Study Guide

Nehemiah in Ezra and Nehemiah

Nehemiah

Nehemiah's a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes—actually a pretty high position at court. He works his way up to being the new Governor of Jerusalem/Judah, thanks to a series of savvy career moves, beginning with a request to the Emperor to permit him go help his people rebuild and regroup in Jerusalem. Artaxerxes grants the request.

Since he writes his own book—Nehemiah claims to be a first-person account by the actual Nehemiah—we only get to really see his take on himself. Nehemiah's take happens to be that he's a pretty awesome guy: a great governor, unlike the corrupt idiots who came before him. He discusses his many great reforms and good deeds and asks God to remember them and count them in his favor. He never misses an opportunity to blow his own horn.

Right off the bat, Nehemiah tells us what a sensitive guy he is:

[…] one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, "The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire." When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (NRSV 1:2-4)

He's still sad the next day:

In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. So the king said to me, "Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart." (NRSV 2:1-2)

Evidently, the king and Nehemiah are very well-known to teach other. In ancient times, the cup-bearer not only brought the wine, he often had to drink it to make sure it wasn't poisoned. If this was the case with Nehemiah, you can see why the king trusted him. The king sends him on his way with military protection and plenty of provisions for the journey.

Fun fact: some translations render "cup-bearer" as "eunuch." Scholars suggested this would explain why, as a servant, Nehemiah was permitted to be in the presence of the Queen (Nehemiah 2:6). Access to the Queen by men was pretty restricted, but eunuchs wouldn't pose a threat. (It's tempting to think about this as a reason why Nehemiah has to go out of his way to sing his own praises—he's insecure—but we won't try to psych out someone who lived 2500 years ago.)

Nehemiah lets us know again and again how eager he is to be seen as righteous by God. Here's a typical example:

Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover there were at my table one hundred fifty people, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. Now that which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and every ten days skins of wine in abundance; yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because of the heavy burden of labor on the people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people. (NRSV 5:14-19)

Despite his compassion for his wandering people, Nehemiah's not beyond using harsh measures to enforce the rules:

In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, "You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves." (NRSV 13:23-25)

This guy's serious.

In all fairness, Nehemiah really is a just, efficient, and generous ruler. He prevents nobles from charging excessive interest and trapping the common people in an unending spiral of debt. He plays a crucial role in the rebuilding effort, helping defend Jerusalem against enemies who are trying to disrupt reconstruction of the walls, and makes sure people are observing the Sabbath correctly. He's an extremely organized guy and hard worker, as evidenced that he gets the entire wall around Jerusalem repaired in 52 days. Uh-huh.

Also, Nehemiah has a passion for writing long lists. His name in Hebrew means "Comforted by God." Maybe God comforted him by telling him it wouldn't be the end of the world if he left someone off the list.