NEHEMIAH’S REFORMS Nehemiah 8–13“Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God” (Neh. 8:18).Nehemiah had restored the walls of the city. He then turned to his most important task: restoring the relationship of the people of Judah with God.
Ezra read and explained God’s Word to the people of Judah (8:1–18). The people confessed sins (9:1–38) and determined to give God priority (10:1–39). Nehemiah resettled Jerusalem (11:1–12:27), and the people joyfully dedicated its restored wall (vv. 27–47). Later, returning for a second term as governor, Nehemiah found the people had failed to live up to their commitments and initiated further reforms (13:1–31). Ezra and Scroll. Nehemiah 8:8 says Ezra read from the Book of the Law “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand.” The biblical text recorded on ancient scrolls is in Hebrew. By Ezra’s time ordinary people spoke Aramaic, a related but different language. Ezra had to translate as well as explain the text!
Understanding the Text
“Day after day . . . Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God” Neh. 8:13–18. A highlight of the eight-day Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) reported here was daily reading of the Old Testament. By spending one fourth of the day in reading (9:3), Ezra was probably able to cover the entire five Books of Moses. This reading of Scripture laid the foundation for the spiritual renewal that Nehemiah was so eager to stimulate. Scripture still has power to lift us out of any spiritual low. “They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” Neh. 9:1–38. The reading of Scripture provided the people of Judah with perspective. The history of their fathers was one of persistent rebellion, yet one shaped by continual expressions of God’s grace. The Jews were now “slaves in the land You gave our forefathers” to Gentile kings, who “rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please.” And this was “because of our sins” (vv. 36–37). The perspective provided by Scripture produced a dual response. First, the people acknowledged that their present “great distress” was a consequence of their own and their fathers’ failure to obey God. Second, the people determined to make a formal “binding agreement” to obey God from that time onward. Scripture still speaks in the same voice. We are convicted of sin, and at the same time called to commitment. Conviction leads to conversion—if we too hear and respond. “All these now join their brothers . . . and bind themselves” Neh. 10:1–39. The religious reforms stimulated by Ezra and Nehemiah touched the whole people. The reforms reveal areas in which Judah had fallen short. There was a general commitment to “follow the Law of God,” but specific promises were made to avoid marriage with neighboring peoples, to keep the Sabbath holy, and to actively support temple worship. The very concept of “reform” means that we identify weaknesses and commit ourselves to correct them. Self-examination is important for believers of every age. Self-examination, however, must always have correction as its goal. Without renewed recommitment, confession alone is unlikely to transform. “To live in Jerusalem” Neh. 11:1–12:26. The agricultural lands that supported the small Jewish community after the Exile lay far from Jerusalem. The now-walled city had been sparsely occupied, especially as the people had failed to pay the tithes which would have supported the priests and Levites who were supposed to minister at the temple. To support themselves, these worship leaders had been forced to move out to their villages and till their own fields. The repopulation of Jerusalem, while necessary for its security, was religiously motivated. This is seen in the emphasis in the text on priests, Levites, and other temple officers (11:10–12:28). All these persons would have to be supported by the tithe pledged by the rest of the community. Such sacrifice could be motivated only by a pure desire to worship and honor God. Sacrifice remains a significant measure of our commitment to and love for the Lord. The giving of many Christians goes beyond tipping God out of their excess, to tightening their belts in order to contribute more. “The dedication of the wall” Neh. 12:27–47. The text emphasizes the fact that the dedication of Jerusalem’s walls was an occasion to “celebrate joyfully.” As two choirs marched in opposite directions to meet before the temple, the whole community rejoiced “because God had given them great joy.” There were two sources of this joy. The first was external and visible. The people of God had successfully rebuilt the walls. This visible accomplishment not only honored the Lord, whose city Jerusalem was, but also boosted Jewish morale. The Jews were no longer despised by their neighbors, who realized that the work had only been achieved “with the help of our God” (6:16). We do live in a material universe. Visible accomplishments not only impress others, and thus testify to the reality of God, but also serve as a testimony to us. We have a right to be joyful over visible as well as strictly spiritual achievements. Yet the great well from which Judah’s joy flowed was inner and spiritual. God’s people had confessed their sins to Him, and had recommitted themselves to serve Him. There was a great sense of spiritual well-being. All sensed that they were again right with God. For you and me too, the ultimate source of joy is to be found in our relationship with the Lord. When we are right with Him, visible signs of His presence become less important to us. When we are right with God, we can rejoice even when external things go wrong. “I was not in Jerusalem” Neh. 13. After a productive first term as governor of Judah, Nehemiah returned to serve the King of Persia. During his absence the people drifted back into their old practices of mixed marriage, doing business on the Sabbath, and failing to support those who conducted temple worship. Nehemiah did return, and immediately set things right again. Nehemiah’s whole life reminds us of an important spiritual principle. Leaders are called to encourage others to complete commitment to God, and to help them maintain that commitment. Today, as in Nehemiah’s day, we need leaders who will help us serve God wholeheartedly.
Remember Me for This (Neh. 13)
Here, in the last chapter of the book that bears Nehemiah’s name, we find the clearest expression of this great Old Testament leader’s heart. In his “remember me” statements, Nehemiah identifies those actions which he sees as his most significant service for the Lord. What is striking about the list is that nowhere does Nehemiah say, “Remember me, O Lord, for rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls.” The one accomplishment which his contemporaries might have seen as most important, isn’t even mentioned! It’s helpful for us to remember this in a day when so many take pride in buildings—in founding universities, in constructing beautiful churches, or in building great networks over which the Gospel can be heard. Certainly these are worthy endeavors, just as building the wall of Jerusalem was a worthy and holy endeavor. Yet what we see in Nehemiah 13 is that these are not the most important of spiritual endeavors. For Nehemiah, what was most important was promoting the worship of God (v. 14). It was helping Judah honor God by keeping the Sabbath Day holy (v. 22). It was insisting that those who served the Lord remain pure (v. 30). What counted most to Nehemiah was his impact for God on the lives of the men and women of his own time. What a blessing to see this in Nehemiah. You and I may never stand among the great builders of our times. But we can stand, with Nehemiah, as persons who encourage the men and women among whom we live to worship the Lord better, to honor Him more fully, and to remain pure. If we do, when the day comes that God honors His servants, you and I will stand beside Nehemiah among the most significant people of God.
It is more important to touch one life for God than to build a great city.