Scripture’s historical record of the postexilic Jewish community covers about one hundred years. In our study of this record thus far, we have been introduced to key leaders of the returned exiles, including Zerubbabel the governor and Ezra the priest-scribe (Ezra 2:2; 7:1–6; Hag. 1:1). Today, we meet a third postexilic Jewish leader of great significance—Nehemiah.
The story of Nehemiah begins in about the year 445 BC. Artaxerxes I, who sent Ezra to the territory of Judah thirteen years prior, was still emperor of Persia. We do not know much about Nehemiah’s family background other than that he was a Jew and the son of Hacaliah (Neh. 1:1). His name means “the LORD has comforted,” and it is a longer version of Nahum. Although Nehemiah was a Jew, he had risen to be the cupbearer to the king (v. 11). In ancient Persia, the cupbearer’s job was to pick the choicest wines for the emperor to drink and to taste-test the wine before giving it to the king to make sure it had not been poisoned. It was a position of considerable importance, so the cupbearer was one of the king’s most trusted advisers. That Nehemiah could hold it shows that many of the Jews who had been resettled outside of the promised land on account of the exile rose quite high in the ranks of foreign governments.
While in Susa, the winter residence of the Persian emperors, Nehemiah met with visitors from Judah, and he inquired about the situation of his countrymen in the promised land. He received bad news—the Jewish community was struggling, and the walls of Jerusalem remained in ruins, just as the Babylonians had left them in 538 BC (vv. 2–3). Since ancient cities depended on their walls for protection, the Jews were in a defenseless position.
Living in the lap of luxury, Nehemiah could have easily ignored the plight of his fellow Jews. But Nehemiah knew that something had to be done, and as we will see, he was willing to leave his exalted position to serve his people in Jerusalem. In this, Nehemiah foreshadowed the even more highly exalted Son of God who would humble Himself for the sake of His people (Phil. 2:5–11).
Nehemiah loved his people and went to the Lord in prayer, confessing the sin of the Jews and asking God to bless his plans. He was about to go to Artaxerxes for assistance, but he could not succeed without the Lord’s favor (Neh. 1:4–11).