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Nehemiah, Ancestry, Time and Place
Name and origin of Nehemiah
Nehemiah means ‘comforted by Yahweh’. As an exile he is far from the place chosen by the LORD for His Name to dwell, but he experiences the comfort of the LORD. That means that he has sought that comfort. We need comfort when we are sad. The cause of sorrow will be unique to each person. To be a Nehemiah it is necessary to know the comfort of the Lord.
He is the son of Hacaliah. Hacaliah means ‘wait for Yahweh’. Before he receives a task from the LORD for the sake of His people, he must learn to wait for the LORD (cf. Lam 3:26). Patience is often a big stumbling block in the work for the Lord. Having a desire to do something for the Lord is one thing. It is another thing to wait for His time.
The time in which Nehemiah lives
We write “the month Chislev, [in] the twentieth year”. On the Jewish calendar, the month Chislev is the third month of the civil year, the beginning of winter. With us, November/December is then on the calendar. From about 165 BC onwards, on the twenty-fifth of this month, the “[feast of] the consecration of the temple” (Jn 10:22) is celebrated. This feast, also called “Chanukah Feast”, is celebrated to commemorate the restoration and cleansing of the temple by Judas, the Maccabee. The latter nullified its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes and rededicated the temple to God.
“The twentieth year”, is the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1). Artaxerxes became king in 465 BC. So something is told about the life and work of Nehemiah in the period from 445 or 444 BC. The year is named after the time when a foreign ruler has control over Israel.
We can call the indication of the year a ‘rough’ dating and the indication of the month Chislev a ‘fine’ dating. Both time indications are important for the servant. He must know God’s calendar (Chislev) and the calendar used in the world (the twentieth year of Artaxerxes). He must have the awareness that God rules, while satan is still “the ruler of the world” (Jn 14:30). The servant observes what the world leaders decide, but he does not allow himself to be guided by those decisions; he tests those decisions against the Word of God.
Where Nehemiah is
The description of Nehemiah’s service begins when he is “in Susa the capitol”, the residence of the Persian kings. This means that he is completely surrounded by enemies of God’s people. He lives in the midst of people who do not take God into account, while his own eyes are fixed on Him. His heart is constantly in the land where he belongs.
He is at the court of the most powerful man of that time. In it we see that God has a remnant for His Name in all places. So we also know of a God-fearing Obadiah in the court of Ahab (1Kgs 18:3) and of saints in the house of Caesar.
1. Anyone who wants to do something for the Lord should be able to tell who he is in his relationship with the Lord, how he experiences it, Who the Lord is for him and what the Lord expects of him.
2. He must feel the spiritual climate of God’s people. Winter is approaching. The church, God’s people now, is for the most part in a lukewarm “Laodicéa” condition, not yet completely cold, but no longer warm either. Nevertheless, the faithful believer can devote himself completely to the Lord at this time. His desire will be that the temple, which in the New Testament means both the church and the body of the believer (1Cor 3:16; 1Cor 6:19), will again fulfill God’s purpose.
3. He must know that he has no rights in the world. He depends on the favor of those above him.
4. He should also be aware of the spiritual climate of the world in which he lives. The enmity against God and His Word manifests itself in an ever bolder way.
Visit From Jerusalem
The reason for Nehemiah’s work is not a voice from heaven or a miraculous apparition. The reason is an ordinary event: Nehemiah is visited by his brother and some men from Judah. Nehemiah seizes this exquisite opportunity to get current news about the situation there. He wants to know how the Jews and the city of Jerusalem are doing.
Nehemiah’s question shows his great interest in the situation of the remnant of the people of God. Nehemiah has a responsible task in the palace of the king (Neh 1:11). He occupies an influential position. However, this is not what concerns him. His interest is not in the expansion of the Persian Empire and increasing his influence in it. He does not take advantage of his brother’s visit to tell him about his magnificent position and his chances of promotion. Nor does he want to be updated by his brother on all kinds of family matters.
While performing his earthly activities, his heart goes out to those who had returned from Babylon to the promised land. In direct connection with this, he also asks about the city of Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God. Through this he shows that he has the same spirit as Moses, whose heart also went out to his people, to seek them out and set them free (Acts 7:23). Moses also gave up a prominent place for this.
The question may be asked of our interest in receiving visitors from another country. Are we curious about the beautiful nature, the building of houses, prosperity and the like, or about the situation of God’s children and how the church is doing as God’s house?
1. The reason for doing a work for the Lord often lies in everyday events. The way in which we react often reveals what our real interest is. A comment, a visit, a letter, an event (birth, death, accident), and much more, are all tests that reveal our real interests. They can cause our life to take a radical turn.
2. Someone who is truly open to the will of God is interested in every member of His people and in His dwelling place, the church. He does not care about a position in the world. He is prepared, if the Lord asks, to give it up.
Report on the Situation in Jerusalem
In sober terms, his visitors tell him that the remnant is in great distress and that Jerusalem no longer has a wall and gates. The fact that the city walls are badly damaged means that the inhabitants are without the necessary protection against enemies. The walls represent the separation from evil. There is no more separation between holy and unholy. The gates speak of letting in the good and removing the wrong. The gates speak of exercising Divine care or discipline.
God wants the walls of Jerusalem to be called salvation and its gates praise (Isa 60:18b). Separation from evil means salvation, salvation for God’s people and assures their continuance as God’s people. To be a people that sings His praises requires care and discipline. Unjudged sin prevents praise.
We might have expected that after the return of a remnant, this remnant would have experienced God’s special blessing by giving them the evidence of His approval. On the contrary, they are “in great distress and reproach”.
We can apply this to the situation that had arisen at the beginning of the nineteenth century, after believers from all kinds of denominations discovered the state of the church according to God’s thoughts. They separated themselves from man-made systems according to the Old Testament model, where the Lord Jesus was not given the place He deserves or where evil teachings about Him were proclaimed without exercising God’s discipline (Heb 13:13; 2Tim 2:19-22). Thereupon they came together in the Name of the Lord Jesus (Mt 18:20).
This movement can be compared to what was taking place under Ezra. In Ezra we read about the restoration of the altar – applied: renewed view of the Lord’s Table – and the rebuilding of the temple – applied: renewed view of what the church of the living God is. But the fire and characteristic dedication of this movement has been extinguished. Love for the Lord and His Word and care for one another has faded away. The receiving at the Table of the Lord of all God’s children who do not live in sin nor are associated with sin has disappeared. Those who grew up in the tradition of that movement have largely fallen prey to liberalism on the one hand and sectarianism on the other.
The walls have been badly damaged, the gates burned. The movement resulting from a work of the Spirit has come to a standstill. What is left floats either on traditionalism or on emotion under the influence of charismatic teachings or on worldly thought patterns – products of postmodern thought – or on a mixture of these practices. The Word of God remains closed in many cases. It does not need to be opened if we find our certainty in tradition, feeling or reason. If the Word is opened, it is used to underline one’s own right or to make it clear that nothing can be said with certainty.
However, we may ask ourselves how it is in our personal lives, with the wall of separation from the world, with the wall of prayer and reading the Bible, with the wall of faithful imitation of the Lord Jesus, with the wall of personal surrender and living testimony, the wall of being a Christian every day. Are these walls in ruins?
1. When we ask about the situation of God’s people, we will discover that there is great unfaithfulness.
2. The walls, picture of separation, have been demolished. The separation between the church and the world has disappeared. At first hesitantly, the world has now been let in with great enthusiasm. She is taken in to tell how things should be done in the church, both in her meetings and in her preaching of the gospel.
3. The gates, picture of justice, have been burned. The evil that has entered is not judged. In the church everyone does what he or she thinks is right. A possible voice of protest is silenced.
The Reaction of Nehemiah
Nehemiah’s reaction to his brother’s account is moving. The message strikes him like a bomb. Nehemiah will have been raised by God-fearing parents. They will have taught him the history and the law of the Jewish people. This explains why he is so touched when he learns from his brother about the devastation of Jerusalem and the people. Such expressions of feelings, that show us the workings of his heart, are regular occurrences in his book. Each time during a description of the work, he airs his feelings.
When we receive or read a message, we can accept it as a notification. That way we will not deal with a message that comes from our own brother. Nehemiah knows him. He’s not a man of dramatic stories. If he says something, it’s completely trustworthy. Nehemiah doesn’t thank his brother kindly for the message. He’s not going to ask critical questions either. What he hears makes an enormous impression on him, he is overwhelmed by feelings of great dejection.
Through his brother’s message he gets a different view on his life. Inwardly involved as he is with the people in Jerusalem, he feels the degradation of the remnant as his own. Nehemiah knows God’s thoughts toward his people. Now he hears how far away the practical situation is in which the people find themselves.
Instead of immediately making feverish plans to change that situation, he sits down. Overwhelmed by intense grief about the situation in which the remnant of God’s people find themselves, he is incapable of anything but crying and mourning over several days.
It does not stop at this expression of sorrow and shame. He also fasts and prays. Fasting means giving up everything that is lawful in itself, but now has to make way in order to give himself completely to a certain cause. The legitimate needs of the body are not met for a time in order for the mind to concentrate fully on a matter that transcends bodily needs. We see this in prayer, which is almost always inextricably linked to fasting. Also here.
Nehemiah fasts and does not pray out of control. He knows himself before the face of “the God of heaven”. If that were not the case, all the exercises of his soul would be useless torments. The awareness of God’s face makes such exercises valuable experiences. What is hidden from the eye of men is perceived and rewarded by God with great pleasure (Mt 6:17-18).
The expression “God of heaven” is significant. God has withdrawn into heaven. He no longer lives on earth in the midst of His people, a people that He has had to surrender into the hand of their enemies. He no longer acts in power for His people because they have rejected Him. But faith knows how to find Him, and He allows Himself to be found.
The same goes for us. The church has no external power or glory. It is connected with a rejected Lord, Who is now in heaven. But she knows that He is there and that “all power is given to Him in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28:18). Therefore we will turn to Him in our need.
1. All the inner exercises of this dejected man find their way out in prayer. Many have experienced that their work for the Lord has begun with fasting and praying because of the desolate situation of which they have been informed. We can only help reduce a need when we have felt the misery in our own souls. We only receive an instruction from the Lord when He has opened our eyes and we see things as they really are, that is, as He sees them. Nehemiah is called to rebuild the walls, but first he weeps over their ruins.
2. Serving God is not a hobby. He who thinks so, inevitably suffers shipwreck. Before, for example, doing children’s work, we must first see the appalling lack of Christian education in the schools and the blatant promotion of evil around us. The recognition of this situation on our knees before God is the beginning.
3. The Lord Jesus is moved with compassion over the flock like sheep who have no shepherd and in this He involves His disciples. For this He calls us to prayer (Mt 9:36-38). What does it do to us when we see the many people on the street? Do we care about them?
4. When we look at the walls with the eyes of the Lord Jesus, we first have to experience grief that so many people, and especially so many so-called Christians, do not show the Lord Jesus in their lives.
The Prayer of Nehemiah
The pleading ground (Neh 1:5)
After the message, Nehemiah will have felt powerless. What can he do? Pray! He prays to “the God of heaven.” His prayer is based on the revelation of God, as he has come to know Him. Although he does not know God as we may know him, as Father, he prays to Someone He knows, to Someone of Whom He knows where He lives.
There is not any bravado. There is confidentiality and at the same time respect. Nehemiah knows God as the “great and awesome God”. In the face of God’s overwhelming greatness, he feels small. In front of the awesome God he is filled with awe. In His holy presence he feels how sinful he is (cf. Isa 6:1-5). But instead of getting out of his way, he resorts to that God in his need (cf. Isa 5:8).
Nehemiah is not afraid of God. Someone who gives God the place that belongs to Him and takes a position appropriate for him before God, does not need to be afraid of God. He not only knows Who God is, but also how God acts. God’s “covenant” and His “lovingkindness”, which is inseparable from it, form the argument for Nehemiah. The LORD spoke about this to Moses (Deu 7:9). This is also the plea for the prayer of Solomon (1Kgs 8:23).
The blessing of God’s covenant and His lovingkindness is for those who love Him and keep His commandments. Love and obedience always go hand in hand. They are the two characteristics of a person born of God. They have to do with the nature of God. “God is light” (1Jn 1:5) and “God is love” (1Jn 4:8; 16). The nature of God is manifested in His children through brotherly love and the keeping of the commandments of the Lord Jesus (1Jn 2:3-11).
For Whom Nehemiah Prays (Neh 1:6a)
Nehemiah made a passionate appeal to God to hear his prayer and to see him, the supplicant. He calls himself “Your servant”. There is no feeling of exaltation, of belonging to God’s chosen people, which the name “Israelites” would suggest. He begs for his brethren, the Israelites, whom he also calls “Your servants “. He unites them with himself to appear before God, together with them. He prays for them, but including himself with them.
Day and night he intercedes for them. Feelings of grief and affliction have not subsided over time. What he prays has occupied him constantly, even during his daily work, which he has simply had to do. He has not publicly displayed his grief. That it will eventually be visible in him (Neh 2:2), is inescapable and underlines the fact that he is constantly busy with God’s people, his people and their circumstances.
Confession (Neh 1:6b-7)
As already noted, Nehemiah does not only bring his fellowmen before God. He realizes that whoever prays for another person and brings that other person into God’s presence, thereby also comes into God’s presence himself. Thus you cannot remain upright yourself. He who thinks so, resembles the Pharisee about whom the Lord Jesus talks in Luke 18 (Lk 18:11a). That man prays, even mentions the Name of God, but does not stand in the presence of God. He is completely surrounded by his own presence. In that state it is not possible to intercede and you can’t possibly be an intercessor. To intercede presupposes to be aware of another person’s need, without feeling superior to that other person.
Nehemiah is standing before God. When he starts praying for his fellow people, he first sees his own sins and the sins of his family. Before he confesses the sins of the people, he first confesses those of himself and those of his family. In this way he paves the way spiritually to become a true intercessor.
Then he does not pray for ‘those others’, but speaks of “we” who have sinned heavily against God and disobeyed Him. God has made His commandments known, but the people do not care. He acknowledges that as a result they have forfeited every right to a blessing.
God’s Word in the prayer (Neh 1:8-9)
Nehemiah quotes God’s Word to agree with its truth. God has acted, as He has said. The people have been unfaithful, and God has had to scatter them among the nations. Nehemiah justifies God’s actions and acknowledges their own unfaithfulness. But he does not leave it at that. He also knows what else God has said. He pleads with God that where He has fulfilled one word, He will also fulfill the other. This is real living “on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
This is how we should pray: in the awareness of what God did for us when He sent His Son to die for us on the cross, and what He did in His resurrection and ascension, and what He is going to do on His return. As we look at Christ on the cross and shedding His blood, we will experience the power of active prayer. His actions in the past guarantee the fulfillment of His promises in the future. With Him it is true that results from the past are a full guarantee for the future.
Nehemiah’s words are not a literal quotation from God’s Word. They are a summary of what God has said will happen, both in unfaithfulness and in conversion (Deu 4:27-31; Deu 30:4-10). We may remind Him of this and draw courage from it, as Nehemiah did. The Word gives hope (Psa 119:49).
Nehemiah emphasizes in his prayer what God has said about Jerusalem: “The place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.” That’s what he’s about, that place. Nehemiah’s heart is full of the same thing of which God’s heart is full.
Your servants and Your people (Neh 1:10)
By what right does Nehemiah speak of “Your servants and Your people”? Because God Himself delivered these people from Egypt and made them His people. Nehemiah reminds God of what He did many centuries ago. And even more recently, even though it is only a remnant that has left, He has delivered His people from exile. Everything has shown that God did not abandon His people. Wouldn’t He look at their misery in which they ended up again after their return to the land?
Nehemiah knows the heart of God. God has done too much for these people not to care about them now. Again we see a parallel between Nehemiah and Moses. After the sin of the people with the golden calf, God speaks to Moses about “your people” (Exo 32:7), as if His people were the people of Moses and not His people. But Moses knows the heart of God and speaks to God about “Your people” (Exo 32:11). Faith sees and maintains the connection that exists between God and His people.
Other intercessors (Neh 1:11a)
Nehemiah does not imagine that he is the only one who cares about God’s people. Though he is alone, he knows that there are more who pray for God wanting to bring a turn in their fate. He does not make the mistake of Elijah in believing that he is the only faithful one left (1Kgs 19:10; 18; Rom 11:2-5). God always provides a remnant, consisting of several believers who remain faithful to Him at a time of general unfaithfulness.
When our hearts are weighed down by a heavy burden, we should not think that we are the only ones who feel this burden. Maybe we are alone, but we should know that God also makes others feel the same burden (cf. 1Pet 5:9).
Prayer in view of his position (Neh 1:11b)
The goal and the task for his people have become clear to him in prayer. But it is not yet clear when he can begin. For this he depends on the king’s permission. Time and permission lie humanly speaking in the hand of the king. Nehemiah acknowledges in his prayer that he is dependent on the king. That is why he asks God to let him have mercy of the king “today”. His task now is to wait for God’s answer.
Why would he mention that he is the king’s cupbearer? It seems that he does so because it is necessary for the report of his conversation with the king in the next chapter. He could have started to bring this up when he had a visit from Jerusalem. But he doesn’t see his social position as something to boast about. Nehemiah always gives the necessary information, without putting himself in the spotlight.
By stating “now I was the cupbearer to the king”, Nehemiah emphasizes his complete dependence on the king. Cupbearer is a position of great trust and responsibility. But Nehemiah does not use his position to influence the king and thus seek enlightenment for his people. Nehemiah might also have thought: “What happened to Israel is all their own fault. Nothing can change that. I have a good job and God Himself will take care of His people, He doesn’t need me for that.”
Nehemiah doesn’t do either. He makes himself one with the people and confesses the sin of the people as his own sin. Like Moses, he prefers to suffer affliction with the people of God rather “than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:25). We can only serve God if we are willing to bring sacrifices.
What we find with Nehemiah, who lives at the end of Israel’s history, we also see with Moses, at the beginning of Israel’s history. Moses also enjoys special privileges. He is at home in the court of Pharaoh, but he too does not use his position for the benefit of his people. As the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he could even have waited a while until he himself ascended the throne. He could have said that God’s providence put him in that position. But he loves God above the people and wishes to do only what God asks of him.
1. In the prayer of Nehemiah we are being taken into the deep feelings of a man burdened by the affliction of God’s people and the dishonor inflicted upon God with it. Thus we may speak to God with confidence and reverence from the fullness of our hearts. Boldly, but not irreverently, we may make God a partaker in our distress. God has known that for a long time, of course, but He wants us to pray to Him. He wants to use the prayer of His own in the fulfillment of His plans. That gives prayer a special value and meaning.
2. In his prayer Nehemiah does not put himself above the people, or next to them, but he makes himself one with the people. It is necessary that we know ourselves to be inseparable from the people of God in order, as it were, to come together with them before God’s face. This profound awareness leads us to confess our own sins, the sins of our family and the sins of the people.
3. He justifies God. God has rightly scattered them. The people have broken their allegiance, and God has no choice but to act this way. However, we also know that God can gather again what He has scattered, albeit on the condition of repentance. We may appeal to God’s faithfulness to His Word and to His past actions.
4. When we have thus set our hearts free in prayer, we can ask God to clear the way for us to go and help His people. Nehemiah depends on the permission of the king to go. Acting on his own power is strange to him and it will have to be the same with us.
5. He has placed everything in the hands of God. Now it is waiting for His answer, for His time, an important point for anyone who wants to do something for the Lord.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Nehemiah 1". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12