COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 2:17 Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. 18Then 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.” (Nehemiah 2:17-18)
Nehemiah has surveyed the walls, beholding the devastation of the holy city. Until this time, he has told no one what was in his heart. However, now that he has seen the condition of things, he is ready to share his burden. He waits until he can speak within the context of the real situation. He will not let the report of Hananai determine how he speaks, but will couch his plans within a personal acquaintance of the situation. What will be the first thing that he does? How will he proceed to implement the work? His actions will testify to the nature of faith, and how the Lord proceeds to accomplish His work. Further, we will see that when God begins to work, faith rises to the surface among those He employs for that work. Those who had been discouraged will suddenly take heart, and people who had been living amidst the rubble of spiritual desolation will rise to the occasion, determined to engage in a work that formerly intimidated them. Faith contains all of the properties required to do a work for God: insight, zeal, and determination. It brings with it encouragement, strength, and alertness of heart and soul. We will also see how faith is first shown in a love for the work, then in the work itself. Those who know that faith produces work often overlook this critical aspect of it: faith also has a love for the work, and a determination to see that it is done. All of these things, and more, will be seen in the text before us. Remember, this is a record of the working of the Lord.
SEEING THE DISTRESS THEY WERE IN
“ 2:17 Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.” Following his nighttime survey of the walls and gates, the time has come for Nehemiah to share the work that has been laid upon his heart. He does not do this until he knows the conditions firsthand. We are not sure when this sharing took place, whether it was immediately after the survey, or within a short period of time. I tend to think some brief period elapsed before he spoke to the Jews, priests, nobles, rulers, and people who would do the work. He had not acted hastily to this point, and there is not reason to suppose that he did here. In the Divine manner, our text goes from significant point to significant point, sparing needless details.
SEEING THE DISTRESS. Other versions read, “the bad situation we are in,” NASB and “the trouble we are in.” NIV Some of the people to whom Nehemiah spoke had been living in the midst of the devastation. However, they had not seen it as Nehemiah did. In using these words, Nehemiah is urging the people to consider the condition – to think upon it, together with its ramifications. No work for God will be accomplished until the need for it is clearly seen. Those who refuse to look upon troubling circumstances will never be used to resolve them! There comes a time when the devastation of God’s people and the things pertaining to them must be considered.
And what is the “distress,” or trouble, they are in? Note, he does not cite their economic disadvantages, the discouragement of the people, or some other social condition. The “distress” is the shambles of the holy city, and the destruction of the gates leading to and from it. The place where God had placed His name was in a state of demolition! Remember, the original devastation was brought on by God Himself. “The LORD hath purposed to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion . . . Her gates are sunk into the ground; He hath destroyed and broken her bars” (Lam 2:8-9). During the Babylonian captivity, judgment was being ministered by the Lord. But that captivity is over now, and the condition of the walls and gates can be seen from quite another view. Jerusalem no longer needs to lie in waste. Jeremiah wept at the prospect of the city being destroyed (Lam 3:51-54). Centuries later, Jesus would again weep over the city at the expectation of it being destroyed (Luke 19:41). But Nehemiah’s day is not such a time. This is the time for work, not despair!
COME, LET US BUILD! “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.” NASB This is a summons to activity! There is a work to do, and the people before him are the ones to do it: “US.” Great men summon the saints to great activities! Serious conditions call for serious commitment. This was not a small wall, for it encompassed the entire city. Yet, in a single sentence, Nehemiah rallies the people for the work! Nehemiah had requested that Artaxerxes send him to Judah to “build” (2:5), not to simply survey and speculate. He must have been familiar with the penitential prayer of David, “build Thou the walls of Jerusalem” (Psa 51:18). God did not bless the building on the plain of Shinar (Gen 11:4-8), but He would surely bless the building of the walls around “the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High” (Psa 46:4).
It appears that Nehemiah gathered the people together for this challenge: “I said to them.” These are the ones to whom he had not formerly divulged his purpose: “the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work” (v 16). But now they must know of the work, for they are all going to be involved.
NO MORE A REPROACH. “ . . . that we be no more a reproach.” As long as the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruin, the people of God were themselves a reproach. When their chief city is no longer protected, they are “in disgrace.” NIV It makes little difference if they have adequate food and clothing, or whether or not they are gainfully employed. While they holy city is exposed to their enemies, they are in a miserable condition. The only resolution to this dilemma is to rebuild the walls – to reestablish what made them unique.
While the devastation brought on by enemies exists, the people of God are reproached. Thus Nahash the Ammonite sought to reproach Israel by gouging out the right eye of all the men of Jabesh (1 Sam 11:1-2). Those in Christ must be able to see that as long as the church is in a state of corruption, the people of God are a reproach. When truth falls in the street, and is no longer proclaimed in power (Isa 59:14), the church is in a state of disgrace. When the walls and bulwarks of salvation are torn down and replaced with the philosophies and strategies of men, the people of God become a reproach. That condition will remain until the walls God has established are rebuilt and fortified!
TELLING HOW GOD’S HAND WAS UPON HIM
“ 18a 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 . . . ” The time has come for Nehemiah to speak of the mission, and the work to be accomplished. He will not speak about it sentimentally, appealing to the bald emotions of the people. Rather, he will make the people mindful of the Lord. Jerusalem was His city (Psa 87:3), where He had placed His name (1 Kgs 11:36). The desire to rebuild it’s walls and repair its gates was more than Nehemiah’s ambition. This was the work of the Lord, reflecting His desires, and would thus bring glory to His name. It was not that Nehemiah conceived of the work, then asked the Lord to bless it. Rather, it was that God planned the work, and shared His purpose with Nehemiah. That is what Nehemiah will now place before the people. This is a project revealed by God.
THE HAND OF MY GOD. While it might appear as though Nehemiah was primarily motivated by the report of Hananai and the sight of the devastation, this was not at all the case. He had been moved by “the hand of God.” The Lord used the report of Nehemiah’s brother, as well as the sight of the ruined walls. However, it was the Lord Himself that moved Nehemiah.
The expression “the hand of the Lord” denotes the immediate involvement of God. It is used thirty-six times in Scripture, and denotes God Himself as doing something. Thus, when the cattle of Egypt were struck with murrain, it is said to have come from “the hand of the Lord” (Ex 9:3). When the spirit of prophecy came upon Elisha, it is said “the hand of the Lord” was upon him (2 Kgs 3:15). When Ezra’s request was granted by the king, it was because “the hand of the Lord” was upon him (Ezra 7:6). When a great number of Grecians believed on Christ, it was because “the hand of the Lord” was upon those who preached to them (Acts 11:21). God does involve Himself in the affairs of men!
GOOD UPON ME. Nehemiah says the hand of the Lord was “good upon me.” That is, God was being “favorable” to him. NASB Other versions read, “the gracious hand of my God upon me,” NIV and “the favoring hand of my God had rested upon me.” NAB A new covenant way of expressing this would be, “the grace of God was upon Him” (Lk 2:40), or “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). The report involved how God had been gracious to him, giving him favor with the king, allowing him to come to Judah, and providing the supplies that would be required for the work. He had asked the Lord to “grant him mercy in the sight” of the king (1:11), and now Nehemiah reports how extensive that mercy was.
The “hand of the Lord” can be “against” people as well as for them (Deut 2:15; Judges 2:15; 1 Sam 5:9). In the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, “the hand of the Lord” had been against the Jews (Jer 1:15-16; 11:17). Now, “the hand of the Lord” was upon Nehemiah for good, to rebuild the walls that were destroyed by the decree of God Himself.
The thing to be seen here is that Nehemiah recognized the working of the Lord. He knew “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). He also knew that good impulses have their origin with a good God. Therefore, he will not share the rebuilding plans as though they were his own. Nor, indeed, will he speak about the favorable circumstances as though they occurred by chance. He will make the people God-conscious! That is what must precede a work that is to be done for the Lord! When Moses challenged Israel with their status and benefits, he traced them all back to God (Deut 1:10,21; 2:7). When Peter unveiled the spiritual rebuilding plan of salvation, he traced it back to God (Acts 2). In his writings to the churches, Paul expounded the marvelous provisions of salvation by tracing them back to God (Eph 3:1-3). This is a Kingdom manner! “The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad” (Psa 126:3).
THE KING’S WORDS. In elaborating on the gracious hand of God, Nehemiah shares with the people what Artaxerxes had said to him personally: “the king's words that he had spoken unto me.” The recorded words that were said by the king are few. “Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart . . . For what dost thou make request?. . . For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return?” (2:2,4,6). I do not know if more words were said or not. That, however, is not the point. What Nehemiah is explaining is “the hand of the Lord” being upon him for good. He sees the words of the king as the result of God’s gracious hand being upon himself! The mission to rebuild had been supported by a heathen king because God’s gracious hand was upon Nehemiah! The Lord was working with Nehemiah, and thus things were brought together for his good, and for the success of the building project. Of course, it is one thing for this to happen, it is quite another for it to be seen. Nehemiah saw it.
THE RESPONSE OF FAITH
“ 17b And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.” How will the people respond to Nehemiah’s testimony? After all, those who had been living in Judah were “in great affliction and reproach” (1:3). A spirit of joy and encouragement was not among them! Would they be like Israel when they came to the borders of the promised land? Will the devastation around them effect them like the presence of the Red Sea effected Israel (Ex 14:11-12)? Will they consider the work too challenging, viewing themselves as “grasshoppers” and lifting up their voice in weeping (Num 13:33)? Will the circumstances intimidate them like the challenge of Goliath frightened the armies of Israel (1 Sam 17:23-24)? If a statistician was among the crowd, he could have cited how unlikely it was that Israelites would respond to a challenge like this. Their background confirmed you could not count on them, and the historical record would support that conclusion. They had rejected judges and prophets before Nehemiah. How could he expect them to hear him? I will tell you how. The hand of the Lord was upon him for good, and he knew it! God Had worked through Nehemiah’s words to Artaxerxes, and He would work through his words to the Jews! That is why his words exuded godly confidence and expectation. The king had responded well. The governors had responded favorably. The manager of the king’s forest would react accordingly. Why would the man of God not expect the people to also reply to the honor of God? This was God’s work!
LET US RISE UP AND BUILD. What a marvelous response! Other versions read, “Let us start rebuilding,” NIV “Let us start building,” NRSV and “Let us start building at once.” NJB What moved the people to such holy resolve? Was it a motivational speech? Was it a commandment, or an edict that was attended with a judgment if not received? Indeed not! It was a report of what the Lord had done. It was reasoning that spoke of the removal of reproach. It was the challenge of a condition that could be corrected. The people saw they could bring an end to their miserable condition by rebuilding what lay in ruins. The sight was sufficient to compel them to get up and start building. They were encouraged by the good words of Nehemiah, and therefore determined to start the work immediately.
In Nehemiah, God was providing a trustworthy leader for the work. He was a man who could be touched with the condition of His people. He was a praying man, and a believing and trusting one as well. His faith made him bold enough to ask, and discerning enough to seize the proper moment. He knew how to identify the hand of the Lord, tracing favorable circumstances back to their proper origin. He also knew how to reason about the work, speaking of the removal of reproach.
The Lord used these comely traits to reach the hearts of the people. He used Nehemiah’s words to move them, like He used Moses’ words to get the people out of Egypt, and Joshua’s words to take the city of Jericho. It was the words of John the Baptist that were used to stir the people Godward, and the words of Peter to move stubborn Jews to repent and call upon the name of the Lord. Nehemiah did not simply pray the people would be moved to do the work. He spoke to them in wisdom, and with words of faith. God used his words to stir up the people to do the work.
THEY STRENGTHENED THEIR HANDS. The people were resolute. They had not responded in a moment of high emotion, but in a time of insight and faith. Other versions read, “they set their hands to this good work,” NKJV “So they put their hands to the good work,” NASB “So they began this good work,” NIV and “So they committed themselves to the common good.” NRSV The idea is that they encouraged one another to proceed with the work, talking of it among themselves. It is also that they were resolutely committed to do the work, not just to talk about it. They were convinced it was possible, and that they could do it. They had a living witness before them who had obtained favor in the king’s court. Several years earlier, when Ezra had come to the city, the people also “strengthened their hands” (Ezra 1:6). Then, the Lord had “raised” the spirit of the people, and now He was doing it again (Ezra 1:5). He was doing it through a man – a man whose heart was perfect before the Lord (2 Chron 16:9). That is God’s manner of working.
During the time of our text, there was only one Nehemiah – a single man who was entrusted with the burden of the Lord. In this day of salvation, such men can be more common, for people are reconciled to God and have the mind of Christ. There are “old wastes” to be rebuilt, “desolations” to be raised up, and “waste cities” to be repaired (Isa 61:4). As in Nehemiah’s day, these challenges will be addressed by men and women who are sensitive to the Lord, and able to be touched with the condition of His people.