The book of Nehemiah forms a portion of our Bible readings from the Old Testament during November and the following comments may provide a recapitulation and summary for consideration and Bible marking during the holiday period, which is almost upon us at the conclusion of this eventful year.

Nehemiah, the Man

We know very little of the background of the man, Nehemiah, but the Scriptures testify to the fact that he was the model of a good reformer. He is often fitly described as “a man of prayer and action” and indeed, in constant communion with his God, he allowed nothing to deflect him from the task he had set himself. He asked no man to bring a sacrifice or shoulder a burden that he himself was not willing to bear: he filled others with enthusiasm because he himself was enthusiastic about the things of Yahweh. The passion with which he went about cleansing the Temple (ch 13) reflects that spark of Divine indignation that was also revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 2:17).

Nehemiah was noble, generous, courageous and upright. Stern integrity was blended with great humility, kindness and princely hospitality. As a statesman, he revealed forethought, prudence and sagacity in counsel. In dealing with his fellows he showed neither fear nor favour, aiming only at doing what was right. He was by no means a respecter of persons and was most remarkable for his piety and singleness of heart with which he walked before Yahweh. In all his actions he asked for God’s guidance and blessing and he knew that his reward rested with the Almighty.

When the city of Jerusalem lay deserted and the walls in ruins, he called upon God (1:6). His request to the King of Persia was preceded by prayer (2:4). When building the wall he was insulted, mocked and threatened, but he took refuge in prayer (4:9). When his enemies endeavoured to ensnare him, he sought help from God (6:9,14) and returning from Persia with fierce opposition on every side, Nehemiah was confident in prayer (13:22,29,31).

To Nehemiah, Yahweh was “great and terrible” but abundant in mercy (1:5; 4:14). He believed in Yahweh’s power to move the heart of the Persian king (2:8), give wisdom (7:5), baffle the designs of the nation’s enemies (4:15), breathe into the hearts of the people a spirit of true rejoicing (12:43), grant prosperity (2:20), and fight for the people (4:20). The will of God was the motivating power of his life (5:15; 13:27).

As a true patriot, he suffered with his people. He mourned over the ruins of the city of Jerusalem and opposed the high priest, nobles and wealthy when necessary. His energy was remarkable, yet with all his vigour he was prudent and took precautions (2:9). He prayed—but set a watch (4:9) and thwarted Sanballat’s attempts to ensnare him (6:11). He showed outstanding commitment and physical courage, taking his place with common soldiers and labourers. Such was the dedication of Nehemiah—the royal favourite, courtier and cupbearer.

He knew fear (2:2) but showed courage. He was threatened (2:19) but refused to be intimidated. And the result was a genuine and thorough reform: Judah was strengthened and prepared to meet the challenges that needed to be faced.

 Chronological Background

The historical background of the Book of Nehemiah is governed largely by the chronology of the book of Ezra with which it is intimately connected. It seems likely that the “Darius” mentioned by Ezra (6:15), the “Artaxerxes” of the book of Nehemiah and the “Ahasuerus” of the book of Esther all relate to Darius Hystaspes, who reigned from BC521 to 485. If this is the case, we have Ezra leaving Babylon in BC515 (Ezra 7:7), just 72 years after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and all other chronological difficulties otherwise associated with the records of Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah are eliminated.

Background

Nehemiah commences his record at a crucial time in Jewish history: thirty four years have passed since the first Jews had returned from captivity in Babylon under the leadership of Zerubbabel in response to the gracious decree of Cyrus, the Persian (Ezra 1:1). Fourteen years ago the house of God had been completed, after long and protracted building operations in the face of adversity and great difficulties (Ezra 6:14–15). One year after the Temple restoration, Ezra had been sent from Persia to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:7), but he had most probably been summoned to return to Persia soon afterwards. Without efficient leadership, the conditions in Judah had deteriorated again over a period of thirteen years and the people of the land faced great difficulties.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter One

Hanani, a kinsman of Nehemiah had visited Jerusalem in order that he might see how the people were faring and having recently returned to Persia, was anxious to tell Nehemiah of his experiences. He had a very sad story to tell the King’s cup-bearer. The people were in affliction, the wall was broken down and the gates were burned with fire (v 3). Nehemiah was greatly distressed by this report (v 4) and for four months he mourned, and prepared his mind to seek God’s blessing on the affairs of Judah. He recognised that a man of ability and vigour was needed on the spot to re-organise the nation and bring about a spiritual revival among the people. He determined to dedicate himself to the task and recognising the difficulties facing him, poured out his heart in an earnest prayer for help in the work to which he had set his hand (v4–11).

Chapter Two

Four months had passed since Nehemiah had received the report from Hanani (compare 1:1 and 2:1). Appearing before the king in his capacity of cupbearer, he was noticeably sad in countenance (v1,2). When questioned by the king, he gave his reasons (v3) and after a hurried prayer (v4), presented his petition to Artaxerxes (v5). Nehemiah’s petition was granted—doubtless with the support of the queen (v6, probably Queen Esther), and armed with letters of authority from the King, he set out for Jerusalem. Having presented his credentials to the governor (v9) and observed the animosity of Sanballat and Tobiah (v10), he arose secretly one night and made an inspection of the walls of the city. He called a conference of the elders of the people and outlined to them the state of the city (v17). By his own zeal and enthusiasm (which soon became contagious) he stimulated the people to rise up and build (v18). Despite the scorning of the enemies without (v19), Nehemiah assured the nation that God would prosper them (v20) and set about commencing the work.

Chapter Three

Only a few days had passed since Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem, and already the people were enthused to co-operate wholeheartedly in the project. The difficulties were many, but there was a willingness to overcome them. As we consider this long and impressive list of labourers, so carefully enumerated by their leader, let us remember that a similar record has been kept of those who have participated in Yahweh’s work throughout the ages. The record is not yet closed. The motives which prompt each individual to “rise up and build” are not seen by man, but the time is near at hand when “every man’s work shall be made manifest, for the day shall declare it” (1 Cor 3:13).

Chapter Four

The city of Samaria was held by a Persian garrison called “the army of Samaria” (Neh 4:2). Its governor was Sanballat whose position was one of great authority and influence. He was on terms of close alliance with an Ammonite chief by name of Tobiah and an Arab sheikh, Geshem, who commanded a band of marauders. Both Sanballat and Tobiah were in a position to render formidable opposition to the work of Nehemiah and by intrigue even became allied in marriage to Eliashib the High Priest elect (Josephus Ant 11:7; Neh 13:18). From the first, Sanballat had disliked Nehemiah’s appointment, as he realised that a powerful Jerusalem would mean a humbled Samaria. He thus tried to defeat Nehemiah by intimidation (2:19), ridicule (4:2) and force (v7,8), but all his attempts were thwarted and answered by prayer, vigilance and work (NB v9).

Chapter Five

In this chapter we see Nehemiah as champion of the down-trodden. Famine and drought of earlier years had left many in a state of poverty and the need to spend time building the wall was a heavy drain on their financial resources. To make matters worse, many became enslaved to their wealthier brethren and so hard were their trials that they lifted up their voice in a cry of anguish to Nehemiah. He was astounded at what he learned (v 6) and immediately instituted a reform (v7–11). Nehemiah was able to substantiate his argument by an appeal to his own personal example. He had sacrificed much for the benefit of the people even though he held the position of governor.

Chapter Six

Having considered the “enemies within” in chapter 5, Nehemiah now returns to renew his comments on the “enemies without”, which he commenced in chapter 4. Previously they had tried to hinder his work by ridicule and threats of war: now they used guile and hypocrisy. Nehemiah faithfully, courageously and quietly pursued his duty undeterred by “friend” or “foe”. The tactics used included an invitation to a conference (v2–4), an open letter of intimidation (v5–7), and a treacherous proposition from Shemaiah (v10); but despite all this, the wall was finished in fifty-two days.

Chapter Seven

Nehemiah, the wall builder, successfully completed his task because “the work was wrought of God”. Now he becomes Nehemiah “the Nation-builder”. His work did not cease with building the wall, but he is careful to follow up with regulations that were calculated to help the development of the nation. Here is an important example. It is not enough to bring people to the Truth:we must be careful to follow up the work commenced and build them up in the Faith.

Chapter Eight

Thirteen years ago (Ezra 7:7; Neh 2:1) Ezra had been in the Land for eight months and, probably at the conclusion of the time, returned to Persia to present the report that was required of him (Ezra 7:14). Now Ezra returned to assist Nehemiah. Nehemiah recognised that, whilst the wall gave protection to the city, only a knowledge of the Word of God could provide protection for the people. Thus re-construction was followed by re-instruction. Eliashib the High Priest was becoming involved with the enemy and was not likely to give Nehemiah much support; Ezra, on the other hand, was the most distinguished and elderly priest of the day.

Chapter Nine

A national day of fasting was observed (v1) and brought to a climax when communal prayer was offered. This prayer acknowledges the integrity of some who, in days past, walked faithfully and undefiled amidst the godless and the heathen (v7–8, 27). Yahweh is praised for His strength in the face of difficulties (v10,11) and confession is made of the weakness of the flesh in the face of temptation (v25–29). Yahweh is exalted in His mercy and man is abased before Him in recognition of his utter dependence (v30–33). The fast and the prayer were designed to bring home to the people a deep sense of responsibility, to reveal to them the cause of failure in the past and to give them an incentive for the future. Thus the people were prepared to enter into a most solemn covenant with Yahweh (v38).

Chapter Ten

A comparison of the list of names in this chapter with the list of those who had returned under Zerubbabel (12:1–9) reveals that twenty of the thirty priests and Levites who came with Zerubbabel sealed the Covenant under Nehemiah. The Covenant is sealed by the Governor (v1), the Priests (v2–8), the Levites (v9–13), the chief of the people (v14–27) and finally the people endorse the Sealing (v28,29).

Chapter Eleven

The Temple complete, the wall of defence erected, the people stabilised on a righteous agreement, Nehemiah now concentrated on the re-population of the city of Jerusalem. The status of Jerusalem had suffered because of its meagre population, but why should the adversary be allowed to boast that the glory of Zion had faded! In a surge of enthusiasm, closely connected with the reform, the people agreed to rectify this.

Chapter Twelve

An account is given of the Priests and Levites from the first return to the days of Nehemiah (v1–26). The wall is dedicated to the protection of the people (v27). Apparently, on completion of the work, the labourers had returned home for a short respite, but they all responded joyfully when called upon to assemble for the memorable occasion described.

Chapter Thirteen

The context suggests a break of more than twelve years between the previous chapter and this final report from the pen of Nehemiah. He had been recalled to Persia, where he had to seek the permission of the king before he could once again return to Jerusalem. On his return he found his work undermined and we are not surprised to find the High Priest, Eliashib, mentioned as one of the main offenders of the covenant that had been sealed by the people not long before. Because of the non-payment of tithes and firstfruits the Priests and Levites had been forced to return to the cultivation of their fields and the Temple had become forsaken (v11), the choral services discontinued, the treasuries emptied and the once crowded courts deserted. With the consent of Eliashib, the people had intermarried and the corrupt speech of their children could be heard in the streets of Jerusalem (v24). The sabbaths were desecrated, its quiet disturbed, its rest destroyed, its sanctity profaned by the chattering of greedy traders and excited buyers in the streets and squares. For the most part, these were foreigners whose outlandish ways and strange speech would draw particular attention and whose behaviour in such intimate association with the inhabitants of Jerusalem threatened to bring it under the influence of idolatry (v26).

Could a people forget so quickly all the Divine principles they had so recently acknowledged? It is suggested that at this time the voice of the prophet Malachi was heard in the streets of Jerusalem, denouncing the people for the very sins that Nehemiah mentions in his writings: intermarriage (Mal 2:13),withholding of tithes (Mal 3:8–9), demoralizing of the priesthood (Mal 1:6; 2:1–10), irreligion and laxity (Mal 1:13,14; 2:17; 3:5,9).

The Prayers of Nehemiah

A major feature of the life of Nehemiah was his recourse to constant prayer. There are two major and ten very short prayers recorded in the book. The two major prayers are what might be termed “model prayers”, with a similar structure to “the Lord’s Prayer”; they are found in 1:4–11 and 9:5–38.

The ten short prayers are as follows:

  • 2:4 when standing before the King: “So I prayed to the God of Heaven”

  • 4:4,5 as defence against Sanballat: “Cover not their iniquity”

  • 4:9 a case of prayer and action: “We made our prayer… and set a watch”

  • 5:19 citing his own example of integrity: “Think upon me for good”

  • 6:9 for strength against enemies: “Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands”

  • 6:14 for vengeance against these enemies: “Think upon Tobiah and Sanballat” according to their works”

  • 13:14 casting out the household stuff of Tobiah: “Remember me, O God, for good”

  • 13:22 threatening to lay hands on the Sabbath breakers: “Remember me, O God, for good”

  • 13:29 smiting and tearing out hair and chasing away those who had contracted marriage with Gentiles: “Remember them, O God, because they have defiled the priesthood”

  • 13:31 cleansing the Levites and appointing the offerings: “Remember me, O God, for good”

Analysis of the Book—

“Let us rise up and Build”

 Part One: Reconstruction of the Wall

Chapters 1 to 6

Inquiry and Intercession on behalf of Jerusalem      1

Expedition and Exhortation                                      2

Project commenced                                                   3

Project obstructed from without                                4

Project obstructed from within                                   5

Project completed                                                      6

Part Two: Re-instruction of the People

Chapters 7 to 13

Registration of the Remnant                                      7

Inculcation of the Law                                               8

Consecration of the People                                        9–10

Population of the City                                               11

Dedication of the Walls                                            12

Extirpation of Abuses                                               13