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The book of Nehemiah records his memoirs as he struggled with the very difficult task God had given him of rebuilding Jerusalem, in spite of implacable enemies seeking to sabotage him every step of the way.
The story begins ca. 444 B.C., some 90 years after the first group of Jews returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel. The temple had been rebuilt, but the city and walls of Jerusalem were still in ruins, even after a second group arrived to assist led by Ezra, the scribe.
A city without walls was subject to frequent raids, and few people chose to live in such a vulnerable place. As a result, Jerusalem was more a shrine than a city. Most of the people lived outside the gates.
At that time Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king of Persia. He lived in comfort and splendour in Shushan, or Susa, a royal city of the Persian Empire, which had governed that part of the world for nearly a century. But Nehemiah was also a Jew and deeply devoted to God.
When he heard Hanani’s report on the situation in Jerusalem he was concerned. He knew that 15 years earlier, Ezra had departed with numerous Jews to rebuild Jerusalem, and he had thought the rebuilding was well on its way. Now he learned the work had stopped and was unlikely to start up again any time soon (Nehemiah 1:3).
Nehemiah became understandably distressed and turned to God: “So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).
After some four months of prayer and preparation Nehemiah finally got an opportunity to broach the problem to King Artaxerxes of Persia and, miraculously, he was granted permission to travel to Jerusalem and take command of the project (Nehemiah 2:1-8).
Chapter 3 describes the responsibilities Nehemiah gave the various Jewish families to rebuild parts of the wall, and for thousands of years their names have appeared in the Bible as a tribute to their labour.
Nehemiah believed in leading by example, so he also had a section of the wall to build, which would have involved carrying heavy beams and pieces of stonework. “So we laboured in the work . . . So neither I, my brethren, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me took off our clothes, except that everyone took them off for washing” (Nehemiah 4:21-23). How encouraging it must have been for the people to see this high-ranking official carrying stones and helping to defend the city!
But Nehemiah had his enemies and the Bible records Sanballat mocking him and obstructing him at every opportunity, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they fortify themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they complete it in a day? Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish-stones that are burned?” (Nehemiah 4:2).
Nehemiah again responds by praying to God about the problem (Nehemiah 4:4-5), and also wisely taking the necessary precaution of posting guards (verses 14-16).
As well as dealing with the obstruction of his enemies, a serious famine then developed in the area and many poorer citizens went into debt to feed their families, because greedy nobles and rulers were extracting usury for their loans. Their fields and homes were being confiscated, and their children were being sold as slaves (Nehemiah 5:4-5).
Nehemiah intervened, setting the example by refusing the taxes and foodstuffs that should have gone to him as governor. He even took it on himself to feed 150 of his countrymen. In other words, Nehemiah was paying a great portion of these expenses out of his own pocket (Nehemiah 5:6-17).
As progress was made and a direct attack against Jerusalem became virtually impossible, Nehemiah’s adversaries then tried to assassinate him, and also incriminate him in the eyes of the Persians. Nehemiah denied the charges, trusting in God’s protection.
Finally, after nearly 150 years, Jerusalem was rebuilt to the point that it was a well-fortified city, respected by surrounding nations. Nehemiah, however, did not stop with physical restoration. He then set about rebuilding the spiritual foundations. He appointed and organised priests, gatekeepers and singers, enabling the Jews to celebrate the feasts of God.
Many even signed a pact to continue to obey God, led by the example of Nehemiah (See chapter 10). This was a very important pact in the history of God’s people, inspiring a lasting spiritual revolution. As a result nearly 400 years later, when Christ set up His Church, there were still Jews keeping God’s laws.
After a bountiful life, filled with faith, Nehemiah ends his remarkable story by asking God to do what all of us would surely pray for as well: “Remember me, O my God, for good”(Nehemiah 13:31).