Date: 14 Feb 2016
Text: Nehemiah 2:1-10
Last week we spent some time looking at Nehemiah 1 where we met Nehemiah the author of the book. Nehemiah had been visited by a brother and some friends and they had informed him of the state of Jerusalem, the Holy City. They told him of the walls being broken and the gates being burned leaving piles of rubbles and smouldering timber. Nehemiah’s first reaction was to weep and mourn before turning to God in prayer. He sought God’s help as he contemplated approaching the King and seeking his help in resolving the problem. All of this took place in Kislev, the period from mid November to mid December. Now, here in Nehemiah 2, we move on to Nisan, not the Japanese car company but a month in the Jewish calendar which runs from mid March to mid April.
In the time between Nehemiah 1 and Nehemiah 2 Nehemiah had obviously been thinking and praying over a plan to do something about Jerusalem. He was heartbroken after hearing of the state of the walls and the gates and felt that, with God’s help, he may be able to do something about it. From my observations there are two things that stand out from that thinking. Firstly, he didn’t want to simply stand back and do nothing; he didn’t simply want to be an idle bystander bemoaning the situation whilst not doing anything about it. On that scale, Nehemiah would certainly have agreed with the Apostle James and his belief that, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). Secondly, before even starting to think about implementing any plan he turned to God in prayer and sought His help. When we have problems with whom do we share them? More often than not it is better to share them with God first, although I wonder how often we do that? How often do we face a huge problem or a difficult situation and turn to God to seek His help? I suspect that it is more not than often!
We learned in Nehemiah 1 that he was an important person in the Palace, having a position that gave him direct and regular access to the King. The role of cupbearer was very important indeed and we learn in Tobit 1:22 in the Apocrypha that Ahikar who was not only cupbearer to King Sennacherib (Assyria 701 BC approx) but also the equivalent of Prime Minister. For those who aren’t aware, the Apocrypha is a collection of 12 books which aren’t included in the Old Testament but which were published for private edification. Some of these 12 books add to the existing 39 books in the Old Testament whilst others are in addition to those books. Aside from that, one reference I consulted suggested that Nehemiah was, at some time, Governor of Judah!
However, I digress. On one particular day Nehemiah went about his duties looking particularly miserable whilst he was around the King. Obviously his body language gave away the mood and low state that he was in. We all do that don’t we; our face and body language frequently give away our mood and feelings. It transpires that appearing to be sad in front of the King was a risky thing to do, since it was more or less mandatory for all those servants who had access to the King to always be happy; after all they were in the presence of a great man who brought happiness to everyone; someone rather like the Supreme Leader of North Korea! However, Nehemiah need not have worried since, as I mentioned last week, this King seems to have been a very nice chap and instead of being angry with Nehemiah he appears to have been very sympathetic. The King knew Nehemiah very well and quickly recognised that something was wrong and so asked him, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.” (2:2). Although Nehemiah admitted to having been afraid as he worked in front of the King and as he listened to the King’s question, he gave him an honest answer. At this point Nehemiah could have given the King a feeble answer along the lines of having a headache or simply having a bad day; but he didn’t, he told the King the truth and told him his news and explained the problem over the destruction of the walls and the gates of the city where his ancestors were buried. Interestingly he didn’t mention Jerusalem by name since in the past the city had been rebellious against the Persians and resistant to their rule. However, unlike some Kings who we meet in the Old Testament, this King, Artaxerxes, seems to have been very receptive to what Nehemiah had to say since his immediate response was to ask Nehemiah, “What is it you he want?” (2:4a).
As soon as the King asked that question Nehemiah knew that his prayers over the previous four months had been answered. We often expect immediate or fairly quick responses to our prayers don’t we? Perhaps Nehemiah was also impatient for an answer but at that moment he knew that any impatience he may have felt was misplaced; his prayers had been answered and the King was looking favourably on this conversation. God knows precisely when to answer our prayers and His timing is always immaculate; far better than ours can ever be.
Notice in 2:4b that as soon as the King asked his question, Nehemiah turned to prayer. God had answered some prayers already and so Nehemiah again turned to Him for help. This wouldn’t have been a long prayer; probably something along the lines of “Help me Lord!” Not all prayers have to be long, short ones can sometimes be just as effective. I’m sure that we can all learn something from Nehemiah’s approach. This prayer probably lasted only a few seconds but it was enough to involve God in what was to follow. Nehemiah had an idea to go to Jerusalem and do something to help; precisely what he wanted to do will become clearer as we move through the chapter. To fulfil his plan he needed to visit Jerusalem and so needed time away from the King’s service; and since Jerusalem was some 800 miles away he would need to have a fair amount of time away. I love the way that Nehemiah phrases his request; he doesn’t directly ask for a holiday or leave of absence but rather asked the King in 2:5, “If it please the King and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it”. Read that carefully and you will see that he is asking the King to send him to Jerusalem as some sort of envoy so that he can rebuild the city of his ancestors. Again God was with him as the King asked how much time he needed for such a journey. Nehemiah came up with a timescale and as he records, “It pleased the King to send me; so I set a time” (2:6b). Having gained the King’s approval for his journey Nehemiah went on to ask him for letters of safe conduct for the Governors “of Trans-Euphrates” (2:7). I assume by that that Nehemiah means the Governors of all the territories through which he had to pass. This wasn’t a straightforward journey and may well have been dangerous in places. Not only did the King give Nehemiah the letters that he requested but we can see from 2:9b that he also “sent army officers and cavalry with me.”
Do you ever watch Colombo that TV programme about a shambling detective; it is always being repeated on one channel or another? Anyway, one of Colombo’s catchphrases is “one more thing” and he generally asks that just as he is leaving someone. Nehemiah’s request in 2:8 reminds me of that scene since having had two requests granted by the King, he now asks, “And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates and for the city wall and the residence I will occupy?” Nothing like striking while the iron is hot!
None of these requests were random or spur-of-the-moment. Nehemiah hadn’t wasted his time between Kislev and Nisan; he had spent the four months praying and planning. He had worked out what he needed in terms of time and resources and God was with him all the way. Nehemiah made plans and so does God. The Psalmist reminds us of this in Psalm 33:11, “But the plans of the Lord stand firm for ever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” I feel that we sometimes forget to plan or don’t plan correctly, simply relying on our faith to get us through. We’ll get away with it sometimes but not always which may be why the writer of Proverbs had this to say, “Careful planning puts you ahead in the long run; hurry and scurry puts you further behind.” (Proverbs 21:5, The Message).
It is important to notice that Nehemiah gives all the credit to God for the King being so generous in fulfilling all his requests and it may well have been at this point that the King appointed Nehemiah as Governor of Judah even if only on a temporary basis. He tells us in 2:8 that it was because “the gracious hand of God was on me” that the King provided all that Nehemiah had requested. I’m not sure that we always acknowledge God’s part in providing what we have asked of someone. Could that be because we forget or because we don’t always involve God in our planning?
So far in 2:3-9 it has almost been plain sailing for Nehemiah. God has smiled on him, the King has listened to him and he has all that he requested to start implementing his plan. That is until now! Just as in some parts of Scripture a single verse can cover a long period of time so can a single verse cover a long distance travelled! In 2:9 Nehemiah has travelled to Jerusalem and arrived in the Holy City; a distance of some 800 miles! It is at this point that the first sign of opposition to his plans comes. In 2:10 we meet Sanballat and Tobiah, and Nehemiah records that, “they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites”.
Sanballat seems to have been a bit of a dubious character to say the least. His name was Babylonian although he came from a district by the name of Beth-horon which was about 30 Km North West of Jerusalem. He had a mixed spiritual background seemingly mixing various religions together including Yahweh. We can read about such spiritual behaviour in 2 Kings 17:33 which says of various groups of people, “They worshipped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.” At the time of the events that Nehemiah was describing, Sanballat may have been the Governor of Samaria and may also have wanted to be the Governor of Judah. Whether either of those descriptions is accurate or not, he was definitely an opponent of Nehemiah and he wasn’t happy that Nehemiah had been sent by Artaxerxes to help the people of Jerusalem.
Tobiah was also a major opponent of Nehemiah. He too may have been a high ranking Persian official although his name suggests that he may have been half Jewish as his name means “Yahweh is good”. He also had a son whose name meant “Yahweh is merciful”. It is also possible that he had been Governor of Jerusalem before Nehemiah’s arrival although judging by mentions of him in Nehemiah 4:7 and 6:1-2 he may have been Sanballat’s deputy. Whatever his position, like Sanballat he was totally opposed to anything that Nehemiah had planned for Jerusalem.
Of course, what neither of these two officials realised is that God was with Nehemiah every step of the way. Nehemiah had placed all his faith and trust in God and took everything to Him in prayer. We can learn from that and we should also remember the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:31b, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Nehemiah in 445 BC most certainly had that assurance.
These opening ten verses in Nehemiah 2 give us a clear picture of how Nehemiah went about things. In the four months between hearing the bad news of the destruction of Jerusalem and his confrontation with the King, he didn’t waste time moping about. Rather, he spent time in prayer and planning what he could do to help resolve the dreadful situation in the Holy City. Nehemiah was patient as he waited for God to answer since he was confident that God would answer in His time. Nehemiah spent time planning because he knew that he needed time; he knew that he needed resources such as timber; he knew that he needed guarantees of safe passage given the hostile territories he may have to pass through on his 800 mile journey. Most importantly he knew that he had God on his side. He had involved God every step of the way and knew that God would always be there and would never let him down.
When you think about it, we too can be like Nehemiah. If we take everything to God in prayer and trust Him to help us then we cannot fail. Nehemiah was patient as he waited for God to answer and we too should be patient. God answered Nehemiah’s prayers and He will answer ours if we remain prayerful, faithful and patient.