458 pages, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0-85234-986-1
What do you do upon reaching the long genealogies featured heavily in Ezra and Nehemiah? It is tempting to hurry past them to reach the ‘meat’ of the books. For Gregory Goswell, however, in this EP Study Commentary, these are the glory of this section of Scripture.
They highlight how God works in all his people and through many ordinary individuals. Goswell sees this as one of the key themes of Ezra-Nehemiah (he views the two books as a unified whole). Concern for the house of God, and the patronage of the kings of Persia, are also themes of the two books.
A progression in these subjects is identified by Goswell. The influence of the Persian kings is cast in an increasingly ambiguous light. The lesson is that the people of God must act in faith, without dependence on godless rulers with mixed motives.
The house of God is seen to encompass not just the Temple itself but the whole city, and indeed the people. As for God’s people, their weaknesses become painfully apparent. Goswell’s conclusion is: ‘At the close of the Old Testament period, we are taught that we need a New Testament’ (p.363).
Following the study commentary format, this book maintains a fairly strict separation between historical and literary textual analysis (together forming the main body of the commentary) and application (much briefer). It might have been helpful to blend this distinction so as to show more clearly how the application is built on the text.
Key applications could also have been further developed, for example on the subject of intermarriage with the heathen. Here, Goswell restricts his comments to the immediate parallel of marriage between a believer and unbeliever.
Goswell distinguishes the voices of Ezra and Nehemiah from that of the narrator (assumed to be neither), implying that they give differing, even inconsistent, viewpoints. Nehemiah’s perspective, in particular, is challenged by Goswell. His initial interaction with Artaxerxes is portrayed as ‘insincere’, ‘calculating’ (p.211) and hiding ‘disrespect’ (p.225).
Of Sanballat and Tobiah’s claim that Nehemiah was fomenting rebellion, it is said that: ‘There may be more truth to the accusation than Nehemiah liked to admit’ (p.225). Goswell tells us: ‘The narrator may, if he so chooses, give the reader a God’s-eye view of events’ (p.55). But how can the reader know when this is so? I have serious reservations about this approach.
Having focused on three key themes, Goswell is reluctant to allow room for any lessons on leadership. ‘To see creative and faithful leadership as the key to Ezra-Nehemiah is to fail to read the book properly. This is an exegetical and homiletical tradition that needs to be modified’ (p.280). Modification might be reasonable, but Goswell overstates the case against this ‘tradition’.
There is much useful material in this commentary. I feel, however, that it underemphasises that this Scripture is given by God to his church and fails to encapsulate the essence of what the Lord intends us to learn from them.