Please know that I am first and foremost a student myself. I am not a seminary graduate, and other than three semesters of Koine Greek over twenty-two years ago, I do not have facility with the original languages. I can assure you, however, that I do use commentaries and other study tools. To guide my study, I am using Kathleen Nielson's book, Nehemiah: Rebuilt and Rebuilding. So, without further adieu, let's see what Nehemiah is all about.
The book of Nehemiah is historical narrative. That means it's about some people who really lived. We want to know about these people. In the opening three verses of Nehemiah, we're introduced to the subjects of this account:
Who were these Jews who escaped? Who are these people who were in exile, and are called a "remnant?" These people are God's covenant people, the ones promised to Abraham. In Genesis 12:1-3, God makes a covenant with Abraham. God tells Abram in verse 3: "in you all of the families of the earth shall be blessed." We can take note of that promise to Abraham, because we'll see it again later.1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel,2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem.3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
The covenant made with Abraham is also re-iterated with Moses and his descendants, and is promised to be continued in the lineage of David. Second Samuel 7:16 says that David's house will be a kingdom that is secured forever.
Why have the Jews been in exile? They have "breached the faith" according to I Chronicles 9:1. Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like something not unlike what went on in the desert after Israel was freed from the Egyptians? It does. This unfaithfulness comes with a consequence, and that is why they will be taken to Babylon and kept captive for seventy years. This is not a surprise to God. In fact, it was prophesied through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:1-14). Even though they were disobedient and unfaithful, God shows mercy not only by promising them they will return, but by warning them in the first place.
Enter King Cyrus in 539 BC. He overthrows the Babylonian King and in 538 BC decrees that the exiles may begin to return home, something which was prophesied by Isaiah long before it happened. In Isaiah 45:4, we learn that Cyrus is going to be used by God's, even though Cyrus does not know God's name. That, to me, is incredible! God's mercy ministered by one who doesn't even know His name.
These covenant people have returned to Jerusalem, and are going to rebuild the walls of the city. That is the content of this book.
How is this our story? These people lived in a world so far removed from us. What connects us to them? Aside from the fact that we, like Israel, breach the faith, and receive acts of mercy, and still continue to disobey, it is our story because we are part of the covenant people of God. Remember the promise to Abraham that all of the families of the earth would be blessed through him? This is referred to again in Galatians 3:7-9, which quotes that passage. We are included in that blessing. The covenant made to Abraham is a covenant for us, through Christ.
God's dealings with his covenant people have not changed. He is a God who keeps all of his promises. He promised to free the Jews from Egypt and it happened. He promised to get them into the promised land, and he did it. He said he would release them from exile, and he did it. He promised a Messiah, and he sent one. He has said he's coming again. Don't you think he'll do it? I do.
This is our story because this is our God, a God who keeps his covenants.