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


Nehemiah 1:1-2:20


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.