“So I reprimanded them and called down a curse on them and struck some of the men and pulled out their hair and made them swear by God: ‘You should not give your daughters to their sons, and you should not accept any of their daughters for your sons or yourselves.'”
Was Nehemiah’s reprimand toward the Jewish men who had married pagan women a cruel overreaction?
To answer this question, let’s look at other Bible passages that warned the Jews against this practice.
“But if you […] form marriage alliances with them […] They will become a trap and a snare and a scourge on your flanks and thorns in your eyes until you have perished from this good land […]”(Josh. 23:12,13).
“For they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods; then Jehovah’s anger will blaze against you, and he will swiftly annihilate you.”(De. 7:4).
Because the Jews could not count on God’s protecting them as a People if they married pagan women, obedience to this particular mandate was a matter of life or death.
It implied the survival of the nation to which the Messiah would eventually be born (Luke 12:48).
This is why Nehemiah deemed it necessary to urgently carry out a form of discipline common to their day: corporal punishment.
“If the wicked one deserves to be beaten, the judge will have him lie down prostrate, and he will be beaten in his presence. The number of strokes should correspond to the wickedness of his deed,” (De. 25:2).
“Bruises and wounds purge away evil, and beatings cleanse one’s innermost being,” (Prov. 20:30).
“And everyone who does not observe the Law of your God and the law of the king should have judgment executed on him promptly, whether it is death, banishment, a fine, or imprisonment,” (Ezra 7:26).
Though this is definitely not an exercise in supporting corporal punishment toward one’s neighbor, one can understand how Nehemiah’s actions as governor of the Jews would not have been seen as extreme as a reader may find them today.
Jehovah promptly corrected His People through Nehemiah because he loved them (Heb. 12:6).
Their lifestyle would have otherwise brought about His disapproval and as a result, their own annihilation.
“[…] They sinned against your regulations, by which a man will live if he observes them.”
It is important to participate with zeal in the ministry work, sharing God’s “regulations” with others, for they mean life to those who listen.
Not all will appreciate or understand God’s message, but some will respond to the “sayings of everlasting life,” (John 6:68).
Furthermore, when God’s principles guide our own choices, we can enjoy being alive in a spiritual sense (Lev. 18:5).
A healthy relationship with God can in turn bring us true happiness and is a glimmer of “the real life” Christians anticipate, a future life without pain or injustice of any sort (1 Tim. 6:19).
Jehovah God extended this opportunity to His People, giving them “righteous judgments, laws of truth, good regulations and commandments” that they could fully rely on to find peace and happiness (Neh. 9:13).
However, His people continuously rejected these by sinning, repenting and then returning to their sinful practices (Neh. 9:16-35).
Let us never show such a lack of appreciation for God’s undeserved kindness (2 Cor. 6:1).
Instead, let us live by observing His word.
“Do not feel sad, for the joy of Jehovah is your stronghold.”
This verse has personally been one of the cornerstones of my faith.
But why did the audience feel sad to begin with?
“All the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Law,” (Neh. 8:9).
It was the month of Ethanim (mid-September to mid-October), the start of the Jewish agricultural year, a month that marks many biblical historically relevant events.
It was a month of festivals.
This day started out with special trumpet blasts announcing a holy convention (Lev. 23:24).
The Jews in Jerusalem had but a few days earlier, against all odds, completed rebuilding the city walls (Neh. 6:15).
True worship was finally and officially ready to go fully back into effect.
When the scribe Ezra read the book of the law, and the Levites explained it, the people took it to heart (Neh. 8:2,3,7,8).
They understood what Jehovah was trying to tell them.
They were compelled to tears of sadness because of the errors of their ways.
But understanding God’s word was reason to rejoice, not cry.
The Levites helped them to correct their attitude, “so all the people went away to eat and to drink and to send out portions of food and to carry on a great rejoicing, for they understood the words that had been made known to them,” (Neh. 8:12).
When I personally experience sadness, do I make Jehovah’s joy my stronghold?
Understanding his word and serving him are not small reasons to rejoice in.
It is a beautiful privilege to form part of God’s people.
There is no better place to seek refuge than in the stronghold of the “happy God,” (1 Tim. 1:11; Ps. 16:11).
“As soon as I heard these words, I sat down and began to weep and mourn for days, and I kept fasting and praying before the God of the heavens.”
What were the words that caused the Persian king’s cup-bearer, Nehemiah, so much distress?
“The walls of Jerusalem are broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire,” (Neh. 1:3).
The Jews who had returned to the Holy City to rebuild it were not committing to their mission.
Nehemiah received this sad news in the Jewish month of Chislev (mid-November to mid-December) in what would have been the year 456 b.C.E.
He did not request leave from the king to go to Jerusalem and give fresh impulse to the reconstruction until four months later (Neh. 2:1).
Despite his worries, he “had never been gloomy” in the king’s presence.
From this we can learn two things:
Firstly, if our present circumstances do not allow us to serve Jehovah our God to the extent we desire, we can pray to Him for guidance and ask him to bless our efforts to make better use of our time.
Secondly, until we are able to fix our work or personal circumstances to permit greater service, we can face each day with cheer, knowing that we “do all things for God’s glory,” (1 Cor. 10:31).