About the Book of Nehemiah
The Jews build Jerusalem’s city wall again: There are many dates in this *introduction. These dates are the number of years before the time when Jesus Christ was born. Each date has the letters ‘BC’, which mean ‘before Christ’, after it. This *introduction also refers to places in the Bible where you can read about these things.
The history of the *Jews before their *exile
These are the events that happened in *Israel before the time of Nehemiah. This account will help us to understand the Book of Nehemiah better. We can read about these events in Nehemiah 9:5-37.
The people in *Israel do not obey God
God chose the nation called *Israel to be his special people (Leviticus 20:26). He wanted the people to love him and to *worship him. And he wanted them to obey him. In the city called Jerusalem, which was their capital, they built a great *temple. The people *worshipped God and gave *sacrifices to him in this *temple. *Israel became a powerful nation.
But the people in *Israel did not obey God (Nehemiah 9:16-18, 26). They *worshipped the gods of the other nations. So God caused the people in *Israel to suffer trouble and difficulties.
The *Israelites continued to *sin against God (Nehemiah 9:28). God sent many *prophets to warn them about this. But the *Israelites did not listen to these men. Instead, the *Israelites continued to do bad things (Nehemiah 9:29-30). So God allowed them to suffer terrible difficulties. God loved the *Israelites because they were his people. He only allowed them to suffer like this so that they would remember him. He wanted them to obey him. Then he could do good things for them again.
The nation divided into two parts. The northern part was called *Israel and people called the inhabitants *Israelites. The name of the southern part was *Judah and people called the inhabitants *Jews. Jerusalem was in the southern part. The book of Nehemiah is about the people in *Judah. However, sometimes Nehemiah calls them the people of *Israel. God gave Jacob the name *Israel when he promised to make Jacob’s *descendants God’s special people. By the time of Nehemiah, only the people in *Judah remained, but they were still God’s special people.
Assyria overcomes *Israel
In 722 BC, God allowed a powerful nation, the *Assyrians, to overcome *Israel (2 Kings 17:1-23). The *Assyrians forced many *Israelites to live in other countries (2 Kings 17:6; 2 Kings 18:10-11). And they brought other people to live in *Israel (2 Kings 17:24). These other people *worshipped false gods. They also tried to *worship the real God, but they did not *worship him in the right manner (2 Kings 17:25-41). People called them Samaritans because their chief city was called Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). Samaria was only about two days walk from Jerusalem. The Samaritans became Nehemiah’s enemies. One of their leaders was Sanballat, who was Nehemiah’s chief enemy.
The beginning of the *exile of the people of *Judah
Many of the kings of *Judah did not obey God. But some of them loved God and they encouraged the people to obey him. But the *Jews usually refused to obey God (Nehemiah 9:28-30), as the *Israelites had done. So after many years, God had to punish them too.
In 701 BC, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, overcame some cities in *Judah (2 Kings 18:13). But he did not overcome Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:32-36). God saved the city on that occasion.
Many years later, the *Assyrians became weak and the *Babylonians took control of their country, Assyria. The *Babylonians were the *Jews’ enemies, as the *Assyrians had been. The king of the *Babylonians was Nebuchadnezzar. The *Babylonian army overcame *Judah. The soldiers took most of the *Jews to Babylonia and forced them to live there. This is called ‘the *Babylonian *exile’. It lasted for about 70 years.
God used a foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar, to punish the *Jews. Nebuchadnezzar took them away from the land that God had given to them. At that time, Nebuchadnezzar did not give honour to the real God. Instead, Nebuchadnezzar was serving false gods. But God still used Nebuchadnezzar to punish the *Jews. In Jeremiah 25:9, God said that Nebuchadnezzar was his servant. But Nebuchadnezzar did not know that. In Jeremiah 25:12, God also said that he would punish the *Babylonians 70 years later. God would punish them because they were wicked too (see Daniel chapter 5). God is in control. He can even use people who do not know him.
The *Babylonians overcame *Judah in three phases:
1. In 605 BC they took king Jehoiakim’s family and the people who served the king (2 Chronicles 36:5-7; Daniel 1:1-7). They forced them to go to Babylonia and to live there. Daniel was one of these people and he became a very important official in Babylonia (Daniel 1:17-21; 5:29-6.3; 6:28). He wrote the Book of Daniel.
2. Then, 8 years later, the *Babylonians took Jehoiachin, the next king of *Judah, to Babylonia. And they appointed his uncle, Zedekiah, to be king of *Judah. They also took all the leaders, soldiers and skilful workmen. The *Babylonians also stole the beautiful and valuable things in the *temple and they took them to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-17).
3. Later, in 586 BC, the *Babylonians came. They destroyed the *temple and the city of Jerusalem. They took king Zedekiah, and most of the people who remained in *Judah, to Babylonia. They allowed only the poorest people to live in *Judah (2 Kings 25:1-12).
God had warned his people before these things happened. He would allow these events to happen if the people refused to obey him (Leviticus 26:27-39; Deuteronomy 28:15 and 28:64-68; 2 Chronicles 36:15-16; Isaiah 39:6-7 and Micah 4:10). God gave his people a long time to ask him to forgive them. He gave them the opportunity to obey him. But the people did not listen to him. They did more and more evil things and they gave honour to false gods.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are two parts of the same story. They tell us about the time when the *Jews returned from Babylonia to their own country called *Judah. Babylonia was about 4 months’ walk east from *Judah. The *Babylonians had defeated the people in *Judah. The *Babylonians had forced most of the *Jews to go to Babylonia and to live there. After many years, the *Persians defeated the *Babylonians. Then Cyrus, the king of Persia, allowed the *Jews to return to *Judah.
The Book of Ezra is the first part. It tells us about the first two groups of *Jews who returned to *Judah. The first group returned about 70 years after the *Babylonians had taken the *Jews into *exile. The book also explains how the *Jews built their *temple again. Then, many years later, a man called Ezra helped the *Jews. He helped them to know God’s commands and to obey them.
The book of Nehemiah is the second part. It tells the story of a man whose name was Nehemiah. He was a very important official who worked for the king of Persia. God sent Nehemiah to *Judah in order to do a special task. Nehemiah would help the *Jews to build the walls round Jerusalem again. He arrived in *Judah about 13 years after Ezra went there. The king appointed Nehemiah to be the ruler of *Judah. Nehemiah, like Ezra, helped the *Jews to obey God’s commands.
About city walls
In ancient times, most cities had city walls. The wall was an important defence that surrounded the city.
The wall would be strong and high. Many such walls were several metres thick. And they would make the city like a large castle.
The top of the wall would be flat. The city’s guards would walk on top of the wall. From there, they could watch for any criminals who were inside the city. Also, the guards would be able to see if an enemy army approached the city.
There would be some *towers along the wall. These were tall, strong buildings that the guards could use. And they would be very useful if there was a war.
The wall would have large gates. During the day, these gates were open. Traders and travellers could enter the city. And they could go to the market. But by night, the guards closed the gates. Then, nobody could enter. And the city would be safe.
Because the wall was so strong, people would use it for other purposes too. For example, people might build their houses against it. In some cities, these houses actually became part of the city wall. So, the wall became a row of houses.
v1 This is the record of Nehemiah, who was the son of Hachaliah. It was the month called Kislev in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes’ rule. I was in Shushan, the king’s castle.
Nehemiah was a *Jew. He was an important servant of the king of Persia (Nehemiah 1:11). Many years earlier the *Persians had defeated the *Babylonians. Then the *Persian king had allowed the *Jews to return to *Judah from the *Babylonian *exile. Some of the *Jews had gone, but many of them still lived in Persia. Nehemiah was probably born in Persia. The book starts when Nehemiah was in Shushan. The *Persian kings had a palace there, which they used during the winter. The story of Esther in the Bible happened in Shushan (Esther 1:1-2).
v2 Hanani, one of my brothers, visited me. He had come from *Judah with some other men. I asked them about the *Jews who had escaped the *exile. Also, I asked Hanani and the other men about Jerusalem. v3 They told me about the *Jews who had escaped. ‘They are now living in *Judah. They suffer much trouble and shame. The walls of Jerusalem are now only heaps of stones. Fire has burned the gates of the city.’
Nehemiah’s brother and some other men came from *Judah to visit Nehemiah. He asked them for news about Jerusalem, which was the capital of *Judah.
Nehemiah was probably born in Persia. Probably he had never been to *Judah. But he cared about *Judah. It was the country that God had given to his people, called the *Jews. Nehemiah knew that the *Jews had not obeyed God. So God had punished them. God had made them live far away from *Judah in Babylon. But after 70 years, God had allowed them to return.
Nehemiah probably hoped to hear good news. God’s people were living back in the country that God had given to them. Nehemiah wanted to hear that they were happy there. He wanted to hear that they were serving God. But his brother gave him bad news. The people were not happy. Moreover, the walls of the city were just heaps of stones. We can read more about this in the book of Ezra. The people from other nations that lived near Jerusalem opposed the *Jews. They did not want the *Jews to build the city again (Ezra 4:7-23).
v4 I listened to this. Then I sat down and I wept. I was sad for many days and I ate no food. I prayed to the God of heaven.
This news made Nehemiah very sad. He was sad for many days and he did not eat.
Sometimes people do not eat for a short time if they are very sad. They may do this so that they have more time to pray to God.
Nehemiah prayed every night and every day. He prayed for 4 months. From the month called Kislev (Nehemiah 1:1) to the month called Nisan (Nehemiah 2:1) was 4 months.
v5 I said, ‘You are *Jehovah, God of heaven. You are great. Everyone should be afraid of you. You always do what you promise. You have made an agreement with those people who love you. Such people obey your commands. v6 I am your servant. Please take notice of me and listen to my prayer. I am praying to you day and night for the people of *Israel. They are your servants. I confess the *sins that the people of *Israel have done against you. My family and I also have done wrong things. v7 We have done very wicked things against you. You gave commands, orders and judgements to Moses your servant. But we have not obeyed them.
v8 You gave instructions to your servant Moses. You said, “If you are not loyal to me (God), I will make you scatter among the nations. v9 But if you turn back to me, I will bring you back. Obey my commands! Do what I say! Then even if I forced you to live in the most distant places, I will bring you back from there. I will bring you back to the country where I have chosen to live.”
v10 These people are your servants. They are your people. You are strong and powerful and you rescued them. v11 This is my request. I am your servant. Please hear my prayer and the prayer of all your servants. We love to respect your name. I am your servant. Please give me success today. And please cause the king to be favourable.’
I was the man who served wine to the king.
We read about several of Nehemiah’s prayers in this book. Some of his prayers were very short. But this one helps us to understand what Nehemiah’s prayers were like. When Nehemiah started his prayer, he *worshipped God. This is how Daniel started his prayers (Daniel 9:4). This is also how Jesus taught us to start our prayers (Luke 11:2).
Nehemiah was far away from *Judah. So he could not easily help the people there. But he knew that the God of heaven could do anything.
Nehemiah knew about God’s agreement with the *Jews. God promised to be kind to them if they obeyed him. He gave them the country called *Judah (which is part of *Israel) as their home. And this was a good place to live. But Nehemiah also knew that God had told Moses to warn the people. God would punish them if they did not obey him (Deuteronomy 28:62-67). And the people had not obeyed God. That was the reason for the *exile. And that was why most *Jews were still living as foreigners at the time of Nehemiah.
So now, Nehemiah prayed to God on behalf of all the *Jews. He confessed the *sins of all the people. Daniel and Ezra had done this too (Daniel 9:4-15; Ezra 9:6-7; Ezra 9:10).
Nehemiah also remembered God’s promises. If the people trusted God again, God would bring them back from *exile. If they obeyed God, he would bring them back to live in *Judah (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).
Nehemiah added that the *Jews were God’s special people. They had been slaves in a country called Egypt. But God is powerful. And God is kind. God had rescued them from Egypt. And Nehemiah was praying that God would rescue them again.
Nehemiah prayed to God for help. But he also wanted to do something himself, although he was far away from *Judah. He was working in the palace of the king of Persia. That king was very powerful. He ruled many countries, including *Judah. So, Nehemiah’s job gave him an opportunity to speak to this great king. Nehemiah was very careful and he was very wise. He asked God to help him so that he could say the right thing to the king. But Nehemiah had to wait for 4 months before he got his opportunity. There are 4 months between the month called Kislev (Nehemiah 1:1) and the month called Nisan (Nehemiah 2:1).