Category Archives: Nehemiah

Nehemiah 11-13

In chapter 11 ten percent of the exiles are asked to volunteer to live in Jerusalem, while everyone else lived in the rest of the towns of Judah. In chapter 12 all the priests and Levites are named and given their orders. Yet in the final chapter, the same pattern of disobedience begins, and Nehemiah continues to try to get the people to do the right thing. He asks God several times to remember him for what he’s doing for his house, in fact four times in this last chapter.

This is basically the end of Israel’s biblical story, and it is a supremely unsatisfying ending. Even as God has brought them back and given them leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah, it isn’t good enough. The people still go their own way. When you look at the people of Israel and their story it seems like something is missing, that the story leaves off in the middle. All of the prophecies we’ve read so far, and the ones to come, seem stillborn, unless Jesus of Nazareth really was the Messiah, risen from the dead, like his disciples said.

Nehemiah 5-10

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. 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.

Nehemiah 1-4

I was again planning on reading all the way through Nehemiah before making any comments, but something stood out to me in chapter 4. The book is about its namesake, who is a cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. He is one of the Jewish exiles (the term Jew comes from this time when the exiles had gone back to resettle Judah), and inquires how his brethren are doing back in Jerusalem. He is told that, “The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” This puts him in a funk. He goes before God and confesses his and Israel’s sin. What impresses about he and Ezra is that they know God’s word, and they plead with God based on his covenant promises, and God answers.

The king asks Nehemiah what’s wrong with him because it’s obvious on his countenance, and he tells him. He asks if he can go back to Jerusalem to help rebuild the walls, and the king not only allows him to do this, but provides safe passage. Once there, he inspects the walls and comes up with a plan to rebuild them. Once they start the process, bad guys, of course, don’t like what’s happening and threaten to stop, and kill, them. In the midst of this, Nehemiah prays, and I love their response to the situation:

But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

They prayed and posted guards. This is always how the people of God work. It is not one or the other. We don’t pray and then sit around expecting God will do something and we nothing. On the other hand we don’t do and ignore God as if our own efforts work in isolation from his. God uses means, and that often means us.