The story of Nehemiah is found within the book that is named after him. He lived in the 5th century BC, during the exile of the Jews in Persia. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia, in the capital city of Susa. This was an important role at court that meant he had the king’s trust and saw him every day.
One day, while waiting at table, Nehemiah summoned up the courage to ask the king for a special favour. He asked Artaxerxes for permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, which had been in ruins since 586 BC. King Artaxerxes agreed to his request, appointed him the new governor of Judah and gave him all of the support he asked for.
Nehemiah travelled to Jerusalem, along with letters of safe passage and an army escort given to him by the king. He toured the city at night to get a sense of how much work was involved and afterwards shared his ideas with Jerusalem’s community leaders. He decided to start with the rebuilding of the walls, to improve the city defences.
Nehemiah was supported by the people but faced strong opposition from three rival governors – Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. These politicians opposed the reconstruction of the city and did everything they could to prevent it. They ridiculed the plan, threatened the workers with violence and even tried to trick Nehemiah into giving up on the project.
However, Nehemiah was a determined man and refused to be discouraged. He arranged for the reconstruction of the walls to be completed under armed guard. After just 52 days, the work was finished and Nehemiah helped lead a dedication ceremony, with prayers, hymns and processions, to celebrate the achievement.
After serving as governor of Jerusalem for twelve years, Nehemiah returned to the court of Artaxerxes. Several years later, he got permission to return to Jerusalem. When he got back, he was dismayed at what he found. In his absence, his fellow citizens had married foreigners, neglected the Sabbath, and failed to pay their taxes for the temple and its priests.
So Nehemiah set about putting things in order. He made the citizens sign an agreement that they would no longer do these things. He arranged for the city to be repopulated and for the poor to have their debts written off. We later read that he established a library in Jerusalem and collected existing biblical writings together (2 Maccabees 2:13-15).
This stained glass window featuring Nehemiah is found with Holy Trinity, Dorchester. Dating to 1900, it pictures him holding a model of the rebuilt Jerusalem. The window was made to commemorate a churchwarden of this formerly Anglican church. As such, it quotes a prayer from Nehemiah 13:14, which applies well to his vocation.
Nehemiah was constantly in touch with God through prayer (1:4-11; 2:4; 3:36-37; 4:3; 5;19; 6:14; 13:14, 29, 31). Perhaps because of this, he is described in this window as a prophet (‘ppta’), although the Bible doesn’t describe him that way. Here he is paired with the Prophet Micah, whose message of faith and justice was also reflected in the life of the churchwarden.
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Where to find this work of art
Holy Trinity, Dorchester
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On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: It was King David who first made Jerusalem the centre of the nation.
- From the New Testament: One week before his death, Christ entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He was put to death just outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12).