Here’s a handy-dandy timeline that helps put Ezra and Nehemiah in historical and biblical perspective.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Nehemiah was a Jew who grew up in exile away from the Promised Land. Though a foreigner in the Persian Empire, he rose to a position of great influence, much like the prophet Daniel before him. Our Bible reading this week tells us that Nehemiah was cupbearer to Artaxerxes, Persian king from 485 to 465 BC. Serving drinks may not sound to us like a significant job in the royal court, but this meant Nehemiah was one of Artaxerxes’ most trusted advisors. In an ancient world where poisoning was a popular method of assassination, pouring the king’s own wine was not taken lightly.
Despite his high position in a glorious earthly kingdom, Nehemiah devoted himself to building God’s kingdom, even when that kingdom looked pathetically inglorious. Like Moses before him, Nehemiah considered “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt”—or Persia, in Nehemiah’s case—“for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:26). At the height of his influence, he took a risk by asking Artaxerxes if he could go back to his homeland and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Here are a few specific ways Nehemiah is a good example to us of manly and godly character.
Nehemiah was a man.
Nehemiah wasn’t just a godly person. He was a godly man. It’s important to point this out because we live in a world that has tried its best to deny the goodness of manhood. Worldlings like to point out the many ways men have failed by using their strength to abuse others. They are right on many accounts. But the world’s solution to this problem is for men to lay aside their strength—to stop making decisions, to stop disciplining their children, and to cower before their wives’ superior competency.
This is not God’s solution. God the Father made men strong, and it brings Him glory when men use their strength in godly ways.
Nehemiah didn’t renounce the manly gifts God had given him—the strengths of leadership and authority and position; he embraced those strengths and used his manliness in service of God and His people. That’s what a godly man does. He uses the natural strength and freedom given him by God for the building up of God’s kingdom by helping others, especially the weak.
Nehemiah was a man of zeal.
J. C. Ryle defines zeal in religion as “a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way.”1
Nehemiah was a zealous man. And his zeal led him to take extreme actions that make us raise our eyebrows. He yells at people, ridicules others, throws a man’s household goods out of his living quarters, forcibly prevents traders from doing business on the sabbath, and pulls some men’s hair out!
Before we condemn Nehemiah for these actions, we should remember what Jesus did when He “found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables”:
He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” (John 2:14–16)
Zealous men are dangerous men. But they’re only dangerous if you find yourself opposed to them. If you are a friend of God, God’s zealous servants provide great safety for you. Because zealous shepherds give their lives for their sheep. They are zealous to protect what belongs to God.
So ask yourself if you want your own pastors and leaders today to show this kind of zeal for the kingdom of God. Or do you want your shepherds safe and clean? If we want what God wants, we’ll want zealous shepherds.
Zealous men today are few and far between, so we must love them, encourage them, and cultivate Nehemiah’s kind of single-minded zeal for the kingdom of God in our children.
Nehemiah was a man of prayer.
Nehemiah’s public life flowed from private personal devotion to God. His faith was lived out very publicly, but he was not putting on a show to impress people. We can tell because he mourned for the people of God in private, even when no one was watching (see Neh. 1:4–10). In fact, this mourning was so deep and sincere that he couldn’t conceal it in the presence of his earthly master. When asked about his sad face by Artaxerxes, Nehemiah offers up a spontaneous prayer to God in the middle of his conversation with the king: “Then the king said to me, ‘What would you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven” (Neh. 2:4). Nehemiah doesn’t ask his earthly king for a blessing until he first asks his heavenly King.
Nehemiah was a man of action.
Nehemiah’s prayerful faith in God led him to take courageous action. He was bold in his request for Artaxerxes to let him go to Jerusalem. He devoted himself to strategy and planning because of his earnest desire to see the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls completed. This devotion led him to do difficult things like examining the broken down walls in the dead of night. And once the work was underway, Nehemiah labored right alongside the people with his own hands.
In all these things, Nehemiah is a beautiful type of Jesus Christ, who leads us out of our bondage to sin into His glorious kingdom; who calls us to turn away from our wicked ways that times of refreshing may come; and who intercedes for us before the Father’s throne in heaven even now.
- J. C. Ryle, “Zeal,” ch. 8 in Practical Religion (1878; Banner of Truth, 2013), 174. ↩︎
VERSE TO MEDITATE ON
When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.”
HOW TO PRAY
- Adoration – Praise Jesus Christ for His zeal for His Father’s house.
- Confession – Confess ways you have been lukewarm, rather than zealous, in the building of Christ’s kingdom.
- Thanksgiving – Thank God for godly examples of zeal in your own life.
- Supplication – Ask God for courage.