Last week, Mike introduced us to the book of Nehemiah. He pointed out how it begins rather abruptly. This is because Ezra and Nehemiah used to be one unit, not two separate ones. There still isn’t much of a transition from one story into the other, but it makes a little more sense if you know that Nehemiah is picking up where Ezra left off.
Unlike in Ezra, we actually get to meet the namesake of the book right away. The person of Nehemiah is introduced right off the bat in chapter 1.
Who remembers what Nehemiah’s job is? He’s a cupbearer!
Remember, we’re still in the period of Jewish exile, and they’re currently under the rule of the Persian empire, but they’re being allowed to migrate back to Jerusalem. But the Persian king, Artaxerxes at this point, is still the big guy in charge, he’s the political, military leader of a vast empire. He’s extremely powerful. But we’ve read about several Jewish characters who are placed into positions of prominence and power, within the Persian empire. We had Daniel who actually witnessed the empire change hands from the Babylonians to the Medes & Persians. Then we had Ezra, then Esther, and now Nehemiah.
He’s a Jewish man with a really good job in the Persian palace. It’s a cushy position, and he’s really got it made as far as his own personal day-to-day life. But he’s still Jewish, and even though he grew up in Babylon, he remained connected to his roots, and to his people as God’s chosen people. A people who have been scattered as a consequence for their rebellion against God, but out of whom God has spared a remnant that is now beginning to literally pick up the pieces and put themselves back together in Jerusalem.
We see where Nehemiah’s heart really is when he gets the news in chapter 1 that the city has been burned, the walls destroyed, the gates torn down. He weeps. He mourns. He fasts. And he cries out to God.
Mike read through Nehemiah’s first prayer last week, and he noted that there are quite a few more prayers throughout the book, so remember to be on the lookout for those. Today we’ll encounter the second one.
But just one thing I want to point out is how the first prayer ended, because it gives a subtle transition to the next chapter:
Nehemiah 1:11 CSB
11 Please, Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and to that of your servants who delight to revere your name. Give your servant success today, and grant him compassion in the presence of this man. At the time, I was the king’s cupbearer.
So, his prayer ends with a specific and personal petition to God: “give your servant success today, and grant him compassion in the presence of this man.”
Now, this may seem a bit vague, so I just want to clarify a couple things.
First of all, who is the “servant” Nehemiah is referring to when he says “give your servant success?” He’s referring to himself. I know we generally don’t refer to ourselves in the third-person, whether we’re praying or in general conversation, so it can come across as a little odd, but this is pretty common in prayers like this. Nehemiah is referring to himself in the third-person, and he’s identifying as God’s servant.
What is he asking for? There are two things he asks for.
The first is just success, in general. “Give your servant success today.” The second is a little more specific, and specifies how Nehemiah will be successful. It’s what needs to happen in order for Nehemiah to be successful: “grant him compassion in the presence of this man.”
Nehemiah is asking for compassion, or mercy, or favor. The Hebrew word used here רַחֲמִ֔ים comes from the root רֶ֫חֶם which means “womb” and conveys the sensation of feeling loved and safe, like the ultimate loving embrace of a mother’s womb. And he’s asking for God to give him this in the presence of “this man.” Who is “this man?”
The king! We don’t really know for sure why he referred to Artaxerxes as simply “this man” as opposed to “the king” or some other title. But it’s clear that Nehemiah is recognizing God as the one who ultimately has the authority and the power to grant him success in this situation, because even the most powerful man in the world is still subject to God’s sovereignty.
That said, this prayer does also acknowledge that Artaxerxes is a powerful man and could have Nehemiah fed to the lions or thrown in a furnace at the drop of a hat! It’s because approaching the king is such risky business that Nehemiah is asking for God’s protection. He’s going into a scary situation, and it’s not just his own life at stake! Remember, the whole reason Nehemiah is upset is because he’s heard the news of Jerusalem’s destruction! If he’s not successful in talking to the king, it’s his people and their city, the wellbeing of all the remnant Jews is at stake!
And that sets us up for chapter 2, where Nehemiah discusses the situation with Artaxerxes, he has all that going on in his head, and he knows it’s going to be risky bringing up a personal matter to the king, but he’s trusting in God’s sovereignty rather than being controlled or paralyzed by the fear of what a man can do. But he’s also not going to be stupid about it, either! You’ll find that he’s very careful and calculated in his approach, which shows wisdom and discretion.
Let’s read how it plays out:
Nehemiah 2:1 CSB
1 During the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was set before him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence,
“During the month of Nisan” … what does that mean? In our Gregorian calendar that would fall between March & April. Chapter 1 began in the month of “Kislev,” which would be our November/December. This means 4 months have gone by since Nehemiah originally heard the report about Jerusalem. We’re not told exactly why he waited that long to talk to the king, but again it’s clear that Nehemiah did not act rashly or in haste. And I think it’s pretty safe to guess that Nehemiah was praying, not just that once with the prayer recorded in chapter 1, but very frequently and continuously throughout those 4 months. As we’ll see in a moment, prayer was a habitual part of Nehemiah’s life, so even though we’re not told what he did during those 4 months, I’m pretty comfortable assuming he had quite a few chats with God during that time.
But now, there’s an opportunity, because the king is drinking wine, and it’s Nehemiah’s job to bring it to him. Not only does that mean Nehemiah gets some face time with Artaxerxes, but we know from other stories that Artaxerxes really liked his wine…maybe a little too much…and this would logically be a good time to ask him for a favor. He’d be in a good mood and maybe a bit more persuadable after a few goblets of fine wine. It’s an opening, an opportunity.
Let’s keep reading:
Nehemiah 2:1–3 CSB
1 During the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was set before him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence, 2 so the king said to me, “Why do you look so sad, when you aren’t sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” I was overwhelmed with fear 3 and replied to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
Alright, so Nehemiah says he has never been sad in the king’s presence before. Generally, it’s not a good idea to make the king sad. You know how one person’s mood, whether it’s happy or sad, can affect the mood of everyone else in a room? Well, you want the king to be in a good mood, if you know what’s good for you, so it’s not a good idea to be the wet blanket in the room, bringing the mood down. So it makes sense that showing sadness was unusual behavior, and the king notices is right away.
He recognizes Nehemiah’s sadness and takes interest, which I think is actually pretty cool! He doesn’t just say “Go away Nehemiah, you’re bumming me out!” He says “man, I can see you’re not physically ill, but something is really bothering you. Your heart is sad, what’s weighing on your heart, Nehemiah?” For all of the king’s faults, he does have a few redeeming qualities, and I think showing a genuine interest in other people’s problems is one of them.
In fact, that’s one mark of good leadership: being invested not just in yourself but in other people’s lives and knowing them well enough to know when something is wrong, and then not ignoring it but learning more about the situation and working towards a solution.
That being said, Nehemiah is still terrified when he realizes the king can see his sadness plainly on his face. He has no idea how the king will react, but there’s no turning back now! The king asked him point-blank what’s going on, he can’t hide that he’s upset, and he HAS to give an answer to the king. And he gets right to the point, after, of course, he first throws in a “May the king live forever!” I almost read that as a “don’t be mad!” but then I love how he words this, in verse 3:
“Why should I not be sad, when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
It’s like he’s saying “I have no choice BUT to be sad.” How could I NOT be sad? And then notice that he says “The city where my ancestors are buried.” He doesn’t say “Jerusalem” and he doesn’t say “my people, the Jewish people.” I think this again points to Nehemiah’s wisdom and discretion, in the calculated way he words this.
It’s not that he’s necessarily ashamed or afraid to admit that he’s a Jew and wants to go to Jerusalem, he’s going to have to reveal that shortly. But he eases into the conversation with only enough detail to get the king invested and empathizing with him. He doesn’t start right off with “well, I heard that Jerusalem is in ruins.” Why would the king care about that? He says “the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins.” He puts it in a perspective the king can relate to. The king is Persian, he’s not a Jew, and he has no personal interest in Judah, but he does have ancestors and does understand the significance of having a connection to your roots.
Nehemiah is NOT being deceitful in any way, but he is showing discretion.
And, so far so good, it works! He’s got the king’s interest, he’s curious at the very least:
Nehemiah 2:4–5 CSB
4 Then the king asked me, “What is your request?” So I prayed to the God of the heavens 5 and answered the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, send me to Judah and to the city where my ancestors are buried, so that I may rebuild it.”
The king says “Ok, what do you want from me?” And now it’s really the climax of suspense for Nehemiah. It’s the moment of truth.
Can you imagine the stress and anxiety Nehemiah was feeling in that moment? Just think about it! His fate, and the fate of Jerusalem rests on Nehemiah’s next few words. That’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it!?
And yet, Nehemiah also recognizes that the pressure ultimately, is not truly on him or his words, because it isn’t Nehemiah OR the king who’s really in charge. It’s Yahweh. So he immediately turns to God in prayer. Now, unlike the first prayer, in chapter 1, we’re not told the contents of this prayer. But we do know the king was waiting for an answer, so logically, it couldn’t have been long! He didn’t say “Oh man, hold that thought, I need to go pray about this, I’ll be back in an hour.”
He’s been praying about this for four months! But he still prays, in the moment, in midst of the climax of stress. I call this a “popcorn prayer” I don’t know why, but I heard it somewhere and it stuck. It’ just like a little “pop” … something like “God, help!” or “God, please give me the words to say!”
This is the second reference to prayer in Nehemiah, and it’s just a good reminder that there’s no one right way to pray. We can model certain prayers after the prayer in chapter 1, or after the Lord’s prayer, and try to pray the way Jesus taught. There’s a lot we can learn from model prayers like that. And there is a time and a place for long prayer and eloquently worded, well thought out prayer. But ultimately, prayer is not about following a perfect formula. It’s about communicating with God. It’s a crucial part of our relationship with him. He wants to hear from us, whether it’s long or short, whether it’s eloquent or messy.
And if you make prayer a regular, consistent part of your life, then in stressful moments like this, it becomes an instinctual response to talk to God. With Nehemiah, it demonstrates that prayer isn’t just something he does to check it off a list, it's something he does because he believes God is present and powerful in every situation, and talking to him acknowledges that. It’s like a muscle, and Nehemiah has a well-developed “prayer reflex.” Jesus had a pretty good prayer reflex too, by the way.
How’s your prayer reflex? Do you instinctively talk to God throughout the day? If not, I encourage you to work that muscle. Do it intentionally, until you do it almost without thinking about it.
On the flip-side, some of us may have the opposite problem. I often shoot out those popcorn prayers throughout the day, but then don’t spend much time in thoughtful, intentional prayer. Again, there’s a time and a place for both, and I don’t think anyone has, on their death bed, said “man I really wish I spent less time in prayer.” It’s an area where most of us, I know certainly for myself, where there’s a lot of room for growth.
Alright, let’s get back to the story. Nehemiah pops in a popcorn prayer, and then makes his request: “Send me to Judah, and to the city where my ancestors are buried, so I can rebuild it.”
In verse 6, we read the king’s response:
Nehemiah 2:6 CSB
6 The king, with the queen seated beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you return?” So I gave him a definite time, and it pleased the king to send me.
Notice the king doesn’t just say “yes” right away. But he also doesn’t say “no” and he certainly doesn’t say “you’re crazy, you’re fired, off with your head!” So that’s good news! I’m sure there’s some measure of relief for Nehemiah when he hears this response, but he still has to answer this question. And it does seem, in the way he worded the question, like the king wants some assurance that Nehemiah will in fact return. So Nehemiah gave a definite time, and it pleased the king to send him. Again, this indicates a wise response from Nehemiah. Giving the king a definite time for the leave, even if it was several years, gave some assurance as to his loyalty and intentions to continue serving the king.
We don’t know how long he originally asked to go. Later on, at the end of the book, he does return 12 years later. It’s very likely that his time away was extended from what he originally asked for, but he could have also made short trips back and forth, and he did eventually return.
Let’s keep reading, because now that the king has agreed to send him, Nehemiah has some more follow-up requests:
Nehemiah 2:7–8 CSB
7 I also said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let me have letters written to the governors of the region west of the Euphrates River, so that they will grant me safe passage until I reach Judah. 8 And let me have a letter written to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so that he will give me timber to rebuild the gates of the temple’s fortress, the city wall, and the home where I will live.” The king granted my requests, for the gracious hand of my God was on me.
So Nehemiah asks for some letters from the king, that will give him protection along his journey. And the king grants his request, but notice how yet again Nehemiah gives God the credit for the king’s decision. His requests were granted because the gracious hand of God was on him. We had almost identical wording back in Ezra, when Ezra was successful in his endeavors it was always because of the gracious hand of God. It was a major theme in Ezra, and it’s still a major theme in Nehemiah.
Let’s keep reading:
Nehemiah 2:9–10 CSB
9 I went to the governors of the region west of the Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent officers of the infantry and cavalry with me. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard that someone had come to pursue the prosperity of the Israelites, they were greatly displeased.
It is interesting to point out here that Nehemiah accepted the military escort from the king, when Ezra made a whole point NOT to take any military protection. Does this mean that Nehemiah just didn’t have as much faith as Ezra?
Not really, no.
It just means that God’s provision can look different in one person’s story compared to another’s. The story of Ezra refusing military protection is not prescriptive for every situation, that could get really silly really quickly! In both stories, the point is not to do things exactly the way they did, but to see how God works in different ways in different people’s lives to provide for them and uphold his reputation.
Another thing to notice in verse 10 is these names: Sanballat and Tobiah. This is the first introduction we get to a couple of villain characters that will come up again, so remember those names. All we’re told so far is that they were “greatly displeased” when they heard someone was “pursuing the prosperity of the Israelites.” So all we know is they don’t like the Jews and they don’t want them to do well, so the fact that someone is coming to help just really ticked them off.
Otherwise, the trip was apparently uneventful and they arrived safely, and verse 11 picks up after they had arrived:
Nehemiah 2:11–18 CSB
11 After I arrived in Jerusalem and had been there three days, 12 I got up at night and took a few men with me. I didn’t tell anyone what my God had laid on my heart to do for Jerusalem. The only animal I took was the one I was riding. 13 I went out at night through the Valley Gate toward the Serpent’s Well and the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. 14 I went on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but farther down it became too narrow for my animal to go through. 15 So I went up at night by way of the valley and inspected the wall. Then heading back, I entered through the Valley Gate and returned. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, for I had not yet told the Jews, priests, nobles, officials, or the rest of those who would be doing the work. 17 So I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins and its gates have been burned. Come, let’s rebuild Jerusalem’s wall, so that we will no longer be a disgrace.” 18 I told them how the gracious hand of my God had been on me, and what the king had said to me. They said, “Let’s start rebuilding,” and their hands were strengthened to do this good work.
Alright, so Nehemiah conducts a thorough inspection of the city to just get an idea of what kind of work needs to be done. But notice again Nehemiah’s discretion. He didn’t come in guns blazing, saying “let’s go let’s go let’s go!” He came in and quietly surveyed the situation, inspected everything before telling anyone who he was or what he was up to, and he did it at night even! He’s so sneaky! And it’s only after he’s done his recon that he approaches the Jews, priests, nobles, and officials. Again it’s just a great indication of how he’s conducting himself with wisdom, in light of God’s sovereignty, not in spite of it. He recognizes that God is in control, but that he is an active participant in God’s plan. This is another recurring theme we’ll continue to see throughout the book. Mike pointed out last week that when Nehemiah heard about the problem in Jerusalem, he prayed not just that God would solve the problem, but that he himself could become a part of the solution.
Nehemiah’s understanding of his active participation in God’s sovereignty is apparent in his conversation with the king, as well as in how he approached the Jewish leaders once he got to Jerusalem. And we’ll see it come into play again later.
For now, we’ll go ahead and read the last couple verses of chapter 2, which kind of give us a glimpse into the conflict ahead.
Nehemiah 2:19–20 CSB
19 When Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about this, they mocked and despised us, and said, “What is this you’re doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 I gave them this reply, “The God of the heavens is the one who will grant us success. We, his servants, will start building, but you have no share, right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.”
So again, it’s Sanballat and Tobiah, and now a third guy, Geshem, who will be presenting opposition to Nehemiah and the Jews. Lord willing, we’ll get into that more next week.
For this week, I want to leave you with a quick recap of some of the easy application points from chapter 2. Remember, as Mike pointed out last week, we don’t go into every narrative in the Old Testament looking for three bullet points of life application, but Nehemiah does happen to be chock full of them, so here are the three happy little bullet points that stood out to me.
Three things we can learn from chapter 2 of Nehemiah: