The Bible tells us very little about the minor prophet Nehemiah. Nevertheless the scanty information reveals a very PRAYERFUL man who does so in great faith, obedience and submission to God, rounding off the desires of his heart with ACTION.
No wonder then that against all odds (among them his enemy’s political concoction that he aimed to usurp the power of King Artaxerxes of the Persian Empire by himself becoming king of the fort city), the herculean job of rebuilding post-exilic Jerusalem was completed in just 52 days!
A Bible encyclopedia writes that Nehemiah “may be properly called the father of Judaism, ”contending that through his relentless efforts to rebuild the walls, Jerusalem “has a fortified city, a purified people, a dedicated and united nation, a renewed economic stability, and a new commitment to God’s law.”
At the time of Nehemiah’s engineering feat, it’s been decades since more than 50,000 of his forebears returned to Judah from 70 years of Babylonian exile. The return was facilitated by an edict of King Cyrus of Persia (which had vanquished Babylon). But the returnees have not learned their lessons. They were still a dysfunctional nation where the poor sectors were weighed down by heavy taxes and encumbered by political jealousies of neighboring Gentiles. Their hearts remained uncircumcised.
Nehemiah was leading a prosperous life as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes Logimanus in the citadel at Susa (the winter capital of the empire and situated close to what is now the Iran-Iraq border), when he learned from visiting businessmen and a brother about the state of disrepair of the walls of Jerusalem. Plus that his people, the Jews, were either the oppressed or oppressors and were ungodly.
And though his job as food taster/secret service agent is considered one that put him between the King and death, it was a providential and strategic one. It provided a grapevine through which crucial and sensitive information such as those from Jerusalem crept. Nehemiah wept hard over this heartbreaking news of the “City of David,” of God’s chosen people. For about four wintry months (mid-November to mid-March in modern-day Gregorian calendar), he fasted and prayed for discernment over how he might process this information and how he might further proceed. Nehemiah had to be very astute because the palace was a snake pit and spies-for-rent were lurking around. God showed him the way; off he traveled to Jerusalem with a royal appointment as tirshata, or governor. Three months into this position, he got royal permission to rebuild the walls.
Biblical scholars contend that God’s use of his agents like Nehemiah (Ezra, Zerubbabel, et.al.) and great monarchs who are gentiles like Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes demonstrated His faithfulness to His covenant that He will restore His people.
Nehemiah’s reputation as a virtuous man, his skills with people and knowledge of the law, topped with diplomatic savvy, all combined to merit the appointment. Guided by faith in God, he followed through his every prayer with action such as when he posted security guards at the construction site as well as armed the workers following a fervent prayer for their safety and success.
Despite occasional grumblings by some workers, especially those with vineyards to till to feed the family, Nehemiah managed his workers well, even using his salary and benefits as governor for their labor and some cost of construction materials. That was for 12 years!
Why was Nehemiah so into the rebuilding? And why were the residents of Jerusalem cooperative? It was a matter of national pride as God’s chosen people, a strong motivator. Surely, it was disgraceful if God’s children lived in ruined surroundings, exposed to dangers and criminality, vulnerable to outside immoralities such as mixed marriages! What would foreigners in their midst and mean neighbors make of this? That their God was a false God who was displeased with his own people, could not protect them and would abandon them?