Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 11

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-18


Nehemiah 11:1-18

WE have seen that though the two passages that deal with the sparsity of the population of Jerusalem are separated in our Bibles by the insertion of the section on the reading of The Law and the formation of the covenant, they are, in fact, so closely related that, if we skip the intermediate section, the one runs on into the other quite smoothly, as by a continuous narrative, {Nehemiah 8:18} that is to say, we may pass from Nehemiah 7:4 to Nehemiah 11:1 without the slightest sign of a junction of separate paragraphs. So naive and crude is the chronicler’s style, that he has left the raw edges of the narrative jagged and untrimmed, and thereby he has helped us to see distinctly how he has constructed his work. The foreign matter which he has inserted in the great gash is quite different in style and contents from that which precedes and follows it. This is marked with the Ezra stamp, which indicates that in all probability it is founded on notes left by the scribe, but the broken narrative in the midst of which it appears is derived from Nehemiah, the first part consisting of memoirs written by the statesman himself, and the second part being an abbreviation of the continuation of Nehemiah’s writing. The beginning of this second part directly links it on to the first part, for the word "and" has no sort of connection with the immediately preceding Ezra section, while it exactly fits into the broken end of the previous Nehemiah section, only with his characteristic indifference to secular affairs, in comparison with matters touching The Law and the temple worship, the chronicler abbreviates the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story. It is easy to see how be constructs his book in this place. He has before him two documents-one written by Nehemiah, the other written either by Ezra or by one of his close associates. At first he follows Nehemiah, but suddenly he discovers that he has reached the date when the Ezra record should come in. Therefore, without any concern for the irregularity of style that he is perpetrating, he suddenly breaks off Nehemiah’s narrative to insert the Ezra material, at the end of which he simply goes back to the Nehemiah document, and resumes it exactly where he has left it, except that now, after introducing it in the language of the original writer, he compresses the fragment, so that the composition passes over into the third person. It is not to be supposed that this is done arbitrarily or for no good reason. The chronicler here intends to tell his story in chronological order. He shows that the course of events referred to at the opening of the seventh chapter really was broken by the occurrences the record of which then follows. The interruptions in the narrative just correspond to the real interruptions in the historical facts. History is not a smooth-flowing river, its course is repeatedly broken by rocks and shoals, and sometimes entirely deflected by impassable cliffs. In the earlier part of the narrative we read of Nehemiah’s anxiety on account of the sparsity of the population of Jerusalem, but before he was able to carry out any plans for the increase of the number of inhabitants the time of the great autumn festivals was upon him, and the people were eager to take advantage of the public holidays that then fell due in order to induce Ezra to read to them the wonderful book he had brought up from Babylon years before, and of which he had not yet divulged the contents. This was not waste time as regards Nehemiah’s project. Though the civil governor stood in the background during the course of the great religious movement, he heartily seconded the clerical leaders of it in their efforts to enlighten and encourage the people, and he was the first to seal the covenant which was its fruit. Then the people who had been instructed in the principles of their faith and consecrated to its lofty requirements were fitted to take their places as citizens of the Holy City.

The "population question" which troubled Nehemiah at this time is so exactly opposite to that which gives concern to students of social problems in our own day, that we need to look into the circumstances in which it emerged in order to understand its bearings. The powerful suction of great towns, depleting the rural districts and gorging the urban, is a source of the greatest anxiety to all who seriously contemplate the state of modern society, and consequently one of the most pressing questions of the day is how to scatter the people over the land. Even in new countries the same serious condition is experienced-in Australia, for instance, where the crowding of the people into Melbourne is rapidly piling up the very difficulties sanguine men hoped the colonies would escape. If we only had these modern facts to draw upon, we might conclude that a centripetal movement of population was inevitable. That it is not altogether a novelty we may learn from the venerable story of the Tower of Babel, from which we may also gather that it is God’s will that men should spread abroad and replenish the earth.

It is one of the advantages of the study of history that it lifts us out of our narrow grooves and reveals to us an immense variety of modes of life, and this is not the least of the many elements of profit that come to us from the historical embodiment of revelation as we have it in the Bible. The width of vision that we may thus attain to will have a double effect. It will save us from being wedded to a fixed policy under all circumstances, and it will deliver us from the despair into which we should settle down, if we did not see that what looks to us like a hopeless and interminable drift in the wrong direction is not the permanent course of human development. It is necessary to consider that if the dangers of a growing population are serious, those of a dwindling population are much more grave.

Nehemiah was in a position to see the positive advantages of city life, and he regarded it as his business to make the most of them for the benefit of his fellow countrymen. We have seen that each of the three great expeditions from Babylon up to Jerusalem had its separate and distinctive purpose. The aim of the first, under Zerubbabel and Jeshua, was the rebuilding of the temple, the object of the second, under Ezra, was the establishment of The Law, and the end of the third, under Nehemiah, was the fortification and strengthening of the city. This end was before the patriotic statesman’s mind from the very first moment when he was startled and grieved at hearing the report of the ruinous condition of the walls of Jerusalem which his brother brought to him in the palace at Susa. We may be sure that with so practical a man it was more than a sentimental reverence for venerated sites that led Nehemiah to undertake the great work of fortifying the city of his fathers’ sepulchres. He had something else in view than to construct a huge mausoleum. His aim had too much to do with the living present to resemble that of Rizpah guarding the corpses of her sons from the hovering vultures. Nehemiah believed in the future of Jerusalem, and therefore he would not permit her to remain a city of ruins, unguarded, and a prey to every chance corner, He saw that she had a great destiny yet to fulfil, and that she must be made strong if ever she was to accomplish it. It is to the credit of his keen discernment that he perceived this essential condition of the firm establishment of Israel as a distinctive people in the land of Palestine. Ezra was too literary, too abstract, too much of an idealist to see it, and therefore he struggled on with his teaching and exhorting till he was simply silenced by the unlooked-for logic of facts. Nehemiah perfectly comprehended this logic, and knew how to turn it to the advantage of his own cause.

The fierce antagonism of the Samaritans is an indirect confirmation of the wisdom of Nehemiah’s plans. Sanballat and his associates saw clearly enough that, if Jerusalem were to become strong again, the metropolitan pre-eminence-which had shifted from this city to Samaria after the Babylonian conquest-would revert to its old seat among the hills of Judah and Benjamin. Now this pre-eminence was of vital importance to the destinies of Israel. It was not possible for the people in those early days to remain separate and compact, and to work out their own peculiar mission, without a strong and safe centre. We have seen Judaism blossoming again as a distinctive phenomenon in the later history of the Jews, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. But this most wonderful fact in ethnology is indirectly due to the work of Ezra and Nehemiah. The readiness to intermarry with foreigners shown by the contemporaries of the two great reformers proves conclusively that, unless the most stringent measures had been taken for the preservation of its distinctive life, Israel would have melted away into the general mass of amalgamated races that made up the Chaldaean and Persian empires, The military protection of Jerusalem enabled her citizens to maintain an independent position in defiance of the hostile criticism of her neighbours, and the civil importance of the city helped to give moral weight to her example in the eyes of the scattered Jewish population outside her walls. Then the worship at the temple was a vital element in the newly modelled religious organisation, and it was absolutely essential that this should be placed beyond the danger of being tampered with by foreign influences, and at the same time that it should be adequately supported by a sufficient number of resident Jews. Something like the motive that induces the Pope to desire the restoration of the temporal power of the Papacy-perfectly wise and reasonable from his point of view-would urge the leaders of Judaism to secure as far as possible the political independence of the centre of their religion.

It is to be observed that Nehemiah desired an increase of the population for the immediate purpose of strengthening the garrison of Jerusalem. The city had been little better than "a lodge in a garden of cucumbers" till her new governor had put forth stupendous efforts which resulted in converting her into a fortress. Now the fortress required to be manned. Everything indicates anxiety about the means of defence. Nehemiah placed two men at the head of this vital function-his own brother Hanani, whose concern about the city had been evinced in his report of its condition to Nehemiah at Susa, and Hananiah the commandant of the citadel. This Hananiah was known to be "faithful"-a great point while traitors in the highest places were intriguing with the enemy. He was also exceptionally God-fearing, described as one who "feared God above many"-another point recognised by Nehemiah as of supreme importance in a military officer. Here we have an anticipation of the Puritan spirit which required the Cromwellian soldiers to be men of sterling religious character. Nehemiah would have had no hesitation if he had been placed in the dilemma of the Athenians when they were called to choose between Aristides the good and Themistocles the clever. With him-much as brains were needed, and he showed this in his own sleepless astuteness-integrity and religion were the first requisites for an office of responsibility.

The danger of the times is further indicated by the new rule with regard to the opening of the gates. Oriental custom would have permitted this at dawn. Nehemiah would not allow it before the full daytime, "until the sun be hot." Levites were to mount guard by day-an indication of the partially ecclesiastical character of the civil government. The city was a sort of extended temple, and its citizens constituted a Church watched over by the clergy. At night the citizens themselves were to guard the wails, as more watchers would be needed during the hours of darkness to protect the city against an assault by surprise. Now these facts point to serious danger and arduous toil. Naturally many men would shrink from the yoke of citizenship under such circumstances. It was so much pleasanter, so much easier, so much quieter for people to live in the outlying towns and villages, near to their own farms and vineyards. Therefore it was necessary to take a tenth of the rural population in order to increase that of the town. The chronicler expressly notes that "the rulers of the people" were already dwelling in Jerusalem. These men realised their responsibility. The officers were to the fore; the men who needed to be urged to their duty were the privates. No doubt there was more to attract the upper classes to the capital, while their agricultural occupations would naturally draw many of the poorer people into the country, and we must not altogether condemn the latter as less patriotic than the former. We cannot judge the relative merits of people who act differently till we know their several circumstances. Still it remains true that it is often the man with the one talent who buries his charge, because with him the sense of personal insignificance becomes a temptation to the neglect of duty. Hence arises one of the most serious dangers to a democracy. When this danger is not mastered, the management of public affairs falls into the hands of self-seeking politicians, who are ready to wreck the state for their private advantage. It is most essential, therefore, that a public conscience should be aroused and that people should realise their duty to their community-to the town in which they live, the country to which they belong.

Nehemiah’s simple expedient succeeded, and praise was earned by those Jews who yielded to the sacred decision of the lot and abandoned their pleasant rustic retreats to take up the more trying posts of sentinels in a garrison. According to his custom, the chronicler proceeds to show us how the people were organised. His many names have long ceased to convey the living interest that must have clustered round them when the families they represented were still able to recognise their ancestors in the roll of honour. But incidentally he imports into his register a note about the Great King’s concern for the temple worship, from which we learn that Artaxerxes made special provision for the support of the choristers, and that he entertained a Jewish representative in his court to keep him informed on the condition of the distant city. Thus we have another indication of the royal patronage which was behind the whole movement for the restoration of the Jews. Nevertheless the piteous plaint of the Jews on their great fast day shows us that their servitude galled them sorely. Men who could utter that cry would not be bribed into a state of cheerful satisfaction by the kindness of their master in subscribing to their choir fund, although doubtless the contribution was made in a spirit of well-meaning generosity. The ideal City of God had not yet appeared, and the hint of the dependence of Jerusalem on royal patronage is a significant reminder of the sad fact. It never did appear, even in the brightest days of the earthly Jerusalem. But God was teaching His people through the history of that unhappy city how high the true ideal must be, and so preparing them for the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem.

Now we may take the high ideal that was slowly emerging throughout the ages, and see how God intends to have it realised in the City of God which, from the days of Saint Augustine, we have learnt to look for in the Church of Christ. The two leading thoughts connected with the Holy City in the phase of her history that is now passing under our notice are singularly applicable to the Christian community.

First, the characteristic life of the city. Enclosed within walls, the city gained a peculiar character and performed a distinctive mission of her own. Our Lord was not satisfied to rescue stray sheep on the mountains only to brand them with His mark and then turn them out again to graze in solitude. He drew them as a flock after Himself, and His disciples gathered them into the fold of Church fellowship. This is of as vital importance to the cause of Christianity as the civic organisation of Jerusalem was to that of Judaism. The Christian City of God stands out before the world on her lofty foundation, the Rock of Ages-a beacon of separation from sin, a testimony to the grace of God, a centre for the confession of faith, a home for social worship, a rallying point for the forces of holy warfare, a sanctuary for the helpless and oppressed.

Second, the public duty of citizenship. The reluctance of Christians to accept the responsibilities of Church membership may be compared to the backwardness of the Jews to dwell in their metropolis. Like Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah, the City of God today is an outpost in the battlefield, a fortress surrounded by the enemy’s territory. It is traitorous to retire to the calm cultivation of one’s private garden-plot in the hour of stress and strain when the citadel is threatened on all sides. It is the plain duty of the people of God to mount guard and take their turn as watchmen on the walls of the Holy City.

May we carry the analogy one step further? The king of Persia, though his realm stretched from the Tigris to the Aegean, could not give much effectual help to the true City of God. But the Divine King of kings sends her constant supplies, and she too, like Jerusalem, has her Representative at court, One who ever lives to make intercession for her.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 11". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/nehemiah-11.html.
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