Bible Studies on Nehemiah Lesson 3: The King Observes Sadness

Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 2 Background Reading: Esther 9:29–10:3

In our Bibles, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah precede the book of Esther. But chronologically, Queen Esther came to the throne of Persia in 483 B.C., twenty-five years before Ezra is sent to Jerusalem and thirty-eight years before Nehemiah appears before King Artaxerxes. During that interlude, Mordecai becomes “second in rank to King Ahasuerus” and is given great authority throughout the empire. The Bible is silent about that relationship, but it gives us enough information to see some significant connections. It is possible that King Artaxerxes is a son of Esther and Ahasuerus. It is also possible that Mordecai was instrumental in the commissions given to Ezra and Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is “cupbearer to the king” (Neh. 1:11). The cupbearer is a member of the royal court. His responsibility is to choose wine for festive occasions and to make certain that it is safeguarded. The king must have implicit trust in that person and be assured that he will always be protective of the king. Joseph was given a similar position in Potiphar’s house and was made overseer over all that Potiphar had (Gen. 39:5).

Nehemiah offers a caveat, telling the reader that he has “not been sad in [the king’s] presence.” This suggests that Nehemiah has been able to control his emotions up to this point, since he knew about the deplorable conditions in Jerusalem for four months. Something triggered this demonstration of sadness, possibly in response to the festive occasion where the court is in a celebratory mood.

King Artaxerxes appears to be a considerate, thoughtful person who understands the needs of his servant. He observes that Nehemiah’s concern is “a sadness of the heart.” That suggests genuine sympathy and almost fatherly concern. Contrast that with Nebuchadnezzar’s mood when his magicians cannot perform the impossible task of telling him what he dreamed or what it meant (Dan. 2:1–12). Artaxerxes has already demonstrated tremendous respect for Israel’s God by his support of Ezra and the assignment he gave him (Ezra 7:11–26). Based on his commissioning of Ezra, we can assume that the king is a believer in Jehovah and is anxious to see his kingdom prosper. When we remember that he is the supreme ruler over the kingdom of Persia, we have to wonder at the influence of God’s children in that expansive land.

Nehemiah is obviously a polite, obedient, and trusting servant of the king. He expresses not only genuine, deep-seated sadness for the conditions in Jerusalem but also a “fear of the king,” for he knew the traditions of the royal court. He likely knew the risks that Esther took when she went to the king for help. Nehemiah brings his needs to the throne of grace, praying to the God of heaven. He “prayed to the God of heaven” (v. 4) and acknowledged that “the good hand of my God was upon me” (v. 8). Notice how often he adds the possessive pronoun “my” to God (vv. 8, 11, 18).

Nehemiah requests permission to go to Jerusalem with the purpose of rebuilding the city. The king asks how long he plans to be gone and when he will return. The text tells us that Nehemiah “gave him a time” but does not let the reader know how much time was needed or requested. The king obviously wants Nehemiah back as his cupbearer but grants his request. Later we learn that Nehemiah stayed in Jerusalem as governor for twelve years before returning to the palace (Neh. 5:14). We don’t know how long Nehemiah originally requested, but it was probably not twelve years.

Nehemiah also requests that he be given letters to the governors of the province beyond the River, so that he could travel freely. He also requests a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, for purposes of obtaining timbers for rebuilding the gates of the city, and “for the house that I shall occupy” (Neh. 2:8). From this, we can conclude that Nehemiah expected to stay for a considerable time. Building a house does not suggest a brief stay. The king granted all his requests.

Upon arrival, Nehemiah immediately presents his letters to the governors of the province. This would grant him protection and access to important sites and places. Notice, too, that King Artaxerxes had supplied “officers of the army and horsemen.” Compare this with the fact that Ezra made that same journey thirteen years earlier with no military escort. Note Ezra’s explanation as to why he did not request any military escort (see Ezra 8:21–23). Ezra obviously had significant spiritual influence on this king, for he and his people made that trip with vast amounts of money but without any protection other than the care of God Almighty. That had to impress the king.

The two persons who are identified as being “greatly concerned” are Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. Sanballat is a governor from the region of Samaria, while Tobiah is from the region known as Ammon, today’s Jordan. Remember the Samaritans’ attempts to stop the building of the temple (Ezra 4); these people pretend to have theological concerns and are desirous to take control of the Hebrew people. They certainly know about the nullification of all the marriages referred to in Ezra 9–10. That implied an overt rejection of them as a people and their religious practices. In the light of that history, they were displeased that someone, with the king’s approval, would come on the scene to help their enemies. They also would know about the Feast of Purim, celebrating the victory of the Jews over all their pagan enemies (Est. 9:20–32).

Nehemiah does a number of things to disguise his purpose for being in Jerusalem. He stays there for three days without any overt activity. Then, under the cover of night, he rides his “animal” all around the city boundaries to assess the damage and the needs for rebuilding. He took only “a few men with him” but does not tell anyone else what he is doing or where he is going (v. 16). He attributes this secrecy to what “God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (v. 12). Nehemiah is in Jerusalem on the Lord’s business.

Nehemiah finally shares his plans with his fellow believers and asks them to commit to the project. Again demonstrating his faith, he informs them that “the hand of my God had been upon me for good” (v. 18). But he also adds “the words that the king had spoken to me” (v. 18). That is about the strongest motivation that could be offered. The Jews respond with enthusiasm. He adds with a prophetic promise: “The God of heaven will make us prosper” (v. 20).

The number of enemies has grown, for now Geshem the Arab is listed among them. These enemies tried to humiliate Nehemiah’s people by jeering and derision, but that did not work. So, they raise the question: “Are you rebelling against the king?” That kind of implied accusation had worked earlier when Jeshua and Zerubbabel were trying to rebuild the temple (Ezra 4:11–16). That accusation became successful because of letters they sent to King Ahasuerus, who had little or no sympathy for the Jews or the worship of God (Ezra 4:6). The building of the temple was stopped for ten years, from 530 B.C. to 520 B.C. It was allowed to start again when Cyrus’s original edict was discovered in the archives at Ecbatana, the capital of the province of Media (Ezra 6:2). If Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem had listened to Nehemiah’s report or read the letters which he carried, they would have known that King Artaxerxes had endorsed and supported this program. They closed their ears to such information. The enemies of God often demonstrate their stupidity and ignorance.

Discussion Starters

1. In what year does this event take place? What is the relationship between Queen Esther and King Artaxerxes? Who is the older person?

2. What role does Nehemiah play in the Persian Empire? Is that a trivial job or a significant assignment? What would that suggest about the relationship between the king and Nehemiah?

3. What kind of disposition does Nehemiah display when he is serving the king? What explanation does he offer for his sadness? How long has he known about the terrible conditions in Jerusalem?

4. What kind of person is King Artaxerxes? Does he genuinely care about Nehemiah? Is he a perceptive, caring monarch? Is he a believer in Jehovah?

5. How would you describe the character of Nehemiah? Is he a God-fearing man? From where does he get the courage to request a leave of absence?

6. What does Nehemiah request of the king? What does he hope to accomplish by that request?

7. What additional requests does Nehemiah make of the king? Is it probable that Nehemiah knew the kinds of power and authority that this same king had conferred on Ezra thirteen years prior?

8. What are the first things that Nehemiah does upon his arrival in Jerusalem? Who are accompanying him?

9. Which persons were greatly displeased at the arrival of Nehemiah? What was their concern?

10. Why must Nehemiah practice such secrecy? Who has motivated him to conduct his business?

11. When Nehemiah finally shares his plans with the officials, what reaction does he get from his fellow Jews? What motivation does he provide for them?

12. What is the reaction of his enemies to this announcement? What accusations are they trying to level against Nehemiah?