8. Repentance and Revival (Nehemiah 8-13)

Audio (1:04:54)

Ezra Reads the Law (artist unknown)
Ezra Reads the Law (artist unknown)

So far, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah have talked about how God helps the Jews return to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and then restore the wall around the city. However, this final section of Nehemiah recounts a genuine spiritual revival that takes place under Ezra's ministry after the wall is completed.

Prior to the completion of the wall there is no secure location where a large gathering could be held, not to mention for an extended time of feasting and worship. But now a large number can safely assemble within the city.

Ezra Reads the Law (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:18)

"73 The priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers and the temple servants, along with certain of the people and the rest of the Israelites, settled in their own towns. When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns,
1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel." (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:1)

The occasion of this revival is the first day of the month of Tishri, our September/October, a holy day then known as the "Feast of Trumpets."[221] The Law directs:

"On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of rest, a sacred assembly[222] commemorated with trumpet blasts." (Leviticus 23:24-25a; cf. Numbers 29:1)

The public reading of the Law is normally commanded during the Feast of Tabernacles, which takes place a few days after the Feast of Trumpets. But neither of these events have been held for many years (Ezra 3:4) -- perhaps never in the lifetime of those present. That Ezra is asked to read the Law is an indication of the people's willingness to reinstate God's commandments in Judah's public life.

"Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform[223] built for the occasion." (Nehemiah 8:4)

Ezra is flanked by thirteen leaders who are named -- though many of the names are so common we can't be sure they refer to individuals named elsewhere in Nehemiah. The people are all gathered. And so Ezra brings out the "book" of the Law and lays it on a reading table. This isn't a bound book, but a scroll.[224]

"5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, 'Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground." (Nehemiah 8:5-6)

Notice the reverence of the people for the Scripture. They stand up from where they had been seated in the square. Ezra praises the Lord, then all the people lift their hands -- a sign of prayer and blessing -- and say "Amen!" (which we saw in Nehemiah 5:13). The Hebrew word (ʾāmēn) comes from the verb ʾāman, "to be certain, to believe in." "Amen" means "verily, truly," and expresses a certain affirmation in response to what has been said.[225]

After this the people, who are now standing, bow down,[226] and then get down on their knees with their faces to the ground, as you sometimes see Muslims do in their call to prayer. It is a position of abject humility before a superior.[227]

This could all be a formal, pre-planned response to emphasize the superiority of Scripture as the Word of God. But I think something more is happening here, something spiritual, something life-giving.

"He read it aloud from daybreak till noon... And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law." (Nehemiah 8:3)

If you take these words at face value, something amazing is taking place. Ezra (and probably others) read for six hours or so, and the people "listened attentively" (NIV).[228] Normally, people listen to a reading for a few minutes, perhaps, and then tune out. But these people in the September morning sun listen for hours on end. Why?

Communicating Understanding (Nehemiah 8:7-8)

Our text shows a strong emphasis on understanding. The whole occasion is designed to help the people grasp what the Law teaches.

"7 ... The Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." (Nehemiah 8:7-8)

Two teams of thirteen people each are ready. One team reads from the platform; the other mingles among the people to explain what they are hearing.

Look at these indications in the text that indicate actual learning and understanding is taking place.

  • "All who were able to understand"[229] (verse 2).
  •  "Others who could understand" (verse 3b).
  •  "All the people listened attentively (verse 3c).
  • The Levites ... helped the people to understand[230] the Law (verse 7a, ESV, cf. verse 9a).
  • "Making it clear[231] and giving the meaning[232] so that the people could understand[233] what was being read" (verse 8).
  • "They now understood the words that had been made known to them" (verse 12b).

Exactly what the procedure is, we're not sure. Apparently the thirteen people on the platform with Ezra each read in turn throughout the morning with a loud, clear voice. Probably, during breaks in the public reading, the team of thirteen Levites fan out among the people to help answer questions. This might have involved translating the Hebrew of the Biblical text into the Aramaic language that the people commonly spoke.[234]

The point of the elaborate preparations for readers and interpreters is so that the people might understand the Law. And it becomes clear that for many -- perhaps most -- of the people, this was the first time they really understand God's word in the first five books of the Bible.

Understanding, Sorrow, and Repentance (Nehemiah 8:9-11)

"All the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law." (Nehemiah 8:9b)

As they begin to understand the commandments -- and the grievous way that God's people have broken these commandments -- their hearts are broken. All over the crowd you can hear the weeping and wailing characteristic of Near Eastern mourning.[235]

Their reaction is similar to that of King Josiah when the Book of the Law is found in a temple restoration project.

"When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes.... 'Great is the LORD's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.'" (2 Kings 22:11, 13b)

In a similar way, the returned exiles are beginning to understand how far Israel has strayed from God's plan. Why God has allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed by the Babylonians. The justice of the 70-year exile in Babylon. And how they even now are breaking God's commandments for how they should live.

Previously, this knowledge had been the focus of the scribes and Levites, but the common people only knew what their leaders told them.

Now they are hearing it for themselves. And -- to use a New Testament phrase -- they are cut to the heart (Acts 2:37). The tears and mourning are a clear indication that the Holy Spirit is at work bringing a revival, a renewal to the people. Without the Holy Spirit, after several hours in the sun they would have been complaining, murmuring, and talking to their neighbors. Instead, there is a holy hush -- words being read from the platform and weeping is everywhere.

Paul exhorts Timothy not to neglect reading and teaching.

"Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching." (1 Timothy 4:13)

If you've studied the history of revivals in the last two or three hundred years, you recognize this as evidence of a true spiritual revival, where God softens the hearts of men and women and brings deep repentance. To learn more, I encourage you to google "The Great Awakening" (Britain and America, 1730-1750), the "Welsh Revival" (Wales, 1904-1905), the "East Africa Revival" (1929-1950s), the "Azusa Street Revival" (Los Angeles, 1906), etc.

Here in the city square inside the Water Gate, God is powerfully at work among his people.

Repentance and Joy (Nehemiah 8:9-11)

But the mourning and tears upset the leaders. They haven't planned on God doing a deep revival in hearts; rather they have planned a festive day.

"9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, 'This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.' For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, 'Go and enjoy choice food[236] and sweet drinks,[237] and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred[238] to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.' 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, 'Be still,[239] for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.'" (Numbers 8:9-11)

I think God is extremely gracious as the leaders try to intervene in what God is sovereignly doing. Sometimes we leaders are clueless to what God wants to do.

But in spite of the leaders, God works powerfully. First, he works in them the sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Then, he works in them the joy that comes from knowing God's love and forgiveness and grace (1 Peter 1:8b).

"Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them." (Nehemiah 8:12)

Now, in place of the weeping, there begin to be shouts of joy among the people. Praise breaks out. And as they eat the refreshments that many families have prepared for the occasion, they praise God, and share with families that have nothing.

The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength (Nehemiah 8:10b)

Nehemiah the governor intervenes, along with the other leaders, to try to turn the mourning into joy. He says:

"Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10b)

In what way is the joy of the Lord our strength? To understand, let's first look at the words in this short saying.

"Grieve" (NIV), "be grieved" (NRSV, ESV), "be sorry" (KJV) refers to mental and spiritual anguish.[240]

"Strength" refers to a "place or means of safety, protection, stronghold, fortress."[241] This word is used often for "refuge, stronghold" in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Prophets. For example:

"You have been a refuge (ʿôz) for the poor,
a refuge (ʿôz) for the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat." (Isaiah 25:4)

"The LORD is good,
a refuge (ʿôz) in times of trouble." (Nahum 1:7a)

"Joy" (ḥedwâ) is the opposite of grief -- "gladness, joy."[242] Occasionally, we see passages where sorrow is turned into joy (Jeremiah 31:13), such as a familiar passage from Isaiah that prophesies joy at the return from exile.

"And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy[243] shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness[244] and joy,[245]
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Isaiah 51:11, ESV)

I think Nehemiah is saying: Don't continue in your state of grief for your sins. Rather, turn to Yahweh, who is a place of refuge for you in your weakness. It is he who can give you joy to replace your sorrow.

Repentance is good. A deep realization that we are at our root sinners is good. But if we are continually confessing that we are sinners, that doesn't bring much glory to God, even if it's true. He would much rather that we take refuge in his grace, and move on to the joy that he would give us -- a fruit of his Spirit within us (Galatians 5:22-23). We can wallow in our sinfulness (negative), or we can move on to the joy that we find in God's grace and love (positive).

My dear friend, it's time for you to let the past go, with all its failings and "should-have-beens," and instead take hold of God's healing future for you, for this is your refuge and your place of joy.

Even in the midst of great sorrow we can experience joy in the Lord. He is the refuge we go to when the world is falling apart around us. And in him is joy, because of his promises, his love, his care, his great and everlasting grace. My friend, step beyond your overwhelming sorrow into his refuge, and find his joy to lift you up.

Celebrate with Great Joy (Nehemiah 8:12)

The people did heed Nehemiah's exhortation and found joy in the Lord.

"Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them." (Nehemiah 8:12)

How do you move from great sorrow to celebrating with great joy? I like this phrase, "celebrate with great joy." The root of the noun śimḥâ, "joy, mirth," denotes "being glad or joyful with the whole disposition, as indicated by its association with the heart, the soul, and with the lighting up of the eyes."[246]

How do the people get to "celebrating with great joy"? Through understanding God's word. It takes teachers to explain it -- which should be an encouragement for those who have a gift of teaching. As you help expound the Scripture, the lights come on in your hearers. They begin to understand. They "get it." They become excited about it. Their faith increases and they open up in faith to the Spirit who gives joy as his fruit. Keep teaching faithfully; God uses you.

Q1. (Nehemiah 8:1-12) Why does the reading of Scripture bring such sorrow to the people? Why is Scripture reading so important in personal spiritual revival? What place does the Spirit have in this? What is the relationship between joy and faith in God's compassion and love?

Celebrating the Feast of Booths (Nehemiah 8:13-18)

As mentioned above, the month of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar, ushers in what are now known as the Jewish high holy days:

  • Day 1 -- Feast of Trumpets (later Rosh Hashanah, Leviticus 23:23-25)
  • Day 10 - Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32)
  • Days 15-23 -- Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles, Leviticus 23:33-36)

As we'll see, on Day 24, before the people return to their everyday lives, Ezra institutes a special day of confession and covenant, unparalleled in the Law.

Begun on the Feast of Trumpets, the marathon Bible reading continues for a second day, though with a smaller group -- heads of the families, priests, and Levites (Nehemiah 8:13-15). They are probably reading Leviticus 23 that talks about the various festivals. Curiously, the Day of Atonement (that is to be observed on the 10th day of Tishri) isn't mentioned in our text (though on the 24th day of Tishri the people observe a time of fasting and confession of sin). Perhaps the author skips mention of the Day of Atonement so he can move from one joyful celebration (Feast of Trumpets) to talk about another joyful celebration (Feast of Booths).

What draws the people's attention is the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles) that hadn't been celebrated by the whole people for a long, long time. Yes, it had been observed in the temple (Ezra 3:4), but not by the extensive camping-out element that catches the imagination of the common person and turns it into a joyful feast. So preparations are made for this feast that comes up later in the month.

God designs the Feast of Booths to remind these city and town dwellers that their forefathers lived in temporary dwellings (tents) in the desert.

"42 You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, 43 that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Jesus celebrates this festival when he is on earth (John 7:2-14), and pious Jews celebrate it to this day, a kind of national camp-out when families sleep outside their houses in temporary dwellings made with wooden poles covered with leafy branches. The feast is marked by great joy and celebrated at the conclusion of harvest (Deuteronomy 16:14-15).

So in Ezra and Nehemiah's day, inspired by Scripture, the people celebrate the Feast of Booths wholeheartedly, "and their joy was very great" (vs. 17b).

"16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy[247] was very great." (Nehemiah 8:16-17)

During the feast, Ezra's Scripture reading program continues unabated, in accordance with God's command (Deuteronomy 31:10-12). And so Ezra and his team read the Scripture throughout this seven-day festival.

"Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated[248] the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly."[249] (Nehemiah 8:18)

The Israelites Confess Their Sins (Nehemiah 9:1-37)

So far the Tishri revival has included Scripture reading, repentance, and the joyful celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. But the revival of Yahweh worship isn't over yet. The day after the concluding assembly of the Feast of Booths (on Tishri 23), while people are still in Jerusalem and before they return to their home villages, Ezra calls a day of repentance and fasting (Tishri 24).

Kidner notes that Nehemiah has been eager to associate God's will with delight and joy (Nehemiah 8:9-12), but now it is equally important to set this delight firmly in contrast to the gall of sin, so that when the people return home, the revival that has taken place has a lasting effect, one sealed by covenant.[250]

"On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads." (Nehemiah 9:1)

The people gather for this occasion in great humility and abasement. Sackcloth, or sacking is the material used to make the rough cloth that bags that were used to carry items by donkey, or perhaps store goods. Sackcloth is made of goat or camel hair and worn especially during times of mourning (Joel 1:13).[251] As we have seen, fasting is a way of humbling oneself before God. Sprinkling dust on one's head is symbolic of deep humiliation, abasement, or grief.[252]

"Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners." (Nehemiah 9:2a)

One of the problems the exiles face is their close association with and intermarriage between non-Israelites, particularly the half-breed Samaritans who live close by. Separation is not some kind of ethnic purity ritual, but rather the beginning of a commitment not to mix their worship of Yahweh with the practice of other religions, dilute their faith by intermarriage (Nehemiah 10:3), and neglect of the Sabbath (Nehemiah 10:4).

What follows is a recital of Israel's own history, their blessing, their sin, and their punishment.

This month there has been public reading the Scripture on a number of occasions. The Levites have taken pains to help them understand. So by now they were well aware of both the requirements of the Law, as well as their own failures to obey the Law. Now they are ready to confess their sins and to take steps of repentance as a nation. Verse 2b is a general statement; verse 3 describes how they divide their time.

"2b They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. 3 They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God." (Nehemiah 9:2-3)

What are "the stairs" mentioned in verse 4? We're not sure. Perhaps they are stairs within the temple complex. But they could refer to the wooden platform mentioned in Nehemiah 8:4.

"4 Standing on the stairs were the Levites ... who called with loud voices to the LORD their God. 5 And the [other] Levites ... said: 'Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting.'" (Nehemiah 9:4-5)

One group of Levites seems to have called out to God on behalf of the people in distress and confession. The other group leads in praise. In the lists of verses 4 and 5, five of the names seem to be in common -- why, we don't know.

The praise continues

"5b Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you." (Nehemiah 9:5b-6)

A Summary of Israel's History (Nehemiah 9:7-35)

What follows is a brief summary of the history of Israel. We see something like this in the mouth of Stephen just before his martyrdom (Acts 7). This recital of their common history unites them and reminds them that God has shown them love and mercy again and again, when they haven't deserved it. I'll just outline it here, but I encourage you to read the entire chapter.

  1. God makes a covenant with Abraham (verses 7-8).
  2. God delivers Israel from Egypt (verses 9-11).
  3. God's provides food, water, and the Law in the wilderness (verses 12-15).
  4. Israel sins terribly, but God still forgives (verses 16-18).
  5. God's compassion and grace are shown to Israel (verses 19-21).
  6. Through God they possess the land of Canaan (verses 22-25).
  7. Again Israel sins, but God does not forsake them (verses 26-31).
  8. Our hardships are God's just punishments (verses 32-35).

This passage summarizes Israel's history as found in the Pentateuch, as well as Joshua, the Historical Books, and the Prophets. It is a sad history that shows how undeserving Israel is of God's mercy. These words sum it up:

"You have acted faithfully, while we did wrong." (Nehemiah 9:33b)

I know that when God recounts our personal history on Judgment Day (Revelation 20:12-15), we'll see the same demonstration -- our weakness and unfaithfulness and His great mercy!

Yahweh, the Gracious and Compassionate God (Nehemiah 9:17)

Indeed, the recurring theme of this passage is of God's great grace. The Levites recount Israel's deep sin in creating a golden calf and worshipping it as god. Then the reflection:

"But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them...." (Nehemiah 9:17)

This characterization of God's character is first stated by Yahweh when he appears to Moses in the cleft of the rock.

"And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished...." (Exodus 34:6-7a)

It is repeated here in Nehemiah 9:17b and several more times, in one form or another, throughout the Old Testament.[253] If our God weren't compassionate and gracious, he never would have sent Jesus to redeem us. His steadfast love endures forever!

Through the remainder of the passage we see an appreciation of God's grace:

  1. "Because of your great compassion..." (verse 19a).
  2. "They reveled in your great goodness" (verse 25b).
  3. "In your great compassion you gave them deliverers" (verses 27).
  4. "In your compassion you delivered them time after time" (verse 28).
  5. "But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God" (verse 31).
  6. "Our God, the great, mighty and awesome God ... keeps his covenant of love" (verse 32).
  7. "You have acted faithfully, while we did wrong" (verse 33b).

Q2. (Nehemiah 9:7-35) Why is God's compassion emphasized so strongly in Israel's history? How can God's compassion be present even in times of tough discipline (Hebrews 12:7-11)? How does the compassionate God of the Old Testament relate to Jesus giving himself as a ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45)?

We Are Slaves Today (Nehemiah 9:36-37)

The passage concludes with Judah's current situation.

36 "But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress." (Nehemiah 9:36-37)

The people of Judah are not slaves in the personal sense of forced labor. But they are slaves in the sense that the King of Persia rules over them and requires a tribute from all of them in the form of heavy taxation. Though Nehemiah has been a kind governor on behalf of Persia, the taxes are still a heavy burden. "We are in great distress" (verse 37b) describes them well and explains their willingness to repent and covenant with God.

The Agreement of the People (Nehemiah 9:38-10:39)

"In view of all this, we are making[254] a binding agreement,[255] putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it." (Nehemiah 9:38)

What follows is a list of all the leaders of the people who seal this covenant beginning with "Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah," then the priests, the Levites, followed by the nobles, the leaders of various clans and cities (Nehemiah 10:27).

The leaders who are men of stature "sign" the document using their signets. The others, including their wives and sons and daughters, join those who sign and

"... bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord." (10:29)

The agreement doesn't specify all the laws contained in the Pentateuch, but highlights those that have been seriously neglected.

  1. No intermarriage with non-Jews (verse 30; Exodus 34:12-16).
  2. No buying or selling on the Sabbath (verse 31a).
  3. Letting the land lie fallow in the seventh year (verse 31b, Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 25:4-7, 20-22).
  4. Cancelling all debts in the seventh year (verse 31c).
  5. Giving a 1/3 shekel tax to maintain the temple and its services (verses 32-33, Exodus 30:11-16).
  6. Staffing the temple with priests and Levites, as determined by lot (verse 34a).
  7. Bringing wood for the altar, as determined by lot (verse 34b).
  8. Bringing firstfruits of crops and fruit trees to the temple (verses 35, 37a).
  9. Redeeming firstborn sons, and sacrificing the firstborn of livestock (verse 36).
  10. Tithing 1/10th of crops to the Levites to support the Levites and the priesthood (verses 37b-38; Numbers 18:26).

The agreement concludes with the summary: "We will not neglect the house of our God" (verse 39).

The New Residents of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 11:1-24)

As noted previously, Jerusalem had been sparsely populated.

"Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt." (Nehemiah 7:4)

Now that its walls were secure, however, it is important to increase the city population to maintain security, as well as to reestablish Jerusalem as the capital city of the province of Judah and the center of the Jewish faith; Nehemiah calls it "the holy city" (Nehemiah 11:1).

"1 Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. 2 The people commended all the men who volunteered to live in Jerusalem." (Nehemiah 11:1-2)

First, the leaders agree to living in Jerusalem. Next, Nehemiah first asks for volunteers. Then he institutes a kind of lottery to draft 10% of the people in the province to live within the city.

What follows is a list of names of tribes and leaders, with totals of the men selected to live within the city. Of course, they are joined by their wives, children, and households.

  • Judah, 468 (verses 4-6)
  • Benjamin, 928 men (verses 7-8)
  • Priests, 1,192 (verses 10-14)
  • Levites, 284 (verses 15-18)
  • Gatekeepers, 172 (verse 19)

These total 3,044.

In addition, verse 23 notes that some of the temple singers, specifically provided for by King David's regulations, live within the city. Verse 24 seems to indicate that Pethahiah is the representative of Judah in the court of the King of Persia (see Ezra 10:23; Nehemiah 3:4).

Jewish Towns and Lists of Priests (Nehemiah 11:25-12:26)

Now the various towns where the Jews live are listed: First, the tribe of Judah (verses 25-30). Many of these towns are well known from the history of Israel. Members of the tribe of Judah are located in their ancestral cities to the south of Jerusalem.

"So they were living all the way from Beersheba to the Valley of Hinnom." (Nehemiah 11:30)

Benjamin, a smaller tribe, are settled north and west of Jerusalem, along with some of the Levites who had traditionally lived in Judean towns (verses 31-36).

Nehemiah 12:1-26 includes various lists of high priests and priestly and Levitical families. Though they have historical interest, there are few lessons for us here.

Preparing and Purifying the Singers, Instrumentalists, and Priests (Nehemiah 12:27-30)

The walls are complete, a spiritual revival is going on in Judah, but now it is time to cap it all off with a great ceremony to celebrate the completion of the wall -- carefully planned and orchestrated. Levite musicians are identified from the various Jewish villages and brought into the city to practice for the big day.

"At the dedication[256] of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully[257] the dedication with songs of thanksgiving[258] and with the music[259] of cymbals, harps and lyres." (Nehemiah 12:27)

The joyful singing needs instruments for accompaniment. Three of these instruments are listed here -- cymbals,[260] harps,[261] and lyres.[262]

Next, special teams of skilled singers are recruited from villages of singers near Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:28-29).

At the same time, the priests and Levites make preparations for the great day with rites of cleansing.

"When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall." (Nehemiah 22:30)

In Leviticus 8, when Aaron and his sons purify the newly-constructed tabernacle, the priests are purified first, then the tabernacle. In the same way, now the priests and Levites, first purify[263] themselves (verse 30a), and then "the people, the gates, and the wall" (verse 30b).

Grand Processions on the Wall (Nehemiah 12:31-43)

Jerusalem in Nehemiah's time.
Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah (larger map)

"I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs[264] to give thanks." (Nehemiah 12:31)

Now Nehemiah describes two groups. Each great company has various leaders assigned, as well as singers, musicians playing cymbals, harps, and lyres, along with trumpeters.

When each completes its half-circuit of the city along the top of the wall, they come down and take their assigned places in the temple courts. Trumpets sound.

We are not told the starting points, but perhaps they start at the Valley Gate on the west side of the city (as had Nehemiah on his nocturnal reconnaissance, Nehemiah 2:12).

  • Ezra's company goes counter-clockwise along the southern and then the eastern wall towards the temple with the musicians.
  • Nehemiah's company goes clockwise, towards and along the north wall with the singers.

The exact routes of each company are specified in verses 31-39, but it is difficult to completely reconstruct them today, especially where they go down from the wall to proceed to the temple courts. Since all of the marchers have a personal stake in "their" section of the repaired wall, they all looked appreciatively at their handiwork.

Rejoicing in the Temple (Nehemiah 12:40-43)

"40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, 41 as well as the priests ... with their trumpets.... The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. 43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away." (Nehemiah 12:40-43)

Often accounts of great festivals tell in detail how many animals and of what variety were sacrificed. But here we read only that they "offered great sacrifices." The emphasis is on the joy, the singing, the trumpets, and the praise.

When the temple foundation had been dedicated years before, we read:

"No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away." (Ezra 3:13)

This time, the sound of rejoicing can be heard far from Jerusalem also, but now the people's rejoicing is not divided, but united -- clear, loud, and joyful.

"The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away." (Nehemiah 12:43b)

Appointing Storeroom Superintendents (Nehemiah 12:44-47)

Now Nehemiah appoints individuals to be responsible for the storerooms in the temple building. Verses 44-47 seem like an historical note, but the author includes it here to explain how a great sin came about after Nehemiah completed his first governorship. The writer is rightly proud that Judah is willingly supporting the priests and Levites who keep the temple services going according the Law. Sadly, this is to change, as we'll see in Nehemiah 13.

The Collapse of a Genuine Revival (Nehemiah 13)

The final chapter of Nehemiah is discouraging. The book has seen Nehemiah's vision of a restored Jerusalem, his diligence to rebuild the wall, and the spiritual revival that follows through the reading of the Law. These are all genuine works of the Holy Spirit.

But alas, without consistent leadership, many of the temple reforms fall into disuse. We read in verses 6 and 7:

"While all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem." (Nehemiah 13:6-7a)

Nehemiah had promised Artaxerxes that he would return to the palace in Susa, presumably to resume his duties as cupbearer (Nehemiah 2:6). His first term as governor of Judah is from 445 to 433 BC. Now he is obligated to return. In his absence, however, much of the fruit of the spiritual revival seems to dissipate. When he returns, an unspecified number of years later, things seem to have seriously fallen apart. He comes once more as governor of the province and doesn't hesitate to use his authority to set things in order without wasting much time.

Let's look at Nehemiah's reforms during his second term as governor.

The High Priest's Unfaithfulness (Nehemiah 13:1-5, 7b-9)

To set the scene of this spiritual decline, the author reminds us that the public reading of "the Book of Moses" under Ezra had informed the people that non-Jews should not be allowed in the temple, especially Ammonites and Moabites, Israel's historic enemies (Deuteronomy 23:3-5). At that time, the people obey this command and "they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent" (Nehemiah 13:3b).

We also know that during Nehemiah's first governorship, Eliashib serves as high priest, and seems to provide adequate leadership for the temple and the priests who serve under him (Nehemiah 3:1, 20-21). As high priest, he supervises those who had been appointed as storeroom supervisors (Nehemiah 12:44-47). But when Nehemiah leaves, Eliashib's sins become manifest.

"4 Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, 5 and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests." (Nehemiah 13:4-5)

It turns out that Eliashib has retained close ties with Tobiah, one of Judah's arch-enemies, who had tried on several occasions to stop construction of the wall (Nehemiah 4 and 6). Tobiah is an Ammonite (Nehemiah 4:3), one of the peoples who were prohibited from entering the temple according to Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 23:3-5).

You will recall that even as the wall was being constructed to keep out the enemy, some of the leading families of Judah were corresponding with the enemy (Nehemiah 6:17-19). Apparently, the high priest himself is one of those who maintains alliances with the enemy. After Nehemiah returns to Susa, the high priest's grandson marries the daughter of Sanballat, Judah's other arch enemy, so now it becomes clear that the high priest has ties with both chief enemies.

"One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me." (Nehemiah 13:28)

Perhaps Eliashib thinks that keeping ties with Tobiah and Sanballat, leaders of adjoining provinces, is just good politics. But flirting with temptation leads him into both treason against his people and sin against Yahweh. Upon Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem he is appalled to find what the high priest has done.

"7b I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God. 8 I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah's household goods out of the room. 9 I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense." (Nehemiah 13:7b-9)

Giving Tobiah his own personal room in the temple of God, formerly a storeroom, says to all of Jerusalem that the enemy Tobiah the Ammonite now has influence at the highest levels of government. The enemy who couldn't enter Jerusalem because of its rebuilt walls and gates, has now been invited by the high priest into the temple itself -- the very place where an Ammonite was not allowed to enter by divine law!

Allowing the Enemy into the Center of our Lives

As I think about this incident, it reminds me of our own personal battle with sin. We can successfully fight Satan through the powerful spiritual weapons given to us believers -- the Name of Jesus, truth, Christ's righteousness, the Word of God, assurance of our salvation, a readiness to run with the Good News, faith, prayer, etc. (Ephesians 6:10-18).

But so long as we nurse a desire for sin, our defenses are worthless.

"Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (James 1:14-15)

Heart repentance is necessary. Paul tells us to consider our old selves dead. We are told to "crucify" the flesh and its desires (Galatians 5:24; cf. 2:20; 6:14). We must keep constant vigilance, or our old selves will come back to reclaim their control of us. Even Paul feels the need to keep watch and discipline himself (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

We're all subject to the attacks of the tempter. Peter exhorts us:

"Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings." (1 Peter 5:8-9)

My dear friend, if you've let the enemy back into the center of your life where he doesn't belong, repent and call upon Jesus to kick him out and give you strength. With the help of your brothers and sisters -- and the Spirit of God -- you can see victory in your life. Thank God that he is gracious and compassionate!

Q3. (Nehemiah 13:1-5, 7-9) Does God set higher standards for leaders than for others? If so, why? What results in the people when leaders become corrupt? How can you keep this from happening to you? If God shows you corruption within, how can you recover from it?

Failure to Support God's House and Its Services (Nehemiah 13:10-14)

You'll remember the "binding agreement" signed by all of Judah's leaders (Nehemiah 9:38-10:39), and all the others who bound themselves "with a curse and an oath." It contained specific elements to provide for the temple workers, and concluded with the pledge: "We will not neglect the house of our God." (Nehemiah 10:39b).

While Nehemiah has been gone, the agreement has been ignored. There is no financial support for the temple workers, so they have gone back to their villages to earn a living from the soil. Temple worship is in shambles.

"I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields." (Nehemiah 13:10)

Nehemiah calls the officials to account:

"11 So I rebuked the officials and asked them, 'Why is the house of God neglected?' Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. 12 All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms." (Nehemiah 13:11-12)

Then Nehemiah fires the old leaders and appoints new leaders who will get the job done.

"13 I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because these men were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their brothers. 14 Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of my God and its services." (Nehemiah 13:13-14)

Why was the house of God neglected? A failure of leadership, pure and simple. After Nehemiah leaves, those he had appointed don't do their jobs. They slough off. They became functionaries in title only, but with no zeal for God's house. They are only going through the motions.

We know that Eliashib the high priest is corrupt. During this period, Ezra seems to have died. And Nehemiah's successor as governor probably isn't a spiritual man. Nor does he seem to have the influence and force of will to keep the people in line with God's word. Due to the lack of strong leadership, Satan regains a place in the temple.

Dear friends, when I read this sad account, my mind goes to our churches. Many of our churches have officers who serve almost as an "hereditary leader" -- as treasurer or moderator or head of the deacons or trustees or vestry or session or board, whatever name your church has for them. They are uninspired, just going through the motions. No wonder our churches tend to be in decline.

What needs to happen is to fire those leaders in our churches who refuse to get "fired up" about the Lord and his work. That's what Nehemiah did. Of course, he had the authority of the king of Persia behind him.

If a new pastor comes to your church, with the authority of Christ Jesus behind him, and begins to clean up the church leadership, you know what happens. He or she is quickly crucified and fired so that the status quo can prevail.

Dear friends, we need to fast and pray and call out to God for our churches, that true revival from God will come and blow in with the refreshing Wind of the Spirit. I think of the chorus of the song, "Fall Afresh," that Jeremy Riddle has written as a prayer.

"Awaken, my soul, come awake
To hunger, to seek, to thirst.
Awaken, first love, come awake,
And do as you did at first.

Spirit of the Living God
Come, fall afresh on me.
Come wake me from my sleep.
Blow through the caverns of my soul,
Pour in me to overflow.

Come and fill this place!
Let your glory now invade!"[265]

"Fall Afresh" is written as a prayer for individual revival. But perhaps we ought to change the "me" and "my" to "us" and "our," and sing it as a corporate prayer. Our churches need what Jerusalem needed: a powerful spiritual revival that will fuel reforms of heart and will and lifestyle. God help us! Man can't revive our churches. We are utterly dependent upon the Holy Spirit to deliver us.

Desecrating the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15)

Another part of the "binding agreement" had specified:

"When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day." (Nehemiah 10:31a)

When Nehemiah returns he sees Sabbath laws completely disregarded, desecrated, profaned.[266]

"In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath." (Nehemiah 13:15a)

Nehemiah rebukes the leaders:

"17b What is this wicked thing you are doing -- desecrating the Sabbath day?
18 Didn't your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath." (Nehemiah 13:17b-18)

Nehemiah deals with the offense by commanding that Jerusalem's gates be shut for the entire Sabbath. This works for the short-term, but it doesn't change men's hearts or remove the greed that drives Sabbath-breaking. Later he makes guarding the city gates on the Sabbath a job of the Levites, not just secular guards (Nehemiah 13:19-22).

Intermarriage with Non-Jews (Nehemiah 13:23-29)

Now we come again to a recurring problem -- intermarriage with non-Jews. Under Ezra some years before, men had agreed to put away their non-Jewish wives and families (Ezra 9:1-2; 10). Ezra is no longer on the scene, since he never would have allowed this recurrence of intermarriage.

"23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. 25 I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair." (Nehemiah 13:23-25)

When Nehemiah sees the return of intermarriage, he is beside himself. He starts beating up the offenders physically. The problem goes to the very top leadership, to the son of Eliashib the high priest.

"One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me." (Nehemiah 13:28)

Nehemiah reminds them that intermarriage was the fall of Solomon himself and forces people to take an oath not to allow their sons or daughters to intermarry (Nehemiah 13:25-27). I can't help but think about the "binding agreement" that they signed and swore to a few years prior:

"We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons." (Nehemiah 10:30)

What makes us think they'll keep this oath any more rigorously than they did the first?

The Covenant of the Priesthood (Nehemiah 13:29)

Nehemiah prays in resignation:

"Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites." (Nehemiah 13:29)

The "priestly office" or "priesthood"[267] is a holy institution, one that was instituted by the Mosaic Covenant. "Covenant" is berît, a formal and solemn agreement or treaty between nations or individuals, which includes both benefits and obligations. There are sometimes rituals of "cutting" a covenant, such as sacrifices, anointing, setting up a stone, etc.[268] In the case of the priests, the covenant is made between a superior (Yahweh) and his inferiors who answer directly to him -- the priests, Aaron and his descendants.

The priests enter into the covenant with an elaborate ceremony of purification and ordination spelled out in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 29; Leviticus 8-9). This gives them the right (and obligation) to enter holy places and minister in God's presence. They enjoy a special "nearness" to God himself (Numbers 16:10). According to this covenant, they are not allowed to own land, but may live in Levitical towns among the other tribes. Their privileges include having their family's food supplied from the firstfruits offerings, tithes, and sacrifices of the people of Israel.

Malachi also talks about this special "covenant with Levi," a special "covenant of life and peace" (Malachi 2:4-5). The priest Phinehas and his descendants are given a special "covenant of peace" and a "covenant of lasting priesthood" with Yahweh because of Phinehas's zeal for the Lord's holiness (Numbers 25:12-13). Being a priest is a profound privilege, a privilege lost by Eli and his sons (1 Samuel 2:30-36; 1 Kings 2:27).

I realize that all Christians are included in a "priesthood of believers" (1 Peter 2:5). But I also believe that pastors and elders have special spiritual privileges before God -- a God-given authority, a higher standard, and obligations of faithfulness (1 Timothy 5:17-20; James 3:1; Luke 12:47-48; 1 Corinthians 4:2; Hebrews 13:17). We have the privilege of searching the deep things of God so we can communicate them to others and lead them in the paths we have found to draw near to God. In a similar way, deacons who serve faithfully "gain an excellent standing" (1 Timothy 3:13).

Nehemiah's Disappointment (Nehemiah 13:30-31)

The book of Nehemiah concludes with Nehemiah reporting on how he has corrected the most recent offenses.

"30 So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task. 31 I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits." (Nehemiah 13:30-31a)

He cleans up the messes that have occurred in his absence and sets them right again. Then he prays.

"Remember me with favor, O my God." (Nehemiah 13:31b)

Nehemiah has tried his hardest. But he has failed to change the hearts of the people. He has seen a Holy Spirit revival, but its effects are rapidly diminishing. He prays, "Remember, O God, that I tried." How sad a way to end the book of Nehemiah.

In Nehemiah's day, of course, only a few prophets were filled with the Holy Spirit. In our day, all believers taste of the Spirit (Romans 8:10). But it is one thing to have a glimmer of spiritual life in you because of the Spirit; it is quite another to walk daily in willing submission to the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25). Many believers haven't grown to the place that they are firmly on the path of discipleship.

The Apostle Paul experienced something akin to Nehemiah's frustration when he addresses believers whom he had brought to faith, but have failed to grow, to mature. To the Corinthians he says,

"Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly -- mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly...." (1 Corinthians 3:1-3a)

To the Galatian believers he sighs....

"My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you." (Galatians 4:19)

Jesus, too, experienced frustration. When he hears that his disciples have failed to deliver a demon-afflicted boy, Jesus says:

"O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me." (Matthew 17:17, ESV)

What are leaders to do? Nehemiah is discouraged that he still had to clean up the messes created in his absence. Paul is discouraged at the sluggish pace of spiritual growth in some of his churches. Jesus' disciples don't seem to learn quickly. Nevertheless, we leaders must not give up. We patiently feed milk, if that is what is needed. We love. We are patient. We put up with each other (Ephesians 4:1-3). That is what Jesus does with his disciples. That is what Paul does with the Thessalonian believers:

"For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory." (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12)

Paul exhorts Timothy:

"Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage -- with great patience and careful instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2)

Nehemiah shows patience in the face of discouragement. And that's what I encourage you, my friend, to continue in. Patiently do what God has called you to do, until he calls you home.

Ministry not Monuments

I can empathize with Nehemiah's discouragement to see the work he had so diligently set up, fall apart when he leaves. I saw this happen with my first church; I also had to close a church plant after more than a decade of its life -- one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

God taught me through this that he doesn't call us to build monuments to our achievements, so we can point to something and say, "I did that." That's pride.

Church leaders don't "own" the church they lead; God does. Rather, our job is one of a servant. We serve God at a particular point in time. We seek to listen to him and do our best. We care for the people he sends us and seek to teach them to serve Jesus as disciples. To be a faithful servant -- that is enough. We do our part and leave the results in God's hands.

Our identity isn't identical to what we have labored to build. Our identity is found in God himself, who calls us, loves us, and cares for us. Nevertheless, I do understand Nehemiah's final prayer:

"Remember me with favor, O my God." (Nehemiah 13:31b)

Q4. (Nehemiah 13:30-31) How should you respond when the people you are ministering to disappoint you? How must you treat them? What must you do to sustain your own faith and spiritual momentum in times of discouragement?

Discipleship Lessons

There are many spiritual lessons in these chapters.

  1. Scripture reading -- while communicating understanding of what is read -- can be effective in bringing personal and corporate revival (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:18).
  2. Scripture can cause grief and sorrow that leads to repentance (Nehemiah 7:9).
  3. The joy of the Lord is an indicator of our faith in and love for Jesus -- and thus is our strength (Nehemiah 8:9-11).
  4. God's grace and compassion allow us to exist before him. These flow from his essential character revealed to Moses -- "the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Exodus 34:6b-7a; Nehemiah 9:17).
  5. Signing a covenant can deepen the impression of our decision in us -- though the Israelites don't long enforce and keep the covenants they had sworn to (Nehemiah 9:38-10:39).
  6. Grand celebrations, like the celebration at the completion of the wall, remind us of God's faithfulness (Nehemiah 12:31-43).
  7. Leaders like Nehemiah can expect to be disappointed. Unless it is continually reinforced and led forward, a corporate body can atrophy and begin to decline (Nehemiah 13). One of the great challenges of church leaders today is to look forward, not back, to find the new great thing God has for the congregation.
  8. God sets a higher standard for leaders, for people use them as a sort of standard of what is expected of them. When leaders like Eliashib the high priest are corrupt, they destroy the standard of holiness for the entire people (Nehemiah 13:1-5, 7b-9).

  9. Available in paperback, PDF,  Kindle formats
    Failure to support the temple through tithes and offerings results in a drastic reduction of ministry (Nehemiah 13:10-14). The same is true of the church.
  10. The priesthood is a core part of God's covenant with his people. To be a priest or Levite is a high calling. Today, it is a high calling to be a pastor, elder, deacon -- whatever you call them in your congregation. The church leadership, like the priesthood, needs to be purified from everything "foreign" (Nehemiah 13:29-31).


Father, I know the discouragement that Nehemiah must have felt when he returned to find that much of his work had fallen into disrepair. You brought him genuine revival, but it didn't last. I pray that you'd help us to seek you and not neglect our relationship with you, so that interior revival might be the "new normal." Help us to so lead our congregations with integrity that your work might not dissipate, but grow. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"... Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law." (Nehemiah 8:2b-3, NIV)

"The Levites ... instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read." (Nehemiah 8:7-8, NIV)

"Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, 'This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.' For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said, 'Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.'" (Nehemiah 8:9-10, NIV)

"... The Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God." (Nehemiah 9:1-3, NIV)

"So I rebuked the officials and asked them, 'Why is the house of God neglected?' Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts." (Nehemiah 13:11, NIV)

"So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task." (Nehemiah 13:30, NIV)


[221] By the second century BC, the Feast of Trumpets had became known as Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (literally "beginning/head of the year"). Now it is considered the first of the High Holidays, followed by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles) later in the month.

[222] "Assembly" (NIV), "convocation" (NRSV, ESV, KJV), is miqrāʾ, "convocation, reading," from qārāʾ, "call out, recite." Holladay gives two definitions: "convocation, assembly," and "reading (aloud)" (Nehemiah 8:4; Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 213).

[223] "Podium" (NRSV), "platform" (NIV, ESV), "pulpit" (KJV) is migdāl, "tower."

[224] "Book" is sēper, "writing, book." It is closely related to sōpēr, "scribe." This doesn't mean a bound book, later called a codex. During this era documents were written on scrolls, with pages sown successively to each other to be rolled up, not stacked up and bound together at one edge.

[225] Jack B. Scott, ʾāmēn, TWOT #116b. The word is used after the pronouncement of solemn curses, and after prayers and hymns of praise.

[226] "Bowed down" (NIV), "bowed low" (NRSV), "bowed their heads" (ESV, KJV), is qādad, "bow down." This root refers to the bowing of one's head accompanying and emphasizing obeisance (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #1985).

[227] They "worshipped" (NIV, NRSV, ESV, KJV), is literally "prostrated themselves" (New English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible). The verb is the Eschtaphal stem of ḥāwâ, "to prostrate oneself, to worship" (Edwin Yamauchi, TWOT #619), though it was once analyzed as a Hithpael of shāḥâ, "bow down."

[228] "Listened attentively" (NIV), "were attentive" (NRSV, ESV), is literally "the ears" (KJV). Our corresponding slang expression is, "They were all ears."

[229] "Understand" in verses 2, 3, 7a, 9a, 12b is the Hiphil stem of bîn. Vs. 8 has the Qal stem. "The background idea of the verb is to 'discern.' The verb refers to knowledge which is superior to the mere gathering of data. It is necessary to know how to use knowledge one possesses. It is possible to hear without perceiving. The Hiphil stem especially emphasizes ability to understand (Louis Goldberg, TWOT #239).

[230] "Instructed" (NIV), "explained" (NRSV), "helped to understand" (ESV), "caused to understand" (KJV) is the Hiphil stem of bîn, which we saw in verse 3. The Hiphil emphasizes the ability to understand (Louis Goldberg, TWOT #239).

[231] "Making it clear" (NIV), "translating" (NRSV), "clearly" (ESV), "distinctly" (KJV) is the Pual stem of pārash, "make distinct, declare." The basic meaning is, "to make/be made clear" by revelation, explication, or translation (Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #1833).

[232] "Giving the meaning" (NIV), "to give the sense" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is śûm, "put, place, set, appoint, make," plus the noun śekel, "understanding," from śākal, "wisely, understand, prosper." While bîn indicates "distinguishing between," śākal relates to an intelligent knowledge of the reason. There is the process of thinking through a complex arrangement of thoughts resulting in a wise dealing and use of good practical common sense. Another end result is the emphasis upon being successful (Herbert Wolf, TWOT #2263a).

[233] "Could understand" is the Qal stem of bîn, "understand."

[234] Aramaic was the language of Babylon. While Aramaic is similar to Hebrew, it has differences. You find Aramaic in the Old Testament in passages related to the people's sojourn in Babylon -- primarily Daniel 2:4b-7:28 and Ezra 4:8-6:18 and 7:12-26. Aramaic was also the common language spoken in Galilee and Judea in New Testament times, though Jewish men learned Hebrew in the synagogue schools (see Mark 5:41; 7:34; John 1:42; Acts 9:36, 40; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 16:22, etc.).

[235] "Mourn" in vs. 9 is ʾābal, "mourn, lament." ʾĀbal, which emphasizes the formal mourning for the dead (expressed by ʾābal, sāpad, etc.), involved emotion, usually expressed audibly (TWOT #6). "Grieve" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "be sorry/be grieved" (KJV), vss. 10-11, is the Niphal stem of ʿāṣab. It relates to physical pain as well as to emotional sorrow, a term of physical and mental discomfort. The Niphal of ʿāṣab is found seven times, usually mental and spiritual anguish (Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1666). "Weep" in vs. 9 is bākâ, "to weep, cry, shed tears." To weep by reason of joy or sorrow, the latter including lament, complaint, remorse or repentance. The root is commonly paralleled with dāmac "to shed tears" and with sāpad "to mourn." But, whereas tears are associated with the eyes, weeping is associated with the voice, Semites do not weep quietly, but aloud. Throughout the Old Testament, weeping is the natural and spontaneous expression of strong emotion (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #243).

[236] "Choice food" (NIV), "the fat" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is mashmān. Holladay defines it as "delicious, festive food prepared with much fat" (Hebrew Lexicon, p. 220). Austel defines it as "richly prepared food." It is similar to mashmān, "fatness," from shāmēn, "to be(come) fat" (Hermann J. Austel, TWOT #2410f).

[237] "Sweet drinks" (NIV), "the sweet" (NRSV, KJV), "sweet wine" (ESV) is mamtaqqîm, "sweetness," from mātōq, "be sweet" (TWOT #1268d).

[238] "Sacred" (NIV), "holy" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is qâdôsh, "holy," from the verb qādash, "the state of that which belongs to the sphere of the sacred." (TWOT #1990).

[239] "Be silent" is ḥāshâ, "to keep quiet," that is, to be inactive, especially with reference to speaking (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #768).

[240] Ronald B. Allen, ʿāṣab, TWOT #1666, the Niphal stem.

[241] Carl Schultz, ʿôz, TWOT #1578a. The verb has a sense of urgency, with the concept of taking shelter quickly. From the verb ʿûz, "take refuge, bring to a refuge."

[242] "Joy" is ḥedwâ, "gladness, joy," from the verb ḥādâ, "rejoice" (Qal), "make glad, gladden" (Piel) (TWOT #607a). The Hebrew word for "joy" used in our passage is fairly rare in the Old Testament, used only once elsewhere, though a couple of synonyms are used more frequently -- śāśôn, "joy, gladness," and śimḥâ, "joy, mirth." The related verb ḥādâ, "rejoice," is a bit more common, used three times in the Old Testament.

[243] Śimḥâ.

[244] Śāśôn.

[245] Śimḥâ.

[246] "Celebrate with great joy" (NIV), "celebrate a great festival" (NRSV), "make great mirth" (KJV) is literally, "make great rejoicing" (ESV), also in Nehemiah 12:27. The phrase is made up of three words: ʿāśâ, "do make"; plus śimḥâ, "joy, mirth" (from śāmēah, "rejoice"); and gādôl, "great." The Lord and his salvation are cited most frequently as the reason for joy (Bruce K. Waltke, śimḥâ, TWOT #2268b). Śimḥâ is also used to describe their celebration at the Feast of Booths in verse 17.

[247] "Joy" (NIV), "rejoicing" (NRSV, ESV), "gladness" (KJV) is śimḥâ, which we saw in verse 12.

[248] "Celebrated" (NIV) in verse 17 is literally "done so" (NRSV, ESV, KJV).

[249] Vs. 18, "Assembly" (NIV), "solemn assembly" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is ʿaṣārâ, "solemn assembly," from ʿāṣar, "restrain, refrain, withhold, close up." Holladay (Hebrew Lexicon, p. 281) translates it, "festive assembly," with the idea of refraining from work that day. Another approach is to see its derivation from ʿāṣar ("restrain" or "close up") and from the contexts in which it occurs, to suggest an occasion of fasting and abstention from work and other profane activities. The NEB renders it "closing ceremony" (Gary Chamberlain and Nola J. Opperwall-Galluch, "Solemn," ISBE 4:566). "This word generally refers to the final, or closing, day of an extended feast, though elsewhere it may simply designate a religious assembly, whether approved by Yahweh or not. Semantically, the word ranges from simply a pious assembly of any sort to something approximating the miqrāʾ qōdeš that brought a period of feasting to an end" (Carl E. Amerding, "Festivals and Feasts," T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (eds.), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (InterVarsity, 2003).

[250] Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 120.

[251] Larry G. Herr, "Sackcloth," ISBE 4:256.

[252] Joshua 7:6; Job 2:12; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 27:30; Revelation 18:19.

[253] Deuteronomy 5:9-10; Psalm 86:15; 103:8-10; Joel 2:13.

[254] The verb translated "make" is kārat, "to cut," sometimes used in making a covenant, or "cutting" a covenant. A covenant must be cut because the slaughter of animals was a part of the covenant ritual (Genesis 15:18; Jeremiah 34:18). Cutting up the animals also represents a kind of curse against those who break a covenant (Elmer B. Smick, TWOT #1048).

[255] "Binding agreement" (NIV), "agreement" (NRSV), "firm covenant" (ESV), "sure covenant" (KJV) use one Hebrew word: ʾamānâ, "settled provision, support" from the verb ʾāman, "confirm, be faithful." Holladay (Hebrew Lexicon, p. 20) defines the word here as "agreement" and in Nehemiah 11:23 as "royal prescription."

[256] "Dedication" is ḥanukkâ, "dedication," from ḥānak, "dedicate, inaugurate.... Although usually rendered 'dedicate' a more accurate translation is 'begin' or 'initiate'" (Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #693b). The Feast of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in 165 BC after it had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC. This feast is mentioned in John 10:22.

[257] The phrases, "celebrate joyfully" (NIV), "celebrate with gladness" (NRSV, ESV), "keep with gladness" (KJV) translate two words as we saw in Nehemiah 9:12: the infinitive construct of the verb ʿāśâ, "do, make" and the noun śimḥâ, "joy, mirth," from the verb "being glad or joyful with the whole disposition" (Bruce K. Waltke, TWOT #2268b).

[258] "Songs of thanksgiving" (NIV), "hymns of thanksgiving" (NRSV), or more literally, "with thanksgivings and with singing" (ESV), "both with thanksgivings and with singing" (KJV) is two words, tôdâ, "confession, praise, thanks, thanksgiving" (which we see in verse 31, TWOT #847b) and shîr, "song," from shîr, "to sing" (TWOT #2378a).

[259] "Music of" (NIV), "songs to the accompaniment of" (NRSV, NJB), "singing with" (ESV, KJV), is shîr, "song."

[260] "Cymbals" have been found in various Near Eastern sites from the 14th to the 8th centuries BC. Meṣiltayim, "pair of cymbals," similar to ṣelṣelîm (from ṣll, "to ring, tremble") (TWOT #1919f). These are generally bronze round flat plates, 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm.) in diameter, with central bowl-like depressions and fitted with iron finger rings (Daniel A. Foxvog and Anne D. Kilmer, "Music," ISBE 3:436-449).

[261] "Harps" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "psalteries"(KJV) refer to an instrument of as many as 12 strings, plucked with the fingers (Louis Goldberg, nēbel, TWOT 1284b; Josephus, Antiquities 7.12).

[262] "Lyres" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "harps" (KJV) which is smaller, and considered to have a "sweet" tone (Psalm 81:2), commonly associated with joy and gladness. The kinnor is the most often mentioned Old Testament stringed instrument, and the term itself was used widely throughout the ancient Near East. Its accompaniment was common in feasts, and was sometimes played by dancing girls (Isaiah 23:16). This is David's "harp," although it is now generally considered to be a type of lyre. It was the main instrument in the second temple orchestra (Foxvog and Kilmer, pp. 440-442; John N. Oswalt, kinnor, TWOT #1004a).

[263] "Purified," used twice in verse 30, is ṭāhēr, "be pure, be clean." Regarding the priests and Levites it appears with the Hithpael stem, "purify oneself"; regarding the people, gates, and walls it has the Piel stem, causative, "declare clean" (Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 122).

[264] The word "choirs" isn't in the text rather it is literally "great thanksgivings," or as the NRSV margin puts it "two great thanksgiving choirs." "Choirs to give thanks" (NIV, ESV), "choirs" (NRSV), "thanksgiving choirs" (NRSV margin), "companies of them that gave thanks" (KJV), is probably best "thanksgivings," using the plural noun tôdâ, "confession, praise, sacrifice of praise, thanks, thanksgiving, thank-offering." Tôdâ "basically means 'confession,' either of sin or of God's character and works," from yādâ, "confess, praise, give thanks, thank" (Ralph H. Alexander, TWOT #847b).

[265] "Fall Afresh," words and music by Jeremy Riddle (©2011 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing).

[266] "Desecrating" (NIV), "profaning" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is ḥālal, "profane, defile, pollute, desecrate." The word is used 83 times in the Old Testament, often associated with uncleanness, breaking the covenant, defiling the temple, and personal defilement (Donald J. Wiseman, TWOT #661).

[267] "Priestly office" (NIV), "priesthood" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is kehunnâ, "priesthood," from kāhan, "minister in a priest's office, act as priest." A related noun is kōhen, "principal officer or chief ruler, priest" (TWOT #959b) This word appears in Jewish communities today as Cohen.

[268] Elmer B. Smick, berit, TWOT #282a.

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