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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Nehemiah

by Editor - Joseph Exell



THE modem critics are probably right in their conclusion that Ezra and Nehemiah were compiled from memoranda of those two persons, who were Tirshathas, i.e., governors under the Persian kings, and other contemporary historical documents. But their conclusion does no more than confirm the previous opinion on the subject. It is evident that certain sections of the Book of Nehemiah are the personal work of Nehemiah, and if we could think of him as keeping a diary, we should say there were selected pages from his diary. But it is also certain that the literary genius of the compiler of Chronicles and Ezra is strongly marked in the other sections of Nehemiah and in the general setting and arrangement of the whole work. The very retention of the first person in the extracts which he selects is an evidence of the work of this compiler. We may therefore reasonably assume that, while some of the material was the work of Nehemiah, the book, as we have it, shows the editing of Ezra, and was designed by him to form a historical supplement to his larger work.

Thirteen years after the arrival in Jerusalem of the party from Babylon that was led by Ezra, Nehemiah appeared at Jerusalem. On the whole, it seems most probable that Ezra was not in Jerusalem at the time, but returned soon afterwards. Nehemiah came with the authority of Tirshatha, and with a definite purpose, which he judged it prudent to keep secret for a time. The first six chapters contain an account of the circumstances which led to his visiting Jerusalem; the scheme by which he came to know the condition of the city wall, his successful plan for restoring the wall ; the resistance he met with, and the skilful way in which he outwitted, and overcame, the national enemies. The seventh chapter is a genealogy after the manner of Ezra, and the materials for it, we can hardly doubt, were furnished by him. From the eighth chapter Ezra is associated with Nehemiah, and the influence of Ezra is especially marked in the chapters from the eighth to the end. There are signs of his characteristic priestly interest, and his fondness for genealogical tables. The point of view in Nehemiah is clearly the same as that we have recognised in Chronicles and Ezra.
The Date of the Work, so far as collecting and putting together the sections is concerned, must be the later years of Ezra’s life ; but the re-editing which put the book into its present form may be dated at least a century later.
We meet with the same difficulty here that we had to consider when dealing with the genealogy from David in the Books of Chronicles. Some names in these genealogical lists come down to a period long posterior to Nehemiah. Jaddua, for instance, was high-priest at least a century later than Nehemiah. But the explanation previously given will apply with equal force to this difficulty.

Personal History of Nehemiah

Very little is known of the personal history of Nehemiah, but a very fair estimate of his character may be formed from the pages of his diary which have been preserved. His office, as cup-bearer at the Persian Court, was an honourable one, and he was evidently held in confidence and esteem by the king. He must have been in position of wealth and influence. “He was a man of profound piety, connecting everything, great or small, with the will of God.” But the interjectional prayers which habitually occur in his diary indicate a somewhat weak self-consciousness. The truly noble man does right in simple loyalty and love, and does not think about its being accepted and rewarded. This indicates the week side of an otherwise strong and vigorous individuality. “His prudence was equally marked ; and there is no better example of dependence on God, united with practical forethought. He was disinterested and unselfish, and there is not the slightest reference to self apart from the common good . . . He always appeals to the judgment of a merciful God, and that appeal avails against much hard modern criticism which dwells on his alleged asperity, self-confidence, and self-assertion.” (W. B. Pope, D. D.)

Dean Stanley says: “There is a pathetic cry, again and stain repeated throughout this rare autobiographical sketch, hardly found elsewhere in the Hebrew records, which shows the current of his thoughts, as though at every turn he feared that those self-denying, self-forgetting labours might pass away, that his countrymen of the future might be as ungrateful as his countrymen of the present. ‘Think upon me, my God, for good.’”
G. Rawlinson writes: “It has been said that in the character of Nehemiah it is almost impossible to detect a single fault, But this praise is a little exaggerated. Nehemiah’s nature was strongly emotional, and he did not always control his emotions sufficiently. His ‘fiery soul’ was sometimes ‘roused to burning frenzy.’ In these fits of passion, he forgot the calmness and dignified behaviour which befits a governor. He may ‘do well to be angry,’ but he does it to be vindictive. And he is a little too self-satisfied and self-complacent. He contrasts with somewhat too evident self-approval his own conduct in his government with that of former governors. And there is a tinge of Pharisaism in some of his prayers.”

Contents of the Book

The Book of Nehemiah may be roughly divided into three sections.

Chaps. 1-7., comprising the narrative of Nehemiah’s appointment to office, his rebuilding, in spite of opposition, the walls of Jerusalem, and his purpose of bringing the people to an orderly settlement.

Chaps. 8-10, contain an account of certain religious solemnities.

Chaps. 11-13. are made up of various lists, appointments, and settlements, with a recital of some acts of Nehemiah’s administration on resuming his post. (Ayre.)

Nehemiah’s first administration at Jerusalem lasted twelve years. Then he returned to the Persian Court. After some years, variously estimated from five to nine years, he was permitted to resume his office at Jerusalem, and endeavour to redress the abuses which had grown up during his absence. It is probable that he spent the remainder of his life at Jerusalem, but of his death and burial no record has been preserved. Beyond the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes, to which Nehemiah’s own narrative leads us, we have no account of Nehemiah whatever.

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