3:16 – The Rest of the Story – God’s Fulfillment of His Plan 1: Nehemiah

A Bible Study exploring all the 3:16s in the Bible as they illuminate

  • the Human Condition
  • God’s Revelation of His Plan
  • God’s Fulfillment of His Plan (Current location of study)
  • Our Response

“After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, ruler of half the district of Beth-zur, repaired to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool, and as far as the house of the mighty men.” – Nehemiah 3:16

For this week’s study I’m going to turn again to the Bible Project for help. This week’s 3:16 verse is from Nehemiah and the book follows directly after Ezra. Ezra does have a chapter 3, but it only goes through verse 13, and Ezra and Nehemiah were originally composed as a single unified book, so it makes sense to consider both of them together.

Watch the video below to see the above poster unfold as The Bible Project folks provide an overview. My comments below are more fully developed in this video.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah contain three parallel stories concerning the central characters of Zarubbabel (Ezra 1-6), Ezra (Ezra 7-10), and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1-7). Each story follows a similar outline with a decree from a Persian king (ruler over the exiles), an action by the main character which is met with resistance in Jerusalem, and an unexpectedly disappointing outcome which leaves the reader with a “bad taste in their mouth.” The three stories make the most sense when studied in parallel with each other.

The book represents a fulfillment of God’s plan to restore the broken relationship between Him and His people and is the beginning of fulfillment of His overarching plan to usher in His Kingdom into the world. Specific to this story, God had revealed to the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:11-12) that Israel’s exile would only last seventy years and then they would be allowed to return.

In the first story, King Cyrus issues a decree for the exiles who wish to return to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Zarubbabel (who is listed as an ancestor of Jesus in Matthew 1) led the effort but encountered resistance from the locals who had been imported by a previous king of Assyria to populate the conquered land. They asked to be included in the rebuilding effort and Zarubbabel said (Ezra 4:3), “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God.” The resulting temple was completed and was a disappointment to some who had witnessed the temple which had been torn down (anti-climax).

The second story took place about 60 years later when Artaxerxes, King of Persia, sent Ezra to teach the people about proper worship and obedience to their God. However, Ezra becomes distressed when he discovers how much intermarriage there has been with the Israelites and the local inhabitants. He criticizes the people for their refusal to remain separate (and this intermarriage is ultimately what made the Samaritans so distasteful to Israelites in later years). He calls for mass divorces (Ezra 10:10-11) and many of the Israelites (though not all) comply and send their foreign wives away (anti-climax).

The third story involves Nehemiah, who was the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears word that there is strife in Jersusalem and the walls lie in ruin. The King asks him what he wants and Nehemiah requests to be sent there to oversee rebuilding of the walls. When he arrives, opposition from the foreign residents arises and they threaten war. However the wall is completed and there is great celebration and worship. Nehemiah returned to his service of Artaxerxes and then later came back to Jerusalem. He then found that the temple was being desecrated (Nehemiah 13:6-7), God’s laws were being violated, and the Sabbath was being violated as merchants camped outside the wall in preparation for Sabbath commerce. In other words, he saw that the efforts made by Zarubbabel, Ezra, and himself had come to naught. He tried leading in further reforms, but the book concludes (Nehemiah 13:31) with him resignedly saying, “Remember me, O my God, for good” – e.g. “Oh well, I did the best I could!”

The 3:16 verse associated with this story is

After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, ruler of half the district of Beth-zur, repaired to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool, and as far as the house of the mighty men. – Nehemiah 3:16

This falls within the story of Nehemiah leading the rebuilding efforts for the wall. The “Nehemiah” in this verse, by the way, is a different Nehemiah. The verse is best understood within the entire context of Ezra and Nehemiah.

These books represent the fact that God is still desiring to have fellowship with His people, but even after the judgment of servitude and exile, their efforts are still flawed. This shows that the fulfillment of God’s plan is contingent on His plan to create a new heart in His people. Jeremiah 31:31-34 says

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

This is echoed as well in Ezekiel 36:22-32.

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.

They (and we all) needed the creation of a new heart, one on which God’s law could reside and with which His Spirit could coexist. What they (we) needed was a savior. We’ll look at that more fully next week with John 3:16.

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