August 20, 2017

NEHEMIAH, Part 2: Reforming Messiah ’s People

Layton Talbert

FrontLine • July/August 2007

At a Glance: Ezra Part 1Ezra Part 2Nehemiah Part 1

Opposition and delays in the work of God are always frustrating. It is easy to overemphasize our timetables and overestimate our importance to the work of God. We are short on time and are frustrated by delay and opposition; God is not.

The opposition and delays in rebuilding the temple and city of Jerusalem were essential for accomplishing God’s purposes. Read that sentence again. A century before God’s people faced the exasperating antagonism of their enemies and all the plots and ploys designed to hamper their efforts to build a work for God, the Lord had already issued a startling prophecy that took all those impediments and interruptions into account. It was a messianic prophecy of mammoth proportions and intimate implications, “that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times” (Dan. 9:25).

From the command to rebuild the city until Messiah the Prince, 483 Jewish years (476 solar years) were to elapse. They did—from Artaxerxes’ commissioning of Nehemiah in 445 bc to rebuild the city (Neh. 2:5–8) until the culmination of Messiah’s earthly ministry in ad 30, after which He was executed (“cut off,” Dan. 9:26). This prophecy came to Daniel from Gabriel (Dan. 9:21) in 539 bc (Dan. 9:1). Decades before the difficulties encountered in rebuilding the temple and the city, God had already determined a timetable that factored in those delays. God kept everything on His schedule.

The Book of Nehemiah divides into two main sections: (1) the physical restoration of Jerusalem (chapters 1–7), followed by (2) the spiritual reformation of God’s people (chapters 8–13). This column explores the second division of Nehemiah.

Word and Worship (8)

The security of the finished walls and the settlement of the people in their ancestral locations (7:73) frees the community to concentrate on the most important thing for their individual and corporate survival—the words of God. Judah gathers on her civil New Year’s Day (Rosh Hashanah), but not for feasting or fireworks. The people petition Ezra (8:1) to bring the Book of the Law of Moses and to read it to the community of men, women, and children gathered to give it an eager and earnest hearing (8:2–8). This was appropriate, since God had commanded that the Law be read on this day every seventh year (Deut. 31:10–13). In fact, from the exodus in 1446 to this very day in 445 was 1001 years—a multiple of seven years.

When they wept under the Law’s conviction of their sin, the leaders reminded them that this was to be a festive occasion (8:9–12). Grief and sorrow can lead to a despair that paralyzes good resolve; what strengthens God’s people to obey is not grief over their sins but “the joy of the Lord” over His goodness to them (8:10). So they made it a festive occasion. Why they celebrated is exemplary and convicting to God’s people of every age: “because they had understood [God’s] words that were declared unto them” (8:12).

As the Law continued to be read the next day (8:13), they discovered the details of the Feast of Tabernacles (8:14–16) and took immediate and enthusiastic steps to renew their obedience to this important observance (8:17, 18). These were essential times of revival for the people; and the need for revival quickly became apparent.

Dedication to the Covenant (9–12a)

Two days after the completion of the Feast of Tabernacles, the community was called again (9:1). This time it was a solemn assembly to confess their sin and to listen for several hours to more of God’s Law (9:2, 3). A Levite-led communal prayer rehearsed God’s faithfulness to them throughout their history in contrast to their habitual unfaithfulness (9:4–30) and expressed gratitude for His goodness in bringing them back into the land (9:31–37). The ultimate “purpose” of the prayer comes at the conclusion: a rededicatory covenant to be loyal to their God (9:38).

Chapter 10 records those who signed the covenant reaffirmation, along with an oath, a curse, and the terms of the covenant itself. Specifically, they agreed to (1) avoid intermarriage with pagans (10:30); (2) observe the Sabbath (10:31); (3) pay a self-imposed temple tax (10:32); (4) tithe their firstfruits (10:35); (5) observe the law of the firstborn (10:36); and (6) support the ministers of the temple (10:37). Ten percent of Judah’s population was relocated by lot into Jerusalem (11:1–24), outlying villages are identified (11:25–36), and the names of the Levites underscore the continuity of the priestly line and ministry (12:1–26).

Dedication of the Wall (12b–13a)

The official dedication of the wall of Jerusalem is described (12:27–43). In conjunction with that celebration, supervisors were appointed over the storerooms built into the walls to house the offerings to sustain the priests and ministers (12:44–47). On that day as well the Book of Moses was read again and its call to separation immediately applied (13:1–3). Why that was such a crucial issue becomes immediately apparent in the “flashback” that follows (13:4ff.).

A “central emphasis” of both Ezra and Nehemiah “is the insistence that the people of God [must be] the people of the book. Ezra was sent precisely because he had the law of God in his hand and had made it his purpose to teach this law in Israel (Ezra 7:6, 10, 11, 12, 14, 21, 25).” God’s Word is given an even more conspicuous place in Nehemiah (8:1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 14, 18; 9:3, 26, 29, 34; 10:28, 29, 34, 36; 12:44; 13:1, 3). The first public act in Nehemiah’s city is that the people gather to hear the great reading of Scripture,” and it “is the center of all that is done” (J. A. Motyer, EBC, I:281).

The Non-negotiability of Separation (13b)

Things deteriorate rapidly in the absence of strong and consistent leadership. In 432 bc, after twelve years as governor, Nehemiah left Jerusalem to report to King Artaxerxes back in Susa (13:6; cf. 1:14 and 5:6). Meanwhile, Judah revealed that she was full of the same old people with the same old sinful proclivities.

Now “before this” dedication ceremony described in chapter 12, Eliashib the priest, who was related to the infamous Tobiah by marriage, used his authority over the temple storerooms to furnish a residence for this enemy of God’s people right within the very temple precincts (13:4, 5). Remember Tobiah? Reread 2:10, 19, and 4:3, 7, 8. Tobiah had wormed his way into Jerusalem after all, for he “was related by marriage to some of Jerusalem’s leading citizens (Neh. 6:17–18) and . . . managed to take advantage of those connections” (Merrill). Eliashib was a good man (3:1), but good men do evil (13:7) when they compromise the well-being of God’s people for popularity or personal reasons. Such compromise infects future generations as well (13:28).

Nehemiah explains that all this came about in his absence (13:6). But upon his return, Nehemiah’s response was rigorous, immediate, and unambiguous (13:7–9). Talk about a militant separatist! This would be the equivalent of a preacher returning from an absence to his home church, only to discover that the assistant pastor had invited his Mormon brother-in-law (who also happened to be related to a couple of the deacons as well) to sit on the platform and participate in the service—and then literally throwing the Mormon off the platform, chair and all. How rude and ungentlemanly! How embarrassing and unpopular! How tactless, tasteless, and un-Christian! (Read John 2:13–16 and Mark 11:15–18.) For Nehemiah, discreet diplomacy was not an option. Too much was at stake.

The problems that developed in Nehemiah’s absence went deeper than Tobiah’s infiltration. Nehemiah also discovered upon his return that the Levites had been neglected (13:10–14), the Sabbath was being violated (13:15–22), and intermarriage quickly became a serious and ongoing problem (13:23–30). His readiness to “contend” (13:11, 17, 25) and warn (13:15, 21) and enforce (13:13, 19, 22) and worse (13:25, 28) underscore his sober and single-minded fixation on serving and pleasing his holy God (13:14, 22, 29, 30). Like its heightened emphasis on God’s Law, the Book of Nehemiah strikes an even more emphatic posture than Ezra on the separation issue.

The problems Nehemiah confronts in chapter 13 testify that everything Judah swore that they would never do again (ch. 10) began showing up all over again before barely a decade had passed. The failure of God’s people yet again to keep their covenant commitments to God in spite of the solemnest of vows is a failure woven into the warp and woof of their entire history and rehearsed throughout the prayer of confession in chapter 9. That failure is part of the preparatory message of the whole Old Testament—from the Pentateuch to the Prophets to Ezra- Nehemiah. This “old covenant” will never work—not because it is defective, but because man is radically and hopelessly flawed (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 8:8). Man needs more than external restoration if he is to keep God’s requirements and measure up to the imago Dei in which he was created. He requires internal restoration, and only a new covenant can effect that inward restoration (Heb. 8–10).

Conclusion

The Old Testament is the story of the Old Covenant. Focusing on the theme of restoration, Ezra-Nehemiah concludes the chronology of the history of God’s Old Covenant people with a sigh. The historical end of the Hebrew Old Testament is disappointing by design; it makes us yearn for something better and surer. As Ezra-Nehemiah concludes the chronology of Old Covenant history, Malachi (Nehemiah’s contemporary) concludes the message of Old Covenant prophecy. Malachi is similarly disappointing, but simultaneously anticipatory. Nehemiah concludes on a note of severity, mixed with melancholy and apprehension. Malachi, too, is severe in his condemnation of Judah’s sins. But Malachi mixes ominous warnings with divine promises, including the arrival of the Messenger of a New Covenant (Mal. 3:1–6)! In the meantime, despite the sins and shortcomings of His people, God will always retain a remnant (Mal. 4:1–6). So the record of the Old Covenant ends at once with a stark contrast between man’s same old dismal failure and God’s changeless goodness to His people and unswerving loyalty to His covenant. He will unfailingly accomplish His sovereign purposes, and He will do it through a new covenant.


Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.


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