Nehemiah’s Plan in Action
When Nehemiah received word from his brother that the people of Judah were suffering and that the city of Jerusalem was still in ruins, he responded immediately. He recognized the need. He made it his personal responsibility. And most importantly, he took the matter to the Lord in prayer.
The fact that Nehemiah mourned and fasted and prayed for certain days (ch. 1:4) tells us what kind of a man he was, viz., one who was devoted to the service of his God. Chapter 2 begins with yet another confirmation of this. Here the story continues in the month Nisan, which is the first month of the Jewish calendar and corresponds to late March or early April on our calendars. In other words, about four months had gone by since Nehemiah first heard from his brother.
For something that burdened him so much, four months seems like a long time for Nehemiah to wait before doing anything. But it really wasn’t. It’s possible, as some commentators have suggested, that the king had a different cupbearer for each quarter of the year. If so, then Nehemiah probably hadn’t even seen the king since he spoke with his brother about the condition of Jerusalem. But it is even more likely that Nehemiah spent this time praying and preparing himself for the work that needed to be done.
We should never rush into the Lord’s service. Too many men, believing themselves called the ministry, have forced themselves upon the church only to do great harm. And sometimes we act precipitously in other affairs, thinking that we have sufficient wisdom to handle the crisis at hand, but we end up falling flat on our faces.
Nehemiah resisted this temptation and waited patiently on the Lord. Hebrews 6:12 says that it is through faith and patience that we inherit the promises of God. Other passages of Scripture exhort us to stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD (Exod. 14:13); and, Be still, and know that I am God (Ps. 46:10). The wait is sometimes necessary as the Lord prepares both us and the circumstances for what he wants us to do.
After four months of weeping, praying and planning, the day finally came for Nehemiah to put his plan into action. He seized the opportunity while serving as cupbearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes.
Xenophon, the Greek historian and contemporary of Socrates, gives us a description of how cupbearers of this time handled the king’s wine. First they washed the king’s cup in his presence. They then poured a little of the king’s wine into their left hand and immediately drank it. Assuming that they did not die from poisoning, they filled the king’s cup and handed it to him, not grasped tightly but held loosely by only three fingers, which was to prevent him from slipping any poison of his own into the wine after tasting it.
In any case, the only thing Nehemiah wanted to do at this point was get the king’s attention. You see, although he was a cupbearer (a relatively high office responsible for the king’s life), he was not allowed to initiate a conversation with the king. The book of Esther shows that even the queen could not do this. But what was the likelihood that the king would begin a conversation with Nehemiah about Judah or the condition of the Jews? Humanly speaking, it was probably pretty close to zero. But Nehemiah’s confidence was not in the statistical probability or improbability of the king acting a certain way. It was in the Lord. He believed that God controlled the king’s heart. Proverbs 21:1 says, The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.
So, Nehemiah chose a different approach. Instead of trying to initiate a conversation, he created a situation in which the king might invite him to express his own concerns. He did this by appearing obviously sad when he served the king’s wine.
Many commentators believe that the wording of verse 1, that wine was before the king, probably suggests that Nehemiah launched his plan during some kind of feast. This opinion is strengthened by the fact that the queen, who did not normally dine with the king, was at his side (v. 6). If the occasion was a feast, it only made Nehemiah’s sadness stand out even more. Feasts should be happy times, filled with joy and laughter. But Nehemiah was overwhelmed with a profound melancholy.
Further, Nehemiah says that he had never been sad in the king’s presence before. Not only was his sadness out of character, which the king would have noted, but it was also a breach of conduct. It was considered improper for anyone to appear sad in the king’s presence. Esther 4:2 says that none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. A sad countenance was not tolerated because it could mean that the individual disapproved of the king himself. Depending on the king’s mood, a gloomy servant could be summarily dismissed or even executed. Nehemiah understood this. That’s why the end of verse 2 says that he was sore afraid once the king asked the reason for his sadness.
Even good men should fear the king, especially when they act contrary to the laws and customs of the land. Proverbs 16:14 says that the wrath of a king is as messengers of death. That’s because the king bears the sword of justice to execute wrath on those who do evil (Rom. 13:4). When we sin against the king, we face both the king’s wrath and God’s wrath. On the other hand, when the king commands us to sin and our obedience to the Lord demands that we ignore the king’s commands, there should be no fear at all. We will face the king’s wrath. He may put us in prison, feed us to the lions or cast us into a fiery furnace. He may kill the body. But Jesus said that we should not fear those who can only kill the body. We should fear instead the one who can cast both body and soul into the never-ending fires of hell. When we face the king’s unrighteous wrath, we can be assured of God’s favor. He will ultimately vindicate us, executing perfect justice on his enemies and ours.
Thankfully, the king was not angered by Nehemiah’s sadness. He obviously valued Nehemiah’s service and was concerned that he suffered so much anguish of heart. He asked Nehemiah why he was so sad, which not only consoled him but increased his boldness before the king.
Nehemiah correctly interpreted the king’s favor as the open door for which he had been praying. So, he laid out his concerns. To begin with, he assured the king that he had nothing against him. In fact, he prayed for the king’s prosperity: Let the king live for ever. No, the problem was something completely different. It was the condition of the city where his ancestors’ graves were. He said, Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire? (v. 3).
Nehemiah’s response is an example of how to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. He was very careful about what he said and how he said it. Note, first, that he expressed his grievance in the form of a question. By doing so, he invited the king’s response. He asked the king to consider how bad the conditions of his people really were. How could the king do anything except acknowledge the problem? Next, he purposely avoided naming Jerusalem. Why? Probably because the king had already halted the rebuilding of the wall once. Naming the city would have reminded him of the previous incident. And finally, Nehemiah appealed to the king’s respect for one’s ancestors, which, of course, is a major consideration in oriental cultures. The city where his ancestors were buried was a disaster.
The king then asked Nehemiah what he wanted to do about the devastation of his city. He immediately took the matter to the Lord in prayer in verse 4.
Nehemiah’s prayer was apparently a quick silent plea for help. If it had been anything more, the king would have been concerned about his delay in answering him. This shows we can always pray to God regardless of our outward circumstances. These brief mental prayers are especially appropriate in emergency situations, just like Nehemiah faced here. When you see a man injured in a car wreck, pray that he will survive. When you’re talking to someone about the Lord and don’t know how to answer his concerns, ask the Lord to give you wisdom. When temptation is overwhelming and you’re on the verge of giving in, plead with your God to sustain you. You don’t need the solitude of your home or the sanctified atmosphere of a church for your prayers to be effective. Nor do your prayers need to be long and eloquent. You only need to ask the Lord for help.
On the other hand, this was not Nehemiah’s first prayer. For months he had been praying for this very opportunity. His prayer before the king was the fruit of a life lived in communion with the Lord, and that, in part, is what made it prevail before the king of heaven. Remember what James wrote: The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (Jas. 5:16).
Nehemiah’s prayer shows that he trusted God to guide the conversation to where it needed to go. He understood that permission to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem was completely dependent upon the Lord exercising his sovereign will in the king’s heart. World leaders, whether they recognize it or not, are God’s servants or ministers, as Paul calls them in Romans 13.
Nothing illustrates this better than the way God dealt with Pharaoh during the exodus. With each of the plagues, Pharaoh hardened his heart more and more. At first, he just outright refused to let the Jews go out into the wilderness to worship the Lord. Then he tried to bargain with them: they could go, but only if they left their animals at home. But the tenth plague — the death of the firstborn — so completely demolished Egypt that Pharaoh summoned Moses at night (that’s how urgent it was) and commanded God’s people to leave at once. Pharaoh did exactly what God determined for him to do at each point in the story, because God’s purpose was not only to bring the Jews out of captivity, but also to make Pharaoh himself an object lesson of God’s wrath. And that’s exactly what God told him in Exodus 9:16 — And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to shew in thee my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth (cf. Rom. 9:17). Pharaoh did what he wanted to do, but he could not have done otherwise, since he was subject to God’s sovereign decree in everything. And the result of this is that the glory of God’s name is universally proclaimed.
Nehemiah responded to the king in verse 5 by basing his appeal solely on the king’s mercy: If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight. He then asked for only one thing. He wanted the king to send him to Judah to superintend the rebuilding of Jerusalem. In his mind, the wall was just as much a part of the “house of God” as was the temple.
Before the king responded in verse 6, Nehemiah noted that the queen (or at least his favored wife, שֵׁגָל) was sitting next to him. This might be nothing more than one of those little details that constantly reminds us that Scripture was written by people who actually observed the events. But I suspect that there is probably a little more to it than that. It probably suggests that the queen exercised a positive influence in her husband’s decision.
At this point, the king was inclined to let Nehemiah go. But since Nehemiah had been faithful as one of his cupbearers, he wanted to know how long his trip would take. The end of verse 6 says that Nehemiah gave him an approximate time. Although the expected duration of the trip is not stated in our text, it probably wasn’t very long. The king probably would not have excused him for an extremely long absence from his duties. But he had to be gone long enough to do the things listed in verse 8, viz., rebuild the gates of the temple courtyard, rebuild the wall of the city, and prepare a house for himself. These things would probably have taken between a few months and a couple of years.
We know, however, that the amount of time Nehemiah spent in Judah was actually quite a bit longer. According to Nehemiah 5:14, he spent twelve years in Judah, serving as the local governor. The fact that he built a house for himself shows that he anticipated this. It’s doubtful, though, that he asked for a twelve-year absence right off the bat. He probably either returned to Persia after completing the original project and was permitted to return a second time as governor or perhaps periodically requested an extension of his absence.
In any case, you have to love the thoroughness of Nehemiah’s preparations.
First, knowing that his journey would be fraught with difficulty, especially after he crossed the Euphrates, he asked the king for letters to give to the governors of these lands (v. 7). The letters were to guarantee his safe passage and perhaps provide for his needs as well. But here we see how God provides for his people far beyond our expectations, especially when we devote ourselves to the labors of his kingdom. Nehemiah had only asked for letters, which the king granted. But according to verse 9, the king also sent an armed military escort to protect him along the way. These two things — the letters and the escort — were a strong attestation of the fact that Nehemiah had the king’s permission to be on this errand.
Second, Nehemiah asked the king for a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest (v. 8). Nehemiah had done his research. He knew exactly who was in charge of what he needed. This letter ordered Asaph to provide him with the lumber that his projects required.
There’s a fair amount of speculation about what the king’s forest was. Some commentators believe that it was located near Jerusalem, perhaps in the same area where Solomon once had an orchard. Others believe that it was probably further north, closer to the area known as Lebanon, which was famous for its exportation of lumber. However, the location of the forest isn’t as important as what it was. The word translated forest is a Persian word (הַפַּרְדֵּס) that literally means a park. It appears only two more times in the Old Testament (cf. Song 4:13 and Eccles. 2:5), in both of which the KJV translates it as “orchard.” More to the point, it is the etymological root of our word paradise. Thus, the lumber was harvested from the Persian king’s paradise to be used in the rebuilding of the King of king’s paradise — the city where, as Nehemiah confessed in the previous chapter, God had chosen to place his name (ch. 1:9).
The end of verse 8 says that the king granted Nehemiah’s requests. Nehemiah probably expressed his gratitude to the king, but he attributed the success of his effort to the fact that the good hand of God was upon him. We should always acknowledge that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning (Jas. 1:17).
All of this shows that God’s blessing and our planning are not contradictory. Nehemiah modeled good leadership: he prayed, planned, and acted in complete dependence upon God and submission to his guidance. Neither did his research demonstrate a lack of trust in the Lord. Nehemiah knew who the officials were with whom he would have to deal, and therefore requested the appropriate papers. This probably impressed the king.
The last verse of today’s text introduces us to Nehemiah’s opposition. Although the Lord had blessed Nehemiah’s plan in many ways, here we learn that it was not without resistance. And so it is whenever the kingdom of God advances, since Satan has as much interest in frustrating the Lord’s work as the Lord has in moving it forward.
The first opponent mentioned is Sanballet. This man, whose Babylonian name means “Sin [the moon god] gives life,” was a Horonite, i.e., from the Moabite town Horonaim. According to the Elephantine Papyri, he was the governor of Samaria, which is consistent with what Nehemiah says about him, although Nehemiah does not actually give him this title. He and his descendants controlled Samaria for more than a century.
Tobiah, Nehemiah’s second opponent, is described as the servant (הָעֶבֶד), which probably means that he had been a slave, was freed and then rose to a high position among the Ammonites, the descendants of Lot through his younger daughter.
Together Sanballet and Tobiah led the Samaritan opposition to Nehemiah’s work. They end of verse 10 says that they were particularly bothered by the fact that Nehemiah sought the welfare of the children of Israel. They knew that the good of the children of Israel was intimately tied to the advancement of the Messiah’s kingdom. And that, of course, threatened their own kingdoms.
Today’s text describes Nehemiah’s planning. It shows how he planned to deal with the crisis in Judah and how he put his plan into action.
His life and service, though, are only one part of God executing his plan. The seed of the woman had to crush the head of the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). This promise was already 3500 years old when Nehemiah came along. But God was not in a hurry. He would execute his plan in his time. Nehemiah had to do what was necessary in his own day. It wasn’t his job to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Nor had God called him to baptize the Messiah in the Jordan River. He was called to strengthen God’s people in the fifth century by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and focusing their attention once again on the advancement of God’s kingdom.
We also have to face the necessities of our day. What needs to be done now in regard to missionary outreach, Bible translation, and the needs of the church throughout the world? Or let’s bring the question closer to home: what should we be doing in regard to the ministry of Covenant Reformed Church?
When I ask this, I’m not talking about the pulpit ministry of our church, at least not exclusively. I’m talking about the ministry that every one of us here today has. Some have the ministry of music. Others have the ministry of encouragement or teaching or service or giving or something else. And the question before you is this: are you doing what God has called you to do in order to advance the kingdom of Christ?
Again, look at Nehemiah’s example. He planned. He executed his plan only when the circumstances were just right. He thought through everything he said to the king beforehand, and prayed that God would prosper his holy designs. He did research so that he would know exactly what to request of the king. And he was willing to face opposition in the service of his God.
When was the last time you sat down and really thought through your goals, and the means and methods to achieve those goals in serving the Lord Jesus Christ? Your good has been his concern throughout all eternity, and gave his life to secure that good for you. Have you devoted yourself to his service? Nehemiah is a reminder of the complete dedication to service that we must all have.
May the Holy Spirit remind each of us that the Christian life is, as a fundamental reality, a commitment to serving Jesus Christ every minute of every day! Amen.