By Shelley Neese

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Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are reading Nehemiah 2. We left off with Nehemiah on his knees, praying and fasting as he prepared to speak directly to the king on behalf of his people. Three months passed from the month of Chislev when Nehemiah heard his brother’s terrible news to the month of Nisan when Nehemiah finally made his appeal to the king (2:1).

Why did Nehemiah not immediately take his problem to the king? Afterall, a cupbearer was often in the company of the king, or as often as the king wanted a drink. The memoir does not fill in that detail. Perhaps, this was the first time he had an audience alone with the king and queen. Nehemiah would not have shared his heart in the presence of others. Or the king may have been delayed arriving at his winter residence in Susa, giving Nehemiah more time to pray and plan.

If you are familiar with the story of Esther, she too needed time and more than one attempt to build her courage before she presented her husband, King Xerxes I, with her proposal. Despite Esther and Nehemiah’s trusted positions in the royal court as queen and cupbearer, the king could easily have them killed. All it would have taken was one verbal misstep that could be misconstrued as an insult to the throne. Both Esther and Nehemiah respectively began their requests with “if it pleases the king,” a diplomatic word choice. Treading in dangerous waters, in both cases, they were asking the king to reverse a previous decree. Kings never took back their orders because that would put their wisdom into doubt.

In Esther’s case, rather than rescinding his order to punish the Jews, the king allowed the Jews to defend themselves from their attackers. In Nehemiah’s case, years had passed since Artaxerxes suspended work on the Jerusalem city walls. And that decree never meant to permanently cancel all renovations in Jerusalem (Ez. 4:21).

Artaxerxes could allow the recommencement of work on the walls without appearing that he had made a bad decision with the first work stoppage. However, Nehemiah had to handle the whole matter with kid gloves. He did not directly ask the king to lift his previous order, nor did he reference the old order at all.

Nehemiah recorded in his memoir that when he brought the wine to the king, the king noticed his sad countenance. He wrote, “I had never been sad in his presence before” (2:1). Naturally, a king paid special attention to the mood of his cupbearer, the one line of defense between he and death-by-poisoning. If the cupbearer was having a difficult day, that was not a good omen for the king. Plotting and intrigue was common in the Persian imperial court, a fact that kept the king constantly on the lookout. Fresh in Artaxerxes’ mind was the assassination of his father, King Xerxes I, by one of his own commanders. Suspicion fell on everyone.

Based off the following dialogue between Nehemiah and Artaxerxes, the cupbearer was expected to be fully transparent with the king. King Artaxerxes asks, “Why is your face sad since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart” (2:2). The king’s concern for Nehemiah seemed genuine.

Was Nehemiah purposefully distorting his face to look sad to prompt the king’s curiosity? Surely, a cupbearer did not initiate conversations about his personal emotions, but he could respond to the king’s inquiry. Nehemiah gave a carefully rehearsed answer to Artaxerxes’ inquiry, but before Nehemiah answered, he said a quick mental prayer. It impresses me how both Ezra and Nehemiah were in the habit of prayer.

Nehemiah responded, “Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestor’s graves, lies waste and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (2:3). Nehemiah avoided naming Jerusalem, almost as if he wanted to avoid sparking the king’s memory about his previous decision on Jerusalem. Instead, he twice referred to Jerusalem as “the place of my ancestor’s graves” (2:3,5). Referring to the city in such a sentimental way framed Nehemiah’s problem as personal, rather than political. This was perhaps a ploy because once Nehemiah got to Jerusalem he never once brought up restoration work on tombs or concerns about the tombs’ vulnerability. All his efforts were focused on rebuilding the city walls and gates.

Without hesitation, Artaxerxes approved Nehemiah’s plan. In fact, the dialogue made it sound like he was relieved that he could help Nehemiah with his problem. He noted in his memoir, “it pleased the king to send me” (2:6). King Artaxerxes’ positive response proved that the Persians never opposed Judah’s restoration, despite the king’s cautionary order to pause work on the walls. Whatever had disturbed the king about Jerusalem’s initial plans to refortify was no longer a worry.

Perhaps, when Artaxerxes paused construction on the city walls before, he was battling too many rebellions in the periphery of the empire and could not risk Judah joining ranks with the Egyptians. By Nehemiah’s time, the Egyptian front was quiet about nine years. Four years had passed since the peace accords that brought the long-running wars with the Greek nations to a close. For the moment, Persia was confident in its consolidation of power.

The king’s only concern was how long Nehemiah would be absent from his post. Nehemiah gave him an undisclosed date. In truth, Nehemiah would not return for twelve years, but there is no way he knew that at the time of his intervention with the king.

If Nehemiah was vague at the start of the discussion, his proposal became specific once the king warmed to his idea. Nehemiah requested, “let letters be given to me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah” (2:7). Nehemiah knew the only way to guarantee safe passage for the 900-mile journey was if he had official documentation from the king.

Based off the specificity of his request, he had clearly spent the last several months hatching a rebuilding plan. He needed a supply of timber and knew exactly where he wanted to get it. He asks for a permit to give Asaph, “the keeper of the king’s forest” (2:8). The timber was to rebuild the gates, city wall, and a home for himself. Nehemiah’s plan included the fortification of a “temple fortress” (2:8). Asaph was a Jewish name so most likely the forest was local to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah’s temple fortress may have been a reference to the site on the north corner of the Temple Mount. As the area most vulnerable to attack, other fortresses were built atop Nehemiah’s fortress over the coming centuries. The Roman Antonio fortress is the most famous to ever occupy the area.

Even with letters of approval from the king, traveling alone through Mesopotamia was a dangerous undertaking. The king issued a royal escort to accompany Nehemiah on the journey (2:9). Ezra had turned down imperial bodyguards because he wanted his followers to have total faith in God as their protector. Nehemiah, traveling solo, had a different situation and he willingly accepted the escort.

News of Nehemiah’s return to Judah disturbed a few local leaders: Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite (2:10), and later Geshem the Arab (2:19). Nehemiah did not record the titles of his enemies. Two of the names, Sanballat and Geshem, were verified through extrabiblical evidence. The Persian period inscriptions provide their credentials.

Sanballat was apparently the governor of Samaria. He was addressed as the governor of Samaria in a papyri letter written to his sons from the exiled Jewish community in Elephantine, Egypt. They were asking Samarians for permission to rebuild their temple at Elephantine.

Geshem the Arab likely wielded the most power out of the three opponents to Nehemiah. A confederation of Arabian tribes dominated the region south and west of Judah. Geshem’s name appeared on an ancient offering bowl dedicated to an Egyptian goddess.

Tobiah was either Sanballat’s aid or an official in charge of the Ammonite province, east of Judah. Josephus wrote about the Tobias family, an aristocratic family in Transjordan that may have descended from Tobias. They were famously wealthy by the Roman period and their palace in Amman, Jordan has been excavated.

Three days after Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, he performed a secret reconnaissance mission in the dark of night with a few trusted officials (2:12-16). Knowing his announcement would stir up local opposition, he was not ready to make his plans public before he inspected the situation himself. All he knew of Jerusalem’s status was what his brother Hanani reported to him verbally about the burned gates and breached walls. As he explored the southern section of the city wall, he looked over areas that are still known today like the Dung Gate and Valley Gate. Other places he mentioned are no longer identifiable, like the Dragon Spring. When his animal could no longer pass through the rubble, he dismounted and inspected the area on foot. Much of the dilapidation was likely leftover from the totality of the Babylonian destruction (2 Kings 25:8-10).

Once Nehemiah confirmed that the wall was as bad as he anticipated, he called together the Judeans and revealed his plans to restore the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah encourages the remnant, “we may no longer suffer disgrace” (2:17). He was not appealing to their lack of security or the poor state of their economy. His reasoning was entirely theological. Nehemiah reminded them they did not have to accept the shameful state of the city. Motivated by Nehemiah’s message, the people responded, “let us start building!” (2:18). The time had arrived and the only way the work could be accomplished was with the effort of all the people.

The local leaders—Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem—understood that if Nehemiah reconstructed Jerusalem’s defenses, they would lose their access to the city. Since the former cupbearer was close to the king, they predicted that his arrival would disrupt the region’s balance of power in Jerusalem’s favor. They accused Nehemiah of plotting a rebellion, hoping they could once again push the imperial authorities to halt Judah’s progress (2:19). The local leaders’ status and influence was threatened by Nehemiah’s leadership.

Nehemiah spoke plainly in response to the opposition. He said, “the God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building” (2:20). To his credit, he did not bring his imperial endorsement into the conversation, but instead kept his motivation rooted in the spiritual dimension. The source of their success was in heaven and not on earth. Like Ezra before him, Nehemiah believed God’s hand was over him, controlling his course and blessing his path.

True, successive Persian kings graciously sanctioned every phase of the exiles’ return and Judah’s restitution. Each time, however, it was God prompting the heart of the kings. He stirred the spirit of Cyrus to free the captives (Ez. 1-2). He pushed Darius to finance the temple rebuild (Ez. 6). God moved Artaxerxes to appoint Ezra to teach the laws of Moses in the restored community (Ez. 7). And lastly, Nehemiah garnered the blessing of Artaxerxes to rebuild the city walls.

Once the temple was rebuilt, the remnant grew accustomed to living among the ruin of the rest of Jerusalem, but Nehemiah was sent by God to remind them that the whole city of Jerusalem was dedicated to God. After the trauma of exile and the return to Judah, Yahweh’s presence radiated from the temple to the city where his name dwelled. Jerusalem was much more than the temple complex, and as such the whole city had to be restored. As the Psalmist declares, God desired all of Zion “for his habitation” (Ps. 132:13). The post-exilic prophet Zechariah envisioned Yahweh returning to all of Jerusalem, not only descending on the temple. He prophesied that God was going to “return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (Zech. 8:3).

The theology of God’s holiness radiating out from the temple to Jerusalem and beyond continued to develop from the Persian period and on into the New Testament period. God’s reach stretched further and further until he had grabbed hold of each individual person who worshipped his name. For Christians today, “you are God’s temple” and “God’s spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16).

I hope as you read your way through the Hebrew scriptures you can feel the drumbeat as it grows louder and louder. From the Garden of Eden to Christ’s conquering of the grave, God has constantly and progressively extended himself to humanity.