Nehemiah 1:1-2:20

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017



(Bible Knowledge Commentary) Historical Background. God had promised Israel that if they obeyed Him, He would bless them as a nation. If they did not, then He would judge them and cause them to be taken into captivity (Deut. 28). That promise was repeated to Solomon with a specific application to his own life. If he, as king of Israel, obeyed the Lord, he would experience God’s continual blessing. If Solomon did not obey Him, God would take away his power and position as king of Israel (I Kings 9:1-9 ).


As happened so frequently among many of Israel’s leaders, a good beginning had an unfortunate ending. Solomon sinned against God, particularly by marrying many foreign wives and worshiping their false gods (I Kings 11:1-5 ). So the kingdom was split in 931 B.C. The 10 Northern tribes were initially ruled by Jeroboam, and the Southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) were ruled at first by Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.


Both kingdoms, however, continued to be characterized by idolatry and immorality. And as God had forewarned, His hand of judgment fell on all Israel because of their sin. The Northern Kingdom fell first, and the people were taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. [210 years after the kingdom was divided which had occurred in 931 B.C.]. The Babylonians brought about the fall of the Southern Kingdom in 586 B.C. [135 years after the fall of the Northern Kingdom.]


The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom were absorbed into Assyria and eventually into other cultures. However, the people of the Southern Kingdom remained intact in Babylon, and after the power of Babylon was broken by the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C., many Jews returned to their homeland.


In 538 B.C. the first group returned to Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:1-2:2 ). Over a period of years and tremendous opposition from the Samaritans, the returnees eventually succeeded in rebuilding the temple in 515 B.C. . . [23 years after construction of the temple had begun].


[Fifty-seven years after the completion of the temple] – in 458 B.C. – a second group of Jews returned, led by Ezra (Ezra 7:1-10 ). Arriving on the scene, they found the Jews in Israel in a state of spiritual and moral degradation. They had intermarried with the unbelieving peoples of the surrounding nations and were participating in their pagan practices. However, through Ezra’s faithful teaching ministry, the majority of these people turned from their sins and once again followed God’s will for their lives.


In 444 B.C., 14 years after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem, Nehemiah also returned and God used him to guide Judah in rebuilding the city’s walls and in reordering the people’s social and economic lives. What he accomplished in a brief period of time was an incredible feat. How he accomplished this goal is one of the major emphases in the Book of Nehemiah.


Opposition to the Jews in their rebuilding of the temple and the city walls of Jerusalem was constant. We see much of this in Ezra 4 .


Ezra 4:1 Now when the adversaries [i.e. the enemies] of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity [i.e. the descendants of the captivity, the people of the exile] builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel;


Ezra 4:2 Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur [i.e. Assyria], which brought us up hither [i.e. who brought us here].


Ezra 4:3 But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua [i.e. Joshua], and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.


Ezra 4:4 Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah [i.e. discouraged the people of Judah, tried to discourage the people of Judah], and troubled them in building [i.e. and frightened them from building],


Ezra 4:5 And hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia [521-486 B.C.].


Ezra 4:6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him [i.e. the adversaries of Israel wrote unto Ahasuerus] an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.


4:6 – (RSB) Ahasuerus = Xerxes I. . . . Nowhere else mentioned, this event took place in 485 B.C.


This was seven years before Esther would become queen in 479 B.C.


During the reign of Ahasuerus, Haman plotted to annihilate all the Jews on March 7, 473 B.C. This was counteracted by an edict issued by Mordecai.


The Jewish opponents did not give up.


[Ezra 4:7-16 indicate that two letters were written by the enemies of Israel to Artaxerxes who began his reign in 464 B.C. This is at least 51 years after the temple was completed and 10 or more years after Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews was thwarted.]

Ezra 4:7 And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions [i.e. colleagues, associates], unto Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the writing of the letter was written in the Syrian tongue [i.e. in Aramaic script], and interpreted in the Syrian tongue [i.e. and translated into the Aramaic language].


[Still another letter was written in verses 8-16 and answered in verses 17-23.]


Ezra 4:8-238 Rehum the chancellor and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king in this sort [i.e. in this fashion, as follows]: 9 Then wrote Rehum the chancellor, and Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their companions [i.e. colleagues, associates]; the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the Apharsites, the Archevites, the Babylonians, the Susanchites, the Dehavites, and the Elamites, 10 And the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Asnappar [i.e. Onsnapper, Ashurbanipal] brought over, and set [i.e. took captive and settled, deported and settled] in the cities of Samaria, and the rest that are on this side the river [i.e. on this west side of the Euphrates River], and at such a time [i.e. and so forth or etc.]. 11 This is the copy of the letter that they sent unto him, even unto Artaxerxes the king; Thy servants the men on this side the river [i.e. on this (west) side of the (Euphrates) River], and at such a time [i.e. and so forth or etc.]. 12 Be it known unto the king, that the Jews which [i.e. who] came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations. 13 Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city [i.e. Jerusalem] be builded, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll [i.e. they will not pay tax], tribute, and custom, and so thou shalt endamage [i.e. damage] the revenue of the kings. 14 Now because we have maintenance from the king’s palace [i.e. because we receive support from the palace], and it was not meet [i.e. it was not proper, it was not fitting] for us to see the king’s dishonour, therefore have we sent and certified the king [i.e. and informed the king]; 15 That search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers: so shalt thou find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings [i.e. and harmful to kings] and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time [i.e. and that they have incited revolt within the city in former times]: for which cause was this city destroyed. 16 We certify [i.e. we inform] the king that, if this city be builded again, and the walls thereof set up, by this means thou shalt have no portion on this side the river [i.e. the result will be that you will have no dominion west of the Euphrates River].


[Verses 17-23 provide Artaxerxes’ answer to the letter sent to him in verses 8-16.]

17 Then sent the king [i.e. Artaxerxes] an answer unto Rehum the chancellor, and to Shimshai the scribe, and to the rest of their companions that dwell in Samaria, and unto the rest beyond the river, Peace, and at such a time [i.e. peace, and so forth or peace, etc.]. 18 The letter which ye sent unto us hath been plainly read [i.e. clearly read] before me. 19 And I commanded, and search hath been made, and it is found that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings [i.e. has revolted against kings], and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein [i.e. and the city of Jerusalem has been a place of rebellion and sedition]. 20 There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, which have ruled over all countries beyond the river [i.e. west of the Euphrates River]; and toll [i.e. tax], tribute, and custom, was paid unto them [i.e. to the mighty kings of Jerusalem]. 21 Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me [i.e. that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order]. 22 Take heed now that ye fail not to do this: why should damage grow [i.e. increase] to the hurt of the kings? 23 Now when the copy of king Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum, and Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went up in haste to Jerusalem unto the Jews, and made them to cease by force and power [i.e. by force of arms].


In 458 B.C. with the blessing and financing of Artaxerxes, Ezra led a group of approximately 5,000 returnees from Persia to Jerusalem. Ezra’s return was in the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign. It appears that the letter written in Ezra 4:8-16 and Artaxerxes’ response in Ezra 4:17-23 had occurred after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem and that Artaxerxes’ edict in Ezra 4:21 was still in effect.


Ezra 4:21 Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me [i.e. that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order].


It is in these troubled circumstances that Nehemiah comes on the scene late in 445 B.C. in the 20th year of Artaxerxes’ reign.

Nehemiah 1


Nehemiah 1:1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year [i.e. November-December 445 B.C.], as I was in Shushan the palace [i.e. the capital, the citadel],


1:1 – (RSB) The words. i.e., Nehemiah’s own memoirs. Nehemiah means “Yahweh consoles.” Though nothing is known about Nehemiah’s father, the words son of Hachaliah distinguish him from other Nehemiahs (3:16; Ezra 2:2 ). Chisleu (Nov.-Dec.). . . . the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, 445 B.C. Shushan. Daniel was transported there in a vision in 550 B.C., and Esther became Xerxes’ queen in this palace in 478 B.C. . . .


Nehemiah 1:2 That Hanani, one of my brethren [i.e. brothers], came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity [i.e. about the Jewish remnant who had survived the exile], and concerning Jerusalem.


1:2 – (RSB) Hanani. Evidently a blood brother (7:2), he brought Nehemiah the report of conditions in Jerusalem due to the opposition recorded in Ezra 4:23 . . . .


Ezra 4:23 Now when the copy of king Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum, and Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went up in haste to Jerusalem unto the Jews, and made them to cease by force and power [i.e. by force of arms].


Nehemiah 1:3 And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction [i.e. distress] and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof [i.e. of Jerusalem] are burned with fire.


1:4-11 – (RSB) Nehemiah’s prayer involved (1) pleading the mercy of God . . .; (2) confessing sin (notice that Nehemiah, like Ezra . . . and Daniel . . . identifies himself with his people); (3) acknowledging the rightness of God’s judgment . . .; and (4) asking for success in the next step (which would require the king, this man of v. 11, to reverse the decision he had made as recorded in Ezra 4:21 ).


Nehemiah 1:4 And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,


(BKC) Fasting, though not a requirement of the Law except on the Day of Atonement, often evidenced one’s distraught condition.


Nehemiah 1:5 And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible [i.e. the great and awesome] God, that keepeth covenant [i.e. Who keeps (Your) covenant] and mercy for them that love him and observe [i.e. keep, obey] his commandments:


(BKC) “God of heaven” refers to His sovereignty.


Nehemiah 1:6 Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned.


Nehemiah 1:7 We have dealt [i.e. acted] very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments [i.e. ordinances], which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.


Nehemiah 1:8 Remember, I beseech thee [i.e. I pray], the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations [i.e. if you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations]:


Nehemiah 1:9 But if ye turn [i.e. return] unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven [i.e. though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens], yet will I gather them from thence [i.e. I will gather them from there], and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there [i.e. that I have chosen as a dwelling for My name].


Nehemiah 1:10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.


Nehemiah 1:11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant [i.e. to the prayer of Nehemiah], and to the prayer of thy servants [i.e. to the prayer of the Jews], who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day [i.e. and make your servant successful today], and grant him [i.e. grant Nehemiah] mercy in the sight of this man [i.e. in the sight of the king of Persia (Artaxerxes)]. For I was the king’s cupbearer.


1:11 – (RSB) The cupbearer tasted the king’s wine to be certain it was not poisoned; thus he was a trusted servant who had frequent access to the king.

Nehemiah 2


Nehemiah 2:1 And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.


2:1 – (RSB) Nisan (Mar-Apr.) of 444 B.C., four months after Nehemiah began praying, but still in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’s reign (1:1), since his official year began and ended in Tishri (Sept.-Oct.). . . .


Nehemiah 2:2 Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance [i.e. face] sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid [i.e. very much afraid],


2:2 – (RSB) A sad countenance was not tolerated in the royal presence, so, Nehemiah had good reason to be afraid (cf. Est. 4:2).


Nehemiah 2:3 And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance [i.e. face] be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres [i.e. tombs], lieth waste, and the gates thereof [i.e. its gate] are consumed with fire?


Nehemiah 2:4 Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.


2:4 – (RSB) Though Nehemiah’s prayer was (of necessity) brief and silent, it had been preceded by a long period of petition to the Lord (1:4-11).


Nehemiah 2:5 And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres [i.e. tombs], that I may build it.


Nehemiah 2:6 And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.


2:6 – (RSB) Since it was not customary for the queen to appear at formal banquets, her presence indicates that this was a private affair. I set him a time. Nehemiah probably agreed to return after a relatively short time, which was later extended, for he stayed 12 years (5:14).


2:7-9 – (RSB) These letters, granting concessions to Nehemiah, form the decree of Dan. 9:25. the palace (or fortress) protected the Temple. the house. i.e., the governor’s home. Nehemiah was also given an armed escort (v. 9).


Daniel 9:25 Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.


Nehemiah 2:7 Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river [i.e. on the west side of the Euphrates River], that they may convey me over [i.e. allow (or permit) me to pass through] till I come into Judah;


Nehemiah 2:8 And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace [i.e. fortress, citadel] which appertained to the house [i.e. which pertains to (i.e. is by) the temple], and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into [i.e. for the house that I will occupy]. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.


Nehemiah 2:9 Then I came to the governors beyond the river [i.e. on the west side of the Euphrates River], and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen [i.e. cavalry] with me.


Nehemiah 2:10 When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite [i.e. Tobiah the Ammonite official], heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly [i.e. they were deeply disturbed] that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.


2:10 – (RSB) Sanballat. Also mentioned in the Elephantine Papyri as governor of Samaria, he assessed Nehemiah’s arrival as a threat to Samaria’s control of Judea. Tobiah. Probably an ex-slave, now governor of Ammon.


Nehemiah 2:11 So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.


Nehemiah 2:12 And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon [i.e. nor was there any animal with me, except the one on which I rode].


2:13-15 – (RSB) Nehemiah’s nocturnal reconnaissance began at the SW gate of the valley, proceeded eastward to the king’s pool (probably the Pool of Siloam), then up the brook (the Kidron Valley), because his donkey or mule could not make it over the rubble of the eastern wall. It is unclear from verse 15 whether he then turned westward, then S, making the complete circuit back to his original starting point, or whether he retraced his steps S, then W, back to the gate of the valley.


Nehemiah 2:13 And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port [i.e. the Dung Gate, the Refuse Gate], and viewed [i.e. inspected, examined] the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof [i.e. its gates which] were consumed [i.e. burned] with fire.


Nehemiah 2:14 Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king’s pool: but there was no place for the beast [i.e. for the animal] that was under me to pass.


Nehemiah 2:15 Then went I up in the night by the brook [i.e. by the Kidron Valley], and viewed [i.e. inspected, examined] the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley [i.e. by the Valley Gate], and so returned.


Nehemiah 2:16 And the rulers [i.e. the officials] knew not whither I went [i.e. where I went], or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.


Nehemiah 2:17 Then said I unto them [i.e. to the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the rulers, and the rest], Ye see the distress [i.e. the bad situation] that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste [i.e. lies in ruins], and the gates thereof [i.e. its gates] are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach [i.e. we will no longer be a reproach, that we will no longer be in disgrace].


2:17 – (RSB) Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the walls in 586 B.C. [142 years prior to Nehemiah’s being in Jerusalem].


Nehemiah 2:18 Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened [i.e. they put, they set] their hands for this good work.


2:18 – (RSB) The work began Aug. 1, 444 B.C.


Nehemiah 2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite [Tobiah the Ammonite official], and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn [i.e. they mocked], and despised us [i.e. ridiculed], and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?


2:19 – (RSB) Geshem. A powerful chieftain of Dedan in NW Arabia. Nehemiah was surrounded by enemies who tried to intimidate him by insinuating that he wanted to rebel against the king of Persia.


Nehemiah 2:20 Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us [i.e. He will give us success]; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion [i.e. heritage], nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.


This sermon is the 1st part of the series, Study of Nehemiah. Other sermons in this series are: