Nehemiah Introduction

Outline of contents


The first half of the book of Nehemiah (chs. 1–7) is devoted almost entirely to Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. This forms to some extent a political or social counterpart to the more religiously oriented reforms of Ezra just recounted, though of course the two spheres are by no means to be kept isolated from each other. The narrative is largely based on Nehemiah’s own first-person account. The second half of the book (chs. 8–13), which draws on a wider variety of source materials, then presents the combined climax of the two reformers’ work in the spiritual renewal of the community and related matters.

1:1–7:73 Nehemiah restores the walls of Jerusalem

The events recounted here are to be dated to the years 446–445 bc (cf. Ezr. 1:1), some twelve or thirteen years after Ezra came to Jerusalem. We can only speculate about what had been happening in the meantime (see on 1:4 below). Once again, the editor’s purpose is to concentrate on what he regards as the theologically important moments in his people’s salvation-history, focusing on divine cause and effect rather than on the more familiar means for linking events together that are appropriate in a secular history.

1:1–11 Nehemiah’s vocation

As a cupbearer to the king (11), Nehemiah held a position of trust at court. He would have been expected to serve as a tactful companion, who could thus wield considerable influence by informal counsel and discussion. There is no indication at the start of the narrative that he had any intention of abandoning this privileged position in order to throw in his lot with his fellow-Jews in the remote and insignificant Jerusalem.

By means of what may have been no more than a casual inquiry (2), he received news of some recent disaster. The effects on him were so overwhelming (4) that this cannot refer to the Babylonian destruction 140 years previously. More probably, we should see a reference here to the events narrated in Ezr. 4:7–23, which are included in that passage out of strict chronological order. We do not know whether Ezra himself was still present in Jerusalem at that time (his participation in the abortive attempt to rebuild the walls seems unlikely), but if he were we could understand how it would have proved impossible thereafter to complete the terms of his commission (see on Ezr. 7:25).

Nehemiah’s response to hearing the news is indicative of his awareness that God was calling him to a completely new sphere of service, for which his position and training had uniquely prepared him. This is shown in particular by his sense of identity with his people (4, 6–7) and the fact that he prayed about the situation for four months (2:1). (Clearly, the account we have here is but a summary.) Such a period of waiting is indicative both of faith in the reality of the call and of sustained commitment.

Nehemiah’s prayer (5–11), which draws heavily on Israel’s rich liturgical tradition, focused first on the God of heaven, and this led immediately to confession of both personal and national sin (6–7). Only then does he turn to a summary of God’s covenant promises (8–9) as a basis for his twofold petition, in general for restoration of his people’s fortunes and in particular for the right approach to the king. If we are right in seeing Ezr. 4 in the background, then v 21 of that chapter shows both the potential danger which such an approach might entail as well as an opportunity that might be exploited. With so much at stake, Nehemiah, otherwise supremely a man of action, wisely left the details of timing and manner of approach in God’s hands.

2:1–20 Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem

The parallel references to Nehemiah’s enemies in vs 10 and 19–20 clearly divide this chapter into two parts. In the first, Nehemiah acts with a confidence born of the assurance that God is moving to answer his prayer; in the second, where he begins to encounter the unknown, he shows commendable caution.

2:1–10 Nehemiah and the king. It is not clear whether Nehemiah deliberately adopted a morose expression as a means of inviting the king to open a personal conversation (1–2). At all events, his initial response (3) was sufficiently non-committal to test whether this was indeed God’s timing. Taking the king’s further question as a sign that it was, he gathered up his prayers of the previous months (4) and simultaneously presented his request. When this was received favourably (6) he pressed on boldly to state his other needs in specific terms. It is a fine illustration of the balance between confidence in the sovereignty of God, with prayer as its proper response, and human responsibility, with its counterpart in thoughtful planning. We should note too that Nehemiah had no doubts that God could use human channels to supply his needs (8).

Notes. 10 Sanballat, Nehemiah’s arch-rival, is known from a document discovered in Egypt to have been the governor of Samaria and to have given his sons good ‘Yahwistic’ names. We may speculate that, following the debacle of Ezr. 4, he had been given temporary jurisdiction over Judah and that this may account for his jealousy of Nehemiah. Tobiah had close personal links inside Jerusalem (cf. 6:17–19; 13:4–5); was he perhaps Sanballat’s deputy in Jerusalem during the ‘interregnum’?

2:11–20 Nehemiah inspects Jerusalem’s walls. After arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah tested his vocation with caution. First, he engaged physically, but in secret, with the task which confronted him (11–16), no doubt ‘counting the cost’ of so momentous an undertaking cf. Lk. 9:57–62; 14:28–32). Secondly, with more than a hint that he believed that God had sent him, he invited the cooperation of the people in the fulfilment of his call (17–18). Their unanimous response confirmed that he was on the right path. Individual vocation generally finds such confirmation by the community of faith (Acts 13:1–2). Finally, he was not deflected by opposition, but rather responded with a positive assertion of what he had been called to do, and left the outcome to the God who had initiated the task (19–20).

Note. 19 We learn from inscriptions that Geshem the Arab was a powerful desert king whose influence extended round much of the southern and eastern borders of Judah. The motivation for his opposition is not so clear as in the case of Sanballat and Tobiah, and he is mentioned less frequently than they.

Probable reconstruction of Jerusalem as rebuilt by Nehemiah in the fifth century bc.

3:1–32 Rebuilding the wall

This list of those engaged in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem looks back from the standpoint of the completed task, a point which, strictly speaking, is not reached in the narrative until 6:15. Though there is no direct reference to Nehemiah, we need not doubt that it illustrates his skills of organization and leadership. It moves section by section round the wall in an anti-clockwise direction from and to the Sheep Gate (1, 32) in the north eastern corner. From v 16 onwards, the nature of the description changes somewhat. This is probably because up to that point the builders had been following the line of an earlier wall, whereas from this point on they plotted a new line. The destruction along the steep eastern slope of the city, overlooking the Kidron Valley, seems to have been so severe (cf. 2:14) that, for the sake of time, the wall was pulled back to a line higher up the slope; note the references to those who in consequence found themselves building beside their own houses (23–30).

The overall picture to emerge is instructive. It demonstrates first a unity of intention by the people, some forty sections apparently working simultaneously. This could not have been achieved had there not been good supervision, close cooperation and an eye open for what was being done in neighbouring sections. Secondly, however, the interests and motives of those involved differed considerably. Some worked on the basis of family association, others as individuals, some in district associations, some on the basis of their position in society and yet others because of professional association. Moreover, in many cases the people were employed at that point in the wall where they had a vested interest. These first two points serve as a useful illustration of the unity and diversity which should characterize the work of the church (cf., for instance, Rom. 12:3–8;1 Cor. 12:4–27; Eph. 4:1–13). Finally, it is challenging to note the varying degrees of involvement. A few refused to participate at all (5); most appear to have completed the task allotted to them; but some even managed a second section (1, 19–21, 24, 27 and 30).

4:1–23 Further opposition

It is noteworthy that each stage of Nehemiah’s activity was met with opposition, every time introduced with the formula ‘when so-and-so heard’; (cf. vs 1, 7; 2:10, 19; 6:1, 16.) As the work progressed, so the opposition grew more fierce and the description of the response more elaborate.

4:1–5 Ridicule. Sanballat and Tobiah here amplify their mockery of 2:19 in an attempt both to demoralize the builders (5) and to reassure their own supporters (2). Nehemiah’s response (4–5) was to commit the problem to God in prayer, which is commendable, for he thereby recognized that the insults were directed as much against God as against himself and that vindication should come from his Lord rather than his own efforts. Nevertheless, the sentiments he expressed have been superseded for the Christian (cf. e.g. Mt. 5:43–48; 18:21–22; Rom. 12:14–21), for whom the work of Christ has provided an assurance of the final victory of love which Nehemiah could not possibly have known.

4:6–23 Intimidation. As the work reached the half-way stage, Nehemiah faced a twofold crisis. On the one hand, his workforce was in danger of becoming demoralized both by the scale of the task (10) and by the pleas of family members who, living in outlying villages, were aware of the enemy’s preparations and so kept trying to urge their menfolk to return home (11–12). On the other hand, the augmented forces of the enemy were threatening to attack (7). It is difficult to say whether this was a genuine threat (its legality within the Persian empire is questionable), but for those who had recently experienced the debacle of Ezr. 4:23 even the appearance of history being about to repeat itself would have been severely unsettling.

Nehemiah’s response to these problems is a model of perceptive leadership. He displayed common-sense flexibility in interrupting the work briefly in order to rally his people (13–14; see below) and in setting in place new arrangements for security (16–20). Then he encouraged the people by an appeal to tradition, using methods and words which had proved effective in the past history of Israel. This cannot be documented in full here, but for examples compare v 14 with Ex. 14:13–14, v 15 with Ex. 15:14–16, and v 20 with Ex. 14:14 and Jdg. 6:34. By thus imposing a familiar interpretative framework on his people’s sense of confusion, Nehemiah was able to turn even their fear and sense of weakness into a ground for faith. Finally, he led by example, as the concluding verses of the chapter underline.

Notes. 12–13 The translation of these verses is uncertain. It would be clearer to read ‘When the Jews who lived near them came and said to us time and again from all sides “You must return to us”, then I took up a position in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall in an exposed place and I made the people stand by families with their swords … ’ In other words, Nehemiah rallied the people in the manner of Israel’s ancient conscript army and addressed them in a way similar to that used by Moses, Joshua and Israel’s other great leaders when faced with apparently overwhelming odds. 16 my men refers not to the builders in general, but to a smaller group of trained men who, for whatever reason, owed personal allegiance to Nehemiah (cf. 5:10 and 16).

5:1–19 Social and economic problems

Though not explicitly stated, it seems probable that the need of some from the countryside to work on the walls during the summer (cf. 6:15) brought to a head an economic crisis which may have been developing for some while previously. The final paragraph of the chapter (14–19), however, is from a very much later period, but has been included here because it relates to the same theme.

5:1–13 Debt problems resolved. Three separate complaints are detailed in vs 2–4, while v 5 probably serves as a summary of all three. The reference to their wives (1) may indicate that they were most conscious of the approaching calamity because they were having to manage at home during their husbands’ absence in Jerusalem.

The first group (2) were families who owned no land, and so were first to feel the effects of lack of income from labouring while engaged on the wall-building. The second group (3) were already mortgaging their land and would lose their security altogether if they could not repay their debts from the annual harvest, while the third group (4) were apparently having to borrow in order to pay their taxes. For all of them, the sense of social injustice was aggravated by the facts that their creditors were fellow-Jews (1, 5) and that they were reaching the point of having to sell themselves into debt-slavery.

Though not illegal as such, such practices were permitted only as short-term measures, and the law was concerned to protect the longer-term interests of the very poor (e.g. Ex. 21:2–11; Lv. 25; Dt. 15:1–18). This could not help in the present sudden emergency, and, besides, what was happening was contrary to the whole ethos of what Nehemiah was attempting to achieve (6–8). He therefore brought moral pressure to bear on the creditors by confronting them in public and by candidly acknowledging his own shortcomings in the matter (10). In this way he cut straight through any legalistic arguments in order to uphold the moral spirit of the law, very much in the manner of some of the earlier prophets.

5:14–19 Nehemiah’s personal example. In order to illustrate the principle that within the community generosity is to be preferred to personal gain, Nehemiah reflected on his practice throughout what we now learn for the first time was his twelve-year term as governor (14). This is considerably longer than the period envisaged at 2:6, and we know next to nothing about what happened after the first year. The highly selective nature of the biblical record is thus again emphasized.

Note. 19 This is the first of Nehemiah’s distinctive ‘remember me’ prayers; cf. 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31. They mostly date, as in the present case, to a time long after the wall-building and seem to indicate that, as he looked back after many years, Nehemiah had come to feel that justice had not been done to him by the community which he had sought to serve.

6:1–19 The wall completed despite personal threats

The three paragraphs in this chapter are clearly marked and shown to be dealing with a similar theme by the references to intimidation in their concluding summaries (9, 14, 19). Unlike ch. 4, however, Nehemiah himself came under personal threat. Despite this, the work was brought to a triumphant conclusion (15–16).

6:1–9 Sanballat tries to eliminate Nehemiah. When Sanballat’s initial attempt to secure a meeting with Nehemiah failed (2–4), he resorted to a lightly disguised form of blackmail (5–7). There is no reason whatever to suppose that his accusations carried any substance, but again he may have reckoned that the recent events of Ezr. 4 would have been sufficiently fresh in the memories of Nehemiah’s associates to get them to bring pressure on him to compromise.

6:10–14 Tobiah seeks to discredit Nehemiah. Tobiah’s close contacts in Jerusalem (17–19) fitted him to act as the chief protagonist in this episode. Several of its details are obscure, but the aim seems to have been to entice or frighten Nehemiah into entering not just the temple but the very sanctuary itself. Even if he had emerged alive, his trespass as a layman into the holy place, which was reserved for the priests, would have driven a wedge between him and the influential priesthood. Apart from the fact that the proposed course of action would have been out of character for a man like Nehemiah (11), its improper suggestion (13) was sufficient to warn him that such a prophetic word could not possibly have come from God.

6:15–19 The wall is completed. The main point of this paragraph comes in vs 17–19, whose chronologically vague introduction (in those days) shows that it marks a point of transition from the account of the wall-building to the remainder of the narrative which deals with reforms internal to Judah. Appropriately, the chief protagonists here, therefore, were the nobles of Judah, who may have wished to maintain good relations with their neighbours for purposes of trade as well as more personal social reasons.

Nonetheless, we cannot overlook the scale of the achievement modestly introduced in v 15. The proper reaction is suitably reserved for the surrounding nations (16), which points to the fulfilment of Nehemiah’s appeal in 2:17. There is no pause for self-congratulation here, however. The wall is regarded as no more than an institutional framework; what counts are the attitudes and activities of the people who live behind it, and already the close of the chapter indicates dangers in this regard. The narrative thus points us forward to the need for the reforms which are to follow.

7:1–73 The need to populate Jerusalem

Recognizing the dangers just mentioned, Nehemiah first adopted short-term measures in order to maintain the security of the city (1–3). In the longer term, however, what was required was a thriving population of those committed to the standards and principles which Nehemiah stood for. He therefore resorted to what may seem to be the somewhat drastic measure of organizing the movement of a sizeable body of people from the countryside into the city. As a basis for this, he decided to make use of the list of those who had returned to Jerusalem at the first (cf. Ezr. 2). While we know that others had also returned in the meantime, the repetition of the list in the present context makes the important theological point that those who should populate the city of God stand in direct continuity with the community who had earlier experienced God’s redemption in the ‘second exodus’.

8:1–10:39 Covenant renewal

The narrative of ch. 7 is not resumed until ch. 11. In between come three important chapters which deal with the spiritual restoration of the community under the shared leadership of both Ezra and Nehemiah. If ch. 7 has already shown that bricks and mortar are not in themselves sufficient to secure the future, then these chapters further indicate that it is not enough either just to fill the city with people of any sort. Only a people which has experienced God’s redemption and renewal, a people to whom is entrusted the law of God (ch. 8), who recognize their dependence upon him (ch. 9) and who are fully committed to a life of faithful obedience (ch. 10) can ensure that the institutional structures which have been set in place serve their true purpose.

8:1–18 The reading of the law

The reappearance of Ezra in this chapter raises a problem. The narrative has reached a point some thirteen years after his journey to Jerusalem with the book of the law, and nothing has been heard of him in the meanwhile. Are we to suppose that only now, after the main work of Nehemiah had been accomplished, was he able to undertake the principal purpose of his mission, or should we look for some other explanation?

There is room for difference of opinion here, and so any suggestion must be advanced with caution. It is noteworthy, however, that at this point we also take leave of Nehemiah’s own account (it is resumed at 12:31) and that the account in this chapter has some features which connect it rather with the Ezra source of Ezr. 7–10. It is therefore attractive to suppose that this account of Ezra’s reading the law once belonged with the rest of the Ezra material. Its original location may have been between Ezr. 8 and 9, and it could have been moved to its present setting by the compiler of the books as a whole in order both to emphasize the theological points outlined above in the introduction to Ne. 8d–10 and to demonstrate how the work of the two great reformers should ultimately be seen as parts of the single divine act of the restoration of the people of God. The giving of the law should be seen as an act of grace at the climax of the restoration programme, not a condition for the restoration in the first place. We saw in Ezr. 4 how these books sometimes allow considerations of theme to override a strict chronology.

However its origin is to be explained, the chapter as it now stands has important lessons about the teaching and reception of the law by the community of faith.

8:1–6 Reading the law. This paragraph shows the happy combination of a people eager to be taught and a teacher willing and able to meet their need. The people took the initiative in inviting Ezra to bring out the law (1); the whole community, v 2 emphasizes, gathered to hear it; they anticipated the reading with a sense of reverent expectancy (6); and they listened attentively throughout the lengthy exposition (3). As the sequel shows, such an attitude allows God’s word to have its maximum impact on the hearers.

For his part, Ezra not only responded at once to the people’s request (2), but he chose to do so not in the temple courts, but in an easily accessible place (3) and in full view (4) so that none should be barred from attending. Moreover, he chose to associate lay people with him in the enterprise (4). It seems that he was anxious to avoid any impression that the law was the private preserve of the religious professional.

8:7–12 Interpreting the law. There is a striking contrast between the two parts of this paragraph, the ‘understanding’ of the law (8, 12) first causing the people to weep (9) and then to celebrate with joy (12). The initial reaction is probably not to be explained by the fact that the law was unfamiliar to them so much as that the interpretation which Ezra and the Levites provided (7–8) brought home its relevance to their situation in a fresh way. As we saw to be the case at Ezr. 9:1–2, Ezra (perhaps for the first time) developed a means of interpreting Scripture whereby parts which had been thought to be out of date were shown to reveal the underlying principles of God’s will which were of timeless relevance. The result of this was to stir the people’s consciences as they came to realize how far short of God’s standards their lives had fallen.

This, however, is neither the sole nor the dominant message either of the OT law or of Scripture as a whole. By reminding them that this day was sacred (9, 11)—a day on which they were especially to recall God’s past acts of grace and salvation towards Israel—and that the joy of the Lord was the source of their strength (10) as they linked themselves by faith with the experience of their ancestors, Ezra set their legitimate sense of failure within the wider context of God’s grace and invitation. Confession would have its proper place (ch. 9), but the first response to hearing God’s word should be of joyful acceptance (10–11). It is a pattern of response not unlike that in Acts 2:37–39. It also illustrates the truth that an orthodox doctrine of the authority of Scripture is not enough. If it is to be effective it needs an interpretation which is true to the tradition from which it derives. It also requires the reverent application of reason in working through its abiding relevance to the changed circumstances of any given contemporary community.

Note. 10 The niv has Nehemiah said whereas the Hebrew text states only ‘he said’. In the context, Ezra is the more probable subject.

8:13–18 Applying the law. From the community’s general acceptance of the law, the leaders turned to Ezra for more detailed instruction (13). In view of the time of year, the most immediately relevant passage would have been Lv. 23, which legislates for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (booths, 14). The requirement to proclaim this word (15) indicates interpretative work on Lv. 23:4. The trees listed are not mentioned in the law (the phrase as it is written qualifies only the words to make booths), but testify to a desire to give a practical application to the generalized commandment of the law. In all this, the people found great joy in enthusiastically following the detailed requirements whose relevance had been freshly brought home to them (16–18). V 17 again suggests that part of this joy was a renewed appreciation of their historical tradition.

9:1–37 Confession

In the overall structure of chs. 8–10, the reading of Scripture (ch. 8) is followed by confession (ch. 9) as a preparation for a renewed pledge to keep the law (ch. 10).

9:1–5 Assembly for confession. The striking point about this paragraph is the absence of the names of either Ezra or Nehemiah. The emphasis is on each individual accepting a share of responsibility in word, attitude (1) and deed (2) for the past sin and present plight of the community. Appropriately, therefore, it was two groups of otherwise unknown Levites who led the congregation in their worship and confession (4–5).

9:5b–37 Prayer of confession. True confession arises from a renewed appreciation of who God is, and that is very much the starting point for this prayer. From the beginning of time, God has revealed himself as one who is worthy of all blessing and praise (5b). He alone is the Lord, as shown by creation (6); he chose Abram, freely promised him a land and proved that he is righteous by keeping that promise (7–8); and he proved himself worthy of such a reputation (name, 10) by the deliverance of his people in the exodus and at the Red Sea (9–11). These first three sections of the prayer, therefore, speak in unqualified terms of God’s goodness and grace, and they provide the basis for the sharp contrast which the community felt in its present circumstances as outlined in the closing verses of the prayer (32–37), where several key terms from this opening section are repeated.

With the journey through the wilderness (12–21) a new note is sounded. Alongside the continuing gracious provision of God (12–15), the people began to rebel (16–18). This, however, only revealed another aspect of God’s character, his mercy (17b), for despite everything he continued to supply and sustain them (19–21), and eventually brought them to the land which he had promised so long ago (22–25).

The portrayal of life in the land (26–31) is very much influenced by the pattern which recurs throughout the book of Judges and to a lesser extent Kings. We cannot identify specific events here; rather the focus is on the underlying rebellious nature of the people and God’s response to it. Three times we are told that they were disobedient and so were handed over to their enemies (26–27a; 28a; 29–30). In the first two cases, they then cried to God, who delivered them in his compassion (27b; 28b). That element in the pattern is not repeated the third time, however, probably because vs 29–31 are speaking of the Babylonian conquest and exile, a state which theologically speaking was still in force at the time of this prayer; the restoration could not yet be regarded as complete because foreign oppression continued (36–37).

Instead, in a most powerful move from the point of intercession, the expected report of the people’s cry to God is replaced by an actual prayer to that effect, starting at v 32. Against the background of all that has gone before, this breathes a strong atmosphere of hope that God will again move to liberate his people from their present experience of bondage, and that he will again allow them to experience freedom in the land which he had given them in faithfulness to his original promise. The people’s confession is thus a vital step towards their restoration which is the subject of these chapters as a whole.

9:38–10:39 A pledge to keep the law

In this chapter, the community enters into a binding agreement (1) to observe various aspects of the law, mostly, though not entirely, related to the support of the temple and its services (29–38). In its present setting as part of the climax of the combined work of Ezra and Nehemiah, it serves to demonstrate the earnestness of the people to live a life worthy of those who have experienced the restoring grace of God. It is a response to what he has achieved on their behalf, not a condition of restoration in the first place.

Like the two chapters which precede it, its original historical setting is uncertain. Many scholars have noted that most of the specific points of the agreement appear to put on a permanent basis the avoidance of abuses with which Nehemiah dealt in piecemeal fashion in ch. 13, and so conclude that the pledge of this chapter must have been formulated later. If so, the final editor of the book would again have been grouping his material according to theme rather than in strictly chronological order. See the introductory comments to chs. 8–10 and to ch. 8 above, and note that the narrative which was interrupted after ch. 7 is only resumed at ch. 11, indicating that chs. 8–10 as a whole are to be treated separately.

10:1–28 The list of signatories. This list (which in the Hebrew text actually interrupts a single sentence made up of 9:38 and 10:28–29) comprises a comprehensive accumulation of most of the names and titles for the people who are known from elsewhere in these books to have been in good standing in the community. The point seems to be that each individual has a responsibility to accept for himself or herself the values which characterize the whole.

10:29–39 The details of the agreement. V 29 states in a general way that the people intended henceforth to observe the law of God, and the following verses spell out in detail what this will mean in various specific instances (doubtless those which had recently been particularly neglected). A vague statement of good intentions is not sufficient: a confession of faith needs to be translated into a practical and visible change of lifestyle and practice.

The details of the individual clauses of the agreement and their relationship with the laws of the Pentateuch are complex and cannot be described in full here. The general point to note is that they all have links with the written law but again display the kind of interpretative activity by way of clarification and updating which we have seen to have been a mark of Ezra’s teaching. It is thus clear that the leaders of the community had made their own the new style of teaching which he had introduced.

11:1–13:31 Consolidation

11:1–20 The new residents of Jerusalem

The opening of this chapter resumes the narrative which was broken off at the end of ch. 7. It does not, however, appear to come from Nehemiah’s own account, but from some alternative source. This indicates that although much of the book presents the course of events very much from one man’s point of view, many of the chief elements of his programme were also shared or adopted by a number of his contemporaries.

The problem of the previously reduced population of Jerusalem was resolved by lot (a system which, under priestly direction, was believed to reveal God’s will; cf. 10:34). A tenth (or tithe; cf. 10:37–38) of the people agreed to move in from the countryside (1–2). Their names were then recorded with some gratitude (3–19), for in many cases it must have involved considerable inconvenience. V 20 is an obvious conclusion for this particular list.

Most of the list is paralleled in 1 Ch. 9:2–17, and a close comparison shows that neither has preserved the whole of the original. Beyond observing the general order (men of Judah, 4b–6; men of Benjamin, 7–8; secular leaders, 9; priests, 10–14; Levites 15–18; gatekeepers, 19), we should therefore be careful about matters of detail. It is interesting to note, however, that part of the vocabulary used in the description has a military flavour (e.g. in vs 6, 9 and 14); the defensive purpose of the operation was apparently not forgotten.

11:21–12:26 Supplementary lists

After the natural conclusion of the main list in 11:20 (and note that it leads naturally into the next narrative item at 12:27), the opportunity has been taken to add a number of other lists which are not directly associated with the question of the population of Jerusalem. 11:21–24 are supplementary to the main list, 11:25–36 catalogue some of the settlements outside Jerusalem, and 12:1–26 combine several lists of priests and Levites. Though this material is thus not strictly related to the general story-line of this part of the book, it contributes in its own way to the portrayal of a community which was ordering itself anew.

Detailed analysis of this section is too complex to be attempted here, but a couple of broader matters deserve comment. First, the list of settlements in 11:25–36 is more extensive than the actual province of Judah at the time. It seems to look wistfully back to former, more glorious days (cf. Jos. 15) and thereby to stimulate hopes for a greater future yet to come. The discrepancy between present reality and the broad sweep of the promises of God is a vital element in the faith of the people of God in any age, as Heb. 11:13–16 makes clear.

Secondly, 12:1–26 presents us with an initially curious telescoping of historical perspective in which the generation of the first return and that of Ezra and Nehemiah are set right alongside one another. This lies on the surface in v 26 (Jeshua was the high priest when the second temple was built; cf. Ezr. 3:2 and 5:2), but in fact the lists of priests and Levites which precede also come from these two generations. Such a compression in the presentation of lists for theological purposes was something of a convention at the time, and it occurs in the NT as well (cf. Mt. 1:1–17). It suggests that behind the complexities of the historical process when viewed from a human perspective the eye of faith can discern the orderly progression of the outworking of the divine will.

Note. 12:22 Darius the Persian: this unparalleled title seems to be a reference to Darius I (in whose reign the temple was rebuilt) designed to distinguish him from the somewhat mysterious figure of ‘Darius the Mede’ of Dn. 5:30 who apparently preceded ‘Cyrus the Persian’ (Dn. 6:28).

12:27–13:3 The dedication of the wall and its sequel

At last we reach what appears to be the climax of Nehemiah’s career, the dedication of the wall whose construction so dominated the first half of the book. Material from Nehemiah’s own personal account has been joined with an alternative source in order to present this combined version of the united celebration by the people. Two balanced processions were formed (31–36, 38, 40–42), and after leaving the city through the Valley Gate on the west of the city they proceeded in opposite directions, each going half-way round the city before re-entering and joining up for a united service of praise in the temple (40). The emphasis on their joy in v 43 is unparalleled in its intensity, a healthy reminder of the biblical truth that the prospect of such joy may legitimately serve to strengthen us during times of hardship (cf. Rom. 5:2–5; 8:18–25; Heb. 12:2).

Unlike a fairy story, however, this ‘happy ending’ does not mark the conclusion of the book. The text hurries on (At that time, 12:44; On that day, 13:1) to deal with matters which we might too quickly dismiss as mere routine, namely financial provision for the regular temple services (12:44–47) and purification of the congregation in obedience to the law of God (13:1–3). Without such routine, the author seems to imply, the joy of a single day can never be sustained. Although it is usually the high-points of success which impress themselves on the memory, the true gauge of spiritual progress in the individual as much as in community life is the extent to which what might be passed by as ‘the normal’ has been transformed. The form of the narrative at this point emphatically asserts that without such progress in regard to the ordinary, the climaxes and celebrations will fade all too quickly into tarnished memories.

13:4–31 Concluding reforms

The book of Nehemiah seems to peter out in what might be considered a somewhat unsatisfactory manner, not so much with a bang as with a whimper. All the abuses referred to in this final chapter have been the subject of earlier treatment, but they rear their heads again here despite the best efforts of the reformers to eradicate them. Only by way of an aside do we learn that the setting is Nehemiah’s second term as governor (6–7), so that perhaps as much as fifteen years have passed since the main part of the book (cf. 5:14), even though the chronological notes in vs 4, 6, 15 and 23 seem to gloss over this. It is as though the book is pointing to its own failure, reminding us that, however important good structures and routines may be (as was pointed out immediately above), nothing can substitute for the renewal of the naturally perverse inclinations of the human heart.

The ideal description of 12:44–13:3 had dealt with the proper care for and maintenance of the temple chambers, services and personnel and with the purity of the community. The rest of ch. 13 mostly focuses on the shortfallings in these same two areas, the former in vs 4–14 and the latter from v 15 on (although admittedly the question of Sabbath observance, vs 15–22, is less closely linked than the remainder). The style of writing is as colourful and forceful as ever, and on the whole the narrative stands in little need of additional comment. Only with regard to the recurrence of mixed marriages (23–27) is it necessary to point out that the problem seems to have been quite localized, the children who spoke the language of Ashdod (24) suggesting that it may have been confined primarily to those who lived on the western borders of the province of Judah. The basic issues had been dealt with previously by Ezra (and briefly summarized by Nehemiah in v 25; cf. Ezr. 9:2, 12). This enabled Nehemiah here to deal on an ad hoc (if characteristically forthright!) basis with cases of individual abuse.

Behind this chapter lies again a concern for the distinctive identity of the community. In the face of strong external pressures it had been in danger of compromise to the extent that its witness would have been diluted and rendered ineffective. A firm and solid focus at the centre of the community, proper worship of God at his designated sanctuary, was essential.

The Christian church continues to face these issues, albeit in different forms. The principles for appropriate response remain the same: a strong core of leadership and a clear line of demarcation at the fringes. From a position of strength and security it is possible to extend a hand of welcome and forgiveness to those outside. From a position of weakness both parties would sink together.

H.G.M. Williamson

cf. compare

OT Old Testament

niv New International Version

NT New Testament

H. G. M. Williamson, M.A., Ph.D., D.D., F.B.A., Regius Professor of Hebrew, University of Oxford, and Student of Christ Church, Oxford, UK.


Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Neh 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.