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Deeper Commentary


Nehemiah 1:1 The words- Better, the story or history. It is Nehemiah's personal testimony to God's grace and activity.

Of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah- To distinguish him from the Nehemiah who had come to Judah with Zerubbabel many years before (Ezra 2:2).

Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace- Neh. 2:1 speaks of Nehemiah subsequently coming to the king in the first month (Nisan) of the king's 20th year. But we read here about the ninth month, Chislev, in the twentieth year. Perhaps the year of his reign is being read inclusively in one place and exclusively in the other. Or perhaps the twentieth year here in Neh. 1:1 is not the twentieth of the king's reign, for that is not actually specified here. The more appropriate explanation is that we are reading of Jewish months, but the years of the reign of the king; and here in Neh. 1:1 we are reading the background for what happened in Neh. 2:1. Nehemiah came to the king in Nisan, whereas four month previously, in Chislev, he had been visited by Hanani. But both those dates were within the 20th year of the king.

Shushan was the Winter palace of the Persian kings, and this fits with being the ninth month of the Jewish year, Chislev, which is in Winter (December).

Nehemiah 1:2 that Hanani one of my brothers came, he and certain men out of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem-
Although the Apocryphal book of Baruch isn’t inspired, it gives a significant window into the mindset of the exiles in Babylon. Baruch 1:10 mentions how the attitude was that the majority wanted to send funds to support the ‘good work’ going on in Judah- but didn’t want to return there themselves. Like the book of Esther, this indicates that the exiles had soon quit languishing by the rivers of Babylon, and had quickly acquired wealth and some degree of prosperity. Inspired prophecies had warned them of the fall of Babylon, and their need to flee out of it and return to Judah. And yet Baruch 1:12 records the exiles praying “that we may live long under the protective shadow of [the] king of Babylon”. This is in sad contrast to Daniel’s prophecies that the sheltering tree of Babylon was to be cut down! There ought to have been an urgency about the need to flee from Babylon. Zech. 2:10 speaks of the need to "flee" and "escape"- the language of crisis. And the call "Ho!" means quite literally "Hey!!". The urgency to flee was spiritual rather than physical- for there's no evidence that when Babylon fell to the Persians, the Jews were punished. Indeed they appear [from Esther] to have prospered even more. Hence the urgent appeal was to flee from the spiritual crisis which they faced in Babylon. And yet they didn't perceive the danger, just as so many today don't. For the call to leave Babylon is applied in New Testament passages like 2 Cor. 6 to our call to leave the world in which we live. The urgency of 'fleeing' from Babylon was understood by Nehemiah, when he referred to those who had returned to the land as those who has "escaped" from Babylon (Neh. 1:2)- even though they had returned with every blessing from the authorities. He perceived as few did the vital danger of remaining in the soft life of Babylon. Ezra likewise had referred to the Jews in Babylon as those "in bondage... bondmen" (Ezra 9:9)- when historical records, as well as the book of Esther and the fact Nehemiah the Jew was the king's cupbearer, show that the Jews were very far from being servants in Babylonian society. Yet Ezra perceived the spiritual poverty and servanthood of remaining in that affluent society.

Nehemiah 1:3 They said to me, The remnant who are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach-
We note that Judea was still a "province" of Persia and was not independent. The restoration prophecies of her radical independence had not been fulfilled, because the fulfilment had been precluded by the lack of repentance and spirituality amongst the exiles. And they were in "great affliction" rather than enjoying the Kingdom blessings promised in the restoration prophets.

There could be the implication in the Hebrew of Neh. 1:3 that the majority of those who initially returned to Judah then returned back to Babylon- for Nehemiah speaks of "The remnant that are left of the captives there in the province" [of Judah]". We shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of the famine conditions in Judah as described in Neh. 5. The sheer lack of food led the Jews to sell their children and land to their richer brethren just to get something to eat. Mal. 3:5-15 says that this was directly a result of their lack of zeal to rebuild and care for God’s house. What a far cry from the prophecies of plenty and huge harvests which had been made. So much potential was wasted. Neh. 5:8 records Nehemiah’s comment that the wealthy Jews were victimizing the poorer Jews just as Babylon once had, and now Nehemiah needed to redeem them from slavery just as God had redeemed His people from servitude in Babylon. God’s deliverance of His people simply hadn’t been responded to. Tragically, it would appear from Neh. 5:15 that Zerubbabel, the potential Messiah of Israel, had acted in this oppressive way too.


The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire- The walls had been ruined by Samaritan opposition- cp. Ezra 4:12. This isn't a reference to what the Babylonians did.

Nehemiah 1:4 It happened, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days. I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven-
The weeping was not simply because of the material calamity there. It was surely also, as noted on :3, because the huge prophetic potential depicted in the restoration prophets had not come about. His fasting and praying is in the spirit of Daniel, who did this in order to beg God to allow those potentials to be realized and the Kingdom of God to be reestablished in the land. This sense of wasted potential totally overpowered Nehemiah. But it was only someone who had a true heart for God's glory who would be so overpowered as he was.

Nehemiah 1:5 and said, I beg you, Yahweh the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, Who keeps covenant and grace with those who love Him and keep His commandments-
The phrase "great and awesome" is frequently connected with God's power at the exodus in bringing the people out from Egypt, and giving them the promised land (Ex. 14:31; Dt. 1:19; 7:21; 10:17,21; 2 Kings 17:36). Nehemiah sensed that they could likewise be brought out of Babylon and overcome all obstacles in order to enter His Kingdom. We note that the keeping of the covenant was by grace. God keeps His side of the covenant by grace; it is not a measured response to our good deeds of obedience.

Nehemiah 1:6 Let Your ear now be attentive, and Your eyes open, that You may listen to the prayer of Your servant which I pray before You at this time, day and night, for the children of Israel Your servants; while I confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against You-
"Eyes open" is an allusion to 1 Kings 8:29, where the understanding was that God's eyes would be open to the temple. But Nehemiah understands now that God's eyes are open directly to his prayer. He was brought and led to the understanding that direct personal contact with God is possible without the trappings of religion- even the religion which He has instituted. We're all brought to the same. He likewise came to understand that he was "before You" even in Babylon. Notice Nehemiah's loneliness and being alone with God in Neh. 2:12-16.

Yes, I and my father’s house have sinned- Nehemiah quite often references his own sins, and the book concludes with his personal begging for mercy. We wonder if there was some specific sin he felt guilty about; or whether this personal confession of sin was because he, like the Lord Jesus, so absorbed into himself the sin of his people and immediate family.

Nehemiah 1:7 We have dealt very corruptly against You, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses-
see on Ex. 34:27. There are multiple allusions here to the curses for breaking the covenant in Deuteronomy. According to Jewish tradition, Ezra edited and produced the Pentateuch in its present form in Babylon. Carl Kraeling, The Synagogue (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956) pp. 232-235 reproduces plates from the synagogue wall at Dura-Europas showing Ezra doing this in Babylon. This would account for the record of Jacob in exile being so verbally similar to the allusions made to it in the restoration-from-Babylon prophecies in Isaiah. There was certainly great scribal activity in Babylon- 2 Macc. 2:13 speaks of Nehemiah founding a library of the Jewish scriptures there. This gives another perspective on the way Nehemiah’s prayer in Neh. 1 is so full of references to Deuteronomy- if the latter had just been re-written and presented to the Jews in Babylon.

Nehemiah 1:8 Remember, I beg You, the word that You commanded Your servant Moses saying, ‘If you trespass, I will scatter you abroad among the peoples-
Nehemiah isn't quoting from any specific passage, although Dt. 30:1-5 is closest. Rather it seems he has in mind various passages in addition to this (Lev. 26:33; Dt. 4:27; 28:64). The Bible writers often use the idea of 'quotation' in this kind of vague, summary way- rather than specific citation.

Nehemiah 1:9 but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though your outcasts were in the uttermost part of the heavens, yet will I gather them from there, and will bring them to the place that I have chosen, to cause My name to dwell there’-
Their regathering was to be "if" you return to Me and keep My commandments. Therefore their regathering had been by pure grace; for Judah in captivity didn't keep the commandments, but the regathering was done anyway, such was God's yearning for His people.

Nehemiah 1:10 Now these are Your servants and Your people whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand-
As explained on :9, that great power and hand was revealed in the pure grace of the restoration, which was supposed to have occurred only if they returned to God. When Nehemiah speaks of them having been redeemed by Yahweh’s “strong hand”, he is using the language of Is. 40:10, regarding how Yahweh would come and save Israel from Babylon and restore them to the land “with strong hand”. Nehemiah saw the prophecy could have been fulfilled then. The way Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2; Neh. 7:5-7), Ezra (Ezra 7:8; 8:32) and Nehemiah (Neh. 2:11; 13:7) are described as ‘coming to Jerusalem’ may hint that they could have fulfilled this coming of Yahweh to Zion; they could have been Messianic figures (Neh. 2:11; 13:7).

Nehemiah 1:11 Lord, I beg You, let Your ear be attentive now to the prayer of Your servant, and to the prayer of Your servants, who delight to fear Your name-
"Attentive" is s.w. 2 Chron. 6:40; 7:15, where we read of God being "attentive" to prayers offered in the temple. But Nehemiah is praying in Babylon, not in the temple. The desperation of the situation made him learn a lesson- that God wasn't only accessible in the temple. This may sound obvious to us, but it wasn't for those used to the temple cult. The lesson is that God uses punishments for sin, hard situations, to break our paradigms and lead us to a greater spirituality- if we will follow. S.w. also Neh. 9:34- Israel weren't "attentive" to God's word, but in their time of need they hoped He would be "attentive" to their word of prayer. And He was. His grace isn't 'measure for measure'; He treats us out of proportion to our attentiveness to Him. We must show the same grace.

And please prosper Your servant this day- We put God to endless pain and labour in order to fulfill His wish to save men, if we don’t fulfill what in prospect we could fulfill. In the context of the restoration, Yahweh truly said that “ shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11 AV). His word will have fulfilment in the end, but it can have its fulfilment in us, here and now. Nehemiah twice stated that Yahweh was prospering him in his work of restoring Zion [Neh. 1:11; 2:20 s.w.]; but generally, the word of prophecy was deferred in its fulfilment. Let’s not be satisficers as Israel were, minimalists happy so long as we have our bit of land to live on, our cieled roof to dwell under... and neglect His house.

And grant him mercy in the sight of this man- "Grant him mercy in the sight"- these three Hebrew words are taken from 1 Kings 8:50: "And forgive thy people that have sinned against thee, and all their transgressions wherein they have transgressed against thee, and give them compassion before them who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them: ". Nehemiah knew those words, and had thought and prayed himself into the situation; so it was appropriate to quote them. Prepared prayer should involve such relevant Bible quotations.

Now I was cup-bearer to the king- This involved him drinking the wine which had been offered to idols. This in sharp contrast to Daniel's attitude. And yet Nehemiah, although apparently weaker than Daniel, is none the less presented as a man of great spirituality and devotion to God; even though his conscience was clearly different and even inferior to Daniel's. We must be careful not to judge others as being unbelievers because their consciences or spiritual weakness leads them to do something which is apparently wrong. For Nehemiah's conscience on this matter was weak, and yet he was clearly counted as a spiritual person and legitimate believer. As someone so close to the king, he would have chosen this career path; and that again would appear spiritually unwise or inappropriate for a Jew under the old covenant. For he would hardly have been as it were pressganged into that senior position. It likely involved him in being castrated, for the close courtiers were eunuchs. But for all this, his weakness was used by God just as Esther's was. And that weakness in one aspect of character didn't mean that he was not a legitimate believer. This is not to be used to justify our own weaknesses; but rather to inspire tolerance in us towards the weakness of others. See on Neh. 2:8.