There are some characters found in the Bible that seem to jump off the page. There are heroes like David slaying the giant, Noah building the impossibly-big boat, or Peter walking on the water, who project confidence, heroism, and a deep, abiding faith in God that many of us hope to have one day. There are also villains like Jezebel, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar that seem larger-than-life and ruthless in a way that terrifies us. I’ve often wondered in my study why some characters leap off the pages of the Bible while others go overlooked or even worse, forgotten. While I don’t have a sufficient answer for those occurrences in your personal study, I know why it happens to me, it’s all about relate-ability. In a bit of irony, my connection to those heroes is more-than-often about how well they connect to my circumstances, experiences, or even expectations.
This is the first in a series of chapters devoted to the work of the Old Testament character Nehemiah. Nehemiah is not the hero most people are looking to emulate from Scripture. Nehemiah is not David, Samson, or even Solomon. There are no moments when he runs into battle head-strong and faithful while staring down his opponent with the valor typically found in a Hollywood blockbuster. Nehemiah isn’t even a soldier. He is an organizer and a builder, and builders don’t often occupy the hero role in our childhood. Builders tend to be complementary parts. They’re workers usually found behind-the-scenes or shuffled into the margins of our lives, and they are prone (due to no fault of their own) to be undervalued and overlooked. They do the dirty work that is far too often rewarded with a hearty dose of indifference and ignorance from casual observers. Pity that those of us who sit in houses we didn’t build or buildings we don’t keep functional overlook those who build and repair daily.
It’s ironic in our discussion that God is a builder as well. In fact, our first view of God is as a builder. Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Why then, do we not always think of Him in that way first? He didn’t just make this world and humanity but also our understanding of right and wrong, good and descent, and even loving and kind. He made us “in his image” (i.e. Genesis 1:27) and gave us this world to learn and grow closer to Him. He is a builder, but for some reason, we don’t always think of Him that way.
Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
There was a point in time when I didn’t give Nehemiah the credit he deserves. In preparation for a series of lessons, I began deeply studying his life. It changed my appreciation for his work. I came to realize that his story is so profoundly unique to Scripture that it should be hallowed and revered more frequently in our Bible classes and sermons. Nehemiah took the tools God gave him and (re)built a wall, a people, and a covenant. Not many people can lay claim to that amount of monumental influence in this world.
As we begin to examine his work in this series of lessons, we must remember that Nehemiah’s opportunity came on the heels of those who preceded him. Their successes, failures, and experiences in Jerusalem set the stage for his opportunity.
As we look back, we can see that the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of God’s children set Nehemiah’s path in place years before he was born. In those dark days, the prophet Jeremiah gave the people of Israel a fair warning about their impending doom but they wouldn’t listen. In an unsettling bit of irony, they had learned to tune out God and His messengers just like their fathers, grandfathers, and countless ancestors had done as well. On that fateful day, he told them:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Because you have not heard My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,” says the Lord, “and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against these nations all around, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, a hissing, and perpetual desolations.”
When Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah for the final time, Jerusalem was burned, and the great stones that made up the wall of the city were dislodged and tumbled into the steep valleys that surrounded it on all sides. By that time, nothing of any value was left.¹ We can’t appreciate the intense emotion that must have swept over those like Jeremiah who watched the ancestral home of God’s people burn. We can’t begin to understand what it must have been like to see God’s people taken away in chains, robbed of their dignity, bound for a life of slavery. We can’t imagine what it was like to see the physical embodiment of God’s promises washed away and cast aside. It is easy though to be in awe of the divine revelation’s vivid description of that day:
How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow is she, who was great among the nations! The princess among the provinces has become a slave!
These words are the beginning of Nehemiah’s journey. These thoughts are the prologue to his story.
If we zoom out, we can see how his place in this story came together. After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem (586 B.C.), a large portion of the most important Hebrew people was carried to Babylon in exile.² These Jews would have been the best of the best – those who possessed inherent value to the people of Babylon. He would subsequently remove more Jews from those borders leaving the land in the hands of those incapable of real leadership spiritually or physically. Those left behind found themselves in an unstable land full of undesirable people, less-than-ideal circumstances, and a religious void personified by the rubble of the Temple where they used to worship.
Roughly 50 years later (539 B.C.), the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians and the Medes without much of a fight. Cyrus, their king, was an enlightened man and more tolerant of his people and their wishes than many of his predecessors. Following the capture of Babylon, he allowed the displaced people of the kingdom an opportunity to return to their homelands and gave them the right to rebuild their holy places.³ Ezra highlights the part God played in these events in the opening verses of his memoir:
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem.
These verses (see also Genesis 41, Exodus 5, & Matthew 27) clearly show that the Lord not only determines the history of His own people but also fulfills His Will through the powerful leaders of foreign nations.4 It should be noted, however, that upon Cyrus’ decree, not all of the Jews felt the call to return to Jerusalem. Many were invested in the land of Babylon financially, while others were a part of the government and wielded influence as servants or advisors. This was no expulsion. The Jews who remained were allowed to remain unmolested in relative peace and prosperity.5
Over the course of the next few decades, the initial wave of roughly 45,000 refugees under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Ezra rebuilt the Temple and repaired a portion of the walls and gates but failed to develop a secure society that restored Jerusalem to its former glory. The administration of regular worship and devotion to God was spotty and the prospect of a life led in peace was unrealistic. Troubles from the Gentile people living in the vicinity of Jerusalem didn’t help either. The leaders of those people caused great trouble for those who settled in and around Jerusalem. They threatened them and opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s defenses. Roughly 100 years following the initial return to Jerusalem, Nehemiah began his journey around 450 B.C. facing a town in need of some serious reform physically, spiritually, and sociologically.
There is no doubt in my mind that God set these events into motion knowing full well the end of the story wouldn’t arrive until Nehemiah became a part of the conversation. Years would take place before our hero arrived to save the day following Cyrus’ decree. During that time, kingdoms rose to power and fell just as quickly. Political alliances and disputes were unearthed and all the while Jerusalem stood there vulnerable, not fully whole or prepared to rule itself. The sad reality is that many tried but ultimately failed to bring back the wholesale return of peace and prosperity to Jerusalem. Whether their failure was due to circumstances within their control or the bigger plan of God’s Will may never truly be known this side of Heaven.
Nehemiah was a man placed into an opportunity that wasn’t merely his own. Others had a significant role to play in this grand story of redemption and rebuilding. From Jeremiah to Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus, Ezra, and even Zerubbabel – the history of God’s people and that patch of land was convoluted and complicated and quite discouraging.
The one common denominator among all these men is the role God played in their lives. He was the beginning and end of their stories. They were His people and it was His Will that could not be escaped no matter what their wishes may have been. It seems obvious to point out that this was all done on God’s schedule. It’s also necessary to remind you that when He wants to accomplish a work, God prepares His workers, and puts them in the right place at the right time.6 That is providence in a nutshell. At that moment, it was God taking His time to set the stage, plan the circumstances, and ensure the outcome so that His will could be accomplished through Nehemiah and his fellow workers. For our hero, the providence of God is why it took a generation of frustration to prepare Jerusalem for Nehemiah.
After months of study, it’s clear to me that Nehemiah through God built walls and God through Nehemiah built saints.7 That simple declaration brings to light Nehemiah’s greatest accomplishment. He helped rebuild the faith, future, and family of God’s people with a few bricks and a lot of hard work. He built a wall and rebuilt a people. He accomplished everything he set out to do because he was a man of God and because he was close to God, he was able to draw from Him the wisdom, patience, skill, and perseverance needed to complete the task before him.8 You might say he was the foreman for God’s great fixer-upper. A project that began years before he was born, but wouldn’t be finished until this builder got ahold of his project.
¹ James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah, An Expositional Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), 10.
² F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 9. He goes on to add that Jeremiah, belonging to the group who had warned the Jews not to rebel against the Babylonians, was left behind in an utterly destroyed Palestine (9).
³ Fenshem, Ezra and Nehemiah, 10.
4 Fenshem, Ezra and Nehemiah, 19.
5 Walter F. Adeney, Expositor’s Bible, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, (LaVergne, TN: 2016), 13.
6 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Determined, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1992), 20. He goes on to make this statement – For nearly a century, the Jewish remnant had been back in their own land, and Nehemiah could have joined them, but he chose to remain in the palace. It turned out that God had a work for him to do there that he could not have accomplished elsewhere. God put Nehemiah in Susa (20).
7 J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1995), 27.
8 Boice, Nehemiah, 9.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.
This study was first published on October 12, 2016. Content produced by Neal Mathis and Matthew Higginbotham. To learn more about them, follow this link.