Nehemiah 1

Nehemiah begins about 450 years before Christ and covers the period 445-433 BC, the close of Old Testament history.  It is a sequel to Ezra.  Malachi covers the period around 420-397 BC and closes the Old Testament account.

About 100 years earlier in 539 BC, the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, conquered the Babylonian Empire.  Under Cyrus and his successors, the Persian Empire became the largest empire known to have existed in the ancient world, covering almost the entire Near East: Armenia, Macedonia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran, southern Russia, and India. 

As part of his effort to create goodwill, promote peace, and unite the empire, Cyrus allowed regions within the empire some measure of cultural autonomy and self-expression. They would still be under his ultimate control.  In 538 BC he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple. Those who returned made some progress. The Temple was restored under Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and under Ezra the Jews professed their allegiance to God’s law.  But lawlessness was still common and the city remained largely in ruin for decades. See, Ezra.

In 458 B.C., about thirteen years before Nehemiah begins, Emperor Artaxerxes banned the Jews from rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Non-Israelites wrote him saying that the Jews would rebuild them as part of plan of insurrection (Ezra 4:11ff.). Jerusalem remained exposed and in danger. 

For a bit historical context, in not too far away Greece, it was the era of Socrates (philosophy), Herodotus (“The Father of History”) and Thucydides (history), Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides (literature & theater), Hippocrates (“The Father of Medicine”), Phidias (art/architecture) and Pericles (government).  About 18 years later (in 427 BC) Pericles would lead the Greeks in war with the Persia Empire. 

Through Nehemiah, Artaxerxes granted permission to the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gates. God provided Nehemiah as a type of Christ to speak up for Israel and lead this work of restoration of the City of God and reform of His covenant people. 

1.              Nehemiah’s Concern for God’s People & His City

Nehemiah 1:1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susathe capital, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who hadsurvived the exile,and concerning Jerusalem.

Though Nehemiah may not be the author of the entire book, it does contain much of his personal account, which is believed to be the earliest extant autobiography written by someone who was not a king. The main author is probably responsible for both Nehemiah and Ezra, which were considered by rabbinic authorities to be a single composition.

1:1 Nehemiah: his name means “Yahweh has comforted”

Hachaliah: Nothing is known of him other than this connection to Nehemiah.

20th year: 445 B.C. is the 20thyear of the reign of Artaxerxes, the Persian king; it is 13 years after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (Ez. 7:7).

Chislev: the “9th month” is around Nov-Dec.; it is also the month in which the Jews in Jerusalem renewed the covenant under Ezra (Ez. 10:9).

Susa: Hebrew shushan – “lily,” possibly for abundant lilies in the region

– The winter capital city of the Persian Empire; Ecbatana was the summer residence (Ez. 6:2)

– A citadel with a large palace with columns 80’ tall; possibly was used by the earlier emperor, Darius I (“the Great”), 550-486 BC, as the model when he built the great city of Persepolis.

– Located in southwest modern (A.D. 2021) Iran in the lower Zagros Mountains, about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf and 160 miles east of the Tigris River. 

– Situated at latitude 32º, Susa’s winter weather during the month of Chislev is very pleasant. 

– Daniel had been in Susa around 600 BC (Daniel 8)

– Esther became queen in Susa/Shushan and saved the Jews around 479 BC (Esther 2:8; 4:8). 

– Was an ancient Elamite city.  Elam was a son of Shem (Gen. 10:22; see also Gen. 14:1, 9, Chedorlaomer).

– “Children of Elam” had already come with Zerubbabel from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judah (Neh. 7:6-12, 34) and later participated in renewal of the covenant (Neh. 10:14; 12:42).  

– The language of the Elamites was heard at Pentecost (Acts 2:8-9). 

– In 324 B.C., about 120 years later, Alexander the Great married two Persian princesses at Susa after he conquered Persia. 

– For some visuals and other information on Susa, see:

1:2 Hanani: Report comes to Nehemiah from Hanani, his “brother”: likely his brother by birth or of the same family, hence his access to Nehemiah; but possibly just a fellow Jew (Ex. 21:11; Dt. 15:12); or an intimate friend (2 Sam. 1:26); “feared God above many”(7:2): he was trustworthy, concerned for Jerusalem and the nation, seeking help for them.

“came with men of Judah”: he came with other exiles who had returned (Ez. 9:8).  It is not stated expressly but probable that they came from Jerusalem itself.

Nehemiah cares for God’s people and God’s kingdom. He has been able to live as a faithful servant of the king while a captive (cp., Daniel, “long live the king” Dan. 6:21-23); but he also seeks news of God’s people and His kingdom. His concern is not dulled by his ease and safety in the capital or his high position, privilege, comfort, status, and royal trust; cp. Moses, Heb. 11:24-27.  He does not think less of the travelers because of their low position as captives from a captive territory but rather as joint-heirs; cp., Romans 8:17, “joint-heirs with Christ.”

2.              The Consequence of Covenant Rebellion

1:3 The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame.  The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.

Josephus, Antiquities,11.161: “When they replied that they had come from Judaea, he [Nehemiah] began to inquire further how the people and the metropolis Jerusalem were getting on. They said that these were in a bad way, for the walls had been torn down to the ground, and the surrounding nations were inflicting many injuries on the Jews, overrunning the country and plundering it by day and doing mischief by night, so that many had been carried off as captives from the country and from Jerusalem itself, and every day the roads were found full of corpses.”

1:3 The remnant … is in great trouble and shame: A beaten down people

– People were weary with personal trouble and social unrest and war.

– They were captives living under oppressors.

– Enemies of Israel were ready to harm them and oppose anyone who would help them: 2:10, 19, cf. Ez. 4:6-23.

– They suffered reproach, indignation, mockery, and shame, 2:19; 4:1-4; cf. Ez. 9:7.

– They lived with corrupting influences all around that led to spiritual rebellion and apostasy (Neh. 13:23), and intermarrying with non-believers (Neh. 13:27; cf. Ez 9-10).

1:3 The wall is broken down: A broken down city 

– Broken-down Jerusalem stands in contrast to the magnificent and secure capital fortress of Susa.

– Walls breached could indicate possible recent or ongoing damage to the city. 

– Jerusalem had 10 gates allowing access in and out of the city

– Active assaults by enemies damaged the city.

– Passivity, inaction, sins of omission left the city in decay (Prov. 24:30-34)

– Without safety and security, people were easy targets for robbers, marauders, and killers.

– Without safety and security there could be no thriving commercial market in which people could exchange goods and services that they needed or desired.

– Ps 80:12, “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?”

– Ps. 87:2, “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.”

– Ps. 100:4 “Enter into his gate with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise.” 

– Ps 122:7, “Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!” 

– “Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land,” Pr. 31:23

– “The evil bow down before the good, the wicked at the gates of the righteous.” Pr. 14:18-20

– “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.” Pr. 31:31

– “Desolation is left in the city; the gates are battered into ruins.” Is. 24:12

– “Open the gates, that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.” Is. 26:2

– Cities and walls serve as metaphors for aspects of life; Pr. 25:28, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” 

3.              The Character of Covenant Repentance: 1:4-8

1:4 As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fastingand praying before the Godof heaven. 5 And I said, “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, 6 let yourear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the peopleof Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. 8.  Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the people.’

Nehemiah acknowledges the covenant:

cp. Reactions of Ezra, Ez. 9:4-15; 10:1; Daniel, Dan. 9:4-19

1:4 Mourning, weeping: appropriate response for Israel’s sin and suffering.

Praying day and night (1:6): preoccupation and persistence reveals sincerity, commitment and recognition of grave offence and need of divine aid.

Fasting: sign of genuine mourning.

“God of heaven”: acknowledges God’s superiority and authority: Ruler over the nations (even Persia), civil rulers (even Artaxerxes; cf. Ez. 1:2; 5:12);

1:5 Recites the covenant relationship and relief: Deut. 6:5, 6; 7:9. Nehemiah knew his Old Testament/Torah.

“O LORD God of heaven”: repeats “God of heaven” (1:4) but combines with it the divine, covenantal name of Yaheweh (LORD) 

“…the great and awesome (terrible)…”:the prayer begins by (1) acknowledging God’s ultimate and absolute authority and extoling His might and power (cf. Joel 2:31; Mal. 4:5), and (2) approaching humbly as a supplicant,

– Prays to God: as a man and a nation must do, especially in crisis.

– Presents himself with in humility and with reverence, in holy awe (cp. Daniel 9:12).

who keeps covenant and steadfast love”: 

– “steadfast love” is the Hebrew “Hesed,” the special word for God’s faithfulness, loyalty, mutual obligation, benevolence, and kindness in his covenant relationship (Ex. 20:6; 34:6-7; Dan. 9:4; Jer. 32:18; Nu. 14:18-19; cp. Jonathan & David, 1 Sam. 18:3; 20:8; 2 Sam. 9:1,3,7; Ruth to Boaz and Naomi, Ruth 3:10).

– the basis for Nehemiah’s prayer is his belief that God will hear and answer because of His steadfast love; He has promised to keep the covenantal relationship with His people Israel according to the terms of the covenant, and help those who come in humility and repentance. (Ex. 3:13-15; Deut. 6:5; 7:9).

1:6 “the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you”: Israel deserves its current suffering.

“your servant”: like Moses, Nehemiah intercedes for the people who are wayward; he is God’s servant even while he is also the servant of King Artaxerxes.

“I and my father’s house”: he makes confession for his family (cf. Job 1:5); cp. Job, Job 1:5

1:7 “We have acted very corruptly: Nehemiah ”owns” the sin and rebellion.

‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter”: Rebellion has consequences.

“the commandments, the statutes, and the rules,” i.e., the whole law – Deut. 4:1; 5:1; Ex. 20-23; Deut. 12-26

1:8 “Remember the word…if you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples”:

Nehemiah acknowledges that Israel deserves what has happened.

God keeps his word: Deuteronomy sanctions of blessings and cursing: Deut. 28, 29.

Disobedience leads to scattering or exile: Lev. 26:27-33; Deut. 4:25-27; 28:64).

Obedience leads to blessing: Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 28:1-14. 

The great troubles that came to Israel with the Babylonian conquest of 586 B.C. and its aftermath came as negative sanctions (punishments and chastisements) for its covenant rebellion (Deut. 28:15-68). 

–  A beaten down people: Deut. 28:47-51, 64-66 “Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; 48 Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. 49 The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; 50 A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor shew favour to the young: 51 And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee … 64 And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. 65 And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: 66 And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life….”

– A broken down city: Deut. 28:52 “And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.”

4.              The Cure of Covenant Restoration

8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring themto the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.” 10 They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.

Appeals to God’s promises: 

Nehemiah acknowledges that only God’s covenant mercy will relieve and restore them.  He comes with a holy confidence in God’s covenant mercy based on His word; God told Israel to ask for return; he is the God of “steadfast love,” that is, mercy, 1:5

“If God were not more mindful of his promises than we are of his precepts we should be undone. Our best pleas therefore in prayer are those that are taken from the promise of God, the word on which he has caused us to hope, Ps 119:49.” Matthew Henry

1:8-10, Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses,Deut. 4:29-31; 30:1-6, (e.g., Ezra, Ez. 7:6-10)…

1:9 “if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them”:  Lev. 26:40-42; Moses calls on God to remember, Ex. 32:13; Deut. 9:27; God would bring Israel back to its land, i.e., to safety, Deut. 12:5; and obedience would bring blessing, Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 4:29-31; 28:1-14; 30:1-6.

And especially to Jerusalem and God’s temple, “to make my name dwell there,” 2 Kg. 21:4

1:10  “They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed”: They have service yet to do for God.

“by your great power and by your strong hand”: reference to God’s prior deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, Ex. 7-15.

1:11  “Let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and servants who delight to fear your name” 

“name”: represents his character and all that He is, Deut. 10:20; 28:58

“fear”: a holy reverence, acknowledging God as the source and fountain of all knowledge, wisdom, Prov. 1:7

“your servant and…servants who delight”: God has his servants and always a remnant. 

“give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man”:

– Nehemiah knows that he will be doing something very dangerous: asking Artaxerxes to reverse an order he already made to stop work by the Jews that Artaxerxes believes would be an act of rebellion and sedition (Ez. 4:17-22).

– Nehemiah knows that (1) prayer is the first step and foundation for a commitment to act and (2) God is able and will answer and give aid when His interest is concerned. 

– God will use his great power, strong hand. God heard Moses, Ex. 32:13; Deut. 9:27, and delivered Israel out of slavery, with miracles, and judgment on enemies (plagues, Red Sea) Ex. 7-15.

1:11 cupbearer

– For literary and dramatic effect, the author waits to reveal this fact to the very end of the first chapter. 

– Nehemiah has one of the most trusted positions in the empire, protecting the Emperor from poison.

– God has his remnant in all necessary places: providentially he places and prepares every necessary instrument for his use: cupbearer to the king; cp. Moses in Egypt; Esther the queen; and saints in Caesar’s household.

– God controls earthly kingdoms: He is “LORD, God of heaven“ and “God can make the courts of princes sometimes nurseries and sometimes sanctuaries to the friends and patrons of the church’s cause.”  Matthew Henry