While building the wall, Nehemiah heard the outcry of many of his people who were enduring extortion during a famine—at the hands of other Jews. Nehemiah condemned the oppressors in the harshest of terms. “What you are doing isn’t right,” he said, “Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God and not invite the reproach of our foreign enemies?” (Neh 5:9). He continued, “Let us stop charging this interest. Return their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses to them immediately, along with the percentage of the money, grain, new wine, and olive oil that you have been assessing them” (Neh 5:10b-11). Even though the people pledged to fulfill his demand, Nehemiah was incensed at their lack of spiritual sensitivity. He shook the folds of his robe and said, “May God likewise shake from his house and property everyone who doesn’t keep this promise. May he be shaken out and have nothing!” (Neh 5:13).
If that was not enough, Nehemiah had to endure the continued threats of pagan leaders who opposed the reconstruction of Jerusalem. Sanballat and Tobiah were so influential that they even employed one of Nehemiah’s contemporaries, Shemaiah, to arrange for Nehemiah to go to the temple. They knew that as a layman Nehemiah was restricted from entering, and if he had, he would have committed a ritual transgression and lost favor with the people (Neh 6:10-14). Though they conspired against him, as a wise and devoted leader Nehemiah would not break God’s law. When Nehemiah’s enemies learned that the wall was completed, he boasted, “All the surrounding nations were intimidated and lost their confidence, for they realized that this task had been accomplished by our God” (Neh 6:16).
Although the city was fortified by the wall, Nehemiah knew that if left uninhabited, Jerusalem would be destroyed by Sanballat, Tobiah, and company. Nehemiah 7 records that Nehemiah enlisted the help of the Hebrews to build the wall; he also moved them from the outskirts of the city into the fortified area under the administration of his God-fearing brothers Hanani and Hananiah. Yet, to protect the purity of the people and the city, Nehemiah governed the resettlement according to genealogical records (Ezra 2), and “each of them returned to his own town in Jerusalem and Judah” (Neh 7:6).
The flow of Ezra-Nehemiah reveals a concern for the distinctiveness of the returned exiles as the people of God. Nehemiah was thus outraged that Hebrews would take advantage of their countrymen (Neh 5:1-13) and he saw to it that they followed protocol concerning the priesthood and national distinctions (Neh 7:61-65, 73). As the storyline of Scripture progresses to the coming of Christ, there is a noticeable movement toward commonality amongst all believers, regardless of national origin.
(1) John noted that after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees turned to one another in disgust as Greeks began to follow Jesus. “You see?” the Pharisees said to one another, “You’ve accomplished nothing. Look—the whole world has gone after Him!” (John 12:19).
(2) When Peter arrived at the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, he said, “In truth, I understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does righteousness is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34-35).
(3) Paul described the new, corporate body of believers in Christ, saying, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11) and similarly, “For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:27-29).