by Pastor Mark Hudson
Ever since Nehemiah heard that the remnant in Jerusalem were “in great trouble and shame” and that “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down” in 1:3, he begins to fast and pray. So, for around 3- or 4-months Nehemiah was praying and planning. In the first verse of chapter 2, the plan begins to unfold. Dangerously, he allows the king to see him sad. The cupbearer was not to bring his own emotions into the presence of the King. But Nehemiah choose this time to appear sad before Artaxerxes. The king notices Nehemiah and rightly perceives something is wrong. Nehemiah is still not out of danger. “I was very much afraid.”
Nehemiah answers wisely and carefully. Remember this same king, by decree, stopped the building of Jerusalem in Ezra 4:21. Nehemiah had to walk a tightrope since he was asking the King to reverse his previous decree. Remember this did not happen in a split second. Nehemiah had been praying, fasting, thinking, and planning for over three months. Nehemiah was reading the King like the King was reading him. In verse 6, the author (Ezra?) mentions the Queen beside the King. Was the Queen an obstacle (thus showing God’s sovereignty in overcoming opposition) or was she a favorite of Nehemiah (thus showing a different expression of sovereignty)? Did they start in a public feast and move to a more private setting? We cannot be certain.
Nehemiah, a Jew, is keeping this King safe by tasting all his wine and food, asks the King to allow Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem. This foreign Kings give him everything Nehemiah asks for. God’s good hand were certainly upon him (v. 8). His request could have turned sour at any moment. But the request and subsequent trip of possibly three months was a success.
In verse 9, there is no mention of the trip just that he was escorted and that Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite did not want Nehemiah to succeed. The theme of opposition is prominent in both Ezra and Nehemiah. In v. 11, Nehemiah cautiously inspects the walls of Jerusalem . . . at night without telling anyone what he is planning on doing.
In v. 17, Nehemiah finally enlists more help by telling them first, “the hand of my God that had been upon me for good” and second of the King’s support. He received immediate support and soon after that opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. But Nehemiah responds to their false accusations with a complete rejection of their help: “you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”
This troubles some. If you watch this clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkETkRv9tG8) the authors of this video find this troubling that Nehemiah rejects their help. But they do not want to help God’s people. In fact, Ezra found some of the people, and even some of the leaders of Israel, were living in defiance of God’s Word. Neither Nehemiah nor Ezra prevented any ethnic group from joining the true faith. But they correctly drew the line when it came to including people into their faith who did not believe or live a life in submission to God’s Word.
Nehemiah labors to remind everyone that God is behind all that Nehemiah is attempting to accomplish. This chapter begin by indirectly stating that Nehemiah has been praying and fasting for close to 4 months. Then in v. 4, Nehemiah prays before His response. In verse 8, the author reminds the reader that God was with Nehemiah. He kept quiet that God inspired his trip to Jerusalem in v. 12. Then in v. 18, God is the reason theses builders will succeed. Then the chapter end by praising the “God of heaven.”
Consider what a difficult project for Nehemiah to accomplish. He had close to a three-month journey to reach Jerusalem. He had to convince a pagan king to financially support this plan by sending an armed escort, asking for safe passage by taking a formal letter from the king, and then enough lumber to repair the temple, the wall, and his family home in Jerusalem. So, the King said, “Sure. Just tell me when you will return.” In doing this, Artaxerxes reverses his earlier decision to stop repairing the city walls.
On the one hand, Nehemiah did what he intended. On the other hand, both Ezra the scribe and Nehemiah the builder did not create lasting reforms. Both books end rather curiously, showing the need for a genuine, life-changing reform that comes from God. Both men were sent for a specific purpose though both were given different reasons. There is much praiseworthy qualities in both these men. Yet, we are still left looking for more.
It seems this is a consistent response one feels when reading the Old Testament. We witness good things and good people. We are tempted to formulate the hope that this one, finally, is the One. But they all stumble; they all let us down. We think this king, or this leader is the One until they all, and they all do, slip, sin, stumble, or turn to idolatry. It is not until we see the One John the Baptist calls the Lamb of God do we see the promised Messiah.
Dear Heavenly Father, we find some good examples and great principles in the Bible. In Nehemiah, he blends heartfelt prayer with planning and wise conduct. Yet, as much as we should notice these attitudes and actions that we should emulate, the Bible does not, in the first place, offering us wise principles. The Bible, the entire Bible, points us to a Person. The Bible points us to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. We will forever praise the Triune God for the mercy extended to the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve. Keep us hungry for You, seeking more of You, and growing in personal holiness and obedience. In the name of our Lord Jesus. Amen.