For part 1 click here.
Who was Nehemiah?
We don’t know much about his childhood, his youth or his upbringing. He was the son of Hacaliah, and he had a brother named Hanani. We can only assume his family background. He probably was from an upper-class Jewish family, that was taken captive and “carried off to Babylon” (Daniel 1:3) Nehemiah was probably born in Persia and received his education there.
The book Nehemiah is considered Nehemiah’s memoirs. It’s mostly written in the first-person. He was a “contemporary of Ezra, Malachi, Socrates in Greece, and only a few decades later that Gautama Buddha in India and Confucius in China.” (c) (Just in case you love history and would like to connect some dots…)
Nehemiah “had risen to a position of prominence in his pagan environment.” (a) He was the king’s cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11). This meant that he was tasting the king’s food and wine before it was given to the king, and therefore Nehemiah “stood between the king and death. That Nehemiah, a Jew and a captive, served this Gentile king in such a strategic capacity was an unusual credit and honor to this man of strong character” (c) “This important position in the king’s court gives insight into Nehemiah’s life and character. A mighty monarch such as the king of Persia would select for that position a man who was wise and discreet, and consistently honest and trustworthy. Nehemiah’s position alone reveals much about his intellectual capabilities, his emotional maturity, and his spiritual status.” (a)
The book of Nehemiah starts out like a diary entry:
1 These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.
In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.
3 They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”
4 When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.
It was only natural of Nehemiah to inquire how his people were doing in Jerusalem. He might have still had family “back home”. Here we see the caring heart of Nehemiah. He might be serving as the cupbearer of a Gentile king, and a very powerful king at that, but he still knew where he “belonged”, even though he most likely had never been to Jerusalem. He still had a heart for his people. When he heard that they were in “great trouble and disgrace” (Neh 1:3) “he sat down and wept.” (Neh 1:4)
I always wondered what it was like to be moved by something so terrible that one would – for example – have to vomit, like it’s shown in many movies. You know, when someone goes to identify a body, or someone sees a murdered person, like Marie in the first Bourne movie, coming down the stairs with Jason Bourne, and the woman that had just minutes or hours before opened the front door for them, is now dead, shot. And Marie vomits.
It has only happened to me once, and it came as a big surprise. I had opened up the BBC news website at the office one morning in 2011, and the front page was showing a live feed of last year’s earthquake in Japan. The pictures were so horrifying, the destruction looked so surreal, and when the cameras zoomed in on the people… I just lost it, I had to run to the washroom and I lost my breakfast.
This is how I picture Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about his people in Jerusalem. We are not given a lot of details on the news. But to get a man sit down and weep, and then to mourn, fast and pray for days, there must have been more details that were given to him.
I wonder what it would take for me to sit down and weep. Do I have a heart that cares so much that I would, in fact, mourn, fast and pray for days? With the media saturation that we experience day and night, do I still get moved when I hear about a tragedy? Or is it just part of the news that I see for a few seconds and then I move on to the next news segment?
(a) The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Old Testament
(b) The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah by F. Charles Fensham
(c) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary