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Nehemiah -- Chapter 2
King’s Audience, Verses 1-8
The month of Nisan was the first month of the Jewish year and corresponds to late March-April in the modern calendar. The incident Nehemiah is now about to relate occurred in Nisan of the king’s twentieth year, about three months after he first received the news of Jerusalem’s desolate condition. Generally it appears that the circumstances were ordinary. Nehemiah was about his work of serving the king’s wine. But there was one important difference. Nehemiah’s sorrow and grief had progressed to the point it was apparent in his face, and the king took note of it.
In some eastern lands it was forbidden for servants to manifest sadness in the presence of the monarch. Not only had Nehemiah been unable to hide his feeling, but the king recognized that it was from dissatisfaction over some thing rather than an illness that indisposed him. Nehemiah tells his reader, "Then I was very sore afraid," implying that the king could have severely punished him for this infraction of deportment in his presence. Nehemiah quickly acknowledges his disturbance, begging the king’s pardon by the customary address, "Let the king live for ever." He was grieved because the city of his forefathers was lying waste, its gates burned and destroyed.
Artaxerxes realized that Nehemiah wanted to request something
from him and gave him permission to do so. At this juncture Nehemiah says he prayed to the God of heaven. He did not fall down on his knees and begin begging God to direct his petition to the king, nor pause and pray audibly in the king’s presence. The prayer was in his heart, from which place God could hear him as readily as though shouted in a loud voice. This teaches a lesson which Jesus and the apostles emphasized in the New Testament (Matthew 6:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Nehemiah asked that the king look favorably on his request to be allowed to go to Jerusalem, that he might build it up again. It is mentioned parenthetically that the queen was with the king, for an unexplained reason. It does suggest that Nehemiah was a special favorite in the court, and she may have been one of his benefactors in the past. The king showed that he was prone to grant the request by asking the term Nehemiah desired to absent himself from Shushan. Nehemiah comments, "So it pleased the king to send me;" and so recognizing the favorable response he set a time, which is nowhere stated in the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah also asked for a grant of access once he was back in the land, whereby he could acquire the needed materials for repair. He wanted letters to the governors "beyond the river," and to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest. The letters would instruct these officers to co-operate with Nehemiah and to furnish the things he would need for the rebuilding. He would need beams for the gates, to restore the palace and the walls, and to build his own house. All these the king granted Nehemiah, and he readily accredits "the good hand of my God upon me." Nehemiah, throughout his career, appears never to have forgot to pause and give God the honor for his successes. Compare the example of Abraham’s servant when he went to secure a bride for Isaac (Genesis 24:26; Genesis 24:48; Genesis 24:52).
Arrival in Jerusalem, Verses 9-16
Unlike Ezra Nehemiah says nothing about preparations for his journey, nor any details of those who accompanied him, except for one very different matter. Whereas Ezra was ashamed to ask the king for an armed escort because of his avowal of God’s power and ability to care for him, there went with Nehemiah army captains and horsemen. As he came into the land Nehemiah delivered the king’s letters to the governors and officers for whom they were intended.
One cannot but contrast the two tasks which Ezra, first, then Nehemiah came to Jerusalem to do. That of Ezra was a spiritual undertaking, and the important example of absolute dependence on the Lord was most fitting. With Nehemiah, he was undertaking the physical betterment of the Jews, and the Lord expects His people to take advantage of the physical means He has provided to accomplish such. Thus it was befitting that he have the armed escort. Note the words of Jesus (Lu 16:1-13).
Nehemiah had enemies already in the land, who would have destroyed him and stopped his work had they been able. He became aware of the two most malicious shortly on his arrival beyond the river, Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite. Nothing is known of Sanballat outside the Book of Nehemiah, but the consensus of opinion identifies him as a Samaritan of Beth-horon, some kind of officer in the king’s service. Tobiah is called the "servant," meaning that he had been a slave, probably of the king of Persia, but had been honored with a position in the province including Jerusalem. He was of Ammonite descent, the people who sprang from the younger son of Lot by his daughter. Both these nefarious characters, with others, will be constant deterrents to the work Nehemiah is set to do. They probably learned early of his intent from the letters he brought from the king. Why their animosity was so extreme is never revealed. They were simply early leaders of anti-Semitism.
Nehemiah waited three days before he made the first survey of his task. He says he took a few unnamed individuals with him by night and rode along the demolished walls of the city. He traces his route. Leaving the city by the valley gate, on the southwest corner of the city, he rode along the ruined walls past the dragon well, which some think is to be identified with the spring of Gihon. Riding past the dung gate he came to the fountain gate on the southeast corner of Jerusalem. Here the trash and debris from the burned walls was so great he could ride his beast no further. Nehemiah dismounted and continued on foot through the valley of the brook Kidron to view the eastern wall. After this he turned back into the city by the valley gate, telling no one what he had been doing. The "rulers" include all the governors, prefects, noblemen, priests, elders of the Jews, whom he proceeds to name separately. His secrecy at this point is not altogether understandable, but may have something to do with that opposition already apparent in Sanballat and Tobiah. These men had influential connections in the city.
Laying Plans, Verses 17-20
Nehemiah called his meeting of the elders and rulers, laying the problem before them and issuing his challenge. They were well aware of the problem, for they were feeling the distress of conditions. A look around them showed a major cause of their distress. Without protective walls around Jerusalem they were at the mercy of their enemies, who could steal, pillage, and rob with ease. Still a very small number they could make little defense of themselves. Nehemiah challenged them to join him in building the walls that their reproach by the heathen might be taken away.
No doubt they were well aware of their plight and of what needed to be done. Likely they had often thought of restoring the walls and longed for the protection such would afford. But they had no resources with which to do the work. They did not have permission from the king, strong opposition was prevalent around them, and there was no timber available for the building except by going through the governing officials. Until Nehemiah no one had ventured to secure this, or so it would appear. So they seemed to join readily in Nehemiah’s proposal, they would rise up and build. They began to strengthen their hands, or make necessary preparations to get the work underway. The lord wants such willingness from all His servants. They are to be ready to do His work, to be steadfast, determined, and strong in Him and His power (1 Corinthians 16:13).
The opposition was on hand from the very beginning. Sanballat and Tobiah made the scene, joined by a new cohort, Geshem the Arabian. Geshem was probably chieftain of an Arabic tribe, and was likely one of the distressing forces behind the Jews’ reproachful condition. Since he and his tribesmen probably made raids and forays into the defenseless city he objected to its fortification.
These three enemies of the Jews must not have believed the Jews had the stamina it would take to restore the walls. So their first attack against the builders took the form of ridicule and mockery. What could these few despicable Jews do to restore so great a city as Jerusalem had been! In modern terminology they were saying, "What do you think you are doing? Do you realize the great scope of your undertaking? And why are you doing this, unless it is to rebel against Persia?" The latter was a serious charge, which if the king could be persuaded was factual, would bring the work to absolute halt.
But Nehemiah’s answer was based on confident faith in God and the call he had received from Him to restore the city. In making his reply Nehemiah told these mockers they were depending on the God of heaven, who would certainly prosper their work (Proverbs 3:5). Because they trusted Him they would build the wall without fail. The three detractors had nothing in Jerusalem; no part, no right, no memorial (or heritage) in the city. They could not appreciate the Jews’ reasons for building from their experience.
Learn from chapter two: 1) Concern for the Lord’s cause ought to show in His servants; 2) God’s good hand is always on those who are in His will; 3) the Lord expects His servants to understand the scope of His work they are engaged in (Lu 14:28); 4) many will not act alone, but will follow the leadership of a dedicated man of God; 5) the devil’s forces will constantly try to persuade the Christian the work is too hard for him.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Blessed Hope Foundation and the Baptist Training Center.
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13