To date, two groups of captives have returned to Judah in at least partial fulfillment of God’s promises to the Hebrew nation.
But there is one more company of exiles that God is preparing. The last group of captives is commissioned to fix a problem. Although the first two groups returned to rebuild Jerusalem and to complete part of that project by finishing the temple, the rest of the construction was abandoned as opposition from the surrounding nations arose. The people from the surrounding area didn’t want the Israelites to build the city and its walls because they were afraid that the Israelites might become a mighty nation as they had once been (Ezra 4:6–24). Thus, the return of the Israelites appeared to be a threat, one that they were determined to stop. But God didn’t call His people in order to abandon them in the process of doing what He had called them to do.
Thus, He was preparing another man to carry out His will and to accomplish His purposes. His name was Nehemiah, and to him and his work for the Lord we turn.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, October 12.
The book of Nehemiah opens somewhat in the same way the book of Daniel did (read Dan. 1:1, 2), and that was with bad news. Yes, many had returned to their ancestral homeland, but things weren’t going too well for them there.
Some Jews taken captive years earlier were brought to Shushan, one of the four administrative centers of the Persian Empire, where Nehemiah served in the royal palace as a cupbearer. The term used for “Hanani one of my brothers” most likely refers to a blood brother, because there is a similar but more familial-sounding reference to Hanani in Nehemiah 7:2, although it could be a reference to just a fellow Israelite. The conversation with Hanani most likely happened between mid-November and mid-December of 445 b.c., some 13 years after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. Hanani reports that the situation in Jerusalem is dire. The people have not been able to rebuild Jerusalem, and the enemy had destroyed the walls of the city, leaving it defenseless and desolate.
It bears mention that King Artaxerxes crushed the hope of the returnees by stopping the progress of the construction after the people beyond the river complained (Ezra 4). This allowed the enemies to destroy the walls of the city (Ezra 4:23). Nehemiah would have heard rumors of such disaster, but he didn’t have definite answers until this time.
Even though the temple was rebuilt, it wasn’t fully functioning because the people needed for the temple service were unable to live in Jerusalem. The situation saddened Nehemiah as the implications of the news penetrated his soul: the Jews had not glorified God even though they had returned for that purpose. Instead, they had neglected the house of God and the Holy City, because of their fear of the enemy and oppression.
Thus, Nehemiah automatically turns to God. He doesn’t complain that the people of Judah lack faith or put them down as cowards, nor does he just accept the situation as the status quo. Nehemiah just gets down on his knees and starts praying and fasting.
1. God, You are great and have mercy (Neh. 1:5).
2. Hear me (Neh. 1:6).
3. Confession of sins (Neh. 1:6, 7).
4. Remember Your promises (Neh. 1:8, 9).
3. You have redeemed us (Neh. 1:10).
2. Hear me (Neh. 1:11).
1. God, grant prosperity and mercy (Neh. 1:11).
Nehemiah’s prayer is a beautiful composition recounting God’s greatness, their own sinfulness, and concluding with a cry for help. The prayer resembles the prayer of Daniel in Daniel 9, and it is possible that Nehemiah was familiar with that prayer. It is noteworthy that Nehemiah doesn’t begin with a cry for help, but rather first states the truth about who God is, great and awesome. He also points out that God keeps His covenant and has mercy on those who love Him, as if to remind God that He has always been faithful and cannot now be any other way.
The prayer is in a special structure (depicted above) that centers on verse 8, where Nehemiah articulates God’s promises. Nehemiah says: “Remember!” In other words: Remember, God, that You promised that You will scatter us when we are unfaithful but that You also promised to bring us back and restore everything. Since the first one has happened, now it is time to fulfill the other because we are returning to You. Nehemiah is not afraid to claim God’s promises and to remind God of them. Of course, it is not that God doesn’t know or remember His promises. Instead, God takes pleasure in our willingness to claim His promises. He wants us to believe in them and thus speak them out loud to Him. By verbalizing what God has promised us, we can be strengthened in our own resolve to trust in those promises, especially when everything seems hopeless.
Nehemiah 1:11 says that Nehemiah is the king’s cupbearer. To us this may seem like an unimportant job, but cupbearers could be men of powerful influence, since they had constant and close access to the king. Cupbearers tasted beverages for the king in order to prevent illness or death of the king. Herodotus points out that the Persians held cupbearers in high honor, as they were regarded as high officials. For instance, the cupbearer of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon also was the chief minister of the kingdom. Thus, Nehemiah holds a high position in the kingdom, and because of his access to the king, he pleads with God to use him in speaking to the king about the situation in Judah.
The prayer is answered in the month of Nisan, which is roughly the month of April of 444 b.c. Four months have passed since Hanani and the Jews brought the disturbing news about Jerusalem to Nehemiah. For four months, Nehemiah prayed and fasted, and every day it might have seemed to him as if God were not answering. But God’s timing is always perfect. God prepared the king to hear Nehemiah and to respond favorably.
It was not an everyday occurrence to have the cupbearer relieved of his duties for a time to be a governor in a different land. God spoke through Nehemiah and impressed the Persian king Artaxerxes I to make Nehemiah a governor over the territory of Judah. The mention of the queen suggests that this was possibly a private occasion, as it was not customary for the queen always to be present for formal banquets. Nehemiah does not immediately mention Jerusalem, in order to keep the king from having preconceived ideas, but rather he makes an emotional appeal to the king about something personal to him. By the time the specific place is mentioned, the king has been won.
The king sent letters with Nehemiah to Sanballat the Horonite and to Tobiah the Ammonite, the high officials of the region beyond the river, in order to pave the way for what Nehemiah was to accomplish. Additionally, the king commanded Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, to provide Nehemiah with all the timber necessary to rebuild the city, walls, and gates of the temple.
Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem sometime in the second part of the year 444 b.c. Opposition appears to spring up even before Nehemiah attempts any action, as the request delivered to the governors stirs up problems. Although Tobiah is a Jewish name, which meant “the Lord is good” (his son Jehohanan also carried a Jewish name, “the Lord is gracious”), he served as a governor of Ammon. Thus, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemies: Sanballat, the governor of Samaria to the north; Tobiah, the governor of Ammon to the east; and Geshem, the Arab (Neh. 2:18, 19) to the south, who took hold of Edom and Moab. It is unfortunate that the leadership in that region shunned Nehemiah for being concerned about the “well-being” of the oppressed. Bullies don’t rejoice over the good fortune of those they intimidate.
Nehemiah’s “arrival in Jerusalem, however, with a military escort, showing that he had come on some important mission, excited the jealousy of the heathen tribes living near the city, who had so often indulged their enmity against the Jews by heaping upon them injury and insult. Foremost in this evil work were certain chiefs of these tribes, Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian. From the first these leaders watched with critical eyes the movements of Nehemiah and endeavored by every means in their power to thwart his plans and hinder his work.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 635.
No question, the Lord had called Nehemiah to this task and would provide all that he would need. Armed with the knowledge of God’s promises and the certainty of the call by God, Nehemiah proceeded. But he moved ahead carefully and prayerfully. In other words, even though he knew God was with him, this knowledge didn’t keep him, basically, from thinking through what he would do.
Leadership Lessons: Lesson 1—Nehemiah does not tell anyone what the plans are that “God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12). Not only does he not tell the enemy, but he keeps it from the Jewish leaders, as well. He is on a scouting mission to figure out what needs to be done. Lesson 2—Before presenting anything, Nehemiah does his homework and plans out all the work that will be required. Lesson 3—When he does speak of the task, Nehemiah first outlines what God has done so far to lead this expedition, and then he adds the words of the king. He encourages before he asks for commitment. It is nothing short of a miracle that the Jews respond so favorably and decide to build, despite the resistance that will come. God had prepared not only the king through Nehemiah’s prayers and fasting but also the Jewish people, so that they respond boldly and courageously.
Our conversations demonstrate who we are and what we truly believe. Nehemiah tends to speak uplifting words. He is not afraid to include God in all that he says and to glorify Him as well, even when people jeer and laugh at him. Even though Nehemiah knows the contempt the enemies feel toward them, he doesn’t mince words or leave God out of the conversation. Like Joseph in Egypt many years earlier, Nehemiah is not afraid to promote his God among people who do not believe in Him.
Further Thought: Contemplate “A Man of Opportunity,” pp. 628–634, in Prophets and Kings.
Nehemiah was a man of prayer: “Nehemiah had often poured out his soul in behalf of his people. But now as he prayed a holy purpose formed in his mind. He resolved that if he could obtain the consent of the king, and the necessary aid in procuring implements and material, he would himself undertake the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and restoring Israel’s national strength. And he asked the Lord to grant him favor in the sight of the king, that this plan might be carried out. ‘Prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day,’ he entreated, ‘and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.’ Four months Nehemiah waited for a favorable opportunity to present his request to the king.” —Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 629, 630.