A Culture in History
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
Israel in history
“Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” It was the name given to Jacob by God in Genesis 32. But the history of the nation begins with Abraham (ca. 2000 B.C.) and God’s promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-2).
Abraham traveled from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan, Egypt, and back to Canaan. 25 years after God’s promise, Isaac was born. From Isaac came Esau and Jacob; from Jacob came the “12 tribes of Israel.”
After 400 years in Egyptian slavery, the people were led by Moses through the Exodus to the Promised Land. Joshua led them across the flooded Jordan River to the conquest of the land. After a period of judges, Saul became their first king. David and Solomon followed.
Under Solomon, the land came to its highest point of economic and military significance. The king’s net worth was 100,000 talents of gold (3.75 tons) and a million talents of silver; together they would be worth $58 billion today.
After Solomon’s death, the nation divided under Rehoboam (922 B.C.) The ten northern tribes were called “Israel,” while the two southern tribes were called “Judah.” In 722, the Assyrians (modern-day Syria) destroyed the Northern Kingdom. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians (modern-day Iraq) destroyed and captured the Southern Kingdom.
In 538 B.C., the Persians (modern-day Iran) overthrew the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, setting the stage for our study.
Israel and Nehemiah
It is December of the year 444 B.C., and disaster is upon the nation Judah. Nebuchadnezzar, general and leader of the hated Babylonians, had leveled their Temple and city 140 years earlier, in 587 B.C. Thousands died, and multiplied other thousands of people were enslaved. This was their 9-11, only al Qaeda has not only destroyed their nation—it has taken most of them back to Afghanistan as captives. Psalm 137 captures their lament and crisis.
But Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, has liberated them. In 538 B.C., having conquered the hated Babylonians, he sent the Jews home. But to what home? The walls of their city were destroyed, the city itself in rubble, the Temple in ruins. For 14 years they labored, but to little avail. They laid the foundation of their Temple, but nothing else. And the walls were still in ruins.
Why did the walls matter? Because to an ancient people, they were their most important physical and psychological possession. Physically, walls were their only defense against their enemies. There were no national armies or navies to rescue them in attack. Without their walls, they could not be a people.
Psychologically, their walls were the symbol of their land and people. If the walls were down, their pride was in ruins as well. Much like our own Statue of Liberty, every land has a symbol. When the symbol is in shambles, we feel that we are as well.
“The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.” “Nehemiah” means “Yahweh has comforted.” (It was sometimes shortened to Nahum; cf. the minor prophet by this name.) We know that he was “cupbearer to the king” (v. 11), a high office with regular access to the king. Some think he may have been second in command in the nation. We’ll say more about this matter in coming weeks.
It is “the month of Kislev in the twentieth year.” This was the ninth month of the Jewish calendar, November/December to us. Artaxerxes, Persia’s sixth king, began his reign in 464 B.C.; the “twentieth year” of his reign would have been 444 B.C.
Nehemiah was “in the citadel of Susa.” “Citadel” refers to the “fortress,” one of the royal palaces and fortified cities. “Susa” was the winter residence of the king; Ectabana was the summer palace. So we know that Nehemiah was with the king in his winter palace.
Then “Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men” (v. 2a). Hanani is a shortened version of Hananiah, “the Lord has been gracious.” These are Jews, as “one of my brothers” indicates. Nehemiah would later appoint his brother Hanani to a high position in the new government in Israel (7:2).
This is all we know about them. They may have been Persians who visited Judah and returned, or people living in Judah who came to Persia.
Nehemiah “questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.” This refers to the Jews who had survived captivity in Babylon and returned to Judah beginning in 538 B.C., and their capital city of Jerusalem. The Hebrew may also indicate some who escaped from Babylon, as the ESV translates.
So our study opens with many of God’s people back in the Holy Land, but facing a nation in tatters, a country whose future was clouded at best. If enemies were to besiege them, they would have no means of defense. A drought or locust infestation could wipe them out. Their very survival as a nation was in doubt.
The Church in America
In the year 2000, approximately two billion people worldwide claimed to be Christians. Of that number, over 15%, more than 300 million, were found in North America. 500 years earlier, there had been virtually no Christians in this part of the world. The growth of Christianity here is both complex and fascinating.
The first Christians in North America were Catholic missionaries and their converts in Mexico and the southern part of present-day America. They were doing their work in the early 16th century, even as the Protestant Reformation was just beginning in Europe. Jesuits and other missionaries worked among French settlers and at Indian missions in Canada as well.