There has been much speculation about the author of the Book of Nehemiah. Many believe that the same person that wrote it also wrote the Book of Ezra, but the fact is that we just do not know that; and this writer strongly disagrees. Also, the insistence by many that part of Nehemiah was written by someone other than the prophet himself seems very misguided. For one thing, the opening sentence declares the scripture as “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah.”
Secondly, although there are a very few select references to “Nehemiah, the governor,” practically the entire book is written in the first person voice. As we have mentioned before, it hardly matters, but there are often good reasons for a lapse into third person narrative mode, particularly when recounting detailed historical events. And it should be noted that the prophet is still writing in the first person throughout the final chapter.
Thanks to Verse one of the first chapter, we do know to the month and year when the news of the destruction of Jerusalem’s wall was brought to Nehemiah. The month of “Chislev” was the ninth month (November/December). “The twentieth year” refers to the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes, which would make it 445 B. C. The reference to Hanani as Nehemiah’s brother in verse 2 is repeated in Nehemiah 7:2, and it seems to mean the relationship was in the literal sense of the word.
Why was the news of the wall’s destruction so devastating to Nehemiah? A city’s walls were much more than a defensive structure. It had tremendous symbolic value, and was a large part of what made a city a real and recognizable city. Without it, civil and sociological progress and status would all be hindered. Jerusalem would be no more significant than a large encampment. Without a wall, there could not even be a single city gate! Beyond their functional use, the gates themselves were significant as gathering places and for conducting business in an important city. Now, they too were gone.
The Persian Empire had reached its height under Cyrus the Great, having added to its borders by swallowing up the Babylonian Empire, including Elam, and its capital, Susa in 540 B.C. It was there that Nehemiah resided as the book opens, serving as the cupbearer to king Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:1, Nehemiah 1:11). The Persians had added Israel and Judah to their holdings, and they were known as “Beyond the River” (Nehemiah 2:7). Having released the people of Judah, who had become known as Jews, per the decree of Cyrus, the former captives had begun returning in waves. Following the news from Hanani and the others, Nehemiah obtained the king’s permission to go to Jerusalem, and set out on his journey (Nehemiah 2:7-8).
Chapters 8-10 hold very important significance. The passage includes what is known as the Great Water Gate Revival (a gathering in the square before the Water Gate) and the covenant renewal. A key part of this was the reading of the Law. For many of them, this would be the first time they had ever heard the entire Law of Moses read to them; and it was a very emotional and profound experience.
The Book of Nehemiah is a passionate story of a man’s determination to get something very important done. But it must be remembered that it was the execution of God’s will. God was determined to get the people back entrenched in the work of serving Him as God’s people in their own land after the exile. And when God wants something done, it gets done. Fairly short work was made of what seemed at the outset to many to be a monumental task that could easily take years. The wall was finished in 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15)! But the Book is full of historical detail and makes more complete the renewal of reinstating Mosaic Law that Ezra had begun in the previous chapter.
image © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
Please note: I did not design the reading plan that I am following in my blog. All of my comments in this blog, however, are solely my responsibility. When reading ANY commentary, you should ALWAYS refer first to the scripture, which is God’s unchanging and unfailing word. Reading schedules, as well as a link to the site where you can get the reading plan that I’m currently following for yourself can be found on the “Bible Reading Schedules” page of my website at http://graceofourlord.com.