Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures
1THE words [history] of Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year [of Artaxerxes], as I was in Shushan the palace [the citadel of Susa], 2that Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped [the Jews, the delivered ones], which were left [over] of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. 3And they said unto me, The remnant [the left-over ones] that are left [over] of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. 4And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted,1 and prayed before the God of heaven, 5and said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God that keepeth covenant and mercy [i.e. the merciful covenant] for them that love him and observe his commandments: 6Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayst hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now [to-day], day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7We have dealt very corruptly2 against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. 8Remember, I beseech thee the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad 9among the nations: but if ye turn unto me and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have 10chosen to set my name there. Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. 11O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man [i.e. Artaxerxes]. For I was the king’s cup-bearer.
TEXTUAL AND GRAMMATICAL
1 Nehemiah 1:4. וָאֱהִי צָם. Here and in 2 Sam. 12:23 the participle. Here the auxiliary verb expressed. After יָמִים supply רַבִּים, as in Dan. 10:14.
2 Nehemiah 1:7. חֲבֹל חָבַלְנוּ לָךְ. Aben Ezra and most of the Jewish commentators count this a Chaldaism as in Dan. 6:23, 24 (22, 23). In Gen. 6:12 כִּי־הִשְׁחִית כָּל־בָּשָׂר is translated by Onkelos אֲרֵי חַבִּילוּ כָּל בִּשֶׁרָא. The meaning of “act corruptly” is, however, found in Job 34:31. It may be an early Aramaic signification.
EXEGETICAL AND CRITICAL
The Tidings from Jerusalem
Nehemiah 1:1. The title of the book is contained in its first four (Hebrew) words, Divre Nehemyah Ben ‘Hachalyah,3i.e., The words of Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah.—Even the prophets sometimes begin their books in this way (see Jer. 1:1, and Amos 1:1), although with them the Devar Yehovah (the Word of the Lord) finds its place soon after. The absence of the Devar Yehovah here is nothing against the inspired character of the book. Its presence in the prophets is simply a token of their prophetic character, as they speak to the people directly in God’s name with a special message. In the historical books, even in the Pentateuch, the sacred foundation of them all, this phrase very naturally is not found. Here, as in 1 Chron. 29:29, and elsewhere, “the words of” are really “the words about,” or “the history of.” In Jer. 1:1, Amos. 1:1, etc., they have the literal meaning. (Dathe rightly “historia Nehemiah”). (For the name and history of Nehemiah, see the Introduction).
The starting-point of Nehemiah’s words (or history) is in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, in Shushan the palace.—Chisleu was the ninth month, Abib or Nisan (in which the passover fell) being the first. Chisleu would thus answer to parts of November and December. Josephus makes it (Χασλεὺ) the same as the Macedonian Apellæus (Ant. xii. 7, 6), which was the second month of the Macedonian year, whose first month Dius began at the autumnal equinox. Apellæus would thus be from the latter part of October to the latter part of November. Josephus’ was probably satisfied in identifying the two months of Chisleu and Apellæus, to find some portion of time belonging equally to both. They certainly did not coincide throughout.
Chisleu is not likely to be a Persian month-name, as has been conjectured. The Behistun inscription gives us eight Persian month-names, to wit., Bagayadish, Viyakhna, Garmapada, Atriyatiya, Anamaka, Thuravahara, Thaigarchish and Adukanish. It is true that in all but the first of these battles are recorded as occurring, so that they are not probably winter months. Yet the style of the names would scarcely warrant us in supposing that Chisleu would be in such a list. As Chisleu appears on a Palmyrene inscription (Chaslul), it may be of Syrian origin. This month-name occurs in the Hebrew only after the captivity, to wit, in this place and in Zech. 7:1. Fuerst suggests Chesil (Orion-Mars) as the base of the name, the name being brought from Babylonia by the exiles; but the name is found in the Assyrian, as are the other (so-supposed) Persian month-names of the Jews, which is strong presumptive evidence of their Shemitic origin.
The “twentieth year” is, as in Nehemiah 2:1, the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (Heb. Arta‘hshasta), who reigned from B. C. 465 to 425. The year designated is therefore parts of B. C. 446 and 445, when the “age of Pericles” was beginning in Athens, and when Rome was yet unknown to the world. (For Artaxerxes, see Introduction). “Shushan the palace” (Heb. Shushan Habbirah) was the royal portion of the “city Shushan” (Esther 3:15). Shushan or Susa (now Sus) lay between the Eulæus (Ulai) and Shapur rivers, in a well-watered district, and was the capital of Susiana or Cissia, the Scriptural Elam (Isa. 11:11) the country lying between the southern Zagros mountains and the Tigris. It early furnished a dynasty to Babylonia (Gen. 14:1), was conquered by Asshur-bani-pal about B. C. 660, and shortly afterward fell to the lot of the later Babylonian Empire. When the Persians had conquered this Empire, Susa was made a royal residence by Darius Hystaspes, who built the great palace, whose ruins now attract the attention of archæologists. Artaxerxes (the king of Nehemiah’s time) repaired the palace, whose principal features resembled those of the chief edifice at Persepolis, the older capital of the Persian Empire. The present ruins of Susa cover a space about a mile square, the portion of which near the river Shapur is probably “Shushan the palace.”
Athenæus (12:8) says, Κλθῆναι τὰ Σοῦά φησιν Ἀρισόβουλος καὶ Xάρης διὰ τὴν ὡραιότητα τοῦ τόπον· σοῦσον γὰρ εἶναι τῇ Ελλήνων (? Ἐλυμαίων) φωνῇ τὸ κρίνον. So Steph. Byzant, Σοῦσα ἀπὸ τῶν κρίνων, ἅ πολλὰ ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ πεφύκει εκείνῃ. If this be true we must accord it a Shemitic origin, which is against other evidence. Shushan may be a Turanian or an Aryan word, whose likeness to “Shushan” (Shemit. for lily) has deceived the old writers. Susa was the court’s principal residence, Ecbatana or Persepolis being visited for the summer only, and Babylon being sometimes occupied in the depth of winter.
Nehemiah 1:2. Nehemiah is informed of the sad condition of Jerusalem and the colony of Jews in Judea by Hanani and others. His words are Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah,etc. Hanani was literally brother to Nehemiah, as we see from Nehemiah 7:1. He afterward was appointed one of the assistant governors of Jerusalem by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:2). He is not to be confounded with Hanani, a priest, mentioned in Nehemiah 12:36, and (perhaps the same) in Ezra 10:20. Of Judah may be read from Judah as denoting place rather than tribal distinction. The words would thus refer to the verb “came,” and naturally introduce Nehemiah’s question. That the colony was called “Judah,” see Nehemiah 2:7.
Nehemiah asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. Heb. happelétah asher nisharu min hashshevi (lit. “the deliverance which were left over from the captivity”). The abstract is used as a concrete collective noun. Although the greater part of the Jews preferred to live in the land to which their ancestors had been carried captive, yet to the pious heart those who returned to the old country were recognized as the “deliverance,” or the “delivered ones,” “escaped ones.” The journey from Jerusalem to Susa by Tadmor or by Tiphsah is over a thousand miles long, and at the usual rate of Oriental travelling would take at least 45 days. With the natural causes to retard so long a journey, we may safely call it a two months’ travel. Ezra, with his caravan, was four months on his journey from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:9).
Nehemiah 1:3. Nehemiah’s informers tell him that the remnant (han-nisharim, “the left-over ones”) in the province are in great affliction (the general word for adversity) and reproach (the word explaining the cause of the adversity). They were the objects of scorn and contemptuous treatment from the neighboring peoples. The wall of Jerusalem they also represent as broken down and its gates burned. Nebuchadnezzar had broken down the walls a hundred and forty-two years before (2 Kings 25:10) and the attempt to rebuild them had been stopped by the Pseudo-Smerdis (the Artaxerxes of Ezra 4:7) seventy-six years before this embassy to Nehemiah. After that, in the reign of Darius Hystaspes, the temple had been finished, but the walls seem not to have been touched. The burnt gates were also, doubtless, the old wreck from Nebuchadnezzar’s time. There is no reason for supposing that the walls had been rebuilt, and again destroyed. Hanani and the men of Judah add to their statement of the affliction and reproach of the province that the walls still remain in their old ruined condition.
Nehemiah 1:4. Nehemiah’s prayer. The tidings brought by Hanani and the others deeply moved Nehemiah, and led him to a special season of humiliation and prayer. His grief was doubtless increased at the thought that all this evil existed in spite of Ezra’s work, for Ezra had gone to Jerusalem thirteen years before. He sat down and wept and mourned certain days and fasted and prayed.—That is, he withdrew from his court duties, and spent a period of retirement (comp. Ps. 137:1 for the phrase “sat down and wept”) in most sincere sorrow, which compelled his fasting and prayer, as its godly manifestations. The phrase God of heaven (Elohe hash-shamayim) is supposed by some to be only found with the writers of the Babylonish or post-Babylonish period, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the author of the 136th Psalm, but we find it in Gen. 24:3, 7, and in Jonah 1:9. The style is repeated in Rev. 11:13 and 16:11 (ὁ θεὸς τοῦ οὐρανοῦ). It was a natural epithet to distinguish Jehovah from the gods of earthy formed of earthly substances. The phrase cannot properly be called Persian, as the reference in Jonah proves. Moreover, it does not occur in the long Behistun inscription. If it was used by the later Persians, it is as likely to have been taken from the Jews as vice versâ.
Nehemiah 1:5. Terrible is awe-inspiring,נוֹרָֽא, the Niphal participle of יָרֵֽא (to tremble). That keepeth covenant and mercy.—Lit. That keepeth the covenant and mercy, by hendiadys for “the covenant of mercy,” or “the merciful covenant” established in the world’s Messiah, but centrally and typically in the Israelitish system. Observe his commandments—or keep his commandments; the same verb as before. God keeps the covenant for them who keep His commandments. This is not a doctrine of meritorious works, but of adhering faith. See its explanation in John 6:28, 29, where the work of God is a sincere faith. The essence of faith is love, whose definition is given in 2 John 6. “The great and terrible God” is a phrase borrowed from Deut. 7:21, and “that keepeth—observe his commandments” is from the 9th verse of the same chapter. The Pentateuch has furnished much of the religious phraseology of the nation in all ages. (Comp. Dan. 9:4.)
Nehemiah 1:6. After this address to Jehovah as the awe-inspiring and yet covenant-keeping God, he asks God to hear him as the representative of his nation. The phrase, let thine ear be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear, is peculiar. It is derived from Solomon’s prayer (1 Kings 8:29, 52), and has reference, doubtless, to the greater attention paid by the ear when the eyes are opened towards the source of the sound.
Now, day and night.—Lit. to-day, day and night. His prayer was oft repeated in the course of these days of separation and mourning at hours of the night, as well as at the usual hours of daily prayer. Which we have sinned.—Nehemiah has a clear sense of his identification with his people in sin as in misery. Both I and my father’s house have sinned.—From this mention of his father’s house we have a strong reason to believe that Nehemiah was of the royal house of Judah. It is hard to understand his special mention of his father’s house, unless it had been a conspicuous family in the nation. (See the Introduction.)
Nehemiah 1:7. The commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments.—Heb.: eth-hammitzoth weth-hahukkim weth-hammishpatim. It is almost impossible to draw the distinction between the meanings of these three words. They were probably used in the fulness of the legal style. Commandment, statute and judgment are the nearest English equivalents, but here they are all subjected to the verb corresponding to the first noun (“command”), and we must thus loosely refer them to the various forms of the divine commandments. The 119th Psalm seems to use these words as synonymous. (See on Nehemiah 9:13, 14.)
Nehemiah 1:8. Remember, I beseech thee, the word.—After the confession of sin comes the plea of God’s promise. See Deut. 4:25–31, 30:1–10. Not the words, but the spirit of the promise, is given.
Nehemiah 1:11. Who desire to fear thy name.—The name of God is His expression in His word or work. The declaration of a desire to fear God is a modest assertion of a true fear of God, but with a consciousness of its imperfection. This man=King Artaxerxes.—Nearness to God enables Nehemiah to think of the “great king” as only a man. The “this” does not indicate that he was in the king’s presence when he prayed, but that he was brought into close relations with the king. For I was the king’s cup-bearer.—The position of cup-bearer to the king was an exalted one (comp. Gen. 40:21). Rab-shakeh (the name given to one of Sennacherib’s envoys to Hezekiah, 2 Kings 18:17) means “chief cup-bearer.” The monuments of Egypt, Assyria, and Persia show the high rank of the cupbearer. Nehemiah’s high position as cup-bearer is an additional argument for his relationship to the royal family of Judah, for the Oriental despots loved to have men of royal blood to wait upon them. (See Dan. 1:3.) This phrase, “for I was the king’s cup-bearer,” is added as explanatory of the allusion to the king.
HISTORICAL AND ETHICAL
1. The interest of Nehemiah in the forlorn condition of Jerusalem had a deep religious character. Patriotism and piety were closely related in a people whose land had been the scene of a theocracy, and in a man of Nehemiah’s character the piety is conspicuous in every impulse of his patriotism. It is sad to reflect that when such opportunity for a return to the Holy Land had been given by Cyrus, that only 50,000 Jews availed themselves of it, out of, probably, an aggregate of millions. The manner in which the affairs of the Jewish province dragged from Cyrus’ day to the time of Nehemiah, a period of nearly a hundred years, was not due only or chiefly to the opposition of local enemies, supported by the Persian government, but had its chief cause in the apathy and self-seeking of the Jewish people. Nehemiah’s piety is thus no type of the religious condition of the Jews of his day, but is a conspicuous exception to the general state of his people.
2. Fasting, with the exception of that on the day of atonement, was with the Jews (before tradition supplanted God’s word) left to the suggestion of the occasion. It grew out of a deep grief or an anxious foreboding. Nehemiah’s fast, continuing for several days, must have been not a total abstention from food, but a withdrawal from all pleasurable forms of eating, his sorrow rendering him averse to all indulgence in the pleasures of the palate.
3. The “day and night” prayer of Nehemiah was no “vain repetition,” as his wounded spirit and his humble faith gave life to every utterance. He had two facts before him—the greatness of God and the sinfulness of God’s chosen people. On these he would graft the return of the people and the mercy of God. Some, like himself, were looking Godward, and had not God promised mercy to such? The favor of the Persian monarch would be tire expression of God’s grace.
4. The rule of obedience (“if ye turn unto me and keep my commandments, and do them,” etc.) is not the way of salvation, but of continued prosperity. The love of God is assumed in his children. Their happiness now depends on their obedience. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The Jews were in covenant with God. Keeping commandments had not brought them there, but keeping commandments would fill them with the blessings of the covenant.
HOMILETICAL AND PRACTICAL
Nehemiah 1:1–4. Genuine patriotism. 1) When and where it is roused: both at a distance and in those who, in their prosperity, could easily forget their country and the people to whom they belong. 2) Concerning what it asks: concerning the prosperity of those whom the Lord has preserved or selected, that they should strive for a better future. 3) What it finds the hardest to bear: that its country and people are in distress, and even in reproach, and that they are wanting in power to protect the goods confided to them.
STARKE: In prosperity we should not forgot our poor relations or acquaintances, but should ask after them, Gen. 43:27. We should make the necessities of the saints our own, and give account of them to others. Rom. 12:12.
Our greatest and final wish: 1) Concerning what we ask; there remains to us, even in prosperity and high position, if indeed we are godly, still one question, that, is, concerning the kingdom of God, and its approach, and indeed only this certainty can satisfy us, that it comes continually more to us, to our families and our people; without it nothing is of worth to us, for without it there is no stability. 2) Concerning what we mourn for; that thus far, always so much the opposite of that takes place which should take place in relation to the kingdom of God. 3) Before whom we bear it: before the Lord with mourning, fasting and prayer.
STARKE: If the saints of God had great love and yearning for their fatherland, the earthly Jerusalem (Ps. 51:20; 137:5), how much greater love and yearning should we have for the heavenly Jerusalem! Heb. 12:22; 13:14. Although a Christian is neither bound to the Jewish nor to the Romish fasts of the present day, still he should practice sobriety. 1 Pet. 4:8. The judgments of God cannot better be averted than by true humiliation, fervent prayer and honest reformation. Gen. 18:23 sq.
Nehemiah 1:5–11. The nature of the true petition (for Jerusalem, for the Church): 1) It proceeds from true love; is therefore persistent and fervent: Nehemiah prays (Nehemiah 1:6) day and night for the children of Israel. 2) It rests upon the humble recognition of one’s own worthlessness (although standing before God as priest, the petitioner includes himself nevertheless to the inmost with those for whom he prays). 3) It is full of faith, in spite of sin and punishment, on the ground of the divine promise.
The foundations for our faith in the time of oppression: 1) God’s promise, after the chastisements which we have merited, to allow mercy again to rule. 2) God’s former evident proofs of grace, particularly the greatest, that He has freed us by His great power (shining deed), and has made us His servants. 3) God’s divine nature itself, which cannot be false to itself, and cannot leave unfinished that which it has begun.
STARKE: The knowledge of God through the law and through the gospel must be united, otherwise the latter makes confident epicurean and rough people; but the former, hesitating and timid doubters (Nehemiah 1:4, 5). Neither must we excuse the sins and transgressions of our ancestors. Dan. 9:16.—Whoever stands in the consciousness of the poverty of his spirit does not exclude himself from sinners, but still always humbles himself before God. Dan. 9:7; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 John 1:8. God knows our weakness beforehand, and knows that we will stumble in the future. Matt. 26:34. God’s choice is unalterable, and He keeps faith forever. Ps. 146:6; Jer. 3:12. We should grasp God’s promises and favors by true faith, and base ourselves upon them in prayer. Ps. 27:8; Mark 11:24. We are God’s property and servants, and have been dearly bought and freed. 1 Pet. 2:9. If we wish to obtain anything from men, especially from those in power, we should first seek it in prayer from God, for their hearts also are in God’s hand, and He can incline them as He will. Prov. 21:1; Esther 4:16.
Nehemiah 1:4. וָאֱהִי צָם. Here and in 2 Sam. 12:23 the participle. Here the auxiliary verb expressed. After יָמִים supply רַבִּים, as in Dan. 10:14.
Nehemiah 1:7. חֲבֹל חָבַלְנוּ לָךְ. Aben Ezra and most of the Jewish commentators count this a Chaldaism as in Dan. 6:23, 24 (22, 23). In Gen. 6:12 כִּי־הִשְׁחִית כָּל־בָּשָׂר is translated by Onkelos אֲרֵי חַבִּילוּ כָּל בִּשֶׁרָא. The meaning of “act corruptly” is, however, found in Job 34:31. It may be an early Aramaic signification.
The Hebrew is transliterated for the benefit of the English reader.
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,