A deeper understanding

At the conclusion of their building project, all the Jews gathered themselves together as a congregation and requested that Ezra read to them from the book of the law of Moses. Nehemiah previously noted that the whole congregation together was 42,360 people (Nehemiah 7:66), so the crowd would have been similar in size to a packed baseball stadium, but they actually took up much less space because Nehemiah said all the people stood in the street, and Ezra spoke to them from a pulpit made of wood that was raised above them so that everyone could see him (Nehemiah 8:4-5).

In his opening prayer, Ezra blessed the LORD, which means he kneeled down before him in reverence (1288). In response, as a sign of their commitment and willingness to submit themselves to God, it says in Nehemiah 8:6 that, “all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” Ezra’s reading of the law went beyond merely speaking it out loud so that everyone could hear it. His intent was to make sure that everyone clearly understood it. It says in Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”

You could say the gathering of the Jews was more like a Bible Study than it was a recitation of the law. It was important for them to have a deeper understanding of God’s word because the people were expected to actually do what the law said they were supposed to. The Hebrew word translated distinctly, parash means to separate or disperse. In a figurative sense, the word can be used to specify something or to wound someone as with a harsh word or saying (6567). The Apostle Paul said in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

One of the ways Ezra knew that the people truly understood what he was saying to them was “all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law” (Nehemiah 8:9). In other words, they were convicted of their sins and felt bad about all the things they had been doing wrong. Surprisingly, Ezra didn’t encourage the people to grieve or to be sorry for their sin, but told them they should celebrate because “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10), meaning, in their process of reaching spiritual maturity, it was more important for the people to convey the joy of God’s forgiveness than it was for them to express grief because they had sinned. “And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (Nehemiah 8:12).

The list

After Nehemiah completed rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, he found a list of all the Jews that returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon had ended. The list was created at the time of the first exiles return, but was most likely modified later as additional waves of people came back to Jerusalem. The list of people recorded in Nehemiah 7:6-66 began with the names of the men that led the expeditions from as far away as Susa, the capital of Persia. The introduction and conclusion read, “These are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity, of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezar the king of Babylon had carried away, and came again to Jerusalem and to Judah, every one unto his city; who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah, The number, I say, of the men of the people of Israel was this…The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore” (Nehemiah 7:6-7,66).

The final number; 42,360 represented the totality of what was referred to throughout the Old Testament of the Bible as the remnant. The Hebrew term translated remnant, she’ar (sheh – awr´) or she’eriyth (sheh – ay – reeth´) means a remainder. “The idea of the remnant plays a prominent part in the divine economy of salvation throughout the Old Testament. The remnant concept is applied especially to the Israelites who survived such calamities as war, pestilence, and famine – people whom the Lord in His mercy spared to be His chosen people (2 Kings 19:31; Ezra 9:14). The Israelites repeatedly suffered major catastrophes that brought them to the brink of extinction…Zechariah announced that a remnant would be present at the time of the coming of the Messiah’s kingdom” (7611). The significance of having a list of the returned exiles was the documentation it provided for the size of congregation that met to hear Ezra read from the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:1).

Nehemiah stated, “Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded” (Nehemiah 7:4). Although the exact dimensions are not known, the size of the rebuilt city of Jerusalem is estimated to be about 4000 feet or less than a mile in length and about 500 – 1000 feet wide. By today’s estimates, the rebuilt city of Jerusalem was actually very small. There would have been about 132 people per acre of land if everyone was living inside the city walls. The Hebrew word Nehemiah used that is translated large actually has nothing to do with size. Yad (yawd) means “a hand (the open one [indicating power, means, direction, etc.] in distinction from 3709, the closed one)…This is a figure of speech, an anthropomorphism, by which God promises his protection” (3027). What Nehemiah was probably saying was that the walled city of Jerusalem was larger than what was needed to protect the 42,360 returned exiles from harm. God had provided them with plenty of room to multiply their numbers.

A miracle

The completion of the wall around Jerusalem in just 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15) was viewed by those outside the city as a miracle of God. It says in Nehemiah 6:16, “And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.” There is no evidence that God was actually involved in the rebuilding of the wall. The only mention of him was when Nehemiah said that God had put it in his heart to do the work (Nehemiah 2:12). What was more likely the cause of the Jews success was Nehemiah’s leadership and the collaboration of the people.

Nehemiah persevered in spite of all sorts of trouble and a concerted effort by three men; Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, to stop him. Perhaps, the greatest tribute to Nehemiah’s accomplishment was his determined conviction that it was God’s will for the wall to be rebuilt. The first Jews returned from captivity in 538 B.C. and Nehemiah recorded that the wall was completed on October 2, 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 6:15), so close to a hundred years had passed and little was accomplished in the way of securing the city of Jerusalem until Nehemiah came on the scene. What probably differentiated Nehemiah the most from the other men that had attempted the difficult task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall was his belief that it was possible if everyone did their part, including himself.

Mischief

Nehemiah’s commitment to completing his mission of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem was met with opposition that eventually turned into personal attacks on his character. Nehemiah remained focused and would not risk even the slightest delay in the work. Two of Nehemiah’s most determined distractors, Sanballet and Geshem tried to get him involved in a political battle that would have most likely led to a protracted argument. Making it seem as if they were extending an invitation for him to join their prestigious ranks, Nehemiah said, “That Sanballet and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. The Hebrew word translated mischief, ra’ah means bad or evil (7451). The point Nehemiah was trying to make was that these men were trying to keep him from doing God’s will. If he allowed himself to be concerned with their demands, Nehemiah probably would have lost the respect of his followers.

Nehemiah’s response conveyed the importance of his mission. Nehemiah felt that a delay in completing his assignment was equivalent to disobedience to God. He said, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Sanballet refused to take no for an answer. He sent the same message to Nehemiah four times and then made a fifth, more intimidating, attempt to convince Nehemiah he should comply with his request. Sanballet sent what was referred to as an open letter (Nehemiah 6:5). Basically, the purpose of the open letter was to make it possible for rumors to be started that would get word back to King Artaxerxes that a problem existed in Jerusalem. The letter addressed to Nehemiah stated:

It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah. (Nehemiah 6:7)

Sanballet’s threatening letter ended with a direct request for Nehemiah to become a member of his organization. He said, “Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together” (Nehemiah 6:7). The phrase “take counsel together” could be translated, devise a unified plan or join forces (3289/3162). Sanballet was probably implying that he would make it worth Nehemiah’s while to work for him rather than to serve God.

Perhaps the lowest trick Nehemiah was exposed to was an enticement to hide in the house of God in order to avoid being killed by Sanballet and Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:10). Nehemiah responded, “And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in” (Nehemiah 6:11). It was Nehemiah’s example as a leader that was being challenged in this cowardly suggestion. Nehemiah was right to reject such a proposal, but also wise in his understanding of the impression it would give. Nehemiah’s interpretation of the situation showed that he was aware of his enemy’s attempt to ruin his reputation. He said, “Therefore was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me” (Nehemiah 6:13).

Opposition

There were two types of opposition that caused interruptions to the Jews work of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, internal and external opposition. After the work had started, a group of men showed up that were determined to keep the Jews from making progress. Nehemiah recorded, “But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19). The continual mocking that took place at their worksite was a type of external opposition that reminded the Jews of the ridicule they could expect if they dared to be different from the people around them. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem represented dominant cultures that had previously enticed God’s people to reject him. When these influential men heard that the Jews were trying to start over and intended to obey God’s commandments, they did everything they could to put a stop to it.

In spite of the external opposition they faced, the Jews were able to complete the first half of their assignment, but afterwards, they were threatened with a military attack. Nehemiah stated, “And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease” (Nehemiah 3:11). Nehemiah’s response was to arm the people and get them back to work as quickly as possible (Nehemiah 3:13, 15). Surprisingly, the threat of being attacked didn’t make the Jews want to quit, but Nehemiah knew his crew needed to be guarded or their lives could be in danger, so he armed them with weapons. It says in Nehemiah 4:16-18:

And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both, the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.

As soon as Nehemiah got the situation with his external opposition under control, an internal conflict broke out. Some of the Jews were upset because their children were being forced into slavery because they were too poor to pay the interest on their debt to the Jewish nobles and rulers (Nehemiah 4:1-4). Nehemiah said, “And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, You exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them” (Nehemiah 4:6-7). Nehemiah’s approach to the internal opposition he faced was to take upon himself the responsibility that would normally be expected of a king. The Hebrew phrase Nehemiah used that is translated, “I consulted with myself” could be interpreted as, I put myself in a position of authority, or I took responsibility for the people’s circumstances. When he said he rebuked the nobles, and the rulers and set a great assembly against them, Nehemiah was implying he challenged their leadership openly, as if these men were being put on trial.

Nehemiah was the type of leader that led by example. He didn’t separate himself from the common people, nor did he expect special treatment. One of the things Nehemiah was entitled to as Artaxerxes’ governor of Judah was a daily ration of food. Nehemiah didn’t take this portion from the people as other governors had, but provided regular meals for more than 150 persons out of his own resources. Nehemiah’s explanation for his behavior was  a fear of God and “because the bondage was heavy upon this people” (Nehemiah 4:15, 18). Nehemiah’s motive for overcoming the external and internal opposition he faced seemed to be to protect his reputation with God. Nehemiah appeared to care what God thought of his behavior more than anything else. He prayed to the LORD, “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (Nehemiah 4:19).

Collaboration

Nehemiah’s assignment to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem was something that he said, “my God had put in my heart to do” (Nehemiah 2:12). Initially, Nehemiah kept his mission a secret, perhaps because he thought there was a traitor among the Jews living in Jerusalem. It might have been that Nehemiah just wanted to get a first hand look at what needed to be done to secure the perimeter of the city before he shared his action plan. Nehemiah’s night inspection revealed that the wall had been completely destroyed. There was nothing left but rubble of the once magnificent structure that protected God’s people from enemy attacks. Immediately after he had gained the support of the people to start rebuilding the wall, Nehemiah was hit with opposition from what could be considered the local mafia or an organized crime syndicate. It says in Nehemiah 2:19-20:

But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us: therefore we his servants will arise and build: but you have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.

The key to Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem was collaboration. Whether or not this idea came to him directly from God or was something that Nehemiah developed on his own was not clearly stated, but it seems likely that collaboration was God’s idea, not Nehemiah’s. Everyone in the city was expected to participate in the effort, including the priests, government officials, and even Nehemiah himself. Nehemiah gave out work assignments, making sure that every section of the wall had a leader assigned to it. The way Nehemiah described his plan, there were to be no gaps in building activity, everything was to be done simultaneously.

Throughout the third chapter of the book of Nehemiah the phrases “next unto him” and “after him” appear repeatedly. The picture that Nehemiah painted was an unbroken chain of people surrounding the city of Jerusalem, each person with an assigned task directly related to their own personal welfare and stake in the family’s inheritance of property. Included in Nehemiah’s plan was the restoration of ten of the twelve gates that controlled access into and out of the city. Beginning and ending with the sheep gate, Nehemiah laid out his work plan stating, “Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests, and they built the sheep gate; they sanctified it, and set up the doors of it; even unto the tower of Meah they sanctified it, unto the tower of Hananeel…After him repaired Malchiah the goldsmith’s son unto the place of the Nethinims, and of the merchants, over against the gate of Miphkad, and to the going up of the corner. And between the going up of the corner unto the sheep gate repaired the goldsmiths and the merchants” (Nehemiah 3).