Welcome to Exploring the Book of Nehemiah! This is a series I’m so excited to be featuring on my blog, as well as digging into with the ladies in my Bible Study group.
Today we’re going to take a look at the background and context leading up to the book of Nehemiah, the people of Israel, and what led them to this place. But we will also look at what defined them as a nation, how they lost it and what it means for you and me.
To start with, we have to go all the way back to the first book in the Bible, Genesis, and the story of a man named Abraham. Now, there was nothing special about Abraham or a particular reason he deserved God’s blessing. He didn’t even know or worship God when God first called him!
But God did call him to leave his home country and trust in the promises of God. God had promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations and that all the people of the earth would be blessed through him.
“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2 & 3
Why did Abraham deserve those promises? He was a simple man, chosen not because of anything he had done to achieve greatness. This is a beautiful example of God’s grace.
His offspring would not only be as numerous as the stars of the sky, but the Savior of all humanity would come from this lowly family.
Abraham had only two things going for him, which turned out to be the only things that really mattered:
- God’s promise of blessing
- Abraham believed God
Now there was one small problem with Abraham becoming a father of many nation; he and his wife Sarah were unable to have children. Years went by. I mean years. And finally, a miracle.
Abraham and Sarah welcomed Isaac, the promised son, who was truly a miracle because he was born to Abraham and Sarah when they were 100 and 90 years of age, respectively.
From there, Isaac and his wife Rebekah had the duelling twins, Jacob and Esau.
Jacob, whose name was later changed to Israel and where we get the name “Israelites”, became the father of twelve sons (the heads of the tribes of Israel) and one daughter named Dinah. I just have to mention that girl; she always gets left out.
Here are the Sons of Jacob, if you hear any reference to the tribes of Israel, you have a bit of familiarity with them: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph (Manasseh & Ephraim) and Benjamin.
Did you know the terms Israelite, Hebrew, and Jew are all indicating the same group of people?
Anyway, back to Jacob and his sons. Eventually, through sordid circumstances of sibling jealousy, the ten older brothers sold Joseph into slavery.
But one thing that is resoundingly apparent when looking at the children of Israel’s history is that God takes sins and mistakes and still uses them for His glory. Joseph’s story was no different. The entire nation of Egypt, as well as Jacob’s family, was saved because of Joseph’s rise to leadership in Egypt where God guided him to save them during a famine.
The family of Israel continued to grow in number the longer they stayed in Egypt. God’s people had grown into a great nation, much to the dismay of the Pharaoh, who hated the Israelites. So he treated them like slaves and put them to work building anything he wanted done at the cost of their lives. So the people cried out to God to be delivered from their bondage.
God continued to increase their numbers, which led Pharaoh to declare all male babies born to the Israelites were to be thrown in the Nile. But God had a plan and saved one of the baby boys born during this time. Moses was raised in the palace of Pharaoh and eventually became the vessel God used to free His people from their bondage in Egypt.
God led the people into the wilderness, where He gave them the Ten Commandments. They were planning a trip for the Promised Land, but after not trusting God when standing at the edge of their future home, He set them to wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.
In the wilderness, they receive instruction or more typically referred to as the Mosaic Law, on how to live in community with each other and have a relationship with God.
After 40 years and everyone that had left Egypt had died, except Joshua and Caleb, the only two men who trusted God, they finally entered the Promised Land. Joshua took over leadership from Moses, who died on a mountain overlooking the land God was giving the people.
Sadly, it doesn’t take the people long after Joshua and Caleb die to fall into disobedience to God. They get sucked in a cycle:
- God disciplines them by using their enemies to oppress them
- Israelites cry out to God
- He saves them
- They follow His ways for a while
This goes on for quite a while, until the people cry out to the prophet Samuel to anoint them a king. Samuel warned them, but God agrees to give them what they want.
Their first king, Saul, what exactly what you think of when you think of a king: tall, handsome, strong. But he got cocky and disobeyed God so badly that God told him that after his death, the crown would leave his family.
The next king was one you’ve most likely heard of. He started out as a shepherd, then killed the giant Goliath with the Lord’s help, and eventually became a man known for seeking God’s heart. David’s reign as king, though tumultuous at times, was still a time of thriving for the nation of Israel.
Remember the promise of God to Abraham about the whole world being blessed through his family? Well it was during David’s reign that a very important aspect of that promise was revealed. God had promised the Messiah was to come from David’s family line.
David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, but God told him it wasn’t his job. It would be a task that David’s son, Solomon, would accomplish. So David prepared everything that would be necessary for the building of the temple so when the time was right, Solomon could raise the temple of the Lord.
And that’s exactly what Solomon did. This was a huge event for the nation as a whole, and the temple became a focus, a sign of God’s presence.
Solomon was gifted with wisdom and knowledge, wealth and honor from the Lord. But it turned out he wasn’t so wise when it came to marrying foreign women who brought their foreign gods into Israel. In the book of Kings, King Solomon led the nation into idolatry as He worshiped the gods of His foreign wives, taking his attention, focus and heart away from the One True God.
This resulted in God judging the nation by splitting it in two. It split into the Northern Kingdom (Israel), which had Jeroboam as king, and the Southern Kingdom (Judah), which followed Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.
The Northern Kingdom had many ungodly kings who continued to worship foreign gods in disobedience to God’s law, and as a consequence, the nation was conquered and scattered by the Assyrians in 722 BC.
The Southern Kingdom fared a little better as they had more good kings, but they also fell into spiritual adultery, leading to God’s discipline. They went through several deportations by the nation of Babylon from 605 to 586 BC (2 Kings 25).
Now let me stop here and offer a side note. The discipline of God did not come as a surprise to the people. They had been warned, time and time and time and time again. God had sent prophet after prophet warning them of what would happen.
And yet, they still continued to worship idols.
God is faithful in His covenant promises with Israel.
In the Mosaic Law, God promised Israel that if they obeyed his commands and worshiped Him alone, He would bless them. But if they disobeyed him, He would bring nations to destroy Israel and exile them from the Promised Land.
The deportees from Israel lived in Babylon for seventy years, as prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah.
The first return to Israel happened in 539 BC where rebuilding of the Jewish temple was led by Zerubbabel and Joshua. That story can be found in Ezra chapters 1-6.
The second return was led by the priest, Ezra, in 458 BC. Ezra, then, led Israel into the restoration of the covenant and the worship of God (Ezra 7-10). However, this renewal of worship was short lived.
The final return happened in 445 BC and was led by Nehemiah, the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia.
- Despite having turned to idol worship, the people of Israel had always found their identity as the “children of God”.
- They were proud of the temple they had built for the Lord and the city of Jerusalem.
- The conquering nations had taken those things away. Their Promised Land was desolate.
- The people felt abandoned by God. They no longer felt “chosen”.
- The line of David was lost and they thought God had given up on bringing the Messiah.
How the Lord has covered the Daughter of Zion with the cloud of his anger! He has hurled down the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger. Without pity the Lord has swallowed up all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has torn down the strongholds of the Daughter of Judah. He has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonor. – Lamentations 2:1-2
So this is where we find the people. They have lost everything that their forefathers sought to establish and make a priority. They had returned from exile, hoping to find everything the way their parents describing that it once was, and trying to pick up the pieces of their own lives and the heritage of their nation.
Have you ever done something because it was just what you were supposed to do, but your heart really wasn’t in it? Yeah, that’s where the Israelites were. As a nation, they were good at going through the motions, but not really finding the heart behind it.
Sometimes the Old Testament sounds harsh because we hear the phrases “God’s judgment” or “God’s discipline”.
But don’t miss the big picture of what the nation of Israel represents.
They were a lost people, chosen for no reason of their own to glorify God. He loved and blessed them, not because what they had done, and knowing full well that they would disobey Him.
Who does that remind you of anyone?
I can often get impatient and frustrated with the Israelites, but as I look at their history, I can’t help but see myself. Maybe you see yourself as well.
I encourage you as we dig into this study, really put yourself in the shoes of those you are reading about: Nehemiah, Ezra the priest, the people, and even the enemies of Israel.
Ultimately, we are looking at this book to know God more, and I hope you were able to gain a bit more perspective today on who He is. Because He is the same God today and he was when He first called Abraham.
And God’s love for the nation of Israel is a great example of what His love for you and I looks like.
- He is faithful to keep His promises
- He is forgiving, merciful, just and loving
- He will never abandon His people. He may be quiet for a time, but He will never leave.
- He will always send a deliverer. The nation of Israel had prophets, judges, kings and eventually, God’s own Son.
For us, we have a unique perspective. We can look back at the history, look at the time of Nehemiah, and look forward to the fulfillment of God’s greatest promise in Jesus. God did fulfill His promise to Abraham and David in the person of Jesus Christ.
As we go through this study, you will hopefully see what kind of leader Nehemiah was. I’ll give you a hint: he was a good one. But one thing that is sometimes a trap of learning about awesome Bible heroes is forgetting that they were really just humans, like you and I. They were sinful and selfish, just like you and I.
But they heroes of the Bible were people who experienced God’s strength and power through their lives and obedience. This is really why we have these stories in the Bible to read. They give us a great picture of who God is, what He can do through us when we are obedient, and how every story points to Jesus, the Savior, the Deliverer, the Great Leader.
Look for ways you can see Jesus in this story. Pray for that perspective, as you open your the Word each day.
*If you would like more information on this series or would like a copy of the study guide Exploring the Book of Nehemiah, please leave me a comment.