The book of Nehemiah picks up not long after the book of Ezra closes. However, it is a generation from the beginning of the book of Ezra when the exiles were given permission to return to Jerusalem. In 539 BC Cyrus issued a decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland and he even sent with them the remaining articles from the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had captured 70 years earlier.
Ezra records the building of the temple in Jerusalem and finally Ezra arrives in Jerusalem with a second round of exiles in 458 BC. Ezra leads the people in spiritual reforms and instructs them in the law of God.
Nehemiah picks up a decade later. While the temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, the city is still in trouble. The walls surrounding the city are in shambles. Word comes to Nehemiah in 1:3:
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.”
This is more than an issue of not looking nice. We might consider it a disgrace if the yard to our church hadn’t been mowed in weeks and one of the windows had been broken and hastily covered over with a sheet of plywood. The walls being broken down would be similar to that but there is a very practical problem here as well. A city without walls in these days is a defenseless city. Basically anyone could march right in and take what they wanted. In theory, the city had the protection of the king, but it was a five month journey to Babylon, so they were pretty much left to fend for themselves.
When Nehemiah hears the report that the city’s walls lie in ruin, he weeps. After Nehemiah cries out to the Lord in prayer, chapter 1 closes with a matter of fact statement “I was cupbearer to the king.” Nehemiah’s heart is broken by the state that Jerusalem is in, but God has placed him in a position to do something about it. A cupbearer in the ancient world was not just a servant. It was one of the most trusted positions. The job of a cupbearer was to first drink from the king’s cup in order to make sure that it hadn’t been poisoned. As such, he had close access to the king and had been entrusted with the king’s very life. Nehemiah would have been in the presence of the king on a daily basis thanks to his job.
Of course being in the presence of the king regularly wasn’t without its drawbacks. During this era, servants were not allowed to be sad around the king. The idea behind it was quite simple – the king didn’t want to be brought down by the problems of his mere servants. Nehemiah hid his sadness from the king until he couldn’t keep it from his face any longer. When the king asked, Nehemiah gave him the cause of his sadness.
When King Artaxerxes responded by asking Nehemiah what he wanted in light of the circumstances that made him so sad, Nehemiah quickly said a prayer. Nehemiah models prayer throughout the book but this prayer is his greatest in my opinion. We aren’t told what he said and he obviously didn’t have much time to pray before responding to Artaxerxes. This shows what it is like when one prays continually the way Paul instructs us. It is not about the words that we say or how we say them. Instead it is about our attitude. Nehemiah lived in an attitude of prayer. It was so ingrained into him that even when he only had a split second before needing to respond to the king, he still thinks to pray for success.
Even though the passage makes no mention of it, Nehemiah 2 is an important date in Biblical history. The year is most likely 444 BC when this conversation takes place between King Artaxerxes and Nehemiah. When he is told to go and repair the wall surrounding Jerusalem, this starts the prophetic clock ticking on Daniel’s prophecy concerning seventy sevens. You can read much more about it on the Spreading Light Ministries page but in short, this proclamation starts the countdown until the day that Christ will be crucified. If anyone had understood the prophecy at the time, they could have counted down to the day when Jesus would walk into Jerusalem as the Passover lamb to be crucified.
Nehemiah heads to Jerusalem and begins to survey the wall. It is in bad shape, as he expected, and he begins to form a plan to complete the task. The job would be difficult enough considering its magnitude but Nehemiah must also deal with opposition from some of the local people who don’t want to see the wall rebuilt. Men by the names of Sanballat and Tobiah will do all that they can to stop Nehemiah and the Jews from rebuilding the wall. Each time they try something, Nehemiah responds with a new plan to keep the people working.
When Sanballat and Tobiah mock the Jews, Nehemiah prays and asks that God would punish them for opposing His work. When the enemy makes plans to lead an army against Jerusalem, Nehemiah prays and posts a 24 hour guard. When they persist in trying to kill the workers, Nehemiah splits the people into two groups. Half work while the other half stands guard. They continue working from sunrise until sunset. Four times Sanballat and Geshem attempt to lead Nehemiah away with a ruse but he refuses to leave each time by saying that the work is too important. The enemy uses slander when they write a letter to Artaxerxes claiming that Nehemiah and the Jews planned to rebel but Nehemiah ignored it. And finally they bring a false prophet to try to trick Nehemiah into taking refuge in the temple but Nehemiah sees through the scheme.
Despite all of the opposition, the wall is completed in an incredible time, only 52 days. Now, it is difficult to say how big the city of Jerusalem was at this time. I have read multiple different theories on the size and population of the city. But no matter what size it really is, this is an incredibly significant accomplishment. They are not building a fence around the city, they are building a wall that has to be high enough and deep enough to repel enemy forces. If the city is relatively small at this time, as some believe, that would mean that this task is accomplished by a relatively small number of workers – perhaps only a few hundred.
No matter the size, the speed at which this task is accomplished impresses even the enemy. Nehemiah 6:16 says:
When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.
While Nehemiah’s main task was the reconstruction of the wall around Jerusalem, like Ezra, he also enacted some social reforms. Perhaps chief among these was his strong reaction to the intermarrying of Jew and Gentile. While the situation caused Ezra to pull out his own hair, Nehemiah inflicts the pain on the culprits by pulling out their hair.
It also comes to light that Sanballat and Tobiah have supporters amongst the Jews which is how they knew what was going on in Jerusalem so often. Nehemiah doesn’t respond kindly to this, including kicking one of the priests out of the temple for marrying Sanballat’s daughter.
Nehemiah’s leadership, alongside of Ezra’s, is certainly significant among the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from the exile. Nevertheless, when one thinks of Nehemiah they will likely first think of the tremendous accomplishment that he achieved in rebuilding the wall in 52 days. After that, they should think of him as a man of prayer who prayed in all circumstances and made it to be a regular part of his life.