Book of Nehemiah Chapter Two Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Chapter 1 occurred in the Persian month of Chislev, the rough equivalent of our modern December. This chapter jumps to the month of Nisan, corresponding to today's April. Nehemiah, in fear and in hope, had been praying fervently for an audience with the Persian king. The gates and walls of Jerusalem were still breached, months had passed, and now Nehemiah's personal journal would continue into what we call "Chapter 2, Verse 1"—"And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence." Like Daniel, Zechariah, Haggai and Ezra, this man, Nehemiah, was a Jewish captive, a prisoner within a foreign Empire, and all of these author-prophets dated events by the year of the reign of whatever Eastern king was enthroned at the time. People did not have sad faces in the presence of the king—no frowns were allowed, and a good part of Nehemiah's job was to buoy up the spirits of this Artaxerxes, who was also called Longimanus.
Finally, Nehemiah could not hide his feelings about his people in Jerusalem anymore, as seen in Verse 2: "So the king said to me, 'Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.' Then I was very much afraid." For the offense of being sad in the presence of the king, Nehemiah could have been instantly killed, but it wasn't so much that he afraid for himself, though he was—Nehemiah was terrified that if he died, there was no one else in a position to intervene on behalf of the Jews. All of this poured out of him in Verse 3: "I said to the king, 'Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?'" Have you ever loved someone else so much that if they were in danger, you would die in their place if you could. That's the way Moses was (Exodus 32:32), it was the way of Paul the Apostle (Romans 9:3), and that's the kind of man Nehemiah had become. Faith in the Lord will bring God's sacrificial love into our hearts.
We cannot see even a second into the future. Our best prediction by the finest expert is only a wild guess, and Nehemiah could not have foreseen the king's response in Verse 4: "Then the king said to me, 'What would you request?' So I prayed to the God of heaven." Nehemiah's jaw must have dropped because this king, who wouldn't allow a frown in his presence, was now offering HELP to a man who had just frowned. And if something of that magnitude happened to you right now, what would you do with the opportunity? Nehemiah PRAYED, a silent, fervent prayer "to the God of heaven." The One who does know the future, knew this would happen, and also knew what would happen next, as He prompted Nehemiah to utter the words of Verse 5: "I said to the king, 'If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.'" For three months, Nehemiah had been too frightened to say anything at all about his concern, and now it spilled out of him in one sentence. We are to see that God arranges the lives of His people for His good purposes. Just He led Nehemiah, He will lead all who have faith in the Lord.
6, "Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, 'How long will your journey be, and when will you return?' So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time." You could conclude simply that the king LIKED Nehemiah and therefore wanted to help him, which might be partly true, but there is more, as seen in the words of Proverbs 21:1—"The king's heart is in the hand of the lord...He turns it wherever He wishes." Outwardly, events are confusing to the point where you wonder if anything makes sense, but God has a plan, a purpose, and a good outcome for each and every situation. Any war is a tragedy, full of horrible events, but within and in relation to those wars, people who might otherwise never pray, cry out in simple, newfound faith to the God who hears. A prayer was uttered and this selfish, arrogant king would now give Nehemiah even more than he asked, as we will see in Verse 9. Little is known of the queen in Verse 6, by the way, except that secular history provides her name, which was Damaspia, and further that she and her husband-king would later die on the same day.
Verses 7-8: "And I said to the king, 'If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.' And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me." Having authority is one thing, but PROVING you have it can also be important. Nehemiah would need these letters along with supplies to restore safety to his people in Jerusalem. The assumption of some has been that the "timber" mentioned here had to come from lush Lebanon, but that wasn't necessary because the Holy Land of that time itself was lush and green, a forested land of milk and honey until the time after 600 AD, when innumerable trees were cut down by invaders merely to make room for chariots to maneuver in the religious wars that would fill the land. And when good happens, like it did for Nehemiah, we should recognize that it was "because the good hand of my God was on me."
Nehemiah was led by God to make this journey from the Persian capitol to Jerusalem. The events that led up to this point, plus the "letters" and "horsemen" we will see in Verse 9 were a miracle ordained by God. He was led in prayer and in action to complete what was needed, and it is interesting that he was to be met with immediate opposition. Here is Verse 9: "Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen." Not only was Nehemiah sent with letters giving him permission to do the things of God, but the king went beyond Nehemiah's request and sent a troop of armed soldiers, including cavalry, to protect the man and his mission. And now opposition was seen in Verse 10: "When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel." God Almighty calls ordinary people like you and me into His service and also equips us. We will be opposed because there is an enemy, but God will be with us.
Nehemiah was intelligent, faithful to the Lord, and he was also a cautious man, as we can see in Verses 11-12: "So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. 12 And I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding." Up to this point, only the Persian king and queen knew what Nehemiah's journey was all about. As a high officer of the Persian Empire, he rode rather than walked, but the men with him were on foot, keeping this fact-finding adventure of the night as quiet as possible.
Up to this point, Nehemiah had personally seen little, if any, of the damage to Jerusalem, but he had heard much about it, and now went to see the damaged walls and gates for himself, in Verse 13: "So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon’s Well and on to the Refuse Gate, inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were consumed by fire." The "Dragon's Well" was a nickname for the pool of Siloam, which received the extra name because of the intermittent flow of water, thought by many superstitious people in the area to be produced by the opening and closing of a dragon's mouth. But Nehemiah was not interested in superstition—instead he was intently taking notes and committing to memory the damaged walls and ruined gates that loomed before him in the moonlit night.
His inspection continued in Verses 14-15: "Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. 15 So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned." He reached a point where the accumulated rubble made it impossible for his mount to go on, and so he dismounted, continuing on foot in this mission that must have taken many hours and possibly more than one night to complete.
Nehemiah had faith in the Lord to the extent that he looked to the Holy Spirit for leadership in what he did. So far, only the king and queen knew about Nehemiah's mission to Jerusalem, as glimpsed in Verse 16: "The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work." Local Persian officials, Jewish leaders, Levites, minor aristocrats, or the workers to be selected for the repairs were still in the dark. Until it was God's moment for him to share, he was the only man in Jerusalem who knew why he was there.
And now it was the moment for him to inform his people, in Verse 17: "Then I said to them, 'You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.'" Nehemiah was an effective manager. He had gained understanding of the project about to be undertaken, he had the words to motivate potential subordinates, but most of all, he was a man of prayer, led by God to this moment. He concluded his short but powerful speech in Verse 18: "I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, 'Let us arise and build.' So they put their hands to the good work." The Lord had them in His hand and the work would commence. Nehemiah's inadvertent frown before the king and his subsequent prayer had led to this moment of God's revealed will to protect the people of Israel.
There would continue to be opposition, as seen in Verse 19: "But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, 'What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?'" According to Josephus the historian, Sanballat was the Persian "satrap of Samaria." Tobiah was a servant of Sanballat who likely was the man's trusted secretary, his amanuensis. Geshem was an Arabian chieftain who likely led a militia that looked out for Sanballat's interests.
Notice in Verse 20 that in response, Nehemiah, who had soldiers of his own, did not threaten or waive the king's letters around, but merely gave praise to God the Savior: "So I answered them and said to them, 'The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.'" He reminded these angry non-Jewish tribesmen that God had given this land to Israel as a perpetual inheritance. Your future, mine and everybody else's belongs to the Lord. He gives to whom He wills and the only way to gain an inheritance that will last is to trust in the Lord, who gave His life for us and reasonably expects that we will entrust our lives to Him.
Lord, You are unfolding our lives in a manner that will bring glory to God. We yield to Your will, placing our faith in You. Help us to understand that You are greater than any opposition we might experience. Give us the faith, perseverance and character to complete this mission we call "our" lives, which really are Yours. Let any "frown" become Your opportunity. We praise Your Holy Name. In Jesus Name. Amen.