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Nehemiah is situated in the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible and is part of the Historical Books of the Protestant canon. It originally appeared together with the book of Ezra; their separation was first attested by Origen. Jerome followed this practice of treating Ezra and Nehemiah as distinct books—against longstanding Jewish tradition—in his Latin Vulgate.
Authorship & Time Period
There are three basic views of the book’s authorship: 1) Ezra wrote the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles; 2) Ezra and Nehemiah each wrote the books named after them; and 3) the Chronicler (the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles) is responsible for the final form of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra and Nehemiah rely on several sources, including edicts of foreign rulers, lists, letters between government officials, and their own first-person memoirs. All of these have been compiled, together with narrative and commentary, to tell the story of the Jewish people’s return from exile and rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem and its temple.
The book of Ezra covers a period of time spanning from Cyrus’s Decree in 538 BC through Ezra’s ministry that begins in 458 BC. Nehemiah, on the other hand, covers a much shorter period that begins with Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem in 445 BC and concludes sometime after his second return to the city. Nehemiah left Jerusalem for Susa in 433 BC (the Persian king Artaxerxes’s thirty-second year; Neh 9:6), but it is unclear when he arrived back in Jerusalem. The entire book of Nehemiah occurs during the reign of Artaxerxes, which was marked by instability and rebellion in and around Egypt. This political situation provides insight into Artaxerxes’s disposition toward Nehemiah, for Artaxerxes would benefit significantly from a friendly relationship with a people group in the region near Egypt. For further discussion of the historical context of Ezra and Nehemiah, please see the introduction to the commentary on Ezra.
Like Ezra, the book of Nehemiah chronicles a major rebuilding project (the temple in Ezra and the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah), includes lists of returned exiles, recounts various successes of the returned exiles, and ends by narrating some of their failures.
Timeline of the Events in Ezra and Nehemiah
“‘O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.’ Now I was cupbearer to the king.”
— Nehemiah 1:11 ESV
The book of Nehemiah chronicles God’s supernatural, sovereign restoration of Jerusalem’s walls along with the returned exiles’ covenant renewal and covenant failure.
I. Nehemiah in Susa (1:1–2:10)
A. Hanani’s Report of Jerusalem (1:1–3)
B. Nehemiah’s Prayer (1:4–11)
C. Nehemiah’s Petition and Commission (2:1–10)
II. The Work in Jerusalem (2:11–7:73)
A. Nehemiah’s Arrival, Inspection, and Inspiration (2:11–20)
B. Report of Wall Repairs (3:1–32)
C. Opposition to Rebuilding (4:1–14)
D. Resumption of Rebuilding, with Weapons at the Ready (4:15–23)
E. Nehemiah’s Defense of the Poor and Rebuke of Judah’s Leadership (5:1–13)
F. Nehemiah’s Generosity (5:14–19)
G. Threats and Intimidation Attempts (6:1–14)
H. Completion of Walls; Tobiah’s Allies; Officials Appointed (6:15–7:4)
I. List of Returned Exiles (7:5–73)
III. Worship and Covenant Renewal (8:1–10:39)
A. Teaching of Torah (8:1–8)
B. Mourning and Rejoicing (8:9–12)
C. The Feast of Booths (8:13–18)
D. Confession, Repentance, and Covenant Renewal (9:1–38)
E. List of Covenant Signers (10:1–27)
G. List of Covenant Stipulations (10:28–39)
IV. Summary of Successes (11:1–12:47)
A. Repopulation of Jerusalem (11:1–36)
B. List of Priests and Levites (12:1–26)
C. Dedication of Jerusalem’s Walls (12:27–43)
D. Temple Service (12:44–47)
V. “Things Fall Apart” (13:1–31)
A. Support for Tobiah (13:1–9)
B. Neglect of Levites (13:10–14)
C. Sabbath Commerce (13:15–22)
D. Intermarriage (13:23–31)
Nehemiah in Susa (1:1–2:10)
Hanani’s Report of Jerusalem (1:1–3)
The book of Nehemiah opens in much the same way as Ezra—by situating the narrative historically with reference to a Persian king. Readers of Ezra must wait several chapters to meet the person for whom the book is named; however, we meet Nehemiah, whose name means “Yahweh comforts,” in the first verse of the first chapter of the book of Nehemiah, and he will feature prominently throughout the entire story.
“In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year” (1:1) refers to November–December of 445 BC, the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes, the Persian king who also appears in the book of Ezra. Chislev would become particularly significant later in Jewish history as the month when the Maccabees prevailed against their Greek overlords and rededicated the Second Temple, whose building the book of Ezra recounts. Susa, which is the setting of the book of Esther, is the winter capital of the Persian Empire. It is located in modern-day southwest Iran, about 900 miles from Jerusalem.
Hanani, whose name means “Yahweh is gracious,” is most likely Nehemiah’s literal brother, given Nehemiah 7:2 when Nehemiah gives “my brother Hanani . . . charge over Jerusalem.” Hanani’s report of the destroyed walls could refer to Jerusalem’s walls having been broken down since the Babylonian exile. It could also indicate that the early attempts to rebuild the walls recorded in Ezra 4:7–24 garnered some success and that the rebuilt portions were destroyed again after the work was forcibly stopped. Either way, we will soon learn that the news devastates Nehemiah and moves him to action.
Nehemiah’s Prayer (1:4–11)
Nehemiah’s response to Hanani’s report mirrors Ezra’s response to the report of sin among the exiles in Ezra 9: he weeps, fasts, and prays. Nehemiah’s prayer of lament reveals a person steeped in Israel’s scriptural tradition. It includes language stitched together from several portions of the Torah, with echoes of books from outside the Torah as well, such as Kings (e.g., 1Kgs 8:52) and Isaiah (e.g., 59:2). In 1:10, Nehemiah quotes Moses in Exodus 32:11 to remind the Lord that he “redeemed [your people] by your great power and by your strong hand.” In the Exodus passage, Moses is interceding for the people of Israel just after the golden calf incident. Here Nehemiah is likewise confessing his and his people’s sin, asking God to act on their behalf as he did when he brought them out of Egypt and forgave their sins against him during the wilderness journey into the promised land. Even though Nehemiah has not personally sinned against Yahweh, he self-identifies with the people whom God sent into exile and confesses the sins “which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house” (1:6). Like Ezra, Nehemiah presents a model of corporate repentance that Christian readers today should follow.
Nehemiah concludes his prayer by asking God for “mercy,” or covenant faithfulness, “in the sight of this man,” that is, Artaxerxes (1:11). This section ends with Nehemiah noting, “I was cupbearer to the king.” This important position granted him regular access to Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was much more than a simple servant of the king but was rather an influential person in his court. Further, being cupbearer likely meant Nehemiah was a eunuch, a class of people forbidden access to temple worship (cf. Deut 23:1).
Nehemiah’s Petition and Commission (2:1–10)
Nehemiah 2:1–10 provides a fitting example of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Nehemiah rightly recognizes that God is sovereign and thus prays to him and gives him credit for his success (“the good hand of my God was upon me,” 2:10), but he also takes the appropriate steps of careful preparation for the journey (Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah, 184).
“When wine was set before him” (2:1) indicates that Nehemiah approaches Artaxerxes during a feast, which occurred four months after Hanani’s visit. The exact meaning of “queen” in verse 6 is unclear—it may refer to Artaxerxes’s wife, Damaspia, or it may refer to a concubine, as in Daniel 5—but it likely indicates a shift from the more public setting of the feast in verse 1 to a more private setting (Ibid., 180).
Nehemiah’s fear in approaching Artaxerxes is appropriate given the request he would make; rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls would require the king to overturn his previous decision in Ezra 4 to halt the city’s rebuilding. Nevertheless, Nehemiah presses on with his request, which the king receives favorably. With his request granted, Nehemiah also asks for letters guaranteeing his safe passage and provisions to rebuild the temple fortress, city walls, and his own residence.
This episode, along with the following episode, concludes with reference to the displeasure of Nehemiah’s archnemeses, Sanballat and Tobiah. Sanballat is a Babylonian name that means “Sin [the moon god] gives life.” The Elephantine papyri list him as governor of Samaria in 405 BC (Ibid., 182). That Tobiah is an “Ammonite official” contrasts starkly with Nehemiah’s reference to the Israelites, for “No Ammonite . . . may enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:3).
The Work in Jerusalem (2:11–7:73)
Nehemiah’s Arrival, Inspection, and Inspiration (2:11–20)
Here Nehemiah records his initial inspection of the city in its dilapidated state. Nehemiah’s preliminary work took place in secret, likely to stave off the inevitable opposition for as long as possible. There is some scholarly debate regarding the exact location of some of the landmarks Nehemiah mentions in these verses, and the northern and western sections of the walls are inaccessible today; however, Nehemiah’s general direction and the purpose of his mission are clear enough. He exited through the Valley Gate on the southwestern side of the city, then traveled east and south toward the Dung Gate, which was at the southernmost tip of Jerusalem. He then made his way around the city walls until he reached a point where he could no longer continue and returned through the Valley Gate, through which he had exited the city.
After a thorough, secret inspection, Nehemiah reports to “the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the work” (2:16), telling them of both God’s and the king’s favor. Nehemiah’s report gives the people courage to begin the work. They “strengthened their hands for” the rebuilding project (2:18). However, Nehemiah also further antagonizes his enemies Sanballat and Tobiah. In what will prove to be a pattern throughout the rest of the book, Nehemiah refuses to cower before his enemies; instead, he rebukes them and professes his trust that God will see to the city’s restoration.
Report of Wall Repairs (3:1–32)
After the intrigue of Nehemiah’s discovery mission in the previous section, chapter 3 records that the people did exactly as they had promised to do in Nehemiah 2:18: they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Williamson points out that the narrative “proceeds section by section round the wall in a counter-clockwise direction, making a full circuit from and to the Sheep Gate” (198), which is located in Jerusalem’s northeast. The list of repairs is not exhaustive, but Nehemiah aims to demonstrate the completeness of the work through the account’s narrative structure.
This discussion of the wall repairs typically lists out the workers according to their families and location within the city. Some people worked in groups organized according to their trade, such as the goldsmiths (3:8), perfumers (3:8), and merchants (3:32). 3:1 also reports that the high priest Eliashib and other priests worked to repair the Sheep Gate (see also 3:22, 28), and the Levites are mentioned as well in 3:17. Some Jewish people, such as the nobles of Tekoa, refused to “stoop to serve their Lord” (3:5), but overall this account presents the inhabitants of Jerusalem as unified around the singular task of repairing the city wall.
Opposition to Rebuilding (4:1–14)
Sanballat and Tobiah now make their third appearance in the narrative. This time their invective increases as they heap scorn and mocking upon the exiles rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. Sanballat fires off five rhetorical questions to whip the crowd into a frenzy, and Tobiah follows up by saying the work is so shoddy that even a fox could break down the wall. In verses 7–8, they promise violence if the Judeans continue in their work.
In listing the “army of Samaria” (4:2), the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites (4:7), the author shows that Judah’s enemies have boxed the people in. The Samarians lived to the north; the Arabs to the south; the Ammonites to the east; and the Ashdodites to the west. God’s people are fully surrounded by hostile forces seeking to thwart their work.
Nehemiah, though, remains steadfast and once again demonstrates his firm belief in both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. First, he prays an imprecation, or curse, against his enemies, asking God to turn their taunt upon them, to give them up as captives, and not to forgive them (4:5; see also Jer 18:23). He then “prayed [again] to our God and set a guard as a protection against them by day and night” (4:9). Nehemiah strengthens the people by telling them not to fear their enemies but to “remember the Lord . . . and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (4:14). For Nehemiah, trust in God and human action are of the same accord.
Resumption of Rebuilding, with Weapons at the Ready (4:15–23)
This section of Nehemiah’s narrative again highlights God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. The first part of verse 15 gives full credit to the Lord: “God frustrated their plan.” The second part of the verse records that Nehemiah and the others returned to their work, but with a clear plan in place to thwart any violence attempted against God’s people.
“My servants” in verse 16 likely refers to officials who served Nehemiah, and there is a bifurcation of the “leaders” and the rest of the people in verse 17—the leaders offered support and watched over the weapons of warfare while the rest of the people continued the building project. Nehemiah develops a plan to muster the workers should they be attacked, again demonstrating his understanding of human responsibility, but as is typical for this leader of Judah, he places the outcome in God’s hand alone: “our God will fight for us” (4:20).
Finally, in verses 21–22, Nehemiah addresses the problem of workers spending the night outside of Jerusalem. The movement to and from the city created the opportunity for Jerusalem to be attacked when it was not well guarded, or for the people to be attacked while in their villages. It also meant their enemies could more easily sneak into the city among the throng of people returning for work in the mornings. Thus, Nehemiah secured Jerusalem by ensuring it was always properly guarded and that, even in sleep, the men would be immediately ready to fight.
Nehemiah’s Defense of the Poor and Rebuke of Judah’s Leadership (5:1–13)
This section of Nehemiah divides into two smaller sections: verses 1–5 and verses 6–13. In verses 1–5, readers learn that the people of Judah are impoverished. This is likely because 1) they are surrounded on all sides by hostile neighbors reluctant to trade with them, and 2) their time is spent repairing the wall instead of tending to their farms (see Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 190). Those in power are exploiting this abject poverty by forcing the poor to hand over their property and sell their children into slavery in order to eke out a meager existence. The situation is reminiscent of Micah’s indictment against Israel’s leadership several centuries prior when he castigated them for “tear[ing] the skin off my people and . . . eat[ing] the flesh from off their bones” (3:2). In Nehemiah’s day, even after the horrors of exile, the rich continue to cannibalize the poor.
Verses 6–13 record Nehemiah’s response. The injustice enrages him, so he takes the bold step of confronting the leaders publicly, which is altogether appropriate since their sin also was public. He rebukes the “nobles and officials” (5:7), like Micah centuries earlier, for their selfish exploitation of the poor. Further, Nehemiah implicates himself “and my brother and my servants” in the practice of lending money, then he cancels the loans and expects everyone else to cancel as well (5:10). The leadership receives his message favorably and stops their unjust economic practices. For good measure, Nehemiah calls in the priests to make the people swear that they will do what they have promised, and he concludes with his second imprecation, asking God to “empty” those who continue to exploit the poor (5:13).
Nehemiah’s Generosity (5:14–19)
In contrast to this exploitation, Nehemiah now offers himself as an example of generosity. Not only did he not exact usury from the loans he gave, but he also refused to increase the people’s tax burden. Instead of relying on the food allowance in the twelve years he served as governor, Nehemiah provided for himself and those who served in his administration, in addition to any foreign officials he hosted. Further, Nehemiah and his men refused to use their political positions to increase their own wealth. To top all of that off, Nehemiah reminds the people that he did not consider himself to be above performing the manual labor required to repair the wall. No, Nehemiah and his servants labored alongside the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. The fear of God was the motivation for maintaining his integrity in these matters.
This section ends with Nehemiah asking God to remember him for the good that he has done. Nehemiah will repeat this refrain later in the book as well (see 13:14ff), indicating his keen awareness that he is in fact a good and faithful leader who serves God’s people rather than his own interests. Importantly, Nehemiah leaves the reward for his work in God’s hands; in sharp contrast to the leaders Israel and Judah had grown accustomed to, he does not exact payment from those he serves.
Threats and Intimidation Attempts (6:1–14)
In verses 1–9, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem attempt to intimidate Nehemiah and force him into a face-to-face meeting at which they plan to harm him. They want to meet him at Hakkapherim, whose location is uncertain, but whose name means “the lions.” The plain of Ono lies twenty-seven miles northwest of Jerusalem and “was for centuries neither Israelite nor Jewish territory” (Fensham, 200). Nehemiah’s leaders clearly want to lure him away from the protection of his supporters, but Nehemiah is no fool and so rebuffs their overture four times. The fifth time, Sanballat threatens to report falsely to Artaxerxes that Nehemiah is at the center of a budding “messianic movement” (Fensham, 201), but again Nehemiah refuses to engage his enemies beyond denying the rumors; instead, he asks God to “strengthen my hands” (6:9).
Verses 10–14 recount Sanballat and Tobiah hiring a man called Shemaiah to deliver a false prophecy to Nehemiah to cajole him into entering the temple and, thus, sinning against God. Since Nehemiah was a layman, he was forbidden from entering the temple, and doubly so since he was likely a eunuch given his service as Artaxerxes’s cupbearer. Whereas the plot outlined in verses 1–9 aimed at Nehemiah’s murder, the plot in verses 10–14 aimed to humiliate him publicly and, thus, undermine his leadership. Verse 14 records Nehemiah’s third imprecation in the book.
Completion of Walls; Tobiah’s Allies; Officials Appointed (6:15–7:4)
This short section can be divided further into: the notice of the walls’ completion (6:15–16); a report of the relationship between Tobiah and the nobles of Judah (6:17–19); and Nehemiah’s appointment of officials over Jerusalem (7:1–4).
Jerusalem’s walls were completed in a mere fifty-two days, with work ending in early October, 445 BC. Although this is a remarkably short period of time, it is by no means an impossible feat, particularly given the dire circumstances created by the lack of a wall to protect Jerusalem. The archaeological record supports Nehemiah’s timeline, as Fensham notes: “the excavations on the eastern hill have shown that the wall was a rough construction, executed rapidly” (207).
6:17–19 reveals the intricate nature of the relationship between Tobiah and the leaders of Judah. Some leaders were “bound by oath to him” (6:18), and others were in a relationship with him through marriage, which gives insight into the complications created by the intermarriage crisis recorded in Ezra. Although Judah’s nobles attempted to reconcile the two leaders, Tobiah’s true intentions were clear to Nehemiah.
In the final section (7:1–4), Nehemiah appoints officials to serve in Jerusalem, which included giving “charge over Jerusalem” to his brother Hanani—who first alerted him to the situation in Jerusalem—and Hananiah, “the governor of the castle” (7:2). Nehemiah’s charge included strict orders regarding when to open the city gates and where to station men to protect the city, for “the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt” (7:4). Again, Nehemiah both trusted God for protection and took steps to protect God’s people.
List of Returned Exiles (7:5–73)
Because the “people within [Jerusalem] were few, and no houses had been rebuilt” (7:4), God “put it into [Nehemiah’s] heart” (7:5) to take a census of the people in order to determine who would move from the surrounding villages and make a home within the city’s walls. Nehemiah then finds the genealogical record of returnees that we first saw in Ezra 2. Some scholars argue that Ezra depends on Nehemiah for the list; other scholars argue that Nehemiah depends on Ezra for the list; and still others argue that they both rely on a third source for the list. Despite ambiguity regarding which list came first, it is clear that, aside from some minor differences, they are essentially the same and report the same information.
Worship and Covenant Renewal (8:1–10:39)
Teaching of Torah (8:1–8)
Leviticus 23:24 provides the reasoning behind this gathering on the first day of the seventh month. It reads, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation.” The people assemble at the Water Gate, near the Gihon Spring on the city’s eastern side. Significantly, this assembly does not occur at the temple, where only men would have been allowed; instead, men, women, and “all who would understand” (8:2; that is, children who were old enough to comprehend the teaching) are welcomed to hear Ezra expound from the Torah.
Some writers use this passage as a prooftext to support the concept of “platform building,” or creating a following through social media or other means to disseminate one’s message or “brand.” This passage, however, should not be taken to support building one’s brand or drawing a following for oneself. Ezra does teach from a platform erected for this purpose, but he is by no means alone, and the focus is not on Ezra or his words; rather, Ezra is surrounded by thirteen capable Levites who also “read from . . . the Law of God” and interpret it so that “the people could understand the reading” (8:8). In Nehemiah 8, then, the focus is squarely on the Scriptures and the importance of the people understanding them, not on developing a following or building a platform. Ezra and the thirteen men with him thus model a type of worship and teaching that pushes against the current cultural temptation to fixate on a single person or to use ministry to build one’s own brand.
Mourning and Rejoicing (8:9–12)
Although the events recorded in Nehemiah occurred during Ezra’s time in Jerusalem, he isn’t named specifically until chapter 8, when he and the thirteen men with him explain Torah to the exiles. Nehemiah 8:9 lists Ezra and Nehemiah together, thus indicating that they at the least knew each other, though the two books do not depict them acting in tandem with each other.
Following the teaching in verses 1–8, the people who had heard Ezra and the Levites read from the Torah and explain its meaning in their own context are greatly distressed and weep over their sin. Such remorse over sin is right and appropriate, but Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites quickly point out that this particular day—the first day of the seventh month—was marked for rejoicing, not for mourning, which the people may not have known due to their lack of knowledge of Torah.
Given that feasting and rejoicing were called for, the leaders send the people home to do just that. The food and wine the people were to consume was supposed to be the best ( “the fat and . . . sweet wine”), and they were to “send portions to anyone who has nothing ready” (8:10), thereby showing care for the poor among them. Further, the people were reminded that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). The Lord had delivered them from exile, guided the rebuilding of the temple, and now reestablished the city walls. As he had provided for them in ancient times and the recent past, he will continue to do so.
Feast of Booths (8:13–18)
Although most of the people go home to follow the instructions to eat a fellowship meal together, “the heads of the fathers’ houses,” along with the priests and Levites, return to Ezra to study the Torah further (8:13). This study session begins on the second day of the seventh month, and they soon learn about the Feast of Booths. It seems clear that the passage in question is Leviticus 23:33–43, which gives detailed instructions for this feast. Deuteronomy 16:13–15 also discusses the feast and is likely also in view here.
This festival was to be celebrated from the fifteenth to the twenty-third day of the seventh month, so the people had plenty of time to return to Jerusalem after their journey in the previous section. The people were to live in booths, or roughly constructed huts, to remind them of their time in the wilderness. During this festival celebrating the harvest, and thus the Lord’s provision, they were to rejoice, bring multiple sacrifices, and refrain from work.
The references to Joshua and the return from captivity in 8:17 continue the connection seen previously in Ezra and Nehemiah between the current generation returning from exile and the exodus generation being delivered from slavery in Egypt. The return from exile is indeed a second exodus in which God demonstrated his might and power, just as he did when he brought his people out of Egypt.
Confession, Repentance, and Covenant Renewal (9:1–38)
Verses 1–5 set the scene for the prayer of confession and covenant renewal recorded in this chapter. In this first section, we learn that Israel has gathered and has separated themselves from all non-Israelites. They are here for fasting, prayer, and ritual demonstrations of sorrow over their sin (“in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads,” 9:1). Significantly, those present repent for their own sins and the sins of their ancestors, thus demonstrating the corporate identity of all Israel. For a fourth of the day—about three hours—they read the Torah, and then for the next fourth of the day, they confess their sin and worship the Lord.
Verses 6–37 record a long prayer from the Levites (see 9:5) that includes confession of sin and a recounting of God’s faithfulness to his people, both in blessing and sustaining them throughout their history and in punishing their sin and evil. It divides into several sections. Verse 6 glorifies God as the creator of all things. Verses 7–8 recount God’s choosing of Abraham and Abraham’s faith in and faithfulness to the Lord. Verses 9–21 record God’s faithfulness in leading the people out of Egypt and guiding them through the wilderness for forty years. In this section come the first hints that all was not well among God’s people, as the author remembers the golden calf episode and “the great blasphemies” (9:18) the people committed against God. Verses 22–25 tell of the conquest of the promised land, focusing solely on Yahweh’s power and provision rather than on Joshua’s leadership in taking over Canaan. Verses 26–31 recount the cycle of sin, judgment, and crying out for help most evident in the book of Judges and that continued throughout the people’s time in the land. Verses 30–31 bring readers to roughly the present with a reference to the Babylonian captivity and God’s preservation of a remnant (the current audience). Verses 32–37 record their confession of sin. They stand in a long line of people who have turned away from the Lord, and Yahweh has remained faithful to them through it all. Indeed, that the people are in slavery is a sure sign that God has remained and will remain faithful to his covenant with them, since the covenant includes curses for disobedience.
The recounting of their past and present sin in verses 6–37 leads directly to a renewal of the covenant with Yahweh in verse 38. Given his faithfulness and goodness presented in the preceding verses, along with the people’s repentance over their past and current sin, the only appropriate response is to renew their covenantal commitment to the God who has kept them throughout their history.
List of Covenant Signers (10:1–27)
After the long prayer of confession in the previous section, 10:1–27 records the names of those who signed the covenant renewal agreement in 9:38.
List of Covenant Stipulations (10:28–39)
The first half of chapter 10 listed by name the “nobles” (10:29) who signed the covenant renewal agreement. In the second half, we learn that a large group of exiles—“all who separated themselves” (10:28)—joined with the leaders in agreeing to enter into “a curse and an oath” to obey God by following his law (10:29). This group included not only men but also women and children—“all who have knowledge and understanding” (10:28). The covenant commitment fell not only on the heads of the houses but also included within families the individual members who were old enough to participate.
Verses 30–39 outline the various ways in which the people commit to following Torah, namely marriage purity, Sabbath keeping, the Year of Jubilee, and maintenance of the temple and temple worship. In each category, the narrator draws on existing Pentateuchal legislation but updates it to reflect the exiles’ current situation, thus modeling for followers of God today the importance of properly applying Scripture to current circumstances.
First, the people commit not to intermarry with “the peoples of the land” (10:30). This practice had already created a particularly excruciating problem in Ezra 9–10, and it will surface again in Nehemiah 13. Second, the people will refrain from commerce on the Sabbath, a practice that would clearly distinguish them from the non-Jews living in the province Beyond the River. Third, they will observe the Sabbath year, during which all debts would be canceled (see Deut 15:1–3). Fourth, the bulk of the section (10:32–39) describes how the people commit to maintain the temple and ensure the ongoing, proper worship of Yahweh at the temple. As throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, temple worship plays a prominent role in the people’s reestablishment in the land.
Summary of Successes (11:1–12:47)
Repopulation of Jerusalem (11:1–36)
In Nehemiah 10, the exiles reestablished their covenant with Yahweh and promised to provide for ongoing temple worship. However, the question remained of who exactly would populate Jerusalem. The population problem is not new to readers, who learned in Nehemiah 7 that few people lived within the city of Jerusalem. Although the city’s walls had just been rebuilt in an astonishing fifty-two days, the majority of the people still elected to live outside the city in the surrounding villages near their farms and extended families. Now, several chapters later, the book of Nehemiah returns to the problem of Jerusalem’s meager population and details the solution developed to repopulate the city. “The leaders of the people” already inhabited the city, and now they draw lots to select one-tenth of the “the rest of the people” to move into the city proper (11:1). The remainder of chapter 11 lists the people who would live in Jerusalem, beginning with the laity and continuing through the priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and singers. The chapter ends with a note listing the villages in which “some of the people of Judah” (11:25) and “the people of Benjamin” (11:31) lived.
List of Priest and Levites (12:1–26)
12:1–26 contains a list of the priests and Levites; some in the list are family names, while others are names of individuals. Verses 1–9 list the family names of the priests and Levites during the time of Zerubbabel, just after Cyrus issues the edict allowing the exiles to return in 538 BC. Verses 10–11 record the high priests, beginning with Jeshua and continuing until Jaddua, from the 538 return until after 400 BC. Verses 12–21 list the priests during the time of Joiakim, the son of Jeshua, who served as high priest during the first return in 538 BC. Finally, verses 22–26 list the Levites during the time of “Eliashib, Joiada, Johanan, and Jaddua” (12:22). The reference to Darius the Persian is unclear and could refer to Darius the Great, Darius II, or Darius III (see Fensham, 253). Mervin Breneman (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, 262) points out that “the Elephantine Papyri indicate that a Johanan was high priest in 410 b.c., in the reign of Darius II.” In verse 24, David is referred to as “the man of God” (also 12:36; cf. 2Chr 8:14), a phrase typically applied to prophets.
Dedication of Jerusalem’s Walls (12:27–43)
Jerusalem’s walls were finished at the end of Nehemiah 6, and here we return to their dedication. It is unclear if the dedication of the walls happened immediately after their completion in chapter 6, or if some time has passed while other issues were addressed.
Verses 28–29 mention the areas from which the Levites traveled to Jerusalem. Netophath is southeast of Bethlehem; Geba and Azmaveth are “Benjaminite cities about six miles north of Jerusalem” (Fensham, 255); and Beth-gilgal “is probably to be identified with Gilgal near Jericho” (Ibid.).
After purifying themselves, the priests and Levites purify the people and the walls, then two columns of people proceed along the walls. The procession to the south includes Ezra, again confirming that Ezra and Nehemiah worked and lived in Jerusalem at the same time. The procession to the north includes Nehemiah. Both groups include “great choirs that gave thanks” (12:31), which proceed along the walls until the laity split from the priests, who then offer “great sacrifices” (12:43).
“For God had made them rejoice” (12:43) emphasizes again God’s sovereignty in the entire story that Ezra and Nehemiah tell, from the beginning with the return under Cyrus, to the completion and dedication of the temple, and finally to the completion and dedication of the walls. God oversaw this entire process, giving the exiles favor in the sight of foreign governors and protecting them from their enemies along the way. Further, the great rejoicing includes men, women, and children, a common refrain in Nehemiah. Throughout the book we see that all the people, not only men, are included in worshiping, honoring, and seeking the Lord.
Temple Service (12:44–47)
The covenant renewal in Nehemiah 10 focused particularly on the tithes and offerings required for the temple and its personnel, and this notice in chapter 12 reports that the people have made good on their previous commitment. They promised to bring tithes and offerings, and they have faithfully brought “the contributions, the firstfruits, and the tithes” (12:44). The people of Judah honored and were grateful for the priests and Levites who would maintain the temple and ensure that proper worship of Yahweh continued unabated. In short, they “rejoiced over the priests and the Levites who ministered” (12:44). What’s more, the Levites themselves set apart what was required “for the sons of Aaron” (12:47), further demonstrating that the entirety of the postexilic community was walking in faithfulness to God’s commands and ensuring that proper worship continued at the temple. Sadly, their faithfulness would not last.
“Things Fall Apart” (13:1–31)
Support for Tobiah (13:1–9)
This passage divides neatly into two sections: verses 1–3 report that the people expelled all foreigners from temple worship when they learned that Scripture forbade their presence; verses 4–9 record an instance of material support for Tobiah and Nehemiah’s response to it.
Verses 1–3 recount the reading specifically of Deuteronomy 23:3–6, which records the prohibition of Ammonites and Moabites from the “assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:3) because of the Balaam episode recorded in the book of Numbers (22–24). When the people learn of this prohibition, they immediately respond by separating “from Israel all those of foreign descent” (Neh 13:3).
Verses 4–9 relate that, before the people learned of the prohibition in Deuteronomy 23, a priest named Eliashib had given material support to Tobiah, Nehemiah’s well-known enemy who throughout the book has opposed the efforts to rebuild Jerusalem. This Eliashib is not the high priest Eliashib, for the Eliashib in chapter 13 oversaw the temple chambers, a role the high priest would not have filled. This Eliashib had provided a room for Tobiah to live in that was intended to store the tithes and offerings the people had earlier promised to deliver to the temple complex for the support of the Levites and maintenance of temple worship (see Neh 10:32–39; 12:44–47). The people had failed in this commitment, so the Levites had to return to their homes to provide for themselves (see 13:10), which likely resulted in there being an empty space into which Tobiah could move.
Nehemiah had lived and worked in Jerusalem for twelve years, from 445 to 433 BC, but he had left for a time to return to King Artaxerxes (13:6). It is unclear how long he was gone from the city, but he takes immediate action upon his return. He expels Tobiah from the temple complex and orders the purification of the area that Tobiah’s presence had defiled. Nehemiah’s anger and actions may make modern readers uncomfortable, but his abiding concern for the purity of worship and well-being of God’s people necessitated his bold response.
Neglect of Levites (13:10–14)
In addition to welcoming a non-Israelite and known enemy of the exiles into the temple complex to live, the people had reneged on their earlier oath to provide for the Levites so that they could do the work of maintaining the temple and offering sacrifices to the Lord. Because the Levites lacked the community’s financial support, they were forced to return home and work their own fields to avoid starvation. Nehemiah again quickly and boldly responds to rectify the situation. He first confronts “the officials” (13:11) with their sins. As Fensham points out, the officials were “responsible to [Nehemiah] for their conduct” and had failed to fulfill their duties as his subordinates (262). Thus, as in chapter 5, Nehemiah convenes a court case against the leaders of Israel. He then uses his characteristic administrative acumen to “set [the officials] in their stations” (13:11) and to appoint three treasurers to oversee the storehouses and ensure the distribution of goods to the Levites.
This section ends with Nehemiah’s prayer that God would remember him and that he would “not wipe out my good deeds . . . for the house of my God and for his service” (13:14). The term the ESV translates as “good deeds” is the Hebrew word hesed, the term for covenant faithfulness, which characterizes God’s actions toward his people and should characterize their actions toward him.
Sabbath Commerce (13:15–22)
Though Nehemiah has shown hesed, or covenant faithfulness, in his care and concern for God’s temple and worship, the laity and leaders of Israel clearly have not done so in Nehemiah’s absence. In 10:31 they vowed that “if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day,” but 13:15–22 records that they have done exactly the opposite, thereby violating Torah and endangering the covenant community. Nehemiah thus brings another court case against the “nobles of Judah” (13:17) because they have allowed commerce to continue on the Sabbath by permitting Tyrian merchants to sell “fish and all kinds of goods” (13:16). Rather than being a light to the nations, as Isaiah had foretold in Isaiah 49:6, the returned exiles have adopted the practices of the surrounding peoples and thus diluted their witness to those outside of the covenant community.
Nehemiah again demonstrates his keen administrative mind and leadership abilities by developing a practical plan to put a stop to the Israelites’ sin. He orders that the gates to Jerusalem be shut as Sabbath dawned and positions guards to prevent non-Israelite merchants from entering the city. Further, when merchants “lodge outside the wall,” Nehemiah threatens them with violence: “I will lay hands on you” (13:21). In the next section, Nehemiah’s threats toward the foreign merchants will be realized against Jewish men who have married foreign women.
This section ends like the previous one, with Nehemiah asking God to remember his work and “spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (13:22).
Ezra and the returned exiles faced a crisis related to intermarriage in Ezra 9–10. There the people repented and agreed to follow the Lord by putting away their foreign wives, and the book of Ezra ends with a long list of those who had sinned against the Lord and endangered the fledgling covenant community. In Nehemiah 10:30, the people again explicitly promised not to intermarry with the peoples of the land, and yet the book of Nehemiah ends by recounting that the people have once again put the covenant community at great risk by ignoring Torah and intermarrying with those who worshiped gods other than Yahweh. Throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Lord has faithfully protected the people from outside threats and promoted their well-being by moving the hearts of foreign officials, just like he protected them from the curses of Balaam during their wilderness wanderings. However, here at the end of Nehemiah, the people have again succumbed to their own sinful hearts, just as they did in Numbers when Balaam devised the plan to cause the Israelites to intermarry with Moabite women. As in Numbers, God’s people remain their own worst enemies, even after experiencing the horrors of the Babylonian exile and the blessing of God’s consistent covenant faithfulness toward them.
Nehemiah responds with anger and violence to the current iteration of the marriage crisis. He brings another court case—“confronted” in 13:15 is the Hebrew term for bringing a court case (see also 13:11, 17)—before forcing them to “take an oath in the name of God” and cursing, beating, and pulling out the hair of the offenders (13:25).
The book of Nehemiah ends with two prayers from the Persian-appointed governor whose concern for Jerusalem and passion for the Lord have driven the entire narrative. In verse 29, Nehemiah offers his fourth imprecation in the book (see 4:4–5; 5:13; 6:14), asking God to “remember” Sanballat and his son-in-law, a priest, “because they have desecrated the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites” (13:29). Nehemiah’s final utterance contrasts sharply with the book’s four previous curses, as he prays, “Remember me, O my God, for my good” (13:31).
Breneman, Marvin. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Vol. 10. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993.
Fensham, F. Charles. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
Levering, Matthew. Ezra and Nehemiah. Brazos Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007.
Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra, Nehemiah. Vol. 16. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, 1985.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Report from Jerusalem
1:1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.
Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5 And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. 8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”
Now I was cupbearer to the king.