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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 6

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-9

Judah’s Adversaries Learn That The Wall Is Completed Apart From The Gateways (Nehemiah 6:1 ).

Nehemiah 6:1

‘Now it came about, when it was reported to Sanballat and Tobiah, and to Geshem the Arabian, and to the rest of our enemies, that I had built the wall, and that there was no breach left in it, (though even to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates),’

The news reaches all the adversaries spoken of in Nehemiah 4:7 that the walls had been completed apart from the gateways, where the doors had not yet been completed and hung. It would cause them no little dismay. It indicated that Jerusalem was once again about to become a power in the land, and that it was now secure. It could no longer be subjected to intimidation. No longer could unidentified armed raiding bands enter it at will. Now it would require investment of a fortified walled city. And that was something that no official in the Persian empire would dare unless they could prove treason. This resulted in a change of tactics on their part. It was no longer a question of discouraging the builders. They recognised that it was now time to dispose of or discredit Nehemiah once and for all before it was finally too late. .

Nehemiah 6:2

‘That Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together in (one of) the villages (or ‘in Hakkephirim’) in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me mischief.’

For this purpose Sanballat, governor of Samaria, and Geshem, king of Kedar and paramount chief of the Arab tribes, came together to plot against him. They called on Nehemiah to meet them at Hakkephirim (or ‘the villages’) in the plain of Ono so as to discuss matters. This was on the north west border of Judah and equi-distant from the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria. But it was also remote enough for things that happened there to be covered up. ‘Sons of Ono’ had been among the first returnees from Babylon (2:33). Nehemiah sensed a trap and determined not to go (‘they sought to do me mischief’). Why else meet in such a remote part of Judah where he would be vulnerable? Furthermore were he to take his armed escort with him it would leave Jerusalem partially defenceless.

Nehemiah 6:3

‘And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a huge (a hugely important) work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?”

So he sent messengers pointing out that he was very busy with finalising the defences of Jerusalem and therefore could not come down. What he was doing was hugely important. Why should he stop the work in order to come down to them? If they wanted to speak to him, why could they not come to Jerusalem?

Nehemiah 6:4

‘And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same way.’

But his opponents were very determined and sent the same message four times. Each time, however, Nehemiah made the same reply. This response to the summons clearly indicates that Nehemiah was not subordinate to Sanballat, whatever may have been the case with past governors. And their very persistence indicates that there was evil work afoot, otherwise they could have suggested a change in venue.

Nehemiah 6:5

Then Sanballat sent his official to me in the same way the fifth time with an open letter in his hand,’

When their attempt failed Sanballat then tried to increase the pressure. He sent his fifth message as an open letter, unsealed. This would mean that anyone could read it, which in view of its contents indicates that Sanballat wanted what was in it to become widely known. He was seeking to build up suspicion against Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 6:6

‘In which was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Gashmu says it, that you and the Jews think to rebel, for which reason you are building the wall, and you would be their king, according to these words.”

In this letter Sanballat indicated that rumours were rife among the nations that suggested that Nehemiah and the Jews were about to rebel against the Persian empire, and that that was also the opinion of Geshem (Gashmu is simply an alternative name for Geshem). Indeed, they saw that as the reason why they were building the walls of Jerusalem. It appeared to them that Nehemiah wanted to set himself up as king. After all that was precisely what the satrap Megabyzus had tried to do four years earlier. The idea was to frighten Nehemiah into responding to their invitation. They reasoned that he would want to refute the rumours personally. What they failed to consider was that for him to respond to such a letter would itself appear suspicious. It would suggest that there were some grounds for the rumours.

They were not, of course, party to the information that we have, that Artaxerxes had given specific permission for this so as to honour Nehemiah’s ancestors (Nehemiah 2:5-6). Otherwise it might indeed have looked suspicious. Nor probably did they realise that Nehemiah was such a favourite of the king.

With the letter being sent as an open letter they were, of course, guaranteeing that even if such suspicions had not yet arisen, they very soon would. Men would nod wisely as they considered the refortification of Jerusalem. Thus they would be able to vindicate their words.

It has been questioned as to whether Sanballat would use a term like ‘nations’ (goyim), which had strong Jewish connections, but term is also found in the Mari dialect of Akkadian (goyum/gawum), whilst in the Scriptures it has a wider significance than that of just ‘Gentiles’. There are therefore no solid grounds on which to reject its use by Sanballat.

Nehemiah 6:7

“And you have also appointed prophets to preach concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, ‘There is a king in Judah’, and now shall it be reported to the king according to these words. Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together.’

They also accused him of appointing prophets who were proclaiming in Jerusalem that ‘there is a king in Judah’. Their words may well have been based on distorted knowledge of the fact that Haggai and Zechariah had seemingly proclaimed something similar (e.g. Haggai 2:4-9; Haggai 2:21-23; Zechariah 2:8-12; Zechariah 6:1-13; Zechariah 9:9-10; Zechariah 14:16). They were clearly aware of the important part played by prophets in Judah’s politics (e.g. Samuel; Nathan; etc.) and even in Samaria’s own politics (Elisha).

However, their threat to report the matter to Artaxerxes gave them away. If they had really believed what they were saying they should already have reported the matter to Artaxerxes, or at least have taken major steps to discover their genuineness. The claims were hardly insignificant. It will be noted that they nowhere suggest that they have any proof. It is quite apparent that they were simply hoping that he would take fright and respond to their request for consultation.

Nehemiah 6:8

‘Then I sent to him, saying, “There are no such things done as you are saying, but you pretend them out of your own heart.”

Nehemiah replied boldly. He answered them by declaring that what they were saying was purely their own invention, and that it was all a load of nonsense. He was clearly sure of his own ground. Indeed, it would be very unlikely that Nehemiah had not sent messages to the king reporting his progress on the work, and he may well have indicated some of the opposition that he was facing. He would have been keeping the king well informed of the situation. He would thus suffer no qualms at their threats. What he would be concerned about was that their words might discourage the people of Judah.

Nehemiah 6:9

‘ For they would all have made us afraid, saying, “Their hands will be weakened from the work, that it be not done. But now, (O God), strengthen you my hands.”

That he saw through their tactics comes out in these words. They were trying to frighten the people of Judah who would remember Artaxerxes’ reaction the last time that they had tried to build the walls (Ezra 4:7-24). To Nehemiah Artaxerxes was a friend, but to the people he was a dread monarch. Thus were they trying to weaken their hands so that they would not go ahead with the finalising of the defences. And so he prays that God will strengthen his hands as he continues to encourage them.

An Attempt is Made To Make Nehemiah Play The Coward, And To Cause Him To Commit Sacrilege (Nehemiah 6:10-14).

Shemaiah was clearly a recognised prophet (Nehemiah 6:12, compare also Nehemiah 6:14) and thus an invitation by him for Nehemiah to visit him because he was ‘shut up’ or ‘restrained’ would not be suspicious, especially as he probably claimed that he had a word for him from YHWH. He probably claimed to be ‘shut up’ or ‘restrained’ because he was involved in fasting and prophetic, even ecstatic, meditation. His prophecy, like much prophecy, is given in prophetic verse. This may have been in order to convince Nehemiah of its genuineness. The gist of it was that Nehemiah’s enemies were sending assassins to slay him so that he should hide himself with him in the Temple where they would not dare enter.

Alternately he may have wanted to give Nehemiah the impression that he had shut himself up in his house because he too was in fear of assassination. This idea can be seen as supported by his suggestion that they both hide in the Temple. But that very suggestion was an attempt to lull Nehemiah into not being averse to the idea. If a prophet could do it, why not him?

Either way it seems clear, either that he hoped that Nehemiah’s sense of superiority would make him ignore the fact that strictly he was forbidden to enter the Temple, or that he himself could make him feel that a word from YHWH overruled such a prohibition. After all Ezekiel had declared that there would be a place for ‘the prince’ within the Temple (Ezekiel 44:3; Ezekiel 46:1-2). Why not then Nehemiah? Indeed, both he and Nehemiah’s enemies may well have thought that a cosseted favourite of the Persian court might easily dismiss what he saw as a few ‘Jewish idiosyncrasies’, thus bringing him into disrepute with the priests. He and they would have been unaware of what a godly man he was

Nehemiah was appalled for two reasons. Firstly at the thought that he should hide himself away like a coward, and secondly at the thought that he should defile the Temple. If he did such things how could he ever face the people? They had no place to hide from the threats that surrounded them, nor would the priesthood overlook his sacrilege in entering the Temple building. Indeed, nor would God. It was then that he recognised that this had been an attempt to discredit him and entrap him.

Verses 1-14

Continual Opposition To The Building Of The Wall And Problems Related To It (Nehemiah 4:1 to Nehemiah 6:14 ).

Meanwhile the work did not go on unopposed. Powerful men were involved in seeking to ensure that the walls were not rebuilt, and that Jerusalem was not re-established. We have already had three of these described to us in Nehemiah 2:19. They were formidable opponents. We now learn about their activity in more detail.

o Initially they operated by using ridicule and threats (Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1-3). They had grave doubts about whether the objective would be achieved. It was after all a massive operation, and there was no one with the authority to enforce the rebuilding by using slave gangs and taskmasters. That was not within Nehemiah’s remit. It depended on voluntary cooperation and popular enthusiasm. They could not believe that the initial enthusiasm would be maintained. But as things progressed they began to fear that they might be wrong.

o Thus when that failed they turned to the idea of using extreme violence (Nehemiah 4:7-11). But that too failed because of the vigilance of Nehemiah, and the stout-heartedness of God’s people, who worked with their swords in their hands.

o Then they five times (Nehemiah 6:4-5) sought to entice Nehemiah to a place where they would be able to do him mischief (Nehemiah 6:2). But he was no fool and once again they found themselves thwarted.

o As a consequence they resorted to suggestions to Nehemiah that in their view treason was involved in the building of the walls which they intended to report to the king of Persia himself along with a report of the activities of treasonable prophets (Nehemiah 6:6-7). To these suggestions Nehemiah gave short shrift. He was confident that his royal master would rely on his trustworthiness.

o This was followed by an invidious attempt through someone who pretended to be friendly to persuade him to act in a cowardly way in order to protect his own life by taking refuge in the Temple along with him (Nehemiah 6:10). But Nehemiah was no coward and roundly dismissed such an idea.

Combined with these activities was the problem of the extreme poverty that resulted for many due to their dedication to the building of the walls. Many had been living on the breadline for decades, scratching an existence from their limited resources, but now the concentration on the building of the walls had tipped them over the edge. They found themselves hungry, and even enslaved by debt, and that by their fellow Jews (Nehemiah 5:1-6). This too was something that Nehemiah had to remedy (Nehemiah 5:7-13).

Meanwhile the work on the wall progressed until it was finally accomplished. Jerusalem was once more a walled city, with its gates secure.

Verses 1-19

Nehemiah Outsmarts His Adversaries Until The Walls Are Completed (Nehemiah 6:1-19 )

Work on the walls had meanwhile being going on apace with the result that it was finally completed apart from the setting up of the huge doors in the gateways. It was a crucial time, for once the gates were completed and closed Jerusalem would be totally protected. As a consequence his adversaries now attempt new methods of discrediting him. Their focus has now turned from trying to discourage the people of Judah in general, to seeking to dispose of Nehemiah himself in one way or the other. They have clearly recognised that it is he alone who has maintained Judah’s morale, and is the obstacle to their achieving their ends of a continually weak and vulnerable Judah.

The chapter divides into three parts:

· Attempts by Sanaballat and Geshem to dispose of or discredit Nehemiah generally (Nehemiah 6:1-9)

· An attempt by Sanballat and Tobiah to make him act in such a way as to reveal himself as a coward, fearful of his adversaries (Nehemiah 6:10-14).

· The final completion of the wall and an indication of Tobiah’s influence among the Jews and his attempts to undermine Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:15-19).

Verses 10-14

Nehemiah 6:10

‘And I went to the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah the son of Mehetabel, who was shut up. And he said,

“Let us meet together in the house of God,

Within the temple,

And let us shut the doors,

Of the temple.

For they will come to slay you.

Yes, in the night will they come to slay you.”

That Nehemiah went to visit Shemaiah the prophet (‘he has pronounced this prophecy against me’ - Nehemiah 6:12) at his house suggests very strongly that there was a religious reason for Shemaiah being unavailable. It suggests that his being ‘shut up’ was for prophetic reasons. He was probably claiming to be receiving a word from YHWH which prevented him from leaving his house. Superficially his prophecy sounded genuine. He was suggesting that Nehemiah take refuge with YHWH because YHWH had revealed that assassins would come by night to kill him. It sounded very plausible.

But it contained two fallacies, the first that Nehemiah should behave like a coward, in spite of his strong bodyguard, giving the impression to the people of a man concerned only to save his own life, hiding like a refugee in the Temple, and secondly because to enter the Temple so that its doors could be shut behind him would be an act of gross sacrilege. No one could legitimately enter the house of YHWH apart from a legitimate son of Aaron (Numbers 18:7).

Nehemiah 6:11

‘And I said, “Should such a man as I flee, and who is there, who, being such as I, would go into the temple to save his life (or ‘and live’)? I will not go in.”

The godly Nehemiah saw the fallacies immediately. ‘Should such a man as I flee?’ How could he ever hold up his head again if he fled from the danger of assassins? It would make him contemptible. And how could he, being what he was, enter the very Sanctuary of YHWH even ‘to save his life’? It was forbidden by YHWH. he was not a son of Aaron. He refused on both accounts.

The alternative translation ‘and live’ may be preferable (both are possible). How could someone who was not a son of Aaron go into the Temple and live? It was asking to be struck down.

Nehemiah 6:12

‘And I discerned, and, lo, God had not sent him, but he pronounced this prophecy against me, and Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.’

And it was then that it dawned on him that God had not sent Shemaiah, but that he had been hired by Tobiah and Sanballat to pronounce this prophecy with a view to him disgracing himself. It was all part of the plot to discredit him. The unusual order ‘Tobiah and Sanballat’ (it is usually Sanballat and Tobiah) suggests that in this attempt Tobiah was the prime mover. And this is not surprising. It was seemingly he who had the most influence in Jerusalem (compare Nehemiah 6:17-19). Sanballat was simply backing him.

Nehemiah 6:13

‘ For this reason was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me.’

They had hired Shemaiah for that very reason, so as to use a prophecy which professed to be from God, so as to make him afraid, in order that he would fulfil the terms of the prophecy (‘do so’), shaming himself, and sinning grievously against YHWH by entering the forbidden area of the Temple. Theoretically no one but Shemaiah would ever know. But it was quite clear that he would report to his masters who would gladly spread an evil report by means of which they could bring reproach on Nehemiah.

Nehemiah 6:14

“Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and also the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear.”

Once again a prayer marks the end of a part (compare Nehemiah 6:9). Nehemiah calls on God to remember what Tobiah and Nehemiah are doing, and deal with them accordingly. And he calls on God to remember Noadiah, the prophetess, and the remainder of the prophets, who had all seemingly tried to make him afraid. It is clear, therefore, that Shemaiah has been the last of a number of prophets and prophetesses who had attempted to mislead him and catch him out. It is quite clear that Tobiah had powerful influence in Jerusalem.,

The Walls Are Finally Completed Along With their Gateways and Doors To The Chagrin Of The Surrounding Nations (Nehemiah 6:15-16).

Verses 15-19

Nehemiah 6:15

‘So the wall was finished in the twenty fifth (day) of (the month) Elul, in fifty two days.’

The wall was completed on the 25th day of Elul (in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes), fifty two days after the work commenced. It was a remarkable achievement, even granted that some part of the walls had only needed repairing. In consequence Jerusalem was once more a fortified city. The Jews could once again lift up their head in pride at what God had done. Their previous reproach had been removed.

Nehemiah 6:16

‘And it came about, when all our enemies heard of it, that all the nations who were about us were afraid, and were much cast down in their own eyes, for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.’

And the consequence was that when the news reached the ears of their enemies as described in Nehemiah 4:7, all the nations over whom their enemies ruled were awestruck and felt demeaned, for they recognised that the work had been wrought by God, the very God Whom they had been decrying (Nehemiah 4:2). From Nehemiah’s viewpoint they were humbled to think that Judah had such a great God.

The Fraternisation Of Many of The Jewish Aristocracy With Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:17-19).

It is quite clear from these verses that Tobiah must have had something to do with the Jewish aristocracy before the arrival of Nehemiah, (and we have already seen the influence that he had over some of the prophets) and the best explanation would be that he had previously been acting as deputy governor over Judah. This would explain his good relations with the Jewish aristocracy, and his hatred of Nehemiah who had made him redundant. It is the best explanation for the good feeling towards him among the aristocracy, and the fact that Meshullam had given his daughter to him as wife. Furthermore that good feeling must signify that he had not been a bad governor, at least as far as the Jewish aristocracy were concerned. As a syncretistic Yahwist, as his name shows, he had probably fallen in line with Jerusalem’s way of worship, at least when he was in Judah.

Thus the Jewish aristocracy remained in communication with him, and he with them. And they also tried to recommend him to Nehemiah because of the good deeds he had done while acting governor of Judah. They seemingly saw Nehemiah’s attitude towards him as unfortunate. They were probably unaware of things revealed to Nehemiah by his spy system, and by personal letters from Tobiah.

These same men had in the main worked assiduously on the wall. Meshullam the son of Berechiah, for example, is mentioned in Nehemiah 3:4; Nehemiah 3:30. He had possibly done a double stint. Thus they were apparently not antagonistic towards Nehemiah, although not agreeing with his strict attitude. They seemingly passed information both ways.

Nehemiah 6:17

‘Moreover in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and (those) of Tobiah came to them.’

Here we learn that the nobles of Judah were in continual two way correspondence with Tobiah, presumably on a friendly basis.

Nehemiah 6:18

‘For there were many in Judah sworn to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah to wife.’

And their friendliness was partly based on the fact that Tobiah had married into a respectable Jewish family, having become the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah, one of the ‘sons of Arah’ who had returned with Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel. Shecaniah must have been an important and influential man because Tobiah’s relationship to him had resulted, presumably because he had been brought into the family, in many in Judah becoming sworn to him (unless this relates to trading relationships, or even sworn friendships). Tobiah had also ingratiated himself with Eliashib the high priest (Nehemiah 13:4). Furthermore Tobiah’s own son, Jehohanan (whose name also indicates a nominal Yahwist) had married into the family of the influential Meshullam, son of Berechiah, the wall builder (Nehemiah 3:4 b, Nehemiah 3:30). He was thus well connected Jewishly speaking. It is possibly to his credit that, while he was not averse to making a fool of Nehemiah, he was not mentioned with respect to the attempt to do away with him (Nehemiah 6:2). But he had certainly been antagonistic towards Nehemiah from the beginning (Nehemiah 2:10). And strictly speaking, as an Ammonite, he was not acceptable as a true Yahwist (Nehemiah 13:1; Deuteronomy 23:3-5).

Nehemiah 6:19

‘Also they spoke of his good deeds before me, and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to put me in fear.’

The Jewish aristocrats praised Tobiah to Nehemiah, no doubt hoping to win him round. They also reported Nehemiah’s words to Tobiah, which would certainly not win him round, and explains why Tobiah and Sanballat were so well informed about Jewish affairs. Tobiah, however, took a different attitude towards Nehemiah, sending him threatening letters. Nehemiah’s position was therefore very difficult, as he sought to maintain working relations with the aristocrats, while at the same time dealing with Tobiah.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 6". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/nehemiah-6.html. 2013.
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