By Edward Dennett
BEFORE entering upon this chapter, it may be helpful to the reader to point out the structure of the book. Up to Nehemiah 7: 5, we have Nehemiah's personal narrative, from the time he first heard of the affliction and reproach of the remnant in Judea, and of the desolate condition of Jerusalem, until the completion of the building of the wall, etc. The remainder of Nehemiah 7 contains "the register of the genealogy of them which came up at the first." The portion included in Nehemiah 8 - 10 gives the reading of the law by Ezra, and the effect of it as seen in the confession of sins, and the making a covenant to keep the law and all the observances of the house of God; and this part of the book, if written by Nehemiah, is not written in the first person singular, as in the former part; but it is "we" did this or that. (See Nehemiah 10: 30, 32, 34, etc.) Coming now to Nehemiah 11 we find an account of how the people were distributed, both in Jerusalem and in the cities of Judah, with their genealogies; followed in Nehemiah 12: 1-26 by a list of the priests that went up with Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and also of the Levites who were recorded chief of the fathers at certain periods. In Nehemiah 12: 27-43 we have the dedication of the wall, and the chapter closes with the appointment of some "over the chambers for the treasures," and with an account of the duties and maintenance of the singers and porters. The last chapter (Nehemiah 13) is taken up with a description of the abuses Nehemiah found on his return to Jerusalem, after a visit to the king at Babylon, and of the vigorous efforts he made for their correction, and this chapter, as well as the ceremony of the dedication of the wall, is written by Nehemiah himself, as it is an account of what he himself saw and did.
Returning again to chapter 11, the first two verses, it will be observed, are distinct — - complete in themselves. "The rulers of the people dwelt in Jerusalem." "The city," we have before been told, "was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded." (Neh. 7: 4.) In truth it was at this time little else than a desolate heap of ruins; and for the people at large, therefore, there was no means of subsistence. But as it had ever been the seat of authority, and still "the holy city," the rulers, who would also be men of substance, would naturally fix their abode within its sacred walls; for if they were men of faith, they would view it, not as it actually existed before their eyes, but as it would be in a future day — as "the city of the great King" — and as such "the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth." Still there was need for people as well as for rulers; and thus "the rest of the people also cast lots to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem, the holy city, and nine parts to dwell in other cities." Besides these there were others "that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem," and of these, it is said, "the people blessed" them. Those on whom the lot fell went of necessity; but those who willingly offered themselves were moved by their own choice and affection. This spontaneous offering of themselves could only spring from love to the place which God had desired and chosen for His habitation, and was therefore evidence that they had in some measure entered into the mind and heart of God. "They shall prosper," says the Psalmist, "that love thee" — Jerusalem — because indeed it showed a heart in communion with the heart of God. So with these men who offered themselves; for it was as precious to Jehovah, albeit He had sent Nebuchadnezzar to level it to the ground, in the day of its desolations as in that of its prosperity and splendour. It was as true in the time of Nehemiah as in that of Solomon, that "the Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob," and hence it must have been acceptable to Jehovah Himself when these men expressed their desire to dwell at Jerusalem. The people seem to have understood this, for they blessed those who thus came forward. If they had not the energy to do the same thing, they could not help admiring those who had; and, comprehending the privilege they would enjoy, they were constrained to bless them. They might have remembered the words of one of their own psalms — "Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways. . . . Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God." (Psalm 84: 5-7.) How often is it seen, even now, that there are believers who can admire the blessedness of devotedness to Christ and His interests without having the heart or courage to pursue the same path for themselves!
In the next place, we have a description of the distribution of the people. (See also 1 Chr. 9: 2-16.) In Jerusalem there were, besides priests and Levites, children of Judah and children of Benjamin (vv. 4, 10, etc.); while in the cities there were "Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the Nethinims, and the children of Solomon's servants."1 We may briefly glance at the details. Of Judah there were in the holy city "four hundred threescore and eight valiant men" — all "sons of Perez" or Pharez; i.e., they are traced back to the son of Judah, as evidence that they could show their genealogy. Of Benjamin there were nine hundred and twenty-eight. Of these "Joel the son of Zichri was their overseer: and Judah the son of Senuah was second over the city." We find here abundant confirmation of the fact that, apart from the priests and Levites, only the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, or representatives of these, were brought back from Babylon. That there might have been individual members of other tribes, such, for example, as Anna, who was "of the tribe of Aser" (Luke 2: 36), in no wise affects this statement. As tribes, Judah and Benjamin only were restored; and thus the remaining ten tribes are "lost" to this day, hidden, in the ways of God, among the peoples of the earth; but the time is fast approaching, though it may be not until after the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, when they will be brought out of their hiding-place, and set in security and blessing in their own land under the peaceful sway of their glorious Messiah. (See Jeremiah 29: 14, 31; Ezekiel 20: 33-44.)
Attention may also be directed to the care with which the genealogy of the people is stated. This, indeed, is of all-importance to the saints of God, and especially to God's ancient people. For seventy years they had been in Babylon, and knowing ourselves the influence of such a scene, it had been no wonder if they had settled down in the country to which they had been exiled, if, in the pursuits and occupations of their daily lives, they, or at least their children born in Babylon, had forgotten the land of their birth, and ceased to remember Jerusalem above their chief joy, and had lost their nationality by commingling with the Gentiles. The record of their genealogy shows that they had not done so, that they had continued to prize their descent from Abraham as their chiefest heritage, because it had put them among a people favoured of Jehovah, and in the midst of whom He Himself had dwelt. These, therefore, were not like Esau, who despised his birthright; but they clung to it, amid all their tribulation and reproach, as their divinely given title to all their national expectations and hopes. It is a great thing for saints at any time to preserve the record of their genealogy. The Jew did it by guarding the written testimony to his descent; the Christian can only do so by walking in obedience, in the power of an ungrieved Spirit, who alone can enable us to cry "Abba, Father," and who Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. Moreover, the presentation of their title was a necessity (see Ezra 2: 59, 62) for the admission of their claim to dwell in the holy city; and as in Ezra so here (and we would emphasize the fact), the responsibility of producing the title rested on those who made the claim. It is well to remember this in a day of profession, when all alike, on the ground of that profession, assert their rights to the most blessed privileges of Christianity, and look upon it as a proof of narrowness and lack of charity, if their demands are not instantly recognized. Many such may be really the children of God; only let it be remembered that on them lies the burden of proving it, and that proving it is an indispensable condition of its acknowledgement.
From verse 10 to verse 14, we have the account of the priests, the genealogy of the chief of whom is also carefully stated. Altogether they numbered eleven hundred and fifty-two. Of these Seraiah was "the ruler of the house of God," while no less than eight hundred and twenty-two were occupied in the work of the house. This was a blessed privilege, whether for the former or the latter, whatever the responsibilities connected with the respective offices which had been assigned to them in the grace of God. There are "rulers" of the house of God still; but none can rightly fill the post unless they are possessors of the necessary qualifications. (See, for example, 1 Tim. 3: 1-7.) All may now assist in doing the work of the house, if they are living according to their priestly place in the holiest; for the work in this case was that which belonged to them as priests, and only those who are filling their priestly office can rightly be engaged in priestly service.2
The Levites follow the priests (vv. 15-18); but altogether they only numbered two hundred fourscore and four. Among these were some who "had the oversight of the outward business of the house of God." Only the priests could minister at the altar, or in the holy places; still the Levites had a blessed place of service. They were originally given to Aaron (Christ) for the service of the tabernacle (Num. 3), for all the work of the house of God outside of the priestly office. At the present time believers are both priests and Levites; for when they are in the holiest offering through Christ the sacrifice of praise to God, or when they "do good" and "communicate," they are acting as priests (Heb. 13: 15, 16), and when occupied for the Lord in other kinds of service they exhibit rather the Levitical character. There is indeed the same distinction in the Church of God: bishops — i.e., those who answer to these as described in the epistles (1 Tim. 3; Titus i.) — are rulers in the house of God, corresponding with Seraiah (v. 11); while deacons (see Acts 6, etc.) are like these Levites, engaged in the "outward business" of the assembly. Then one is specially mentioned, though others were associated with him, who was "the principal to begin the thanksgiving in prayer." There is nothing like this in the service of the Levites in the wilderness, for indeed the wilderness was not a place of song or praise; but this office dates from the time of David, who "appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Lord, and to record, and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel." Thereon we read that "on that day David delivered first this psalm, to thank the Lord, into the hand of Asaph and his brethren." (1 Chr. 16: 4-7; also 1 Chr. 25: 1-7.) This will explain why Mattaniah's (v. 17) genealogy is traced back to Asaph, and is at the same time evidence of the care exercised to restore the service of praise "after the ordinance of David king of Israel." (Ezra 3: 10, and Neh. 12: 24.) All this was in harmony with the dispensation Which then obtained; but now that the hour has come when the true worshippers worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4: 23), only such as are led of the Holy Spirit can "begin the thanksgiving in prayer." (Eph. 5: 18, 19.)
Besides the Levites, there are mentioned "the porters, and their brethren that kept the gates," numbering an hundred and seventy-two, and the singers of the sons of Asaph that were "over the business of the house of God." (vv. 19-21) Parenthetically it is noted that "the residue of Israel, of the priests and Levites, were in all the cities of Judah, every one in his inheritance. But the Nethinims dwelt in Ophel: and Ziha and Gispa were over the Nethinims." (vv. 20, 21.) Without going into particulars, it may be pointed out that all these details are given to show how complete for the moment was the restoration of divine order in the holy things of Jehovah's house amongst these children of the captivity. Man's will had wrought long enough, and now, once more back in the land of their fathers, the land of promise and hope, their one desire is that Jehovah alone should govern — that everything should be in accordance with His word. But in the midst of this beautiful revival, there are remembrances of their sad condition in contrast with the past. Gentile authority is noticed even in connection with the house of God. Thus, after the introduction of the singers of the sons of Asaph, who were over the business of the house of God, it is added, "For it was the king's commandment concerning them, that a certain portion should be for the singers, due for every day. And Pethahiah the son of Meshezabeel, of the children of Zerah, the son of Judah, was at the king's hand in all matters concerning the people." (vv. 23, 24.)
It was sad beyond all expression that the singers in the temple of the Lord should be dependent for support upon a Gentile monarch. They were Levites, and it was intended that they should be sustained by the willing-hearted contributions of the people (see Deut. 12: 11, 12; Deut. 26: 12, 13), forasmuch as they had no part or inheritance with their brethren of the children of Israel. But the people who had returned from Babylon were few in number; they themselves with their cattle were subject to the pleasure of alien rulers; they were servants in the land God had given to their fathers, and altogether were in great distress. (Neh. 9: 36, 37.) It was not possible for them therefore to provide for these singers;3 and while God in His mercy had given them some reviving in the midst of their bondage, He would have them remember that their present condition was the fruit of their past ways, and that, since it was through the chastenings of His hand that they were subjected to Gentile authority, it was a part of their obedience to His will that it should be acknowledged. Alas! the sentence of Lo-ammi had been written upon them (Hosea 1: 9), though God, being what He was, could not but abide faithful to the covenant which He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Hence He still loved and watched over the people, for His gifts and calling are without repentance; but having, on account of their manifold transgressions, transferred His earthly sovereignty to the Gentiles, the people must render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.
It was the position of the people, restored by God's mercy, with the permission of the Gentile authority, and still subject, that rendered it necessary for the king to be acquainted with all the matters that concerned them; and Pethahiah was at his hand to give the required information — the representative, as it were, of his people. It is a shadow, however feeble, of Him who is at the right hand of God, gone into heaven to appear in the presence of God for us. How blessed for us to remember that there is One at the right hand of God in all matters concerning the people He has redeemed! One who has undertaken everything for us; and who is able to save us through all the difficulties and perils of the wilderness, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us.
The rest of the chapter comprises a statement of the location of the children of Judah in the different cities and villages, and also of the children of Benjamin. The former dwelt from Beer-sheba unto the valley of Hinnom (v. 30); the latter in the several places named; and of the Levites were divisions in Judah and in Benjamin. These notices, of little significance to us, will doubtless be consulted with intense interest by the Jews of a later day.
1 See for an explanation of the last two classes our remarks on Ezra 2.
2 The reader may study in connection with this subject Rom. 12: 1, Rom. 15: 16 (reading, for "ministering the gospel," "carrying it on as a sacrificial service"); Heb. 13: 15, 16; 1 Peter 2: 5-9, etc.
3 See, however, Neh. 10: 37 and Neh. 12: 44-47. Still the remarks above must stand, as the king's commandment is distinctly referred to. Probably the people failed in this as in all else.