Previous article in this series: January 1, 2019, p. 156.
The temple of God in Jerusalem, as we saw last time, had at last been rebuilt—some twenty years after the return of the exiles. Jerusalem’s walls, however, lay still in ruins, having been thrown down more than a century before by the troops of Nebuchadnezzar. The weakest of the Jews’ enemies, therefore, had easy access to the city. They could, if they chose, march right in. That was much to their liking of course, because they hated the Jews. The decree of Cyrus had been a grievous disappointment to them. They did all in their power to prevent the Jews from reestablishing themselves in Palestine. Hence their opposition to the rebuilding of the temple and their delight in the defenseless character of the Jews’ capital city.
The Jews in this little colony were no doubt well aware of the implications of those crumbled walls. They wished it were otherwise. But for more than 85 years they were content simply to let those walls lie. They had not been authorized to restore them. But apparently they did not ask either. The task, after all, was daunting. And manpower was limited. So the Jews were willing to content themselves with what the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes saw immediately to be a “reproach” (Neh. 1:3, 17)—that is, a shame, a disgrace.
That was Nehemiah. He was a no-nonsense, take-charge sort of man, and he arrived on the scene about fourteen years after Ezra. Incredibly, he managed to get those walls rebuilt in fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15)! Even the Jews’ enemies, who had tried unsuccessfully to impede progress, “perceived that this work was wrought of our God” (Neh. 6:16).
The Jews’ enemies were right. It was the Lord’s work. It was God who brought Nehemiah, with all of his administrative skills, from Shushan to Jerusalem. It was God who prospered Nehemiah’s efforts. But why? Was it because the preservation of God’s people depended in any way on walls of stone? Though those walls did serve a good purpose strategically, the truth is that walls of stone, no matter how wide or high, can be scaled or broken down—as they in fact were, a number of times, in the history of Jerusalem. They therefore guaranteed nothing; but in the day of type and shadow the city, and those walls, spoke powerfully to God’s people, as they do also now to us, of a spiritual reality. What reality? The church, and her ‘walls.’ The church—founded on the Rock, Christ Jesus, and guarded by Him who never slumbers or sleeps.
To what else could the Lord have been referring in the prophecy, not long before, of Zechariah 2:4, 5? “Jerusalem,” said the angel of the Lord, “shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein: for I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her.” Towns without walls. “Open to the whole world,” writes Calvin in his commentary on this passage, depending “not on its own strength,” but dwelling safely “though exposed on all sides to enemies.” “I will be to her a wall of fire,” Calvin continues, “for though she will not excel in strongholds and towers, and be without walls and fortresses, and shall be thus exposed to many evils,…my church shall be thus preserved, though destitute of all human aids, and without any defense” (emphasis added).
The rebuilding of Zion’s walls, therefore, especially because of their typical significance, figured large in the work of Nehemiah in Jerusalem. But he attended also to other matters. He remained, in fact, as governor of Judea for no less than twelve years, after which he returned to Shushan and to the service of King Artaxerxes. But his heart was still in Jerusalem. After “certain days,” therefore (Neh. 13:6), Nehemiah asked for permission to go again to Jerusalem. And when he arrived, he learned that abuses that had been addressed earlier both by himself and by Ezra the priest were reasserting themselves.
Nehemiah was grieved, first of all, to find “the house of God forsaken” (Neh. 13:11). The tithes had not been given for the support of the priests, so those whose business it was to serve in the temple had been forced to labor in their fields in order to make a living (13:10). In addition, Eliashib the high priest had converted one of the storage chambers in the temple court to a splendid apartment in which Tobiah the Ammonite could lodge during his frequent visits to Jerusalem (13:4, 5). Concerning this, Nehemiah writes that “it grieved me sore” (13:8). To think that that wicked Ammonite, who was an enemy of God, was provided lodging in God’s house! “I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber,” testified Nehemiah, and, after cleansing the chamber, he restored it to its proper use (13:8, 9). And then, to renew the worship of God in the temple, he called the priests back from their fields and reinstated the tithe.
Another abuse that manifested itself during the absence of Nehemiah was that of sabbath desecration. Work was carried on in the fields as on any other day, and all manner of wares were brought into Jerusalem for sale, not only by the Jews, but also by men of Tyre (13:15, 16). Nehemiah issued a stern rebuke to them for “profaning the sabbath” (13:17), and, to make certain that goods intended for sale could no longer enter the city on the sabbath, he shut the gates of the city prior to the beginning of the sabbath till after its close, and stationed his own servants at the gates to enforce the order (13:19). On learning that merchants continued to arrive on the sabbath, lodging outside the walls, he warned them that if they tried that again, he would “lay hands on” them (13:20, 21).
Nehemiah also had to deal with a problem of mixed marriages, which seems to have risen again after the reformation of Ezra. Nehemiah dealt very harshly with “this great evil” (13:23-27). Among the guilty parties was the grandson of Eliashib the high priest. For marrying the daughter of Sanballat and, apparently, refusing to put her away, Nehemiah expelled him from Judah (13:28).
That’s the last we read of this strong leader whom God had prepared for His people as they reestablished a Jewish community in the land of Palestine. All that remains of Old Testament history, therefore, is what we read in the book of Malachi, the last of the prophets of Old Testament times. Malachi’s prophecy is believed to have been uttered sometime either during, or shortly after, the days of Nehemiah. The prophet had words of warning concerning, among other things, the selfishness and hypocrisy that marked their worship (Mal. 1:6-14)—hypocrisy that would eventually become the formalism that characterized the Jewish state at the time of Christ. Words of warning there were, for a backsliding nation.
And words of comfort, too, for the people of God—comfort grounded in the covenant faithfulness of God. “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:1).
Next time: The intertestamentary period.