7.53 Ezra-Nehemiah -- Nehemiah
His name meant "the Lord comforts" (NIC, p. 150). Unlike Ezra, he was not a priest. Nehemiah was a high official in Artaxerxes' service -- "cupbearer" to the King (Neh 1:11). According to some scholars, this meant he was most likely a eunuch (NIC, p. 157).
Though Nehemiah's background was entirely different from Ezra's, he was just as devout. In his home in Susa, the King’s capital, upon hearing of the poor condition of the returned exiles, he was in great distress, and fasted and prayed for days (Neh 1:4). It was the 20th year of Artaxerxes' reign (445) when he approached the king, who noticed his "sadness of heart" (Neh 2:2). Nehemiah was afraid to tell the king about his desire to help his fellow countrymen: as we saw above, Artaxerxes had forbid rebuilding Jerusalem.
Despite his fears, Nehemiah not only got permission to rebuild the city, but also the authority to obtain lumber from the king's own forest, and an official escort (Neh 2:8-9). He was also appointed governor (Neh 5:14). While Ezra's focus was on the internal righteousness of the community in Jerusalem, Nehemiah's prime responsibility was physical security and government.
He wasted no time in arriving and inspecting the walls. He was very disturbed by the poor state of the city -- the walls broken down, the gates burned. He immediately rallied the existing leaders to build the wall of Jerusalem. This stirred up the local opposition: "Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab" (Neh 2:19). Sanballat was governor of Samaria (NIC, p. 163).
Consistent with Ezra’s attitude towards them, Nehemiah told them:
"We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it" (Neh 2:20).
Ouch! That was a door slammed in their face.
Nehemiah was a man of action. The wall had been destroyed 140 years ago, it had been 90 years since the first Jews had returned to Jerusalem…and it was still a ruin. Yet Nehemiah built the wall in 52 days (Neh 6:15)! Sometimes a pound of work is worth a ton of "dialogue."
And this despite unceasing harassment from the Samaritans, Arabs, Ammonites, etc (Neh 4:7). Mockery, threats, plots, warnings of imminent attack, offers of peace-talks, false counsel from internal traitors (Neh 6) -- nothing deterred Nehemiah from his single priority: finish the wall. The Jews even kept their weapons with them as they worked.
The construction of a defensive wall around the city changed the entire balance of power in the region:
When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God (Neh 6:16).
This was a fixed point, an anchor, on which to build the new society. The Jews were always a people of great vision and ideas, but these were insubstantial in themselves. The completed wall was solid rock, it was an historical and political fait accompli. Though worthless against Babylon or Egypt, it would hold against Sanballat and his local cronies. It was a symbol of the rise to regional prominence of the Jews. Reconstruction had now moved out of the realm of prophecy and into reality.