The covenant briefly described in chapter 9 was sealed by the people listed in this chapter (cf v.20-27, and chapter 3) in v.1-28. More importantly, these people are described as those “who have knowledge and understanding” – a refrain of what was stated in Nehemiah 8:12. But for such clear understanding, they would not be able to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD (v.29) and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law.
Note how the law is seen as a curse (c.f. 1 Kings 19:2, Jeremiah 34:18) and an oath, a conveyance of the people’s serious intention to simultaneously to be faithful to the LORD but also understand that such law works to only reveal our sins and is a curse unto us, holding us captive (Romans 7; 1 Corinthians 15:56; Galatians 3:23-24). As Paul states, righteousness is not by the law, for the law did not give life as long as we did not look on Christ (Galatians 3:21). So the Israelite mentality is not simply that of justifying their walks with God by their own righteousness, but recognising what the purpose of the law is – to point us to Christ the fulfiller.
Of the law, the following are described, indicating the foci of Ezra and Nehemiah’s day:
- v.30 – Problems of inter-faith marriage – bringing us back to the precepts of Ezra (Ezra 9-10);
- v.31 – Crops of seventh year (Leviticus 25:2-7)
- v.32 – Third part of shekel is a new law (c.f. Exodus 30:11-16). Service of the house of God.
- v.33 – Offerings /showbread – Leviticus 24:5-9
- v.34 – Wood offering (no specific law on this tax, but implied) – Leviticus 6:12-13
- v.35 – Agricultural offerings re: temple personnel supply (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, Num 18:12-13, Deut 26:1-11).
- v.36 – Firstborn of sons (Exodus 13:13, 34:20) (redeemed), herds / flocks (Num 18:15-18) and Deut 15:19-23
- v.37 – First of our dough (Num 15:20-21, Deut 18:4)
- v.38-39 – Tithes (Num 18:21-24), laity participates in a celebration of the tithe at the sanctuary in Deut 14:22-27, and for Levites as well (Num 18:25-32)
Notably, most of the commandments are in relation to spiritual adultery through inter-marriage, the lack of offerings and the relinquishing of the Levitical practices. These laws are also noticeably free-will related, indicating that the heaviness of the law has weighed on the hearts of the Israelites to the point where worship and praise has long been forgotten. It should be a delight then that their rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem shall be coupled not with a re-statement of the entirety of the law, but with acts of worship and praise out of the pure joy that the LORD has been faithful to the Israelites unceasingly. His cords of love could never be broken even by the Israelites’ and our constant rebellion.
Just as a tenth was given to Melchizedek the King of Peace (Genesis 14:20; Hebrews 7:2-4; c.f. Numbers 28-29), so a tenth of the people were given to the City of Peace. The opening verses of this chapter touch on the Temple servants who were part of the classes of Levites (Ezra 2:40-43) descendants of Solomon’s servants (Ezra 2:55-58), blessing this free-will offering of the people who lives apart from their towns to be in this city (v.2 – “willingly offered“).
The immediate description of Judah, Benjamin and the Levites which followed (v.4-19) harkens us back to the fact that these were the only three tribes of the Southern Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12:21-23, the Levites having no specific land as inheritance) – now composing the majority of the restored community of the entire nation. As noted in v.20 – the rest of Israel, and of the priests and the Levites, were in all the towns of Judah, every one in his “inheritance” (the ancestral property – Ezra 2:59-63). However, the temple servants lived symbolically on Ophel (v.21), which is the source of water at the Gihon Spring near the Water Gate (Nehemiah 3:26, Ezra 2:43-54).
The places in particular mentioned in v.25-35 are a repeat of the same places of inheritance mentioned in Joshua 15:20-63 and Ezra 2:26-33. The Levites are now therefore seen more officially as the third tribe in this restored community (v.36), originally to have settlementsthroughoutthe land (Joshua 21).
The fact that the majority of Israel now consists of these Southern tribes and the priesthood is almost a sifting of the wheat from the chaff; a refinement of the spiritual from the nominal (Romans 9-11), that the Root of Jesse and Son of Judah shall be the Incarnate One. Even the consolidation of the priesthood as an official tribe, and the giving of a 10th of all people to live in Jerusalem sees a type of reformation which is becoming more and more like the Church which the Lord had always envisioned – a Church which is not merely a division of land and spoils, but where the Elect are to live in Jerusalem. Where the priesthood is at the forefront of this reformation. Where the entire nation has the law written on their hearts and guarded by the walls of Jerusalem.
Levites effectively a third tribe in the restored community (v.36), originally having settlements throughout the land (Joshua 21).
This chapter again reinforces the focus on the priesthood and the Levites, relating to the high priesthood from the time of Zerubbabel to Nehemiah. Zerubbabel was the first leader and Jeshua the high priest who returned with him (which was a century before Nehemiah – see Ezra 2:2a). It would appear in the following verses (v.8-26) that Ezra and Nehemiah lived in the days of Joiakim, the son of Jeshua (c.f. v.13). The days of Eliashib, Joiakim’s son, until Johanan (Eliashib’s son) was also described at v.22-23. It is described at v.24 that the divisions were commanded by David (at 2 Chronicles 8:14), for praise and to give thanks – emphasising again the free-will nature at the heart of these Levitical traditions. This is brought to the fore in v.27-30 by the cymbals, harps and lyres used in thankgivings and with singing by the Levites when the wall of Jerusalem was dedicated with gladness (Ezra 3:10-13). Thus, the gates themselves were purified, a new start to Jerusalem (v.30; c.f. Exodus 19:10-15).
This free-will worship is emphasised even more in the remainder of this chapter, by way of two choirs (v.31-37, v.38-43 respectively) and the men appointed over the storerooms, contributions, firstfruits, and tithes (v.44-47). The southern choir is led by Ezra (v.36) to the Dung Gate in the furthest south before moving north through the Fountain Gate to the Water Gate in the east (v.37).
The northern choir is joined by Nehemiah whilst it is led by Jezrahiah (a Levite) to the Gate of Guard (v.39) passing by all the gates from Gate of Ephraim onwards to the Sheep Gate (v.39). The choirs, jointly offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy (v.43) – the women and children also rejoiced – such is the beauty of the unified Church of no divisions (Galatians 3:28), led by the priesthood to sing such songs of glory!
This glorious worship shapes the ministry of those appointed over the material wealth of the nation apportioning such wealth to the priests and the Levites (v.44-47). “They performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon” (v.45) – though the treasure that we seek is to see the LORD face to face in such free-will rejoicing, we are also given treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20) which such apportionment symbolises.
In spite of such awesome worship, Israel is still Israel – just as the Church is still filled with sinners to the boot. It is notable that this book of ancient Reformation should end not on a sweet note of victory, but on a note that until the first coming of the Christ, and until the renewal of New Creation at His second coming, such changes are but external and the sin in us festering in our adamic flesh. Note the following:
- the removal of those of foreign descent (v.1-3) which is the first act of cleansing presumably on the basis that the Ammonites / Moabites’ spiritual history could lead the Israelites astray;
- the corruption of Eliashib in favouring his relative Tobiah and setting for him a large chamber in the house of the LORD where the material wealth for the Levites and the Temple had been kept (v.4-9), desecrating the holiness of the Temple
- the failure of the proper apportionment of wealth to the Levites (v.10-14), replacing the officials with reliable men who distributed to their brothers (v.13)
- the profanity of the Sabbath by working and doing business with the Tyrians and lodging all kinds of wares outside Jerusalem around the Sabbath date (v.15-22; c.f. Jeremiah 17:19-27; Amos 8:4-6
- the intermarriage of Jews to women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab and the failure to speak in the language of Judah, immediately breaching what Nehemiah had done at Nehemiah 10:30 (c.f. Ezra 9-10; Deuteronomy 7:1-5), quoting the widespread knowledge of the sins of Solomon (v.23-29; c.f. 1 Kings 11), desecrating the spiritual purity of the priesthood
Thus Nehemiah cleansed Israel from everything foreign, and he established the duties of the priests and the Levites, each in his work (v.30) – as a summary of his entire work in this book. The wood offering thus acts as a fitting bookend to this book (c.f. Nehemiah 10:34, Leviticus 6:12-13) – a reminder that it is the wood-offering which points us to Christ the One who was offered on the Tree, the wood. All of Nehemiah’s reforms mean nothing if Christ is removed from the picture.
Yet – at the end of all this – Nehemiah pleads a prayer that the LORD remember Him for good (a repeated refrain throughout this book – 1:8, 5:19, 6:14, 13:14, 13:22, 13:30; c.f. Psalm 7, 17). As Nehemiah and Ezra were both the reformers and typological mediators of Christ, their faithfulness are but shadows of the faithfulness of Christ. It is Christ’s faithfulness which is remembered by the Father and truly eternal in the sense that Nehemiah and Ezra sought to achieve in the ancient Reformation. May the Christ reform our hearts so thoroughly and guard us with His Spirit!