(43) So the wall was completed in fifty-two days – Nehemiah 6:15

Thirteen years after Ezra led the second return from exile he was joined by Nehemiah, who was a Jew who held a position of great importance in the court of King Artaxerxes: Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer. This may sound like a menial position but it had the added edge that he had to taste the wine before giving it to the king so that if it was poisoned then he, rather than the king, would die. Nehemiah would have had trouble getting life insurance! The king’s father had been killed by a courtier so he had to have great trust in those who worked closely with him.

Nehemiah’s book opens with him hearing from his brother that the Jews who are living in Jerusalem are living in difficulty in a ruined city with broken down walls. Rather than being a testament to God’s restoration it is a place that its inhabitants are ashamed of.

Nehemiah’s response is to pray. This is characteristic of his approach and we read of a number of prayers in his short book. Like Ezra, he associates himself with the people of Israel and confesses their sin over the centuries during a period of prayer and fasting. He then asks God to give him success in a conversation with the king.

His opportunity arises when the king notices that he is sad and asks him why. Being sad in the king’s presence is risky but Nehemiah’s response is bold. Rather than give an excuse he tells the king that his sadness is due to the condition of Jerusalem. The king’s response is an answer to Nehemiah’s prayers and a testament to the trust that Nehemiah has earned. Artaxerxes asks him what he wants to redress the situation.

In the exchange that follows we see that Nehemiah combines his natural skill for strategic planning with total reliance of God in prayer. He has clearly thought through what is required to rebuild the walls and is able to tell the king how long it will take. But he also knows that success can only come from God. After his days of prayer and fasting his second recorded prayer is just a second or two. His account reads, “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king…” (Nehemiah 2:4-5). He didn’t have time to turn aside from Artaxerxes for this prayer but in an instant he thanks God for giving him the opportunity to speak and asks for wisdom in his response before replying. The king grants him his request and sends him to Jerusalem to put his plan into action.

When he arrives he does a night time reconnaissance and finds the walls broken down and in ruins from the destruction by the Babylonians 140 years earlier. He tells the leaders about his plan to rebuild the walls and the words of the king and they immediately get behind him. Nehemiah is clearly a man with great administrative skills and he organises the entire city into teams that each build a section. The names of the builders are listed and they include priests, goldsmiths, perfume-makers, temple servants, merchants and the daughters of one of the rulers. Only the nobles of Tekoa “would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors” (Nehemiah 3:5). In contrast, a man called Baruch “zealously repaired another section” (Nehemiah 3:20). Despite sustained opposition from the surrounding peoples this collective effort resulted in the wall being completed in fifty-two days, a remarkably short time given the conditions.

The people celebrated the completion of the wall with a great gathering that included two large choirs which started in the west and processed round the wall in opposite directions until they met in the east by the temple where the priests offered sacrifice. This was a time of great joy and, once again, “the sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away” (Nehemiah 12:43).

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