A Man of Priority

Nehemiah is the sixteenth of the seventeen Old Testament history books, one of three that documents events following Israel’s Babylonian exile.1 God had called the nation to be a ‘kingdom of priests’, Exod. 19. 6; His desire was for it to be known that He was their God, and they His people, Lev. 26. 12. As time passed, there were periods when the nation followed the Lord, but the general trend was of decline in spiritual matters. There was division and departure from the Lord. His people adopted the practices and false gods of the surrounding nations. Instead of bringing honour to His name, they were ‘dragging it through the mud’ and were a reproach. Despite the warnings of the prophets of the Lord, they were taken into exile. However, God purposed this with a view to their recovery and return to the land. Nehemiah records the return of a third group of captives from exile.2

The opening expression sets the scene, ‘The words of Nehemiah [“consolation/comfort of Jehovah”] the son of Hachaliah [“darkness of Jehovah”]’. Against the dark background of the Lord’s hand of discipline upon His people, under Nehemiah’s leadership the Lord brings restoration.3

Here we might see an application to believers of the present dispensation, whom Peter identifies as ‘a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people’. God’s desire is that we should live for the honour of His name - ‘that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light’, 1 Pet. 2. 9 NKJV. At times, however, it will be necessary for our Father to discipline us, His sons. With Proverbs chapter 3 verses 11 and 12 in mind, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts, ‘My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth’, 12. 5, 6. His chastening, grievous as it may be to experience, is with a view to spiritual refinement. When we respond to Him positively, ‘afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness’, v. 11.

His calendar, v. 1

The time note, ‘it came to pass in the month Chisleu’, is according to the Hebrew calendar. This is significant because the Persians had their own. It indicates that, despite any comforts Nehemiah enjoyed connected with his secular role in the palace as the king’s cupbearer, v. 11, he had not forgotten the Lord, nor the calendar of the Lord’s people. The following expression, ‘in the twentieth year [of Artaxerxes the king]’, however, indicates that he was also in touch with circumstances around him.

This might serve as a timely reminder to God’s people today to try, wherever possible, to prioritize and plan our lives around the things of God. There are many activities and comforts the world offers that could occupy our lives, but we are exhorted to ‘be not conformed to this world: but be … transformed by the renewing of … [our] mind’, Rom. 12. 2. As far as our own calendars are concerned, we would do well to follow the pattern of the early church by prioritizing the same activities. Having received the word, been baptized, and added to the company of believers, they ‘continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers’, Acts 2. 42.

His brethren, v. 2

Upon the arrival of certain men from Judah, Nehemiah was unashamed to be associated with them and enquired after the welfare of the people of God, and for the place associated with God’s name, Jerusalem. Amongst them was Hanani, whom he identified as ‘one of my brethren’. In this respect, he might be compared with Moses, who, despite his own position in Pharaoh’s household, ‘went out unto his brethren’ and saw their burdens, and witnessing the smiting of a Hebrew, recognized him also as ‘one of his brethren’,4 Exod. 2. 11.

Like Moses, Nehemiah would soon be leaving the comfort of the palace, ‘Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season’, Heb. 11. 25. Is this not reminiscent of the stoop of another? ‘Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich’, 2 Cor. 8. 9. He who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, now crowned with glory and honour, ‘is not ashamed to call … [us] brethren’, Heb. 2. 11!

Nehemiah’s role at this moment was not wrong or sinful in itself. Esther, who was queen to the Gentile king, Ahasuerus, when the lives of her nation were under threat, was asked by her uncle, Mordecai, ‘who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ Esther 4. 14. In other words, God had brought about the circumstances, and this was her moment to act. There are similarities with Nehemiah’s situation; he had been brought to this position for such a time. The arrival of his brother from Jerusalem, together with certain men of Judah, was no coincidence. God was using them to bring to Nehemiah’s attention the plight of his fellows, hundreds of miles away in Jerusalem, that comfort might be brought to them.

Paul advised the believers at Corinth to put into action their concern for the poor saints, hundreds of miles away in Jerusalem, exhorting them to ‘perform the doing of it; that as there was a readiness to will, so there may be a performance also out of that which ye have’, 2 Cor. 8. 11. Likewise, let us be sensitive to the needs of our brethren near and far. And, following our Lord’s example, wherever our God has made it possible for us to help, let us do so.

The city, v. 3

The conditions reported to Nehemiah were bleak indeed. ‘The remnant that are left of the captivity … are in great affliction and reproach’. No wonder, for whilst the temple had been rebuilt, it was surrounded by ruins. The wall, symbolic of the city’s separation, was broken down, and the gates, connected with its security, were burned with fire. A few months later Nehemiah would assess the site, moving in and around the rubble of the city walls at will - it was an object of contempt, Neh. 2. 13-15. The reason had been the departure of a previous generation from God’s ways and the resulting discipline of God.

However, there is encouragement to be found in Nehemiah’s record. Few though there were, the wall would soon be ‘joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work’, 4. 6. A little later, the wall would be complete, and even the enemies of God’s people ‘perceived that this work was wrought of our God’, 6. 16.

Although this may not reflect the international situation of God’s testimony, sadly, ‘those that are left’, is not an unfamiliar term used in some places today. Let us take courage from the words of Jonathan to his armourbearer, ‘there is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few’, and from the experience of Gideon, whose army against the Midianites was whittled down to three hundred - that it might be known that the victory was of God.5We are expected, and privileged, to labour together in God’s work, 1 Cor. 3. 9, but ‘except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it’; ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain’, Ps. 127. 1.

His concern, v. 4

Nehemiah’s response to the unhappy news reveals his burden of heart for the people of God and for the place where He had set His name. ‘I sat down and wept’ describes the spontaneous language of sorrow. His sincerity is plain, for He ‘mourned certain days, and fasted’, entering into the affliction of his brethren in Jerusalem and indicating that their plight mattered more to him than food. Then he made supplication, praying ‘before the God of heaven’ - an appropriate response to his deep concern.

Perhaps Nehemiah had in mind the prayer of Solomon, who ‘spread forth his hands toward heaven’, 1 Kgs. 8. 22. Solomon asked the Lord to ‘hear thou in heaven’ the prayer of His people when, in response to His chastening, they returned to Him. Solomon called on God to ‘maintain their cause … and forgive … and give them compassion … that thine eyes may be open unto the supplication of thy servant, and unto the supplication of thy people Israel, to hearken unto them in all that they call for unto thee’, vv. 49-52.6Soon, we will find that Nehemiah, a man of priorities, was fitted to undertake a task that would bring encouragement to God’s people, and bring dignity to the place associated with His name.

Our Lord’s concern for His people and for the city of Jerusalem was also expressed in tears, John 11. 33-36; Luke 19. 41-44. Furthermore, the afflictions He experienced in the flesh enable Him to ‘be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God’ and He has both made ‘reconciliation for the sins of the people’ and is able to ‘succour them that are tempted’, Heb. 2. 17, 18.

How do we prioritize our time? What importance do we place on the gatherings of God’s assembly? How much do we love our brethren? Are we concerned when distressing news about the people of God and the assemblies of His people comes our way? How do we respond? Nehemiah sets a good example for us to follow in his priorities and in his response - let us take it to the Lord in prayer.

An aspiration like Nehemiah’s is expressed in Psalm 137 verses 5 and 6, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy’. May we have a similar burden for the testimony of our God.



The others are Ezra and Esther. There are seventeen books of prophecy and the last three, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, are also post-exilic.


The first was under Zerubbabel’s leadership, Ezra chh. 1-6, the second under Ezra’s leadership, Ezra chh. 7-10.


See Colin Lacey’s introduction to Nehemiah in What the Bible Teaches, Ezra Nehemiah Esther, John Ritchie Ltd, pg. 207.


That Hanani alone is designated in this way probably identifies him as a close relation, perhaps even a brother in the flesh to Nehemiah.


1 Sam. 14. 6; Judg. 7.


The expression ‘hear thou … in heaven’ occurs eight times in 1 Kings chapter 8.


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