Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.Ch. Nehemiah 4:1-23. The Opposition to the Work. (a) 1–6. The ridicule of the Samaritans. (b) 7–23. The menaces of the foe, and the precautions taken by Nehemiah
1. The IVth Chapter in ordinary editions of the Hebrew text does not begin till Nehemiah 4:7.
and took great indignation] The form of the word here used in the original is of rare occurrence and is found only in late Hebrew, 2 Chronicles 16:10, ‘was in a rage;’ Ezekiel 16:42, ‘be angry;’ Psalm 112:10, ‘be grieved,’ Ecclesiastes 5:17; Ecclesiastes 7:9. For the common use of the word in its causative sense, ‘provoke to anger’ see Nehemiah 4:5.
And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?2. And he spake before his brethren] Sanballat’s ‘brethren’ would be the chiefs of the Samaritan community.
and the army of Samaria] ‘the army’ (LXX. δύναμις): the word here used is the one generally employed for ‘armed forces,’ see Nehemiah 2:9; Ezra 8:22; Esther 1:3. The Samaritans seem to have hastily summoned their forces to consider whether it would be practicable to compel the Jews by a sudden onslaught to desist from an undertaking so menacing to Samaritan independence. ‘The army’ therefore is not equivalent to ‘an assembly (Vulg. frequentia),’ but to the population trained in war and capable of bearing arms, collected in face of a sudden emergency. Some have supposed that a body of regular Persian troops stationed at Samaria under a Governor (Nehemiah 2:7) is intended.
What do these feeble Jews?] The word rendered ‘feeble’ only occurs here in the O.T. It denotes the languor of weakness. It is akin to a word found in 1 Samuel 2:5, ‘And she that hath many children languisheth’ (A.V. ‘is waxed feeble’).
will they fortify themselves?] so R.V. text. R.V. marg. ‘Or, will they leave to themselves aught? Or, will men let them alone?’
This short interrogative clause has occasioned much difficulty, on account of the word rendered ‘fortify,’ the natural rendering of which (as in Nehemiah 3:8, where see note) would be ‘leave.’ The versions, LXX. ὄτι οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι οὗτοι οἰκοδομοῦσι τὴν ἑαυτῶν πόλιν, Vulg. Numbers dimittent eos gentes, fail to throw any light upon the passage.
(a) The rendering of the English versions gives a clear and intelligible meaning. But (1) the use of the word in the sense of ‘fortify’ belongs to late Hebrew and is very rare: (2) in Biblical Hebrew it can only be supported by the uncertain testimony of Nehemiah 3:8 : (3) there is no mockery in such a question, corresponding to the tone of the other queries.
(b) ‘will they leave to themselves aught?’ This rendering which preserves the usual meaning of the disputed word, is open to the two very strong objections that, (1) the point of the question is conveyed by a word which is not found in the text, i.e. ‘aught,’ (2) the full meaning, obtained from this rendering (i.e. ‘do they expect to survive such an attempt? the Persian Empire will extirpate a people of such presumption; and nothing will be left to them’), is read into the words rather than derived from them.
(c) ‘will men let them alone?’ i.e. will the Persian Government or the neighbouring races permit the Jews to carry out their design? Against this rendering, which gives a very intelligible meaning, it must be urged, that (1) it necessitates an awkward change of subject introducing a new subject between two clauses in which ‘the Jews’ are the subject, (2) it treats the Jewish project with serious indignation instead of with the contempt expressed in the other queries.
(d) ‘will they commit themselves unto them?’ i.e. will the Jews entrust themselves and so great a work to their leaders? But we should expect a greater definiteness of expression in a short scornful question.
(e) ‘will they on their own behalf (lit. for themselves) commit themselves (i.e. unto God)?’ According to this rendering Sanballat is quoting a cant Jewish phrase ‘to commit oneself,’ leaving his hearers to understand its special application. This use of the word may be illustrated from Psalm 10:14, ‘the helpless committeth (lit. leaveth) himself unto thee.’ The mockery of such a question is quite in harmony with the general tone of Sanballat’s question.
(f) But it is more probable that the great obscurity of the words arises from an early error in the text, a scribe omitting two syllables very similar to those which followed, and writing ‘lâhem’ = ‘to them’ for ‘lêlôheyhem’ = ‘to their God.’ The sense then would be, ‘Will they commit themselves to their God?’ The same textual error occurs in 1 Samuel 3:13 (see R.V. marg.). It may then be compared with Rabshakeh’s words in 2 Kings 18:30; 2 Kings 18:32; 2 Kings 18:35.
will they sacrifice?] A mocking question; equivalent to ‘do the Jews imagine that they have only to collect together and propitiate their God with sacrifices, and their work will be done?’
will they make an end in a day?] Is it to be all done so simply and so quickly? ‘In a day’ might be rendered ‘in the day,’ as if they said, ‘will they make a beginning and an end in this day?’ (LXX. σήμερον, Vulg. in una die).
will they revive …?] Are they going to work miracles? The LXX. renders ‘will they heal?’ (ἰάσονται). Cf. ‘the repairing’ (R.V.) in Nehemiah 4:7.
of the heaps of the rubbish which are burnt] R.V. out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned? The word ‘burned’ refers to ‘the stones.’ Compare on the accumulation of rubbish Sir C. Warren’s statements respecting the excavations at Jerusalem, e.g. in his paper ‘The site of the Temple of the Jews’ (Trans. Bibl. Arch. vol. vii. p. 320), ‘We … found that the old wall exists to the enormous depth of 125 feet below the rubbish, with stones of very great size.’
Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.3. Even that which they build &c.] Whatever they are trying to build.
a fox] R.V. marg. ‘Or, jackal’. The light tread of some creeping animal was enough to bring down their weak wall stone though it was. The ‘shuâl’ or fox is elsewhere mentioned in Jdg 15:4; Psalm 63:10; Ezekiel 13:4; Lamentations 5:18; Song of Solomon 2:15. In the passages from Ps., Ez., Lam., it is spoken of in connexion with ruined places. The R.V. margin gives the alternative, ‘jackal’ in each case, except in Ezek. and Cant., where the slyness of the animal (cf. Luke 13:32) shows that the fox is clearly intended. The Hebrew language probably does not distinguish between the ‘jackal’ and the ‘fox.’ Perhaps the allusion in Canticles to the depredations committed by foxes in a vineyard throws light upon Tobiah’s sneer. A fox, he seems to say, would have as little difficulty in breaking through the wall of Jerusalem as through a vineyard fence.
break down] Vulg. transiliet.
Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity:4, 5. Nehemiah’s Soliloquy and Prayer.—A parenthesis
4. This is the first of the parenthetical addresses to the Almighty, which are a characteristic feature of Nehemiah’s writing. See also Nehemiah 5:19, Nehemiah 6:9; Nehemiah 6:14, Nehemiah 13:14; Nehemiah 13:22.
Hear, O our God] Cf. Lamentations 3:61, ‘Thou hast heard their reproach O Lord, and all their devices against me.’
for we are despised] Literally, ‘we have become an object of contempt.’ The people are inseparable from their God; the mockery of Sanballat and Tobiah directed against the Jews affects Jehovah.
turn their reproach upon their own head] R.V. turn back &c. Cf. Psalm 79:12, ‘And render unto our neighbours sevenfold into their bosom their reproach, wherewith they have reproached thee, O Lord.’ Lamentations 3:64, ‘Thou wilt render unto them a recompence, O Lord, according to the work of their hands.’
and give them for a prey in the land of captivity] R.V. and give them up to spoiling in a land of captivity—‘Spoiling,’ a word used in late Hebrew (2 Chronicles 14:13; 2 Chronicles 25:13; 2 Chronicles 28:14; Ezra 9:7; Esther 9:10; Esther 9:15-16; Daniel 11:24; Daniel 11:33) here, as in Ezra 9:7, Daniel 11:33, to denote the process of plundering, not as in A.V. the thing plundered and carried off. ‘A land of captivity’ (not ‘the land’), the expression is general, but obviously Nehemiah wishes for the enemies of the Jews the misfortunes of his own race.
And cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.5. and cover not their iniquity] i.e. forgive it not. Cf. Psalm 85:2, ‘Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin’—i.e. so as not to see and visit it.
and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee] i.e. let its record remain for ever in the book of divine remembrance and cry for retribution. Compare Psalm 109:14, ‘Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.’ The metaphor is differently applied in Psalm 69:28, ‘Let them be blotted out of the book of life.’
for they have provoked thee to anger] The verb, which is of frequent occurrence in connexion with idolatrous practices, is here used absolutely as in 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Kings 21:22. But there is no ambiguity of meaning, if we supply the pronoun ‘thee’ as the object. The LXX. omit the clause: the Vulg. renders ‘quia irriserunt aedificantes.’
before the builders] Sanballat and Tobiah had publicly contemned Jehovah; perhaps they sought to alienate the Jews engaged in building the wall by means of their mockery and their provocation. Nehemiah prays, as it were, that the same builders who had heard their utterance of defiance might witness their overthrow. Compare again Rabshakeh’s endeavour to shake the fidelity of the people of Jerusalem, 2 Kings 18:26-28.
So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.6. So built we] R.V. So we built. No emphasis on ‘we.’
unto the half thereof] R.V. unto half the height thereof. ‘All the wall was joined together.’ The circumvallation was complete. There were no gaps or breaches. The wall had been raised to half its height all the way round. The most ancient wall, the foundations of which were discovered by Sir Charles Warren, must have had a height of 200 feet!
for the people had a mind to work] The enthusiasm of the people explains the rapidity of the work. Nehemiah disclaims any credit to himself.
a mind] literally, ‘heart.’
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth,7. In most editions of the Hebrew Bible, this is the 1st verse of the ivth Chapter.
Sanballat … Ashdodites] Here we have a complete list of the foes of Jerusalem. See notes on Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 2:19. The Ammonites were the fellow-countrymen of Tobiah, the Arabians of Geshem (Nehemiah 2:19). With them are classed the dwellers by the coast (the Shephêlah) represented by the, Ashdodites or inhabitants of Ashdod (Azotus, modern Esdûd). Ashdod was one of the principal Philistine cities (1 Samuel 5). It occupied a strong position near the sea, and once seems to have commanded a seaport only 3 miles distant. The mention of Ashdod here is peculiar. It was, we may suppose, the chief town on the Philistine coast, and resented an undertaking which threatened to revive the power and importance of Jerusalem. On the intermixture of the Ashdodite or Philistine element with the Jews, see Nehemiah 13:23. ‘Ashdod’ was said to have been captured by Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:6). It commanded the caravan route into Egypt. It was captured by the Assyrians in 715 (Isaiah 20:1), and by the Egyptians under Psammetichus after a long siege (Herod. II. 157).
Ashdod was captured by the Maccabees and partially destroyed (cf. 1Ma 5:68; 1Ma 10:84; 1Ma 11:4). It was restored by Gabinius. Philips the Evangelist preached there (Acts 8:40).
It has been objected that a hostile coalition of different races, Samaritan, Arabian, Ammonite, Philistine, against the Jews of Jerusalem would have been impossible in a district subject to Persian rule.
But it is a mistake to suppose that the internal administration of the Persian Empire would be sufficient to prevent petty feuds among the subject races. The satraps took little notice of the ceaseless disputes between the tributary towns and nationalities on the frontier. The suggestion is needless that ‘the Arabians, Ammonites, Ashdodites’ are only names of the communities most largely represented in the mixed concourse which followed Sanballat.
that the walls of Jerusalem were made up] R.V. that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem went forward. R.V. marg. ‘Heb. healing went up upon the walls’. The literal rendering is given in the R.V. marg., the metaphor is that of an open wound or cut to which a bandage is applied, bringing relief and restoration (LXX. ὄτι ἀνέβη ἡ φυὴ τοῖς τείχεσιν Ἱερ.: Vulg. quod obducta esset cicatrix muri Jer.). The same words occur in 2 Chronicles 24:13 ‘the work was perfected by them,’ (R.V. marg. healing went up upon the work), and in Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 30:17.
and that the breaches began to be stopped] These words explain the metaphor of the previous clause. ‘Breaches,’ the same word that occurs in ‘Perez-Uzzah’ and ‘Baal Perazim.’ The verb derived from the same root is used of a wall ‘broken down’ (Nehemiah 1:3; 2 Chronicles 32:5). LXX. διασφαγαὶ ἀναφράσσεσθαι: Vulg. interrupta concludi.
to be stopped] Literally ‘to be closed.’
then they were very wroth] Their anger mentioned in Nehemiah 4:1 reached a higher pitch on hearing of the successful progress of the work.
And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.8. and conspired all of them] R.V. and they conspired all of them. R.V. makes a stronger pause at the close of Nehemiah 4:7, substituting a semicolon for the comma. ‘Conspired.’ The word here used is the usual term for secret treachery.
to come and to fight] R.V. to come and fight. Literally ‘to come fight’ without the copula. This idiom, which occurs again in Nehemiah 9:15; Nehemiah 9:23 (cf. 1 Chronicles 12:31; 2 Chronicles 20:11), combines the thought of the two infinitives, the latter being epexegetic of the former. It is equivalent ‘to come for the purpose of fighting.’
and to hinder it] R.V. and to cause confusion therein. More literally ‘and to cause confusion to him.’ The masc. pronoun is here used, referring to the dwellers in Jerusalem. ‘to cause or make confusion’, the word rendered ‘confusion’ occurs only here and in Isaiah 32:6, ‘to utter error against the Lord.’ The rareness of the word occasioned difficulty to the versions. Hence LXX. ποιῆσαι αὐτὴν ἀφανῆ, Vulg. molirentur insidias.
The sudden arrival of hostile forces outside Jerusalem would be calculated ‘to cause confusion.’ It would encourage those who were already disaffected, and would terrify the timid. It would impede the work; for the patriot Jews would have to abandon the building for the sake of defending their walls, while the unwilling workers would gladly avail themselves of the pretext.
Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.9. Nevertheless] R.V. But. The simple copula in the original introduces the contrast between the plan of the enemy and the defensive measures adopted by the Jews. ‘Nevertheless’ is too strong an adversative. The thought is merely ‘and on our side, we made our prayer.’ On the prominence of prayer in these books see Ezra 8:23; Ezra 9:5; Ezra 10:1; Nehemiah 1:4; Nehemiah 2:4. Nehemiah mentions the spiritual source of aid first.
and set a watch] i.e. posted sentinels. The human means of defence are not neglected although the confidence rests in a higher protection.
day and night] i.e. while the builders were at work on the wall, the city was almost as defenceless against a surprise as in the dead of night.
against them … because of them] ‘against them,’ i.e. ‘to repel their attack:’ ‘because of them,’ literally ‘from before their face,’ i.e. in consequence of their hostility and the fear which they had excited. Others render ‘over against’, i.e. so as to watch and observe the movements of the foe. The rendering ‘over against’ introduces the idea of a definite mustering of defenders upon some particular quarter of the city, and some have suggested that the reference is to the north side as the most open for assault and nearest to the Samaritan forces. This gives too precise and limited a meaning. The character of the verse is indefinite and general. The recourse to prayer is mentioned in the first clause, and the posting of sentinels in the second. In both cases the action is due to the movement of the enemy, ‘because of them.’ After the words ‘against them’ it seems at first sight a weak conclusion to the sentence. But the words ‘against them’ belong to ‘set a watch’ and are the antithesis to ‘unto our God.’ The words ‘because of them’ refer to both clauses of the Nehemiah 4:10-12. Nehemiah’s trials do not come upon him singly. He is confronted with (Nehemiah 4:10) the murmurs of the Jews, (Nehemiah 4:11) the openly expressed confidence of his foes, (Nehemiah 4:12) the fears of the Jews in the rural districts.
And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall.10. And Judah said] i.e. the Jewish community speaking, by their rulers or representatives, to Nehemiah.
The strength of the bearers of burdens, &c.] Literally ‘the strength of the bearer of burdens, &c.,’ referring to the whole class of the working population. The LXX. wrongly ἡ ἰσχὺς τῶν ἐχθρῶν.
so that we are not able, &c.] The complaint here described seems to be introduced at this point to show the variety of obstacles to the work. Besides the direct hostility of the Samaritans, the Jews themselves declared their strength to be giving way before the fatigue. The task of clearing away the accumulated rubbish before building the walls had exhausted their patience and their powers. It is not necessary to regard this declaration as mutinous. It was occasioned by the pressure felt by the whole community in consequence of the continuous labour upon the wall. There was no reserve to fall back upon in case of a sudden alarm. To Nehemiah at such a crisis the complaint must have greatly added to the difficulties of the moment. It had all the tone of disaffection, and reminded him that in the face of a hostile foe he could place little confidence either in the power or in the willingness of the Jewish citizens to defend themselves.
And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.11. our adversaries said] ‘adversaries,’ cf. Ezra 4:1. After mentioning the source of weakness within the walls, Nehemiah describes the danger from without. ‘Said.’ He gives, as if in their own words, their secret project of a surprise attack upon Jerusalem, either reporting the information brought by spies or describing by imagination what the intentions of the enemy were.
in the midst among them] R.V. Into the midst of them.
And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you.12. The translation of the last clause of this verse presents a great difficulty, and leaves us doubtful with what intention the Jews here spoken of addressed their countrymen.
The verse stands in very loose connexion with the two previous verses. It represents a fresh complication in the difficult position which confronted Nehemiah. To discontent within, and the schemes of the foe without, is added the panic of the Jews in the outlying districts.
the Jews which dwelt by them] By this expression are apparently intended the Jewish dwellers in towns and districts adjacent to the territory of the Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabians and Philistines, who had sent contingents to assist in the rebuilding of the walls—e.g. Jericho, Tekoah, Gibeon, Mizpah, Zanoah (chap. Nehemiah 3:2; Nehemiah 3:5; Nehemiah 3:7; Nehemiah 3:13). ‘by them,’ comp. Nehemiah 5:3.
they said unto us ten times] i.e. again and again, as often as occasion offered—cf. Genesis 31:41, ‘Thou hast changed my wages ten times.’
From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you] R.V. from all places, Ye must return unto us, marg. ‘Or, From all places whence ye shall return they will be upon us’. The Authorised Version is here unintelligible.
(1) The R.V. text is a literal translation, with the exception of the omission of the relative before ‘Ye must return.’ This however may be explained as an instance of the relative in late Hebrew idiom prefixed to the ‘Oratio Recta,’ like ὅτι in late Greek. ‘From all places’ refers to the scattered Jewish communities. The foes of Jerusalem were on every side; the fears of the Jewish frontier-towns on every side were increased by the growing hostility of the neighbouring peoples. The words of their petition to Nehemiah and his companions may be explained in one of two ways.
(a) They express apprehension on their own account and for their own homes. Deprived of the able-bodied men who had been sent to work at the walls on Jerusalem, these little towns and villages could not hope to defend themselves against the gathering foe. Wherefore they address themselves through the leaders to their fellow-townsmen sojourning in Jerusalem, ‘Ye must return unto us.’
(b) They are alarmed for the safety of their fellow-townsmen. They see the combination of foes against Jerusalem and regard her overthrow as certain. They entreat their own friends and relatives to return home in time to save their lives.
Of these alternatives (a) is much to be preferred.
(2) The R.V. marg. ‘From all places whence ye shall return they will be upon us.’ This rendering is perfectly literal, but it seems impossible to find a satisfactory meaning for ‘whence ye shall return.’ The interpretation ‘On every side, as soon as you leave a place, the enemy occupy it and attack us,’ gives a fair sense, but is hardly applicable to the circumstances. The Jews had no moving forces in the field.
(3) Another rendering which is supplied by the reading of the 3rd pers. for the 2nd pers. plur. is found in the Versions, LXX., Vulg., and Peshitto Syriac. The 3rd pers. plur. then refers to the enemy; and the translation will run, ‘And they told it us ten times from all the places where the enemy went to and fro against us.’ (LXX. ἀναβαίνουσιν … ἐφʼ ἡμᾶς. Vulg. venerant ad nos). But the alteration of the text has the appearance of a correction to make the passage easier; and the renderings ‘told,’ instead of ‘said,’ ‘went to and fro,’ instead of ‘return,’ introduce fresh difficulties.
Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.13. Therefore set I, &c.] Nehemiah’s action recorded in this verse was intended to meet the needs of the situation generally. ‘Therefore’ must not be limited in application to Nehemiah 4:12. The difficulties which beset him on so many sides compelled him to suspend part of the building operations, and to employ some of his available men for purposes of defence.
in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places] R.V. In the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, In the open places. The original in this passage is very obscure. The true meaning seems to be given by the R.V. Nehemiah stationed armed detachments under the cover of the wall, in the open spaces, where houses and buildings would not interfere with their movement.
The difficulties of the clause are occasioned by (1) the verb ‘I set’ without an object, although repeated with an object in the next clause: (2) the word rendered ‘the space’ (lit. ‘the place’); (3) the words ‘in the open places.’ The LXX. ἐν τοῖς σκεπεινοῖς seems to have understood ‘sheltered places.’ Others explain of ‘places where the sun shone,’ i.e. where the glint of the soldiers’ armour would betray their presence and deter attack.
According to one bold conjecture we should render, ‘And I set the engines (or catapults) in the space behind the wall in well-protected positions.’
after their families] Probably defending the portion of the wall upon which they were at work. This distribution of the defence among families guaranteed the discipline and organization and energy resulting from the strong clan feeling of the Semitic races. Many would thus be required merely to defend their own homes: cf. Nehemiah 3:28.
swords … spears … bows] the chief offensive weapons: swords for the hand-to-hand melée, spears as the enemy drew near, the bow and arrow for attack from the distance.
And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.14. And I looked, and rose up] Nehemiah’s ‘look’ seems to denote his inspection of the guards which he had stationed.
unto the nobles, and to the rulers] R.V. marg. ‘Or, deputies’. Upon the difference of these two classes see note on Nehemiah 2:16.
the Lord] R.V. the Lord. The sacred name here used is ‘Adonai,’ not ‘Jahveh;’ see on Nehemiah 1:11, (Nehemiah 3:5).
which is great and terrible] For these epithets, see note on Nehemiah 1:5, and compare Nehemiah 9:22. The attributes of power and awe belong to the God of Israel and ensure the victory of those that trust him, cf. Deuteronomy 3:22, Deut. 20:31, 32.
fight for your brethren … houses] Nehemiah exhorts his men to fight courageously. To the Jews the contest must be for their very existence as a people. Their foes are banded together to compass the extermination of their race and name. The brotherhood of the race (brethren), the blessings of family and home (sons and daughters), the ties of personal affection (wives) or cherished ancestral inheritance (house) were at stake. The enemy against whom they fought knew no pity.
And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.15. Success of Nehemiah’s precautions.
our enemies] a different word in the original from that rendered ‘adversaries’ in Nehemiah 4:11.
that it was known unto us] i.e. their project of a sudden attack.
God had brought their counsel to nought] i.e. through the precautionary measures taken by Nehemiah. The words ‘brought their counsel to nought’ are the same as those rendered ‘frustrate their purpose’ in Ezra 4:5.
we returned … work] This clause implies what is not definitely stated. The enemy, on hearing that Nehemiah was prepared to meet their attack, seem to have abandoned their intention of an immediate assault. Nehemiah and his companions were able to resume the work upon the wall, although precautions were still necessary.
And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.16. the half of my servants wrought in the work] R.V. half of, &c. Literally ‘half of my young men.’ The LXX. by a strange error τῶν ἐκτετιναγμένων. These were probably the bodyguard attached to the person of Nehemiah as the governor. They are mentioned again in Nehemiah 4:23; Nehemiah 5:10; Nehemiah 5:16. We gather that only in the case of these his personal attendants did Nehemiah still insist upon arms being held in readiness, while the work of building went on. The rest of the Jews were exempted. Nehemiah’s servants were kept prepared for any emergency. One half of them worked on the wall: the other half were stationed under arms at various points holding the weapons of their comrades.
and the other half of them held both the spears, &c.] R.V. and half of them held the spears. In the original the copula ‘and’ stands before ‘the spears.’ It has been suggested that this implies the falling out of a word, e.g. ‘the swords’ after which the copula would be natural, i.e. ‘the swords and the spears, &c.’ The interpretation which, accepting the introduction of the word ‘swords,’ begins a new sentence with ‘and the spears, &c.’ is harsh and improbable. But it is best to suppose that the copula has been accidentally inserted from the neighbouring words. The wearing of a sword was not incompatible with the manual work. The weapons held by the non-working detachment are just those which would have rendered work on the wall impossible. Cf. Nehemiah 4:18.
the spears] The ‘spear’ (romakh) mentioned here and in Nehemiah 4:13; Nehemiah 4:21 seems to have been the principal thrusting weapon. We do not find it anywhere spoken of as a ‘javelin’ to be hurled. It must have been more of the Greek phalanx spear than the ‘pilum’ of the Roman soldier. It is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 11:12; 2 Chronicles 14:8; 2 Chronicles 25:5; 2 Chronicles 26:14, in connexion with the armies of the Southern kingdom, in Jeremiah 46:4, with the forces of Pharaoh-Necho, in Ezekiel 39:9, with the armies of Gog. The same word is used of the weapons with which the prophets of Baal mutilated themselves as they offered sacrifice on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:28).
the shields, and the bows] There were two kinds of shields in the armies of the East, the one small and round (‘the buckler’), the other large and oblong. They are mentioned together in 2 Chronicles 23:9; cf. 1 Kings 10:16-17. Representations of the two kinds may be seen in the Assyrian sculptures. Here the shields are of the smaller kind (magen), and would be used by those who carried spears.
and the bows] In the Assyrian bas-reliefs we constantly find ‘bowmen’ attacking a city protected by shield-bearers, and discharging their arrows behind large oblong shields. Here however shooting from behind a rampart, the large shields would not be required.
and the habergeons] R.V. and the coats of mail. Cp. also 2 Chronicles 26:14, where the R.V. makes the same alteration. It is unlikely that the common soldiers mentioned in these two passages would have worn heavy and elaborate ‘coats of mail’ such as Saul is described as offering to David (1 Samuel 17:38) or Ahab seems to have worn at Ramoth-Gilead (1 Kings 22:34; 2 Chronicles 18:33). The wearing of ‘scale’ or ‘link’ armour was probably confined to the officers of an army; and it may be doubted whether the soldiers of a provincial governor would have been so fully and expensively equipped.
We should probably understand the defensive armour here mentioned to consist of suits of tough leather doublets, ‘jerkins,’ protecting the body down to the knees and leaving the arms bare. The hard specially prepared hides, of which they were made, were almost impenetrable to the arrow. In some cases no doubt thin ‘scales’ of metal were sewn into the leather, and Nehemiah’s bodyguard would be better armed than the ordinary Jewish citizens. For ‘habergeon’ = a little coat-of-mail covering the head and shoulders, compare (see Bible Word-Book) Latimer, Serm., p. 29, ‘And be ye apparalled or clothed,’ saith Paul, ‘with the habergeon or coat armour of justice.’ The word is used by the A.V. in Exodus 28:32; Exodus 39:23; 2 Chronicles 26:14; Job 41:26 It is derived from the French ‘haubergeon’ = neck covering.
and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah] so R.V. text; R.V marg., ‘all the house of Judah that builded the wall. And they that &c.’
The meaning of this clause seems to be that ‘the rulers’ or princes took up their position to the rear of those engaged in working at the wall, so that at any moment, when the alarm should sound, they could issue their commands and take the necessary measures to repel the attack.
They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.17. They which builded on the wall] R.V. They that builded the wall. The Hebrew preposition rendered ‘on’ in the A.V. occurs also e.g. in Nehemiah 4:6, ‘So we built the wall,’ and merely expresses the object.
(a) These words are sometimes taken in conjunction with the conclusion of the previous verse (R.V. marg.), on account of the mention of them ‘that builded the wall’ in connexion with them ‘that bare burdens;’ whereas Nehemiah 4:18 seems to speak of ‘the builders’ as a different class from them ‘that bare burdens.’
(b) Another explanation takes the first words of this verse as a nominative absolute, standing before the two Nehemiah 4:17-18 which relate respectively to the two classes into which the wall builders would be distributed, i.e. ‘As for them that builded the wall, as well they that bare burdens, laded themselves &c. (18) as the builders’.
(c) The R.V. renders the words quite simply. It makes Nehemiah 4:17 refer both to the builders and to the burden bearers, Nehemiah 4:18 to the builders only. ‘They that builded on the wall’ are then further defined in Nehemiah 4:17 as ‘they that bare burdens.’ ‘The builders’ in Nehemiah 4:18, mentioned without further definition, must be limited to those occupied in the construction of the wall.
This makes very good sense. But the language is not without ambiguity, for which it is probable that the text is really accountable.
and they that bare burdens] See previous note. These words describe one class of workmen, distinguishing those who removed rubbish and carried material, stones, &c., from those occupied in the construction. If we take into account the enormous size of the stones used in the building of the ancient walls, and bear in mind the Assyrian representations of the moving of heavy weights by rollers, pulleys, mounds, &c., we may realize that the moving of the blocks and placing them in situ required a distinct class of workmen from those who removed the earth and the rubbish to prepare foundations, or constructed the mounds up which the stones could be drawn. This latter class is here indicated.
with those that laded] R.V. laded themselves. The word in the Hebrew is the predicate. It does not denote a third class of workmen.
every one … and with the other hand held a weapon] R.V. every one … and with the other held his weapon. This clause shows that the work men here mentioned had one hand free. They were probably employed in carrying baskets of rubbish over their backs or on their heads.
a weapon] The word here employed is not common. It denotes ‘a missile,’ and in this case was probably a light javelin.
For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.18. For the builders] R.V. And the builders. Not, as A.V., a fresh explanatory sentence, but a continuation of the foregoing, a description of the other class of those engaged in the work.
his sword girded by his side] Both hands were occupied in the work of laying the stones, which would be done chiefly by skilful mechanism with pulleys and rollers. The free action of both hands would be requisite. But though thus fully occupied, they were to be armed against a surprise attack. The mention of the ‘sword’ here accounts for its absence in Nehemiah 4:16.
And he that &c.] This is a distinct parenthetical sentence introducing the personal reminiscence. The men were scattered over a large area, and the commands of the governor were to be given by sound of trumpet, so that the alarm could be given to all at the same time.
by me] i.e. at my side, cf. Nehemiah 4:3. The words imply that Nehemiah was the life and soul of the defence, and that he was untiring in moving from point to point in the wall, superintending the work and directing the disposition for the defence.
And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another.19. nobles … rulers &c.] as in Nehemiah 4:14, and Nehemiah 2:16, where see note.
large] literally ‘wide,’ referring to the extensive character of the building operations, which caused the defenders to be so scattered.
In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us.20. In what place therefore] R.V. in what place soever.
resort ye thither] literally ‘thither shall ye collect or assemble yourselves together’.
our God shall fight for us] The Jews shall fight, and even against foes superior in numbers and strength shall prevail. Their God shall fight for them. See also Exodus 15:3-6, ‘The Lord is a man of war … Thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy;’ Exodus 14:14, ‘The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace …’ Cf. Deuteronomy 1:30; Deuteronomy 3:22; Deuteronomy 20:4; Deuteronomy 28:7.
So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.21. So we laboured] R.V. So we wrought. The word in the original being the same as that rendered ‘wrought’ in Nehemiah 4:16-17, it is best to adhere to the same English equivalent. ‘We:’ the pronoun is emphatic, i.e. I and my servants. The verse refers to Nehemiah and his men alone, as is shown by the mention of ‘half of them.’ It continues the narrative from Nehemiah 4:18. Nehemiah 4:19-20 are parenthetical.
half of them held the spears] That is to say, Nehemiah’s bodyguard was divided into two companies, who alternately worked at the wall and mounted guard, holding the weapons of their comrades in readiness.
till the stars appeared] literally ‘till the going forth of the stars.’ The word is familiar to us from such passages as Genesis 19:23, ‘The sun was risen (lit. gone forth) upon the earth when Lot came unto Zoar’. Psalm 19:6, ‘His (the sun’s) going forth is from the end of heaven.’ The stars come forth from their ‘chambers’ (Job 9:9).
Likewise at the same time said I unto the people, Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labour on the day.22. Likewise … said I unto the people] Another prudent regulation is enacted by Nehemiah. He addresses ‘the people,’ namely the common people capable of bearing arms, as distinguished from the nobles on the one hand and Nehemiah’s servants on the other. The object of the fresh enactment is to secure that during the nights the city should be garrisoned with its full strength.
Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem] From this we gather that numbers of the people were employed during the day in the vicinity of Jerusalem in farming and other occupations, or, being employed upon the walls by day, wandered forth and slept outside the gates. If they lodged (i.e. passed the night) outside the walls, they were liable to be surprised in detail and murdered by the enemy. For the defence of such extensive and unfinished works, Jerusalem could not afford to lose a man unnecessarily. Nehemiah therefore required that all, whatever their employment, should sleep in the city. At the time when the exhausted builders took their rest, the greatest possible number of inhabitants were in this way retained within the gates. The disaffected also were deprived of opportunities for intriguing by night with the enemy. ‘every one with his servant,’ literally ‘his young man.’ Some would restrict this expression to the ‘warriors,’ each of whom had his attendant, much as a Mediæval knight had his squire. But it is preferable to attach to the words a more general sense, i.e. ‘everyone, master and servant alike.’ Those who employed labourers would be responsible for seeing that their ‘hands’ did not disobey this edict.
a guard to us] i.e. to Nehemiah and his bodyguard. These additional inmates of the city increased the strength of the defence by night.
and labour on the day] R.V. and may labour in the day. Literally ‘and in the day a labour.’ Those who were compelled to lodge within the walls would not be able to elude their employers and officers. They would be better under control for the systematic work needful for the building. They could not wander far from the city. Work could be recommenced in the early morning without delay; whether engaged on the walls or in other ways, all were thus placed under surveillance.
So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.23. my brethren … servants … men of the guard which followed me] Nehemiah mentions in detail those in whom he had complete confidence and upon whose faithfulness the success of his project depended. These shared their leader’s vigilance and imitated his endurance. Not one of them put off his clothes the whole time that the building went on. They were prepared for an attack at any moment.
‘brethren.’ These would be the relatives of Nehemiah, cf. Nehemiah 1:2. The whole house or clan to which he belonged staunchly supported him throughout the crisis.
‘servants’ … ‘men of the guard which followed me.’ Under these two heads Nehemiah seems to describe those whom he has mentioned in Nehemiah 4:17 as ‘my servants.’ He distinguishes here between his personal attendants consisting of Jewish retainers, and the bodyguard consisting chiefly of foreigners allotted him as governor by the Persian king.
saving that every one put them off for washing] R.V. every one went with his weapon to the water. R.V. marg. ‘The text is probably faulty.’ The clause has occasioned great difficulty. Literally rendered the words run, ‘each one his weapon the water.’ The LXX. omit the words, probably from inability to discover their meaning. The error in the text is therefore of very early date. The Syriac seems to have conjectured ‘days’ for ‘water.’
(a) The A.V. follows the conjecture of the Vulg. ‘unusquisque tantum nudabatur ad baptismum,’ according to which the Hebrew word for ‘his weapon’ becomes by a change of vocalization a verb = ‘they sent (i.e. cast off) each one his clothes for the water,’ i.e. in order to wash. The Hebrew however could not possibly bear this very strained interpretation.
(b) Another old rendering is ‘each one his weapon was (in the place of, or equivalent to) water,’ i.e. ‘instead of washing they had each to stand fast to their arms,’ is equally improbable.
(c) Another rendering ‘each one had (by his side) his weapon (and) his (draught of) water’ gives intelligible sense, but not such as can be justified by the original.
(d) Ewald’s rendering, ‘the taking off of each man’s clothes was for water,’ i.e. ‘to satisfy his necessities, not to lie down to rest,’ seems very uncalled for. It is greatly to be questioned whether Nehemiah even ‘in his rough and open style’ would have introduced such an allusion or in such words. (Ewald, Hist. of Isr. vol. v. p. 156, note 1, Eng. Transl.).
(e) Some moderns rendering ‘his weapon’ (shil’kho) as if it were the verb (shâl’khû) translate ‘they sent each one for water.’ They could not leave their post, and had to have the necessaries of life brought to them where they stood. This use of ‘send’ as equivalent to ‘send for,’ is scarcely supported by 2 Samuel 15:12, since here a thing and not a person is the object of the verb. Others, reading ‘shâl’khû, render, ‘Every one gave up the use of water,’ a quite inadmissible translation.
(f) The R.V. rendering which introduces the words ‘went with … to’ makes good sense of the clause, but follows very unnaturally upon ‘none of us put off our clothes,’ neither stating an exception nor introducing a cognate idea.
(g) A good conjectural emendation of the text gives the sense ‘each one remained with his weapon in his hand’ (or ‘in his right hand’).
(h) But it is probable that the error of the text is due to the accidental omission of certain words. We expect some statement of the length of time during which Nehemiah and his followers continued without retiring to rest. Perhaps the clause may have run ‘each one with his weapon in his hand for a full month of days.’ The Syriac version ‘we will not put off our clothes during a month of days’ agrees with this suggestion, and the Arabic gives a similar rendering, ‘till the end of a month and days.’