Nehemiah was a Jew exiled with his people in Persia. Though he was born far away from his homeland, his heart yearned for Jerusalem. During the reign of King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah knew that some of the Jews were already gathering back to the land of Judah (see Bible Dictionary, “Cyrus,” 651), yet his position as cupbearer1 to the king required that he remain in Babylon.
Nehemiah inquired about the welfare of the Jews in Jerusalem and was told that they were “in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3). When Nehemiah heard this, he “sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4). He so loved and wanted to help his people! What Nehemiah chose to do at that crucial time in his life provides us with an example of what we can do when our hearts are drawn out in prayer for the welfare of others.
To help his people, Nehemiah knew he would have to make some drastic changes in his life and that he would need the permission and support of the king. One day as he appeared before the king with his food, he went with a sad countenance. The king noticed and asked why he was so unhappy. Nehemiah was fearful at first, but taking courage from a prayer of the heart, he asked the king for permission to temporarily journey to Jerusalem. He also asked for letters and soldiers to ensure his safe passage to Judah and for the materials he would need to rebuild the gates and walls of Jerusalem. All this the king gladly granted, so Nehemiah gave up his comfortable position as the king’s cupbearer and set out to fulfill the true desires of his heart (see Neh. 2:1–11).
The arrival of Nehemiah’s group at Jerusalem caused hostility from two other regional governors in Palestine, Sanballat and Tobiah. They viewed Nehemiah as a political rival and were upset that “there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (Neh. 2:10).
The first thing Nehemiah did was to inspect Jerusalem’s walls. Any breach in a city’s walls brought serious consequences to the safety of its inhabitants. The walls of Jerusalem were not only a protection but a physical symbol of the establishment of the Jews as a people. The Holy City was a unifying force and place of refuge for the Jews.
Nehemiah mounted his horse and by night went completely around the city, noting the deplorable condition of the wall and gates. The next day he appeared before the priests and leaders of the people and announced his intent: “Come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.” And the people responded, “Let us rise up and build” (Neh. 2:17–18).
Nehemiah’s call to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was much more than a simple renovation project. It was a call for the Jews to take control of their lives, land, and destiny as the people of God.
But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and others heard Nehemiah’s plan, they laughed and ridiculed him and the people. They did not want the Jews to rise again to political prominence in the region. But Nehemiah answered them, “The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build” (Neh. 2:20).
Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and raised the first new gate into place. The men of Jericho built an adjoining section. The sons of Hassenaah rebuilt the next gate, as group after group of Jews mobilized to the cause (see Neh. 3:1–32).
The closer the wall came to completion, the stronger the opposition became from Sanballat, Tobiah, and others. “Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night” (Neh. 4:9). Nehemiah rallied his discouraged workers: “Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (Neh. 4:14). Working with their instruments of war in one hand and their tools for building in the other, they rebuilt the city walls in just 52 days (see Neh. 4:21; Neh. 6:15).
Nehemiah was not satisfied with simply building physical structures; he wanted his people to be edified spiritually as well. Under his skillful leadership and direction, Jews who had been sold into slavery to other Jews were freed and restored to their lands. And the practice of usury—Jews charging other Jews excessive interest for the use of their money—was also discontinued (see Neh. 5:1–14). Nehemiah established law and order in the newly revitalized city and withheld the priesthood of God from any man who did not have genealogical records to prove his right to the priesthood (see Neh. 7:63–64).
Because of the poverty of the people, Nehemiah refused to receive his lawful payment as governor, and he entertained each day at his own cost 150 Jews, welcoming any who were returning from captivity (see Neh. 5:14–19). In these and other reforms Nehemiah received support from Ezra the priest (see Bible Dictionary, “Ezra,” 669). In so many ways, Nehemiah is a model for service in the kingdom of God today.
I often think of the thousands of valiant full-time missionaries and members all over the world who are serving like latter-day Nehemiahs. I also think of the thousands who have gone before them and the thousands who are preparing to serve the Lord. They are willing to sacrifice their personal comforts to build lives of faith among the children of God through the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many years ago when my wife and I were married civilly, we belonged to two different religions. Our children grew and began to ask which church service they should attend. This caused disagreements within the family. Then one afternoon, two tall and weary American missionaries found me gardening in front of our home. They introduced themselves politely and courageously as missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with an important message about God and His Son Jesus Christ. They patiently made return appointments and taught my family. In 1984 we were baptized, due largely to the dedication and faith of these missionaries and others who came to our home. We have been so blessed by these faithful servants of the Lord—latter-day Nehemiahs! Each performs the work of the Lord at great sacrifice, in the midst of difficulties and hardship. They each can testify that God provides a way for their success, as the Lord did for Nehemiah and the ancient Jews.
Sometime in my early membership in the Church, I became less active when I succumbed to pressures from professional and social circles. My family and I were restored to full Church activity and faith by loving home and visiting teachers. They too were latter-day Nehemiahs to us.
There are many today who find themselves spiritually in a situation similar to that of the Jews in Nehemiah’s time—in danger of long-term captivity because of unrighteousness. In God’s great mercy, He gives His children opportunities to return to Him.
What helped the Jews succeed in the face of tremendous opposition? They had a great leader—Nehemiah. He was humble, self-motivated, confident in the will of God, willing to take the lead, full of faith, fearless, an organizer, obedient, and just. He was able to gain the love, trust, and confidence of his people.
Today we are blessed with a living prophet, apostles, and many faithful men and women who lead the Church. They provide the strength so many of us need in times of spiritual and temporal crisis as we heed their inspired counsel. Families are likewise blessed when family members provide an enduring and uniting influence of faith and strength to each other.
President Gordon B. Hinckley has taught of the need to be a friend to new members, to keep them strongly integrated in the Church.2 Modern Nehemiahs are needed to befriend them, to become their mentors and guides. Such a person is willing to give precious hours of fellowship to those who need stronger walls of faith.
Nehemiah’s story of inspired leadership and mission to rebuild walls and lives teaches us of a loving and merciful Father in Heaven. He gave His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to atone for the sins of all mankind. His Atonement makes our glorious return to Their presence possible. The road toward that return may at times be difficult, but it is very possible only because of and through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer.
The valiance of Nehemiah is an example of what the Lord requires of the Latter-day Saints today: the courage to rebuild the lives of His scattered people and bring them back into His presence.