The closing chapters of Nehemiah contain material that may, at one time, have been part of the book of Ezra. Chapter 9 contains a long prayer purportedly made by Ezra at a sacred assembly of the Jews. In this prayer, Ezra recites the most significant points in the history of Israel, starting with creation, then Abraham, the Exodus, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and so on. This type of recounting of the history of Israel is not unique to Ezra. We see another example in the New Testament in the form of a sermon given by Stephen in Acts 6 and 7. Whether or not Ezra actually prayed such a prayer, this recounting of Israel’s history serves the point of giving a summary of the story of Israel up to this stage for the reader. The key thing in all of this is that the Jewish people serve a great and mighty and awesome God who keeps covenant with them and shows them his steadfast love forever (Nehemiah 9:32).
Beginning with Nehemiah 9:38 and on to the end of chapter 10 we have the covenant agreement that Ezra and/or Nehemiah executed with the Jews binding them to adhere to all of God’s law. Key points in this covenant are the agreement not to intermarry with non-Israelites and not to neglect the house of God.
Chapter 11 recounts the fact that the Jewish people cast lots to decide who would live in Jerusalem. One would think it would be a privilege to live there. Yet, it seems that many of the Jews preferred to live on their own land outside of the city. Thus, the Jews were especially grateful to the ten percent of their population who agreed to live in the city. Chapter 11 also includes a long list of people: leaders of the province who lived in Jerusalem, Benjaminites, priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and overseers of the Levites. The list reveals how important all the staff and clergy of the Temple were in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. Then chapter 11 concludes with a list of the villages outside Jerusalem in which the returning exiles lived.
As if we had not had enough lists, chapter 12 begins with a list of priests and Levites who returned from exile with Zerubbabel, another governor of Judah. This list is followed by an account of the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, presumably under Nehemiah’s leadership. This reveals what a disparate collection of different texts the closing chapters of Nehemiah encompasses. The author of this text notes how important it is that procedures in the Temple correspond to the commands of David and his son Solomon. If you want to get the hang of what this means, or what this way of thinking is like, we might compare it to churches today following the rules for church life laid down by Martin Luther or John Calvin five hundred years ago. That is the approximate distance in time between the time of Nehemiah and the time of David and Solomon.
Chapter 13 re-emphasizes some of the themes that we have seen throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It says that on the day of the dedication of the wall that it was found in the book of Moses (that is the Torah or Pentateuch) that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God. Therefore, once again, the Jews voluntarily choose to separate themselves from those of foreign descent…presumably even from their wives and children.
The rest of chapter 13 recounts the backslidings of the Jews during the absence of Nehemiah when he returns to report to King Artaxerxes. One of Nehemiah’s enemies, Tobiah, has been allowed a room of his own in the Temple precincts. When Nehemiah returns for his second term of service as governor, he throws Tobiah and all his stuff out of the Temple. Furthermore, the Levites had not been given the tithe so they had to go back to work in the fields rather than tending to the Temple. Nehemiah addresses this problem as well, restoring the ministry of the Temple. Another problem Nehemiah addresses is that of the people not keeping the Sabbath. He corrects this violation of the law by making sure that the gates of Jerusalem are shut for the Sabbath and that no merchants approach the city on that day. Finally, Nehemiah has to address, yet again, the problem of intermarriage among the Jews and those of foreign descent. He reminds them of the negative example of Solomon in this regard. It seems that this was an error to which the Jews continually fell prey. It is interesting how quickly things fall apart in any organization when there is lack of leadership, and the book of Nehemiah gives us many lessons in leadership that apply far beyond the scope of religion.
Nehemiah closes his memoir with a refrain we have heard throughout its pages: “Remember me, O my God, for good.” (Nehemiah 13:31) Is this not the fundamental prayer that everyone prays, whether they realize it or not? Is not our greatest desire to be remembered by the God of the universe, to be remembered for good and not evil? For, to be remembered, to be held in the mind of God, is to have existence itself, existence from which flows every other good. Being remembered, being held in the mind of God, is the very essence of eternal life.