As governor of Jerusalem and author of a book, Nehemiah is an important character in the biblical record of Israel’s reconstruction after the captivity in Babylon. All that we know of Nehemiah comes from the book that he wrote (Neh 1:1).
Circumstances of the time
When Persia conquered Babylon and released the captive peoples (539 BC), many Jews returned to Palestine. One of their first achievements, in spite of some early setbacks, was the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. But the city wall remained in ruins, and only when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem as governor in 445 BC was it rebuilt. This was more than ninety years after the first group of people had returned from captivity (Neh 2:1; cf. Ezra 1:1-4). (For events leading up to the time of Nehemiah see EZRA.)
Nehemiah was a man of forceful character who had the ability to motivate people. He was a good organizer and leader, but more importantly he was a man of prayer who trusted God, feared God and obeyed his commandments (Neh 1:4; 2:4; 4:20; 5:15; 6:11; 7:2; 13:17,25,30). He was fearless in dealing with opponents (Neh 4:14,20; 6:8,11; 13:8), yet sympathetic and self-sacrificing in helping the needy (Neh 5:11,14-18). Most of the book of Nehemiah seems to have come from the personal records that Nehemiah kept during his governorship of Jerusalem. The book is therefore largely in the first person. Nehemiah had two periods as governor of Jerusalem, an earlier period lasting twelve years and a later period of unknown length (Neh 5:14; 13:6-7).
Summary of Nehemiah’s book
Nehemiah first became governor as a result of a visit to Persia by some Jews from Jerusalem. At that time Nehemiah held a trusted position in the Persian palace, and the Jews no doubt hoped he could persuade the king to support them against the attacks of their opponents (1:1-3). Being a man of prayer, Nehemiah prayed about the matter for four months before asking the king for help. The king responded by giving him authority, materials and finance to go to Jerusalem to repair the city and rebuild its walls (1:4-2:10). It was probably at this time that Nehemiah was appointed governor.
After surveying the damage, Nehemiah outlined his plans to the people, gained their support, and organized a building program in which people of all kinds participated (2:11-3:32). When opponents tried to stop the work, Nehemiah presented the matter to God, but at the same time made arrangements to strengthen the defence of the city (4:1-23). He also acted decisively to stop the rich in Jerusalem from taking advantage of the poor, who were suffering added hardship because of the current difficulties (5:1- 19). Outside enemies tried by various means to stop the work, but without success. In the end the wall was finished (6:1-7:73). Before the wall was dedicated, Ezra read and explained parts of the law of Moses, first to the people and then to the leaders. After that the people celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (8:1-18). After further confession, the people swore to God an oath of obedience, which their leaders put in writing and signed on their behalf (9:1-10:39). An added arrangement before the dedication ceremony was to increase Jerusalem’s security by increasing its population. Many people from country areas came to live in the city (11:1-12:26). Ezra and Nehemiah then led the people in an impressive dedication ceremony (12:27-13:3). At the end of twelve years service, Nehemiah returned to Persia for a time. Without his strong leadership the people weakened and old enemies gained influence in the city. Upon arriving back in Jerusalem, Nehemiah dealt fearlessly with the enemies (13:4-9) and corrected Jerusalem’s social and religious disorders with his usual decisiveness (13:10-31).