Nehemiah 1-3

Historical Background

 

Nehemiah continues the story of the Jews after the days of Ezra.  To remind the reader, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians about 587 BC.  A group of Jews were taken captive to Babylon in three successive deportments.  These included Ezekiel, Daniel, and others.  Jerusalem lay in waste for 70 years, but Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jews would return to their homeland. 

 

Key to their return was a change of power; the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians who were much kinder to the Jews.  The Lord called the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who in turn called on Jewish pioneers to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple. The Book of Ezra recounts two great migrations of Jews back home: the first under Zerubbabel, and the second under Ezra. (Ezra 1-2; 7-8)

 

But there is still a great group of Jews who live east of the Euphrates River in the Persian Empire. Nehemiah is one of those Jews.  He and many thousands continued to identify as Jews culturally and religiously.  They call Jerusalem home, but have either chosen not to or have been unable to return.

 

The situation in Jerusalem is tense.  The Jews who have resettled and rebuilt the Temple are a small group.  The Samaritan nations around them are highly suspicious and obstructionist.  For centuries, Jerusalem survived in spite of being surrounded by more powerful nations.  They did so primarily because of protection from God, but also because of the strength and size of the walls surrounding the city.  The walls are in great disrepair, destroyed by the Babylonians over a century before the days of Nehemiah.

 

Nehemiah 1:1-3  I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped

 

Nehemiah is the king’s cupbearer.  He is in a position of great authority.  Apparently, a small group of men had travelled to Jerusalem and back.  Nehemiah is interested in their report, but horrified to find out that the walls of Jerusalem are in shambles.  His response is to weep and to mourn, to fast and to pray.

 

Josephus

“[Nehemiah] heard some strangers that were entering the city, after a long journey, speaking to one another in the Hebrew tongue; so he went to them, and asked them…. what condition Jerusalem was; and when they replied that they were in a bad state for that their walls were thrown down to the ground, and that the neighboring nations did a great deal of mischief to the Jews, while in the day time they overran the country, and pillaged it, and in the night did them mischief, insomuch that not a few were led away captive out of the country, and out of Jerusalem itself, and that the roads were in the day time found full of dead men. Hereupon Nehemiah shed tears, out of commiseration of the calamities of his countrymen; and, looking up to heaven, he said, ‘How long, O Lord, wilt thou overlook our nation, while it suffers so great miseries, and while we are made the prey and spoil of all men?’” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, 5:6)

 

Nehemiah 1:5  them that love him and observe his commandments

 

With Zerubbabel, Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, and Nehemiah, we get a new tone of reverence for the commandments of God.  Their messages feel much more like what we are used to.  Any given Sacrament Meeting, we might hear of the goodness of God, how faithful he is to keep his side of the covenant relationship and of his great mercy for those who remember him and keep his commandments.  Nehemiah understands those concepts.  Our obedience is motivated by our love of God.  “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Such love and obedience bring mercy according to the covenant. 

 

Nehemiah understood this from reading Deuteronomy, “Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the Faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations; And repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them” (Deut. 7:9-10).

 

“The choice before us is mercy or justice. Either choice can be accommodated, and either choice is compatible with the nature and plan of God, but, as in the choice between the Lord and Satan, there are no third alternatives. Again, life has default settings, and they are set for justice. We can choose the mercy that is offered through the gospel covenant, but if we refuse that mercy, we will receive justice.” (Stephen E. Robinson, Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1992], 60)

 

Nehemiah 1:7-10  We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments

 

Nehemiah sees the fulfillment of the words of Moses in the history of his people.  Again from Deuteronomy, Nehemiah understood that the Lord foretold the punishment and scattering of the Jews if they did not obey the commandments (Deut. 28:15-68).  Nehemiah has seen the fulfillment of those promises, “the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods… And thy life shall hand in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night.”  (Deut. 28:64-66)

 

Nehemiah 1:11 I was the king’s cupbearer

 

“Nehemiah was the cupbearer to king Artaxerxes.  Assassination was a constant threat to a king, and poisoned food or drink was one of the most effective ways to accomplish it. The cupbearer, the one who ensured that the king’s food and drink were safe was in a position of great trust and responsibility.” (Old Testament Student Manual: 1 Kings – Malachi, [CES: 1981], p. 335)

 

Nehemiah 2:1 Artaxerxes the king

 

Nehemiah served the king in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king.  Ezra says he “went up from Babylon” in the 7TH year of Artaxerxes the king (Ezra 7:1-6) suggesting that Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries.  At one point, they worked together to teach the people (Neh. 8:9). Josephus states that they served under Xerxes not Artaxerxes, but either way, they lived over 100 years after Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians. They never knew how it felt to be ruled by the Babylonians.  The world was ruled by Persia.

 

  • (550-525 BC) Cyrus II, referred to as Cyrus the Great, put the Persian Empire on the map.
  • (525-522 BC) Cambyses II, conquers Egypt
  • (522-486 BC) Darius I, stabilized empire, improved roads and communication
  • (486-465 BC) Xerxes, beats the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae
  • (465-424 BC) Artaxerxes I
  • (423-405 BC) Darius II
  • (405-359 BC) Artaxerxes II
  • (358-338 BC) Artaxerxes III
  • (338-336 BC) Artaxerxes IV
  • (336-330 BC) Darius III, was conquered by Alexander the Great

 

According to the chronology above, the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I is 445 BC. The take home message is that the Persian Empire was a big deal in the history of the world.  Forgotten by most, its grandeur puts the kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt to shame.  It was much like the Roman Empire some 400 years later, extending across most of the known world, allowing the conquered peoples to live as they wish but exacting a tribute to fund the capital.  The Persian kings are important as a subject of Daniel’s prophecies (Dan. 11:2).

 

Nehemiah 2:5 if thy servant have found favour in thy sight

 

Throughout history, God’s people have enjoyed special privileges for their integrity and righteousness.  Joseph was made ruler over Potipher’s house because he saw that “the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand” (Gen. 39:3).  Later, Joseph became second in command in all of Egypt when Pharaoh pondered, “Can we find such an one as this is, a man in whom the Spirit of God is?” (Gen. 41:38)  The pattern continues with Daniel and his brethren who were made great in Babylon because Nebuchadnezzar “found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm” (Dan. 1:20).

 

Nehemiah is not as famous as Joseph or Daniel, but he was a righteous man in a Gentile Empire.  The Persians were spread across most of the known world.  To be the king’s cupbearer was an elite position for sure.  Being so close to the king, Nehemiah is in a position to get a favor for the Jews, permission to go to Jerusalem and commence building up the walls of the city.

 

Even today, Mormons are sought out for positions requiring great trust and integrity.  The FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security tend to hire Mormons because of their foreign language skills, easy security clearance from clean living, and willingness to serve. (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-mormons-make-great-fbi-recruits)  In 2010, Goldman Sachs hired 31 graduates from BYU. (http://www.businessinsider.com/11-surprising-things-you-didnt-know-about-mormons-2011-6#but-can-a-mormon-be-elected-president-12)  And LDS girls are often sought as Nanny’s for the rich and famous.  These are just a few examples of the trustworthiness of those who live the principles revealed by God from the days of Joseph to today.

 

Nehemiah 2:10 it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel

 

Nehemiah was smart to get official documents authorizing his activities.  The Jews at the time are surrounded by enemies old and new.  The old enemies are the Ammonites.  The new enemies are the Samaritans.  Tobiah represents the former; Sanballat represents the latter.  The Jews are hated by their neighbors (an old theme).  The book of Ezra describes the history of Jerusalem for the century before Nehemiah and details several occasions when official decrees from the king were required for the Jews to build the Temple, etc. (Ezra 1:1; 4:8; 7:11).  Unfortunately, the letters aren’t enough.  Tobiah and Sanballat are so upset that the Jews have a friend in the Capital that they continue to harass Nehemiah and the Jews (v. 19).

 

Nehemiah 2:12-13 I arose in the night… and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down

nehemiah inspects.jpg

(This picture has the right feel, but there were no tall buildings in the city walls.  The buildings inside the city would have been modest and in disrepair.  And it should have been nighttime.)

 

The tone of this section (vs. 12-16) is reminiscent of a spy on his first big assignment.  This is exciting stuff for Nehemiah, the cupbearer from the Capital.  We are not trying to poke fun at our hero, but we are trying to look for vignettes of human nature as they permeate the Biblical record.  Nehemiah seems intrigued by his own plan to secretly survey the walls and the gates of the city without the Jews or the Samaritans knowing his activities.  The spy mission is successful, “the rulers knew not wither I went, or what I did.” (v. 16)  Though he is an outsider—a Jew from the king’s court—he is now qualified to recommend repairs; he has seen the walls with his own eyes.

 

Nehemiah 2:20 ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem

 

We like stories of good guys and bad guys.  There are always good guys and bad guys in the movies.  As sports fans, we are of the mindset that our team is composed of nothing but holy saints while the other team is malicious and evil.  The Book of Mormon has Nephites and Lamanites.  The New Testament has the believers versus the scribes and Pharisees.  The Restoration has the saints versus the mobs.  In the 5th century BC, the bad guys are the Samaritans.  Ezra has already told us some of the problems, but Nehemiah is going to make a categorical statement of disdain:  that the Samaritans have “no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.”   That is pretty harsh! 

 

The Samaritans thought they could worship a Jewish God according to Samaritan traditions, as if you can be a Mormon without baptism.  The Law of Moses had provisions for Gentiles to be converted to Judaism but the Samaritans had no such intention.  They didn’t want to become Jews; they claimed it falsely through a lineage that had been polluted.  They wanted to dominate the Jews, suppress them from becoming a formidable regional power, and yet worship their idols at the same time as they acknowledge the God of Abraham.  It just doesn’t work that way. 

 

Well, Nehemiah isn’t being nice!  Should he repent and play nice with the Samaritans? Maybe he should try harder to be a good missionary.  The Savior explained why Nehemiah was right to restrict salvation to the Lord’s prescribed path, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).  This passage applies perfectly to the Samaritans of Nehemiah’s day, they were thieves and robbers trying to steal the blessings of the covenant.  The same idea is reflected in the Master’s declaration to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews” (Jn. 4:22).

 

The sad part is that Nehemiah’s statement became the grounds for subsequent generations to ignore and disdain the Samaritans.  Doctrine became racism.  Truth was warped into prejudice.  This is a real world issue today.  How do we treat people who have “no portion, nor right, nor memorial in the church”?  Do we treat them with disdain?  Can we hate the sin and love the sinner? Or will we behave like the Jews of Jesus’ day who had “no dealings with the Samaritans” (Jn. 4:9).  Our human nature makes it difficult for us to stick to our principles without being prejudiced against those who oppose them.

 

Nehemiah 3:1-32 the sheep gate… the fish gate… the old gate

Nehemiah walls.jpg

Nehemiah is careful to record every family and tribe that contributed to the building of the wall.  In that day, the donors didn’t have their names inscribed on a brick or a plaque so Nehemiah makes sure that they get the credit they deserve. He seems to understand that subsequent generations will be proud of their forebearers for the sacrifice of building the wall. 

 

The list of gates and towers is pretty descriptive and goes in a counter clockwise direction.  See illustration below.

nehemiah 3.gif

nehemiah walls model.jpg