The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
After extolling God, praising His works and faithfulness, confessing sin, and pleading for forgiveness, Nehemiah appeals to the stipulations and guarantees of the Mosaic Covenant. Allen calls this reference to the Mosaic Law the “crux of the prayer” (89). And this is an accurate assessment. Certainly, an appeal to scripture as a grounds for prayer indicates interpretive importance for how the former text applies to the latter. Therefore, the interpreter does well to further evaluate this exegetical issue.
It is quite clear that Nehemiah is referring to the Pentateuch. This is clear from (1) the fact that Nehemiah says, “Now, remember the word that you commanded Moses, your servant,” and (2) the obvious similarity between the words of Nehemiah’s prayer and the following texts from the Mosaic Law: Deut 4:25–31; 6:1; 7:9, 21; 9:29; 10:17; 12:5; 21:15; 28:64; 30:1-4; cf. Lev. 26:33, 39-42. Nehemiah was likely providing a loose recitation and summary of these various texts here, as one who is well-versed in scriptures might likewise do even today as he or she prays. As Frensham says, “Parts of it are free citation and part quoted verbatim,” but, either way, “it is a true reflection of what is said in Deuteronomy.” (155-156). Fensham notes that, in his reference, Nehemiah employs covenantal language. He thereby “sketches the result of sin” in verse 8. Yet at the same time, as was custom of Ancient Near Eastern treaties, the covenant curses are balanced with covenant blessings. By using the convenantally loaded verbs, שׁוב (return) and שָׁמַר (keep), Nehemiah indicates that “if one transgressed the stipulations [of the covenant], the curse would come into operation, but if one kept the stipulations, the blessings would be bestowed. It was an either/or choice.” (155)
Fensham concludes that, in making this reference and preferring those parts that refer to captivity and return from exile, Nehemiah sees these predictions and stipulations in the Law as applying to the events contemporaneous to his own day (156). Breneman understands the importance of Nehemiah’s appeal to scripture primarily in terms of Nehemiah’s reliance and utter dependence on the word of God. He observes that, although Nehemiah “had to come before God empty-handed, with nothing deserving the Lord’s favor . . .” he nonetheless was able to make an appeal based on God’s own promises and faithfulness. God may have predicted this situation, may have justly punished Israel due to her sin; but Nehemiah realized that God likewise predicted Israel’s restoration, and likewise promised restoration upon repentance. In other words, Nehemiah saw the current situation of exile as an unfinished portion of God’s story concerning His people. And Nehemiah made his appeal on the basis of this reality (173). Allen claims that by citing Deuteronomic texts, Nehemiah’s prayer exemplifies a liturgical form of expression (88). Allen argues that “repentance is the keynote of the prayer.” Because “God’s normative relationship with the covenant people . . .” was “beyond their reach . . .” Nehemiah’s references Deuteronomy in verses 8-9 serve as a divine instruction and exhortation to repent. Nonetheless, such repentance would only serve as an initiator for God’s gracious intervention (89). In other words, in distinction from Breneman, rather than interpreting Nehemiah’s use of Deuteronomy as a basis for his appeal, Allen sees the reference’s use as primarily exhortative. Throntveit, on the other hand, understands Nehemiah’s use of Deuteronomy as primarily indicating Nehemiah’s understanding that God was in fact in control of history in general and Israel’s current situation in particular. “This is to be seen as a testimony to God’s power and control of history. Israel is in God’s hands, not subject to the capricious machinations of human despots.” Thus, Nehemiah seeks to remind God that the lesson has been learned and the judgment effectively administered (65). It is time to move on to restoration.
In conclusion, this author believes that Breneman’s conclusion is the most accurate assessment of why Nehemiah appeals to Deuteronomy. His prayerful request is not an exhortation to the people (contra. Allen), but a petition to God. Just as he did so in verse 5, Nehemiah appeals to God as the God of the covenant made with Israel. Yes, this covenant involved judgment for disobedience. But upon repentance, this covenant promised blessing. To such sure guarantees, Nehemiah fashions his prayer.