Reading Time: 12 minutes

A study of Nehemiah: A culture in history

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

Topic Scripture: Nehemiah 1:1-2

Israel in history

“Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” It was the name given to Jacob by God in Genesis 32. But the history of the nation begins with Abraham (ca. 2000 B.C.) and God’s promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Abraham traveled from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan, Egypt, and back to Canaan. 25 years after God’s promise, Isaac was born. From Isaac came Esau and Jacob; from Jacob came the “12 tribes of Israel.”

After 400 years in Egyptian slavery, the people were led by Moses through the Exodus to the Promised Land. Joshua led them across the flooded Jordan River to the conquest of the land. After a period of judges, Saul became their first king. David and Solomon followed.

Under Solomon, the land came to its highest point of economic and military significance. The king’s net worth was 100,000 talents of gold (3.75 tons) and a million talents of silver; together they would be worth $58 billion today.

After Solomon’s death, the nation divided under Rehoboam (922 B.C.) The ten northern tribes were called “Israel,” while the two southern tribes were called “Judah.” In 722, the Assyrians (modern-day Syria) destroyed the Northern Kingdom. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians (modern-day Iraq) destroyed and captured the Southern Kingdom.

In 538 B.C., the Persians (modern-day Iran) overthrew the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, setting the stage for our study.

Israel and Nehemiah

It is December of the year 444 B.C., and disaster is upon the nation Judah. Nebuchadnezzar, general and leader of the hated Babylonians, had leveled their Temple and city 140 years earlier, in 587 B.C. Thousands died, and multiplied other thousands of people were enslaved. This was their 9-11, only al Qaeda has not only destroyed their nation—it has taken most of them back to Afghanistan as captives. Psalm 137 captures their lament and crisis.

But Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, has liberated them. In 538 B.C., having conquered the hated Babylonians, he sent the Jews home. But to what home? The walls of their city were destroyed, the city itself in rubble, the Temple in ruins. For 14 years they labored, but to little avail. They laid the foundation of their Temple, but nothing else. And the walls were still in ruins.

Why did the walls matter? Because to an ancient people, they were their most important physical and psychological possession. Physically, walls were their only defense against their enemies. There were no national armies or navies to rescue them in attack. Without their walls, they could not be a people.

Psychologically, their walls were the symbol of their land and people. If the walls were down, their pride was in ruins as well. Much like our own Statue of Liberty, every land has a symbol. When the symbol is in shambles, we feel that we are as well.

Enter Nehemiah.

“The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.” “Nehemiah” means “Yahweh has comforted.” (It was sometimes shortened to Nahum; cf. the minor prophet by this name.) We know that he was “cupbearer to the king” (v. 11), a high office with regular access to the king. Some think he may have been second in command in the nation. We’ll say more about this matter in coming weeks.

It is “the month of Kislev in the twentieth year.” This was the ninth month of the Jewish calendar, November/December to us. Artaxerxes, Persia’s sixth king, began his reign in 464 B.C.; the “twentieth year” of his reign would have been 444 B.C.

Nehemiah was “in the citadel of Susa.” “Citadel” refers to the “fortress,” one of the royal palaces and fortified cities. “Susa” was the winter residence of the king; Ectabana was the summer palace. So we know that Nehemiah was with the king in his winter palace.

Then “Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men” (v. 2a). Hanani is a shortened version of Hananiah, “the Lord has been gracious.” These are Jews, as “one of my brothers” indicates. Nehemiah would later appoint his brother Hanani to a high position in the new government in Israel (7:2).

This is all we know about them. They may have been Persians who visited Judah and returned, or people living in Judah who came to Persia.

Nehemiah “questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.” This refers to the Jews who had survived captivity in Babylon and returned to Judah beginning in 538 B.C., and their capital city of Jerusalem. The Hebrew may also indicate some who escaped from Babylon, as the ESV translates.

So our study opens with many of God’s people back in the Holy Land, but facing a nation in tatters, a country whose future was clouded at best. If enemies were to besiege them, they would have no means of defense. A drought or locust infestation could wipe them out. Their very survival as a nation was in doubt.

The Church in America

In the year 2000, approximately two billion people worldwide claimed to be Christians. Of that number, over 15%, more than 300 million, were found in North America. 500 years earlier, there had been virtually no Christians in this part of the world. The growth of Christianity here is both complex and fascinating.

The first Christians in North America were Catholic missionaries and their converts in Mexico and the southern part of present-day America. They were doing their work in the early 16th century, even as the Protestant Reformation was just beginning in Europe. Jesuits and other missionaries worked among French settlers and at Indian missions in Canada as well.

Other groups came to America in the early 17th century. The Protestant Church of England (Episcopal today) was established as the official religion of Virginia. Anglicans spread to the Carolinas as well. Calvinists founded five colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut; these were the “Puritans.”

Maryland was settled as a refuge for English Catholics after the English Reformation. But all were churches with state sponsorship.

Non-established churches came to America as well. Quakers established a powerful presence in Pennsylvania. Dutch Reformed churches were begun in New York.

Baptists came with Roger Williams to Providence, Rhode Island in 1636. The First Baptist Church in the country was built there; Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta and the new chapel at DBU are copies. Methodists preachers arrived in 1769 and soon made their denomination the largest on the frontier.

Within a century of its founding, America would become home to some of the largest, most vibrant Christian movements in history. Why?

Faith in America

Space on the frontier is one factor in the explosion of the church in frontier America. By the end of the 18th century, every Protestant denomination in Europe had been transplanted to North America. The scale of this land is illustrated by the fact that the distance between London and Moscow is less than the distance between Montreal and Denver, or Montreal and Houston. The physical space bounded by Rome, Geneva, and Wittenberg (the centers for Catholicism, Reformed Protestantism, and Lutheranism) would fit easily into Arizona. Churches here had room to spread, grow, and thrive.

Ethnicity and nationality changed remarkably in the New World as a result. African Americans had opportunity to build and grow churches. Pluralism led to competition and the necessity of growth.

Religious freedom and the separation of church and state were critical factors in American Christianity. State-sponsored churches (such as Anglicans) were forced to develop ways of sustaining and growing themselves, while movements which had been persecuted in Europe found themselves able to thrive in America.

One example: Anglicans and Congregationalists were the largest denominations in America in 1776; within 50 years they had been far outstripped by the Methodists and Baptists.

But revivalism is much of the reason. The First Great Awakening came in 1734. The crisis in the colonies was severe. Moral conditions were dire. Not one in 20 people claimed to be a Christian. Samuel Blair, a pastor of the day, said that religion lay as it were dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in the visible church.

But Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed minister who had come to the colonies from Holland in 1720, would not give up on his adopted homeland. He began praying fervently for revival to come to the colonies, first with himself and his church, and then with his larger community. Others began joining his fledgling prayer movement. The Spirit began to move.

Then Jonathan Edwards, an intellectual recluse who studied 12 hours a day and read his sermons, face buried in the manuscript, experienced the anointing and power of God. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” shook his church and then the young nation.

The preaching of George Whitefield gathered and galvanized thousands. Unlike established church pastors, he preached extemporaneous sermons in the open air to anyone who would listen, and cooperated with all kinds of Christians. At one point in 1740, he was preaching to crowds of 8,000 a day when Boston was not much larger than that.

The First Great Awakening was the result. As much as 80% of the colonial population became identified with a Christian church. It started with a group who prayed, trusting God’s providence, asking for his provision and experienced his power.

The Second Great Awakening began in 1792. After the War for Independence, social conditions became even more deplorable than before. Drunkenness became epidemic; out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed alcoholics; 15,000 died of the disease each year. Women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, wrote to James Madison, Bishop of Virginia, that the Church “was too far gone ever to be redeemed.” A poll taken at Harvard University found not a single believer. Two were found at Princeton. Tom Paine claimed that “Christianity will be forgotten in 30 years.”

But he was mistaken. In 1784, a Baptist pastor named Isaac Baccus gathered together a number of ministers. They wrote a circular letter, asking believers to pray for awakening. Prayer groups spread all over New England. In 1972, revival broke out on college campuses, where hundreds were converted. “Camp meetings” spread across the frontier; eventually more than a thousand were meeting annually. Churches doubled and tripled in membership. One Baptist church in Kentucky with a membership of 170 baptized 421 during a single revival meeting.

In that year, William Carey began the modern missions movement. The American Bible Society, American Tract Society, and a variety of missions organizations began as a result of this Awakening. All because God’s people sought God in prayer, trusted his providence, asked for his provision and experienced his power.

The Third Great Awakening is dated to 1858. The Gold Rush of 1848 had led to a booming economy which crashed in 1857. If it were not for the Great Depression of the 1930s, the collapse of 1857 would have that title. Fear of civil war was increasing. Turmoil was everywhere.

In the midst of such fear and anxiety, a group of laymen began meeting for prayer on Wednesday, September 23, 1857 at the Old North Dutch Church in New York City. They were led by a Presbyterian businessman named Jeremiah Lamphier. The first day, six people came to his prayer meeting. The next week there were 14; then 23; then the group began to meet daily. They outgrew the church and began filling other churches and meeting halls throughout the city. The movement spread across the country.

The result was one of the most significant movements in Christian history. More than a million were saved in one year, out of a national population of only 30 million. 50,000 were coming to Christ every week. The revival continued into the Civil War, where more than 100,000 soldiers were converted. Sailors took the revival to other countries. Thousands of young people volunteered for mission service.

All because God’s people sought God in prayer, trusted his providence, asked for his provision and experienced his power.

The Fourth Great Awakening began in Wales in 1904 in the heart of a coal miner named Evan Roberts. He became convicted of his sins by the Spirit, and turned to God in prayer and repentance. He then began preaching to the young people in his church, calling them to prayer and repentance.

Prayer meetings broke out all over Wales. Social conditions were affected dramatically. Tavern owners went bankrupt; police formed gospel quartets because they had no one to arrest. Coal mines shut down for a time because the miners stopped using profanity and the mules no longer understood them.

The revival spread to America, where ministers in Atlantic City, NJ reported that out of 50,000 people, only 50 adults were left unconverted. In Portland, Oregon, more than 200 stores closed daily from 11 to 2 so people could attend prayer meetings. In 1896, only 2,000 students were engaged in missionary studies; by 1906, 11,000 were enrolled.

Conclusion

Now we find ourselves in circumstances similar to those of Nehemiah’s day. For reasons we’ll explore in coming weeks, our nation is facing a cultural, moral, economic, and spiritual crisis of the first magnitude. An Awakening is the spiritual answer to our nation’s situation.

That Awakening begins with you and with me. Gypsy Smith, a famous evangelist of the 19th century, was asked how to begin a revival. His advice: “Take a piece of chalk and draw a circle. Then get inside that circle and pray until everything inside that circle is right with God. Revival will then come.”

I will do that. Will you join me?