In the 20th year of the reign of Artaxerxes I (around 445 BC), Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king of Persia. He learned that the remnants of Jews returning to Jerusalem were in trouble and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down. Nehemiah asked the king for permission to return and rebuild the city’s walls. Artaxerxes sent him to Judah as governor of the province with a mission to rebuild, gave him letters explaining the king’s support for the venture, and provided timber from the king’s forest. Once there, Nehemiah defied the opposition of Judah’s enemies on all sides—Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs, and Philistines—and rebuilt the walls within 52 days.
As Nehemiah was leaving Babylon, he met some Arab men who mocked him for what he was about to do. Nehemiah records his statement, which stands even today as the basis for who has the right to the city known as Jerusalem:
(Nehemiah 2:20)1NIV New International Version Translations – “I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”
From ancient times, cities located in the Middle East were surrounded by stone walls with gates that were guarded for the protection of the citizens. Walls for security are nothing new. However, the importance of walls is to enforce the use of “gates.” Until 1887, each gate would be closed before sunset and opened at sunrise. The gates2Gates of the Old City of Jerusalem – Wikipedia today are: Jaffa Gate; Zion Gate; Dung Gate; Golden Gate (now walled up); Lion’s Gate; Herod’s Gate; Damascus Gate; and the New Gate. The gates of the cities were also the “social media” of their time. Walls control access and regress points. People would gather at the gates where they would conduct the business of the city, share important information, or just pass the time. Anyone who was anyone had to pass through one of just a few gates providing access to Jerusalem.
In the 70 years prior, the walls had been severely damaged. Strong walls and working gates were necessary for a functioning city and society in Jerusalem. Nehemiah was just a layman, not a priest like Ezra or a prophet like Haggai. He served the Persian king in a secular position before leading a group of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the city’s walls. Nehemiah’s experience in the king’s court equipped him for the political and physical reconstruction necessary for Jerusalem to survive.
It would be Nehemiah’s leadership that pulled the various factions together to accomplish their goal. Nehemiah led by example, giving up a respected position in a palace for hard labor. He was quite effective in convincing the city’s residents to “own their section of the wall” and work together as families to do the repairs. Nehemiah continued in his quest to rebuild Jerusalem. God provided all the necessary workers, and the building began. However, they would not be without enemies who tried to stop the project. But God intervened as He had done with Moses (Exodus 14:14). Nehemiah records,
(Nehemiah 4:20) – “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”
It would be Nehemiah’s humility before God that provided an example for the people. He did not claim glory for himself but always gave God credit for his successes. This was God’s pre-ordained plan to bring His people out of bondage and back into their land to worship in the temple once again. Nehemiah would often, at the sight of distant enemies, walk in front of the broken walls of the city, proudly wearing his sword. This was his subtle way of saying, Come if you dare, but if you come, prepare to fight us. We can learn much from the life of Nehemiah. While he maintained a personal relationship with his God. Nehemiah also partnered with Ezra to solidify the political and spiritual foundations of the people.
(Nehemiah 8:18) – “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.”
Nehemiah stands as a testament to faithfulness and perseverance. He lived far away from his home, yet he never gave up hope that someday he would return to it. He spent most of his life in exile in a pagan land, yet he never wavered in his faith and trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was a prayer warrior, putting everything before the Lord in prayer and interceding on behalf of his people, and he was rewarded for his diligence and perseverance. Nehemiah cared so much for his people that he never gave up the hope of their restoration, not only to their homeland but to the God that first called their forefather, Abraham, out of the same area and made a covenant with him, one that Nehemiah believed would stand forever.
(Nehemiah 1-11) – Nehemiah’s Prayer
“The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.
I was cupbearer to the king.”
The book of Nehemiah shows us the significant impact just one individual can have on a nation. Nehemiah served in secular offices, using his position to bring back order, stability, and proper focus on God. God can use people from many different places and with different skills. The secret to Nehemiah’s success and the success of any leader is the source of their motives.
Colossians 3:17) – “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
- Looking back at this and the last three studies, why do you think that Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, all men working for pagan kings, were able to get those kings to support their mission to restore the people to Jerusalem?
- Ideas to Explore: Their Christian faith was visible and built up trust with the kings. The kings wanted to get rid of the exiles, and they knew that these men were competent and could get the job done. Each had unique skills and experiences suited for the job at hand. What were those skills that stood out?
- Nehemiah is known as a “wall builder.” Why would God allow the city of Jerusalem to have walls?
- Ideas to Explore: The concepts of safety and order are consistent with God’s requirements for His people. When chaos exists in a city or country with constant safety concerns, it is hard to get people to focus on faith issues. Having no specific gates interfered with the ability to communicate. Why is reliable communication with a nation’s citizens important?
- Nehemiah carried a weapon. Why does society today see a “strong defense” as a problem, not a deterrent?
- Ideas to Explore: Society likes to farm out jobs like security to specialists. Leaders fear people who can defend themselves. Why was Nehemiah so effective in his tactic of facing the enemy? What is different today?
- Nehemiah assigned sections of the wall to each family to repair. Why was this such an effective strategy?
- Ideas to Explore: Ownership in the project and results. Families could see the full benefit of a safe and repaired wall. Pride in one’s work is a great motivator. Nehemiah was not a boastful leader. What project management skills do you see in Nehemiah?
- How did Nehemiah’s nature of constant praying help him in his task?
- Ideas to Explore: God wants us to lean on Him. Prayer works. Nehemiah connected his project to God.
- 1NIV New International Version Translations