Bible Commentary: Nehemiah 6:1-7:3

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Nehemiah 6:1-7:3

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Finishing the Wall

When the enemies of the Jews learned that Jerusalem's wall was nearly rebuilt, they decided on a new tactic. Through the pretense of a peace conference in the plain of Ono—modern Kafr 'Ana, about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem and 10 miles east of Joppa—they would lure Nehemiah out of the city. Their plan was probably to either kidnap or assassinate him. But Nehemiah wasn't fooled and wouldn't take the bait (verses 1-4).

Sanballat then sent a letter to Nehemiah accusing him of planning to rebel against Artaxerxes and set himself up as king—and that he was using lying prophets in his cause. The Samaritan governor implicitly threatens to report this matter to the emperor if Nehemiah will not come out for the meeting (verses 5-7). Yet Nehemiah still refuses to take the bait. He knew that Sanballat would not dare to make such accusations against him to Artaxerxes, as Nehemiah was a trusted adviser. If anything, this would only have further jeopardized Sanballat's own precarious position. Sanballat's real motive, as Nehemiah realized, was not only a last-ditch effort to scare him into committing to meet, but also that news of his threat would spread so that the Jews, fearing Persian retaliation, would falter in their work on the wall (verses 8-9).

But that was not the end of the intrigue. In verse 10, Nehemiah meets with a certain Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, probably because he was called to his house. The phrase "who was a secret informer" in the NKJV is rendered by most versions in its literal sense: "who was shut up." What exactly this means here is unclear. Some see it as a reference to a state of prophetic ecstasy. Others view it as a temporary quarantine due to ritual impurity. Others see it as a feigned hiding out at home—to make it look like he was in danger. As such, it would have been simply a manipulative attempt to compromise Nehemiah.

The message Shemaiah conveys to Nehemiah is that the governor's life is in danger and that they should go into the temple to hide. Some suggest that Shemaiah, having access to the temple, was a priest. He was evidently laying claim here to also being a prophet—that his message was a prophecy from God (compare verse 12).

Nehemiah rejects Shemaiah's counsel for two reasons. First, to run and hide would be cowardly. He was the governor and, as a leader among God's people, was supposed to set a brave and faithful example among them. Second, this would have been a sin, as Nehemiah was not a priest. While it would have been legitimate to propose taking refuge in the temple area at the altar, the Mosaic Law forbade non-priests from going into the temple building itself on threat of death (see Numbers 18:1-7). God had punished the Jewish king Uzziah with leprosy for presuming to enter the sanctuary in an attempt to offer incense (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).

In considering Shemaiah's words, Nehemiah realized that he was a false prophet since he had spoken against the law of God (see Isaiah 8:20). The governor further realized that this must have been part of the enemies' scheming. Sanballat's letter had accused Nehemiah of using false prophets. But in reality it was the other side that was now employing such methods in an effort to discredit him. Despite the prominence of Sanballat's letter, however, Tobiah is mentioned first in verse 12—probably because he was evidently friendly with a number of the priests and so had likely achieved this particular inroad with Shemaiah (compare verses 18-19; Nehemiah 13:7-9). In verses 18-19 of chapter 6, we also learn that Tobiah had written his own share of letters in an attempt to scare Nehemiah.

In verse 14, Nehemiah also mentioned a certain prophetess, Noadiah, and other unnamed prophets who were part of the enemy conspiracy. Exactly what role they played is unstated. Perhaps they are the ones who had directed him to meet with Shemaiah.

The exchange of numerous letters, threats of public embarrassment and conspiracy remind of modern political intrigue that employs legal maneuvers and the press to try to force a political outcome. Then, as now, human nature and politics worked hand-in-hand.

The wall was at last completed—52 days (a week shy of two months) after the reconstruction under Nehemiah commenced (verse 15). And thus the wall was built again "even in troublesome times," just as had been foretold in Daniel 9:25. It was now the 25th day of Elul, only five days prior to the Feast of Trumpets. When the Jews' enemies heard of the astounding achievement, and realized that all of their plotting had come to nothing, they were completely demoralized, seeing this as the work of Judah's God (verse 16).

"Once the city was secure, Nehemiah set about the even more important task of reorganizing the government and effecting a sorely needed spiritual and moral reformation. He first appointed doorkeepers, singers, and other Levitical personnel and designated his brother Hanani as mayor of the city [7:1-2]" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 511). This was the same Hanani who reported to Nehemiah regarding Jerusalem's plight in 1:1-3. "'Hanani' is the shortened form of 'Hananiah' ('Yahweh is gracious').... The Elephantine papyri mention a Hananiah who was the head of Jewish affairs in Jerusalem. Many scholars believe that this Hananiah can be identified with Nehemiah's brother and assume that he succeeded Nehemiah (c. 427)" (Expositor's, note on 1:2). The Hananiah of these documents could conceivably be the Hananiah that Nehemiah placed over the Jerusalem citadel (Nehemiah 7:2) if Nehemiah's brother had died. But Nehemiah's brother seems the likelier person referred to.

We will see more of Nehemiah's reformation in the next few chapters. This would be the crucial part of his work. For while walls were needed, they were not an end in themselves. Their whole purpose was to safeguard a vital interest—the people with whom God was working and the worship system He gave them. God's plan does not center on walls and buildings. It is ever and always about people.