Category Archives: Bible Books

Chapter-by-chapter overview of books in the Bible

Esther, Part 4

July 7, 2012

Finally, the climax of the book arrives, and everything comes to a head.

Esther’s second banquet begins; in a very real sense, this is Haman’s last meal. When Xerxes asks again what Esther wishes of him, she comes out and reveals everything to him. At long last, she tells him of her Jewish heritage, exposing Haman’s plot to slaughter the Jews; naturally, Xerxes is furious, but just at whom is hard to say. I think his anger has three possible angles: he could be angry at Esther for hiding her true identity from him for so long; conversely, he is angry at Haman for manipulating him by telling him falsified and half-true information about the Jews; Xerxes may even have been raging at himself for not seeing this series of events unfolding. Whatever his reasons, the king needs time to let the royal temper subside, and he goes into the garden to clear his head.

Haman, in the meantime, is pleading for his life from Queen Esther; unlike Belshazzar in Daniel 5, he can see the writing on the wall and what it spells out for him. So desperate is he that he physically takes hold of Esther in his desperation; this was taboo, as by tradition no one but the king could touch the queen or the women of the harem. Thus we can understand another layer of Xerxes next statement when he returns and finds Haman seemingly assaulting his wife. No sooner does the king speak than the eunuchs/bodyguards move in, and Haman’s head is covered (ironically, for the second time that day) for the shame he has caused. Haman’s special gallows is then revealed along with its purpose, and Xerxes, finally seeing Haman for what he truly is, orders his execution by the very means that Haman had intended for Mordecai.

That same day, Xerxes signs over everything Haman had possessed to Esther and Mordecai, whom the king makes his new prime minister in Haman’s place. Unfortunately, there is still the matter of Haman’s legacy: his decree that the Jews be utterly destroyed. By tradition of the Medes and Persians, a law with the king’s seal cannot be changed once it has been passed; however, Xerxes finds a loophole: he cannot reverse the law, but he is able to pass another that would allow the Jews to defend themselves. He gives Mordecai his reclaimed signet ring, allowing Esther and Mordecai to write anything they need with royal backing to make it happen. Thus, only two months after Haman’s diabolical scheme was set in place, the Jew’s salvation counteracts it.

The letters of Esther and Mordecai go throughout the Persian empire, bringing joy and hope where there was once grief and mourning. The Jews begin to mobilize, and many who are not Jews choose to proselytize, converting to Judaism to avoid being destroyed at their hands. This, then, is a sort of testimony to the reputation of GOD and His chosen people abroad; people everywhere know the histories of those who dared oppose the Jews and failed, and with another judgment near at hand, they wish to be on the right side. Adding to this is the enhanced status of Mordecai, who has been honored even further by the king, and been given royal apparel; being not only a palace official but a relative of the queen, this is a high honor for Mordecai, and he is worthy of it, having proved his loyalty to the king before. It is even more advantageous for the Jews that Mordecai is in this position; along with Esther, the Jews now have two close contacts/spokespeople with access to the king’s confidence, and this will help protect them against any future opposition such as those in Nehemiah and Ezra’s time.

How best to apply this? Even though GOD is not named in this book, He moves silently and powerfully through those who live for Him. Not only does He protect the Jews from destruction, but He also sets the stage for later generations. Had He not done so, Nehemiah would not have had the opportunity to minister to the rebuilt city of Jerusalem and the Jews therein, and Jesus would not have been able to come as prophesied. The next time you feel doubt about GOD’s goodness or power to act, remember that He is always there – and He always cares for those who wait on His voice and live for His glory.

Esther, Part 3

The plot builds as Esther looks for the right time to plead her people’s case, while Haman’s scheming takes a new turn.

July 3, 2012

Esther 5 & 6

After three days of seeking GOD and preparing herself, Esther audaciously approaches her husband the king in his throne room; by coming unannounced, she has put her life on the line. Fortunately, both GOD and the king smile on her, and he extends the scepter as a sign of acceptance and permission to approach. She then makes a countersign by touching the scepter’s tip; this means she wishes to make a request of the king. She asks that both he and Haman be her guests at a banquet she is preparing especially for them; this serves two purposes – first, it allows Esther to replenish her body from the three day fast, and second, with both the king and Haman present, it puts all her eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Esther apparently decides that she needs another day to gather her courage and/or prepare her husband for the revelation she is going to make with her plea. Perhaps she was unnerved somewhat by the presence of Haman, who planned to annihilate her people and held a special hatred for Mordecai. Whatever the reason, it allows Haman to steal a march on her, putting his next move into play.

Following the private feast, Haman travels home feeling triumphant; he has achieved a measure of intimacy with the king that he is also trusted in the presence of the queen (perhaps not unlike Nehemiah later on). As he passes the gate, however, he espies Mordecai and observes that he does not regard Haman in either fear or respect; Haman’s threat of annihilation bruised him emotionally, but it has not broken or beaten him into submission or defeat. His seeming inability to affect Mordecai infuriates Haman, but he checks himself for the sake of his plan; attacking Mordecai early and without permission will raise too many questions. He proceeds home, still steaming along the way.

Once he arrives at home, he boasts to his family and friends of his success; his position, wealth, and power are seemingly unmatched by anyone. Yet, Mordecai proves to be both the fly in the ointment and a persistent thorn in Haman’s side. As a means of satisfying his jealous anger, they recommend that he build Mordecai a grand execution: a 75 foot high gallows in the courtyard of his own house, so that everyone may see what happens when someone crosses Haman. Presumably, the feast Haman is to attend will be in the afternoon, so he plans to ask the king for permission to hang Mordecai in the morning.

That night, however, GOD moves to thwart Haman and protect Mordecai from harm. King Xerxes is unable to sleep, so he asks for the chronicles recording the acts of his reign to be read to him. I suppose that reveling in the memories of past glories would help him be more at ease. As the records are read, a crucial point that arises is the assassination attempt by two of the king’s servants in chapter 2. Furthermore, it is discovered that, although Mordecai played a crucial role in saving the king’s life by reporting the plot, he has as of yet received no reward for his valorous service.

In the morning, when Haman arrives to ask permission to hang Mordecai, Xerxes asks him for advice on how to honor/reward a man who has pleased him. Being the egotistical type, Haman believes that the king means this reward for himself, and recommends royal treatment (wearing the king’s robe, riding the king’s horse, etc.). Pleased with his advice, Xerxes orders Haman to personally deliver these honors to Mordecai; much to his own chagrin, Haman does so, caught by his own words and pride. Following Mordecai’s public reward, Haman quickly runs home, so embarrassed that he puts a bag over his head.

Seeking comfort from his wife and friends, Haman receives only a foreboding warning. While the Jews are a conquered people, their reputation is still widely known among the nations; the legends of the Exodus, David and Solomon, and all the rest are hard to forget. Based on the past experiences of those who have opposed the Jews, they suspect that Haman has set himself up for a fall, and that this is only the beginning. Just then, the king’s servants arrive to escort Haman to Esther’s banquet, and he goes to where his and the Jews’ fates will be sealed.

Esther, Part 2

July 2, 2012

In chapters 3 and 4, the story begins to accelerate; the main villain is introduced, and the critical purpose for Esther’s becoming queen is revealed.

In chapter 3, Xerxes makes an appointment similar to Darius’ raising of Daniel to an ultimate position of authority; in this case, however, it is the opposite – an evil man is given power over the entire kingdom, and it is his objectives, not those of his enemies, that are sinister. He plots both personal murder and genocide, and the two are intimately linked together, for the man and the people are the same in his eyes. He proceeds through deception and bribery, and he manipulates the law system to engage all the kingdom and its peoples in his crime.

The new prime minister (for all intents and purposes) is Haman, and his family descent is from a man called Agag. For those not familiar with him, let us make a quick review of Israel’s early history; when the Hebrews first came out of Egypt in the Exodus, a nation of desert raiders called the Amalekites attacked them from behind. It was during this time that Aaron and Hur held Moses’ hands up while Joshua led the people into battle; so long as Moses’ hands were raised (in prayer to GOD), the Israelites beat back their enemies. Because of their conflict with Israel, GOD commanded Saul, Israel’s first king, to completely wipe out the Amalekites.

Ignoring GOD’s command, however, Saul spared the best of the Amalekites’ possessions, along with their king, whose name was Agag. Although Agag was later killed by the prophet/judge Samuel, his family line apparently survived, as evidenced by Haman. This leads us to the next salient point: Mordecai’s civil disobedience in refusing to bow and give homage to Haman. He did this for different reasons – first, Haman represented Israel’s failure to obey; second, to bow was to worship, and as a Jew, Mordecai gave that devotion to GOD alone. The fact that the king had commanded all his servants to do so brings to mind another parallel to the book of Daniel – particularly the Fiery Furnace incident.

Upon learning of Mordecai’s objections – and how his entire nationality shares them – Haman begins formulating a plan to remove them all from the land of the living. He contrives a half-truth to convince Xerxes that a racial genocide is necessary to provide stability and prevent insurrection in the empire, promising to pay for it out of his own pocket. In return, he gains the king’s signet ring, which in essence provides him with carte blanch to put whatever laws he needs into effect to succeed.

Mordecai vents his grief in the traditional manner of that time (sackcloth and ashes), and refuses to cover it up when Esther sends fresh clothes, perhaps fearing that he is making a scene. He then sends a copy of Haman’s edict as evidence of the danger and cause of his grief. He also sends a plea that Esther intervene on the behalf of their people. He reminds her that, if she does not do so, GOD will find another way to save the Jews, but that He placed her where she is for just such a reason; should she refuse to act, she can be just as easily removed.

Naturally, Esther is afraid; although she is the queen, she is still under the king’s authority and can act only in accordance with him or face execution (presumably on charges of treason or sedition). Nevertheless, she agrees to do as Mordecai asks, requesting that he and the other Jews in the capital fast and pray for her as she prepares to go to the king without being summoned. She is taking a huge risk, but she is willing to make it; death will be the penalty if she fails, but that would have come anyway (with Haman’s genocide), so she decides to risk her life on a possibility for success rather than await something otherwise inevitable.

Esther, Part 1

Concluding the post-Exilic history books, Esther is the account of a young woman who shows great courage as she risks everything to save her people from genocide.

June 29, 2012

As I begin the look of Esther, I’d like to review a few facts about the book: 1) it is an account of the Jews who didn’t return from exile, 2) it serves as a sort of interlude between Ezra and Nehemiah, and 3) in theme, it visits Israel’s past in an account of the events written in its present.

Starting with chapter 1, Zerubabbel’s reconstruction has been going on for some time (from Cyrus through Darius’s reign), and now we come to the early years of Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I. In secular history, one of his most notable contributions was the attempted invasion of Greece; his predecessor Darius retreated following the battle of Marathon (the present-day race named for the Greek runner who carried the message of victory), and Xerxes made his own attempt, reaching much farther but ultimately failing due to the alliance between Athens, Sparta, and the other Greek city-states.

The first feast, it is theorized, was an ongoing, conference to discuss strategy and supply for the invasion of Greece, with the second as a sort of wrap-up party to help Xerxes and the advisors relax. A possible reason for this is that the former lasted nearly half a year, while the latter extended for only a week. During this time, Xerxes is mentioned to be showing off everything he possessed; this might be viewed as a propaganda move, with the Persian monarch reviewing his ability to finance the war and giving his generals a chance to indulge themselves before entering into the field of battle.

In the following week-long celebration, it was an all male affair; the men and women were each given separate quarters in which they celebrated. It was during this time that Xerxes made a lapse in judgment, foolishly attempting to display his wife, Queen Vashti, as a trophy alongside the possessions he had until now been displaying. Her refusal is understandable; she responded in a manner indicating that, although he was a king, Xerxes would not be allowed to treat his wife in a way that undermined human dignity. Being either drunk or hung over, Xerxes was furious that he would be refused in such a way, and under advisement from his ministers (who controlled access to the king) issued a decree that effectively exiled Vashti for life, intending to make her an example to all women under Persian rule, whatever their station.

As a tangent, I would note that it was one man’s idea to exile Vashti – Memucan, to be precise. He is the last of the ministers named, perhaps indicating his youth (a similar pattern exists in Job, with Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar). For whatever reason, his is the only suggestion noted, perhaps due to the fact that it was the one that impressed the king and fellow ministers and was carried out in the end.

The gap between the first two chapters can perhaps be explained by the war in Persia, following which he turned his attention back to the affairs of the Persian empire and his own household affairs. Having had time to calm down, Xerxes no doubt regretted having banished his queen, but due to the nature of the Persian monarchy, even the king could not reverse the law. In essence, the Persians had a dash of republic in their kingdom, as even the king was subject to the law, unlike the Babylonians who preceded them; thus, Xerses could never see Vashti again.

To bring the monarch out of his slump, an idea was conceived by his servants; they thought that the best way to get over an old, bad relationship was to start a new, fresh one (big surprise, right?). Young, unmarried women from all over the Persian empire were brought to the capital in a sort of “Bachelor” event. They would undergo (this is amazing) a WHOLE YEAR of beauty treatments, perhaps to bring out their maximum appeal as women, then each one would spend one night with the king as candidates to replace Vashti as queen. Whoever failed would join the harem (having been with the king) and unless the king was pleased with her, the woman would never see the king – or any other man – again. Pretty raw deal, wouldn’t you say, ladies? ☹

Upon this note, we are introduced to two key people in the events to follow: Mordecai, a minor functionary at the palace, and his younger cousin Hadassah, whose Persian name is Esther. Mordecai is the great-grandson of one of Jerusalem’s exiles, and Esther has been raised by him since childhood. She is described as a lovely, beautiful woman, and that I believe goes beyond her appearance; for a woman to be truly beautiful, she must be of godly character, and Esther will demonstrate this time and again.

After being claimed for Xerxes’ beauty pageant, Esther is taken to the palace, but she and Mordecai remain in touch due to his position. She trusts and obeys her cousin, treating him as her father-figure, despite the circumstances of her recently elevated status. She continues to act humbly throughout her year of preparation, making no requests for worldly possessions beyond what was recommended for her. It was these traits, I think, that made her stand out to Xerxes among all the young women at his disposal; while GOD is never mentioned directly in the text, we can have no doubt that He was moving in and through events and people. His grace and guiding hand allowed Esther to move into a position that will later on allow her to influence events all over her known world.

Following the acceptance of Esther as queen, Mordecai becomes witness to a plot by two of Xerxes’ bodyguards. These two, known as Bigthan and Teresh, plan to either take the monarch hostage or eliminate him altogether; it’s unclear if they are doing this out of personal spite or if another person was bribing them to do so. Regardless, Mordecai alerts Esther, who informs the king on behalf of her cousin, although Xerxes is unaware of their connection; in order to safeguard her national identity, Mordecai instructs her to hide it, even from the king. The plot is revealed, the two would-be aggressors are executed, and the whole thing is recorded in the annals of Persia, with Mordecai’s part in the matter clearly noted.

Nehemiah, Part 6 (final)

June 28, 2012

As the month comes to a close, I reflect back on the course of the reconstruction effort that Nehemiah and Ezra oversaw. I think that everyone will agree that rebuilding a nation is no easy thing – though I’m inclined to believe that it’s easier than the first building up. After all, the generation coming out of the exile had at least some ground to build upon, while the generations coming out of Egypt and the wilderness had to learn firsthand how to build a holy nation after generations of living among the pagan peoples. Still, the Exile generation had their work cut out for them – those who returned to Judah had to adjust to a lifestyle that most of them had probably never practiced firsthand before. It’s fascinating to watch Israel’s history and what example(s) it sets for us today.

In Chapter 11, Nehemiah records the various allotments of people and where they dwell in the land. There is a lot of detail, but the main idea is that everyone is divided into three distinct categories: first the common people according to their cities, then the Levites and priests, and lastly the leaders. In a sense, it almost seems reminiscent of planting a field; rather than growing a crop in one area and letting it spread outward, Nehemiah spreads the people so that they can expand and fill the entire land while leaving them with a defensible pattern.

Chapter 12 serves as a genealogy for the leaders of the land, from the beginning of the return to Nehemiah’s present. Probably the best way I can describe it is a “passing of the torch” passage; as Nehemiah’s task comes to an end, he leaves the continuation of it in the hands of those listed here. We begin with the fathers who came with Zerubabbel in the days of Cyrus’ decree, both priests and Levites; this passes on to the sons who inherit the legacy of their fathers.

Three different kings are involved in the reconstruction efforts: Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes. Cyrus gives permission for the Jews to rebuild the Temple, Darius defends their right to do so (with royal support), and Artaxerxes is influenced by Nehemiah to write a new decree when the Samaritans attempt to invalidate the old one. Based on dates from historical record, I theorize that “Darius the Persian” was Artaxerxes’ grandfather, with Ahaserus (Xerxes I), Esther’s husband, being the father of Artaxerxes. All this takes place in a range of less than 60 years, and yet so much takes place as GOD brings his people back together.

For the book’s conclusion, Chapter 13 serves as a sort of epilogue, revealing adjustments that Nehemiah had to make after his return to Artaxerxes. Most of the problems involved the Jews intermingling habits and blood with their Samaritan/Gentile neighbors. Just as in Ezra 10, the people separate themselves from their Gentile marriages, purifying their bloodline. There were problem in the Temple leadership, with a priest allowing a Samaritan leader to use a room in the Temple for personal storage, as well as Levites attending more to their own homes than their Temple duties. This would probably be a first step toward the formation of the Essenes, the separatist Jewish sect who blamed the Temple leadership for corrupting the culture.

Other problems that occurred involved the keeping of the Sabbath; some Jews were doing fieldwork, while Gentiles were allowed to come and trade on the Sabbath when everyone should have been resting. Nehemiah confronts the leaders, reminding them of the importance of keeping their promises to GOD (and the consequences that happened when their ancestors failed to do so).

The most severe measures he took were in regard to Jews who had joined in marriage to women of the Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites, often not bothering to teach them anything but their mothers’ culture. In the past, these three nations had caused Israel more trouble than any others; the irony is that the latter two were distant relatives of Israel, descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot through his daughters. Perhaps the most tragic outcome of this happened to a grandson of Eliashib the high priest, as his father-in-law was non other than Sanballat the Horonite, one of the more prominent of the Samaritan leaders. Nehemiah reminds the others of the great folly of joining with pagan nations, citing the demise of Solomon’s glory and wisdom because of his own marriages.

It is doubtless that Nehemiah committed himself to rebuilding the nation. He went above and beyond what might be considered the call of duty; he was passionate for GOD and the people of Judah. His efforts were drastic, but after previous failures, he was exactly what was needed to complete the reconstruction of not only the Temple and city walls, but also the society of the Jewish nation. Throughout the book, we see many small prayers of Nehemiah asking GOD that he and his efforts would not be forgotten. This may have been motivated by at least two things: a sincere desire that his labors would succeed, and perhaps a fear that whether he succeeded or failed, no one would remember who had done so much for the people.

Next time, we’ll take a step backwards and, through the account of Esther, see what happened to the Jews who chose to stay behind in the lands held by Persia.

Nehemiah, Part 5

Having read the Law and understanding the importance of God’s standard for them, the Jews now stand ready to renew their covenant relationship with Him.

June 24, 2012

It’s taken me a couple days to get this in, but I remember most of what I would say. This passage of scripture was a nice refresher – not to mention a trip down Israel’s memory lane. ☺ Roughly 3 days after the Feast of Tabernacles, the people of Israel gather together once more. This time, it’s a voluntary assembly; they are gathering to renew their covenant with GOD. This may be a parallel or epilogue to the final chapters of Ezra, since it mentions that “those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners;” having severed their Gentile ties, they now seek restoration with GOD as His chosen people.

What occurs next is, in a sense, a prayer, a song of praise, and a historical review. Throughout the prayer, the history of Israel is overviewed with significant points highlighted; these are Abraham’s call to follow GOD, the Exodus from Egypt, the Sinai covenant, Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the conquest of the Holy Land, the cycle of Judges, and finally the Exile/Captivity. Each point holds a special encounter with GOD, and how His character is reflected in His actions, whether blessing or judgement.

As they wrap up their prayer, they hearken back to GOD’s Suzerain-vassal covenant with Abraham, concluding that He has been both faithful and just as the suzerain (senior partner) even though Israel has not. They present themselves as repentant servants, wishing to renew Abraham’s covenant with their LORD and Master, putting it in writing and sealing it, so that they are held accountable not only by GOD, but their own words as well.

The first 27 verses of chapter 10 detail the leaders who signed the covenant, Nehemiah being the first listed. In addition to this, the people of Judah lay the foundations for their future actions. They promise to avoid intermarriage with non-Jews, as well as setting proper limits for the keeping of Sabbath days and years. This is important, because it was the disregard for the 7th year that resulted in the length of the Babylonian captivity; the Promised Land rested for 70 Sabbath years, allowing it to grow fertile again for the return of the Jews.

The last final third of the chapter deals with provision for the Temple; old traditions from the Torah (Leviticus) are mixed with new measures to fit the current situation. A universal tax is established to provide the Temple with money for renovations and repairs. They even go so far as to ensure wood provision for the altar sacrifices, something not mentioned (but perhaps implied) in the older covenant. Tithes and offerings come next, with the high priest (Aaron’s descendent) standing as witness to their collection, to ensure that there is no cutting of corners or private greed among the providers or priests. As their final note, they promise not to neglect the Temple as their ancestors did; having learned the consequences of abandoning GOD, they now desire to learn from their parents’ mistakes and move forward in a better direction.

Nehemiah, Part 4

June 20, 2012

Just a few notes from Nehemiah 7 before I retire for the night: Nehemiah has finished rebuilding the wall, and now undertakes the larger (and more difficult) task of helping to rebuild Jewish society. Having lived in exile in Babylonian culture for 70 years, the Jews must reestablish their ancestral lifestyle while avoiding the errors that sent them into captivity.

Much of this chapter is a copy of Ezra 2, with the introduction giving details to the situation of Nehemiah’s time. The reason he sought out the record was, I believe, GOD’s way of setting the stage for Ezra’s reform. The city walls are complete, but there is still much to be done in rebuilding the city itself; there are no houses, and only a small number of the Jews actually dwell in Jerusalem. Perhaps that amplifies/adds to the wonder of the miracle that the wall was completed in only 52 days with such a workforce. At any rate, Nehemiah is setting out to reaffirm the Law and its application for the new generation in the Holy Land. This will take him about 12 years and beyond to complete.

Chapter 8: As part of the revival (both social and spiritual), Ezra and Nehemiah now appear together in a joint effort to restore the people in the ways of the Law. The “seventh month” infers that this takes place in the first month of autumn in the Jewish calendar, just in time for the Feast of Tabernacles. The people listen from the beginning of the day until noon, and according to the text, they listen with ears that are “attentive.” They not only desired to hear the Law, they were eagerly drinking in every word. What’s important to remember is that not everything we hear from GOD brings a pleasant reaction.

Ezra opens the book of the Law and reads from it; the people’s response brings another reading to mind from the book of 2nd Kings. During the reign of Josiah, Judah’s last godly king, the book of the Law (Deuteronomy) was found in the Temple (which was at the time in a state of disrepair), and it was read to him. Like Josiah, the people react with grief, but Ezra comforts them; although they have not obeyed the Law in the past, they are gathered in the house of the LORD with a spirit of seeking and repentance, and that is exactly where we most often meet GOD.

A surprise came in this chapter; on the next day, the people discover the Feast of Tabernacles, and they practice it for the first time since JOSHUA’S TIME!! That infers that for all the centuries they had dwelt in the Promised Land, they hadn’t kept the autumn feast even ONCE. This time, they keep it for seven days, gathering for readings of the Law with gladness. This speaks of a fervor that was spawned from over 70 years of starving for the Word in exile; if only we might see a revival like this in our own time.

Nehemiah, Part 3

Chapters 5 & 6 of Nehemiah

June 19, 2012

Nehemiah helps deal with physical/social hardships, so in a way he is like a prophet as well as a ruler. He admits to being part of the problem, and willingly volunteers to be part of the solution as an example to the others. The main difficulty is that the nobles and wealthier Jews are oppressing their countrymen for their own benefit; the former exiles are losing their sustenance, property, and even their freedom in the effort to keep up with taxes from the Persians and rent from their Jewish landowners. Nehemiah puts a stop to this, the nobles promising with an oath before GOD that they will return the land to the people and cease using economics for greedy purposes.

As a final note from chapter 5, Nehemiah’s meat provision may sound like a lot, but consider that this was to cover an entire day of meals for a large group of men; given that, it’s not gluttonous consumption, but simple provision for all.

Chapter 6: Three different ways the Samaritans try to throw Nehemiah and the Jews into fear: attempting to draw Nehemiah into an assassination at Ono, make Nehemiah look guilty by tempting him through an informer to hide in the Temple (as if he had committed a crime), and casting dispersions on his reconstruction effort, accusing him of plotting to revolt against Persia.

Another point of interest to me was that the nobles shared loyalty to Tobiah the Ammonite, one of Nehemiah’s Samaritan adversaries. The method by which he procured such allegiance from Judah’s nobility is through intermarriage with leading Jewish families. This power circle would be broken by Ezra’s reforms, and certainly Nehemiah’s social reorganization would also be a threat to Tobiah’s cabal, so it’s little wonder that he and his cohorts sought to harm Nehemiah.

Nehemiah’s task was far greater than merely rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls; he also had to help reconstruct the nation. The people were divided against each other, outsiders were taking advantage of the situation, and there seemed to be no defense against this. That explains why Nehemiah spent approximately eleven years in Judah; through GOD’s grace, the wall was rebuilt in only 52 days, but there was so much more to be done.

Nehemiah, Part 2

The next portion of Nehemiah’s account, summarizing chapters 3 and 4.

June 16, 2012

As I read through Nehemiah, I can’t help but think back to Ezra. The two books take place in the same period of time and cover two halves of the same story. Ezra comes to Jerusalem to give the people internal structure by re-teaching the Law to them as the Temple is being rebuilt, while Nehemiah helps teach the people to face threats from their Samaritan neighbors as the walls of Jerusalem rise again.

Having announced his intent to repair Jerusalem’s walls, Nehemiah begins with the support of the people; while he no doubt controls or influences the overall design, the actual work is done by the people of the city. Rather than focus on one section at a time, the labor proceeds all at once; each wall section and gate is built by the people living in that area of Jerusalem. The interesting part is that Nehemiah didn’t force anyone into helping him; the Jews recognized their need for physical protection, and “the people had a mind to work.” The labor wasn’t done by just the commoners, either; the priests and nobility pitched in as well, making it a truly united effort.

When the Samaritans hear tell of it, they are less than pleased; a united and defendable Jerusalem means a threat to their domination and intimidation of the Jews. Even in the midst of their foul mood, though, they somehow find humor in the situation, mocking the efforts of the Jews and plotting to ambush them with their army before the walls were even halfway completed. Thanks to some countrymen who live further north, Nehemiah gets wind of the scheme, taking precautions. Thanks to this incident, the Jews become organized not only as a labor force, but as a sort of militia to defend their homeland again.

Earlier this evening, I used this chapter as a sort of devotional for Father’s Day; I commented that fathers should be like Nehemiah in chapter 4 – being ready to encourage and build up within, but also vigilant against threats from without (and sometimes within, like Ezra). I thanked my father for being both for his family and setting the example for his sons.

In the next chapter, we’ll see how Nehemiah deals with internal conflict (economics and community strife), and the oppositional threat taking a more subtle turn. Until then, good night, and happy Father’s Day!

Nehemiah, Part 1

These are some observations I wrote down about 2 years ago.  Enjoy!

June 14, 2012

Having finished Ezra, I had some doubts about where to go next. My first thought was Nehemiah, but at first I resisted, thinking that it would just be more details on the same subject. Then a couple days ago, two things hit me: first, since Nehemiah covers the same period (and includes some of the same people), then it would be an excellent follow-up for Ezra; second, GOD speaks through the Word in many different ways, each time speaking deeper messages through the same text. Who am I, then, to refuse teaching from a book I think I know?

Nehemiah begins during chapter 4 of Ezra. Nehemiah serves as cupbearer (special security) to King Artaxerxes, to whom the Samaritans wrote a letter with the claim that the Jews were going to rebel. The king puts a stop to the rebuilding efforts, and the Temple remains unfinished for a while. It is before and during this time that Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, contributing to the national reconstruction in another way.

Nehemiah hears about the opposition from a friend, and also hears that Jerusalem’s walls remain in disrepair. Those walls had been built and spread as Jerusalem grew from David’s time; they had been destroyed when the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar and his father had conquered Judah. The Jews under Zerubbabel had been given permission by Cyrus of Persia to rebuild the Temple, but the walls were another issue entirely. Walls allowed a city to defend itself – and the fact that Jerusalem still had none meant that the newly-returned exiles were vulnerable. This is what so saddened Jeremiah – that the newly restored nation seemed so close to destruction again. Attributing this to the nation’s failure to follow the Law, he intercedes with GOD, asking for GOD for assistance as he goes before the king.

Like Esther earlier on, Nehemiah was placed in a good position to intervene for the Jews; as cupbearer, he had a high position of power and trust with the king. Even so, he felt trepidation when the king noticed his servant’s change in demeanor; Artaxerxes knew Nehemiah well enough to know that something deep had caused a huge shift in his cupbearer’s emotional state, and he might have inferred it to be a shift in loyalty against him (which would warrant capital punishment). After an abbreviated prayer for mercy from Artaxerxes, he proceeds to ask for permission to go and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. Having forbidden the rebuilding of Jerusalem until his command (Ezra 4:21), the king relents, likely basing his decision on Nehemiah’s past conduct in their relationship, trusting that his motives are pure. To make sure, he asks his servant for a deadline, ensuring that Nehemiah will return.

Having secured his request, Nehemiah also asks for letters of safe conduct from Persia to Judah; he already knows he will have enemies when he arrives, and so he prepares for them and any others he may encounter en route. As a sign of his support, the king arranges a military escort; Nehemiah is a valuable servant, and the king apparently would like to keep him. Naturally, when Nehemiah arrives and states his purpose, the opposing officials are not happy about the situation, but since Nehemiah enjoys the king’s support, they can do nothing for the moment. After inspecting what is left of the old walls, he meets with the Jews and rallies their support; similar to Zerubbabel, he rejects any assistance from outsiders, making it an entirely Jewish project. From maps and historical estimations, Nehemiah will restore Jerusalem’s walls to their former positions, rebuilding the expansions of Solomon and Hezekiah and adding his own to make room for the new generation of city dwellers.

Glancing between the books, a detail rises to my attention that I missed before; Artaxerxes’ successor, Darius, allows the Temple reconstruction to continue, but Ezra arrives during Artaxerxes’ time “following this.” I think this is an instance of the “co-ruler” system practiced in the Middle East, where the heir-apparent shares the throne as a junior partner when he comes of age. Darius could only have done so with his father’s permission, with Cyrus’ recorded decree as justification. Since Ezra’s arrival will coincide with Nehemiah’s reign as governor of Judah, it makes interesting speculation to think of how these two men would have rubbed elbows.

Nehemiah is an example of the fraternal identity that he held as a Jew; similarly, though we may be half a world away, we can identify with our Christian brethren because of our common link of faith and the Holy Spirit. The key to being used by GOD is to have the right heart, but also to be open/receptive to the Spirit’s leading and ready for the right time. One thing that I have learned about GOD over the years is that He is very orderly in the way He works; by learning to know Him better, His character begins to reflect on us (Nehemiah shows the same orderliness in his arrangements with the king). Much as we bear authority through the name of Jesus, Nehemiah was able to go forth boldly because he came with the backing of the king’s authority.