ne-he-mi'-a, ne-hem-i'-a (nechemyah, "comforted of Yah"):
3. King's Cupbearer
4. Governor of Judea
Nehemiah, the son of Hacaliah, is the Jewish patriot whose life is recorded in the Biblical work named after him. All that we know about him from contemporary sources is found in this book; and so the readers of this article are referred to the Book of Nehemiah for the best and fullest account of his words and deeds.
All that is known of his family is that he was the son of Hacaliah (Neh 1:1) and that one of his brothers was called Hanani (Neh 1:2; 7:2); the latter a man of sufficient character and importance to have been made a ruler of Jerusalem.
From Neh 10:1-8 some have inferred that he was a priest, since Nehemiah comes first in the list of names ending with the phrase, "these were the priests." This view is supported by the Syriac and Arabic versions of 10:1, which read: "Nehemiah the elder, the son of Hananiah the chief of the priests"; and by the Latin Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) of 2 Macc 1:21, where he is called "Nehemiah the priest," and possibly by 2 Macc 1:18, where it is said that Nehemiah "offered sacrifices, after that he had builded the temple and the altar."
The argument based upon Neh 10:1-8 will fall to the ground, if we change the pointing of the "Seraiah" of the 3rd verse and read "its princes," referring back to the princes of 10:1. In this case, Nehemiah and Zedekiah would be the princes; then would come the priests and then the Levites.
Some have thought that he was of the royal line of Judah, inasmuch as he refers to his "fathers' sepulchres" at Jerusalem (Neh 2:3). This would be a good argument only if it could be shown that none but kings had sepulchers at Jerusalem.
It has been argued again that he was of noble lineage because of his position as cupbearer to the king of Persia. To substantiate this argument, it would need to be shown that none but persons of noble birth could serve in this position; but this has not been shown, and cannot be shown.
From the fact that Nehemiah was so grieved at the desolation of the city and sepulchers of his fathers and that he was so jealous for the laws of the God of Judah, we can justly infer that he was brought up by pious parents, who instructed him in the history and law of the Jewish people.
3. King's Cupbearer:
Doubtless because of his probity and ability, he was apparently at an early age appointed by Artaxerxes, king of Persia, to the responsible position of cupbearer to the king. There is now no possible doubt that this King his king was Artaxerxes, the first of that name, commonly called Longimanus, who ruled over Persia from 464 to 424 BC. The mention of the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, in a letter written to the priests of Jerusalem in 407 BC, among whom Johanan is especially named, proves that Sanballat must have ruled in the time of Artaxerxes I rather than in that of Artaxerxes II.
The office of cupbearer was "one of no trifling honor" (Herod. iii.34). It was one of his chief duties to taste the wine for the king to see that it was not poisoned, and he was even admitted to the king while the queen was present (Neh 2:6). It was on account of this position of close intimacy with the king that Nehemiah was able to obtain his commission as governor of Judea and the letters and edicts which enabled him to restore the walls of Jerusalem.
4. Governor of Judea:
The occasion of this commission was as follows: Hanani, the brother of Nehemiah, and other men of Judah came to visit Nehemiah while he was in Susa in the 9th month of the 20th year of Artaxerxes. They reported that the Jews in Jerusalem were in great affliction and that the wall thereof was broken down and its gates burned with fire. Thereupon he grieved and fasted and prayed to God that he might be granted favor by the king. Having appeared before the latter in the 1st month of the 21st year of Artaxerxes, 444 BC, he was granted permission to go to Jerusalem to build the city of his fathers' sepulchers, and was given letters to the governors of Syria and Israel and especially to Asaph, the keeper of the king's forest, ordering him to supply timber for the wall, the fortress, and the temple. He was also appointed governor of the province of which Jerusalem was the capital.
Armed with these credentials and powers he repaired to Jerusalem and immediately set about the restoration of the walls, a work in which he was hindered and harassed by Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, and others, some of them Jews dwelling in Jerusalem. Notwithstanding, he succeeded in his attempt and eventually also in providing gates for the various entrances to the city.
Having accomplished these external renovations, he instituted a number of social reforms. He appointed the officers necessary for better government, caused the people to be instructed in the Law by public readings, and expositions; celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles; and observed a national fast, at which the sins of the people were confessed and a new covenant with Yahweh was solemnly confirmed. The people agreed to avoid marriages with the heathen, to keep the Sabbath, and to contribute to the support of the temple. To provide for the safety and prosperity of the city, one out of every ten of the people living outside Jerusalem was compelled to settle in the city. In all of these reforms he was assisted by Ezra, who had gone up to Jerusalem in the 7th year of Artaxerxes.
Once, or perhaps oftener, during his governorship Nehemiah returned to the king. Nothing is known as to when or where he died. It is certain, however, that he was no longer governor in 407 BC; for at that time according to the Aramaic letter written from Elephantine to the priests of Jerusalem, Bagohi was occupying the position of governor over Judea. One of the last acts of Nehemiah's government was the chasing away of one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib, because he had become the son-in-law to Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. As this Joiada was the father of Johanan (Neh 12:22) who, according to the Aramaic papyrus, was high priest in 407 BC, and according to Josephus (Ant., XI, viii.1) was high priest while Bagohi (Bogoas) was general of Artaxerxes' army, it is certain that Nehemiah was at this time no longer in power. From the 3rd of the Sachau papyri, it seems that Bagohi was already governor in 410 BC; and, that at the same time, Dalayah, the son of Sanballat, was governor in Samaria. More definite information on these points is not to be had at present.
The only early extra-Biblical data with regard to Nehemiah and the Judea of his times are to be found: (1) in the Egyptian papyri of Elephantine ("Aramaische Papyri und Ostraka aus einer judischen Militar-Kolonie zu Elephantine," Altorientalische Sprachdenkmaler des 5. Jahrhunderts vor Chr., Bearbeitet von Eduard Sachau. Leipzig, 1911); (2)in Josephus, Ant, XI, vi, 6-8; vii, 1, 2; (3) in Ecclesiasticus 49:13, where it is said: "The renown of Nehemiah is glorious; of him who established our waste places and restored our ruins, and set up the gates and bars"; (4) and lastly in 2 Macc 1:18-36 and 2:13; in the latter of these passages it speaks of `the writings and commentaries of Nehemiah; and how he, founding a library, gathered together the acts of the kings and the prophets and of David and the epistles of the kings concerning the holy gifts.'
R. Dick Wilson