Nehemiah – Nehemiah 1:1

This evening we are going to start a study of the Book of Nehemiah; something I’ve never done before. I promise that we’ll not look at every verse, because there are a lot of names and places which are no longer relevant to us today. I probably won’t even read them all for you. So this shouldn’t be an extremely long study, unless the Lord leads otherwise.
Speaking of “relevance,” why are we going to this book and this man, rather than Isaiah or Nahum or some New Testament book. First, because this is the man whom the Lord has laid on my heart. He was a part of a message from a few weeks ago, and I can’t get him out of my mind. Second, the theme of this book is “rebuilding” – something which many people are going to have to do over the next few months. Nehemiah is relevant in the light of the Coronavirus. Third, Nehemiah was not a preacher, priest or prophet. He was an extra-ordinary, ordinary man. Some think that he was a member of the Judean royal family, but this is only conjecture. Others say that he was a priest, but the verses they cite do not necessarily demand that idea, and he wasn’t filling any priestly role while living among the Medes and Persians. He was an ordinary “joe” – a saint of God who became burdened about the work and people of God. Nehemiah had an important job among the Persians, perhaps like you in the things of the world. But he had a more important job as a servant of the Lord, just as you do. I can see us in him; I can see YOU in him. He is more relevant than many others in God’s Word. There are lessons we all can learn from Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah.
But first, this evening, let’s try to place him into the contexts of history and the Bible.
Verse 1 says, “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace, That 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.”
Notice the reference to “the twentieth year.” It seems to be floating out there without a reference to which to attach itself. The twentieth year of what? When there isn’t an explanation for a Biblical statement, we are left to our own devices to explain it – or sometimes to what we know about the practices of the day.
In this case, the reference is to the reign of the king – Artaxerxes – who is named in the next chapter. The calendar hanging on our wall has been roughly related to our King for centuries – we are living in “the year of our Lord” 2020 AD – “Anno Domini.” But Nehemiah was living prior to Christ and under a different king. He was living in a day when all dates related back to whoever happened to be king at the time. Artaxerxes considered himself to almost god-like. “In this galaxy your lives revolve around ME.” Comparing Neh. 1:1 with the histories which archeologists and historians have dug up, we are reasonably sure this was the year we call 446 BC – or about 450 years before Christ. Does the Bible in your hand have a date printed in the margin? If it does, it should be 446 BC.
If you do find that date, then I invite you to go back 12 pages to Ezra 1:1 looking for another date. Do you see 536 BC next to – “in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia….” Like Nehemiah, the Book of Ezra has references to secular events which can be approximated in secular history. In other words, the first chapter of Ezra occurred 90 years before Nehemiah. Is this important? It is important because both books deal with Jews who returned to Jerusalem.
There were 3 Jewish emigrations to Judah. Ezra 1-6 describe the first return under the leadership of Zerubbabel in the year 536 or 538 BC. Ezra 1:1 tells us that this with the permission of Cyrus, the king of Persia. And it ties us into the prophecies of Jeremiah. Each of these books are linked to others. Reading the next few chapters we see that about 42,000 people returned to Israel, including priests. Their primary purpose was to rebuild the temple – a work which was completed in about 20 years. The new temple was not nearly as glorious as the first, but at least there was a specific place for the worship of the Lord. Skipping forward to Ezra 7:1 we are told of a second immigration from Persia to Judah. This was authorized by Cyrus’ successor Artaxerxes I, or Artaxerxes Longimanus. The dates in our Bibles concur with history, telling us that this was about 80 years after the first return. Ezra was the leader in this case, and he had about 1,700 men, augmenting the families who had settled there earlier. And its here that we have an intersection with Nehemiah. Ezra’s trip to Jerusalem was only ten years before the emigration of Nehemiah and those with him. The primary purpose of Nehemiah and this third group was the rebuilding of the wall around the city for the protection of the temple and the people living there.
For perspective’s sake, let’s consider Daniel – one of God’s servants during the exile. Daniel served the Lord and Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon in around 600 BC, 150 years before Nehemiah. If a generation is considered to be 20 years, then 7 or 8 generations have passed between Daniel and Nehemiah. The Babylonians, of course, were the people sent by God to judge Judah for her sins – her idolatry. Remember – Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar and his successor, Belshazzar, that the Persians were coming. As Daniel prophesied, the Babylonians were defeated by Media-Persia, who took over control of their extended territories – including Judah. The Medes and Persians didn’t have the same antipathy toward Israel that Babylon had. Their interest in that distant place and insignificant people was not as great. And in fact, several Persian kings really appreciated some of God’s people. By chapter 9 – Daniel was serving “in the first year of Darius, the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes.” In other words, while both Daniel and Nehemiah worked in the same palace – Shushan – there was a change in political party before Nehemiah arrived and during the ministry of Daniel.
Also, prior to Nehemiah the last two prophets of God were Haggai and Zechariah. Those men prophesied about the time of Ezra – 90 years before the book we are beginning to study. After Haggai and Zechariah the only Biblical prophet was Malachi, and his dates were still about 50 years before Nehemiah. So to correct your perspective just a bit, the last book of the Old Testament is not Malachi, but Nehemiah. Try to plant that little seedling in your mind – the book which comes before the introduction of John the Baptist is Nehemiah. But there was still about 450 years of silence between the two testaments.
Now for a little background about the man Nehemiah.
If I could for the next few weeks, I’d like to describe him as if he was a member of one of the Lord’s churches. I can’t do that because, for one reason, the church did not exist in Nehemiah’s day. But there are things in his life and character which should parallel our lives – Christian’s lives. Oh, what an asset Nehemiah would be to this church – to any church. And Romans 15:4 comes into play at this point, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” From the next few pages of this book, I think we can draw some items for us in our present needs, comparing the character and leadership of Nehemiah to the administrative and spiritual duties of Christians today – on both sides of the pulpit – mine and yours.
At this point, my message narrows down to a half dozen points of reference and contact. For example, Nehemiah had a good name. It may not have been “Christian,” but it was good nevertheless. If you claim the name “Christian” you are saying that you are a follower of Christ, a disciple of Christ – the man who was the anointed of God. You are saying that you enjoy learning about the Lord Jesus, and that you love Christ, that you serve Him, and that you are anxious for his return. Amen???
Like “Christian,” “Nehemiah” has meaning as well – “the consolation of Jehovah” or “Jehovah comforts.” And his father “Hachaliah” is the Hebrew word for “whom Jehovah enlightens” or the “one Jehovah teaches.” So here is a family which has been out of church because of government restriction for perhaps a dozen generations. They haven’t met with God’s people to sing the songs of Zion; to look each other in the eye and smile rejoicing in the Lord’s blessings; to weep with other saints. Perhaps they couldn’t even meet together to bury their dead. But – if these names are telling us the truth – their faith and trust – their reliance on the Lord – still seems to be strong.
I am reasonably sure that when my parents named me “David” they were not thinking, “this means ‘beloved.’” And I am positive when they called me “Kenneth” they were not doing so because the meaning is “handsome.” There were other reasons for those names. (But it is interesting how Lord oversees things, isn’t it?) It could be that the parents and grandparents of Nehemiah were just using common names, but that is a tough sell, because neither of these names is common.
I would surmise, based on the weak argument of the names that Nehemiah came from a godly home. He was a man of prayer because he was raised that way. He knew and obeyed the laws of God, because as the context shows us, he loved the Lord. His religion wasn’t based on his circumstances – quarantine, freedom, persecution, and hope. He grew in the things of God despite not being able to visit the Temple regularly. He had excuses not to be the saint of God he should have been, but he didn’t use those excuses. He loved the Lord, and he had a love for Jerusalem also, generally speaking, for the people of God as well. I am going to guess from the man’s name that Nehemiah was a good man.
He was also an important man. Maybe not as much as Daniel, but important nevertheless. In his autobiography he modestly states, “I was the king’s cupbearer.” But this was no trifling honor. As the Christian encyclopedia, ISBE, says, “Doubtless, because of his probity and ability, he was … at an early age appointed” to this position. Undoubtedly there is more to the story, but this is all we may ever learn.
There is a statement in 2:6 which is small but has extreme implications – “And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him).” In ancient society, wives, especially royalty, were kept out of the sight of men – other than their husbands. Sarah, for example, had her own tent and didn’t even go out to meet God’s angels. I have read accounts where when visiting men had to enter the women’s section of a palace, they had women servants who preceded them telling the female nobility to hide themselves. That Nehemiah was invited into the presence of the queen of Persia was exceedingly unusual. But Artaxerxes Longimanus trusted Nehemiah implicitly. The king depended on Nehemiah for his life. This Jew was absolutely dependable; he was trusted by a man who probably didn’t trust very many people. Remember that Malachi describes a society filled with worldliness and sin – both among the Jews and the heathen. Nehemiah was not common among men – even among the men of his own people.
This is the kind of man we need in Calvary Baptist Church. Do YOU stand out in a crowd? I don’t mean are you head and shoulders above everyone else, like king Saul. I mean – does your character and demeanor set you apart? If it doesn’t, then the implication is that you aren’t the Christian you ought to be.
Nehemiah was a prayerful man, reminding me of Daniel, David and a few others. Verse 4 – “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.” The rest of the chapter is prayer. In chapter 2 we see a silent, ejactulatory prayer – “Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king…” There is a wide variety of prayer throughout this book, including group and private prayer; there is pleading and beseeching and as there should be – thanksgiving as well.
Some of this man’s characteristics you may consider trivial, but I assure you they are not. For example, generally speaking Nehemiah was a cheerful and positive man. He lit up a room; he didn’t bring in a shadow or a black cloud the way that we sometimes do. 2:1 – “Now I had not (ever) before time been sad in the king’s presence.” Part of the reason the king had kept Nehemiah as his cupbearer was because of his pleasing personality, perhaps his wit, and his up-lifting personality.
Nehemiah may have been a positive minded individual, but coupled to that was a tender heart. Apparently his kinsman, Hanani, had been with Ezra, going back to Judah a dozen years earlier. “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.” I suppose you could say that Nehemiah was patriot of sorts, but I’m not sure that “patriotism” mean the same thing to Nehemiah the same thing that it does to conservative Americans. It wasn’t political or that God’s people were living in exile. His patriotism was about the neglect of Israel’s God and His laws. The disrepair of Jerusalem was not about the neglect of Israel’s constitution. It was not about forgotten history – David, Solomon and Abraham. It was that the professed people of God were living in SPIRITUAL squaller and perhaps only the periodic outsider and visitor could see it.
Nehemiah was a good and tender man, but he was also wise and even diplomatic. As we shall see, he knew how to handle God’s enemies without blood-shed and strife. He could not only cheer up the king when necessary, but with God’s blessings he could get the king to do the Lord’s will. He arranged the expedition of a large number of people cross 1,600 miles of very different country-side. He knew how to prepare and what to provide for an extended period of trial. He could see the true nature of people, exposing the false prophets and encouraging the sincere.
Bro. Parrow called me on Friday and mentioned a church which used to support his mission work. They recently called their third pastor. Pastor/Elder #1 was a solid Baptist, apparently believing what we do – but that was a couple decades ago. Elder #2 was not diligent in recognizing or exposing false doctrine and maintaining the wall around Jerusalem which was necessary. So when Elder #3 came in, the man had no shame in openly declaring that he believes in the unscriptural idea that all believers are in the “universal church.” By that time the church didn’t have the wisdom or spiritual strength to reject the heretic. Elder #2, in particular, did not have the wisdom and insight Nehemiah possessed.
You can be sure that Nehemiah would not let that occur under his watch. And with his wisdom and convictions he had the courage to risk everything to defend the truth. That courage began before he reached Jerusalem – he was the king’s cupbearer, after all. Among other things, it was the duty of the cupbearer to sample the king’s food, looking for poison. He didn’t just look and smell it, examining it’s color and texture; he actually put some of it in his mouth. If an enemy intended to kill Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was prepared to die in the process. He was a part of the king’s secret service detail. And he had no fear when it came to the Arabian Sanballat – Nehemiah bore the man’s ridicule, threats, subterfuge, and treason.
As I’ve already said, Nehemiah was an able leader. He got a several thousand single-minded, self-centered Jews united in the work of the Lord. They put aside their petty differences and their personal agendas to get a wall built. Some people had the privilege to work on the wall just outside their houses, but others had to cross town, just to make sure every inch of wall was covered. And because of the enemy, they had to carry their weapons along with their masonry tools and mortar. Some of those people had more money than others; some were healthy while others were sick and injured or they had sick family members. Nehemiah had to deal with the organization of architects; the importation of building materials, the settling of quarrels. He had to calm the wives who wanted to protect their husbands and sons. He had to oversee the problem rubbish and garbage.
And he did it all – Nehemiah was persistent. When others were ready to quit because of threats, danger from the enemy and plain old discouragement, Nehemiah stayed true to the task. Ezra had long ago been buried, and there were no prominent and respected priests in Nehemiah’s day. So to Nehemiah fell the responsibility of encouraging everyone. Undoubtedly there were times when he needed the encouragement – did he have any friends to lean on?
Nehemiah was an extraordinary man in an extraordinary day. I won’t presume to imply that today is better – or worse – than it was 2,500 years ago. But as David said in his day, “is there not a cause” today? There are walls to rebuild; there is an empty city which needs to be filled with souls. This temple of God may not be as glorious as others, but it still is God’s temple, and the Lord is here. We have Nehemiah’s work to do. Let’s use the tools which the Lord has put into our hands and get the work done. Nehemiah 4:6 – “So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.”