Summary: Nehemiah was probably chosen for his position at court for his reliability, for his quick wits, for his initiative and probably for his grasp of palace politics but clearly he also had a deep spiritual maturity that shows itself as he turns to prayer.
Have you ever looked at the great Christian leaders of our time and wondered what it was that gave them their success? Were they just natural leaders? Had they worked hard at their studies of management and leadership as so many young leaders today are taught to do? Or were they perhaps just the right person at the right time? What about you? What would make you a good leader?
Well, today we launch into a study of the life of Nehemiah, one of the great leaders of Israel at a very difficult time in their history. And what we find today is that much of Nehemiah’s success goes back to the fact that he was a prayerful man. Today we’re going to think about the prayer that opens the book, that introduces us to him and sets the scene for what will follow. But first, a little bit of history. Israel split into two separate nations following the death of Solomon. The 10 northern tribes called themselves Israel while the people of the south became known as Judah. And, basically, things went from bad to worse from that moment on. There were occasionally good kings in each half of the country but mostly they varied from bad to rotten as they led the people to worship idols. So God sent his prophets to call them back to obeying him. He warned them of the danger they were walking into by ignoring him. He warned them that he’d exile them from the land if they persisted. But, sadly, they took no notice and so finally God acted. First, in 722 BC, the northern kingdom was overrun by Assyria and the entire population was taken away. They were replaced by foreigners who eventually became the Samaritans of Jesus’ day. Then in 586 BC Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and this time the people were taken to exile in Babylon. A little under 50 years later the Persian king Cyrus overran Babylon.
Now Cyrus is significant because one of his policies was to return exiles to their country of origin. I guess he thought that would ensure his popularity. In any case he gave the Jews the opportunity of returning to Jerusalem, which some of them took up. They returned and began to rebuild the Temple. They also began the work of restoring the walls of Jerusalem in the face of much opposition from the surrounding tribes.
Meanwhile back in Babylon some of the Jews opted to move to Susa with the conquering armies. And, no doubt, as with Daniel and his 3 friends, the smartest of these would have been chosen by the king to be trained up as palace officials. Now, some 100 years later, Nehemiah is another of these young Jewish men raised to a position of some influence in the palace.
Here he is, the cupbearer to the king; a position of both influence and danger. He was the Persian equivalent of the Secret Service Agent who protects the President with his life. His job was to pour the wine and then taste it before handing it to the king. If someone had got to it and put poison in it, he’d be the one to die. Who want’s that job!?
On the positive side though, it meant that the king knew him and trusted him. He would have been chosen for his reliability, for his quick wits, for his initiative and probably for his grasp of palace politics. And he was always there so they would have built up a certain relationship over time that would come in handy in the weeks to come.
So that’s the scene: Nehemiah is one of the Jews in exile serving in a position of influence in the royal court. And as we’ll see in a moment he’s been well taught as a Jew. He knows his Scriptures and he longs for the day when he can see Jerusalem for himself.
Then one day he has a visitor.
The visitor is Hanani, described as one of his brothers, though brother here may simply mean countryman or possibly cousin.
He’s come from Judah and so Nehemiah eagerly asks him for news of Jerusalem. Like most Jews in exile Nehemiah longs for the day when he can return to the city of God.
But the news isn’t what he’s hoping for. Those Jews remaining in Jerusalem are in great trouble. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire. You can imagine the few exiles who returned under Cyrus and those who’d never been taken into exile trying to rebuild the walls. But the surrounding tribes were worried about Jerusalem becoming a powerful city again so they’ve attacked it and knocked down the walls before they can be finished. They’ve burnt the gates leaving Jerusalem in the same state that the armies of Babylon had left it in.