Now the narrative returns to the issue of repopulating the secure city of Jerusalem. The list of names here is very similar to 1 Chronicles 9:2-17. The practice of redistributing populations was not uncommon. We saw the Assyrians repopulate the northern kingdom after they had defeated the Jews and scattered them. This was also a common practice for the Greeks. Sometimes people who moved were chosen by lot and others volunteered. It appears that many of the returned exiles opted to stay in their hometowns and in the rural areas. As funny as it sounds the Jews who did move to the now secure city of Jerusalem moved to the suburbs! They would have settled in the area between the city of David and Mount Moriah. We read that Nehemiah cast lots to repopulate the city. This may have been the Urim and Thummim which meant these were sacred lots discerning the will of God. One out of ten was the proportion needed in order to bring the population of Jerusalem to the level deemed necessary for its strength and viability. 468 men from the tribe of Judah lived in Jerusalem and 928 men from the tribe of Benjamin also lived there. When we look at 1 Chronicles 9 we see that there were men from heaven tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim who lived in the city as well.
Those who were to do the work of the house were to attend to the sacrifices and the ones who worked outside of the temple meant they went from town to town collecting tithes from people. It also meant caring for tithes in storehouses. It may also have meant they were responsible for the maintenance needed on the temple from time to time. Gatekeepers were also defenders of the city. The royal advisor or kings deputy was the representative of the people. He may have received and forwarded petitions and complaints to the king. In some respects he acted as an ombudsman. He would have also informed the king of events in Jerusalem and notified Jewish officials of the king’s public administration of Persian policies.
As the people settled into a new routine, and the Lord was with them they began to reclaim some of the cities and towns both north and south of Jerusalem. Beersheba was quite far south of the city. The people of Judah lived in 17 towns and the people of Benjamin in 15. The first 26 verses of chapter 12 list the priests and Levites who originally returned from exile with Zerubbabel, a chronological list of high priests, and the priests and Levites who served at the time of Joiakim, the high priest at the time of Nehemiah and Ezra. Only those who could prove their priestly lineage could serve at the temple so it was very important to maintain an accurate genealogical record of these families. Jeshua was the high priest in Jerusalem when the people returned from captivity shortly after 538 B.C. He was still serving in 520 B.C. when Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people to finish building the temple.
The dedication of the wall most likely happened shortly after it was completed, and this account probably came from Nehemiah’s personal memoirs. There was music, lots of music…antiphonal choirs, trumpets, cymbals, harps and lyres. And the people raised their voices in song. Many sacrifices were offered but this was a celebration. This was not a gathering for the people to confess their sins so these offerings were not sin or guilt offerings. They were peace or fellowship offerings. These offerings, if you remember from Leviticus, were made to celebrate something the Lord had done. The priests received their portion of the offering and the fat parts were given to the Lord and everything else was returned to the person bringing the offering. The people would cook the meat near the temple and celebrate. If the meat was not all consumed the first day, it had to be on the second. Any left for a third day would spoil and negate the offering that was intended. Everyone took part in this offering because it was a time for great rejoicing. King David had given instructions for ordering the music at the temple and he had put Asaph in charge of it.
From the time of the first returnees to Jerusalem in the days of Zerubbabel until the time of Nehemiah Israelites brought food for those working at the temple. Most of the Levites lived in cities around the country and they collected the tithe and brought a tenth of what they received to the temple in Jerusalem to support its ministry. The people celebrated the dedication of the wall with gladness, referring not only to their festivity but to the worship of God. At this point they were still mostly putting God at the center of everything they did. On the day of dedication, the Book of Moses was read to the people and in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 they read that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be permitted to enter the Assembly of God. If you recall, Moab and Ammon were the two sons the daughters of Lot had by their father. They were also the people who would not allow the Israelites passage through their land as they moved toward the promised land. And they had hired Balaam to pronounce curses on them. Instead the Lord used Balaam to pronounce blessings on His people.
The first area of backsliding for the people was their relationships with foreigners. And even though we read in 9:2 the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners, the people once again allowed foreigners into the congregation. These were the same relationships that earlier caused God’s people to break their covenant with God. Worse yet, the main offender was a priest! This priest, Eliashib, was related to Tobiah. This is the same Tobiah who along with Sanballat were enemies of the people. Tobiah was allowed to use a storeroom in the temple. And he was allowed to live there. We are not told what Tobiah kept in this storeroom but when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem he tossed everything out. Because Tobiah was not a believer, his presence and things had dirtied the temple. Nehemiah ordered the whole temple and everything associated with it to be purified. Next was the issue of the Levites not being given their prescribed portions of food as directed by the Lord. Because of this they along with the temple singers had left Jerusalem and returned home. Nehemiah took on the role of a prophet and called the people back to the Lord. Once again he instituted reforms and the people began to bring their tithes and offerings to the temple. The things that should have been brought earlier were now being brought to the temple. Nehemiah choose faithful men to make sure the gifts were properly distributed.
We see Nehemiah asking the Lord to remember his good deeds. What he was saying was what I did , I did according to Your will. Now preserve it and protect me. It is possible Nehemiah was experiencing opposition from those he had corrected. We will see these requests by Nehemiah a total of four times in this chapter. There was yet another difficulty that Nehemiah faced when he returned from Persia and that was the issue of proper sabbath observance. He watched men treading their wine press on the sabbath like the sabbath was just another day. They were bringing produce into Jerusalem to sell on the sabbath along with fish from Tyre. The markets in Jerusalem were open for business. All of this was a violation of the covenant in Exodus 20:8-11. The people had put their business ahead of obedience to God’s command concerning their day of rest. Nehemiah’s solution was to order the gatekeepers to not open the city gates on the sabbath. The sabbath began at sunset on Friday and lasted until sunset on Saturday. Both the Babylonians and Israelites marked their days from sunset to sunset while the Egyptians day went from dawn to dawn. One of the priests blew a trumpet at the moment the sabbath began. Nehemiah even posted his lawn guards at the city gates to keep them closed on the sabbath.
Earlier marriage reforms had not lasted and the children of these intermarriages inability to speak the language of scripture was disastrous because they did not know the language of God’s Word. They could not read or understand the scriptures. Nehemiah called on God to remove His blessings from the people. The Jews were raising children who did not know or worship the Lord. Nehemiah attacked the Jews who had married foreigners. The attack was confrontational, direct, and even brutal. He cursed and he struck these people and he pulled out their hair. This may be a bit unnerving but Nehemiah was using everything at his disposal, including his hands to enforce obedience to God’s law. One of the other priests married the daughter of Sanballat who was also an enemy of the people. Nehemiah forced the people to comply with this law. After all, this was what got them into trouble in the first place, going all the way back to king Solomon. He drove the most prominent offender out of their presence. Sanballat was an enemy of the people and the marriage between the grandson of the priest and the daughter of Sanballat formed a treasonable offense with Israel’s enemies and compromised the purity of the priesthood. And then Nehemiah prayed that God would remember those who had defiled the priesthood. Nehemiah had done all he could do to keep the people on the straight and narrow path.
We stray from the path sometimes as well but Jesus waits for us to return to Him with open arms. Our God is a God of goodness, grace and mercy. And we are blessed.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W