Nehemiah is in the city of Susa (Shush in modern day Iran) and he receives one of his brothers who had come back from Judah. Nehemiah asks his brother how the work of rebuilding the city is going and his brother gives a negative report.
Hanani: Yeah, it’s still a wreck. The walls are broken down and the gates were burned with fire.
Nehemiah takes the news badly and cries. He decides to fast and pray:
“Lord, you’re faithful to those that love and obey you, so please hear my prayer. We’ve sinned against you. We’ve broken your laws, and you held up your end of the deal, you’ve scattered us to all the nations of the world. But your promised that if we returned to you, you would gather us back home. So please, hear my prayer and give me success with the King of Persia.”
Nehemiah adds that he was the king’s cupbearer.
A cupbearer was a person who served the royal household drinks at meals. They were highly trusted individuals because they held the king’s life (and the life of his family) in their hands. Sometimes they were required to take a drink from the wine they had poured the king to test it for poison. Because of their place in the royal house, they enjoyed a place of influence with the king. So Nehemiah is in a unique position to be able to help out the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah is performing his duties, when King Artaxerxes notices that he is in distress. Nehemiah had never been sad before, so the king asks him about it.
King: Why are you sad when you’re not ill? This must be sadness of the heart.
Nehemiah: I’m super bummed because Jerusalem, the city of my ancestors is still in ruins.
King: Okay, what would you like me to do?
Nehemiah: Let me go and rebuild the city of Jerusalem.
King: Cool. How long will it take?
Nehemiah gives him a time that he will return and asks for letters to the local governors telling them of the king’s plans and giving Nehemiah the authority to request materials and support for the effort. So Nehemiah leaves and goes to Judea. The king also grants him an escort of infantry and cavalry.
But some of the local officials, Sanballat and Tobiah are angry that someone had come to support the Jews.
Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem and spends three days resting, before he sets off on his horse to circle the perimeter of the city, inspecting the damage to the walls and the gates. When he returns, he informs the Jewish leaders of his mission to rebuild the city and they agree to participate in the work.
So Sanballet and Tobiah try to hassle Nehemiah and ask if he plans to rebel against Artaxerxes, but Nehemiah blows them off and tells them to get lost.
Nehemiah: Here are the guys who helped us build the walls and gates.
Sanballet and Tobiah mock the efforts to rebuild. Nehemiah asks the Lord to return their insults upon their own heads, and the Jews continue to work on the wall, restoring it to half its original height.
Sanballet and Tobiah hear that the wall is progressing and that the gaps in the walls are being closed, so they plot an attack on Jerusalem to kill the workers there to discourage them from finishing, but Nehemiah is informed of the plot and stations guards in the gaps in the walls. Sanballet and Tobiah’s efforts are frustrated, but the work of rebuilding is slowed as Nehemiah must station half of his volunteers as guards to watch over the other half who labor on the wall.
The Jews all take to wearing their swords at all times as precautions and Nehemiah and his brothers wear their armor and weaponry to bed at night, so they can be ready to defend Jerusalem at a moment’s notice.