COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
2:9 Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. 11 So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days. ” (Nehemiah 2:9-11)
In answer to his petitions, the Lord has granted Nehemiah favor in the eyes of the king. He has asked for a twelve-year leave of absence, and that the king will underwrite his mission to Jerusalem. He has even asked for special letters to the governors beyond the River, that they may conduct him on his mission. A special letter is also requested for the manager of the kings forest, so that timbers may be provided for the vestibule of the temple, the gates in the walls around the city, and his own house. Faith comes with a certain boldness and confidence that cannot be conjured up by the flesh. This is not a confidence that results from pumping up our emotions. It rather proceeds from the assurance that is resident in faith itself. The “faith of God’s elect” (Tit 1:1) is accompanied by assurance (Heb 10:22), boldness, and confidence (Eph 3:12). There is also a peace associated with faith that enables clarity of thought and precision in supplication. All of this has taken place in Nehemiah – while he is in a heathen land, away from the promised land and the holy city, which is itself in shambles. Circumstance cannot dull the edge of faith, or bring lasting disadvantages to the people of God. That is a loud and clear message that must come to us through this book! God will grant opportunities to us in the midst of adversity. He can cause those who are over us in the flesh to grant us the desires of our heart, extending themselves to assist us. It is in this sense that the Lord is ever “the Governor among the nations” (Psa 22:28). How marvelously this is seen in the book of Nehemiah.
THE LETTERS DELIVERED TO THE GOVERNORS
“ 2:9 Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me.” Here, Nehemiah makes a quantum leap from the king’s court to the region beyond the river Euphrates, where he is with certain governors. He does not mention leaving the king’s court, or making preparations for the journey. He does not even specify the time required to get from Shushan to this region. All of that may be of great interest to an historian, but has little relevance to Nehemiah’s inspired record. One of the marks of inspiration is the exclusion of details in which the preeminence of God is not readily seen. This does not imply that God is not active in such details. There are matters, however, in which Divine workings are not readily apparent to men. It is not the manner of the Spirit to linger upon such things.
THE GOVERNORS. We do not know the identity of these governors. Earlier, when Ezra returned to the homeland, the building of the temple had begun. Of that occasion Ezra writes, “Then rose up Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and began to build the house of God which is at Jerusalem: and with them were the prophets of God helping them.” At that time they encountered two governors who inquired concerning their building project. “At the same time came to them Tatnai, governor on this side the river, and Shetharboznai, and their companions, and said thus unto them, Who hath commanded you to build this house, and to make up this wall?” The builders replied they were servants of the Lord, and had been officially authorized to do the work by a decree from king Cyrus, who, by Divine direction commanded that the temple be rebuilt (2 Chron 36:23; Ezra 1:2).
These governors sought to abort the work of Ezra and his companions, even questioning their integrity. They sent a letter to king Darius, questioning the right of Ezra’s group to rebuild the temple, and asking that the royal records be searched to see if Cyrus actually made such a decree (Ezra 5:3-17). This occurred around eighteen years earlier. I do not know if these men were still governors in the land. However, it does appear that Nehemiah was aware of their opposition, and had therefore required letters to them from the king, authorizing his mission. He foresaw evil, and made preparations appropriate to confront it (Prov 22:3). This time, if the governors were prone to inquire about the work, they would see official kingly documents that authorized the work.
The thoroughness with which Nehemiah made his plans is remarkable, showing us the effectiveness of faith. Knowing of the obstacles encountered by Ezra, Nehemiah not only asked for letters authorizing the project, but asked that the governors be directed to covey them to Judah. We can learn from this record to employ all of our ransomed powers in the work of the Lord. Often “the mind” is neglected among professed believers, and thinking thus becomes their weak point. However, “all of our mind” is to be employed in the love of God (Matt 22:37). Nehemiah’s mind was sanctified. Ours can be also.
THE SUPPORT OF THE KING. Nehemiah had asked Artaxerxes to “send” him to Judah, to the city of Jerusalem, that he might “build it” (2:5). He did not ask for mere authorization, but or the king to take the project as his own. The king did precisely that, sending with Nehemiah “captains,” or officers, “of the army, and horsemen,” or a cavalry. NIV This show of military force would also serve to further convince the governors of the legitimacy of the mission. In addition, it would dampen any temptation to oppose it. We do not know the number of the accompanying cavalry, but it was of sufficient size to quell any opposition. Thus, what Nehemiah himself was not able to do, was, in answer to his prayer, done for him. It is important to note this in a time when human abilities and wisdom are blown out of proportion.
An honest heart knows there are matters that cannot be accomplished by ourselves – things in which we require support. Our God is willing and able to handle such things. This is involved in the statement, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD” (Psa 37:23). It is included in the Dravidic phrase, “He . . . established my goings” (Psa 40:2). Jeremiah knew of this fundamental human deficiency. He confessed to God, “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). Such statements are infinitely more than theological assertions, to be codified in a creed and placed on the shelf of neglect. These things are being lived out in Nehemiah. King Artaxerxes no doubt felt he was assisting Nehemiah, but it was actually the Lord who was directing his steps. The Lord was establishing Nehemiah’s goings, assuring that the noble mission he had been moved to accomplish, would not fail of fulfillment. Nehemiah’s steps were being ordered by the Lord.
THOSE WHO WERE GRIEVED THAT HELP WAS COMING
“ 10 When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.” Word quickly traveled about Nehemiah’s mission. As we must know, the work of God is not accomplished in a vacuum, but generally on the battlefield of opposition. It is ever true that kingdom labors involve passing through the wilderness of trial, the trial of the furnace, and the testing of the lion’s den. Moses faced the obstacle of Pharaoh at the threshold of his ministry (Ex 5:2). The holy Prophets suffered aggressive persecution (Acts 7:52). The Apostles faced opposition immediately (Acts 5:40). No sooner had Stephen began his great ministry, that opponents arose, disputing with him (Acts 6:9). Paul faced a staggering number of obstacles in the fulfillment of his commission (2 Cor 11:24-28).
An academic world tends to think that extended education, training, and the likes, will reduce opposition, or make the kingdom laborer adequate for the challenges that face him. But that is not true. It is faith that equips the child of God, just as it did Nehemiah. That faith does not remove obstacles, but triumphs over them.
THE HORONITE AND THE AMMONITE. Having endured the test of the governors beyond the river, Nehemiah now faces two obstructors. They are near to the work, but have no heart for it: Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite.
It is possible that Sanballat was one of the governors to which Artaxerxes addressed his letters. The term “Horonite” identifies where he was born – either upper or lower Horon, which formerly belonged to Ephraim (Josh 16:3-5), and was several miles from Jerusalem. At that time, this region was under the power of Samaria (Ezra 4:10,17; Neh 4:1-2).
Tobiah was probably “the servant” of Sanballat. He was an Ammonite, or of the children of Ammon, who was the son of Lot through his younger daughter (Gen 19:36-38). Even though the Lord excluded the land of Ammon from Israel’s possession, giving it to Lot (Deut 2:19), they became idolaters (Judges 10:6), and enemies of the children of Israel (Judges 10:9; 11:5). Moses had prohibited Ammonites from any involvement with the congregation of Israel: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever” (Deut 23:3). Tobiah was from that cursed body of people.
Throughout the book of Nehemiah, Sanballot and Tobiah surface as opponents of the work. They laughed at and despised the workers (2:19), mocked the Jews (4:1), conspired to fight against Jerusalem (4:7-8), attempted to draw the people away from the work (6:1-3), and hired a false prophet to prophesy against Nehemiah (6:12-13).
Another thing may be noted in this record. When the city of God was in shambles, and the wall broken down, enemies became more prominent, and felt more bold within the confines of the holy city. That is one of the liabilities of falling away, spiritual retrogression, and a departure from the faith. It makes the enemies of the faith more bold, and more readily grants them a presence where they really are to be excluded.
THE WELFARE OF THE PEOPLE. The thing that so grieved Sanballat and Tobiah was a report: “there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.” The advancement of the people of God is a threat to their enemies! When they are encouraged and strong, impostors become more evident and those who would exploit them lose their prominence. This is because strong believers are blessed by God. When their faith is strengthened, they are given more grace, power, and resources. If the enemies of the people of God are ever to be debilitated, someone must seek the welfare of the saints!
And what is it that was defined as “the welfare of the children of Israel?” It was not a food and clothing program! It was not job training, the resolution of marital difficulties, or the organization of a political entity. Instead, it was the rebuilding of the temple of God, the reestablishing of the walls about Jerusalem, and the repair of the gates of the city. The people would find strength when the thing that had made them unique was reestablished. The Jews were not noted for their craftsmanship – although considerable existed among them. They were not noted for the military superiority – although that also was found. It was their religion that made them unique – their God, their Law, and their worship of God. That was the source of their singularity. Jerusalem was never intended to be a mere capital city! The Temple was not a family city, or museum through which curious strangers passed. It was the city of the great King, the joy of the whole earth (Psa 48:2-3).
The “welfare” of the saints of our day also depends upon the restoration of the things that made them unique: the prominence of the Gospel, righteousness, faith, hope, and love!
ARRIVAL IN JERUSALEM
“ 11 So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days.” Again, Nehemiah quickly passes to the matter at hand. He does not linger on his experience with the governors, or with the grief of Sanballat and Tobiah. He focuses on the area about which he had prayed.
SO I CAME. In these words – “So I came to Jerusalem” – the protection of the Lord is declared. His way was safely negotiated from Shushan to the regions beyond the river. The potential of opposition from the governors was eliminated. The aggravation of Sanballat and Tobiah was totally without consequence to Nehemiah and company. They “came to Jerusalem,” safe and sound, and ready to do the work.
While all of this might appear quite simplistic, heavenly powers were orchestrating the trip, subduing evil forces, and promoting the safety of the traveling Jews. Their hearts had not become discouraged with the length of the journey (estimated to be about three months, the confrontation of governors, or the threats of Sanballot and Tobiah. This is what is involved in the phrase, “the Lord was with them” (Judges 1:22; Acts 11:21). Holy angels have been dispatched “to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb 1:14). Most of their work, however, is behind the scenes, undetected by men, and known only by faith. When Ezra described the arrival of himself and those with him in Jerusalem, he accounted for their journey in these words: “and the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way” (Ezra 8:31).
When we read such phrases as “So I came,” “so we went” (Acts 28:14), “and so they set forward” (Num 2:34), or “And so were the churches established in the faith” (Acts 16:5), we are not reading a mere historical record. Great battles against evil principalities and powers may have been required “so” these things could be accomplished. Divine strength and encouragement may have been granted supernaturally in order that fear and trepidation be thrust from God’s workers. Needed supplies may be marshaled from unexpected resources “so” the work can be done to the glory of God.
The purpose of the journey was in the mind of Nehemiah. He does not say, “So I came to the governors of the land,” or “So I confronted Sanballot and Tobiah.” Instead, he speaks of the culmination of the journey: “So I came to Jerusalem.” He arrived where the work was to be done. What a joy and sense of expectancy must have filled his heart!
THREE DAYS. After the lengthy journey, Nehemiah did exactly what Ezra had done – stayed three days in Jerusalem. It is said of Ezra, “And we came to Jerusalem, and abode there three days” (Ezra 8:32). Probably fatigued with the journey, Nehemiah would not begin the work until his natural powers had been restored. During this time he was no doubt refreshed as Paul was, when he was allowed to meet with some of his friends en route to Rome (Acts 27:30).
“Three days” stands for an adequate separation between the mundane and the spiritual, the challenge and the work itself. Thus, God told Moses to petition Pharaoh to allow Israel to go “three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God” (Ex 3:18). Perhaps Nehemiah recalled the word of God to Joshua, “for within three days ye shall pass over this Jordan, to go in to possess the land” (Josh 1:11). Or, he may have recalled how Ezra abode in tents with the people for “three days,” viewing “the people, and the priests” (8:15). “Three days” was also the length of time Esther asked the Jews to join her in a fast that would prepare her to go before the king (Esth 4:16). It was the length of time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish, preparing for his work (Jonah 1:17). This is also the number of days our Lord’s body was in “the heart of the earth,” in preparation for His work (Matt 12:40). It seems to me this was even more a time of preparation than of mere rest.
“Three days!” That would be a time for Nehemiah to get Persia out of the mind, and Jerusalem more fully into it. It would lend itself to “forgetting” the duties of a cupbearer, and focus more clearly on those of a governor and builder. Things related to the journey itself could thus be put behind him, and concentration on the work be more fully realized. I do not doubt that Nehemiah prayed during this time, thanking God and seeking for wisdom to begin the work, and strength to complete it.
Thus, Nehemiah is set to begin a project for which he has waited for as long as seven months – four months until he stood before the king, and three months journeying. He has 1heard, 2prayed, 3waited, 4petitioned, 5answered, 6estimated the time and materials required, 7assembled the required helpers, and 8made the journey. Working through enemies of the Jews, Satan has tried to abort the trip, but could not. What marvelous lessons can be learned from Nehemiah by all who seek to do a work for the Lord!