Judah was in distress: the walls of Jerusalem were broken down, their enemies held the upper hand, and those with prestige frequently flaunted God’s standards. One man in a privileged position rose up to champion God’s people and God’s purposes; he tells his story in the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is the sixteenth book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah were considered as one composite work and placed just before 1 and 2 Chronicles in the Ketuvim or “Writings.” Nehemiah is written as a first-person narrative describing Nehemiah’s efforts in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and re-establishing faithful observance of God’s laws in Judah during the days of Artaxerxes king of Persia (ca. 445-432 BCE). Nehemiah likely wrote the chronicle during and immediately after the events described.
Nehemiah 1:1-6:18 describes Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. In his station as the king’s cup-bearer in Susa, Nehemiah is informed about the condition of the walls of Jerusalem, and he prays to God regarding the sin of the people and to receive an opportunity to do something about Jerusalem’s condition (Nehemiah 1:1-11). The king notices Nehemiah’s sadness, inquires of it, and when informed about the reason, authorizes him to go and rehabilitate Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:1-10). Nehemiah first inspects the walls and then establishes work parties to repair the walls around the circuit (Nehemiah 2:11-3:32). Nehemiah relates the opposition he received from the neighboring peoples, their threat of conflict, and the arming of those repairing the wall as a result (Nehemiah 4:1-23). Meanwhile, Nehemiah must rebuke the nobles and officials for their oppression of the poor, who are duly chastened, and describes his own generosity (Nehemiah 5:1-19). The leaders of some of the surrounding nations continue to conspire against Nehemiah and attempt to cause him difficulties before the king of Persia, yet Nehemiah stands firm in his resolve (Nehemiah 6:1-14). After fifty-two days of work, the walls and gates of Jerusalem were repaired, to the distress of not only the surrounding nations but also to the nobility of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 6:15-19).
After the walls are rebuilt Nehemiah appoints competent authorities over Jerusalem and its gates, and sets forth what he finds in the book of the genealogies of the returned exiles (Nehemiah 7:1-73).
Nehemiah 8:1-13:31 focuses on Nehemiah’s efforts to re-establish faithful observance of God’s laws in Judah. Ezra the priest-scribe reads the book of the Law of Moses before all the people, with some among the Levites explaining it to the people; the people recognized their sins and the sins of their fathers but were encouraged to celebrate the day without mourning (Nehemiah 8:1-12). The Feast of Booths was then properly celebrated (Nehemiah 8:13-18). Afterward the people confessed their sins and the sins of their fathers, and the Levites pray an extended prayer proclaiming God’s deliverance of Israel and the persistent disobedience of Israel (Nehemiah 9:1-37). The people then re-affirmed their covenant with God, its signatories are noted, and their obligations spelled out (Nehemiah 9:38-10:39). Nehemiah then explains how the people were dispersed throughout the land, listing the chiefs among the various tribes in both Jerusalem and the towns in Judah, along with the priests and Levites (Nehemiah 11:1-12:26). The dedication of the wall and the Temple service are then discussed (Nehemiah 12:27-47). Nehemiah ends by relating his final reforms: the expulsion of Tobiah from the Temple precinct, re-establishment of the Levitical food portions, cessation of work on the Sabbath, and exhortation against intermarriage with foreigners (Nehemiah 13:1-31).
Nehemiah writes his book to be remembered by God and by Israel for the good he did for his fellow Jews and Jerusalem. His example remains a powerful testimony of how one man’s faithfulness and zeal for God and his purposes can encourage others to the same end and lead to reformation and restoration in the community of God’s people. May we seek to be faithful to God like Nehemiah, and strive to do all things to God’s glory in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry