Book Review: The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah [NICOT]

Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks.

NICOT Ezra Nehemiah Harrington review

Similar to my review of Timothy R. Ashley’s commentary on Numbers in the same series, I worked through this entry in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) from Eerdmans partly because I’m working on a couple of commentary projects on Ezra/Nehemiah (a new Tyndale Commentary, and the shift of Kidner’s classic into a different series), partly devotional, and also partly because Ezra and Nehemiah (particularly Nehemiah) are commonly preached or referenced books in charismatic leadership circles – but I’ve not actually studied them personally in any great depth. I’m not reviewing this commentary as an Old Testament Scholar, Hebrew Linguist, or specialist in Ezra/Nehemiah, but as a generalist who finds commentaries both fascinating and useful, occasionally preaches, loves the Bible, and works at the backend in commentary publishing. This review is thus idiosyncratic – but I hope it will help some readers make a decision about whether or not this volume is for them.

Harrington’s entry in the NICOT replaces the well-reviewed 1983 volume by F. Charles Fensham – and is as such a completely new book, with presumably almost four further decades of scholarship, preaching and research to draw on and engage with. That would possibly give a good explanation for the comparative lenghts – Harrington comes in at 563pp, compared to Fenshams 300ish. Of her volume, Harrington spends the first 100 pages on what is a fairly lengthy and comprehensive introduction, which in some ways felt like reading a monograph about the issues and scholarship at play. Despite going into depth, and engaging a wide variety of issues, it is pretty readable, and worth working through before getting to the commentary proper. There are a few interesting snippets that I want to pull out in this review. Firstly, an interesting aside on how human error is part of the sacred text (it is worth noting that the NICOT series preface refers to the Bible as ‘inspired’ rather than ‘inerrant’ [a popular but contentious concept in USA evangelicalisms] or ‘inspired and infallible’ [as the doctrinal basis of the publisher I work for has it, rooted in UK evangelicism]), which gives a sense of the nuanced and honest way that Harrington writes (even if you or I might put things differently):

Faithful readers of Ezra-Nehemiah do not need to despair over discrepancies in the text – for example, the inaccurate numbers in the lists of Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. This work was considered sacred by the Jews not because it was perfet in the sense of lacking any error, however small, but because it was believed to carry divinely inspired traditions that could sustain the faith and life of their community. Indeed, the inclusion of frail human beings, however devoted, in the transmission of material, however sacred, introduces an imperfect element into the process” (p. 37)

Agree or not, this is certainly an interesting attempt at explaining and understanding how the text works, here. Harrington is also robust and forthright regarding lazy tropes, particularly those that can end up being anti-Semitic: “The often-expressed evaliation of ancient Judaism as trite legalism or ritualism is not a fair assessment of the community of faith during this period” (p. 57). This is a particular focus of the commentary (p. 59), to trace Judaism and what would come. Indeed, “Ezra-Nehemiah regards the jurisdiction of Yahweh as not just Jerusalem and Judah; Yahweh is not just the Jewish god within the ranks of polytheism but the God who is the eternal Creator and Sustainer of everything” (p. 62). Finally, from the introduction, Harrington’s closing introductory words show the value of Ezra/Nehemiah for the church:

God’s people are holy – that is, they carry his name and are agents of his will. It is through them that the divine will is accomplished in the world. They can take courage from the fact they are in his hand no matter the circumstances. His favor will support every task he inspires. Christians are not on their own in this endeavor. They are linked to one another in the present communtiy of faith, but also to the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ of the past (Heb. 12:1) – the generations of the faithful extending all the way back into biblicaltimes.  With such a heritage, today’s Christians can find the strength to stand as faithful role models and teachers of the next generation, and the next after that” (p. 91)

Whilst the two books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal with a specific time for a specific group of God’s people, Harrington’s commentary shows in detail how the Bible can speak to us today. Often, despite being closely engaged with the text, the commentary speaks presciently to contemporary realities: “the author addresses the continued responsibility of God’s people inthis world despite their political circumstances. The implicit promise is that God will enable his work through a faithful communtiy even though it is not in full control of its destiny” (p. 116). The role of worship and liturgy is a feature, too, with contemporary resonance: “One gets the impression that praise and worship to Godhas both unified the community of the faithful and antagonized those who did not support it” (p. 153, commenting on Ez. 4:1-3). From this, the continual tension and truth that “the God of Heaven and Earth (Ezra 5:11) is simultaneously the God, who is inJerusalem cf. Ezra 1:3)” (p. 187) is perhaps more grounded and expounded. Lest the reader of this review think I am appropriating the commentary on Ezra to support a particularly positive form of charismatic worship, I noted and appreciated the discussion of lament and prayer; “Ezra’s prayer is similar to other Jewish laments in antiquity (Pss 78; 106; Neh 9; Dan 9; 1QS i 4-ii 1; 4QdibHam), with emphasis on confession of sins of both current and former times, God’s everlasting mercy, and an appeal for divine favor… Like Moses, Ezra identifies with the guilty people and intercedes for them from his strong position of innocence” (p. 238).

Prayer is a theme of both books that is picked up well in this commentary, including the startling yet accurate observation that “In prayer, Nehemiah courageously ‘reminds’ Yahweh of his own promises” (p. 282). Across the page from that is the 11th of a number of helpful excurses (the longest of which, I think, is 10 pages on ‘Jerusalem, The Holy City, p. 428-438), in this case one on fasting in Second Temple Judaism, which was both fascinating intellectually and challenging spiritually, with the reminder ringing in my reading that “The Hebrew Bible is witness to God’s response to the urgen prayers of his people offered with genuine humility (cf. Dan 9:23; 10:12; cf. also 2 Chr 7:14; 2 Kgs 20:5)” (p. 284). Another emphasis picked up by Harrington is “on the role of the family in the work of God” (p. 362). This is a reminder, to me at least, of the importance of this concept to the shape of the Gospel and the covenants of God to his people. An aspect of this is the intimate involvement of God in the lives of individuals – “The knowledge that so great a God is interested in acting in the lives of individuals is reassuring, even when circumstances may be confusing and painfully unfair” (p. 389) – this again echoes the paradox I have alluded to in this review, a tension Harrington captures well, between God being both the cosmic king and a heavenly father to a specific people.

Whilst the interest in/focus on the development of Judaism may slightly reduce this commentary’s utility to the average preacher, I do think that it is a thorough and helpful commentary if read with discernment – not least as Harrington helps notes of God’s sovereignty/intimacy, the importance of prayer/lament/worship/family and other things sing clearly. Unlike some commentaries, it held my attention throughout, whether I agreed or not, and with the expection of the very long excursus noted above, the tangents followed were generally brief and interesting enough to not be too distracting. I will certainly have it to hand when working on Ezra/Nehemiah, and were I to preach on either, this would be quick off the shelf with Kidner and Moore. It almost feels unneccessary to allude to the excellenct production Eerdmans make of these NICOT volumes – but it is a pleasure to use. My concern/quibble at the outset about how high a view of scripture is employed here is worth noting again – not necessarily as a negative, but as an observation that this is a different kind of commentary than many readers of this blog might be looking for. That said, if you want a reasonably technical, well put together, carefully researched and spiritually-engaged commentary on Ezra/Nehemiah, then this is an excellent choice. In going back over my notes whilst writing the review, I was reminded that it was a pleasure to read, opened up these two books of Scripture to me, and that is pretty impressive for a 500+ page commentary!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *