When we first meet Nehemiah, life is simple, however, on a day like any other, his life changes. Nehemiah endures on that day one of those moments in life that either shakes us to our core or push us to be something we never thought we’d be. His heart breaks and suddenly, it finds a higher purpose.
The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit.
All of us have those moments at some point or some time. For you and me it’s often sickness or death or even the loss of a job or a relationship. For Nehemiah, it was something entirely different. It was personal but removed. It was close to him but distant to those in his life. It was life-changing, but not overnight. The moment that changed Nehemiah set the table for his new direction, new purpose, and a new home.
In all honesty, Nehemiah was a man like you and me, going about his business and living the life God gave him. He was quite successful and in a position of influence in his adopted home. He served King Artaxerxes as a royal cupbearer, which doesn’t sound very impressive. It sounds comparable to the royal dishwasher if you ask me, but (in reality) was far more important than that.¹ As a royal cupbearer (see 1:11), he had the potential to influence one of the most powerful men in the ancient world. It was a position of great responsibility. At each meal, he would test the king’s food. Any person who stood in that position was more than likely handsome, cultured, knowledgeable in court procedures, and able to converse with the king and offer advice if needed. He would also (by necessity) need to be wise and quick on his feet. He undoubtedly knew that anything meant to poison the king would go by his table first. Surely, we can be confident that Nehemiah knew his job was important, after all, it could cost him his life if he treated it haphazardly.
On what he undoubtedly presumed would be just another day, his brother stopped by to visit him at one of the royal palaces. During this visit, Nehemiah asked about their ancestral home. The response he received was brutally honest and troubling at the same time.
The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.
The impression we should get from the text as we read on is that Nehemiah was more interested in the condition of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem than the town itself.² While the state of the walls, the buildings, and the physical premises was unfortunate, the state of the people was harrowing at best and heartbreaking at worst. While it seems possible to for us with hindsight and the whole story to assume that the broken walls and burned gates could very well have been the result of what we see in Ezra 4, it was still shocking to Nehemiah in that moment. Perhaps, he had earlier dismissed what he believed to be the gossip or hearsay of the palace in hope that the reports were exaggerated. He surely knew about the situation in Jerusalem. He must have known how the enemies of the Hebrews sent a letter to Artaxerxes condemning the building. He may have even witnessed Artaxerxes subsequently stopping the rebuilding, but there’s no way to know whether or not he could appreciate what Ezra 4:23 says about those enemies using “force of arms to make them stop.”³ It seems plausible to assume that those actions are what directly led to the circumstances that troubled Nehemiah so much. It was worse than he ever wanted to believe.
I can’t imagine there was much that could have prepared Nehemiah for the news he received that day. We’re not sure what he was expecting to hear, but we’re sure it wasn’t the report his brother brought. The town was in shambles, with no real hope for a return to its glory. What’s clear is that the ideal circumstances Nehemiah had imagined for the Jews in Judah were unrealistic – not only were the citizens in danger, their religion was as well.4
When Nehemiah’s question received an answer he wasn’t expecting, he wanted to help, but like many of us today he was quick to realize that there are far more needs in the world than any of us has time or energy to meet.5 He should be an encouragement to us though because, without hesitation, he was motivated to act, just as we should be today. His response to the news should be something we remember when days like that show up in our lives:
So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
The description of the state of the refugees plunged Nehemiah into such deep affliction, that he passed several days in mourning, fasting, and prayer. People today might be quick to criticize his overly emotional response, but I believe that sentiment is short-sighted when you consider what Jerusalem meant to him. Why mourn? Why cry? Why get so upset? I believe Nehemiah thought the news was worthy of a response that was meaningful, contrite, and appropriate. Something he loved was broken. Should our response be any less emotional? Sadly, in the 24-hour news cycle of our day its far too easy to be callous and unattached to the evil and horrific circumstances of so many people around the world. As a people, we have lost our emotional response to calamity. As observers to the troubles of our world, we no longer respond as we should because we no longer feel as we should. His pain and his response teach us something valuable today – the feelings of loss, shame, and disappointment are strong motivation to fix what’s broken.
He cried and was overwhelmed not only because of the human needs in Jerusalem but also because God was being dishonored as long as Jerusalem lay in waste.6 Jerusalem was the center of God’s people. It was where worship, life, and a genuine identify as His follower came to fruition. It was their homeland. The city of the kings, the priests, and even God (when His presence dwelled in the Holy of Holies). We know that God dwells everywhere, that nothing can contain Him, and that no city is holier than another – but to the Jews, Jerusalem was special. This was their holy city and now it was a neglected cesspool of corruption and indifference. Several Psalms (48, 79, 84, 87) highlight how important Jerusalem was to the Jewish people:
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in His holy mountain. Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is in her palaces; He is known as her refuge. For behold, the kings assembled, they passed by together. They saw it, and so they marveled; they were troubled, they hastened away. Fear took hold of them there, and pain, as of a woman in birth pangs, as when You break the ships of Tarshish with an east wind. As we have heard, so we have seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God: God will establish it forever. We have thought, O God, on Your lovingkindness, in the midst of Your temple. According to Your name, O God so is Your praise to the ends of the earth; your right hand is full of righteousness. Let Mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of Your judgments. Walk about Zion, and go all around her. Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following. For this is God, our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to death.
While we may not be able to appreciate it today as they did then, that land was important to Nehemiah and its destitution alongside the people’s mistreatment was more than he could bear. It was devastating, demoralizing, debilitating, and downright destructive to the soul of Nehemiah. It may have been a reason to quit, give up, grow angry, but instead, the pain of that situation became what drove him to fix what should have never been broken in the first place.
Have you ever hoped that the reality of a situation wasn’t quite as bad as everyone had told you? In the opening moments of Nehemiah, we find a man at rock bottom. A man who had a purpose, position, and a sense of accomplishment broken by the news that seemed unimaginable. His response to this pain is what truly gives us an idea of how important the job ahead of him was. His tears show us that he understood it wasn’t just Jerusalem that needed to be fixed, it was God’s people as well. Another Psalm, written during the time of exile seems to poetically highlight the thoughts of those in captivity better than most:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth – if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!” O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!
The thing that should impress us the most about Nehemiah is that his faith in God allowed Him to take the pain he experienced and funnel it towards the work that needed to be done – he was ready to plead for help in prayer and then in respect ask the people he felt could help him for provisions and protection. Remember that we all have those days – it’s what we do with those days that says the most about us.
Nehemiah was about to begin his life’s great work. He was ready to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but first, he needed to ask for a blessing and permission.
¹ Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 10.
² Warren W. Wiersbe, Joshua-Esther, The Bible Exposition Commentary, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2003), 633.
³ James M. Hamilton, Jr., Exalting Jesus in Ezra and Nehemiah, (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), 99.
4 F. Charles Fenshem, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1982), 153.
5 J.I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995), 59
6 Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, 60.
Scripture taken from New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Originally published on October 15, 2016, by Neal Mathis and Matthew Higginbotham. Learn more about them by following this link.