Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE BOOK OF NEHEMIAH.
THE REV. W. B. POPE, D.D.
INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF NEHEMIAH.
THE BOOK OF NEHEMIAH.
I. Of Nehemiah’s personal history we know little beyond the few facts preserved in this book. He was of the tribe of Judah; and probably, like Zerubbabel his predecessor, of the royal stock. He was one of the “children of the captivity”; and, through circumstances of which we know nothing, rose to eminence in the Persian court. As cupbearer of Artaxerxes he was in a position of wealth and influence: the history shows how important both were in his vocation, and how nobly he used both in the service of his country. The events recorded furnish only a scanty memorial of Nehemiah’s life; but they paint his character to perfection. He was a man of profound piety, connecting everything, great or small, with the will of God, in whose presence he lived and moved and had his being: this is attested by the interjectional prayers which habitually recur. His prudence was equally marked; and there is no better example of constant dependence on God united with practical forethought. He was disinterested and unselfish: his wealth was used for public ends, and there is not the slightest reference to self apart from the common good. This set the crown on his public administration, the energy, sagacity, and even severity of which were guided solely by the demands of his vocation. He always appeals to the judgment of a merciful God; and that appeal avails against much hard modern criticism which dwells on his alleged asperity, self-confidence and self-assertion. Ancient Jewish tradition gave his name a high place, not a whit below that of Ezra.
II. Passing from the book to the writer, we have the long-contested question as to the nature and extent of his authorship. It is generally admitted that the first seven chapters, as also the greater part of the last three, were Nehemiah’s own composition. But a glance at the three intermediate chapters shows that he was not the author of these in the same sense; and this is confirmed by a minute comparison of the style and phraseology of the different portions. Those in which the writer appears in the first person, and which bear the peculiar stamp of his devotion, seem to have been extracts from his personal diary; while the others seem to have been incorporated from some public account authoritatively drawn up under the direction of Ezra and himself. But, though several hands contributed to the compilation of this middle section, it is easy to see that Nehemiah made the whole his own. For instance: the prayer in ch. 9 was probably Ezra’s, but in the history surrounding the prayer there is no special mark of his style; and the remarkable transition to the “we” in ch. 10, the sealing of the covenant, hardly allows either Nehemiah or Ezra to be the immediate author, but is rather like a free rendering of the very terms of the vow as written in a permanent document. The dedication of the wall is vividly described in the first person; and so is the energetic administration of reform after his return from Susa. But between these there are a few verses which seem to be derived from a national record. The six lists which are interwoven in this middle section were of course extracts from public archives. Those of Nehemiah 11. fall appropriately into the narrative. The other lists have all the appearance of being inserted on account of their importance to the future commonwealth: one of them, that of the high priests from Jeshua to Jaddua, having been retouched at a later period. The interpolator probably added also Nehemiah 11:22-23 of the same chapter; as the notes will explain.
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,I.
(1) The words of Nehemiah.—Rather, The narrative or record. Both as referring to his affairs and as written by him.
(1-3) Introductory: tidings brought to Nehemiah concerning the sad estate of Jerusalem and the people.
(1) In the month Chisleu.—The names rather than the numbers of the months are generally employed after the captivity: Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishri, Marchesvan, Chisleu, Tebeth, Shevat, Adar; with an intercalary month, the second Adar. Chisleu answers nearly to our December.
In the twentieth year.—Of the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus, which began B.C. 465 and ended B.C. 425.
In Shushan the palace.—Susa, the capital of Susiana; where, after the capture of the Babylonian empire, a great palace was built by Darius Hystaspis, the ruins of which are still seen. It was the principal and favourite residence of the Persian court, alternating with Persepolis, the older capital, and Babylon. Shushan was one of the most ancient cities in the world; and is associated with the visions of Daniel, and with the feast of Ahasuerus (Daniel 8:2, Esther 1:3).
That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.(2) He and certain men of Judah.—From Judah: Hanani was Nehemiah’s own brother (Nehemiah 7:1). He and his companions came from “the province” of Judah (Nehemiah 1:3); nothing is said as to their motive in coming; and certainly there is no intimation that they had been sent to the Persian court on account of recent disturbances.
And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.(3) And they said.—Nehemiah’s question and his friends answer refer first to the people and then to the city. As to the former the terms used have a deep pathos. Those who had returned to their country—now only the province—are, in the question, the Jews that had escaped; in the answer they are the Remnant that are left: both being from the captivity.
In great affliction and reproach.—In distress because of the contempt of the people around. All these expressions are familiar in the prophets; but they are united here in a peculiar and affecting combination. As to the city, the report is that the walls were still “broken down”: lying prostrate, with partial exceptions, as Nebuchadnezzar left them a hundred and forty-two years before (2Kings 25:10), and, moreover, what had not been recorded, “the gates thereof burned with fire.” Though the Temple had been rebuilt, there is no valid reason for supposing that. the walls of the city had been in part restored and again demolished.
And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,(4-11) Nehemiah’s appeal to God. The prayer is a perfect example of the private and individual devotion with which the later Hebrew Scriptures abound. It begins with formal and appropriate invocation (Nehemiah 1:5-8), flows into earnest confession (Nehemiah 1:6-7), pleads the covenant promises (Nehemiah 1:8-10), and supplicates a present answer (Nehemiah 1:11). The extant Scriptures, freely used, are the foundation of all.
(4) Fasted.—Like Daniel, Esther, and Ezra, Nehemiah fasted: fasting appears in later Judaism a prominent part of individual devotion, as it is in the New Testament.
(6) Both I and my father’s house have sinned.—The supplication was for the nation; and in such cases of personal intercession the individual assumes the sin of all the past.
(8) The spirit of many threatenings and promises is summed up, as in the prayer of Nehemiah 9.
(11) This day . . . this man.—During his “certain days” of mourning Nehemiah had fixed upon his plan, suggested by his God. “This day” is “this occasion”: the appeal itself was deferred for some months. The king becomes “this man” in the presence of the “God of heaven.”
For I was the king’s cupbearer.—One of his cupbearers, therefore in high authority, having confidential access to him.