Sunday, October 17
Nehemiah 4: Meanwhile the frustrated opposition party was holding a consultation about what to do (verses 1-2). Sanballat was aware that the emperor had forbidden the building of the walls, but here was Nehemiah, the highest non-royal official in the realm doing that very thing, apparently with the full knowledge and cooperation of the governing satrap. The situation left Sanballat angry and confused. He dared not complain to the capital, of course, because Persian monarchs tended to react in dangerous ways if stimulated by incautious questioning (cf. Ezra 6:11), to say nothing of deliberate provocation (cf. Esther 7:10).
Nehemiah had Sanballat exactly where he wanted him. Nehemiah was completely familiar with the workings of the court, whereas Sanballat and the opposition folks were just a bunch of yokels. They found themselves now completely out of their depth.
Their frustration could be expressed only in ridicule (verse 3), but their mirth rang hollow, because the wall in question, meanwhile, was growing huge. Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations show it to have been 2.75 meters thick, roughly nine feet, and in Chapter 12 we will read of a lengthy dedicatory procession conducted on the wall!
Since Sanballat’s people could do nothing in the open, their opposition took the form of surprise raids by small gangs. The list of opponents in verse 7 indicates that Jerusalem was literally surrounded by enemies.
There follows (verses 13-23) an account of how the builders, like Minute Men, both prayed and defended themselves during the construction. Verse 10 seems to be a snatch of a song that they sang while working.
Monday, October 18
Nehemiah 5: The next problem faced by Nehemiah was an internal one, the exploitation of the builders during this time of crisis. Local profiteers were taking extreme advantage of the situation (verses 1-5).
Contrary to the radically selfish principles of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Objectivist philosophies, a healthy society cannot be founded solely on private enterprise and individual rights. Government has appropriate functions beyond those of the common defense, domestic safety, and the safeguarding of private property. The evil we see in this chapter indicates that ancient Jerusalem had its own equivalents of Jeremy Bentham, Ludwig Von Mises, and Ayn Rand. Unbridled greed was producing once again the social order of Cain, as described in Genesis 4.
Nehemiah faced the crisis resultant from a completely selfish atmosphere, aggravated by the extra burden of the labor on the walls and a recent crop failure. Loan sharks, prohibited by the Mosaic Law from taking interest, were requiring exorbitant rights of usufruct and an outlandish collateral that, in the end, enslaved the children dispossessed by it. All of this exploitative and selfish activity, unfortunately, was within the letter of the law, a form of “legal injustice.”
Nehemiah’s first reaction was visceral (verse 6), but he gave himself time to cool down and reflect (verse 7), pondering which path might be the most effective to take. Then, skipping steps one and two, he jumped immediately to step three in the procedure we find in Matthew 18:15-17. Since the offense was public, the confrontation would have to be public (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). He summoned a general assembly, in which to face the offenders with a larger group of people on his own side.
Nehemiah easily reduced the offenders to silence (verses 7-8), not by appealing to the letter of the law (for the letter of the law in this instance was not on his side), still less by invoking something so nebulous as “the rights of the poor” (because the poor usually have more needs than they have rights), but by the experience of brotherhood (“your brethren”).
Having reduced the offenders to silence, Nehemiah proceeded to shame them into doing the decent thing (verses 9-11). He used his office, that is to say, not to maintain the law, but to establish justice. Clearly Nehemiah regarded government as responsible for setting right certain economic wrongs born of an excessive and oppressive system of private enterprise that was able to stay legal while remaining unjust. They had been using the letter of the law to perpetrate injustice, and Nehemiah determined to put a stop to it.
In this respect, Nehemiah was clearly acting on impulses spawned of the great social prophets three centuries earlier: Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. Those powerless men decried economic injustice, but Nehemiah, himself in a powerful position, was actually able to do something about injustice.
His efforts were successful (verses 12-13). Nehemiah stayed on at Jerusalem until 433 (verse 14), informing us in verses 15-19 that he was not a half-bad governor. The next chapter will jump back to the sequence expected at the end of the incident with which the present chapter began.
Tuesday, October 19
Nehemiah 6: The local opposition to Nehemiah’s building project next took a new and unbelievably clumsy tack, which he resisted with high disdain (verses 1-4). Failing this, the opponents then sent a letter with an implicit threat of denunciation (verses 5-7), but Nehemiah remained unimpressed (verse 8).
The story found here in verses 10-13 is not necessarily part of the chronological sequence but may have been placed here in the narrative because of its affinity to the two preceding stories.
Even before knowing that Shemaiah was in the employ of his opponents, Nehemiah smelled something wrong. He sensed that he was being invited to take a step he would regret. We observe Nehemiah here maintaining his composure under pressure, controlling his emotions, especially the emotion of fear, so as not to obscure his assessment of the situation (verse 14).
The wall, begun in the late summer, was finished fifty-two days later, in mid October (verse 15). About six months had passed since Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and less than a year since his friends had come with sad news to Babylon. Once again, Sanballat and his friends learn of the wall’s completion only by rumor (verse 16).
Wednesday, October 20
Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2.
All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions that, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25). Surely, however, those emotions did much to drive Nehemiah’s highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11).
Trained as an executive and diplomat, Nehemiah’s rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his own fears, they were invariably under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19: 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39).
Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan.
The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah.
In the next chapter our attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous section.
Thursday, October 21
Nehemiah 8: In modern church parlance this chapter describes a “revival,” or a “parish renewal,” or even a “Life Alive Weekend.” We are apparently still in October of 445 (7:73), the season associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While Nehemiah has only recently arrived, Ezra has been in Jerusalem for thirteen years, and maybe he figured that the city could use a good dose of “old time religion.”
Ezra, as we saw earlier, had been engaged in editing the Torah, and the people wanted to hear it (verses 2-3). They gathered to the east of the city (verse 1), not a normal place for gathering. Given the mystic symbolism of this site (the panorama of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives) in two of Israel’s most recent prophets (Ezechiel and Zechariah), their choice of this place to gather was surely significant. It was morning, and the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives when they began. There was a lengthy proclamation of the Word (verses 4-5), along with prayer and devotion (verse 6).
As Ezra read the text in Hebrew, which by now was only a scholar’s language, running translations were provided in the common spoken language, Aramaic, the international language of the Syrians (verses 7-8). Such Aramaic (and later Greek) translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament are known as Targumim or Targums, which in modern biblical research constitute a special area of study.
It was a scene of great emotion, with the experiences of conversion, remorse, and rejoicing mixed together (verses 9-12). All of this took place in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 14-18; cf. John 7:2).
Friday, October 22
Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long “narrative prayer” similar to several psalms that recount Israel’s formative history (E.g., Psalms 78 , 105 , 106 ). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses that immediately preceded Israel’s entrance into the land of Canaan.
From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated.
The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nation’s re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that — a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from.
From Israel’s earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together, for example. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers. They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer.
Saturday, October 23
Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals — to be, in fact, a people very different from every other.
These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), the maintenance of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book.
Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be, namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. God’s distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That word had to be a reality, and not just an adjective.
This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God.
This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, Israel’s spiritual walls had been badly penetrated — by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances, these latter sometimes sealed by marriages joining its leadership to the very worst that other nations stood for.
The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of Israel’s recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive; that is, to build walls, to establish clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, to become uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.