Restoration

In spite of the safety and security that the wall around Jerusalem provided, most of the Jews didn’t want to live in the city. It says in Nehemiah 11:1 that the people cast lots to see who would have to move there. The people most likely chose to live outside the city limits because they needed more space to grow crops and to feed their animals, but even the priests and Levites who were supposed to be fed with the temple offerings had to be coerced into leaving the countryside (Note on Nehemiah 11:1). There were some though that chose to live in the city of Jerusalem. It says in Nehemiah 11:2, “And the people blessed all the men, that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem.” One family in particular stood out among the residents of the city. It says in Nehemiah 11:6, “All the sons of Perez that dwelt at Jerusalem were four hundred threescore and eight valiant men.” The sons of Perez were warriors that most likely volunteered to live there so they could defend the city against attack. During Solomon’s reign over Israel, military and civil officers were put in place to maintain peace and security in the kingdom. Twelve regiments were established to serve one month out of the year. It says in 1 Chronicles 27:3, “Of the children of Perez was the chief of all the captains of the host for the first month.”

The family of Perez was probably carrying on a family tradition when they volunteered to live at Jerusalem. One of the things that was noteworthy about the Jews return to the Promised Land was that many people returned to the exact locations where their ancestors had lived before they were taken into captivity. A list of villages that were repopulated outside of Jerusalem corresponds with a list that is found in Joshua 15 where the borders of Judah are recorded (Nehemiah 11:25-30 and note). Although you might say it was just a skeleton of the former nation, the restored city of Jerusalem and surrounding area of Judah probably functioned in a similar fashion to what it did when Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land the first time. Their ability to restore God’s kingdom with such accuracy was due to the Jews meticulous record keeping system. The Levites, who were descendants of Jacob’s son Levi, had to prove their genealogy in order to serve in the temple. It says in Nehemiah 12:23, “The sons of Levi, the chief of the fathers, were written in the book of the chronicles, even until the day of Johanan the son of Eliashib.” This book of chronicles may have been the official temple chronicle, containing various lists and records. If so, the Jews must have taken it with them when they went into captivity or perhaps, buried and/or hid it before they left Jerusalem. Without these kind of records, the genealogy of Jesus would not have been able to be proven.

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Commitment

After Ezra read God’s law to the Jews, everyone that had knowledge and understanding of what they had heard, made a commitment “to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD” (Nehemiah 10:29). The seriousness of their commitment was described as entering into a curse, and into an oath, meaning a curse would be on the head of anyone who broke the agreement (423). An oath was similar to what we think of today as giving sworn testimony in a court of law. To take an oath or swear was considered a promise. In the same way that God makes promises to us, an oath was treated like a legal agreement that could not be broken.

The most important thing to note about the commitment the Jews made was that it was a voluntary action. The people realized that God’s laws were mandatory, but they made a personal commitment to follow them because they were aware of what had happened to their ancestors as a result of not keeping God’s commandments. One of the key issues Jesus had to deal with during his ministry on earth was the keeping of God’s commandments. The Jews went beyond God’s law to establish traditions that were impossible to keep, such “as the washing of pots and cups” (Mark 7:8), and even plucking ears of corn to eat was considered a violation of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24).

Jesus used the word hypocrite to describe the Jews’ overzealous behavior in keeping the commandments. He said, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7). In order to distinguish the true intent of God’s law, Jesus clarified the critical points that needed to be remembered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

Perhaps the mistake the Jews made in making a commitment to keep God’s commandments was not that they didn’t understand the law, but that they didn’t interpret it correctly. The primary purpose of the Ten Commandments was to maintain healthy relationships so that there would be unity among God’s people. The night before his crucifixion, Jesus gave his disciples some final instructions. In order to clarify God’s expectations about keeping his commandments, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

Revival

As a part of the Jews celebration of the feast of booths, it says in Nehemiah 9:2 that the people separated themselves from the strangers that were living in Jerusalem “and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.” The process of confessing their sins was not what most people today might think of it. The Hebrew word translated confessed, yadah means literally to use the hand, especially to revere or worship God with extended hands (3034). The act of raising their hands may have been symbolic of their dependence on God or a sign of their adoration of him. Rather than being something that the Jews were forced to or expected to do, the raising of their hands was likely an involuntary response to what they were hearing in God’s law and may have been a spiritual reaction to the conviction they felt in their hearts.

One way to describe what was happening when the Jews confessed their sins would be a spiritual revival. Psalm 85, which focuses on the Jews return from captivity, contains a question that was asked of God, “Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?” (Psalm 85:6). The psalmist went on to say that revival and rejoicing are closely connected with God’s mercy and the salvation of his people. He stated, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:11). The vivid portrayal of the meeting and embracing of these aspects of God’s salvation demonstrates his willingness to forgive the sins of his people. God’s mercy is readily available to anyone that will be truthful about his or her sins and peace passionately fastens itself to everyone that has been made right with God.

A likely trigger for the Jews revival was remembering their past. The book of the law that Ezra read to the people was most likely the entire record of the Israelites’ history from Abraham to their bondage in Egypt and sinful rebellion against God. In his prayer to God, Ezra recounted the highlights of what he had read to the people, beginning with Genesis (Nehemiah 9:6-8) and ending with the prophets that testified of God’s judgment (Nehemiah 9:30). Afterward, the people renewed their covenant with God. It says in Nehemiah 9:38, “And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests seal unto it.” The Jews act of making a covenant took them back to the historical roots of their faith. When God told Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5), Abraham believed in the LORD and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

A deeper understanding

At the conclusion of their building project, all the Jews gathered themselves together as a congregation and requested that Ezra read to them from the book of the law of Moses. Nehemiah previously noted that the whole congregation together was 42,360 people (Nehemiah 7:66), so the crowd would have been similar in size to a packed baseball stadium, but they actually took up much less space because Nehemiah said all the people stood in the street, and Ezra spoke to them from a pulpit made of wood that was raised above them so that everyone could see him (Nehemiah 8:4-5).

In his opening prayer, Ezra blessed the LORD, which means he kneeled down before him in reverence (1288). In response, as a sign of their commitment and willingness to submit themselves to God, it says in Nehemiah 8:6 that, “all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.” Ezra’s reading of the law went beyond merely speaking it out loud so that everyone could hear it. His intent was to make sure that everyone clearly understood it. It says in Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”

You could say the gathering of the Jews was more like a Bible Study than it was a recitation of the law. It was important for them to have a deeper understanding of God’s word because the people were expected to actually do what the law said they were supposed to. The Hebrew word translated distinctly, parash means to separate or disperse. In a figurative sense, the word can be used to specify something or to wound someone as with a harsh word or saying (6567). The Apostle Paul said in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

One of the ways Ezra knew that the people truly understood what he was saying to them was “all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law” (Nehemiah 8:9). In other words, they were convicted of their sins and felt bad about all the things they had been doing wrong. Surprisingly, Ezra didn’t encourage the people to grieve or to be sorry for their sin, but told them they should celebrate because “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10), meaning, in their process of reaching spiritual maturity, it was more important for the people to convey the joy of God’s forgiveness than it was for them to express grief because they had sinned. “And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (Nehemiah 8:12).

The list

After Nehemiah completed rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, he found a list of all the Jews that returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon had ended. The list was created at the time of the first exiles return, but was most likely modified later as additional waves of people came back to Jerusalem. The list of people recorded in Nehemiah 7:6-66 began with the names of the men that led the expeditions from as far away as Susa, the capital of Persia. The introduction and conclusion read, “These are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity, of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezar the king of Babylon had carried away, and came again to Jerusalem and to Judah, every one unto his city; who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Azariah, Raamiah, Nahamani, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispereth, Bigvai, Nehum, Baanah, The number, I say, of the men of the people of Israel was this…The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and threescore” (Nehemiah 7:6-7,66).

The final number; 42,360 represented the totality of what was referred to throughout the Old Testament of the Bible as the remnant. The Hebrew term translated remnant, she’ar (sheh – awr┬┤) or she’eriyth (sheh – ay – reeth┬┤) means a remainder. “The idea of the remnant plays a prominent part in the divine economy of salvation throughout the Old Testament. The remnant concept is applied especially to the Israelites who survived such calamities as war, pestilence, and famine – people whom the Lord in His mercy spared to be His chosen people (2 Kings 19:31; Ezra 9:14). The Israelites repeatedly suffered major catastrophes that brought them to the brink of extinction…Zechariah announced that a remnant would be present at the time of the coming of the Messiah’s kingdom” (7611). The significance of having a list of the returned exiles was the documentation it provided for the size of congregation that met to hear Ezra read from the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:1).

Nehemiah stated, “Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded” (Nehemiah 7:4). Although the exact dimensions are not known, the size of the rebuilt city of Jerusalem is estimated to be about 4000 feet or less than a mile in length and about 500 – 1000 feet wide. By today’s estimates, the rebuilt city of Jerusalem was actually very small. There would have been about 132 people per acre of land if everyone was living inside the city walls. The Hebrew word Nehemiah used that is translated large actually has nothing to do with size. Yad (yawd) means “a hand (the open one [indicating power, means, direction, etc.] in distinction from 3709, the closed one)…This is a figure of speech, an anthropomorphism, by which God promises his protection” (3027). What Nehemiah was probably saying was that the walled city of Jerusalem was larger than what was needed to protect the 42,360 returned exiles from harm. God had provided them with plenty of room to multiply their numbers.

A miracle

The completion of the wall around Jerusalem in just 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15) was viewed by those outside the city as a miracle of God. It says in Nehemiah 6:16, “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.” There is no evidence that God was actually involved in the rebuilding of the wall. The only mention of him was when Nehemiah said that God had put it in his heart to do the work (Nehemiah 2:12). What was more likely the cause of the Jews success was Nehemiah’s leadership and the collaboration of the people.

Nehemiah persevered in spite of all sorts of trouble and a concerted effort by three men; Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, to stop him. Perhaps, the greatest tribute to Nehemiah’s accomplishment was his determined conviction that it was God’s will for the wall to be rebuilt. The first Jews returned from captivity in 538 B.C. and Nehemiah recorded that the wall was completed on October 2, 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 6:15), so close to a hundred years had passed and little was accomplished in the way of securing the city of Jerusalem until Nehemiah came on the scene. What probably differentiated Nehemiah the most from the other men that had attempted the difficult task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall was his belief that it was possible if everyone did their part, including himself.

Mischief

Nehemiah’s commitment to completing his mission of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem was met with opposition that eventually turned into personal attacks on his character. Nehemiah remained focused and would not risk even the slightest delay in the work. Two of Nehemiah’s most determined distractors, Sanballet and Geshem tried to get him involved in a political battle that would have most likely led to a protracted argument. Making it seem as if they were extending an invitation for him to join their prestigious ranks, Nehemiah said, “That Sanballet and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. The Hebrew word translated mischief, ra’ah means bad or evil (7451). The point Nehemiah was trying to make was that these men were trying to keep him from doing God’s will. If he allowed himself to be concerned with their demands, Nehemiah probably would have lost the respect of his followers.

Nehemiah’s response conveyed the importance of his mission. Nehemiah felt that a delay in completing his assignment was equivalent to disobedience to God. He said, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Sanballet refused to take no for an answer. He sent the same message to Nehemiah four times and then made a fifth, more intimidating, attempt to convince Nehemiah he should comply with his request. Sanballet sent what was referred to as an open letter (Nehemiah 6:5). Basically, the purpose of the open letter was to make it possible for rumors to be started that would get word back to King Artaxerxes that a problem existed in Jerusalem. The letter addressed to Nehemiah stated:

It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah. (Nehemiah 6:7)

Sanballet’s threatening letter ended with a direct request for Nehemiah to become a member of his organization. He said, “Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together” (Nehemiah 6:7). The phrase “take counsel together” could be translated, devise a unified plan or join forces (3289/3162). Sanballet was probably implying that he would make it worth Nehemiah’s while to work for him rather than to serve God.

Perhaps the lowest trick Nehemiah was exposed to was an enticement to hide in the house of God in order to avoid being killed by Sanballet and Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:10). Nehemiah responded, “And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in” (Nehemiah 6:11). It was Nehemiah’s example as a leader that was being challenged in this cowardly suggestion. Nehemiah was right to reject such a proposal, but also wise in his understanding of the impression it would give. Nehemiah’s interpretation of the situation showed that he was aware of his enemy’s attempt to ruin his reputation. He said, “Therefore was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me” (Nehemiah 6:13).