COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
Neh 1:3 “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. 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.” (Nehemiah 1:3-4)
While it is admirable to strive to always have something positive to say, it is not always possible. There are occasions and seasons when great devastation exists among the people of God. Out of shame, some may tend to hide such conditions, or refuse to consider and learn from them. Others, however, long for people and places that were once blessed to be blessed again. They are not afraid to report the real condition of things, even though it is heartbreaking to do so. The reports of such circumstances are a great grief to those of tender heart. The knowledge of the oppression of God’s people and the devastation of the city of God will provoke holy aspirations among those having an interest in them. The report of such a condition is what occasioned the writings and work of Nehemiah. He did not surface during good times, but when the people of God were oppressed and the city of God was in shambles. Here was a man that arrived on the stage of Divine working when it looked as though the people and city of God had been abandoned. Like Esther, he was brought to the kingdom “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Because he was touched with the condition of the people of God and the city of God, he was used to initiate a recovery program. This is a Kingdom principle that can be seen throughout the Scripture. Those who work for God have a heart for His people and what He has done. Whether it was Moses, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, or the Apostle Paul, they were all driven by a love for those among whom God had worked. The goal of our review of this marvelous book is to stimulate similar godly concerns among those who can see the conditions of this time.
A REPORT OF THE ESCAPED REMNANT
“ 3a And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach.” Nehemiah had asked about those who had survived the Babylonian “captivity,” and of Jerusalem, the city of God. He will now receive a sad, but factual, report. There will be no pretension, and the situation will not be glossed.
THE REMNANT. A lot of people did not survive “the captivity.” This was the Babylonian captivity, which was a chastisement for not allowing the land to enjoy its appointed sabbaths (Lev 26:34; 2 Chron 36:21). There was not a lot of killing in Nebuchadnezzar’s overthrow of Judah. He deported most of the citizenry to Babylon rather than killing them. We are not sure of the exact numbers, but estimates range from 70,000 to 80,000. Only a few counts are provided (Jer 52:27-34; 2 Kgs 24:15-16; 25:11-12).
The captivity was devastating to Israel. During that time, they ceased to be a singing people (Psa 137:1-3). The mighty prophet Ezekiel, for example, was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, called to the prophetic office while in the captivity (Ezek 1:2-3), and apparently died in the 27th year of the captivity (Ezek 29:17). His wife died before him, taken by God, though she was the desire of Ezekiel’s eyes. God did not allow him to weep for her (Ezek 24:15-17). Detailed records are not provided of others who did not survive “the captivity.” However, that many did not is evident from the use of the word “remnant.”
Through Jeremiah, God had promised Israel, “after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place” (Jer 29:10). In 538 BC, under the direction of king Cyrus, 42,370 “children of the province” returned to their own cities (Ezra 2:1,64). This was about twenty-three years before the conclusion of the captivity (586-516 BC) – a sort of pledge of the sure fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise.
The history of the people returning from the Babylonian captivity is broken off from 516 BC until 458 BC, when Ezra returned to Jerusalem with around 1,800 Jews (Ezra 8:1-20). At that time Ezra found the Jews that were in their home land had intermingled with the heathen through marriage (Ezra 9). He called the people back to God, sparking a revival.
In our text (around 445 BC), about thirteen years have passed since Ezra’s return, and over seventy years since the conclusion of “the captivity.” Nehemiah asks about those who remain in the homeland – “the remnant” who remained after the captivity was over.
IN THE PROVINCE. The word “province” means region, and refers to the land from which Israel had been taken – the promised land. It was the region God had blessed, where His name had been placed, and where His people were to live. He had cast out the heathen from the land in order for the seed of Abraham to occupy it. It was where they belonged, and now some of them were in the land again. How were they doing?
IN GREAT AFFLICTION. The report was, they “are in great affliction.” Other versions say “great distress,” NKJV and “great trouble.” NIV They were experiencing calamity, sorrow, and hurt. They were being harassed by the enemies, particularly the Samaritans (Ezra 4:10-16). The significance of this condition is noteworthy. These were the people of God. The chastisement they endured in the Babylonian captivity had come to an end. They were in their own land, and the foundations for the Temple had been laid. Yet, the people were “in great affliction.” We should learn from this that recovery from chastisement is not always rapid. The effects of chastisement often remain with us for some time, even as it did with David (2 Sam 12:10) and Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:16). Far better to do our utmost to avoid chastening. No chastening is pleasant while it is being administered (Heb 12:11), and often it yields sorrow after it is over.
IN REPROACH. Not only were “the remnant” being opposed and harmed, they were being “reproached,” or “disgraced.” NIV Opposing Samaritans referred to them as “these feeble Jews” (Neh 4:32). They referred to Jerusalem as “the rebellious and bad city” (Ezra 4:12). This is something God said would occur if the people left Him: “and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people” (1 Kgs 9:7). The Psalmist also articulated the effects of being disgraced. “We are become a reproach to our neighbors, a scorn and derision to them that are round about us” (Psa 79:4). Keep in mind the circumstances under which the people were enduring these reproaches. They were God’s people, had already endured the chastening of the Lord, and were in their homeland. Yet, because the land had been idle for so long, their enemies had waxed bold against them. Even though they were engaged in a good work, “the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building” (Ezra 4:5). It was very difficult for “the remnant.”
A REPORT OF THE HOLY CITY
“ 3b . . . the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.” Not only were the people themselves distressed and disgraced, the environment in which we resided was in shambles. This was no ordinary city! Three hundred years earlier, Isaiah had prophesied, “he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem” (Isa 4:3). One hundred and eighty years before this, Jeremiah had written, “Jerusalem shall dwell safely” (Jer 33:16). Seventy-six years before, Zechariah wrote, “Thus saith the LORD; I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth” (Zech 8:3). But, alas, that certainly was not the condition of the city in the days of Nehemiah.
THE WALL OF JERUSALEM. What a history there is behind “the wall of Jerusalem.” Originally, it was built by Solomon (1 Kgs 3:1; 9:15). Jehoash, king of Israel, broke down about six hundred feet of the wall around 945 BC. Prior to “the captivity,” Nebuchadnezzar “burnt the house of God, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem” (2 Chron 36:19). Ezra and his companions had returned to Jerusalem to commence a rebuilding of the wall (Ezra 5:3; 9:9). Now Nehemiah has asked about the city, and a dismal report is given.
The wall of Jerusalem “is broken down.” 141 years after Nebuchadnezzar broke the walls down, they remained in that condition! 93 years after the original group of 42,370 returned to the homeland, the walls were still not built. 13 years after Ezra returned with 1,800 workers, the walls still remained “broken down.” It was still in shambles, and the protection of the holy city had still not been secured
Once again, we should note that recovery is not always quickly accomplished. It is quite true that the Lord restores “the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm” (Joel 2:25). But do not imagine that such restoration is always instantaneous. When God’s people have sinned against an abundance of truth, rejected frequent and powerful messengers, and stopped their ears to repeated and fervent warnings, they should not expect quick recoveries – if, indeed, they are given to recover at all. Solomon said, “He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Prov 29:1). In our text, the people had not been destroyed “beyond remedy,” NASB but recovery was a long time coming.
This is not intended to generate hopelessness, but to warn the people of God to avoid spiritual retrogression, dulness, and hardheartedness. We are living in a time when new efforts to recover the people of God are being expended. Our history is cluttered with miniature attempts to strengthen the church, like the original return of the Jews by the decree of Cyrus, and the return of Ezra and his colleagues to build up the city. Yet, every honest soul will tell you that the walls of the church of God are “broken down.” The collapse of the appointed wall of “salvation” (Isa 26:1), has allowed the entry of all manner of deceitful workers and charlatans. Until that wall is again built, setting forth the salvation of God with precision and power, the people of God will continue to be subjected to all manner or corruption and abuse – to distress and disgrace.
THE GATES THEREOF. The gates of the wall surrounding Jerusalem were significant, with appointed functions. Nehemiah mentions at least eleven gates: “the gate of the valley” (2:13; 2 Chron 26:9), “the dung gate” (3:14), “the old gate” (3:6), “the gate of the fountain” (2:14; 2 Kgs 20:20), “the sheep gate” (3:1), “the fish gate” (3:3; 2 Chron 33:14), “the water gate” (3:26), “the horse gate” (3:28; 2 Chron 23:15), “the east gate” (3:29; Jer 19:2), “the gate of Ephraim” (8:16; 2 Kgs 14:23), and “the prison gate” (12:39).
These were places of gathering, business, bringing in needed resources, and taking out things unusable. When these gates were broken down, they introduced confusion and disorder. There were no ordered ways of removing unwanted things, or bringing in required things. Gates for entering and exiting, so vital to the health of the city, had been “burned with fire.” They could no longer be locked to intruders, or opened for friends.
The church has been established with certain gates also: appointed places of entrance and exit. Preaching and teaching is like a water gate, bringing nourishment to the saints. Repentance is like a dung gate, through which unwanted things pass. The love of the saints is like a sheep gate, through which weary travelers enter. Taking thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ is like the prison gate, where dominion is exercised over things that rob and pillage the soul. When these gates are “burned with fire,” in favor of lesser things, all manner of confusion is introduced into the church. It should be apparent to every sensitive soul that we are living in a time of burned gates and walls that have been broken down.
THE EFFECT OF THE REPORT ON NEHEMIAH
“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.” Nehemiah was not living in Jerusalem. He was born during the captivity, and had no pleasant memories of the former glory of the city of Jerusalem, its magnificent walls, or its glorious temple. Yet, he had been exposed to accounts of times that were more glorious than his own days, and he had believed them. He had a proper sense of values, even though he was in the palace of a heathen king, and in a country that was not intended to be the dwelling place for the people of God. He had an occupation that no Israelite was ever intended to have – a “cupbearer,” which was established because of enemies in the very kingdom over which the king presided. If, according to the flesh, anyone had a right to be discouraged about or disinterested in the affairs of Judah, it would have been Nehemiah. How would this word effect a man with a secure position, who had favor with the king, and had not been sent back to Judah like Ezra the scribe? How would a man like this respond to the report?
WHEN I HEARD THESE WORDS. The report has an instant effect upon Nehemiah. He reacted “when” he heard the words. Immediately his thoughts rushed to the matter reported – the remnant and the city of Jerusalem. His heart was tender, and was therefore touched by the description of the holy people and the holy city. Instead of his thoughts putting the report aside in favor of issues related to the palace of the king, he joined with the Lord in deep thoughtfulness about His people and His city.
I SAT DOWN AND WEPT AND MOURNED. Nehemiah’s life was impacted by this report. He ceased to move to and fro, captured by palace routines. He “sat down,” thereby divesting himself of the distractions about him. While Jeremiah wept at the contemplation of the Babylonian captivity (Jer 9:1), Nehemiah wept because of its aftermath. He “wept and mourned,” bewailed and lamented. As Jacob “mourned for his son” Joseph many days, thinking he was dead (Gen 37:24), so Nehemiah wept and mourned “for days,” NASB because of the report he had heard. A society given over to pleasure and fleshly gratification knows little of weeping and mourning. Nehemiah did not weep for himself, but for “the remnant” of God’s people, who were enduring “great affliction and reproach.” He did not weep and lament because the palace in which he resided had been made vulnerable, but because the walls of Jerusalem were “broken down, and its gates burned with fire.” His responsiveness to the situation will qualify him to be used to bring a resolution to the dilemma. God continued to look for men like this (2 Chron 16:9).
I FASTED AND PRAYED. Nehemiah forfeited personal comforts in order to plead with God. He knew that Divine remedies are never executed through casual attitudes. When Daniel knew the Babylonian captivity was about to come to a conclusion, he set his face “unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan 9:3). Now, almost 100 years later, Nehemiah fasts and prays for the full recovery that was intended to take place after “the captivity.” He does not run throughout the province to organize a recovery team, but first goes to the Lord. The people about whom he is concerned are God’s people. How appropriate it is, therefore, to go to God about them. The city for which he weeps is God’s city, “the holy city” (Neh 11:1,18), and “the city of the great King” (Psa 48:2; Matt 5:35). How fitting, therefore, to fast and pray unto the God of that people and city, concerning the report received about them.
The prayer of Nehemiah (1:5-11) will be a petition to be used by God for the correction of the situation. It will be the means through which he enters into the work of recovery and restoration. The rest of the book will reveal the results of that prayer.
AN EXAMPLE. Nehemiah is an example of how the righteous are touched when they become aware of the plight of the saints and the deterioration of the place where God once dwelt. For many years I have personally witnessed a remarkable disinterest and lack of concern about the condition of the church of our day. Religious professionals do all within their power to ignore the condition, pretending “the remnant” of the people of God are not really “in great affliction and reproach.” It does not seem to concern them that the walls of salvation are no longer prominent, and that the gates of the church have been burned with fire. However, where there is a sensitive soul who will listen to the report, and take it into his heart, indifference will be put to flight, and godly response will surface. Prayers will be raised to the God of heaven to become a part of His recovery program. An effort will be made to see the people of the Lord built up in the faith, and protective walls rebuilt for the safety of, and ministry to, the saints. I encourage you to be such a person.