Date Written: 440-350 BC
Date of Narrative: 445-425 BC
The book of Nehemiah follows on the heels of Ezra. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible the two are actually a single book. Ezra narrates the first two returns, the reconstruction of the Temple and the reinstitution of the Mosaic Law. Nehemiah details the last wave of return, the building of Jerusalem's walls and the repopulating of the Holy Land.
Both men are Jews. Ezra is a priest but Nehemiah is a political leader. The book begins with Nehemiah in the Persian capital of Susa where he holds an important position in the king's court. Nehemiah hears of Jerusalem's sorry state and he obtains permission from King Artaxerxes I to go there and help.
When Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem, he inspects the walls and immediately launches a building project to reconstruct them. Most ancient cities were walled to protect their populations against military attacks. Jerusalem's lack of walls left it defenseless and politically unimportant. Local Persian rulers feel threatened by the rise of Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership, so they openly oppose the wall project. The rulers Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem prepare a military attack, but the Jews' vigilance prevents open conflict. The situation is so tense that the workers keep themselves armed at all times (4). The local rulers try to lure Nehemiah to an assassination attempt and accuse him of plotting an insurrection (6). But through all this opposition, Nehemiah and the Jews complete the wall in just 52 days.
Nehemiah also takes care of some social problems in Judah. Some wealthy Jews were lending money to poor Jews at high interest rates against the Law of Moses (see Exod 22:25) so Nehemiah rebukes the creditors and brings debt relief for the poor borrowers.
Nehemiah sets out to renew the covenant in several other ways. Under his leadership, Ezra reads the Law of Moses aloud to the people during the Feast of Tabernacles (8). The people celebrate the Day of Atonement and mourn for their sins, offering a beautiful prayer of repentance for their covenant unfaithfulness (9). After the prayer they formally recommit themselves to the covenant (10). The people promise to keep the Law, to avoid intermarriage, to keep the Sabbath, to provide for the Temple worship and to offer tithes.
After the walls are built and the covenant renewed, people need to live in Jerusalem. Therefore the leaders chose ten percent of the people by lot to live in the city. Many of the priests and Levites settle in Jerusalem to conduct the Temple worship. Ch. 11 lists where the Jews settle and Ch. 12 gives the important list of priests, designating who can serve in the Temple.
The people enjoy a celebratory dedication of the wall of Jerusalem and they renew the order of Temple worship. Nehemiah deals with a few problems of covenant faithfulness in the last section of the book. He cleanses the Temple, enforces the Sabbath and rebukes those who had intermarried.
Nehemiah demonstrates deep fidelity to the Lord. His faithful perseverance and heroic courage, especially in light of internal resistance, are an example for us.
By Mark Giszczak