After the second step dealing with the subtheme of Ezra’s spiritual wall, Nehemiah 1-6 turns us to the major theme of this half of Ezra-Nehemiah. This major theme is that of a physical wall around Jerusalem – Nehemiah’s wall. Of course, once this wall was built the idea of rebuilding the house of God might seem to be complete except that we still do not have a people fit to live inside. Nehemiah 1:1-6:16 is the climax of the first half of the book.
Nehemiah’s memoir is entitled, ”The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah” (Nehemiah 1:1). The text that follows then is in the first person. The problem is that the remnant ”is in great trouble and shame – the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). Thus now our expectation that there would be a builder for the physical walls around Jerusalem is met. The walls and gates we know are necessary to separate the Jews from the Gentiles just as Ezra strove to separate the Jews from their Gentile wives.
The broken nature of these walls has brought great trouble and shame upon the remnant of Israel in the land. For a culture where honor and shame are very important, this is a major problem. Thus Nehemiah’s response is not unlike Ezra’s to the news about intermarriage – ”As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). Then what follows is the content of Nehemiah’s prayer of confession. In this prayer too there is the acknowledgment that exile could happen again!
Nehemiah 1 ends with Nehemiah explaining that he was the cupbearer to the king. Thus Nehemiah is serving in a position of trust with access to the king. Nehemiah 2 opens set in the reign of King Artaxerxes with Nehemiah acting as cupbearer with wine. This was the king who had put a halt to the building of Jerusalem’s walls. And as the scene unfolds we see Nehemiah describe his success in similar words to Ezra: ”for the good hand of my God was upon me” (Nehemiah 2:8). The king apparently insisted on sending Nehemiah with an armed escort unlike with Ezra.
”But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel” (Nehemiah 1:10). The ”welfare” is simply the Hebrew word for good. Thus the verse has a play on words: the name Tobiah ( טֽוֹבִיָּה) meaning Yah is good and the feminine singular of good ( טוֹבָ֖ה ) meaning welfare or good. So Nehemiah went to the city of Jerusalem for the appropriate number of days – three. He inspected the walls and gates.
As was the case with the rebuilding of the temple, the Gentiles were not to be involved. Nehemiah said, ”The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jersusalem” (Nehemiah 2:20). He said this to Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant. Thus the note of opposition frames Nehemiah’s inspection of the Jerusalem walls and encouragement that they get started rebuilding them (Nehemiah 2:9-20).
Nehemiah 3 follows with the explanation of who rebuilt what parts of the gates and walls. The basic idea was that they rebuilt the part connected to where they lived. This chapter is not the most exciting.
Nehemiah 4 returns our focus to the Gentile opposition to the wall rebuilding. We are told Sanballat and Tobiah the Ammonite’s words and motivations on the lips of Nehemiah. Then we hear Nehemiah call for their taunts to be turned back on their own heads such that they will be plundered. As a result of this opposition the people rebuilding the wall and gates had to carry weapons too.
Nehemiah 5 complicates things because now it is their fellow Jews who are doing the opposition. This time instead of the officials coming forward to charge intermarriage, Nehemiah charged them with exacting interest from one another. So even here we find this important motif of wanting a people worthy to live within the walls of Jerusalem. The chapter ends with Nehemiah serving as governor of the land of Judah under king Artaxerxes.
Nehemiah 6 then brings us back to seeing the Gentile opposition of Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab (who had been mentioned before). These now conspired against Nehemiah to lure him to his demise and to otherwise try to make him afraid. Then we read the end of the climax of this half of the book: ”So the wall was finished…and when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:15-16).
And yet immediately following this triumph where the walls were done and the opposition appears defeated, the chapter concludes: ”Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s letters came to them. For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid” (Neh. 6:17-19).
Thus no sooner have we heard the success of this building project then we have that success subverted. This is the pattern of both halves of the book: intro, first step, second step, climax, subversion. Perhaps most disturbing is the way that intermarriage has subverted this success in building the physical wall.
As Doug Green says, ”In both cases, at the height of the nation’s accomplishments—the completion of the building project and the final radical commitment of the people to separate from all Gentiles—the narrative subverts the success. At the close of the first ‘chapter’ the wall is rebuilt and the enemy defeated—or so it seems. At this point the narrative reintroduces Tobiah, a leading Gentile opponent of the building project. The reader discovers two profoundly unsettling facts in this brief postscript to the first ‘chapter’: Tobiah continues to have a corrupting influence among the Israelite nobility and, in fact, he is related by his own marriage and the marriage of his son to this same nobility.”
Thus Samaritans like Tobiah the Ammonite continued to be a threat to the stability of the wall between Jews and Gentiles.