Today we complete the book of Nehemiah, which completes the historical books of the Old Testament. Chapter 11 begins with moving people to Jerusalem. All of the leaders lived there (11:1), but lots had to be cast to see who else would. Note that in verse 2 this wasn’t because so many wanted to live there. It’s because nobody wanted to. But they needed people in the city to protect it.
In verse 3 notice the mention of Israel (see also v. 20). Verses 3-19 here closely parallel 1 Chronicle 9:2-22 where we see that it was not just those of Judah and Benjamin who lived in Judah after the return from exile. The descriptions of the villages that were occupied at this point lines up with archeological evidence.
Chapter 12 recounts the priests and Levites that returned starting with the first wave of returnees that came along with Zerubbabel and Joshua (12:1 – see Ezra 2:2). This is presented to show the continuity of the priesthood’s genealogy, tying it to the original, Aaronic priesthood. Israel is still thinking physically.
Verse 27 speaks of the dedication of the wall. The Levitical musicians are called to celebrate the dedication in song. The priests and Levites assure they are ceremonially clean before the celebration begins. They then purified the people and the gates. This is all part of their pledge to be holy unto God (see 9:38-10:39). The rest of the chapter details the celebration. We see the joy of all the people in verse 43. In verses 44-46 we see that Nehemiah wants to set up the ministry of the Levites according to David’s commands. In verse 47, we see again the commitment to God was largely tied in with proper tithing.
Chapter 13 begins with a public reading of the Scriptures. The people realize that God had commanded no Ammonite or Moabite should enter the Temple (see Deut 23:3-4). And yet, we know that David was part Moabite. The national distinctions that God had commanded were part of the now-broken covenant, but more than that, they were meant to point to the spiritual distinction between His people and the rest of the world. That the people here separate themselves from Ammonites and Moabites (v. 3) shows once again their belief that physical descent made someone part of God’s people.
We then read that one of the priests had given one of the grain storehouses in the Temple to Tobiah (remember him?) who he was related to (v. 4). This happened while Nehemiah was back in Persia (v. 6). When Nehemiah returns, he cleanses the Temple, so to speak, and restores the chamber to its proper use (vv. 7-9).
Then, Nehemiah finds out that the tithes were not being given to the Levites (v. 10 – see 10:37-39, 12:47). So the Levites left the Temple and went to their own fields. Nehemiah then confronts the leaders because they had forsaken the house of God. Note that they have already broken the covenant they made (9:38)!
It gets worse. They now break their covenant by working on the Sabbath (vv. 15-19 – see 10:31). Nehemiah then confronts the leaders because they had profaned the Sabbath. Are we seeing a pattern here? Nehemiah is, and he reminds the people what happened the last time they lived this way (v. 18). Nehemiah has to personally see to it that the Sabbath is obeyed by locking the gates of the city during the Sabbath (v. 19). He even has to physically threaten those who were looking to sell their goods on the Sabbath (v. 21).
Then, we see that their commitment not to intermarry (see Ezra 10:2-5) has already been broken (v. 23). In addition, they have now let Ammonites and Moabites back into the assembly, which they promised not to do (v. 3). Nehemiah is so angry that he actually beats some of the men up (v. 25)! Then he makes them renew their oath (v. 25), reminding them of Solomon and what happened to the nation because of his sin (v. 26). Nehemiah then literally runs a priest who married a foreign woman out of town (v. 28). And note: the wife was Tobiah’s buddy Sanballat’s daughter (see 2:10)!
The book – and the history of Israel in the Old Testament – then ends with Nehemiah praying to God to curse those who have been disobedient, and to remember him for all the good he tried to do. Clearly, the promises the prophets made to the true remnant were not fulfilled in the physical people.
The next time we read about Israel (in the Gospels) they are still under foreign rule, are still mistakenly counting on their physical lineage to save them, and are still observing empty, outward acts of worship. And when their promised King comes, they miss it, for the most part. And they eventually lose the land for the final time about 500 years after Nehemiah’s prayer for God to curse the disobedient.