He was a Jew that was exiled after the fall of Jerusalem. He was the cupbearer to the Persian king which meant that he tasted everything that the king was about to drink. This was to keep the king from being poisoned. He was a friend of Ezra the priest but he was what we would call a layman.
This book recounts the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and the return of God's people.
"The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem." NIV translation
Nehemiah introduces himself and gives us a date for the start of this book. He also tells us that he was in Iran (citadel of Susa).
Men come from Jerusalem and he asks them about the people and the state of the city.
"They said to me, 'Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.'" NIV translation
The report of the men from Judah is not good. They report that the city of Jerusalem is defenseless as its walls are torn down. In this time, all the important cities had walls and gates. It was shameful for the city to be in this shape.
"When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven." NIV version
His first reaction in the midst of this very bad news was to turn to God. He mourned, fasted, and prayed which is a very good lesson for us today. When we see how nations turn away from faith in Jesus Christ, do we have the same reaction?