Bible Commentary: Nehemiah 1

You are here

Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 1

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


Nehemiah Learns of Jerusalem's Plight

As explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary introductory comments on Ezra and Nehemiah, the book of Nehemiah is evidently a continuation of the book of Ezra. While Ezra is traditionally reckoned as the compiler of both sections, several parts of the section now referred to as Nehemiah were evidently written by Nehemiah himself. This is the case with Nehemiah 1:1-7:5.

As chapter 1 opens we are immediately introduced to Nehemiah (verse 1), whose name means "Comfort of Yhwh [the Eternal]," "Yhwh Comforts" or "Yhwh Is Consolation." The time is the month Kislev (corresponding to November-December) in "the twentieth year," referring to the 20th year of Persian Emperor Artaxerxes (see 2:1)—apparently Artaxerxes I Longinus, the same king who had earlier sent Ezra (see Ezra 7:1) but later ordered the reconstruction of Jerusalem's walls halted (see 4:21-23). This would date Nehemiah 1:1 to the end of 445 B.C.—more than 12 years after the return of Ezra to Judea in 457.

The place, according to Nehemiah 1:1, is Shushan, also known as Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire—the one in which the book of Esther was set. This city was around 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf in what is today Iran.

Nehemiah is an important person. Like Joseph, Daniel and Esther before him, Nehemiah appears to have been placed by God in a strategic position in a foreign imperial government to accomplish God's will on the world scene. He refers to himself at the end of chapter 1 as "the king's cupbearer" (verse 11). This was an honored position of trust. Consider that a cupbearer was to ensure against the poisoning of a ruler. But there was much more to the job than that. The apocryphal book of Tobit, also from the Persian period, refers to a certain Ahikar as "chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts under King Sennacherib of Assyria" (1:22, NRSV). As The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes on verse 11, "Varied sources suggest something about Nehemiah as a royal cupbearer:

"1. He would have been well-trained in court etiquette (cf. Dan 1:4-5).

"2. He was probably a handsome individual (cf. Dan 1:4, 13, 15; Jos[ephus] Antiq[uities of the Jews] XVI, 230 {viii.1}).

"3. He would certainly know how to select the wines to set before the king. A proverb in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Qamma 92b) states: 'The wine belongs to the master but credit for it is due to his cupbearer.'

"4. He would have to be a convivial companion, willing to lend an ear at all times.

"5. He would have great influence as one with the closest access to the king, able to determine who was able to see his master.

"6. Above all Nehemiah had to be one who enjoyed the unreserved confidence of the king. The great need for trustworthy court attendants is underscored by the intrigues endemic to the Achaemenid court. Xerxes, father of Artaxerxes I, was killed in his own bedchamber by Artabanus, a courtier."

In verse 2 of chapter 1 we see that Nehemiah's brother has just returned from a visit to Jerusalem. (We will see him mentioned again in Nehemiah 7:2 as receiving charge from Nehemiah over Jerusalem.) The report of Hanani and his traveling companions is not good. The Jews of Judea are suffering disgrace and persecution. The city wall is broken down and the gates of the city have been burned. While this could conceivably have referred to the Babylonian destruction of 142 years prior, it seems more likely to refer to recent devastation. Most scholars understand it to refer to the Samaritan military action to stop the rebuilding of Jerusalem's city wall as ordered by Artaxerxes (compare Ezra 4:21-23). As explained in the comments on our previous reading, this probably occurred in conjunction with the rebellion of the satrap Megabyzus in 449 B.C.

About two years later, Megabyzus reasserted his loyalty to Artaxerxes (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 508). But the damage in Jerusalem was done. It was now five years after the revolt and just three years after the reaffirmation of Persian rule. Evidently, things had not improved for the Jews of Judea in this short period.

Nehemiah is sorely grieved and immediately commences on a period of fasting and prayer, confessing the people's sin. In doing so, he is evidently speaking generally of the Israelites' national proclivity to sin rather than some specific sin of the Judean Jews, as he includes his own sins in the confession. He well understands that the people's long history of immorality is the reason they have been reduced to being such a weakened people. Yet Nehemiah reminds God of His promises to regather His people and asks particularly that God will grant him favor with the king (Nehemiah 1:4-11)—evidently to make a case for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, as we will see in chapter 2.