But I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:21, ESV).
In the year 444 B.C., the cup bearer of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.) was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he was working in a position of honor and intimacy for the king of the greatest empire the world had ever seen: Persia. On the other hand, he, himself, was not of Persian decent and his own people were in need.
The man was Nehemiah and he was a Jew living among the Persian people. He was aware his own people had achieved something both historically and culturally significant some sixty years before this time in March, 515 B.C. They had rebuilt the Temple of Jerusalem. This should have been a period of great rejoicing. Instead, of rejoicing, Nehemiah was left weeping. His brother, Hanani, reported that the walls of Jerusalem had not been rebuilt and the city had no protection.
In ancient times, a city could offer its inhabitants shelter from outsiders by the walls that surrounded the city. In the case of Jerusalem, the walls were non-existent meaning the safety of its people was nowhere to be found.
Burdened by this troubling news, Nehemiah took the opportunity to rebuild the walls with the blessing of the king (Nehemiah 2:1-9). In spite of strict opposition, Nehemiah was able to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in a mere 52 days! “With the rebuilding of walls and adequate provision made for the observance of the sacrifices and holy days prescribed in the Mosaic Law (Nehemiah 12:27-30), Nehemiah was free to end his leave of absence and return to the Persian court.”
Knowing the city was now in a place to thrive both spiritually and economically, Nehemiah returned to Persia with an ease of mind. Unfortunately, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem a few short years later to find the city in a different form of trouble.
During Nehemiah’s absence at the Persian court, the situation in Jerusalem had deteriorated. Although freed from the threat of enemies from without, the Jews themselves grew careless and internal dissension and infidelity brought on a new crisis. The wine presses were in operation on the Sabbath day, and Tyrian merchants brought their fish and other merchandise into Jerusalem contrary to the Sabbath law .
*There were other issues, such as intermarriage, plaguing Jerusalem upon Nehemiah’s return. These other issues were not, however, in direct correlation to the Nehemiah’s statement.