Introduction to the Bible - 16 - Nehemiah

Introduction to Nehemiah

by Becky MacLeod

(Also see Becky's personal biographical story about salvation. Becky MacLeod)

The book of Nehemiah is a historical account of one man with a heart for the things and people of God making a tremendous impact on an entire nation. This Jewish man, Nehemiah, undertook a monumental task, and despite struggles, opposition, and setbacks, successfully completed the work God gave him to do.  In addition to being an enjoyable book to read, we can glean very practical lessons for our Christian life. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith.”  Despite opposition from Satan, whose goal is to see God’s work destroyed and His people discouraged, we too, can finish the work God has given us to do on this earth.

Background
The beginning of the book finds Nehemiah and most of the children of Israel, God’s chosen people, in captivity in Babylon, far away from their home in Israel.  How did they come to be found in that situation?  Chapter 9 takes us briefly through the history of the Israelites: God choosing Abraham and promising him the land of Canaan for his descendants, the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, God giving them His Law on Mount Sinai, their struggles in the wilderness, their possession of the Promised Land where God greatly blessed them with riches in a beautiful and plenteous land, and their struggles in their new home.

Yet in plenty they turned away from God to idols and the gods of the land.  God repeatedly was merciful to them, giving them many opportunities to repent and return to Him, but after numerous warnings God allowed the northern tribes of Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians and carried away as captives.  This should have been a warning to the southern tribe of Judah,  but they too, because of disobedience, were eventually invaded by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, some 120 years later.  Over the next 20 years they were carried out of their homeland into Babylon, far away from their country and their beloved and once-glorious city of Jerusalem.  Israel, which had been the richest and most powerful nation on earth, found itself in ruins, its people scattered and in captivity because of disobedience to God.

Setting
The book of Nehemiah commences almost 150 years after the carrying away into Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem.  Many people eventually became comfortable in the land of their captivity, assimilated into the godless Babylonian culture.  However, some still retained a heart for the things of God and for the place where God had chosen to put his Name (Ezra 6:12).

Nehemiah had never seen Jerusalem but had certainly heard about the beloved city of his ancestors.  While serving in the palace as cupbearer to the king, a place of earthly prominence and influence, in contact with one of the greatest monarchs of his time, King Artaxerxes I, Nehemiah retained humility and a heart for the things of God.  He heard about the plight of his brethren who were in Jerusalem, trying to survive.  Over 90 years earlier, after the fall of the Babylonian empire, the Persian king Cyrus had permitted some of the Jews to return to their homeland, and there had been several groups of exiles who had made the journey back to the land of Israel. The book of Ezra gives the accounts of these expeditions.  By Nehemiah’s time the temple of God had been rebuilt in Jerusalem, although it did not compare in majesty and beauty to the original temple built by the great King Solomon.  Nehemiah obtained permission from the king to lead another expedition for the purpose of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

The book of Nehemiah is broken down into two major sections: the first seven chapters deal with the physical restoration of the city walls, while the closing chapters deal with the spiritual restoration of the people to the laws of God.  The main characters are Nehemiah the Governor, and his opponents, Sanballat & Tobiah, who were “grieved…exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (2:10 KJV).  These two men were non-Jews who had set themselves up in a place of prominence, and when Nehemiah came they were concerned with losing position, influence and power.   It became their aim to stop the work by any means they could devise.  But what they did not realize was that this was God’s work and no one could stop it!  Despite the threats, ridicule and opposition the wall of the city was finished in fifty-two working days, the gates and doors firmly set in place.  Then the enemies and all the nations around “lost their confidence, for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (Neh. 6:16 NASB).

For further study on the historical biblical context of Nehemiah see CHAPTER 2 - Unfulfilled Prophecy - Dating the 70 Weeks of Daniel

Problems from Without
Though finding willing workers among the people Nehemiah also found much to discourage.  The opposition took many different forms, all seemingly instigated by Sanballat, Tobiah and their accomplices.  His enemies began with ridicule, then attempted to instill fear by threatening a personal attack on Nehemiah’s character.  They also attempted trickery (through feigned friendliness), false accusations, compromise and threats, but with the help of God, Nehemiah was wise enough to perceive their evil intentions.  The workers themselves were also exhausted and in danger, and fear gripped them.   Nehemiah encouraged them with these words: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome” (4:14 NASB).  Guards were posted day and night, and as each man repaired a section of the wall he worked with a weapon by his side. 

Problems from Within
Not only were there threats from without, Nehemiah also encountered internal problems that needed his attention.  Due to an economic crisis some Jews were taking advantage of their own brothers.  The temple tithes and offerings were being neglected, and the Sabbath was not being kept as commanded by God.   Some of the Jews also had intermarried with heathen nations in direct violation of God’s law.  Nehemiah addressed each situation he encountered prayerfully.

Lessons for Us
-When faced with difficulties Nehemiah’s first response was to go immediately to God in prayer for guidance and strength.  Philippians 4:6 instructs us to “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”   (NASB).  Many times over Nehemiah proved that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16 NKJV).

-We can take note of the many leadership qualities Nehemiah manifested:
     -true care for the people
     -willingness to endure ridicule and trials for what he knew to be right
     -working alongside the people
     -discernment of his enemies’ evil intentions
     -willingness to listen to the people’s fears and complaints
     -giving encouragement when needed
     -correcting the people when necessary
     -fully depending on God and not self

-Revival and restoration begins with one individual- me.  After recognizing the need, Nehemiah did not ask the Lord to send someone else, but rather made himself available to God.  Under Nehemiah’s leadership, Jerusalem underwent a spiritual restoration, beginning with the people’s recognition of changes needed in their own lives.  The public reading of the Law caused them to acknowledge their personal & national responsibility to God’s commands.  They wept and fasted, repented, confessed their sin to God, and took an oath to walk in God’s law.

-God does not call people for service in the future if they are not actively working today.  Nehemiah was faithfully occupied where God had placed him, serving a pagan king in a pagan land.

-God is in control, even in impossible circumstances.  Could a city wall  really be built in 52 working days amidst many forms of opposition?  “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26 NASB).

-When something is being done that brings honor to God, Satan will seek to interfere and destroy.  This was evident from the time Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem.  Yet God’s power over Satan was clearly manifested.

-Service for God is not always easy, and may require personal sacrifice (comforts, personal gain, and even safety), but we can be confident that if we are doing God’s work His purposes will be accomplished.