The book of Nehemiah is a companion to the book of Ezra, and their stories and characters are intertwined. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, they found that it had been leveled. The Temple had been ransacked and demolished and the gates and walls of the once-beautiful city had been destroyed. Under the shaky leadership of Zerubbabel, their governor, and with the encouragement of prophets like Zechariah and Haggai, the people managed to rebuild the Temple. Soon after that Ezra, the godly scribe, returned to teach the Word of God, sparking a great revival.
But Jerusalem was still defenseless and vulnerable. The protective walls of the city were still in ruins, leaving it open to the surrounding nations who hated God’s people and resented their return. The Jews saw the task of rebuilding the walls as “impossible” — so they just didn’t do it. They needed a leader, someone who could organize and inspire them to get the job done. That man was Nehemiah. Back in Babylon, Nehemiah had the security of stable employment in the administration of King Artaxerxes. As the king’s cupbearer (v.11) he was responsible for the safety and quality of all the food and drink that was set before the king. It was a position that required the king’s confidence, and as such it gave Nehemiah influence at the highest level in Babylon.
The book begins with a visit from Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, and a group of men who had just returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They told Nehemiah about the desperate conditions there, specifically the “great trouble and shame” of the city’s broken-down walls. When Nehemiah heard that, it affected him deeply. With a broken heart, he began to pray through his tears. Nehemiah knew that besides the Temple, nothing represented the identity of God’s people like the walls and gates of Jerusalem. In addition to providing a way to secure and defend the city (making government possible), the walls had historic, economic, and spiritual significance. If the nation was to survive and thrive, the walls must be rebuilt as quickly as possible — and apparently no one back in Jerusalem was going to do it.
As Nehemiah grieved the sad state of affairs in his homeland, he repented of the sins of his nation that had precipitated their exile and their city’s destruction (v.5-7). He felt the burden of personal responsibility for the mess his nation was in, and that birthed in him a sense of responsibility to do something about it. As he prayed, Nehemiah remembered a promise from Scripture: if God’s people were scattered by judgment, they could be gathered together again through repentance (v.8-9). That promise inspired a vision in Nehemiah’s heart of complete restoration of Israel’s forgotten honor as God’s chosen people. Nehemiah was captivated by the idea that he could be the human instrument of God to secure his chosen people within the walls of His chosen place — Jerusalem.
As a gifted administrator, Nehemiah’s mind was instantly abuzz with plans and steps and strategies to make that vision a reality. I can sense the excitement in his prayer for success (v.11). I really admire Nehemiah, and I want to be like him: a man whose heart was broken for God’s people and God’s work; a man who took responsibility for both the problem and the solution; a man who was willing to get involved; a man who believed God’s Word; and a man of vision. Nehemiah had a vision for God’s work that went beyond walls and gates — a vision for rebuilding a nation that would represent God to all the nations of the world, showing them how great and gracious God is.
People with that kind of heart can look at a Sunday School room full of hyper-active boys and girls and envision an opportunity to touch the next generation with the gospel. They can look at a crime-infested neighborhood and envision a lighthouse for the name of Jesus. They can look at a Sunday School lesson and envision God’s Word changing lives. They can look at a lonely co-worker across the office and envision a soul in need of salvation. God, give me that kind of heart!