Bible Studies on Nehemiah Lesson 13: Ordering the Priesthood and Dedicating the Wall

Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 12 Background Reading: 1 Chronicles 23:1–6; 24:1–5; 25:1

Another chapter full of names. Almost impossible to pronounce. Almost impossible to inspire. As we noted with the previous chapter, the meanings do not lie exposed on the surface. To the contrary, we will need to dig deeply again. Near the surface, there is an obvious love for and respect of history. Nehemiah, the governor appointed by the Persian king, is intensely interested in history, going back at least to the first wave of migrants who had responded to King Cyrus’s invitation back in 539 BC. He lists the names of some of the men who had comprised that first list of persons who had followed Zerubbabel and Jeshua from Babylon to Jerusalem. His listing is highly selective, focusing only on the priests and Levites who had made that journey.

When we go back to Ezra 2:64–67, we find there that there were 49,897 persons who made that trip. We also note that there were 8,136 beasts of burden, intended for the carrying of supplies and food. Nehemiah is not interested in any of that. His only interest is in the names of some of the priests and some of the Levites, intending to show the historical and religious continuity over the past century plus. In our day, we would think of these as clergy, as ministers of the gospel, for that is the role the priests and Levites were called to play. This is ecclesiastical history, not military and not political. The church of God is the primary focus.

As we begin to analyze this listing, we note some names that will cause us to question. It appears from this listing that Ezra was one of the Levites who came up with Zerubbabel in 538 BC (Neh. 12:1). When we go back into the book of Ezra, we find that Ezra does not appear until Ezra 7, which tells us about a second wave of migrants, led by Ezra in 458 BC, eighty years later.

We note also the name of Iddo in Nehemiah 12:4. That complicates the picture because his name does not appear until Ezra 8:17, where he is listed as “the leading man at the place Casiphia.” On Ezra’s expedition, he realized, after three days on the road, that he did not have in his entourage any “sons of Levi” who were needed for proper worship. Iddo then sends Sherebiah with his sons and kinsmen to accompany Ezra. Now, somewhat mysteriously, both Iddo and Sherebiah are listed among the much earlier grouping with Zerubbabel (Ezra 8:17–18) and in Nehemiah 12:4, 8. Further complication occurs when we encounter the name of Jaddua (Neh. 12:11, 22) who is not listed with Zerubbabel in Ezra 2 or Ezra 8. A number of commentaries call attention to the fact that a Jaddua is referenced in the writings of Josephus, who describes the work of a high priest by that name going out to meet Alexander the Great when he comes to attack Jerusalem more than one hundred years later.

On first blush, this listing appears to create exegetical problems. It seems inappropriate to list Ezra, Iddo, Sherebiah, and Jaddua with that first wave of migrants coming with Zerubbabel. A search of commentaries does little to resolve the seeming dilemma. According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary,  edited by Edwin Yamauchi, this listing of names in verses 1–7 has at least five errors. Names of five different persons listed in verses 14–20, they comment, “is probably an error.” At the same time, they see no problem with the names of Ezra, Iddo, Sherebiah, and Jaddua, which should present difficulties. According to the New Bible Commentary,  edited by G. J. Wenham, J. A. Motyer, and D. A. Carson, this listing of names in Nehemiah 12 is covered by the excuse that “detailed analysis of this section is too complex to be attempted here” (439).

After considerable research and reflection, this is the conclusion that we should adopt. It is quite possible that Nehemiah is more knowledgeable about these names than the text would indicate. When we look back at the lists in Ezra 2, we find only the names of family groupings and not the names of all those in the family. It is quite probable that there were multiple persons by those names. It is also possible that the Greek Septuagint is the source of the problem, since that involved translation from Hebrew to Greek and then to English. We do not have enough information to resolve the questions that these names raise. We should not conclude, as does the Expositor’s Bible Commentary,  that the Bible contains a number of errors or mistakes.

The more important consideration in Nehemiah 12 is the dedication of the wall. There is much to be learned as we reflect on this celebration. First and foremost, this is a necessary and appropriate celebration. Nehemiah was sent by the king of Persia to do this specific task. The project was blessed by God in numerous, significant ways. The enemies of God had done everything possible to prevent the rebuilding of the wall. At one point they had ridiculed the project, claiming that the wall would be so weak and feeble that a fox would cause it to crumble (Neh. 4:3). In spite of all the enemies’ efforts, the wall was completely restored in fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15). Now, instead of foxes running on the walls, Nehemiah organizes two very large choirs converging on the walls, playing instruments and singing praises to God for what he has accomplished. These walls are wide, strong, and impressive. Hundreds of choir members and instrumentalists are safely walking down the walls.

Jerusalem is the city of God. It is also the city of David, for it was David’s army which had captured this city from the Jebusites. It was also the place where the temple was located, to direct and focus the worship of God. Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by the Babylonian army in 586 BC, not because of Nebuchadnezzar’s evil desires but because of God’s wrath. Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant, carrying out a punishment decreed by God as an expression of his anger against a host of sins. Now, more than a century and a half later, the temple has been restored. The walls have been rebuilt. The city has been repopulated. All great reasons for a wild celebration. All great reasons to dedicate the city and the people to a renewed service to God. For approximately 150 years, Jerusalem was a city in ruins. Now, once again, it is “the holy city, the city where God dwelt.”

That required a celebration. That called for priests and Levites from all over the provinces of Judah and Benjamin to make the trip and gather in the Holy City. They came with all their musical instruments, leaving nothing behind (Neh. 12:27). They also “purified themselves, and they purified the people and the gates and the wall” (Neh. 12:30). By performing this ritual, they are reminded that God is a holy, righteous God who cannot tolerate evil. It reminded them of the laver in the temple, positioned immediately before the entrance into the Holy of Holies.

The procession must have been impressive. With thousands of people, they marched around the city and then divided into two huge choirs. Nehemiah organized them into two groups, one led by Ezra and the other led by himself, singing psalms as they marched down the walls of the city. At various places they probably sang as antiphonal choirs but then converged in the temple itself (Neh. 12:40). With such large choirs and so many trumpets, cymbals, and other instruments being utilized, “the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (Neh. 12:43).

When we get to verse 44, we see another excellent quality of leadership being displayed by Nehemiah. Various commentators hail him as a great organizer and manager. That is certainly justified. In the last part of Nehemiah 12, he demonstrates the importance of establishing wise policies and procedures for the care and distribution of facilities and contributions. Church councils and deacons would do well to imitate some of these procedures. Nehemiah again appeals to the practices initiated by King David more than five hundred years before. Tithes and offerings had to be closely supervised. None of that could be left to the care of a single person, for that quickly leads to mismanagement and even embezzlement. What we have here in Nehemiah 12 is a precursor to what we will see violated in Nehemiah 13 (more of that in the final lesson). We should also observe that Nehemiah “gave the daily portions for the singers and the gatekeepers, and they set apart that which was for the Levites, and the Levites set apart that which was for the sons of Aaron” (Neh. 12:47). Good management of resources should characterize every church. Regular, faithful payment for services rendered should also be established. That should not lead anyone to conclude that church choirs should be paid for singing. Such decisions require discernment.

Nehemiah once again gives credit to David and Solomon for the organizational patterns that they had established. David had appointed Asaph to be his minister of music and allowed him not only to direct his choirs of praise but also to compose a number of psalms (73–83). It is also of interest that these activities of David are recorded for us in the book of Chronicles, which, most commentaries assume, was written by Ezra, the co-worker of Nehemiah. To think of Ezra and Nehemiah both being used by God in such significant ways, side by side, gives us deeper insight into the ways by which God produced his most holy Word.

Discussion Starters

What might be some reasons why God has put so many names of so many people in his Word?

Are names important to you? Should they be? Should names be important to pastors and elders? Why?

What was your reaction as you read the discussion about the names in the opening verses that did not seem to belong there? Is it possible that human errors have crept into some of today’s translations? Would such negate the infallibility of Scripture? Why not?

If you had been in Jerusalem at the time of this dedication, would you have become joyfully involved? What would have motivated you? In what activities would you engage?

What aspects of the dedication services would you have found most thrilling?

Is it important that your congregation have established clear policies and procedures for all facilities and financial matters? Does the Bible give us clear guidelines for such? Where would you find them?

Some denominations choose not to use musical instruments. Is that wise?

Some denominations choose to sing only psalms and not hymns. Is that wise?