Nehemiah 1:1-2:8.
Responding to God's Call

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Christian adults face decisions every day.  Our response to the circumstances in our lives reveals the truth of what we believe about ourselves, what we believe about the world around us, and what we believe about God.  If we are in true fellowship with God, we will always seek to obey Him, though we often fall short of that goal.  If we will allow, God will use the circumstances and opportunities of our lives to bring Glory to himself and meet the needs that those circumstances engage.  This Bible study is the first in a series of lessons from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.   We will examine mthe LORD’s call upon Nehemiah, his sincere desire to follow that call, and the processes he used to determine what God would have him do in rebuilding the walls that surrounded the ancient city of Jerusalem.  Nehemiah, often faced with a multitude of choices, learned to identify the best options among a number of "good" opportunities.  The methodology that Nehemiah used to choose between options is instructive.  Before we engage in the experiences of Nehemiah, it is appropriate that we summarize the historical setting.

God had promised Israel that if they obeyed Him, He would bless them as a nation, giving them a land and a future.  However, if they did not, He would judge them and cause them to lose their land and be taken into captivity.[1] That promise was repeated to Solomon. son of David, with a specific application to his own life.  If Solomon, as king of Israel, obeyed the Lord he would experience God’s continual blessing. If Solomon did not obey Him, God would take away his power and position as king of Israel.[2], [3]  As happened so frequently among many of Israel’s leaders, a good beginning had an unfortunate ending. Solomon, though possessing great wisdom, still sinned against God, particularly by marrying many foreign wives and worshiping their false gods.[4]  His penchant for building included the use of conscripted Jewish labor to build and fortify pagan cities.  Solomon’s son Rehoboam, upon inheriting the throne of his father, announced his intent to increase Jewish bondage, creating a rebellion among the people in what was then the united kingdom of Israel.  The kingdom was split in 931 B.C.  The ten northern tribes were initially ruled by Jeroboam, and the southern tribes (Judah and part of the tribe of Benjamin) were initially ruled by Rehoboam, who was quickly overthrown.

Both kingdoms continued to be characterized by a continual slide into deepening idolatry, immorality, and apostacy.  As God had forewarned through the prophecy of Samuel, The LORD’s hand of judgment fell on all Israel because of their sin. The northern kingdom fell first and the people were taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The Babylonians brought about the fall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C.

The Israelites of the northern kingdom were absorbed into Assyria and eventually into other cultures as their land was populated by Assyria with a mixture of peoples and cultures. However, a large remnant of people from the southern kingdom of Judah remained intact, held together as a captive community in Babylon, and after the power of Babylon was broken by the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C., many Jews returned to their homeland.  In 538 B.C. the first group returned to Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel, subject to the Persian king.[5] Over a period of years and tremendous opposition from the Samaritans, the returnees eventually succeeded in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple in 515 B.C.

A number of years later - In 458 B.C., a second group of Jews returned  from Babylon, led by Ezra.[6]  Arriving on the scene, they found the Jews in Israel in a state of spiritual and moral degradation. They had intermarried with the unbelieving peoples of the surrounding nations and were participating in their pagan practices.  However, through Ezra’s faithful teaching ministry, the majority of these people turned from their sins and once again actively sought to follow God’s will for their lives.

In 444 B.C, fourteen years after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem, Nehemiah also returned and God used him to guide Judah in rebuilding the city walls and in reordering the people’s social and economic lives.  What he accomplished in a brief period of time was an incredible feat.  How he accomplished this goal is one of the major emphases in the book that bears his name.[7]

Become Aware of God's Calling

Nehemiah 1:1.  The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,

This book is primarily a report of the things Nehamiah did, and the introduction could be translated, "the words about Nehemiah."  It is certainly a history of Nehemiah. Kislev was the ninth month of the Jewish calendar, with its major part being in December and including (depending on the year) a few days of either November or January.  The twentieth year dates the setting to the reign of King Artaxerxes 1 who ruled Persia from 464 to 424 BC.  Consequently, the circumstances described in this setting took place in the early winter of 445 BC.  Susa was a small fortified city that served as the winter residence of the King. 

Nehemiah served as the King's cupbearer, an officer of high rank at ancient oriental courts, whose duty it was to serve the wine at the king’s table. On account of the constant fear of plots and intrigues, a person must be regarded as thoroughly trustworthy to hold this position. He must guard against poison in the king’s cup, and was sometimes required to swallow some of the wine before serving it. His confidential relations with the king often endeared him to his sovereign and also gave him a position of great influence. This officer is first mentioned in Scripture in Genesis 40:1ff, where the Hebrew word elsewhere translated “cupbearer” is rendered “butler.” The phrase “chief of the butlers” (40:2) illustrates the fact that there were often a number of such officials under one who served as chief.  Nehemiah was cupbearer to Artaxerxes Longimanus, and was held in high esteem by him, as the record shows. His financial ability would indicate that the office was a lucrative one.[8]  Cupbearers are mentioned further in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles[9] where they, among other evidences of royal splendor, are stated to have impressed the queen of Sheba with Solomon’s glory.  The title Rabshakeh,[10] once thought to mean “chief of the cupbearers,” is now given a different derivation and explained as “chief of the officers,” or “princes.”[11]

Nehemiah 1:2-3.  That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. 3And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.

Hanani, apparently Nehemiah's actual brother, came to visit from Jerusalem, and Nehemiah was very concerned with the plight of the Jews.  In 586 BC Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the walls and the temple.  The next king, Cyrus (Artaxerxes), permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem with Ezra under Zerubbabel with instructions to rebuild the temple.  The Jews' enemies reported to King Cyrus that they were also rebuilding the fortifications around the city, so Cyrus demanded the termination of the building.  Though the temple was later completed, the walls never were.  So far from Persia, the Jewish city was open to constant harassment and plundering from its enemies.  The "great trouble" referred to here refers to physical adversity, and disgrace refers to the shame and scorn their defenseless situation left them in.

Nehemiah saw a need for relief and was greatly concerned.  Though most men would work to determine an answer on their own, Nehemiah’s approach to the dilemma was unique: as a man seeking God, he sought God's help.

Pray for God's Help

Nehemiah 1:4-11.  And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven, 5And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: 6Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. 8Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: 9But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. 10Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. 11O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.

Nemiah’s concern for Jerusalem is genuine.  He demonstrates his sincere sorrow for the state of the Israelites when he cannot help but weep.[12]  His heart breaks as he considers the state of the people, defenseless against marauding neighbors.  Nehemiah supplemented his prayer with fasting, purposely abstaining from the preparation and consumption of food so that more time can be dedicated to prayer.[13]  This allowed him to pray continually as the state of Israel remained in his thoughts every waking moment of every day.  Ritual fasting was only required by Mosaic Law on the Day of Atonment,[14] but the practice of fasting was often used in times of tremendous grief.

Confessing the sins of his people, Nehemiah pleaded with the LORD for help.  This situation in Jerusalem seemed impossible to resolve, and certainly beyond anything he could remedy.  He prayed for God to see the need, quoting frequenty from Deuteronomy, laying claim to God’s own promises.[15]  Note Nehemiah’s effective use of scripture in his prayer.  Certainly, scripture can form a solid foundation for prayer, but can do so only when we are familiar enough with it to apply it in a manner that can serve to bring the content and context of our prayers in line with God’s will for us.

"Nehemiah faced a situation he knew he could not solve by himself. But he also knew that with God all things are possible.[16] Nehemiah began his prayer by acknowledging that fact: O LORD, God of heaven,[17] the great and awesome God.[18] ‘LORD’ (Yahweh) speaks of His covenant relationship to Israel, ‘God of heaven’ refers to His sovereignty, and the words “great and awesome” are mindful of His power and majesty. Surely such a God could answer Nehemiah’s prayer. As the ‘LORD’ He keeps His covenant of love (hesed, “loyal love”) with those who love… and obey Him."

"In this prayer of confession of the sins of the people of Israel, Nehemiah included himself. As the Prophet Daniel had prayed almost 100 years before,[19] and as Ezra had prayed,[20] Nehemiah acknowledged that he shared the responsibility for Israel’s disobedience to God’s laws. He said ‘I confess’ and three times he said ‘we.’  He placed himself and Israel in a submissive attitude under the Lord by calling himself God’s servant[21] and by calling them His servants."

Nehemiah “reminded” God, a euphemism for a request of the LORD’s action, not to recall for Him something forgotten, but rather reminding himself that God had told Moses that if the nation Israel was unfaithful He would disperse them from their homeland,[22] but that if they obeyed Him then those who were exiled would be regathered to Jerusalem.[23]  Since the Jews belonged to God (Your servants and Your people),[24] and He had redeemed them, it was reasonable to Nehemiah that God should respond to Nehemiah’s prayer on their behalf, keeping His “covenant of love.”[25]

“Humanly speaking only one person could make it possible for Nehemiah to help the Jews in Jerusalem:  the king he served. Years earlier, Artaxerxes had issued a decree to stop the construction work in Jerusalem,[26] and he was the only one who could reverse that order, and the reversal of a king’s order was highly unlikely. That is why Nehemiah prayed specifically.  A favorable relationship with the king could open the door for his petition.”

Often our first response to conflict is to either disengage ourselves from it, or engage ourselves in our own wisdom.  When we take this approach we will often be frustrated and lose confidence.  Nehemiah simply turned to the LORD in prayer.

Be Freed to Express True Concern

Nehemiah 2:1-4.  And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. 2Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, 3And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? 4Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.

Nehemiah's prayers were answered by God.  However, we should always be careful what we pray for.  When you have a prayer concern, that may be the Holy Spirit's way of making you personally sensitive to the need.  Often the Spirit is preparing you to be part of meeting that need.  Nehemiah was in a position to do so due to his close relationship with the king, and the skills that Nehemiah would later demonstrate when he became part of the solution of the need.

The setting now is around the month of April.  Nehemiah has been praying for this issue for four months.  We are probably more impatient when we pray, willing to give up on a request quickly, simply assuming that God will not answer.  For Nehemiah, his patience would serve him well, for when the time was right, the opportunity to speak to the king presented itself. 

When attending his duties as head butler for the King, Cyrus noted his downcast expression, and inquired of the source his sadness.  This immediately struck fear in Nehemiah’s heart.  To lie to the king meant certain death, and to tell the truth could imply disloyalty since his desire was for the reversal of the king’s decree.  In a similar way, fear can hinder us from listening to and following the lead of the Holy Spirit.  However, what we fear, we fear through the perspective of our own understanding.  We do not know God's heart or His plan, and instead of placing confidence in God, we try to deal with things ourselves.  Nehemiah's first response was to look at how the circumstances could affect him, and he was afraid.  However, his faith was strong enough to be bold in his honesty, expressing his concern for the plight of the people of Jerusalem.  He could have no idea of the king's response to his steadfast loyalty to his home in Judah.

Be Bold and Confident

Nehemiah 2:5-8.  And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it. 6And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. 7Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; 8And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.

”Nehemiah then asked for the biggest favor yet. Knowing he would face opposition from his enemies, he requested letters of permission from the king to allow him to pass through the various provinces in the Trans-Euphrates, the large area west of the Euphrates River.  Nehemiah also asked that the king write a letter to Asaph, the man in charge of the king’s forest.  Nehemiah knew he would need access to timber for rebuilding the gates and the wall and other parts of the city.  Artaxerxes’ permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem is the decree Daniel had prophesied 95 years earlier in 539 B.C. This decree was issued on March 5, 444 B.C.

Though Nehemiah had worked diligently to prepare himself for the time when he would have opportunity to share his burden with the king, and though he demonstrated unusual wisdom in responding to the king’s questions, he knew that ultimately his success depended on God’s help. So he wrote that the king’s granting of his requests was because God’s gracious hand… was upon him"

Nehemiah's response to the King's question was stated with boldness.  He did not find a way to candy-coat the situation, nor did he try to placate the King just to satisfy his curiosity.  What gave Nehemiah the confidence to be so bold?  Perhaps he was familiar with the LORD’s command to Jeremiah:

Joshua 1:6-9.  Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

How do you respond to the challenging circumstances around you?  Do you look to see God's purpose in them?  We see some examples here of how to respond in a Godly manner.

·       Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit's revelation of needs around us.

·       When a need is revealed, first pray for God's power and solution.  Don't look for your own.

·       When God reveals his solution, step out in faith with confidence that is based upon your trust in God, rather than upon trusting your own solution.


[1] Deuteronomy, Chapter 28.

[2] 1 Kings 9:1-9.

[3] Quotes are cited from Gene A. Getz (1985) The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament:  SP Publications, Inc.  STEP Files Copyright © 1997, Parsons Technology, Inc., PO Box 100, Hiawatha, Iowa.

[4] 1 Kings 11:1-5.

[5] Ezra 1:1-2.2.

[6] Ezra 7:1-10.

[7] Ibid., Getz.

[8] Nehemiah 5;8-17.

[9] 1 Kings 10:5; 2 Chronicles 9:4.

[10] Isaiah 36:2.

[11] Benjamin Reno Downer

[12] Ezra 10:1.

[13] Nehemiah 1:5; 2:4,20; Ezra 1:2.

[14] 2 Samuel 12:16; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 8:23.

[15] Deuteronomy 7:7,21; 9:29; 21:15.

[16] Jeremiah 32:17.

[17] Nehemiah 1:4.

[18] Nehemiah 4:14; 9:32.

[19] Daniel 9:4-6.

[20] Ezra 9:6-15.

[21] Nehemiah 1:10-11.

[22] Leviticus 26:27-28,33; Deuteronomy 28:64.

[23] Deuteronomy 30:1-5.

[24] Deuternomy 9:29.

[25] Nehemiah 1:5.

[26] Ezra 4:21.