Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Reading Through the Book of Nehemiah

EzraNehOver the past couple weeks I have been reading through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah accompanied by, Ezra-Nehemiah, The College Press Niv Commentary. Old Testament Series, by Keith N. Schoville. Nehemiah is the second half of the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple and wall and strengthening  of the faith of the returned exiles despite internal and external opposition. I have been posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (NT is Mon-Wed-Fri) and we can discuss comments and questions about the passage there. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the commentary are in blue below…

The author continues the story about 13 years after the conclusion of the Book of Ezra. Nehemiah is the cupbearer of the king of Persia, an influential position. He hears of the poverty of the people of Jerusalem and continued devastated situation of the city structures and its wall. He is moved to prayer and action (9 prayers of Nehemiah are recorded in this short book). He boldly requests leave to rebuild the walls and is given resources and power to do this under the authority of the king. Nehemiah is careful to plan well because he knows there is both internal and external opposition to what God is calling him to do. Throughout the narrative we see Nehemiah as a leader devoted to prayer, careful planning and cooperative action.

Nehemiah knew that today was the day, but he did not presume to advise God as to how he should proceed to assure Nehemiah’s success before the king. The expression this man does not belittle the king. It does recognize that the monarch was a human being with whom Nehemiah had to deal. Only God could establish the environment in which Nehemiah could find favor before the king. Nehemiah 1.5-11, 143

Nehemiah had prayed persistently as well as briefly. He had envisioned what he would do to remedy the sad situation in Jerusalem were he to go there. We would expect such a man of faith and vision to recognize the hand of God in fulfilling his desire. God had given him favor with the king. He is an example of what James had in mind when he advised, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will do this or that” (4:15). Nehemiah 2.1-8, 149

Something of the measure of Nehemiah can be taken from his response to his hecklers. First, he expressed confidence that he and his associates would succeed because of the God of heaven. He spoke with confidence because of his deep and abiding faith and because he knew, and they did not, that the gracious hand of God had been on him until this moment. Nehemiah 2.20, 156

Chapter 3 begins the story of the rebuilding of the wall and lists the names of the builders with the section of the wall they built. It is a testimony to the organizational skill of Nehemiah and to his ability to motivate the people to work. By the end of the chapter they had built the wall around the city to half-height. Chapters 4 and 5 recount the internal and external opposition to the project. Sanballat leads the surrounding peoples in this opposition, which begins with ridicule and ends with threats of surprise attack. Nehemiah responds first with prayer and then with organization for the work and defense of the city. Internal discord also threatens the work as the wealthy people mistreated the poor by failing to pay the workers' wages and by foreclosing on high interest loans with property seizure and debt slavery. Nehemiah demands that the loans be forgiven and rebuilds harmony in the community. Nehemiah is a wonderful example of a godly leader who uses his powerful position to serve and minister to the people and to complete the needed work, rather than to enrich himself.

Nehemiah faced ridicule with prayer. It was always his customary reaction to problem situations...his reaction was as we would expect, prayer and action. Prayer was never a last resort for this godfearing man. Nehemiah 4, 170, 173

In times of crisis or at any time the well-being of the community of faith is more important than the comfort and security of the affluent; they must be willing to sacrifice (cf. Prov 22:16). Nehemiah 5, 185

Nehemiah acted differently than his predecessors out of reverence for God...He reveals his twofold motivation: first, filial reverence for God, which restrained him from ‘lording it over the people’ (15b), and made heaven’s verdict all-important to him (19); and second, brotherly compassion, ‘because the servitude was heavy upon this people’ (18). In his own brusque style he exemplified the two great commandments, and anticipated the cheerful disregard of one’s entitlements which Paul would expound in 1 Corinthians 9. Nehemiah 5.15-19, 189

The opposition increases in chapter 6-7 as Nehemiah and the people complete the wall in 52 days. The opposition mainly consists of lies and innuendo to strike fear into Nehemiah and destroy his credibility as a leader. Nehemiah knows his calling and refuses to give in to fear. He stands firm and the wall is completed.

Nehemiah’s response was based in part on his clear sense of self. Could a man in his position, responsible to both God and the king, think of his personal safety in the face of a threat to his life? To follow such a course would have weakened his public image and destroyed his ability to lead. Nehemiah 6, 196

Nehemiah was very sensitive to the leading of the Lord. He not only recognized that the ideas he had concerning the resolution of the problem were from God, he wants whoever may read this account he is writing to understand that truth. Nehemiah 7, 206

Chapter 8 begins the section of the reform of the people under Ezra and Nehemiah. It begins with the public reading of Torah by Ezra with explanation to the people given by the Levites. The people respond to the reading by applying its truth and celebrate the Feast of Booths like it has not been celebrated since the time of Joshua. They realize that they are part of a 2nd Exodus. Chapters 9-10 contain a prayer of confession and rededication of the people to obey God's instruction followed by a written document of commitment to Torah signed by all the leaders and agreed to by the people. The prayer acknowledges that God was right to bring on the exile because of the long history of national rebellion and that only exclusive dedication to YHWH will restore blessing. The document commits the people to be faithful to God's instruction and to support the temple and priests.

Biblical literacy and understanding are at a low ebb in our modern culture, often even among believers. Understanding Scripture is paramount to living a life of faith, calling for prayerful time in the Word of God. Those mature in the faith ought always to help others to understand God’s word and will. This account provides an instructive example for people in every generation. Nehemiah 8, 216

It is useful to note that occasionally we need to read major sections of Scripture. Daily devotions with a few verses are worthwhile but not a substitute for reading widely in God’s word. The combination of hearing God’s word, confession, and worship are important for God’s people in every time and season. Nehemiah 9, 222

In Clines’s opinion, the levitical lawyers drew up this covenant agreement as a group of standards or norms to be followed. This practice of interpreting the older legislation to newer circumstances is similar to the “halakot” (requirements for one’s walk through life) of later rabbis. He thinks that Nehemiah 10 represents the beginning of the process of scriptural exegesis and legal definition that developed later into the Mishna and Talmud. Nehemiah 10, 235

Nehemiah 11-12 record the repopulating of Jerusalem after the wall was built. Clan leaders and priests were asked to move from their ancestral homelands into the "Holy City" so that administrative and religious leadership and activities could be maintained. The end of chapter 12 records the great celebration of the building of the wall in only 52 days despite obstacles and opposition. With the empowerment of God and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the work was done and the people knew that God had made it possible. The book ends with the reform of the people after Nehemiah's absence. Already compromise had set in even though he was not gone long. He needed to restore purity, support of the Temple work and holiness of the Sabbath because he knew that worship of God was the only thing that would preserve the people and faith. Nehemiah and Ezra left a legacy of faith that preserved the nation and made sure that it survived until the coming of Christ.

(The author's) purpose was not to give a careful chronology but to show the continuity of the community in reestablishing the worship of Yahweh, the restoration of temple and city, and the reformations of Ezra and Nehemiah. All of this was through people working under the hand of God. Surely his readers, or those who heard it read, would benefit from these examples of leadership under and obedience to the will of God. Nehemiah 12, 251

There was great joy on the part of the people in completing a community project and in protecting the city from hostile attackers as well as intruders not part of the restored community. And their joy was multiplied by the realization that God had made it possible. In the final analysis, they had the Lord to thank for their success. Nehemiah 12.27-43, 254–255

Using the memoirs and other available resources, an anonymous third person compiled the work much as we presently have it. He assembled the book(s) for an audience years after Ezra and Nehemiah had gone to their eternal reward. He wrote for his own community of faith, as others in other generations would address theirs. They faced problems similar in nature to those confronted by Ezra and Nehemiah. His work was a challenge to act decisively in the face of danger and opposition. It was also a guide to help them overcome the threat of enemies of the faith, of the dangers posed by intermarriage with the foreign and faithless, and of the potential for disaster inherent in ignoring the Law of the God. Nehemiah 13, 267

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