COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
2:4 Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favor in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it. 6 And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. ” (Nehemiah 2:4-6)
The way has now been Divinely prepared for Nehemiah to present his petition. During Esther’s day, a way was made for the Jews to become known to succeeding Persian dynasties. During the seventh year of the reign of this very king, Artaxerxes, Ezra had gone up from Babylon to Jerusalem to lay the foundations for the Temple. Now, thirteen years later, Nehemiah has been stirred by the report of the condition of the holy city and the state of the people living there. He is in a position to be heard by the king, and has prayed and fasted, asking the Lord to make him successful in his quest to rebuild the walls, giving him favor in the sight of the king. The king has perceived Nehemiah’s fallen countenance, and has asked what has caused him sadness. Without any kind of embellishment, Nehemiah had stated his case, and has done so in a wise and discreet manner. We must not fail to see God in all of these things. Because of one man in the king’s court, and in honor of His promise through Moses (1:8-9), God will now change the course of history. Our faith must be able to lift this account from the pages of history, and plant it in contemporary life. This is the manner in which God works – keeping His promises, and working through people whose hearts are devoted Him, and touched with the condition of His people and work.
WHAT IS YOUR REQUEST?
“ 2:4 Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.” Nehemiah had asked the Lord to “grant him mercy in the sight of this man” (1:11). He did not rely upon his own wisdom to present his case. Nor, indeed, did he depend upon natural abilities to identify the right time, or when the king would be disposed to hear his petition. Even in those spiritually primitive times, godly people knew the Lord could give a person favor in the eyes of other men. Nehemiah had not sought this favor for personal advantage, but in the interest of a city where God had placed His name, and a people whom He had chosen for Himself. If ever people are going to be blessed and used by the Lord, their hearts and minds must be bent upward, and their eyes enabled to see conditions from a heavenly perspective. Plans that are not made with God, His work, and His people in mind will not be blessed by Him. In this great day of salvation, these things are to be even more apparent than they were in the days of Nehemiah.
FOR WHAT DOST THOU MAKE REQUEST? Other versions read, “What do you request?” NKJV “What would you request?” NASB and “What is it you want?” NIV Four different perspectives are seen in these translations, all of which are resident in the text. The first accents the presentation of the request. KJV The second emphasizes the request itself. NKV The third seems to say, if you could have a single request, what would it be? NASB The fourth accentuates the personal desire of Nehemiah – what he “wants.” NIV
First, this question confirms Nehemiah has found mercy in the eyes of Artaxerxes, as he has petitioned God. The king did not ask Nehemiah to elaborate upon the condition of the city, but to spell out what he wanted from the king himself. The rarity of such a response should be most apparent. Few of us have ever had an earthly dignitary on any level ask us such a question. When the wife of Caleb’s younger brother Othniel appeared before him, Caleb asked her, “What do you want?” she responded she wanted the blessing of springs of water. According to her request, Caleb “Caleb gave her the upper springs and the lower springs” (Josh 15:18-19; Judges 1:13-15). When Boaz told Ruth he would do whatever she asked, she knew how to conduct herself properly (Ruth 3:11). Jonathan told David he would do anything David asked of him (1 Sam 20:4). David made the same promise to the Gibeonites (2 Sam 21:3). Elijah offered the same commitment to Elisha, who asked for a double portion of the prophet’s spirit, and received it (2 Kgs 2:9-14). James and John did not fare was well when Jesus asked them, “What would ye that I should do for you?” They replied, ”Grant unto us that we may sit, one on Thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in Thy glory.” He responded “Ye know not what ye ask?” (Mark 10:36-38). Bartimaeus did better. When Jesus asked him, “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?,” he asked for his sight, and received it (Mark 10:51-52).
There will come a time when the course of your life will be changed if you can only make the proper request! You must never forget that Jesus promised, “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). The Spirit also makes this commitment, “And if we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him” (1 John 5:5). That is not a spiritual blank check, so to speak. Such a condition would be like Nehemiah having a commitment to receive at every monent anything he wanted from the king. That is not how the Lord works. The Kingdom is not driven by our will, but by the will of the Lord. It is when our will comes into synch with the will of the Lord that He is more prone to hear our petitions. There is altogether too much simplicity found among religious people on this matter.
SO I PRAYED. Even now, when he stands in the favor of the king, Nehemiah does not blurt out a request. He first prays. He does not ask leave of the king to do this praying, but apparently does it at that very moment. Evidently he did so in his heart, not with his lips. Perhaps he thanked the Lord for this open door, asking Him for the right words to say. At any rate, in keeping with his manner, he did nothing without prayer (4:4,9; 5:19; 6:9,14; 13:14). This is an aspect of living by faith, and Nehemiah was expert in it.
There is significance in the way Nehemiah records this: “I prayed to the God of heaven.” Although he had fear as he stood before the king (2:2), his fear of God was greater. He also knew “the heavens do rule” (Dan 4:26). God can enable him to say the right words, move the king to receive them in a congenial manner, and turn the king’s heart to do what Nehemiah asks. But his words must not be flighty, foolish, and clumsy. He is standing before the king, who is surrounded by wise and thoughtful men. Nehemiah’s request must not appear foolish, incomplete, or hasty. So he “prayed to the God of heaven.”
THE REQUEST TO BUILD
“ 5 And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favor in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it.” Bathed in prayer, Nehemiah now answers the king. He does so humbly, yet precisely. He is not intimidated by the king’s court, or the presence of his wife with him. Because a king has asked him what he wants, he will not ask a small thing. It gives no honor to a king to ask for baubles and trinkets! When small and inconsequential things are asked of a dignitary, it dishonors and reproaches his name, as though he was capable of dealing with such miniscule matters. This was a special occasion, not a common one. The king had opened the door of favor in an unusual way, and thus he must be honored with an unusual request.
We just not fail to see the applicability of this to our lives in Christ Jesus. When we are basking in the glow of Divine fellowship, we can be blessed to ask for things befitting of the occasion. As with Nehemiah, our requests can rise higher than mere personal interests, our immediate family, or our visible surroundings. There are mountain peaks of spiritual experience that cry out for mountain peak requests! I would not be surprised if spiritual poverty and a lack of growth are not directly traceable to the failure of people to respond correctly to such glorious circumstances.
I SAID TO THE KING. Nehemiah did not forget the one before whom he was standing. He gave “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:7). There are two pillars of reason in his response. The king’s answer will depend upon these two things, and Nehemiah senses it. He has prayed to God, and now the Lord is directing his thoughts and words in a most precise manner.
1. “If it please the king.” Whatever Nehemiah requests cannot go against the will of the king! He must not ask the king to do something that will bring him displeasure. If the king has never thought about the matter before, he must be inclined to be pleased with the request. If what he asks pleases Artaxerxes, the king will undergird the work with the power and resources of Persia.
A significant stage of spiritual growth has been reached when we can pray with the thought of pleasing God. The flesh seeks its own pleasure, but the “new creature” seeks for God to be pleased. If, in our life, we do not become entangled with the “affairs of this life,” in order that we may “please Him who hath chosen” to be good soldiers (2 Tim 2:4), it will have an impact upon our prayers. If we are to earnestly endeavor to “walk and to please God” (1 Thess 4:1), it should not surprise us that our prayers can also be pleasing to Him.
2. “If thy servant hath found favor in thy sight.” The king will not grant the requests of his enemies! To say the least, that would be counterproductive. Desires that compete with the objectives and preferences of the king will surely not be honored. Thus, Nehemiah appeals to his own person, accenting that he had conducted himself admirably before the king. He was not noted for sedition or the stirring up of trouble. He had sought the interests of the king consistently, and now makes an appeal to that circumstance.
Although religious men are not inclined to think in this manner, our prayers ought not be sullied by our own manner of life. If we ourselves are not pleasing to the Lord, how can we expect our petitions to be granted by Him! Those who insist upon living at a distance from God remain at that distance when they pray. Thus we read, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). It is possible to live before the Lord as “dear children” (Eph 5:1). When such a life is lived, it will help determine if your prayer is answered.
SEND ME UNTO JUDAH, TO THE CITY . . . THAT I MAY BUILD IT. The largeness of this request is staggering. Nehemiah does not ask the king to allow him to return to Judah, but to “send” him: that is, to foot the bill, and underwrite the effort. He does not ask to go back for a visit, but to return to “build,” repairing the devastating effects of many generations. He is asking for a leave of absence from his job, but assures the king it is not for a mere vacation, or to do his own pleasure. Large works are befitting of great favor! If men ask the King to listen to what they petition, and to underwrite their effort, their work should not be hewing wood and drawing water (Josh 9:21).
The significance of the work Nehemiah mentions is arresting. The devastation was great, so the work relating to restoration must also be great. I question that our Lord is honored by small requests in large circumstances, or miniscule works in challenging environments. Let us learn from Nehemiah to seek to so something that corresponds to the need of the hour.
THE KING SENDS, NEHEMIAH SET THE TIME
“ 6And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.” Remember, Nehemiah has asked that God cause him to prosper in his determination, and that he be given mercy, or favor, before the king. The Lord is answering his prayer, and we are given the details of that answer. The reason for this is that we might become more thoroughly acquainted with the ways of the Lord. Often men seek for God to work independently of their own involvement. Nehemiah does not stay at home and wait for the king to call for him. He presents his request personally. He does not ask for God to put his desire in the king, but trusts the Lord to enable himself to so present the case that the king will want to do it. This, of course, is how faith works. It makes a person willing to be put into the Lord’s hand for the execution of His purpose.
THE QUEEN. The favor of king is not related to a smile, or to his countenance, but to what he says. Now God arranges for the words of the king to be spoken before his queen, who was sitting beside him. It was not uncommon for the queen to remain in her chambers when wine was before the Persian kings (Esth 1:9-12). But now, as an additional witness, the queen is by the side of Artaxerxes. She has heard the request of Nehemiah, and she will hear the answer of the king. This is the only reference we have to this woman.
HOW LONG? The king is speaking to a member of his court. Nehemiah is not an ambassador, he is “the king’s cupbearer,” and thus properly belongs in his court. But Nehemiah has asked for the king to send him to Judah – from Southwestern Persia to Jerusalem in Canaan. That was a distance of well over 600 miles. The king does not ask Nehemiah why he dares to ask such a large thing. Rather, he asks “How long will your journey take?” He is not asking about the distance from Shushan to Jerusalem, but the length of time that will be required to make the journey. It should be apparent this work would not require a day or two. It would take a significant time to even get to Jerusalem. Additional time would be required to survey the needs, and to accomplish the building. Will Nehemiah be able to provide a sensible estimate of the time that would be required This certainly was no question for shallow thinkers. Large works will not be accomplished with little thought, or no knowledge of the required resources? Nehemiah will now merge faith with his thoughts.
WHEN WILL YOU RETURN? Because Nehemiah was in the employment of the king, he was asked when he would return, or “get back.” NIV This is no small request – certainly not one for a person whose thoughts remained on the surface. A significant journey was before him, and a gigantic work. Further, Nehemiah was not aware of the extent of the work that would be required, or the exact resources needed. Yet, the king asks when he will return. A general answer will not be satisfactory. Nor, indeed, will it suffice to reply he will not know until he gets to Jerusalem and conducts a survey.
Nehemiah does not consider this an unreasonable request. He has prayed to the God of heaven concerning his answer, and the Lord will enable him to provide the information the king requires. Making a pledge to return at a certain time will assist in accomplishing the work. It is a sort of vow that must be paid, and will provide added incentives to finish the work in a timely manner. Those who imagine the work of the Lord can be conducted without planning, or giving an account of our time, do well to sit at the feet of Nehemiah. Large purposes do demand large thoughts.
I SET HIM A TIME. Nehemiah discerns he has found favor in the eyes of the king, just as he had asked of the Lord. But he does not presume upon that favor. The king has asked concerning when he will return, so Nehemiah “gave him a definite time.” NASB He did so without an exact knowledge of the requirements, but with a full determination to accomplish what needed to be done. Faith is able to work within a framework that places a greater value on WHAT is to be done, rather than HOW it is to be done. It is possible to become so enamored of how something is to be accomplished that we forget what is to be done. It seems to me that much of the modern church is plagued with this misconception.
Nehemiah was careful not to give a “set time” until he knew the king favored his cause. His basic appeal was for the rebuilding program itself, not the time it would take. If the worthiness of a cause can be established, the length of time required will not be a deterrent – either to the one making the request, or the one who hears it.
While it is not my intention to establish heartless routines, I DO suggest that some prayers remain unanswered because the petitioner is not devoted enough to think of when it will be accomplished. When Nehemiah set the time, he confirmed he was committed.