By Edward Dennett
THIS chapter is divided into several sections. First, we have the record of the manner in which God answered His servant's prayer, and disposed the heart of the king to grant all that was necessary for Nehemiah's journey and mission. (vv. 1-8.) Then there is a brief account of his journey to Jerusalem, together with the effect it produced in certain quarters. (vv. 9-11) Next, Nehemiah describes his nocturnal survey of the condition of the walls of the city, as also his conference with the rulers upon the object he had in view. (vv. 12-18.) And, lastly, the opposition of the enemies of God's people is given, with Nehemiah's answer. (vv. 19, 20.)
It is exceedingly interesting to observe the way in which God brought about the accomplishment of Nehemiah's desire. Four months had passed since he had offered the prayer recorded in Nehemiah 1. He is careful to give us the dates. In the month Chisleu (answering to our November) he had prayed; and in the month Nisan (answering to our March) the answer came. During this period, man of faith as he was, he must have waited in daily expectation upon God. He could not foresee how the answer would come; but he knew that God could intervene when and how He would; and thus, to borrow a Hebrew expression, "in waiting he waited." It is in this way God both tries and strengthens the faith of His people. He waits while they wait. But if He wait, it is only to shut His people up to more entire dependence upon Himself, and thus to prepare their hearts more fully for the blessing He is about to bestow. And when He steps in, it is oftentimes, as in this case, in such a quiet and unseen way — unseen by all but by the eye of faith — that it needs the exercise of faith to detect His presence. How natural thus is the way, on the surface, in which Artaxerxes was induced to give Nehemiah permission to visit Jerusalem, etc., only it must be remembered that Nehemiah had prayed that God would "grant him mercy in the sight of this man." Let us examine the scene.
The chapter as it opens shows us Nehemiah occupied with the duties of his office — as the king's cup-bearer. He "took up the wine, and gave it unto the king;" but his heart was occupied with other things, burdened as it was with the unutterable sorrow of his people's condition. But wine and sadness are incongruous; for wine, as the Scripture tells us, maketh a man's heart merry; and it was intolerable to the king that his cup-bearer should wear a sorrowful face at such a time. It destroyed his own pleasure. And Nehemiah confesses that he "had not been beforetime sad in his presence." The king therefore was angry and said, "Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart." "Then," says Nehemiah, "I was very sore afraid." (v. 2.) And well he might have been; for in such a mood, like a true Oriental despot, Artaxerxes might have ordered him forth to instant execution. But if afraid, God preserved to him his presence of mind, and led him, out of the abundance of his heart, to tell simply and truly the cause of his sorrow. He said to the king, "Let the king live for ever why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?" (v. 3.) The king was not unacquainted with the subject of his cup-bearer's sorrow; for he it was who had permitted Ezra to go up to build the temple, and had himself given gold and silver to aid his object. And God used Nehemiah's simple words to interest the king once more in the condition of Jerusalem. And he said, "For what dost thou make request?" Surely most would have hastened to answer the king, assuredly concluding that he would be certain, since he had deigned to put the question, to grant the desired favour. Not so Nehemiah (and this brings out a special trait of his character); for he says, "So I prayed to the God of heaven," and afterwards he presented his petition. Not that we are to conclude that he kept the king waiting. By no means. But the point to be observed is, that before he answered his master he cast himself upon his God — he prayed to the God of heaven. He thus acknowledges his dependence for wisdom to say the right thing, and reveals the special characteristic which another has termed "a heart that habitually turned to God." We might well seek the same grace; for surely it is blessed at all times to be so walking in dependence on God, that when, in the presence of difficulties, perplexities, and dangers, we naturally (if we may use the word) look to the Lord for the needed wisdom, direction, and succour. When this is the case, the presence of God will be more real to us than the presence of men.
Having thus prayed, Nehemiah makes his request — "If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it." (v. 5.) The king (who had the queen at that moment sitting with him) having asked how long he proposed to be absent, etc., at once granted his request. Nehemiah perceiving his opportunity — the opportunity God had vouchsafed — and strengthened by his faith, waxed bolder, and ventured to ask for royal letters "to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over, till I come into Judah; and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace1 which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into." Such were his objects, precise and defined: The restoration of the fortress, necessary for the protection of the temple, the rebuilding of the walls of the city, and the erection of a house suitable for himself in the exercise of his office. "And," we read, "the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me." (v. 8.) Before God he had poured out the desires of his heart (desires which God Himself had produced), to God he had looked for guidance and strength when in the presence of the king, and God now showed that He had undertaken for His servant by inclining the king to grant all that was necessary for the accomplishment of the work. And Nehemiah acknowledged this: "It was according to the good hand of my God upon me."
It is well for us to mark this principle in the ways of God with His people. If He put within our hearts a desire for any service — a service for His glory — He will surely open out before us the way to it. If it be really His work on which our minds are set, He will enable us to do it in His own way and time. The door may seem to be closed and barred; but if we wait on Him "who openeth and no man shutteth," we shall find that it will suddenly open to us, so that we may enter in without let or hindrance. There could be no more difficult position than this of Nehemiah; but the Lord who had touched his heart with the affliction of his people removed all obstacles, and set him free for his labour of love in Jerusalem. "Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and He shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord."
Nehemiah lost no time in the execution of his purpose. He knew how to redeem the opportunity; for he adds, "Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters." But he had not gone alone; he was escorted by captains of the army and horsemen. (v. 9.) There is a great difference, therefore, between his and Ezra's journey to Jerusalem. Ezra would not ask the king for any military escort, because he had expressed to the king his confidence in God (Ezra 8: 22); and God had abundantly justified his confidence, in guarding him and his companions "from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way." Nehemiah was not endowed with the same simple faith; but, though a godly and devout man, he travelled with the pomp and circumstance of one of the king's governors; in a way, therefore, more likely to secure the respect of the world and the assistance of the king's servants. But immediately on his arrival, there was the sign of opposition to his mission — an opposition which grew and confronted him at every step; for, in fact, it was the opposition of Satan to the work of God. At first it seemed a very small thing. It says, "When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." (v. 10.) And why should they be grieved? The nationality of Sanballat is uncertain; probably he was a Moabite, and his servant was an Ammonite; and of these it is written, "that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever." (Neh. 13: 1; Deut. 23: 3-6.) They were, therefore, the implacable foes of Israel; and, being as such the suited instruments of Satan, they were naturally antagonistic to any effort to improve the condition of the people they contemned. And, indeed, Satan's object is gained in the corruption of God's people; and as long as they are living in forgetfulness of their true place and character, associating themselves with the world, and adopting its manners and customs, Satan will be a professed friend. But the moment a man of God appears on the scene, and seeks to recall them to the claims of God and His truth, Satan is roused to active enmity. Not that this is always avowed. As in the case before us, his servants are only "grieved" — grieved, of course, that the peace, the peace between Israel and their enemies, should be disturbed. For the faithful ones in the midst of God's people, like Elijah of old, are ever regarded as the troublers of Israel — troublers because they stand for God in the midst of evil. Hence it was that Sanballat and Tobiah were "grieved" at the advent of Nehemiah; and, as we shall see, so bitter was their hatred, that they spared no labour to baffle him in his work, and even to compass his death. So far, however, the fact of their "grief" only is noticed; but the Spirit of God shows us thus the cunning of Satan, and the method of his activities.
There follows, in the next place, the account of Nehemiah's survey of the state of Jerusalem. After three days, he says, "I arose in the night," the burden of his mission pressing upon his soul so that he could not rest, "I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon." (v. 12.) This simple statement reveals the characteristics of a true servant. First, he confesses the source of his inspiration for his work. God had put the thought of it into his heart. The assurance of this is the secret of all strength and perseverance in service. Thus the Lord said to Joshua, "Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage." Then, as already noted, Nehemiah could not rest until he had commenced his labours. The work of God admits of no delays. This principle is involved in the charge of our blessed Lord to His disciples, "Salute no man by the way." When He sent them forth they must go straight on their mission. So felt Nehemiah; and he thus sallied forth on the first opportunity to learn the character and extent of the work God had put into his heart to do at Jerusalem. He tells us, moreover, that he did not communicate his secret to any. To have done so, indeed, might have raised up hindrances on every hand. When the Lord distinctly enjoins a service upon any of His servants, nothing is frequently more dangerous than consultation with others. Faith trusts in Him who commissions for the work, for the strength and wisdom needed in its execution. Conference with others often produces many questions; such as, Is it possible? Is it wise? or, Is it the proper time? And the effect is, that faith droops under the influence of many a suggested doubt, if it does not become altogether extinguished by prudence and common sense. When the time arrives for the mission to be executed, helpers may be welcomed; but until all is arranged according to the dictates of faith, the secret must be kept between the soul and God.
From verses 13-15, the description is given of Nehemiah's tour of inspection, and of the condition in which he found the walls and gates of the city — a condition which corresponded exactly with the report brought to him in Shushan. (Compare verse 13 with Neh. 1: 3.) No one suspected the object Nehemiah had in view; for he adds, And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work." (v. 16.) He had made his survey in silence — alone with God (though some attendants were with him), and gathered strength from his communings with God during the solemnity of that eventful night; and if his heart had been touched by the desolations of the holy city, it was only a feeble reflection of the pity and the compassion of Jehovah for the place which He Himself had chosen, and where, during the kingdom, He had dwelt between the cherubim on the mercy-seat.
All was now prepared, and hence the next thing we find is, that Nehemiah took the rulers, etc. into his confidence. He could allow no one to advise as to the work, because he had received his mission from the Lord; but now that it was only a question of its execution, he could welcome the aid and fellowship of others. This is ever the path of the man of faith. He cannot alter or modify his purposes; but he rejoices in associating others with himself, if they are willing to help forward, in dependence on the Lord, the object he has in view. Nehemiah, therefore, said to the rulers and the rest of the people, "Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach. Then I told them of the hand of my God, which was good upon me; as also the king's words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work." (vv. 17, 18.)
It is evident from this address also that Nehemiah's heart was sorely burdened with the condition of his people and city. It was the account of this which had first bowed him down to the ground in the presence of God (Neh. 1: 3, 4); and the words then used seemed to have been indelibly graven on his heart, for he uses them again, as we have seen, in verse 13, as also now in speaking to the people. It was intolerable to him, in his zeal for the Lord and for Jerusalem, that His chosen people should be in such a reproach to the heathen around; and his one desire was to rebuild the wall of separation, and to restore justice and judgment in their midst by setting up the gates. Why should the boar out of the wood continue to waste the vine which God had once more, in His mercy, replanted, and the wild beast of the field devour it? (Ps. 80) Then, after exhorting them to build, he related to them concerning the hand of God which was good upon him, and concerning the king's permission (for by God's appointment as the result of His judicial dealing, they were all subject to the king's authority) to do the work which the hand of God had laid upon him. God wrought with His servant's words, and produced a ready response in His people's hearts, so that they said, "Let us rise up and build." When we are in communion with God's mind, as to our service, He never fails to send the needed helpers. "Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power" words which contain a principle for all dispensations; for it is ever true, that when God goes forth in power for the accomplishment of any purpose, He prepares willing-hearted servants to execute His designs. So, in the present instance, "they strengthened their hands for this good work," for they had been made to feel that it was of God.
This working of the Spirit of God aroused again the opposition of the enemy. Whenever God works, Satan counterworks. It was so now; for "when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?" (v. 19.) In addition to the Moabite and Ammonite there is now an Arabian — every form of the flesh, as it were, lusting against the Spirit, stirred up as it had been by the craft and subtlety of Satan. It will be observed also that the opposition now assumes another character. At first Sanballat and Tobiah were grieved exceedingly at the intervention of Nehemiah. They affected to be sorry that he should come and disturb the peace that had prevailed between Israel and the heathen; but now they "laughed us to scorn, and despised us." One weapon is as good as another in the hands of the enemy. Seeing that their grief did not affect the purposes of Nehemiah, they would try mockery and contempt; and at the same time they would, if possible, produce fear by insinuating a charge of rebellion. Surely we need to be acquainted with the wiles and devices of Satan, for he knows how to work upon every possible feeling of the natural man. Nehemiah, strong in the sense of the protection of God, and knowing that he was in the path of obedience, was proof against all his artifices. He said, "The God of heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we, His servants, will rise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem." (v. 20.) "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you," says the apostle James. And Nehemiah resisted him by a bold confession of the name of his God, of confidence in His protecting care, and by the expression of His claims over His servants, and by the utter refusal of the title of the enemy to any right or interest in the holy city. There is nothing like boldness in the face of the adversary; but this can only spring from a divine courage, begotten by the assurance that "if God be for us, none can be against us."
1 It would seem that the more exact rendering of this word would be "fortress;" and that this may have been the celebrated fortress connected with the temple, afterwards known, during the Roman domination, as the tower of Antonia.