The Theology of Nehemiah

Note: Articles classified as essays may be long, advanced, or esoteric.

The pages of Old Testament history close with Nehemiah’s words, “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh. 13:31). Written at the end of the fifth century,1 Nehemiah recounts the physical reconstruction and  repopulation of Jerusalem, as well as the spiritual revitalization of the Jews living in the land after the first and second returns from Babylon.2 The book of Nehemiah, containing roughly three kinds of material:3 lists of names (53%), historical narrative (36%), and prayers (11%), presents a special challenge to the Biblical theologian’s search for its theological message.4

The restoration of Judah both physically and spiritually is the ultimate concept to which all of the diverse themes in Nehemiah lead.5 Nehemiah’s theological message to his contemporaries was one of hope and warning: hope based on the recognition that God’s partial fulfillment of His promises to restore Israel’s world prominence points to a future time of total fulfillment;6 warning based on God’s past judgment of sin and Ju­dah’s predictable trend toward spiritual apostasy.  As an inspired book, Nehemiah’s theological significance extends beyond its own time, for it re­veals God’s providential arrangement of the “fulness of time” for the Messiah’s advent. The autobio­graph­ical elements of this book play a complementary role to Nehemiah’s contemporary and canonical mes­sages that is worthy of its own theological treatment.

Nehemiah’s Contemporary Theological Significance

When Nehemiah finished writing this account of his ministry in Judah, he had two purposes for giving it to his contemporaries: (1) to give them hope for the ultimate restoration of Israel, and (2) to warn them against their proneness to sin. The hope for a final restoration rests upon several interrelated theological bases: the continuity of the covenant community, divine sovereignty, and human responsibility.

The Continuity of the Covenant Community

Nehemiah’s message of hope for a future restoration in which Israel would be freed from external domination and would herself be the world power had as its basis the assumption that his readers were part of the covenant community (1:6-7, 10; 9:6-37). The specific promises of God con­cerning restoration and a return to the land are directed to those who are Israelites.  This fact explains in part the list of post-exilic returnees (7:6-63). Only those whose lineage could be traced back to Israelite parentage had a legitimate basis to participate in the restoration of Jerusalem (2:20). The divine corollary to Israel’s covenantal status people is Yahweh’s covenant-keeping character. This aspect of Yahweh’s character is a frequent theme of the prayers in Nehe­miah (1:5, 8; 9:32). Thus God’s loyalty and the returnees’ continuity with the covenant community gave Nehemiah’s audience hope for that final restoration that God had promised.

Divine Sovereignty

The providential working of God in human history looms large before the reader of Nehemiah’s message. The “good hand of God” is directly involved in the events that are taking place: Nehemiah’s reception of royal favor (2:8, 18), the frustration of the enemies of the Jews (4:15), and the completion of the city walls (6:16). Nehemiah portrays God as the initiator of the rebuilding of Jerusalem (2:12), as the sustainer of this project in guarding them from their enemies (4:15) and in helping them rebuild the wall (6:16), and as the completer of the project in giving Nehemiah the idea by which to repopulate Jerusalem (7:5).

The list of the names of builders in chapter three, which seems so monotonous to the modern reader, spoke to Nehemiah’s original reader of God fulfilling His prophetic words.  Through Jeremiah the prophet, God had said that after He judged Judah for her wickedness, He would bring her back to the promised land and cause the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob And have compassion on his dwelling places; And the city will be rebuilt on its ruin, And the palace will stand on its rightful place’ ” (Jer. 30:18).  In his thirty-first chapter, Jeremiah specifies the exact sections of the wall that would be rebuilt (Jer. 31:18). “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when the city will be rebuilt for the LORD from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate.”  Nehemiah begins his list of builders with the very section of the wall that Jeremiah had prophesied would be rebuilt thus making the whole list another piece of evidence displaying God’s faithfulness to His word: “Then Eliashib the high priest arose with his brothers the priests and built the Sheep Gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors. They consecrated the wall to the Tower of the Hundred and the Tower of Hananel” (3:1). Though, at the time of Nehemiah’s writing, God’s promises to restore Israel were only in a state of partial fulfillment, God’s sovereign fulfillment of certain of His promises supported the Israelites’ hope for the total fulfillment of those promises.

Human Responsibility

Hand in hand with Nehemiah’s focus on divine sovereignty is the corollary truth of human responsibility.  This is seen primarily in the frequent prayers scattered through the book.7  Some are long (ch. 9); others are short, but they teach a powerful message.  God is in charge of the world.  He turns the heart of the king wherever He desires; nonetheless, He has ordained prayer as the instrumental means by which many of His purposes will be accomplished in the world.  So it is in response to prayer that the accomplishments of the book are made.8

This human responsibility also involved purity.  The theme of purity  is present in several elements of the book: the lists of Levitical priests that were used to decide which priests were actually from the tribe of Levi and those who were not (7:63-65), the people’s separation of themselves from all foreigners when they renewed their commitment to the covenant (9:2, 13:1‑3), and in the erection of the wall of Jerusalem, which separated the Is­rael­ites from those external elements that tended to corrupt their undivided de­votion to God.

Human responsibility in the spiritual realm also involves protection or guarding from the forces of darkness.  Most of chapter four is given to detailing the harassment and tactics of Sanballat the Horonite and his cohorts as they try to halt the work on the walls.  The same methods by which these enemies were repelled have their exact parallel in the spiritual realm. The vigilance that worked with trowel in one hand and a spear in the other is what is necessary to maintain spiritual purity. All problems, how­ever, are not external. Clearly Judah was her own worst enemy.  Chapter five details the unjust banking practices of the nobles that were rending the unity of the covenant community. Chapter six reveals moral corruption even among the spiritual leaders of the day (6:10-14). The closing account of Judah’s rapid apostasy (13:4-28) serves as a powerful warning against the inevitable results of sin in the hearts of men. Nehemiah’s point was taken to heart by a small group of Israelite men who later became known as the Hasidim.

Nehemiah’s Continuing Theological Message

Nehemiah closes his work without closing. The last part of his narrative ends abruptly with his forced restoration of purity to Judah. The Jews’ swift return to sin leaves one wondering if Nehemiah’s work was done in vain. This sense of incompleteness, far from being accidental, highlights two needs which were yet to be fulfilled and requires the reader to anticipate that fulfillment in the future.9  Those two needs are (1) the need for a perfect  leader, and (2) the need for a perfect covenant.

The Need for a Perfect Leader

Beyond Nehemiah’s contemporary message, from the vantage of history, one can discern that a deeper purpose lay in God’s physical restoration of the Jews to the land of Palestine and in the rebuilding of the temple and walls of Jerusalem. All these contributed to the bringing of time to its fullness in preparation for the Messiah. In the context of the revelation that God intends to restore Judah physically and spiritually (33:6-11), Jeremiah specifically prophecies the advent of the “Branch of Righteousness” that will “execute judgment and righteousness in the land” (33:15). In Daniel, the command to restore Jerusalem (issued by Artaxerxes in 445 B.C.) marks the countdown to the coming of “Messiah the Prince” (9:25-26). Nehemiah was a worthy leader, but he could not begin to fulfill the role of prophet, priest, and king. He could provide an example of holy living, but he could not give the new heart that is the indispensable prerequisite for living a holy life. His own inability as a leader to insure Israel’s spiritual health points to the need for another, perfect leader. As Bell accurately notes,10 in order for the Messiah to come, there were several factors that need to be in place: (1) a functioning temple (cf. John 2:16-21), (2) a populated Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 21:4-5), and (3) a Jewish community following the Mosaic legislation (cf. Matt. 3:15).

The Need for a New Covenant

Though the physical restoration of Jerusalem is well underway when Nehemiah closes, Judah’s spiritual bankruptcy is outlined in bold relief. Her deep spiritual need appears to be remedied when the people respond whole-heartedly to the reading of the law (Neh. 8). Their joy upon hearing the law (8:1-12), prompt obedience in the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles (8:13-18), contrition for their sins (9:1-37), and firm resolve to follow God wholly all appear to mark a true spiritual restoration. Yet Nehemiah’s last chapter reveals a profound message of the natural declension of the human heart and the futility of external compulsion to produce a true heart relationship with Yahweh.  In a chiasmic treatment, Nehemiah delineates Judah’s spiritual apostasy. They had broken their vows not to (1) intermarry with foreigners (13:23-24; cp. 10:30), (2) profane the Sabbath by buying on it (13:15-17; cp. 10:31), or (3) neglect the house of God (13:10-11; cp. 10:39). In each case, within a relatively short period of time, they had returned to their former ungodly practices. Judah’s need for a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26), not just new vows, is very evident. The inadequacy of the Law to do what it was never designed to do — justify and regenerate men’s hearts — points toward that new covenant of transforming grace that the Messiah would inaugurate.

Nehemiah’s Personal Theological Significance

Nehemiah’s life of piety (1:4), zeal for God, fear of God (5:9, 15), prayers, humility, compassion, self-denial (5:14-19), and faith (4:20) provided the Israelites a tangible model of the restored life. He exemplified the life they tried to establish through their vows in chapter ten, yet without making any such vow himself.  His personal relationship with God motivated his behavior, not the constraint of exter­nally imposed restriction.

Nehemiah’s autobiographical remarks extrude from the narrative with sufficient frequency to give the reader the impression that Nehemiah viewed his book as something of a personal defense. Particularly frequent is his re­quest for God to remember him.11 This prayer has a distinctly eschatological focus12 that reflects Nehemiah’s conscious awareness of God’s judgment upon sin. Jerusalem’s wreckage yielded a constant silent testimony that God is not mocked; what a man sows he will reap.  It is in the context of Judah’s back­sliding that Nehemiah’s prayer for remembrance become most frequent and insistent (13:14, 22, 31).  Recognizing the human proneness to wander from God, his prayer for God’s remembrance is a tacit request for God’s preserving work in his life so that he may indeed be remembered for good in the final Judgment.

Conclusion

Nehemiah’s message continues to have significance for us today. The believer’s hope for full salvation rests upon the same unchanging character of Yahweh as a covenant-keeping God, as did Israel’s hope, even still unfulfilled, for a final restoration physically and spiritually. While fully resting in the sovereignty of God as the initiator, sustainer, and finisher of the work of spiritual restoration, the believer must fulfill his God-given responsibilities.  He must pray that God’s purposes be accomplished. He must guard himself against the encroaching elements of the world as well as maintain a careful watch for those internal corruptions that insidiously sap his zeal for the Lord and make him easy prey to outside enemies. Nehemiah’s life should serve as a character model of the restored life by which the believer may be inspired and admonished in his pursuit of that ultimate judgment: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matt. 21:25).

Later Thoughts

I could have developed the hope aspect more fully by referencing the promises made in Haggai and Zechariah concerning the future glory of the temple (Hag. 2:9), the establishment of post-exilic Israel as a/the world power (Hag. 2:21-23), the return of God to dwell in Zion (Zech. 2:10-13).

 


 

  1. For an excellent discussion of Nehemiah’s background, date, chronology, and other introductory matters, including a helpful time chart, see Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Ezra-Nehemiah,” vol. 4 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publish­ing House, 1988), 565-598.
  2. The vast majority of OT scholarship, both critical and conservative, rejects Nehe­miah as the final author of the book bearing his name. Most scholars, following the MT’s lead, combine Ezra and Nehemiah into one book and view it as the composite result of an editorial reworking of the Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s personal memoirs. For a conservative exposition of this position see Yamauchi, 573-579. Both Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Intro­duction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 457, and R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 1150, reject this view and maintain that Nehemiah was the final author of the book bearing his name. From a literary standpoint, Nehemiah’s tightly knit literary struc­ture buttresses this classic conservative position impressively. For a full discussion of the literary structure of Nehemiah, see Steve L. Reynolds, “A Literary Analysis of Nehemiah” (Ph.D. diss., Bob Jones University, 1994).
  3. These statistics, based on a ratio of the number of verses dealing with a topic to the total number of verses in the book (406), are taken from Robert D. Bell, “The Theology of Nehemiah,” Biblical Viewpoint 20, no. 2 (1986): 56.
  4. The diversity of theological treat­ments found in the literature reveals the difficulty of this challenge. For example, F. C. Fensham, “Some Theological and Reli­g­ious Aspects in Ezra and Nehemiah,” Journal of North-West Semitic Languages 11 (1983): 59-68, isolates the themes: God as the Lord of history, religious discipline, a sense of guilt, and a living re­lationship with God. Mervin Breneman highlights five theological themes: continuity of God’s plan and people, separation, Scripture, worship, and prayer.  “Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther,” vol. 10 of The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 50-54. Felisi Sorgwe isolates nine theological themes that comprise “the over-arching theological theme which . . . is the calling as well as the molding of Israel to be a worshipping community.” The Canonical Shape of Ezra-Nehemiah and Its Theological and Hermeneutical Implications (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1991), 133-176. Bell focuses on the theological elements that highlight the need for and coming of the Messiah: tragedy, con­fession, con­cern, opposition, and restoration.
  5. While most theological treatments recognize restoration as the primary theme of the book, few adequately comprehend the total­ity of Ne­hemiah’s theological message.  This deficiency stems from a methodological incompleteness in most approaches to the book. Biograph­ical-historical narratives contain at least three levels of theological significance that one must recognize in order to grasp the total mes­sage of the narrative. The first is the theologi­cal message of the main character’s life to his contemporaries. This level is treated last here because of its prominence at the close of the book. The second is the contemporary theologi­cal significance that the message holds for the author’s target audience, and the third is the continuing theological significance that a book may have to later gen­erations. This canoni­cal message unfolds as the book’s place in God’s plan of redemption is more fully revealed, whether through fulfillment of prophecy or through the recognition of God’s ultimate purposes for specific items within the book.
  6. For a similar view of Nehemiah’s theological focus, see Eugene H. Merrill, “A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 189-201.
  7. 1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 9:5-38; 13:14, 22, 31. Nehemiah begins and ends with prayer.
  8. It is noteworthy that every major event in the book is preceded by prayer.
  9. H. G. M. Williamson aptly refers to this as the sense of “now, and not yet” that pervades the book. Ezra, Nehemiah, vol. 16 of Word Biblical Commentary. ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1985), iii.
  10. Bell isolates five, somewhat overlapping,  factors that had to be in place before the Messiah could come: “(1) It was necessary for the Messiah to be born in to a Jewish community that adhered to a strict practice of the Law. If this did not happen, then even as a child He could not have fulfilled the Abrahamic and Mosaic requirements (Lk 2:21-22, 27). (2) The Messiah’s life must also be intimately connected to the system of temple worship. A community that knew nothing about God’s system of sacrifice could not understand the Messiah’s death on the Passover. Furthermore, without the temple, the full practice of the Law of Moses is not possible. (3) For the faithful practice of the Law and the worship of the Temple, a strict separation from the gentiles is necessary in the Jewish community. (4) For this separation to exist, there is a physical necessity: a strong Jewish capital with an ability to exclude gentile influence in religion and morals. (5) Of course, such a city would not be possible without the willingness of a large Jewish population to dwell there” (57).
  11. “Remember” (rkz) is a key theological term in Nehemiah. It occurs nine times: Neh. 1:8, 4:8, 5:19, 6:14, 9:17, 13:14, 22, 29, 31.Note the phrases parallel to “remember”: “do not blot out my loyal deeds” (13:14), “spare me according to the greatness of your lovingkindness” (13:22). Such phrases argue against viewing these prayers as simple requests for God’s blessing for his good deeds. These prayers for remembrance should perhaps be viewed in the light of Ezekiel’s warnings to Israel’s watchmen (Eze. 3:20, 18:24, 33:13) as a effect-cause metonymy by which he asks for the result of God’s remembrance of his righteousness, implying the need for preservation in that righteousness.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
  1. Bell, Robert D. “The Theology of Nehemiah.” Biblical Viewpoint 20, no. 2 (1986): 56-63.
  2. Bowman, Raymond A. “Ezra and Nehemiah: Introduction.” Vol. 3 of The Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick. New York: Abingdon Press, 1954.
  3. Breneman, Mervin. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. Vol. 10 of The New American Commentary. Edited by E. Ray Clendenen. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.
  4. Dillard, Raymond B., and Tremper Longman III. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
  5. Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn. In An Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
  6. Fensham, F. C. “Some Theological and Religious Aspects in Ezra and Nehemiah.” Journal of North-West Semitic Languages 11 (1983): 59-68.
  7. Kidner, Derek. Ezra and Nehemiah. The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Edited by D. J. Wiseman. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979.
  8. Klein, Ralph W. “Ezra-Nehemiah.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  9. Mays, James Luther, David L. Petersen, Kent Harold Richards. Old Testament Interpretation: Past, Present, and Future. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
  10. McCarthy, Dennis J. “Covenant and Law in Chronicles-Nehemiah.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982): 25-44.
  11. Merrill, Eugene H. “A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther.” In A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament. Edited by Roy B. Zuck. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.
  12. Reynolds, Steve L. A Literary Analysis of Nehemiah. Ph.D. diss., Bob Jones University, 1994.
  13. Sorgwe, Felisi. The Canonical Shape of Ezra-Nehemiah and Its Theological and Hermeneutical Implications. Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1991.
  14. Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra, Nehemiah. Vol. 16 of Word Biblical Commentary. Edited by David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1985.
  15. ________. “Nehemiah: Theology of.” Vol. 4 of New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Edited by Willem A. VanGemeren. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.
  16. Yamauchi, Edwin M. “Ezra-Nehemiah.” Vol. 4 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gæbelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.