Elephantine PapyriThe words of Nehemiah were once included along with the words of Ezra as one book. As time passed, they became divided – referred to as 1st and 2nd Ezra. In the 4th century, Jerome (an early church leader) began to refer to this second section as Nehemiah. While Ezra focused on the rebuilding of the Temple, it is Nehemiah who focuses on the walls.

There is much debate about when the accounts of this book actually happened. Right in the first few verses we are told that Nehemiah was a cup bearer to Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. The issue is that “Artaxerxes” is not an actual name, but a title. (It means “the great king” and was applied to many of the kings of the Media/Persian dynasty). It is pretty much the consensus that the Artaxerxes spoken of in Nehemiah 2:1 is indeed Artaxerxes 1, who reigned from 464-424 BC. Since this happened 20 years into his reign, it would put Nehemiah’s journey to Jerusalem about 60-70 years after Ezra’s – during which time the Temple was completed and the walls were slowly being rebuilt. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_kings_of_Persia#Old_Persian_Empire.2C_550.E2.80.93329_BC)

Nehemiah was the cup bearer to Artaxerxes 1, and thus held a great relationship with the king. The position of cup bearer was one of great privilege, as you were with the king on a continuous basis – being an aid to help him while he relaxed. This would no doubt afford you moments with the king’s ear, as well as the opportunity to win the king’s heart. But, it was also a position of great risk, as the Persian kings were known for expecting high standards from their servants. This is why Nehemiah was afraid, when he was caught being downcast in the king’s presence. Nehemiah had just heard that the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem some many years earlier were not doing so well. (Obviously not All the Jews returned when freed by Cyrus, many instead choosing to remain behind in their established lives in Babylon).

Artaxerxes had mercy on Nehemiah and granted him permission to return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls, including granting him supplies for the work when he arrived. This news was not met with joy by the enemies of Israel who dwelt in the area of Jerusalem. As we saw with Ezra, these enemies had been stirring up trouble for many years for the Israelites as they initially came back and sought to rebuild their once great capital. Since the day Cyrus decreed them released, these enemies had been working to thwart their mission – and Nehemiah’s was no different.

Sanballet (whose name means “the enemy is secret”) was an enemy of the Jews who led the charge against resisting the planned work going on in Jerusalem. This guy is not just a character in the Bible, as there have been found several archeological documents with his name on them. He was a governor to the east of Palestine, a powerful man under the Persian kingdom who held much sway in the region. An Aramaic papyrus found among the ruins of Elephantine, Egypt – which dates to the 5th Century BC – was addressed to a couple of Jews named Delaya and Shelemya – called “sons of Sanballat”. (http://www.formerthings.com/sanballat.htm). Many examples such as this exist which give historical validity to the Biblical accounts.

As in all Scripture, the main theme of the record of Nehemiah is not just physical, but also can be applied to us today. While Nehemiah faced great resistance from the enemies of God while rebuilding the physical walls of Jerusalem, we as well face resistance in our work today, as we rebuild the shattered walls of peoples lives all around us. As we follow Nehemiah on his mission, think of your own personal mission from God – given by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) – and take note of the clever ways the enemy tries to disrupt your work!

Be Fruitful & Multiply,

PK

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