The wall is finally finished, taking 52 days to complete. Then Nehemiah sets about organizing the city since it is “large and spacious and there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.” In chapter 7 he lists the men of Israel who came up from the captivity in Babylon. There were over 42,000 men, so you figure with women and children there has to be over 100,000 people ready to remake the city.
In chapter 8 and 9 Ezra reads the people the Book of the Law, and they repent and worship God and rejoice in him. As they confess their sin in chapter 9, the Levites pray an amazing prayer that is an historical retelling of the history of God’s people. It always goes back to history, to real events in space and time, to real people who grappled with sin and death and judgement and covenant promise, God’s goodness revealed that they can never quite completely enter into. The prayer starts from the beginning:
“Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.
One of the fundamentally unique aspects of the people of Israel is that their God is the Creator of the Universe. This mitigates against John Walton’s argument in the Genesis books that ancient peoples would not have seen the Genesis accounts as creating something from nothing, that it was all about functionality. Very clearly in the 500s BC, people looked back at Genesis and saw God as Creator of the material universe. In fact all through the OT, God as Creator is asserted over and over again so as to distinguish Israel’s God from idols who can do nothing because they are nothing.
There is a profound irony at the end of the prayer. They started out as God’s people in slavery, and after 1000 years they are right back where they started:
36 “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.
So they promise yet again in chapter 10 to follow God, yet we know this is a futile endeavor because no matter how hard we try, no matter how determined we are, we simply cannot give ourselves a new nature. And it is only a transformation of our heart, a literal raising from the dead, that will unleash the shackles of slavery and allow us to truly love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. However imperfectly we may do this.