The book of Nehemiah opens somewhat in the same way the book of Daniel did (read Dan. 1:1, 2
), and that was with bad news. Yes, many had returned to their ancestral homeland, but things weren’t going too well for them there.
Read Nehemiah 1:1-4
. Why was Nehemiah so distressed? What was his response to the bad news he received?
Some Jews taken captive years earlier were brought to Shushan, one of the four administrative centers of the Persian Empire, where Nehemiah served in the royal palace as a cupbearer. The term used for “Hanani one of my brothers”
most likely refers to a blood brother, because there is a similar but more familial-sounding reference to Hanani in Nehemiah 7:2
, although it could be a reference to just a fellow Israelite. The conversation with Hanani most likely happened between mid-November and mid-December of 445 B.C., some 13 years after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem. Hanani reports that the situation in Jerusalem is dire. The people have not been able to rebuild Jerusalem, and the enemy had destroyed the walls of the city, leaving it defenseless and desolate.
It bears mention that King Artaxerxes crushed the hope of the returnees by stopping the progress of the construction after the people beyond the river complained (Ezra 4
). This allowed the enemies to destroy the walls of the city (Ezra 4:23
). Nehemiah would have heard rumors of such disaster, but he didn’t have definite answers until this time.
Even though the temple was rebuilt, it wasn’t fully functioning because the people needed for the temple service were unable to live in Jerusalem. The situation saddened Nehemiah as the implications of the news penetrated his soul: the Jews had not glorified God even though they had returned for that purpose. Instead they had neglected the house of God and the Holy City, due to their fear of the enemy and oppression.
Thus, Nehemiah automatically turns to God. He doesn’t complain that the people of Judah lack faith or put them down as cowards, nor does he just accept the situation as the status quo. Nehemiah just gets down on His knees and starts praying and fasting.