The Word Made Fresh
1So, in the month of Nisan during the twentieth year of the reign of King Artaxerxes when the wine was being served, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence before, 2and the king said to me, “Why the long face? You’re not sick, are you? Could this be sadness of the heart?”
I was very afraid, 3and said, “May the king live long! Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies in waste, its gates torn apart?”
4The king replied, “What do you want to do?”
So, I prayed to the God of heaven, 5then said to the king, “If it pleases you, and if I have found favor with you, I ask you to send me to Judah, to the city where my ancestors are buried, so that I might rebuild it.”
6The queen was sitting beside the king when he replied, “How long will you be gone? When will you return?” I set him a time, and the king was pleased to send me.
7Then I asked the king to provide me with letters to the governors of the province beyond the River asking them to grant me safe passage to Judah, 8and also a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, telling him to provide lumber for me to make beams for the gates of the temple and the city wall, and for my own dwelling. He approved everything I asked, for the helping hand of my God was with me.
9When I came to the governors of the province beyond the River I gave them the king’s letters. The king had sent officers with soldiers and cavalry with me, 10but when the officials – Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite – read the letters they were not happy that someone had come to promote the welfare of the people of Israel.
11I arrived in Jerusalem, and after I had been there for three days 12I arose in the night and took a few men with me, telling no one what God had placed in my heart to do for Jerusalem. I also took with me the animal I rode. 13I left by the Valley Gate past the Dragon’s spring and went on to the Dung Gate. I examined the walls and gates that had been broken down and burned. 14I went on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no path for the animal I was riding to pass. 15So, though it was nighttime, I progressed up the valley to examine the wall, then turned back and reentered the city by the Valley Gate. 16The officials didn’t know that I had gone or out what I was doing because I had not yet told anyone what I was planning to do.
17I gathered them together and said, “You see our problem – how Jerusalem is in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we may no longer be disgraced.” 18I told them that the hand of God had guided me, and I told them what the king had said to me.
They said, “Then let’s start building!” and they agreed to work together. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem the Arab heard about it they teased us and accused us, saying, “Are you rebelling against the king?”
20Then I told them, “We, the servants of the God of heaven, are going to start building, and we shall be successful, but you have no claim and no share and no historic right in Jerusalem!”
1-8: Nisan in the Jewish calendar is in the spring. Nehemiah is the cupbearer for Artaxerxes I. He has a close relationship with the king, and the king sees that he is distressed over something. Nehemiah shares the news he has heard about the state of Jerusalem. The king asks him what he wants to do, and Nehemiah takes a deep breath and asks for permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls and gates of the city. He is asked how long a leave he will need, and his request is granted. He then has the courage to ask further for orders to the keeper of the king’s forests to supply the necessary lumber, and that request is granted as well. We know from other sources that Egypt has recently made noises on Persia’s southern frontier, and Artaxerxes likely sees this as an opportunity to establish Jerusalem as a stronghold near the Egyptian border.
9-10: Nehemiah heads toward Jerusalem with a cavalry escort (protection Ezra had declined – see Ezra 8:22) and official letters in hand. We meet two of the villains of the story, Sanballat and Tobiah. They are officials in the Province Beyond the River (the territories west of the Euphrates). They are not happy that Nehemiah intends to repair the walls of Jerusalem. This encounter with Nehemiah probably takes place in Damascus, the provincial capital. Sanballat, we learn later, has some important connections in Jerusalem (6:10-14), and his daughter is married into the high priest’s family (13:28). Tobiah is likely the governor of Ammon. The Ammonites are historically enemies of Israel.
11-16: Having arrived in Jerusalem, Nehemiah takes a few days to get settled, then one night rides out to inspect the walls and gates. The walls are in such a state that at one point he is not able to proceed and has to ride around the area of the King’s Pool. He has not yet reported to anyone in Jerusalem.
17-20: Nehemiah finally presents his plans to the city’s officials, showing them the letter giving Artaxerxes’ permission. They give him their support. Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab accuse them of rebellion. Sanballat is the Persian appointee to the region of Samaria. “Horonite” may refer to his hometown, perhaps Beth-Horon between Jerusalem and Samaria. Tobiah is an “Ammonite” and Geshem an “Arab.” They, too, may have been minor satraps, and those designations may be intended simply to show that they are not part of the LORD’s people.
The earlier returnees to Jerusalem, led by Zerubbabel, Jeshua and, a little later, the priest Ezra, had been primarily concerned with restoring the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the worship life of the people of Israel. It appears that Nehemiah will now be concerned with protecting the city by rebuilding its walls. They still have enemies around and about determined to block them, but the difference now is that both they and their enemies are subjects of the king of Persia. God works in mysterious ways.