Just when you thought everything was going to be easy –
Nehemiah went to the King, the most powerful king in his known world – and the king that he had no doubt faithfully served for years. I can imagine that Nehemiah looked ragged, having fasted for several days, in mourning for fallen Jerusalem. The King saw this – after all, cupbearers were not picked because of humility. More often than not, they were were picked because of physical beauty and strength, and given this elevated position which, believe it or not, was valued. The King asked him what was wrong.
Nehemiah was bold – he asked the King for permission to return to rebuild the city where his ancestors were buried. But he didn’t do this relying upon his own strength, but ‘with a prayer to the God of heaven.’
Imagine that – Nehemiah was a pretty influential person of some rank, a Jew essentially in the Persian Court. Near royalty. He most likely had everything that a man could want, but he gave it up for a place that he had never seen, only that it was in his blood. This place was no picnic. Even getting there was hazardous to one’s health.
The King, with the Queen sitting by his side, gave Nehemiah permission. Identity of the Queen ranges – from Esther herself (doubtful) to the daughter of Cyrus. Remember, the King of Persia did not allow his queen to sit next to him and dined alone. This was no doubt a very private occasion, but who ever the Queen was, Nehemiah’s memoirs acknowledges the break in tradition and announces that the King had a Queen in the room.
Nehemiah didn’t stop with the King’s permission to leave, but asked further for traveling papers from the King himself, and then, for trees from the King’s own forest to help rebuild the fallen and ruined city. Jeremiah makes a point about the destruction of the city in Lamentations. No doubt this book had not yet made it from Jeremiah’s pen into Nehemiah’s hands. Instead, he relied upon first hand accounts. In other words, it was from the common person that he was told of the destruction, not a Prophet.
Nehemiah was on his way, along with more than he had asked for – the King had sent along with him an army contingent for protection.
First thing off the bat, Nehemiah ran into trouble – displeasure had risen among those that controlled Jerusalem because those that governed over perdition were not God’s people. Can you imagine the disappointment in seeing a Jew with a Gentile Army coming to retake the Holy City? Displeasure didn’t stop Nehemiah, as when he had settled in a bit, he slipped back out to examine the city. He writes that he didn’t tell anything about the plans that ‘God had put in heart.’
I note that he went everywhere about the city, even the Dung Gate (as the NLT translates, or the Gate of Broken Pots), the trashheap of the city. He was walking around the city, examining to see what still stood, to see what could be salvaged, to see the strengths and the weaknesses of that city. Finally, he decided that the time had come to tell the inhabitants about his plan:
“You know very well what trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and end this disgrace!”
He might not have been a long winded preacher, but he got his point across, I believe. He showed them the letters from the King, told them his plans. He was again hit by adversaries – the non-Jewish leaders of the city started to accuse him of rebellion against the king. Had they been of the race of Jacob, they would have responded like the others, ‘Let’s rebuild!’
Nehemiah depended upon God, and upon the word of God for his response. He didn’t buckle or bend to their threats. Make no bones about it, a threat to rebel was a serious offense in the ancient world and would bring immediate death. There was no such thing as freedom of speech. They were trying to frighten people away from Nehemiah, to undermine him.
Nehemiah told them bluntly –
“The God of heaven will help us succeed. We, his servants, will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem.”
Nehemiah’s use of the phrase, ‘God of Heaven,’ would have signified that he believed in God Alone, and that no gods or lords of the other nations represented there, even mighty Persia herself, deserved the space of prayer or worship. To him, those that had lived there for the past few generations didn’t belong. Call him what you want, but Nehemiah intended to see Jerusalem returned to God’s people, and one God Alone worshipped there – with a prayer to that singular God in heaven.
The translation in use is the NLT