Friday, October 10

Ezra 10: Word got out, evidently, that Ezra’s spirit was disturbed, because he found quite a crowd of distressed people waiting for him when his prayer was over (verse 1). What ensues in this chapter is best ascribed to what must have been the singular moral stature and authority of Ezra. It was surely not the "mob psychosis" that one modern commentator ascribes to the scene. The dynamics had to do, rather, with the towering moral presence of Ezra himself, standing forth among the people, fortified by his fasting and his prayer on their behalf.

He was thus able to persuade them to take steps deeply repugnant to very deep instincts and warmly cherished preferences. From a concern for the purity of Israel’s faith, he was able to convince them to relinquish their wives and children. He did not do this, moreover, in an impassioned or imperious tone. On the contrary, his words to the people were more restrained than the words he used when speaking to God.

All the returned exiles were gathered at Jerusalem for a "command appearance" (verses 7-9), assembling in the rain, cold, wet, and doubtless a bit discouraged. Ezra then read them the riot act. Under this barrage of rain and prophetic invective, the men became cooperative. Understandably, nonetheless, their moral situation, their "case of conscience," was more than slightly complicated, involving many details that could not be settled immediately (verse 13). Consequently, a commission was established to work out the particulars associated with the dissolution of all those marriages.

It is reasonable to assume that the work of the commission had to do with the disposition of property claims and rights of inheritance. In those days, after all, couples did not simply fall in love and get married. Pre-nuptial agreements, in the form of inter-family contracts, were the rule, not the exception. Virtually all of those marriages, therefore, involved complex financial arrangements, in the form of dowries and transferred inheritances. If the people were to conform to the strict rules laid down by Ezra, all such matters had to be adjusted. In the lengthy list of the offenders (verses 18-44), we observe many family names that we saw in the census record in the second chapter.

Saturday, October 11

Nehemiah 1: Nehemiah’s mission is easy to date. It began in the twentieth year of the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes I (465-425), therefore 445 (verse 1). The month was December. This book is mainly a collection of Nehemiah’s own memoirs.

Nehemiah is called the royal cup-bearer, but this term should not make us think of a simple domestic servant. That bearing of the cup at the king’s table was but the symbolic function of an individual of great important in the realm. The term "royal chamberlain" comes closer to the more recent idiom, for this was no menial position. In the Persian art of the period the cup-bearer ranked second, right after the crown prince, in the gradations of the royal court. Archeology demonstrates that sometimes cup-bearers were buried in the same crypts as the emperor’s own family. Nehemiah the Jew, then, was a high official of the realm, the ancient equivalent to our "prime minister" or "secretary of state." All important business with the crown passed through his hands.

One day some fellow Jews came to see Nehemiah (verses 2-3) with the sad news that local opposition, evidently implementing an official decree, had put a stop to the construction of the walls around the city of Jerusalem. It is impossible that the highly placed Nehemiah did not know this already, but the first-hand report gave him a strong new impression of the full tragedy of the situation. It threw him into a depression for days, a depression accompanied by fasting and prayer (verse 4).

The lengthy confession that follows is our first example of Nehemiah in prayer; we will have frequent occasion to observe this recourse to prayer as an habitual and sustained practice on his part. Nehemiah’s prayer in the present case (verses 5-11) is full of Deuteronomic vocabulary, a characteristic shared with other late books of the Old Testament, such as Ezra and Daniel. Nehemiah based all his hope on God’s fidelity to Israel, manifested during the Babylonian Captivity. Such prayers may be described as doxologies of judgment. As in the prayer in Ezra 9 (and later on in Nehemiah 9 and in Daniel 9:4-19), this prayer identified Nehemiah with the people for whom it was offered.

Sunday, October 12

Nehemiah 2: Fortified by prayer and fasting, Nehemiah prepared to argue his case before the king. He bided his time until the following spring, during Nisan, the month of the Passover. Doubtless Nehemiah was waiting for the most opportune and advantageous moment, watching the movement of government, carefully observing the emperor’s moods and attitudes.

He resolved finally to display his feelings; it was not an inadvertent dropping of his guard, but a calculated move (verse 1), and the emperor, as expected, noticed (verse 2). There was a sudden tense moment, because Persian emperors liked to be surrounded by happy, healthy faces (cf. Daniel 1:10-13!). Nehemiah stated the matter quickly and succinctly, for Persian emperors were also efficient men, not famous for their patience. In addition, they were notoriously fickle and capricious (cf. Esther 4:11).

Nehemiah knew all this, and even while he spoke to Artaxerxes, he continued to speak to God in his heart (verse 4). As always, his brief prayer was efficacious, because he managed to make his complaint without criticizing either the emperor or anyone in the Persian government.

Nehemiah was ever the consummate diplomat, schooled in all the arts of a large, international court. Throughout this book we shall find him playing a cool, deft hand, maintaining strict control over the cards held close to his chest. In every instance we shall see him disclosing only as much information as was needed to accomplish what he had in mind. If anyone wants to witness what it means to be as cunning as a serpent (which Jesus our Lord commands us to be), he will discover no better example than Nehemiah.

For example, we readers of this memoir will know that everything Nehemiah did was done on the authority of a private imperial edict that was handed to him, but we will also observe that he never permitted his enemies to know this. That is to say, he did not show his cards. His opponents would always be obliged to guess what hand he was holding, so they would be ever acting in the dark. Nehemiah knew very well that a privately issued instruction could always be privately withdrawn, so he was extremely careful not to let that happen. His opponents could never challenge something which they were not even sure existed! Nehemiah preferred to bluff his way through, laying down a card here and there, taking up another, never showing his hand. He kept his winning hand intact. Thus, we will observe that he never spent all his force on a single confrontation. There was ever more in his reserve.

In the present scene, for example, Nehemiah only answered the emperor’s question. He made no request until the king explicitly asked for one, and we observe that the request, made at precisely the moment when it should have been made, was immediately granted. Similarly, Nehemiah did not disclose, even in this memoir, how much time he had at his disposal to complete the project (verse 6). Armed with papers of authorization, he crossed the Euphrates and cleared his mission with the satrapy authorities in the area (verses 7-10). When he arrived at Jerusalem, no public information was available to his opponents. Hearsay, of course, would reveal that he came from the capital. Certainly everyone knew his high standing in the Persian Empire. He lay low, nonetheless, for three days (verse 11), keeping the opposition off-guard, letting their discomfort mount, but without saying anything. Their growing curiosity and impatience would work to his advantage, and he knew it. Then, in the deepest secrecy, he made a quiet, nocturnal inspection of the city, riding on a sure-footed donkey around the ruins of the walls, an inspection recorded in this memoir in minute detail. We may call it The Midnight Ride of Nehemiah (verses 12-16).

Encouraged by this inspection, he summoned the proper people to promote public interest in the project (verses 17-18), while his opponents, learning of it only by rumor, were reduced to mere reaction (verses 19-20). Questioned on the matter, Nehemiah spoke only of trust in God. He breathed not a word about the papers in his breast pocket, leaving his opposition to guess and blunder.

Monday October 13

Nehemiah 3: This chapter describes the organized building of the wall, a task that could only be undertaken while the opposing party was caught off-guard, uncertain of its authorization.

From the beginning of the Book of Ezra, we have seen numerous examples of the resistance of the native population of the Holy Land, those who had not gone into exile. That opposition expressed their resentment at being excluded from the inheritance of Israel, and now, in the Book of Nehemiah, we observe that their resentment has not abated. It is grown stronger, rather, over the ensuing decades. It will greatly increase with Nehemiah’s construction of the city walls. More than any other project, those walls symbolized their exclusion from Israel.

Nehemiah had already arranged for the building material in 2:8; by late summer they were ready to start. For a man accustomed to dealing with the administration of an empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to the Macedonia, the modest organization required for this work was hardly much of a challenge.

Sections of the wall were apportioned to various families, villages, and professions. Nehemiah’s distribution of the work was not only an efficient use of the labor force, it also subtly encouraged rivalry among the builders, each team endeavoring to surpass the efforts of the others. (Some commentators have also observed the curious similarities of this description to the wall construction of Themistocles in Thucydides, History 1:89. There should be nothing surprising in this similarity. There are only so many ways to build a wall.)

Five of the building groups were composed of families listed in Ezra 2, while several others were based on various localities in the region. Merchant groups (verse 32) and certain guilds were also represented, such as apothecaries and goldsmiths (verse 8). The entire organization bore no slight resemblance to an urban softball league, in which various merchants or other organizations sponsored the different teams. The various teams of builders appear to be listed counterclockwise around the city wall. The priestly team, not unexpectedly, consecrated the parts of their sections as they were finished.

Tuesday, October 14

Nehemiah 4: Meanwhile the frustrated opposition party was holding an impromptu powwow about what to do next (verses 1-2). Sanballat was aware that the emperor had forbidden the building of the walls, but here was the highest non-royal official in the realm, with full knowledge and cooperation of the governing satrap, doing that very thing. The situation left him angry and confused. He dared not complain to the capital, of course, because Persian monarchs tended to react in dangerous ways if stimulated by incautious questioning (cf. Ezra 6:11), to say nothing of deliberate provocation (cf. Esther 7:10). Nehemiah was completely familiar with the workings of the court, whereas Sanballat and the opposition folks were just a bunch of yokels. They found themselves now completely out of their political depth.

Their frustration could be expressed only in ridicule (verse 3), but their mirth rang hollow, because the wall in question was growing huge. Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations show it to have been 2.75 meters thick, roughly nine feet, and in Chapter 12 we will read of a lengthy dedicatory procession conducted on top of the wall!

Since Sanballat’s people could do nothing in the open, their opposition took the form of surprise raids by small gangs. The list of opponents in verse 7 indicates that Jerusalem was literally surrounded by enemies. There follows (verses 13-23) an account of how the builders, like Minute Men, simultaneously prayed and defended themselves during the construction. Verse 10 seems to be a snatch of a song that they sang while working.

Much of this chapter is resonant with the themes and vocabulary of Israel’s ancient warfare stories from the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges: the threat of the enemies (verses 7-8), the strategic disadvantage of Israel (verses 10,13), the preliminary prayer before arming (verse 9), the arrangement of the forces by families (verse 13), the declaration of divine help (verse 20), the summons to bravery and fidelity (verse 14), the Lord’s frustration of the enemies (verse 15), and the bugle call to battle (verses 18-19).

Wednesday, October 15

Nehemiah 5: This chapter, which is out of historical sequence, serves partly an apologetic purpose: Prior to narrating the attacks that his enemies were to make on his moral character, inserts this incident (from a later time) in order to demonstrate his integrity and sense of justice. In this incident, the problem faced by Nehemiah was an internal one, the exploitation of the builders during this time of crisis. Profiteers were taking extreme advantage of the situation (verses 1-5).

Contrary to the radically selfish principles of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Objectivist philosophies, a healthy society cannot be founded solely on private enterprise and individual rights; government has appropriate functions, after all, beyond those of the common defense, domestic safety, and the safeguarding of private property. It is also a biblically warranted function of government to discourage greed, rapacity, and the taking of undue advantage. The evil we see in this chapter indicates that ancient Jerusalem had its own equivalents of Jeremy Bentham, Ludwig Von Mises, and Ayn Rand. Unbridled greed was producing once again the social order of Cain, as described in Genesis 4.

Nehemiah faced the crisis resultant from a completely selfish atmosphere, aggravated by the extra burden of the labor on the walls and a crop failure. Loan sharks, prohibited by the Mosaic Law from taking interest, were requiring exorbitant rights of usufruct and a disproportionate collateral, which, in the end, enslaved the children dispossessed by such abuses. All of this activity, unfortunately, was within the letter of the law, a form of "legal injustice."

Nehemiah’s first reaction was visceral (verse 6), but he gave himself time to cool down and reflect (verse 7), pondering which path might be the most effective to take. Then, skipping steps one and two in the procedure listed in Matthew 18:15-17, he jumped immediately to step three in the procedure. Since the offense was public, the confrontation would have to be public (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Nehemiah summoned a general assembly, in which to face the offenders with a larger group of people rallied on his own side. He easily reduced the offenders to silence (verses 7-8), not by appealing to the letter of the law (for the letter of the law in this instance was not on his side), still less by invoking something so nebulous as "the rights of the poor" (because the poor usually have more needs than they have rights), but by the experience of brotherhood ("your brethren").

Having reduced the offenders to silence, he proceeded to shame them into doing the decent thing (verses 9-11). He used his office, that is to say, not to maintain the letter of the law, but to establish justice. Clearly he regarded government as responsible for setting right certain economic wrongs born of an excessive and oppressive system of private enterprise that was able to stay legal while remaining unjust. In this respect, Nehemiah was clearly acting on impulses spawned of the great social prophets three centuries earlier: Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. Those powerless men decried economic injustice, but Nehemiah, himself in a powerful position, was able to do something about it. His efforts were successful (verses 12-13).

Nehemiah stayed on at Jerusalem until 433 (verse 14), informing us that he was not a half-bad governor (verses 15-19). The next chapter will jump back to the sequence expected at the end of the incident with which the present chapter began. Having demonstrated his integrity in the present chapter, he is now ready to speak of the calumnies of his enemies.

Thursday, October 16

Nehemiah 6: The local opposition to Nehemiah’s building project next took a new and unbelievably clumsy tack, which he resisted with high disdain (verses 1-4). Failing this, his opponents then sent a letter with an implicit threat of denunciation (verses 5-7), but Nehemiah remained unimpressed (verse 8).

The story found here in verses 10-13 is not necessarily part of the chronological sequence but may have been put here because of its affinity to the two preceding stories.

Even before Shemaiah was in the employ of his opponents, Nehemiah smelled something wrong. He sensed that he was being invited to take a step he would regret. We observe him here, nonetheless, maintaining his composure under pressure, controlling his emotions, especially the emotion of fear, so as not to obscure his assessment of the situation (verse 14).

The wall, begun in the late summer, was finished fifty-two days later, in mid October (verse 15). About six months had passed since Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and less than a year since his friends had come with sad news to Babylon. Once again, Sanballat and his friends learned of the wall’s completion only by rumor (verse 16).

Friday, October 17

Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (verses 6-72). For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2. The difference between that earlier list and the present list is one of purpose and context. The list in Ezra 2 established the continuity with Israel’s past, especially with a view to validating the claims of the returning exiles with respect to their possession of the Holy Land. In the present chapter, however, the list is set in the context of Jerusalem’s new enclosure. It is the census of a city, not a mere list of returning exiles. It is a municipal instrument, which will serve as a format for taxation and civic service. It is a document of the community’s restoration and renewal. Consequently, it is included between the completion of the walls (verses 1-3) and the ceremony of renewal (chapters 8—10).

The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah.

All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions which, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25). Surely, however, those emotions did much to drive his highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11).

Trained as an executive and diplomat, Nehemiah’s rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his fears, they were under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19: 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39).

Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan.

In the next chapter our attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous period.