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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 1

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Nehemiah 1:0


Nehemiah's Memoirs(Nehemiah 1:1-5)Nehemiah's Call: His Mission to Judah(Nehemiah 1:1-10)
Nehemiah's Prayer for His PeopleNehemiah's Concern for Jerusalem
Nehemiah 1:1-3Nehemiah 1:1-3Nehemiah 1:1-4aNehemiah 1:1-4
Nehemiah 1:4-11Nehemiah 1:4-11a
Nehemiah 1:4-9
Nehemiah 1:5-11a
Nehemiah 1:10-11a
Nehemiah 1:11bNehemiah 1:11bNehemiah 1:11b

* Although they are not inspired, paragraph divisions are the key to understanding and following the original author's intent. Each modern translation has divided and summarized the paragraphs. Every paragraph has one central topic, truth, or thought. Each version encapsulates that topic in its own distinct way. As you read the text, ask yourself which translation fits your understanding of the subject and verse divisions. In every chapter we must read the Bible first and try to identify its subjects (paragraphs), then compare our understanding with the modern versions. Only when we understand the original author's intent by following his logic and presentation can we truly understand the Bible. Only the original author is inspiredreaders have no right to change or modify the message. Bible readers do have the responsibility of applying the inspired truth to their day and their lives. Note that all technical terms and abbreviations are explained fully in the following documents: Hebrew Grammar, Textual Criticism, and Glossary.

READING CYCLE THREE (from “A Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired but it is the key to following the original author's intent which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verse 1

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 1:1-3 1bNow it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2that 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. 3They 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 month of Chislev” This is equivalent to our November - December. See Special Topic: Ancient Near Eastern Calendars.

“twentieth year” This was 446/445 B.C. Ezra 7:7 shows that Ezra had been in Jerusalem for 13 years.

“Susa” This was the ancient capital of Elam. It became the winter palace of Persian kings (cf. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.6.22). It was the location of the book of Esther (cf. Esther 1:2). It was earlier called Shushan.

NASB“capitol” NKJV, NJB“citadel” NRSV“capital” TEV“the capital city”

The term (BDB 108) can mean fortress or palace. Usually the capital was both.

1. Susa, Nehemiah 1:1; Esther 1:2, Esther 1:5; Esther 3:15; Daniel 8:2

2. Ecbatana, Ezra 6:2

3. Jerusalem, Nehemiah 7:2

4. temple, 1 Chronicles 29:1; Nehemiah 2:8

Nehemiah 1:2 “brothers” The Hebrew word can mean nationality, kinsman, or full brother (cf. Nehemiah 7:2).

“some men from Judah” This apparently was an official delegation from the Jewish community seeking help from a relative at the Persian court.

“concerning the Jews” Nehemiah asked about how the returnees were doing and about the conditions in Jerusalem.

“remnant” See note at Ezra 9:8.

Nehemiah 1:3 “in great distress and reproach” This is possibly a reference to the trouble caused by Sanballat of Samaria and Tobiah of Ammon. Both worshiped YHWH, but were shunned by returning Jews (cf. Ezra 4:3; Nehemiah 2:19, Nehemiah 4:1ff).

The term “distress” (BDB 949) is the common word for “evil,” “misery,” “distress,” and “injury.” These conditions were so surprising to the returning Jews. They were the ones who risked life and wealth to follow God's lead and return to Judah. They expected covenant prosperity (cf. Deut. 27-29), but they were experiencing calamity (cf. Deuteronomy 31:17, Deuteronomy 31:21).

The second term is “reproach” (BDB 357). It refers to shame, disgrace, or reproach, which describes one's condition.

1. shame of inappropriate sexuality, 2 Samuel 13:13; Isaiah 47:3

2. shame of no children, Genesis 30:23; Isaiah 4:1

3. shame of loss of husband, Isaiah 54:4

4. shame of famine, Ezekiel 36:30

5. shame of accusations, Job 19:5

6. shame of lack of ritual performance (circumcision), Genesis 34:14; Joshua 5:9

7. shame of enemy attack or the continuing results of a past attack (esp. Nehemiah 2:17), Nehemiah 1:3; Nehemiah 2:17; Lamentations 3:30; Lamentations 5:1; Daniel 11:18

“the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gate burned with fire” In the ancient world, this was the calamity of total defenselessness. This refers either to the original destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 25:10) or the destruction of partially reconstructed walls; both positions quote Ezra 4:7-24 (esp. Ezra 1:23).

Verses 4-11

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 1:4-11 4When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5I 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, 6let 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. 7We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. 8Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9but 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.' 10They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. 11O 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.”

Nehemiah 1:4 “sat down and wept and mourned. . .fasting and praying” These were four signs of intense mourning in the ancient Near East.

“for days” Nehemiah's mourning, fasting, and praying went on for days. He was a man of prayer.

His lengthy prayer here is to be compared to his very brief prayer of Nehemiah 2:4. There is a time for prolonged prayer and a time for brief prayer. Prayer is a way for humans to show their faith and trust in the faithful, trustworthy God. Prayer is the outward manifestation of a biblical world view and faith!

“the God of heaven” This was the Persian Zoroastrian title for Ahura Mazda, but the Jews had taken it and applied it to YHWH. See note at Ezra 1:2. Notice the covenant name in Nehemiah 1:5.

SPECIAL TOPIC: The Names for Deity

Nehemiah 1:5 “I said” Nehemiah's prayer is similar to Ezra's in Nehemiah 9:5-15 and Daniel 9:4-19. These prayers focus on God's character and His people's sin. God's people's hope is in

1. the character of God

2. the eternal redemptive purposes of God

3. the promises/covenants of God

NASB“I beseech Thee” NKJV, NRSV“O” TEV, NJB----------

This Hebrew INTERJECTION (BDB 58) introduces strong pleas for help and forgiveness (cf. Nehemiah 1:5, Nehemiah 1:11; Genesis 50:17; Exodus 32:31; 2 Kings 20:3; Psalms 116:4; Psalms 118:25; Daniel 9:4; Jonah 1:14; Jonah 4:2).

“the great and awesome God” The first ADJECTIVE (BDB 152) originally meant to make a strong cord by twisting several cords together. It came to mean “make strong.” The Hebrew root is used of God in Nehemiah 8:6; Nehemiah 9:32; Deuteronomy 3:24; Deuteronomy 5:24; Deuteronomy 9:26; Deuteronomy 11:2; Deuteronomy 32:3, which reflects Moses' words in Deuteronomy 1:10; Deuteronomy 4:14.

The second term (BDB 431, KB 432, Niphal PARTICIPLE) is from the VERB “to fear” or “to revere.” It is a characteristic of YHWH Himself or His redemptive actions, often translated “awesome” (cf. Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 4:18; Nehemiah 9:32; Deuteronomy 7:21; Deuteronomy 10:17; Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 4:14; Nehemiah 9:32; Daniel 9:4).

“who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness” The first VERB (BDB1036, KB 1581, Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLE) means “to keep,” “ro watch,” “to preserve.” The etymology is uncertain, but from cognates it may have originally referred to

1. a watchman (Phoenician)

2. an overseer (Canaanite)

3. wakeful alertness (Aramaic)

The second term hesed (BDB 338, see Special Topic: Lovingkindness [Hesed]) is another way of stating the same truth. God is faithful to His covenant promises (cf. Ezra 3:11). See Special Topic: Hesed at Nehemiah 13:14. His unchanging character is Israel's hope (cf. Malachi 3:6). However, the Jews had become uncertain about this truth because of the exiles, so Nehemiah reaffirms his confidence that God is faithful to His word. The exile was caused by Jews' unfaithfulness to His word. There is a covenant requirement of obedience! See Special Topic: COVENANT.

These two terms appear together in Deuteronomy 7:2, Deuteronomy 7:9, Deuteronomy 7:12; 1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chronicles 6:14; Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 9:32; Psalms 89:28, Psalms 89:33; Daniel 9:4. They are linked theologically. These are significant and dependable aspects of YHWH's character!

“to those who love Him and keep His commandments” Notice the conditional element (i.e., “if. . .then”), human response is required (cf. Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Deuteronomy 10:12-13; Deuteronomy 11:1, Deuteronomy 11:22; Deuteronomy 13:3; Deuteronomy 19:9; Deuteronomy 30:15-16, Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Joshua 22:5; Judges 5:31; 1 Kings 3:2, 1 Kings 3:3; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Psalms 5:11; Psalms 69:36; Psalms 103:17-18; Psalms 119:132; Psalms 145:20; Jeremiah 2:2, Jeremiah 2:33; Daniel 9:2-3, Daniel 9:4; John 14:15, John 14:21, John 14:23; John 15:10; 1 John 5:3). Divine love involves covenant performance. Love is a choice and an action as well as an emotion (cf. Nehemiah 1:8-9). See Special Topic: COVENANT.

Nehemiah 1:6 “Let Your ear. . .Your eyes” The first VERB (BDB 224, KB 243) is a Qal JUSSIVE (command, cf. Nehemiah 1:11). The second (BDB 834 KB 986) is a Qal PASSIVE PARTICIPLE. This anthropomorphic language is very common in the Bible (cf. Nehemiah 1:11). From the Bible we know that God is spirit. He has no physical body. However, the only vocabulary we have is physical. We speak of God as if He were a human person, but He is not. He is personal, but not physical. Be careful of literalism in reading these human, earthly, temporal passages about the eternal, spiritual God!

“Your servant” This is an honorific title used for Moses, Joshua, and David. Notice the play between the SINGULAR (Nehemiah) and the PLURAL (the people, cf. Nehemiah 1:10, Nehemiah 1:11). It is this interplay that allows confessional corporate prayers. It is this interplay that allows one sinless servant to die on behalf of the whole (Isaiah 53:0).

“I am praying. . .day and night” Persistence in prayer is highlighted here (cf. Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 18:2-8). Nehemiah 2:1 shows he prayed almost three months.

“confessing sins. . .I and my fathers house” Confession is an important element of prayer (cf. 1 John 1:9). We are responsible for our individual sins and the sins of our society (cf. 2 Chronicles 29:6; 2 Chronicles 30:7-9; Isaiah 6:5). The term “confessing” (BDB 392) is used of acknowledging sin (cf. Nehemiah 1:6; Nehemiah 9:2-3; Ezra 10:1; Daniel 9:2-3). Nehemiah identified himself with his people's sin, as did Ezra (Nehemiah 9:5-15). This prayer is much like Moses' in Exodus 32:30-33 or Daniel's in Daniel 9:4-19.

Nehemiah 1:7

NASB, NKJV“We have acted very corruptly” NRSV“We have offended you deeply” TEV“We have acted wickedly against you” NJB“We have acted very wickedly toward you”

This is literally “to act wickedly,” “we acted wickedly toward you” (BDB 287 II, KB 285, Qal INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT with Qal PERFECT of the same VERB). This form intensifies the meaning of the VERB “to wound,” “to injure” and thereby “to ruin” or “to corrupt.” See the same VERB in Pual in Micah 2:10. What these returnees did should have destroyed the covenant, but God is faithful and forgiving.

“the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances” These terms all refer to God's word through Moses (cf. Nehemiah 1:5, Nehemiah 1:7, Nehemiah 1:9). A good place to see all the terms used to describe God's law is Psalms 19:7-9 and even more extensively in Psalms 119:0. See Special Topic: Terms for God's Revelation.

Nehemiah 1:8 “Remember” Nehemiah is entreating God to remember (BDB 269, KB 269, Qal IMPERATIVE, cf. Nehemiah 4:8; Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:14; Nehemiah 13:14, Nehemiah 13:22, Nehemiah 13:29, Nehemiah 13:31) His words to Moses. Moses also called on YHWH to remember His promises to the Patriarchs (e.g., Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 9:27). Mankind's hope is in God's character, promises, covenants, and word!

“if you are unfaithful” The “if” is implied, but is not in the MT. This VERB (BDB 591, KB 612, Qal IMPERFECT) implies that they will be unfaithful. There is no “if” in the MT (the assured conditional “if” is present in Nehemiah 1:9). Human disobedience deserves a divine response (cf. Leviticus 26:27-45; Deuteronomy 30:1-10). Miracle of miracles, the response is love and forgiveness, not wrath and judgment. The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:22-38 changes the basis of covenant requirements.

“I will scatter you” The VERB (BDB 806, KB 718, Hiphil IMPERFECT) was used to describe exile (cf. Deuteronomy 4:27; Deuteronomy 28:64; Deuteronomy 29:28). The judgment (cf. Leviticus 26:33) we now see in a way for God's word to be spread among the nations so that they may know and turn to YHWH.

Often the terms “scatter” and “gather” are used together to describe YHWH's justice and love (cf. Nehemiah 1:8-9; Isaiah 11:12; Jeremiah 23:1-3; Ezekiel 11:17; Ezekiel 20:34, Ezekiel 20:41; Ezekiel 28:25; Ezekiel 29:13; Ezekiel 34:12-13).

Nehemiah 1:9 “if you return to Me” This is the VERB (BDB 996, KB 1427, Qal PERFECT) which denotes repentance. Notice that repentance is from sin and to God.

SPECIAL TOPIC: Repentance in the Old Testament

“and keep My commandments” Notice repentance is clearly seen in a change of actions, as well as a change of mind, (cf. Nehemiah 1:5). Obedience is evidence of true repentance.

“in the most remote part of the heavens” This is a metaphor for those Jews who were exiled to the farthest place (cf. Deuteronomy 30:4). The heavens here would refer to the rising and setting of the sun (i.e., one end of the earth to the other, cf. Psalms 19:6).

“I will gather them” This is the opposite of exile (cf. Deuteronomy 30:4; Isaiah 43:6; Isaiah 48:20; Isaiah 62:11).

“the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell” This is a Deuteronomic phrase. It refers to Jerusalem for the site for the temple (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:5, Deuteronomy 12:11, Deuteronomy 12:14, Deuteronomy 12:21; Deuteronomy 14:23, Deuteronomy 14:24; Deuteronomy 16:2, Deuteronomy 16:6, Deuteronomy 16:11; Deuteronomy 26:2). The Ark of the covenant was where YHWH dwelt between the wings of the cherubim.

Nehemiah 1:10 “redeem” The VERB padah (BDB 804, KB 911, Qal PERFECT) means “to purchase,” “to redeem” (cf. Hosea 7:13; Micah 6:4). This is a reference to the Egyptian deliverance (cf. Deuteronomy 7:8; Deuteronomy 9:26; Deuteronomy 13:5; Deuteronomy 15:15; Deuteronomy 21:8; Micah 6:4).

SPECIAL TOPIC: Ransom/Redeem

“by Thy great power and Thy strong hand” This phrase is also used of YHWH's deliverance of His people from Egypt (cf. Deuteronomy 3:24; Deuteronomy 5:24; Deuteronomy 9:26, Deuteronomy 9:29; Deuteronomy 11:2). This deliverance from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan was prophesied in Genesis 15:12-21. For “Thy strong hand” see note at Nehemiah 1:6.

Nehemiah 1:11 “O Lord” This is the Hebrew word adon (BDB 10), which denotes “owner,” “master,” “husband,” or “lord.” See Special Topic: NAMES FOR DEITY.

“Your ears” See Special Topic: God Described As Human (anthropomorphism).

“who delights to revere Your name” “Delight” (BDB 343) denotes “have pleasure in” (cf. Malachi 3:1). It describes a valid covenantal response and a true follower of YHWH in 1 Chronicles 28:9 (“and with a willing mind,” BDB 343). It basically describes the direction of the heart. It shows the object of personal desire.

The term “revere” (BDB 431, KB 432, Qal INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT) means “reverential awe and respect” (cf. Exodus 18:21; Exodus 20:20; Deuteronomy 4:10; Joshua 4:24; Isaiah 29:13). This respect for God is lived out in covenant obedience and worship.

“Your name” In Hebrew thought and theology the name represents the character of the person, so too, God's names. See Special Topic: “The Name” of YHWH.

“grant him compassion” The VERB (BDB, 733, KB 678) is a Qal IMPERATIVE used as an entreaty for God's actions. The term “compassion” (BDB 933) is used here in a specialized sense of God working on a socially superior person (here Artaxerxes I) to grant the request of a servant (here Nehemiah, cf. Ps. 146:46; Daniel 1:9).

“this man” This refers to Artaxerxes I, who Nehemiah served.

Nehemiah 1:11b “cupbearer” This title (BDB 1052 I) means close servant, like a butler. Originally it referred to one who tasted the wine (BDB 1052 II) and food so as to assure it was not poisoned (cf. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.3.9), but like “eunuch,” it became a general term for close servant (cf. Genesis 40:1, Genesis 40:2, Genesis 40:9, Genesis 40:20, Genesis 40:23; Genesis 41:9; 1 Kings 10:5; 2 Chronicles 9:4). The Septuagint translates this term as “eunuch.”

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Nehemiah 1". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/nehemiah-1.html. 2021.
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