The Historical Context of Nehemiah

The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” Nehemiah 1:1-3

The Cost Of Disobedience

After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they had a contentious relationship with the Lord. Whereas the Lord remained true to his covenantal promise to Abraham by establishing the Israelites and given them the Promised Land, the children of Israel were often caught up in a cycle of rebellion, repentance, restoration, and rebellion. Their religious harlotry was so egregious at times that God allowed foreign nations to invade and oppress them. After the death of King David, many of his successors led the Israelites astray from the Lord their God. Consequently, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were destroyed. The city of Jerusalem was completely conquered by the Babylonians and the once-glorious temple of Solomon was destroyed. The temple’s destruction was the beginning of the destruction of the city of God. The Babylonians not only destroyed the temple, but they also deported almost every from the city and region. For 70 years the Israelites remained in captivity in Babylon. During that time, the wall of Jerusalem was broken down. The remnant that survived the Babylonian invasion were peasants the Babylonians left to work the land.

The Jewish exiles settled in Babylon, learning the language and the culture of their conquerors. Yet there was a remnant that remained true to the God of their ancestors, though they did not want to go back to Jerusalem. Many of these devout Jews were appointed to prominent positions in the Babylonian monarchy. Such biblical notables as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego became leaders in Babylon; Esther was made queen in the courts of a Persian king. After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, King Cyrus allowed the Israelites to return to their promised land. Yet, only 2% decided to return to Jerusalem. That is about 50,000 out of two to three million exiles. Zerubbabel was appointed governor over Judah and sent back to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. to lead the effort to rebuild the temple The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are part of one manuscript. Nehemiah begins 15 years after the book of Ezra ends. That is almost 100 years after the first captives came back to Jerusalem, and about 150 years after the Babylonians destroyed the city. During that period, the returnees tried and failed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:6-23). Discouraged and defeated, the citizens of Jerusalem let the walls lie in ruin until Nehemiah went to Jerusalem to lead the rebuilding project.

Nehemiah was the son of Hakaliah. The name Nehemiah means, “Yahweh has comforted.” Nehemiah was an influential Jew who served as the cupbearer to the king. Verse 1 says he lived in the fortified palace of the Persian King in Shushan, or Susa. The king had high regard for Nehemiah and considered him a trusted confidant. Hanani with some others visited Nehemiah In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year. The month of Kislev fell between November-December. In those days, “The names rather than the numbers of the months were generally employed after the captivity.” The twentieth year references the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus, which began B.C. 465 and ended B.C. 425 (Ellicott).

Verse 2 says that Nehemiah inquired of Hanani about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and about the city of Jerusalem. Evidently, Nehemiah was very concerned about the status of the people living in Jerusalem and the condition of the city itself. He wanted to know from those returning how the people and the city were doing. The men gave Nehemiah a grim and discouraging account of the condition of the city. They told him “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” This was not a surprising account. In the ancient world, the bad state of the people and the bad state of the city walls were intimately connected. For, a city without walls was a city completely open and vulnerable to its enemies. “Those living in an unwalled city lived in constant stress and tension; they never knew when they might be attacked and brutalized.” (Guzik)

Application

The children of Israel were warned of the destruction of Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah spent years prophesying about the Babylonians coming to destroy the city. He was often ridiculed and imprisoned for calling on the Israelites to return to God. Yet the Israelites disregarded his warning and remained stiff-necked in their disobedience to God.

Disobedience to God always catches up with the disobedient. God’s grace and mercy are unfailing and amazing. However, the consequences of our disobedience cannot be avoided. Thus, it is wise to heed the word of God and acquiesce to his will. The will of God is for his creation to be in a relationship of loving union with him. Those who reject that offer are made to contend with the vicissitudes of life on their own.

The 70 years of Babylonian captivity could have been avoided. Even during the captivity, a majority of Jews decided to settle in Babylon and conform to Babylonian religious culture and practices. Thus, only 2% of them went back to Jerusalem. The name of those who went back was recorded in the historical records as proof of their commitment to honor God’s covenantal relationship with Israel.

Whatever we do for God will last unto eternity. The Almighty does not withhold our sins against us. Even when we go astray he seeks to bring us back into the fold and gives us many opportunities to return to him. Nehemiah’s foremost desire was for the Israelites to return to God. He invested his time and resources to lead the way. He will forever remain a mighty leader and strategic builder whose heart was inclined to honor God in all his ways.

Prayer

Blessed, please give us the wisdom to walk in obedience as we travel the Christian journey.

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