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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 1

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



"The first seven chapters of Nehemiah as well as Nehemiah 12:31 to Nehemiah 13:31 are written in the first person. This, as well as all or part of Nehemiah 11 and the rest of Nehemiah 12, constitutes what is called the Nehemiah Memoirs. As such it offers an extensive look into the life and heart of an outstanding servant of God that is unique to the Old Testament." [Note: Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, p. 168.]

A. The Return under Nehemiah chs. 1-2

The focus of restoration activities in Nehemiah is on the walls of Jerusalem. In Ezra it was the altar of burnt offerings and especially the temple in Jerusalem.

"The orientation of Nehemiah is more civil and secular than that of Ezra, but it is also written from the priestly point of view." [Note: Howard F. Vos, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, p. 80.]

The walls of the city had lain in ruins since 586 B.C. At that time Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, breached them, entered Jerusalem, burned the temple, carried most of the remaining Jews off to Babylon, and knocked the walls down. Consequently the few Jews who remained could not defend themselves (2 Kings 25:1-11). The returned exiles had attempted to rebuild the walls in or shortly after 458 B.C., but that project failed because of local opposition (Ezra 4:12; Ezra 4:23).

The returned exiles had received permission to return to their land and to reestablish their unique national institutions as much as possible. Therefore, they needed to rebuild the city walls to defend themselves against anyone who might want to interfere with, and to interrupt, their way of life.

Verses 1-3

1. The news concerning Jerusalem 1:1-3

The month Chislev (Nehemiah 1:1) corresponds to our late November and early December. [Note: For the Hebrew calendar, see the appendix to my notes on Ezra.] The year in view was the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign (i.e., 445-444 B.C.). Susa (or Shushan, in Hebrew) was a winter capital of Artaxerxes (cf. Esther 1:2). The main Persian capital at this time was Persepolis.

Hanani (Nehemiah 1:2) seems to have been Nehemiah’s blood brother (cf. Nehemiah 7:2). The escape in view refers to the Jews’ escape back to Judea from captivity in Babylon. Even though they received official permission to return, Nehemiah seems to have regarded their departure from Babylon as an escape, since the Babylonians had originally forced them into exile against their wills.

The news that Nehemiah received evidently informed him of the Jews’ unsuccessful attempts to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls in 458 B.C. (Ezra 4:23-24).

"It was an ominous development, for the ring of hostile neighbors round Jerusalem could now claim royal backing. The patronage which Ezra had enjoyed (cf. Ezra 7:21-26) was suddenly in ruins, as completely as the city walls and gates. Jerusalem was not only disarmed but on its own." [Note: Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 78. Cf. Eugene H. Merrill, in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 353.]

Verses 4-11

2. The response of Nehemiah 1:4-11

Nehemiah’s reaction to this bad news was admirable. He made it a subject of serious prolonged prayer (Nehemiah 1:4; Nehemiah 1:11; Nehemiah 2:1). Daniel had been another high-ranking Jewish official in the Persian government, and he too was a man of prayer.

"Of the 406 verses in the book, the prayers fill 46 verses (11%), and the history accounts for 146 (36%). The various lists . . . add up to 214 verses or 53% of the total." [Note: Robert D. Bell, "The Theology of Nehemiah," Biblical Viewpoint 20:2 (November 1986):56.]

Nehemiah began his prayer with praise for God’s greatness and His loyal love for His people (Nehemiah 1:5). As Ezra had done, he acknowledged that the Jews had been guilty of sinning against God (cf. Ezra 9:6-7). They had disobeyed the Mosaic Law (Nehemiah 1:7). Nehemiah reminded God of His promise to restore His people to their land if they repented (Nehemiah 1:8-9; cf. Deuteronomy 30:1-5). He also noted that these were the people Yahweh had redeemed from Egyptian slavery for a special purpose (Nehemiah 1:10; cf. Deuteronomy 9:29). He concluded with a petition that his planned appeal to the king would be successful (Nehemiah 1:11 a).

"With the expression this man at the end of the prayer Nehemiah shows the big difference between his reverence for his God and his conception of his master, the Persian king. In the eyes of the world Artaxerxes was an important person, a man with influence, who could decide on life or death. In the eyes of Nehemiah, with his religious approach, Artaxerxes was just a man like any other man. The Lord of history makes the decisions, not Artaxerxes." [Note: F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 157.]

"Although he is a layperson, he stands with the great prophets in interceding for his people and in calling them to be faithful to the Sinai covenant." [Note: Fredrick C. Holmgren, Israel Alive Again, p. 90.]

If Nehemiah wrote this book, he was also a prophet (cf. Daniel). Extrabiblical references that mention the office of cupbearer in the Persian court have revealed that this was a position second only in authority to the king (Nehemiah 1:11 b). [Note: Fensham, p. 157.] Nehemiah was not only the chief treasurer and keeper of the king’s signet ring, but he also tasted the king’s food to make sure no one had poisoned it (Tobit 1:22). [Note: Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1:3:9.]

"The cupbearer . . . in later Achaemenid times was to exercise even more influence than the commander-in-chief." [Note: A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, p. 217.]

"Achaememid" refers to the dynasty of Persian rulers at this time.

"From varied sources it may be assumed that Nehemiah as a royal cupbearer would probably have had the following traits: 1. He would have been well trained in court etiquette (cf. Daniel 1:4-5). 2. He was probably a handsome individual (cf. Daniel 1:4; Daniel 1:13; Daniel 1:15). 3. He would certainly know how to select the wines to set before the king. . . . 4. He would have to be a convivial companion to the king with a willingness to lend an ear at all times. . . . 5. He would be a man of great influence as one with the closest access to the king, and one who could well determine who could see the king. 6. Above all, Nehemiah had to be an individual who enjoyed the unreserved confidence of the king." [Note: Edwin M. Yamauchi, "The Archaeological Background of Nehemiah," Bibliotheca Sacra 137:548 (October-December 1980):296-97.]

Some commentators have concluded that Nehemiah as cupbearer must have been a eunuch. [Note: E.g., Jacob M. Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah, p. 96; and John Bright, A History of Israel, p. 364.] This opinion rests on the translation of the Greek word eunouchos ("eunuch") instead of oinochoos ("cupbearer") in one version of the Septuagint. However, this rendering appears to have been an error in translation, since the Hebrew word means cupbearer. [Note: Yamauchi, p. 298.]

"Like many since his time, Nehemiah’s greatness came from asking great things of a great God and attempting great things in reliance on him." [Note: Breneman, p. 174.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Nehemiah 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/nehemiah-1.html. 2012.
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