COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
2:7 Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; 8 And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.” (Nehemiah 2:7-8)
There is a certain boldness in faith that causes the individual to rise above the restraints of the flesh. Our text provides an excellent example of this. Seizing the opportunity the king has provided, Nehemiah presses for the completion of the work God has laid upon his heart. He has asked for favor before the king, and now he proceeds to make his petition as one that has, indeed, obtained that requested favor. Faith tells him the king is inclined to his cause, and thus his request rises to the occasion. The character and faithfulness of Nehemiah solidly support his case, and are no distraction to the king. Here is a benefit of godliness that people are prone to forget. As Jesus put it, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” (Lk 16:10). Nehemiah has been trustworthy in the least – being the king’s cupbearer, while in the presence of the king. Now he will be considered trustworthy as the builder of a city, a temple, and a wall – that which is much. The king will let Nehemiah define what he needs. That is a sure indication that the hand of the Lord is upon Nehemiah. Such things do not happen because of human ingenuity. They do not result from worldly wisdom, or mere natural abilities.
LETTERS TO THE GOVERNORS REQUESTED
“ 2:7 Moreover I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah.” In answer to his prayer, and because he had a mind for the place where God had placed His name, Nehemiah now has the attention of the king. He has asked for favor in his eyes, and he recognizes his prayer is being answered. It is one thing, however, to have an opportunity to present your cause, while it is quite another to be able to effectively present it. There are two sides to finding favor with the king. First, there is a need to know when you have it. Second, you must know what to do with it. In answering Nehemiah’s petition, it is evident both of these were granted by the Lord. He was able to detect the right time, and the best way to use it. It only takes a little thought to perceive how exceedingly rare both are.
Many prayers are not answered because they are not asked at the right time – when God is disposed to grant our petitions because of our closeness to Him. Also, many prayers are not even uttered because of men’s insensitivity to the heart and presence of the Lord.
IF IT PLEASE THE KING. Nehemiah never forgets to whom he is speaking. It is “the king,” and what he asks must be pleasing to him. He opened his petition with these words (2:5), now he elaborates on it with the same words: “If it please the king.” At once this accents the importance of the request. It is a request that requires the attention of a king. This is something that will advance the reputation of the king. It is much the same when we pray. Care must be taken to seek to please God in our attitudes and requests (Psa 69:30-31).
SPECIAL LETTERS REQUESTED. “ . . . let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river . . . ” The river of mention is Euphrates – the “fourth” rivers that branched out of the river that flowed through Eden (Gen 2:7). This river was the boundary of the land promised to Abraham, and is referred to as “the great river” (Gen 15:18; Deut 11:24; Josh 1:3-4). The Revelation refers to the loosing of four angels that were bound by the river Euphrates (Rev 9:14). One of the seven vials of Revelation were poured out upon this river to prepare the way of the kings of the East (Rev 16:12).
The “governors beyond the river” were rulers close to the promised land – far enough away from Shushan to object to Nehemiah and his group passing through their territory. Quickened in his thinking by the Lord, the man of God is mindful of this situation. He is intent upon doing a work for the glory of God, and thus seeks special letters from the king to those governors. Although Nehemiah’s words are relatively few, I am impressed with their tone and thoroughness. He omits nothing that will lend itself to the completion of the work. Neither, indeed, is he naive, thrusting out to do the work with little forethought or planning. I would not be surprised if some of our contemporaries would have chided Nehemiah for not having faith. They might wonder, “Why didn’t he simply head out for Jerusalem, trusting the Lord to direct him along the way?” Such thinking is too simplistic. It is not faith at all, but more foolish than reasonable. God can work that way, indeed. However, He always tells the people when that is the means He chooses. Thus He did with Abraham when he left for Canaan (Gen 12:1), and when he was commanded to offer up Isaac (Gen 22:2). Here, however, Nehemiah is being directed to petition the king for specific favors relating to the task at hand, and he was obedient to the leading.
SPECIAL TREATMENT REQUESTED. “ . . . that they may convey me over till I come into Judah.” He desires the governors to allow him to pass through their territory until he came to Judah. Perhaps he remembered Sihon and Og, who refused to allow the children of Israel to pass through their land (Num 21:23,33). But things were different on this journey. He was not taking an army with him, as when they journeyed through the wilderness (Num 26:2), but builders. The king before whom he stands can resolve this by special letters to these governors “so that they will provide [him] safe-conduct until [he] arrive in Judah.” NIV His request may also have included provisions for the last leg of their journey.
God’s people have often sought the aid of those in political offices. Ezra had much the same experience as Nehemiah, when “the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him” (Ezra 7:6). When Paul’s nephew learned of the Jews lying in wait to kill Paul, he told Paul. The Apostle then told one of the centurions to take the young man to the captain so he could report the plot. As a result, the chief captain organized 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen, and 200 spear men to accompany Paul to Felix – even providing “mounts to set Paul on” (Acts 23:15-27). He also sent letters to Felix explaining the whole situation. It appears to me that this is an area of possibilities that is virtually untapped among God’s people – knowing when the earth can “help the woman” (Rev 12:16).
A LETTER TO THE MANAGER OF THE FOREST REQUESTED
“ 8a And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into.” Do not fail to see the boldness and wisdom produced by faith. Those who represent faith as simplistic do us no favor. We do well to peruse the request of Nehemiah with purpose. He does not end his request with the consideration of safety. But thinks of the work he is going to accomplish.
KEEPER OF THE KING’S FOREST. He requests a special letter of authorization to “Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest.” Nehemiah had thought before the Lord on what he was going to do. Not only was he able to provide the king a “set time” when he would return (2:6), he knew what materials he would require to complete the work. He would not be among those of whom our Lord said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Lk 14:18-30). Many a proposed work for God has been dashed upon the rocks of futility because the cost was never counted. Nehemiah DID count the cost, and thus made wise requests of the king.
The “king’s forest” was apparently an area for special timber, and was probably much like a beautiful garden. The word translated “forest” means “orchard” – a place with choice trees. Nehemiah was no doubt familiar with the choice wood that went into the building of both the tabernacle and the temple (Ex 25:5; 1 Kgs 6:10). Nehemiah was not returning to do some patchwork, but to build in manner worthy of the name of the Lord. No inferior materials would be used. Paul uses the same type of reasoning when referring to the building of the house of God, which is the church (1 Cor 3:12-17). There is certainly room for this type of reasoning in our day, when numbers have overshadowed spiritual quality.
BEAMS FOR THE GATES OF THE PALACE. These pertained to “the house,” or “the temple” itself. NKJV Other versions refer to “the gates of the citadel by the temple.” NIV This area appertained to the courts adjoining the temple. Solomon, we are told, built an “inner court with three rows of hewed stone, and a row of cedar beams” (1 Kgs 6:36). He also built the “great court” that surrounded the entire temple area, and “the porch” of the temple, called “the vestibule of the temple” NKJV (1 Kgs 7:9,12). The expression “gates of the palace” refer to this inner court and vestibule that provided immediate entrance into the temple itself. You see that Nehemiah was familiar with the details of the temple, and fully intended for it to be restored to “the pattern” revealed to David, who gave it to Solomon (1 Chron 28:11-12). He had applied himself, becoming acquainted with holy things. He had no intention of building a new temple area with an updated plan, but sought to restore what God Himself had given. Like Jeremiah, he sought “the old ways” (Jer 6:16).
BEAMS FOR THE WALLS OF THE CITY. This was the wall around the entire city of Jerusalem, which was also originally built by Solomon (1 Kgs 3:1; 9:15). The beams were probably for the gates set within that massive wall, allowing for entrance to and exit from the holy city. Nehemiah would restore ten gates: Valley Gate (3:13), Dung gate (3:14), Fountain Gate (12:37), Water Gate (8:3), Horse Gate (3:28), Sheep Gate (3:1), Fish Gate (3:3), Old Gate (3:6), Gate of Ephraim (8:16), and the Tower of Furnaces (3:11). This was a significant undertaking, as the former gates had been “burned with fire” (1:3). Yet, Nehemiah did not see the condition as hopeless, and thus sought for the proper timber to rebuild the massive gates that protected the holy city during the night.
BEAMS FOR THE HOUSE OF NEHEMIAH. Nehemiah also sought timbers for the house in which he would live. Even though the king has not yet appointed him as governor, Nehemiah senses that this will be necessary. Later Nehemiah mentions that he was appointed “governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years” (5:14). Since he heard of the devastation of the holy city in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign (1:1), and was now appearing before the king in the fourth month of that year (2:1), the appointment took place very quickly. Nehemiah’s faith anticipated the appointment, and made preparations for a house for himself during a twelve-year building project.
I have no idea how much wood was required for the beams in the vestibule of the temple, the massive gates of the walls, and the house in which Nehemiah would reside. It was, no doubt, very significant. Yet, Nehemiah did not hesitate to ask. He would not seek meager supplies for a great work. He had the favor of the king, and he knew it.
THE KING GRANTS IT ALL BECAUSE OF GOD’S HAND
“ 8b And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.” The wording of this text is particularly important. Nehemiah does not say the king granted him according to his request, but “because the gracious hand of my God was upon me.” NIV He had ordered his request thoughtfully and with precision. Yet, it was the “good hand” of the Lord that moved the king to grant that request. Note, it was not because the hand of the Lord was upon Artaxerxes, but because it was on Nehemiah. In a sense, Nehemiah was king that day. God gave him such power that whatever he requested for His work, the king gave to Nehemiah. The man of God had no crown upon his head, nor was he sitting in a majestic throne. However, it was HIS request that was granted, not that of the Persian king. Other Persians in the court, including the Queen, might have thought the king was just sentimental toward his cupbearer that day. But Nehemiah knew the God of heaven had heard his prayer, and moved someone with resources to provide what he needed.
It should not surprise us that when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” it does not simply fall out of heaven into our homes. Sometimes it is given to us by those who themselves have no relation to God through Christ. Sometimes it is the result of our own labors, or is a gift from other members of the household of faith. But at its root, it is the Lord Himself who gives us “richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Faith is able to trace provision back to God. We may all confess with Samuel, “Thus far the LORD has helped us” (1 Sam 7:12). In the text before us, the king “granted” to Nehemiah precisely what he required to do the work God had assigned to him. The passage puts me in mind of something our blessed Lord said. “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom” (Lk 6:38). Nehemiah had given himself to the Lord, and now the Lord moved a king to give to him.
GOD’S GOOD HAND. “According to the good hand of God.” Other versions say “gracious hand.” NIV/NRSV This same expression is found twice in the book of Ezra: “according to the good hand of his God upon him,” and “by the good hand of our God upon us they brought us a man of understanding” (Ezra 7:9; 8:18).
The “hand of the Lord” stands for His immediate working. It can be for either good or evil. In Egypt, the “hand of the Lord” was upon their cattle, giving them “a very grievous murrain,” or pestilence (Ex 9:3). Moses accounts for the death of the unbelieving Israelites in the wilderness with these arresting words: “indeed the hand of the LORD was against them, to destroy them from among the host, until they were consumed” (Deut 2:15). Again, in the time of the Judges, “Whithersoever they went out, the hand of the LORD was against them for evil” (Judges 2:15). On another occasion, “the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and He destroyed them” (1 Sam 5:6).
The hand of the Lord can also be upon people for good. Elisha, for example, prophesied when “the hand of the Lord came upon him” (2 Kgs 3:15). The Psalmist declared the voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the dwelling places of the righteous because “the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly” in their behalf (Psa 118:15). Isaiah affirmed that when blessing broke out in a dry and thirsty desert of human experience, the people would “see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this” (Isa 41:20). When the word of the Lord came “expressly” to Ezekiel, he said “the hand of the Lord was there upon him” (Ezek 1:3). The unusual blessing found in John the Baptist is accounted for in these words: “And the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk 1:66). When the Gospel was received by a great number of Grecians, it was because “the hand of the Lord was with” those who preached that Gospel (Acts 11:21).
UPON ME. God’s “good hand” was upon Nehemiah. He was going to use him to do a good work – a work that would bless and encourage succeeding generations, like our own. The Lord would orchestrate circumstances so the desires of Nehemiah’s heart would be granted – desires that were in accord with the purpose of the Lord. In this text we have a commentary on the words, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, and He (God) delights in his way” NKJV (Psa 37:23). God was pleased with Nehemiah’s intentions, and thus blessed the work of his hands. From yet another perspective, Nehemiah lived close enough to the Lord to think in harmony with Him concerning the holy city, its walls, the temple, and the Israelites. He was not at variance with the Lord in his perspective or desires. Therefore the hand of the Lord was upon him. That Divine hand of grace moved the king to allow a work that would last at least twelve years. It moved him to provide letters of protection, timber for building, and the complete support of Persia.