Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, and one day while serving in the king’s court, he had a routine visit from his brother Hanani. But the news that Hanani brought to his brother’s ear was anything but routine.
Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.Nehemiah 1:3
The Return to Jerusalem
This riled up something in Nehemiah, as he was deeply troubled upon hearing the state of his beloved city of Jerusalem. His predecessors Zerubbabel, Joshua and Ezra had all tried different approaches to bring honour back to the city, but they all failed to change the hearts of the people.
Nehemiah wanted to return to his hometown and at least repair the physical state of the city but the spiritual state of Jerusalem was going to be a bigger task, as the people had fallen prey to idol worship. Their hearts were not with God anymore as they had forgotten the One who had released them from their bondage under the Babylonian empire.
After several months of prayer, Nehemiah mustered the courage to approach the king to ask for a leave of absence so that he may attend to the needs of his fallen city.
…because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests.Nehemiah 2:8
Nehemiah acknowledged that the hand of God that was with him was the reason for the king to be so quick in allowing him to leave, even equipping him with the royal cavalry and a letter with his seal of approval.
However, in Jerusalem, Nehemiah constantly faced opposition from the very day he arrived in the city. Sanballat and Tobiah were constant thorns in his side but Nehemiah paid no heed to them and continued on his mission, to rebuild the disgraced city of Jerusalem.
Rebuilding the Wall and Restoring the Pride
In the dark of the night, Nehemiah quietly surveyed the condition of the wall as he was yet to reveal his plans to anyone, fearing instantaneous opposition from Sanballat and Tobiah. But after carefully examining the dilapidated state of the walls and estimating the effort, he broke the news to the citizens of Jerusalem.
Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.Nehemiah 2:17
Throughout his endeavour Nehemiah was more worried about the outside appearance of the hill city of David rather than the state of its people. Time and again we see different leaders before him also trying to change the ways of the people but to no avail. Perhaps, Nehemiah thought if the city was fortified, that would restrict the entry of the foreigners who had supposedly corrupted its inhabitants.
The Enemy is All Around Us
So Nehemiah and Co. got to work and started rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem section by section. Nehemiah had planned out the roster and had assigned builders based on the location of their houses as most people were literally working in their backyard. But the work was long and tiring and fatigue combined with the constant fear of an attack from their not so friendly neighbours weighed heavily on the builders.
So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out.Nehemiah 4:21
No one came to attack the builders but Nehemiah had exercised extreme caution in dividing the people into two shifts of guards and builders. Perhaps this was the reason for the wall taking so long to complete but if Nehemiah had trusted God rather than focusing on the rumour mill, he and the exiles could have finished the work a lot faster.
Nehemiah Helps the Poor
The relentless and prolonged work on the wall left the people vulnerable to the famine that was ravaging the land. While Nehemiah was busy focusing on the rebuilding activity, famines wreaked havoc in the lives of the people leaving them destitute. They had to mortgage their fields, vineyards and even their homes, while some had to sell their children to slavery just to put food on the table. Those who were wealthy saw this as an opportunity, not to lift up the downtrodden among them but to take advantage of their current situation.
Nehemiah was taken aback by the outcry of the people and his first reaction was anger against their oppressors. He called an emergency meeting with everyone present and tried to deal with this problem openly.
“What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?Nehemiah 5:9
Nehemiah reprimanded the nobles and officials who were guilty of the grave sin of overcharging their brethren. Nehemiah even cited his own faults, as he along with his brothers was also charging interest but demanded that everyone stop this practice immediately and give back the fields, vineyards and houses back to the people of Jerusalem.
Having persevered the schemes of Sanballat and Tobiah, the constant bickering among his people and even the betrayal of several prophets who had spoken against him, Nehemiah’s anger burst at the sight of the Jews returning to their old ways, especially after all the efforts he and Ezra had made to educate them in the ways of the Lord.
After spending countless hours reading to them from the scriptures and warning them to not follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, Nehemiah was enraged when he saw the inhabitants of Jerusalem doing just that. They were defiling the temple, taking Sabbath for granted and following in the pagan ways of their neighbours.
Nehemiah’s anger burned against his fellow Israelites and he tried one last attempt to bring real change in his people. He changed the leadership, made them take new oaths and even got abusive and violent with some.
Nehemiah led with his heart rather than listening to the voice of God and always expected God to reward him for the sacrifice he was making in trying to rebuild Jerusalem, both physically and spiritually.
Sometimes we also can become overzealous and might end up believing that if the end justifies the means, then we are on the right path. We must lose our self confidence and build our hopes on the only One who is trustworthy. Rather than letting our emotions make hasty decisions, we must constantly ask God to lead our steps according to the plans He has for us.