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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 1

Verses 1-11

NEHEMIAITS VISIT TO JERUSALEM

Nehemiah 1:1 to Nehemiah 7:73

Background (1:1-2:20)

Nehemiah’s Concern (1:1-11)

As indicated in the Introduction, the material in the first part of the Book of Nehemiah surely comes from an original memoir kept by Nehemiah himself. The date with which the account opens is either not a part of the original or is a mistake of the editor in copying. The time of chapter 1 must be prior to the events of chapter 2, which is dated in "the month of Nisan," Chislev was the ninth month and Nisan the first in the BabyIonian calendar. "The twentieth year" refers to the reign of Artaxerxes I.

The story opens with the inquiry made by Nehemiah of a group of travelers. Their report on the state of the people in "the province" (Judea; see Ezra 2:1) tells of a shocking condition.

The city of Jerusalem especially is vulnerable to attack, since its walls are broken down and its gates breached. Although at first sight it might be supposed that the travelers refer to the results of the destruction wrought by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies a century and a half before, careful consideration points to a more recent happening. Nehemiah’s great anxiety certainly points to something relatively new. The likelihood is that Nehemiah, aware of the plans of the returned exiles, had expected to hear of a completed wall. It is also probable that the report given him referred to some such opposition as that specified in Ezra, chapter 4 (see comment).

Nehemiah’s concern is expressed first in mourning and then in prayer (compare Ezra 9; Daniel 9:3-19). The prayer is largely built on phrases from Deuteronomy, which accounts for its similarities to the other prayers. It begins in confession as Nehemiah, like Ezra, identifies himself with the needy people. He appeals to God, remembering his promises of help, and he ends characteristically in self-dedication. It is no accident that Nehemiah’s concern, expressed in prayer, led him straight to the point of personal commitment, for over and over in the Bible when an individual brings a real concern for others to God in prayer he finds that there comes to him an imperative call to serve in meeting those needs.

Verses 11-20

Nehemiah’s Plan (1:11-2:20)

Nehemiah’s substantial position in the Persian court was that of "cupbearer." This was one of the most responsible of all court offices, and in a day when assassination was usually by poison the cupbearer was necessarily a loyal and respected person. It should be noted that as royal cupbearer Nehemiah was probably a eunuch. Many interpreters believe that Isaiah 56:3-5 is designed to give comfort to and to include in the religious community those who like Nehemiah might otherwise be excluded (Deuteronomy 23:1).

The account of Nehemiah’s request to Artaxerxes has the flavor of firsthand recollection (see especially Nehemiah’s prayer between the king’s question and his own response). No comment on the story is necessary, save to point out that the expression "the king’s forest" refers to a royal preserve, probably in the mountains of Lebanon.

The account continues, undoubtedly based on Nehemiah’s memoirs, with the record of Nehemiah’s journey to Jerusalem. To be noted are the presence of an escort, which would give Nehemiah status in his undertaking; his dealing with the provincial governors along the way; and especially the mention of the two who will give Nehemiah such trouble later: Sanballat and Tobiah, The former was probably a Samaritan leader (Bethhoron was a town in Ephraim). Tobiah’s designation as "the servant" probably refers to some position he held in Persian provincial affairs.

At night, so as to avoid calling attention to his plan before it was firm, and with only one mount, Nehemiah and a small company proceeded to a tour of inspection of the city walls. The careful description again indicates that back of this record is a journal kept by Nehemiah himself. The various place names are difficult to identify, so that the actual course of the journey cannot now be traced with certainty. The "Jackal’s Well" is more literally "Dragon’s Well" (probably En-rogel, beside which 1 Kings 1:9 locates "the Serpent’s Stone"). In verse 15 "the valley" is the valley of the Brook Kidron. The account reiterates in verse 16 the secrecy of this initial inspection.

With the background of his knowledge Nehemiah presented to the people (especially the groups mentioned in verse 16) a plan for rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah’s own determination, with his manifest confidence that God’s hand was in the undertaking, and with the encouraging support of the king, gave stimulus to the people. Their immediate response indicates that the awareness of need had been present all along, but that capable leadership had been lacking. When that was supplied "they strengthened their hands for the good work."

As a forecast of further trouble Sanballat and Tobiah are again mentioned, this time in company with "Geshem the Arab." The trio of opponents, either ignorant of the royal support for Nehemiah’s work or pretending ignorance, view this new effort as rebellion. Nehemiah’s reply implies that the three claimed some rights in Jerusalem, an indication that the Samaritan element was dominant in the opposition.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Nehemiah 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/nehemiah-1.html.