I chose this week’s commentary because I wanted to better know a man who was a family member, Jew, cupbearer, governor, reformer, writer, person with irony, maker of lists, leader who lived the Last Supper school of ruling, and rebuilder of place and nation. I have spent the last two weeks listening to his book every day, rummaging through the concordance, making notes, underlining texts and asking questions of those texts. I am still sure I am missing qualities of this complicated person who loved one country and yet was trusted by the ruler of its conqueror. I am going to focus on his relationships with his family, his God, his Persian king, and his people. I am going to share a little of what I see of his personality and his priorities. Although this can only be a haiku glance at a full life, I hope Nehemiah becomes to us more than a shadowy figure in a Bible story.
Relationship with Family
In the ancient Hebrew culture names were indicators of character. They could be the wishes and values of a parent doing the naming, the quality that parent wished for their child, a description of events surrounding the birth (Jacob means the supplanter; Ichabod means no glory or the glory has left), or a change in the life of the person being renamed. (Jacob became Israel, one who contends with God.)
Hacaliah, the name of Nehemiah’s father, means “who waits for the Lord.” Nehemiah’s grandparents were probably living in the time of Daniel and yet had faith enough to be waiting for the work of God to end their exile. We know the names of two of Hacaliah’s sons. Nehemiah means “the Lord is my comfort.” It makes easy sense that these parents might want their child to focus on their God for emotional sustenance. I wonder if it might also have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to support this child in some of the many challenging opportunities that would be part of his life. Hanani means “gracious.” Throughout the Babylonian/Median/Persian captivity, even with naming, this family appears to have steeped their descendants in faith and hope.
I know three things about the brothers. Hanani chose to go with Ezra in the second exilic return to Jerusalem while Nehemiah stayed in the court. Hanani was willing to personally make a two-to three-month, 981-mile trip back to Susa to tell his brother the state of Jerusalem’s disrepair thirteen years later. I extrapolate that he must have trusted that his brother would do something about it. I further extrapolate that Nehemiah trusted the accuracy of the report his brother shared. After Nehemiah had been in Jerusalem for 12 years and needed to return to Susa, it was Hanani, whose values he trusted to govern Jerusalem in his absence. The only other mention I found of Nehemiah’s family is during a crisis of the building project (Nehemiah 4:23) when his family is noted among those who vigilantly carried on. Clearly, they were a valued and integral part of his support network.
Relationship with His God
Given the family history of naming children with language indicating a relationship with Yahweh, it wasn’t surprising to me that the first thing Nehemiah did, upon learning about the state of Jerusalem, was to pray to his God. In fact, he stayed in this attitude of prayer and waiting from the month of Kislev in the early winter to the month of Nisan in the early spring. Nisan is the month of Passover. I like that the improbable opportunities of the rescue instituted by Nehemiah take place near or on the anniversary of another improbable rescue centuries earlier. There is no indicator that Nehemiah became frustrated with God during these three months, though his worry finally became obvious to the court. When asked by Artaxerxes about his wishes, the first thing Nehemiah did was pray and then ask an outrageous boon, which was granted. He gives all the credit for the king’s response to “the gracious hand of our God.” (Neh. 2:7) His first response to the mocking of Sanballat and Tobiah is “Hear us, our God, for they treat us with contempt. Turn back their reproach upon their own heads.” (Neh. 4:4) Nehemiah’s writing about his dependence on and relationship with God continues to the very last sentence of his letter. What I like about his interactions with Yahweh is that Nehemiah has an understanding of a reciprocal divine-human relationship. He acknowledges his need of God in life and responsibilities. He also asks the benefits of a child who is a citizen of the family of Heaven. In “remember me for my good, oh God” (13:31). I can almost hear Nehemiah’s confident trust.
Relationship with His King
Nehemiah was cup bearer to the king. In Achaemenid times, job requirements for the position included modesty, industriousness, courage, beauty, and trustworthiness. Cupbearers brought wine to the king and often tasted it to make sure it was not poisoned. The trust often generated by their personal qualities, combined with a life-threatening place in the court, gave them access to an intimate understanding of court issues and a position of influence.
It is probable that the king Nehemiah served was Artaxerxes I. Ancient historians report that the father of Artaxerxes had been murdered by the commander of the royal bodyguard with the help of a eunuch. A monarch with that family history would do well to be wary. The fact the Nehemiah, a member of a conquered nation, could rise to such a vulnerable level in the court indicates that the consistency and integrity with which he served earned him esteem and trust. Court attitudes could also have been affected by the recent history of Mordecai, Esther, and Ezra.
I am somewhat in awe that Nehemiah’s relationship with King Artaxerxes was such that he could ask for and get a long-term leave of absence from a job that kept the king alive, a letter to the governors of Trans-Euphrates for “all the help I need for the journey to Judah” and “a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the royal forests instructing him to supply me with timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which adjoins the palace, and for the city wall, and for the palace which I shall occupy.” (Neh. 4:7,8) To top it all off, Nehemiah got “an escort of army officers with cavalry.” This is indicative of a highly respected human connection combined with the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Nehemiah’s expression of trust in this relationship shows several weeks into the building of the city walls. Sanballat sent a blackmail letter accusing Nehemiah of the treasonous act of plotting rebellion and setting himself up as king. Knowing that if the king received and believed the letter, his life would be forfeit, could have given Nehemiah pause. Didn’t happen. He wrote “Here is the reply I sent. No such thing as you allege has taken place; you have made up the whole story. They were all trying to intimidate us in the hope that we should relax our efforts and the work would not be finished. So, I applied myself with greater energy.” (Neh. 6:8, 9) There is no record of the king ever questioning Nehemiah’s loyalty through his two terms as Jerusalem’s governor.
Here are a few examples of benevolent leadership that I found in the text.
A good leader places himself with his people and often speaks for their good. Nehemiah had sure knowledge of the failings of the people in Jerusalem. At the same time there is no mention of his personal sins in the Biblical records. Though he could have prayed “Lord I thank you that I am not like the faithless,” Nehemiah puts himself with his people. “We have wronged Thee.” (Neh. 1:7) He could have distanced himself before God from the disorganized and disobedient. He didn’t. Instead he became an intercessor for them “Grant me good success this day and put it in this man’s heart (Artaxerxes) to show me kindness.” That kindness shown was to benefit Jerusalem and her people.
A good leader plans well. I mentioned above the supplies Nehemiah brought to meet the building needs. You read in Chapter 2 the careful and quiet survey he made of the wall before he met with Jerusalem’s leaders. Nehemiah had such a good understanding of those leaders that he slipped out the Dung Gate (where the refuse of the temple was thrown) at midnight when and where no one would be looking for him and circled the city by starlight. He arrived at his meeting the next morning with knowledge, plans, and encouragement that surprised them. As he laid his clearly delineated proposal before Jerusalem’s leaders, “I told them how the gracious hand of my God had been with me and also what the king had said to me,” (Neh. 2:18) and the building began.
A good leader makes note of the successes of the people. “Eliashib, the high priest, and his fellow priests started work and rebuilt the Gate.” (Neh. 3:1) “The sheep gate was built by the sons of Hassenah.” (Neh. 3:3) “Shallum, son of Hallohesh, did the repairs with the help of his daughters.” (Neh. 3:12) I do so like that he included this one! He also notes their failures.
“…the men of Tekoa did the repairs but their nobles would not demean themselves to serve their governor.” (Neh, 3:5, 6)
A good leader protects his flock from the wolves. When Sanballat and Tobiah began their campaign of intimidation, Nehemiah replied “The God of Heaven will give (us) success…you have no stake or claim in Jerusalem.” (Neh. 3:19, 20). When the threats grew worse, he set up a system of armed builder teams, including himself and his family.
A good leader also protects his people from harm done by their fellow citizens. There came a time when the nobles and magistrates were abusing their power to the extent that common people were being made slaves. To those usurpers and human traffickers, Nehemiah responded, “What you are doing is wrong. You ought to so live in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations that are our enemies.” Though he had done no wrong, Nehemiah became the first to make restitution by advancing corn and money to those who had been afflicted.
Good leaders set examples of self-denial in order to benefit those they serve. In the face of the wrongs done by the nobles, Nehemiah pointed out that
Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year—twelve years—neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. But the earlier governors—those preceding me—placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. (Neh. 5: 14-18)
With his heart and with his actions, Nehemiah set an example of how Judah with its leaders could interact with their citizens and with the nations around them. Clearly, he and Ezra had read the Pentateuch. It seems to me that he grasped a promise that these people had been given a second chance to become the light set on a hill for all around them.
We today have his example still before us. That example gives us the choice to build a relationship with God that will take us places we never imagined, the encouragement to surround ourselves with supportive networks, the imperative to consistently act in such a way that even those who would be our enemies, trust and respect us, and a training in leadership that builds with grace a city set on a hill.
Catherine Taylor is a family therapist who specializes in the development of benevolent systems. She has been a Sabbath School teacher, sermon presenter, Bible study facilitator, camp meeting speaker, and writer on various Bible topics.
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