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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 2

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-8


“Now I was cupbearer to the king. And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, when wine was beside him, that I took up the wine and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. And the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid. And I said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favor in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me (the queen sitting beside him), For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the River, that they let me pass through till I come unto Judah; and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the castle that pertaineth to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.” (Nehemiah 1:11 b-2:8)

In all of the wonderful things that God did for the children of Israel, there are few things any more astounding than this. That a Persian king should have reversed a former decision stopping the work of the Jews on the walls of their city, and then have sent a trusted emissary, accompanied by a military escort, and endowed with full authority to reconstruct the walls and fortify the city of Jerusalem - only God could have caused a thing like that to happen.

“In the month Nisan” This was four months after the time mentioned in Nehemiah 1:1, during which time Nehemiah had fasted and prayed “night and day” that something could be done to aid Jerusalem. During this period, Nehemiah had diligently tried to maintain his customary happy appearance; but his great grief finally became evident in his appearance.

“I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king” Jamieson has a description of how a cupbearer performed his service. “He washed the cup in the king’s presence, filled it with wine, then poured from the cup into his own left hand a sufficient amount. Then he drank that in the king’s presence and handed the cup of wine to the king.”(F1)

“Then I was sore afraid” “It was contrary to court behavior for a servant to appear sad.”(F2)“Being sad in the king’s presence was a serious offense in Persia (Esther 4:2); and, besides that, Nehemiah was well aware that the request which he would ultimately make of the king might indeed anger him.”(F3)

“The place of my fathers’ sepulchres lieth waste” This reply kept Nehemiah’s concern in the personal, rather than the political, sector.

“For what dost thou make request” This was the moment of truth for Nehemiah. If the king was displeased, Nehemiah would lose his head; and therefore his first reaction was that, “I prayed to the God of heaven.” There can be no doubt that God answered his prayer; because, “That prayer brought about one of the most astonishing reversals of royal policy in all history.”(F4)Furthermore, it happened in Persia, of all places, where their favorite proverb was, “The law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.”

“Send me unto Judah… that I may build it” A more daring request was never made. It had been only a few years since, “Artaxerxes had commissioned Rehum and Shimshai to bring a stop to the rebuilding and fortifying of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:8-23).”(F5)The amazing thing is that Artaxerxes granted Nehemiah’s request, lock, stock and barrel - all of it.

Perhaps it is permissible for us to speculate a little on why Artaxerxes did so. Of course, the great reason is that God willed it; but, as is always the case, God uses ordinary men and events to achieve his purpose. Some of the satraps beyond the River had grown too powerful. “There is evidence that Megabyzos, one of the satraps beyond the River, had recently revolted; and the creation of a strengthened and fortified Jerusalem under a friendly governor might have appeared to Artaxerxes at that particular time as a wise strategy.”(F6)Also, by separating Judah from the powerful coalition of the peoples known collectively as “Samaritans,” and by fortifying it, the aggressiveness of the Samaritan coalition would be dramatically checkmated. And of course, Artaxerxes’ commission to Nehemiah definitely “Involved the separation of Judea from Samaria.”(F7) This substantially weakened the power of Sanballat.

“The castle which appertaineth to the house” This is a reference to the combination palace and fortress, “That protected the Temple and overlooked the northwest corner of the courts… Herod later rebuilt it in N.T. times, and it was known as the Tower of Antonio. Nehemiah contemplated using it as his residence.”(F8)

Some critics have questioned how it came about that Nehemiah was in possession of such detailed knowledge of specific buildings in Jerusalem; but a man in Nehemiah’s high official position was in possession of all kinds of options for procuring any kind of information that he might have desired.

“The queen also sitting beside him” Polygamy was popular among Persian kings, nevetheless they also had one principal wife whom they designated as “the Queen.” “The legitimate queen of Artaxerxes was Damaspia.”(F9)Williamson noted that the word is used here in the plural, and that upon occasions the word was applied to some favorite woman in the harem, or even to the queen-mother of the king, as in the Book of Daniel. Some have concluded that the presence of the queen here indicated that this was a private banquet. Rawlinson’s comment was that, “It appears that Artaxerxes Longimanus had only one legitimate wife, a certain Damaspia.”(F10)He backed this up with a reference to a statement by Ctesias in Persian history.

“And I set him a time” Nehemiah’s first term as governor lasted twelve years; but it seems unlikely that he would have set such a time for his journey. Nehemiah evidently promised to return within a much shorter period, after which his leave of absence was extended. The speed with which he tackled the problem of building the wall suggests this. The journey itself would require three or four months each direction, and allowing enough time for the fortifications, suggests that his request must surely have been for, “a year or two.”(F11)

Verses 9-16


“Then I came to the governors beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me captains of the army and horsemen. And when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly, for that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days. And I arose in the night, and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God put in my heart to do for Jerusalem; neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. And I went out by night by the valley gate, even toward the jackars well, and to the dung gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then I went on to the fountain gate, and to the king’s pool.’ but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. Then I went up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall; and I turned back, and entered by the valley gate, and so returned. And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rest that did the work.”

“And I came to the governors beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters” This must indeed have been a shock to Sanballat and Tobiah. The mention of “captains of the army, and horsemen,” (Nehemiah 2:9) indicates a very considerable military escort; and they were strengthened by the full authority, permission and credentials of the king of Persia. This was particularly bad news to Sanballat, who, “According to the Elephantine Papyrus, was governor of Samaria, which at that time included Judea. He was possibly an Ephraimite.”(F12)

Sanballat would have been a fool not to have read this sudden arrival of Nehemiah in command of a division of the Persian army as the end of his domination of Judah.

“It grieved them exceedingly” Of course, their normal reaction to the situation was to hinder Nehemiah in every possible manner.

“I went out by night by the valley gate” One must admire the skill, wisdom and ability of Nehemiah, who secretly developed his whole program of action, concealing it from every person who might have been in a position to discourage or hinder it.

“The valley gate” This was one of the nine gates of the city, located at the southwest corner of Jerusalem;(F13) and Nehemiah’s exploration of the walls extended along the southern elevation of the city, past the southeast corner and some distance up the Kidron valley as far as the king’s pool. He did not go around the whole city, but turned back and reentered by the valley gate.

“There was no place for the beast that was under me to pass” Recent archaeological discoveries explain why Nehemiah was compelled to dismount and continue a part of his exploration on foot. “Excavations by Kathleen Kenyon(F14) have revealed dramatically why Nehemiah’s mount could not pass along the eastern wall. The steep slopes had been built up with gigantic stone terraces. When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city, those terraces with the buildings constructed on them collapsed into the valley below; and when Nehemiah came the entire area (around that southeastern section) was an incredible mass of fallen stones. Nehemiah abandoned the pre-exilic line of the east wall altogether and constructed a new wall along the crest of the hill.”(F15)

“And the rulers knew not” The `rulers’ were the local officials; and the fact that Nehemiah laid his plans secretly, excluding both the priests and the nobles from his confidence, at first, indicates that he was in possession of prior information regarding the opposition to be expected from them. Those people whom he had interviewed in Shushan had probably apprised him of the evil attitude of the priests and nobles.

Verses 17-20


“Then said I unto them, Ye see the evil case that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. And I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me, as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for the good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Gershem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing which ye do? will ye rebel against the king? Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem.”

“Ye see the evil case we are in” Not merely the physical state of ruin of the city, but the shameful subservience they suffered under the Samaritan governor, the constant reproach and hatred of their neighbors, and their current low estate compared to their former glory - all of these things oppressed and discouraged the people. What a surge of new hope and joy must have energized and excited the people with the sudden appearance of Nehemiah, and his challenge to Rise Up and Build!

“And I told them” Having carefully laid his plans, and being then ready to act, Nehemiah explained to the people his full power and permission of the king to rebuild the wall and fortify the city. The response of the people was spontaneous and jubilant, “Let us rise up and build,” they said.

Sanballat and Tobiah responded to the situation with scornful laughter, taunting and spiteful remarks, and accusations of rebellion against the king. Nehemiah had not told them of his full authority and power to rebuild and fortify Jerusalem. However Nehemiah did not tell them, even then, that he was acting with the king’s full support and permission, saying rather that, “The God of heaven, he will prosper us.” We may well suppose that Sanballat and Tobiah at once dispatched messengers to Artaxerxes; and we may only imagine their consternation and disgust when they got the bad news from the king himself.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/nehemiah-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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