Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Nehemiah 2

Verses 1-20

THE KING'S CUP-BEARER of those days had to be a man of integrity, who would see that nothing undesirable or poisonous was inserted into the King's wine. The tidings he had just received had so affected him that his sorrow was seen in his face. Noticing it, the king was of course suspicious and enquired what moved him to sorrow; as we see in the opening verses of chapter 2. A position was thus created that had definite danger in it, and Nehemiah was 'very sore afraid'. However, he told the king of the tidings that he had received, which accounted for his sad countenance that had revealed the sadness of his heart.

The king did show him mercy as he had desired, and invited a request from him. This was a challenge, and Nehemiah's response to it is very instructive. The record is, first, 'So I prayed to the God of heaven', and then, 'I said to the king... ' God first, and the king second. This silent prayer must have shot up to heaven in a matter of two or three seconds, quite unknown to the king or anybody else, and it was evidently as speedily answered from heaven, so that the request he made was the right one, and to meet with a favourable answer.

Would to God that we and all other true saints of God were so truly and simply living in touch with our Lord on high that in any and every emergency, needing a quick decision, we could at once with a minimum of words, remit the case to Him for His decision, and guidance for ourselves. We should more often see His hand moving on our behalf, even as for Nehemiah: as the rest of the story unfolds.

Invited by the king to make a request, Nehemiah asked, with due deference, that he might be permitted to go to Jerusalem with the king's authority to rebuild it; that authority to be expressed in letters, not only to Asaph, the keeper of the king's forest, but also to governors beyond the river. The 'river' here is doubtless the Euphrates, and so the governors were those that ruled in the direction of Palestine. What considerations moved the king's mind are hidden from us, that we may more clearly realize that, whatever they were, it was the power of God that controlled him, in response to Nehemiah's brief and sudden prayer.

The king was so favourable to Nehemiah's request that he sent captains and horsemen to speed him on his way. We may remember that though Ezra had returned earlier under the same king, carrying much treasure under his authority, he had not requested such official protection, since he had openly avowed his faith in the protection of God during his journey. Evidently Nehemiah, an official in the king's court, had not the spiritual education and understanding that Ezra possessed as a priest, devoted to the law of his God, yet both equally could speak of 'the good hand of my God upon me.' If the heart be right, God will guide and support His servant, whatever be the measure of his intelligence and faith. This fact should encourage us today. Our faith and understanding may indeed be small, but let us see that our hearts are marked by true devotion to Christ and His present interests. As the fruit of devotion, intelligence will surely increase.

But, immediately there is action, as the result of devotion and some understanding, opposition is sure to appear. It had been so when at the start of the revival Zerubbabel and his party went back; it was so again, as verse Nehemiah 2:10 reveals, though the men who led the opposition were different. Sanballat was an Horonite; that is, we understand, an inhabitant of Horonaim, a town of Moab; while Tobiah was an Ammonite. So here we have representatives of the two sons of Lot, begotten under shameful circumstances, as recorded in Genesis 19:1-38, setting themselves against what God was doing. A man had come 'to seek the welfare of the children of Israel', which at that moment God had in view, and therefore the adversary was against it, and used these two men, who as to their origins were distant relations of Israel. It has often been the case, sad to say, that those nearly related to the saints of God have been foremost in their opposition against them.

It is worthy of note that this antagonism existed before Nehemiah revealed the exact purpose for which he had come. He abode in Jerusalem three days and then he arose secretly in the night and made a tour of the city that he might see for himself the exact state of things. The rulers of the Jews, as we are told in verse Nehemiah 2:16, had no knowledge of what he did, nor of the plan before him. It was only when he had seen the state of things for himself, that he set before them what he proposed, and said, 'let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.'

The building of the wall was then the great object before him. The house of the Lord had already been built, but it stood in a desolated place, the walls of which were broken down and its gates consumed by fire. The day had not come then, nor has it come yet, when 'the Lord will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her' (Zechariah 2:5), so a wall was needed that the city might again be seen as the place where God had set His name, and His house might, in this typical way, be separated from the defilements of the surrounding world. From the time that God said to Abram, 'Get thee out... ' (Genesis 12:1), separation to Himself has always been God's mind for His people. Since the rejection of Christ this has come to light with increased emphasis, so that we now read, 'the friendship of the world is enmity with God' (James 4:4).

Having proposed the rebuilding of the wall, Nehemiah was able to tell the rulers, 'of the hand of my God, which was good upon me.' This plainly conveyed to them that God was behind the project, and they responded, saying, 'Let us rise up and build.' They were prepared really to put their hands to the work. Pious thoughts and understanding are not enough. They had to put their hands to the task, and work. It is even thus with us today. To understand God's mind and purpose is not enough; we must be prepared to give ourselves to the active service which is indicated. Here, we fear, is a very weak spot in many Christian lives.

As it became increasingly plain that work was really going to be undertaken, so the opposition increased, and in verse Nehemiah 2:19 we find Geshem the Arabian joining with the Maobite and the Ammonite. This is remarkable for the inhabitants of Arabia were largely the descendants of Ishmael and Esau, and to this day the bitterest foes of the Jews are the various Arab tribes. And further, in prophetic scriptures Edom, Moab and Ammon are linked together. In the coming day, according to Daniel 11:41, the king of the north will overthrow many lands, but these three will escape him; only to be subdued by Israel, regathered and unified, according to Isaiah 11:14.

In our chapter, however, the opposition for the moment only took the form of mockery-'they laughed us to scorn, and despised us.' This type of opposition all too often has considerable effect, even upon the people of God; but only if they are living and acting as before men. Nehemiah and his friends were acting as before God in what they proposed to do, as we see in the last verse of our chapter. Their reply was, 'The God of heaven, He will prosper us.' They anticipated in their measure the triumphant word of Romans 8:31. 'If God be for us, who can be against us?' In the light of that they were about to act; and they reminded the adversaries how complete was the breach that lay between them and themselves.

We may take the three things that Nehemiah mentioned as having an application at the present time. It is as true today as when the Psalmist wrote, that 'men of the world', who so often oppose Christ and His saints, 'have their portion in this life' (Psalms 17:14), and no portion at all in the things of God. Hence in these things they have no 'right', and their thoughts and opinions are valueless. Nor, when the things of God are finally established in glory, will they have any 'memorial' therein. They will be outside it all for ever. Let us never be diverted from the work of God, nor even ashamed, by the ridicule of men, who oppose Christ and His service.

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Bibliographical Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.