Nehemiah, Part 1: Restoring Messiah ’s City

Layton Talbert

FrontLine • May/June 2007

At a Glance: Ezra Part 1Ezra Part 2

This column recently explored the historical and theological significance of the book of Ezra. Ezra’s contemporary and political counterpart was Nehemiah. Persia’s King Artaxerxes commissioned both of these men to return to Jerusalem within a few years of each other. Nehemiah continues the story of restoration begun in Ezra. (The Jewish canon combines the two books into one.)

The Book of Nehemiah divides into two main sections: (1) the physical restoration of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1–7), followed by (2) the spiritual reformation of God’s people (Nehemiah 8–13). This column explores the first division of Nehemiah.

Historical Backdrop

The previous column mentioned Megabyzus, the Persian governor of Syria and Artaxerxes’ general, who brought Egypt back into submission to the Persian Empire by 456 bc. Megabyzus brought the Greek and Egyptian commanders back to Susa, Persia’s capital, under promise of immunity. Amestris, the widow of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), demanded their execution. Infuriated, Megabyzus returned to Syria and declared independence from Persia. Having repelled two Persian campaigns against him, Megabyzus returned two years later to redeclare his loyalty to the Persian crown (ca. 447–446 bc). But Syria’s taste of independence and the tenuousness of the Syrian satrapy made it politically expedient for Artaxerxes to appoint Nehemiah as governor of Judah in 445 to insure a stable and loyal neighbor near Syria. Why was Nehemiah so trusted? He was the royal cupbearer, the king’s personal butler. If there was anyone you’d better know and trust, it was the one who could slip something into your goblet or be bribed to do so. In later Persian times, the cupbearer wielded more influence with the king than the military commanders.

Nehemiah’s Return (1–2)

Reports reached Nehemiah back in Babylon that things were not going well in Jerusalem. The city walls were breached, its gates burned, its defenses in disarray, leaving her vulnerable to her enemies. Nehemiah’s instinctive response was to pray (1:1–11). Unable to conceal his concern, Nehemiah unfolded his burden to his master the king. Artaxerxes responded by granting Nehemiah gubernatorial authority and commissioning him to go to Jerusalem specifically to rebuild the city, gates, and walls (2:1–10). Nehemiah, then, was neither priest nor prophet, but primarily a politician, a spiritually minded statesman (as oxymoronic as that may sound), a godly governor, strategically placed (first in Susa, then in Jerusalem) by the appointment of man in the providence of God.

After arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah immediately surveyed the condition of the city and laid out a strategy for completing the walls as expeditiously as possible (2:11– 18). Predictably, as it is whenever God’s people undertake any important work, antagonists soon surfaced. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem instigated a campaign of demoralization via mockery (2:19, 20).

Sanballat was, or was to become, governor of Samaria (to Judah’s north). Tobiah was governor of Ammon (to Judah’s east). Geshem the Arab is also mentioned outside the Bible. Why did they resent and resist the rebuilding of Jerusalem? They may have sided with Megabyzus in his earlier rebellion against Persia and viewed Nehemiah as a strong pro-Persian. They didn’t want competition from an upstart province. They knew Jewish history; any reestablishment of the Jewish capital was an ominous sign of Jewish independence and potential Jewish domination of the region. But anyone who reads his Bible believingly understands that these three antagonists were the tools of a larger, more farsighted adversary who understood the messianic potential attached to a viable Jerusalem community.

Secular Work Is Sacred (3)

Chapter 3 looks to the modern reader like one of those necessary but uninteresting lists—a record of those who built the walls and gates of Jerusalem. This seems odd when compared with Ezra’s record of the rebuilding of the temple. Why did Ezra include no record of who rebuilt the temple? Wasn’t that the more “spiritual” and important work? Yet Nehemiah includes a meticulously detailed account of who did what in this seemingly “secular” work of rebuilding the city’s defenses. With a good map of ancient Jerusalem you can trace the chapter’s progression counter-clockwise around the city, gate by gate.

Notice the details of who did what. These were not all skilled masons but people of God willing to do manual labor outside their areas of expertise. It was a community effort for the most part. Some thought themselves too good or too important to lend a hand to “the work of their Lord” (3:5). Then there were others—goldsmiths, perfumers, and merchants (3:8, 31, 32), priests (3:22), and local leaders (3:9, 15, 17, 18). Some got their daughters involved in the labor (3:12) and their young sons as well (3:30). The exceptionally industrious receive special notice (3:20). A few who finished their assigned task early went in search of more work (3:27).

Secular callings are sacred opportunities. God noted this secular work with such precision—who does what (or does not) and how—and memorialized these labors in His Word. Do not think He takes no note of what we do and how we do it, even in seemingly secular affairs. Nehemiah 3 confirms that God is attentive to how we give ourselves to our God-given callings and opportunities. Any secular duty or calling becomes a sacred act to be performed as to the Lord (Col. 3:23, 24). He notes whether we are like the nobles who do not help in the work or like the Tekoites who do double work, whether we work willingly outside the area of our strength like the perfumers or Shallum’s daughters or Hanun the sixth son of Zalaph. He notices when we work earnestly and diligently like Baruch. And He remembers.

Balancing Offense and Defense (4)

Ezra introduced us to a variety of opposition strategies employed by the enemies of God’s people. Here another one surfaces: demoralization by mockery (4:1–3). When that does not work (4:4–6), the enemies of God’s people resort to a more serious opposition strategy: terrorism and threat of violence (4:7–9). Refusing to buckle to intimidation but unwilling to take unnecessary risks, Nehemiah divides the labor between working and guarding (4:10– 23), combining diligence and vigilance with a firm reliance on God Himself (4:14, 20).

Leading by Personal Example (5)

How much simpler Christian life and warfare would be if our enemies were only external. Like the Church, Judah had internal conflict to deal with as well. The sieve-like conditions during the rebuilding made things difficult. Food was scarce. Some had to mortgage their property to buy food or pay Persian taxes. Unable to repay their debts, some had even been forced to indenture their children as servants. Those profiting off these difficulties were not Judah’s Gentile neighbors but their wealthy Jewish brethren! Nehemiah addresses this injustice and corrects these in-house abuses (5:1–13). But the effective leader who wins the heart of his followers goes beyond public legislation to personal leadership. Nehemiah sets a positive personal example by adopting a simple lifestyle, forgoing the provisions prescribed for him as governor that he had every right to expect (5:14–19). Paul not only preaches but embodies the same principle in 1 Corinthians 9.

More Opposition Strategies (6–7)

Their previous stratagems foiled, Judah’s enemies opt for a subtler strategy: dialogue (6:1–4). But the invitation to dialogue merely cloaked the daggers of treachery. Nehemiah smelled an ulterior motive (6:2). Probably they meant to assassinate him. Their appeals were suspiciously persistent—four attempts to lure him away from his work. The fifth time the mask begins to slip. They play the libel card in the form of an open letter, which they threaten to send to Artaxerxes, accusing Nehemiah of monarchical ambitions in violation of his commitment to the king (6:5– 9). That the charges are false and groundless makes no difference to them. The whole purpose is to force Nehemiah to come to the table, where they can do him in. Nehemiah calls their bluff, but they are not out of tricks yet.

Another opposition strategy takes shape. Judah’s enemies employ a Jew named Shemaiah as a fifth columnist who infiltrates Judah’s ranks in hopes of undermining Nehemiah’s leadership credibility (6:10–14). The intrigue of the story is fascinating. Shemaiah agrees to be a double agent for Sanballat, Geshem, and Tobiah. Pretending to prophesy a warning from the Lord, he attempts to persuade Nehemiah that a gang of thugs is coming for him and that he must hurry and take sanctuary in the temple. Nehemiah spurns the idea and subsequently discovers that it was a plot to create panic, undermine his authority, and demoralize the people.

In the face of all this opposition and even treachery, the wall is finished at last—much to the chagrin of their enemies (6:15, 16). But the fight is not over yet (6:17–19). When Nehemiah gives his brother, Hanani, and Hananiah charge over the city proper (7:1–3), a new problem surfaces (7:4–73). Jerusalem had been virtually abandoned because of the lingering Babylonian devastation. Most had apparently established homesteads on the outskirts of the city. The city and the walls are rebuilt, but walls cannot save a city without inhabitants to defend them. Men are a city’s best defense. Nehemiah uses genealogical records to determine Jerusalemite descent in order to relocate an adequate population within the city.

Messianic Importance of Jerusalem

Why was the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem so important—not only to the Jews, but to God? “The key that unlocks the book for us theologically is the doctrine of Christ. … As we carefully examine the life of Christ, it becomes very evident that certain Jewish institutions must be in place for His work to be accomplished and for prophecy to be fulfilled” (Robert Bell; all quotations in this section taken from “The Theology of Nehemiah,” Biblical Viewpoint [Nov 1986], 56–57). Bell lists several factors:

  1. “It was necessary for Messiah to be born into a Jewish community that adhered to a strict practice of the Law. If this did not happen, then even as a child He could not have fulfilled the Abrahamic and Mosaic requirements (Lk. 2:21–22, 27).”
  2. “The Messiah’s life must also be intimately connected to the system of temple worship. A community that knew nothing about God’s system of sacrifice could not understand the Messiah’s death on the Passover. Furthermore, without the temple, the full practice of the Law of Moses was not possible.”
  3. “For the faithful practice of the Law and the worship of the Temple, a strict separation from the gentiles is necessary in the Jewish community. The whole history of Israel is a testimony to the negative side of this fact.”
  4. “For this separation to exist, there is a physical necessity: a strong Jewish capital with an ability to exclude gentile influence in religion and morals.”
  5. “Such a city would not be possible without the willingness [and security] of a large Jewish population to dwell there.”

All of this is wrapped up in the work of rebuilding the walls. God was restoring Jerusalem, securing its perpetuity, and recovering its institutions not merely for the Jews’ sake; He was orchestrating the circumstances and environment necessary for the sending of His Messiah into the world in “the fulness of … time” (Gal. 4:4).

Rebuilding the city was the first (and easier) step. The next need was to rebuild the people. That’s the focus of Nehemiah 8–13 and the next At a Glance column.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)