The Priestly Theocracy #6
We are coming to Nehemiah, the man who separated Judah from the world, as Ezra had done for the family. Nehemiah believed that an isolationist and separatist nation was pleasing to the God of their fathers. This problem has plagued many nations, races, and religions. To all of them, the opposition has become the outsider or the world. Yet, we all must learn to live with each other in order to survive. No one can please God without each other. The truth spoken by Jesus what God had said, “‘I am the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living’” (Matthew 22:32). In His priestly prayer, Jesus prayed for his disciples, how to manage in the world:
I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Consecrate them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth (John 17:15-19).
Nehemiah, how did he interpret the truth? In a nutshell it was, “You walk alone, if you want God to walk with you.” God loved only one place and that was Jerusalem, and it lay in shambles. He was cupbearer to king Artaxerxes, the Second, of Persia, and bad news from Judah and Jerusalem made him noticeably sad while serving the king and the queen. When they inquired as to his disposition, Nehemiah expressed the desire to go and help his country and people. The king consented to let him go for a short time. Artaxerxes wrote letters to the governors of the province Beyond the River granting him safe passage, and a letter from Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forests for timber. Thus, after much prayer and fasting Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem. To avoid confrontation with those who did not want to see Jerusalem being rebuilt, Nehemiah and his men inspected the ruined wall and the burned gates at nights. He and those with him decided to rebuilt the wall and the four gates.
Then Nehemiah said to his companions:
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace. And I told them of the hand of my God which had been upon me for good, and also of the words which the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the servant the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they derided us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build; but you have no portion or right or memorial in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:17-20).
The rebuilding of the wall that surrounded Jerusalem began with Eliaship, the high priest and his priests. They rebuilt the Sheep Gate and the next hundred cubits to the next Tower or the Fish Gate. The high priest dedicated the gate. And then more priests and more people were assigned to the sections between eight more gates. Nehemiah listed nine gates which needed to be rebuilt and be repaired: the Sheep Gate, the Fish Gate, the Old Gate, the Valley Gate, the Dung Gate, the Fountain Gate, the Horse Gate, the East Gate, and the Muster Gate (Nehemiah 3). The rebuilding of the wall did not progress as expected. Ezra excluded not only Sanballat, the governor of Judah, with Tobia and the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites, but the Jewish nobles and the people were also excluded in the building of the temple. Also, while Nehemiah had to go back to Persia, during his absence, the high priest’s grandson married Sanballat’s daughter. The people, who were helping to rebuild the wall, were also over taxed by their own nobles; and therefore, the people were too poor to continue work outside their jobs, which provided for their livelihood. Then, things became worse because half of the work force had to stand guard against the enemies and the poor required immediate assistance. Nehemiah was presumptuous about God’s assistance. And he had to deal with the problems himself; nevertheless, he did give God the credit:
When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan (rather some Jews had reported their plot), we all returned to the wall, each to his own work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shield, bows and coats of mail; and the leaders stood behind all the house of Judah, who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were laden in such a way that each with one hand labored on the work and with the other held his weapon. And each of the builders had his sword girded at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”
So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn till the stars came out. I also said to the people at that time, “Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be guard for us by night and may labor by day.” So neither I nor my brethren nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon in his hand (Nehemiah 4:15-23).
The much larger problem was the disparity of the the poor. The poor were over mortgaged, overtaxed, and overused. They had to sell their own children into slavery just to survive. Now they were called upon to serve God when they actually served the priests who became the burden, especially to the poor:
Now there arose a great outcry of the people and their wives against their Jewish brethren. For there were those who said, “With our sons and our daughters, we are many; let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.” There were also those who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.” And there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax upon our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children are as their children; yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved; but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards” (Nehemiah 5:1-5).
Nehemiah returned to serve Artaxerxes and the king was pleased with his loyalty. The king appointed Nehemiah governor over Judah and allowed him to return to Jerusalem. And Jeremiah had to deal with the injustice of the nobles and the rich toward the poor and the disadvantaged. He was a student of Moses and Jeremiah applied his ruling of Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 to correct the imbalance of justice. And Jeremiah set an example himself as the governor, and as one of the nobles:
I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them, and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brethren who have been sold to the nations; but you even sell your brethren that they may be sold to us!” They were silent, and could not find a word to say. So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the in the fear of our God to prevent the the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover I and my brethren and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us leave off this interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the hundredth of money, grain, wine, and oil which you have been exacting of them.” Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests, and took an oath of them to do as they had promised. I also shook out my lap and said, “So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not perform this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.
Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brethren ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens upon the people, and took from them food and wine, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also held to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover there were at my table a hundred and fifty men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; fowls likewise were prepared for me, and every ten days skins of wine in abundance; yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the servitude was heavy upon the people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people (Nehemiah 5:6-19).
In order to draw Nehemiah away from his work and to dispose of him, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab sent letters, false messengers and prophets to him. Nehemiah did not yield to any of their invitations to counsel with them. Nehemiah finished building the wall in fifty-two days. Nehemiah was not able gain favor with the nobles who had intermarried with Sanballat and Tobiah’s family. These people were Nehemiah’s hidden enemies. At last, there was a wall surrounding the city, which was empty of people, houses, and there were not enough guards to guard the wall; for most of the laborers and builders had returned to their respective places. Nehemiah put his brother Hananiah in charge of the guards and he came up with the idea how to repopulate Jerusalem. He made himself available of the genealogy of returning nobles, the priests, the Levites, and the temple servants, including the sons and servants of Solomon, from exile. The priests and servants that were not recorded in the genealogy were dismissed as unclean. The number of returning exiles that were certified were forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty. And there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven male and female servants, and two hundred and forty-five male and female singers. Included in this first assembly were those who had worked on the temple and on the wall, or contributed to the funds (Nehemiah 6-7).
The purpose of this huge gathering in the square before the Water Gate was to re-acquaint the people with the Law of Moses. Ezra, the priest, and the scribes read from an elevated position to a standing crowd. The crowd broke out in tears as they listened to the content of the Law. Ezra had to stop reading and consoled the people with Nehemiah the governor and the Levites:
And Nehemiah who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is a holy day to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth upon their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the LORD their God for a fourth of the day; for another fourth of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God (Nehemiah 8:9-9:3).
Ezra offered a long prayer reminiscing about God’s deeds in their behalf from Abraham to their presence. Then, they sat down to do business and used Moses permission how to separate from their non-Jewish mates. It was not about to “love the stranger as you love yourself,” but about racial purity that had grown out of the conflict between Haman and Mordecai. God was angry with the Jews, who were the sons of God and who had married the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1-4). The outcome was:
“Because of all this we make a firm covenant and write it, and our princes, our Levites, and our priests set their seal to it” (Nehemiah 9:38).
The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their brethren, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his ordinances and his statues. We will not give our daughters to the people of the land or take their daughters for our sons; and if the peoples of the land bring in wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or on a holy day; and we will forgo the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt (Nehemiah 10:28-31).
Nehemiah and Ezra created a community that was similar to Qumran — totally separated from the world and even from their own people. It was more dedicated to Moses’ and Aaron’s religious observances than to the founders. In addition to keep the fire on the altar burning without interruption, they pledged to give a third or thirty-three percent of their money. Jerusalem was turned into a nest for priests, Levites, and any one that had something to do with the temple. All participants bound themselves by a curse and an oath:
We also lay upon ourselves the obligation to charge ourselves yearly with a third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, the continual cereal offering, the continual burnt offering, the sabbaths, the new moons, the appointed feasts, the holy things, and the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God. We have likewise cast lots, the priests, the Levites and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, according to our father’s houses, at times appointed, year by year, to burn upon the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the law. We obligate ourselves to bring the first fruits of our ground and the first fruits of all fruit of every tree, year by year, to the house of the LORD; also to bring to the house of our God, to the priests who minister in the house of our God, the first born of our sons and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks; and to bring the first of our coarse meal, and our contributions, the fruit of every tree, the wine and the oil, to the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and to bring to the Levites the tithes from our ground, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all our rural towns. And the priest, the son of Aaron, shall be with the Levites when the Levites receive the tithes; and the Levites shall bring up the tithe of the tithes to the house of our God, to the chambers, to the storehouse. For the people of Israel and the sons of Levi shall bring the contribution of grain, wine, and oil to the chambers, where are the vessels of the sanctuary, and the priests that minister, and the gatekeepers and the singers. We will not neglect the house of our God (Nehemiah 10:32-39).
Jerusalem was to be a new city for God. And God’s people were only a handful from Judah and Benjamin; however, the overwhelming majority were priests, Levites, temple servants, and gate keepers of the temple and the wall, which surrounded Jerusalem. It actually was an army that protected the new holy city. To accomplish the task, a tenth of the people were hand picked to live in Jerusalem to guard the presence of God (Nehemiah 11-12). These people believed that God had returned to Jerusalem. They believed that they, and they alone, could keep God in Jerusalem with them forever. They believed that God had obligated Himself to Abraham, Moses, and David to be “only their God.” And God had only chosen Jerusalem and that is where God’s name was enshrined. These Jewish leaders and these priests convinced the Persian kings that their God had enhanced their kingdoms, so that they would sent the exiles back and restore the house of the God of gods (Ezra 1:1-4). It is a lesson for all religious people, who believe that God or that Christ has obligated Himself without their contribution and without their participation in their well-being and in their salvation (Galatians 6:7).
While serving Artaxerxes, the Second, in Persia, in Nehemiah’s absence, news reached Nehemiah that some people were being exempt from the rigid obedience of the law with their bribes. A priest by the name of Eliashib, in charge of the storerooms, gave a room in the court to the worst enemy, Tobiah in the house of the courts of God. The priest also withheld to pay the temple servants and keeper and they had to go back to their farms. Nehemiah replaced the dishonest priest with three trustworthy men who could check up on each other. Then Nehemiah apologized to God for not having kept a firmer hand on restoring Jerusalem from its former evils:
Remember me for this, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.
In those days I saw men in Judah treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on asses; and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day, and I warned them on the day when they sold food. Men of Tyre also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of wares and sold them on the sabbath to the people of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I remonstrated with the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing which you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this evil on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath.”
When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden might be brought in on the sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge before the wall? If you do so again I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the sabbath. And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of they steadfast love.
In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but the language of each people. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?”
And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I chased him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites.
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 wood offering, at appointed times, and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good (Nehemiah 13:14-31).