Nehemiah built the walls of Jerusalem so that the people might no longer be a reproach. In his determination that knows no despair, he could turn darkness into light and grief into joy. Yet this was not all.
There were souls like Jerusalem, with walls broken down and gates burned with fire, souls trodden by enemies, and lost dignity. Having completed restoration of the city, Nehemiah then began restoration of those souls. He did not want for Jerusalem with the new walls to be like whitewashed tombs, while the inside full of dead men's bones (Mt 23: 27).
Those who returned from the captivity, each settled in his own city (Neh 7: 6), but they had to learn a lesson from captivity and recognize why God permitted captivity and delivered them to the hands of their enemies.
They had to avoid the causes of captivity, so that God in His anger might not deliver them once more to captivity. They had to rid themselves of the inner captivity to sin, which led to outer captivity by Babylon and Assyria and Persia. Here spiritual work began, and as they had returned from captivity, they had to return to God: "All the people gathered together as one man in the open square … and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded …" (Neh 8: 1)
Ezra brought the Law before the congregation of men and women, and read from it from morning until midday. Ezra blessed the Lord, and all the people answered, “Amen!” They bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground and their ears attentive to the Book of the Law (Neh 8: 6, 3).
The significant historical event was not the return of the people from captivity, but their return to God. The building of the Lord's house was merely a means for spiritual edification led by Nehemiah and Ezra.
They read to them the Law of God, gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading (Neh 8: 8). When the people heard God's words, they wept. Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites said to them, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep … for the joy of the Lord is your strength," (Neh 8: 9, 10) so they rejoiced, ate, and drank. Indeed, there is a time to weep and a time to laugh (Eccl 3: 4)! Yet more important is rejoicing in obeying God's words. They assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads, and worshiped the Lord (Neh 9: 1, 6).
It was not a mere routine prayer, but one from contrite hearts, with various requests. They began with praise: "You alone are the Lord; You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens." Then they blessed Him for choosing Abram, and reminded Him of His covenant with him, of His signs and wonders, and the statutes and laws He gave by the hand of Moses. Then they confessed their sins that their fathers hardened their necks, and did not heed His commandments (Neh 9: 16) Nevertheless for many years He had patience with them. As they would not listen, He gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Yet, in His great mercy, He did not utterly consume them nor forsake them (Neh 9: 29, 31). They concluded saying, "You are just in all that has befallen us; for You have dealt faithfully, but we have done wickedly." Then they made a written covenant, and Nehemiah the governor and a big number of their leaders, Levites, and priests sealed it (Neh 9: 38). They made an oath "to walk in God’s Law … and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord." (Neh 10: 1, 29) They promised to separate themselves from wrong marriages, to keep the Lord's Sabbaths, to offer the tithes and first fruits, the regular burnt offerings and sin offerings, and to forego the seventh year’s produce and debts (Neh 10: 30 - 39). They organized the work and ministry of the priests and Levites, and of the singers and gatekeepers (Neh 12). Having arranged everything, Nehemiah reported to the king all that had been done (Neh 13: 6).
Reformation needs follow up: when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he found serious matters that needed correction. Eliashib the priest had prepared a large room for Tobiah, Nehemiah's enemy who had resisted the building of the walls of Jerusalem, at the place where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil (Neh 13: 4, 5)! Upon discovering the evil that Eliashib had done, it grieved him bitterly, and he threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room. Then he commanded them to cleanse the rooms; and he brought back into them the articles of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense (Neh 13: 7, 9). He also found that the Levites had not received their portions, which made them and the singers go back to his field. He gathered them together and set them in their place, gave them their portions, and appointed treasurers over the storehouse. This shows the importance of firm management.
Nehemiah did not favor Eliashib the priest, because he was wrong regarding Tobiah and the sanctity of the Lord's house, nor did he favor those who deprived the Levites of their portions. He rather contended with them and rebuked them (Neh 13: 11). He did not only say that it grieved him bitterly (Neh 13: 8), but he took a firm stand, although we see him at another time weeping and mourning (Neh 1: 4).
Another serious matter that needed correction was the wrong marriages.
Many of the people, and of the priests and the Levites had not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Ammonites, the Moabites and others, for they had taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons. This caused the holy seed to be mixed with the peoples of those lands (Ez 9:1, 2). Those peoples had strange gods which had their negative influence in the days of Solomon, for his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David (1 Kgs 11: 4). Ezra considered those marriages as transgressions, and he tore his garment and his robe, plucked out some of the hair of his head and beard, and sat down astonished. Everybody trembled at the words of the God against such marriages and assembled to him (Ez 9: 2- 4). Ezra was afraid that paganism enter into God's people (Ez 9: 12).
Ezra prayed, saying, "At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God. I said, 'O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads … and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day.'" (Ez 9: 5 – 7) Then he said his impressive words, "Our God has punished us less than our iniquities deserve." (Ez 9:13) These are more impressive than the words of the thief on the Lord's right hand, "We indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds." (Lk 23: 41)
Ezra then concluded saying to the Lord, "You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt." (Ez 9: 15) That prayer of Ezra with tears and contrition had its influence, for while he was praying, confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him, for the people wept very bitterly (Ez 10: 1).
How impressive that a man or a priest weeps!
A woman is used to weeping, but a man hardly weeps, for a man usually has self-control. Therefore, when a man cries, his tears have a great influence, a child can bear to see his mother crying, but cannot bear to see his father crying, how much rather the tears of a priest, or more the tears of a priest before God with heart contrition, torn garment and plucked hair, confessing sins before God!
So, the people made a covenant with God to put away all those wives (Ez 10: 3). Ezra rose up, and ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity. They issued a proclamation that they must gather, so, all the people sat in the open square of the house of God, trembling (Ez 10: 6, 12). Ezra revealed how they transgressed by taking pagan wives, and commanded them to separate themselves from them, and they agreed. He favored none of the priests, the leaders, or the Levites (Ez 10:14; 18; 23)
In the same way Nehemiah did to the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab (Neh 13: 23). He gathered them and rebuked them violently, reminding them of King Solomon whose pagan wives made him sin. He did not favor the priests, but said, "Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites. Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan. I also assigned duties to the priests and the Levites, each to his service. (Neh 13: 29, 30) The same applies to Ezra who cleansed and purified the people and worked for their spiritual edification.