Darius’ reign   Age
539BC   Decree of Cyrus

First return under Zerubbabel

533BC?   Death of Daniel  
530BC?   Born? 0
522BC 1 Darius the Great becomes king 8
516BC 7 Temple completed

Esther marries the king

Ezra travels to Jerusalem

511BC 12 Decree of Haman

Esther and Mordecai save the Jews

503BC 20 Nehemiah before the king 27
502BC   Wall built

Jerusalem Bible School

500BC?   Wall dedicated 30
491BC 32 Nehemiah returns to Shushan 39
485BC? 38 Prophecy of Malachi 45
483BC? 40 Returns to Jerusalem

Throws Tobiah out of the temple

Restores tithes and Sabbath keeping

Forbids foreign marriages

?   Death ?
Determining dates for this period in Israel’s history is not without difficulty. In particular, the births and deaths of some of the people shown here are not recorded and are estimates only. This timeline is based on the assumption that Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes were titles of Darius I, for which there is some evidence. But it is also acknowledged there are other equally valid views.

There’s something about walls. Here’s a few famous ones in no particular order:

Great Wall of China   21,196km        221BC

Walls of Babylon        90 km              600BC

Hadrian’s Wall           117km             122

Berlin Wall                 155 km            1961

Wall of Jerusalem       6km                 502BC

The Great Wall is probably the most famous and it’s certainly the longest. Hadrian’s wall is also well known, even though Hadrian probably didn’t do any building work himself and never actually saw his wall finished. Parts of all these walls still exist today to a greater or lesser degree. But which of the builders of these walls is most remembered?

Without question it is Nehemiah, who built, by far, the shortest of them. It was a very small wall that has been replaced several times since, but the story of its building has remained as a very grand monument to the triumph of faith against the odds ever since.

In 503BC, it was now around 36 years since the Decree of Cyrus had invited the Jews to return from captivity to live in Jerusalem. There had been mixed results. Some Jews had returned; not an overwhelming number, but enough. The temple had finally been finished. The Jewish race had been threatened with annihilation by the mad man Haman but had survived through the providential intervention of Queen Esther. It was, to say the least, an interesting time to be a Jew, and Nehemiah had grown up with it all happening around him. Whatever effect all the drama had on him, he had grown into a young man with enough depth of character to be appointed by the most powerful man in the world to a position of trust almost second to none.

He was cupbearer to the king. The last person to taste the royal wine before the king himself.

Nehemiah was probably around 27 years old when his brother Hanani arrived in Shushan, the royal capital, with news from Jerusalem. To the palace, it was a small city on the ‘other side of the river’. To Jews like Nehemiah, it was a place that occupied the most intimate depths of their hearts and hopes. The news was bad. Very bad. In 36 years there had been ups and downs for the city, but now it seemed to have arrived at the bottom. The city was broken and burnt, the Jews there bullied and bruised. Whatever had happened, the great resettlement project appeared on the brink of ruin.

The book of Nehemiah is an inspired autobiography and as such, provides a very personal insight into what the man was like. He shares not just his actions and history, but his thoughts and deepest emotions. Though he had been born and raised in Babylon and lived in the royal city of Shushan [Susa], his heart lay in far off Jerusalem, the city of his ancestors and most importantly, his only hope for the future. It is likely Nehemiah was a eunuch. The Greek Septuagint translation describes him as such and no risks were taken with a personal servant of King Darius, particularly one who also came into the presence of the queen.

Nehemiah was utterly heartbroken at the news from Jerusalem. Inconsolable. It hit him very hard and took the wind out of his sails completely, so much so that he slumped down and cried for several days, almost overcome with grief. Quite an extraordinary reaction from a man living in the height of luxury at the seat of power of the then greatest empire in the world. Clearly, he esteemed the promises of God greater riches than the treasures of Persia. The apple of God’s eye was the apple of his eye too, and so he turned from tears to prayer, from man to God. His prayer in Nehemiah 1 is very beautiful, saturated as it is with quotations from Scripture, steeped in tears of contrition for sin, and offered without ceasing day and night; and it seems he may have been joined by a little band of others united with him. And it was inspired, in part, by another from a generation before. The opening words of Nehemiah’s prayer are virtually the same as Daniel’s in his great prayer in Daniel 9 and much of the content is similar too. Nehemiah was a man of prayer. There are at least 10 of his prayers recorded in his book, short and long, as well as the great prayer in Nehemiah 9. He shared his feelings with God very openly and honestly.

But for now, his sadness gave way to apprehension. To do nothing was out of the question, but to take action was risky. Even to allow any expression of sadness before the king was dangerous. He was, after all, the king’s cupbearer, as he reminds his readers. He prayed for God’s mercy and proceeded to take the king’s wine to him. Artaxerxes noticed immediately that something was wrong.

“Why the long face?”, or words similar, struck fear into Nehemiah’s heart. His next words could well be his last, and he chose them wisely. He was completely honest and explained why he was so sad. Jerusalem, the city of his ancestors, was in ruins. The graves of his fathers had been desecrated.

Then he prayed again, briefly and silently, and an amazing thing happened.

Nehemiah was very aware of another person in the room because he specifically mentions her, “the queen also sitting by him”. It is very possible the queen was none other than Esther, in which case, the divine providence is breathtaking. If Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus were in fact titles of the same king, Darius the Great, then Esther had been in Nehemiah’s exact position just 8 years before. She had come before the king on pain of death. She had placed the fate of her people before even her own life, as Nehemiah did, saying, “If I perish, I perish”.

“For what dost thou make request?” The king’s response was the same as it had been to Esther.

“If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight…let letters be given me”: Nehemiah’s response was almost word-for-word the same as Esther’s had been.

The queen and the cupbearer may have shared an amazing moment of faith when the king acceded to Nehemiah’s request. Both knew where the answer had come from and Nehemiah wrote it down for all his readers to know. It was “the good hand of my God upon me”.

The letters from the king advised those “beyond the river” that Nehemiah was to be appointed governor in Jerusalem, by royal decree. He arrived there with letters, soldiers, and a cavalry, all the trappings of royal power, but that meant little to the opponents he was confronted with when he arrived. Locals like Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem and others had their own ambitions in the province. Not only were they not pleased when Nehemiah arrived, it “grieved them exceedingly” that someone would seek the wellbeing of the Israelites. Their efforts to thwart the work failed, but not before they tried every cunning ploy they could think of.

Allowing three days to recover from the trip and to assess the ‘flavour’ of the local situation, Nehemiah next embarked on his famous tour of inspection, under cover of darkness, on the back of a donkey. What he observed reinforced what he had been told in Shushan. The place was a mess. To be specific, it was defenceless. The walls were broken down and the gates had been burnt to the ground. Zerubbabel had rebuilt the temple and Ezra had revitalised the worship, but with no defence it was starting to fall apart. The surrounding Samaritans were already making inroads into the ecclesia. Nehemiah knew that a wall wouldn’t solve all their problems, but without one they were fatally exposed—materially and spiritually.

He went to his people straight away and levelled with them. They already knew how bad the situation was for it was they who were being constantly bullied and bruised, but what they didn’t know was the providential miracle that had brought Nehemiah to them, with royal authority to back him up. When he told them what had happened, as distressed as they were, they immediately saw the hand of God at work. These people were not wimps. They were brave, pioneering types. They were sometimes too easily distracted to be sure, and there were some bad figs amongst them, but when pointed in the right direction and convinced once again that Yahweh was with them, they were more than capable of a very faithful response.

“Let us rise up and build”: it’s the most famous line from the book of Nehemiah, and one of the most famous in the whole account of Israel’s return from exile. It was the slogan that rallied a renovation revolution. But Nehemiah didn’t say it! It was a call to action from the Jews in Jerusalem in response to the stirring account he gave of his experiences in Shushan, of the words of the king himself. It was the voice of the people.

Nehemiah’s strategy was simple genius. It involved All of the people, building All of the wall, All of the time. And constant prayer, for big things and small. He had convinced the people at the start that this was the work of God, not of Nehemiah, and they saw he was constantly in touch with their Leader.

All of the people…Nehemiah took the time to write a comprehensive list in Nehemiah 3. The first name mentioned was Eliashib the high priest. Cooperation from the top was important as it is in any major project. The list that follows hardly has a decent bricklayer amongst them; it is mostly spectacularly unqualified people motivated by crystal clear vision and firm faith. An unbeatable combination as it turned out, at least for the first 52 days anyway, for the story of Nehemiah has a sting in its tail. But the excitement at the beginning was palpable and translated into infectious energy. ‘All of the people’ included not just those living in Jerusalem but outlying districts as well, travelling to the wall and back each day to put their backs to the work. But they coped with it all because “the people had a mind to work”.

All of the wall…This was a brilliant idea. Nehemiah placed different families and groups at different places around the wall from day one, many of them working on the section in front of their own home. It frustrated the very strong opposition they faced from many outside the city. From the start, they faced a slowly growing wall 6 kilometres long. Instead of all working on one section and completing, say, 500 metres to full height in one week (leaving the rest totally exposed), the whole wall grew in height each day. For the statistically minded, if the wall was on average 12 metres high (the height of the current wall), then it rose on average 23cm (9 inches) per day. It must have seemed like the thing was almost alive! By the time it got to half height, the opposition was panicking and talking about needing an army to get involved to stop it. Too late!

All of the time…To complete 6 kilometres of wall in just over 7 weeks (52 days to be precise) was a 24/7 operation. It was done during the heat of summer and many of them also had farms to tend to and families to feed. They were quite literally ‘knocking off work to lay bricks’! It was an amazing achievement made possible because from the beginning they were convinced it was the work of God. It was the stuff of miracles and by the time they’d finished, even their opponents conceded that “this work was wrought of God”.