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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Nehemiah 1

 

 

Verses 1-3

Commentary.

The book opens with a typical opening line. Nehemiah was not a prophet and therefore we would not expect it to say too much. But he was an extremely important person within the Persian Empire. He was ‘cupbearer to the king’. That does not mean that he was a waiter. It indicates that he was the man who received the cup from a servant, and after tasting it to see if it was poisoned by pouring the wine into his hand and drinking it, handed it to the king. He was thus the one man in a position to most easily poison the king. Consequently he was a man in whom the king placed absolute trust. And we soon discover that Nehemiah had entry into the king’s presence at other times, which accentuates his importance. Few had that privilege.

Introduction.

Nehemiah 1:1

‘The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.’

It is possible that the simple title ‘Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah’ was considered by him as sufficient to indicate who he was. It may well have been his view that it was only lesser men who had to provide details. In his day his name said everything. He was, of course aware that he intended to provide some detail later (Nehemiah 1:11), but that was in the course of the narrative. Here he was simply ‘Nehemiah ben Hacaliah’, a man of renown. Nehemiah means ‘Yah has comforted’. The meaning of Hacaliah is unknown. The name Nehemiah was a common one and is testified to of others in Nehemiah 3:16 and Ezra 2:2. It is also attested in extra-Biblical records. But there was only one Nehemiah ben Halachiah

On the other hand some see in this description the hand of the editor as he sought to combine Nehemiah’s record with the book of Ezra. But however we see it, some such introduction would always have been necessary, even prior to that, so that we would know who was in mind in what was to follow. And besides, if it were the words of an editor we might have expected a more detailed introduction. It was only the man himself, aware of his own importance, who could be so brief. And this would also explain the seemingly careless dating (the king’s name is not mentioned).

‘The words of --.’ The Hebrew word translated ‘words’ often indicates doings and activities, and it clearly does that here. The aim is to describe Nehemiah’s deeds, and what he accomplished. Compare 1 Kings 11:41; 1 Kings 14:19; 1 Chronicles 29:29; 2 Chronicles 9:29.

Nehemiah Learns Of The Sad Condition Of Those Who Had Escaped from Babylon And Of The Recent Destruction Of The Walls Of Jerusalem That The Returnees Were Attempting To Build (Nehemiah 1:1-3).

Nehemiah 1:1-2

‘Now it came about in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the fortress, that Hanani, one of my kinsmen, 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.’

As with the name, so with the date. He assumes that the recipient of his account will know which king it is whose reign it is the twentieth year of, (he also knows that he will make it clear in Nehemiah 2:1). This may portray the haughtiness and contemporary attitude of someone who felt that there was no need to say more, because the long reign of Artaxerxes was a permanent institution throughout the empire. He would not have known that he was writing for posterity. Alternatively it may indicate that it was chapter 2 which began an official record made by him, possibly in a report to the king, and that he added this explanatory information in chapter 1, with the date given in Nehemiah 2:1 being in mind, when he made it available to a wider audience. He would know that the reader would find the more detailed reference in Nehemiah 2:1. The twentieth year of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 2:1) would be 446 BC, and the month of Chislev around November/December. It was the ninth month of the Jewish calendar commencing from the first month Nisan (Passover month - March/April). This raises a slight problem in that the following Nisan (Nehemiah 2:1) is also said to be in the twentieth year, but that is probably looking at the numbering from the point of view of the commencement of the reign of Artaxerxes rather than the commencement of the New Year.

Again some see in this lack of mention of the king’s name the hand of an editor who was conjoining the two narratives, of Ezra and Nehemiah, who expected his readers to refer back to Ezra 7:1; Ezra 7:11; Ezra 7:21; Ezra 8:1. But those references are rather remote, and anyway the same argument could have applied in Nehemiah 2:1, and yet the details of the reign are given there. It thus rather suggests that Nehemiah 2:1 was what was in mind.

‘The fortress Shushan (Susa).’ This was the winter residence of the Persian kings, with Ecbatana being their summer residence (Ezra 6:1). The ruins of Susa lie near the River Karun and it was once, in the second millennium BC, the capital of Elam, continuing as such into the first millennium. It was a powerful and impressive city. It was finally sacked by Ashurbanipal of Assyria in 645 BC, who sent men into exile from there to Samaria (Susanchites - Ezra 4:9). But it was restored, and it was at Susa that Daniel had one of his visions (Daniel 8:2). Darius I built his palace there, and it was there that Xerxes (Ahasuerus) demoted his chief wife, Vashti, replacing her with Esther (Esther 1-2). The fortress had again been restored by Artaxerxes.

It is apparent from this verse that Nehemiah regularly received fellow-Jews as guests into the king’s fortress, so that it is not surprising that Jewish affairs obtained a hearing at high levels. Hanani, (‘He is gracious’), whom he received at this time, along with other prominent Jews, may well have been his brother, although the word need only indicate a kinsman. The Hanani in Nehemiah 7:2 may or may not be identical, for Hanani was a common name. We do not know whether this was just a private visit, or whether it was a deputation concerning some official matter. Nor do we know whether they were visiting from Judah, or had simply been to Judah on a visit. Nehemiah may well have summoned them on learning of their arrival from Judah because he wanted to learn about the situation there.

Whichever way it was he asked them concerning the situation in Judah and Jerusalem, and how ‘those who had escaped, who were left of the captivity’ were going on. He clearly had a deep interest in the land of his forefathers. The question then arises as to who he was referring to by these words. Does he mean the returned exiles who had ‘escaped’ from Babylonia, a remnant of the captivity, who had returned to Judah (compare Ezra 9:8 which speaks of ‘a remnant to escape’), or is he speaking of those who had initially escaped captivity and had remained in Judah? The former appears more likely, especially in view of Ezra 9:8. It is certainly not likely that he was unaware of the fact that exiles had returned to Judah from Babylonia under the decrees of the kings of Persia, and he would naturally as a Jew himself be concerned about their welfare.

Nehemiah 1:3

‘And they said to me, “The remnant who are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”

We have already seen in Ezra that the Jews who had returned from Babylon saw themselves as the true Israel, ‘the remnant’ of Israel who ‘escaped’ (Ezra 3:8; Ezra 9:8). It is therefore quite clear that it is the returnees who had established themselves in Judah who were seen as ‘the remnant who are left of the captivity (exile)’. Does this then mean that Nehemiah did not see himself as a part of the remnant of the captivity? The answer, of course, is no. His heart and his spirit were with them. What he did not have was permission to go. Like Daniel before him, he was not in a job that he could leave at will. He was a slave, albeit a very exalted one, of the king of Persia.

‘Are in great affliction and reproach.’ The word used for ‘affliction’ is regularly translated ‘evil’. Great evil had come upon them. This suggests that they were having a very difficult time indeed, and reminds us how little we know about the problems that they faced, problems of drought, recurring violence, constant antagonism of their neighbours, and so on. The word for reproach indicates the constant criticism and hatred that was directed against them because they refused to dilute Yahwism by allowing syncretists to worship with them. All around them sought to bring them into shame, the syncretistic Jews who had remained in the land and were largely only semi-Yahwists; the syncretistic half-Yahwists in Samaria; and the out and out idolaters. The returnees, and those who sided with them, were being treated as outcasts and pariahs because of their faithfulness to truth. The situation had no doubt been made worse by the putting away of wealthy idolatrous wives, who were put away because of their idolatry which was affecting the remnant. They would have had great influence among their own people (Ezra 9-10).

Furthermore this appalling situation was revealed physically in the state of Jerusalem. As a consequence of their adversaries the walls that they had been attempting to rebuild had been broken down, and its gates burned with fire (Ezra 4:23). All their attempts to make themselves secure had been stymied. The reaction of Nehemiah here, and the fact that it is mentioned at all, demonstrates that this must have occurred recently. He would have know perfectly well what had happened to the walls of Jerusalem as a result of the Babylonian invasion, and it was history long gone (over one hundred and forty years previously). News of it would hardly, therefore, have been brought to him, nor would it have stirred him. It suggests that he had seemingly previously heard, and rejoiced over the fact, that the walls were being rebuilt so that the fact that they had now been again destroyed hit him hard.


Verses 4-11

Nehemiah’s Cry Goes Up To God (Nehemiah 1:4-11).

So Nehemiah now did what God’s true people always do when they face adversity. He prayed to YHWH. The prayer is very much an individualistic one, although parts of it can, as we would expect, be paralleled elsewhere, for he prayed with a full knowledge of his people’s liturgical past. He was not praying out of a vacuum, but with a good knowledge of Judah’s prayers of old.

His prayer can be summarised as follows:

A An elaborate approach to God (Nehemiah 1:5). Compare Daniel 9:4; Deuteronomy 7:9; Deuteronomy 7:21; Deuteronomy 10:17.

B A plea to be heard (Nehemiah 1:6 a). Compare 1 Kings 8:28-29; 2 Chronicles 6:40; 2 Chronicles 7:15; Psalms 130:2; Isaiah 37:17.

C A deep confession of the sin of his people, including his father’s house (Nehemiah 1:6-7). Compare Ezra 9:6; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Leviticus 16:21; Leviticus 5:5.

D An appeal to God on the basis of His covenant promises (Nehemiah 1:8-9). Compare Leviticus 26:42; Psalms 105:8; Psalms 106:45;

C A description of the people for whom he is praying (Nehemiah 1:10).

B A request that God be responsive to both his and their prayers (Nehemiah 1:11 a).

A An appeal that God will help him as he takes the dangerous path of approaching the king on their behalf (Nehemiah 1:11 b).

Note how in ‘A’ he approaches God, and in the parallel he approaches the king. In ‘B’ he makes a plea to be heard, and in the parallel he asks God to be responsive to his prayers. In ‘C’ he confesses the sin of his people, and in the parallel he describes the people for whom he is praying. Centrally in ‘D’ he makes his appeal on the basis of the covenant.

Nehemiah 1:4

‘And it came about, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days; and I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven,’

He did not rush into his prayer. He pondered deeply over the news that he had received, something which caused him to sit down and weep as he thought of the sufferings of his people. He mourned over the news for a good number of days, fasting and praying ‘before the God of Heaven’. This last was the name by which YHWH was known in Persia and Babylon (compare Daniel 2:18-19; Daniel 2:37; Daniel 2:44; Ezra 5:12; Ezra 6:9-10; Ezra 7:12; Ezra 7:23) and to foreigners (Jonah 1:9). The purpose of fasting was in order to express grief, and in order to prevent anything interfering with his praying.

Nehemiah 1:5

His Elaborate Approach To God (Nehemiah 1:5).

In his approach Nehemiah expresses three things which should be a constant in all our praying; the greatness of God, the wonder of His love, and the necessity for obedience to His covenant in accordance with His requirements.

Nehemiah 1:5

‘And said, “I beseech you, O YHWH, the God of heaven, the great and terrible God, who keeps covenant and covenant love with those who love him and keep his commandments.”

He speaks with YHWH as the One Who is:

· ‘The God of Heaven’ - contrast ‘Our Father Who is in Heaven’ (Matthew 6:9). There is the same sense of awe, although without that deeper dimension of God as Father that Jesus introduced.

· ‘The great and terrible God.’ He acknowledges the greatness of God while at the same time acknowledging that He is not to be approached lightly. He is fearsome. Someone of Whom to be in awe. Compare Daniel 9:4; Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 7:21; Deuteronomy 10:17. (Compare ‘Hallowed be your Name’).

· ‘The One Who keeps covenant.’ He comes to God aware that though great and fearsome, He has made His covenant with His people and always observes His side of the covenant. He is ever true to His word. He can therefore be approached by one who desires to observe His covenant (Deuteronomy 7:9).

· But He is also ‘The One Who observes covenant love with those Who love Him and keep His commandments.’ His faithfulness is a faithfulness of love, which has been expressed through His covenant, towards those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; Deuteronomy 7:9). To love God was one of His most important commandments (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). And His commandments were to be laid upon their hearts (Deuteronomy 6:6). But this was because He had first loved them (‘when Israel was a child I loved him, and called My son out of Egypt’ ‘ Hosea 11:1).

Nehemiah 1:6 a

His Plea To Be Heard (Nehemiah 1:6 a).

He calls on God to be attentive to his constant and persevering prayer for God’s people.

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,’

He prays that God will hear what he has to say, and will see the situation. And that as a result He will listen to his prayer, a prayer from one who is his servant, a prayer which he is bringing before him day and night. He was thus coming in humility, but also in consistent, persevering prayer, in the way in which Jesus would later teach us to pray (Luke 11:5-13). For the idea of attentive ears and open eyes compare 1 Kings 8:28-29; 2 Chronicles 6:40; Psalms 130:2; Isaiah 37:17, and God’s response and required conditions in 2 Chronicles 7:14-15.

And he underlines that he is coming on behalf of ‘the children of Israel’ who are God’s servants. For ‘children of Israel’ see Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 7:73; Nehemiah 8:14; Nehemiah 8:17; Nehemiah 9:1; Nehemiah 10:39; Nehemiah 13:2. It is a Nehemaic expression. This is, of course, a regular name used for Israel/Judah emphasising their tribal relationship, although literally speaking it is a misnomer. The majority were not strictly directly descended from Jacob by blood, but were ‘sons’ by adoption, being descended:

1) From members of the family tribe (Abraham had 318 young men born in his house).

2) From the mixed multitude who had become part of Israel at Sinai (Exodus 12:38).

3) From the many other peoples like the Kenites who had joined up with Israel and submitted to YHWH.

Nehemiah 1:6-7

He Confesses Deeply The Sin Of His People, Including That Of His Own Father’s house (Nehemiah 1:6-7).

Confession of our sins must always be central to our prayers. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us’. As God says in 2 Chronicles 7:14, ‘if My people who are called by My Name, will humble themselves, and will pray, and will seek my face, and will turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven, I will forgive their sins, and I will heal their land’. This was what Nehemiah now did.

Nehemiah 1:6

-7 ‘While I confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Yes, I and my father’s house have sinned. 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.”

Confession of sin had long been a requirement of the covenant. The confession of the sins of the children of Israel was one purpose of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:21), and confession of sin was a requirement for forgiveness of specific sins (Leviticus 5:5). Furthermore confession of sin was one of the requirements if God was to restore His people from captivity (Leviticus 26:40). Thus while he had no sacrifice to offer, and no goat substitute, what Nehemiah could do was confess the sins of his people (see also Nehemiah 9:2; Psalms 32:5; Proverbs 28:13; Daniel 9:20). It was an acknowledgement that Israel had deserved all that had happened to them.

He did not exclude himself from this confession of sins, confessing his own sin and the sins of his father’s house. And he spells out what he means by sin in terms of dealing corruptly with God, and not observing the commandments, statutes and ordinances (judgments) laid down by Moses (compare Deuteronomy 5:31; Deuteronomy 7:11). He makes no excuses.

It is clear from this that Nehemiah was well acquainted with Levitical teaching and Deuteronomic teaching.

Nehemiah 1:8-9

He Appeals To God On The Basis Of His Covenant Promises (Nehemiah 1:8-9).

He now calls on God to be mindful of His word and of His promises.

Nehemiah 1:8-9

“Remember, I beseech you, the word that you command your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you trespass, I will scatter you abroad among the peoples, 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 which I have chosen, to cause my name to dwell there.’ ”

Thus he reminds God of His promises. Promises made to Moses as to what would happen if when His people had trespassed and were scattered abroad, they returned to Him and kept His commandments and did them. His promise had been that no matter how far they had been scattered, even to the uttermost part of Heaven, he would gather them from there and bring them to the place which He had chosen to cause His Name to dwell there.

This is not a direct quotation from Moses, but a summary of what God had promised that He would do, based on Scriptural terminology. Especially in mind is Deuteronomy 30:1-4. ‘(If, having trespassed and) beenscattered abroad among all the nations---you shall return to YHWH your God, and shall obey His voice according to all that I command you this day (keep His commandments and do them), --- ifany of your outcasts be in the uttermost parts of the heavens, ,i.from there will YHWH your God gather you --- andwill bring you into the landwhich your fathers possessed, and you will possess it.’

This is supplemented by, ‘andYHWH will scatter you among the peoples’(Deuteronomy 4:27; compare Leviticus 26:33; Deuteronomy 28:64); ‘you shall keep My commandments and do them’(Leviticus 22:31; Leviticus 26:3; compare Deuteronomy 19:9); and‘the place which I have chosen to cause My Name to dwell there’(Deuteronomy 12:11). ‘If you trespass --’ is a brief summary of what is stated in, for example, Leviticus 26:14; Deuteronomy 4:25; Deuteronomy 28:15; Deuteronomy 28:58, and is mentioned in respect of deserving captivity in Leviticus 26:40.

From the point of view of Nehemiah’s prayer the important point was that YHWH had now done this thing and had brought His people to the place in which He had caused His Name to dwell there. God had gloriously delivered them and he was therefore puzzled why God, having done so, had left His people in such deep anguish and distress. It did not seem consistent with the promise.

Nehemiah 1:10

A Description Of The People For Whom He Is Praying (Nehemiah 1:10).

He now points out that they are not just any people. They are the people whom YHWH had in the past redeemed by His great power and His mighty hand from among the Egyptians (Exodus 32:11). Surely, he was saying, You did not show your compassion towards them for nothing?

Nehemiah 1:10

“Now these are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power, and by your strong hand.”

Here then were the people whom God had delivered in accordance with His promises, His servants whom He had redeemed by His great power and His strong hand (Exodus 32:11). Now he was about to ask that YHWH would intervene on their behalf. We note that there is no criticism of YHWH, no question as to why He had done what He had, only a plea that, having already done what He had, He would now act further on behalf of His people through Nehemiah. His confession of sin was a recognition that God’s people were still receiving their due punishment for sin. Redemption by great power and a strong hand echoes the Exodus deliverance (Exodus 32:11; Exodus 6:1; Exodus 13:9). The return from Exile could be seen as another Exodus, and that deliverance also had been followed by times of anguish and misery as the Book of Judges makes clear.

Nehemiah 1:11 a

A Request That God Be Responsive To Both His And Their Prayers, The Prayers Of Those Who Fear Him (Nehemiah 1:11 a).

He makes clear that he is not praying for an unresponsive people. he is praying for those who fear YHWH’s Name.

Nehemiah 1:11

“O Lord, I beseech you, let now your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants, who delight to fear your name,”

Nehemiah recognises that much God-fearing prayer is going up from the returned exiles, to which he now adds his own prayers. And he calls on God to be attentive to their combined prayers. Note his continual emphasis on the fact that he and they are God’s servants. Moses is God’s servant, he is God’s servant, the returnees are God’s servants (Nehemiah 1:6-8; Nehemiah 1:10-11). And the reason that he is confident that God will hear is because they ‘delight to fear His Name’. To ‘fear His Name’ means not only that they worship Him with due reverence and awe, but also that they ‘fear God and keep His commandments’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13). We are reminded in this regard of the words of the Psalmist, ‘if I regard iniquity in my heart, YHWH will not hear me’ (Psalms 66:18). We should note that this fear is not a craven fear. It is something which is a delight to them. They enjoy being God’s servants.


Verse 11

An Appeal That God Will Help Him As He Takes The Dangerous Path Of Approaching The King On Their Behalf (Nehemiah 1:11 b).

We do not know at what stage Nehemiah’s concern for his people turned to a recognition that he was in a position to do something about it. But this is what often happens when we pray. God suddenly says, ‘well, why don’t you do something about it?’ However, such a suggestion would have filled Nehemiah’s heart with apprehension. It may seem to us a simple task to lay a petition before the king, but it was far from being so. The appeal could not be made directly. The petitioner had in some way to draw the king’s attention to the fact that he had an appeal to make, and then hope that the king was feeling benevolent. If the king was in a bad mood it could result in the petitioner’s death. The means of drawing the king’s attention was usually by putting on a sad countenance. But it was a dangerous procedure. All courtiers were called on to express happiness in the king’s presence, so that anyone who was not expressing happiness was clearly doing it for a purpose. It was because he wanted the king’s ear. On the other hand not to be happy in the king’s presence without good reason could be seen as derogatory to the king’s majesty and could well result in death. The man could be dragged out and summarily executed. Thus Nehemiah sought God’s help in the difficult and dangerous task he would undertake.

Nehemiah 1:11

“And prosper, I pray you, your servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

The day had come when he knew that he must risk all and place his petition before the king. And so he called on God to prosper him on that day, and grant him mercy in the sight of ‘this man’. As God’s servant he was casting his future upon God. We can compare the similar situation with Esther in Esther 4:11; Esther 4:6. ‘This man’ may well have been an intentional attempt by Nehemiah to remind himself that, however great the king might be, he was in the end only a man, or indeed as an attempt to remind God that Artaxerxes was only a man who was at His disposal. On the other hand it might have been an expression of awe. But such an expression would not have been seen as insulting. The kings of Persia did not give themselves semi-divine status.

Nehemiah 1:11

‘Now I was cupbearer to the king.’

Nehemiah now indicates his own exalted status, and why it was that he had access to the king, and not only access, but access as the king’s confidante. It was because he was the king’s cupbearer. It was he who would have responsibility for the selection of which wines would be presented before the King, and would himself drink from the king’s cup prior to the king partaking, by pouring some into his hand and drinking it. This was as a guard against poisoning. His delicate palate would immediately discern any foreign element. He would also be expected to provide convivial conversation for the king, and tactfully hear whatever the king had to say. He could thus exert considerable influence over the king. The office would often be combined with other important offices. Thus in Tobit 1:22 we read of Achiacharus (Ahikar) that he was cupbearer and keeper of the signet, and steward and overseer of the accounts and was next to the king in importance.

It is not necessary to assume that Nehemiah was a eunuch. Many cupbearers were, but many were not, and many who had access to the queen and the royal harem were also not eunuchs. Indeed we have texts which lay out the behaviour expected of them in the royal harem. The fact that his being a eunuch is never mentioned against him by his opponents among the Jews would serve to confirm that he was not so. Otherwise it could have been used in order to diminish his religious status in the eyes of many Jews.

It will be noted that this verse is transitional, and acts as a convenient introduction to what follows, thereby linking his prayer with its fulfilment.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 1:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/nehemiah-1.html. 2013.

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