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Nehemiah, Theology of

Nehemiah, Theology of

Doctrine of God. God is introduced as the God of heaven ( 1:4-5 ). He is great, mighty, powerful, and awesome ( 1:5 ; 6:16 ; 9:32 ). The one whose name is Yahweh is the only being worthy to be called God ( 9:6 ). Multitudes of heaven bow down before their Creator, who made all their host and gave life to all ( 9:6 ). This great Lord is exalted above all blessing ( 9:5 ).

God also enters into covenant with men. He brought Abram out of Ur and changed his name to Abraham ( 9:7 ). He was able to look into the man's heart and know that he was faithful. He himself makes his promises and fulfills them ( 9:8 ). Yahweh is reliable and can be counted on to do what he says ( 9:32 ). He preserves his covenant and lovingkindness for those who love him and keep his word ( 1:5 ). He fulfills his promises because he is righteous ( 9:8 ).

Yahweh is the redeemer who brought his people out of Egypt by his great power and strong hand ( 1:10 ). He first saw their affliction and then delivered them with wondrous signs ( 9:9 ). He is their lawgiver from Mount Sinai and their preserver and sustainer in the wilderness.

He is not only the God of redemptive history; he is also the God who was favorable to Nehemiah ( 2:18 ). Nehemiah recognized that all of his thoughts prompting him to rebuild were put into his heart by God ( 2:12 ). The carrying out of these thoughts was done by the help of his God ( 4:14 ).

The greatest emphasis on the nature of God in this book concerns his lovingkindness, grace, and mercy. The remnant based their hopes for survival on the ancient "mercy confession" of Exodus 34:6. The Lord is a God of forgiveness, grace, and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness ( 9:17 ). Therefore he did not forsake Israel because of the golden calf episode ( Exod 32 ). He had great compassion on Israel in the wilderness, providing for all their needs ( 9:27-31 ).

For the small group of refugees God's mercy was not only a historical event but also a present reality. They base their ability to survive as a nation on it. Although God is compassionate, however, he is also just and righteous. Everything he brought upon the rebellious people was fair and just ( 9:33 ).

The People of God. To their enemies they are "feeble Jews" ( 4:2 ). They are in dire straights, having become slaves on their own land ( 9:36 ). Persian kings rule over their own bodies ( 9:37 ). Even their own brethren threaten to plunge them into serfdom ( 5:1-5 ). Yet, at the same time, they are the people whom Yahweh redeemed by his great power and strong hand ( 1:10 ).

In the midst of weakness and distress they "worked with all their heart" ( 4:6 ). Almost as one person they put their hand to the good work ( 2:18 ). Though there are some nobles who disdained to work on the wall, daughters are said to have worked alongside their father ( Nehemiah 3:5 Nehemiah 3:12 ). With swords in one hand and tools in the other they worked from dawn until the stars came out ( Nehemiah 4:17 Nehemiah 4:21 ).

In the past their fathers acted arrogantly, would not listen, and failed to remember God's wondrous deeds ( 9:16 ). They cast the law behind them and killed the prophets ( 9:25 ). Their sons are mourning and confessing their sins. They stand as one person shivering in the rain to listen to the Torah in chapters 8 and 9.

Over a hundred names are recorded on a written, sealed covenant ( 10:1-27 ). With knowledge and understanding they pledged themselves to walk in God's law. They renounce foreign marriages and working on the Sabbath. In the midst of poverty they pledge to renounce crops the seventh year and to remit slaves and debts in the year of jubilee. They promise in writing to honor their financial obligations to the house of God and to its ministers. Though they have meager means of existence, they will not neglect the house of God ( 10:32-39 ).

Scripture. On Mount Sinai Yahweh gave commands, decrees, and laws ( 9:14 ). He also gave his good spirit to instruct them ( 9:20 ). Their rule of faith and practice includes more than the law of Moses. Their manner of praise and worship goes back to the commandments of David and Solomon. David, like Moses, was a man of God. His prescriptions are considered binding ( Nehemiah 12:24 Nehemiah 12:46 ). Information recorded in the historical books is also considered binding in moral situations ( 13:26 ).

Early in the book it is recognized that the law foretold their scattering and also their return ( 1:7 ). It is more than a historical record. It is something the people separate themselves to and a way of life in which they walk ( 10:29-30 ). The book of the law is not something restricted to temple worship.

The reading of the law was done in the city square at the Water Gate. This entrance led to the spring of Gihon, the source of the city's water supply. The reading was commenced on the first day of the seventh month. This would begin the civil new year. Thus it was emphasized that the Torah must overshadow secular as well as religious life ( 8:1-2 ).

A wooden tower was built large enough for fifteen people to stand on. The purpose of this tower was for the reading of the Word ( 8:4-5 ). It reminded the people that the Torah stood above everything in their lives.

It was the people themselves who requested this reading. They all stood when the scroll was opened. Scripture was read from early morning until noon before men, women, and children who could understand ( 8:3-5 ). Thirteen Levites went through the crowd assisting people in understanding the law ( 8:7 ).

The law was reverenced. People bowed low and worshiped when it was read ( 8:7 ). It was not, however, worshiped. Yahweh himself is the only one granted this service. Leaders reminded the people that gloom and holiness do not go together. When all the people are weeping and mourning, they are exhorted to rejoice and send gifts to each other ( 8:9-10 ). They are made to realize that the joy of the Lord is their strength. They celebrate a great festival because "they understood the words that had been made known to them" ( 8:12 ). This practice probably lies behind the "Simchat Torah" ("Joy of the Torah"), a special day observed in modern synagogues around this time of the year.

Prayer. The Book of Nehemiah probably contains the shortest prayer in the Bible and one of the longest. The shortest prayer occurs in 2:4 between the king's question about what Nehemiah wants from him and this man's reply. The longest prayer takes up most of chapter 9.

This prayer came after the festivals of Yom Kippur and Sukkoth. The fact that it was not on one of the prescribed holy days indicated that consecration is not to be restricted to certain special days in the year. The people separated themselves to the Lord. They read the law for a fourth of a day and confessed sins for another fourth ( 9:1-2 ).

In the Greek text of the Septuagint this is said to be Ezra's prayer but the Hebrew text is indefinite about the speaker in 9:6. The entire prayer is a national confession of sin and a plea for mercy in the midst of oppression and disgrace. It forms a centerpiece of the book.

There are thirteen instances of prayer in Nehemiah. The book opens with a prayer and closes with one ( 1:4-11 ; 13:31 ). The recorded prayer of the first chapter is the culmination of many days of praying and fasting for the ruined city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah has been praying night and day for this city. This man of God identifies himself with the sin of his people that he is confessing. He, himself, and his father's house have acted corruptly ( 1:7 ). He calls God's attention to Leviticus 26:33, which promises a regathering of the nation in response to their repentance. He closes his prayer by requesting success and compassion before the king. This is truly one of the great intercessory prayers of the Bible.

At many points of crisis Nehemiah's short prayers are recorded. When news of conspiracy is heard, they pray and set up a guard ( 5:19 ). After five attempts to ambush him he breathes a brief prayer that is only three words in the Hebrew text: "Now strengthen my hands" ( 6:9 ). He continually requests that God remember his faithful Acts during his governorship. This man is possibly one of the most prayerful persons in the Bible outside of Christ. He realized there were times for long, sustained prayer and times for hard work and quick, whispered prayer.

Ethics. Before the wall was even finished a crisis concerning ethics must be dealt with. Wealthy Jewish landowners are forcing their brethren into serfdom by high-interest loans. Courageously the governor faces them with the wrongs they have done. To their lasting credit, they responded by remitting the debts ( 5:1-12 ).

Nehemiah is not a heartless legalist who slavishly follows the letter of the law. He is constantly sacrificing for the welfare of the people. He realizes that the law is built on both the love of God and love for one's neighbor. He disdains to take his legal right as governor to require a subsidy from the people for his official expenses. He did not domineer the people but rather paid for the expenses of his table from his own money ( 5:15-18 ). He did not consider common labor beneath his dignity as a governor, but diligently applied himself to the work on the wall ( 5:16 ).

When he discovers Levites and singers have had to leave their duties because tithes are not being paid, he quickly reorganized the country's financial policies. He placed reliable people in charge of storing the tithes ( 13:10-14 ). For sake of accountability the high priest was to be present when Levites gathered tithes ( 10:38 ).

Upon discovering Tobiah had commandeered a storeroom in the temple for his personal use, Nehemiah personally threw his household goods out into the street ( 13:4-9 ). The room was quickly cleansed and rededicated to temple use. Corruption and self-aggrandizement were not tolerated in any area.

People who were breaking the Sabbath were first admonished ( 13:15 ), then reprimanded (v. 17). After this, gates were locked and force was threatened (vv. 18-21). When the survival of the biblical Mosaic faith was concerned Nehemiah was not always gentle. At times he resorted to physical force ( 13:25 ). When foreign marriage laws were disregarded he struck the offenders and even pulled their hair out. The book simply reports these extreme methods without passing judgment on them.

These marriages were threatening to undermine the very core of Israel's national identity. They even resulted in offspring who could not speak the language of Judah and hence could not understand the laws that guaranteed their survival ( 13:24 ). Nehemiah realized from his own knowledge of Scripture that this had caused Solomon to sin and had brought the nation to disaster ( 13:26 ). His style of leadership differed from Ezra's, who pulled his own hair out over this situation ( Ezra 9:3 ). One must remember Nehemiah was fighting for the spiritual and temporal survival of his nation.

The City of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is an important city. It is the place of the tombs of Nehemiah's fathers. It was also the place where God chose to have his Name dwell ( 1:9 ). It is to be a holy city. The first ones to start the building are the priests. As they build they consecrate the walls and gates ( 3:1 ). Guards were appointed to watch the gates. It was important who lived there and who entered the city. Lots were cast to insure there would be people residing there. The people who inhabited the city were blessed by the others ( 11:1-19 ). Their names and numbers were carefully recorded.

Dedication of the walls was a religious service accompanied with a great deal of gladness and celebration. Two great choirs lead a procession in two different directions up from the south end of the city to the temple on the north ( 12:31-43 ). The march was consummated with a great deal of sacrifice and rejoicing. Celebration was so loud that it was heard from afar ( 12:43 ).

This consecration of the city reminds us of dedication of the altar in Ezra 3:8-13. Piety is not to be restricted to the altar site, but encompasses everything within the walls of the city. Building these walls was a great work commissioned by God himself.

Kings and Human Government. The book recognizes that their kings and leaders were given by God ( 9:34 ) and that he reserves the right to withdraw the blessing of the kingdom he gave them. The nation is to be a holy commonwealth. Foreign leaders have no portion, right, or memorial in it ( 2:20 ).Try as they might, they cannot stop the work because God himself frustrated their plans ( 4:15 ). They completely lost their confidence when the work was accomplished with God's help ( 6:16 ).

Paul Ferguson

See also Israel; Jerusalem

Bibliography. J. Bright, History of Israel; B. Childs, Introduction of the Old Testament as Scripture; F. C. Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah; D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah; J. Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah; H. G. Williamson, Ezra-Nehemiah.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Nehemiah, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.