Scriptures

Nehemiah 1

Introduction

The seventy years of Israel’s captivity had now come to an end, exactly as Jeremiah said it would, Jeremiah 29:1-14, and so, the Book of Nehemiah covers the events of the Jews returning from their Babylonian captivity. In the year 538 B.C., the Medes and Persians took over from the Babylonians and became the ruling power of the world.

All the prisoners, including those from Israel, who were formally under the subjection of Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king were now under the control of Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king. Isaiah also prophesied the end of Israel’s captivity, he even names Cyrus and tells us that he would be the king who would help Israel rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, Isaiah 44:28-45:7.

Cyrus was a different kind of king, as he believed that all his prisoners would be more loyal to him if they were free, rather than being slaves. He and the other kings who followed, helped the people to return home and rebuild their temples. Because the people were free to practice their religion, this, in turn, promoted loyalty to the kings.

The return of Judah took place in three stages and may be summarised as follows.

Stage 1

This first stage was by the decree of Cyrus for the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple to God in 538 B.C. Ezra 1-6. Zerubbabel was the political leader of the Jews who returned at this time and Joshua was the Levitical religious leader who returned with him.

Approximately 50,000 people returned at this time. 42,360 Jews plus 8,000 servants. This included 200 singing men. The purpose of this return was to rebuild the temple, which was completed in 516 B.C. The work of rebuilding the temple began under Zerubbabel and Joshua. The altar was established on October 5th 537 B.C., and the foundations of this second temple were completed in May/June of 536 B.C.

However, the people grew selfish and careless and the work lay dormant for several years. God raised up two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah to rebuke and encourage the people, and the temple was finally completed in February/March of 516 B.C.

Stage 2

The religious leader of this return was Ezra the scribe in 457 B.C. Ezra 7-10. This was a much smaller return as only about 2,000 Jews returned at this time. The purpose of this return was to purify the worship services. Pagan wives had been taken and squatters were in the temple.

Stage 3

It was at this time that Nehemiah was allowed to return to the land in order to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and enable the people to re-inhabit the city, 445/444 B.C. Nehemiah 1:1-13. The name Nehemiah means ‘the Lord comforts’. He was the son of Hacaliah and held the prominent position as a cupbearer to the king of the Medo-Persian Empire. He was later appointed by Artaxerxes I to be the governor of Judah.

When word came to Nehemiah about the state the Jews were in, he was deeply moved. The walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and the returning Jews were under a constant threat. He knew that something had to be done and as all good leaders should do, he took action and did something about the situation his fellow people were in.

He didn’t have a meeting about the situation first and he didn’t wait for someone else to step up to the mark. He stepped up to the mark believing that God was using him, and he allowed God to use him to help his people rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

Author

Most of the book is written in the first person and since the book itself declares that Nehemiah is the author, we can safely come to the conclusion that Nehemiah wrote the book.

The name Nehemiah means ‘the Lord comforts’ and he was the son of Hacaliah of Judah. He held the important position of a cupbearer to the king of the Medo-Persian Empire. He was later appointed by Artaxerxes I to be the governor of Judah.

As a leader, Nehemiah told the people what they didn’t want to know and he led them where there was great resistance in going. He was able to do this because of his passion for the law of God, and his desire to preserve the future of Israel according to the law. Other prophets around at this time were Ezra, Malachi, Haggai and Zephaniah.

Date

It’s generally accepted that Nehemiah wrote the book around 430 B.C. Ezra had been in Jerusalem for about 13 years when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in 444 B.C., so, Nehemiah covers the events between 444 B.C. and 432 B.C.

Life During The Return

Very little had changed from the time of the exile. The Jews were living previously in Babylon, modern-day Iraq, during the exile. But we find them in the land of Persia, modern-day Iran, and returning to their homeland of Israel during the period of the return.

The land of Persia or modern-day Iran is a large plateau between the plain of the Tigris on the west and the Indus River valley to the east. In the south, it is bordered by the Persian Gulf leading to the Indian Ocean. To the north of the plateau are the Caspian Sea and the chains of mountains that extend from the south end of the Caspian Sea.

Cyrus conquered territories he emphasized winning the favour of the gods, the priesthoods and their followers in those lands. Thus he would reverse the deportation policies of Assyria and Babylon, allowing people to return to their homelands and thus gaining their loyalty.

The Persian people were polytheistic, but at this time there seems to have been the beginnings of Zoroastrianism. To be sure, Darius and Xerxes exalted Ahuramazda, the god Zoraster preached, but they do not mention Zoraster. Cyrus, however, comes across as very tolerant of various religions, making him simply a typical Persian polytheist.

Zoroastrianism contains a dualism, a contradiction of good and evil, a Good Spirit and an Evil Spirit with his demon henchmen. The Good Spirit represents light, fire, summer, fertile land, and health. While the Evil Spirit represents darkness, winter, drought, sickness, and death.

In later Zoroastrianism, individuals were judged by whether their good deeds, outweighed their evil deeds. Fire was used as a symbol of the god Ahuramazda, the god worshipped in Zoroastrianism.

All other aspects of life, dress, diet, etc, were the same as the period of the exile. Obviously, those who stayed in Persia lived a wealthier lifestyle than those who returned to the land. Those that returned would have a more basic lifestyle for a while until houses were rebuilt, city walls put up and crops re-grown.

Outline

Nehemiah’s Prayer for the Exiles. Nehemiah 1
Artaxerxes Sends Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Nehemiah 2
Builders of the Walls Named. Nehemiah 3
Builders Overcome Ridicule. Nehemiah 4
Nehemiah Abolishes Debt and Bondage. Nehemiah 5
Sanballat’s Plot. Nehemiah 6
Completion of the Wall. Nehemiah 6:15
Census of Returned Exiles. Nehemiah 7
Ezra Reads the Law. Nehemiah 8
Israelites Fast and Repent. Nehemiah 9
Israelites Seal the Covenant. Nehemiah 10
People Settle in Jerusalem. Nehemiah 11-12
Nehemiah Restores Laws. Nehemiah 13

The Text

Nehemiah’s Prayer

‘The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” Nehemiah 1:1-3

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign, which was 457 B.C. Ezra 7:8. But Nehemiah arrived in the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes I which was 444 B.C.

The citadel of Susa was the winter capital of the Medo-Persian Empire and it was the same place where Daniel saw the vision of the ram with two horns, Daniel 8:2.

Notice it was Nehemiah who asked Hanani about what was happening with those who survived the exile and Jerusalem. He wants to know how the people and the city were doing. Why does he want to know about what’s happening 800 miles away?

Well, to a Jew, Jerusalem meant everything to them, it was the city of David, it was the place where God dwelt among His people, Psalm 137:5-6. It appears that even though Nehemiah is physically in Persia 800 miles away, his heart is in Jerusalem.

The news he received wasn’t encouraging. At this point in history, the wall had never been rebuilt since Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed it.

There had been an effort by the Jews to rebuild the wall, somewhat earlier in the reign of Artaxerxes I, but that had been totally frustrated by the hatred of Rehum and Shimshai the deputy rulers, Ezra 4:17-22. At this moment in time, things are not good for God’s people.

Hanani informs Nehemiah about what was happening. A city without walls, a city without gates, is a city that’s open to attack. It’s totally defenceless which means they also have no protection. No city walls, no city gates, no wonder the people lived in great trouble and disgrace.

‘When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.’ Nehemiah 1:4

When Nehemiah heard what was happening to his people and Jerusalem, he was overwhelmed with sadness, he mourned, fasted, and prayed. He genuinely cared about what was happening. The news shocked him so much that he had to sit down and after he sat down, he began to weep and mourn.

And notice he mourned for many days, why was that? Fear, confusion, apprehension, realisation that the task ahead was beyond him and he was in absolute need of not just anyone’s help, but God’s help.

Most of us men would probably just get up and do something about the situation. We see a problem, we just go ahead and try and fix it so that we can go back to life as normal.

Why didn’t he just get up and do something to help the situation in Jerusalem? Well, I believe that there was more important work which needed to be done first. Yes God was going to use Nehemiah to help with the situation in Jerusalem, but God needed to work on Nehemiah first. Hence why he also fasted and prayed for many days.

After being baptised by John, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, before He began His public ministry, Matthew 4:2. The prophets and teachers in Antioch prayed and fasted before sending Paul and Barnabas out for their mission trip, Acts 13:1-3.

In other words, when God is about to do something great, He usually begins by working on that person He’s going to use. He prepares them spiritually for what they are about to do.

And notice He fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Now remember there were many gods in Persia, but He deliberately prays to the only true God because knows that only God Himself can meet His needs.

Nehemiah genuinely cared about what was happening back in Jerusalem. He didn’t declare a national time of mourning and fasting. His genuineness is seen in the fact that he wept, mourned, fasted and prayed alone when he heard the bad news.

Just as Nehemiah wept over the city of Jerusalem because it lay in ruins, many years later Jesus would weep over the city, Luke 19:41. Jesus wept over the city because He knew that it was going to be destroyed again by the Romans.

Just as Nehemiah wept over the city of Jerusalem because it lay in ruins, many years later Jesus would weep over sin, John 11:35. Jesus wept because He saw the full consequences of sin happening right in front of Him, in his friend Lazarus.

‘Then I said: “LORD, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.’ Nehemiah 1:5-6

Earlier we saw that God was preparing Nehemiah for the task ahead, now Nehemiah has to prepare Himself too for the task ahead. Prayer is a vital part of being a Christian, however for leaders, if they have big plans for the church, they need to pray big and pray about everything, Philippians 4:6.

In fact, Nehemiah is recorded praying 14 times within this book. He prayed when he was mourning, and he’s praying here before to get himself ready for the task God has set out for him. When the king asked him what was troubling him, he prayed before answering him, Nehemiah 2:4.

In other words, prayer is needed before we start any project, prayer as needed whilst we go through that project and prayers of thanksgiving should be given after the project is accomplished. Some commentators believe that Nehemiah prayed for four months.

The work of rebuilding the walls only took 52 days to complete, but he spent a lot of time in prayer first, Nehemiah 6:15. However long he prayed for, we know that he took all of his anxieties to God in prayer and more importantly he left his anxieties with God, 1 Peter 5:7. Nehemiah totally relied on God for strength, he didn’t rely on his own strength, Isaiah 40:31.

Nehemiah also knows exactly who he is praying to. He prays to the LORD God of heaven, he prays to the great and awesome God. He prays to the God who keeps His covenant of love for those who love Him and keep His commandments. He knows he needs God’s help and he totally relies on God, this is seen in his request for God to be attentive to prayer.

Look how humble he is in his prayer, he confesses the sins of Israel, his own sins, and also the sins of his father’s family. What I love about this is that he doesn’t try to excuse his own sins or anyone else’s sins, Nehemiah 1:6-7.

Obviously, Nehemiah was a godly man, but he openly and passionately puts himself in his father’s house and prayed by using “we” instead of “they.”

Nehemiah now calls upon God to remember His promises to His people.

“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.’ Nehemiah 1:8-10

Nehemiah is basically saying, God, You made a promise to Moses and this nation, I ask you now to make good on it, Deuteronomy 30:1-8. Many of us promise many things to our children and all too often we fail to fulfil those promises. But Nehemiah knew that God never fails in His promises, He gives His children.

If they broke the covenant, God had said that they would be scattered among the nations. This had taken place in the history of Israel since the time before the Assyrian captivity in 722/21 B.C. But God also promised that if they repented in the land of their captors, He would bring them back into their land of promise.

As we looked at in the beginning, an initial group of returnees had reaped the benefit of returning under the reign of Cyrus in 536 B.C. and a second group in 457 B.C. At this time Nehemiah sought to do the same.

From the time he heard the news of the conditions in Judah, to the time of his departure, three to four months had transpired. Just as God placed a time for Israel to spend in captivity, Nehemiah had to learn to work on God’s timetable not his own.

Before Nehemiah could do anything for God, he first had to get himself right with God first, hence why he confesses his sins.

Leaders can’t expect to do great things for God or lead a congregation to big adventures if they themselves have got sin in their lives. Leaders can’t expect to do great things for God or lead a congregation in big adventures if they are aware of sin in the life of a congregation and don’t deal with it.

When we prepare ourselves for worship, the person leading the opening prayer should always ask God to forgive the sins of the congregation before they begin to worship. A good leader must see the need for God in all their future plans, James 4:13-14.

A good leader should always rely on God’s strength to do what is required and not rely on themselves, Ephesians 6:10. Nehemiah cared not only for his own spiritual welfare but also cared for the spiritual welfare of his people. He genuinely cared for the welfare of others.

‘Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man.” I was cupbearer to the king.’ Nehemiah 1:11

Now that God has prepared Nehemiah for the task ahead and Nehemiah has prepared himself for the task ahead, He’s now ready for the task ahead. Nehemiah concluded by asking God to bless him when he would soon speak to the king of Persia about the matter.

Nehemiah was going to do something about the sorry state of Jerusalem’s walls and people, and he knows without God’s intervention, he could do nothing.

Now make no mistake about it, he knows he needs God’s help because this wasn’t a straightforward task. In effect, Nehemiah was putting his life on the line to help his people, Ezra 4:17-22.

Nehemiah put his life on the line for his people, because his master Artaxerxes I had already accepted the charge of the Samaritans that Jerusalem was a bad and rebellious city. And any request of Nehemiah of Artaxerxes would involve asking him to cancel a decree that he himself had made only a few years previously.

Nehemiah introduced himself as one who was in a prominent position in the king’s court in Persia. As a cupbearer to the king, it was his responsibility to drink some of the king’s wine before the king partook in order to see if it was poisoned, Nehemiah 2:1.

Notice he doesn’t pray, ‘God please step in and just help my people’. He doesn’t pray, ‘God send someone else to deal with what’s happening in Jerusalem’. He prays, ‘God, use me, send me to help your people’. He said, ‘Lord, if you want to use me, I am making myself available to You’.

Nehemiah was a great leader because he feared God, Nehemiah 5:15.

Go To Nehemiah 2

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"Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

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