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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Nehemiah 2

 

 

Verses 1-8

Nehemiah’s Successful Approach To The King And His Subsequent Commission (Nehemiah 2:1-8).

Having reached his decision before God Nehemiah now carried it out into practise. He came into the king’s presence revealing something of his grief while performing his service.

Nehemiah 2:1

‘And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, when wine was before him, that I took up the wine, and gave it to the king. Now I had not (previously) been sad in his presence.’

The timing of the event may well have been important. Nisan was the first month of the calendar year, and the new year may well have been a time when the king was inclined to dispel favours. Thus Nehemiah may well have been awaiting this propitious time. In view of Nehemiah 1:1, however, it appears that for dating purposes Nehemiah is using the regnal year, as there Chislev was also in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. This may have been with the intentional purpose of linking Nehemiah 2:1 with Nehemiah 1:1 by placing them in the same regnal year. Nisan would still, however, have been the month of the new year celebrations.

‘When wine was before him’ is simply a general indication that this occurred at mealtime. It was, of course, then that Nehemiah would be called on to perform his duty of receiving the king’s wine, tasting it, and passing it on to the king something which he proceeded to do. He then makes the general comment, ‘I had not been sad in his presence’. The time indicator ‘previously’ is not strictly necessary, although helping us with the sense. The point is that he was never ‘sad in his presence’ at any time. It was something that was unheard of. Or alternately it may signify that even though he had been fasting and praying he had not been sad in his presence. The implication is that now he was, and deliberately so. His heart must have been beating fast as he awaited the king’s reaction. He was aware that at any moment he might immediately be arrested for ‘making the king sad’.

Nehemiah 2:2

‘And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart.” Then I was very deeply afraid.’

The king, who was always surrounded by smiling faces, immediately discerned what the situation was. Nehemiah was clearly not sick, so why the sad face? What was the sad news that Nehemiah wanted to convey to him? Perhaps he expected to hear of the death of a beloved relative. That alone could justify Nehemiah bringing his sorrows to the king’s attention. The fact that the queen was present at the feast (Nehemiah 2:6) was probably an indication that it was a private feast.

‘Then I was very deeply afraid.’ He had reason to be afraid. He was about to ask Artaxerxes to put aside his temporary decree which had prevented the building of the walls of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:21). Depending on how serious a matter the king saw that to be it could have been seen as a request of great significance, and it might certainly be seen as questionable whether such a political plea justified ‘making the king sad’. An element of treason might even have been seen as involved. If the king was annoyed about it he could order his immediate execution. But Nehemiah had not come unprepared. He had considered carefully how to phrase his request. He presented it in terms of the disgrace brought on his father’s sepulchre. He was indicating that his concern was a matter of family honour. This was something that the king would appreciate for to both royalty and the aristocracy the family sepulchre was seen as of huge importance. It will be noted that Nehemiah makes no mention of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 2:3

‘And I said to the king, “Let the king live for ever. Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the house of my fathers’ sepulchres, lies waste, and its gates are consumed with fire?”

‘Let the king live forever.’ This was a normal way of addressing kings. It was a prayer for the king’s continual well-being. And Nehemiah then asserted that the reason why he was so upset was because of the condition of the city with which his father’s sepulchre was connected. It was in ruins. The city lay waste, and its gates had been burned with fire. And this could only rebound on the condition of the family sepulchre. ‘The house of my fathers’ sepulchres’ may well reflect the fact that Persian kings attempted to give their sepulchres the appearance of a house or palace, even when they were utilising rock tombs.

The king, who might well have been troubled had Nehemiah mentioned Jerusalem, was seemingly only full of sympathy. He could fully appreciate his favourite’s distress.

Nehemiah 2:4

‘Then the king said to me, “For what are you asking?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.’

So the king asked Nehemiah what the heart of his request was. What was it that his faithful servant wanted from him? Nehemiah, with his heart no doubt somewhat relieved, flashed a silent prayer to Heaven and then explained his heart’s desire. It is a reminder that when we are going about God’s business we should ensure that we keep in close touch with God.

Nehemiah 2:5

‘And I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favour in your sight, that you would send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may rebuild it.”

His request was, that if it pleased the king, and if he Nehemiah had found favour in his sight, he would send him to Judah to restore the city of his fathers where his fathers’ sepulchres were found. He still gives no hint that he is referring to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 2:6

‘And the king said to me (the queen also sitting by him), “For how long will your journey be? And when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a time.’

The mention of the queen sitting by suggests that she may well have approved Nehemiah’s request, and have added her voice to his. Nehemiah may well have been one of her favourite courtiers. But the king was very happy with his request and only wanted to know how long it would take him to fulfil it. When would he be coming back? So the king gave his permission, and Nehemiah set a date for his return.

On the other hand it has been suggested that the sudden introduction of the queen quietly introduces a change from a public feast to a more private one. The questions that the king asks may well have been retained for such a private occasion, with the king initially having simply indicated his approval.

Nehemiah 2:7-8

‘Moreover I said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given to me to the governors of Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through till I come to Judah. 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 appertains to the house (the temple), and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into.”

As an experienced courtier who had thought it all out beforehand, and in response to the king’s request, Nehemiah now outlines his requirements. Firstly he asks for letters demonstrating that he has the king’s authority, to all governors of the Province of Beyond the River (Syria, Palestine, and the surrounding area). These would provide him, at least officially, with safe conduct on his way to Judah. Secondly he asks for a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, requiring him to provide the necessary timber for the proposed construction, including beams for the gates of the fortress which was by the Temple, which was a huge construction securing the frontal approach to Jerusalem; the beams necessary for the building of the walls with their gates; and beams for the restoration of Nehemiah’s own family residence, or residence as governor. Whilst he would prove to be very generous to his fellow Jews he was nevertheless aware (as Artaxerxes also was), of his own importance.

The fact that he knew the name of the keeper of the king’s forest in Palestine (Asaph was a Jewish name) suggests that he had fully researched his intended visit to Jerusalem. It is never spiritual to be careless. We have no certain information as to where the king’s forest was, but Palestine and its surrounds were at the time well forested, and the king of Persia would no doubt have taken over from Babylon ownership of the royal forests of the kings of Judah and Israel.

Nehemiah 2:8

‘And the king granted it to me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.’

That the king granted his requests he saw as due to the good hand of his God upon him. And it was no doubt so. But part of the reason undoubtedly lay in the fact that he was a faithful and trusted servant of the king. God can often bless us because we have ourselves laid the foundation for such blessing.


Verse 9-10

Nehemiah Takes The Road To Jerusalem With A Suitable Armed Guard (Nehemiah 2:9-10).

Having received the king’s permission, and having obtained his letters of authority, Nehemiah set off for Jerusalem accompanied by a suitable armed escort. He was a leading Persian courtier travelling in a way that befitted his dignity. The king would hardly have allowed otherwise. This was not an Ezra travelling with a large party of returnees. This was a king’s favourite and royal official who was travelling in style, and it was the king who would decide on his escort. This was all to the good for it no doubt made the right impression on the governors of the Province when they received the king’s letters. They would know what manner of man this was.

Nehemiah 2:9

‘Then I came to the governors of Beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me captains of the army and horsemen.’

Arriving in the Province of Beyond The River in style, he handed over the king’s letters to the various governors. He was accompanied by his royal escort which would in itself speak volumes. All would acknowledge his importance and would no doubt help him on his way.

Nehemiah 2:10

‘And when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them greatly, in that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.’

There were, however, two officials who were not pleased at his arrival. These were Sanballat the Horonite, who was probably the governor of the district of Samaria, which up to this time had probably included Judah, (we know that he certainly was later), and Tobiah the Servant, the Ammonite, who may well have been his deputy, but was certainly closely connected with him. They were ‘greatly grieved’ that such an important and influential man had come in order to look after the welfare of ‘the children of Israel’. This is not surprising. They had looked on them as easy pickings, but now they had to recognise that, with the arrival of Nehemiah, duly appointed by the king, the situation had changed.

That the returnees were thought of as ‘the children of Israel’ hints at the fact that the returnees now indeed saw themselves as the true Israel, something already made clear in Ezra 2:2; Ezra 3:8; Ezra 9:8. But it also made clear that the returnees, while an identifiable group, were scattered among the local population (they were ‘the children of Israel’ not ‘Israel’), and were probably looked on as fair game, both to be excessively taxed and to be treated contemptuously, and even violently. This was undoubtedly why they were experiencing such anguish and reproach (Nehemiah 1:3). The coming of Ezra would unquestionably have uplifted them spiritually, but he had not had the authority to outface the Governor of Samaria. Nehemiah, however, was of a different standing. It was clear from his royal escort that he was an important Persian official, and the letters had no doubt made clear that he was appointed as the independent Governor of Judah. He therefore had the authority to stand up to Sanballat, and the self-confidence with which to back it up (Nehemiah 6:11). Sanballat and Tobiah, on the other hand, were probably not aware how close he stood to the king, otherwise they would not have later thought that they could traduce him.

Both Sanballat, whose sons names (Delaiah and Shelemiah) included the Name of Yah, and Tobi-yah, were apparently syncretistic Yahwists, the consequence of this being that much of their opposition to the returnees was probably religious. They still took offence at the fact that the returnees had never allowed their fathers, or themselves, a part in the worship of the Temple at Jerusalem (Ezra 4:2-4). And they therefore did everything possible to make life difficult for the returnees. There were indeed large numbers of Yahwists in the district of Samaria (which probably included Judah), some of whom were descended from the newcomers introduced by various kings (2 Kings 17:24; 2 Kings 17:33; Ezra 4:9-10), and others of whom were descended from the old Israel and Judah which had become so involved in idolatry (Jeremiah 39:10; Jeremiah 40:5). These were now all excluded from the new Israel because of their connections with idolatry.

We know from the Elephantine papyri that Sanballat was governor of Samaria in 408 BC, but clearly then ageing in that his sons were acting for him. And in view of his prominence in the opposition and the way that he treated Nehemiah on equal terms (Nehemiah 6), and that Nehemiah never resents it, it must be seen as probable that he was already governor. Nehemiah, it is true, never gives him the title. But that may simply have been due to the fact that Nehemiah was indicating his contempt for him, preferring to call him ‘the Horonite’ (probably ‘resident of Beth-Horon’ (Joshua 16:3; Joshua 16:5) and therefore not to be seen as a genuine Yahwist). We can compare the similar ‘Tobiah -- the Ammonite’. Meanwhile the title given to Tobiah of ‘the Servant’, while it could indicate ‘servant of the king’ and be an honourable title, was probably rather intended by Nehemiah to indicate Tobiah’s slavish obedience to Sanballat. In later centuries the name Tobiah was linked with a prominent Ammonite family, but Tobiah was a common Jewish name (‘YHWH is good’), and there may have been no connection.


Verses 11-18

Nehemiah Secretly Inspects The Walls Of Jerusalem And The Decision Is Made To Rebuild Them (Nehemiah 2:11-18).

Having arrived safely in Jerusalem Nehemiah rested, prior to a secret surveillance of the condition of the walls. His men would have to be quartered, although that might have been in a camp outside the city. Meanwhile he and his officers no doubt had to endure a ceremonious welcome. A high Persian official would always be welcomed with due ceremony, especially when accompanied by a formidable armed escort. But he was clearly keen to get on with his task, for he was well aware of the opposition that would arise once the idea that he was to rebuild the walls got around, and he wanted to delay that opposition as long as possible. So, after making a secret survey in the dead of night, he called on the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem to commence the rebuilding.

Nehemiah 2:11

‘So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.’

Arriving in Jerusalem he rested ‘for three days’. Three days only signifies ‘a short period’, with each part of a day counting as a day. Thus he may only have taken one day of rest, after the day of arrival, using it to acclimatise himself and get to know the Jewish leaders, and to prepare for his surveillance. He knew what a daunting task the building of the walls might prove to be, and that he must move quickly. No one but himself was aware of what he had in mind.

Nehemiah 2:12

‘And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me, nor did I tell any man what my God put into my heart to do for Jerusalem, nor was there any beast with me, except the beast that I rode on.’

In consequence when night came (the beginning of a new day for the Jews, so possibly the second night after his arrival), without telling anyone of his purpose, he took with him a few trusted men, and set off on his surveillance, without telling anyone what God had put on his heart to do for Jerusalem. No doubt he had a trusted Jerusalem guide, as well as a small armed escort. But he did not want to draw attention to what he was doing. The limitation to a single beast, no doubt an ass, may have been because of his awareness of his own importance, or it may have been because he feared that if others called on such beasts the secret might leak out.

Nehemiah 2:13

‘And I went out by night by the valley gate, even toward the jackal’s well, and to the dung gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and its gates were consumed with fire.’

Initially he went out by night by the Valley Gate (compare Nehemiah 3:13; 2 Chronicles 26:9), a gate probably in the West wall 1000 cubits (approximately 1500 feet, a little less than five hundred metres) from the Dung Gate which was at the southern end of Jerusalem, examining its condition as he passed through. Then he moved along southward outside the remains of the wall towards the Jackal’s Well (or Dragon’s Eye), a site now unknown, examining the walls as they went along, before arriving at the Dung Gate, which was probably almost at the southern end of the city. This was the gate through which rubbish would be carried out of the city to be hurled into the valley below, and was by the Pool of Siloam. It may be identified with the Potsherd Gate of Jeremiah 19:2. He discovered during his examination the condition of the gates and walls. The gates had been consumed with fire, and the walls were broken down.

Nehemiah 2:14

‘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 he moved northward up the East wall until he reached the Fountain (or Spring) Gate, which no doubt led out onto a spring-fed pool of water (possibly En Rogel). They then moved on to the King’s Pool, the site of which is unknown, although it may well have had connection with the King’s Garden. But it was at this point that they discovered that it was impossible to proceed further because of the rubble caused by the previous destruction of the walls by Nebuchadnezzar, rubble which has since been confirmed by excavation. Even his sure-footed ass was unable to proceed.

Nehemiah 2:15

‘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.’

Possibly at this stage he dismounted, or it may be that going up in the night by the brook he was able to skirt the rubble. There he viewed the eastern wall. He had seemingly seen enough for he now turned back and returned round the southern end of Jerusalem to the Valley Gate from which he had first emerged (Nehemiah 2:13). He had probably been able to survey the other walls quietly from the inside during the day without attracting attention. Now, therefore, he was aware of the difficulties that lay ahead.

Some, however, see him as indicating by this that he completed the circuit of the wall before re-entering by the Valley Gate, but without making further comment.

Nehemiah 2:16

‘And the rulers did not know where I went, or what I did, nor had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest who would do the work.’

He now makes clear that no one knew where he had gone, or what he had gone to do. The initial mention of the rulers may suggest that he was staying in their palace. They would thus have been aware that he had gone out. But as far as they were concerned he may have been visiting his escort. They were unaware of his intentions. Nor had he given any explanation of his intentions to anyone, not the people, nor the priests, nor the nobles, nor the rulers, nor even those on whom he would call to do the work. He did not want to risk word leaking out.

Nehemiah 2:17

‘Then I said to them, “You see the evil situation that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.”

But now, having satisfactorily concluded his survey he called them all together and pointed out the precarious and reproachful situation that they were in without walls or gates. It was dangerous and an embarrassment. Then he called on them to work with him in building the walls of Jerusalem so that they might once more be a proud independent city, without the reproach that came from them not being able to rebuild the walls. No longer need they be trodden down by their local enemies.

Nehemiah 2:18

‘And I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me, as also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.’

He then informed them how clearly God had been at work in making his appeal to the king of Persia successful, and what the king had said to him. This put a new light on things and strengthened their resolve with the result that they were all in agreement. ‘Let us rise up and build’, they all declared. And in view of this they prepared themselves and nerved themselves for the huge task ahead.

That the divisions which later appear, such as Nehemiah’s conflicts with Eliashib the High Priest, were not yet apparent, is clear. And it is what we would expect. Nehemiah was an unknown quantity and all that was in mind at the time was the rebuilding of the wall, which almost all saw as a good thing. Thus disparate groups were getting together with a will in order to see the task accomplished.


Verse 19-20

Opposition From Local Leaders In High Places (Nehemiah 2:19-20).

The news that they were to commence building inevitably leaked out, for there were many collaborationists in Jerusalem who had opted to compromise with their neighbours and would gladly therefore win favour by passing on the information. The result was that it reached the ears of Sanballat the Horonite, who was probably even at that time either the acting Governor, or the duly appointed Governor, of the District of Samaria, a District which had formerly included Judah. (He was certainly the duly appointed Governor later as we know from the Elephantine papyri).

He was powerful enough himself, but he also held counsel with his Deputy, Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and with Geshem the Arabian. Geshem was an important ruler over combined tribes of Arabians to the east and south of Judah, which at this time had good relations with the Persian Empire. His name has been found as ‘King of Qedar’ on a silver vessel dedicated by his son Qainu to the goddess Han-’Ilat discovered in Lower Egypt (the inscription reads, ‘what Qainu, son of Geshem, king of Qedar, brought (as an offering) to Han-’Ilat’). Geshem may also well have been the one referred to as ‘the King of Qedar’ in a Lihyanite inscription. He was thus a formidable opponent. He was probably the Gashmu mentioned in Nehemiah 6:6. His interest in opposing the building of the walls of Jerusalem may well have been his fear that Jerusalem would become a trading centre which would rival his own trading activities. Trading rights were very carefully guarded. And besides, the fortifying of Jerusalem could only add another political power in the area, especially in view of the presence of Nehemiah, a king’s favourite. A weak Judah was favoured by all three.

Notice the deliberate way in which Nehemiah demonstrates how the opposition to what he had come to do was gradually increasing. In Nehemiah 2:10 Sanballat and Tobiah had been grieved at the thought of his arrival to assist the Jews, now they were accumulating friends and actually mocking what he was seeking to achieve and suggesting that it was treason. (In Nehemiah 4:1-3 we will learn of their growing anger at what is being achieved, and in Nehemiah 4:7-8 they will actually plan violence against the builders).

Nehemiah 2:19

‘But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, “What is this thing that you do? Will you rebel against the king?”

Thus when Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem learned of the plans they jeered at them, not believing that they could achieve them. But they also took steps to ensure that the men of Judah knew that in their view this was nothing less than rebellion against the king of Persia by asking, ‘Will you rebel against the king?’. As the rebuilding of the walls was not seen as a political activity in the eyes of the King of Persia, but rather as a safeguarding of the sepulchres of the ancestors of his favourite, Nehemiah, they may well not have been warned that what was afoot had the backing of the king. They had previously prevented the rebuilding of the walls by warning the king of the danger of fortifying Jerusalem (Ezra 4:11-23), and they probably hoped that this reminder would bring the rebuilding to a halt. No one would wish to be thought of as rebelling against the king. But they had not reckoned on the influence that Nehemiah knew that he had with the king, nor on his confidence as one of the great men of Persia. Nor did they realise the depth of his faith in God. It is this last which is brought out in is reply.

Nehemiah 2:20

‘Then I answered them, and said to them, “The God of heaven, he will prosper us. Therefore we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, nor right, nor cult-participation rights, in Jerusalem.”

In his reply Nehemiah does not refer to the fact that he had the king’s permission. He knew that they were already aware of that. Rather he cites the fact that ‘the God Of Heaven’ was on the side of His people. It was He Who would prosper them in the task ahead. On those grounds therefore they would press ahead. As servants of the God of Heaven they would arise and build, whilst their adversaries were to recognise that Jerusalem was none of their business. They had no portion there. It was now a separate district. They had no political rights there. It belonged to Judah. They had no right to participation in the cult there. Jerusalem was for YHWH, and for His faithful people.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/nehemiah-2.html. 2013.

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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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