Nehemiah opens 13 years after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem (compare verse 1 to Ezra 7:7). Ezra came about 57 years after the Temple was built, which was about 515 BC. The twentieth year in this verse refers to that of the reign of Artaxerxes, which is about 445 BC. At least one attempt at rebuilding the wall had been started (note Ezra 4:12), but it had never been finished. Some have surmised that the distress of Nehemiah at the news about the condition of the wall could be because he thought that because so many captives had already returned to Jerusalem so long ago, it should have already been rebuilt. Whatever the case, he is living hundreds of miles away in another land in the Persian citadel, or fortress, Susa.
Nehemiah was cupbearer to the Persian king – a position of some prominence, and would afford great access to the king – as well as scrutiny. His prayer to God in verses 5-11 is one of the great ones of the Old Testament. It includes praise to God, heartfelt and genuine confession and remorse without excuses, and a plea of petition to the Lord. In his plea, Nehemiah humbly asks the Lord to forgive them and restore them after having been scattered for their sins, as the Lord had promised in scriptures that include Deuteronomy 4:25-30 and Deuteronomy 30:1-6.
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