COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
2:1 And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. 2 Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, 3 And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: 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?” (Nehemiah 2:1-3)
The stage has been set for the working of the Lord. A man has been found that is of tender heart – a man through whom the Lord can work. As Hananai the seer said to king Asa, “For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” NASB (2 Chron 16:9). God is looking for an opportunity to undergird an effort that will bring glory to Him – He is looking for a man whose cause He can support! He has found one in Nehemiah. His face is pointed in the right direction, and his heart is touched by the proper things. Like Paul, here is a man who, if empowered by God, can be trusted to do the right thing. It could be said of Nehemiah as it was of Paul, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry” (1 Tim 1:12). God was not looking for an expert in the rebuilding of cities, or for those who were trained to reconstruct gates that had been burned with fire. Neither was He was looking for someone rich enough to underwrite a large reconstruction project. He was looking for a man whose heart was supple in His hand – a person who was touched by conditions that had effected God Himself.
STANDING BEFORE THE MAN WHOSE FAVOR WAS SOUGHT
“ 2:1a And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king.” ARTAXERXES was the king of Persia. His reign spanned forty-one years, from 465 to 424. History confirms he was third son of Xerxes, and the younger brother of “Darius king of Persia,” during whose reign Ezra did his restoration work (Ezra 4-5). The Persian kingdom is the one a holy angel spoke of to Daniel the prophet. Though prominent at the time Daniel received the revelation, it would be overthrown and replaced by the Grecian kingdom. This, the angel said, would be accomplished by the overthrow a evil principality in the heavenly realms called “the prince of Persia.” Another such prince would take his place, referred to as “the prince of Grecia,” or Greece (Dan 10:20). This was the well known occasion in which the angel fought with “the prince of Persia” for twenty-one days. Now, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes reign (which began in 465 BC), it is 445 BC – over 92 years after the revelation given to Daniel! Therefore, the fall of the Persian empire was revealed to Daniel more than a century before it actually occurred The dynasty is still in place as Nehemiah stands before another king of Persia.
According to history, Artaxerxes was raised to the throne by Artabanus, who had his father Xerxes murdered. Artaxerxes is also said to have murdered his older brother Darius. The significance of this is that Xerxes is considered by nearly all historians to be the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther – the king before whom she interceded for Israel, and to whom she was married. Ahasuerus is Latin, and Xerxes is the Greek form of the same word.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF IT ALL. The setting of the events that follow is most remarkable, and reveals something of the manner in which the Lord works. Nehemiah is serving a king whose empire has been destined to fall. The king himself is a despot, having ascended the throne by means of a murder, and who himself was a murderer. Some might imagine God cannot use such people to further His work. However, the Lord is the “King of kings” and will use them for His purpose. He used Nebuchadnezzar to chasten His people, Ahasuerus to deliver them from Haman, Cyrus to return to them to their land, Darius to rebuild the Temple, and even Herod to build the Temple once again.
Further, his family is traced back to the king before whom Esther made intercession for the Jews. As a result of Esther’s intercession, the Jews were delivered by a written proclamation from Artaxerxes father. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, became “great in the king’s house,” and “many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them” (Esth 8). Thus, the Jews became prominent in Persian history, being “written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia” (Esth 10:2). Thus, as with John the Baptist, God “prepared the way” for a working to be accomplished in Nehemiah’s day.
I hardly see how circumstances could be any more unfavorable according to the flesh. The time is in the middle of a forty year heathen reign. It is almost 100 years after a word concerning the demise of that kingdom. It is at least seventy one years after the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity (516 BC). Jerusalem is still in shambles, and its walls remain unbuilt, and its gates remain burned with fire. The people are also “in affliction great reproach.” Nehemiah himself is a servant in the palace of a heathen king who is at the zenith of his power. If circumstances open the door for hopelessness, these certainly ought to have that effect upon Nehemiah. But there is a spirit in this book that you do not want to elude you. It fairly shouts the words of Habakkuk the prophet, who prophesied before the Babylonian captivity took place: “O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2). These are circumstances in which the words of the Psalmist may be lifted up to God: “It is time for thee, LORD, to work” (Psa 119:126).
I TOOK UP THE WINE. Our text says this took place in the month of Nisan, which was the fourth month after Chislev, when Nehemiah was first apprised of conditions in Jerusalem (1:1). That means three to four months had passed since he first made his prayer to God. In that prayer, Nehemiah had asked for favor before “this man,” before whom he now stands – three to four months later. Here was a man who let “let patience have her perfect work” (James 1:4). He was “the king’s cupbearer” (1:11), and the time has arrived when “the king’s cupbearer” becomes prominent. For three to four months he had been living for this moment, and God had brought it to pass. Wine was placed before the king for him to be served. This was not the time for magicians and astrologers, but a time for a “cupbearer.” It was not a time for the king to make a proclamation, but rather to be served by his “cupbearer.”
AN INQUIRY ABOUT AN UNUSUAL CONDITION
“ 1b . . . Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. 2a Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart.” This book is more than a history book, although it provides a most accurate and precise history. However, there is something larger than history in it. This provides a glimpse into HOW the Lord fulfills His will, working out His purpose for His own glory. He is going to orchestrate political and social events to accomplish His work. He will do it in such a manner as to provide tutelage and encouragement for succeeding generations. He will also do so in such a way as will accent His power and wisdom.
BRIEF LESSONS. There are a number of things to be learned from this book. Four examples will suffice to confirm this. First, the end of captivity does not necessarily mean the instant possession of the blessing. Israel did not get into Canaan until forty years after the end of Egyptian bondage (Josh 5:6). In our text, the aftermath of the captivity has lasted longer than the captivity itself. Seventy-one years have passed, and life still has not returned to normal. Second, the promise of the fall of an enemy does not mean it will take place momentarily. Four thousand years passed before the promise concerning the “Seed” of the woman took place (Gen 3:15). In our text, ninety-two years have passed since a revelation from heaven was given declaring the end of the Persian empire. Third, when prayers of faith are lifted to the Lord, men must learn to patiently wait for them to be answered. Jesus said God would avenge His elect even though He bore “long with them” (Luke 18:7). It has now been three to four months since Nehemiah had first prayed, yet his faith was strong and his spirit alert. Fourth, a work for the Lord often spans many years before it is brought to completion. It took Solomon seven years to build the Temple (1 Kings 6:38) – a building 90 feet long (60 cubits), 30 feet wide (20 cubits), and 45 feet high (30 cubits) – 1 Kings 6:2. The work of laying the foundations in Jerusalem was started by Ezra over 70 years before this day, when Nehemiah stands before Artaxerxes (Ezra 6:14-15).
NOT SAD BEFORE. We are not sure how long Nehemiah had been the king’s “cupbearer,” but before this, he was always of a cheerful countenance. This is a most remarkable thing when you consider the great burden he carried for the children of Israel, the city of God, and its walls and gates. This has been on his mind for three to four months before this day. Perhaps during that time, the king had not had wine placed before him, hence there was no need for Nehemiah to be in his presence. Or, Nehemiah may have been one of several cupbearers, as in Solomon’s day (1 Kings 10:5), whose turn had not come to serve. We are not given the particulars in the case. Now, however, the opportunity for which he had been praying for over a fourth of the year came to pass.
It is important to note that Nehemiah’s countenance was never before seen as sad by the king. Nehemiah was a servant in a heathen court, but his countenance was not sad while there. He was away from the land promised to his people, and had no access to the Temple erected for God’s glory, yet he did not allow his countenance to be fallen before the king and his court. It is, then, possible to have burdens without those for whom we labor knowing it. Equally true, however, it is also possible to have a burden so heavy that it can no longer be hidden. This is what we find in the text before us.
THE KING’S ASSESSMENT. Some kings might have never noticed the countenance of those who served them. After all, they were rulers who had no need to be involved in the affairs of their subjects. Or, perhaps, a sad countenance could indicate some plot or treachery planned against the king. Whatever speculation might be entertained by men, this is nothing less than the Lord turning the king’s heart as the rivers of water (Prov 21:1). He will use the sad countenance of Nehemiah and the inquiry of Artaxerxes to fulfill His good pleasure! In this text, God begins to answer Nehemiah’s prayer for favor in the king’s sight.
Being a man of understanding, Artaxerxes asks why Nehemiah is sad, when it was obvious to him that he was not “sick,” or “ill.” NIV What moved him to ask the question in the first place? This king is mentioned fifteen times in Scripture. We read about letters he wrote and decrees he made. But this is the only record of a question asked by him – and he asked it of a man who had been praying to have favor when he stood before him.
We should learn from this to be alert to all conversations that are initiated with us, particularly when we have been praying for a certain individual. We also should see the value of asking the Lord to grant us favor before those whose help would greatly assist us in His work. God uses means to fulfill His good pleasure, but it takes an alert person to see those appointed means, and to take advantage of them for the glory of God.
AN EXPLANATION FOR SADNESS OF HEART
“ 2b . . . Then I was very sore afraid, 3 And said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: 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?” There could not possibly have been a better question for Artaxerxes to ask Nehemiah! If he would have asked about the weather, or about government matters, or something else related to Persian life, the opportunity would not have been appropriate. It is as though God opened his mouth, causing him to ask the kind of question that would fit into Divine purposes.
SORE AFRAID. Other versions read, “I became dreadfully afraid,” NKJV and “I was very much afraid.” NASB/NIV Perhaps the king would imagine Nehemiah had some evil designs to be implemented against the king. Whether such a thing be true or not, if the king thought that was the case, danger loomed on the horizon. Some might imagine this to be an unacceptable response, for “The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe” (Prov 29:25). However, Nehemiah’s fear before the king was not greater than his fear of the Lord. In his prayer, he had numbered himself with those who desired to fear the Lord’s name (1:11). It is possible to be afraid and to trust God at the same time. This little known truth is expressed in Psalm 56:3. “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.” Nehemiah’s fear did not move him away from God, but moved him to trust the Lord, also constraining him to speak the truth before the king.
All of this is compounded by the fact that Nehemiah is about to ask the king for a leave of absence from his court. How will the king react to his request? Will he be favorable? Will he be thrust from the presence of the king? Will he be put to death? Perhaps the king will hear the request, only to ignore it, or perhaps even despise it and become angered by it. It is little wonder that, as a man, Nehemiah was “very sore afraid.”
But Nehemiah is not dominated by this fear. He will proceed to tell the king what is on his heart. He has already asked the Lord to “grant” him “mercy in the sight of this man” (1:11). He had not asked for boldness, but for mercy. He did not ask for honor, but for mercy! He knew in his heart what to ask for, and now he proceeds to seek that mercy.
LET THE KING LIVE FOREVER. Some versions read, “May the king live forever.” NKJV/NRSV This is how the Chaldeans addressed their king (Dan 2:4). It is how Belshazzar’s queen addressed him (Dan 5:10). It is also how Daniel addressed Darius (Dan 6:21). Bathsheba as well addressed king David in these word (1 Kgs 1:31). What do such words mean, and why would the people of God use them in reference to an earthly potentate? They were words that denoted a deep interest in the life of the king and its preservation. They were an acknowledgment that the king could do good things, and that Nehemiah sought for him to be preserved so he could do them. They revealed that rather than Nehemiah seeking to take the life of the king, he sought to have it preserved.
NEHEMIAH BEGINS HIS ANSWER. Nehemiah had asked the Lord to grant him mercy in the sight of Artaxerxes. But he does not seek it for himself alone. Immediately he shows that his countenance has not been effected by adverse circumstances in his personal life, but he was sad for a larger cause – one related to his heritage as a Jew.
First, he declares that, given the circumstances, it was unreasonable for him NOT to be sad: “why should not my countenance be sad?” He first appeals to sound reasoning. He is sad for a good and sound ground – one that will be seen if only explained. Jonah had no right to be “angry” (Jonah 4:4,9), but Nehemiah had a right to be sad. His sadness was not a sign of weakness, but one of strength and spiritual sensitivity.
The cause of Nehemiah’s sadness is a noble one: “the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?” Why does Nehemiah associate the holy city and its gates with tombs? Why not with the Temple, or the name of the Lord, or the glory of its former days? History records the Persians as having a special regard for the interment of the dead. ANCIENT MONARCHIES It seems to me that Nehemiah couches his request in words that would have a special appeal to the king. He ordered his cause and expertly presented his case. In this regard, Nehemiah’s presentation reminds me of Paul’s defense before Agrippa. “I think myself happy, king Agrippa . . . because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently” (Acts 26:2-3).
Nehemiah then presents the precise report he has heard (1:3). It is the matter about which he had prayed “day and night,” and concerning which he had asked for prosperity and mercy in the sight of the king. During the previous 3-4 months, he had not lost his focus!