And all of the people gathered as one to the square which is before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded to Israel. Nehemiah 8:1
The book of Nehemiah describes a transition period for the people of Judah as they are released from exile and begin to build the walls of Jerusalem. The narrative of the story often changes from first person to third person quickly as the omniscient narrator recounts the importance of the historical events as it relates to various laws found within the Pentateuch.
Ancient traditions did not isolate the book of Nehemiah as people may do in our time; rather, Nehemiah was joined together with Ezra and Ezra-Nehemiah was viewed as one book. The narrative of Nehemiah illustrates this ancient viewpoint with how the book is structured. In chapters 1–7 and 11–13 Nehemiah dictates, often in first person, what appears to be his personal memoirs of the events that have occurred, but in chapters 8–10 Ezra appears and becomes the focal point of the story as he begins to describe the people’s worship of God.
Furthermore, the stories are similar to one another since both books recount the transition from exile to freedom of the Israelites. Ezra focuses on rebuilding the temple and Nehemiah the wall, so it should not surprise the reader that the culmination of both dedication of the wall and worship in the temple happen near the end of Nehemiah. Thus, I would suggest that as Nehemiah is preached Ezra is frequently consulted and preached alongside Nehemiah, and the preacher carefully observes any connections which the text demands be made.
Although Nehemiah provides the reader with various theological themes, I would like to focus on the author’s portrayal of God and prayer.
The people of God have come out of exile and, indeed, are a small remnant that Isaiah predicted (Isa 10:22). Yet, Nehemiah does not present God comparable to the smallness of the remnant, but rather speaks of God as a transcendent being who oversees, guides, and protects his people. When Nehemiah hears the words that the walls of Jerusalem are destroyed, he addresses God in prayer by reminding the reader that this God is the God of Gen 1 (“God of the heavens”; cf. Neh 9:6). He is also the God who keeps his covenant, and the covenants from Abraham to Moses play a significant role in the confession of Israel’s sin (9:6–38). Truly, then, this God who made the heavens and who keeps his covenant is “our God” (Neh 9:32).
Prayer is also another significant theme within Nehemiah, and this theme foregrounds the notion of Nehemiah’s full dependence upon God. The background information of the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls provides the introduction of the man Nehemiah, and he is portrayed as a man of prayer and confession (1:6). Furthermore, there are several prayers that reflect a mature faith in God (9:6–38) as well as personal petition (6:19).
Personally, I have found the brief prayer in 2:4 to be encouraging. Nehemiah has already sought the Lord through prayer in chapter one and, we can infer, that in the span of several months from the conclusion of chapter one to the month of Nisan he continually sought the Lord’s wisdom and guidance. Nehemiah knew that he would need to bring up the topic of leaving for Jerusalem carefully and at the right moment, otherwise the king would refuse (1:11). So, when the opportunity arises Nehemiah simply, and briefly, prays. Now, we cannot know for sure the exact words of his prayer, but most likely it was a plea that everything he has prayed in chapter 1 would come to fruition. In brief he prayed, and the Lord answered.
Historical books are notoriously difficult to preach and if one is not careful, Nehemiah can be moralized and preached as if the main point is to be courageous in the Lord and do as he says. Although this may be true, there is much more to the book of Nehemiah that the preacher must uncover through careful exegetical work, taking Ezra into consideration, and carefully examining the theological themes of the book. Nehemiah shows us that God is faithful to his people despite their faithlessness and, even during periods of struggle against Sanballat and others, the Lord once again proved his covenant loyalty to his people.