The book opens in the 20th year of King Artaxeres (approx. 445-446 BC). Nehemiah stayed in Jerusalem until the 32nd year of the king (or 12 years) as governor of the region. At that point he returned to Persia. Some years later he asked permission to return to Jerusalem and that is when we find the events of chapter 13.
- Chapter 1: Nehemiah is caught in the tension of two worlds: cup bearer to the king and brother to the exiles.
- Chapter 2: Nehemiah faces three moments where he must rely on the word of God and speak out boldly.
- Chapter 3: paints a picture of community, including the main point that we should begin serving the body by working on “the broken wall in front of our own house.”
- Chapter 4: details the opposition the builders faced, including primarily their own internal ridicule, defeat and shattered faith. Nehemiah provides an example of a godly leader by speaking God about the people and to the people about God. He taught both to trust and to fight.
- Chapter 5: records the problems the community was having internally. Nehemiah rebukes them for their actions and calls them back to fearing God.
- Chapter 6: Nehemiah faces 3 tests of his character, as his enemies seek to kill him by appealing to his desire to be appreciated, his ambitions and his fears. In each case he resists because he knows that God is fighting for him and he does not have to put himself first or place too much importance on himself.
- Chapter 7-8: We learn that the city is has been rebuilt, but is not alive. Having been used by God, the people now long to know God. Then ask Ezra to teach them the Bible, so that they might know and understand their God. Understanding the word of God produces a great grief over their sin, but also a tremendous joy over their salvation. They end the section by celebrating the feast of tabernacles and realizing that this earthly city is not their home.
- Chapter 9: records the people’s prayer. It recounts the history of God dealing with Israel and confesses their sins. The people were faithless, but God was faithful.
- Chapter 10: The people make a vow involving 3 areas designed to keep God the center of their lives.
- Chapter 11: The city is repopulated.
- Chapter 12: Two groups parade in opposite directions along the walls, meeting at the temple square. The sound of the joy in their voices could be heard not just in Jerusalem but far away in the regions all around.
When Nehemiah returns, probably as an old man, he finds the people have broken every one of the vows they made.
The first problem is in Nehemiah 13:4-5.
Neh 13:4 Now before this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, and who was related to Tobiah,
Neh 13:5 prepared for Tobiah a large chamber where they had previously put the grain offering, the frankincense, the vessels, and the tithes of grain, wine, and oil, which were given by commandment to the Levites, singers, and gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests.
The next one is in Nehemiah 13:15-17
Neh 13:15 In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food.
Neh 13:16 Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself!
Neh 13:17 Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day?
The third problem Nehemiah found is in Nehemiah 13:23-25.
Neh 13:23 In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab.
Neh 13:24 And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people.
Neh 13:25 And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.
- Nehemiah’s response is decisive and almost ruthless.
- About Tobiah: He threw Tobiah out, grabbed his things and tossed them out, and practically fumigated the place.
- About the sabbath-breaking: He slammed the gates in people’s faces and put his own guards at the gates.
- About the mixed marriages: He rebukes the fathers, calls down curses on them, beat some of them and pulled out their hair.
Why was Nehemiah so ruthless? Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 18:7-9.
18:7 “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. – Matthew 18:7-9
Nehemiah reacts with the same exaggerated force to make the point: the compromise must stop.
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