By Shelley Neese

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We finished Ezra, and we are now launching our study of Nehemiah. Remember that in the Masoretic text, Ezra and Nehemiah were originally part of one scroll. Around the fourth century, early church fathers separated them into two distinct books, as he understandably interpreted the introduction in Nehemiah as the start of a new book.

The original layout told the story of three sequential leaders and their pilgrimages from Babylon to Jerusalem. When a new leader took the reins, the editor jumped forward in time and signaled the start of a new unit. Halfway through the book of Ezra, the editor skipped over sixty years between Zerubbabel and Ezra with the phrase “now after this” (Ez. 7:1). With the close of Ezra’s memoir and the start of Nehemiah’s memoir, the editor skipped over thirteen years by inserting the heading: “the words of Nehemiah” (Neh. 1:1).

The ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah overlapped each other. While Nehemiah was not mentioned in the book of Ezra, Ezra made an important appearance in Nehemiah 8. When we get to that chapter, we will see how the work of Ezra the scribe complemented the objectives of Nehemiah the governor. Unlike Nehemiah, Ezra did not have an official title.

One of the first things you will notice reading the book of Nehemiah is that it was written as a linear first-person memoir, even more so than the second unit of Ezra. Nehemiah has less lists and primary source documents than Ezra. Without the distraction of historical insertions, the memoir moves quickly with vivid dialogues and lively plots.

The storyline of the first six chapters of Ezra parallels the first six chapters of Nehemiah. Each starts with a group of Judeans living in exile who are granted permission from a Persian king to return to Jerusalem. All the leaders share a commitment to restore physical Jerusalem. In Ezra, the driving motivation was the rebuilding of the temple. In the first six chapters of Nehemiah, the primary task was to rebuild the city walls in Jerusalem. In each narrative, opposition from the surrounding peoples made life harder for the remnant.

Only after the ambitious rebuild projects were complete did the leaders switch their attention to purifying the people. It is almost as if both reformers landed in a place where they questioned the point of rebuilding a holy temple or securing the holy city if the people were not acting holy.

In terms of leadership styles, Ezra and Nehemiah occupied opposite ends of the spectrum. As a priest, Ezra seemed to be a passive leader, spiritually nudging the people toward repentance. As a political official, Nehemiah was authoritative, feisty and aggressive in pursuing his goals. Both leaders were decisive about the needed reforms in the community but they went about instituting them in diverse ways. Despite their differences, both Ezra and Nehemiah were praying men. Ezra’s memoir ended with him calling out to God in prayer. Nehemiah’s memoir opened with a long prayer of repentance and petition.

Nehemiah’s introduction is not a long genealogical record propping up his legitimacy like Ezra’s five-verse-long superscription. The editor only included the name of Nehemiah’s father. However, at the end of the first chapter of Nehemiah, the reformer revealed he was the cupbearer to the Persian king (1:11). There was no need for Nehemiah to give his proof of pedigree; his position of influence in the empire carried its own clout.

The memoir opens with Nehemiah in the imperial citadel in Susa, the king’s winter residence. In the summer, the royal court stayed at higher elevation in Ecbatana. Susa was also the backdrop of the stories of Esther and Daniel (Dan. 8:2, Est. 1:2). The story dates to “the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year” (1:1). The text omitted the name of the king who was in his twentieth year. Because the text is a continuation of the Ezra narrative, the implied king was Artaxerxes I, the same Persian monarch who lavished his good will on Ezra and his return mission.

In 445 BCE, while Nehemiah was fulfilling his cupbearer duties in Susa, a delegation of Jerusalemites visited the royal residence. They were on a mission to garner imperial support for rebuilding Jerusalem’s city walls. From the memoir, it is unclear if they happened upon Nehemiah in the king’s court or if they intentionally sought an audience with Nehemiah. The latter seems likely since among the delegation was Nehemiah’s brother, Hananai. His brother was likely hopeful that Nehemiah would have a sympathetic ear to news from Jerusalem and use his high status in the royal court to lobby their cause.
Nehemiah asked the delegation about the status of all the remnant. He wanted updates on those who escaped deportation and never left Jerusalem and those waves of exiles who volunteered to return to Jerusalem over the last century with Zerubbabel and Ezra. Unfortunately, the delegation did not have good news. They tell him the remnant was “in great trouble and shame” because “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (1:3).

The walls of Jerusalem were overtaken by the Babylonians 140 years prior. Though that destruction was total, the Babylonian attack was old news by Nehemiah’s day. The delegation seemed to be reporting a contemporary destruction of the walls and gates. But who attacked Jerusalem’s walls and gates in the fifth century BCE?

If you listened to the podcast on Ezra 4, you might remember a flash forward scene to the reign of Artaxerxes I. The neighboring peoples protested the Judean returnees rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem. They wrote a letter to the Persian king, insinuating that if the Judeans succeeded in building a wall they would certainly rebel against the empire (Ez. 4:7-23). According to the letter, the people of Judah and Israel always had a predilection for rebellion and could not be trusted.

Artaxerxes, unnerved by the reports of sedition in Judah, halted all construction on Jerusalem’s wall. In Ezra’s flash forward, the narrative hinted that the locals went beyond the bounds of the king’s decree and violently enforced the work stoppage, or at least that is one way the wording has been interpreted considering Hananai’s report (Ez. 4:23).

In ancient times, a city without a wall, gates, or fortifications was vulnerable to every possible attack. Considering the hostile feelings of Judah’s neighbors, the returnees felt the danger of their exposure for several years. To make matters worse, Jerusalem was appointed as the place of pilgrimage where all tribes went to praise the name of the Lord (Ps. 122:4). Her shameful state of ruin was considered an insult to the God worshipped in Jerusalem.

Nehemiah was shaken by the delegation’s terrible news that God’s holy city was left without defenses. Hearing from his brother firsthand that his religious compatriots were suffering and in danger, he decided to intervene. Certainly, he had a high standard of living in Susa and a powerful sense of security. Going to Jerusalem would mean leaving behind all of that and his position of influence. But Nehemiah understood that if Jerusalem was left without a protective wall, the whole restoration project was threatened. He could not afford to stay away any longer.

After Nehemiah absorbed the delegation’s unwelcome news, Nehemiah immediately “sat down and wept and mourned for days, fasting and praying” (1:4). Fasting was a prominent way to appeal to God in times of crisis, especially during the Persian period. Ezra fasted as soon as he heard about the intermarriage problems (Ez. 9:3). Daniel spontaneously prayed and fasted when he received a jolting vision of the end of days from the Lord (Dan. 10:2-3). Zechariah’s followers wondered if they should keep their calendar of fasts commemorating the fall of the temple and priesthood (Zech. 7:3-4). Esther called on a communal three-day fast to prepare the way for her intervention (Est. 4:16).

Fasting carried into Christianity as an act of spiritual discipline. While fasting is not the most practiced of the spiritual disciplines in the evangelical world, the idea behind fasting still carries weight. Fasting demonstrates devotion to God on the most basic level. The suppression of appetite attunes a believer to the time spent waiting for God to answer. Fasting also gives urgency to every petition. Jesus famously fasted forty days after his baptism, before he launched his public three-year ministry. For Jesus, the fast drew him closer to God and allowed him a chance to beat back the devil’s temptations (Matt. 4:11).

Nehemiah’s intercession did not begin with his request about the city walls, but instead Nehemiah humbly recognized God’s character, affirming his loving benevolence. His first act of prayer was admiring God’s love and faithfulness saying, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (1:5). Nehemiah contemplated the faithfulness of God in contrast to the unbelieving people.

Like Ezra, Nehemiah recorded his own prayer. Also, like Ezra, he confessed his guilt and that of his family in addition to his confession of all Israel (1:6). His prayer did not name any specific sins, but we know from later chapters in Nehemiah that the community suffered ethically and morally.
More broadly, a lack of covenant obedience was symptomatic of their lack of love for God (1:5). Nehemiah professed, “We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded Moses your servant” (1:7). A committed intercessor, Nehemiah saw no separation between his own destiny, even though he was in the palace in Susa, and the destiny of all Israel.

Throughout Nehemiah’s commune with God, he deployed the terminology of the Mosaic covenant. Nehemiah alluded to passages in Deuteronomy. With God’s revelation imprinted on his heart, he was able to paraphrase the Deuteronomic text (Deut. 30:1-4, 4:25-31). Nehemiah repented using the covenant language first uttered by Moses, a teaching Nehemiah must have been quite familiar with already. Since their sin had triggered the scattering of Israel and the exile of Judah, Nehemiah prayed that their repentance would ignite their restoration and regathering.

Judging from his petition, Nehemiah did not consider the period of exile over. The edict of Cyrus did not fulfill the full picture of the prophets. Nehemiah reminds God of his promise to Moses, “if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place where I have chosen to establish my name” (1:9).

The weight behind Nehemiah’s prayer was a plea to God that he should uphold his portion of the covenant if the people met their covenant conditions. He reminded God that the people were his possession. He said, “they are your servants and your people whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand” (1:10). Biblical prayers are often humans reminding God of all he had already done to save and protect the descendants of Abraham. God’s redemptive plan had phases and stages. He redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, rescued them from exile in Babylon.

They were in a new stage. They were the prophesied remnant tasked with refortifying Jerusalem physically and spiritually. The theology of redemption is critical to the understanding of every Christian. Redemption started with Abraham and his descendants. All the time, God was building toward the biggest phase of redemption possible: deliverance from sin and victory over death.

Nehemiah’s last prayer request set up the next chapter’s plot. He prayed, “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” (1:11). “This man” was King Artaxerxes I, who will be directly named in the next chapter. Nehemiah trusted God to provide the right opportunity to speak with the king.