Book Overview - Nehemiah
by Peter Pett
Commentary On The Book Of Nehemiah
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Nehemiah is the thrilling story of a man whom God had placed in a position of great authority in the Persian Empire, with a view to his achieving what had previously been forbidden, the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. It was no mean task. Judah was surrounded by powerful enemies who opposed the rebuilding, and who were willing to use any means in order to seek to prevent it, and, at their instigation, the king of Persia himself had, in the early part of his reign, issued an order for such work to cease. It would take a man of God of great influence and tact to reverse the situation. And such was Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is revealed as discreet and fearless, as well as being a brilliant organiser, demonstrating by his achievements that he had the capacity to win men to fall into line with his, and God’s purposes. Not all the Jews in Judah welcomed his arrival, but his abilities under God are brought out by the way that he persuades almost all to assist him in the work regardless of their own loyalties.
But his vision was greater than that. He saw himself as establishing the eschatalogical Jerusalem promised by the prophets, ‘the holy city’ of Isaiah 52:10. And from Nehemiah 11:1 onwards we have a description of that achievement, commencing with the repopulation of Jerusalem with Jews from the new Israel; the guarantee that the worship of Jerusalem would be true, being founded on priests and Levites whose genealogies could be determined,; the celebrations that greeted the building of the wall that made all this possible; and the careful activity of Nehemiah in ensuring the purity of the city. Like Ezra, Nehemiah ends with a description of the putting away of idolatrous foreign wives who were the spark which could have returned the new Israel to idolatry. To us this might appear almost an irrelevance, but to the people who knew the harm that idolatry had done to Israel/Judah, it was the most important of all the steps taken to ensure the continuation of the community as YHWH’s people.
Following the return to Judah and Jerusalem, from Exile in Babylonia, of the ‘remnant of the captivity’ in 538 BC, along with those who followed later, the remnant had been having a pretty hard time of it (Nehemiah 1:3). This was not surprising because they faced opposition from four powerful groups:
1) Their fellow-Jews who had remained in the land, and who were syncretistic, worshipping both YHWH and idols, and who were therefore excluded from worshipping with the remnant. They probably saw the returnees as bigoted upstarts. As a consequence they were bitter, especially as this excluded their right to worship in the new Temple, which was open only to those who were free from idolatry in any form. And their bitterness would have been increased by those among the remnant who claimed back family land which they had taken over.
2) The non-Jews who were now in the area and who resented their presence as newcomers, seeing them as interlopers, and also resenting the similar claiming back of family land.
3) The syncretistic Yahwists of Samaria, who had become so on being exiled to Samaria from other lands where they had worshipped other gods. They shared the resentment of the syncretistic Jews, because they too were prevented by these newcomers from worshipping with the remnant in the new Temple. Furthermore they had considerable influence with the Persian authorities.
4) The non-Yahwists, who were in lands round about, who had been enemies of Judah of old, and who also resented their presence and the idea of them setting up a new ‘state’.
So they were looked on with hostility by all, apart, that is, by those few in the land who had remained wholly faithful to YHWH, and who therefore now worshipped with them, or by those who had recommitted themselves to YHWH (Ezra 6:21).
There were moreover powerful voices among their adversaries, and these included the governor of the district of Samaria. These adversaries were in a position constantly to send accusations to the Persian king, and also to arrange that the remnant were given a very hard time. With regard to giving them a hard time it was not difficult in those days to organise gangs who could be disruptive, for when they did so, who would be able to prove anything? And they looked on a half-desolated Jerusalem as fair game, and no doubt took advantage of any wealth which came to Jerusalem because of the existence of the Temple with its worship. The remnant had partially tried to deal with this difficulty by building a wall round Jerusalem, which confirms that there was continual harassment of that partially populated city (Ezra 4:12-13; Ezra 4:21), but this had been circumvented by their enemies (Ezra 4:8-23), who, once they had persuaded the king of Persia to intervene and stop the work, had gone beyond their remit and had gleefully prevented the walls from being rebuilt, and had burned the new gates with fire (Ezra 4:23).
But it was not only Jerusalem that was vulnerable. In their own dwelling places situated among the peoples of the land the returnees were even more vulnerable. We do not know how far the governors of the area who followed Zerubbabel, and were prior to Nehemiah (445 BC), were prepared to act in their defence. We only know that by the time of 407 BC, per the Elephantine papyri, a (probable) Persian named Bagoas was the governor of Judea (alternately he may have been a Jewish prince with a Persian name). But it is clear from Nehemiah 1:3 that over these decades things had not been good, (they were ‘in great affliction and reproach’), and this was so even after the return of Ezra the Priest, with a new batch of returnees, who had been sent by the king to ensure the correct functioning of YHWH worship, something which had probably brought new life to the remnant. But his authority was in the religious sphere rather than the political. This was the parlous situation at the time when this book opens.
Relationship Of The Book Of Nehemiah To The Book Of Ezra.
There can be little doubt that the two books, Ezra and Nehemiah, were brought together as one at an early date, and were early seen as one. All the external evidence points to this as a fact. Thus the question must arise as to whether they were ever issued separately, for it was not until the time of Origen, and then Jerome, that they were spoken of as two books, and even Origen agrees that in Hebrew tradition they were seen as one. Indeed, on the evidence that we have it was not until around the middle ages (1448 AD) that the Jews themselves depicted them as separate works, and this when the Hebrew text of the Scriptures was put into print. Nevertheless the fact that this did occur demonstrates that there are good grounds for seeing them as separate works, and this would appear to be confirmed by the use in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 of closely related lists, which, while not being identical, are sufficiently close for them to be seen as repetitive, something unlikely to have happened in a joint work. It is also suggested by the fat that both books end with the removal of idolatrous foreign wives, something which could be seen as the ultimate achievement of these godly leaders, as it rooted out attempts to return to idolatry. But in that case, why were the two books brought together so early? One good reason why they might initially have been brought together may have been in order to conform the number of Old Testament books to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet (just as the twelve ‘minor’ prophets were seen as one for a similar reason).
On these grounds, therefore, they have been treated in the commentary as separate books, something which is attested by their headings. Nevertheless their relationship is certainly very close, and, indeed, that is what we would expect from two books written largely by contemporaries around the same time referring to contemporary events. Nehemiah’s abrupt and forceful style, however, punctuated with asides and frank comments, is unique, and there are few who would doubt his authorship of the main body of chapters 1 to 7 of the book, together with parts of chapters Nehemiah 12:31 to Nehemiah 13:31. Besides the change of subject between the end of Ezra and the commencement of the activities of Nehemiah might be seen as being too abrupt for them to be part of the same work. The idea that the two books are the work of the Chronicler has no external support, (unless 1 Esdras is seen as providing that support, but its support must be seen as extremely doubtful) and it must be doubted on the grounds of the different approach of the Chronicler.
Outline Of The Book.
1). Nehemiah obtains permission from the king of Persia to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and carries out the work in the face of great and continuing opposition, not resting until Jerusalem is once again secure (Nehemiah 1:1 to Nehemiah 7:73).
2). The Book of the Law is read and expounded on, and in consequence the people enter into a solemn covenant with God (8-10).
3). Jerusalem is established as the holy city, populated by true Israelites (Nehemiah 11:1-36); its worship is conducted by those who are shown to be genuinely descended from those chosen by the Law of Moses to conduct the worship of YHWH (Nehemiah 12:1-26); its wall and gates are purified and dedicated to YHWH and the means of sustenance of the Levites and priests is ensured (Nehemiah 12:27-47); the holy city is purified and caused to properly maintain the Sabbath whilst being cleansed of idolatrous foreign wives (Nehemiah 13:1-31).
the Third Week of Lent