The Biblical book of Nehemiah opens with the account of seemingly incidental encounter between Nehemiah and another family member: “Hanani, one of my brothers, arrived with men from Judah, and I questioned them about Jerusalem and the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile” (Nehemiah 1:2 HCSB).
Unfortunately, the report that Nehemiah received from his ancestral homeland was devastating: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3 NIV).
Although Nehemiah responded to this news with a great deal of emotional distress, he didn’t react by seeking to assign blame or by impulsively acting to address the situation in his own strength. Instead, Nehemiah took steps to address the matter before God: “…For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4 NIV).
A closer look at the structure of Nehemiah’s prayer from chapter one reveals that he began by addressing God with the respect and recognition that He deserved (see Nehemiah 1:5-6). Nehemiah also brought an attitude of honesty, candidness, and humility to his interaction with God by admitting, “We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:7 NIV). These truths were probably not easy for Nehemiah to accept or admit, but he chose to be honest with God about the reality of the situation he was facing.
Nehemiah’s prayer from chapter one also demonstrated that he knew enough about the Scriptures to be able to identify the promises contained within them and appropriate them in prayer (Nehemiah 1:8-9). In other words, Nehemiah was someone who had invested enough time in God’s Word to know what it said. He then used that knowledge to guide and direct his interaction with God regarding a matter of deep personal concern to him.
Finally, Nehemiah demonstrated His faith in God to keep the promises contained within His Word. His faith and knowledge of the Scriptures then enabled Nehemiah to confidently quote God’s promises with the expectation that His Word would come to pass just as He had said (Nehemiah 1:9-10).
In Nehemiah chapter two, we’ll see how God will answer Nehemiah’s prayer from chapter one- but the manner in which God will respond to this heartfelt petition is something that will place Nehemiah in a position of danger as well as opportunity.
“And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before” (Nehemiah 2:1).
As was the case in Nehemiah chapter one, Nehemiah 2:1 provides us with some information that helps allow us to identify the date of this event.
The “month of Nisan” spoken of here within this verse would correspond to the months of March or April on a modern-day calendar. Since the book of Nehemiah opened by referencing the month of Chislev (a period that would correspond to November or December on a current-day calendar), this tells us that it had been approximately four to five months since Nehemiah first began praying about the report he received concerning the situation in Jerusalem.
But even though the seasons have changed as we transition from Nehemiah chapter one to Nehemiah chapter two, note that this event still takes place within the twentieth year of the king’s reign. This implies that the royal calendar in use during that time probably differed from the standard calendar by at least a few months, just as some 21st century business corporations observe a fiscal year that differs from a calendar year today.
Since Nehemiah 2:1 tells us that we are still within the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes, we can narrow the date of these events to March or April of the year 445 B.C. However, this time stamp is important for another reason. At the risk of getting ahead of our narrative, there may be a prophetic element involved with the dating of this event. You see, one commentator makes the following observation…
“The date is also important, because it establishes the date given to restore Jerusalem and its walls. Dan 9:25 says that exactly 173,880 days from this day – which was March 14, 445 B.C. – Messiah the prince would be presented to Israel. Sir Robert Anderson, the eminent British astronomer and mathematician, makes a strong case that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy exactly, to the day, entering Jerusalem on April 6, 32 A.D., precisely 173,880 days from Neh 2:1.” (1)
Regardless of any prophetic element that may be involved in dating these events, one thing is certain: this reference serves to remind us once again that the Biblical book of Nehemiah does not represent a fictional story or a novel. This narrative represents an actual, historic event that involved real people at a specific point in history.
(1) Guzik, Dave, Nehemiah 2 – Nehemiah’s Commission http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/1602.htm
“In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before” (Nehemiah 2:1 NIV).
The king mentioned within this passage is generally accepted to be Artaxerxes I, a Persian monarch who reigned from B.C. 465 to 424. Artaxerxes I is also known to history as Artaxerxes Longimanus, a name that literally means “long-hand.” Artaxerxes was supposedly given this name because his right hand was said to be longer than his left hand, although some sources view this as a reference to his far-reaching power.
One source provides us with some background information regarding the political intrigue that led to Artaxerxes’ ascension to the throne…
“A younger son of Xerxes I and Amestris, he was raised to the throne by the commander of the guard, Artabanus, who had murdered Xerxes. A few months later, Artaxerxes slew Artabanus in a hand-to-hand fight. His reign, though generally peaceful, was disturbed by several insurrections, the first of which was the revolt of his brother, the satrap of Bactria. More dangerous was the rebellion of Egypt under Inaros, who received assistance from the Athenians.” (1)
These details are important because they provide us with a better understanding of the political situation facing Nehemiah. For instance, this information tells us that Nehemiah was working for a powerful and dangerous ruler, one who was capable of killing another man in hand to hand combat. This helps explain Nehemiah’s reference to the fact that he had not been sad in the king’s presence before. It was not only inappropriate to appear dejected in the presence of the king, it was potentially dangerous as well.
The mention of the insurgencies facing Artaxerxes represent another important detail. Although God will clearly be identified as the unseen conductor who orchestrates the events that take place within the book of Nehemiah, these insurrections may provide a political rationale for the king’s response later within this chapter.
As we go on to examine the interaction between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes, it may appear as if Nehemiah was simply presenting the king with an opportunity to make a wise political decision from a human perspective. The reality however, is that God was silently involved in correlating these events behind the scenes.
This should serve to remind us of an important truth: while it may sometimes appear as if God is not directly involved in our daily lives, this does not necessarily mean that He is not involved at all. Nehemiah’s experience tells us that God may sometimes choose to coordinate the circumstances and events of our lives in a manner that doesn’t directly draw attention to His presence.
(1) Encyclopædia Britannica, Artaxerxes I http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/36741/Artaxerxes-I
“…I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before. Therefore the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.’ So I became dreadfully afraid” (Nehemiah 2:1-2).
Nehemiah’s depressed emotional state might have been interpreted as a potential warning to a king like Artaxerxes for a number of different reasons.
First, we should remember that Nehemiah served as the king’s cupbearer, a responsibility that primarily involved protecting the king from any attempt to poison him. Therefore, any negative change in the cupbearer’s demeanor might be viewed by the king with a great deal of suspicion.
Next, an attitude of sadness, gloom, unhappiness, or dejection was something that was not to be tolerated in the presence of the king. A servant of the court was expected to lay aside any personal difficulties, emotional anxieties, or other pressures of daily life during his or her interaction with the king. Any failure to do so would be viewed as an insult, for it was highly inappropriate for one to show discontent before a monarch.
Because of this, a person who was unhappy in the king’s presence might end up paying for it with his or her life- and this helps explain why Nehemiah became “very fearful” (NET), “terrified” (NLT), or “overwhelmed with fear” (HCSB) at Artaxerxes’ response.
However, Artaxerxes was perceptive and discerning enough to realize that there was something else behind Nehemiah’s sorrowful appearance. In fact, the king demonstrated a great degree of sensitivity in observing, “…You must be troubled about something” (GW). This supportive response helps to illustrate the deep interpersonal relationship that must have existed between Nehemiah and the king.
You see, even though the king’s cupbearer was recognized as a respected advisor and consultant to the monarch, Artaxerxes’ response indicates that he viewed Nehemiah as more than just an employee. While a typical monarch might have had little concern for the emotional well-being of a subordinate, this particular king was obviously concerned for Nehemiah’s personal welfare.
Nevertheless, this observation carried a great deal of potential danger for someone like Nehemiah. If Nehemiah acknowledged the king’s remark with a clumsy, undisciplined, or poorly worded reply, it might easily lead to irreparable harm on a number of different levels. We’ll see how Nehemiah skillfully and judiciously responded to this comment next.
“…So I became dreadfully afraid, and said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?'” (Nehemiah 2:2-3).
While Nehemiah might have dismissed the king’s observation regarding his emotional distress with a denial or an attempt to hide the fact that he was deeply troubled by the ruinous state of affairs that existed within the city of Jerusalem, he instead chose a much more courageous path: he chose to be honest with the king regarding these concerns.
However, Nehemiah also made certain to respond to the king in manner that was equally wise, perceptive, and tactful: “…the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been burned down” (TLB). By referencing the desecration of these ancient burial tombs and the accompanying indignity that had been inflicted upon the final resting places of his ancestors, Nehemiah presented his burden for the city of Jerusalem in a manner that the king would readily grasp and appreciate.
One commentator explains the wisdom behind this approach by observing, “The tombs of the dead were sacred among the ancients, and nothing could appear to them (as) more detestable than disturbing the ashes or remains of the dead.” (1) So by choosing to engage the king on a personal (rather than political) level, Nehemiah skillfully presented his concern in a manner that would help establish a mutual basis for understanding with the king based upon their shared respect for the dead.
Nehemiah’s reference to the city gates is significant as well. The “gate” of a city was the location where many commercial transactions took place and the area where judges sat to render legal decisions. The city gate also functioned as a public forum, a place where people could gather to talk and discuss the news of the day.
In addition, the city gate served as a marketplace, a high-traffic area where vendors could display their wares to potential customers. The city gate was recognized as the center of urban activity during that time and a gate that had been “burned with fire” represented the symbolic destruction of an entire social community.
When taken together as a whole, these painful realities might easily serve to arouse the sympathies of a monarch like Artaxerxes- and it appears that God honored the months of prayer and fasting that Nehemiah had undertaken by providing him with wisdom that he could draw upon in his discussion with the king.
(1) Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary Nehemiah 2:5 http://www.biblehub.com/commentaries/clarke/nehemiah/2.htm
“Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4).
Having been made aware of the reason behind Nehemiah’s display of sorrow, the king invited him to offer a recommendation: “What is it you want?” (NIV) or, “How do you suggest that I respond to this situation?”
This represented an important question, especially when we stop to consider the fact that an edict regarding the rebuilding of Jerusalem had already been established in Ezra 4:21: “Now, you must give an order for these men to stop work. That order must be given to keep Jerusalem from being rebuilt until I say so” (ERV).
In light of this, it appears that the king may have been seeking to determine if Nehemiah was requesting a change in the policy that had been in effect up to that point. It was during this critical juncture that Nehemiah began praying.
As noted previously, the book of Nehemiah is filled with practical insights that can help enable us to make God-honoring choices throughout the course of everyday life. Nehemiah 2:4 represents another example in this regard for we’re told that Nehemiah stopped to pray before responding to the king’s question.
For many people, prayer represents a last resort or something to try when there is nothing left to lose. Others may choose to breathe out a quick prayer when faced with a situation that requires an immediate response, much like Nehemiah did within this passage. However, Nehemiah’s last-minute prayer was different from these examples, for this prayer was built upon a foundation that already included an extended period of communion with God.
You see, Nehemiah’s brief prayer here in chapter two was preceded by months of prayer and fasting as detailed within the previous chapter (see Nehemiah 1:4-11). Unlike those who seek to pray only when they’re in trouble or in need of immediate help, Nehemiah spent months prayerfully communing with God prior to this fateful (and apparently unplanned) conversation with the king.
So Nehemiah’s response tells us that an effective prayer does not necessarily need to be long, detailed, or couched in religious phraseology. As Jesus reminded us in Matthew 6:8, “…your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Nehemiah’s example helps confirms the fact that dedicated periods of prayer and short “running conversations” with God each have their respective places within the life of a Christian.
“and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it”” (Nehemiah 2:5).
Even though the king seemed open to considering Nehemiah’s request, Nehemiah still made certain to maintain the courtesy (“If it pleases the king…”) and humility (“if your servant has found favor…”) that his relationship with the king demanded. In doing so, Nehemiah lived out the words of Romans 13:7 long before they were ever written: “Give to everyone what you owe them… and give respect and honor to those who are in authority” (NLT).
One commentary captures the gravity of Nehemiah’s response by observing, “Obviously Nehemiah had prepared for this moment he had prayed for. Besides seeking God’s help in prayer, he utilized all the human resources available, including his intellectual capabilities, his past experiences, his accumulated wisdom, his role and position in life, and people with whom he came in contact (in this instance, the king of Persia).” (1)
So when the king asked Nehemiah, ‘What do you request?’ (Nehemiah 2:4), Nehemiah was prepared to move forward by making a specific request of this monarch: “…please send me back to Judah, so that I can rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried” (CEV).
While Artaxerxes might not have ordinarily cared about a decimated city that was hundreds of miles away, he understood what it meant to show respect for the dead- and here was his response…
“Then the king said to me (the queen also sitting beside him), ‘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” (Nehemiah 2:6).
The fact that the queen was present with the king probably means that Nehemiah was serving at a private affair during this time. Since a Persian queen did not normally attend state functions or banquets, this conversation probably took place at a more informal event like a family dinner.
For what it’s worth, some commentators believe that the queen referenced in this passage is none other than Esther, the well-known Biblical personality who is best remembered for her role in saving the Jewish people from certain destruction. It is believed that if this was Esther, she may have been privately working to influence Artaxerxes behind the scenes in support of Jerusalem’s welfare.
(1) John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament pg. 676
“The king, with the queen sitting alongside him, said, ‘How long will your work take and when would you expect to return?” I gave him a time, and the king gave his approval to send me” (Nehemiah 2:6 MSG).
While the king was willing to allow Nehemiah to depart to undertake this building project, it also appears that he held a sincere appreciation for the man who served as his cupbearer. This can be inferred by the king’s response to Nehemiah’s request: “How long will you be gone? When will you return?” (NLT). So while the king was open to the possibility of letting Nehemiah go, it also appears that he wanted him back as well.
Nehemiah’s prayerful preparation for this moment can also be seen in the fact that he was able to provide an immediate response to these questions from the king. In other words, Nehemiah did not have to consider what might be involved in making such a determination. He did not have to ask the king for more information or request additional time to consider his response. On the contrary, the fact that Nehemiah was able to respond so quickly indicates that he had already worked out such answers in advance.
While Nehemiah’s commitment to seeking God’s direction in prayer provides us with the right example to follow, this passage also provides us with a degree of practical guidance as well. You see, Nehemiah’s example tells us that it is important to invest time in preparing to carry out those things that we have requested in prayer if God elects to move forward in providing them.
For instance, if a desire to pray is not backed by a readiness to implement those things we’ve prayed for, we may not be able to take full advantage of the opportunities that God presents to us. Nehemiah’s example tells us that what we ask for should be matched by forethought in preparing for how we will move forward in acting on those things we’ve asked for.
So the question is not only what we should request in prayer; we also need to ask how we might implement those things. Nehemiah was not only ready to ask God to answer his prayer; he was also prepared to receive and act on those things that he had requested from God.
In fact, we’ll see the extent to which Nehemiah had worked out the practical aspects involved in moving forward on his request next.
“Furthermore I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy.’
And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me” (Nehemiah 2:7-8).
As a government official, Nehemiah could not simply resign his position as the king’s cupbearer without the king’s explicit approval. In addition, Nehemiah was prevented from overseeing any reconstructive work in Jerusalem due to the edict that was still in effect as detailed in Ezra 4:21. These conditions represented roadblocks that effectively prevented Nehemiah from beginning the work that was necessary to rebuild the city.
In part, this explains why Nehemiah requested “…letters addressed to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River” (GW). We’ll talk more about the importance of these documents shortly but for now, we can say that these letters served as passports and certificates of authority that provided Nehemiah with the official authorization necessary to start the work at Jerusalem.
So its clear Nehemiah had invested a great deal of prayer and and forethought in preparing to address the situation that existed in Jerusalem. For instance, Nehemiah had already estimated the timeline for this project, an assessment that enabled him to quickly provide the king with date for for his return.
Nehemiah had also worked out the building materials necessary to complete the project as well as the necessary parameters (“the gates of the citadel… the city wall… the house that I will occupy”). He even knew the name of the man who held the responsibility of keeping the king’s forests.
Since Nehemiah had prayerfully anticipated what would be necessary to complete the work to be performed, he was ready to respond when the king asked him, “What is it you want… How long will your journey take… when will you get back?”
Remember that Proverbs 21:5 tells us, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (NIV). Nehemiah wasn’t just someone who saw what needed to be done- he prayerfully established a plan to accomplish those things and demonstrated a willingness to follow through on that plan.
“I also said to him, ‘If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah?” And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?’
And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests” (Nehemiah 2:7-8 NIV).
In Nehemiah’s day, just as today, a person traveling in an official capacity required certain documentation to authorize his or her presence and approve any requests that might be made. One commentator makes the following observation regarding these letters that Nehemiah requested from the king…
“Not only did Nehemiah need sufficient time for this expedition, but he needed secure travel. So he asked for letters to the governors of the provinces that he would have to pass through, to provide safe conduct for him. We learn later in this book that this not only gave him diplomatic immunity, but it also meant that he was appointed as the governor of Judah.
He does not tell us that at this point, but it becomes clear that he was actually sent as a governor of the province of Judah. This would, therefore, give him diplomatic status as he traveled” (1)
Although the king was responsible for providing this documentation, Nehemiah also recognized the One who was actually responsible for fulfilling these requests: “…the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me” (Nehemiah 2:8 NLT).
In addition to Nehemiah’s recognition of God’s provision here in verse eight, we should also take note of the following declaration from Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases” (TLB).
Although Artaxerxes was the human agent who was responsible for granting Nehemiah’s request, Nehemiah also realized that God was the One who was responsible for guiding the king in that direction. As we’re reminded once more within the book of Proverbs, “People can make all kinds of plans, but only the Lord’s plan will happen” (NCV).
So having been armed with the king’s approval, Nehemiah was now ready to begin his mission. But as we’ll soon see, there were some who were definitely not pleased with the idea that Nehemiah had in mind.
(1) Steadman, Ray Don’t Hesitate — Investigate! http://www.raystedman.org/old-testament/nehemiah/dont-hesitate–investigate
“And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me” (Nehemiah 2:8 ESV).
Although an earlier reconstruction effort had been started within the city of Jerusalem, that work had been suspended by a royal decree as detailed within Ezra chapter four: “I ordered a search made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings, that rebellion and sedition have been fostered there… So now, order that these men stop work and that this city not be rebuilt until I order it” (Ezra 4:19, 21 CJB). So what happened to change the king’s outlook on this project?
Well, this policy reversal may have served the king’s interest from a political perspective. You see, history records that a number of revolts against the Persian Empire had taken place within that region in the years leading up to Nehemiah’s request. Because of this, the idea of a rebuilt Jerusalem led by a governor who was loyal to the king may have been something that held a great deal of interest for a man like King Artaxerxes
For instance, a reconstructed city of Jerusalem might serve as an outpost that could help the Persian Empire keep the surrounding nations in check. It might also be useful in alerting the king to any regional authorities within the Empire who were seeking to plan a revolt of their own. These political realities may have contributed to the king’s decision to approve Nehemiah’s request to rebuild the city.
From his position, the king may have viewed the reconstruction of Jerusalem as an idea whose time had come, despite the fact that it had previously been identified as a rebellious and seditious city (see Ezra 4:19). But while it may appear as if Nehemiah was simply presenting the king with an opportunity to make a wise political decision, the reality is that God was involved in orchestrating this outcome, for as Nehemiah himself admitted, “…the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me” (NLT).
As touched upon previously, the king’s response to Nehemiah’s request tells us that God may sometimes elect to coordinate the circumstances and events of our lives in a manner that doesn’t directly draw attention to His presence. In other words, something that may simply seem like a good idea from a human point of view may actually be the result of God’s coordinated efforts behind the scenes to further His agenda.
“Then I went to the governors in the region beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me” (Nehemiah 2:9).
While Nehemiah simply tells us that he departed to “…the region west of the Euphrates” (HCSB), perhaps we should pause to consider what this journey actually entailed.
First, we should remember that Jerusalem was located about 800 miles (1287 km) away from Nehemiah’s starting point. While today’s age of motorized transportation often makes covering such distances relatively easy, we should remember that no such option existed in Nehemiah’s day.
For Nehemiah, the trip to Jerusalem meant that he would have to travel upon the back of an animal, typically a camel or donkey. At an average traveling speed of 2-3 miles per hour (3-5 kph), a person could reasonably expect to cover 20-30 miles (32-48 km) in a day if the conditions were good. This meant that the trip from Susa to Jerusalem probably took at least a month, if not considerably more.
Although the idea of traveling for hundreds of miles on the back of a camel doesn’t sound like the easiest way to get around, it did represent the quickest and safest way to cover such distances during that time. But Nehemiah wasn’t traveling alone, for we’re told that he was also accompanied by a military escort: “The king, I should add, had sent along army officers and horsemen to protect me” (NLT).
Since a traveler of that period was often exposed to dangers from thieves and wild animals throughout his or her journey, this escort offered a great deal of protection for Nehemiah. However, the presence of these military officers was important for another reason.
You see, Nehemiah’s mission required him to meet and interact with a number of regional leaders along the way. Given their distance from the center of the Persian Empire, these officials were probably used to making their own decisions in a semi-autonomous fashion. Therefore, its easy to imagine that these local authorities may have viewed Nehemiah’s visit as an unwelcome intrusion or perhaps something worse.
One commentator explains the danger facing Nehemiah in this regard:
“Nehemiah’s encroachment upon their provincial control posed a tremendous threat to these officials. If handled improperly, disregard for the other local officials would have put Nehemiah’s life and the lives of those in Jerusalem in jeopardy. To prevent such a reaction, God had moved the Persian king to dispatch royal army captains and horsemen to accompany Nehemiah and to guard against such attacks.” (1)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Ne 2:9). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of it, they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10).
Despite the fact that Nehemiah was traveling with a military escort, it does not appear as if this impressive display of authority had much of an effect upon two particular individuals.
That first of those individuals is identified for us as “Sanballat the Horonite.” The use of the phrase “Horonite” probably means that Sanballat came from from the city of Beth-Horon, a place that was located about 15 miles (24 km) away from Jerusalem. (1) Beth-Horon was located within a region known as Moab, a fact that may help shed some light on Sanballat’s attitude towards Nehemiah’s mission.
You see, there was a long standing history of antagonism between the ancient people of Israel and the residents of Moab. For instance, the Old Testament book of Numbers relates the account of a Moabite king named Balak, a man who once tried to enlist the aid of a magician/prophet named Balaam to curse the people of Israel (see Numbers 22-24).
Another leader of Moab went on to form a confederacy with two other ancient enemies of Israel and subsequently forced the Israelites to serve the nation of Moab for a period of eighteen years (see Judges 3:12-14). Later on, Israel’s King Saul fought against Moab and another group of hostile nations, a collection that the Scriptures simply identify as “enemies” in 1 Samuel 14:47.
The mutual animosity between these two people groups was so deeply ingrained that Deuteronomy 23:3-4 tells us, “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you” (NIV).
In addition to the deep-rooted regional hostility that existed between these two nations, Sanballat’s displeasure with Nehemiah’s arrival may have been motivated by a personal agenda as well. You see, an ancient document identifies Sanballat as the governor of the area where the city of Jerusalem was located. (2)
With this in mind, its easy to imagine that Sanballat may have viewed Nehemiah’s arrival and his plan to rebuild the city of Jerusalem as a potential threat to his own position of authority.
(1) Beth-Horon encompassed two separate districts consisting of upper Beth-Horon and Lower Beth-Horon according to Joshua 16:3-5
(2) This document is known as the “Elephantine papyri” and references “…the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria.” See Archaeology and Bible History Joseph P. Free p. 211
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites” (Nehemiah 2:10 NIV).
In addition to Sanballat the Horonite, a second antagonist is identified for us here in Nehemiah 2:10. That would be Tobiah, a man who is further described as an Ammonite.
Ammon was region that was located in what is now the modern-day country of Jordan and much like Sanballat, Tobiah’s national origin tells us that he belonged to a people group with a long history of hostility towards the nation of Israel.
The Ammonite nation originally began when two angelic messengers instructed Abraham’s nephew Lot to take his family and leave the area of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to it’s destruction (see Genesis 18:16-19:28). Following their departure, Lot and the remaining members of his family found their way to a mountainous region where they eventually found refuge in a cave.
Some time later, Lot’s two daughters decided to act upon the moral values they had acquired while living in Sodom by conspiring to intoxicate their father on consecutive nights. They each then slept with their father while he was still in his inebriated state according to Genesis 19:34-38. It was in this manner that Lot’s younger daughter went on to become the progenitor of the Ammonites, a people group that eventually developed a highly antagonistic attitude towards the nation of Israel.
Since the Ammonites and the Moabites were perennial adversaries of Israel, it’s not surprising to find that men like Sanballat and Tobiah “were very much disturbed” at the arrival of someone had come to “…seek the welfare of the people of Israel” (ESV). As one source observes, “The arrival of a Jew in Jerusalem with royal authority to promote the welfare of the Israelites was perceived as a threat by these men.” (1)
Interestingly enough, Tobiah’s name means “The lord is good” and as we’ll find later on, Tobiah was someone who possessed a number of important and influential connections among those who served in positions of religious authority during that time.
This information serves to remind us of an unfortunate reality that continues to be as true today as it was in the days of Nehemiah. As was the case with men like Tobiah, opposition to God’s agenda may not always come from those who are outside the religious community- it may sometimes come from those who may outwardly appear to be spiritual as well.
(1) Asbury Bible Commentary, B. Nehemiah’s Return (2:1–20) https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Nehemiahs-Return
“But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very displeased that someone had come to help the people of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10 NLT).
Although we’re told that Sanballat and Tobiah were displeased by Nehemiah’s arrival, we might ask how these men came to know that“…someone had come to seek the well-being of the Israelites” (HCSB). For instance, we’ll later find that Nehemiah did not seek to publicly gather support for his mission until well after he arrived. So how did these men become aware of Nehemiah’s agenda for the city of Jerusalem?
Well, Sanballat may have learned of Nehemiah’s plan through his political connections or perhaps he had access to the official paperwork that reversed the royal policy toward the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Its also possible that Sanballat, Tobiah, or someone who was equally displeased by Nehemiah’s arrival put “two and two together” and made an accurate assessment regarding his mission.
In any event, the important thing to remember is that Nehemiah did not receive a hero’s welcome upon his entry into Jerusalem. There were no lavish receptions or enthusiastic greetings waiting for Nehemiah upon his arrival. Instead, Nehemiah entered a challenging and difficult situation complete with adversaries who were inclined to oppose him before he ever got started.
Once source illustrates these realities with the following observation…
“In every generation there are those who hate God’s people and try to block God’s purpose. When you attempt to do God’s work, some will oppose you; some will even hope you fail. If you expect opposition, you will be prepared rather than surprised… Knowing that God is behind your task is the best incentive to move ahead in the face of opposition” (1)
In addition, this passage serves to remind us of the need to recognize the potential challenges that may emerge as we seek to implement God’s plan for our lives. In other words, its important to be perceptive and discerning in regard to the consequences that might result from the act of moving forward on God’s agenda.
For instance, it was not enough for Nehemiah to simply accept God’s leading and then plow forward. Instead, it appears that Nehemiah anticipated that there might be resistance from men like Sanballat and Tobiah and was prepared to counter such opposition with letters of authorization from the king (see Nehemiah 2:7, 9).
The implication is that Nehemiah took the time to consider the possibility of such negative repercussions and preemptively prepared to meet them to the best of his ability.
(1) Life Application Study Bible, Nehemiah 2:9-10 Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved. Life Application® is a registered trademark of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
“So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days” (Nehemiah 2:11).
So Nehemiah finally completed his 800 mile (1287 km) journey to the land of his ancestors but his arrival within the city of Jerusalem is significant for what he didn’t do.
For instance, Nehemiah didn’t show up like a sheriff with a warrant to clean up the town. He didn’t ride into the city with an arrogant, dictatorial attitude and begin putting people to work. Instead, it appears that Nehemiah spent his first three days in Jerusalem getting settled and acclimated to his new home. Of course, if you had to travel for hundreds of miles on the back of an animal, you would probably appreciate a three day break upon your arrival as well.
So what kind of environment did Nehemiah encounter upon his entry into the city? Well, one source describes the scene that awaited Nehemiah in Jerusalem…
“The city of Jerusalem to which Nehemiah returned was in gross disrepair. Its temple had been restored by Ezra, but little else was functioning effectively. The wall was broken down, the gates were burned, the roads were cluttered with debris, and most of the homes and buildings stood vacant. It must have been a depressing place to visit, let alone live.” (1)
If you can picture the image of a war-torn, urban neighborhood that had largely been left untouched for decades, then you might have a good representation of the landscape that Nehemiah encountered. Because of this, its not surprising to learn that Nehemiah decided to go on a reconnaissance mission to review the situation…
“Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem; nor was there any animal with me, except the one on which I rode” (Nehemiah 2:12).
Rather than make an immediate attempt to rally support for his planned reconstruction project, Nehemiah instead demonstrated perception, wisdom, and discernment in waiting to publicly address the conditions that existed in Jerusalem until he had an opportunity to establish his residence and personally assess the situation.
In the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1, “There is an appointed time for everything…” (NASB) and Nehemiah’s example provides us with an important lesson: if God provides us with insight into a particular circumstance or situation, it helps to remember that we are not necessarily obligated to immediately share that knowledge with everyone. Nehemiah wisely chose to wait until the time was right to reveal his mission and provide evidence of God’s leading to address that situation.
(1) Word in life study Bible. (1996). (electronic ed., Ne 2:18). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Nehemiah 2:11 tells us that Nehemiah decided to maintain a low profile upon his arrival in the city of Jerusalem, at least to start: “…I went to Jerusalem and was there three days” (ESV). But Nehemiah also needed an accurate assessment of the challenges that might be involved in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem.
To address those challenges, Nehemiah decided to engage in a covert fact-finding mission. In fact, the next few verses will help provide us with a good idea regarding the extent of the work that was actually involved in rebuilding Jerusalem’s perimeter wall…
“And I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal under me to pass.
So I went up in the night by the valley, and viewed the wall; then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned” (Nehemiah 2:13-15).
From the description that’s given to us within these verses, it appears that Nehemiah started at the west side of the city and then proceeded in a counter clockwise direction around the perimeter of what remained of Jerusalem’s exterior wall. This span represented a distance of over a mile (1.6 km).
We’re first told that Nehemiah examined two sections where the wall had been broken down and the gates had been damaged by fire. But verse fourteen tells us that Nehemiah eventually came to a portion of the wall where the wreckage was so bad that his mounted animal simply could not pass. This area contained so much rubble that it forced Nehemiah to descend into the Kidron Valley just to get an accurate assessment of the damage that existed there.
So this was no mere sightseeing expedition for Nehemiah- this was a damage report. The fact that Nehemiah undertook this reconnaissance mission at night and in relative secrecy also implies that he wanted to avoid unnecessary attention (especially from those who might potentially oppose this work) until after he had an opportunity to fully evaluate the situation.
While the news from this reconnaissance wasn’t good, it provided Nehemiah with some important first-hand information about these conditions. He no longer had to depend on information that had been gathered from others or rely on someone else’s interpretation of what this reconstruction work might involve- now he knew for himself.
“And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, or the others who did the work” (Nehemiah 2:16).
Following the completion of his damage assessment, Nehemiah next identified those groups and individuals who might have a part to play in completing the necessary repairs. Those persons included…
- the Jews, or the people of Hebrew descent who resided within that area.
- the priests, the representatives of Israel’s spiritual leadership.
- the nobles, or those who served as leaders among the prominent local families.
- the officials, or municipal administrators.
- or the others, a general term that encompassed everyone else.
These were the people who were present when Nehemiah delivered the following message…
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach'” (Nehemiah 2:17).
Notice that Nehemiah took ownership of the conditions that existed in Jerusalem by saying, “You see the trouble we are in…” (ESV). In other words, Nehemiah didn’t begin by saying, “you have a problem.” Instead, he essentially said, “we have a problem.”
Nehemiah also pursued an internal and external motivational strategy in presenting this initiative. First he directed the attention of the people to what they could externally observe. He then followed by providing an internal incentive as well: “…let’s rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, so that we will no longer be a disgrace” (HCSB).
If we might rephrase this message, we might say that Nehemiah effectively said, “This situation reflects poorly upon all of us. Let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and put an end to this disgrace.”
So Nehemiah had a plan. He presented tangible evidence of God’s endorsement of that plan by way of the king’s support. He knew how to propose that plan to the people who might be willing to get involved. He didn’t blame others for the conditions that existed nor did he seek to criticize someone else. Instead, Nehemiah took a difficult problem and presented a solution that his listeners could understand, accept, and support.
This wise and skillful approach can be attributed to the fact that Nehemiah took the time to pray and ask for God’s wisdom, input, and direction back in chapter one.
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.’
And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, ‘Let us rise up and build. Then they set their hands to this good work” (Nehemiah 2:17-18).
Nehemiah began organizing support for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s perimeter wall by drawing the attention of his audience to a dismal reality: “You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned down…” (HCSB). One source describes the mindset of Nehemiah’s listeners in the following manner…
“The condition of the walls and gates of the city since their destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., in spite of abortive attempts to rebuild them. The leaders and people had evidently become reconciled to this sad state of affairs. It took an outsider to assess the situation and to rally them to renewed efforts.” (1)
But Nehemiah also brought forth some encouragement as well: “I told them how God was supporting me and how the king was backing me up” (MSG). So Nehemiah didn’t merely present his belief that was God leading him to action; he also presented confirmation of God’s support for this initiative as evidenced by “the king’s words that he had spoken to me.”
Notice that Nehemiah made no attempt to beg, bargain, or manipulate his listeners into action. He didn’t seek to externally pressure his audience or try and persuade them to do something that they really didn’t want to do. Instead, Nehemiah simply….
- Addressed the reality of the situation: “…Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (NLT).
- Outlined his personal conviction that God was motivating him to do something about it: “…I told them about the desire God had put into my heart” (TLB).
- Presented evidence of God’s leading to address the deplorable conditions that existed: “I told them how my True God had used His power to favor me, evidenced by what the king had said to me” (Voice).
- Finally, Nehemiah relied on God’s ability to internally motivate the residents of Jerusalem to pursue this good work: “So they readied themselves for this good project” (NET).
All of these things culminated in a positive response from Nehemiah’s listeners: “Let’s begin rebuilding right away!” (NET).
(1) Zondervan NIV Study Bible, footnote on Nehemiah 2:17
As mentioned previously, Nehemiah approached the residents of Jerusalem and directed their attention to disgraceful state of affairs that existed there:
He followed by advising the people of his belief that God was directing him in this endeavor: “…I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me” and presented tangible evidence that God was supporting him in the pursuit of this work: “I told them what the king had said to me” (Nehemiah 2:18 ERV).
These three things -a burden for the work to be done, a belief that God was leading the pursuit of that work, and tangible evidence of God’s endorsement- were important factors that helped lead to the response of Nehemiah’s audience: “So they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ Then they set their hands to this good work” (Nehemiah 2:18).
So everyone immediately began to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and they all lived happily ever after, right? Well, not exactly…
“But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they laughed at us and despised us, and said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing? Will you rebel against the king?'” (Nehemiah 2:19).
From today’s perspective, this response almost sounds like a caricature of an early 20th century mobster issuing a veiled threat: “Hey, that’s a nice little project you’re trying to start there. It would be a shame if the king somehow heard that that you were trying to start some sort of rebellion.”
While this clumsy and heavy-handed attempt to derail this project may seem laughable by today’s standards, we’ll soon see that these men were deadly serious.
This passage also introduces us to the final member of the trio who sought to oppose this initiative: “Geshem the Arab.” Geshem may have been another local political leader or the tribal leader of a group that had settled within that area. Unfortunately, we don’t know much very much about Geshem other than the fact that he didn’t wish to see this work go forward.
Like Sanballat and Tobiah, it seems reasonable to assume that a rebuilt and fortified city of Jerusalem would have resulted in a loss of power, influence, or profit for Geshem, a reality that would help to make him a natural ally with such men.
But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?'” (Nehemiah 2:19 NIV).
This passage does more than simply describe the actions taken by a few individuals who sought to make Nehemiah’s life difficult; it actually provides us with a partial look into the arsenal of weapons employed by those who oppose the work of God. As we consider this passage, its important to recognize that these weapons have not become outdated- they have simply been upgraded and modernized for continued use today.
The first weapon deployed by these men is often so effective that is seldom necessary to utilize another: “…they mocked and ridiculed us.” In other words, these men tried to neutralize Nehemiah (along with those who supported this work) by initiating an attempt to make him appear stupid and foolish.
These tactics were designed to produce a sense of demoralization and ultimately lead to Nehemiah’s retreat. Knowing this, a person who is able to identify these strategies today is someone who will be well-prepared to defend against them if and when they are deployed.
These men also utilized a second technique that should be familiar to modern-day readers: intimidation. For instance, notice that Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem engaged in a not-so-subtle attempt to pressure, coerce, and threaten Nehemiah by asking, “…Are you rebelling against the king?”
In this instance, these men issued a veiled threat by implying that Nehemiah might be guilty of treason, a charge that could have led to his recall from that area. This strategy is effectively replicated today whenever one person threatens to misrepresent another person to an authority figure.
Although this thinly veiled charge of rebellion was utterly without merit, that fact was irrelevant to the circumstance at hand. You see, it did not matter if Nehemiah was actually guilty of treason; the question of rebellion was only useful in serving to prevent (or delay) this rebuilding work from going forward.
So it appears that Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem held little interest in seeking to determine whether Nehemiah was genuinely called of God to pursue this project. Nor does it seem as if they were seriously concerned with protecting the king’s authority in that area. Their attempt to question Nehemiah’s motive was simply designed to serve their real agenda: “…they didn’t want anyone to help the people of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10 CEV).
“So I answered them, and said to them, ‘The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem'” (Nehemiah 2:20).
An internal conviction of God’s leading coupled with the external evidence of His support for a particular work can help sustain our determination to move forward if opposition to that work should emerge.
This kind of attitude was clearly reflected in Nehemiah’s response to his opponents: “The True God of heaven will give us success. We are His people, servants who will begin the work of rebuilding our city and this wall. But you have no share in this work because Jerusalem is not yours—civically, legally, or religiously” (Voice).
Notice that Nehemiah made no attempt to refute the implication that he may have been leading a rebellion (Nehemiah 2:19) nor did he attempt to reason with his accusers or show them where they had been mistaken. Its also interesting to note that Nehemiah did not appeal to the official documentation that he received from the king to support the fact that that he had no treasonous intent. Instead, Nehemiah simply responded to his opponents by restating the work that he had been called to do.
Nehemiah’s example is relevant today because it reminds us that no amount of evidence is likely to persuade an opponent with an ulterior motive. In such instances, it might be more advisable to stay focused upon the task at hand and avoid the temptation to pursue an unproductive effort to defend God’s calling.
This does not necessarily mean that others will be deterred from their opposing viewpoint if we follow Nehemiah’s example by declining to engage in such conversations. In fact, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem will actually go on to escalate their opposition to Nehemiah later on within this book. However, it does help to remember that no response can sometimes be the best response.
Although Nehemiah offered no rebuttal to his opponents, he did direct them to the source of his efforts: “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us.” This short statement reveals Nehemiah’s firm belief that God would honor the efforts of those who followed through on His calling.
Nehemiah also set the parameters for the men and women who were qualified to pursue this work and see it through to completion. We’ll get a much more extensive list of those individuals as we continue on into Nehemiah chapter three.
“I answered them by saying, ‘The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it'” (Nehemiah 2:20 NIV).
Nehemiah’s response in the concluding verse of chapter two foreshadows his future confrontations with those who opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Although Nehemiah responded in a wise, firm, perceptive, and diplomatic manner here within this passage, he will later go on to display less diplomacy (and considerably more firmness) in his future interactions with these men.
Nehemiah began by noting God’s sovereign ability to ensure the success of this project: “The God of heaven, he will prosper us…” (ASV). In this regard, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem would have done well to observe the same kind of counsel that was once offered in response to another work of God…
“…my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!'” (Acts 5:38-39 NLT).
Unfortunately, these men seemed to have more interest in their own personal agendas than in the possibility that God might have initiated this plan for His capital city. These skewed priorities will later go on to create a much greater degree of conflict between Nehemiah and these men.
Of course, one of the more unpleasant duties facing someone in a leadership position involves the responsibility to explain the reason for a rejection or dismissal. A person who would prefer to avoid such responsibilities usually makes for a poor leader but Nehemiah did not hesitate to carry out this potentially difficult assignment.
Instead, Nehemiah took the lead in explaining why his opponents could not have a part to play in the work to be performed: “…you have no share, right, or historic claim in Jerusalem” (HCSB). In other words, Nehemiah made certain to let these men know that their exclusion from this project was not based upon something trivial or inconsequential; it derived from their lack of civil, legal, and historic standing.
The major characteristics demonstrated by Nehemiah in this chapter- an internal sense of God’s leading, a recognition of the evidence of God’s endorsement of that work, a dependence upon God’s ability to bring success, and a sound, responsible, well-reasoned approach to the implementation of that work -all help to provide us with a God-honoring pattern that we can emulate within our lives today.