Nehemiah 1-13: Return and Rebuilding


1. Summary

• God helped Nehemiah rebuild and repopulate the city despite opposition

• God helped Nehemiah to lead the people in covenant commitment to moral and social reforms

2. Structure

-The return of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the wall (Neh.1:1-7:3)
-The return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the community (Neh.7:4-13:31)[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 712.[/footnote]

I. Return of Nehemiah and Rebuilding of the Wall (Neh.1:1-7:3)

A. General Analysis

-The return of Nehemiah (Neh.1:1-2:10)
-The rebuilding of the wall (Neh.2:11-7:3)

B. Detailed Analysis

1. Historical Context

538 BC           First return of Jews led by Zerubbabel
458 BC           Second return of Jews led by Ezra
457 BC           Book of Ezra closes
446 BC           Enemies hinder and destroy rebuilding of Jerusalem (Neh.1:3)
445 BC           Nehemiah appointed Governor of Judah and helps Jews rebuild Jerusalem
444 BC           Walls project is completed (Neh 6:15).
433 BC           Nehemiah goes to Babylon on official business
425 BC           Nehemiah returns from Babylon (Neh 13:7).
Nehemiah built on the work started by Zerubbabel, and continued by Ezra. Like Ezra, Nehemiah also returned to Judah with a commission from the Persian king, but his commission was a civil, not a religious, one.

2. Covenant failure (Neh.1:5-11a)

a Invocation: “O LORD” (Neh.1:5-6a)

b Confession: Israel’s sin (Neh.1:6b-7)

c Appeal to covenant promise of return (Neh.1:8-9; Dt.30:1-10)

b’ Confession: God’s redemption (Neh.1:10)

a’ Invocation with supplication: “O LORD” (Neh.1:11a)
The opening paragraph of the book implies that there has been a catastrophe in Jerusalem (perhaps that narrated in Ezra 4:7-23) which has resulted in much of the previous building work being reversed. Nehemiah’s work was to be first of all physical. Without walls Jerusalem was not only in great danger but could hardly even be described as a city in the ancient world.
The pivot of the literary structure above identifies the true source of the problem, that is Israel’s covenant failure. The timescale of rebuilding also reveals the heart of the problem. While Nehemiah was able to rebuild the shattered walls within 52 days, the re-building of the people’s spiritual lives took years and years.
Nehemiah is revealed here and throughout this book as a man of prayer. His prayers are often “asides,” short prayers uttered in the heat of the moment (Neh.2:4-5). Another is “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (Neh.5:19). The books ends with a similar request: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh.13:31). In addition, we find such “remember” prayers at Neh.6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29. We even see him uttering imprecatory prayers against his enemies (Neh.4:4–5; 6:14; 13:29).
Chronicler’s Message: Spiritual re-building is required as well as physical re-building.

3. God’s good hand (Neh.1:10)

God’s good hand is mentioned here (Neh.1:10). It has already featured in Ezra (Ez.7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31), and will appear twice more in Nehemiah (Neh.2:8, 18). Usually it is “the good hand” (or “the strong hand”) of “our/my/his” God. In almost every one of these cases, we see people – whether Persian officials or others – helping the Jews. The point is repeatedly made that, because of God’s good hand, things were done on the Jews’ behalf. Nehemiah’s success was the result of God’s approval of the restoration program.
Chronicler’s Message: Israel needs God’s good hand in order to prosper.

4. Reproach on Jerusalem (Neh.1-2)

  • Report of Jerusalem’s reproach by Hanani and Nehemiah’s response (Neh.1:1b-2:8)
    -Opposition by Sanballat and Tobiah (Neh.2:9-10)
  • Report of Jerusalem’s reproach by Nehemiah to Jerusalem leaders (Neh.2:11-18)
    Opposition by Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (Neh.2:19-20)

“Reproach” is a keyword in Nehemiah’s Memoirs (Neh.1:3; 2:17; 4:4; 5:9; 6:17). The reproach on Jerusalem is a reproach against God. Rebuilding the city was one aspect of rebuilding the house of God.

5. Opposition from without

Up until Nehemiah’s return, Jerusalem had been under the jurisdiction of Sanballat (Sin [the moon god] gives life) and Tobiah, Gentiles living over in Samaria. They were highly displeased with the arrival of Nehemiah and especially with his intentions for the good of Israel. (Neh.2:10). They tried numerous ways of opposing and undermining the building efforts.
Ever-increasing opposition to Nehemiah is introduced seven times by the formula, “When X heard.” Part of the reason for the opposition was that rebuilding the walls would not only bring political stability but also create a holy city for the house of God. Though it was in disrepair, it was still the City of David (Neh.3:15).
Chronicler’s Message: Rebuilding of God’s Holy Place will result in much opposition.

6. Holy War (Neh.4:1-21)

The chapter is infused with the imagery from ancient Israel’s holy war traditions:[footnote]B Waltke, Lectures on Judges to Poets (Orlando: RTS).[/footnote]
a. The enemies band together intending ‘to fight’ against Israel (Neh.4:7-8)
b. People call upon God for help before arming themselves (Neh.4:9)
c. Limited nature of the defensive capability of the people (Neh.4:10, 13)
d. Jewish forces are a drafted militia arranged by family (Neh.4:13)
e. Leader declares holy war (“Our God will fight for us” (Neh.4:20b) and in address summons the people to courage and faithfulness (“Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord” (Neh.4:14))
f. The Lord frustrates the intentions of the enemies, whose courage fails them (Neh.4:15)
g. Trumpets are employed in battle summons (Neh.4:18-19).
Chronicler’s Message: Rebuilding is a battle which must be undertaken in a military spirit

7. Defense of Jerusalem (Neh.4:7-23)

Jerusalem threatened (Neh.4:7-9)
People fear (Neh.4:10-12)
People encouraged (Neh.4:13-14)
God intervenes (Neh.4:15-18)
People encouraged (Neh.4:19-20)
People work (Neh.4:21)
Jerusalem defended (Neh.4:22-23)
The section hinges on God’s intervention.
Chronicler’s Message: Israel should not fear as God will frustrate their enemies and encourage His people in His work.

8. Opposition from within (Neh.5:1-13)

Three groups had complaints about inequities which were causing the people to fall into debt.
a. Many people were starving and could not afford to buy food (Neh.5:2).
b. Those with some resources had to mortgage their properties to buy food (Neh.5:3) and pay the king’s tax (Neh.5:4)
c. Some were even forced to sell their children into slavery to cover their debts (Neh.5:5).
Although money-lending with interest and debt-slavery was allowed by the Law, their practice at this time was threatening the survival of the nation. Nehemiah acted immediately and those responsible for the oppression and civil unrest put matters right. Thus Nehemiah preserved the unity of the community and built up broad popular support. This was further bolstered by his decision to sell off the properties he had acquired (Neh.5:10-13), to turn down the taxes he was due and provide for himself.
Chronicler’s Message: Equity will preserve the unity of the nation.

9. Reproach on Nehemiah’s person (Neh.5:1-7:3)

The reproach narrows from Jerusalem (1-2), to the builders (3-4), to Nehemiah (5-7)
a. Nehemiah’s personal nobility (Neh.5:1-19).
Nehemiah confesses he too once lent money at usury but not now. Furthermore, he does not take the Governor’s rightful due of food tax. This example led to the corrupt officials repenting.
b. Nehemiah’s personal reproach (Neh.6:1-7:3)
The keyword here is fear (Neh.6:9; 13-14, 16, 19; 7:2) which helps to highlight the attack on Nehemiah’s three sources of strength – the king, God, and the community.

(i) Charge of sedition against King Artaxerxes (Neh.6:1-9)

(ii) A false prophecy to portray Nehemiah as a rebel against God (Neh.6:10-14)

(iii) His own officials act as Tobias’ spies to help discredit Nehemiah (Neh.6:17-19)

His enemies rightly appraised his sources of strength and so subtly, but forcefully, sought to dismantle them. If they had, the wall would have come crashing down.
The problem of foreign opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem intensifies from chapter 4 to chapter 6. Here, the strong leadership of Nehemiah is seen to advantage. He refuses to be deterred from wall-building by the contrivances of Sanballat of Samaria, Tobiah of Ammon, and Geshem of Qedar. Finally the wall is completed in fifty days (Neh.6:15). Even the enemies saw the hand of God in this (Neh.6:16).
Chronicler’s Message: God will deliver Israel from the reproach of their enemies and vindicate them in their sight.

10. Success

  • The rebuilding proposed (Neh.2:11-18)
    External Opposition (Neh.2:19-20)
  • Rebuilding Begun (Neh.3:1-32)
    -Further External Opposition (Neh.4:1-14)
  • Rebuilding Continued (Neh.4:15-23)
    -Internal Opposition (Neh.5:1-19)
    -Final Opposition (Neh.6:1-14)
  • Rebuilding Completed (Neh.6:15-7:3)[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 712.[/footnote]

So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days. 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 (Neh.6:15-16).

C. New Testament Analysis

1. The world’s hatred

And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved (Mat.10:22).

I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world (Jn.17:14).


II. Return of Exiles and the Rebuilding of Community (Nehemiah 7:4-13:31)

A. General Analysis

-The return of the exiles (Neh.7:4-73a)
-The rebuilding of the community (Neh.7:73b-13:31)
Renewal of the covenant (Neh.8:1-10:39)
Obedience to the covenant (Neh.11:1-13:31)

B. Detailed Analysis

1. Community Renewal (Neh.7:4-73a)
Nehemiah was trying to encourage more exiles to return. However, the city was still weak and under-populated and the international tensions made people afraid. Zechariah had prophesied that Jerusalem would be full and overflowing with people (Zec.8:4-8). This census list may have been to try to encourage more to come to the city.

Nearly a hundred years after Zerubbabel’s first return, the population of Jerusalem was still small (Neh.7:4). In order to encourage them, Nehemiah felt inspired to register the people by genealogies (Neh.7:5). Though reading chapter 7 may seem tedious today, these lists of names were an important source of comfort in that day. The list elaborated on Ezra’s original list (Ezra 2) and demonstrated continuity with the past. When all seemed lost and hopeless, these details proved God’s blessings extended across the centuries.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 270.[/footnote]

Chronicler’s Message: Israel should populate God’s city to fulfill prophecy and obtain blessings.

2. Covenant Renewal (Neh.7:73b-10:39)

-Reading of the law (Neh.7:73-8:18)
-Confessing of sins (Neh.9:1-37)
-Swearing of an oath (Neh.9:38-10:39)
With the Temple and the wall rebuilt and the city re-populated, the time was right to renew the covenant. Simply having Jerusalem fortified was not enough to secure God’s blessings. The people needed to be rebuilt into a holy community as well. This sets the scene for the covenant renewal ceremony in these chapters.
a. Reading of the law
For the first time in the two books, the people gather as one entity in Nehemiah 8:1, and the gathering adopts the Torah (Neh.8:1-10:39), dedicating itself prior to dedicating the walls. Ezra read the law in a public place so that all could hear and understand it (Neh.8:1,3). The law is presented as something that should serve as the foundation for community life.
b. Confessing of sin
The Levites apply the earlier reading of the Law to the situation by a sermonic prayer of confession (Neh.9:1-37). This prayer emphasizes that the land is the fulfillment of God’s promise to their ancestors (Gen.15). This covenant with Abraham was the basis upon which God would extend His mercy to His erring people. God’s promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land, had not been fulfilled because subsequent generations had been unfaithful (Neh.9:16-32).

Nehemiah recognized that the restoration opportunity in his own day resulted from God’s promise to Abraham and the blessing of restoration that was taking shape might come to fruition if the people repented of their sin and kept the terms of the covenant (Neh.9:32-38).[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 724.[/footnote]

c. Swearing of an oath (Neh.9:38-10:39)
The leaders and people agree to make covenant commitment (Neh.9:38-10:39) with specific stipulations regarding intermarriage (Neh.10:30), Sabbath keeping (Neh.10:31) and Temple upkeep (Neh.10:32-39). The concluding statement brings most of the reforms together in a blanket summary commitment: “We will not neglect the house of our God” (Neh.10:39c). The Law is placed at the centre of a united people.
Chronicler’s Message: God will keep His covenant and Israel should renew her vows to keep hers.

3. Re-population (Neh.11)

In order to provide stability to the temple city, Nehemiah 11 describes how, through the casting of lots, more citizens were brought to live there and gives a list of the city’s expanded population.

4. Re-dedication (Neh.12)

The list of priests (Neh.12:1-26) stressed continuity with the past, which was vital for the psychological well-being of the nation. Nehemiah 12:27-47 is the climax of Nehemiah’s career. With great joy and celebration, the people dedicated Jerusalem’s restored walls. This great “dedication” parallels the dedication of the temple in Ezra 6:17. The newly reconstituted community is now tied to the past and the land. The rebuilt temple and city are both filling with priests and people. The joyous dedication is the dramatic climax (Neh.12:27-43). Keyword is “joy” (vv. 27, 43 (5x)). Sovereign grace begins and ends the restructuring of the Second Commonwealth.
Chronicler’s Message: Covenant obedience secures the land, the Temple and holy joy by God’s grace.

5. Ongoing Renewal

The book ends by stressing the need for continuing the restoration program by reporting Nehemiah’s further reforms after a period of absence. These reforms related to:
-Purification of temple & storerooms, stewards and tithes (Neh.12:44-13:14)
-Purification of the Sabbath (Neh.13:15-22)
-Purification from mixed marriages with Ashdodites, etc. (Neh.13:23-28)
-Purification of priests and Levites of everything foreign (Neh.13:29-30)
The short conclusion to the book (Neh.13:30–31) sums up the essence of the entire work: purification from any contamination; establishment of correct worship; and provision for all things.

Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; And for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits (Neh.13:30-31)

Chronicler’s Message: Covenant keeping and covenant renewal must be ongoing and continuous.

6. Final Note

The book ends on a note of disappointment. The obedience and celebration of Neh.12:27-13:3 is in stark contrast to the failures in Neh.13:4-31. Although the Ezra-Nehemiah period began with high hopes, it ends with a frank admission by the author of Nehemiah of the failure of an experiment and with the community divided. The restoration community has reached its goal in terms of physical rebuilding, but the reader is left doubting the permanence of the spiritual rebuilding. The last chapter is punctuated and concluded with Nehemiah’s plaintive and poignant prayer, “Remember me, O my God for good” (Neh.13:14, 22, 29)

The allusion to Solomon (Neh.13:26-27) succinctly illustrates the community’s predicament. In effect, Nehemiah asks the people, “Will you be like Solomon—Solomon, who built the house of God, who began so well and ended so disastrously? Will you emulate him, destroying your good work by marrying foreign women?” The sin that wrought so much havoc in the pre-exilic community now crouches at the door of post-exilic society. Who will be the master? The narrative ends ominously with unanswered questions and doubts about the reality of the people’s commitment to Law keeping. We noted at the outset that Ezra-Nehemiah is a story about two walls. In the end both walls have been reconstructed. The boundaries that defined the people of God over against the wickedness of the Gentiles are finally in place. But the author…raises doubts about the quality and permanence of what the post-exilic community has achieved. It leaves us with more questions than answers. Are these boundaries secure? Will the two worlds remain separate? It is as if “To be continued” has been written at the end of the work, challenging the original readers to make their own story a sequel in which they rise to the occasion and remove all doubts about the security and permanence of the house of God.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 214-215[/footnote]

Chronicler’s Message: Covenant keeping must continue despite many disappointments.

C. New Testament Analysis

1. Don’t be weary in well-doing

The overriding practical lesson of Nehemiah is that God’s work demands patient endurance. The book illustrates the principle of 1 Corinthians 16:9 that where there is an open door, there are many adversaries. Sidlow Baxter has captured this lesson in a series of catchy contrasts. “There is no winning without working and warring. There is no opportunity without opposition…no triumph without trouble…no victory without vigilance. There is a cross in the way to every crown that is worth wearing.[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


2. The wall of partition (Eph.2:14-18)

For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us (Eph.2:14)

It is Jesus Christ who tears down the “wall of separation.” First of all, he tears apart the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of creation. Second, he demolishes the division of humanity that separated Jew from Gentile (Eph. 2:14-18).

3. Disappointed hopes

The book does not end on a high note but rather on the note of continuing reform required.

This demonstrates that the “house of God” envisioned in Ezra 1:2 was not yet complete. Ezra-Nehemiah is open-ended, looking to the future time when the shadowy “house of God” would give way to the reality (Eph.4:1-16).[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 732.[/footnote]


4. 400 years of silence

Israel has been restored to its land. The Temple has been restored in a rebuilt city. Now all that awaits is Messiah. But 400 years are to pass in prophetic silence until the coming of the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ. The silence will be broken by the messenger heralding the coming of ‘the Messenger of the covenant’ (Mal. 3:1). John the Baptist will break the silence by bursting upon the scene of history as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD”’ (Isa.40:3; cf. Mark 1:2-3).

III. The Message

Original Message: The covenant community must support Jerusalem by repopulation, fortification, renewal and reform in the face of disappointments.
Present Message: The Christian community must support the church by repopulation, fortification, renewal and reform in the face of disappointments.