nothing is said about the existing marriages, although we strongly suspect they had to be dissolved as at the end of Ezra’s book.
28-29: We meet Eliashib again, the priest who had allowed Tobiah to take up residence in the temple compound. It turns out that his son has married a daughter of Sanballat, Tobiah’s partner in opposing Ezra and Nehemiah in their efforts to revive Jerusalem. Nehemiah chases him (and his foreign wife, I’m sure) away from the city.
30-31: His work complete, Nehemiah signs off with another prayer that God will remember his faithfulness.
This effectively ends the history of the Jewish people in the Promised Land from the time of Abraham until the return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. A little more history is woven into the narratives and oracles of the prophets and we will be able to fill in a few gaps when we get to those writings.