Read the Passage (NRSV)    Find more resources related to this passage  Print

Nehemiah 1:1-2:20 – Jerusalem as the Object of Reproach


Moved by reports of the sorry state of Jerusalem, Nehemiah prays to God and plans to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city's walls.


"Reproach" governs the three major sections of the Nehemiah memoir. The concept first appears with regard to the survivors living "in…shame" (1:3) and "disgrace" (2:17), both translations reflecting the same Hebrew term. We will see this reproach narrowing to the builders (4:4, translated "taunt") in the second section, and finally to personal attack made upon Nehemiah in the third section (6:13, again translated as "taunt").

The section begins with a report of the sorry state of Jerusalem brought to Nehemiah's attention as he served the Persian king in the trusted office of cupbearer. Nehemiah's first reaction to the tragic news is to mourn for several days (1:1-4). This understandable response of grief, however, is soon replaced with Nehemiah's characteristic response: prayer, followed by action.

His prayer, found in verses 5-11, is best understood through the lens of verse 6. The delegation from Jerusalem had only reported the desperate conditions of the city. Nehemiah correctly discerned the underlying problem, namely, their failure with regard to the covenant. This insight moves Nehemiah to confess his people's sin (vv. 6b-7). In the company of Moses, Ezra, and Daniel, Nehemiah also confesses his own involvement in this sin and identifies himself with their condition. The exile had been an effective, if harsh, lesson, but one well learned. No whining or complaining here, just acknowledgement and confession of sin. The heart of the prayer (vv. 8-9) is also its turning point. In his confession, Nehemiah appeals to God's mercy by reminding God that the lessons of the exile had been learned. God is in control of history. But then God's judgment on Israel's sin has already been carried out, and the signs of repentance in the community encourage Nehemiah to appeal to God to remember the promise of return (v. 9). The prayer closes with Nehemiah's realization that he will be God's instrument and thus in need of success with his capricious master, Artaxerxes (v. 11).

In chapter 2, Nehemiah brings the report of Jerusalem's ruin to Artaxerxes and asks that he be allowed to return and rebuild the city of his people (vv. 2-5). In verse 8, we learn that "the gracious hand of God" once again moved the Persian king to grant Nehemiah's request, in phrases familiar from God's similar activity in the book of Ezra (Ezra 7:6, 9, 28; 8:18).

Having persuaded the king (with God's help), Nehemiah now turns to the more difficult task of persuading the people (2:15-18). Again, the familiar references to "the good hand of God," so useful in his conversation with Artaxerxes, proved equally effective in his efforts to persuade the people to return and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, emphasizing yet again that God is the decisive factor in the restoration.

Nehemiah 1:1-2:20


Nehemiah Prays for His People

1The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 2one 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. 3They 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.’

4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; 6let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. 7We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses. 8Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.” 10They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. 11O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!’

At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.

Nehemiah Sent to Judah

2In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served to him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, ‘May the king live for ever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ 4Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ 6The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), ‘How long will you be gone, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. 7Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah; 8and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.’ And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.

9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent officers of the army and cavalry with me. 10When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.

Nehemiah’s Inspection of the Walls

11 So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days. 12Then I got up during the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. The only animal I took was the animal I rode. 13I went out by night by the Valley Gate past the Dragon’s Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. 14Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool; but there was no place for the animal I was riding to continue. 15So I went up by way of the valley by night and inspected the wall. Then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. 16The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work.

Decision to Restore the Walls

17 Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ 18I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building!’ So they committed themselves to the common good. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, ‘What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ 20Then I replied to them, ‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.’

Related Passages