Book of Nehemiah Chapter One Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
The following are the personal memoirs of Nehemiah, a Jewish exile who became the personal cupbearer at the royal table of the Persian Empire, as seen in Verse 11. His occupation, glimpsed in many ancient cultures, was extremely important, for he was the one who guaranted the lives of the the royal family. He literally tasted their food before they ate it and if he was not poisoned, they wouldn't be, either. He had other trusted duties as well. Verse 1 is clear that this man was the writer whose words became this book: "The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol..." Nehemiah the cupbearer was a contemporary of Ezra the priest. Ezra returned to the holy land from the east in 457 BC. Nehemiah returned in 444 BC and was the appointed governor of the area of Jerusalem from that moment until 432 BC. As stated, this book is based on his memoirs, but the ancient tradition is that Ezra turned Nehemiah's diary of that time into this book, which was for some centuries called "Second Ezra."
The month "Chislev" in the Persian year corresponded roughly to the month of December in most modern calendars. The name "Nehemiah" meant "Yahweh comforts" and this was a man who had found true comfort through faith in the Lord. The city of "Susa" was also known as "Shushan," and was the capitol where Persian kings resided in times of winter. Susa was located in the area of the modern nation Iraq, and is also mentioned in Daniel 8:2 and Esther 1:2. The "twentieth year" of Verse 1 was the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes (Longimanus) in the Persian Empire.
In Verse 2, we find Nehemiah's words "that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem." We also find this brother of Nehemiah in Chapter 7, Verse 2, where the man was later appointed by Nehemiah to the office of supervisor of Jerusalem. The suggestion of the words in this verse is that Hanani was Nehemiah's either half or full brother. Nehemiah was not only a Jew, but also an officer of the Persian Empire, and the men who came to Susa sought him out.
Much trouble had come to the area of Jerusalem since the time of Ezra the priest's return to that place, as in Verse 3: "They said to me, 'The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.'" The various tribes that surrounded Jerusalem resented the Jews that had been returning to the land since the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the now defunct Babylonian Empire. The Temple, most of the city and the walls had been rebuilt, but new breaches had been made in the walls and gates that placed Nehemiah's people in jeopardy.
Notice the compassion of Nehemiah in Verse 4 for his people: "When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven." Prayer is more than some kind of emotionless event in which familiar words are recited. It is instead an impassioned calling out to the One who can hear you and will also respond to your need. God cares and Nehemiah knew it, but why and how, he wondered, did this happen to his people? And Nehemiah began to fervently seek God for the answer, as we should.
Here is Nehemiah's prayer, beginning in Verses 5-6: "I said, 'I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 6 let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned." Nehemiah wrote this prayer in his journal, and it was later copied by Ezra. I've written my prayers and have discovered that it is an effective way to keep focus during prayer, writing down what you say, hear and discover during times of encountering God. And we need to see the awareness of this man that there is a direct relationship between what we do and what happens in our lives. Nehemiah had heard from his brother and the other men from Jerusalem about the sins of his people—but notice that even though he had not participated in what they did, nevertheless he confessed as though he had done it. This is a model for us when we pray for our leaders—none of us are morally superior, for "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Like it or not, what the leaders do is the expression of a people. When leaders go in the wrong direction, the people go with them. We need to pray.
Have you watched or read a news report lately? Domestic or international, the news is the same—wars, rumors of war, violence, robberies and mayhem of all sorts. There is something wrong with humanity and we are all part of the problem. As Nehemiah observed in Verse 7: "We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses." Honesty is important, but those in humanity are noted for dishonesty, which is not limited to "them"—it's about you and me. Nehemiah was a nice guy, a clean living man, noted for his honesty and good reputation, but see that his understanding extended to the point where HE said, "WE" have acted very corrputly against God. As another faithful man would later say, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). The solution, for Nehemiah, for John, and for the rest of us is seen in 1 John 1:9—"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." We simply confess sin like Nehemiah did, and God is the One who will make things right.
His verbal and written prayer continued in Verses 8-9: "Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.'" His words here do not specifically quote a certain verse, but instead this is a general summary of Scriptures such as Leviticus 26:27-45 and Deuteronomy 30:1-5. Trouble will come to those who are unfaithful to the Lord, and blessings will arise in the lives of those who repent and return to Him. None of us are exempt from this teaching of the Holy Spirit as expressed through Moses, Nehemiah and others in Scripture.
Israel was and is a people created and chosen by God to show this world the example of a nation that is faithful to the Lord. Sometimes they did well and other times not, but these real human beings are also an unfolding parable designed by God to show the world who He is and how we are to respond. As Nehemiah observed about this people in Verse
10: "They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand." God does not need to be reminded of what life is all about, but Nehemiah needed a reminder and so do we, as this prayer led by the Holy Spirit continued.
Verse 11: "O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man. Now I was the cupbearer to the king." Nehemiah was being led by the Lord to speak to the king of all Persia, who led an enormous empire of the time, about the problems that Nehemiah's people were experiencing in the then-Persian city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was both courageous and afraid. He had seen that he needed to speak of these things, but his king was capricious and was no stranger to having someone killed who displeased him. Nehemiah did not rely on his relationship with the king or on his own personal eloquence. Instead—he prayed. We need to become more like this man who had true faith in the Lord and prayed fervently for what was needed.
Lord, our leaders have sinned and so have we. We confess our sin and the sin of our people, acknowledging our need of You. Help us to make better decisions as a nation and as individuals. We ask Your forgiveness, Your healing, and especially, we ask for revival. Bring faith in the Lord to our land, our leaders and each one of us. In Jesus Name. Amen.