Conditions in Israel
The narrative about Nehemiah recorded in Scripture begins by focusing on the bad conditions in Israel of the Jews and Jerusalem during Nehemiah’s time. This is a logical beginning for the story of Nehemiah, for it gives the background for Nehemiah’s great work which the book after his name is all about. Nehemiah learned of the bad conditions in Israel from a conversation with his brother and some men of Judah. The information about the bad conditions of the Jews and Jerusalem changed his entire life and started him on a great work for God. How little did anyone realize that day that the conversation of these men would result in a great and dramatic work which would be recorded down through the centuries in the Word of God. This reminds us that we must not discredit nor be discouraged about events and circumstances in our lives which seem at the time to be insignificant, for in God’s plan they may be very important for us. Keep your eyes upon God and His Word, and you will perceive to your encouragement His blessed, providential leading in even the mundane matters of life.
To examine the conditions in Israel of the Jews and Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s time and Nehemiah’s becoming aware of them, we will in this chapter consider the inquiry about the conditions (vv. 1, 2) and the information about the conditions (v. 3).
A. THE INQUIRY ABOUT THE CONDITIONS
"It came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan [better known as Susa] the palace, that Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem" (vv. 1,2). To examine this inquiry by Nehemiah of his brother and some men of Judah about the conditions in Israel, we note the season of the inquiry, the site of the inquiry, the seeker in the inquiry, the source for the inquiry, and the subject of the inquiry.
1. The Season of the Inquiry
Nehemiah’s inquiry about the conditions in Israel was made "in the month of Chisleu, in the twentieth year" (v. 1). The month of "Chisleu" compares "nearly to our December" (Rawlinson), so it was the winter season when the inquiry was made. The "twentieth year" mentioned here is a significant historical marker which tells us when the events in the book of Nehemiah took place, for the "twentieth year" refers to the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes Longimanus (Artaxerxes I) over Persia. According to historians, Artaxerxes 1 reigned forty years over Persia with his reign beginning about 465 b.c. This would date the beginning of the book of Nehemiah at about 445 b.c.
Artaxerxes I was the sixth king to rule Persia since the fall of Babylon to the Persians. Cyrus was the first king. He was followed by Cambyses, Smerdis, Darius I, Xerxes I (the Ahasuerus of Esther), and then by Artaxerxes I. Under these Persian kings, some Jews who had been in captivity under the Babylonian rule were permitted to return to Israel and reestablish a Jewish settlement. The first group to return to Israel came about 536 b.c. under the leadership of Zerubbabel who led them in building a new Temple at Jerusalem to replace Solomon’s great Temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians (2 Kings 25:9). Then about seventy-five years after the first group returned and about thirteen years before our text, Ezra led another group of Jews back to the land and began his ministry there which extended into the time of Nehemiah. The Jews who returned to Israel faced many problems both from the enemy without and from corruption within until the conditions in Israel at the time of the beginning of the book of Nehemiah were very bad for the Jews and their revered city of Jerusalem. This set the stage for Nehemiah’s great work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and bringing about some significant reforms among the Jews.
2. The Site of the Inquiry
The inquiry by Nehemiah about the conditions in Israel took place in "the palace" (v. 1) in "Shushan" (Ibid.), the capital of Persia. Both the city (Shushan) and the castle (the palace) are significant entities in history.
The city. The city of Shushan where the palace was located "is one of the most ancient cities in the world . . . [and] was the principle residence of the Persian court" (Rawlinson). It was one of the world’s most significant cities in Nehemiah’s day. It was located about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf, 250 miles east of ancient Babylon (which Persia conquered around 539 b.c.), and 275 miles southeast of modern Baghdad of Iraq. It is instructive to note that while in Nehemiah’s day Shushan was a great city and Jerusalem was mostly in ruins, today Shushan is a city of ruins mostly covered by high mounds of sand while Jerusalem is a thriving city. It symbolizes the truth that God’s plan and program will win out in the end.
The castle. The palace in Shushan is a very famous structure of antiquity whose ruins are visible today thanks to the work of archeologists. This palace was built by King Darius I. It was a huge castle (some call it a fortress or citadel, for in ancient times such palaces were always fortified), which had a great central hall that is reported to be nearly 350 feet long and about 250 feet wide—making it longer than a football field and nearly twice as wide. At this great and famous palace of antiquity some significant Biblical events occurred. They include Daniel’s vision in which he saw the ram with two horns (Daniel 8:2), the great feast which Ahasuerus made to all his princes and servants (Esther 1:1,2) which precipitated Esther becoming queen to Ahasuerus, and some events recorded in the book of Nehemiah starting with this conversation of Nehemiah with his brother and some other men of Judah about the conditions in Israel.
3. The Seeker in the Inquiry
Here we look at some background information concerning Nehemiah, who was the seeker in the inquiry. At the time of his inquiry about the conditions in Judah and Jerusalem, Nehemiah "was the king’s cupbearer" (v. 11). Thus he worked in the palace in Shushan which is why the site of the inquiry was in such a significant (in Nehemiah’s day) location.
Obtaining the position of the king’s cupbearer (the word is translated "butler" in Genesis 40 and 41) says some very good things about Nehemiah as a person. It indicates that he possessed some high character, for high character was a most vital qualification for his position as cupbearer to the king. The cupbearer was "an important official who served wine to the king [2:1—historians tell us he had to taste the wine first to see if it was poisoned which underscores his need of being trustworthy]. Due to the ever present possibility of intrigue, the position was one of great responsibility and trust. The officer’s chief responsibility was to guard the king’s persons . . . The nature of this office allowed intimate contact with the king and queen" (R. E. Hayden). High character gave Nehemiah the opportunity to gain the high post of cupbearer to the king though he was lowly in society. His lowliness in society is seen in the way Scripture introduces him. It simply introduces him as the "son of Hachaliah" (v. 1) which says nothing special about him but only distinguishes him from other Nehemiahs mentioned in Scripture (e.g. Ezra 2:2; Nehemiah 3:16; 7:7). Nehemiah would never have had the opportunity to rise from insignificance to a cupbearer of the king had he been a shoddy, lazy, good-for-nothing person. To get this job, he had to be just the opposite.
Good opportunities come to those who, like Nehemiah, attend diligently to uprightness and nobility of behavior. The professing Christian who is sloppy, unkempt, mouthy, untrustworthy, rude, lazy, and a deadbeat type of person who manifests disrespectful attitudes and actions not only shames the testimony of Jesus Christ, but he also limits his opportunities for good jobs with men and useful service for God. Nehemiah’s good character not only gave him opportunity to get a good job in man’s eyes; but, as we will see more about later, it also helped to give him the great opportunity to go to Jerusalem to do a great work for God in building the walls of Jerusalem and bringing about many needed reforms among the Jewish people. Those who bemoan the lack of opportunity in life need to take a serious look at their character and lifestyle.
It is true that good character is often scorned and demoted by men. But never discount the opportunities that good character and lifestyle can bring to your life. God will see to it that a noble life will experience His blessings.
4. The Source for the Inquiry
"Hanani, one of my brethren . . . and certain men of Judah" (v. 2) were the ones Nehemiah "asked . . . concerning" (Ibid.) the conditions in Jerusalem. We learn in a later chapter in Nehemiah that Hanani was Nehemiah’s brother who later was one of the two rulers over Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:2). These men who gave Nehemiah the information about the Jews and Jerusalem were evidently on leave from Jerusalem visiting in Shushan. They were not crepe hangers, for Nehemiah had to ask them for the information. Neither were they the kind that whitewashed evil conditions, for they told Nehemiah things were bad. While we do not have any record of what the "certain men" did later, we do know that Hanani was a good man because of his position in Jerusalem later under Nehemiah’s leadership. We need more men like these men who know how to handle the facts. We have too many who only see clouds or else see everything through rose tinted glasses. Neither kind helps to solve problems.
5. The Subject of the Inquiry
"I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem" (v. 2). This seemingly casual inquiry was an inquiry about a very important subject. We note the review of the subject, the regard for the subject, and the relevance of the subject.
The review of the subject. Nehemiah’s inquiry was twofold. He inquired of the Jews and of Jerusalem both of which we have already been considering but will here review their identity and significance in more detail.
First, the Jews. The Jews inquired about were those who particularly "had escaped, which were left of the captivity" and had come to Israel to live. These were the Jews who returned to Israel from the Babylonian captivity. As we noted a bit earlier, these Jews came back to the land on two separate occasions. The most recent returnees came back with Ezra only about thirteen years before our text. Because the first group of returnees (those who came with Zerubbabel) occurred some seventy-five years before our text, many of them would have died earlier; but their offspring would still be alive and would comprise a significant portion of the Jews in the land of Israel at that time.
Second, Jerusalem. Nehemiah also inquired concerning the holy and royal city of Jerusalem. This was the city of cities as far as the Israelites were concerned. David had conquered it and made it the capital of Israel during the early years of his reign, and the city’s prominence was increased by the building in it of the great Temple by Solomon. It was the religious and governmental center of Israel. Its importance to the Jew is stated in one of the Psalms which says, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" (Psalm 137:5). Poetically, Jerusalem is often called "Zion." As an example, in another Psalm which highly exalts Jerusalem, we read, "The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings [other towns and cities] of Jacob [Israel]. Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God" (Psalm 87:2,3).
The regard for the subject. The Jews and Jerusalem—the subject of the inquiry—represent and symbolize the work of God. Thus Nehemiah’s inquiry about the Jews and Jerusalem evidenced that he had great regard for God’s work. His great interest in God’s work will be seen more pronouncedly in later texts in Nehemiah in his sorrowing over and praying about the bad conditions which existed in God’s work and in his dedication in doing God’s work in Jerusalem. Here in this inquiry is our first notice in Scripture of the high regard which Nehemiah had for the work of God. His high regard for God’s work is what we all ought to give to the things of God. The world, of course, has little regard for the things of God. Unfortunately, many professing Christians also evidence little interest in the things of God. They do not read their Bibles or pray, they seldom attend church services, and they have no interest in missions and other efforts to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Their interests are instead in such things as politics, sports, and making money. They get so wrapped up in these pursuits of the flesh that they have no concern about God’s work and the things of God. Nehemiah was a different story, however. Though he had a high position (the king’s cupbearer) in the world and lived in affluent conditions as a result, yet he was very concerned about the things of God. This is one of the great examples he is to us as we will see throughout the book after his name.
The relevance of the subject. Though Nehemiah lived over twenty-four centuries ago, the subject of the Jews and Jerusalem is just as relevant today as it was in the day he inquired about the Jews and Jerusalem. There is no race of people and no city on the face of the earth that is more relevant to the important issues of our day and also to the future than the Jews and Jerusalem. The Jews are the people with the greatest future of any people in the world. Also Jerusalem is the city which has the greatest future of any city in the world. The reason for all of this is Jesus Christ. He will one day come to earth to be Israel’s Great King and to rule and reign from Jerusalem. Men are asking a lot of questions about people and places today which seem extremely important in men’s eyes, but those questions pale into insignificance compared to the Jews and Jerusalem. Keep your eyes focused on the Jews and Jerusalem if you want to know what God is doing regarding the future of this world.
B. THE INFORMATION ABOUT THE CONDITIONS
"They said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire" (v. 3). Nehemiah was informed that the conditions in Israel of both the Jews and Jerusalem was very bad. They were both under great reproach as a result.
1. The Condition of the Jews
Four things are said in our text about the Jews who were living in the land of Israel which show the bad condition of the Jews and the great reproach that was upon them in Nehemiah’s day. These four things concern the size, status, scorn, and sadness of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
Size. The small numerical size of the Jews in Israel in Nehemiah’s day is the first bad condition we will consider here. The numerical size is spoken of in our text as that of a "remnant." A "remnant" is certainly not an impressive description of size for Israel’s population. Centuries earlier, Israel had been a mighty nation with millions in population in their land. Now they are but a "remnant" in the land estimated by some scholars to be as low as 50,000 men in number (cp.Nehemiah 7:66,67). The smallness of the Jewish population added to their reproach. The nation which once was of considerable population is now embarrassingly just a small remnant of what it used to be. The main cause of the decreased Jewish population in Israel was sin. Israel had turned from God for many years in their prior history in the land, and as God had warned through Moses, "Ye shall be left few in number . . . because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the Lord thy God" (Deuteronomy 28:62).
Status. Another aspect of the bad condition of the Jews in Nehemiah’s day was their status in the world as a nation. In our text they are called a "province.’’ No longer are they a great independent nation, but now they are simply another of the many provinces of Persia (Ezra 5:8). What a great and humiliating reproach that is for Israel. It is a great reproach to any nation to become so reduced in status that it is only a small part of another nation. During the time of the book of Esther (which was some forty to fifty years before the time of Nehemiah), the provinces of Persia numbered "over an hundred and seven and twenty" (Esther 1:1). Being one of a 127 provinces did not make Israel a very significant. country. Israel, which had some centuries before stood tall as an independent and a powerful nation, had through sin been reduced in stature by Nehemiah’s day to just one of a 127 provinces of another nation. This brought great reproach indeed.
Scorn. The bad condition of the Jews in Nehemiah’s time also involved their being under a "great reproach" from the enemy. Not only were the size of the population and the status of a province a reproach to the Jews, but the scorn from the people around them was also a reproach. And our text says that this reproach was "great." It was not trivial. The Jews were greatly looked down upon, mistreated, suppressed, and opposed as we will see repeatedly in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah would himself, in spite of his office as governor and having served as the king’s cupbearer, also experience this great scorn for the Jews from other people while he was in the land of Israel. But God’s people are habitually scorned by the world. One who dedicates himself to the service and honor of God will, as Nehemiah did, know much about experiencing scorn in this world. Those who would promote God’s rule and worship, as the remnant in Israel was trying to do and as Nehemiah would later do, will always be subjected to much scorn from the ungodly. But better to experience the scorn of the world than the scorn of God. The former cannot inflict as severely as the latter can.
Sadness. The last aspect of the bad condition of the Jews in Nehemiah’s time which we note from our text is that they were "in great affliction." Though this description comes before "reproach" in our text, we note it last of the four aspects of the Jews’ bad condition because it speaks of the feelings of the Jews regarding all the bad conditions in Israel. That "affliction" speaks of their feelings is seen in the fact that the Hebrew word translated "affliction" in our text is translated "sad" in Nehemiah 2:1 and 2:2 and "distress" in Nehemiah 2:17. With "great" being before the word, we learn of the great sorrow and distress the Jews were in because of the bad conditions in Israel. As we have noted, they were but a small remnant of Jews in Israel, were only a small province of another nation, were scorned by those around them, and, as we will see next, the walls of their revered city of Jerusalem were in utter ruin. All of these things were certainly discouraging and grievous, and it is easy to understand why their sadness was "great." Nehemiah will also be very sad (Nehemiah 1:4) after he hears of these bad conditions.
2. The Condition of Jerusalem
"The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire" (v. 3). The bad condition of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day is the bad condition our text especially notes and emphasizes about Jerusalem. The bad condition of Jerusalem’s walls really increased the problem of reproach for the Jews in Israel, and it symbolized and represented all the reproach upon the Jews. It was this particular reproach of no walls for the Jews’ revered city that Nehemiah was so burdened to remove and which he emphasized when he exhorted the Jews, "Come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach" (Nehemiah 2:17). Two things can be said about this reproachful condition of no walls in Jerusalem: it was a perilous condition and a prolonged condition.
A perilous condition. In ancient times the walls around a city were very important protection for the city. These walls were great and substantial structures. Heavy and strong gates punctuated these walls periodically for access into the city and were opened generally during the day but closed at night. Jerusalem had been walled well until the Babylonians in their defeat of Jerusalem had broken down the walls and left Jerusalem unprotected as well as destroyed (2 Kings 25:10). The remnant that returned to Israel and Jerusalem after the captivity were in great peril living in Jerusalem without walls. Without walls, they were without protection from the enemy who could easily come into the city at any time and wreck havoc upon the inhabitants of the city and upon any structures in the city. The lack of walls was indeed a very serious problem. And it became the great project of Nehemiah to remedy this wall problem in Jerusalem by leading in rebuilding its walls.
A city without walls (or with broken down walls) is used in the Bible as an illustration of a person who does not control his passions well. The Bible says, "He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). A person who does not control his passions well "is an easy prey to the invader. Anyone may irritate and torment him . . . He yields himself to the first assault of his ungoverned passions, offering no resistance" (Charles Bridges). We need, through the brick and mortar of the Word of God, prayer, worship, and strong convictions to build spiritual and moral walls of great strength around our lives to keep our passions in check. But building such walls will, like the rebuilding of the walls in-Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, be much opposed; for the world seems bent on destroying all walls that would keep our passions in check. As an example, the popular worldly slogan which says, "If it feels good do it," is a philosophy without moral walls which will destroy character quickly.
A prolonged condition. As we have just noted, the walls of Jerusalem were broken down many years before the time of our Nehemiah text. The Babylonian army destroyed the Temple and broke down the walls around 586 b.c. It is now around 150 years later in our text and still the walls of Jerusalem have not been repaired and restored. Some attempt to repair the walls had been made within the past twenty years of our Nehemiah text but the work was aborted by opposition. Enemies of the Jews had reported this work on the walls in a letter of complaint to King Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:11,12), and Artaxerxes ordered any rebuilding of the city to stop (Ezra 4:21). The order was gleefully followed by the Jews’ enemy to the extent that they "made them to cease by force and power" (Ezra 4:23). The "force and power" action obviously resulted in destroying whatever work had been accomplished in repairing the walls at that time. So the news given to Nehemiah was that the walls of Jerusalem were still broken down and the gates were charred ruins.
The opposition of the enemy was not, however, the only reason for the prolonged time the condition of no walls existed. The people’s lack of dedication was also a major problem. Though great at times, opposition from the world was not always Israel’s only major problem (see Haggai 1:4) in God’s work. That which was generally their biggest problem was lack of dedication. Nehemiah’s success in restoring the walls will emphasize this fact; for when dedication became great, as it became under Nehemiah’s leadership, the repairing of the walls was done quickly—in fact in only fifty-two days (Nehemiah 6:15)!
Folk often make opposition an excuse for not doing much for God; but though opposition does hinder at times, the real problem is generally their lack of dedication. Commit yourself wholeheartedly to God’s service, and you will not be without accomplishments for God’s glory regardless of how great the opposition is. Nehemiah’s life is proof of that truth.