The book of Nehemiah tells of one of the most exemplary leaders in the Bible. What lessons can we learn from Nehemiah’s wisdom, courage and devotion to God?
Meaning of Nehemiah
The name Nehemiah means “comforted of Yah” (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia) or God comforts.
Nehemiah cared deeply about the physical and spiritual well-being of his people, and God used Nehemiah to protect and lead the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Thus he fulfilled the meaning of his name.
Nehemiah the cupbearer
Nothing is known of Nehemiah except what is written in the book bearing his name. He makes his first appearance in chapter 1 at Shushan, the principal palace of the Persian King Artaxerxes I, where he served as the personal cupbearer to the king.
As the cupbearer, one of his major responsibilities was to taste the king’s wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. He was also a trusted adviser and counselor.
God placed Nehemiah in that important position, serving the most powerful ruler in the world at that time, in order to accomplish His will and purpose. The king’s trust and confidence in Nehemiah was an important factor in his appointing Nehemiah to be governor in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah receives sad news
Around 446/445 B.C. Nehemiah’s brother Hanani (Nehemiah 1:2-3; 7:2) brought disturbing news about the lamentable conditions of the Jewish people who had been allowed to return to Jerusalem starting about 90 years earlier.
The news was: “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” (Nehemiah 1:3).
The walls of Jerusalem had been originally destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon more than 140 years earlier.
The fact that the walls of Jerusalem were still broken down left the city unsecure. Raiders could attack without restraint. In that era a city without walls would never amount to much. Rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem would become the notable act for which Nehemiah is remembered today. But we are getting ahead of the story.
Greatly distressed by the report, Nehemiah sought God’s will through fasting and prayer to determine what steps he should take to help rectify the deplorable conditions of his countrymen. His prayer is an example of humility and genuine faith in the mercy and power of God to intervene on his behalf (1:3-11).
Nehemiah realized the urgency of the situation and prayerfully requested, “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man” (1:11, New International Version). However, it was four months before he was presented with an opportunity to make his request to the king (2:1). Even while he was talking with the king, he silently prayed for favor (2:4)!
No specific reasons are given for this delay. Sometimes there may be an interval of time before God answers our prayers, and we have to learn to patiently wait until He does. Patience or long-suffering is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and there are rewards for those willing to put this character trait into practice.
Consider these passages about patience:
- “Do not say, ‘I will recompense evil’; wait for the LORD, and He will save you” (Proverbs 20:22, emphasis added throughout).
- “But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
- “It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:26).
- “Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who brings wicked schemes to pass” (Psalm 37:7).
Nehemiah was a man of patience, and it is one of the reasons he is regarded as one of the greatest God-centered leaders of the Old Testament.
Nehemiah building the wall
Nehemiah’s patience was finally rewarded, and at an opportune moment he asked the king for permission to be sent to Judah to rebuild the city of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:5). After the king consented to his request, Nehemiah also asked for official papers from the king to allow him to travel to Jerusalem and for the supplies that would be needed for rebuilding the wall (verses 7-8).
When he arrived, he worked tirelessly to rebuild the walls and, despite continual opposition, miraculously completed the task in 52 days.Nehemiah was appointed governor of Judea; and along with an escort, he was sent to his beloved city Jerusalem. When he arrived, he worked tirelessly to rebuild the walls and, despite continual opposition (called “troublesome times” in Daniel 9:25), miraculously completed the task in 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15-16).
After remaining in Jerusalem for 12 years, Nehemiah was recalled to the Persian royal court. Later, “after certain days” (13:6), he returned to Jerusalem and continued the religious and economic reformation among the people.
Nehemiah’s character and disposition
The Universal Bible Dictionary, edited by A.R. Buckland, has the following to say about Nehemiah:
“Nehemiah presents a noble example of true patriotism, founded on the fear of God (5:15), and seeking the religious welfare of the state. His respect for the Divine Law, his reverence for the Sabbath (13:18), his devout acknowledgement of God in all things (1:11, 2:18), his practical perception of God’s character (4:14, 9:6-33), his union of watchfulness and prayer (4:9), his humility in ascribing all good in himself to the grace of God (2:12, 7:5), are all highly commendable. Few books of the Bible, indeed, contain a richer illustration of true religion taught by example” (p. 332).
“Troublesome times” require a resolute leader
It was God who empowered Nehemiah with strong conviction, determination and a deep sense of duty to the nation, but above all, to God.
Despite strong and persistent opposition from Sanballat and Tobiah, who tried to impede the rebuilding of the city wall, Nehemiah was not deterred from his goal. His enemies scoffed at his attempts, threatened to attack the workmen and even threatened to take his life (2:19-20; 4:1-5; 6:1-14). There are few men in the Bible who exemplify the strength of character, faith and trust in God that Nehemiah exhibited.
As if this were not enough, imagine having to deal with discouragement and hardships from his fellow citizens, who were distressed because of the greedy callousness of nobles and rulers (5:6-13). And to make matters even worse, some of the rulers conspired against Nehemiah with his adversary Tobiah (6:17-19)!
No wonder the prophet Daniel described this period as “troublesome times” (Daniel 9:25). However, these troubles did not stop Nehemiah from fulfilling his responsibilities. When first faced with opposition, he answered his adversaries: “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build” (Nehemiah 2:20). He never flinched from his firm convictions.
During the construction, his enemies threatened to attack (4:1, 8). Nehemiah took charge! First he sought God’s help: “Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God” (4:9). Then he armed the workers and encouraged them with these words: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome. … Our God will fight for us” (4:14, 20).
When Nehemiah’s enemies tried to set a trap for him by enticing him to seek shelter in the temple, he refused: “Should such a man as I flee? And who is there such as I who would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!” (6:11).
Such courage and heroism are admirable!
In the New Testament, works are described as an important part of faith. As James explained: “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:20-22).
Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem exhibited this important component of faith. Not only did he trust God to bless his efforts, he physically did his part to complete the project.
Nehemiah’s willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others
Even though Nehemiah had the authority, he and his family did not extract taxes from the people; neither did he acquire real estate for his personal benefit and use. Rather, he focused his attention on completing the work on the wall (5:15-16). It is remarkable that he also provided food for people who gathered at his table (5:17-18).
Nehemiah showed concern for others: “Yet in spite of this I did not demand the governor’s provisions, because the bondage was heavy on this people” (5:18).
Nehemiah was truly an outstanding servant of God who was willing to set the high standard God required, even if it meant personal loss, discomfort or pain.He was truly an outstanding servant of God who was willing to set the high standard God required, even if it meant personal loss, discomfort or pain.
Background of Nehemiah
As the book Old Testament Survey points out, “Ezra-Nehemiah presents the events of two distinct periods of Israel’s restoration to the land after the exile: (1) the return of the exiles and rebuilding of the temple, 538-516 B.C. (Ezra 1-6); (2) the establishment of the community’s religious life (Ezra) and physical surroundings (Nehemiah), 458-ca. 420 (Ezra 7-Neh. 13)” (William LaSor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush).
Thus Nehemiah continues the story of Ezra and recounts the episode of the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem and the final establishment of the Jewish community. The span of time covered by Ezra and Nehemiah is around 100 years and extends from the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C. to the final reformation under Nehemiah.
When Nehemiah went to Jerusalem around 444 B.C., Ezra had been there 13 years. Ezra was a priest and Nehemiah was a civil ruler, but they worked together in harmony to promote spiritual and economic reform within the community.
Divine intervention vital
Without the miraculous intervention of God, the temple and the walls of Jerusalem would not have been rebuilt.
As the authors of Old Testament Survey note about the book of Nehemiah, “Theologically the book stresses that divine guidance stood behind everything, even the actions of human kings and Jewish leaders. The restoration was no stroke of luck caused by beneficent Persian political policy. Rather, it resulted from the intervention of Israel’s God in the arena of human history” (p. 565).
God is still in complete control of the affairs of nations and is working out details according to His will and purpose.
Outline of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah may be divided into two main sections:
- Chapters 1-7: Rebuilding of Jerusalem.
- Chapters 8-13: Rededication of the community to God.
Chapter 1: Nehemiah’s heartfelt prayer after receiving distressing news about Jerusalem.
Chapter 2: The Persian king grants permission for Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem. Nehemiah inspects the walls by night. Opposition starts, but he stands firm.
Chapter 3: Lists of those who rebuilt the walls.
Chapter 4: Opposition to the rebuilding mounts, but the wall is defended against the enemies.
Chapter 5: Internal problems arise. Nehemiah takes firm action to set things right.
Chapter 6: Further conspiracies appear against Nehemiah. Construction of the wall is completed.
Chapter 7: Lists of those who returned from exile.
Chapter 8: Public reading of the law; the Feast of Trumpets and Feast of Tabernacles are observed.
Chapter 9: A day of fasting, repentance (with a powerful prayer of confession) and recommitment is described.
Chapter 10: A list of those who promised to obey.
Chapter 11: Lists of those who settled in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.
Chapter 12: The priests and Levites listed. The walls dedicated and temple duties outlined.
Chapter 13: Abuses during Nehemiah’s absence and his reforms.
After serving as governor for 12 years, Nehemiah returned to Persia around 433 B.C. (the 32nd year of Artaxerxes, 13:6). When he came back to Jerusalem, he found various abuses had occurred in his absence. He was shocked to discover that Eliashib, the high priest, had given his old enemy Tobiah a room within the temple complex.
Nehemiah took immediate action and “threw all the household goods of Tobiah out of the room.” Next he cleansed the rooms (13:7-9).
Other important reforms followed. Nehemiah reestablished the tithing system and appointed faithful men to guarantee fair distribution to God’s servants (10:35-39; 13:10-13). Then he turned his attention to violations of the Sabbath and forbade trade or work to take place on the day God had set aside as holy to Him (Exodus 20:8-11). He chided the nobles of Judah: “What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day?” (13:17).
Nehemiah became extremely angry when he noticed that the men of Judah were marrying women from other cultures. He realized the wives from these pagan cultures would introduce their false ideas into the Jewish religious system of worship, and he took necessary steps to stop this harmful practice (13:23-30).
Nehemiah and Sabbath observance
One of the religious issues that particularly angered Nehemiah was the people’s willingness to violate God’s instructions for observing the weekly Sabbath. Earlier the people of Jerusalem had rejoiced greatly at the reinstitution of the annual holy days (Nehemiah 8:12), but it seems that as time passed, they forgot about observing the weekly Sabbath.
God’s teaching was that the weekly Sabbaths and the annual holy days were to be observed as holy convocations and that no work was to be done on these days (Leviticus 23). But this instruction from God was obviously ignored by some of the people in Jerusalem, since traders from other nations regularly came to Jerusalem and did business with the city’s residents on the Sabbath.
Many years before the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, God through the prophet Jeremiah had warned the city’s residents that keeping the Sabbath would lead to prosperity and ignoring the Sabbath would lead to punishment (Jeremiah 17:21-27). The people refused to obey and the city of Jerusalem fell.
Remembering this history, Nehemiah was upset that the people were committing one of the same sins that had led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
“Then I [Nehemiah] contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, ‘What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath’” (Nehemiah 13:17-18).
Observance of the weekly Sabbath is one of God’s 10 Commandments and Christians are expected to observe it today (Matthew 19:17; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Hebrews 4:9). For further study, see our booklet The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God.
Blessings for obedience
At the end of the book, Nehemiah makes this statement: “Remember me, O my God, for good!” (13:30).
In Psalm 37:3 we read: “Trust in the LORD, and do good.” Our Christian duty is more than trusting in God; it is also doing “good.”
Nehemiah was truly a leader who exemplified both of these fundamental concepts in his life.
Learn more about this in the article “The Great Commandment.”
As we continue to study the Word of God, may the principles we learn become the foundation upon which we build our lives, now and into the future.
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.