THE NAME NEHEMIAH signifies, ‘consolation from God’. We are certain we will receive consolation and encouragement in considering some of Nehemiah’s experiences, which are recorded in the Book bearing his name.

Nehemiah’s Background

Nehemiah was the son of Hachaliah, of the tribe of Judah, of one of the prominent Hebrew families of the Babylonian captivity. The Medes and Persians had conquered Babylon. The second universal empire, represented by the breast and arms of silver of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision (Dan. 2:31-33), now ruled the world. Our story begins in about 454 B.C., at Shushan, the palace of Artaxerxes, King of Persia.

Josephus tells us that Nehemiah was a very young man at this time, probably in his twenties. in spite of his youth, he held a high rank in the royal court—that of cupbearer to the king. This title, sometimes translated ‘butler’, is somewhat deceptive to modern ears, and does not give the proper conception of the dignity of this position. His duties did not consist solely of tasting the king’s food and drink, to prevent poisoning. He was, in fact, one of the most trusted officers of the realm; a confidant of the king, always at his right hand; one whose advice the king valued and sought; what we would today call a Minister of State. Daniel held a similar position in his time in the universal empire of Babylon.

We do not know how it came about that young Nehemiah was appointed to such an exalted station. We are not told. We can only surmise that, as in the case of Daniel, it resulted from some sort of competitive examination in which Nehemiah excelled. But we may be absolutely sure of one thing. We know by his conduct that he was reared by godly parents, who from earliest infancy inculcated in him a reverence and love for the God of Israel; who imbued him with his ancient and rightful heritage, so that although he was living in Persia, he was not a Persian by nationality.

As confidential officer and counselor to the king, it was Nehemiah’s duty to be acquainted with the mood and temper of the people, so as to be able to advise the king of any potential threat to the empire. To this end, it appears to have been his custom to mingle, unrecognized, with the people in the marketplaces, and especially among those of arriving caravans who could tell of conditions in other parts of the realm.

Word from the Holy Land

Josephus tells us that he was doing this one day when he heard some new arrivals speaking the Hebrew language. He engaged them in conversation and was delighted to find that one of them was a close relative returning from an extended visit to Jerusalem. It was a tribute to Nehemiah’s upbringing in the faith of his fathers that he eagerly inquired respecting the Holy Land, the Holy City, God’s Holy Temple, and the conditions of the Jews who had, years before, returned from captivity in Babylon, under the proclamation of Cyrus. He was deeply interested in the welfare of Israel.

Now let us read the record in Nehemiah’s own words as recorded in Nehemiah 1:2-4: “Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction, and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”

Do you see how keenly young Nehemiah felt about his people, how closely he identified himself with them and the Holy City? He had never seen Jerusalem. All he knew about its former glory was from nostalgic accounts by his parents and others of the captivity. Yet he was deeply moved and distressed to hear of the devastation and degradation of Jerusalem, so much so that he wept. And it is an evidence of his great faith in the God of his fathers, that he immediately and naturally turned to prayer.

Nehemiah’s Prayer

Let us consider some aspects of this beautiful and effectual prayer which is found in Nehemiah 1:5-11: “I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments.” In other words, “How great thou art!” Nehemiah said. He had a proper concept of the majesty of God. And that word “terrible,” as it has been translated, does not mean ‘terrifying’, but, rather, ‘greatly to be revered’.

Then Nehemiah showed his familiarity with the Holy Scriptures, by an almost direct quotation from Deuteronomy 7:9, which reads: “Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant, and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” We continue from Nehemiah’s prayer, verse 6: “Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee.”

This reference to the ears and eyes of God reminds us of Hezekiah’s prayer, when he spread before the Lord the insulting letter from Sennacherib. He said, as recorded in II Kings 19:16, “Lord bow down thine ear, and hear; open, Lord, thine eyes, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent him to reproach the living God!” Such an expression is not at all presumptuous. It is entirely in harmony with one of the precious promises the Lord has given his people, found in Psalm 34:15: “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.” And, in the prayer of Solomon made at the dedication of the Temple, he said, as written in II Chronicles 6:40: “Now, my God, let, I beseech thee, thine eyes be open, and thine ears be attent [attentive] unto the prayer that is made in this place.”

Reminding God of His Promise

Then in his prayer, Nehemiah made a confession, not only for himself, but for all Israel. He said: “Both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandest thy servant Moses.” A confession of sin should be a part of every prayer. Then Nehemiah reminded the Lord of certain promises he had made to his people. He said: “Remember I beseech thee, the word that thou commandest thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations. But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen, to set my name there.”

In saying this, Nehemiah cited to the Lord his own edict of Leviticus 26:33, “I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you, and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste.” This is exactly what had happened to the holy land, and the city of Jerusalem. This was the curse upon Israel because of their disobedience. But Nehemiah was a good Bible student—he knew that a blessing was promised Israel if they obeyed the voice of the Lord.

He called to mind, and cited to the Lord, the promise of Deuteronomy 30:1-3: “It shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; that then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee.”

What did Nehemiah do then? First, he quoted to God his own word, that he is a covenant-keeping God; a God that will surely perform what he has promised. Then he reminded the Lord of a promise he had made to regather his people under certain circumstances. Then he claimed the promise. This is reasoning with God. Then he concluded his prayer by specifically referring to the distressed inhabitants of devastated Jerusalem, who desired to return to God and prosper.

He said: “Now these are thy servants, and thy people whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name, and prosper. I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”


The one referred to as “this man” was Artaxerxes, the king; he was an absolute monarch, not accountable to any parliament or laws, whose every whim was law. History records that he was arbitrary and self-willed, easily aroused to violent anger; often killing on the spot those who offended him. Artaxerxes was also called, “Longimanus,” which means “long-handed,” because his right hand was longer than his left. He was proud of this deformity, claiming it was the result of his frequent and sudden use of the sword. And this was the man through which Nehemiah must work to accomplish his purpose!

Nehemiah did not pray only once and then wait for the Lord to answer him. He said that he prayed day and night. So this prayer is merely a summation of what he prayed continuously for four months. We know this because the first verse tells us that it was in the month, Chisleu, when he learned of the plight of Jerusalem and began to pray; and we are told in Nehemiah 2:1 that it was in the month Nisan that he finally received an answer to his prayer—a lapse of four months. If his custom was the same as that of Daniel, who prayed three times a day, with his windows open toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10), Nehemiah must have uttered this prayer at least three hundred and sixty times!

Nehemiah’s Prayer Is Answered

The answer came suddenly and unexpectedly. The king had prepared a banquet for his nobles, at which the queen also was present. We can imagine that the guests were all attired in their best silks and jewels, and were smiling and joyful. Nehemiah, as usual, was at the king’s right hand, so that he might taste of the food and wine before it was served to the king. As he served the wine, the king glanced up, and noticed the contrast between Nehemiah and the happy guests. He saw a sadness and pallor he had never seen before. After all, let us remember, Nehemiah had not only been praying, but had also been fasting—eating sparingly for four months—and sorrowing on behalf of his people. He was gaunt and hollow-eyed.

Artaxerxes placed his hand on Nehemiah’s arm. “What’s troubling you?” he asked. “Everybody else here is happy and you are sad. Are you sick?” “Oh no, your majesty,” Nehemiah replied, trying to smile. “I am quite well.” The king’s eyes bored into his own. “Well, then,” he said, “if you are not sick, it must be a great sadness of the heart. It shows on your face.” Nehemiah was terrified. As he himself expressed it in Nehemiah 2:2, “Then I was very sore afraid.” Or, as Moffatt puts it: “I was dreadfully afraid at this.”

Why was he so frightened? It was because he well knew the temper of his king. He had seen this man summarily thrust his sword through any who offended him. Nehemiah realized that his sadness of heart might be misconstrued. It might indicate to the king a spirit of discontent, and loss of interest in his duties; even disloyalty and treachery. An urgent, silent prayer, went up to God and Nehemiah quickly recovered his poise.

Nehemiah’s Courageous Request

He instantly realized that this might be the Lord’s doing, proving just the opportunity he sought. We read his words in Nehemiah 2:3,4: “I said unto the king, Let the king live for ever. Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.” The exact words that he should speak to the king now came easily and readily to his lips, as though prompted from above: “I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant has found favor in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him), For how long shall thy journey be? And when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.” And it was no short time, either, that Nehemiah set. We know, from Nehemiah 5:14, that he asked for, and got, a twelve-year leave of absence!

It took great courage for Nehemiah to make the request he did. The king could easily have considered the rebuilding of the walls and gates of Jerusalem an act of rebellion against his rule—a desire by Nehemiah to set up the nation of Israel as a separate and rival government, with himself as king. In fact, we read in the 4th chapter of Ezra that this same king, Artaxerxes, had previously stopped the restoration work of Ezra, because of similar accusations. So when Nehemiah asked for what he did, he laid his life on the line. And he won, because the Lord had answered his oft-repeated prayer: “Grant me mercy in the sight of this man.”

Nehemiah had complete confidence that his prayer would eventually be answered. He did not know just how or when it would be answered, but he had carefully planned in advance just what he would need for the success of his undertaking if the opportunity presented itself—just what he would request of the king. He did not have to leave to figure everything out, to come back, and then ask the king for more favors. He struck while the iron was hot, without hesitation. This is evident from the next two verses, Nehemiah 2:7,8: “Moreover, I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over, till I come to Judah; and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.”

So we see that Nehemiah had the necessary materials needed for the work all laid out in his mind. He had done his homework. And this also indicates how closely he had previously questioned his kinsman as to the details of the damage which must be repaired. Such foresight, thoroughness, and wisdom impressed the king. He not only granted Nehemiah’s requests, but gave him more than he had requested. He appointed him Governor of Judea, and gave him a strong military escort of cavalry, befitting a governor.

Nehemiah Begins His New Work

A four-month-long journey brought them to Jerusalem, where Nehemiah was welcomed by the desolate city’s inhabitants. He did not, at first, reveal the object of his coming, nor the fact that he had been appointed their governor. To them he was simply a visiting dignitary, a wealthy young Hebrew who had attained high office in the Persian government. This they could see from his military escort, and the richness of his caravan. He wanted to first make a personal appraisal of the situation.

Nehemiah Begins His Work with a Survey

After three days of mingling with the people, and becoming well acquainted with them and their tribal rulers, he secretly made his inspection of the ruined city. He waited until everyone was asleep, and then, on horseback, accompanied by a few trusted servants on foot, he toured the broken walls by moonlight. We read his own words in Nehemiah 2:12-16: “I arose in the night, I, and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem. Neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. And I went out by night, by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king’s pool; but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. Then went I up, in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall; and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned. And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, not to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.”

This moonlight ride had been a distressing experience for Nehemiah. If, before, he had wept when he had merely heard of the plight of Jerusalem, how overwhelmed he must now have been to see it with his own eyes! But now he had firsthand knowledge of the facts. What he had seen confirmed the feasibility of his plan for rebuilding. The next morning he called together the elders and prominent representatives of the people and explained to them the real object of his coming. He showed them his authority from the king and told them how God had heard his prayer, and how wonderfully he had prospered him in this undertaking.

Then he outlined to them a method whereby the repair work could begin immediately. We read his words in Nehemiah 2:17,18: “Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in; how Jerusalem Beth waste and the gates thereof are burned with fire. Come, let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. Then I told them of the hand of my God, which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build! So they strengthened their hands for this good work.”

How quickly Nehemiah was able to inspire the people! He fired them with his own zeal. It was they who said: “Let us rise up and build!” And as they went to work, Nehemiah worked with them. He, no doubt, worked with his hands as hard as any of them, carrying stones and heavy timbers, and mixing mortar for the walls.

Why Rebuild the Walls?

Why was the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem considered so important? Was it merely a status symbol? No, it was not only that. There was also a very practical aspect. With the city walls broken down, the enemies of the Israelites raided and robbed them regularly. They were at the mercy of every nomadic tribe that chanced to ride that way. But if the walls were repaired, it would be a different story. A Bible dictionary reports concerning the original walled city: “Jerusalem was an almost impregnable Gibraltar. The steep sides of the ravines on the east, the south, and the west provided bulwarks against siege. The north was the only direction from which a foe could attack the city, under the conditions of ancient warfare.” No one knows how high the original walls were; but, as restored in 1542 A.D., they ranged from twenty to sixty feet high. It seems likely that the original walls formed an irregular quadrangle, a little more than four miles in circuit.

In the third chapter of his book, Nehemiah lists fifty families as participating in the building work. This would mean an average of about four hundred and eighty lineal feet of wall for each family to repair. It was Nehemiah’s plan that each family would work on that portion of the wall nearest its home quarters. This was a wise plan. Each would be especially interested in having the wall strong in his own neighborhood. And there would be a certain degree of proper pride of workmanship, each family making their portion of the wall a monument to their skill.

Through many trials and difficulties and discouragements, the work progressed. Every difficulty was overruled by the Lord, and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, using the original stones, was completed in the incredibly short time of fifty-two days!

Lessons from Nehemiah

Now let us consider some of the valuable lessons to be learned from this account. Although Nehemiah was a very young man, he was held in high esteem by the king as possessing rare ability. This reminds us of Paul’s words to Timothy, in I Timothy 4:12, quoting from the Weymouth Translation: “Let no one think slightingly of you because you are a young man; but in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, be an example for your fellow Christians to imitate.” The younger brothers and sisters of our fellowship should not be underestimated. It must not be presumed that they are “shallow” because they are young. This is a serious mistake. Stephen, too, was a young man; but in a few months, he made his calling and election sure. The Lord held young Stephen in such high esteem that he was accounted worthy of the honor of being the first to follow in his Master’s footsteps even unto death.

The fact that Nehemiah was so carefully reared in the faith of his fathers, has a lesson for those of us who are the parents of young children. Just as Nehemiah was born in Persia and received his formal education in that heathen nation, our children are subject to the influences of this present evil world. But these influences can be counteracted by godly parents. Nehemiah’s intensity of feeling for the welfare of Jerusalem indicated that this had been accomplished in his case.

Similarly, it is our privilege and duty to teach our children the truth; to instill in them a love for the Lord and for his people. As Nehemiah was taught the Hebrew language by his parents, we can teach our children the language of the Truth. Who knows if the Lord will draw them, and use them for exalted service, as he did Nehemiah? Let us at least prepare them for the Master’s use.

As Nehemiah was in Persia, but was not a Persian, the Christian is in the world, but not of the world. Jesus said of such, in John 17:16: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” No matter what our positions in the world, whether high or low, our primary interest should be the welfare of Zion. We should have an intensity of feeling for the Gospel message, and its service, praying for opportunities, and being ready to act when the Lord opens the way.

The thing that particularly distressed Nehemiah was the condition of the walls of Jerusalem. We read in Nehemiah 1:3,4 that they reported to him: “The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.” Then he gave us his reaction to this report, saying: “It came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept.” Without walls, Jerusalem was no city. It had no cohesion, no integrity, no honor. Enemies could invade and rob and plunder at will. It was a by-word and a laughing-stock. In the words of Nehemiah 2:17 it was “a reproach.”

The Antitypical City with Broken Walls

The Christian church, as established by our Lord and the apostles, was symbolically referred to as a city of God. As we read in Hebrews 12:22,23: “Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels; to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven.” The primitive church could be likened unto a city that had walls. It had integrity and cohesion. It was held together by a strong faith in the Gospel, “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 3) The great divine plan of salvation was understood. As Isaiah 60:18 expressed it prophetically: “Thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.” This “most holy faith” was its protection against the assaults of the Adversary. The walls of sound doctrine kept the church apart and safe.

But after the apostles fell asleep, the walls began to be broken down. Paul foresaw this, saying in Acts 20:29,30: “I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things.” False doctrines and evil practices began to be introduced into the church. Paul’s prophecy of II Timothy 4:3,4 was also fulfilled: “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”

As the great antichrist system developed, the walls of Zion were broken down more and more, until, in the Dark Ages, little remained of the original structure of sound doctrine. Even the great foundation stone of the ransom was lost amid the rubble. Then came the reformation, and the walls began to be rebuilt, in spite of great opposition. David’s prayer of Psalm 51:18, echoed by faithful Christians, began to be answered: “Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion. Build thou the walls of Jerusalem.” Truths long lost sight of, were rediscovered, and placed in their proper settings. The work of rebuilding accelerated. Then Christ returned, and by the hand of a “faithful and wise servant” (Matt. 24:45), the structure of sound doctrine was rebuilt to completion. And do not forget that Nehemiah used the old stones which had been knocked down to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He did not quarry new ones. It was the old, old story, “the faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 8), which was restored.

There is another meaning to a city with broken-down walls. It is a more personal application, and is given in Proverbs 25:28: “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls.” The ‘spirit’ referred to here is the disposition of mind, the thoughts which control our actions. We must rule our thoughts, and imaginations, and cast out, and keep out, anything unprofitable to us as New Creatures. Our warfare is in the mind. The New Creature is developed in the mind. The New Creature must use our fleshly mind as its instrument, making it a captive of the new will, the mind of Christ. This is concisely stated by the Apostle Paul: “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God; and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (II Cor. 10:5) This is not something which is easily accomplished. The repairing of stone walls is not easy.

Nehemiah was undoubtedly one of the faithful ones referred to in Hebrews 11:36,39 who will be “princes in all the earth.” He fits the description which says that they “wrought righteousness; obtained promises; escaped the edge of the sword; out of weakness were made strong; … of whom the world was not worthy.” And he finally “obtained a good report through faith.”

Nehemiah last words were: “Remember me, O my God, for good”!—Neh. 13:31

Dawn Bible Students Association
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