This post is part two of a six part series titled, An Urban Ministry Exegesis of of Nehemiah. This blog series explores the biblical book of Nehemiah about how a leader starts and leads a successful project. Most of the application is tied to inner city ministry.
UNDERSTANDING NEHEMIAH’S CONTEXT
By Nehemiah’s time, the Jews had spent several decades in exile. The Persian king, Cyrus, issued a decree in 538 B.C. that allowed over 50,000 Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Several “waves” of Jewish men and women returned to the city of Jerusalem to restore it to its former life before being conquered. One of those waves was led by Ezra, a Jewish priest who was skilled in teaching God’s law.
However, “Ezra did not solve all the problems in Jerusalem. The people still did not have a secure city with rebuilt walls and gates. Numerous enemies still opposed their presence in Jerusalem. They needed a strong civic leader who could help them preserve their independence, economic vitality, security, and sanctity of Jerusalem. God sent a new leader, Nehemiah, to address these issues.” Eventually, the Jews succeeded in rebuilding the temple, but there was still much work left to be done, and the people knew that. In this context, we get to see the circumstances and process for how Nehemiah’s vision is born in Nehemiah’s life.
At the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, we quickly see that Nehemiah has a heart for God, his home country, Judah, and the holy city, Jerusalem. From Nehemiah’s heart for God, Judah, and Jerusalem, we see a vision born. In the first chapter of Nehemiah, he asks some fellow brothers “about the Jews who had returned there [to Jerusalem] from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem.” This might have been an optimistic question. He might have hoped to hear about positive changes being made in the city.
One Bible scholar says Nehemiah’s question was “earnest and eager, because his interest was genuine.” Jerusalem was the holy city of his ancestors in the “glory days” when David and Solomon ruled with great power and influence. Unfortunately, Nehemiah hears “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.” This is devastating news to Nehemiah, so much that he sits down and weeps. For days he mourns, fasts, and prays.
Why weep over walls and gates?
In 586 B.C., 141 years earlier, Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. In Nehemiah’s time, blessings and punishments were seen as the result of people’s behavior. In other words, if things were good and God blessed them, it meant God was pleased with the people’s obedience to Him. On the flip side, thanks to the prophets’ revelations the people knew they had been conquered and carried away to a foreign land because they had allowed their hearts to drift away from God.
Nehemiah shows us he knows this when he prays in verses six and seven of chapter one, “I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses.” Judah had a long history of failing to be faithful to God, and this led them to eventually being conquered by the Babylonians and 60,000-80,000 people carried away to live in various districts of Babylon. The city of Jerusalem had its walls torn down, gates burned, temple destroyed, and religious artifacts carried away. In this era it was also believed that the people who had the most land and power had the most powerful Gods. Judah’s exile and Jerusalem’s destruction not only highlighted their disobedience, it meant their God was no longer seen as a power by their enemies. Nehemiah views this news as a message that either God was not in power or that God was still angry with them for their past sin.
Nehemiah was a man in a foreign nation, serving a foreign king who worshipped a foreign god. The news that Nehemiah’s homeland and people were still in disarray was definitely something to weep over, and leads him to a prayer that gives us insight into his heart.
 Gary V. Smith, New Living Translation Study Bible, “The Book of Nehemiah” (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 808.
 Nehemiah 1:2
 W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1956), 2:630.
 Nehemiah 1:3
 Nehemiah 1:4
 Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Archaeological Background of Nehemiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1980): 302.
 Nehemiah 1:6-7
 Comfort, Ph.D., Phillip W. and Walter A. Alwell, Ph.D., eds. Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 943.