In the latter part of the Old Testament, some of the characters and dates start to run together for us, and it is sometimes hard to keep the details straight. If you couple this with the general ignorance about secular history of this time, the result—even for Bible readers—is a random collection of historical facts and details.
Here we will be telling the story of Nehemiah, along with some details about his contemporary Ezra. But before we can really tell this story, we have to back up a few paces and briefly tell the story of their surrounding times and context. As we do this, please keep in mind that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably one book originally, and the two of them together may even have been part of Chronicles.
The great prophet Jeremiah had predicted that the exile in Babylon would last for seventy years. This prophecy began to come to fulfillment when the city of Babylon fell to the Medes and the Persians in 539 B.C. Inside the city was the elderly Daniel, prophesying to the arrogant Belshazzar. A hand had mysteriously appeared and written on the wall that Belshazzar’s days were numbered. Actually, as it turned out, his day was numbered.
The river that ran through Babylon was diverted by the besieging armies, and they got into the city through the river bed. But the Babylonians were not so foolish as all that—there were walls and gates along the river bank. But in fulfillment of the prophecy by Isaiah, some gates along the river had been left open while the king inside was busy with his blasphemous banquet. Isaiah had said this about the coming conqueror, a man God would raise up named Cyrus.
That confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers; that saith to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be inhabited; and to the cities of Judah, Ye shall be built, and I will raise up the decayed places thereof: That saith to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy rivers: That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid. Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut (Is. 44:26-45:1).
Herodotus confirms this same account. The Persians diverted the Euphrates, entered through the river bed, and found the defenders in a drunken revelry. So the city fell that night, and after the Persians were in control, the new ruler Cyrus was stirred up by the Lord—again, as Isaiah had prophesied many years before—and issued a proclamation that the Temple in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt. In response to this declaration, the altar is set up and the foundations were laid in 536 B.C. The governor overseeing this work was a man named Zerubbabel, and the high priest was named Joshua. The work was begun, but the effort soon fell apart. God then raised up two prophets to stir up the people about 16 years later—Haggai and Zechariah—and work on the Temple resumed. The Temple was finished about four years later, around 516 B.C. during the reign of Darius I. The next ruler of Persia after him was Xerxes (486-464), the husband of Esther. And it was during the reign of his successor, Artaxerxes I, that we should locate the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Artaxerxes I sent Ezra to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. It is likely that Ezra held some sort of office within the Persian empire, a sort of Minister of Jewish Affairs. He brought valuable gifts for the Temple from the king as well as from the Jews still living in exile—along with any others who wanted to give. Ezra is described as a “ready scribe in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). The hand of the Lord was with Ezra, and the king granted his request (vv. 6, 9). As it says, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (v. 10).
The Gentile king was lavish in his generosity. He wanted Ezra to take what was given, go back to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices. Anything that was left over Ezra could dispose of as he saw fit, and the king gave Ezra an expense account to refurbish the Temple. The king’s motive for all this was plain—as he put it, “why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?” (v. 23).
But while Ezra was clear in his conscience about taking all this financial aid from Artaxerxes, he still refused to ask for a band of soldiers to protect them on their way back to Jerusalem. He was ashamed to ask for that kind of help because he had told the king, “The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him” (8:22). God protected them in their travel, according to the faith of Ezra, and they arrived safely in Jerusalem. And so it was that a man adept in the law of God, whose heart was right with God, arrived in the promised land from Babylon, and found there that the inhabitants of the land had again drifted away from their covenant responsibilities.
When he arrived, he was asked to deal with the problem of mixed marriages. He and a select committee dealt with the problem by blacklisting the offenders, and inducing many of them to put away their pagan wives. When we read this account, we ought not to think of a marriage between two covenant members, one of whom we suspect might be unregenerate. These pagan wives it says, were guilty of “detestable practices” or “abominations” and part of a people who were living openly in these abominations (9:1,11,14). The problem was not that Israelite men had married outside Israel—this was perfectly permissible. Think of Rahab and Salmon, or Boaz and Ruth. But in order for this to happen lawfully, the women involved had to do what Ruth did—abandon her native gods and serve the God of Israel only. But Ezra found out that intermarriage on a large scale had occurred, and that the foreign women who had married into Israel had not in the slightest degree left behind their previous customs. Consequently, Ezra required what the law stipulated—mandatory divorce. It was a large project, for many had sinned this way, but Ezra rounded everyone up in order to address the sin. Every man who did not assemble within three days would have his property confiscated, and he would be excommunicated from the congregation (10:8). That got their attention, and so they all showed up. But there were torrential rains, the widespread sinning had tangled many things up, and so it was proposed to go through the problem more methodically and slowly. Presumably, any woman who abandoned her idolatries, and attendant fornications, would be allowed to remain married within Israel. But for the others, divorce was required—not just permitted. In our sentimentalist era, we are sometimes tempted to absolutize marriage. But only God is absolute, and in this situation, He required the break-up of many households.
We do not hear from Ezra again until 444 B.C. when he reads the law publicly in Nehemiah 8. He probably had returned to the Persian king between these two incidents, and had come back again when the walls were completed. Nehemiah recounts (Neh. 12:36) how he had led one procession around the walls during their dedication, while Ezra led the other. These two men were co-laborers in the great work of reformation and rebuilding.
Now Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king, and upon hearing of the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the king sent him there to serve as governor in 445. He was probably called back to Babylon from 433 to 420(?). But the text only says “after certain days,” and so his absence may have been significantly less than this (Neh. 13:6). But supposing the longer absence, the bulk of Malachi’s prophetic ministry occurred when Nehemiah was gone. During his absence, some of the abuses of the law among the Jews resurfaced, and so Nehemiah had to institute fresh reforms when he came back. These reforms included cleansing the Temple, reinstituting the tithe for the Levites and so on, and fighting against the practice of merchandising on the Sabbath. These latter reforms were important, but the great work of Nehemiah was the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was a reformer, one who labored at repairing the ruins. He was of a repentant mind before he left Babylon (1:7). He was serving Artaxerxes as cup-bearer, and the king noticed he was sorrowful, and asked about it. Nehemiah was afraid, but he prayed, and then answered the king. He was given permission to go serve his people, and when he arrived in Jerusalem, it is important to note that one of the things he arranged for was the reading of the law by Ezra (Neh. 8). There is no way to rebuild the walls around the city unless the walls are rebuilt in the minds and hearts of the people.
Among other things, the people were taught that reformation means eating the fat and drinking the sweet. When the people heard the words of the law, they were sorely convicted, and they wept. And Nehemiah, a great leader of men, encouraged them. “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). The Levites followed up on this, and so the people had “great mirth” because, it says, “they understood the words that were declared unto them” (v. 12). We see this at the culmination of their work, but we learn from them that reformations (confession of great sin included) are times of great joy. The thing that motivates and drives them is covenantal exuberance. The lesson to be drawn from previous reformations is precisely this. The goal toward which we press is the ability to rejoice in the land, with our wives, and sons and daughters, with food on the table, and in the presence of our God who delights to see us this way. By doing this we do not minimize our sin, but rather we show that we have understood the words declared to us.
The task of Nehemiah was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When they did it, it occurred under the blessing of God, because the “people had a mind to work” (4:6). And when the people have a mind to work all obstacles are overcome in the name of God. Nehemiah was the leader of this great work of reformation, and he was able to ask God in his memoirs to remember his work. He did not have much use for the nobles, of whom it is said at least once that they did not put their necks to the work of their Lord (3:5). Other obstacles came from outside the camp. When word got out that Nehemiah was rebuilding the wall, another regional governor, a man named Sanballat, came to oppose the work. We know from outside sources that Sanballat was the governor of Samaria in 407 B.C. He may well have been governor at this earlier date, but in any case, he was one of the leading opponents of Nehemiah. His name is Babylonian, and means that “Sin (their moon god) has given life.” At the same time, the names of his two sons (Delaiah and Shelemiah) show that he may have been a syncretistic worshipper of Yahweh (2 Kings 17:33), which is what happened wholesale in Samaria after it fell to the Assyrians. Sanballat may have been descended from this group. In his syncretistic way, he may have even put Yahweh first on his list of gods. This may account for how his daughter was able to marry into the high priest’s family (Neh. 13:28). But Nehemiah had no use for this kind of thing. “And one of the sons of Jehoida, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son in law to Sanballat the Hononite: therefore I chased him from me” (13:28).
This is the Sanballat who offered resistance to the work of God in rebuilding the wall. Sanballat was angry, and greatly offended, and so he came out to mock the Jews. He came with his brethren, and with an army from Samaria, and said, “What do these feeble Jews? Will they fortify themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they make an end in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned? (4:2).
Of course, the content of the mockery and the fact of it were telling two different stories. If the Jews were all out in a field throwing rocks at the moon, Sanballat would not have come out to them in the same way. He mocked their work precisely because he took it seriously, and knew that it was a threat to his influence and authority. Tobiah, an Ammonite who was with Sanballat, mocked also. If even a fox hops on that wall, down it will come! Nehemiah asked God to hear the taunts, and to turn the taunts back on those who hurled them. But the walls were already half done, because the people had a mind to work.
Then, as the work progressed further, and the breaches in the wall were filled up, all the surrounding peoples were very angry. This included Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites. They made a conspiracy to come and fight against Jerusalem and interrupt the work. Word got to Nehemiah, and the people prayed, and prepared themselves for the battle. Nehemiah spoke to the nobles, rulers, and the people, and he said, “Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (4:14). The task of biblical men is just this—to pray to God, trusting him, work hard with their hands in building the kingdom, prepared to fight in order to defend that work.
And this is what happened. Because their plot was uncovered, the conspirators were thwarted, and the Jews worked on the wall in a very famous posture. From that time on, half the work force stood guard, while the other half working did so while armed. The laborers carried both sword and trowel. Nehemiah had a warning system of trumpeters established, and if they were attacked, the men should rally to the sound of the trumpet. In this time of crisis, they showed what men can do when men are really working. “So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared” (4:21).
The work was glorious, and God was in it. At the same time, disputes arose among those doing the work. This is how it always is. In the book of Acts, just when God was establishing His kingdom, a dispute arose concerning the distribution of food. In this work, just as the wall is being completed, many of the Jews cried out because they had been forced into a kind of debt slavery by some of their brothers. Nehemiah was very angry when he heard about this, and he confronted those who were treated their brothers in such a mercenary way. His confrontation was received, and the people said amen, and they praised the Lord. We are told that the people did what they said they would do. Nehemiah’s anger was fully understandable. How could he build a free city with slave labor? How could the walls protect the citizenry from fellow citizens who were willing to prey on their fellow Jews? The thing is not possible.
The next incident with Sanballat was when he heard that the walls were closed up, and the only thing left was the setting of the gates. So Sanballat and Gershem and Tobiah proposed to meet with Nehemiah in a particular village. They saw that the key to the work was Nehemiah, and Nehemiah saw that they meant to do him mischief. So Nehemiah sent messengers, who said, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (6:3) They were persistent, however, and they asked this way four times. Nehemiah answered the same way every time.
Then, because the work was proceeding so well, Sanballat took the next step, that of slandering the motives of Nehemiah, in order to make the people fearful of working for him. He sent out an open letter, which accused Nehemiah of rebellion (indirectly). “It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem . . .” (6:6-7). Sanballat did not state the slanders directly himself—perhaps the law of the Persians would have held him more accountable than he wanted to be. But he is willing to state in his open letter what the word on the street is. This is what I am hearing, he says. I am just passing it on. Whenever we hear that kind of thing, we ought to apply a proverb taken from this passage—Gashmu saith it.
Sanballat saw that it was the leadership ability of Nehemiah that had cause this great work to go forward. At the beginning, their response was one of mockery. At the end it is vicious slander. They tried everything they could think of to get Nehemiah to abandon his single vision. But the entire time Nehemiah ignores them, and serves as a faithful governor under the Persian king. He is faithful to the earthly empire of which he is a part, but his ultimate faithfulness is seen in how he serves his God.
When we consider the labors of many faithful saints throughout the history of God’s people in Scripture, we should pay special mind to the life of Nehemiah, for his circumstances approximate ours in many particular ways.