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Nehemiah’s rightly ordered government

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 15, 2017

In my previous commentary, I noted that the books of both Ezra and Nehemiah were a continuation of the Old Testament Chronicles, summarizing the principal developments in the restoration of Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile. In Nehemiah, who was named governor of Jerusalem some years after the arrival of the priest Ezra, we see notable examples of a proper coordination between the spiritual and the temporal authorities.

The first thing Nehemiah noticed when he arrived in Jerusalem was that the city’s defensive walls were in very bad shape. He took immediate steps to get the various clans and families to repair and reestablish the sections of the walls for which each group had responsibility, along with their gates. The work progressed so well that enemies in the region plotted to attack the workers to halt the work. But Nehemiah made sure that the workers were armed, and that they guarded the weakest points in the wall:

So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows…. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail; and the leaders stood behind all the house of Judah…. Those who carried burdens were laden in such a way that each with one hand labored on the work and with the other held his weapon. And each of the builders had his sword belted at his side while he built. [Neh 5:13-18]

The governor also responded to the complaints against the nobles by the poorer people, for the wealthy had assisted the poor only on the condition that they would own them and their lands. Here is the complaint:

We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine…. We have borrowed money for the king’s tax upon our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children are as their children; yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves…for other men have our fields and our vineyards. [Neh 5:3-5]

Nehemiah was outraged at this. Moreover, it was against the Mosaic Law to charge interest or seize property in return for loans, or to keep even fairly purchased property beyond the seventh year. So Nehemiah pressured the “upper classes” into ceasing immediately from imposing such destructive obligations on the poor.

Enforcing not originating

The most noteworthy thing about Nehemiah for our purposes is that he did not proceed by making new laws to reshape society in accordance with his own notions of right and wrong. He relied on the moral laws of God. Moreover, when it came to reading from the Book of the Law and renewing what we might call the behavioral covenant of the larger society, that job fell to Ezra the priest. It was Ezra who stipulated the points of ethical obligation for the common good. These fell under four broad headings:

  • Morality: To walk in God’s law and to obey all his commandments, ordinances and statutes;
  • Marriage: Not to give their daughters to foreign husbands, nor to take foreign wives for their sons;
  • Financial dealings: To avoid commercial dealings on the Sabbath and, in the seventh year, to forego the crops and the exaction of debt;
  • Religious duty: To materially contribute to Divine service and to offer first fruits and first-born of crops and cattle, and to tithe.

I offered an appropriate contemporary application of the problem of foreign spouses in my commentary on the Book of Ezra—to marry with the good of one’s future family, one’s extended family, our larger social family, and God’s family all firmly in mind. Adjusting for that, this list of commitments for the common good is as comprehensive as it is simple. It would make good sense to view it as foundational in our own time.

The Book of Nehemiah also recounts certain interventions of the governor in what might be considered spiritual affairs, but these are appropriate because they fall into two legitimate areas. First, there is the public participation of the civil order in religion. No good Jew (or Christian, or anyone else) should be able to conceive of a civil order that would not be subject to God. Thus when the finished walls of Jerusalem were dedicated in a religious celebration, Nehemiah “brought up the princes of Judah upon the wall, and appointed two great companies which gave thanks and went in procession” (Neh 12:31).

Second, Nehemiah fostered specific reforms by using the civil power to enforce key laws. These included: (a) Removing special offices and accommodations for wealthy and high-ranking laity from within the Temple precincts, since these were to be reserved for Divine service; (b) Ensuring that the assigned portions of the Levites and singers were given to them so that they could fulfill their religious duties instead of having to abandon them—as was the case—to work their own fields. “Why is the house of God forsaken?”, demanded Nehemiah of the officials; and, since the policing authority was his, he enforced the legal remedy.

Back to the Sabbath

Nehemiah also undertook reforms to properly honor the Sabbath again, for much commerce had spilled over to this day that was reserved for God. Thus he commanded that the city gates be closed and locked at dark the night before the Sabbath, so that no merchants could come in and set up to sell, until the gates would be reopened when the Sabbath was over. Here is the result:

Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge before the wall? If you do so again I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. [Neh 13:20-21]

In our own age of Sunday shopping and Sunday delivery, a good Catholic cannot help but recognize this problem no matter how much we may appreciate such conveniences. Notice that this is not only a spiritual question but a spiritual question which profoundly affects the social order. How valuable it is to set aside a day each week, for the entire society to recognize that it ought to let go and let God. This is like a big sign saying it is time to pay attention not to what we are doing, but to what God is doing.

Few seemingly minor reforms could be more conducive to the common good. But perhaps the larger point to be drawn from the Book of Nehemiah is this: Just as spiritual life has huge repercussions in social life so too is there a proper relationship between spiritual and civil authority. That relationship is not at all one of theocracy, but neither it does it entail an artificially total “separation of Church and State” (in the sense of separating religion from everything else). In truth, civil/social order has a vested interest in spiritual order. The Book of Nehemiah offers considerable insight into what the relationship between the two should be.


Scripture Series
Previous: Ezra and the exiles: Teaching them—and us—to put God first

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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