05 Neh 1-3 Nehemiah Begins to BuildEzra, Nehemiah, & Esther: Restore, Rebuild, & Redeem
05 Neh 1-3 Nehemiah Begins to Build
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Once again, I have extensively used and copied from the Truth for Today Commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, written by my friend and former colleague at Heritage Christian University, Coy D. Roper, Ph.D. I highly recommend it!
Roper: Here is the final portrait of Israel found in the OT historical books. It describes how Nehemiah left Babylon determined to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, how he led the Jews to renew their covenant with the LORD, and how the people wept when Ezra read the law to them. It then relates that Nehemiah returned a second time to call on the people to repent of specific transgressions against the covenant. The book provides a fitting conclusion to the history of Old Testament Israel, depicting a people who often sinned but to whom God was gracious. The Hebrew Bible presents Ezra-Nehemiah as one book.
The book divides into two parts. Neh 1-7 – Rebuilding the Wall. Neh 8-13 – Renewing the Covenant.
Nehemiah 1 – Nehemiah Reacts to Bad News
Neh 1:1-3 – Bad News from Judah
Nehemiah = “the comfort of Yahweh.” Comfort suggests “strengthening aid.”
His father, Hacaliah = “wait confidently on Yahweh.”
Chislev = November/December. In the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I = 445 BC.
Hanani = “my grace” or perhaps “the grace of Yahweh.” Nehemiah’s brother. A faithful man who feared God. Nehemiah later put him in charge of the military protection of the restored Jerusalem (Neh 7:2).
The remnant = the small portion of Jewish survivors who were now in Jerusalem.
The breakdown and the fire could be those events that Nebuchadnezzar caused about 140 years earlier. Or they could be more recent (Ezra 4:23). In any case, the Jews were defenseless and helpless in the face of fearsome foes to be noted later in the book.
Neh 1:4-11 – Nehemiah’s Reaction and Prayer
Nehemiah’s grief “for days” may have lasted four months, from Chislev, the ninth month, until Nisan, the first month of the following year. He could not help but sit down, weep, mourn, fast, and pray. His heart was broken; his spirit was crushed.
Roper notes the following elements in this prayer:
(1) He began with an address to God, recognizing His greatness and goodness (1:5).
(2) He made a general appeal for God to hear the prayer of His “servant” (1:6a).
(3) He made a confession of sin (1:6b, 7).
(4) He requested that God “remember” His promises (1:8–10) and
(5) that He give him success when he approached the king (1:11a).
Only at this point does Nehemiah mention the prominent, trustworthy position that he held in Artaxerxes’ palace. He was the king’s cupbearer. The most prominent and powerful ruler of his time trusted Nehemiah with his very life, as the one who would taste the king’s drink first and take the risk that it might possibly be poisoned.
That position would grant Nehemiah access to Artaxerxes, making it quite likely that he would be well received by the king.
Takeaways from Nehemiah 1
Grieving and Mourning – Compassion, grief, and sorrow for others who are burdened and struggling can create an overwhelming desire to take action on their behalf. Paul expressed such concern for his fellow Jews who did not know Christ (Rom 9:1-5; 10:1). He also wrote regarding the church and Christians, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern” (2 Cor 11:28-29)?
Confession and Cleansing – Someone said, “God can heal a broken heart, if you will just give Him all the pieces.” Coming before the Lord with a penitent, open, vulnerable spirit provides genuine relief and often opens the door to a clear sense of what steps to take next.
Stewardship and Influence – One who handles his responsibilities and tasks faithfully brings glory to God. The Bible speaks often of those who manage other people’s possessions and affairs. Jesus told stories about those whom their masters entrusted with talents (weights of money) in Matthew 25:14-30 and with minas in Luke 19:11-27. Effective stewardship can greatly enhance one’s credibility and influence and pave the way for opportunities and expanded leadership.
Nehemiah 2 – Nehemiah Returns to Rebuild Jerusalem’s Wall
Neh 2:1-8 – Permission to Rebuild the Wall Granted
Typically, Nehemiah did not display any sadness in the presence of the king. That fact may imply that he conducted himself in a consistent, even congenial and positive manner. But now, how could he help revealing the burden he felt? Nehemiah’s overwhelming grief was apparent to King Artaxerxes. When the king asked him about it, Nehemiah was afraid. How would the king react?
Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah to make his specific request. First Nehemiah prayed. Then he requested and obtained permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the city wall. The king wanted more information about the length of his journey and the time of his return.
He also asked for official letters that would grant him safe passage and for a letter that would specifically authorize the provision of timber from the king’s forest to use for the rebuilt wall. All was granted, not simply because Nehemiah was credible and trustworthy, but because, as he said, “the good hand of my God was on me.”
Neh 2:9-10 – Nehemiah’s Journey to Judah
9 Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.
Nehemiah, armed with authoritative letters from the Persian king and protected by a military escort, traveled to Judah. Though there was no recorded opposition during the journey, there were enemies already in the land who would be a thorn in Nehemiah’s side.
Tobiah = “Yahweh is good.” He was a practicing Jew who lived in a residence chamber in the temple. He is called an “Ammonite” (Neh 2:10, 19) probably because his family fled to that territory at the destruction of Jerusalem. He enjoyed aristocratic favor and had the title “servant” bestowed on him by the Persian ruler. He opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem because it would weaken his political authority in the area. Tobiah allied with Sanballat and Geshem in trying to thwart Nehemiah. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Sanballat (Akkadian) = “Sin (the god) has healed.” According to the Elephantine Papyri from the reign of Darius I, Sanballat was governor of Samaria around 407 BC. He had sons whose names included the term “Yahweh.” Though Sanballat was his Babylonian name (probably acquired during the exile), he was a practicing Jew. His daughter was married to the grandson of Jerusalem’s high priest (Neh 13:28), indicating harmonious relations between Judah and Samaria at that time. Nehemiah referred to Sanballat as the “Horonite,” suggesting a connection with Upper or Lower Beth-horon, located about twelve miles from Jerusalem. (Neh 2:10; Josh 16:3, 5). These cities controlled the major highway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea. If Sanballat had influence with these towns, he could greatly affect Jerusalem’s economy. Sanballat, in league with Tobiah and Shemaiah, opposed Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall. If the Holy City regained prominence, it would erode the powers of the surrounding cities. The struggle appears to have been more political than racial or religious. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Neh 2:11-20 – Nehemiah’s Work on the Wall Begun
Neh 2:11-15 – Nehemiah’s Initial Inspection of the Wall
Having traveled over a thousand miles, Nehemiah spent three days before taking any recorded action. Ezra had done the same (Ezra 8:32). Perhaps the purpose was to recuperate after completing such a long, involved journey.
When he did begin his inspection, he did so quietly, simply, and secretly. Nehemiah went out with only one animal and a few men, who apparently accompanied him on foot. He told no one the plans that his God was giving him. (In this study we have previously noted God stirring up the hearts of men. Cf. Ezra 1:1, 5; 7:27).
Roper notes the following regarding these gates:
The Valley Gate – It is uncertain as to which valley was beyond this gate. The Central Valley, the Hinnom valley, and the Tyropoeon valley have all been proposed.
The Dragon’s Well – the location is unknown.
The Refuse Gate – at the southern tip of the city. The Hebrew word for “refuse” (’ashpoth) means “ash heap.” Other versions have “Rubbish Gate” (TEV), “Trash Gate” (NCV), and “Dung Gate” (NIV). From here the Jews disposed of their garbage in the valley of Hinnom. It is probably synonymous with the “potsherd gate” in Jer 19:2.
The group then moved counterclockwise around the city. They went to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool. These were located along the southeastern wall by the “city of David” (3:15; 12:37). “The Fountain Gate” may have given access to En-rogel, a spring at the convergence of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys (see 2 Sam 17:17; 1 Kgs 1:9). “The King’s Pool” could be a reference to the Pool of Siloam that Hezekiah had made by diverting water from the Gihon Spring through a channel (2 Kgs 20:20; 2 Chr 32:30). It may, however, signify another pool in the vicinity.
Nehemiah had to dismount at that point, perhaps because his animal could not maneuver through the rubble left from the destruction. Then he returned to the Valley Gate, from which his tour had begun.
Neh 2:16-18 – Nehemiah’s Presentation of His Plans to the People
Once Nehemiah had a clear idea of the size and scope of the project, he challenged the leaders and the workers to see the bad situation, get involved, and begin rebuilding the wall. He described God’s providence and the king’s words. They saw the need and caught the vision. “Let us arise and build!”
Neh 2:19-20 – The Beginning of Opposition
Geshem = “rain.” An Arabian ruler of Kedar who joined Sanballat and Tobiah in opposing Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem (Neh 2:19; 6:1–19). His name appears on a silver vessel dedicated by his son Qainu to the goddess Han-Ilat at Tell el-Maskhuta in Lower Egypt. An inscription found in Dedan also appears to describe extensive territories Geshem controlled. He was in name a vassal of Persia, but he apparently wielded great personal power with tribes in the Syrian Desert, southern Palestine, the delta of Egypt, and northern Arabia. He may have hoped to gain further control in Palestine and certainly did not want a local power to threaten him there. In Neh 6:6 there appears a variant spelling of his name—Gashmu (KJV, NASB). Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Threatened perhaps politically and economically by the Jews’ building endeavor, three primary enemies began ridiculing and undermining their project, their character, and their motivation. They aimed to use powerful tools – doubt, disillusionment, and discouragement – to stop the building of the wall.
Undaunted and undeterred, Nehemiah silenced their criticisms, at least for the time being. His confidence in God was unshakable. His identification of his crew as God’s servants was unmistakable. His exclusion of these foes was decisive. He refused them an portion (civic rights), right (legal rights) or memorial (religious rights) in Jerusalem.
Takeaways from Nehemiah 2
Body Language – We sometimes say regarding another’s person’s emotional state, “It’s written all over his face!” While we must not judge hearts, we must also be sensitive to others’ body language, facial expression, and other non-verbal forms of communication. In addition, we need to be aware of our faces, demeanor, and actions tell others about us. Note Cain’s downcast face, due to his anger, and the Lord’s response to him (Gen 4:4-7). Later in Genesis, see how Jacob realized that his father-in-law’s countenance toward him had changed (Gen 31:1-5).
Favorable Forces – Throughout Scripture there are numerous examples of individuals in power, like Artaxerxes, who respected the faith of God’s people. As Christians we thank God for governmental authorities who permit and promote true religious liberty. We appreciate those who lead with righteous conviction and just principles (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-15, 17). We pray regularly for them (1 Tim 2:1-4).
Careful Inspection – Rather than impulsively rush into action, we must choose to stop, look, listen, and evaluate situations first. The more carefully we check matters out, and the more data we collect, the more likely we are to choose wisely.
Opinion Leaders – When trying to persuade a large group of people to buy into a godly vision and plan for the church, it is often most effective to meet first with the influencers, the “movers” and “shakers.” Once they adopt the idea, they can fan out and help all the others in their circles to do the same.
Deadly Words – The words we speak have immense power to destroy hearts, minds, lives, marriages, families, and churches. An old war slogan says, “Loose lips sink ships.” The Bible says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:21). “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col 4:6).
Nehemiah 3 – The Builders of the Wall
Once the Jews signed on to “put their hands to the good work” (2:18), the effort of rebuilding the wall had to be organized. Chapter 3 names the workers and the connecting sections for which they took on the task.
Roper: Nehemiah’s account takes the reader on a journey around the city. It begins with the names of those who repaired “the Sheep Gate” (3:1) and then circles the city in a counterclockwise direction around the wall. The survey concludes by coming back to “the Sheep Gate” (3:32).
Neh 3:1-5 – The Northern Wall
Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests took the lead and set the example for all. Possibly animals were brought through the Sheep Gate to be sacrificed, perhaps after being washed in the nearby pool of Bethesda.
The various towers served to reinforce the wall. They could also accommodate military functions as places for the troops to gather.
Throughout this passage, note the repeated phrase “next to him.” The Jews worked side by side, connecting each section to the sections on the right and left. As a result, there would be no gaps in the wall.
A good Bible dictionary can describe whatever information is available regarding each person or family named. You may have found it interesting that the men of Jericho built a section.
The Tekoites were men from Tekoa, which was the hometown of the prophet Amos (Am 1:1). Nehemiah wrote that they “made repairs, but their nobles did not support the work of their masters.” No explanation is given. Some have surmised that the nobles considered such manual labor beneath them, but that is just a guess. One thing is for sure: without all the available workers involved, the demands and burdens placed on the actual workers would be much greater.
Neh 3:6-12 – The Western Wall
When Nehemiah wrote these words, all the people knew the location and significance of each part of the wall. However, we are not certain today of such matters regarding the Old Gate and some of the other elements mentioned.
In this area there was an official residence for the provincial governor. Perhaps the perfumers and various trade guilds sold their merchandise along this part of the wall.
The Broad Wall may have been that which Hezekiah had built to protect the people from Assyrian attack (2 Chr 32:5; Isa 22:10). Roper notes that it has been partially excavated and measures about twenty-three feet wide.
Among the faithful, hard-working laborers noted were the daughters of an official named Shallum. Along with their father they made repairs in this section.
Neh 3:13-14 – The Southwestern Wall
Zanoah was located about thirteen miles W-SW of Jerusalem. The gate that these men repaired faced their city. A thousand cubits would be about 1,500 feet. What a major accomplishment this was!
Beth-haccherem = “house of the vineyard.” It was a local district apparently near the Refuse Gate.
Neh 3:15-27 – The Southeastern Wall
There is significance to each name, each section, and each detail given here. For our purpose we will note the overall truth that “many hands make light work.” Construction proceeded person by person, family by family, piece by piece, section by section.
Neh 3:28-32 – The Eastern Wall
In summarizing the chapter, Edwin M. Yamauchi counted forty-one people who are named as participants in rebuilding forty-two sections of the wall, while a total of ten gates are listed. Although Jerusalem’s border in the time of Nehemiah is uncertain, estimations do not exceed 2-1/2 miles.
Takeaways from Nehemiah 3
Vision and Strategy – Those Christians who can see farther and dream bigger than others can help build the church and reach the world.
Tasks and Tools – Even the smallest of jobs can make a huge difference. Each person must develop the right tools or be given the right tools by the church leadership, in order to achieve the right results.
Every-Member Involvement – When every person in the family or church family participates in a project that honors God, think of the benefits and effects that result. “Teamwork makes the dream work.” TEAM = Together Everyone Achieves More.
Minding the Gap – When traveling in Australia years ago, I remember stepping onto an elevated tram car. A recorded voice said, “Mind the gap.” That is, be aware that there is an opening between the platform where you stand and the edge of the tram. Don’t put your foot there! When building the wall, the Jews under Nehemiah’s leadership allowed no gaps. The hymn, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” says, “Leave no unguarded place, no weakness of the soul. Take every virtue, every grace, and fortify the whole.” Eph 4:27 warns us to give no place (no opening or gap) for the devil.