Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 2
As we continue our study of the book of Nehemiah, it will soon become apparent that much of our time will be devoted to a rebuilding of the walls around the city of Jerusalem. Those who are conversant with the political developments in the United States over the last two years will also recognize that wall building has been much debated in our country. President Donald Trump promised repeatedly during his campaign for the presidency that he would build a wall along the southern border to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. His supporters loudly proclaimed that such a wall is essential to our safety. His critics claim that such a wall would be ineffective, horribly expensive, and anti-American. Wall building has its proponents but also its enemies.
It might be of interest to many of us to know that President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were the recipients of a well-crafted sermon on inauguration day, January 20, 2017. On that morning, before any of the public festivities started, Reverend Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, met with the two families and some close advisors. Rev. Jeffress delivered an excellent message based on the first chapter of Nehemiah. The title of that sermon was “When God Chooses a Leader.” The pastor made numerous explicit references to the building of the wall around Jerusalem. He also focused on the opposition that came from multiple sources, which were providentially overcome. The primary point, though, was that this election was clearly a case of sovereign control. The new president and vice president were clearly a divine choice. God directed that election so that his outcome would be guaranteed. God was going to take control of our nation’s direction. God was going to exercise his sovereignty.
As we reflect on that, we need to go back into the book of Daniel, where God made it plain to King Nebuchadnezzar that it was he who appoints kings and rulers. We see it demonstrated in that first dream that God had planted in his head. In it, he revealed that there was “a stone cut out by no human hand and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces” (Dan. 2:34). He later made it plain to stubborn Nebuchadnezzar and to all of us “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets it over the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17). That same God performed a miracle of shutting lions’ mouths so that King Darius of Persia would exalt and praise the God of Daniel, “for he is the living God” (Dan. 6:26). Much later, God spared the lives of Esther and Mordecai so that they became powerful leaders in the Persian Empire. From all indications, it was Queen Esther who became the stepmother of King Artaxerxes, the God-fearing ruler who commissioned Nehemiah to rebuild the wall.
Sad Reports from Jerusalem
Nehemiah received a report from Hanani in the month Chislev, which would correspond to our November–December calendar, in 446 b.c. Nehemiah makes the claim that Hanani is “one of my brothers.” If Hanani is a blood brother, a member of his biological family, that raises interesting questions as to why he is coming from Jerusalem. Is he coming on official business? Is he one of the Jews who had gone to Jerusalem with an earlier migration? Why are these two brothers separated by such vast distances? Why would Hanani make a trip of approximately a thousand miles that takes four months one way? Lynn Austin, a Christian novelist, offers a plausible answer to those questions in On This Foundation, a powerful novel about Nehemiah. I recommend it highly.
Nehemiah makes his request to the king in “the month of Nisan,” which would be our March–April of 445 b.c. Both of these dates are in the “twentieth year” of King Artaxerxes’ reign. This would suggest Nehemiah mulled over that sad situation in Jerusalem for four to six months before he confessed to the king why he was so sad. Nehemiah had been praying that God would make the king sympathetic to his concerns (Neh. 1:11), but he does not approach the king with a request. He waits for the king to inquire about his sad demeanor (Neh. 2:2). God is answering Nehemiah’s prayers, while his Holy Spirit is preparing the mind of the king. Nehemiah knows that his God is sovereign.
Hanani and the men with him offer a bleak picture of conditions in Jerusalem and Judea. Nehemiah’s questions are focused not on overall conditions but “on the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem” (Neh. 1:2) The question does not seem to focus on the remnant who had returned and who had built the temple but on a more defined group who had been left behind by Nebuchadnezzar to farm the land (Jer. 52:16) and to those who had fled to Egypt to escape being exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 25:26). Their report is also focused on “those who survived the exile.” They report that this “remnant” is “in great trouble and shame.” They follow that with the report that “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Neh. 1:3). Nehemiah’s response is to hearing “these words,” implying that his sorrow is focused on the walls and the gates rather than on the people’s condition. The walls and gates had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 b.c., so they were in this broken-down condition for 140 years.
The report of Hanani and his men did not focus on the spiritual condition of the church or on the work of Ezra, who had been commissioned to teach the law of God to the people. The last chapters in Ezra would force one to conclude that there was an obedient, worshipful attitude among the people, thus being cause for rejoicing. Hanani’s report, therefore, is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. Its focus is narrow.
Nehemiah’s response is a beautiful example of a God-fearing man who loves the church. He does not engage in cold, analytical reaction but in spiritual concern. He “sat down and wept and mourned for days, and continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” He realizes that God was righteous and holy in his punishment. He confesses the sins of the people but includes himself and his father’s house as being guilty. He takes full responsibility for their sins and admits that the people of Judah and Jerusalem had broken all of God’s laws and statutes. He then quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26, along with other passages. He obviously knows his Bible. He also senses the embarrassment to the church and name of God. He is reflecting on a civic junkyard of broken walls, gates, and homes. How humiliating! No repairs for 141 years? Why not?
Nehemiah’s prayer has many similarities to that of Daniel. Both men are living in exile, but in different times. Daniel is living earlier and is a much older man when he utters his prayer. At the time of his prayer, Daniel is living in Persia during the first year of King Darius, shortly after the Persians had overthrown the Babylonians. He is serving in the royal court. Nehemiah is much younger when he prays, but he is also serving in the court of the Persian king. Neither man would need to take personal responsibility for the sins committed by the Jews, but both of them put that responsibility on themselves. They are both acting as priests, bringing confession to God for the sins which brought about the destruction of the temple and the city. Both men quote Scripture in their prayers, with Daniel focusing on the writings of Jeremiah, while Nehemiah focuses more on the Pentateuch. Both are pleading with God to be merciful to his bride, the church.
Nehemiah expresses a deep appreciation for the law of God. He obviously had access to Deuteronomy and Leviticus but does not focus on specific laws or commandments. He does not cite a litany of the laws that the people broke but concentrates instead on the covenant themes that come through Deuteronomy. He reminds God of his covenant promises and the promises that God would always be their God and they would always be his people. “You” and “your” are interspersed throughout his prayer. We are “your servants” is a dominant theme.
1. What do we learn about Nehemiah in this first chapter? How does his introduction compare with that accorded to Ezra in Ezra 7:1–6? Why the difference?
2. By consulting the chronology and the introduction to this study series, how many years have elapsed between the arrival in Jerusalem of Ezra and Nehemiah? What major events transpired between these two arrivals?
3. How much time had elapsed from the time that Nehemiah had gotten the report (Chislev, v. 1) and Nehemiah’s petition to King Artaxerxes in the month Nisan (2:1)? How did Nehemiah occupy that time?
4. How would you characterize Hanani’s report of conditions in Judea and Jerusalem at this time? What did he emphasize, and what did he not report?
5. How would you characterize Nehemiah’s response to the news he had received? Was that a fitting, appropriate response?
6. How would you compare Nehemiah’s prayer with that prayed by Daniel in Daniel 9:1–8? What similarities do you see? What differences are there?
7. What attitudes does Nehemiah express toward the law of God? Did he have access to the Pentateuch? Did he have access to the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel?
8. Based on your reading of Nehemiah 1, how frequently would there have been travel between Jerusalem and Susa? How would that affect communication?
9. Is there divine justification for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem? Are the Jews responding to God’s commands or acting out of fear?
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.