This coming Sunday we will be starting a new sermon series through the book of Nehemiah. In preparation, Pastor Jeff has asked me to provide you with some of the historical background of the book, so that we might get as much out of this series as we can.
The book of Nehemiah takes place around 450 BC. The Babylonian empire whose most prominent king was Nebuchadnezzar II (also known as Nebuchadnezzar the Great) has fallen into the hands of the Medo-Persian coalition. This empire spans the entire ancient fertile crescent, the most strategic land in the ancient near east, located between the Tigris and the Euphrates river (also known as Mesopotamia). Nehemiah is in the royal court at Susa, the capital of Medo-Persia. When Babylon initially spread out its conquest over much of the same area that is now controlled by Medo-Persia, it captured and exiled many peoples including the people of Israel. The people of Israel live side by side with their captors, in accord with what they were commanded to do, as we see in the case of Daniel or Esther, who was the favourite wife of Xerxes I. Xerxes was the father of Artaxerxes I, the king in whose court Nehemiah now served.
Following King David, there were very few kings that followed entirely after the word of the Lord. King Solomon is the most well-known example. He built Israel's military power by horses (something he was not supposed to do). He took numerous foreign wives which turned him away from God to the worship of foreign gods. After his death, Israel split into two kingdoms, the North Kingdom (10 tribes) and the South Kingdom (Judah and Benjamin). The South Kingdom kept the Davidic dynasty going and had several good kings who followed God. The kings of the North Kingdom, almost without exception, rejected the Lord. For this reason, the North Kingdom was taken into permanent exile from which they never returned in 722 BC by the Assyrians. The Lord was merciful to the South Kingdom for longer, but the sins of Manasseh were too much. Manassah worshipped idols, defiled the holy temple with altars to the Baals. He burned his child alive as a sacrifice to the child-devouring god Molech. He used witchcraft, consulted mediums and turned the temple in Jerusalem into a house of Asherah, or, in other words, a brothel where cult prostitution was conducted.
Because of his sins and those of the whole people, the people were exiled by the Babylonians in 586 BC. By the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord declared that the period of the exile would be 70 years. (Jeremiah 25:11). So the people of Israel were to expect a return and restoration by 516 BC. In one of the most stunningly accurate biblical prophecies, the Lord promised that his “anointed” namely his chosen one that would bring this about would be a king by the name of Cyrus.
“Thus says the Lord to his anointed Cyrus... it is I the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by name... For the sake of my servant Jacob... though you do not know me.” (Isaiah 45:1-4)
And as God is faithful, in 539 Babylon fell into the hands of a Medo-Persian King named Cyrus the Great. He issued a decree allowing the people of Israel to return home under Zerubbabel. There they began reconstruction of the temple which was completed in, you guessed it, 516 BC. Precisely 70 years after the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Nevertheless, this wasn't enough. Israel's temple was rebuilt and they had returned to the land but they were not a politically significant nation.
It is impossible to understand the circumstances of exilic and post-exilic prophecy and events without Deuteronomy 28-30. Here Moses spelled out in great detail what would happen to Israel if it broke the covenant (exile), and how the Lord would restore Israel. The promised restoration after the exile was promised to be a full restoration.
“When these things come upon you...and you return to the Lord your God... he will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you...And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. (Deuteronomy 30:1-6)
Nevertheless at Nehemiah and Ezra's time, roughly 450 BC, news reaches Nehemiah that the wall has not been rebuilt, the people are hard pressed on all sides. The people have “great trouble and shame.” In the ancient near east, a city wall was almost as important defensively as the military itself. Having no city wall to your capital city means you are barely legitimized as even being an independent nation. You are at the mercy of the nations around you. The Israelites didn't have the resources to rebuild the walls or the city and so, although they had returned to Jerusalem, Israel was no political power but rather a few Jews huddled in the ruins of their ancient city. They had rebuilt the temple but were far from the full restoration that God had promised.
This is where the account of Nehemiah begins.
Jimmy Beevers (Pastoral Intern)