The Word Made Fresh
1This is the account of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev in the twentieth year, while I was living in the capital, Susa, 2my brother Hanani came to me with some men from Judah. I asked them about those Jews who had escaped captivity and how they survived, and about Jerusalem. 3They told me that the survivors there who had escaped captivity were in great trouble and distress, that the wall of Jerusalem was broken down and its gates burned.
4Then I sat down and wept and mourned for days, fasting and praying to the God of heaven. 5“O LORD God of heaven,” I prayed, “the great and mighty God who keeps agreements and loves those who love the LORD and follow the LORD’s commandments; 6listen to me and see and hear the prayers I raise to you day and night for your people Israel. I confess the sins of my people which we have sinned against you. I have sinned and my family as well, 7and we have offended you deeply because we have failed to keep the laws and commandments and rules that you gave to us through your servant Moses. 8Remember how you said to your servant Moses, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples of the earth, 9but if you return to me and obey my laws, even those of you who have been outcast under the farthest skies, I will gather them together and bring them to the place where I have chosen for my name to dwell.’ 10They are your servants and people, LORD, whom you rescued by your great power and with your strong hand. 11LORD, hear the prayer of your servant and all those who delight in honoring your name. Give success to your servant today and grant him favor in the sight of the king.” At the time, I was the king’s cupbearer.
1-3: The story of Nehemiah is set in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, or about 445 BC. Ezra had gone to Jerusalem from Babylon, a provincial capital in the Persian Empire, in the 7th year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:7). Nehemiah is in the Persian capital city of Susa and serves in the royal household (2:1). He receives news from his brother who has visited Judah that Jerusalem is in dire straits. The month of Chislev is roughly mid-November to mid-December.
4-11: Nehemiah is grief-stricken over the state of Jerusalem and enters a time of fasting and praying. He pours out his distress in a prayer that acknowledges that the current state of Jerusalem is a result of the people’s sinfulness. He confesses his own family’s part in not living up to the covenant, a touching admission. He recalls the promise God made through Moses (Deuteronomy 30:1-4) that if the people repent and return to the covenant and obey the Law of God, God will bring them back to the land and restore their fortunes. It is not clear exactly what success Nehemiah is asking for in the last verse of the chapter. That will unfold as the tale is told.
The book of Nehemiah begins some thirteen years after Ezra has gone to Jerusalem to oversee the restoration of the worship life of Israel. Some details of the situation in Jerusalem will be different between the two accounts. It is clear, though, that God is stirring the hearts of those who have been exiled to return and restore the temple and the worship life of Israel.