COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
LESSON NUMBER 1
Neh 1:1 “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, 2 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.” (Nehemiah 1:1-2)
The book of Nehemiah is particularly appropriate in our time. It was written during the aftermath of the Babylonian captivity – a time when the city of God and the house of God were in a state of desolation. A single man was stirred to do something about the situation, even though he himself was serving a heathen king in a heathen country. He had the heart to ask about the people of God who had escaped, and of the condition of the holy city. He also had the boldness to speak to the king about the desolation, and seek for permission to build the city of God again. By the grace of God, Nehemiah’s request was granted, and he set out to do a seemingly impossible task. We will see how a person can survey a desolate site, see ruin and devastation, and yet be encouraged to rise up and build. This book will speak of how people can unite together in a common cause, and be strengthened to do the work. It will testify to the versatility with which the work of God must be accomplished – being constantly prepared to fight or build. It will also speak of enemies who are determined to stop the work, and of their subtlety and determination to thwart the work of God. However, it will also show how such threatening people can be resisted, and the work of the Lord be brought to completion, even in the face of regular threats. You will find numerous parallels to our own time in this book. You will also see good reasons to throw yourself into the work of the Lord, being a worker together with God.
THE WORDS OF NEHEMIAH
1:1 “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah.” Nehemiah is listed with a number of leaders who came up out of the captivity, whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away to Babylon. “Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city; which came with Zerubbabel: Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mizpar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah” (Ezra 2:2). These were part of a vast company of 42,360, together with 7,337 male and female servants, and 200 singing men and women (Ezra 2:3-65). A similar listing occurs in Nehemiah 7:7-63. Cyus the Persian permitted these people to return to Jerusalem. The first mentioning, therefore, that we have of Nehemiah concerns his involvement with those returning from the Babylonian captivity.
HIS PAST IS UNKNOWN. When it comes to what we know about Nehemiah’s past, it unusually brief. We know he was the “son of Hachaliah,” and that he was among those returning from the Babylonian captivity. That is it. Those who imagine we need to know about the past of those who serve the Lord will certainly have a difficult time with Nehemiah. His record really began when he started doing the work of the Lord. What happened before that is unknown. Of course, the same could be said of most of the Prophets. We also have only a few brief words of the past lives of the Apostles. Some were fishermen, one was a tax collector, some were disciples of John the Baptist – but you could certainly not write a book on their lives before Jesus.
It appears as though this is something of the Divine manner. Only Paul’s past was particularly opened up to us, and that was not merely for informational purposes. Rather, his former life is opened to us because he is an appointed “pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting,” confirming the longsuffering and mercy of the Lord (1 Tim 1:16). He is an example of what God can do with a sinner.
THE TIMES WERE NOT GOOD. Nehemiah was actually born during, or shortly after, that cursed Babylonian captivity. He was raised by Hachaliah during a time when the people of God were still oppressed, like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were. It is apparent from the book of Nehemiah that he had been taught concerning Jerusalem, the Temple, the land of Canaan, and the Jewish people. Even though times were not good for the people of God, yet the faithful continued to tutor their families in the ways of the Lord. There is a pattern of this sort of thing in Scripture. Enoch and Noah were raised in spiritually decadent times. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and Caleb were all raised during the Egyptian bondage. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were raised during the Babylon captivity, and in Babylon itself. Samson was raised during the oppression of the Philistines, and Gideon during the oppression of the Midianites. John the Baptist was raised during the spiritual deadness of Jerusalem’s dominance by Rome, as well as were Simeon and Anna.
There is much that can encourage our hearts about this circumstance. Great people of God have not always risen during spiritually favorable times. In fact, it appears as though very few did. We also are living in a time of spiritual oppression and devastation. The people of God may be tempted to despair, or to become spiritually fatigued in their efforts for the Lord. We must look to the records of men like Nehemiah to gain a proper perspective. The days may be “evil” (Eph 5:16), but “the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear” (Isa 59:1). Even in times like these, men and women of God can rise up and do a great work for God.
CUPBEARER, THEN GOVERNOR. At the time represented by the first chapter, Nehemiah was the “cupbearer” for king Artaxerses. He confesses, “I was the kings’ cupbearer” (1:11). This was a significant position, with only trustworthy people being appointed thereto. One of the roles of the “cupbearer” was to taste the cup prior to the king’s drinking, to ensure it contained no poisonous drink. This official also had access to the king, which will prove to be a turning point in Nehemiah’s life. In Joseph’s time, Pharaoh’s cupbearer was called the “butler” (Gen 40:1-2).
Later in the book, we will learn that Nehemiah became the “governor” of Judea, working with Ezra, who was both a priest and a scribe (Neh 10:26). Having received permission to rebuild the ruined walls and city, he also received the authority to proceed with the work. The rest of the book of Nehemiah is a record of the work he was given to do. It stands as a noble example of the efficiency of the grace of God, and the worth of godly determination. We do well to capture the spirit of this book.
THE MONTH AND THE YEAR, AND WHERE I WAS
“ 1b And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace.” The month of “Chisleu,” or “Chislev,” NKJV or “Kislev,” NIV was the ninth month in the Jewish calendar (Zech 7:1), corresponding to our month of September. It was a Babylonian name. The Jewish year began with the month Abib, and marked the time when they were delivered from Egyptian bondage (Ex 13:4). The second month was “Zif,” or “Ziv” (1 Kgs 6:1). The seventh month is identified as “Ethanim” (1 Kgs 8:2). The eighth month was “Bul” (1 Kgs 6:38). These four months were associated with the most important agricultural times of the year. Normally, months were designated numerically. “First” (Ex 12:2), “second” (Ex 16:1), “third” (Ex 19:1), “fourth” (2 Kgs 25:3), “fifth” (Jer 28:1), “sixth” (1 Chron 27:9), “seventh” (Gen 8:4), “eighth” (Zech 1:1), “ninth” (Ezra 19:9), “tenth” (Gen 8:5), “eleventh” (Deut 1:3), and “twelfth” (Esther 3:7).
All of this may appear quite inconsequential – at least until you consider that Babylon also had a calendar – one that differed from the Jewish calendar. After the Babylonian captivity, the Jews adopted the Babylonian calendar, using the names of their months. It is my understanding that they applied them to the Jewish time periods, which were lunar periods. Later in Nehemiah he refers to the Babylonian month of “Nisan” (Neh 2:1). He also refers to the sixth Babylonian month of “Elul” (Neh 6:15). While this is not something to dwell on, captivity does altar the way people speak and reckon time. When first coming out of Egypt, the names of the months drew attention to the deliverance of the people from Egyptian bondage. Following the Babylonian captivity, those names tended to remind the people of the captivity they endured because of their disobedience.
THE TWENTIETH YEAR. This refers to the twentieth year of king Artaxerses’ reign. This is made clear by the first verse of the second chapter. “And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king.” Artaxerxes was a Persian king. Thirteen years prior to Nehemiah’s writing, this king had supported the return of Ezra to Jerusalem, with “some of the children of Israel, and of the priests, and the Levites, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinims” (Ezra 7:7-8). Later in the book, Nehemiah records that in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes’ reign, he obtained leave to return to Jerusalem and deal with the wickedness of Eliashib the priest (Neh 13:6). Both Ezra and Nehemiah were officials in this king of Persia’s court. Apart from them, he has no significance whatsoever in the Divine record. The seventh, twentieth, and thirty-second years of his reign were significant because of their relation to the work of God.
This king temporarily halted the building program in Jerusalem, which had been authorized by his predecessor Cyrus (Ezra 4:7-23). Later, he reversed his decision, allowing the work to continue (Ezra 6:14).
The point to be seen here is that people, times, and events, obtain real significance when they are related to the particular working of the Lord. I say “particular,” because God is always at work among the nations, being the “Governor” among them (Psa 22:28). At the point an individual touches the work of God, whether for good or evil, they become significant. The Scriptural history of both good and evil individuals confirm this to be the case. Men like Pharaoh, Sihon, Og, Sennacherib, Belshazzar, Herod, and Pilate are known for opposing the work of the Lord. Others, like Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius are noted for being used by God to accomplish His will. However, if it were not for the Lord’s doing, their names would not be in the Word of God. It is the work of the Lord – his “doing” – that causes people to obtain significance, whether for good or evil.
SHUSHAN THE PALACE. The modern word for “Shushan” is “Susa.” NIV The “palace” was the residence of the King, and hence the place of power – like a “capitol” NASB. This is exactly the same palace in which Queen Esther interceded for the children of Israel before king Ahasuerus about 35 years earlier - 480 BC (Esther 1:2; 4:14; 9:6-12). It is also the place where Daniel saw the vision of the ram with two horns, and a he-goat with one “notable horn,” during the reign of Balshazzar king of Babylon, nearly one hundred years earlier – 542 BC (Dan 8:2-15). The city continues to this very day in Iran, not far from Babylon. One city, three Divinely appointed occasions, three different messengers from God: Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah.
I do not know if Nehemiah pondered what had happened in this palace before. However, it should be noted that Divine visitations and favor often come to the same places. Shiloh was such a place (1 Sam 3:21; Jer 7:12). Jerusalem was another (1 Kgs 11:36). Bethel was also such a place (Gen 31:13; 35:1; Hos 12:4). Something to ponder!
I ASKED ONE OF MY BROTHERS
“ 2 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.” During an ordinary day, while engaged in regular routines, an event occurred that changed Nehemiah’s life and the course of history. It was not, according to appearance, an epochal event. It was just a little clan returning from the homeland. Now we will see how a visit from a relative changed how Nehemiah thought, and what he wanted to do. It would alter how the king thought, and what he would allow Nehemiah to do. It certainly pays large dividends to be alert and vigilant!
ONE OF MY BROTHERS. Later Nehemiah specifically refers to “my brother Hanani” (7:2). These two references are the only ones in all of Scripture to this particular man. All he is noted for is giving an accurate report of a most disheartening condition. However, God used that report to awaken a godly desire in a faithful servant who had been lost, so to speak, in the king’s court. Never underestimate how the Lord will work!
There was a musician by this name, who was a son of Heman (1 Chron 25:4). There was also a man by this name who was the father of Jehu, and himself was a “seer” (2 Chron 19:2). There as also a Hanani who was a priest, the son of Immer (Ezra 10:20). There was also a priest and chief musician by this name who took part in the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 12:36). “Hanani” is one of those names that is sanctified.
GOOD COMPANY. Nehemiah’s brother was accompanied by “some men from Judah.” This does not mean they simply came from Judah originally. Rather, the group was returning from Judah. Another version clarifies this by saying, “Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men.” NIV The Scriptures do not tell us why they were in Judah, or why they turned up at the palace. We will learn from what follows, however, that this whole event was orchestrated by the Living God. It will also become apparent that they had a heart for the place where God had set His name. When kindred brethren travel together and observe together, the Lord is apt to use their fellowship to accomplish great things. May God grant that more holy conclaves may be seen coming from the right place.
THE JEWS THAT HAD ESCAPED. Nehemiah’s question reveals his heart. It also reveals he had done a lot of thinking about the former glory of Israel – a time with which he was familiar only by testimony. His interrogation was not prompted by personal involvement, but by an awareness that had been cultured by other godly souls.
He asked about “the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity.” NASB They had not “escaped” by running away, but by Divine appointment. Another version reads, “the Jewish remnant that survived the exile.” NIV These were the Jews who were not killed when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, and did not die during the captivity, or “exile” in Babylon. The number also included those who were permitted to return to their homeland.
All of the Jews who remained alive in Jerusalem were said to have “escaped the exile.” To put it another way, they had survived the chastening of the Lord! Ezra referred to these people as those who had not been destroyed, even though they had sinned. “O LORD God of Israel, Thou art righteous: for we remain yet escaped, as it is this day” (Ezra 9:15). Isaiah prophesied of those who would benefit from the Messiah as “them that are escaped of Israel” (Isa 4:2). Those in Christ are described as “having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet 1:4), and “clean escaped from them who live in error.” (2 Pet 2:18), and “escaped the pollutions of the world” (2 Pet 2:25). Nehemiah did not ask who died, but who survived! What about them? How were they doing?
CONCERNING JERUSALEM. Nehemiah also inquired “concerning Jerusalem,” the holy city (Neh 11:1). This was the place of former blessing – a city with which God had identified Himself. How was the city now! What condition was it in? Were the walls rebuilt? What about the Temple and the houses in the city? As with Jeremiah, Jerusalem came into his mind (Jer 51:50). Like David, he sought for peace and prosperity within its walls (Psa 122:6-7). He asked someone whose judgment he trusted – someone who had an obvious and personal interest in this ancient city.
It is still good for us to ask about the people of God, the “city of the great King” (Psa 48:2; Matt 5:35). How is the habitation of God doing? How are those who have “survived” the chastening of God and the opposition of the devil and his hoards of darkness. Who is qualified to give us a report? Let us ask those who have walked about where God’s name has been placed. Let us not ask who is fallen, but who is standing. Not who has succumbed, but who has outlived the trials. The report may be used of God to stir our hearts to do something about it.