Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 11 Background Reading: Joshua 21:1–19; Genesis 38:12–26
If we focus only on the long lists of names that fill Nehemiah 11, we will easily be disappointed. We might see little or no benefit in spending time in this chapter. We might be inclined to look elsewhere for more exciting stories. To avoid that, we need to be reminded that “all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” for a number of reasons (2 Tim. 3:16). We need to see these chapters, then, not just as a listing of names but as a picture with broader meaning and implications. We need to ask: How is this passage going to train me in righteousness and equip me for every good work? We need to be reminded, too, that the Bible is its own best interpreter. To understand and apply Nehemiah 11 and 12 to our lives, we will need to look at other parts of Scripture.
The Sad Situation
When we go back to Nehemiah 7, we find some disturbing information. The author tells us there that “the city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt” (Neh. 7:4). This was supposed to be the Holy City, the very place where God dwelt. This is described as “the holy city.” This city had a glorious history. This is where King David and King Solomon had built their palatial homes. This is where the temple occupied central place. This was the city that had been inhabited by tens of thousands.
But this was also the city that had been systematically destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his army 150 years earlier. He had not only demolished the temple, but he had also razed the walls and burned down most of the houses, homes where the nobility and the clergy had resided. Now, 140 years later, the temple has been rebuilt and the walls of the city have been restored, but the houses have not been replaced or repaired. Why the delay? What kinds of excuses could possibly be offered? For all practical purposes, the city of Jerusalem is severely lacking in population. There are not enough able-bodied men to defend the city in the event of an attack. Most of the men who had helped to rebuild the walls in record time had come from the surrounding villages and towns, but not from Jerusalem itself. There are not enough men with the gifts and abilities to perform all the rites and services required by God.
When Nehemiah first confronts that reality, he realizes that this is a project for which he will be held responsible. How is he to address this deplorable situation? How can he repopulate this Holy City, so that it might once again be a beacon in a dark, sinful world? How can it be protected from the attacks of all the enemies who hate God and his people? Nehemiah is well aware of how the Samaritan neighbors had halted the rebuilding of the temple for ten years. He vividly recalls how the surrounding tribes had tried to prevent the restoration of the city wall. This godly man has a plan of action, but he does not take credit for it. He immediately attributes that to God, who “put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy” (Neh. 7:5). The text goes on to tell us that Nehemiah “found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first.” He tells us, “I found written in it” (Neh. 7:5) the names of all those who had emigrated in that first group who left Persia in 538 BC under Zerubbabel and Jeshua. His plan, it seemed to him, was to draw recruits from the descendants of those first families. He interpreted that to be God’s plan, for, he said, God had put it into his heart. When we get to the actual doing, recorded for us in Nehemiah 11, it seems that a different plan is in place. Instead of choosing along family lines, “the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem the holy city” (Neh. 11:1).
The “leaders of the people” were already living in Jerusalem. Others, apparently, had come to the city at the invitation or urging of Nehemiah. Instead of letting their governor make those decisions, they turned it over to God, the one who determines the casting of the lot. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this chapter, observes: “They, finding that yet there was room, concluded upon a review of their whole body to bring one in ten to dwell in Jerusalem; who they should be was determined by lot, the disposal whereof, all knew, was of the Lord. This would prevent strife, and would be a great satisfaction to those on whom the lot fell to dwell at Jerusalem, that they plainly saw God appointing the bounds of their habitation. They observed the proportion of one in ten, as we may suppose, to bring the balance between the city and country to a just and equal poise; so it seems to refer to the ancient rule of giving the tenth to God; and what is given to the holy city he reckons given to himself.”
This use of the lot is not only advantageous for the city of Jerusalem. It is also of great benefit to the countryside, to the villages and cities scattered throughout Judea and Benjamin. When we go back to that first wave of returning Jews, recorded for us in Ezra 2, we read there that “the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel in their towns” (Ezra 2:70). Note the word their. We are reminded from the book of Joshua that God had personally directed and assigned specific towns and boundaries to the various tribes when they first moved into Canaan. That information, contained in Joshua 13–21, reads like a surveyor’s notebook. Each tribe was given a specific piece of land, complete with boundary markers. When the first settlers returned from exile, they went directly to their assigned towns, from which they had been evicted by Nebuchadnezzar.
The immediate need is to bring some of those people from the countryside into the city of Jerusalem. They did not want to violate those earlier assignments made by God, so they put the choices back in God’s hands. They not only resorted to use of the lot but also adopted the principle of the tithe. The tithe, or 10 percent, was to be given to the Lord for the advancement of his kingdom. The remaining 90 percent were to work in his fields and villages.
As we read through Nehemiah 11, we note that there is a recording of various names and numbers who are now presumably living in the city of Jerusalem. The text at this point is a bit fuzzy, lacking a clear division of those who lived in the villages and those who moved into the city. That should not be troublesome if we remember that there are three different occasions every year when all the adult males must migrate to the city to celebrate certain feasts (see Exod. 23:14–19). The intermingling of work and worship was always part of God’s plan.
The recording of specific numbers is also a reminder that the Israelites were known for keeping accurate genealogical records. The scribes and the Levites had, as part of their duties, to record the names of all those born, complete with family records. When we add up the numbers recorded in Nehemiah 11, we arrive at a total of 3,044 men. Presumably these men were adults who were probably married and had children. If we assume, for sake of analysis, that the typical family had two children, the total would expand to around 12,000 souls. Given the size of the city, this number appears to be sufficient for the protection of the city. These men represent three of the tribes of Israel. Judah is the first mentioned, with 468 men attributed to him. Benjamin is the second tribe mentioned, with 928 men attributed to him. The remainder are priests and Levites, all coming from the tribe of Levi. In round numbers, approximately 50 percent are labeled as “valiant men,” presumably there to defend the city from its enemies. The other 50 percent are devoted to temple service, in one form or other.
When one reflects on the tribe of Judah, one realizes that Judah had five sons, two of whom died in the land of Canaan (Num. 26:19–22). Of the three remaining sons, only Perez is listed here in Nehemiah 11 as contributing to the defense of the city. The text tells us that “all the sons of Perez who lived in Jerusalem were 468 valiant men” (Neh. 11:6). It would be easy to read over this without a hint of its significance. It is noted that these are “valiant men,” so presumably they are noted for their defensive abilities. That is true, but there is even greater significance in their being “sons of Perez.” Perez is prominently listed in Matthew 1:3 and in Luke 3:33 as being in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. He was a direct son of Judah, but he was also the son of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-inlaw, conceived in sin along the side of the road (Gen. 38:12–26). According to Mosaic law, Judah should have been killed for committing the sin of adultery (Lev. 20:12). So should have Tamar, who tricked him into the act. The twin sons that were born, Perez and Zerah, were illegitimate children and would not normally be listed as part of the family. Yet, both of them are listed as “sons” of Judah in the second census taken.
Of those three, Perez is listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. He is also identified as one of the protecting forces for the Holy City. Thus, we have not a casual name among thousands, but a marvelous demonstration of God’s grace and mercy. Judah and Tamar and Perez are forgiven sinners called to special service in God’s kingdom. In Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sins. How neatly tucked away in this easily overlooked segment of Scripture.
The Temple Servants
The section from verses 10–24 is devoted to a listing of the various priests and Levites assigned to the work of the temple. There was an obvious division of labor, with some assigned as “gatekeepers” while others were designated as “singers.” One name of interest is that of Asaph, who was appointed originally by King David as one of the choir directors in the temple service. This Asaph is also the author of Psalms 50 and 73–83. In connection with him, there was “a command from the king concerning them, and a fixed provision for the singers, as every day required” (Neh. 11:23). That king is not identified here but is referenced in Ezra 6:10, who decreed “that they [the singers] may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons” (Ezra 6:10). That decree had been issued in 520 BC, in response to Tattenai’s request about the rebuilding of the temple. The king was Darius I, who earlier had placed Daniel in the lion’s den and then came to realize that Daniel’s God was “the living God . . . who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions” (Dan. 6:26–27). Now, 125 years later, his edict is still being enforced. Another demonstration of God’s sovereign control over men and nations.
The section from verses 25–36 illustrates the extent to which God’s people were once again living in the villages throughout the province of Judah. This demonstrates continuity with the commands of God at the time of Joshua. It also demonstrates divine planning and provision.
What was your initial reaction when you started reading Nehemiah 11? Were
you captivated by it, or turned off?
Did you realize, based on prior experience, that there might be theological
gems embedded in these lists?
When you reflected on the lack of homes and population in the city of Jerusalem,
did you have solutions in mind? Were they similar to that of Nehemiah?
What were the advantages of selecting by lot? What was the wisdom of selecting
one tenth (tithe) for movement into Jerusalem?
Why are there only three tribes of Israel in the Promised Land at this time in history?
Did the name of Perez catch your interest? Did you recall his history? Did that
surprise you? Is Jehovah a loving, forgiving God?
How did the story of Daniel in the lion’s den affect later history? Was Darius I a convert?
Who was Asaph? How did he serve God?
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.