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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 4

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament CommentaryKeil & Delitzsch

Verses 1-2


The ridicule of Tobiah and Sanballat. - As soon as Sanballat heard that we were building ( בּנים , partic., expresses not merely the resolve or desire to build, but also the act of commencing), he was wroth and indignant, and vented his anger by ridiculing the Jews, saying before his brethren, i.e., the rulers of his people, and the army of Samaria ( חיל , like Esther 1:3; 2 Kings 18:17), - in other words, saying publicly before his associates and subordinates, - “What do these feeble Jews? will they leave it to themselves? will they sacrifice? will they finish it to-day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps that are burned?” עשׂים מה , not, What will they do? (Bertheau), for the participle is present, and does not stand for the future; but, What are they doing? The form אמלל , withered, powerless, occurs here only. The subject of the four succeeding interrogative sentences must be the same. And this is enough to render inadmissible the explanation offered by older expositors of להם היעזבוּ : Will they leave to them, viz., will the neighbouring nations or the royal prefects allow them to build? Here, as in the case of the following verbs, the subject can only be the Jews. Hence Ewald seeks, both here and in Nehemiah 4:8, to give to the verb עזב the meaning to shelter: Will they make a shelter for themselves, i.e., will they fortify the town? But this is quite arbitrary. Bertheau more correctly compares the passage, Psalms 10:14, אלהים על עזבנוּ , we leave it to God; but incorrectly infers that here also we must supply אלהים על , and that, Will they leave to themselves? means, Will they commit the matter to God. This mode of completing the sense, however, can by no means be justified; and Bertheau's conjecture, that the Jews now assembling in Jerusalem, before commencing the work itself, instituted a devotional solemnity which Sanballat was ridiculing, is incompatible with the correct rendering of the participle. עזב construed with ל means to leave, to commit a matter to any one, like Psalms 10:14, and the sense is: Will they leave the building of the fortified walls to themselves? i.e., Do they think they are able with their poor resources to carry out this great work? This is appropriately followed by the next question: Will they sacrifice? i.e., bring sacrifices to obtain God's miraculous assistance? The ridicule lies in the circumstance that Sanballat neither credited the Jews with ability to carry out the work, nor believed in the overruling providence of the God whom the Jews worshipped, and therefore casts scorn by היזבּחוּ both upon the faith of the Jews in their God and upon the living God Himself. As these two questions are internally connected, so also are the two following, by which Sanballat casts a doubt upon the possibility of the work being executed. Will they finish (the work) on this day, i.e., to-day, directly? The meaning is: Is this a matter to be as quickly executed as if it were the work of a single day? The last question is: Have they even the requisite materials? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish which are burnt? The building-stone of Jerusalem was limestone, which gets softened by fire, losing its durability, and, so to speak, its vitality. This explains the use of the verb חיּה , to revive, bestow strength and durability upon the softened crumbled stones, to fit the stones into a new building (Ges. Lex.). The construction שׂרוּפות והמּה is explained by the circumstance that אבנים is by its form masculine, but by its meaning feminine, and that המּה agrees with the form אבנים .

Verse 3


Tobiah the Ammonite, standing near Sanballat, and joining in in his raillery, adds: “Even that which they build, if a fox go up he will break their stone wall;” i.e., even if they build up walls, the light footsteps of the stealthy fox will suffice to tread them down, and to make breaches in their work.

Verses 4-5


When Nehemiah heard of these contemptuous words, he committed the matter to God, entreating Him to hear how they (the Jews) were become a scorn, i.e., a subject of contempt, to turn the reproach of the enemies upon their own head, and to give them up the plunder in a land of captivity, i.e., in a land in which they would dwell as captives. He supplicates, moreover, that God would not cover, i.e., forgive (Psalms 85:3), their iniquity, and that their sin might not be blotted out from before His face, i.e., might not remain unpunished, “for they have provoked to wrath before the builders,” i.e., openly challenged the wrath of God, by despising Him before the builders, so that they heard it. הכעים without an object, spoken of provoking the divine wrath by grievous sins; comp. 2 Kings 21:6 with 2 Chronicles 33:6.

Verses 6-8

(3:38; 4:1-2)

The Jews continued to build without heeding the ridicule of their enemies, ”and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof,” i.e., the wall was so far repaired throughout its whole circumference, that no breach or gap was left up to half its height; “and the people had a heart to work,” i.e., the restoration went on so quickly because the people had a mind to work.

The attempts of the enemies to hinder the work by force, and Nehemiah's precautions against them. - When the enemies learnt that the restoration of the wall was evidently getting on, they conspired together to fight against Jerusalem (Nehemiah 4:1 and Nehemiah 4:2). The Jews then prayed to God, and set a watch (Nehemiah 4:3). When the courage of the people began to fail, and their enemies spread a report of sudden attack being imminent, Nehemiah furnished the people on the wall with weapons, and encouraged the nobles and rulers to fight boldly for their brethren, their children, and their possessions (vv. 4-8). The Arabians, Ammonites, and Ashdodites are here enumerated as enemies, besides Sanballat and Tobiah (vv. 2, 10, 19). The Arabians were incited to hostilities against the Jews by Geshem (vv. 11, 19), and the Ammonites by Tobiah; the Ashdodites, the inhabitants of the city and territory of Ashdod, in the coast district of Philistia, were perhaps encouraged to renew their old hatred of Judah by Sanballat the Horonite. When these enemies heard that the walls of Jerusalem were bandaged, i.e., that the breaches and damages in the wall were repaired, they were filled with wrath. The biblical expression, to lay on a bandage, here and 2 Chronicles 24:13; Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 30:17; Jeremiah 33:6, is derived from the healing of wounds by means of a bandage, and is explained by the sentence following: that the breaches began to be closed or stopped. The enemies conspired together to march against Jerusalem and injure it. לו , because the people of the town are meant. תּועה occurs but once more, viz., in Isaiah 32:6, in the sense of error; here it signifies calamities, for, as Aben Ezra well remarks, qui in angustiis constitutus est, est velut errans, qui nescit quid agat quove se vertat .

Verse 9


The Jews, on the other hand, made preparation by prayer, and by setting a watch ( משׁמר , comp. Nehemiah 7:3; Nehemiah 13:30) day and night. We, viz., Nehemiah and the superintendents of the work, prayed and set a watch עליהם , against them, to ward off a probable attack. מפּניהם , for fear of them, comp. Nehemiah 4:10.

Verse 10


The placing of the watch day and night, and the continuous labour, must have pressed heavily upon the people; therefore Judah said: “The strength of the bearers of burdens fails, and there is much rubbish; we are not able to build the wall.” That is to say, the labour is beyond our power, we cannot continue it.

Verse 11


Their discouragement was increased by the words of their enemies, who said: They (the Jews) shall not know nor see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.

Verses 12-13


When, therefore, the Jews who dwelt near them, i.e., in the neighbourhood of the adversaries, and heard their words, came to Jerusalem, “and said to us ten times (i.e., again and again), that from all places ye must return to us, then I placed,” etc. Jews came from all places to Jerusalem, and summoned those who were building there to return home, for adversaries were surrounding the community on all sides: Sanballat and the Samaritans on the north, the Ammonites on the east, the Arabians on the south, and the Philistines (Ashdodites) on the west. אשׁר before תּשׁוּבוּ introduces their address, instead of כּי ; being thus used, e.g., before longer speeches, 1 Samuel 15:20; 2 Samuel 1:4; and for כּי generally, throughout the later books, in conformity to Aramaean usage. “Return to us” ( על שׁוּב , as in 2 Chronicles 30:9, for אל שׁוּב ), said the Jews who came from all quarters to Jerusalem to their fellow-townsmen, who from Jericho, Gibeon, and Tekoa (comp. Nehemiah 3:2-3, Nehemiah 3:5, Nehemiah 3:7) were working on the wall of Jerusalem. These words express their fear lest those who were left at home, especially the defenceless women, children, and aged men, should be left without protection against the attacks of enemies, if their able-bodied men remained any longer in Jerusalem to take part in the building of the wall.

Nehemiah 4:13

Nehemiah 4:7 is hardly intelligible. We translate it: Then I placed at the lowest places behind the wall, at the dried-up places, I (even) placed the people, after their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. למּקום מתּחתּיּות is a stronger expression for למּקום מתּחת when used to indicate position, and מן points out the direction. The sense is: at the lowest places from behind the wall. בּצּחחים gives the nature of the places where the people were placed with arms. צחיח and צחיחה mean a dry or bare place exposed to the heat of the sun: bare, uncovered, or empty places, perhaps bare hills, whence approaching foes might be discerned at a distance. The second ואעמיד is but a reiteration of the verb, for the sake of combining it with its object, from which the ואעמיד at the beginning of the verse was too far removed by the circumstantial description of the locality.

(Note: Bertheau considers the text corrupt, regarding the word מתּחתּיּות as the object of אעמיד , and alters it into מחשׁבות or חשּׁבנות , engines for hurling missiles ( 2 Chronicles 26:15), or into מטחיּות (a word of this own invention), instruments for hurling. But not only is this conjecture critically inadmissible, it also offers no appropriate sense. The lxx reads the text as we do, and merely renders בצחחיים conjecturally by ἐν τοῖς σκεπεινοῖς . Besides, it is not easy to see how חשׁבנות could have arisen from a false reading of מתחתיות ; and it should be remembered that מחשׁבות does not mean a machine for hurling, while מטחתייות is a mere fabrication. To this must be added, that such machines are indeed placed upon the walls of a fortress to hurl down stones and projectiles upon assaulting foes, and not behind the walls, where they could only be used to demolish the walls, and so facilitate the taking of the town by the enemy.)

Verse 14


“And I looked, and rose up, and said.” These words can only mean: When I saw the people thus placed with their weapons, I went to them, and said to the nobles, etc., “Be not afraid of them (the enemies); remember the Lord, the great and the terrible,” who will fight for you against your enemies (Deuteronomy 3:22; Deuteronomy 20:3, and Deuteronomy 31:6), “and fight ye for your brethren, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses,” whom the enemies would destroy.

Verses 15-23


Thus was the design of the enemy circumvented, and the Jews returned to their work on the wall, which they had forsaken to betake themselves to their weapons. The manner in which they resumed their building work was, that one half held weapons, and the other half laboured with weapons in hand.

Nehemiah 4:15

When our enemies heard that it (their intention) was known to us, and (that) God had brought their counsel to nought (through the measures with which we had met it), we returned all of us to the wall, every one to his work. The conclusion does not begin till ונּשׁוב , האל ויּפר belonging to the premiss, in continuation of נודא כּי .

Nehemiah 4:16-18

From that day the half of my servants wrought at the work, and the other half of them held the spears and shields, the bows and the armour, i.e., carried the arms. The servants of Nehemiah are his personal retinue, Nehemiah 4:17, Nehemiah 5:10, Nehemiah 5:16, namely, Jews placed at his disposal as Pechah for official purposes. The ו before הרמחים was probably placed before this word, instead of before the המּגנּים following, by a clerical error; for if it stood before the latter also, it might be taken in the sense of et - et. מצזיקים , instead of being construed with בּ , is in the accusative, as also in Nehemiah 4:11, and even in Jeremiah 6:23 and Isaiah 41:9, Isaiah 41:13. Unnecessary and unsuitable is the conjecture of Bertheau, that the word בּרמחים originally stood after מצזיקים , and that a fresh sentence begins with והרמחים : and the other half held the spears; and the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the armour, and the rulers, were behind the whole house of Judah, - a strange combination, which places the weapons and rulers behind the house of Judah. Besides, of the circumstance of the weapons being placed behind the builders, so that they might at any moment seize them, we not only read nothing in the text; but in Nehemiah 4:11 and Nehemiah 4:12 just the contrary, viz., that the builders wrought with one hand, and with the other held a weapon. “The rulers were behind all the house of Judah,” i.e., each was behind his own people who were employed on the work, to encourage them in their labour, and, in case of attack, to lead them against the enemy. - In Nehemiah 4:11 בּחומה הבּונים is prefixed after the manner of a title. With respect to those who built the wall, both the bearers of burdens were lading with the one hand of each workman, and holding a weapon with the other, and the builders were building each with his sword girt on his side. The ו prefixed to הנּשׂאים and הבּנים means both; and בסּבל נשׂא , bearers of burdens, who cleared away the rubbish, and worked as labourers. These, at all events, could do their work with one hand, which would suffice for emptying rubbish into baskets, and for carrying material in handle baskets. ידו בּעחת , literally, with the one (namely) of his hands that was doing the work. The suffix of ידו points to the genitive following. ואחת אחת , the one and the other hand. השּׁלח , not a missile, but a weapon that was stretched out, held forth, usually a sword or some defensive weapon: see rem. on Joshua 2:8; 2 Chronicles 32:5. The builders, on the contrary, needed both hands for their work: hence they had swords girt to their sides. “And he that sounded the trumpet was beside me.” Nehemiah, as superintendent of the work, stood at the head of his servants, ready to ward off any attack; hence the trumpeter was beside him, to be able to give to those employed on the wall the signal for speedy muster in case danger should threaten.

Nehemiah 4:19-21

Hence he said to the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the people, i.e., all employed in building, “The work is much (great) and wide, and we are separated upon the wall one far from another; in what place ye hear the sound of the trumpet, assemble yourselves to me: our God will fight for us.” - In Nehemiah 4:15 the whole is summed up, and for this purpose the matter of Nehemiah 4:10 is briefly repeated, to unite with it the further statement that they so laboured from early morning till late in the evening. “We (Nehemiah and his servants) laboured in the work, and half of them (of the servants) held the spears from the grey of dawn till the stars appeared.”

Nehemiah 4:22

He took moreover, a further precaution: he said to the people (i.e., to the labourers on the wall, and not merely to the warriors of the community, as Bertheau supposes): Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, i.e., to remain together during the night also, and not be scattered through the surrounding district, “that they may be guardianship for us by night and labour by day.” The abstracts, guardianship and labour, stand for the concretes, guards and labourers. As לנוּ , to us, refers to the whole community separated on the walls, so is ונערו אישׁ to be understood of all the workers, and not of the fighting men only. From ונערו אישׁ it only appears that the fathers of families and master builders had servants with them as labourers.

Nehemiah 4:23

Nehemiah, moreover, and his brethren (his kinsmen and the members of his house), and his servants, and the men of the guard in his retinue, were constantly in their clothes (“not putting off our clothes” to rest). The last words, המּים שׁלחו אישׁ are very obscure, and give no tolerable sense, whether we explain המּים of water for drinking or washing. Luther translates, Every one left off washing; but the words, Every one's weapon was water, can never bear this sense. Roediger, in Gesen. Thes. s.v. שׁלח , seeks to alter המים into בידו , to which Böttcher ( N. krit. Aehrenl. iii. p. 219) rightly objects: “how could בידו have been altered into המּים , or המּים have got into the text at all, if some portion of it had not been originally there? What this בידו expresses, would be far more definitely given with the very slight correction of changing the closing ם of המּים , and reading המינו = המינוּ (comp. 2 Samuel 14:19); thus each had taken his missile on the right (in his right hand), naturally that he might be ready to discharge it in case of a hostile attack.” This conjecture seems to us a happy emendation of the unmeaning text, since נוּ might easily have been changed into ם ; and we only differ in this matter from Böttcher, by taking שׁלח in its only legitimate meaning of weapon, and translating the words: And each laid his weapon on the right, viz., when he laid himself down at night to rest in his clothes, to be ready for fighting at the first signal from the watch.

Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on Nehemiah 4". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/nehemiah-4.html. 1854-1889.
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