Upon the building of the wall, Hanani (God is gracious) and Hananiah (God has given) are appointed to take charge over Jerusalem, “for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many” – an indication that such restoration of the wall is to be maintained in the hands of one who is a Christ-follower. This is accompanied by the need for the gates of Jerusalem to be open when the sun is hot (c.f. Exodus 17:12; Malachi 4:2; Revelation 1:16), a reminder that the Son is the one who allows the gates to be open for people to enter New Jerusalem (John 14:6; Revelation 3:12). However, as of now, the city though wide and large – the people within it were few and no houses had been rebuilt (v.4). A shame that there are not enough labourers sent out into His harvest (Matthew 9:38).
From v.6-73, the genealogy largely matches that which was stated in Ezra 2 – bringing us into the context of Ezra and remembering that Nehemiah’s actions are meaningless without the restoration of the Mosaic law through Ezra. V.73 is a exact repeat of Ezra 2:70, except the new addition that “when the seventh month had come, the people of Israel were in their towns” – reminder of Leviticus 23, where the month of Tishri includes the keeping of the the Day of Atonement and Feast of Booths.
The gathering of people “as one man” has been few and far in between, matching the language in Ezra 3:1 here (and the last time this happened was in 2 Samuel 19:14). Their congregation around the Water Gate supplements the symbology of this gate, that the water of life, the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, should be the true food which these gates of Jerusalem are protecting. This chapter therefore reinstates the importance of Ezra’s reforms as the undergirding element of Nehemiah’s rebuilding – in the presence of men and women and those who could understand (v.3). This is different from the strict keeping of the great Jerusalem feasts by men alone (Deuteronomy 16:16-17) – instead, now the crowd is to all who could understand. “And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (v.3). Ezra opened the Book of the Law in the sight of all the people and blessed the LORD (v.5-6), with several others (including both Levites and non-Levites) helping the people to understand the Law (v.7). The Law of God was read “clearly”, and they “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading”. This type of detail is so far removed from what is the norm in the Mosaic books through to Ezra, where the keeping of the law was often not explained to come hand in hand with “clear understanding” – the theme of this chapter. In many ways, this clear understanding and the inclusion of all who could understand (i.e. including women) is a shadow of the freedom in Christ (Galatians 3:28) only upon the circumcision of the heart, represented through Ezra (the priest and scribe) and Nehemiah’s (the governor) joint reformation of the Ancient Church. Their spiritual emancipation and release from understanding the Law was transformed from weeping to joy – an eschatological picture of our weeping turning into joy in New Creation (Revelation 21:4).
It is interesting that instead of describing the keeping of Yom Kippur, v.13-14 immediately begins with the keeping of the Feast of Booths, as a restoration of a practice not done since the days of Yeshua the son of Nun (v.17), keeping to what the law had stated in Leviticus 23:34-39 / Deuteronomy 16:13-15. In fact, this follows naturally from the hearing of the law earlier in this chapter – for the themes have been one of release, one of understanding, one of rejoicing that the LORD has taken away our grievances, as symbolised most starkly in the festival of Feast of Booths. As Leviticus 23:35 states, “On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. For seven days you shall present food offerings to the Lord.” Deuteronomy 16:14 states, “You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow who are within your towns.”
It is only upon such grateful thanksgiving that they then assemble with fasting and in sackcloth, confessing their sins and iniquities of their fathers (v.1-2), finding confidence first in the Word, then in confession, then in worship (v.3). It is from v.6 onwards that we see a history of redemption, from Genesis up till now, His promises fulfilled through Abraham’s faithfulness (v.6-8), through the great exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (v.9-15) – and despite the stiffneckedness of the Israelites, He still remained faithful and gracious (v.16-21), sustaining them in the wilderness and instructing them by giving them the Holy Spirit. Such goodness which came to them was completely by His hand (v.22-25).
Yet, the Israelites continued to be disobedient and ignored His law (v.26-31) – and here, His mercies are repeated (3 times “in your great mercies” repeated in these few verses) throughout the age of the judges and the kings from the time of Moses to the time of Zedekiah, the last king of Israel before the Babylonian exile. By His prophets, by His saviors, by His warnings, by His Spirit (v.30) – all rejected and blasphemed (c.f. Leviticus 24:16; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). Hence, their current state of slavery is one not caused by God – but (notably) it is the Levites who recognise that their kings, their princes, their priests and their fathers have not kept their law or paid attention to His commandments and His warnings. Because of all this, the Levites (v.38) make a firm covenant in writing, with the names of Israel’s princes, Levites and priests.