Background and setting
The book of Nehemiah is set in the time of the exile, when the Israelites were in Babylon, which was in turn conquered by Persia. The book’s name is derived from its main character, Nehemiah. He was an Israelite official serving in the Persian government. He was visited by his brother who lived in Judah, and this man told Nehemiah about the situation in Jerusalem. The city had been completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the walls of Jerusalem had been pulled down. Nehemiah was distressed by the news. He fasted and prayed for a while about this situation asking for wisdom to know what, if anything, he should do about it.
It was four months later when the king noticed that Nehemiah was looking sad and asked him what was wrong. Nehemiah told the king about the deplorable state of the city of his ancestors, and asked permission to go there and rebuild the city walls. The king granted his request to go, and even gave him an armed escort and further resources. With all this, Nehemiah set off for Israel.
Rebuilding of Jerusalem
The non-Jewish residents of Israel were not happy with his coming, although as yet no one knew why Nehemiah had gone to Jerusalem. After a few days, he went by night with a few men to inspect the walls, which were, as he had heard, in a bad state. He then called all the people of Jerusalem together and revealed his plan. Within 52 days, they rebuilt the walls. They divided the wall up into sections and various groups were given responsibility for their section. The non-Jews tried to discourage, attack, slander and accuse Nehemiah and the workers, but they didn’t give up and trusted that “Our God will fight for us” (Nehemiah 4:20). They continued their work with one hand, while holding a weapon with the other. Eventually, the work was finished.
Social and religious reforms
Besides describing the rebuilding of the city walls, the book of Nehemiah provides lists of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem and who were involved in the building process and temple services, and it lists the social and religious reforms that took place under Nehemiah’s leadership. Ezra, a priest and scribe, re-educated the Jews with regard to who God is, and what He requires of his people. The Israelites responded with repentance and a renewed devotion to the Lord, expressed in “a firm covenant in writing” (Nehemiah 9:38).
Lessons for us
The main themes of Nehemiah and lessons that we learn from this book are:
- God’s work will always encounter opposition, this should spur us on to persist in the work that God has given, and to not be discouraged or give up.
- The reason for the destruction of Jerusalem and Israel was the people’s sin. If we are to live for God, sin is to be dealt with, renounced, and cast aside, and we should live according to God’s will and instructions in order that we may receive His blessing.