1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
(Nehemiah 1:1-4 NIV)
As we begin our journey through the book of Nehemiah, our book’s namesake introduces himself. Nehemiah’s name means “the Lord comforts” – an interesting and relevant meaning that we will see expressed to Nehemiah as well as through Nehemiah to many others.
In verse 1, Nehemiah refers to the “twentieth year”, which also corresponds to Nehemiah 2:1 where Nehemiah identifies the 20th year of King Artaxerxes’ reign.
Nehemiah identifies his location as Susa, one of the king’s many palaces in the Persian kingdom. This particular palace is located in southwest Iran; the month of Kislev equates to our November-December timeframe. This location would be unbearably hot in the summer, but a nice warm retreat in the winter months.
Nehemiah greets some men who had come from Judah and Jerusalem, one of those men being his brother Hanani (his name means “God is gracious”). Nehemiah inquires about the welfare of the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from exile, and about the condition of the city of Jerusalem.
Obviously, Nehemiah had not been to Jerusalem, so he was asking about life in the Promised Land. It had been 140 years since the first exiles had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel – surely things had progressed and the city was safe and its inhabitants were prospering? That was Nehemiah’s assumption, based on his life experience.
When Nehemiah’s brother and the other men reported the Jewish people’s distress and the city’s vulnerability to attack, this must have come as quite a shock to Nehemiah. What would prevent another group of people from coming in and wiping out the entire Jewish population? And more importantly, how did this reflect on God’s character and nature among the heathen nations? Was the Jewish God still almighty and powerful from the stories of old, or was He now incapable of defending His own people, no longer worthy of the glory that was formerly His?
All of these factors connected to make this news devastating in Nehemiah’s heart. This was not just another status report from a far-flung part of the Persian empire – this was the reality of life for Nehemiah’s brother, the Jewish people, and God’s honor and glory.
So what was Nehemiah’s response? He allowed the news to break his heart. Nehemiah spent time weeping and mourning, fasting and praying, spending time with God. The remainder of chapter 1 is Nehemiah’s prayer, which we will walk through in our next time together.
When we get unexpected sad or bad news, what is our most common response?
- do we immediately have an emotional “pity party”?
- do we jump in and instinctively try to “fix” the situation?
- do we emotionally distance ourselves from the news?
- do we give up and walk away?
- do we turn to the Lord in prayer?
May we not let the broken events and things and people and circumstances of life overwhelm us, like flood waters overtaking a field. May they not harden our hearts toward the Lord or the issues, like the rain bouncing off the roof and running down the side of a building.
Instead, may we let the issues in, then give them to the Lord and ask His help to process what’s going on deep inside us. Take time to mourn and weep – the pain and loss are real, and they hurt, and it matters – both to us and to God.
Then accept the comfort that only the Lord can bring, comfort to the deep places in our hearts and souls that bring healing and restoration.
And that process begins with prayer – conversation with God. He does not run away from these hard times – in fact, He welcomes you, even with all the brokenness and heartache and messiness of life.