Nehemiah’s Hard Hitting Polemic

Since writing for school has taken over writing for the blog, I’d like to pass on a few projects that could benefit more than one (professorial) reader. I wrote this paper for Old Testament Interpretation at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, but in the process of reading, rereading, and rereading Nehemiah, the rhetorical tension came alive for me and my understanding–of a book I’ve always enjoyed–was permanently changed.

Introduction

If you drift off at the end, you’ll miss it entirely. The book of Nehemiah is not triumphant rejoicing; it’s pointed rebuke. It’s easy for modern readers to browse through the first 12 chapters—thinking how nicely everything worked out for the people of Jerusalem—until chapter 13 directly addresses the cloud of guilt hanging over the original readers’ heads. They had disobeyed. Nehemiah had returned. His recounting of the preceding years is not a pleasant “Remember…?” leaning back at the end of a long meal; it is the lapel-grabbing “Remember!” of a horrified reunion. In the middle of the book, chapter 8 serves at the emotional apex of this imploring recollection, recalling their uninhibited joy when they returned to the Lord and their fervent promises to remain faithful.

Literary Synopsis of Nehemiah

Nehemiah quickly recalls the crisis: “the remnant…was in great trouble and shame.” He called out to God—recalling the promises of curse for unfaithfulness, of blessing for fidelity—and repented. With the Lord’s help, he received Artaxerxes’ approval to return from Susa to Jerusalem, and he recounts the sorry state the walls were in. In this first section, he reminds his readers that Jerusalem was shamefully vulnerable (1:1-2:16).

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In the next section, Nehemiah reminds them that God demonstrated his faithfulness (2:17-5:16) by helping them rebuild the walls. The people agreed to rise up in faith and build. Though intermittently (and increasingly) opposed by the idolatrous neighbors, they continued, resisted, and succeeded. Nehemiah reminds them who contributed to the walls and recounts his exhortation—“Do not be afraid of [the neighbors]. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight”—which proved reliable. In this section, he also builds his ethos by recalling his generosity and courage as governor.

In the third section, the drama is paused and Nehemiah reminds his readers in comprehensive detail that the people promised their faithfulness (5:17-13:3). He lists those who committed, the joyful reading of the law, the renewed Feast of Booths, the time of fasting and confession, the epic Levitical prayer, and the covenant they made with God. He names the signees and the designated leaders who swore fidelity.

This triumphant rededication is jarringly halted by Nehemiah’s fourth section, detailing the present: The people are unfaithful (13:4-31). In a somewhat chiastic structure, they had covenanted not to intermarry (10:30), to honor the Sabbath (10:31), and contribute to the priests and temple (10:32-39)—everyone listed in 11 and 12—but they have neglected the priests and temple (13:10-14), profaned the Sabbath (13:15-22), and intermarried with the idolatrous neighbors (13:23-27). Forgetting the faithfulness of God, they have betrayed their promises, and returned to disobedience.

Literary Themes in Nehemiah

Two major themes reverberate through the whole of this story. First, there is a call to remember. There is a call to remember their former vulnerability (1:3; 2:3; 4:15-23). There is a call to remember their full-hearted rejoicing (7:70-72; 8:6; 8:13-18; 12:38-43). There are repeated calls to remember that they—the very people hearing these words—made solemn commitments to God (3:1-32; 7:5-73; 8:4, 7; 9:4-5; 10:1-36; 12:1-26). Their current disobedience demonstrates grave forgetfulness of all three.

Second, there is a call to fear the Lord. He was named “the God of Heaven” (1:4-5; 2:4; 2:20), repeatedly gave them success (2:8; 4:15; 5:16), and was rightly called, “our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love” (9:32). In contrast, the scheming neighbors—Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem—were foiled by God time and time again (2:19; 4:1-15; 6:1-9). The people need not fear them; they need only fear God enough to resist them (contra 13:4-5, 28). The blessings and curses that come with faithfulness and unfaithfulness should drive the people to take God seriously (1:8-9; 9:6-38). Finally, Nehemiah’s repeats, “Remember me for my good, O my God!” (5:19; 13:14, 22, 29, 31)— calling God’s attention to Jerusalem and washing his hands of these unfaithful people—which should cause them to fear God and earnestly repent for themselves.

Ultimately, Nehemiah lays out an age-old national narrative. At the heart of his text, in the Levitical prayer (which they all heartily endorsed!), he recalls the parallel story of Aaron and the golden calf: God was with them, the people fell away, Moses came down from Sinai and discovered their sin, and when they repented, God restored them. Moreover, in their recent memory, they fell away, Ezra came down from Babylon and discovered their sin, and they repented, that God might restore them. In 1:1-13:3, they’ve fallen away from Ezra’s reforms, Nehemiah came down from Susa and discovered their sin, and when they repented, God restored them. Yet, now—as revealed in 13:4-31—God was with them, but they have again fallen away. Nehemiah has come back down and discovered their sin. The question is, will they repent? The book implores them to do so.

Chapter 8 in the Literary Context of Nehemiah

Chapter 8 lies at the heart of Nehemiah’s third section, in which he reminds the people that they promised to be faithful. In it, he uses both the carrot (Do you remember how good it was when we inaugurated a new era of mutual faithfulness with our God?) and the stick (“Remember—you gave your word!”). He recalls the glorious day and the ensuing week that they enjoyed together after God helped them complete the wall and secure Jerusalem.

He recalls to their minds the parade-like festivity that hung in the aquamarine sky.  It was the day that the law would be read. The people had chosen to return to God, he had helped them rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, and today they would receive God’s directions for their newly recommitted society. He recounts their rapt attention and the “amen, amen” bubbling from the crowd, approaching a roiling boil. He names the leaders who stood on the platform with Ezra, like a president pulling out a photograph from his inauguration and asking, Remember, Senator, how you wanted to be seen on my team then? Will you be on my team now? He reminds the people that the words of God drove them to the dust, onto their faces in worship. He recalls the grief that pierced them when the white light of the Scriptures illuminated the depth of their sin—and their glad relief when the priests told them, Get up, feast and rejoice, for “the joy of the LORD is your strength!” He reminds them how they understood and went out with uninhibited rejoicing.

Nehemiah picks up his story again the following morning, when they returned to hear the word and rediscovered the Feast of Booths. In vivid detail, listing the various branches they gathered and booths they built, Nehemiah reminds them of their fervent obedience. That week, they eagerly fasted and confessed their sins. They continued to take in the word of God and to rejoice—Do you remember (remember, people of Jerusalem!) the joy of returning to God and the fervor with which you promised to remain faithful?

Conclusion: Nehemiah’s Rhetorical Force

If you remember these things—how the Lord delivered us, how we rejoiced when he restored us, how we solemnly committed ourselves to him—then why have you fallen away, Jerusalem? Nehemiah’s polemic demands more than rueful recollection. He puts the same decision before them: Will you repent and be blessed, or will you disobey and be cursed? Chapter 8 is the emotional apex of his retelling, one that demands tears of reminiscence mixed with those of contrite conviction. He ends with his refrain, “Remember me, O my God,” telling the people, if you continue to deny all that has come before—our former vulnerability, God’s demonstrated faithfulness, and our promised fidelity—you are on your own.

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