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Commentary: Nehemiah 2
2:1–8 Whether Nehemiah awaits his turn to attend to the king, or perhaps awaits the return of the king himself from the royal winter residence in Babylon, some four months pass before an opportune time arises for Nehemiah to disclose his concern to the king. Such an opportunity is afforded him due to his role as “cupbearer” (1:11), a position whose duties may well have included sampling the royal cup to prevent the poisoning of the royal person, but whose influence apparently extended far beyond this. Nehemiah reports (2:1–2) that his sadness—whether heartfelt or artful—contrasted sharply with his usual demeanor, thereby piquing the curiosity of the king and prompting royal concern. Nehemiah’s anxiety at this point (“I was very much afraid”; 2:2) may relate to the dangers of displaying anything other than a cheerful disposition in the Persian court (cf. Dan 1). However, Nehemiah’s apprehension may well be prompted by the prospect of voicing a concern that is, on one hand deeply personal, yet on the other, directly related to Persian imperial interests and policy vis-à-vis Jerusalem (Ezra 4:21).
[…] Before Nehemiah makes his request, he first notes his prayer to the God of heaven—most probably itself a request and if so perhaps similar in spirit (and also brevity) to the one he had been praying in the months previous (Neh 1:11): “Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” (NRSV).
[…] Nehemiah’s ability to draw directly from the resources of the Persian crown (i.e., the king’s forest; Neh 2:8) may reflect his position within the court or perhaps the perceived strategic importance of the work. Nehemiah does, however, share with the book of Ezra not only the phrase the “good hand of my God” (e.g., Ezra 7:9; 8:18), but also the understanding of this divine agency as the sole motive force behind the Persian crown’s authorization of the return(s) (7:6).
2:11–16 […] Just as Ezra sees the beautification of the temple as being “put by God in the hearts” of the Persian kings (Ezra 7:27), so too Nehemiah understands his plans as those that “my God had put in my heart” (Neh 2:12). The prospect of opposition to these divinely inspired plans—a prospect that 2:19–20 shows to be a very real one—is perhaps the most obvious explanation for Nehemiah’s insistence that what God had told him “I told no one” (2:12). Indeed, one suspects that Nehemiah’s reemphasizing of the completeness of his discretion—cataloged in some detail in 2:16b and celebrated in 2:16a—reflects his awareness of the potential damage that might be done if advance notice of his plans reached the opposition before they could be fully formed and communicated within the community.
2:17–18 […] Having seen the situation for himself, Nehemiah’s articulation of both the problem and the solution in the same terms used by the visitors to Susa (2:17; cf. “trouble/bad situation,” “gates burned,” “disgrace” in 1:3) must have been intentional. In addition to confirming and identifying with the community’s own understanding of its plight (“you see the trouble we are in”; 2:17), Nehemiah reinforces his charismatic authority to lead by sharing his earlier awareness (2:8) of “the hand of God for good” upon him—manifest not only (but presumably not least) in the royal interest in and approval of Nehemiah’s plans (2:18).
Nehemiah’s report of the collective response of the people, “Come let us begin building!”—itself an enthusiastic endorsement of Nehemiah’s approach—is followed by his own summary of their commitment. Nehemiah presumably sees it as no accident that his report of “God’s good hand” upon him leads to the people’s “strengthening of their hands for good”—a turn of phrase that elsewhere has the connotation of enablement (Ezra 6:22) and determination (Neh 6:9).
2:19–20 […] Their opponents’ question, “Are you rebelling against the king?,” seems an allusion to earlier allegations of rebellion (Ezra 4) and a very thinly veiled one at that. However, Nehemiah’s reporting of their hectoring tone (“they mocked and ridiculed us”) and especially his response (Neh 2:20) suggests he has seen through their bluff—armed as he is with the knowledge of Artaxerxes’s own approval of Nehemiah’s activities in the province. That this approval has been forthcoming from the earthly king is credited by Nehemiah to “the God of heaven,” the same God who answered Nehemiah’s prayers and is the ultimate guarantor of the project’s success.
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 34-36.
1 In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” 6 And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me when I had given him a time. 7 And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.
9 Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.
Questions to help us go deeper
- What can I learn from the fact that it is four months after Nehemiah first heard about and started fasting and praying about Jerusalem’s condition that he finally receives an opportunity to present his request to the king?
- Nehemiah was a man of prayer and a man of practical action. Why is it that these two traits are often thought to be at odds with each other? How can I grow to be more like Nehemiah?