The book of Nehemiah begins by introducing Nehemiah’s discontentment with the economic, the social, and the political situation of the people of Jerusalem. The bad news Nehemiah received about the dire condition of the city and the people moved him to pray to God and with a heavy heart ask God for forgiveness of the sins of the people and for wisdom in his attempt at finding a solution to this problem.
Historical Background to Nehemiah’s Mission
In a previous post, “Nehemiah: The Man and the Book,” I discussed the historical background of Nehemiah and his book. The work of Nehemiah was different from the work of Zerubbabel and from the work of Ezra. Zerubbabel’s work was to rebuild the temple. Ezra’s work was to establish a religion and a community based on the Torah of the “God of heaven” (Ezra 7:21) and to teach the demands of the Torah to the people who had returned from Exile. Nehemiah’s mission was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
The rebuilding of the wall was done by a man whom, in his sovereignty, God had placed in a position of trust and influence. His training and his relationship with the king of the Persian empire equipped Nehemiah for a very special work, the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah had a very important position in the court of the Persian king: “I was cupbearer to the king” (Nehemiah 1:11).
It is not surprising that Nehemiah waited until the end of his prayer to say that he was the cupbearer of the king. Anyone reading this introduction to the book, would conclude that Nehemiah was a simple individual who was concerned with the situation of God’s people in Jerusalem. Nehemiah could have been an ordinary person who was just living in exile with other people. God can use ordinary people to accomplish great things.
But in the case of Nehemiah, God used a man who, in God’s providence, was put in a place and in a position where he could make a difference in doing God’s work in the world. As a cupbearer of the king, Nehemiah enjoyed access to the king and also enjoyed his trust because he was responsible for selecting the wine for the king and because he was responsible for tasting the wine before it was given to the king in order to assure that there was no poison in the wine. Because Nehemiah occupied such a special position, a position of confidence, he also enjoyed the trust of the king.
The Oppressive Situation of the People
When Nehemiah received the news about the conditions of Jerusalem he was serving the king at the fortress city of Susa (Nehemiah 1:1). Susa was the winter residence of the Persian King, while Ecbatana was his summer residence (Ezra 6:1). Susa was an Elamite city that was incorporated into the Persian empire (Ezra 4:9). The beginning of Nehemiah’s book is similar to the way prophetic books begin: “The words of Nehemiah.” Paul Redditt, in his commentary on Nehemiah (2014: 225) said that Nehemiah “is portrayed as someone who spoke and acted for God as a genuine prophet would.”
While Nehemiah was in Susa, his brother Hanani came to visit him with a group of men from Judah. Nehemiah asked them about the Jews who survived the destruction of Jerusalem, those who had escaped the captivity, and about the condition of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:2). It is possible that Nehemiah’s brother was born in exile, had returned to Jerusalem with the first group of returnees, and now had returned to Persia to tell Nehemiah about the political and economic situation in Jerusalem, probably to motivate Nehemiah to ask the king for help. Later on Nehemiah appointed his brother as one of the administrators of the city of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:2).
The news Nehemiah received was not very good. Hanani and those who came with him explained the situation of the people in Jerusalem: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).
The devastation of Jerusalem was caused by the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and by the opposition of the Samaritans after the people returned from exile. The economic situation of the people living in Jerusalem was bleak. People had to pledge their fields, their vineyards, and their houses in order to get grain during the famine, others had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax, and others had to sell their children to be slaves in order to pay their debts (Nehemiah 5:2-5). Little had been done to rebuild the city. The wall of Jerusalem was broken down, and the gates of the city had been destroyed by fire.
Nehemiah was deeply touched by what he heard. When Nehemiah heard about the condition of Jerusalem and the predicament of the people, he sat down and wept. He mourned for many days; he fasted and prayed to God (Nehemiah 1:4). Nehemiah’s prayer (1:5-11) was addressed to the “God of heaven,” a title the Jews used for God during the Persian period. This title appears four times in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah spent four months praying. He prayed for himself, for his family, and for his people. Nehemiah was praying and fasting, waiting on God before he could act. He was waiting for God to indicate to him when it was the right time to act. After his prayer, Nehemiah decided to take action to help his people, for in his prayer, he asked God’s blessings for his decision to go before the king.
People Helping People
To accomplish his work in the world, God uses people who are willing to become instruments to bless others. Hanani was Nehemiah’s brother, a simple individual who was so concerned with the situation of God’s people in Jerusalem that he took the initiative to make a long journey from Jerusalem to Susa to relate to his brother the struggles of the people to survive in the midst of so much pain and suffering. The biblical text does not say what Hanani wanted Nehemiah to do, but he knew that in that situation and because of his position, Nehemiah could help the people.
The other person God used was Nehemiah. Nehemiah was profoundly touched by the situation of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem. When he heard the news about their condition, his heart was moved and immediately he desired to help his people build the wall. The work of Nehemiah has been used to inspire people to do the work of the Lord. A study of the book of Nehemiah may help people develop the desire to work together to accomplish a work for the Lord.
Nehemiah’s response to what he heard was to pray for his people. Many times when one prays for a difficult situation, God may use the person praying to be the divine instrument to accomplish the work that must be done. One person alone cannot accomplish the work that must be done, but people can unite and do the work. To build the walls of Jerusalem, God used Hanani, God used Nehemiah, God used the king of Persia, and God used a united people to do the work that needed to be done.
The news about the condition of the people and the need to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem assured Nehemiah that God was calling him to act in order to help his people in need. Nehemiah’s vocation was to unite the people to build the walls of Jerusalem. As Williamson (1985: 175) wrote, “These are the marks of a true divine vocation, seen in their fullness in the ministry of Jesus Christ himself, but known too in humble and exalted spheres alike by all who enter the service of God in whatever capacity.”
God used the tragic situation of the people in Jerusalem to speak to the heart of Nehemiah. The plight of the people moved Nehemiah to act in order to solve the problem. When things need to be done, God calls people to act. God moved Hanani to travel from Jerusalem to Susa to ask Nehemiah for help. Nehemiah used his position of influence to ask the king of Persia to allow him to go to Jerusalem to help rebuild the walls of the city. God moved the king of Persia to allow Nehemiah to return home. The work belongs to God but God’s work is done through human beings.
The video below is the sermon Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached on October 13, 2019. The title of his sermon was “Nehemiah: Discontent.” The text for the sermon was Nehemiah 1:1-11. The above post is based on Jeff’s sermon.
In his sermon, Jeff challenged the members of The Compass Church to unite and commit themselves to build a new building for the South Naperville Campus. Jeff explained to the congregation that South Naperville has 90,000 people but not enough churches to reach the community. In order to emphasize the need to reach people, Jeff used God’s words to Jonah, “should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).
Jeff concluded his sermon by emphasizing God’s concern for people and what is needed to accomplish the work that needs to be done.
God’s words to Jonah emphasized that God cared for the city of Nineveh and God cared for the people of the city. God cares for the 90,000 people who live in South Naperville as much he cared for the 120,000 people who lived in Nineveh. People who care for people work hard to accomplish the work that must be done.
Nehemiah’s Spiritual Family
Nehemiah was a Jew who was living in the court of the king of Persia, but the Jews living in Jerusalem were his spiritual family. Nehemiah was concerned for his people as much as God was. It was this concern for people that motivated Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city.
Nehemiah’s Capacity to Make a Difference
Nehemiah was the person that God had placed in a position of influence from which he could help people who needed his help. Nehemiah had the training, the leadership, and the resources to make a difference. There was a need to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and Nehemiah was the person chosen by God to make a difference in the life of an oppressed people.
People who care for people work hard to make a difference in their lives.
Sermon: “Nehemiah: Discontent.” by Jeff Griffin
Studies on Nehemiah
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Redditt, Paul L. Ezra-Nehemiah. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014.
Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra-Nehemiah. Word Biblical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2015.