After interceding with God Nehemiah will intercede with Artaxerxes and sets out to build a wall and ends up leaving an enduring legacy of leadership. He was an organizer and a pragmatic leader who had a top position of trust in the grandest empire of world history. He put his career on hold and took on a job that was as improbable as operating on a gnat.
1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa,
This is the memoirs of Nehemiah. He probably kept a diary of his activities and thus recorded them in this book that bears his name. It was in December in the year of BC444, which was the 20th. year of the reign of Artaxerxes I Longimanus. His step mother was Queen Esther, so we can easily conclude that there were favors shown to the Jews in the Persian court. Nehemiah tells us that he was in the Palace at Susa―this city was a major city of Elam (now Iran). The city is sometimes called Shushan and it had been the summer palace of the Babylonian kings but was now the capital of the Persians.
2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
Nehemiah had visitors from Judea and he makes inquiry regarding the welfare of those who had escaped. Babylonia captivity and were now living in Jerusalem. His brother Hanani and other men pay a visit to Nehemiah. This brother will receive a political appointment from governor Nehemiah in the 7th chapter of his memoirs.
3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
Nehemiah’s brother makes a full disclosure of conditions back in Judea. The conversation centers around the broken down walls and lack of gates around the city (without a wall the people are defenseless against their enemies) the Great Wall of China was built to protect the Chinese from the hordes of the Barbarians. The wall of Hadrian built in AD 122—127 in Britain to protect them from the unconquered Caledonians. The wall built by Russia after world was II separates the two Germanys. Walls are a major part of history, especially around cities.
4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
When horrible events occurred or a catastrophic it was a common practice to mourn and dress in old burlap with smudges of dirt on ones face. Nehemiah was deeply disturbed and there was a typhoon of agitation in Nehemiah’ brain―a thousand miles away in Jerusalem the temple and all it treasures lay bare to the invaders. Nehemiah is trying to put it all in prospective and wonders what he can do to help.
5 Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands,
Nehemiah approaches the bench of the Judge of all the earth with an argument that God was great and awesome and keeps his covenant of love with them who obey his commands. Like Moses he appeals to God for a favorable decision.
6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.
Nehemiah knows that God’s eyes are open and his sears are attentive to those who are truly penitent. He includes himself along with his fellow Jews as being sinful and undeserving of the grace of God. He makes no claim before heavens court but prays day and night for favor from God.
7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
In this prayer he admits that the nation had in fact acted wickedly and treated God like dirt and set aside the laws of God as found in the Law of Moses.
8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations,
Nehemiah did not complain about God scattering them among the nations. He tells God that the dispersion was the consequences of their own doing.
9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
The basis for his argument in this prayer for grace is that the covenant said that “I will scatter you among the nations…” and finally brings them home. Nehemiah is familiar with the contract—He had memorized it word for word and is now praying scripture. He believes that God has kept his end of the bargain and is now asking God to be gracious and fulfill the bottom line of the contract. God was not obligated to do this since they were the ones who had violated the contract.
10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.
Admitting that they were the ones in violation Nehemiah reminds God that he had redeemed them by his mighty hand.
11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
I was cupbearer to the king.
May we too delight in revering the name of our God. Nehemiah asks God to be attentive to his prayer and touch the heart of the king so that Artaxerxes will grant favors to him. Nehemiah tells us that his position in the government was a cupbearer to the king. This job entailed tasting food and drink to see if it had been poisoned. If for any reason this food taster found that the food or wine was not “fit for a king” it would be sent back to the kitchen. Poisoning of kings was a favorite way of assassinations. My book on Daniel tells how that a queen poisoned her husband in order to secure the throne for her son. In 1847 Wilkerson poisoned and entire wedding party and killed all in attendance by lacing the wedding cake with arsenic. In Jonestown Ghana in 1978 the follower of Jim Jones drank a fruit flavored punch laced with cyanide and killed 913 of his followers. Arsenic was the favorite poison used to kill kings. The Roman emperor Augustus, fearing of being poisoned by Livia, took only figs that he plucked from the villa-garden but Livia then had the figs on the trees coated with poison and thus the aged Augustus met his death. Claudius Caesar was served a plate of mushrooms by his wife…the largest mushroom on the top was poisoned. She served the poisoned mushroom to her husband and thus he died. A cupbearer to the king was a guarantee that drinks and food was safe for human consumption. The position of cupbearer was a trusted position and he knew private secrets and personal affairs of the entire kingdom. Nehemiah was the most trustworthy man in the entire kingdom.