Nehemiah left a comfortable job as an assistant to the king of Persia in order to help the demoralized people of Jerusalem, his home city. His work in Jerusalem involved motivating the people to rebuild the city’s walls in spite of their neighbors’ opposition. Nehemiah’s work was not just with bricks and mortar. He also mediated a financial crisis, initiated religious reforms with the help of Ezra the scribe, and reorganized civic responsibilities in Jerusalem. Nehemiah demonstrated that with faith, prayer, integrity, and God’s help, God’s servants can succeed. He was a powerful leader of God’s people living in Judea following their Babylonian exile. He worked to improve the strength of God’s people in the midst of their difficulties. Before returning to Judea, he was the cup bearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia. Being a cup bearer was a position of great trust for it was the cup bearer who brought the king his wine. He would taste the wine first to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. Nehemiah had heard sad reports about Jerusalem and out of compassion he asked the king’s permission to return to Judah to help his people. The Lord moved in the king’s heart and Nehemiah was allowed to go to Judea. Artaxerxes named Nehemiah the governor of the province of Judea for twelve years to help his people rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
While Nehemiah had the support of the Persian king, he faced opposition much closer to home. These were the people of the land Ezra wrote about, people of mixed heritage who lived north of Judea and some who had taken up residence in Jerusalem. Many called these folks Samaritans. Nehemiah showed great courage and skill as he successfully helped the people of Judea rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. We also see that Nehemiah had a strong personal faith, as evidenced in his prayers. He was confident in God’s divine guidance. Nehemiah also advocated for economic justice, rebuked a handful of rich Judeans who were exploiting a food shortage by exacting high interest from their poorer brothers, and he provided an example of better conduct. He was also concerned about the people’s faithfulness, and he individually confronted men who had married pagan women. He had a strong interest in maintaining temple worship and he led the Jewish community to pledge to support temple personnel and provide offerings. He also reformed the sabbath observance. Although there were still some challenges at the end of his tenure in Jerusalem, Nehemiah was an effective leader who restored a national and religious identity to the Jewish settlers in a period of political and economic weakness.
As you read this book here are some things to look for. Prayer was a key part of Nehemiah’s life. In fact, he based his service on prayer. He initiated his plans only after he had consulted the Lord. For Nehemiah, prayer provided the power to accomplish God’s will. Six times Nehemiah repeated a refrain asking the Lord to remember Nehemiah or his opponents. Another theme is that of God’s providence. The Book of Nehemiah emphasizes that God sovereignly controls the lives of the individuals and nations. God is able to restore people from exile and promote one of His servants to be the king’s cup bearer and later the governor of a province. God provided success to Nehemiah and the Jews in the rebuilding of the city walls. He protected His people and frustrated the plans of the wicked. The same God who created the heavens and the earth, called Abram from Ur, and gave the land to Israel…was able to accomplish His will through Nehemiah. We see that dedication to God’s Word is also a theme. The authoritative law of Moses contained God’s instructions on how His people should live. But we have already read how the book of the law was “lost” or ignored or put aside by God’s people. Their not following God’s law put them at odds with the Lord and as a result God disciplined them. Ezra read from the book of the law to restore the nation when they returned from exile, and as a result many of the people rededicated themselves to following the law. They even separated themselves from unbelievers. This would be a recurring problem, even today. The last major thing to watch for is Nehemiah’s courage against opposition. When the Jews began to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem, they faced stiff opposition from three individuals: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. Sanballat was the main leader of the opposition. He was the governor of Samaria, the province north of Judah. He was known as Sanballat the Horonite. He was probably from Upper or Lower Horon, known as Beth-Horon which was about 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Tobiah was part of a family of powerful Jewish aristocrats who lived in Transjordan. The Transjordan was composed of three regions east of the Jordan River from the source of the river near Mount Hermon all the way south to the Dead Sea. In particular this Tobiah was most likely the governor of the area known as Ammon which is part of the Transjordan. There is less known about Geshem, but he was most likely the governor of Dedan. This area included Syria, northern Arabia, Sinai, and northern Egypt.
Nehemiah was in Susa, the political capital of Persia, serving the king. His brother, Hanani came to visit. He may have actually been a blood brother, not a fellow countryman. Hanani brought news of trouble in Jerusalem and the news distressed Nehemiah enough that he sought the Lord in prayer, mourning, and fasting. His prayer included praise, confession, a remembrance of God’s promises, and petition. Nehemiah recognized that Israel’s current situation was not a failure of God’s covenant of unfailing love. Israel’s persistent sin had brought about the punishments entailed in the covenant. And like Ezra, Nehemiah identified with the sins of his people, made no excuses, and accepted both his individual responsibility and the responsibility of the larger group that had sinned against God. Nehemiah also recognized that God could influence the king of Persia to be kind to him.
One of the unwritten rules about serving the king of Persia was that the servants were expected to keep their feelings to themselves and to display a cheerful disposition at all times before him. But anxiety gripped Nehemiah, not so much because of the king’s question but in anticipation of the request he was about to make. He did not know how the king would respond if he shared the reason for his sorrow. We read in Ezra 4:21-22 that this same king, Artaxerxes, had previously ordered that Jerusalem not be rebuilt. Nehemiah was not putting on an act. His deep sadness showed despite his best efforts to conceal it. As Nehemiah prepared to make his request of the king, he uttered a silent prayer to the Lord, knowing full well that the king was subject to the God of Heaven. Nehemiah needed God’s guidance and provision as he made his request. Artaxerxes being open to Nehemiah’s request seemed surprising in light of Jerusalem’s history of rebellion against Persia, but the king may have looked at this as an opportunity to solidify his control over a troubled area of his empire. Nehemiah knew the king’s favorable response was due to the work of the Lord.
Nehemiah left for Jerusalem with army officers, the king’s cavalry, and letters of passage. The trouble with the interference by Sanballat and his friends was that rebuilding the walls meant there would be a shift in power in favor of the Jews. After being in Jerusalem for three days Nehemiah left under the cover of night to inspect the city walls. He needed to see what he was up against, the condition of the walls, and what he would need for their reconstruction. He went at night to avoid detection by the neighbors. He didn’t go all the way around the city, just the southern part of the wall. The Jackals’ well may have been called En-rogel and was a water source about 400 yards south of the city. The Dung gate or the gate of broken pots is at the south end of the western wall. It led out to the Hinnom valley, which the residents of the city used for their garbage dump. There was often a fire burning and it was there in the fire that pagans worshiped the god Molech. The Fountain gate was quite possible in the southeastern wall facing En-rogel and the king’s pool was probably the pool of Siloam.
Nehemiah kept his rebuilding plans secret from both the Persian and Jewish leaders to prevent opposition from being organized. But now after his nighttime inspection he was ready to rebuild. He knew the city was in trouble. The broken walls had brought scorn, ridicule, and disgrace to God’s people and it reflected negatively on God. Jerusalem did not look like the city of the great king and the fact they could not rebuild made God seem weak and ineffective. Nehemiah was not about to take credit for the beginning or the success of the project. He knew the hand of the Lord was upon him. And how much easier things go when we let the Lord lead and guide.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W