This book is written in first person by the dude it is named after, and it takes place at roughly the same time as the book of Ezra.
Nehemiah was the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia. One night, Nehemiah was having a conversation with a fellow Israelite and was told what a horrible mess Jerusalem was. Somehow, this came as news to Nehemiah, and he was really upset. The next time he was in the presence of the king, the king noticed that Nehemiah was sad and asked what was up. Nehemiah responded that he was upset that the city where his fathers were buried was a smoldering heap. So, the king allowed Nehemiah (and any other Israelites who wanted to go) to leave, take a bunch of money and other stuff from his personal treasury, and go back to Jerusalem to rebuild it. Artaxerxes pulled out all of the stops. For his cup bearer. Seriously, the makers of the 300 did zero research before they made that movie. But you probably already knew that from the diaper wearing and crazy monsters.
Once Nehemiah and his fellow Jews got back to Jerusalem, they began to rebuild immediately. Want to know which family helped to rebuild each section of the wall? Don’t worry, the Bible has a list for that. Snooze fest. Neighboring people (as you might recall) were not happy about the Israelites being back or the city being rebuilt and tried to interfere. They even threatened the Israelites with attacks and war. But Nehemiah and the others weren’t having it and worked with one hand while holding a spear in the other. Somehow, that seems to have panned out for them. Multi-tasking at its finest.
While building, it came to Nehemiah’s attention that some of his fellow Jews were in dire straights. The officials over his people were demanding large tariffs, and some of the people had nothing left for themselves. Nehemiah publicly shamed the officials for usury against their own people. He made the officials promise to cut their shit out, and asked God to punish anyone who broke that promise.
Throughout the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, outsiders tried to intimidate Nehemiah into giving up his work, including intimidation with false prophets. But Nehemiah was set, and eventually the wall was finished. At which point, Nehemiah immediately sent guards to protect what had been built.
Another list of returned exiles.
Our friend from the last book, Ezra, comes up again. Nehemiah calls him a “scribe.” In this book, he is said to be reading the Laws of Moses to the gathered Israelites. They cry and weep and worship with their faces to the ground. Then the people celebrate the feast of the seventh month, completely following Moses’ laws, which hadn’t been done since Joshua was in charge.
Then everybody confessed their sins, and there is a really long prayer. The prayer is nothing new. God is awesome, but we suck real bad. You’ve done great things, but we’ve forsaken you. But now we’re gonna be better, honest. We were slaves, you made us not slaves, but then we wanted a king and he made us slaves again, and now we’re seriously for real slaves, because the Persian king rules over us. (Even though he gave us pretty much a blank check to his coffers to rebuild this dung pile we ruined by being horrible followers.) Help, please. We won’t be dicks again, promise.
Supposedly, putting it in writing that they wouldn’t be dicks again made it air tight. Everybody signed the agreement which said as much and affixed their seals to it. So no more being dicks!
Then there’s a list of people who signed that piece of paper I was just talking about.
The next part is the actual letter, I think. It talks about how everyone promises to be a good kid and keep all of God’s laws. Not giving/accepting daughters to/from foreigners, tithing, keeping the Sabbath holy, all that stuff.
The people who came back from Persia, were just the remaining Jews (the tribe of Judah), Benjamites and Levites. Everybody else was captured separately and taken to a different place. When those returning came back, they were from all over in Judah, but Jerusalem was largely empty, so everybody drew lots for who got to live in the holy city. And as usual, there is a list of those lucky few.
Party time. The Israelites threw a huge bash to celebrate, purify and dedicate their newly constructed wall. Lots of singing. Lots of rejoicing. Babies were probably made and animals probably died.
Then Nehemiah went back to Persia to serve his king. Some time later, he was allowed to return to Jerusalem. Just like old times, the Israelites had fallen into their old ways and started sinning. They had married foreign women, they were working on the Sabbath and trading with foreigners. (Nehemiah took God’s rule about not doing business with a certain few foreigners to the extreme and rebuked all foreigners. I feel like Nehemiah is my racist Texan uncle.) Real naughty stuff like that. He wagged his finger at the Israelites, beat them up and was super self-righteous about everything.
He honestly spends a good portion of his time asking God to look kindly on him, because he was such an upstanding dude. Seriously, the last line of his book is, “Remember me with favor, O my God.” Ass kisser, amiright?
Next up, Esther, the last of the history books in the Old Testament.