The book of Nehemiah, timewise, follows the book of Ezra, as it does in the Bible. He, like Ezra, is a returnee to Jerusalem. He came there about 13 years after Ezra and is named in Ezra. His arrival in Jerusalem would have been about 445 BC and he came and went between Persia and Judah for a further 20 years. This makes the book of Nehemiah – perhaps along with Malachi, the latest dated book of the Old Testament. It is written in the first person – I, Nehemiah.
Nehemiah, in Babylon, hears that the people who have returned to Jerusalem are in trouble and shame, and the walls of Jerusalem are broken. He prays to God to go there, and Artaxerxes, King of Persia, sends him. His consuming wish is to rebuild the walls. Arriving, he inspects the walls and find them derelict, with all the gates burned. With the willing help of others, he repairs the walls and each gate is rebuilt. Each gate is named, one by one, in chapter 4.
Faced with outside attack from other nations as they rebuilt, Nehemiah orders that half the people work on reconstruction while the other half are armed. Some, it says, have a building tool in one hand and a weapon in the other. And the wall was built in fifty two days.
The next thing Nehemiah attends to is to stop the poor from being oppressed by the rich and privileged. These lent money to the poor at huge interest rates. Nehemiah made them swear by God to end this practice. And he himself practises great generosity to everyone who needs to be helped. And he recorded each person’s name in the book of the genealogy which went back as far as the first wave of return some sixty years before.
Calling all the people together in the square in front of the Water Gate, Nehemiah asked Ezra to read aloud the whole Law of Moses formally to them all and, should any not be able to understand it, the priests – each named – explained the Law to the people, as it was read. That day was declared to be holy to the Lord and to mark it, the people were told to go and gather branches to make booths to live in, just as the people in the time of Moses had made booths to live in after leaving Egypt.
Then the people confessed their sin of having departed from the way of the Lord and of having forgotten the Law. And they made a firm covenant, which all leaders, priests, Levites, and the representatives of all the people all signed – to walk in God’s law that was given by Moses the servant of God, to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord their God, and to make a yearly payment for the upkeep and needs of the Temple.
And from then on, regularly, Nehemiah says that the Law of Moses was studied carefully and when a law was found, it became instituted anew, and when anyone was found who broke the Law by desecration, by wrong practice, by breaking the Sabbath, by marrying foreign women or whatever, they were either expelled or went to be purified.
“Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the offerings and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.” (13.30-31)
About the book of Nehemiah
Spiritually, the rebuilding of walls and reading of the Law of Moses, with its renewal and practice, suggest the work of protecting one’s faith and life in conscious faithful obedience to God who protects us. It also brings out our need to be on our guard against our own weakness and those times when we forget who God is and even go against his commands.