COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 2:12 And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. 13 And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. 14 Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. 15 Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned. 16 And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.” (Nehemiah 2:12-16)
The stage has been set for the work of restoration. Working through reports, desires, a daily occupation, and a political ruler, the Lord has prepared the way for His own name to be glorified. Technically speaking, the book of Nehemiah is not a record of Nehemiah’s work, but of the Lord’s work. It is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Up to the king’s declaration of support, God has worked through ordinary means. A conversation between Nehemiah and his brother (1:2). A factual report of the conditions in Judah (1:3). Human sorrow (1:4). Earnest prayer (1:5-11). The confession of sin (1:6-7). The recollection of Scripture (1:8-9). Nehemiah’s occupation (1:11). The king in his court (2:1). None of these things would have been of any consequence if God had not been in them. But He was in them, working through a man whose heart was perfect before Him. The times were not good. The circumstances were not encouraging. Yet, in our text, Nehemiah is in the holy city, preparing to do a great work. Every believer can be encouraged that God can do a great work through them. Nehemiah is proof of that.
A WORK FOR THE NIGHT, TO BE DONE IN SECRET
“ 2:12 And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon.” Nehemiah has arrived at the site where the work is to be done. Realizing he will encounter opposition, he has told no one of his objective except the king and queen. Our text will confirm no one else knew the nature of the project.
I AROSE IN THE NIGHT. There is a certain wisdom associated with faith. Often, those who profess faith are noted for their foolishness and lack of thought. You will find no such tendencies in Nehemiah. In the preliminary phase of his mission, the man of God chose concealment. He did his survey work during the night, when it would not be readily detected. Even as the manna fell on Israel’s camp during “the night” (Num 11:9), so the night time can be a time of great productivity for the believer. David received instructions “in the night seasons” (Psa 16:7). God visited and tried him “in the night” (Psa 17:3). Isaiah said he desired the Lord “in the night” (Isa 26:9). Daniel the prophet had “night visions” (Dan 7:7). So Nehemiah arose during the night, when there were fewer distractions, and the enemies were least active.
SOME FEW MEN WITH ME. This was not the time to gather everyone together. Nehemiah is desirous to see the extent of the work that must be done, and thus limits the number of those accompanying him. The more serious the work, the fewer those who are involved in its beginning stages. Thus, when Jesus drew near to the work of laying down His life a ransom for many, the fewer He gathered around Himself. He met with only “the twelve” in the last supper (Matt 26:20), even dismissing Judas before much time had passed (John 13:27). When entering into the garden, only three were brought close to the place in which He agonized in prayer (Matt 26:37). So Nehemiah took only a “few men” with him, seeking to avoid distractions, and other matters that occur when in a crowd.
NEITHER TOLD I ANY MAN. The work of God must not be divulged prematurely. There must first be an accurate assessment of the task. Too, not all men would not be able to handle the site of a devasted wall and burned gates. There is a time when it is not proper to divulge what is being done. Thus Jesus often counseled those He healed, “Tell no man” (Matt 8:4; Mk 7:38; Lk 8:56). When Peter confessed Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus instructed His disciples “that they should tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ” (Matt 16:20). Following His transfiguration, as Jesus came down from the mountain with Peter, James, and John, “He charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead”(Mark 9:9). It is not that these things would never be told, but that it was premature to divulge them at that time. Thus, Nehemiah was able to understand when it was not appropriate to disclose the work and the magnitude of it.
Many a work for God is aborted because it was made known prematurely, before a proper assessment was made of its nature and involvements. When a person is led of the Lord to do something, faith can keep the matter quiet until a proper disposition of both heart and mind are appropriated. This is involved in keeping our heart “with all diligence” (Prov 4:23), and taking heed to our ways (Psa 39:1). When the Lord orders our steps, directing us in His will, Psa 37:23), it is always accompanied with discretion.
GOD PUT IT IN HIS HEART. This is the first time Nehemiah mentions that God has put this whole matter into his heart. He is able to associate what he is doing with Divine direction. Again, this is an aspect of faith. Holy men, or those who walk by faith, have the capacity to recognize the working of the Lord. Even then, however, sufficient time must elapse for a proper assessment of the work to be made. When Ezra went back to Judah under the direction of Artaxerxes, he knew God had put it in the king’s heart to so commission him (Ezra 7:27). When Titus was perceived as having earnest concern for the brethren in Corinth, Paul knew God had put it into his heart to be thus minded (2 Cor 8:16). In the building of the tabernacle, God “put” into the hearts of Bezaleel and Aholiab to do and teach all manner of craftsmanship (Ex 35:30-34).
Thus Nehemiah has been brought to see that his deep longing for Jerusalem, and desire for it to be restored, was put into his heart by God. He knew the desire was holy, even as David had written much earlier, “Do good in Thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem” (Psa 51:18). He doubtless knew the expression of Psalm 122:6-7. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.” This is how he knew God had put the matter in his heart.
A THOROUGH ASSESSMENT IS MADE
“ 13 And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. 14 Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. 15 Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned.” The thoroughness with which Nehemiah went about his assessment of the work is instructive. It stands as a rebuke to those who dare to approach the work of the Lord hapazardly and without godly thought. It is also encouraging to those who are touched with the seriousness of doing something for the Lord. There is really no place for surface and hasty thought in the Lord’s work.
THE GATE OF THE VALLEY. This was a gate toward the valley of Hinnom that was once fortified by king Uzziah (2 Chron 26:9). The valley of Hinnom was the place where Ahaz and Manasseh offered their own children as burnt sacrifices to Molech (2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). King Josiah destroyed those pagan altars (2 Kgs 23:12).
THE DRAGON WELL. Other versions call this the “Serpent’s well,” NKJV and “the Jackal’s well.” NIV It is said that this well was called “dragon’s” or “serpent’s well” because of the winding course of the water that flowed from it. It is also possible that, because of the desolation of Jerusalem, serpents and dragon abode there. Thus Isaiah spoke of desolation as being reduced to a place of “dragons” (Isa 13:22), and “habitation of dragons” (Isa 34:13). Jeremiah spoke in the same way (Jer 49:33), as well as did Malachi (Mal 1:3).
THE DUNG PORT. This was a gate on the eastern side of the city. Refuse was carried out of to the brook Kidron and the valley of Hinnom. Nehemiah is the only one who mentions this gate, or port, and he does so four times (2:13; 3:13,14; 12:31).
VIEWING THE WALLS. With care, Nehemiah views the broken down walls, and gates that had been burned with fire. He did not view them out of mere curiosity, but with a mind to rebuild them. He was not afraid to view the excessive damage, and would be emboldened by their appearance to do the work of the Lord. Even in the dim light of the night, he carefully looked at the walls and gates. It takes deep concentration and commitment to form a godly assessment of discouraging conditions.
THE GATE OF THE FOUNTAIN. This was a gate near to the pool of Siloam, and is so identified in Nehemiah 3:15: “The Fountain Gate was repaired by Shallun son of Col-Hozeh, ruler of the district of Mizpah. He rebuilt it, roofing it over and putting its doors and bolts and bars in place. He also repaired the wall of the Pool of Siloam.” The “king’s pool” is considered to be the aqueduct, or “conduit,” KJV made by Hezekiah to bring the waters of Gihon to the city of David (2 Kings 18:17).
NO PLACE FOR THE BEAST. The area was in such shambles, that there was no room for the beast carrying Nehemiah to pass. Utter devastation was all around, and it appeared that the inspection could go no further. Yet, Nehemiah is determined to finish his examination, for the Almighty God had put into his heart to do this work.
BY WAY OF THE BROOK. Seeing he could proceed no further, Nehemiah went outside of the city and its crumbled walls, following the valley, or brook Kidron, which surrounded the city on the East. Continuing through that valley, he went around the city, carefully viewing the walls. Then he returned to the Valley Gate, entering again into the city.
OBSERVATIONS. Of old time the Psalmist challenged, “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death” (Psa 48:12). Those words were spoken in the glory days of Jerusalem. Nehemiah surveyed the city when it was in quite another condition. His perusal of the devastated city was for at least two purposes. First, to see what desolation and ruin was found there. Second, to see its potential, and what was required to restore it to its original beauty. The sight did not cast him down, for he beheld the walls for the right reason.
It seems to me that we live in a time when godly assessment is in order. It is not enough to merely identify the spiritual ruin that is all around us. We must behold the conditions with a mind to rebuild the things that made for spiritual beauty and the glory of God. That is something of what our Lord Jesus did. He was “The Repairer of the breach, The Restorer of paths to dwell in” (Isa 58:12). It is possible to fellowship with Him in the work of repairing and restoring. It is an honorable work, but will require you to walk around the walls, see the devastation, and be challenged to see the potential glory.
DONE WITHOUT THE KNOWLEDGE OF OTHERS
“ 16 And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work.” In making the trip to Judah, Nehemiah had not shared the mission with anyone. Even when he took a few choice men with him to survey the walls, it appears he had not the communicated the fulness of the work.
The man of God first consulted, as it were, with himself. Later, Nehemiah will affirm this was his manner: “Then I consulted with myself” (5:7). Paul also had this nature – to determine within himself before he set out to do a thing: “But I determined this with myself” (2 Cor 2:1). On one occasion, Solomon said, “I communed with mine own heart” (Eccl 1:16). David also said, “I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search” (Psa 77:6). The Psalmist also said “I remembered thy judgments of old, O LORD; and have comforted myself” (Psa 119:52). It is a sign of spiritual maturity when a person can keep a matter to himself until it has matured in his thinking, and he knows how to handle it. Many a well-meaning soul has divulged his aspirations too soon, and has been discouraged by the responses of those to whom he spoke. This is involved in our Lord’s prohibition, “neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matt 7:6).
Nehemiah mentions several categories of people from whom he kept where he went and what he did. There were “the Jews” who were in that immediate area – the rank and file of the people of God. There were “the priests,” who had the charge of the service of God – the religious authorities of the land. There were also “nobles” and “rulers,” who were civil authorities – the political branch of the people. Then, there were “the rest who did the work” – those who would be responsible for the accomplishment of the work.
Apart from Divine illumination, each of these groups could become obstacles to the work. The rank and file of the people could cite how long the place had been in shambles, and how feeble the people were. The religious authorities could affirm the city had been forsaken by God, and thus it was hopeless to embark on a rebuilding program. The political ranch could see the whole project as a risk that could stir up political rivals, making their situation even worse. The workers could see the task as too large, and thus become fainthearted by a premature knowledge of what was to be done.
Thus, Nehemiah sought to avoid potential snares, forseeing evil, and hiding the matter from those who might not be able to properly receive it (Prov 22:3; 27:12). It is possible for people to be so acquainted with the desolation they cannot conceive of any rebuilding being accomplished. It is also possible for those who are aware of the judgment of God to deny that any restoration to favor can be realized. Those who give too much emphasis to political concerns can see government as having more power than God Himself. It is also possible for those who will do the work of God to be overwhelmed by the greatness of it all. Wise men will weigh the tendencies of their peers, seeking to avoid any appeal to their weakness and tendency to unbelief.
Even in the spiritually primitive times of Nehemiah, he proceeded with unusual wisdom to fulfill what God had put into his heart. He knew the source of his desire, and was thus able to conduct himself with godly discretion. He did not proceed by feeling, but by faith. He was not motivated by circumstance, but by revelation. He did not view those about him as the most significant, but the Almighty God who had given him a work to do.
It appears to me that Nehemiah knew every potential weakness could prove to be an occasion for his adversaries. This perception was a prelude to the manner in which our Lord Jesus conducted Himself among men. It is written of Him, “But Jesus did not commit Himself unto them, because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Our Lord shut the door to needless opposition. He did not shrink back from confrontations, yet chose them wisely. Only a cursory review of the Gospels will confirm this is the case.
Thus Nehemiah has prepared himself for the work at hand. He has prayed with diligence and perseverance. He has obtained appropriate letters from the king. He has dealt with the governors wisely. He has lingered in Jerusalem for three days, long enough to gather his spiritual wits. He has kept the massiveness of the work to himself, not making it a public matter. He has also surveyed the work to be done, doing so at night so as to avoid distraction and opposition. Truly, in him is the word fulfilled, “he that believeth shall not make haste” (Isa 28:16). We are wise to give heed to Nehemiah’s godly manners.