Lawrence Boadt offers this introduction to the book of Nehemiah….
Nehemiah began his work in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes I, i.e., about 445 B.C. He was a high official in the court despite the lowly-sounding title he bore, “royal cupbearer.” Nehemiah was a Jew, and had received a heartbreaking letter from his own brother in Palestine describing the terrible conditions that existed there. Since he was an advisor of the King, he had no difficulty in getting the king’s ear. He persuaded Artaxerxes to make Judah an independent province, name him its governor, and allow him to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem. He was skilled enough in political matters to foresee that he would face great obstacles from local officials who did not want any change in the power structure. Nehemiah quickly surveyed the situation and made preparations to start on the walls shortly after his arrival.
But as soon as the project became public, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, Tobiah, the governor of Ammon, and Geshem, the governor of Edom and the Arab tribes sent troops to stop the fortifications. Nehemiah armed his own workers and finished the basic wall in a rapid fifty-two days. The speed with which he managed to get the work done shows how willing the people were to complete the project. He found, however, that the regulations of the law were being barely obeyed, and he was forced to take measures to re-establish the marriage laws and the Sabbath observances. These were the same problems faced by Ezra, and it reveals how difficult was the task of making the reforms take hold permanently among the Jews.
Nehemiah was governor from 445 to 433. When his term ended, he returned to Susa, the capital of Persia. A year or two later he was reappointed and found that the law had again fallen into disuse. This time he took very strong action. He prevented people by force from doing business on the Sabbath, broke up marriages with foreigners, arranged permanent sources for the support of the levites, and even threw out all the furniture of the Ammonite governor Tobiah from an apartment in the temple which the high priest, a relative, had let the governor use.
The Book of Nehemiah is built up around the memoirs of the governor in chapters 1-7 and 11-13. The nature of such an ancient “autobiography” was to leave a pious record of the leader’s achievements. Thus we can expect a rather glowing account of his sense of duty and his success in carrying out his tasks. At the same time, it is an extremely valuable glimpse into the life and though of a fifth century Jew. It does not tell us very much about the author’s feelings, only his work, but it is perhaps the only first-person story that we actually find in the Old Testament.
The phrase that once again comes to my mind as I read these chapters in Nehemiah is: “Pray as if everything depends upon God. Work as if everything depends upon you.” Indeed, when Nehemiah heard the news of the broken wall in Jerusalem, he fasted and prayed (Nehemiah 1:4). A few times in these four chapters, Nehemiah does talk as if everything depends upon God:
- “And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.” Nehemiah 2:8
- “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success…” Nehemiah 2:20
- “Our God will fight for us.” Nehemiah 4:20
At the same time, Nehemiah and his co-workers labor as if everything depends upon them: “each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon.” (Nehemiah 4:17)
I believe Nehemiah sets us a good example of a balanced approach to living a godly life. We need to constantly hold these two truths in tension: the sovereignty of God and the free will of human beings. We need to live and act as if both are true…for they are.